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Sermon for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

 15“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen — 16just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’”


Psalm 111

 1Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. 2Great are the deeds of the Lord! They are studied by all who delight in them. 3His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. 5He gives food to those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the lands of the nations. 7The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; all his commandments are sure. 8They stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity. 9He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name. 10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding; his praise endures forever.


 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

 1Concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.


Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

 21{Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John} went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath {Jesus} entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.


Common Sense, Is It Really Common?

Growing up, I can’t possibly count the number of times I heard one of my parents say, “I wish you’d use a little common sense.”  Reflecting back, I can’t decide if they felt that I didn’t have any, or that I was deliberately being obstinate and refused to use any.  Maybe my parents were right, and I didn’t have much common sense since I tease Terry all the time about trying to confuse me with all those facts and all that common sense junk.  But this does bring up an interesting question, what is common sense?

Jest aside, I’ve spent a good deal of time and thought on this question; and I’ve decided that the subject of common sense isn’t as simple and direct as one might think.  So called “Common Sense” can be a slippery and elusive thing to pin down.  What might seem like common sense to one generation, can be utter nonsense to another.  Furthermore, what seems to be common sense at first glance, isn’t always the case upon further reflection.  On further analysis, I’ve concluded that there are at least two conditions that help us to determine what is genuine common sense.

First, a person must think through the process to the long-range consequences; and two, the person must be willing to follow the step-by-step requirements which must be met to arrive at the desired goal.  To help explain, I’d like to use a well-known children’s story to illustrate: the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” In this children’s tale, three little pigs leave home to make their way in the world.  The first little pig finds a man with straw and decides to make his house out of this material.  He can build his house quickly and cheaply using straw, thus allowing him lots of time for play, his ultimate goal.

The second pig meets a man with twigs.  He too concludes that building a house from small sticks will be quick and easy thus allowing him considerable time for play, which was his ultimate goal as well.  In both these cases, the pigs’ long-range consequence was to play, and the requirement needed for play was a quick and easy house to build.  The third little pig, however, had a different goal, he wanted a good, safe house, so he used bricks.  Naturally it took longer to construct, and he wasn’t able to play like his brothers.  At last, all three houses are built.  Enter the wolf.

Along comes a wolf and knocks on the door of the first pig’s straw house.  “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”  The pig calls back, “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.”  Then the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the house down.  The little pig is done for.  The wolf then goes to the house built of twigs and repeats his request to come in.  This pig also refuses, so the wolf huffs and puffs and blows his house down as well.  The second little pig, like the first, becomes BBQ.  A new long-range consequence for these two pigs has come to pass.  We’re now forced to ask, did the first two little pigs show genuine common sense, or not?

Coming to the brick house the wolf calls out, is refused entrance, blows as hard as he can, but the brick house stays safe.  Furious, the wolf comes down the chimney only to land in a kettle of boiling water set there for just such an emergency.  This little pig achieved the long-range consequence of his common sense – safety.  Along the way he paid the price of the daily requirements, a lack of playtime to make his goal come to pass – hard work along with planning ahead.  Yet for some, like the first two pigs, common sense seems to be those qualities which enable us to get the most with the least effort expended.

At first glance, common sense seems to call for being sharp, clever, and able to manipulate circumstances.  However, upon further reflection, true common sense demands that we ponder what might result from different choices.  In the case of the 3 pigs, what was the cost of a safe house versus playtime when it’s all over?  Is this the consequence a person wishes to receive at the end of great efforts, or might it be to play with abandon?  In the case of our life of discipleship, what does common sense tell us about giving up our desires in this life, in order to gain eternal life?  Being successful in achieving our ultimate goal demands deep reflection, careful planning, and a willingness to follow through with the daily responsibilities required for the desired result.  Our Old Testament lesson for this morning speaks to this subject.

