The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 January 2014
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
I Corinthians 1:10-18
St. Matthew 4:12-23
Background: The Sundays after the Epiphany
When I arrived at All Saints’ on Sunday, after having been away for a couple of Sundays, I was surprised to see that they used the Wedding at Cana Gospel for last Sunday (Epiphany II) thus preserving all three of the Orthodox emphases at the Epiphany (The Magi, The Baptism, The First Sign). These readings are a good launching point for what is to follow, and the discarded Gospel reading for last Sunday (Behold the Lamb of God) would be an excellent starting point as well. These Sundays are interrupted this year by the Presentation of Our Lord (2 February), however the themes will still remain, especially in the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. It is interesting that we sometime become way laid by the event-driven nature of the Festival Half of the Liturgical Year, and it is these Sundays that are the antidote. If you look at the Gospel readings throughout this series of Sundays, we see a laying-out of what it is that Jesus teaches, more than what Jesus does. The question that needs to be answered by us is not “who is Jesus?” (although that is a laudable question) but rather “what is it that Jesus taught?” That question is difficult for some Christians to answer. Jesus’ comment to Peter, James, and John as they come down from the Mount of Transfiguration is interesting – “keep silence about this (the vision) until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” Jesus’ teaching needs perspective, the perspective of the resurrection. In those two things we can begin to answer the “Who is he?” question. For now, however, we need to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his words about life. The mystagogy will come later.
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
If we are reading the text closely, we will begin to wonder who the “he” is in verse one, who holds the lands of the Northern Kingdom “in contempt”? It is, in the prophet’s mind, none other than YWHW who does so? So we face two questions, the first “What?” and the second “Why?” The “what” is easily answered by history. In 734 BCE and again in 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian ruler forced the lands mentioned in verse one into the Assyrian Empire. The prophet mentions these lands: Zebulun, Naphtali, and probably an elided text, which mentions the Plain of Sharon, and the mountain of Gilead as well. In this move Tiglath-pileser forced the parting of the western, eastern, and northern provinces of Israel and made of them Assyrian administrative units.
So now we need to confront the “why?” If we follow the pattern of preaching not only in Isaiah, but in Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea as well we will see the “why.” The abandonment of Israel, by God, was the result of the abandonment of God by Israel. Now the prophet wonders, is this a permanent situation, or does the prophet harbor a hope of reconciliation. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Thus we are introduced to the prophet’s hope. The huge disruption that the Assyrian occupation represents does not separate the people from the God who has seemingly punished them. There will still be joy and retribution. In an era when we see great religious conflict, and ancient Christian centers being either destroyed or displaced, we can wonder along with the prophet about where God is in all this. Here Isaiah sees joy in the midst of dire times, “as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. Here is a paradox worthy of Saint Paul. That those who wrote the Gospel of Saint Matthew existed in similarly dire times only adds grist to the mill.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. Do you live in dire times? Describe them?
2. Has God abandoned you, or do you have hope in God?
3. Why does the prophet entertain the notion of hope?
Psalm 27:1, 5-13 Dominus illuminatio
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
One thing have I asked of the LORD;
one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days
of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the LORD *
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
Even now he lifts up my head *
above my enemies round about me.
Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation
with sounds of great gladness; *
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
Hearken to my voice, O LORD, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart and say, "Seek my face." *
Your face, LORD, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.
You have been my helper;
cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.
The words of verse one of the psalm seem to reflect the prophet’s emotions in the first reading for today. If Isaiah frames his hope in terms of “light and rescue”, then so does the psalmist. What will follow the psalmist’s initial voice of hope is a voice of despair and supplication. These sentiments are outlined in the missing verses (2-4). What follows in the verses following are a vision of what God will provide in dire times. These expectations are set in a forbidding setting, the wilderness, where the psalmist speaks of God’s goodness with the mouth of a nomad; “He conceals me in the recess of his tent, on a rock he raises me up.” The juxtaposition of the notion of a tent and a tabernacle make this an interesting image of a God whose dwelling is like a home. Such an attraction is mirrored in verse 4, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
Other familiarities are used by the psalmist. It is “God’s face” that is sought. Moses wished to see God, but that was denied him (Exodus 33:18-23). The psalmist is not put off by God’s response to Moses, rather he listens to his heart, “seek my face. Your face, Lord, I do seek.” There is however, a more striking familiarity (one that is shattered) in a verse that is not used in this morning’s reading. The text shows the conundrum that faced Isaiah as well. “Though my father and mother forsook me, the Lord would gather me in.” Though the most basic of human relationships disappear or vanish, God promises to always be there.
Breaking open Psalm 27:
- What is the “light” that gives the psalmist hope?
- What is the “rescue” that he sees as well?
- Is the church a “home” for you? Why or why not?
I Corinthians 1:10-18
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Paul is quick to address the problems in Corinth, the appearance of divisiveness and “party spirit.” In spite of what seems to be divisions in the congregation (the Greek word is the root of our own word “schismatic”, although the text does not imply theological division) there is yet Eucharistic unity. The problem seems more to be one of provenance. Who brought you in? Who initiated you into the community? Paul gives several examples of how such divisions might have begun, but squelches them all with, “is Christ divided?” One wonders if these divisions are echoes of the role of both Jew and Gentile within the church? For Paul, it is interesting that he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel.” Conzelmann offers a possible explanation to Paul’s comment by noting that “anyone” can baptize, but Paul must preach. That is his commission. Paul notes that it is difficult enough to proclaim the Gospel, “the cross is foolishness” so he most proclaim and not with “eloquent wisdom.” The divisions confuse the proclamation of the community.
Breaking open I Corinthians:
- How is your congregation a community?
- What divides it?
- What reunites it?
St. Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
In a way, Matthew sets a stage for the ministry and teaching that we will observe in the coming Sundays. First there is reminder of the Baptist, and his fate. Preaching the Gospel of repentance does have its consequences. Matthew also places us in the locale of Isaiah’s great hope, and of Israel’s great downfall. The effort is to tie Jesus to the prophet’s hope about the “great light.” In spite of the Baptist’s fate Jesus continues to preach the Gospel of repentance. Matthew would have us be aware of two groups, as he sets his stage for Jesus’ teaching: the crowds and the disciples.
Appropriate to the following Sundays of Jesus’ teaching, we are introduced to the disciples with the call of James and John. In last Sunday’s gospel we might Andrew and Peter. One is struck by the immediacy of their response, “immediately they left the boat, and their father, and followed him.” Was there a relationship prior to this invitation that made easy their prompt response? Or, was it the attractiveness of the message – the great light? At any rate their feet are set upon the path, and soon they are journeying throughout Galilee following the One who teaches and proclaims.
Breaking open Gospel:
1. What does “righteousness” mean to you?
2. In what ways did Jesus “fulfill all righteousness”?
3. How does the Spirit pursue you?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller