Third Sunday After Epiphany: The Psalm Passage – Dealing with fear

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

Fear. It takes different forms. Sometimes love of the Lord is talked about as fear of the Lord, being in awe of the Lord and holding a reverent attitude. But I do not think that is what is meant by the psalmist here. Fear can also be quaking back in terror, as if someone is confronted by a wild beast or monster – think scary movie. But fear can also be inner fear, anxiety and panic. While the psalmist may not have had that type of fear in mind, it is the type of “fear” that comes to my mind.

And so I ask myself, why should I be fearful and panicky about anything? Why should anybody, if the Lord as the light and salvation and as a stronghold is there to banish fear. I shouldn’t fear than, should I? No one should. But fear is in the world. There are things we are afraid of.

It’s not that these fearful things are so much stronger and more powerful; but they are tangible, and the Lord – for all the Lordly power there – is transcendent. And when we rely only on our human sense, you can figure out what we are more aware of. That is why I appreciate the verses that follow.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.” (Verses 4 – 5)

We world we live in has things that are fearful, and that we are afraid of. It is an unavoidable fact. But if we live with the Lord, abiding with the Lord’s presence, we can see the fearful things but not let them cause us fear. The Lord will protect us from the fearful things, so that the important essence of us cannot be harmed.

Now, that may be “pie in the sky by and by.” And I admit that if confronted by a wild thing or physical danger, I may still “shake in my boots.” And I also admit that anxiety and panic may still overtake me. But having the Lord within me and sustaining me, I think I may just survive.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.” (Verse 6)

And I really do not think the psalmist is immune to fear, but like me wraps around him belief in the Lord, and trust that the Lord will be a sustaining presence.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!” (Verses 7 – 9)

Is that what it feels like to be “in fear”? Feeling like the Lord has forsaken you? Let us not confuse then, fear for unbelief. One can believe in the Lord, and still be afraid of things. One can not believe in the Lord and have no fears. But to go through this world without belief in the Lord to sustain the heart and soul? That would be scary!

Third Sunday After Epiphany: The Gospel Passage – Family Counts!

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:12 – 16)

The writer of Matthew assumes, in line with biblical commentators throughout commentating history, that this was done EXPRESSLY to fulfill prophecy. And I would be hesitant to say they are completely wrong – either in Jesus’ purpose or the prophecy being fulfilled. I just want to put forth a different idea.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Verse 17)

If that sounds a lot like John the Baptist, I do not think it is a coincidence. John while being a prophet and a baptizer unsettling and upsetting the status quo, was also a relative to Jesus. It is assumed that at John’s arrest Jesus’ ministry moved into its second stage. That Jesus moved from where he was to other places, for maybe several reasons. And if that is the case, then why did the writer of Matthew not make that more apparent? Yes, Jesus started “recruiting disciples” . . .

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (Verses 18 – 23)

There was something charismatic about his presence and his words. Other leaders, prophets, and movers-and-shakers have tried to emulate that. Evangelists and preachers hope, pray, and practice to be as moving and convincing as Jesus was. Everyone who follows Jesus tries to be as he was, in all actions, words, and attitudes. Jesus was, however, a hard act to follow1

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Verse 23)

But what went through mind as I read verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” was that from the time was imprisoned, Jesus carried forth his beloved relative’s cause. Yes, it was also Jesus’ message too. And the message of God. But when a beloved relative can no longer function, it is not unusual for someone in the family to carry forth in their name. I just thought it was a good thing to remember in this fractured world we live in, that family should stick together! May you, beloved reader, as a beloved member of the family of God do so! Selah!

Third Sunday After Epiphany: The Epistles Passage – Inspiration and Authority where it should be

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (I Corinthians 1:10)

You probably haven’t notice beloved reader, I have been absent the past couple of days – one of the advantages of working ahead. I was down with a cold and not feeling well enough to write. I am on the mend now, thankfully, and so am trying to catch up with the writing. It is not an onerous task but a nice way to spend the next couple of evenings, contemplating scripture and writing to all of us.

The writer of I Corinthians (Paul) also liked to sit and write to the people near and dear to him. But the task was not always as pleasant as I find mine tonight. That is, Paul has some scolding to do at the believers in Corinth.