In our Deuteronomy reading, the Israelites were getting ready to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  What’s important for us to note is, this isn’t the same generation of people that crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground 4 decades earlier.  This is the next generation.  The previous generation was forced to wander in the desert for 40 years because of their disbelief and disobedience.  They refused to believe God and obey, listening instead to the eight cowardly spies who had been sent to spy out the Promised Land (Numbers 14).  Thus, God punished the former generation for their disobedience and unbelief.

Now God, through Moses, is retelling the original story, reminding this new generation of all He had commanded their parents at Mt. Horeb.  Furthermore, to this generation, God is promising that He will raise up for them a new prophet like Moses and will put His words in the new prophet’s mouth.  And if they heed the prophet’s words, they will be able to obtain and maintain God’s favor.  And the prophet that God will send, will be a true prophet, speaking the word of God.

This new generation, and the generations to follow, therefore, must be ready not only to hear God’s message through the prophet, but also be ready to obey the teachings of that prophet.  And what will be the long-range consequences of listening and obeying this true prophet?  Nothing less than that the people will live in peace and prosperity with God, enjoying the fruits of His favor.  By heeding and obeying the words of the new prophet, they will obtain a good, safe house.  In this passage we find true common sense; if we listen and obey, and are willing to commit to the day to day requirements need to meet the goal, the long-range consequences are desirable.  The next question we need to ask then is, since there are many kinds of prophets, how can we tell a true prophet from a false one?

There were prophets like Moses, rigid and demanding, who struggled to teach the people how to accept and obey God’s commands and statutes.  Then there were the exciting prophets, the soothsayers and shamen – people with flair and sparkle.  These false prophets come dressed in long flowing robes, they cry out in loud booming voices, make cryptic gestures, roll their eyes heavenward, and claim miraculous and magical powers.  The people were mesmerized by all the glitz, glamor, and pleasing words.

These kinds of prophets had great charisma and delivered a message that the people wanted to hear; words that affirmed their current wants and desires.  The same is true with false prophets today.  What does common sense tell us about such prophets?  Do they not promise the most for the least?  Bow down to a Golden Calf today in exchange for a promised land sometime in the future?  Moses was trying to tell the people that such prophets will come, and they will be false prophets.

The false prophets’ massage and manipulate rather than give a message.  They seek out the weakest dependencies of people and play on their vulnerable superstitions.  They encourage the despairing with instant hope.  They make bizarre predictions, promises of extraordinary privilege, and thrilling miracles – their performances keep people smugly believing they’re special, all the while shunning and setting apart those who do not buy into the mysteries.  Contrast this with the true prophet.

But to determine the characteristics of a true prophet, we must infer from what Moses said of false prophets.  The true prophet is the one who points people to God alone, who speaks only what God has commanded them to speak, and whose words come true because they speak the Word of God.  Since God’s Word always comes true, it’s the ultimate long-range consequence and its own guarantee.  When they speak, the long-range consequence is built into the prophecy itself.  Take a moment and admire what God is doing here through Moses.

God doesn’t tell us what a true prophet is.  Rather, He tells us what a true prophet is not, “… when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him” (v. 22).  The proof is in the pudding as the medieval proverb goes.

Moses confronted the people at a delicate juncture in the life of the nation.  They had wandered in the desert for 40 years because of the sinful decisions of the previous generation.  They struggled with the desire to serve themselves instead of what God was requiring of them if they were to inherit the Promised Land.  The stories of old had softened in the passage of time, and the Promised Land was merely that – a promise.  Would they repeat the mistakes of their parents and rebel against God?  Would they choose to listen to the thrilling message of magic workers whose religion had been around for centuries?  Or, would they listen to God’s words of warning given under the direction of Moses?  What does common sense tell us?

In this passage we’re remined that a false prophet is one who points his hearers to the gods of this world, who do not speak as God commands them and whose prophecies do not come true.  Simply put, their words are not from God.  A true prophet, no matter how pedestrian they may seem, is one who points us to the One true God, who speaks only as they are directed by God and whose prophecies will come true, for they are from God.

