A commitment, a challenge, and an invitation

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany 

Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. Matthew 4:12-23, Psalm 27:1, 5-13

 No two weeks are ever the same. This week came to an abrupt diversion when my lap top came to an abrupt slow down. So Thursday afternoon till deep in the night and all day Friday were given over to: the evaluation of the problem, the determination of the best solution, the necessary purchases, the journey home, the process of moving 3 computers to different tasks. And I am not so up to date as I was 23 years ago and the road less traveled is not the path to follow in this particular case. However, as dark fell Friday  I was functionally done with the task, as well as functionally done with all things e-stuff, and took advantage of Friday Families, where we (I think there were 19 folks present at some point in the evening) enjoyed pizza, each other’s company and Earnest Goes to Camp. As the night came to a close someone quipped Earnest Goes to Camp doesn’t have the same theological depth as The Rise of the Guardians. They are right, Earnest isn’t a preaching point. Still it is Sunday; it is the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany; we still need to make sense of today’s scripture readings; just how does Isaiah relate to Matthew, and Matthew to Paul, especially when it all begins in Judges with Gideon if not in Genesis with light. After all it is Epiphany the season of light; but on the first day it isn’t the sun and moon and stars, in Genesis 1:3 it’s just light, light that comes into the formless void, and darkness, light that comes with the wind, or spirit, from God. It’s in verse 14, on the 4th day, that the sun, moon, and stars show up. [i] It’s enlightening to recall it all begins with the presence of God.

Matthew has been telling the tale of a new, a different presence of God, by referring to back to God’s presence, as revealed by Isaiah, who refers back to a previous revelation of God’s presence in Judges        and Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites. [ii]  Two verses later, which we did not hear this morning, Isaiah’s prophecy notes this light will be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace … words that are similar to Egyptian coronation rites indicating Pharaoh’s divine nature, [iii] implying the servant’s divine nature.

As soon as Jesus gets to Galilee he begins to preach the same message John the Baptist did The Kingdom of heaven has come near. As did John’s this notes the Kingdom’s presence in Jerusalem and Judah, to the Jews; but ~ Jesus’ presence in Galilee reveals the Kingdom’s presence to people beyond Jerusalem and Judah beyond Jews. [iv] The very next thing he does is to start calling disciples. He says: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (KJV) trying to be gender inclusive the NSRV translates it Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

I agree with my colleague, who doesn’t like the NSRV; it just doesn’t ring the same. I agree more with David Lose whose interest isn’t gender inclusion (although he isn’t adverse to inclusiveness) but the implications of prepositions. The phrase: fish for people puts the emphasis on the task – fishing. The phrase: fishers of men puts the emphasis on their identity thus Jesus is calling the disciples into relationship. [v] And this relationship with Jesus … completely disrupts the priorities and social and economic obligations of two households… [vi]  with more to come. The disruption comes from the disciples immediately following Jesus; Peter and Andrew abandon the tools of their trade, James and John abandon their boat and their father and family. [vii] It sounds similar to Joseph, a willingness to set aside tradition, to set aside the law, in order to follow the divine presence, in order to be in the presence of the Kingdom.

This is a chronological mess, however, if we snap the fabric of Matthew’s story and all its implications, we see: the beginning is in the presence of God, it breaks with the threat of the Midianites which God through Gideon restores; it breaks with a dispute between Ephraim and Judah allowing the Assyrians to conquer the land; [viii] which Isaiah’s prophecy reveals God will restore; it breaks with Roman occupation, and much more before and since, and Matthew is telling a story of God’s redeeming work through the nearness, of the Kingdom in the presence of Jesus.  At every point in the story God’s presence is redemptive. And when people get away from God’s presence it breaks. That’s Paul’s point to the Corinthians; it doesn’t matter what gifts are greater, it’s all about unity in Christ [ix]  his way of pointing to the presence of the Kingdom.

Beyond the interlocking redemptive relationship references in Matthew, there is also a process gleaning. Jesus calls the disciples into relationship with him, with each other, so later they can call others into relationship with them. [x] Today it works the other way around, we are here, in church, in Christ’s community with each other, ~ so we can invite others into relationship with us, so they can come into relationship with Jesus.

I believe we have the beginnings of all that. So here’s a commitment, a challenge, and an invitation: I am committing to take communion to anyone who otherwise will not know that presence of God in Jesus. I know of four, if you know someone, call me. Here’s the challenge, actually two: if you know someone who used to be a part of St. Stephen’s welcome them home with an invitation to tryout our new worship time; and second – if you don’t participate in Friday Families you’re invited to come and see, and invite a neighbor, yours, or one from around the church. And the invitation: all of you are invited to Angie’s house for a Super Bowl party next Sunday at 5:00 pm, invitations are on the way, bring your favorite finger food, beverage of your choice, and yes invite a friend.

