Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 1st, 2015)

Our first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy continues the story of the Israelites exodus in Egypt and nomadic sojourn in the wilderness. It details how the God of Israel prepared his people to return to the lands of their ancestors after many years of dreadful slavery and exile.

Moses was appointed by God to be the leader of the Israelites during this difficult period of time. Today’s excerpt from the Book of Deuteronomy gives us Moses’ answer to the queries of the Israelites as to what kind of leader God will appoint to be their leader after Moses.

Moses answer is basically that the Israelites should hope that God places them under the leadership of someone who is truly a servant of God, who teaches in fidelity to God’s commandments, and speaks, not on his behalf, or on behalf of political constituents or causes, but on behalf of God.

In other words, the Israelites will truly know that one of their leaders is a servant of God when that person is a lot like Moses himself. And what was Moses like? The qualities that he manifested are the qualities the people should desire in their leaders- the foremost of which is Moses’ fidelity to God.

Several times I have remarked in my preaching the Church reads the Old Testament as a means of understanding her own identity and mission. The Church is created by Jesus Christ to be the new Israel and the baptized are the new Israelites. The story of Israel in the Old Testament continues in the Church and illuminates the reality of the Church even in this present moment in time.

Thus, the spiritual question provoked by this text is “what kind of leaders do we desire for the Church”? Do we want the leaders that Christ wants and who are above all, faithful to him, or worldly leaders whose fidelity is to their constituents and their causes and only secondarily (if at all) to the Lord?

God-given leaders like Moses are demanding and difficult, but they lead us to the where the Lord wants us go and compel us to be the people that God wants us to be. God-given leaders are not chief executives or politicians or celebrities or branch managers for corporation church dressed in religious garb. The word they speak is not the word of the procedural manual or the op-ed piece, or of political flattery, but the word of God in Christ- and his word is repent and believe in the Gospel.

The witness of the Bible is clear that God will often oblige us in terms of our desires when it comes to our leaders- if we desire leaders who are servants of God, he will send them to us; if we desire leaders who are servants of our worldliness, he will send them to us.

The harsh lesson of the Bible in terms of leaders is that we often get the leaders that we desire, and therefore the leaders that we deserve.

St. Paul takes a difficult, counter-cultural position in regards to a quality that he believes is important for those who aspire to leadership in the Church- this quality is a willingness to eschew marriage in favor of a celibacy.

This willingness, to remain celibate for the sake of Christ, is for St. Paul, a sign that a person truly has what it takes to meet the demands of the Church’s mission- which are, let’s be honest, demanding, not just in some things, but in everything.

St. Paul’s difficult, counter-cultural position is as controversial today as it was centuries ago.

The Apostle Paul knows that what he proposes cannot be imposed, but must be accepted freely, with a full understanding of the implications of such a decision and the reality of its sacrifice.

Celibacy for the sake of Christ and the mission of the Church has always been a “sign of contradiction” to the world. Don’t think for a moment that ours is the first generation to fret about it or protest it.

Though difficult and demanding, the expectation and the witness to these expectations manifested by the men and women, who agree to remain celibate for Christ, can serve a clarifying purpose in terms of how we understand the Church- that Christ did not assemble a management team for a faith-based corporation, but called disciples and asked these disciples to give up everything that the world considered to be valuable or reasonable and in refusing these things, give their lives totally over to him.

Christ, who was from the beginning of his revelation a “sign of contradiction” to the world, in no way indicated that his followers would be “signs of affirmation” to the world- but they would confound it, just as he did.

St. Paul is saying that Christ’s expectation is not just idealism, and it may not be for everyone, but it is a very real, very urgent, and very necessary practice of the Church’s faith in Christ.

In his Gospel, we heard about how the Lord Jesus was confronted by an evil spirit, in of all places, a holy place, a sanctuary dedicated to the purposes of God!

Dark powers insinuate themselves into the Church for they lurk in all our refusals of Christ. Let’s face it: Christ most often tells us what we would rather not hear and compels us to go where we would not go. He tells us to repent. He offers us mercy, but insists that if that mercy is to mean anything at all then we have to accept responsibility for our actions and change our lives. He overturns our expectations of justice and wants more from us than our admiration for his teachings or a superficial commitment to his way of life.

How many times have we met Christ’s invitations with the answer “no”?

In all our refusals of Christ, a dark power is at work, and if such powers are at work in us, we should not be surprised if we find them even in holy places, even within the Church.

Whatever shadows lurk in the sanctuaries of the Church, we have brought them in.

These dark powers are dispelled when our “no” to Christ becomes a “yes”.

Today is the day to dispel the darkness, cast out the dark power of your refusals, and bear into this holy place the radiant light of your “yes” to Jesus Christ.

St-Paul-xx-Pompeo-Girolamo-Batoni

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