Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 3A

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On Epiphany 3, from the church’s selection of Sunday Gospel readings we are meant to see how the glory of Jesus Christ was revealed in the earliest events of his ministry in Galilee (northern Palestine). This year out of Matthew there is a dual focus on Jesus’ preaching in Capernaum and the calling of his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee. The exhortation of the church in its messaging this week is as the Collect states, “to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” The OT reading from Amos puts forward a warning against persistent unwillingness to respond to the word of God. By contrast the appointed Psalm 139 displays the depth of spiritual insight that comes to those, like David, who are willing to be led by the Holy Spirit into a life of devotion to God. The Epistle reading continues the ongoing meditation on the early chapters of 1 Corinthians.

The Collect

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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All Your Iniquities (Amos 3:1-11)

Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities (1-2).

It is difficult to make much of a connection between this OT reading and the others assigned for the week, except that the unwillingness of Israel to respond to the call of YHWH as seen in Amos stands in stark contrast to the readiness of the first disciples to respond to Jesus’ call as seen in Matthew (see Matthew 4:20,22). Do you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge to combat Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in 2014? You would video yourself pouring ice cold water over your head as if to wake yourself from slumber over the seriousness of the terrible disease, promise to make a contribution to the ALS Association, and then challenge someone else by name to do the same. Devotionally, to hear these words from Amos is like pouring that ice-cold water over your head. Hearing Amos and Matthew together, you say: “I’m not going to pretend that I am actually responding to the call of Christ on my life like Peter and Andrew; I will acknowledge my own complacency to the gospel like that of Israel in Amos;” then, shivering under the cold realization of your sinful condition, you continue: “I will humbly by God’s power seek to follow Jesus, and, as I am able, encourage others to do the same. It’s like (extending the water illustration further) a renewal of your own baptismal vows following the consideration of Jesus’ baptism two weeks ago. Today, Holy Spirit, let me be chilled by the reading from Amos in preparation for the challenge in the reading from Matthew.

How Difficult I Find Your Thoughts (Psalm 139:1-18)

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you (17-18).

Or, O God, how difficult I find your thoughts (GNT). It is incredible that in the course of the entire three-year Sunday lectionary cycle, Epiphany 3A is the only occasion for the selection of this beloved psalm. It would, of course, be appropriate almost any time. But on this Sunday, when we are contemplating the call of Jesus’ first disciples, we might easily imagine the questions, Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?, on the lips of the four fishermen as they hear Jesus’ commission to follow him–or even from Jesus himself as he addresses them. The Hebrew word for precious in the passage can also be translated as costly (Psalm 49:8) or difficult (as above). Devotionally, we might reflect on the added perspective this rendering gives to the whole poem. For instance, the phrase you hem me in behind and before is a source of precious comfort when we feel the need for God’s protection. But consider this: the Hebrew verb used here for hem in literally means “lay siege to.” To be hemmed in by God means, yes, nothing truly harmful can get in, but also that we are kept in. Where shall I flee indeed? Does that make you feel uncomfortable? It’s okay. There is both a comfort and a compulsion to the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, in the Spirit, we ponder in the beauty of Psalm 139, the parts that make us squirm alongside the parts that puts us at ease.    

Words of Eloquent Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may 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 preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (14-17).

It may seem strange to hear from Paul what appears to be depreciation of baptism on his part. A couple of points in response to this:1) Paul did baptize new believers as he states in the text; and 2) as a traveling apostle, he often appointed elders in each city and left all church functions, including baptism, in their hands. Sadly, in Corinth at this time baptism apparently became the activity around which competing church leaders marked their territory and established their “power” bases within the community. So when Paul states Christ did not send me to baptize, he means Christ did not send him to promote a faction of Christians (like they were doing) but rather to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, without prejudice. In our churches, when we lose sight of the fact that we have universal good news to share, and that that is our purpose, we can easily fall into propping up one party line or another as the perceived priority thing to do. The wisdom of God is in Christ crucified–there alone and not in the devotion to any church tradition or doctrinal perspective or charismatic leader (see 1 Corinthians 1:20-24, part of next week’s assigned Epistle reading). Today, in the Spirit, reading Paul let me examine myself to see if there is any allegiance to eloquent wisdom–devotion to lesser things, putting me at odds with brothers and sisters in the church community and distracting the body in general from prioritizing the gospel.     

Repent (Matthew 4:12-22)

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1-2).

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

Matthew gives us a summary statement of John the Baptist’s preaching and one of Jesus’ preaching that are exactly the same. What shall we say about this? Without making too much of a fuss, it does appear Matthew would have us hold a little longer to the exhortation to repent, by making it a singular theme for both John and Jesus at this stage. The basic meaning of the main word in Hebrew for repent is “to turn back,” and in Greek “to change one’s mind.” In both of these there is the sense of a conscious, determined change of course which will affect the whole of one’s life. Could it be that, before launching out on his own campaign to bring people to believe the good news (see Mark 1:15 by way of comparison), Matthew the Evangelist would have us consider carefully the changes we are called to make, the turning we need to perform, in saying “Yes” to Jesus’ call Follow me. Today, Holy Spirit, with Jesus’ preaching in Matthew as my guide, let me ponder the cost of what it truly means for me to leave my nets and boats and family behind.

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

January 15, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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