Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
The lectionary of today is all about the authority to speak on behalf of God. The evangelist Mark talks about the legitimation of Jesus in his Gospel. He says of those listening to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Basically Jesus violated a "min lockdown" as it was not to permitted to do something on the sabbath. It shows us that God is not bounded to our man made rules. God made the sabbath for men and not the other way around. However, when Jesus is in the synagogue there is someone in need and that has always priority....sabbath or not. Jesus told us already what the most important commandment is: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is what we should do always and everywhere. Jesus gave us the example.
The people in that synagogue knew the scribes. In their eyes no one was authoritative as a prophet, other than Moses. But hearing the young preacher from Nazareth they might hear the reflection of Moses’s words in the first reading for today: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”. this first reading is not only about the prophet that has the authority but also warns those that don’t have the authority to speak on behalf of God. We know from scripture that true prophets are recognized but rarely anyone heeds to their words. We seem to prefer miracle workers over prophets. We usually find it hard to accept the directness with which the prophets speak. It is much easier if God through some miracle worker solves our problems.
Throughout history, movements came to make easy knowledge of the divine possible. In our modern world people often focus on meditation, instead of studying the Bible. We make much effort to avoid the words of the true prophets who speaks with authority. The First reading tries to bring our focus back on the one that speaks with authority. The problem with Paul’s congregation was that the educated ones made fun of the ones that were less educated. Paul had great compassion for the weaker members of the ekklesia. His letter teaches us that was afraid to be stumbling block to new Christians. He would do anything to support the weak so they would be saved. He was not interested in things that didn’t matter. We today focus on the wrong things. We bragg about having a great building, choir among other things. Paul would probably say: Good for you. But do you also welcome the stranger, the poor and the weak? Do you do what it takes to build up the body of Christ?
Paul spoke also with the authority as an apostle. He walks in the line of Jesus to speak with authority but also have compassion for the weak. Jesus always, made sure that the least of his brothers and sisters, were given equal status. He made sure that they knew that God loved them and that God had no patience with hypocrisy and self-righteousness. He spoke and lived and acted in the name of the one who sent him to the world. He points always out to the one that came to shine his light on us: Jesus Christ! The one that speaks with authority and came to give his life as a ransom for many. He is the One in whom we should rejoice. Amen.
The narrative around Jonah, as we heard in today’s first reading does not need much introduction. In the story Jonah receives direction of God to go and preach in Nineveh but he goes into a different direction as we know from the story. But God does not easily takes no for an answer. It is the same in our lives, God will move us in the direction he wants us to go. It might not be so dramatic as in the case of Jonah, but he will get us where he wants us to be. Escaping God’s call is not easy at all. In the story Jonah ends up being swallowed by a big fish… likely a whale. He gets a divine inspired time out. Then Jonah repents and prays and the fish spits him out. Now Jonah does what God wants from him: going to Nineveh and preach there. He hurdles his way through the city with basically the shortest homily ever. But it turns out it is the most effective message ever. The people of Nineveh repent and they turn away from their sinful ways. God has mercy on them and decides not to destroy the city after all.
Not something that Jonah really wanted so God is about to teach him another lesson. In the last part of the story we see Jonah getting upset with God (yes, God can handle that). Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there and sat under it in the shade. God let’s a bush come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head. Jonah was very happy about the bush. Then a worm came and destroyed the bush. After that a sultry east wind made the sun beat down on his head. It made Jonah so upset that he wanted to die. God asked Jonah: ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ Jonah told God that he was angry enough to die. But God answered Jonah: ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? Notice this last line in the dialogue. It shows us that God cares for all of his creation and wants to extend his mercy to all.
Jonah was a Hebrew, one of God’s chosen people. He had shown himself faithful in his desire to follow God’s ways. But Jonah’s faithfulness has its limits, and Jonah discovers what those limits are. When God tell him to go to Nineveh he does not want to go and tell the people thereof God’s love and mercy. Jonah doesn’t want to go and for a good reason. Nineveh was the capital of the ruthless Assyrian empire, an empire that had terrorized the Israelites. The people of Nineveh were the Israelites’ sworn enemies. So no wonder Jonah resisted when God told him to go and preach about God’s love and mercy. For Jonah knew that God would be merciful in the end. Jonah is not so sure he wants to see Nineveh receiving God’s grace. We have that in our own lives ourselves. Showing mercy and forgiveness to the people that have hurt us is difficult. What happens to Jonah at the end, is a perfect example of someone fighting against the reality of God’s mercy and grace. Jonah is convinced that the Ninevites don’t deserve it. But he is convinced that he deserves the blessings God offers him. He is caught in this cycle of judgment, in which we are so often caught up in.
