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God Is Going Before Us

Commentary
The texts for the Third Sunday After Epiphany are that God goes before us.

Isaiah 9:1-4
The First Lesson is likely a prophecy of the historical Isaiah, whose ministry to Judah (the Southern Kingdom) transpired in the 8th century BC. This is a prophecy about the Messianic King originally an oracle for the coronation of a Judean king, perhaps for Hezekiah (724-697BC) in the Davidic line. He reigned during Isaiah’s ministry. The lesson begins with a promise that there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. It is noted that in the former time the Lord allowed the lands of the tribes of Zubulun and Naphtali as well as in the north to become Assyrian provinces (v.1). The new king (the Messiah) is described as a great light [or] for those who had been in darkness [choshek], that is in oppression. It seems that this light will make glorious the way to the Sea [of Galilee] (vv.1-2). Light is an image for release from oppression. The new king will make the nation more abundant, increase its joy, and break the oppressor’s rod, just as the great war hero of the tribe of Manasseh, Gideon, conquered the Mideanites (vv.3-4; Judges 7:15-25).

These observations were readily applied to the Babylonian exiles of the 6th century BC addressed in the chapters of Isaiah from 40 to the end of the book. The exile was interpreted in accord with God’s plan to restore the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali noted in this chapter.

Americans today feel some of the despair Hebrews felt in the 6th century BC, a sense of losing the nation they knew. Such despair among the white working class got Trump elected four years ago. Things have hardly improved in four years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in a report last April that 60% of American workers are spending more than they earn. A Pew Foundation report found that despite the low unemployment and higher wages, the purchasing power of the average American paycheck has hardly gained anything in the last decade. True, there is less unemployment in the Trump economy.  But a 2018 study of the National Center for Children in Poverty revealed that 33% of black children and 27% of Latino children are impoverished, while only 10% of white children are in that situation.

The lesson addresses these dynamics, offering a word of hope not unlike the hope proclaimed to the Babylonian Exiles. The gloom of those in anguish has been lifted by the Messiah. There is promise that the nation will flourish. If only we can believe this, engage the upcoming elections with an eye towards which candidate might best overcome these challenges, then our nation and our world will be a lot more hopeful and better off. God always goes before us in our struggles.           

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The Second Lesson is drawn from a letter written by Paul to the troubled Corinthian church. Continuing his introduction, the Apostle engages in a discussion of the division in the community and offers a testimony to Christ crucified. He appeals for unity (v.10). Some members of the household of Chloe (a female disciple of the Apostle) had reported to Paul that there were quarrels, some saying they belonged to Cephas [the Aramaic name for Peter], others to Apollos (an early Alexandrian Christian), and others to Paul (vv.11-12). Paul

laments that Christ cannot be divided. He notes that none was baptized in his name and that he

had not been crucified for them. He also holds that only two of the Corinthians in the household of Stephanus were baptized by him (vv.13-16).    

The Apostle concludes by noting that he was not sent to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel, and that proclamation is not to be done with eloquent wisdom (which apparently a number of Corinthian Christians felt they possessed [2:5-6; 3:18]), so that the cross of Christ is not emptied of its power (v.17). The message of the cross, he adds, is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those saved it is the power of God (v.18). The theme of Christ crucified is a central theme of the letter.

The media regularly remind us how divided America seems to be politically and in other values. Conflict in American congregations is a common reality. A 2015 Lifeway survey found that nearly ¼ (23%) of the clergy relocate due to conflict in their congregations. (We are clearly not embodying the Bible’s witness to love and peace). Paul’s call for unity in this lesson is just right for addressing these social and ecclesiastical maladies. We should put before the flock the apostle’s focus on the crucified Christ. Such a focus on Christ is foolishness to those caught up in the wisdom of the world. And most of the time, when we are in a conflict it is because we have been sucked into the world’s wisdom to such an extent that we will not even react civilly to the other side. Focusing on Christ gets us away from that sort of “wisdom,” and makes us a little less certain about the “truth” of our thinking. And that makes us a little easier to live with, more inclined to seek unity and harmony. We’re always nicer when God is leading the way.                     

