THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Today as I write this piece we are observing Martin Luther King Day. I was only about eleven years old when Dr. King died. I was vaguely aware of him as a person frequently mentioned on NBC’s Huntley Brinkley Report, my Dad’s source for the daily news. I knew that he was an African American and that he was not the same Martin Luther for which my church was named. But the news he made seemed to have little impact on my eleven year old world.
I remember distinctly, though, the day Dr. King was assassinated. That event lanced a boil releasing a geyser of racial anxiety, anger and fear in the little church where I was raised. The neighborhood to the north of the church had long been predominantly African American. It never crossed our minds to extend our evangelical mission in that direction, though. After all, we reasoned, they have their own churches and probably wouldn’t be comfortable in ours. Never did it occur to us that an African American person might actually walk through our doors. But in the wake of the civil rights movement with its occupation of white only business establishments, who could say what the future might hold? The mere possibility of an African American family wanting to join was enough to generate angry and contentious arguments at our board of elders meetings. My father once came home from such a meeting and reported how one of the elders had said to the pastor, “Pastor, you let one of those folks into our church and I’m gone.”
Make no mistake about it. I love my church. It was there that I learned the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Through my friendship with a kid in my Sunday school class that back then we classified “retarded,” I learned that all people are unique and have contributions to make to our common life. I didn’t need any school program to teach me that bullying is wrong. I learned generosity from church members who were there for my family in time of need and participated in the same generosity toward other families in our church when their times of need arose. My church was a wonderful place to learn the mind of Christ.
But it had blind spots that became all too evident in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. It would serve no salutary purpose to repeat the hateful and ugly remarks made against Martin Luther King, his supporters and African Americans in general during that sorry time. Suffice to say, race was an area in our hearts where the Spirit of Christ was not reigning. Friendships going back years turned sour over this issue of welcoming African Americans into our church, an issue that for many years would remain purely hypothetical! Remarkably, though, we did not lose any members that I can recall. Decades later I learned that the elder who threatened to leave our church should a black person ever cross the threshold stood beaming with pride at the front of the church during the baptism of his granddaughter-African American on her father’s side.
What brings about a change like that? I doubt that it was any sermon or Bible Study. You might as well try emptying the Pacific Ocean with a bucket as try to argue a bigot out of his bigotry. At the end of the day, one’s mind doesn’t change until the heart changes. I expect that it took a lot of years worshiping with African American families and adjusting to his daughter’s marriage to an African American man before this elder could recognize in their faces his own humanity and the humanity of Jesus. When you must deal with people as members of the same body instead of labeling them “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “Indian,” “Arab” and yes, “gay” or “straight,” you cannot help but discover in them the image of Christ. But that takes time. Lots of time.
Paul understood this reality well. He speaks in our lesson for Sunday to a church bitterly divided over a number of cultural, religious and ethical issues. I doubt he imagined that his letter would heal the Corinthian church overnight. But he firmly believed that the Spirit was at work in that church, dysfunctional as it was. Paul was certain that the “weakness of the cross,” that is, the power of forgiveness, reconciliation and love holding the church together was greater than the prejudices, blind spots and animosity tearing it apart. He was prepared to let the Spirit take whatever time might be required to complete the work of sanctification.
Dr. King wrote a book published in 1963 entitled, Why We Can’t Wait. The book described the struggle against racial segregation in the United States and, as the name suggests, pointed out why African Americans could not afford to wait any longer for equal treatment under the law. Dr. King was right. Oppressed minorities should not have to wait for bigots to grant them the same rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. No one should have to wait for the day when he or she can live freely and openly as a valued person without fear of discrimination, bullying or abuse.
Yet in one sense, we in the church must wait. For us, the struggle does not end with legislation and court victories. It ends only with repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a work of the Holy Spirit that cannot be accomplished by political action. Unlike our courts of law, God continues to be interested in what happens to the parties after their dispute has been adjudicated. Justice will not truly be done until reconciliation between the disputing parties is complete. According to St. Paul, the church is the place where the miracle of reconciliation takes place and antagonists are united as one Body in Christ. The story of my childhood congregation illustrates the reality of that miracle in the church today. Nevertheless, the fact that Sunday morning is still a very segregated hour in our land and that our churches continue to be relatively homogeneous for the most part indicates that a lot of that good work remains to be done.
