This month’s blog for the season of Epiphany is adapted from a homily I wrote in 1998 for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. The readings, from Year A of the revised common lectionary, are Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17; and Matthew 4:12-23.
What makes a person a man or woman of God? Robert Stone’s novel, Damascus Gate, portrays an unstable Jewish guru, Adam De Kuff, who has been convinced by his handler, Raziel Melker, that he is the messiah. To fulfill the prophecies in the book of Isaiah, De Kuff travels with his followers to Galilee in an effort to bring on the end times, but the only end time they find is their own: this would-be messiah begins to fall apart mentally and his followers become scattered.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus, too, began his mission in Galilee in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, but with a fundamentally different orientation. Jesus was a man of God because he chose to serve God rather than seek worldly power.
The reading from Isaiah contains the familiar Advent prophecy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . .” Christians associate this prophecy with the birth of Jesus, the Light. Our familiarity with this prophecy might tempt us to skip over the beginning of the reading, which seems obscure: “First he degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the end he has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.” Why did the assemblers of the lectionary include this sentence in today’s reading?
Because Matthew and his community were Jewish Christians, Matthew wanted to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. In order to convince his fellow Jews of the truth of Jesus, Matthew tied the details of Jesus’ life into the prophecies whenever he could. So, too, do Christians today look back at these prophecies to learn about Jesus. If we look at a map of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, we will see that Zebulun and Naphtali are part of the land later called Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry.
Taking the Isaiah prophecy verse by verse, we soon see that it sets up a series of contrasts: the land that was degraded is later glorified; distress is replaced by freedom from anguish; darkness and gloom are replaced by great light and abundant joy. The yoke that burdened, the pole on the shoulder, the rod of the taskmaster, all are smashed. Relief far outweighs the earlier distress and justice prevails.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul, too, uses the method of contrasts: divisions in the early church stand in contrast to Christ who cannot be divided; there is only one baptism and it is of Christ, not of his individual disciples, even though the disciples administer that baptism. Unlike the would-be messiah, De Kuff, Paul understands that his own mission is both of Christ and fundamentally different from Christ’s mission: Christ sent Paul not to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not to preach Paul’s own wisdom, but the wisdom that is of Christ: the wisdom of the cross.
We see contrasts in the Gospel, beginning in chapter four of Matthew immediately preceding today’s reading. Before Jesus begins his public ministry, he is tempted by Satan to turn away from God in three ways: for personal nourishment, personal protection, and personal power. In each instance, Jesus insists on serving God instead of giving in to the temptation to personal power. And what does that mean for Jesus? The motif of contrasts can aid us here. Let’s go back to Isaiah. Jesus will smash the yoke that burdens, the pole on the shoulder, the rod of the taskmaster that oppresses. Jesus, the Light, will take upon himself the forces of darkness. To paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy and my burden, Light.”
After he makes the choice in the desert to serve God, Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled. One imagines that any confusion he might have had about God’s will for him is now removed, his choices now clear. Where will he begin? In Galilee. To whom will he go? To those that walked in darkness. Will he have to go alone? No, he will have help, men and women who will go with him. And what will his ministry consist of? Teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people. (Matthew 4:23) And later, the cross.
Each one of us has a choice whether to serve God or to follow the path of personal power. As Christians, we know that the Messiah has come, and our duty in this life is to follow him as closely as we can until he comes again. Still, we must choose where to go, whom to live and work with, and what to do to help bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. When we make a conscious choice to serve God, not only can our own path can become clear, we can be a light for others as well.
An example of this dynamic of faith was described in Steve Kloehn’s “On Religion” column in the Chicago Tribune in August of 1998. The Gospel Temple Baptist Church on Chicago’s far south side had been a light in its community for many years under the leadership of Rev. Jethro Gayles, a 72-year-old man of God who became a legend in his own time. On the night before Palm Sunday, as Rev. Gayles was working on his sermon, someone broke into the church and brutally murdered him. The case was never solved.
The church went on, but bereft, drifting from visiting minister to visiting minister. In the words of Isaiah, their congregation was degraded, anguished; they held on, but in distress, darkness and gloom. How could they replace Pastor Gayles? Of course, they couldn’t replace him. Who would be their new pastor, and how would they know him if they found him?
Gospel Temple Baptist Church found a new pastor, but even he didn’t know it at first. For one thing, Bishop Smith (his name) seemed too young and inexperienced to be a pastor: only 25 years old, a husband and a new father. Sure, he was ordained but he was only an assistant minister. His full-time work was for the Chicago Park District. But the leaders of Gospel Temple Baptist could see that, despite his inexperience, Smith was a man of God. Steve Kloehn’s column described him this way:
Maybe it was his energy level . . . Maybe it was his impressive knowledge of the Bible, or his big, booming presence behind the pulpit when he filled in as a preacher. Maybe it was his undented sense of optimism, a confidence that defied any explanation other than faith. “‘The man showed me that he was God’s child. He knew the problems we were having and he’d say, ‘Let’s just pray on it,’” said Wallace Mosby, a deacon at Gospel Temple.
After initially refusing, Smith, with the encouragement of his wife, decided to commit to Gospel Temple. He experienced some rejection from old-timers at the church, but he kept on preaching, running Bible study nights and prayer meetings, and word spread. New worshipers came, and church attendance became stronger than ever. “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”(Isaiah 9:1)
Pastor Smith’s story illustrates how our path in God’s kingdom can become clear once we’ve made the decision to do God’s will. Over the temptations of worldly power, money and prestige, or, on the other hand, temptations of a false sense of powerlessness, Smith followed in Christ’s footsteps by doing the work that God put in from of him every day. When the call came to begin his public ministry the choices of where to go, who to live and work with, and what to do became clear: teach, proclaim God’s kingdom, and help to heal the wounds of his small congregation. Smith chose to reflect God’s light for his family and for Gospel Baptist. With this choice he helped God to dispel their gloom and anguish, and bring abundant joy.
In the places where we live, work, and worship, with the people who we see every day, or maybe with new people in a new place, God has a particular work for us to do that no one else can do. We are not called to do the unique work of our Savior, Jesus Christ, but God does need each of us to do our part in bringing God’s kingdom here on earth. The light of our candle may seem very small when compared with Jesus’ great Light, and yet we have an awesome responsibility. How are we to know where to go, who to live and work with, and what to do?
Before parting from his companions, Jesus knew that they–and we–would need a place to go, people to live and work with, and something to do, in order to follow him. Jesus said, “Take, eat, this is my body. Take this and drink it, this is my blood.” We may not know yet where our ministry lies, but we do know that our life and work as Christians centers on this place–the Church–together with our fellow Christians, and the community of all those who have gone before us and will come after us to the table of the Lord. As we strive to know what role God has for us in God’s kingdom, we can come to that table to receive the Eucharist in confidence that we are doing God’s will.