Sermon delivered on the Septuagesima, the 28th January 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20     Revelation 12:1-5a     S. Mark 1: 21-28

S. Mark 1:22 "They were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes."

In the Season of Epiphany, which in the traditional calendar comes to an end on or near the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, there is set forth a number of signs, in which the Lord is manifested or revealed to the people of God. One, of course, is the sign of the Gentile Wise Men, who came to worship the King of the Jews. Another is the sign of His Baptism at the hands of John, when the Holy Spirit and the voice of the heavenly Father signified that here indeed was the Beloved Divine Son, well pleasing to the Father. Today we see One who teaches with great authority and casts out demons, again in a town of Galilee. This manifestation of the Lord is contrasted in our Gospel with the religious activities of the scribes. Their teaching, it is implied, lacked authority - by which is meant that it possessed no real authenticity. It was not effective in bringing about any change. And it did not reveal a source that was greater than the speakers themselves. The true prophetic voice on the other hand may even lack rhetoric and will not be manipulative, but will indeed speak with authority. With that authority, Jesus silenced and cast out a man's demons, and released him into a service that brought freedom.

S. Mark records that the fame of Jesus that resulted from this action spread everywhere throughout the surrounding region. He was recognised as a hero. That recognition bore a cost for Jesus Himself, and S. Mark often records Him trying to get people not to spread that kind of recognition too much too quickly. He knew that the powers that be would get riled by it soon enough, but until then He had a job in the area to do, a wide ministry to fulfil. The ancient world universally craved for heroes, and perhaps Cayman's own annual heroes' celebration continues in a gentle way that ancient craving. The Jewish form of this longing was an expectation of the Messiah to come. In some sense this was also an expectation of the return of the ancient hero, the return of a conqueror like King David, the coming of a descendant from that hero’s loins. Evidently the authority with which Jesus spoke and acted triggered these ancient hopes in the bosoms of many of His hearers and admirers. Looking back with the clarity of hindsight we can see the irony that the act of true heroism that loomed ever larger for the Lord as his ministry progressed towards its climax would look like something despicable rather than heroic to most of those who were hailing Him early in His ministry. For us though and for all Christians, the ancient hero-longings have indeed been fulfilled in the true Jesus Christ super-star, the true hero Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, who lived and died to offer the complete and perfect sacrifice of His Humanity, that we might at last fulfil our humanity and never die.

St. John the Divine’s vision in Revelation chap. 12 manifests the coming of the “Man-Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (v. 5), as the birth of someone rather in the form of the ancient hero-stories. In Greece, the birth of Apollo was told in this sort of way, as of a child snatched from the clutches of a dragon-monster, and in Egypt, the birth of Horus. Such were the stories that were told universally, and the real solution to the mystery of the universal existence of such stories may yet provide surprises and challenges to the modern halls of academia. In the ancient stories the woman was variously identified, but to a Jew, she would probably represent the children of Israel, headed by the twelve patriarchs. The intent of S. John the Divine is not merely to transmit hero-stories, but to convey dramatically that there is a world redeemer being no other than the true hero Jesus Christ, and that the enemy and deceiver of the world, envisaged in the form of the dragon-monster and identified as Satan, is outwitted and cast down.

Old Testament Scripture points forward to Jesus as its fulfilment. Our Old Testament reading portrays Moses teaching his people that after he died, they still would not lack for a prophet. This is interpreted Messianically in the New Testament: for in the Gospel of S. John we see Jesus saying that Moses indeed spoke of Him. For Deuteronomy the important point was that the prophet was to be the means of God's direction for the community, and not any of the practices of divination. As the hymn teaches, Jesus is our Prophet, Priest and King. The Old Testament verse before the beginning of this morning's lection reads: "For these nations which you are about to dispossess, give heed to soothsayers and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so." There are many in modern times who put their trust in and support with money soothsayers of various sorts. They will tell them what the future will bring them, as they claim, but they have no concern for the God of time and eternity, and for His will that demands our loyalty and forbids these fear-inducing activities. The prophet will tell his people that God will punish them, and he will also tell them to step back from their evil ways in order that God also might graciously withdraw His punishment. For a prophet, the future is not already determined, not a matter of fate. Because it exists in the unsearchable heart of God but is not yet created, God can and does change our future, according to the Scriptural prophet, because He is gracious and forbearing to us. Now when the media of our modern times and people in general suppose that God is optional, they cannot then distinguish between prophecy and soothsaying. The Son of God is nobody's soothsayer, but He is our true Prophet, because He declares to His people the fullness of God's will. The soothsayer imprisons people in a fear of their fate, but the prophet that is true to Christ directs people into that love and service that is perfect freedom. Jesus said, "If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." And so Jesus Himself too, declares that in Himself the function of the Old Testament prophet is completely embodied. And so, from the time of His appearing, prophecy to be true must be in Christ.

Scriptural prophecy both of the Old Testament and the New declares implicitly or explicitly the rule of Christ. And the rule of Christ is the open secret that is particularly declared to us on this Sunday of the waning Epiphany season, by Scripture. It is a secret, a mystery to the world, in that the world and its spokesmen do not acknowledge it, do not see it, and are generally in rebellion against it. If it were not so, the kingdom of this world would already be the Kingdom of our Lord and God, as is declared in the book of Revelation, a book, by the way, of apocalyptic prophecy rather than of a pre-determined future programme. Our reading from it today manifests the child that is to rule all the nations, and for now has been caught up to God and His throne. Up to its end the Scripture declares openly the secret that the world generally rebels against, that it is Christ who on earth fulfilled prophecy and granted many signs, who is the true Lord of the creation, Christ the Pantocrator as Eastern Christians teach. We who are still fed by the world but in Church are fed by Christ and the Scripture, have to choose continually between the way of glad submission to or admission of His rule, and the way the generality of men choose, the way of rebellion. Men and women have in every time and in every place loved to honour their heroes, and have found it wonderfully exciting to do so. We may thank God that we are the ones who have the truest hero of all by far, our true Prophet, our true Priest and our true Hero, whose story fulfils but is unmatched by all others, in the service of Whom we truly may be fulfilled and free.