Sermon - 1st February 2015
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available in mp3 format via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Who do you think the prophets are in our society? In a previous generation we might have said Churchill in the 30s railing at the refusal of the British government to rearm, Clement Atlee or Aneurin Bevin in the 40s about the welfare state, Macmillan in the 50s telling the South Africans that the Winds of Change were blowing through Africa leading to independence and black majority rule or Thatcher in the 80s talking about the need to reform our public industries? Whether or not we would agree with their various messages, we might be able to agree that they had a prophetic voice urging people to reject the status quo. Are there prophetic voices in the church urging change – Desmond Tutu who battled against apartheid, Pope John 23rd who reformed the Catholic Church in the 1960s or possibly Pope Francis who is seeking to reform the Catholic Church now and to present a softer face of that church?
Are there other prophetic voices now? Russell Brand? Justin Welby? What do we think of these? Are there others?
Our readings today are all about prophecy – but in rather different ways.
Moses is cast as reminding the people that before God spoke to them through fire but now spoke to them through the words of the prophet. The implication is, of course, clear that the prophet that God was speaking through was Moses! Moses and God are teaching the people that divine revelation continues – it wasn’t sealed at Horeb when God spoke through fire or even when the 10 Commandments were given. This is an idea that our sister church in America, the United Church of Christ, have in their campaign “God is still speaking” and is an idea developed in early American congregationalism that “God has yet still more light to break forth from His word”. God hasn’t finished with us yet and continues to speak.
Jesus clearly believed this and his teaching amazed his hearers due to the authority which he held and the way he drew out new understandings from the Jewish Bible.
Moses and God are also helping the people in their weakness. They are too terrified to approach God themselves and so need a prophet to mediate for them. So God promises to raise up a prophet and implies that the office of prophet won’t die with Moses. This is a bit of a dilemma for Christians, especially Protestant Christians. One of the ideas that came to the fore at the Reformation was that we don’t need priests – people who intercede for us to God. We can, we believe, talk to God directly ourselves. Yet often I’m asked to pray for someone else. Often, when people find out I work for a church I’m asked to pray or bless them so there is a deep idea that it’s helpful for someone else to pray – that idea of priestliness is quite deep rooted. However, the prophet idea goes one step further. Praying is one thing, announcing God’s truth into a situation is rather different. Jeremiah Wright, the minister of the church in Chicago where President Obama used to attend said that there aren’t any prophets who are pastors of huge churches – because being a prophet doesn’t make you popular.
For a prophet to have any chance of success they have to be seen as an ordinary member of the community. Russell Brand is attacked for talking a lot about poverty but being rather rich; politicians are often criticised for not knowing how ordinary people live (the famous what’s the price of a pint of milk test) and for coming from middle class background where they’ve spent their working life in politics rather than in non-political jobs first. Moses was raised up from the Jewish people – thought admittedly with a royal upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace. Jesus was much more of the people – being raised in humble Galilee and, presumably, working with Joseph as a carpenter.
Our Gospel reading comes from the opening chapter of St Mark’s Gospel which, as you will know if you came to the reading of St Mark that we held last year, is a very fast moving Gospel. No space is wasted on extraneous details, no great genealogies like there are in Luke and Matthew – Mark gets on with the story and tells it a very fast pace.
Today’s passage is exciting but to contemporary Christians rather difficult. We’re not keen generally on exorcism – which is interesting as there is a lot of interest in that subject in our wider culture. We understand that what we’d call illness people in the ancient world would name as demon possession. But when we think like that we lose something of the sense of power and the battle royal that goes on in Jesus ministry.
Binding the Strong Man
One of the themes of St Mark’s Gospel is of a battle between Jesus and the forces of darkness that want to keep the status quo. Sometimes, as in today’s building, those forces are manifested in demons, at other times it seems those powers are manifested in the ruling elite that work against Jesus. Today’s reading is the opening round – and a public round – in that fight. We know, with hindsight, that Jesus will come into conflict with the Temple authorities as they are threatened by his authority, direct approach and straightforward grasp of what God requires. So too the demons are threatened by Jesus’ authority – they see the immediate threat to the kingdom of darkness, the realm of the one who would bind humanity, in Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s not that Jesus provokes a fight, but the powers react to him as he proclaims a different world, a world where we can be free.
Freeing people, in Jesus’ ministry, involves a lot of exorcism. This worked in his culture as there were travelling exorcists who would draw out these ceremonies with lots of ritual, drama, chants and impressive actions. I suspect a similar culture still is prevalent in many African countries nowadays. Jesus’ exorcism, however, is very different. There is no drama, no ritual acts, no incantations, no use of holy objects – just a simple word of command. This, of course, increased his fame and, at the same time, made more people come to him for exorcism. Jesus doesn’t use powerful objects, but uses his own power and authority to make the difference. Unlike his contemporaries Jesus refuses to let the demons speak with his command to be silent. He muzzles them refusing to let them display their power and so refuses to let them define him as merely an exorcist and miracle worker – instead he will be defined by the cross.
For Mark the implication is clear: only God was supposed to have this sort of power! Even a prophet, acting in the name of God, would need to summon God’s power by name. This is part of Mark’s Christology: Jesus incarnates God’s power and presence in the midst of the people.
We started by thinking about who the prophets are now. Maybe the answer is more complex than we first thought. Jesus clearly had a prophetic ministry but this ministry didn’t stop with him just as it didn’t stop with Moses. Once we may have looked to church leaders or politicians to be prophetic but that’s, perhaps, harder now than it has been for some time. Maybe it’s not them that are called but us?
Maybe we’re called to a prophetic ministry – as a church or maybe as individuals. Maybe we’re called to speak God’s truth into the situations our society finds itself in. Maybe we’re called to be a bit unpopular, to challenge the status quo, to help people see the world as it should be. Maybe there is a prophet sitting amongst us now. Maybe it’s you.