30th January 2024

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

(Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Mark 1.21-28)

A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

We have just experienced the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Though it began in Roman Catholic circles in the United States, it’s a worldwide thrust, long endorsed by all the major denominations.

This conscious focus began before the First World War, at a period when the various Christian churches inhabited a very different ecology from ours now. To me, the Week has long felt like a worthy intention whose time has passed. Christian worshippers may gather in differently branded places and organisational structures, but the active fields of contention are at least as likely to be within any denomination as to be between denominations. And the wider cultural backdrop – in societies such as ours – of widespread indifference, even hostility, to expressions of faith, can make all this attention on the internal dynamics of Christian communities seem merely irrelevant.

So let’s notice the good thing here – that by and large, Christians bearing different labels have found ways to get along, to trust one another, and frequently work together with a common purpose. One little example of that will be our series of meetings during Lent this year, when we’ll be hearing reflections from leaders in other churches here in Salisbury. Amongst other things, that series is a reminder that we Christians need to get on with living, and to do so constructively and thoughtfully.

What turned my thoughts to the recent Week of Prayer was the rather startling contrast between its ethos and that of the final sentence in this morning’s first reading: ‘any prophet …..who presumes to speak in my name a word that [God has] not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.’ Not much ecumenical spirit on show there.

However, having drawn it to your attention, I am not going to dwell on that Old Testament reading:

It’s puzzling (I had to read it three times to make head or tail of it),

It’s complex (Moses recounting a 3-way conversation between himself, the people, and God),

And it’s situated in what to the hearer in 2024 is a dangerously resonant moment (the Israelites poised to enter their promised land, and about to expel its present inhabitants). There have been occasions, and there will be more, when my colleagues and I agonise with you over the traumas of the Palestinian and Jewish inhabitants of that promised land; I am consciously not going to do that now.

So, instead, to Jesus and his newly recruited disciples going to synagogue in their neighbourhood, at Capernaum. In which place he startles these people, who had probably known him from childhood, with the authority he demonstrates, both in his teaching, and by his response to the demonic challenge he encounters – a tormented life was dramatically transformed before their eyes.

According to Mark, it’s from this moment that word about Jesus began to spread. And you and I are just links in that chain of transmission, mediated through the words and actions of countless people in countless circumstances;

all of those people were flawed, all limited, all sometimes puzzled or astonished;

and all have been seeking somehow to respond to the encounter they have had with God, in Jesus Christ.

I thank God for Mark’s sense of the immediacy and drama of that first encounter with Christ. Don’t lose it; it’s what has brought every one of us here.