January 28, 2018
We’re still in the season of Epiphany, the season where the readings relate to the theme of who Jesus is revealed to be. The season begins with the story of the three magi coming and honouring the infant Jesus as a king, and it ends with the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus appears in dazzling light to the disciples on a mountaintop. Twice in the season of Epiphany we have gospel readings where the voice of God is actually heard, saying, “This is/you are my beloved Son.” [See Mark 1:11 and Mark 9:7] It doesn’t get much clearer than that!
Today the readings are about Jesus as the one who speaks God’s words – the one with authority; the voice we need to hear. He doesn’t have an authoritarian voice, but a voice of authenticity derived from his close connectedness and relationship to God.
Humans seem to have a deep need to identify people who they can listen to and follow – for better or for worse. We seem to need someone other than ourselves who we can take our cues from, or someone we can trust to tell us what’s going on, what it all means, and what we should do or think or feel. Humans are followers in need of a leader, very often.
So, for example, we don’t just want to hear or read the news: we want someone to tell us what it means, whether that’s a political panel on the CBC, or a ranting columnist in a local paper. We tend to form our view of the world based on the authoritative words of others that we give credence to – whether it’s a divisive demagogue or a wise and thoughtful leader. And that’s what makes us so vulnerable to being manipulated, fooled and led in bad directions.
As in the outer world, so in the inner world.
As people of faith, we listen for the voices who speak to us of God and God’s ways; we look for religious leaders who will interpret the times to us, and tell us how to live. And depending on who we listen and give credence to, we can go down destructive, divisive paths or down paths that lead towards peace and the greater good.
Moses recognized that the Israelites needed leaders they could trust to speak the word of God: authentic prophets, not charlatans out for popularity or power. So he said that a prophet must be one who only speaks God’s words, not their own, and who doesn’t claim that their words are God’s. He warns the people against false prophets.
It’s a warning that’s still relevant, because human nature hasn’t changed much in a few thousand years. We have to be discerning, lest those who claim to be serving God, or the common good, are in fact simply furthering their own agendas.
(I remember the deep disappointment I felt when Winnie Mandela turned out to be personally involved in the violence and child soldiering that was ripping S. Africa apart, and wasn’t the impeccable woman leader I wanted her to be. Think, too, of the numerous religious leaders, gurus, teachers who have proven to be manipulative and exploitative of their followers. The churches have had to face their own guilt in the area of sexual misconduct and abuse. Our willingness to trust leaders makes us so very vulnerable.)
In the gospel reading for today Jesus is recognized as a teacher who has authority, authenticity, credibility. Yet he doesn’t have the status of a religious expert: he’s just this guy from Nazareth. In a twist of the tale, the one person in the story who recognizes him fully as “the Holy One of God” is himself possessed by an evil spirit, and Jesus has to tell him to be silent. But he heals the man, and his action speaks louder than any words: this is indeed the Holy One of God. And everyone’s amazed, and his fame and following begin to grow.
Jesus demonstrates holy leadership. He is the one who speaks God’s words not for his own aggrandizement or power but just out of that intimate relationship with God that allows him to mirror God’s very nature. It’s never about himself; in fact all through Mark’s gospel Jesus tells his followers to keep his identity a secret. He doesn’t seek out crowds; he doesn’t brag about how many followers he has; he doesn’t work miracles to pump up his own reputation, and he never coerces anyone to believe in him or do as he says. He simply acts from the conviction of his heart that God is the loving Father of us all, and he has God’s good news to tell and to be.
Who are the holy leaders in our midst today? And at times when we have to choose leaders (eg the upcoming provincial and municipal elections; the episcopal election for the next Archbishop of this diocese; our annual vestry meeting) what qualities are we looking for? Authority or authenticity? Power or humility? Qualifications or wisdom? Someone who can fill a lot of airspace, or someone who can listen?
Humans will always want leaders. That’s why we need to learn discernment, and we also need to spend enough time quietly in God’s company that we learn to recognize God’s voice. We’ll have a better chance, then, of recognizing when someone is speaking that same language of love.
Perhaps listening is the key: not listening to my sermon, or to the political pundits, or to the tweets and noises all around, but to the still, quiet voice of God. Listening often enough and long enough until we know it by heart. Listening to the silence, as well, when God is beyond all thoughts and words. Learning to recognize God’s voice.
Let us pray:
Come, Spirit of God, into this noisy world where loud voices and harsh actions pull at us. Come with your quiet whisper. Teach us to know your voice, to learn your language of love, and to follow where you call. Through Christ and in his steps we pray. Amen.