Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany - January 28, 2018

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
January 28 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

I was particularly struck by two excerpts from today’s readings...

The first was the statement in Deuteronomy of the people who asked for a prophet as their intermediary with God: “If I hear the voice of the Lord, my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”[1]

Well, that pretty much sums up the idea of “fear of the Lord,” wouldn’t you say?  Certainly the language of this passage is fearsome.  And there are many passages in the Bible that speak of God punishing people for this or that – or for these or those – transgressions, but here’s the thing, those passages are never affiliated with the phrase “fear of the Lord.”  No, “fear of the Lord” only arises when someone is deeply affected by an encounter with God.  It’s fairly common to hear that “fear” means “awe” – but “fear” in this situation can also mean that one is aware that God is always present; God is always watching; and that this awareness fosters and supports a transformation of the person into a deeper relationship with God.  It’s the enormity of the One offering that relationship that gives pause. 

Here’s an example: Martin Luther called out the Church – there was only one at that time and place – for selling indulgences (think of those as “get out of purgatory” cards) and many other questionable practices that betrayed the Gospel as he understood it.  When called to account, he did not back down.  He famously said at his trial “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

His fear of the Lord gave him the strength to withstand the pressure placed upon him by those who claimed authority over him.

Luther, by the way, described “fear of the Lord” in this way:  “filial fear” - that is of a child for his/her father who has a deep desire to please him, arising from respect and love, and not based on terror.[2]

But let’s not get too distracted here by this idea of fear.  The Israelites were afraid they would die if they heard the voice of God, or saw the pillar of fire again.  They pleaded for Moses to mediate for them with God – and Moses certainly did that, even at a time when God seemed ready to throw in the towel and just kill them all, as they were so ungrateful and complaining. 

I would submit their spiritual understanding was deficient; they were more focused on their own wants, desires, and, yes, needs, to step back and see what new thing God was offering.  We surely can understand that; if we’re honest with ourselves, we do that, too.  I know I do!  Big picture?  Really?

They yearned for a familiar world, familiar rules, familiar routines, and that was why they considered returning to Egypt.  It might be a hard life, but it was a life they understood; they knew what to do to survive.  Going out into the wilderness, becoming wanderers, with each new day providing its own challenge to basic survival, was hard.  Some days it felt too hard.  And there was GOD, always asking more of them.  Some rescue – it’s like the boat sinks and an airplane comes and picks them up and then the airplane crashes ….

They saw no end to their situation.  They felt like they had traded one hard life for an even harder one, and they didn’t like it.  They had seen the power of God revealed in the crossing of the Reed Sea; they had seen the water from the rock; they had seen and eaten the manna; and the whole thing was like some alternate universe.  They didn’t know what to do.  They wanted to hide from God, who had thrust them into this mess, they wanted nothing to do with God, who kept asking them to trust but offered no assurance – no IOU, no lease agreement – nothing, just this aimless wandering in the desert and mountain country of Sinai.  On and on.  Day after day. Month after month.  Year after year.  They were, in short, fed up.  Yet God did not relent.

Maybe it wasn’t fear of God’s power or God’s punishment that prompted them to say “If we hear the voice of the Lord, we will die.”  Maybe it was envy, angst, frustration, anger, or despair. 

  • Did you see what she was wearing?  Couldn’t you just die?
  • If I have to listen to one more of her sermons, I’ll just die!
  • There is no hope I will ever find a job, I wish I could just die.

“Fear of the Lord” says “Trust, Follow, Love.” 

Fear of the Lord is what keeps us going, no matter what obstacles are in our path, no matter what turns the path may take.  Fear of the Lord reminds us that God is present at all times and places, and can be found in the eyes or hands of a friend, or a stranger.  Fear of the Lord gives courage to face an uncertain future.  Fear of the Lord gives strength to stand against injustice.  Fear of the Lord gets us through the dark nights, even the dark nights of the soul.  Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Wisdom, not knowledge.  Which brings me to the second passage that caught my attention. 

Paul has written to the church community he founded in Corinth, and he tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  And then he goes off on the question of what kind of meat is it okay to eat.

I know I’ve mentioned in the past that the meat market in Greek and Roman towns was dependent on the worship in the local temples – animals would be sacrificed and, since the meat could not be refrigerated, it would be sold to the public.  In Jewish tradition, the meat that resulted from the people’s offering was either burnt altogether, or the priests might eat some of it.

So the meat Paul is talking about was, in fact, sacrificed to the Greek and/or Roman gods.  In Corinth, it would have been the Roman gods, because it was a big retirement community for Roman soldiers.

Jews and Christians, however, considered the Roman gods to be not gods at all.  Just God, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was true God.  All the others were idols – like the golden calves their ancestors had Aaron make for them in their Sinai wanderings.  Idols, nothing burgers

And as we read, Paul didn’t want the ones who had taken in this information and accepted it to capitalize on it at the expense of newer believers.

Because it was arrogant.  Because they thought they were better because they understood about God and idols.  Because they were intent on going their own way despite the cost to others, despite the barriers they placed in others’ way.

Paul wasn’t having any of this.  His complaint wasn’t that they were eating the wrong food – not at all.  His complaint was that they were being complete jerks about it. 

Bruce Rigdon, President Emeritus, Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit, MI, has written …[3]

“Paul’s point is that when we hurt others, we hurt Christ himself because we cause pain in his body, the church.”

He also said, “Freedom is not the right to choose to do as one wishes. It is not simply a lack of restrictions or a negation of the Law [Torah] or of other requirements.  Christian freedom is grounded in love, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.”[4]

Wisdom, not knowledge.  Fear, not terror.  Love, not arrogance.

The demons in the synagogue in Capernaum knew exactly who Jesus was – they had knowledge the human beings in Capernaum did not have.  And it did them no good at all.  In fact, it bound them and defeated them and exiled them. 

Jesus was the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy – so the Church teaches.  Jesus is the true Son of God, through whom all things are made, as Paul taught.  And Jesus is the one who died and rose again to conquer sin and death.  This is what we are to remember.

This is the foundation of our faith.  Here we stand.  We can do no other.


[1] Deuteronomy 18:16b.  NRSV.

[2]  “What Does it Mean to Fear God?” R.C. Sproul, Legonier Ministries.  Accessed January 27, 2018.

[3] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1, page 306 ….

[4] Ibid., page 304.


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