And all of it, from Guardians to Earnest, from computer to communion from invitations to community of all sorts all of it is about being in the presence of the Kingdom that’s coming nearer and nearer to thee; is about sharing the presence of the Kingdom that’s coming nearer and nearer.

 

[i] ‘Light’ INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA
James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor, Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp., the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
[ii] Walter Harrelson, New Interpreters’’ Study Bible, Isaiah 9:1ff 
[iii] ibid
[iv] Scott Hoezee, cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next Sunday is January 26, 2014 (Ordinary Time) The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 4:12-23 
[v]David Lose WorkingPreacher.org,  Craft of Preaching, Fishers of People,Monday, January 20, 2014
[vi] Harrleson, Matthew 4:12ff
[vii] Judith Jones, WorkingPreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23
[viii] Christopher R. Seit ,Interpretation – Isaiah A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING, James Luther Mays, Editor, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor,  Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor David Petersen and Beverly Gave Gaventa, New Interrupters Bible One Volume Commentary,
ix Stan Mast cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching Next Sunday is January 26, 2014 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
[x] Lose

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Diversions

The week was going along nicely, in spite of the second cold wave, until my lap top slowed to the point of unusable. After that time and talent (what e talent I’ve left after 23 years away) got diverted to the task of evaluation, determination, acquisition and installation. Deep into the dark of Thursday night, and once again into the dark of Friday the work of rearranging three computers to new tasks was the work of the day. And yes, I would have written my sermon before all that, except to write my sermon I needed all that. The good news is, the new arrangement is working, mostly.

 There is gleaning about the dangers of diversions becoming the primary value. I wonder if the Corinthians got diverted into mastering their spiritual gifts. This week has been and continues to be a reminder that it is all about being in the presence of the Kingdom that’s coming nearer and sharing the presence of the Kingdom that’s coming nearer and nearer.

 

Day 1 prepping for 3rd Epiphany

“… did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel” seems like a good disruptive place to start.  Then again I have always felt drawn to “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” is a description of Jesus’ ministry, and our stewardship of Christ’s ministry.  And still “Immediately they left … and followed him.” gives us a sense of a proper response to Jesus presence. However, the bible phrase that I actually verbally responded to is Psalm 27:1 last phrase “of whom then shall I be afraid?”  I actually said “That fool down the street,” and “That lady in the corner office.”

Please note, there is no fool down the street, and there is no corner office, so my response is not toward a specific person or persons. So what’s it all about? My concern is it expresses a degree of misplace expectation, my faith should be yielding such and such results and it’s not. My deepest concern is that it expresses a degree of distrust. Either is destructive to a calling, not to do a particular task, but to live in God’s, in Jesus’, in the Spirit’s presence.

It’s going to be an interesting week.

 

What’s your center?

A sermon for Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, Psalm 40:1-12

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received on last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It is cute, with Hugh Jackman, think Wolverine, doing Bunny’s voice, it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story are many great lessons. 

My gift is a conversation between Jack and North. North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls, painted like North. He says: This is how you see me, very big and intimidating. Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North replies: Look closer. What do you see? You have big eyes. Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours?  Jack: I don’t know. i

The conversation is about identity, who are we, and how that identity shapes our lives. It’s the same conversation that’s the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, that John is having with his followers, and Paul is writing to the Corinthians.

Whoever Isaiah’s servant is: himself, another prophet, Israel, or the expected messiah, Christians believe to be Jesus, he is tired. He has given it his best, but things have not worked out, and while knowing, or at least saying his reward is with God he is done. Scott Hoezee notes everyone gets discouraged, weary.
What I suspect is in the weariness the servant’s center shifts, their identity changes, it moves from being of God and about God, to being me and about me.
God’s reply

It’s not enough for you to restore  Israel. Now I want you go to all
nations and share the story of my salvation till it reaches the ends of the earth.

at first it appears harsh and uncaring. However, it’s effect is to re-center the servant it’s reminder that from time in the womb till now, till the end of time, the servant is of God, is in unbreakable relationship with God.

What is it six centuries and a decade later? John is walking through town with a couple of his followerswhen he points to Jesus and shouts:

There is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of world!

The next day he sees Jesus again, and shouts out:

Look! here is the Lamb of God!

We all know what Lamb of God means. Or do we? Scott Hoezee ii and Richard Swanson iii point out that lamb of God, and takes away the sin of the world  are both far more complex than you’d think. To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. iv If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the rabbinical understanding of God joining us in the meal, and eating his lamb so you the trouble. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well lambs sacrificed for atonement, which is taking away sin, are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out!  v Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah. There is also the story of  the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but there are still translation difficulties. vi

So what about the phrase: who takes away the sins of the world. How? Take away  is rooted in the Greek lift up,which may imply lifting up, or pointing out sins so everyone can see them, not to embarrass, but to encourage repentance. Or it may refer to the firey serpent story in Numbers vii when the bronze snake is lifted up so those snake-bit can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion.