True prophets spell out the long-range consequences of not obeying God, while they make perfectly clear the daily demands of faithfulness needed if we’re to obtain God’s favor.  Thus, the law isn’t a burden; it’s a gift of God to ensure the continuation of genuine common sense, if the people truly desire to achieve God’s favor.  God’s favor may be the Promised Land, eternal life, or it can be the freedom to fulfill oneself, here and now, by living a life justified by faith.

Look at some of words of common sense that show forth from time to time in scripture.  (1) “But the Word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14).  Nothing requiring obscure powers and fantastic mystical side-effects; rather, what you and I, and any of God’s people, can grasp and do is available to us.  So the next step is to do it!  (2) Ezekiel cautions people not to eat on the mountain of false gods … to commit idolatry.  It was on the mountain of the cult gods that all the excitement took place.  Instead, Ezekiel called for them not to oppress others, to provide for the hungry, charge no interest, commit no iniquity, execute justice – the common sense here is these are some of the ways we show love to our neighbors.

(3) Next, Amos counsels those who cry out for the day of the Lord expecting great rewards.  Amos reminds us that God does not delight in solemn assemblies with lavish displays of instant generosity and religious fervor.  Instead, God calls people to obey the law, to live justly with their brothers and sisters, and to love mercy.  Common sense here tells us that doing these things meets the requirements of God’s long-range purposes (Amos 5:18-24).  (4) John the Baptizer was central to a major revelation.  God was about to bring the traditions of prophecy to a major conclusion.

The dove descended on Jesus at His baptism and the voice of God made it clear that this man Jesus is God’s Son, the very Word, or Logos of God.  Certainly, in Jesus, the long-range consequence of the prophetic tradition was fulfilled in a new dimension.  Heavenly powers were definitely at work in and through God’s Son.  And what does John the Baptist do to prepare the way?  He calls for the people to repent and do works that befit repentance.  Common sense tells us that from all the evidence we see in and about Jesus, listening and heeding the words spoken by John and Jesus are ones we need to follow.

John the Baptist, and all the faithful prophets of God, are calling us to claim the long-range security with God through repentance and to strive daily to be faithful toward this end.  John the prophet makes the daily requirements easy to understand; share a second coat with another when we have two; share food with the hungry; take no money that does not rightfully belong to us; rob no one by violence; and be content with our wages.  At the heart of the mighty work God was bringing to be in Christ, lies a good dose of common sense (Luke 3:7-14).

Since long-range consequences matter greatly, and Jesus is held to be the fulfillment of God’s covenant love; the early Christians identified Jesus as the penultimate prophet.  They saw in Him the long-range consequences made personal and complete.  Jesus is the One prophesied by Moses.  Does Jesus not bring to closure the long history of prophecy?  In Jesus, God has fulfilled all the laws and words of the prophets, perfecting it in His incarnation.  His faithfulness to God and the daily life He lived, brought the covenant relationship into a new form.  Thus, Jesus met the two conditions of common sense we’re considering: He shows us the long-range consequences; and He provides the step-by-step requirements which must be met to arrive at the desired goal.

Jesus came to be the long-range consequence of God’s purpose to save, for He is the Word made flesh, concluding, in an unexpected way, the prophetic tradition.  In Christ, a believer can be justified by faith, thus will be safe in a house not built with hands.  Then the believer can turn to do the just requirements of the law.  Jesus called people to follow Him, to enter into the long-range consequence of God-with-us, and then to go and do what the new covenant relationship required.

In Jesus, the prophetic tradition and the law have been fulfilled.  He is God’s Good News and comes to us as the Word of God made flesh.  In Him we meet the love, grace, and mercy of God; He became one of us so that we might become as He is.  In Him, we have the opportunity to see God-with-us, to hear directly the Word, and to turn and be healed.  Therefore, common sense tells us that when we heed and obey the Word of God, our long-range goals are clearly seen and the day-to-day requirements are revealed so that we can dwell safely in God’s house, a house not made with human hands.


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