Just like is often the case with us, Jonah cannot extend to his enemies the same grace God has offered to him. It’s a pattern of judgment we all get caught up in at times. We judge ourselves worthy or unworthy, despite the evidence of Gods grace. We judge others too in one or the other way. We become trapped in a cycle of judgment. We seem to be unable to extend compassion, empathy and love. This is basically what Christ teaches us in the Gospel “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful”. And we all know the story about the woman caught in “adultery”. They want to force Jesus into a discussion about the law. But he does not let it happen and refuses to condemn the woman. He only tells the bystanders: “let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone”. In all of his ministry, Jesus teached the same thing that God tried to teach Jonah. Namely that God is not obsessed with right and wrong, guilt and punishment, success and reward. God is obsessed with loving us just as we are. Because He is a relational God….He is our heavenly Father and he loves us. Time and again, particularly with those on the margins, Jesus sets aside judgment and shows us what compassion looks like. The Jesuit Priest Father Boyle once said: "there is an idea that has taken root in the world. Namely that there are lives out there that matter less than other lives.” To move past this idea the solution is service. When we serve another, we move toward experiencing the kind of compassion. Service frees us for compassion because it puts us in relationship with those that we are likely to judge.
When Jonah finally goes to Nineveh after his time in the belly of the whale, he simply walks a straight line through the city, preaches his seven-word sermon, and leaves. He does not stop to learn about who the people are like. He does not interact with them. The result is that he has no capacity to imagine their lives or empathize with the trials and challenges they have. He fails to go for service and relationship. And so Jonah remains trapped in ignorance and judgment. How can we ever truly know the other, if we cannot emphasize with the, often traumatic, experiences they had? In order to faithfully follow a relentlessly relational God, we need to find ways of compassion for people’s whose experience is not ours. We need to understand that God is the God of second chances. This is a lesson for both the Clergy and the laity. But especially for the leadership in the Church. It is disappointing to see how often the Church is judgemental and shows a lack of empathy and compassion. We are called to set aside judgment and focus on what we have in common: our identity as beloved children of God.
We belong to God and God is love. Love is what God chooses over and over again. Even for Jonah, in his anger, even for the religious authorities with their judgmental attitude, even for the Ninevites who persistently violated God’s ways. God chooses to love even us, even in our ignorance that prevents us from showing love and compassion to others. It is this love that is most fully revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thomas Merton said ones” Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is Gods business and not ours. All that is asked from us is to show love and compassion. God is calling us as well to go on our way to Nineveh. He wants us to go to that place and that people we cannot imagine are worthy of God’s love. God calls us to love others and not stop to ask whether they deserve it. We can run from that call, but God eventually will have the last word. When we heed to Gods call what wonderful things can happen in ourselves and in the world around us. Amen.
If you listened carefully to the readings from this weekend you noticed that they are all about being called? God calls Samuel in the middle of the night. On three occasions Samuel does not realize who it is that calls him. Neither does Eli, until the third time. Old Eli was a priest. Yes, they had priests back then! Christians did not invent that ministry! Ancient Judaism had priests long before Jerusalem became a holy city and long before Solomon built the temple and long before the Romans destroyed the Temple. And so, did the non-Jewish pagan religions. Priests offered sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the people at an altar. We stand in a long tradition. The third time Eli realizes it is God that is calling and so he tells the young boy what to do. And Samuel gives himself to God. God’s calling comes in unexpected ways. In ways that we do not recognize as the voice of God. These stories always make me reflect on my own calling into ministry. It is enough to make you stop and consider your own call. For myself it is a calling i don't easily forget. I accompanied someone to the oncology department of a hospital for their medical treatments. It was then that a deacon who served as a volunteer chaplain and whom I knew, came by a brought communion to the patients, prayed with them and encouraged them. Immediately it came in my mind: “that is something I want to do”. It was God calling me through that person. However, I took at least 4 years before I decided to study. Theology to become a chaplain/spiritual counselor. At that point I had no clue in which direction God would lead me. But it was clear to me that God called me to ministry. Before that I did not saw myself as qualified for ministry. But the Bible shows us that God calls people that are willing to be taught be him.
