(Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
(for a complete bulletin, click here Feb 01 Bulletin)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Somewhere along the path of my spiritual journey, I came across the wisdom of St. Augustine. Recall that he was the great Christian theologian and philosopher from the late 4th century and early 5th century. His most famous books include “The Confessions of St. Augustine” and “The City of God.” He worked tirelessly to understand man’s relationship with God. As a Christian, he also sought to understand the relationships that Christians have with the secular world. Augustine offered profound insights into both these relationships, either man’s with God or Christians with the secular world, and many of them were beyond my ability to understand. However, he made one particular insight that stuck with me throughout the years. He was quoted as saying, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” Every week we come here to offer praise and thanksgiving to our good and gracious God. As we gather, we ponder the mystery of God and God’s work in our lives. God’s ways are unfathomable, yet we come seeking some type of understanding. We want to know God and what makes Him tick. There is a temptation to believe that we can figure out God if only we study the Scriptures long and hard enough. We read of how God is at work in the lives of all the characters in the Scripture and believe we can definitively know God by studying Scripture. And yes, to a degree we can know God better through diligent study of Scripture. But even Scripture does not fully reveal the mysteries of God. Scripture doesn’t get rid of the need for faith. Scripture provides only so many answers about God and our relationship with Him. We still need to have faith. Augustine maintained this in his statement: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” If we were to wait to believe in God until we fully understood Him, none of us would believe in Him!! No, it is in the act of having faith, of accepting that we can’t fully know God and yet believing in Him, when God is revealed to us even more. The mysteries of God are revealed when we have faith, when we believe and accept our limitations of understanding! God wants us to have faith more than understanding and rewards us with understanding by having faith!
Do we claim to fully know God? Is there any among us who can claim to know how God works? No, none of us fully knows God. We rely on faith to fill in the blanks in our understanding. We rely on faith in a good and loving God that wants only the best for each of us. We rely on faith that our good and loving God will walk with each of us in this life. Through faith we come to see how God is a good and loving God walking with each of us. Through faith we come to understand God better. Faith is the missing link to fully understanding God.
So, what does Augustine’s wisdom have to do with our readings for today? They all have the common theme of understanding God. In our passage from Deuteronomy, Moses cautioned anyone who would claim to know God and offer false prophecy. God wants prophets to speak his words to the people. God can speak his words directly to people as He did to Moses and Abraham but likes to use prophets as intermediaries. A prophet’s job isn’t a glamorous job either. God’s words can be words of grace and words of judgment and a prophet can’t choose which words God wants spoken. A prophet must speak the words God wants spoken. Sometimes the people like what they hear, most times they do not. A prophet can get to be very unpopular very quickly! Yet the words of a prophet reflect an understanding of God. If the words are false, then the prophet doesn’t understand God. If the words are true, then the prophet has an understanding of God and we should heed the words. False prophets don’t understand God and should be ignored as Moses teaches us.
David understood God perhaps better than most of us. Our psalm for today reflects a deep and profound understanding of God. As he sang, “Great are the works of the Lord” and “The works of his hands are faithful and just” and “the Lord is gracious and merciful.” This is yet another of David’s hymns of praise to an awesome and almighty God. David sang out words of praise and thanksgiving for all that God had done in his life and the lives of those around him. David loved singing praise as seen by the sheer number of praise psalms in Scripture! But did you catch the last verse of our psalm? It read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” Not a verse of praise but rather a verse of caution. True understanding of God is not found in simply recognizing all the good that God does for us. True understanding of God is recognizing that God provides all that good in spite of His ability to destroy us. God CAN destroy us. God has every reason TO destroy us. Yet God remains good to us. Why? Because the Son came and took our sins and redeemed us. God doesn’t WANT to destroy us. God wants to forever be in relationship with us. But we must maintain a healthy fear of God’s abilities to better understand who He is.
Paul offers additional wisdom to this idea of understanding God. Recall that he was writing his letter to the congregation at Corinth which had succumbed to deep divisions and infighting. They had struggled to understand who God is and how to be a church. In our passage for today, Paul is addressing the issue of eating food that had been sacrificed for false idols. He resolved the issue by reminding the congregation that the food is edible because false idols are nothing compared to God. Like false prophets, those who worshipped false idols didn’t know the one true God. On the contrary, those who know Christ know God. Paul urged the Corinthians to help the idol worshippers come to know Christ instead. At the start of the passage, Paul offers particularly insightful wisdom though. He wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Paul reminded the Corinthians, and us, that it is in the act of loving that we come to know God. God knows us and we know God in the act of loving. God is revealed to us through loving much the same way that God is revealed to us through faith, as Augustine taught us. When we love each other, we come to know God.
Finally, our gospel reading for today offers up further insight into knowing God. In the passage, we read of Jesus’ encounter with an unclean spirit. He exorcises the spirit from the poor man and his public ministry is set into motion according to Mark’s account. At the start of the confrontation, we heard the man cry out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know you are, the Holy One of God.” How did Jesus know an unclean spirit was in the man? The unclean spirit knew who Jesus was, the Holy One of God. Yet he didn’t really know who Jesus was. He thought Jesus had come to condemn him and those around him. He thought Jesus was sent to destroy him. He couldn’t have been further from the truth! Jesus was sent to save the man and did just that.
You see, this is where we learn the most about God in today’s readings. Yes, false prophets will claim to know God and God will destroy them. Yes, true knowledge of God includes a healthy fear of God. Yes, we can know God in loving each other. But we know God the best in Jesus. We know God the best when we know why Jesus was sent among us. God loves us, God speaks to us through prophets, God is to be feared, and God wants to be in an intimate relationship with each of us, supporting and enriching. And we tend to put up obstacles for being in relationship with God. The man with the unclean spirit put up an obstacle: his fear of condemnation. What obstacles do we put up? What keeps us from knowing the love of God? Addictions? Fear? Self-loathing? Anxiety? Pain? What about a lack of faith, as Augustine asserted? Belief leads to understanding. Understanding doesn’t lead to belief. In fact, I’ve found the more we claim to know, the less we actually know! What obstacles do each of us put in the way of our knowing God and God knowing us?
In a few moments, we will be welcoming a new child into the body of Christ through baptism. God will claim little Kyler as one of His beloved children. Kyler’s journey of faith begins today. Over the years and with the help of each of us, he will come to know God better and better. We were once like Kyler, free of any obstacles getting in the way of our knowing God. Life throws obstacles in our way. What are we going to do about them? Are we going to allow them to keep us from knowing God? No, we must nurture and sustain our faith amidst all these obstacles. Faith plays more and more of a role in understanding God the older we get. Indeed, as the obstacles keep mounting in our lives, the more necessary faith becomes. Faith helps us overcome the obstacles.
In reflecting on life’s obstacles, I’m reminded of the story of a young fellow who wanted to be a star journalist but lived in a small town with not much possibility. One day the dam upstream broke and the town was flooded. He got in a rowboat and headed out to look for a story. He found a lady sitting on her rooftop. He tied up the boat and told her what he was after. They both watched as various items floated by. She says, “Now there’s a story.” “No, that’s not a story.” Finally a hat floats by and then does a 180 degree turn, goes upstream a ways and does another 180 degree turn. The fellow says, “There’s a story.” “Oh no, that’s not a story. That’s my husband Hayford. He said that he was going to mow the lawn come hell or high water!” We are all on a road to understanding God in our lives. Like Hayford, let us keep faith to overcome…the roadblocks to knowing God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.