Monday, January 16, 2017

Cast A Net!

THE LESSON for the Third Sunday after Epiphany comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Within the text, a connection is firmly made between the Word of salvation predicted by a prophet, and our Lord’s calling of his first disciples…

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward 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." 
 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 
 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 fishers of men." 
 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 
 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 
 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 
 And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. 
                                                                                                (Matthew 4:12-23)

This Jesus!
The writer of Matthew tied the prophecy of Israel’s history to the particular vision of Our Lord Jesus as the Eternal Light. Thus the writer pointed us not only to the salvation of Israel, but to the future of the Gentiles as well. As the scripture is read from Matthew, we may notice the text refers back in time to words from the prophet Isaiah.

“But there will be no gloom for her that was 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. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased its joy; they rejoice before thee as with joy at the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.” (Isaiah 9:1-3)

We rightly note that our Matthean text offered for today is exclusive in using this narrative in the gospel telling. Therefore, not drawn from the earlier-penned Markan script... nor included in the Lukan narrative... it likely did have special meaning for the community of the writer… and that meaning was surely prophetic. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the writer obviously examined the text of Isaiah, and saw within it God’s proclamation of the Word throughout the world. Guided by the Spirit, he noted that based in the diaspora of the Jews within those earlier days within the Greek Empire, the monotheistic Judean belief expressions were to be told in a world enamored with nature gods and false religions. Our author thus viewed the birth and ministry of Christ as key to the fulfillment foretold, so to be reaching beyond the mere borders of Israel.
 Addressing persons who were in his community, both native born and non-Hebrew proselytes having been steeped in the prophetic writings of Isaiah, the author under girded his vision of carrying the gospel message forward into the “nations”. The text therefore carried a great evangelical focus.
 Indeed, by the power of the Spirit people who had formerly walked in darkness, through the ministry of Jesus as the Messiah… had been given a great Light. The Light of God had shined. The focus shifted from Israel as a nation, unto a wider definition of just what nation meant to our Lord. Thus the prophecy spoke smartly to those of the Antioch synagogue and its Syrian Christian population, for they clearly read… “all the people will know…”.
 Jesus was thus revealed by Matthew as born into the world, baptized by John, tempted by Satan… and exercising God's will as the Chosen, the Messiah.., the Christ. As the Deliver of his chosen people, therefore, Jesus revealed the graceful will of God. Thus the writer described that the term “kingdom of God” was to include a far greater number of souls than any Hebrew could imagine.

 Centered from Capernaum, the Galilean area became historically important as the center of our Lord's early ministry. In Matthew's mention of ancient and lowly Zebulun and Naphtali we recognize the names of given to the tribes of Israel, and locations in Canaan who were called after them. In the Canaanite backwaters, therefore, we see that God thus used even the lowest of the low. Undeserving and lowly persons found their role within historic Israel’s recollection. These, called as shepherds in the field, were to be foundations for the salvation of the nations.
 Therefore we note most importantly, that Matthew begins the path for salvation exactly where Jesus ministry was described in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, as our Lord said… "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."  (Mark 1:15).
 However, stating with slight difference, with just…"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”, we see this in comparison, that  “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are used quite interchangeably. I offer this to demonstrate the simple regional linguistic preference between the earlier writer and audience of Mark. Mark's gospel is said to have been penned in Rome and near Alexandria in Egypt, and those found within Matthew’s congregations came out of Syria. Each reflects their own subtle, historical connotations… adapted for those local minds considering the message in their specific congregations. Thus the theme we note central here is that central to both writers, in telling the good news in the widespread locations... the importance was placed on repentance as first step. Like unto that message preached by John the Baptist, repentance was opening key to both communities.
 We may conclude that the doctrine of repentance is right doctrine. Repentance calls us to be sorrowful for our sin, and turns us around to face God and his judgment. Without repentance there is no salvation! Therefore, we see that not only wilderness prophet John the Baptist, but our gracious Lord Jesus, preached that repentance drives us humbly to the throne of Almighty God, to seek God’s favor. However, unlike John, repentance for followers of Jesus led not just to annual forgiveness by washing, prayer and sacrifice... as found earlier in Hebrew history... but went beyond these things to faith given in the good news being delivered. Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb! Through Matthew, Jesus announced that the kingdom was imminently near… “at hand”. The congregation hearing this reading, could see fulfillment on the horizon, the King of Heaven and Earth, of all Creation… was right before them.

Jesus gathered disciples as he began to preach. These first named persons would be hearers, and afterwards preachers... of his salvation message. They would be witnesses of his miracles and would eventually testify concerning him. Therefore when Christ returns, we might add... would it not be good to be found in the doings of the apostles. We must ask, “Are we in Christ?"
 In keeping with this calling, those who would follow Christ today must also be ready, at his command, to place all things in proper perspective and follow. Though we differ as to cost, direction taken and method, like the apostles we must be ready to part if needed with earthly things. This example of the power of the Lord Jesus toward salvation, encourages the church then and now to depend upon solely upon his grace.
 Know this! Persons in our modern society who are yet without Christ strive in darkness. Like those Galilean men who sat in the empty boat after fishing all night on the lake long ago, many today sit in relative discontent not quite knowing their peril, but sensing great emptiness. Living... but not fully alive, we experience eternal Life only through gospel proclamation. Jesus comes through the church in proclaimed Word and Sacrament. Therefore, the clarion should ring outward from the nave of churches, “Repent, believe the good news!", This message should be heard clearly so that others see their life changed.
 You see, by receiving the gospel, the Light is suddenly present. Jesus was at hand for the early disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as physical light is seen, reflects and directs the lost;  so does the message of Light work from this gospel. The good news contained in our reading frees us today for service. We are now among those who are called to repentance! We become the forgiven, and the changed.., just as those who were going about their daily chores on the seashore at Galilee. Jesus, the Messiah.., our Teacher, our Healer, our Savior… and Lord… truly beckons us to be his disciples. So be it. Grab the lines of your nets firmly… and pull, saying, “Thanks be to God.”
 Each of us have received a talent of witness in some way. Some have appropriated and conveyed the message in ways most pleasing. Of such is a video made by a local family. Though each of us has evangelical talent in various and other ways, I invite you to enjoy this one...

What can you do to spread the good news? May the Peace of God which surpasses all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Word and Witnesses...

THE READING for the Second Sunday of Epiphany is given to us from the Gospel According to Saint John. With descriptive intent the writer related not only the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus, as we recentyl studied in last week’s Matthew’s gospel, but also offered here is an account of the calling of the first disciples. It is upon this latter portion of the message that we especially concentrate.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, 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 before me, for he was before me.'  I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel." 
 And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'  And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." 
 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" 
 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, "What do you seek?" And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" 
 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 
 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 means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter). (John 1:29-42)

In Retrospect…
Our gospel writer takes readers and listeners quickly from the profound revelation stated in the beginning Prolog of this gospel... that God has become one of us... to the Baptism of Our Lord. In baptism, he was set and empowered toward his mission… and went onward in the calling of the first apostles. Be aware of the subtle importance here, the community of readers of this gospel received great guidance, in right sequence they heard that we are created, empowered and finally called. John the Baptizer clearly described in that he was only following divine instructions! Our focus rightly is brought to more properly gaze upon the person of Jesus and the steps that our Lord accomplished.
 Blatantly the writer of this gospel doubly emphasized that John the Baptist removed himself from any claim to religious leadership. Thus the writer flatly dismissed any historic arguments that John’s followers could possibly have used in claiming the mantle of Messiah for their prophet. John the Baptist preached repentance, and baptized the people with water as a profession of their yearly cleansing from sin. Then suddenly the Messiah, the Christ of God was in the midst of them, even though they did not know him.
 Setting that contrast, the writer showed the glaring chasm that exists between the human prophet and the glory of the revealed God. The very next day, the John the Baptist pointed his followers beyond himself to the One who had come. Therefore, by John the Baptist’s pronouncement, Jesus was firmly identified to his listeners as the Paschal Lamb, a sacrifice so that in the shedding and sprinkling of his blood, the eating of his flesh, and all the other circumstances of the Law fulfilled, he would make good the redemption necessary for repentant sinners.

