Orbiting Dicta

Fourth Sunday of the Year: Caught in the Middle

[This Sunday I am still in the grip of the unfortunate aftereffects of inhaling Volatile Organic Compounds released from renovations in the building last week, so I am falling back on an older homily, slightly tweaked for the New Year at hand… but only slightly!  Some things don’t change much.]

Today we find ourselves in the thick of Ordinary Time, somewhere between Christmas and Lent.  We are likely to find a lot things much more interesting than scripture and church services, at least if the media is an accurate index.  We can get excited or appalled, depending, at various political crises, The Pandemic, the economy, Global Climate Change, the Snowstorm, or even that Big Football Game coming up next week.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit,YouTube, and our iPhones, we can fret round the clock if we choose to.  But what has any of this to do with today’s liturgy?  Quite a lot.

To begin in the middle, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that he wanted them to be free of

Deut 18:15-20
1 Cor 7:32-35
Mark 1:21-28

all worries.  His advice seems to be: don’t get married. I suspect that today people would ask him what planet he came from.  But having been a marriage counselor for 25 years, I can agree with him at least this far: anyone who marries and tries to raise a family in today’s world is going to worry.  But if Paul thought that unmarried people didn’t worry, he was very much mistaken.  They worry about most of the things married people worry about, in addition to worrying about getting married.  Apparently Paul never watched The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.  I wonder what he would think of Christian on-line dating services?

In fact, what Paul was trying to get across is that often the real cause of worry, of mental suffering, is trying to have things both ways — trusting in God and also trying to please everyone else.  Or at least not irritating them excessively.  And his ultimate message is still sound advice: start with God, and the rest should fall into place.  And if it doesn’t, our trust in God, our reliance on God, will steady us and provide the strength to get back into the struggle.  No one is really free from all anxiety.  Paul himself spoke of the anxiety he felt for all the churches [2 Cor. 11:28].  Having peace of heart does not mean a life without suffering, anxiety, and worry.  It means having a way to cope with them.

The other readings point us toward Jesus.  For the ancient Hebrews, the passage from Deuteronomy gave rise to the expectation of the coming of the Prophet of the Final Days, a new Elijah who would usher in the Kingdom of God.   It was taken by early Christians to refer to Jesus, who was remembered like a new Moses, especially in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus mainly resisted such identifications during his life on earth.  In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus orders the demonic spirit to be silent when it recognizes him as the “Holy One” of God, a title not used elsewhere of Jesus in Mark.  One way or another, Jesus was recognized even by non-human agents as more than just a prophet, more than just a healer.  He was the Holy One, the Son of God, the Savior, much as the angel had foretold in Luke’s gospel: “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”  [Luke 1:35].

The people are amazed.  They point out that Jesus’s teaching is new, and authoritative — not a repetition of well-known passages of scripture, not just commentary.  Something different was happening.  Eventually, they will demand to know by what authority he teaches and does the surprising things they hear and see, and he will refuse to tell them.  For now, they murmur in awe and perhaps fear.

And what is this teaching that seems so new and authoritative?  So far, all Mark reports Jesus to have said is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”  God’s realm, Jesus is saying, has broken in on this world of ours.  It is already changing everything.  Now is the time to change our way of thinking, to change our way of living.  God is inaugurating a new day, a whole new world.

Jesus calls us to live in the light of that day, living justly and with compassion, forgiving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us, caring for the oppressed and unfortunate.  Matthew puts all of this in Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount.  Luke spells it out with the prophecy of Isaiah, the text of Jesus’ first teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” [Luke 4:18-19].

Freedom, health, and liberty — not only from captivity, disease, and political or religious oppression, but also from anxiety and worry even about God.  And about other things as well.  You have found acceptance, Jesus says, God’s forgiveness is always accessible.  Live as though you truly believed that, and your anxiety will disappear.

Let us pray that, as Christians, we will put God first, and the demands of party, country, favorite football team, work, and even of family, not merely second, but rethink them and re-order them in light of our loyalty to the Holy One of God.