This reading comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who lived and prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E. During this period the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annexed by the powerful Assyrian Empire bringing Assyrian tyranny to Judah’s very doorstep. The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by descendants of David, lived uneasily in the shadow of this super power as a tributary. Crushing tribute and political oppression tempted Judah on a number of occasions to rebel against Assyria in league with other local tributaries. The prophet warned Judah’s rulers against such reckless policies and counseled them instead to wait for Israel’s God to lift the yolk of oppression.
Today’s text will no doubt sound familiar as we routinely encounter it in Advent. If you were to read down to verse 6 you would hear the line so dear to us and to George Frederick Handel: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” This Sunday, however, the emphasis is on the opening prose in verse 1. To understand it properly, we need to go back to Isaiah 7-8. Isaiah has failed in his efforts to dissuade Judah’s King Ahaz from allying himself to Assyria in order to gain protection from local enemies. Ahaz will not be still and place his faith in the Lord. He is bound and determined to place his trust in Assyria-which will lead to hardships much worse. In despair, Isaiah calls his disciples to witness his written testimonial to God’s coming judgment upon the nation. As for the decision of King Ahaz, the prophet declares: “Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.” Isaiah 8:20. “They will pass through the land greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” Isaiah 8:21-22.
Now our lesson for Sunday begins with a very different word, a message of hope so far at variance with the preceding verses that many scholars consider this to be an utterance much later in the career of the prophet or perhaps the word of another prophet altogether. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Commentaries (c. SCM Press Ltd. 1962) p. 111. However that might be, the canonical arrangement of the oracles conveys a message entirely consistent with Isaiah’s call for Ahaz to place his trust solely in God’s promises. The people who have lived in the darkness of judgment will indeed see light again. The yolk of their oppression will be broken, the burdens removed from their shoulders and prosperity returned to their land. But this will not be the fruit of military maneuvers or foreign alliances. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel located in Galilee. The “way of the sea” refers to the highway from Damascus to the sea. It was likely the route for the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733 B.C.E. The peoples of this territory who first experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression will also be first to witness the liberation of all Israel from Assyria. The prophet foresees the day when the people of the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah along with their territories will be reunited under a messianic king. The yolk of Assyria will be thrown off. “The day of Midian” refers to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites recounted in Judges 6-7. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were significantly involved in this battle. Judges 6:35.
In order to understand this reading, it is important that we be aware of the prior words of judgment against Judah. Yet it is more important still to recognize that judgment is not the last word. In spite of Ahaz’ faithless refusal to trust in God’s promises and his resort to a shortsighted and disastrous policy for his people, God will nevertheless bring to fruition the peace and prosperity promised to Israel. God’s people cannot seem to make a bigger mess of things than God is capable of cleaning up. That’s gospel.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. As usual, I am at a loss to understand the surgery performed on the psalm by the lectionary. Accordingly, I will deal with Psalm 27 in its entirety.
This psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 4. I suspect that most of you out there, like me, probably don’t have enemies like that. So what place does a psalm like this have in our lectionary? I suggest that one reason for praying these psalms is so that we can hear and join in the prayers of the whole Body of Christ which, of course, extends beyond our own congregation. The Coptic Christians in Egypt whose churches have been burned and looted know well enough what it is like to have enemies. So do the Christians of Iraq, two thirds of whom have fled their homeland fearing terrorist violence. The churches in Syria have been targeted for violence by both sides of the bloody civil war there. For millions of Christians around the world, the danger posed by enemies is real and often life threatening.
In a recent article published in the Christian Century Martin Tel, director of music at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes a strong case for congregational singing of the entire Psalter-the good, the bad and the ugly: “All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in “Necessary Songs, The Christian Century, January 8, 2014 at p. 23. Our prayers are too often limited by the scope of our own experiences and frequently directed toward our own personal concerns and the concerns of those around us. The Psalter forces us to enter into the experiences and join the prayers of believers throughout the Body of Christ.
