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Friday, January 6, 2023
The Feast of the Epiphany, in the ancient church, far outshone Christmas. The first of the three traditional manifestations of Christ observed by the church in this season is the revelation of Christ to the Magi which represented God making good on his promise to “bless the nations” through Israel, bringing the “other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16) into the center of God’s saving work.
The Magi prove that the Gentiles are not an afterthought, but are major characters from the beginning, even being used by God to thwart the tyrant’s treachery. Also, the Magi bring three gifts that reveal Christ’s identity and mission: Gold—a gift fitting for his kingship, Frankincense—the priest’s provision for offering sacrifice, and Myrrh—an embalming oil, foreshadowing his crucifixion (cf. the appearance of Myrrh in Mark 15:23 and John 19:39).
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year A
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the second of the three traditional manifestations of Christ, contains John’s protest. This is included to make clear that Jesus was not an ordinary human being in need of repentance from any sin.
The church saw many layers to the reason for Christ’s baptism, each with potential pathways for the preacher to explore. It was to endorse and fulfill John’s preceding baptismal ministry. It was to show that he is “meek and lowly” (Matt. 11:19) to encourage conversion. It was to give an example of repentance for others to follow. Most profound of all, perhaps, was the suggestion that while the waters of John’s baptism symbolized the cleansing from sins, Christ himself baptized the waters he entered, inaugurating his baptismal ministry which truly forgives sins.
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A
John the Baptist, the Voice who speaks of the Word, witnesses to a few key details that clarify Jesus’ divinity.
First, John sees Jesus walking toward him, indicating that Jesus always takes the initiative. No less than at the Cross (cf. John 10:18), Jesus is the one who acts, he is not acted upon.
Second, John proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God “who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus is the true Passover Lamb, who is already without blemish. By coming to be baptized he is taking on the sins of the world which had, as it were, been laid down in the waters of John’s baptism, completing the Baptist’s ministry.
Third, the Holy Spirit resting on Jesus “like a dove” recalls the dove that never returned to Noah after the flood. The return of the dove signifies that Christ is the true mount that saves us from the waters of death.
Sunday, January 22, 2023
Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A
It is not an accident that the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew comes right after John’s imprisonment. The transfer of John’s ministry to Jesus’ is now complete. From now on it is Jesus calling for repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus reverses the normal order of disciples seeking out a rabbi. Like Elijah calling Elisha, Jesus calls his disciples to him. The evocative part of this story for the preacher is in the response of the two pairs of disciples (v. 20, 22). Echoing the frequent Markan phrase, they “immediately” (without hesitation) turn from their livelihood and family, and then turn to Jesus by following him.
Usually, Christians tend to focus on the repentance from sin as the only requirement for following Jesus, but Jesus also places special calls on his followers’ lives to turn from good things and the common run of life (cf. Luke 14:26) to follow him in special ways. Missionaries and monastics spring to mind, but a call can be anything at any time: To visit a sick person, aid a poor person, or confront a friend’s sinful habits. In so many seemingly small ways, Jesus calls us out of our ordinary lives to turn toward him. Every moment is a chance to say yes.
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A
Having announced the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand in Matthew 4:17, the Lord is ready to give a new law. The Beatitudes are the introduction to the entire Sermon on the Mount, which runs from chapter five through seven.
The location and Jesus’ posture are not details to pass over. Ascending the mountain, Jesus resembles Moses on Sinai, but instead of receiving and handing down the law to the people below, he gives the new law himself to his disciples and the crowds who have ascended with him. This new law then is more excellent than the law of Moses.
Each “beatitude” declares a state of happiness for those who exhibit each of the listed virtues. The accompanying rewards for all, save the first, are promised in the future when the Kingdom of Heaven is fully realized—the poor in spirit already possess the Kingdom since they recognize their need for God, a prerequisite for the following:
- The mourners are saddened to see evil in the world; they will be comforted by the Kingdom when it comes in its fullness.
