Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany. I am preaching at Rowe United Methodist Church in Milan, NY, Sunday. (I have edited this since it was first posted on Saturday.) The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 10: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23.
This has been edited since it was posted on 26 January 2008.
The original title for this sermon was “The Beginning and The End” because of the nature of the Gospel reading for today. (Matthew 4: 12 – 23 ) The beginning part was easy because today’s Gospel reading was about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But I could not figure out where the ending was.
If you are like me, you have a few books that you read over and over again. You read them because you like the author or you like the plot or even the characters that the author has created. You know how each story ends but you keep reading them anyway, looking for something you might have missed or trying to understand a passage that didn’t seem clear. We know our stories so well that we can pick up a story at any time and know where we are in the progress of the story.
But, where is the ending in the story for today? Where do we fit into this collection of readings from the Old Testament and New Testament? Or is it possible that we find ourselves in the middle of a story and the ending hasn’t been written yet?
We read from the beginning of the ninth chapter of Isaiah for today. (Isaiah 9: 1 – 4) But though it is the beginning of the ninth chapter, to understand it you have to read the end of the eighth chapter. The ending of chapter eight is very gloomy; it is the prophet speaking of the end, the end of the nation and the end of the people as they are taken away into captivity. But then the prophet begins chapter nine with a statement of hope. Amidst the tragedy of exile and captivity, Isaiah promises hope to the very people to whom he has just spoken doom and despair.
It is that same promise of hope that Matthew is writing about. The Babylonian exile may have been a long time past when Matthew wrote his Gospel. But the feeling of doom was still present. Instead of the Babylonian captivity, it was the Roman occupation of Israel. It was the capitulation of the political and spiritual leaders who cooperated with Rome to ensure the continuation of the enslavement of many and enrichment for a few. It was a system that produced rules and regulations over all aspects of life, both spiritual and secular, and offered no hope. If there was one thing that the people of Israel needed at this time, it was hope and there was none.
But in last week’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist essentially tells his disciples to follow Jesus because of who Jesus is. Andrew told his brother Simon that they had found the Messiah. Suddenly there is a sense of hope. Today the call to Andrew and Peter is renewed and the call is given to James and John. The ministry begins with the preaching of the Good News and the healing of the sick throughout Galilee.
We know where this story ends. We know what will happen to Jesus and the disciples that He called. As the little group travels throughout the hills of Galilee, many will hear the Word proclaimed and hope will be renewed. Countless individuals will be healed. But divisions will arise between those in the system and those who follow Jesus. The authorities will begin to find fault with everything Jesus says and does and will begin to plot his arrest and conviction. The authorities want this story to end with Jesus crucified and this little band of disciples scattered to the winds.
But the story doesn’t end the way the authorities would like it to end. Though Jesus dies on the Cross, He rises from the dead on Easter morning. Instead of scattering the disciples to the winds and destroying the movement, the disciples take the Gospel message with them to the four corners of them to the four corners of the world and the movement grows.
But somewhere along the line, the Gospel message has disappeared from the church. Somewhere along the line, the church has forgotten what it is and what it is supposed to be. Somewhere along the line, the story changed and doom has returned.
It seems to me that we have lost the focus of what Christianity is about. I have been told that war is inevitable and that violence is an inherent part of life. I have been told that evil is so much a part of our life that there is nothing we can do but wait for Christ to return.
But if war is inevitable, then why bother with this story? If there is nothing we can do about evil, then why even study what Jesus did? If the end of the world is death and destruction, then why even suggest, let alone offer, the simplest glimmer of hope? If there is no hope, then Isaiah would have ended with Chapter 8 and there would have been no one to say that there would be a new light.
I have been told more times that I can count that all we are to do is make disciples of all the nations. I cannot accept that we are to ignore the feeding of the hungry, cloth the naked, or heal the sick. I cannot accept the idea that those without deserve what they get and those who have are blessed by God.
