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Thursday, January 6, 2022
The Epiphany season focuses on three traditional manifestations: the magi (celebrated on January 6), Jesus’ baptism, and the Miracle at Cana. Luke gives a brief account, with no mention of John’s protestations, so the preacher may focus on the meaning of the scene itself. At his baptism, Jesus stands in the place of sinners. This is the most important part of the picture. Jesus’ ministry would be one of repentance and also accompaniment: he would stand with sinners and accompany them to everlasting life. Jesus’ nearness to sinners is a theme the Gospels return to again and again. Jesus shows up for them in the market and at their dinner tables, consorting with them in public and in private. His baptism shows that intent to go everywhere with them, even to be baptized, when he is the only one who needs no purification. Traditionally, the church also understood Jesus as himself “baptizing” the very waters that would go on to baptize the church, giving them their purifying power. The Holy Spirit’s descent seems to confirm this, and it is also a foreshadowing of what will happen at the baptisms of all Christians. As John says: Jesus’ baptism is not water only, but it also brings the Holy Spirit with it.
Sunday, January 9, 2022
Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year C
Sunday, January 16, 2022
Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
Cana is the final manifestation of Christ celebrated in Epiphany. Here, he reveals himself to his disciples. There is much more to the story than meets the modern eye. First, John speaks of the events transpiring on “the third day” after the fifth day of a week of Jesus’ opening ministry in chapters 1 and 2, which by ancient numbering makes it the seventh day of the week. That this miracle simultaneously happens on the “third day” and the seventh day signifies that what Jesus does here links together Jesus’ resurrection and the work of a new work of a new creation. Clearly this is more than just helping out at a party. Each detail is worth calling to the congregation’s attention. Mary’s statement “they have no wine” recalls Isaiah 24 and 25 where it is foretold that God will reverse Israel’s downfall, signified by a lack of wine, with a great feast of “well aged wine.” Jesus’ answer “what does this have to do with us?” makes clear that his miraculous power isn’t available for solving the pedestrian problem of running out of drinks. He is up to something more. By providing the wine, Jesus identifies himself as the true bridegroom of the heavenly feast, bringing out the wine to fill his people. However, the “hour” yet to come which Jesus speaks of (a recurring theme throughout John) shows that the wine foretold in Isaiah is in fact the blood of the Messiah, poured out on the Cross at the hour of his crucifixion, glorified in his resurrection, and distributed at the Eucharist at the church’s hour of prayer. In the Eucharist, the blood of the Messiah is actually consumed and the people of God partake in the eternal feast which will end with death swallowed up by God for all time. The six stone water pots for the rite of purification signify the old law’s insufficiency, since six is one less than seven, the number of completion and fullness. Here Jesus makes clear that he is not just a Josiah-like figure reforming Israel to her old ways but the generation of something new, indeed the very thing the law had always pointed to: the great feast at the end. Just as one washes one’s hands before the feast, so too did the law prepare the people for the coming of Jesus the Bridegroom.
What to take from this swirl of prophecy and portent? First, that Christ’s objective is not simply to wash the sins off of people, as at the water jars, but to fill them with God’s own life. Also that Jesus is not a guest in our lives, helping us get out of jams from time to time, rather we are guests in his life and invited to the final marriage between God and humanity.
Sunday, January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
Jesus announces his ministry publicly by invoking the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58. Luke reminds frequently that same Spirit that inspired Isaiah is in Jesus (cf. Lk 4:1, 4:14), emphasizing the continuity of God’s words in the Old Testament scriptures with Jesus’ teaching ministry. This claiming of the messianic mantle was misinterpreted--both in Jesus’ day and in ours, as political liberation--as a statement of political liberation. But the jubilee promised by Jesus is not immediate liberation from temporal powers but from the power of death itself. However, the gospel does have immediate temporal consequences. “The poor” are not an abstraction here, and the preacher must not spiritualize the idea. The poor are those with unfulfilled physical needs. Jesus habitually reserves special blessings for the poor, and it is to them that the gospel is primarily addressed. This does not restrict the good news from the comfortable and well off--since all are ultimately subject to the same corruption and death--but it does establish God’s focal point for his work on earth. If the message preached and ministry enacted by our churches is not good for the needy then it is good for nobody.
Sunday, January 30, 2022
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
The people of Nazareth marvel at Jesus’ teachings yet they minimize his person as the “son of Joseph.” The parallel passage in Mark 6:1-3 gives more context: the people are indignant at worst, patronizing at best toward an uppity hometown boy taking up the voice of the divine. There are two lessons to be taken from Jesus’ reply: first that one’s home and family can often be the hardest mission field. Familiarity is a longtime enemy of faith: reducing the transcendent to the immanent and manipulable (Ps. 50:21). If the truth of the Word of God breaking into our immediate lives cannot be resisted then it can be minimized ad hominem by focusing on the foibles of the speaker of the word. One may hear and appreciate the word, but fail to follow the speaker since, after all, isn’t he just Joseph’s son?