When you say yes to God, he will do the formation part. He forms your character for ministry, with the help from other people of course. If we could summarize the lesson of today's gospel reading, we can say that Jesus has called us by name to be his disciples. It is Jesus who calls us. So, it is Jesus who calls us. What does it mean to be called? The English word comes from the Greek word kaleo and means to command or request to be present, to come. For example, someone is called to testify in court. The Latin word for all is vocare from which we get the word "vocal", as in vocal cords, a part of the body we use to speak. From vocare we also get the word vocation, which means a calling to a particular profession. In the church, we use the word primarily to mean a vocation to religious life, to the priesthood, to the diaconate or to some other ministry. So Jesus calls us into his service. We are ordinary people that are called into his service. We are nothing special. We are simple people, just like his disciples. The disciples were simple fishermen of which there were many near the Sea of Galilee, ordinary people. They did not have a degree. They probably could not even read or write. They lived simple, ordinary lives.
He comes to us exactly where we are.
In today's gospel Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him that has found the Messiah and brings him to Jesus. It shows us that we are called to bring people to Jesus. As Nathaniel is approaching Jesus, Jesus states, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false!” WOW! This is quite a statement coming from God’s son!! Don’t we wish all Jesus is saying that about any of us? Nathaniel is called a man of integrity. However, Jesus' statement caught Nathaniel off guard, in his mind came the, immediate questions. Wait a moment? How do you know what I am like? How can you make such a statement without knowing me? Indeed, Nathaniel comes right out and asks Jesus, "How do you know me?". Jesus' response must have sent shivers down his spine: "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you!" It Flabbergasted Nathaniel again. But why? Because it revealed that Jesus was God! Very pious Jews like Nathaniel practiced a very curious habit; they would pray and study the Scriptures under a fig tree which was the symbol of Israel. Unlike the Pharisees who tried to be seen of men reading and praying they would find secluded places under a fig tree and pray and meditate on God's Word in private ... with no one around or to anyone’s knowledge! No one would have known he was there! Thus, it was clear to Nathaniel what Jesus had just said; only as God could Jesus had seen Nathaniel under that fig tree! Only an Omniscient God could do this or know this, and to have known he was there BEFORE Philip had called him! God sees the ones that are fit for his service. It does require a degree or special qualities. Only a good heart and faithfulness is what counts for God. And if he calls us, he leaves it up to us to say yes. God is not the kind to force us into his service. He calls. He waits. He calls.
Once God calls you it is extremely hard to say no to Him. He is a very persistent God. I can tell you that much! He waits. Some of us hear his voice and answer to his call. If we would describe it in radio terms, we would say that we need to tune in on His frequency to hear his voice. At that point we can hear him calling as he called Samuel, and if we have the courage we can answer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens”. Amen.
The baptism of Jesus is a moment of special grace in our story of salvation. Not only did he join us in our state of being, but also joint by the two other persons of the Trinity. The gospel uses the simple phrase that “the heavens were opened”. This is a powerful statement. Today’s gospel is the beginning of Jesus journey. And through that each of us is asked to travel, through our own baptism.
Each of us needs a sense of purpose in our Christian living. When we set out for a journey, we prepare for that journey. We need to make an idea what we need and by what means we travel. The same when we make a spiritual journey. Peter summarized the journey of Jesus’s life. “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” We are invited to make Jesus’s purpose our own.
The sacrament of baptism is always a joyful occasion. There is happiness when a child is welcomed in their family. And there is happiness when a child is welcomed in the Church. In being received into the church family, they become our brothers or sisters in Christ. They become adopted children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit. The joy of the occasion is visible when the parents and godparents come up to the baptismal font. They are proud that their child becomes a child of God through baptism. When the water is poured out on their heads it is a great moment. For the parents and godparents, not always for the child. Sometimes they cry. The child is anointed before and after baptism with special oil, the baptismal shawl is placed around the child and the baptismal candle is lit. The whole occasion is somehow uplifting in a way that is unique to that sacrament. A big decision is being made on their behalf without their knowing anything about it. Just like other decisions are made for them by their parents when they are little. In the Gospel Jesus rebukes his disciples when they prevent children from coming to him. ‘let the children come to me and do not stop them, for too such as these the kingdom of God belongs.’
