Sermon, January 20, 2019 – Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Today is the second Sunday after the Epiphany. On Epiphany, January 6, we remembered the Magi who came to worship Jesus. The Magi were not Jewish, but rather Persian wise men. And so, the coming of the Magi to worship Jesus demonstrated that Jesus’ divinity and lordship had been revealed to the Gentiles. Last week, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we focused on the Baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The season of Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus Christ, as our lord, as our Messiah and as the son of God. It is about the revelation of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him. I looked up “epiphany” in the dictionary, and noted that the first definition is that it is a religious holiday, which isn’t that helpful, but then I read the following three definitions for an epiphany:
a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking; or an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.
Now this is a really useful definition, and gets to the heart of what the Epiphany season is all about.
Our collect for today builds on this theme. “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” We are praying that we will have Jesus Christ revealed to us as we study Scripture and partake of the sacraments, and so proclaim Jesus to the rest of the world.
As I looked at our readings for today, I realized that what unites them all is a theme of revealing and proclaiming Jesus Christ. What’s more, I think that each of our three readings covers this theme in a specific way. We can look at the Isaiah reading as covering the promise of God that foretold the coming of Jesus; the Gospel reading as covering the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus; and the Epistle reading as covering how the Holy Spirit will empower us to proclaim Jesus. Let’s look at each reading – the promise, the fulfillment and the empowering – through the lenses of revelation and proclamation.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah writes about the future vindication of God’s people. When Isaiah wrote this, the kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and the Israelites had been exiled from the Promised Land. In order to fully understand Isaiah’s message, we need to understand the context of Israel’s defeat and exile. The basic structure of the Old Testament is that humanity fell into sin, and, in response, God called the people of Israel to be his chosen people through whom salvation would be brought to the whole world.
God called Israel to be his chosen people, and he established several covenants with them. They were to obey God and be faithful to him, and, in return, God would bless them. But the Israelites were not faithful. They disobeyed God’s commandments and even turned away from God to follow idols and the gods of other nations. In the Eucharist Prayer for Rite II, Prayer B, we pray “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.” God called Israel to be his people out of love, but they rejected him.
In the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is sometimes depicted as a marriage. God is the ever faithful and patient husband, while Israel is the unfaithful and adulterous wife. In fact, if you read the book of the prophet Hosea, you will see that God called Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife, to be a stark reminder to the Israelites of the time of how Israel was being unfaithful to him.
Now, this symbolism probably seems a bit awkward to us, but it is really important to fully grasp what it conveys. In the ancient Middle East, women who did not have a husband were liable to live lives in extreme poverty. Widows were typically destitute. And so for a wife to be flagrantly unfaithful to a loving husband was to toy with disaster for her.
In this passage, Isaiah is suggesting that the defeated and exiled Israel is like an unfaithful and adulterous wife who finally met up with the disaster and desolation that was inevitably the consequence for her behavior. That is the starting point for Isaiah, because he declares that God will return like a blazing torch to vindicate his people Israel. Isaiah is declaring that God loves Israel despite her unfaithfulness and that he will come to redeem her. Isaiah declares that Israel will no longer experience the desolation of an unfaithful wife cast aside by her husband but will instead be the delight of her husband. God will no longer pay Israel back with what she deserves for her unfaithfulness but will shower her with grace and declare his redeemed people to be his delight. This is an incredible message of God’s grace.
In the New Testament, Paul uses a similar illustration when he makes reference to the Church as being the bride of Christ. Paul writes “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
The message of our passage from Isaiah is that Jesus Christ came for our salvation, even though we have been unfaithful and have turned away from God. Just like the ancient Israelites, we have turned away from God and follow the desires of our hearts. Yet, despite this, Jesus came for us, giving up himself to die on the cross, in order that we might be washed clean of our sins and be made children of God. This is an incredible message of love. God does not pay us back for what we deserve, but instead God loved us so much that Jesus gave his very life so that we might be redeemed. This is something that we really do need to share with the world.
Let’s turn now to our Gospel reading. In this reading, we hear about the first miracle of Jesus. He was at a wedding when the host ran out of wine. At the urging of his mother, Jesus saved the day by turning several large jars of water into wine. What is the point of this passage you might ask? That Jesus is the guy that overly frugal wedding planners should always be sure to invite? No, the point of this passage can be found near the end. John writes “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
This story is about Jesus making his first public declaration that he was the Messiah. Jesus Christ came to fulfill God’s promise of salvation that were made in the Old Testament. Listen again to the words of Prayer B “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.” Our Gospel reading is the first sign that Jesus did in which he claimed the mantle of being the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.
Finally, let’s turn to the Epistle reading from Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth. Paul is writing the Corinthians about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Scholars believe that pagans who lived in the ancient world would have been very familiar with ecstatic spiritual experiences. In many pagan religious rites, worshippers would engage in ecstatic spiritual utterances. And so Paul is explaining to Christians that the mere existence of such spiritual activities is not a sign of God’s presence.
Paul brings back all spiritual activity to the person of Jesus Christ. If a person is declaring that Jesus is Lord, than the Holy Spirit is present, and if they deny the lordship of Jesus, than it is not of the Holy Spirit. Paul continues by declaring that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are all given by the one God, for the common good, at the discretion of God himself. The point of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for ourselves, or to puff ourselves up to appear extra spiritual. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the common good, to accomplish the purposes of God in our world.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are to enable us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. That is God’s purpose. This can be done through preaching, ministering, healing, and prophesying. The Holy Spirit will be with us as we do all of these things. We still live in a world of sin that is opposed to God and the message of Jesus and sometimes the Holy Spirit will guide us to discern spirits or exercise spiritual wisdom. The point is that the Holy Spirit will help us proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. We are not in this all by ourselves. Jesus promised that he would send us the Holy Spirit, and he has.
To sum up, our readings today tell us about the great promise of salvation that God fulfilled for us in Jesus Christ. Despite our sinfulness, Jesus Christ came to earth and die for us to redeem us and make it possible for us to become sons and daughters of God. This is a message of hope and salvation that we are called to proclaim throughout the world. But we are not alone in accomplishing this task. God has sent us the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us.
And so, let us pray once again the collect for today, which summarizes it for us so well,
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.