- The meek are the gentle who will inherit the earth, as opposed to the violent who own it in the present.
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness yearn for goodness on the level of their affections; the Kingdom will satisfy this hunger.
- Those who give mercy to others will receive the same from God (cf. 6:14)
- Those whose hearts are singularly focused on God, and unalloyed by unrighteousness will see him in a perfect, unmediated way.
- Those who promote peace, rather than just stay out of trouble, are to be counted the “sons” or heirs of eternal life.
- Those who receive abuse for their fidelity to Jesus (who is righteousness) can expect heavenly reward as opposed to vindication in the present.
Each one of these represents a valid trailhead for the preacher to follow. These are not to be taken as unachievable standards given solely for the purpose of conviction of sin and the need for constant dispensations of mercy. While this is undoubtedly true, the teaching is a high standard but not unattainable with the help of the Spirit.
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A
Salt benefits food in two ways: It flavors and preserves it. In the same way, the righteousness of Christians benefits the world by working against its tendencies toward corruption and dissolution. Christians also make life on earth enjoyable for those who encounter them. Where salt is an unseen force, light is conspicuous. Christians, although they are not to be haughty or arrogant, are not to hide their works of righteousness, since they point onlookers back to their source in God. The imagery here has been a fertile territory for sermons. The preacher should focus especially on the missional vocation of good works. Personal piety is not in view here. Godly conduct is evangelistic.
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year A
Jesus is greater than the Law of Moses, preaching a more exacting standard even than that of the Pharisees. In these several sayings (delivered in the classic rabbinic style of “you have heard … but I say to you”) Jesus prescribes moral action on the level of the heart’s intention, not only on the resultant behavior. The orthopraxy of the Pharisees emphasized right action, regardless of what one may think or feel underneath. God, however, looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7) and his desire is for a people whose very souls are inclined toward him in all things. Therefore, those who refrain from adultery must also refrain from entertaining lustful thoughts. Refraining from murder also means quenching the anger that gives rise to it through reconciliation.
At the same time, certain practices provided for in the Law of Moses are rendered obsolete by a consistent practice of Jesus’s ethic. Divorce is sweepingly prohibited (the exception for porneia probably referred to unions that were unlawful on their face, rather than valid marriages wounded by sexual indiscretions) making its provision in Deuteronomy unnecessary. Oaths are similarly rendered moot by a straightforwardly truthful habit of life that gives no reason to suspect falsehood.
The preacher may alight on any one of these immortal sayings and extract a rich teaching on these universal human experiences. But the underlying principle must be kept in mind: that the heart’s intentions, not only the external acts make one liable to judgment. Righteousness comes from the inside-out, with the Spirit at work on the level of the heart.
Sunday, February 19, 2023
Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year A
This usually misunderstood episode is not Jesus showing off his resurrection power. Rather, there are important theological truths revealed and confirmed. The presence of Moses and Elijah are significant in more than one way. First, these are the two Old Testament figures who saw God (theophany), each imperfectly, from the mouth a cave. But now from the mountain they see God perfectly in Christ. The two also declare that the Law of Moses and the legacy of the prophets culminate in the fulfilling work of Christ on the Cross. Jesus’ face also shines with the very light that made Moses’ face glow when he came down from the mountain. The “bright cloud” that envelops them recalls God’s presence in the shekinah glory of the cloud in Exodus. Here it also refers to the Holy Spirit’s future coming on the church in baptism (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1). All of this is confirmed in the presence of Peter, James, and John, the “two or three witnesses” required in the Old Testament for verifying anything. These are those who will not “taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).
Constructing a sermon out of this maelstrom of resonances should center on the purpose of the episode: That Jesus himself is fully God, and to see him is to see the Father perfectly. This vision buoys believers in hope while shouldering their crosses. The Christian life is not the emulation of the example of an ordinary earthly teacher but progress toward the very glory of God. By drawing near to the Sun of Righteousness, we too may hope to be likewise transformed.