The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
I Corinthians 13:1-13
St. Luke 4:21-30

Background: Prophets I
There are several redeeming features to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the most salient of which is the film’s depiction of ecstatic prophecy. Those playing the role look fairly crazy, and that is probably how they might appear to us were we to have the ability to see and experience them. Prophecy was not just the product of Israel, but was know throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE). The title means “one who speaks for another”, and all the cultures of the Near East had offices and practitioners of this sort of thing. The other aspect to prophetic work was the importance of “interpretation”, and in some cultures that was a separate function and duty. In Israel, the prophetic office was usually not connected with the priestly office, while in other cultures the two were interconnected, with the priest serving as both medium and interpreter. We get a glimpse of these other prophets especially in the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24) in which case the foreign prophet serves at the behest of YHWH. A great deal of the prophetic mission, both in the ANE, and in Israel as well, was of a protective nature, determining if the god would protect a king or a nation. A good example of this is in I Samuel 23:2. Another aspect of the prophetic world is that of the ecstatic prophet, where in a sense of “possession” is present. Another glimpse into the other prophets can be seen in the “contest between Elijah and the prophets/priests of Ba’al in I Kings 18:19-40. In the higher cultures, such as that at Babylon, the prophetic office was a bit more rigid and formal, leaving behind the ecstasy of Canaan, and other “lower” cultures. There were, however, Babylonian ecstatic prophets, the mahhu, who delivered their messages in the midst of a divine possession. This, however, was a much wider office than the focused prophets of Israel, mixing priestly, magical, and medical functions into one office. It is important to see that the Israelite office does not emerge wholly on its own, but shows a dependency and influence from other cultures. It enhances our ability to understand the prophetic office and its forms.

Next Week: Prophets II (The Call)

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."

Marc Chagall - The Prophet Jeremiah

Today’s reading functions not only as an introduction to the work of the prophet Jeremiah, but also as his credentials in doing this work. The commentator John Bright sees this pericope as “the prophet’s own reminiscences”[1] which served to lead the reader (or hearer) into the substances of the prophet’s work. The call exists as a dialogue between the prophet and YHWH. Readers may want to compare similar experiences in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-3. The features of this call are: 1) A foreknowledge of the call, 2) Personal objections, 3) Promises of divine aid, and 4) Receiving the word in his mouth. It is in this last element that we can understand Jeremiah’s motivations, namely that he spoke for YHWH. Our pericope ends at the first vision, but is followed with two other visions (1:11-16 and 1:17-19). You may want to acquaint yourself with those further visions and images to give a broader context to this particular call.  The vision of the pericope certainly makes it clear about the “sending” of the prophet, for the Hebrew word nabi has that notion as a root of its understanding of the prophetic mission as “sent ones” (apostles!) Thus, “for you shall go to all to whom I send you.” The sending is first, and then the speaking. What accompany these actions are the protections that God affords, “for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah sees the word given to him as devastating, a warning to those to whom he speaks the word. The devastation, however, is followed by the promise of renewal, “to build and to plant.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. I what ways do you think yourself unqualified to speak about God?
  2. I what ways are you prepared to speak about God?
  3. What of Jeremiah’s remarks resonate with you?

Psalm 71:1-6 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.

The psalm reflects Jeremiah’s understanding of the foreknowledge of his call, “From my mother’s womb, you have been my strength.” Out of this understanding, the psalmist makes supplications to God. Thus we can see this psalm as one of supplication, but also one of thanksgiving as well. There is a retrospective aspect to this psalm, as the writer looks back over a lifetime to discover God’s presence and protection. The verse regarding being sustained in a mother’s womb is reminiscent of Psalm 22:10, and may have been influenced by that work. The framers of the Lectionary certainly chose this psalm because of its shared themes with Jeremiah.

Breaking open Psalm 71:
  1. What supplications do you need to make known to God?
  2. What thanksgivings to God do you need to make?
  3. How does God sustain you in life?

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.

Saint Paul continues his meditation of the “Body of Christ.” It is unfortunate that this particular pericope has been blunted by overuse at weddings. The subject of “love” becomes flattened and static, and it will take some effort on the part of the lector or the preacher to recover the multi-dimensional nature of love in the Scriptures. In Paul’s vision, love is not what only what binds people together romantically (such a notion was probably foreign at the time) but what binds together the spiritual gifts that he described in the previous verses. It is an attitude that perceives the divine and spiritual nature of what the other offers, and accepts and receives it as a gift. This lesson on the nature of love within the Body of Christ is best seen in Paul’s stated purpose, pronounced in the first chapter of the book, I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose,” (1:10). Thus the nature of this agape becomes hopeful, patient, and kind. Its purposes go far beyond the relationship of two individuals, but rather extend to the whole “body.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Can you read this text without thinking of a wedding?
  2. What is there to really see in its phrases?
  3. How does this passage speak about the Body of Christ?

St. 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.

The great themes from Isaiah’s reading which formed the core of last Sunday’s Gospel, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord,” lead us and the hearers of the reading to questions concerning authority. There are notable claims here, prophetic anointing, and messianic hopes. We need to remember that in Luke this pericope immediately follows the Baptism scene. With its anointing by the Spirit, and the proclamation by the heavenly voice it is natural for Jesus to take on the prophetic role and to see in Isaiah’s vision a realization of the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus hopes to announce and advance. So Jesus is anointed at his baptism and immediately uses the power of the Spirit to announce something greater.

The reaction of the congregation, the synagogue (the gathered people), will even more firmly affix the prophets mantel on Jesus’ shoulders, here seen in its negative aspects. What Jeremiah derides about his own call (see above, “I am only a boy.”) is reflected in the comments of the congregation, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus sees through their polite talk and gets to the heart of the matter. How is a prophet received? Anticipating the rejection by his own, he anticipates the ministry to the Gentiles in mentioning the Widow of Zarephath from Sidon, and Naaman the Syrian. Early in the ministry in Luke, the boundaries are erased and the outreach goes beyond Israel. In a sense, the text anticipates Jesus’ fate as well – it is death that is intended for him, but his time has not yet come. With their reaction, however, we see Jesus as the true prophet with all of the expectations and difficulties that accrue to such a call.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How radical is Jesus’ message here?
  2. Why do you think that the Nazarenes found it difficult?
  3. How have you been rejected because of what you said?
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Bright, J. (1965), The Anchor Bible, Jeremiah, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday & Company, New York, page 6.


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