Here’s a Story (Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28)
Tomorrow would be my father’s 107th birthday. As most of you know, he was an American Baptist minister. He preached every Sunday (sometimes twice) for about 45 years. He then had about a dozen interim pastorates where he preached less often, but most weeks of the year. When I became a minister and teacher, my father and I developed a wonderfully supportive colleagial and pastoral relationship. We differed on many things, but both of us were OK to leave those things alone. I can remember asking him what to do, and I don’t think he ever gave me advice directly. He would tell me stories about when this-and-that happened in such-and-such a place. Especially as he got older, he would just tell the story and let me figure it out. I appreciated that, and learned in a practical way what I had learned, and was learning in my academic work, the immense power of story to sustain community (even a tiny community of two). Now, we all face times, whether at home, at work, at church, or just in the big world, when we think “O, wow, what can I (or we) do”? “Nobody’s ever faced this before. When these times come, I can still think of my father saying, “I remember when”…and, in essence, saying “here’s a story.” I always knew the story wasn’t really about him back there, but about me right now.
Two of our three scripture lessons today are stories that work something like my dad’s stories did with me. They assure us that, although what we are facing is, in a sense, unique, that others before us have faced similar things and come through. To begin at the Old Testament, God’s people were quite often in trouble, and sometimes it was trouble of epic proportions. One time, the kingdom of Judah had just come through a period when their king, whose name was Manasseh, had led them into foreign intrigue, plotting and doing more harmful things than it could be believed possible for a group that thought of themselves as God’s people. Manasseh was a bad guy! Like many bad guys, he didn’t like to be told he was a bad guy, and he really didn’t like opposition, and quashed it brutally. Unfortunately again, he reigned for 55 years (the longest reign of any king in Judah’s history) and died, old and full of days, in his bed. After this, Amon his son became king and started down the same road, but he reigned for only two years when people got fed up and killed him in a revolution. The sole heir to the throne was Josiah who was about eight years old. Not good.
As far as we can surmise, some faithful scholars in the kingdom had treasured some old stories about Moses, the foremost leader of the people of Israel. These stories had, first, been treasured in the northern kingdom of Israel, and when it fell to Assyria in 721 BCE, they were smuggled down to the southern kingdom of Judah where they were reworked and put into a larger story purporting to be three sermons that Moses preached to Israel just before he died and they went into the land of Canaan. Can you hear them saying to eight-year old Josiah’s people, “Well, if you think we’re in a crisis of leadership now, what about back then, when Israel was faced with losing Moses on the doorstep of the Promised Land?” In these stories cast as Moses’ sermons, the great leader and prophet re-told many of the stories and rehearsed many of the laws that were already available in what are now the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but he did it in a way that re-purposed these stories and laws so as to illumine a way forward to a new day. He gave a good method for taking God’s old stories and projecting them forward into a new situation – such as the one Judah was facing in Josiah’s day. We call these stories the Book of Deuteronomy.
We can almost hear what the people said when they listened to these sermon-stories. “Yeah, but that was 600 years ago, and that was Moses. We don’t have him around anymore.” Well, buried in the middle of the second sermon are the words of our Old Testament Lesson. Let me give you a little better translation of one line: “The LORD your God will, from time to time, raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” Although the word “prophet” is singular, the promise is that God will from time to time raise up such a faithful one, so it refers to a line of prophets like Moses who would bring people through again and again. A prophet is, basically, one who tells the truth on behalf of God in a particular time and place. The promise is that God will continue to provide leadership that will be able to steer the community of faith in fruitful directions into the future. Good stories like this one are open-ended. Is that time now? Is such a prophet here? Good stories ask us to think. It’s almost as if the writer anticipated the questions, for the rest of our passage deals not with the prophet (or prophets) like Moses, but with the people who receive such ones. When they think they’ve found such a prophet, they are to listen and test.
What does this text mean when it says that prophets to whom we should listen are “like Moses”? It surely doesn’t mean that we only listen to “authorized leaders” (whatever we might call them), who attract followings like Moses, but, rather, to those who are like Moses in a holistic way – who tell God’s truth “like Moses,” in today’s world as he did in his. Those who would be genuine truth-tellers follow “the Moses Template,” the profile of which is found throughout the Book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, truth-tellers like Moses are people who, like him, are deeply concerned about accurate transmission of the tradition of what God has said. They are people who care about communicating with others (and what the cultural context requires to interpret what God is up to in it appropriately). They are people who are willing to put themselves on the line to intercede for people in crisis, who promote public and private ethical behaviour, as well as a concern for those who find themselves oppressed and persecuted. The Book of Numbers also has it that Moses was the humblest man that ever lived. We do not need to listen to any more arrogant prophets who think they have all the answers and are sure they do speak for God. We occasionally see Moses struggling with his role. He seems to be concerned to test his own motives. Listen to truth tellers like that!
A second point is raised at the end of our passage. It’s very easy for someone to claim to speak God’s truth, but have a far different motive, isn’t it? It’s easy to be fooled by well-chosen, smooth-sounding words. How can we tell real truth tellers from the Manasseh’s who only like the power? Again, we need to interpret the ancient language of this passage. The bottom line is, when it sounds OK, but we’re still not sure, wait and see whether what is said comes true. Wait and see. Not very deep, but eminently practical, as I hope we’ll see.
