The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Saint Luke 4:21-30


We do some more studying today on what it means to be a prophet, by looking at who God chooses to be prophets, what their message might be, and what the reaction of the world is to prophets.  The more and more we delve into the Scriptures, the more and more we learn that God always operates with the ordinary.  It may be a continuing surprise to those, who like the Magi, seek God in great places, but find him well-nested with the marginalized and the ordinary.  Today we look at the call of Jeremiah, and take special interest in his objections to the call.  We listen to Paul spiritualize the ordinary life that exists between two people, and we are amazed at the reaction in Nazareth to Jesus’ prophetic words. 

Jeremiah 1:4-10



The word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the LORD."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

Jeremiah had a remarkable career of announcing God’s good news, God’s word for that time – a word that we continue to find meaning in.  In this reading we find four separate ideas: a) God’s all-inclusive knowledge of those whom God calls, b) Excuses by those whom God calls never seem to make the grade, c) the extent and power of the call, and the power of the spirit that anoints, and d) the ambitious prophetic program that God proposes.  These are all cosmic relationships, universal in their extent and appeal.  That we are know before our birth is an amazing claim that God has on those whom are chosen.  Indeed, the claim does not suffer any week excuses, such as Jeremiah makes.  Here it is youth and not knowing what to say.  (I had a personal experience with these excuses as a young priest, and can attest to the power of the Spirit to work in spite of them).  What is really amazing, however, is Jeremiah’s understanding of the scope of God’s work: “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…”.  This tugs at our institutionalism and our comfort with things the “way they are” -  for that too will be destroyed and overthrown. 

Breaking Open Nehemiah:

  1. When did you first realize that you had a relationship with God?
  2. Have you ever had to speak for God?  (Don’t say “no” too quickly, think hard and deep).
  3. Has God ever put words in your mouth?  What were the words – the issues – the message?
  4. What do you think Jeremiah meant in the last sentence?  What does it mean today?  What does it mean to you?

Psalm 19 In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; *
let me never be ashamed.

In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; *
incline your ear to me and save me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; *
you are my crag and my stronghold.

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.

For you are my hope, O Lord GOD, *
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother's womb you have been my strength; *
my praise shall be always of you.

In this individual psalm, which is a prayer of hope on the part of an individual, we have concluding verses that mirror the beginning verses in the call of Jeremiah (First Lesson), “from my mother’s womb you have been my strength.”  Such foreknowledge on the part of God seemed to be a common hope in the faith of Israel.  This is an unusual notion for a culture that put more emphasis on “tribe” and “family” than on the individual.  It is a cultural norm that exists even today in Near Eastern cultures.  This is an additional evidence of the theological upheaval that came with the prophetic work of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and that is mirrored here in this psalm.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. Do you every pray the psalms?
  2. How has God sustained you in your life?  Where you aware of it as a child?
  3. This psalm, along with many others, talks about “the wicked”.  What do you think the psalmist understood by that term?  What do you understand by it.

I Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
This is a difficult lesson to either read or hear these days in that it has been over sentimentalized through use in wedding ceremonies.  We have to remember the preceding verses in which Paul schools us about gifts of the spirit, and how those gifts are used in the community.  He closes that section and segues into this reading with this thought, “But strive for the greater gifts.”  It is this gift of love, along with faith and hope, that serves as a catalyst for the gifts he has already mentioned.  Ordinary life and skills is made extraordinary through love.  This is not the love of songs on the radio, or Danielle Steele.  It is not erotic love or even romantic love.  This is a hard-edged love (tough love?) that makes all the other gifts significant in their work in the community.  I wonder if people realize, when they have this read at weddings, that the intention is not to engender this love between the couple, but rather to drive them out in service to others – to be selfless? 

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What do you think of when you hear the word love?  What are all its meanings to you? 
  2. How does a love centered on the community change individual lives?
  3. How are faith, hope and love alike – how are they different?

Saint Luke 4:21-30

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” and attitudes about Jesus in Nazareth were no different.  “Just who does he think he is?” we can imagine the people saying.  There is an arrogance that accompanies the prophet, and we need to remember that Luke is portraying Jesus just as that – a prophet – arrogant and pronouncing God’s word for “the now”.  Our jealousy about our own status and well being can deafen us from hearing the Good News.  Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah that outlines just exactly what the Kingdom of God should look like, and when he pronounces that “this has been fulfilled in your hearing”, they cannot accept the Good News.

Perhaps one of the difficulties is that they, and we, have a predetermined notion of what that Good News needs to sound like.  The Nazarenes may have been thinking, “Roman oppression, poverty, grueling work – doesn’t sound like the messianic era to me!”  And we wonder why people don’t come into our churches.  Perhaps if we were more attuned to the message – and understood as well as articulated the message.  The anger that Jesus’ message arouses in his neighbors, does not stir in our hearts.  Our time doesn’t get angry about the audaciousness of what Jesus says.  Our time just ignores it – it is irrelevant. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What in the Gospel makes you uncomfortable?
  2. Reading the passage from Isaiah 61, (he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.") what might that compel you to do politically, or in your prayer life, or in your life of philanthropy.
  3. Is your religion a religion of tomorrow or of today.
  4. Now, what do you understand by the term, “The year of the Lord’s favor”?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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