Matthew 4:12-23
The gospel is again drawn from the most Jewish of all the gospels written, evidenced by this lesson with its concern to find links in the stories told to the Hebrew Scriptures. The account reports the beginnings of Jesus’ activity in Galilee. It begins with Jesus learning that John the Baptist had been arrested. He then went to Galilee, but left Nazareth, making his home in Capernaum (a town about thirty miles northeast of Nazareth on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee) (vv.12-13). This relocation was to fulfill Isaiah 9:1-2 (portions of which are quoted) and its reference to a great light [liberation] to people in darkness [oppression] seen on the road to the Sea of Galilee (vv.14-16). (See the discussion of these images in the analysis of the First Lesson.)

Next, Jesus is reported as beginning to proclaim repentance, for the king of heaven is said to have come near (v.17). (In contrast to Mark, Matthew uses this phrase more than the “Kingdom of God,” presumably because in good Jewish fashion his preferred phrase avoids mentioning the divine name.) The story of the conversion of fishermen Simon, called Peter (Matthew gives no indication that he knows of the Apostle’s name change) and his brother Andrew is recounted. They are reported to follow immediately (vv.18-20). A similar account is given regarding the calling of fisherman [lower-class occupations in the Holy Land in this era] James son of Zebedee and his brother John (vv.21-22). The motif of “following” [akoloutheo] Jesus is characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel.  

Jesus did not hang out with the best elements of society. America needs that message today very badly, because many denominations (esp. mainline churches but even increasingly in African-American denominations) are becoming churches of the professionals or at least of the upper middle class (Charles Murray, Coming Apart, pp.207ff.; Timothy Carney, Alienated America, esp.p.249). By noting how in this instance and elsewhere, Jesus reached out to the lower classes (Mt. 9:9; Luke 10:25ff.) we can begin to break out of this insalubrious dynamic.

The more we can proclaim that this lesson sets an agenda for congregations, to witness to all that Jesus is concerned with those on the margins, the better chance we may have to begin to reach out to Americans who are on society’s margins today.              

All the lessons make clear that God is going before us, leading the way. Be sure your sermon makes clear that God is going before us, making clear how that makes a difference in our attitudes and/or how we live.
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Psalm 98

Let the floods clap their hands;
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He will judge the world with righteousness,
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Acts 10:44-48
Prejudice is always wrong. Nat King Cole is a well-known artist who was the first African American to host his own national television program. In 1948, he purchased a beautiful home in an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood. When the local neighborhood association confronted him and informed him it didn’t want any undesirables to move in, Cole responded, “Neither do I. If I see any coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He lived in that house until his death in 1965.

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“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (vv. 9-12)

Hi, everyone! (Let them respond.)

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Call to Worship:

Jesus gave up his life for us. In our worship today let us explore how to love one another as he has loved us.


Invitation to Confession:

Jesus, sometimes our love for each other is thin and pale.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we pretend to love but fail to care.
Christ, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we don't know how to love.
Lord, have mercy.

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Theme of the Day
God's love brings us together.

Collect of the Day
It is noted that God has prepared great joy for those who love Him. Petitions are then offered that such love may be poured into the hearts of the faithful so that they may obtain these promises. Justification as a reward for our deeds (love) is communicated by this prayer.

Psalm of the Day
Psalm 98
Stan Purdum
(See Christmas Day, Cycles A and B, for alternative approaches.)

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Once upon a time a great and powerful king ruled over a vast territory. There was something very strange about this kingdom, however -- everything was the same. The people ate the same food, drank the same drink, wore the same clothes, and lived in the same type of homes. The people even did all the same work. There was another oddity about this place. Everything was gray -- the food, the drink, the clothes, the houses; there were no other colors.

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