Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 4A

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As noted before, through Year A of the Sunday lectionary we work our way through selections of the Gospel of Matthew. Beginning in Epiphany 4A, the church will focus our attention on the Scripture’s illumination of Jesus as Son of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the first and largest of five teaching discourses of Jesus in Matthew. The sermon begins, of course, with the Beatitudes—the Blessed are poem in Matthew 5:1-12. The repetition of the word “dangers” in the Collect anticipates the theme of persecution in the Gospel reading. The appointed Psalm 37:1-11 is a series of proverbs which in the liturgy serves to give voice to one who leads the blessed life Jesus describes. The selected OT reading from Micah 6:1-8, as with the Amos reading last week, presents a counterpoint to the theme of blessing via prophetic complaint over disobedience in Israel. Moving forward through 1 Corinthians, the assigned NT reading in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 builds on the theme of wisdom from God introduced last week. 

The Collect

O God, you know that we are set in the midst of many grave dangers, and because of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant that your strength and protection may support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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He Has Told You What is Good (Micah 6:1-8)

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (6-8)

The people of Judah have fallen into pagan worship and disobedience to the law. Through the prophet Micah, as if in a courtroom, YHWH complains that he has done nothing to deserve their unfaithfulness. On the contrary, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. And how will the people respond to this charge? With mocking: “So what do you want me to do? Worship every day in church? Put all my money in the offering basket? Sacrifice my children?”  If we are honest as Christians, we know what it is to be at times exasperated with God, unsure of how to respond to his call to serve. Like pagans, we search for the ultimate offering we can make to quiet what sounds like (but really is not) condemnation from he who always wants more. At last, when we come to our senses, we recall that all Jesus really desires from us is to receive with thanksgiving the redemption he has won for us on the cross and to permit him to work in us a new lifestyle of humble submission toward him and others around us. Today, Holy Spirit, relieve me of the exasperation I feel, like the wayward people of Israel in the reading, wondering how to satisfy the Father God by my own efforts. Make me rather an open circuit of your love flowing in me and out from me to others.

Inherit the Land (Psalm 37:1-11)

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
   Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
    but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
    though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
   and delight themselves in abundant peace. (8-11)

This psalm is a series of proverbs seeking to build up the hearts of the faithful. Twice in the assigned section (and five times in the whole psalm) we see the phrase inherit the land. YHWH had promised the land of Canaan to the families of the OT patriarchs (Genesis 15:7, Joshua 1:6). But to continue dwelling in the land of Israel, and particularly to pass on an inheritance of the land, was a deep concern for the OT Israelites as there were always evildoers from other nations seeking to displace them. Devotionally, we might ask ourselves: what is our heartfelt concern equal to inheriting the land? From the psalm we might be tempted to look for something else in the world we can count on as secure—but, alas, there is no such thing. No, from the Christian perspective the inheritance of land in the OT is foreshadowing a far greater prize. In the NT we are taught to turn away from concern over what is passing away in this world and look rather to a more abundant bequest in the next. Note how, in comparison to the passage above, the beatitude of Jesus in the assigned Gospel reads the meek will inherit the earth (something bigger, more cosmic); and later in his sermon Jesus will say, Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20). Today, Holy Spirit, let me find in the wisdom of “David” about inheriting the land of Israel assurance of a secure lot in the new Israel to come.

God Made Foolish the Wisdom of the World (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (18-21)

There is much discussion lately of Christians bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ “into the public square,” with the church politely setting up its booth alongside everyone else in the marketplace. That’s good; but as we take our places let us not be unaware that God is not likewise playing nicely with the philosophies incentivizing our neighbors. The Bible paints a picture of the wisdom of God in pitched battle against the wisdom of the world. And Paul, with his deep knowledge of the OT scriptures and his own experience of a blinding conversion, sees in the revelation of Jesus the intention of the One God to fight off and humiliate any contenders against truth: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? The cue we should be taking from Paul in organizing our youth events and running our Alpha courses is not that we ourselves should come out violently swinging, but that we understand God is doing just that. Even while we are laying an inviting table for our gatherings, our prayer is that God will destroy the world’s eloquent wisdom (recalling the phrase from last week’s epistle reading) which holds people captive from receiving the good news of Jesus Christ. Today, in the Spirit, we hear Paul’s perspective on the fighting spirit of the God who saves, and we humbly take our places in the forefront of the invisible battle raging behind our quiet ministries.    

Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12)

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (1-12)

The third season of the television production “The Chosen” begins with the character of Jesus of Nazareth preaching the Sermon on the Mount. The listeners–including disciples, Roman soldiers, Jewish religious leaders and casual passersby–are heard to give almost universal approval of the sermon, openly praising the preacher in company with one another. Then, suddenly, Jesus gives his disciples a vacation (really, why not?), and the remainder of that first episode is dedicated to revealing how his followers all variously succeed and fail to apply the lessons they learned in the sermon with their families, friends and one another during the off-time. There once again the age-old conundrum: wholeheartedly assenting to the word of God in principle and struggling to put it into practice. We agree right away with the idea, for instance, Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, but then we spend the rest of our lives walking a crooked path to learn what blessed and what poor in Spirit and what kingdom of heaven really mean in the day to day. The great news is that the God who created us knows us, understands us, and is pleased to work with us over the long haul. Paul writes: Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). Today, Lord Jesus, by your Spirit, meet us in those places where we struggle daily to show mercy, to be a peacemaker and to rejoice in the face of opposition.   

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

January 23, 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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