The second point follows from Jesus’ rebuke of his countrymen: his mission to the Gentiles. Jesus puts himself in the line of the Old Testament prophets and highlights the several places where God blessed foreigners instead of the Jews to whom they were sent and who had rejected them. The violent reaction to this mirrors the same persecution given to the prophets, proving Jesus’ point.
From this the preacher may point out that the gospel is never comfortable with the familiarity that staid church life often brings. Home, family, and stable community are blessings and offer comfort, but the true Christian yearns to bring the gospel to strangers and those outside the glow of hearth and home. Indeed, that is where one often finds those who are eager to receive it.
Sunday, February 6, 2022
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
The great catch of fish is a common image for the capacity of evangelism to bring about revival. What is not often remarked on is the way the disciples bring in the fish. The haul is too large for Peter’s single boat. It takes James and John’s vessels to help bring in the catch. Here we have an image of the unity of the church in the work of evangelism. The need for unity of thought, doctrine, and fellow feeling is a well-worn topic in today’s scattered denominational landscape. But the church is most effectively unified around its work for the sake of the lost and the poor. The formal causes of church unity should not be understated—especially doctrine, sacrament, and the historic hierarchy—however the work of the church on behalf of the lost and needy is the material cause of unity, and it is the place where divided believers may find the possibility for unity in other respects. The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of those outside of it and it cannot subsist without the pursuit of that primary purpose.
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
There is a division nowadays between those preachers who consider Jesus’ beatitudes in Luke to be validating people in the real social condition of poverty and misery, and others who read the same as a spiritual condition. The correct answer is both. The moral exhortations in the following verses (27-38) reveal that Jesus has personal virtuous conduct in mind—and Matthew’s more popular “poor in spirit” harmonizes. However, Luke’s account is left unglossed for a reason: that the pursuit of godliness is helped, not hindered, by material poverty and suffering. This would have been news to any ancient person for whom the path to divinization was marked by those things which were like God and the gods: blessings, wealth, and long life. We are, today, similarly tempted to regard the rich and successful with the same quasi-religious admiration: as paragons of humanity since, after all, the proof of their lifestyle is plain. But Jesus reverses the typical signs of divine favor—It is poverty, hunger, mourning, and friendlessness that are the markers on the pathway to God. It is surprising and counterintuitive, but it makes sense because the lack of worldly goods makes space for God. Indeed, present worldly pleasures easily become obstacles to faith and connection with God (cf. the rich young ruler in Luke 18). For this reason, the gospel is good news to the poor and concerning news—at best—for the rich who had looked to their wealth also for eternal security, since they supposed it to be a marker of God’s favor. In reality, however, the materially poor are better off in the pursuit of godliness, and are therefore to be imitated and blessed instead of avoided and ignored.
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” A requirement for following Jesus is to show the same forgiveness that Joseph showed his brothers, not only to one’s clan, but to “whomever” wrongs you. Jesus’ teaching gives the old theme of mercy and magnanimity startling new contours: bless the curser, give gifts to the robber, be gentle with the one who violates you. It has become fashionable to speak of these as components of a radically disinterested morality which regards “the other” as the moral object before whom the self-abrogates itself. But Jesus is not recommending existential abasement. Throughout, he talks about the benefits of this way of life: the credit and great reward given to those who empty themselves in this way. One way of looking at this passage is as an investment strategy: the imitation of God results in receiving God himself. God is both the creditor and reward. By imitating him, we will become like him and so receive him as our reward.
The famous Golden Rule in verse 6:31 is a diagnostic test which discloses whether we are acting in accord with this goal of imitating God. It is not presented—as it is so often misread—as a mathematical formula that describes the substance of our moral lives. Instead, it gives us a practical measure that we can apply to any situation and act toward God.
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year C
Luke’s account of the Transfiguration is the only one in the Gospels which tells us that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus about. In the first-year cycle’s Matthew account, we learned about how the cloud, the voice, and the three companions and their fear recapitulate Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Here, the discussion between the holy ones, coming on the heels of the passion prediction in verse 22 foregrounds Jesus’ passion and death, alluded to as his “exodus” which would take place at Jerusalem. The scene in Luke mirrors Gethsemane, pointing out that Jesus and the three disciples went to the mountain “to pray” (28). The disciples, unlike later at the Garden, successfully keep awake and witness Christ’s glory. The similitude between the two scenes gives meaning to the preceding commandment to “take up one’s cross.” To share in Christ’s passion is to share in his glory. To drink the cup of his passion is to be transformed. The apostles on the mountain surely reported what they saw to encourage the saints to see in Jesus their own destiny: to walk in the way of the Cross to share in the glorious and great power of Christ’s resurrected body.