4th Sunday After Epiphany
The Rev. Rod Sprange

Mark 1:21-28

The Gifts of the Spirit

Susan saw a cartoon posted on Facebook by our old friend Bob Webster, a retired priest of this diocese. The cartoon shows a church congregation, obviously at sermon time. A man whispers to his wife, “As if Sunday isn’t enough, he now wants us to introduce religion into our everyday life”. I thought, uh oh, the secret’s out!

My sermon today looks at spiritual gifts and our need to be more intentional about recognizing them in others and in ourselves.

In today’s Gospel Mark witnesses to Jesus using at least three of his spiritual Gifts. By Spiritual gifts I mean those talents and personality traits that we recognize have come from God and which we are called to use for God’s mission - God’s purposes. When we use our gifts in that way we experience great joy and a sense of fulfilment.

But before we get to day’s Gospel reading, let’s go back a bit in Jesus’s life. Luke, in his version of the Gospel, tells us about Jesus when he was 12. His parents had presented him at the temple, but had lost him on the return journey to Nazareth. They eventually went back to Jerusalem and found him in the temple, studying scripture with the scribes. When his parents found him and told hi how worried they had been Jesus said “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house”. Some translations say “…about my Father’s business”. God had given the boy the gift of an enquiring mind and a passion to understand the law and the prophets - scripture.

In Mark’s account of theGospel he doesn’t tell us the birth story or about Jesus’s early life, he is too impatient to get to the heart of the Gospel. He goes directly to the banks of the Jordan and describes the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark’s style of writing is to keep to the point - no extraneous detail. Mark reminds me of detective Joe Friday in that old TV police show “Dragnet’ - “Just the facts ma’am”.

At the time of Johns the Baptist’s ministry, there had been no prophets heard in Israel for over two hundred years, and suddenly John is on the scene - he was to be the last of the old prophets of Israel. He prophesied that all must repent because God was doing something new and the promised Messiah was about to appear. The legitimacy of a prophet was proven if what they said came true. John’s prophesy was soon fulfilled with the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth.

As Jesus comes out of the Jordon from his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and God’s voice is heard saying “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased”. God has given Jesus the gift of the Holy Spirit and blessed his ministry. Mark indicates the urgency of the Gospel message by saying “Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;” Forty days is a biblical way of saying a long time. That forty days, of course, is what we observe as Lent. But what was it Jesus was doing, that Mark describes as ‘being tempted by the Satan’?

I believe he was discerning his spiritual gifts. He was discerning how God wanted him to use them and what God was expecting him to accomplish. He could have chosen to use his gifts to raise an army to try to overthrow the Romans - he could have used his gifts to make himself an earthly King of the Jews - with prestige and power. These were probably the temptations. We know the story and we know he chose the path of servant leader - and offered love not violence, vulnerability not force. Jesus had used his sense of discernment.

After this time of discernment Jesus called his first disciples and he took them to Capernaum. In today’s reading Mark records how Jesus captures the imagination of the congregation as he proclaims scripture and teaches those present. Here are two more of Jesus’s spiritual gifts - proclamation and preaching. Jesus had an amazing ability to reinterpret scripture and make it accessible and meaningful to the Palestinian peasants. Jesus was able to get at the heart of God’s truths revealed in the law and the prophets. His was a bold new teaching and revelation of God. And the people responded to him.

For centuries the scribes and rabbis had been instructing the people on the letter of the law, in great detail, but missed its heart and soul. Despite all the wisdom and warnings of the prophets they were still following many of the same self-serving paths; missing what God intended. In Capernaum the people were astounded that Jesus was able to bring such wonderful, positive and hopeful new teaching to the ancient scriptures, and how he spoke with authority. He didn’t merely repeat the standard arguments.

The people witnessed Jesus’s gift of healing as he freed a poor soul from an internal demon which was destroying him, causing dismay to the man’s family and unsettling the village.

In these stories of Jesus we can discern a unique combination of five spiritual gifts - an enquiring mind with regard to scripture; the gift of proclamation - bringing scripture to life; the gift of interpretation and teaching of scripture; and the gift of healing, and of course the gift of prayerful discernment.
We can’t expect to emulate Jesus - although we often seem to expect that from our Bishops and Rectors! But we can be assured that God has indeed graced each and every one of us with our own unique combination of spiritual gifts.

