This is the text I prepared for a cluster service for the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches for Sunday 28th January 2018. It was the final cluster service for the summer and was held at Morwell. Holy Communion followed the sermon.
Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Hear The Word speak. In days ago when the Hebrews were still across the Jordan and not yet near the land of the Canaanites Moses assured them that God was going to raise up a new prophet, one like Moses from amidst the Israelites. This prophet would speak in the Name of the God of Israel and with all the authority of the LORD. But, this prophet will have come from amidst the people of Israel, so he would not be terrifying like The LORD is in his presence. This prophet would not arise, (or descend), from a Mountain Which May Not Be Touched, he would come from amongst the people, he would be one of them but with a special task. This prophet would be identifiable by his speaking the same message that Moses spoke, which is to say the words of YHWH Godself in a form understandable by women and men who want to know God’s way. The words and actions of this prophet will give glory to YHWH and will conform to the pattern of YHWH’s previous prophets, especially Moses.
So says Moses himself; so reads the Old Testament lectionary story for today.
The Psalm set for today is a wholehearted, public, declaration of praise for God’s work and the God who works. God is faithful, and the faithful One’s works are majestic in that they are works of mercy, redemption and salvation. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding says Psalm 111:10. Henry Handel Richardson said something similar in her story of that “Wondrous Fair” Laura Tweedle-Rambotham of Melbourne’s PLC, so as Australians, nay as Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians we know it to be true. This whole psalm is the context of Moses’ message to the listening Hebrews: praise for the wonderful acts of the covenant God must be the content of any declaration or oracle of “the prophet”, or anyone claiming to speak for God.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and sadly many of us Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians know this also to be true. The cure for being a clever-bottom according to Paul, (but not so much according to the somewhat self-important “Tweedle-Dum-Ram’s-Bum” as her nemesis calls her), is to be known by God. Those who are known by God, who know God and who follow in God’s ways, do their things the way God does things. Jesus knew a lot of things and he said a lot of things, but he always taught those desiring his wisdom with love and patience. Jesus was never a clever-bottom and he never came across as a know-it-all. In Mark 1:22 we read how Jesus spoke with authority, but more than that he told the truth. Jesus did not only speak with love, but also with depth and profound patience. To say that he taught “but not as the scribes” doesn’t mean that he was a liberal theologian, (or that they were), but that he wasn’t arrogant about his ability to exegete and hermeneut with academic insight.
In the first part of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul begins to address an issue in the Christian community at Corinth, but that issue is not the issue food offered to idols. Paul is aware of the need to guard one’s shopping choices in the market, and the reasons why one might refuse a dish when out for dinner; but what he is addressing is the attitude behind the behaviour of Christians toward other Christians, Christians who are conscientiously working through their theology regarding these sorts of meals. “I know and some of you know”, he says, “that the only god is God, and so food offered to idols is nothing. Eat it, nothing has defiled this food and there are no Greek-germs upon it since the Greek gods are non-existent.” Of course, you and I might say. However, Paul goes on, “but if people new to faith are struggling over this and they see a problem with Greek-germs in their food because they haven’t yet heard the full message of liberty, don’t you be mocking them for it.” Supposedly leading Christians engaging in idolatry, sin, and defiantly public disloyalty to the God of Israel by engaging in the worship of the Olympians or the Roman deities, can be a real moral distraction to new converts. So don’t do it, says Paul: don’t flaunt your freedom in such a way as to distract a new Christian from his or her growth. And if you are asked by a young believer the reason for your behaviour, don’t be a clever-bottom about it. In view of the sermon of Moses and the model of the Psalm, what do you think Jesus would do? Jesus knows that idols have no power over meat, but Jesus also knows that a bad example has power over new believers. So, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13: in this instance be a good brother-sister and go vegetarian in company because this is a good example of love.
For another example of clever-bottom discussion we can go back to the gospel reading for this one and see how Jesus himself handled it. In Mark 1:23-26 we read about Jesus’ first healing miracle as recorded by Mark, and it’s an exorcism. In Mark 1:24 the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name, correctly identifies his home town, and calls out Jesus on his hidden identity. In other words he shows off what a smarty he is in the company of the none-the-wiser natives of Capernaum. Jesus answers the spirit directly in Mark 1:25 saying “shut up windbag, nick off”. (It probably sounds better in Aramaic.) In Mark 1:26 the unclean spirit spits the dummy, and then goes, embarrassed and sooking back to wherever it is unclean spirits come from.
The unclean spirit had tried to outmanoeuvre Jesus, trying to trick him into showing his hand and acting Messianically before he was ready. The spirit called Jesus by name, trying to show its power by demonstrating something supernatural. “Ooh look at me, I have insight because I am a spirit, I know you’re really the messiah and these dopey peasants do not. La-li-la-lala-pthth!” Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into the game: Jesus doesn’t name the spirit, and Jesus doesn’t try to out-power it with a declaration of divine will such as “you’re just an unclean spirit, whereas I, I AM!” No, Jesus just says “shut up and nick off”, and up the chastened spirit shuts, and off the humiliated spirit nicks.
One of the more recent manifestations of the Kingdom of God in Australia has come about through a group called Common Grace. One of its leaders, a pastor named Jarrod McKenna, says that the intent of the group is to be “more like Jesus, less like jerks.” This is the intent of a group striving for humility, if that isn’t an oxymoron, (and it isn’t). Common Grace are a public group in that they appear on television news, often in custody, occasionally in their underwear, (and occasionally in their underwear in custody, but not actually in custody because they are in their underwear if you follow). They are not hidden, they do not intend to be. But then, Jesus wasn’t hidden either; he was a public figure, but he never big-noted himself like the unclean spirit wanted to do and wanted Jesus to do. Like Jesus, Common Grace stands up publicly for grace foremost and for God’s preference for salvation and homecoming rather than piety and prejudice and elitism disguised under religious activity. God will be glorified, and the captives will be freed, if Common Grace gets their way.
This then is the message of reconciliation to which we are called as Christians. This is what the table of grace is about. Make no mistake, you are welcome at this table whether you are or are not a clever-bottom. However, we do hope you won’t be one as you leave.