Today in the Spirit: Epiphany World Mission Sunday A

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The Book of Common Prayer 2019 has designated the second to last Sunday of Epiphany every year to be World Mission Sunday. This accomplishes two important things: 1) it causes us who spend most our time and energy following Jesus in one locality among a small circle of people to lift our eyes over the trees and consider the progress of the gospel in the whole world; and 2) it inspires us in a season of celebrating the Father God’s revelation of his Son in the world to take up our gospel responsibilities for the world mission–through prayer, giving and even going. One key responsibility for Christians in world mission is prayer, and so in Year A, out of the assigned Gospel reading Matthew 9:35-38, we hear Jesus’ command to his disciples to pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. From the prophecy in Isaiah 49:1-7, God’s servant Israel learns their return from exile will be not only to restore their own tribes but that you may bring my salvation to the ends of earth. The appointed Psalm 67 invites worshipers to call for the blessing of all the nations (ethnic groups of humanity). In the assigned NT reading Acts 1:1-8 we hear a prophecy of the risen Jesus before his ascension on the global impact of the disciples’ witness to the ends of the earth.

The Collect

Almighty God, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, you revealed the way of eternal life to every race and nation: Pour out this gift anew, that by the preaching of the Gospel your salvation may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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You Are My Servant (Isaiah 49:1-7)

And [the LORD] said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God” (3-4)

For World Mission Sunday Year A the church assigns a remarkable reading from Isaiah in which we hear the voice of YHWH reiterating his determination to use Israel to be a light for the nations. There is, however, some pushback in the passage. The servant (Israel, Christ, the church) is permitted to speak his mind about the enterprise, admitting to some despair over this high calling of God as a result of experiences of suffering and failure: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But then we hear testimony from the servant’s own mouth of renewal coming from YHWH himself: I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.” The witness in all of Scripture is that, though God’s demands may be ambitious and difficult, it is not more than we can bear, and when needed he faithfully serves up encouragement to overcome despair and deliverance from trouble all along the way. Hear the psalmist: I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you (Psalm 32:8). Today, in the Spirit, we are comforted by the testimony of the servant of God’s helping hand with his high calling.

Let All the Peoples Praise You (Psalm 67)

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!
The earth has yielded its increase;
  God, our God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth fear him! (5-7)

What a glorious song to sing on World Mission Sunday! Understand that the Israel of YHWH does not here ask that all the peoples (or nations) praise God or that all the ends of the earth be blessed out of any desire conceived in her own imagination. This is the will of the Lord, the inviolable intention of God laid out to Abraham at the beginning, that all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Something so large can only come out of the higher imagination of the divine: For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). With our limited vision, and a natural pessimism arising out of our sinful condition, we cannot sustain the hope of such a favorable completion of all things; but today, in the Holy Spirit, as the new Israel we pray and sing into the promises of God revealed in the Scriptures for a blessing of all the world through Jesus Christ.

It is Not For You… But You (Acts 1:1-8)

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (6-8).

Looking in context at the each of passages in the Gospels and Acts with a world mission mandate (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-15, Luke 24:40-47, John 20:19-23, Acts 1:6-8), we find, interestingly, that every time the mandate is given to alter the disciples’ attention from some lesser train of thought. Like a kindergarten teacher in class with young children, our Lord finds his pupils constantly looking out the window or jabbering with their friends instead of concentrating on their assignments and must, with varying degrees of kindness, convince them to turn their heads front and focus. In our Acts reading this week, the apostles (his star pupils) are asking when Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus replies in effect: “Stop thinking about this; it is not your concern. But you all focus on being my witnesses here and everywhere.” Nothing has changed. Jesus is as present with us as he was with the Eleven. We are always distracted. He says and does just the right thing to get us back on task of proclaiming the Good News to the world. Throughout the course of our individual lives, and across the generations of the church, it’s really just one ongoing kindergarten class. And why not? We really get a lot done in kindergarten. Today, Holy Spirit, in this week of concentrating on your world mission, rouse me from daydreaming and get me back on the witnessing track again.   

Pray Earnestly to the Lord of the Harvest (Matthew 9:35-38)

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (35-38)

In Luke, where Jesus charges his disciples to pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest, it is within a set of instructions he gives before they go out on a mission campaign (Luke 10:1-2). By contrast in Matthew, the same command arises out of the Lord’s own experience of hard work in ministry. Here we can almost imagine Jesus panting with fatigue and choked up with emotion as he speaks to his friends. (Could it be that even the Son of God incarnate felt the desperation of being just one person among so many who are harassed and helpless?). Notice the first instinct of Jesus when he is burdened in ministry is neither to give more effort nor to walk away in despair, but to pray for helpers. The Father God is the Lord of the harvest; it is his harvest and his responsibility to supply laborers. This is the logic Jesus would have written in bold print on the minds of his disciples, that they would remember it when they feel overwhelmed in working with people. Today, Holy Spirit, teach me to follow Jesus’ example of keeping my head when the going gets tough, and to make his command to the Twelve to pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest my own.    

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

February 6, 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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