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,
so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” (Verses 11 to 15)

In light of the theology that Paul as put forth in his other letters: that all believers are part of the body of Christ – each with their own function; that no one part is more or less important than the other; that the gospel is for all people equally; and that Christ died for everyone. You can understand why divisions in what should be unity would upset him. And that believers would look to Paul as the end authority rather than God and Jesus Christ would particularly upset him. (In light of that I have to wonder how Paul would feel about his letters considered as “holy scripture” akin to the words of Christ.)

(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 proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (Verses 16 to 18)

I have to wonder, beloved reader, what would be the impact if I suddenly no longer wrote this blog. Not what would happen to me personally (I have already thought about that, and I might at some later point share that “musing”.) No, I wonder what would happen for all the people who read this blog. In all humbleness and sincerity, I hope nothing. I hope all of you would go on exactly as you are, finding inspiration where it may be, and looking to God and the Lord Jesus Christ for that inspiration. Selah!

Third Sunday After Epiphany: The Old Testament Passage – The remedy for our distress is sent down for us

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” (Isaiah 9:1)

There will be those bible commentators who will say this also refers to Jesus. And it does point to Jesus, for that is the area where he grew up and ministered. But the ministry of Jesus was not confined to that one place, or what it confined to that one time. (Please note I am leaving alone the who argument that the prophet Isaiah/the writer of Isaiah was writing to the audience of the time! Or at least trying to.)

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” (Verse 2)

Because Jesus was for all people and for all times, it does not matter if this passage foretells Jesus, or is comfort for those who read this in the time of the book of Isaiah. We are believers in Jesus Christ and God can take comfort from it to. I know I do.

“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” (Verses 3 – 4)

So we can read this passage and walk forward knowing that never again will we be burdened? Ah, that is the rub beloved reader. (I will identify that “rub” a little further one.) One of the reasons I am so vigilante about not taking verses/passages from the time they were written, and from the people they were written for/to. I know that is not the aim of biblical commentators. But after you read enough of that, you start to feel like you are eavesdropping on a conversation that was not meant for you!

When this passage of the book of Isaiah was written, people were suffering, burdened with weights across their shoulders and opposed! When the Jews (contemporaries of Jesus) read it, they were also burdened and opposed. And when we, as modern believers read it with our troubles and burdens we can take the same good news from it that our spiritual forebearers did before us.

The rub? Belief in God in the time of the writer of Isaiah, belief in God in the time of Jesus, and belief in God and Jesus Christ now – does not exempt us from burdens, weights, and oppression. Yes, the promise comes down to us that God and Christ is with us. But we still live in a world that has problems and strife. The called people of God have problems and strife. That is why we must take these verses to our heart and soul, and use them to mend ourselves with God’s compassion, love and care. Let us do so! Selah!

Second Sunday After Epiphany: The Psalm Passage – Waiting in anticipation

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 40:1 – 3)

A psalm of overcoming. But also a psalm of hope, that this would happen. I have been in the pit of desolation, and have cried. And cried out to the Lord. I know I have been heard, because the Lord always hears. And I know I will be lifted out, because the Lord comes to those who call on the Divine. Furthermore, I know that no matter how often I (or anyone else) calls out to the Lord, the Lord will come and minister to us. I know all of these things! But when I am in that pit, it is hard to wait patiently.

“Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.” (Verse 4)

I am not sure I am to “happy” yet. I have been there before, and hope and have faith I will be there again. But right now, being patient takes all of my being.

“You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted. Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Verses 5 – 6)

I remember, as I read these verses, 12 years ago I put these verses in my heart as I graduated from seminary. It was a long road culminating in a feeling of accomplishment and peace. I thought I had overcome so much, and now was ready to stride forth with confidence and the Lord’s plan for me laid out before me.

But there were corners, changes, disappointments, and heartaches I had no idea of. And desolate pits too numerous to count. But as I said, with each pit I found myself the Lord lifted me out and set me on firm ground.

I have never regret saying . . .

Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” (Verses 7 – 10)

This week (and last week too for that matter) I have been quite honest about my struggles. I have tried to be honest too about where and how I have felt the Lord’s presence. I hope I have been clear enough about that. Even though I have felt as if I was in pit after pit, I have never felt that I was alone; the Lord was with me, comforted me, strengthened me. And when I was ready, the Lord lifted me up and set upon the Lord’s path for me.

So I say . . .

“Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” (Verses 11)


Second Sunday After Epiphany: The Old Testament – Once again, bucking the “biblical commentator” assumptions

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” (Isaiah 49:1)

This is about me, beloved reader. Now don’t think that I have completely lost it – because this verse is about you too. It is about all of us. Yes, I know this flies in the face of most, if not all, biblical commentators who say it must be the Messiah that is referred here. And then commence to making all sorts of theological gymnastics to explain why verse four can still be applied to the Messiah. The argument is that only the Messiah could say . . .

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Verses 2 – 3)

But would the Messiah say . . .

“But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.” (Verse 4)

What of Jesus’ ministry was in vain? That the Jewish people of his time did not believe and believe in him? Belief in God and Jesus has always been a matter of free will. Jesus said “let those who have ears, hear” meaning (according to the same biblical commentators) those who are willing to listen and believe will do so.

Or was it in vain because Jesus was put to death rather than be recognized as the Lord come to earth? Jesus said he had great forces at his command and could have seized any throne. But that was not Jesus’ way of bringing hope and salvation to the world.

No, these are the words of one who has toiled as a prophet of God, but does not feel he (or she) has accomplished what should have been done. The Messiah that was imagined in Isaiah’s time was a conquering divine king who would not fail. On the evening that I am writing this, I cannot believe that Jesus – who really was, is and will be – the Redeemer of Israel and the Holy One would say of himself/the Godself that he labored in vain.

Besides, these “modern” biblical commentators complete pass over the actual Hebrew words that were used, words/nouns that mean ordinary folk – like you and me.

“And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength- he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Verse 5 – 6)

This is where the “crunch” comes, taking the concept of Jesus as a light to the world and seguing these verses to support that. Pause a moment and consider that the book of Isaiah, indeed all the books of the bible, have become illuminating to the world in bringing the word of God to humanity. This is not hubris, but hope that what the prophet Isaiah tried to do in his/her human way might be used by the Lord to do good down the line – which it has.

“Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Verse 7)

I have made this pitch before, this retrieving and return the words of the prophets to their own mouths. And in that way calling all of us to be servants of God, created by God and inspired by God to carry out God’s mission in the world. It gives us hope that our efforts are not in vain. And it can inspire converts to faith to pick up the tasks of God’s mission in the world.

May you, beloved reader, be called by God to succeed in the ways of God, and not in the ways of humanity. Selah!

Second Sunday After Epiphany: The Gospel Passage – Hearing about Jesus with fresh wonder

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”(John 1:29 – 34)

John – either the author of the gospel of John or John the Baptist is testifying and witnessing to the Jesus whose story we will be following again this year. This time with the focus of new converts coming to faith. That does not mean us oldsters can turn away and sit out the year. No, no, I am not going to let you do that beloved reader!

It is good to hear the enthusiasm of those who are newly coming to faith. Have you ever considered John the Baptist as newly coming to faith? Neither have I. It is an interesting idea and concept. But if you listen to the enthusiasm of John the Baptist (or the author of the gospel of John) you will hear an awe and coming to knowledge. Imagine for a moment meeting the person who have been extolling and preaching about. It must have been amazing and overwhelming to John to come face to face with the Son of Man and the Son of God who had been impelled to preach about. So, stop, and appreciate John’s vigor and enthusiasm.

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (Verses 35 – 42)

This is also the passing of the focus from John the Baptist to Jesus. From this point on Jesus takes center stage in the gospel of John. But that is not the thought I want to leave you with. In our modern day parlance, these two disciples are just “hanging out” with Jesus. And these two invite a third, Simon, who will become a major figure in the ministry of Jesus. First, as an example of “not quite getting” what Jesus is about; and then as “a rock” that the future church will be modeled after.

We are setting out on a marvelous journey – again, for most of us. But let us journey as if we have all the freshness and enthusiasm of the young in faith. For each day has the potential to be a new day in following God and Jesus Christ. Selah!