All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, reveals an image of God providing for the healing, which means restoring to wholeness,and wholeness is relationship with God, providing for the healing for God’s people. In short, John is telling his followers, anyone who will hear, here is your identity, the divine Jesus is your center.

We read the greeting and introduction from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning. Because we’ve read it before, we know there are troubles. Corinth is a bit self-impressed viii which is understandable. It is an urban trade center of about 250,000 people,served by 400,000 slaves. There are 2 harbors making it a commercial hub of the Roman Empire. The many peoples from many nations have established 12 major temples. Stan Mast writes: What happened in Corinth doesn’t stay in Corinth. ix It’s easy to see how such self-importance creeps into the life of the church.

It’s revealing to note Paul does not give thanks for them, he gives to God for the spiritual gifts entrusted to them through Christ. He is alluding to deep divisions among them, to the truth that even though they are spiritually gifted, they are immature and unspiritual. In today’s parlance, they’ve lost their center. They have forgotten God … has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. x   N. T. Wright notes

Paul is reminding them they are summoned to be saints and worshippers, [that] they belong to a koininia partnership with God and Jesus [whose]
     purpose  is a servant vocation [that] model[s] and implement[s] genuine new humanity. xi

Paul is saying it’s not about them, or their gifts, it’s about Jesus, it’s about God. He is pointing out their true center, their true identity as sanctified, or set aside, by God, for God, through Christ.

All three lessons call their audience, then and now back to  a life an identity centered in God through Christ. All are directly applicable to us. From Isaiah, we are tired, weary, given it our best, but the world, and declining everything conspires against us. We’ll hold on, but we are done. Such thinking reveal that our center has shifted to our survival. And when we are centered on our  survival we will miss the opportunity to proclaim the Kingdom of God is here. And that opportunity is here!

There is a similar lesson from John; we can get so caught up in our definitions of what scripture says we miss the point of scripture – our relationship with God. John is pointing to Jesus as the one who heals, restores to wholeness our relationship with God, who is, with God, the center of our being.

And Paul points out the dangers of self-importance born of success. It’s interesting that the same risk is in struggling churches who afraid they cannot survive. In such fear, we double down on meeting our needs or on building up our skills which are as powerless as we are afraid they are. Either way our center shifts.

Epiphany is the season of light, a time to seek divine illumination. I wonder if we are looking so hard for the light, for who Jesus is, we forget who we are. And we are already: illumined by Word and Sacrament, we are already children, heirs of God through creation, and through Jesus’ redemptive ministry. Perhaps it’s time to simply live in that relationship xii and allow it to become what it already is our center, our identity, our essence.

It’s my center.

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received one last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It’s cute, with Hugh Jackman doing Bunny’s voice,[i] it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story line are many great lessons.  One that stuck out is North speaking to Jack We are very busy bringing joy to children, we don’t have time for children. [ii]

My gift however is the conversation between Jack and North where North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls painted like North. Handing it to Jack he says This is how you see me, very big and intimidating… Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last Jack says: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North: Look closer. What do you see?  Jack: You have big eyes… North: Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours? Jack: I don’t know. [iii]

‘Center’ is another way of saying identity, who you are. Isaiah, John and Paul are all speaking to identity, the servant’s, Israel’s, Jesus’, and ours. It raises a question: Are we more like North, knowing and living who we are, or more like Jack and not knowing?

 

Radiant Revelation

that your people may shine with the radiance of Christ‘s glory … is one of two core phrases in Sunday’s collect for the day and Paul’s line as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ… are connecting as I wander through this week’s sermon prep process. In making the connection I realize I have changed the tense of both phrases, from future to present. I.e. Jesus is already being revealed, and we are already shining with the radiance of Christ glory.

However, there is more to it. I also know we are very good at covering up radiance, and hiding revelation. Perhaps it frightens us, or is inconvenient, or we don’t think we are worthy. It may be that it is the wrong person, who shares the image of God we all bear; someone who’s gay, or the wrong nationality or race or religious conviction; someone we don’t believe is worthy of being an image of God.  

Such thinking is wrong on both counts. God created us (male and female) in God’s image. [i] Yes, we, humanity, broke the bond of that relationship; however, Christian faith is God redeemed it via the ministry of Jesus.  Is there work to be done?  Yes. But it is not the work of redemption that has been accomplished. It is the work of acceptance and sharing, the work of evangelism. Redemption is complete, evangelism not yet. This week David Lose shares 3 step evangelism: notice, share and invite. [ii] Notice the Divine presence in life, ours and others; share what we notice within our faith community, then invite others to join in.

In ending I’ll go back to Paul’s beginning. I thank God… for it is not mine, nor yours nor anyone else’s efforts or presence or skill or insight or gift that’s efficacious, whatever we have (or not) is of God and for that I am thankful, thankful enough to share it, even with a stranger. Or at least I should be.


[i] Genesis 1:27

[ii] David Lose, Craft of Preaching, Notice, Share, Invite, January 19, 2014, WorkingPreacher.org