Reading Ramblings – January 31, 2021

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021

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

Context: The one to come after Moses. The one who must be listened to, or Moses himself will condemn those who ignore his words. Powerful prophecy. A prophecy Jesus will refer to in his disputations with Jewish leadership in John 5. One who speaks with authority as Jesus does in his ministry, not simply quoting and citing the great scholars and rabbis before him but speaking authoritatively about Scripture as the Word made flesh. It is easy to maintain all of this in the realm of doctrine and history and theology, but the Word made flesh continues to confront and challenge us today. Each of us is not only vulnerable to but guilty of assuming the world’s ways of thinking and acting, or trying to justify our personal preferences with cherry-picked Bible verses. Each of us must submit humbly in repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to show us where we are off base, where our theology is inadequate to the love of neighbor we are commanded.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – In Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy Moses addresses the Israelites before his death and prophecies that some day they will have a king, something that is a considerable amount of time away! Here in Chapter 18 Moses prophecies as to another great prophet God’s people must be on the lookout for, who will bear God’s Word to them in a way they can hear, as opposed to direct, unmediated divine presence and communication such as what happened in Exodus 19-20 around Mt. Sinai. In Jesus’, the mediation will be his incarnation, his human nature. The Word of God is made man to dwell among us as one of us, while also retaining his full divine nature. As such Jesus speaks with the authority of God the Father himself, an authority that people marvel about even in the early days of his public ministry (see the Gospel reading). The Jewish people understood they should be watching for the prophet Moses prophecies to arise, but Jesus is not what they expect and so He is rejected by many people. Of course it’s easy for someone to claim the mantle of prophet or claim that God is speaking to and through them. Such claims are not to be made lightly. Hebrews 1:1-2 make it clear that the fullness of God’s authoritative speaking comes in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, and the fullest proclamation of God’s Word to and for us.

Psalm 111 – This and Psalm 112 are considered related thematically and stylistically. The psalm is an acrostic using letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and consisting of twenty lines arranged in ten verses. The theme is the praise of God and both psalms start with Hallelujah (praise). The psalm dwells on various reasons God should be praised, centering on his acts of provision and power. But after such a praise oriented psalm the final line has a rather odd tone – a call to not simply praise God but to live according to his Word. This will become the dominant theme of Psalm 112.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – The subject matter here may seem odd at first. After all, it isn’t typical in Western culture to worry about food being sacrificed to idols. In other parts of the world this is a far more reasonable concern! It was a big issue for the Corinthians who lived in a pagan and pluralistic culture where meat was rare – particularly for the poor – and most likely available via pagan temples and markets. Likewise these pagan temples and markets were likely common meeting places for the wealthier members of society, and we have ample invitations to dinners hosted in the dining areas (tricliniums) of these temples in Corinth. The question is theological but Paul begins his response (which will cover chapters 8-10) by calling the Corinthians to look beyond themselves and their theological acumen to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not simply a matter of right theology but also concern for one another in the faith that dictates the best response to this particular issue. In love for one another we voluntarily hold back from exercising our rights or acting in ways that might be theologically correct but inconsiderate of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul will give more detailed responses in Chapter 10, but wants to lay the groundwork first in Chapter 8 and then illustrate what he means in Chapter 9.

Mark 1:21-28 – This may be Jesus’ first public teaching. It is noted first of all for his authority in teaching the Word of God, and secondly for his authority over unclean spirits. The Greek says the man is “in” a spirit rather than “having” a spirit. The man may not be possessed as we typically imagine it but is being influenced by the spirit’s presence. We were informed in 1:10 that the Holy Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, and we witness now a confrontration between the Holy Spirit of God empowering Jesus and an unclean spirit. While it is not unreasonable to swap out the word unclean with the word evil in describing this spirit, Mark likely chose his words carefully (inspired by the Holy Spirit as he records Peter’s own Holy Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching). Jesus was recently washed by John the Baptist. While Jesus had no sins of which to repent and be washed clean of, John’s washing does indicate cleanness as opposed to the uncleanness of the spirit now confronting Jesus. This is likely the semantic intention of Mark in choosing this adjective – cleanness vs. uncleanness as a condition of a repentant heart as opposed to some ceremonial or ritual definition. This spirit is not only outside the inbreaking kingdom of God in Jesus the Christ but actively opposed to it, and as the unclean spirit causes the man to speak aloud, the words it uses are intended to thwart or complicate Jesus’ efforts at establishing his rule. The spirit’s words indicate an awareness of not just who Jesus is (the Holy One of God) but what his presence in creation likely means (the destruction of all unclean spirits and hearts opposed to the rule of God). As we hear in other accounts of Jesus dealing with demons, the demons understand Jesus’ presence as indicative of judgment. We assume they fear it is the final judgment when they will be banished eternally (see Mark 5:7). They fear – and rightly so – their final defeat and the end of their limited power in creation. Their fear is rightly placed, but their timing is off. Jesus is not here to usher in final judgment immediately, so instead of destroying the unclean spirit He commands it to be silent and to leave the man. While Jesus’ purpose is not the final judgment, He does have authority to command the unclean spirit who has no choice but to obey, if not quietly or happily! The power of God the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus the Christ cannot be denied by any power in heaven or on earth. Satan and his forces may rage against the inbreaking kingdom of God but they are powerless to stop it.

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