Sermons That Work

Communicators, Epiphany 4 (C) – 2004

February 01, 2004

We human beings are communicators. We communicate with each other and, at our best, we explore paths of communication with God. For most of us, words are the tools, the means by which we communicate. This is not to say that visual artists and musicians of all kinds don’t speak to us all and to God-and sometimes magnificently-but most of us have words as our tools. Words are our currency, the tokens we spend.

All of this Epiphany season is about humankind coming to understand the dimensions of the gift they have been given in the birth of Jesus Christ. There is an unfolding of understanding and experience as we move through the season. Today the readings try to help us weigh the words we use, and Scripture uses, in our unfolding encounter with God’s gift and God’s will.

The genius of the Lectionary, today and on many other days, is that it doesn’t paint an entirely pretty picture for us. It also takes into account the pitfalls we will encounter on our journey. In the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, the Lord makes clear to the prophet the power of the words with which he is to deliver his message to God’s people: Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth….” In today’s Psalm (71), the Psalmist says how he will carry the Lord’s message to all God’s people: “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all day long…”, and adds, “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.”

When we come to Paul’s first Letter to the church at Corinth, we began to see that the business of communicating with others and with God is not without its problems and pitfalls. Obviously, the community at Corinth was beginning to experience the phenomenon of the faithful, fired with the boundless power of the Spirit, speaking their joy in mysterious “tongues,” unknown and untranslatable languages of the soul. Ever the practical observer, Paul cautions about this method of spiritual communication.

Paul suggests that those who are moved to speak in tongues ought also to “…pray with the mind…I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?” He goes on to give many practical hints about the wisdom of communicating faith with simple and understandable words. Paul goes on to add that although he is able to speak in tongues himself, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Today’s Gospel has a message and a warning for all of us who would communicate our faith to others. Since Epiphany is the season in which we learn of the unfolding of Jesus’ ministry to the people, Luke, for one, does not want us to believe it was a simple and painless process-even for our Lord. He begins by saying some famous cautionary words, ” no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Preaching to the people of Nazareth, his own hometown, Jesus tells of the work of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and of how they were able to help isolated sufferers, but by no means all of the people who were in need. This story was not one the people of Nazareth wanted to be told, not even from one of their own of whom they had heard wonderful things, and they drove Jesus from town in, to say the least, a threatening fashion.

At his next stop, Capernaum, his reception is quite different. He drives an unclean spirit from a man with simple, direct language and the people are at first frightened, and then astounded. Jesus has delivered a message, his message, in terms the people can accept and understand.

Throughout Epiphany, as we are told the story of the evolution of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we are also being told some valuable truths about the unfolding of our own faith. Certainly there is a clear indication that there is no magic transformation, no waving of a magic wand-just because we would like to embrace the faith. There is a learning process and a struggle to understand and communicate. And there will undoubtedly be failures and setbacks along the way. But in the process of our journey through this season of understanding, we may well learn the vocabulary, the words, of our faith, with both our hearts and our minds. And once we have command of that vocabulary we may be able to reach out with love and communicate it to others. In this season that saw the Baptism of Our Lord we may begin to live out our own Baptismal Covenant.

Let us pray in the simple and powerful words of St. Benedict:
O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
intelligence to understand you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to see you,
a heart to meditate on you,
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the spirit of Jesus Christ
our Lord.

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Christopher Sikkema


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