The last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” It is important to understand that biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
We began last week a journey into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that will take us through Epiphany. Sunday’s reading reveals that this is a church divided by several warring factions fiercely loyal to their chosen church leaders. Some are fans of Peter. Others favor Apollos and some are partisans of Paul. Some scholars maintain that these divisions reflect strife among the apostles of the early church. That might be so, but I think it more likely that these factions were citing their favorite Apostles much the same way partisans fire proof texts at each other from the Bible to further their own agendas. The teachings of the various Apostles are used as ammunition in the same way biblical texts are so often wretched out of context and made to support some unrelated ideology. In any event, Paul refuses to arbitrate these disputes. He offers not a straw even to his own supporters in the congregation. Instead, he points all of them to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, we are not disciples of Paul or Peter or Luther or any other human figure. We are all fellow disciples of Jesus. One Body animated by the same Spirit-whether we like it or not.
“Cephas,” as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, is the Greek translation of “Peter.” Apollos was a Jewish disciple from Alexandria. His understanding of the good news about Jesus was evidently deficient in some respect. The Book of Acts tells us only that he “knew only the baptism of John.” Acts 18:25. In Ephesus he met Paul’s associates, Priscilla and Aquila who took him under their wing and instructed him further. Acts 18:24-28.
We will need to wait until next week to find out more about the “folly” and “weakness” of the cross Paul mentions at the end of the reading. Stay tuned!
As we have seen, Matthew is keen to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here he quotes our reading from Isaiah in which the prophet foretells the dawn of salvation under the messianic king beginning in Galilee. Not surprisingly, this is where Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his first disciples followed by a tour of preaching, healing and casting out demons. The long awaited day has dawned at last! No doubt Matthew’s Jewish audience was well aware that the verses cited by Matthew are a lead in for Isaiah’s announcement of the messianic king. Isaiah 9:6-7.
Jesus’ message is, on the surface, exactly the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Vs. 17 cf. Matthew 3:2. Yet unlike John whose baptism was anticipatory, Jesus’ ministry is accompanied by the healing power of God. What John foretold has now arrived. We can see in Jesus’ healing work echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6. Matthew means for us to understand that the advent of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era just as John marks the end of the old. He will elaborate further on this in Matthew 11:1-19.
The call of the disciples is related in a manner so brief that one could almost read over it. That would be a mistake. It is of profound significance that Jesus begins his ministry with the call of his first followers. Already the church is on the scene in embryotic form and its existence is presumed throughout the gospel narrative. It is important to keep that fact in mind, particularly as we enter into the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. They make no sense whatsoever unless we understand from the get go that they are intended to govern the living community of disciples who follow Jesus. They are not general ethical principles applicable to any individual or community. The Sermon is to be the shape of this newly birthed community which, in turn, is the shape of the kingdom of heaven drawing nigh.
The brevity of this account has always intrigued me. There is no indication that Jesus has ever met these four disciples before. Yet when he calls, they follow him without hesitation leaving all behind. I have heard more than a few preachers suggest that the four fishermen must have known Jesus beforehand, heard his preaching and been impressed with his message. That is why they jumped at the chance to follow him. But that isn’t how Matthew tells the story and I am always suspicious of attempts to read more into the text in order to make it easier to understand and digest. As Matthew tells it, there is something so interesting, so compelling and winsome about Jesus that you just can’t refuse his call. What was it? Or more to the point, what is it about Jesus that draws people and how does his church reflect it?
As much as I love every church I have ever belonged to, I am not sure we reflect that bold, exciting, interesting and controversial person that is Jesus. To children, we too often portray Jesus as a schoolmarm on steroids preaching morals and good behavior. To adults we portray him as, at worst, a stern moral judge. At best, we portray him as a sorrowful, soft eyed parent who, though forgiving, is nevertheless perpetually disappointed in our shortcomings. The church comes across as yet another civic organization making demands on our overloaded schedules and over extended finances. Is it any wonder nobody is interested?
Yes, I know. There is more to these churches than meets the eye. They are faith communities in which the Spirit is at work doing marvelous things. But for some reason, we are not getting that message across. We succumb to the consumer culture marketing church membership-a product nobody is looking for anymore. There is nothing you can get at church that somebody else can’t provide-except Jesus. So it looks as though we are going to have to speak less of our programs and activities and more about Jesus. That’s the only way people are going to be drawn into the net of God’s kingdom and caught up in the joy and excitement of discipleship.