Epiphany III, Year A
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
We are reminded today that the gospel is good news. There is a gospel being proclaimed from pulpits today that is not good news, it is a dysangellion, a bad news that is a falsification of the gospel announced in the New Testament. In our recent travels around the southern United States we had the occasion to observe hundreds of billboards and church signs. The vast majority of these indicated that what was being preached was a mixed message. Accept Jesus as your Savior or go to hell. Some were put in this straightforward language, others were more muted, but they all indicated the same thing, hell was the reward for not joining this or that particular congregation’s doctrinal stance.
Our text today contains the familiar Markan refrain, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance is grounded in the good news that God has come, the good God, the God of life and light, the God of peace and reconciliation, and the God who will ultimately display the true divine character in the forgiving Jesus. This God comes to bring light, to heal the brokenhearted, the lame, the blind, to give hope to the disenfranchised. The fact is, Jesus mentions hell only to the religious, the church going, the better than thou crowd. There is no mixed message for the sinners, there is only good news, God is with us, God is on our side, God has come to liberate us from the bondage of our darkness.
We have sought to stress this singularity of good news on PreachingPeace.org. In Epiphany the Gospel of Matthew announces this singularity quite clearly and it is done as the fulfillment of age old promises, promises made by ‘the God who cares’ (Frederick Holmgren). In His Bible Studies on Isaiah, Tony Bartlett has stressed the newness, the freshness of this good news and just how Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s promise.
Today, America is a land ‘living in darkness’, ‘living in the shadow of death.’ More so under the guise of freedom and democracy and in the name of Jesus, we have become a death dealing land, marching armies around the globe to protect our vital (sic) corporate American interests and investments. Worse yet, is that we do this in the name of the Prince of Peace, in the name of Jesus. As though Jesus cared about corporate profits or political positions, as though Jesus would bring justice at the end of an M-16 or an Abrams tank.
We are living in darkness, a darkness greater than that of ‘Galilee of the Gentiles.’ Our darkness is seductive; it sells the sweet dream of American ‘values’ (really meaning we value our own interest at the cost of everyone else.) Our darkness is us and in the leaders we elected who spout the value of family while sending off our sons and daughters to die. Our darkness is in a structure that says all should cast a vote while discouraging some and failing to count the votes of others. Our darkness offers hope and justice at the end of a gun or a rope or a lethal injection. Our darkness promises security in the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and the disintegration of civil liberties. Our darkness brings truth in the form of lies, in the rhetoric of corporate owned news outlets and preachers bettering their lot in life. In short, America is no beacon of light, it is but a flickering candle in the wind.
And still, Christian preachers continue to preach hellfire and brimstone to those who do not think the way they do. Hell appears to be our great motivator, we fear the ultimate darkness without realizing that we are in it NOW. Just listen to the TV and radio preachers or read the tracts passed about. Go to the Bible book stores and peruse the literature found and purchased by an unwitting populace. We preach fear Sunday by Sunday without realizing that in the gospel ‘perfect love casts out all fear.’ Where Jesus is present and proclaimed there is no fear, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.’
What shall we say then? We must announce the tidings that Jesus brought, that the gospel writers, Peter, Paul and other anonymous writers bore witness to, namely, that God is good, that God brings light into darkness, that God raises the dead to life, that in God ‘there is no shadow of turning’, that our Abba in heaven has a human face, the face of Jesus our Lord.
Much has been written concerning Matthew’s fulfillment citations, their function and their theological aim. It is essential when reading the gospel of Matthew to recall that Matthew has a very specific hermeneutic, as J. Andrew Overman has pointed out, found in Matt 22:34-38. Even the difficult text of 5:17-20 must be interpreted in the light of the Sermon on the Mount and the character of God shown therein.
Matthew’s community is perceived as ‘liberal’ and Matthew’s hermeneutic use of the Hebrew Scriptures is to demonstrate the validity of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of love. Without this overarching love as the wellspring and omega point, Matthew’s fulfillment citations become nothing more than tired midrash or attempts to prove that the ‘Old Testament (sic) talks about Jesus.’ Matthew’s gospel does not set about to demonstrate the validity of the Hebrew Bible, he lives within a community for whom that is not necessary. Rather, he seeks to show the appropriate way to understand these sacred texts in the light of the revelation of the character of God in Jesus. Any preaching use of these fulfillment citations to prove the continued authority of the Hebrew Bible in all of its parts goes against the Matthean hermeneutic, which is quite nuanced.
Well once again we are back to the basics of the gospel. Why? Because we have this natural tendency to clutter things up, to complicate them with our traditions. The time has come for us to be quite frank about the nature of the Gospel of the Living God, the God who fulfills his promises, who keeps her word, who is the true and only source of all love, healing, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. This is the God borne witness to in the Gospel of Matthew, indeed in all four gospels. This One is the maker of heaven and earth, of things seen and unseen. This good and gracious Abba loves us all so dearly and yearns for us to share in that love with one another and with all the creation.
We have so much to share, we have been given the blessing of all the ages in Jesus Christ. His presence with us, in us, and through us, is The source of life for a world caught up in the deception of darkness, in the bondage of death. It is Jesus, the Master of the Spirits, the giver of the Holy Spirit who proffers light as freely as the sun rises every morning. Jesus gives of his self, continuously from eternity to eternity and he does this for our benefit. How then can we not freely share his story? How then shall we preach? Is the gospel we are preaching light in darkness? Is the gospel we are proclaiming life in death? And if it isn’t all we need to do is ‘repent, for the kingdom of our Abba is right here, right now.’
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of this world will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.