The Reliability of God
This was my first sermon at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, CA, preached on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018. This was three weeks after my last sermon at St. Michael & St. George, and in the meantime I was able both to take my annual retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, and to move to the Bay. Thanks to all for your patience these last few weeks especially, as I’ve been slow to respond to emails and even slower to update this site. Life is getting settled more and more now with every passing day, and I’ll be back in the swing of things before long.
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Good morning everyone! It is a pleasure long-awaited to be here with you this morning. I’m looking forward very much to getting to know you better, and to serving as your priest.
I promise it’s not usually my habit to begin a sermon by commenting on the lectionary itself, so it’s probably bad form to do so this morning, but at this point you’re stuck — so there it is.
Here we are on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan, he has called his disciples, and now he begins his ministry officially with a sermon and a healing in Capernaum. By pairing this Gospel with the passage from Deuteronomy we heard read, the lectionary framers are pointing out that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy: Jesus is the “second Moses,” the “prophet like Moses” which Moses prophesied to the people of Israel that God would send to fulfill the promises and usher in the messianic age.
It’s a connection rife with theological riches. But for myself, I’m stuck wondering, why on earth did it take so long? By most reckonings, that prophecy would have been made to Moses at the very least many, many centuries before Jesus came on the scene; and at the very most, potentially almost two full millennia before Jesus came on the scene. Why such a long wait?
It begs a lot of questions about what God was doing in the meantime, and Israel, and should make us stop to think — with such a long time between promise and fulfillment, how were people supposed to carry on? There were the prophets, and kings, and psalmists, and all the rest. But none of them were the final word.
So much waiting in their lives of faith, across so many generations. So much waiting in our own lives of faith, or our lives, period, for that matter. Isn’t there more to it than just so much waiting? As Christians we hold very dearly that God is faithful, and more than that, that God is reliable. How do we experience this reliability, how do we know it for ourselves, when so much of our lives are spent waiting for God to act, or for some other goal or occasion? Or worse, how can we trust the reliability of God when disappointment looms, and things don’t go as planned or hoped?
For the Israelites, in exile as in Egypt, they had to become people of prayer if they were going to keep going without the familiar places or rituals of land or temple. And in their prayer, they recalled the former days of God’s faithfulness: his faithfulness to Abraham and to Moses; to Ruth, David, Bathsheba, Esther, Daniel, and all the rest. There was something so central about remembering the past that it came to characterize prayer in the present: when Jesus first appears in the synagogue at Capernaum, Israelite religion had flourished in the long centuries of exile and subjugation, flourished with prayerful remembering of all those long centuries. When he gets up to preach he first reads from the scroll of the Torah, recalling to mind those events of ages past.
But more than remembering, their prayer included the offering of the present too. Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalmists, constantly offer all the anxieties and concerns — and joys and celebrations — of the present moment to God in prayer. Today in Capernaum Jesus, with the whole rabbinic tradition of which he was a member, directed his teaching at the present moment, helping the people to offer their daily lives to God, all their experiences and all their moments. Beyond the synagogues, in Jesus’ day whole schools of prayer flourished in which the faithful were trained to live the present moment as an offering to God; and all the vast system of rules and regulations, so often lampooned as merely “Pharisaical,” existed to help people mark all the moments and tasks of their daily lives with a prayerful attitude.
Furthermore, by Jesus’ day Israelite religion had grown oriented towards the future too, and their prayer followed suit. Not just remembering the past, not just marking the present; but standing on tiptoes as it were, looking forward both to the coming of the Messiah and finally to the end, when all the promises would be fulfilled. The Jewish mystical tradition comes out of this orientation towards the future, and many of their great hymns and sacred music as well, which Jesus and his disciples would have known and the early church would have sung. (Music which, incidentally, continues to shape the life of the Church in its later development as Gregorian chant.)
In the centuries and millennia between promise and fulfillment, then, the people of God carried on by becoming people of prayer: people whose prayer was characterized by a concern for remembering the past, marking the present, and orienting themselves towards the future.
I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better summary of what prayer is all about: what is prayer but sharing memories with God, painful, joyful, and otherwise? What is prayer but sharing the present moment with God, with its struggles and celebrations? What is prayer but sharing hopes with God, both for healing of griefs and for fulfillment of cherished dreams?
If you and I ever find ourselves in a position where the gap between promise and fulfillment seems too long to bear, or where the tension between what is right and what is actually happening is impossible to bridge; or simply where grief looms with no way out, offer it to God in prayer. Start with the present moment; recall the past with all its twists and turns, highs and lows; direct yourself towards the future in anticipation that God will finally prove faithful yet, that peace will finally come in all its splendor — and you will have covered the bases.
But more than covering the bases, you will find something mysterious going on. As you share all these moments and concerns with God, the present, the past, and the future all commingle together in the presence of the Holy Spirit; and as they commingle, by God’s grace a new thing is made. Our memories, our present, our futures, are transfigured and transformed, recast into a new thing beyond any of them. More than a backward glance, more than a glimpse far off, in prayer we find our lives the occasion of heaven itself breaking into the here and now, especially into hurt and grief, anguish and anxiety. A new thing happens, God himself appears, and we encounter him most personally right where we need it most.
This is certainly one of the points that St. Mark is making in this passage from his gospel this morning. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ first miracle, and his first official public appearance, occur together, in the context of the people of God at prayer, in the synagogue.
So here’s the kicker. When we take all our waiting, all our griefs, all our frustrations, hopes, and concerns to God in prayer, in public or in private, God’s answer is not necessarily to do what we ask, but to show up himself, just as Jesus showed up in that synagogue in Capernaum. When we are most sick of waiting, most frustrated by the promise of peace still lingering so far off, God shows up to teach and to heal; Jesus shows up, commending himself to our touch, our taste, our nourishment, and most of all, to our love.
Yes when God shows up, it is not to answer our questions to resolve our dilemmas or give us directions on what to do next; it is to commend himself to our love. When we are filled with perplexity, God is not in the business of giving satisfactory explanations for us to understand, but of revealing his face for us to love. And in that love our griefs are held and healed.
So what are we to do in the long gap between promises and fulfillment? Jesus came as Moses prophesied, but more than a thousand years later. Jesus has made promises to us too, about the peace that passeth understanding, and the fullness of his kingdom coming soon. In times and moments when that seems especially far off and grief and disappointment are still to near, let’s you and I turn to prayer. There may we find painful memory and uncertain hope, both of them, recast before the face of God, recast into the wide open embrace of his presence, his healing, and his peace. There may we find the courage to love even as Jesus loved, and find heaven itself breaking into our midst.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.