The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A — 22 January 2023
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell
Isaiah 9: 1-4; Psalm 27: 1-10; 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18; Matthew 4: 12-25
+In the Name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
As we’re in the Epiphany season of our church year we’re reflecting on how God is revealed to us, and especially through Jesus Christ. Today in our readings there are three ways that I can see in which God is revealed, and one way in which God is decidedly not revealed—indeed, in which we mess up how God wants to reveal God’s love through the Church. We’ll see that God’s revealing isn’t necessarily about showy supernatural manifestations, though there are plenty of those in the Bible. Instead, it’s about finding a new courage and confidence, a new perspective, a new calling and purpose, while also making sure that the Church doesn’t get bogged down in age-old games of faction and egotism.
Let’s start with our Isaiah reading, with its people who walked in darkness seeing a great light, with the rod of their oppressor broken, and with a stubborn joy breaking out. And then there’s today’s psalm, in which an unvanquishable fearlessness seizes God’s people, despite the threat of an opposing army, despite enemies circling. Imagine hearing this psalm at church in Ukraine, and taking comfort that God is present no matter what. God’s revealing in Isaiah and in our psalm today comes as a new attitude takes hold, with a robust new confidence. God’s revealing shifts the dials in life—muting the defeatedness, while cranking up the joy, the irony, the humour, the courage.
The Ukrainians have found this to be true, and we can too. Many Christians can testify to the peace and quiet resolve they find in the face of grave illness, bereavement, divorce, job loss, public shaming, financial disaster, or whatever other blows that life has landed on them. God is revealed in a new perspective on our troubles, and a new hopefulness despite everything. God is revealed in a capacity to read our world and our experience differently, and a lot of you know what I mean from your own experience.
Then, in today’s gospel from Matthew, we see two further, related ways in which God is revealed in Jesus Christ. One is more obvious. Jesus calls fishermen away from their ancestral livelihood so that they can fish for people. Jesus does this with a nice pastoral touch, and shows a cheeky sense of humour. Yes, I’m calling you to give up the family business, he tells them, and to leave your father behind in a culture where everyone is known as the son of someone, who was the son of someone, and so on. Jesus knows that this is a big deal, and potentially disorienting. So he reassures these fishermen by emphasising continuity not discontinuity. He tells them that they’ll be fishing for people, that they’ll be expanding and diversifying their business rather than abandoning it, that they’ll be building on what they know. They’ll also be finding a new Father and a new family and a new heritage; they won’t be alone or adrift.
So, when Jesus is revealed to us it means a calling that gathers up who we are and what we’ve done. While Jesus won’t leave us the same, he does take who we are and where we’ve come from seriously. And then he expands on it, extending us in his service. And thus he gives us a new context for our lives. It may mean a whole new thing, or it may just mean a new attitude brought to everything we do: an attitude centred on knowing and serving Jesus—a missional spirituality, if you like, in a phrase you’ll become more and more familiar with as our new parish program of that name develops.
The related way that God is revealed in today’s Gospel is through existing religious themes being taken up and shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. Our Isaiah passage is quoted in today’s Gospel. Here, a text that for Isaiah promised God’s deliverance from the Assyrian threat becomes for Matthew a testimony to what Jesus brings: deliverance from our deluded attitudes, our destructive habits, our entrenched follies—all the things that the Church calls sin.
In light of his own experience and that of his early Christian community, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel saw his Old Testament hopes fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In the same way that the fishermen called by Jesus found a new outlet for their fishing skills, so the Christians in Matthew’s community found a new dimension to their Old Testament hopes, a decisive new chapter to the familiar story.
This reminds me of those wise men from the East who Matthew also gives us, whose stars led them to the infant Jesus, but whose encounter with him led them home “by another road”. Here again God’s revealing in Jesus Christ doesn’t deny what went before, but it does resituate it, taking us to familiar places by another road. This is how Christian theologians in India came to regard Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Hindu religious imagination, or Christians in Japan to see spiritual insights and practices from the Buddhist schools affirmed yet also transformed in their encounter with Jesus Christ.
So, Jesus is not the enemy of human wisdom, or philosophical insight, or religious richness. In Jesus Christ, God says ‘yes’ to every spiritual quest but also builds on it, issuing a new calling to bring all of that into a new synthesis, a new perspective, a new adventure.
Finally, friends, let’s see from our 1 Corinthians reading what the revealing of God in Jesus Christ does not look like. It doesn’t look like a divided Church, with factions jealously guarding their own version of the truth. St Paul himself declares in this reading that he wants no part of this attitude, refusing the status that some want to give him as a religious founder. It’s been said that the Church’s divisions make it hard for many to take Christianity seriously, since we’re so like every other sinful human institution. This is true of squabbling groups in our congregations, and in a national Church like ours where our progressive and conservative factions risk becoming bitter rivals. And it’s true of our stubborn denominational divisions, too, which suit us so well that we fail to see what a scandal they represent.
Bringing these four stated divisions in today’s epistle up to date, the Catholic theologian Hans Küng, in his great book The Church, likened those who followed Paul to the Protestant Churches of the Reformation, while those who followed the Greek-named Apollos he related to today’s Eastern Orthodox Churches; those who followed Cephas, otherwise known as Peter, remind him of the Roman Catholics, while those who boast that “we follow Christ” he associates with so-called free churches, like the Baptists, who claim to have escaped all that for something purer.
The point in our epistle today is that the cross of Jesus Christ should put an end to this spirit of division, because the cross represents the very opposite of egotistical self-assertion, of self-definition by excluding others. Instead, the cross reveals a whole new human solidarity, as the crucified Jesus stands with the despised and the unloved rather than despising others and withholding love. Which is why the Church simply must not let its dividedness get in the way of God’s revelation.
So, friends, God is being revealed in Jesus Christ to change how we see our circumstances, to build hope and resilience, to give us joy for sorrow, to fulfill our life stories and shift along our accustomed identities with a new calling, and then to bed that down in a Church that’s fit for purpose, not depleted by sub-Christian divisiveness. That’s the gift for us today, friends, in word and sacrament, but it’s also a challenge. The Lord be with you …
The Lord be with you . . .