Most translations of Matthew 28: 19 have Jesus telling the disciples to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But not every translation says disciples, and I am not sure that disciples are the proper word. In preparing his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Clarence Jordan went to the original Greek and came up with “As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you.” (Matthew 28: 19 – 20 as translated by Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel. )
John G. Stackhouse, Jr. writes
Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our erience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of god written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus Himself. (From “Books and Culture” (Christianitytoday.com/books), September/October 2007 – in Context, February 2008, Part A)
In affect, Stackhouse writes, we are to do what the disciples did. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the world of life.” (1 John 1: 1)
Yes, it is difficult to follow Jesus, especially when we know where this story is going to go. Kyungsig Samuel Lee, writing in Korean Family Devotions, writes
The ultimate challenge of Jesus’ ministry was to go to the city, the city of Jerusalem. This city, which was the center of education, religion, and politics, was also the place where corruption and crimes abounded. Yet, Jesus went there anyway. Following Jesus to the city was a risky business. Many would-be followers dropped out when they saw this ultimate danger. What will it require of us to move to the city? I ask this question whenever I find myself wanting to settle down in the comfort of material well-being. God may not ask us to physically move to the city, but God does require that we reach out to hurting people with the gospel, wherever they might be. (Kyungsig Samuel Lee (Korean Family Devotions) – from Verse and Voice, 25 January 2008 )
But it is not us, per se, who must continue this mission. It is who we are to become when we hear and heed Jesus’ call. Jesus began his ministry with a call to repent. Repent is a tremendous word and one worth examining. Repentance is more than simply saying you are sorry; it is the singular act of changing your life.
The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.
No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan )
It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.
We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
We have to ask ourselves what it means to call people to Christ. The church’s sole purpose is to show the world, through word, deed, action and thought that God’s will is the best alternative to a materialistic or secular world.
Still, there is a vision of hope and promise. Just as John Wesley began the Methodist Revival when it appeared that the words and actions of the church were counter to the goals and outcomes of the Gospel, so too can we embark on a new revival. If there was ever a time for a church to embark on a course of evangelism and outreach, it is now. As Jesus said, there is no time to wait; the hour of His coming is unknown and lost to those who wait.
And that is where the problem lies for us today. We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.
We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a “shirt of hurt feelings.” It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.
But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan ) Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.
And that is the problem. We may want to hide; we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work.
But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light, lit with the Glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into that fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. Our actions will determine how bright that light will shine but it is a light that, for better or for worse, we cannot escape.
Some may see a crisis in the church; others may see a crisis in the world and wonder why the church is not doing more. If we are called to evangelism — calling people to knowledge that Christ is Savior and Lord — we must understand what God is doing in our history and how He is calling us to join Christ in his action in the world. Evangelism, in other words, must point to the presence of Christ as Lord in the affairs of the world and to the call of Christ as Savior of each of us. In this way, we see Christ calling us to abandon our worldly ways — our petty tribalism, our limiting sectionalism, and our own personal selfishness — and accept his grace in such a way that we, as forgiven sinners, can work as servants of His kingdom within the kingdoms of this world.
There is the temptation to forget that the need to see Christ working within the variety of struggles in our time also carries with it the need to see Christ as the one calling us to repent, to die to our selfish ways, and be converted, rising again to a new life with Him, as we learn to be free to serve our neighbor. If we are not careful, we soon forget that the evangelistic task of the church is the framework by which we see our service to the world.
These are undoubtedly different words from what you usually hear; they are most certainly difficult words to hear. In today’s world, a call from God to go out into the world and show what God can truly do for the people is a frightening thought. But what can be more frightening than watching the light of the world slowly disappear into a sea of gloom and despair? We stand at the edge of a new journey. We do not know what lies at the end of that journey. But if we fear the journey that we are called today to make, then we fear the Cross. The message of the Cross is simple foolishness to those who cannot imagine anything beyond the present world. That is what Paul said to the Corinthians two thousand years ago. (1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18) But for those who believe, it is something more; it is the very power of God.
It is the one thing that will enable us to begin that journey that we are called today to begin. We are in the midst of a great and powerful story, a story which changed the world and will continue to change the world if we tell it and witness to it. We can, of course, do nothing. We may hold on to what we believe and trust in what we see and hear. But we will go nowhere and the darkness will continue to grow. Or we can go where we are called, trusting in the Lord and we will see the darkness disappear.
So where do we go from here?