holy cross sermon for the fourth sunday after the epiphany, february 1, 2015

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In today’s OT reading from Deuteronomy, a future time is foreseen in which there will arise from among the children of Israel another great prophet, one like Moses himself, who will speak the words of God to the people of God. Moses says to them:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren — him you shall heed — just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, `Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, `They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”

Because the Law was given through Moses, Moses is regarded by Jews as the prototypical prophet – a footnote in my Bible calls him the “fountainhead” of all prophecy. And so the foretelling of a prophet to come who is “like Moses” is a big deal. The fulfillment of such a prophecy is not something that might be overlooked in the annals of Jewish history.

The book of Deuteronomy concludes with a narrative of the death of Moses, and with a somewhat melancholic observation that the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled: “Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD…. And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,” (Deut. 34, passim).

The last part of that is very interesting: “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, WHOM THE LORD KNEW FACE TO FACE.” The prophet who is to come is not only like Moses, but he is GREATER than Moses. Because whereas the Lord knew Moses face to face, whereas Moses ascended the mountain and entered the cloud and was in the presence of the Lord, and conversed with him as one does a friend (cf. Exodus 33.11), Moses nevertheless was only allowed to see the Lord from behind.

Speaking about the foretelling of a prophet who is to come who will know the Lord face to face, Pope Benedict said:

“Israel is allowed to hope for a new Moses, who has yet to appear, but who will be raised up at the appropriate hour. And the characteristic of this ‘prophet’ will be that he converses with God face-to-face, as a friend does with a friend. His distinguishing note will be his immediate relation with God, which enables him to communicate God’s will and word firsthand and unadulterated. And that is the saving intervention which Israel – indeed, the whole of humanity – is waiting for.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 5)

I will not leave you in suspense. Jesus, at last, is “the prophet like Moses,” the prophet greater than Moses, the last and final prophet, who knows God face-to-face, and so speaks with authority. Indeed, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father,” (John 8.38).

What does it mean to call Jesus a prophet? Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet – and we, as Christians, can and do agree with them on this point. Jesus was indeed a prophet, as we have seen. But we must part ways with our Muslim friends when they insist that Jesus was MERELY a prophet, for we hold, of course, that Jesus was also the Son of God and himself God – “being of one substance with the Father.” And it is precisely on account of this that we know Jesus is the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy – the prophet “like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”

But the question remains: what does it mean to say that Jesus is a prophet? Firstly, we have to remind ourselves of what it means to be a prophet, and perhaps to disabuse ourselves of the idea that a prophet is like a biblical fortune-teller. Again, Pope Benedict said:

“It now becomes perfectly clear that the prophet is not the Israelite version of the soothsayer, as was widely held at the time and as many so-called prophets considered themselves. on the contrary, the prophet is something quite different. His task is not to report on the events of tomorrow or the next day in order to satisfy human curiosity or the human need for security. He shows us the face of God, and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take. The future of which he speaks reaches far beyond what people seek from soothsayers. He points out the path to the true ‘exodus,’ which consists in this: Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find. Prophecy in this sense is a strict corollary to Israel’s [and our] monotheism [our believe in ONE God]. It is the translation of this faith into the everyday life of a community before God and on the way to him.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 4)

Jesus, the true prophet, “shows us the face of God, and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take.” Now we are in a position to read today’s Gospel lesson with understanding:

“And they went into Caper’na-um; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and 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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1.21-28)

Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum and begins teaching – “as one who had authority.” “And with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  What the demons already understand begins to dawn on the people – namely, WHO JESUS IS, “the Holy One of God,” who has indeed come to destroy the demons and their kingdom, and to deliver humanity from darkness and alienation and sin.

And here is the crux of the matter (I use that word, crux, deliberately): Jesus “shows us the face of God, and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take…. He points out the path to the true ‘exodus,’ which consists in this: Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find.” Pope Benedict goes further: the true exodus that Jesus reveals, which was prefigured by Moses leading the children out of bondage in Egypt – the true exodus “is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is precisely the way in which man comes to himself,” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 99).

This true exodus, by which one transcends oneself, being delivered from the dominion of the world and the flesh and the devil, is the “narrow, difficult way” (Matt. 7.14) that leads to God and to life. I read in the newspaper just yesterday about a prisoner in Sicily who participated in a program in which he was allowed to serve his sentence living with Christian monks. The prisoner escaped from the monastery, turned himself in to the police, and asked to be sent back to prison. Life in the monastery was too hard. A priest friend of mine commented that when all of the trappings of the world are stripped away, you are left spiritually naked to do battle with the most frightening enemies of all: Satan and his chief lieutenant: yourself. But Jesus, in showing us the face of God, equips us for victory in this difficult battle.

We all have problems. We are all in some degree of bondage to one thing or another. And this bondage is the source of our unhappiness. Maybe we feel poor or unloved or unforgiven; or maybe we struggle with sickness or alienation from people we love or even from our own selves; or maybe we feel helpless in the face of destructive or shameful habits. I don’t have the answers to these problems – except insofar as I am a minister of Jesus. And as such I exhort you to look to Jesus – look to his teachings and to his authority and to his power – but more fundamentally, look to his PERSON. Look especially in the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Look also by means of meditation on his Word. Jesus shows us the face of God, and in finding him (and finding him again and again) we will find the way out of darkness and into light, the “true exodus” by which we can transcend the world and ourselves, and come home to the transcendent peace of God’s presence.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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