Parents continue to bring their children to Jesus today whenever they present them for baptism. They become followers of Jesus through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Today we celebrate the feast of the baptism of Jesus. It is a good day to reflect on our own baptism and what it means to us. It is also good to reflect whether we fulfill our Baptismal to become true followers of Jesus. In the way that we follow his guidelines and not human guidelines. For Jesus his baptism was a turning point in his life. It was a day of new beginning, as it should be for us. On that day he began his public ministry during and gave himself to God and people. He did not come to be served but to serve. This is a great reminder for all in ordained ministry. He came to give his life as a ransom for many. As he set out on that journey for all of us, he was confident of the favor of his Father. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’. And through our Baptism in Christ, our Heavenly Father speaks these words about us. Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit, who descended upon him life a dove. Though Jesus was baptized as an adult, the meaning is the same for all of us, whether we are baptized as a child or adult. It is a day of new beginning for us. On that day we were launched on the great adventure of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ in our own special way. In our Baptism God gives us also the assurance that his favor rests on us. And just like Jesus the Holy Spirit empowers us to fulfill our journey in life. On that day we became a member of Jesus’ family of disciples, the church. It is a joyful moment that contains the power shape our lives in a completely new way. It reveals God’s purpose for our lives. For the rest of our lives, we try to fulfill that what we received on that day of new beginning. We try to follow Jesus on our journey. And just like Jesus fell under the pressure of the cross, so we will fall under the pressure of our own burdens in life. But with His help we will rise up again and continue on our way to our heavenly homeland.
We are baptized as children and confirm that as an adult. As adults we are able to say yes to the Lord with all our heart and mind. It is not until our adult years that we can hear Gods calling as the prophet Isaiah did. ‘O come to the water all you who are thirsty, Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near.’ The Lord won’t stop calling us, but it is up to us to hear his voice and answer him: “Yes Lord, here I am”. The word of God will be fulfilled sooner or later. Our response to the Lord’s call, can be slow and take time. But his call remains powerfully creative and will fulfill the purpose he has in mind for us. Amen
Today we find ourselves in the landscape of Matthew, in story where the shepherds and the manger has been gone to the background. It is a story that features some strangers from Persia that are being called “Magi,”. Maybe astronomers, inquirers or what we would call scientists maybe! They followed the light to find the newborn king…the Word incarnate, the logos, “the Christ.” But also, the story of Herod who gets in their way and that of the holy family.
It is typical the story of our world. This is the story of human leadership that lead the nations. It is a story of an increasing darkness and danger. It features the selfishness of those that in power. Especially that of all human tyrants in the person of Herod. For Israel, Herod and his family represents a vasal and failed king. He is a king that complied with the enemy of the Jewish people. You can compare it with the those that complied with the Nazi’s in World War II. No wonder that the Jewish people were looking for the real King to appear. Those familiar with the biblical narrative will recognizing in Herod all the negative attributes of the tyrants throughout the history of the world. We have names as Stalin, Hitler, oppressive regimes like those in China and Iran. Sadly, enough the list is endless unfortunately. The people in Jesus’s days would recognize the events in Jesus’s life as the history of Israel. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, the City of David, spends time in Egypt, where God rescued the people from slavery.
The last evil and obscure verse we read at the end of today’s Gospel. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’” Rachel is a reference to one of Jacob’s wives, believed to be buried in Bethlehem; and Ramah was the place of mourning for the Exile. The lectionary gives us this genocide of the innocent in the Christmas season. It should make us think how those in power value human life. Be it in a war, children in poverty or the innocent child in the womb. Matthew offers a subtle distinction which can be easily overlooked. Instead of blaming God for this evil to happen, Matthew refers to an Old Testament prophecy, “then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet.”