Having a spiritual gift doesn’t mean being the best. There will always be someone else who can do a particular thing better than I. It’s not about competition. A spiritual gift is one that energizes you and gives you joy when you use it for something you really care about. Then you know it’s what you are supposed to be doing. The American constitution emphasizes the right of everyone to pursue happiness. But Christ’s teaching was about finding joy and fulfilment, what Jesus called ‘Fullness of Life”: and “Abundant Life”.

We all have different talents and personalities. And God has blessed this parish by gathering us here. It’s not by accident that you have found your way here. The question is why? Why has God called us together? Where is God leading us? I believe we are each called here for two purposes. The first is to give each of us a spiritual home - a faith community that worships together; a family that helps us to grow in faith; and that strengthens us, comforts us and rejoices with us. A community of faith which challenges us and helps us grow as disciples.

The second purpose is for us to share our spiritual gifts and fulfill God’s will. We are a unique expression of the Body of Christ. We are called to be a community committed to continuing Christ’s mission to bring healing and reconciliation to the world in this particular place and time. A world being readied to be transformed into the Kingdom of God. As we grow in discipleship, our parish community sends us out into the world, to be ambassadors of Christ, and by our actions to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News. My apologies to that man in the pew in the cartoon, but Sunday is just not enough, we must introduce our faith into everyday life.

Remember we are not alone in this, we have God leading us. Take a look around you and see how blessed we are. Look around and recognize the talents and strengths of those God has gathered here. It’s pretty awesome.

Most likely you have been taught modesty - not to boast about yourself or blow your own horn. We don’t have to be boastful or self-promoting to recognize that God has indeed blessed each of us and made us unique. To say “I am not not gifted” - or “I don’t have spiritual gifts” is to deny God’s generosity. We don’t need to be proud of the abilities we have, we just need to be thankful, and willing to discern how God intends us to use them.

A spiritual gift can be as seemingly modest as being willing helper. One of the greatest gifts is that of helper - one who sees someone working hard at something and offers a helping hand - even if it’s just to fetch and carry. Someone who doesn’t need to be ‘in charge’. Someone who is humble enough to do the menial tasks can make a huge difference. We are called to be servants. Even in leadership we are called to be servant leaders. Do you remember the Servant Song? - “Sister let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too?” It always sends shivers up my spine, and you know, it gets at the very heart of our transformation into collaborative ministry. All of us have gifts, all of us are called to serve and all of us are called to accept being served.

Perhaps you serve by being able to recognize or affirm the gifts of others. These are gifts of discernment and affirming. When someone has been toiling hard at their task and you thank them for their work and commend them on work well done, it can really lift another’s spirits and give them the encouragement they need to persevere. Not all of us do this, and not all of us do it well. Perhaps you have hidden talents you don’t yet recognize - or abilities that haven’t yet been developed.

When I was a young man - late twenties - early thirties, I was a shy introvert (actually I still am). I was terrified of speaking in public. I was elected Secretary of the Interior Designers Institute of Manitoba. At each meeting the secretary was required to read aloud the minutes of the previous meeting to the 20 or 40 members in attendance. I found this a terrifying experience. My hands trembled, the paper shook, and my chest tightened so much I could hardly get a breath. I dreaded it. But eventually I overcame my fear, and in subsequent jobs, particularly in government, I was required to write and give speeches to very large gatherings. I came to love it. That was all preparation! It’s taken me 71 years to write deliver and this sermon.

You may have gifts that you don’t use because of fear - or reluctance to be seen as a “show-off”. You may have gifts that you don’t realize you have, but which others recognize in you. Or perhaps you have just never thought about being gifted or that God has a purpose in giving you your gifts.

Lent is coming soon. It’s a time for self-examination, for discernment. God has entrusted you with gifts and has expectations of you. So, what are you going to do about it? If you don’t know I can help you with that! Starting Sunday February 4th and Tuesday February 6th we are delivering a series of weekly workshops that will help you to discern and affirm your gifts and match them with your passions. The goal is to discover ways in which we are gifted and that give us joy, and to match them with things we really care about, so that we find fulfilment and meaning. The resource we are using to lead these sessions was very thoughtfully prepared, it is theologically sound, and provides entertaining and interesting ways to discern our unique set of spiritual gifts. And it helps us to begin thinking about how we can make use of them in ways that bring us joy. I hope you will join us. Perhaps this could be your Lenten discipline.

Let’s Pray: Gracious God, we give you thanks for the many gifts we have received and the gifts of one another gathered in this community of faith. We ask you to bless our collaborative ministry and lead us to discover joy, fulfillment and abundant life in Christ’s service.