Here’s another story from the Gospel lesson. It also comes out of a time when people weren’t sure who the truth-tellers were. Mark was telling his story just as Jerusalem was being softened up by the Roman general Titus in the years just before he took the city in 70 CE. What could it mean that Jerusalem, the centre not only of the Jewish world, but of the Christian world (joined as it still was to Judaism), was going to be destroyed by Rome (as it was)? Did that mean that Rome would be in charge of everything that was important? Was the empire the truth-teller? Hardly ever in the Bible! Surely, no one had ever been in a bigger jam than those Christians to whom Mark was writing – or so they thought. Who was in charge? So Mark says, in essence, “Here’s a story about Jesus. It is also the story of one who was defeated by the Romans and the whole religious structure in Galilee and Judea. Or was he? “I remember a story,” said Mark. “Here it is.”
Jesus was in the little village of Capernaum just a hundred yards inland from the Sea of Galilee. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue there – possibly like a little rural church in Wisconsin, and he taught. Being an untrained, unaccredited rabbi, he had to stick to the boondocks mostly. The folks in that little congregation were astonished because he didn’t teach like most of the rabbis that came their way, who always simply quoted somebody else’s opinion on what the Torah was about. Jesus just taught as if the Torah was such an intimate part of him that it was hard to tell where the its words left off and his began. He seemed as if he had real authority to do it, not an authority derived from something or somebody else. It’s no wonder that people thought of Jesus as a prophet – a truth-teller on God’s behalf. It’s no wonder that many thought of him as an example of “a prophet like Moses.” In fact, in the preaching in the early part of the Acts of the Apostles, we find that Peter and Stephen refer the verse from Deuteronomy 18 to Jesus. And we can understand why, because Jesus was “like Moses” in the holistic sense I mentioned earlier. He cared for the accuracy of what he said and, equally, about communicating it to contemporary people’s hearts and minds. He was willing to go to bat for the widows and orphans and plain ordinary folk. He was humble and gentle. His teaching was going very well.
Then, in the middle of a perfectly lovely synagogue service, God’s Holy Place, there was a shrieking, crying person making an awful scene. Who knows what was wrong? My mother used to describe such persons in a couple of ways. If she were in public, she’d say that such a person “was afflicted.” If she was in a more intimate environment, however, she’d say that such a person was “not right.” Well, as politically incorrect as it is, is it not descriptive? Many of us are simply “not right” for a lot of reasons. Mark said that such people were “in an unclean spirit.” In his world, all actions and beliefs were inspired by a “spirit,” either good or bad. This was something more like what we’d call a “motivation,” than like a spiritual being that was pulling the strings, so to speak. Being “unclean” meant that the person or thing did not belong in the Holy Place in the presence of God. Being in an unclean spirit meant being motivated by that which was antithetical to what God stood for. Unclean is the opposite of Holy. Although the ancient language and thoughts are not like ours, the point of the story seems to be that, even at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had the same power to confront and defeat the powers of death, harm, and destruction that he did at the end, when God raised him from the dead. If Jesus can do that, what is the fall of Jerusalem? Or whatever our crisis is…you fill in the blank? Jesus can make what’s not right, right.
What interpreters usually do with this story is to assume that, in our terms, this person was mentally ill. And that we should all be understanding to the mentally ill. True, but not what Mark’s saying at all. There were medical practitioners in Jesus’ day that would deal with the medically disturbed (as well as their ancient arts allowed). But here the situation is not medical, it’s an issue of spirit. And so it’s down to rabbi Jesus. There are plenty of unclean spirits today that have nothing to do with mental illness that get into us and make us “not right.” How about the spirit of greed and selfishness? Or the spirit of indifference to people unlike us? Or the spirit of exclusivism that says “I have all the right answers, and yours are all wrong”? Or the spirit that attributes everything we have to our own cleverness and ingenuity, and says, “There is never enough, and it’s all for me?” Yes, there are plenty of “unclean spirits” abroad that can “afflict” us all and make us “not right.” Mark was concerned to tell his congregation that Jesus could get them through the crisis of Jerusalem’s fall. But telling them that didn’t make it so.In the end, people had to “wait and see,” or live through it, as the passage in Deuteronomy had suggested. Sometimes we have to live through disaster to know what the right answer is.
The Epistle Lesson is not a story, but can give us some help in finding a way to “wait and see” how things come out, at Deuteronomy suggests. It deals with an issue that divided the Corinthian church. In that city where Christian and Jewish scruples about worshiping “other gods and goddesses” were not significant cultural forces, it was literally impossible to obtain meat that had not been previously dedicated to one of those other deities. Was eating that meat not “cooperating with evil”? They asked Paul to take a side. He came down in a surprising place. He said that, since it’s true that those other gods are not really gods at all, eating something dedicated to a nothing doesn’t really make any religious difference. But, since there were those whose faith might be put off track by doing that, and watching other believers in Jesus doing that, Paul said, he wouldn’t do it, for the sake of their faith. In other words he said, it wasn’t sheerly about having right doctrine, it was about caring for and tending one another – including one another’s “weaknesses.” The principle here is that the liberty we have in Christ is tempered by the love we have for others – even for those with whom we disagree. This gives us a direction for giving more shape to our “waiting and seeing.” We wait and see, in love, tending one another while we see how the direction we are going works out. You’ll actually find that such waiting and seeing and tending others is a value of this congregation. Here’s a quick story that Jesus told in Matthew 13.
Good seed was planted, but someone planted weeds as well. When they came up together, some wanted to weed out the undesirables. The wise word was, “Let them alone for now, for it’s not always easy to tell weeds from wheat.” It will become clear if we wait and see. Premature weeding is a pastime of immature gardeners. That’s the story…wait and see.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.