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Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year B
The Epiphany, extended by Anglicans into its own season, covers the main revelations of Jesus’ life and mission to the world. Though the Magi’s popularity in the early church pushed off Jesus’ baptism to the Sunday after the main feast, this is actually the central story of the season. Each year focuses on one of each of the synoptic account, and the preacher will need all three to mine the fullness of this episode’s importance.
Mark’s account is the least detailed, but all the more singularly focused on the revelation of the Trinity. The Son is anointed by the Father (more on that next year in Matthew) and the Holy Spirit descends, hovering over the waters: At first the waters over the formless earth, and now over the waters of baptism. The theophany mirrors the creation story of the Genesis reading, where all three are present at the creation. The Father and the Spirit are easy to pick out, but where is the Son? Remarkably, he is found in a verb: “God said.” The previous Sunday establishes Christ as God’s wisdom, so God’s speech, since it always involves his wisdom is necessarily to be done through the Son.
The preacher’s challenge will be to bring these cosmic mysteries to the congregational level. A good route to take would be to note that, even though this is a special baptism of cosmic importance, Jesus’ baptism nevertheless figures our own. God’s aim in creation is to bring forth sons and daughters in whom he can be well-pleased. If Jesus, receiving John’s baptism, was answered with the voice of the Father and the descent of the Spirit, how much more can we, receiving Jesus’ baptism expect to receive from the same! Jesus’ baptism changes the rite forever; from a mere sign of repentance to fellowship with God’s own Son, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, under the radiance of the Father’s love.
Sunday, January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B
Jesus, revealing himself, calls his servants to him. Nathanael’s response to that call is particularly poignant for people in our age of isolation who are seeking identity: “How do you know me?” The Fathers’ opinion of Nathanael as a learned man, versed in the Scriptures, cuts an even more striking parallel to modern people. Nathanael is famous for his skepticism of how the Messiah could come from Nazareth.
But far from making him out to be a doubter like Thomas, John Chrysostom (in his Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily XX) praises Nathanael for not being taken in so easily. His inquiry of how anything good could come from Nazareth reveals his attentiveness to the Scriptures—since Bethlehem, not Nazareth, is named by the prophets as the homeland of the Messiah. But still he follows Phillip’s invitation to “come and see” for himself, revealing that he is not so blinkered as to think that nothing unexpected could be true. This is an invitation to intellectually inclined modern people, both to praise the use of their minds to search the Scriptures for the truth, but also an invitation to go and directly experience the risen Lord.
Jesus also reveals that he knew Nathanael even before he got up to follow him. St. Augustine saw the fig tree spread over Nathanael as a reference to the dominion of sin. Jesus’ selection of him shows how the Lord seeks us out, by prevenient grace, to turn us to him before we could even know how (Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John, Tractate VII).
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B
The same Spirit is at work when Jonah preaches to the Ninevites and the Lord calls the disciples. And so the same results are seen. The Assyrian people, with no background knowledge or reason to believe the word of the Israelite God, somehow believe it and turn from their evil ways. In the same way, the disciples follow Jesus without questions, responding to call of the Word. When Jesus refers to “The Sign of Jonah” in Luke 11, he means this self-authenticating property of the words of God.
This is a good opportunity for preachers to promote confidence in the simple proclamation of the Word of God. All people are God’s children and they hear and respond to their father’s voice. This is important to remember for those who are inclined to saddle the transmission of the Word of God with requirements of proper cross-cultural contact and education. God speaks on his own authority and does not need to be validated by anything outside of itself. The preacher may encourage the flock to evangelize without worrying overmuch about the vagaries of translation and context, because God’s Word carries its own authority and a natural resonance that all human beings in all places can receive.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B
This Sunday’s readings continue the theme of the self-authenticating Word. In Mark, Jesus teaches in the synagogue “as one having authority.” Often, the people’s reactions recorded in the Gospels tell us a great deal about Jesus. People are not astonished by sage advice or erudite commentary, as the scribes could give.
Confirmation of this power comes in the encounter with the demon. Jesus’ commands are bound to be obeyed, even by enemies, because they are the very Word of God.
The first reading in Deuteronomy confirms that Jesus’ words are the Father’s, put into his mouth by the Father. The preacher may make use of this to bring to the congregation Paul’s admonition to guard the conscience of the weak. The sort of knowledge that puffs up the knowledgeable is nothing next to the authoritative Word of God. It is better to use our knowledge as a tool to edify the church rather than adding value to ourselves, for what could we, by our cleverness, possibly add to the Word of the Father who speaks things into existence?
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B
What with all the healings and miraculous works, one might get the impression that Jesus came as a divine doctor, and indeed he did! And yet his concern was for the body and soul of his children. Hence, after healing Peter’s mother-in-law (her quickness to serve is included as evidence that it was a full and miraculous recovery) and many others, Jesus leaves the crowds in order to pray and then tells his disciples that he came to preach in many places.
Paul follows Christ’s vocation in his famous passage that he has become all things to all people so that he may save them by his preaching. But verse 16 and 17 especially stand out when paired with the Gospel reading. Paul’s duty is to preach the gospel whether he wants to or not, but since his will does align with his vocation, his preaching is especially effective, since he molds the mores of his life in order to authenticate the gospel. Even though it was his right, Paul avoided asking for funds from the Corinthians as a proof of his sincerity.
While encouraging the congregation to pursue their vocation of preaching the gospel in their ordinary lives, Paul’s example may be emphasized. Though we are all given the duty to preach the gospel, if we do so with a willing spirit, we become especially effective ministers, since by the holiness and love in our lives we prove the message we preach.
Sunday, February 14, 2021
Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year B
The Transfiguration is a dazzling display of Christ’s power and authority, but the preacher ought not leave it at that. This is one instance where the details, rather than the big picture, provide the most direct road to an application that makes the passage matter to the congregation.
First, it is significant that Moses and Elijah are the two Old Testament figures who appear there. Moses represents the Law, and Elijah the Prophets. On the mountain of the New Covenant, the fullness of the Jewish tradition acknowledges Christ as its fulfillment, while the Apostles who will lead Christ’s church look on. Perhaps when Peter recommended building three tabernacles to receive the glory there, he was not aware that it was the three of them who would be the tabernacles to take that glory into the world!
Second, this is an opportunity for the preacher to remind the congregation that the entire Bible is about Jesus, including the Old Testament. It is neither academically irresponsible nor culturally insensitive to hold this. It is simply taking the Gospels at their word. Doing so illuminates the Old Testament and breaks down any hostility between the Old Law and the New, and between Israel and the church for who could divide this heavenly court?
Other potential roads to follow up on are the revelation of the Trinity in the voice of the Father, the Spirit in the cloud, and the Son glorified. The voice of the Father calls back to Jesus’ baptism.