A subtle change where Matthew changes the words of the prophecy to take the blame away from God. This evil occurs because of human beings, not because of God. Like it is with so many things in our world, including this terrible virus we are battling. The message Matthew gives suggests that not God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction throughout history. But nevertheless, not even this evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.” We ought to join Rachel, who represents everyone, who mourns the loss of children to such a tyranny. Because of that the Son of God, the Light and Life of the world, is sent into exile. The terrible rage of Herod proves his helplessness, in the light of tyrants like Herod past, present and future. The child survives, returns, and lives on to this day! We also learn also about the Light in its unending battle to transform darkness into Light. The Light cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced to withdraw for a while. The light can be shut out by darkness. In our times we are surrounded by darkness in many ways. There are many Herod’s, great and small, in our days as well. But this darkness is not only outside of us but also within us. We must also contend with the Herod in our own souls. We are also capable of shutting the Light out that lives inside of us and cannot see the lights in others.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes it in the words, “Christ lives in me.” Mystics throughout history have referred to that light inside of us. All of them agree that this light appears by grace. It has a divine origin and is given to us by our Creator God. At Christmas we are to celebrate this coming of the Light. It is not just a nice narrative, but a calling as well. We are called to let this light being born within each one of us. The Christ we promise in our baptism to seek and serve. It is our duty as Christians to love as Jesus loved and love our neighbor as ourselves. The Holy Innocents, the victims of Herod’s holocaust, died for the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. Of course, they were not aware of that. They were the first martyrs of our faith who were mourned over by their parents. And you can imagine that these parents must have asked themselves: “why, why, why”. This Second Sunday of Christmas means to ask us, whether we will keep the children alive. Will we allow the light to be born inside of us? Will we let Christ come close to us and not shut him out as some kind of little Herod? Can we join with those Holy Innocents to bear witness against the Herod’s of our own time?
Let us pray that the eyes of our soul, or of “our heart”, as Paul calls it be opened so that we can regain new hope and bring that hope to the world. May the prayers from those that went before us and of all the innocent children come alive in us this day. And may those prayers encourage us to fight for justice and oppose the Herod’s of this world. Amen.
Since it is a New Year, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy and Peaceful New Year? I pray that the Lord Jesus may enrich your lives during the New Year with an abundance of Divine blessings. Hopefully it is gonna be a healthy New Year too. And we speak out the hope that we can leave the pandemic behind us and go back to normal.
The Church also observes the 53rd World Day of Peace on this day and invites us to pray specially for lasting peace in the world throughout the New Year. Today’s first reading gives us the beautiful Divine blessing from the book of Numbers for the New Year. Today’s Gospel describes how the shepherds spread to all their neighbors the Good News surrounding the birth of Jesus which the angel had revealed to them, and how Mary and likely Joseph as well, treasured “all these things” in her heart. The Gospel also tells us that on the day of his circumcision, the Child was given the name Jesus that had been chosen by God Himself. That is why we, Anglicans, celebrate the feast of the circumcision on this day.
God honored Mary by choosing her to become the mother of Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, when He took on human flesh and became man, as stated in the Bible. She made room for the creator God and we are called to do the same. We need to make room in our lives for God. And which day would be better for that then on this first day of the New Year when we traditionally start our New Years resolutions. Let us make the New Year meaningful by living every day as the First Christians live…in love and charity. We have some great examples: Mary, Joseph, the apostles and the Saints. Let us sanctify every day of the New Year. Let us offer every morning, all the activities of the day for God’s glory. We also need to seek Gods guidance and protection always.
“I have a dream’” said Martin Luther King, Jr. We should all have a noble plan of action (dream a noble dream), for every day in the New Year. We need to remember the proverb: “Cherish your yesterdays, dream your tomorrows, but live your today.” We must be always engaged, doing good for others and loving the men and women we encounter in daily life, for they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This becomes easier when we make God the center of our life and realize His presence in all the people around us. Let us light a candle instead of blaming the darkness around us. Former Secretary General of the United Nations left us his beautiful spiritual diary “waymarks”. He wrote: “Lord, for all that has been, Thanks! For all that will be, Yes!”– and this as well: “Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee, A humble heart that I may hear thee, A heart of love that I may serve Thee, A heart of Faith that I may abide in Thee.”
We can start daily with a short prayer: “Good morning to you Lord and thank you for giving me another day. Grant me your Holy Spirit to do the things you want me to do”. We transform our daily work into prayer by offering it to God early in the morning. Have a Happy New Year and may we offer it to our Heavenly Father. Amen