Relative Equality!
In the calling of the disciples that comes afterward, we note the artistry with which the writer was guided by the Holy Spirit. At first, the two men who followed Jesus are not named. We might wonder if this was done lest any of the two should later boast. Being sinful ourselves we can see that the author sidestepped a retroactive slide into sinful claims. Are we not found just so? We recall that we are too often like spiritual tussling siblings such as Isaac and Ishmael… the children of Abraham and Sarah whose descendants yet roll about in spirit crying, “Me first, Me first!” If only our Christian denominations could appreciate this lack of priority.
 The writer eventually informs us that one of the two disciples was the man named Andrew. Thus this wonderful text secondarily revealed truly the identity of the first apostolic Christian evangelist. Without exclamatory emotion, Andrew quietly told his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.”
 With quiet certainty,,, the Truth, who is Christ Jesus… was revealed to Simon. As hearers and readers today, therefore, we also are set in scripture to hear that Truth. We come to gradually understand that we and all the world should hear. And so it began… without primacy, nor pomp. The revelation was firmly made so that Simon followed his brother to meet the Teacher.

Foundation for the Church
The author related that Jesus responded to Simon's arrival without hearing his name. Jesus already knew of him and his name. We must thus ask ourselves, “Was it because earlier Andrew spoke to Jesus about his brother, just as we might pray about members of our earthly families not yet being seen in church? Or was it immediate recognition from our Savior about the chosen nature of Simon?
 In any case this selection of Andrew, and then Simon, is paramount for us. We note some linguistic nuance. Simon's name, though common, carried the Hebrew meaning: "He who has heard or hears (the word of God)". Therefore, we read of Simon as led by hearing. Andrew brought him certainly to hear the Word, the One who was, and is God forevermore. In that moment Simon was changed for all eternity. Jesus eventually named him “Peter”.., which means the “Rock”.
 That the author of this gospel related to us the intent of Jesus, as the Author of all creation, within this simple name change is evident. The faith given to Peter was indeed profound. The faith given to him was felt deep enough to carry him even through his own denial… and was passed on eternally in his witness to the early church.
 The prevailing good news to the church today, through both the writer of this gospel, and Peter, is that we are established immovably to follow Christ, for it is through faith in Christ alone that the effect of our sin is removed. Through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, we are reconciled to God Almighty.
Jesus first asked, “What do you seek?” The seemingly simple question Jesus put to those first apostles, and to us, and shall confront those yet to come, is the paramount. Jesus invites us to come to Him without delay. As scripture relates to us through St. Paul, “Now is the accepted time”.
 We are like the first apostles, because we… as disciples who accept the gift… are soon taught to seek the spiritual welfare of those around us… so that all may know our Lord. Those who come to receive Christ shall certainly be changed.
 Know this, blessed disciples! The power of evil and sinfulness shall not prevail over us. We are called today like our predecessors in the faith, presenting ourselves to the Lord as sinners made saints. Like precious stones, we have distinct pleasure in that the waters of Holy Baptism flow over us. Through the Holy Spirit, using the Holy Word... God lifts us out of the evil mud and chaos, forms us, conditions us… and polishes us. In that way alone we are rendered solid and steadfast. Though we often feel that we are just nuggets in the flow… we are even yet made the Rock that sparkles brightly in the stream of Life. Keep in mind, however, it is only by God’s grace that we are made so.

 For a message based on our previous week's gospel, click on the screen below...

May your answering of the call of God through His Word, bring you closer to that path upon which you are to walk in faith.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Make First Things First!

THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD as told in the Gospel of According to Saint Matthew supplies a reading that shows up in part across all of the synoptic gospels. However, the baptismal scene in Matthew shows us significant priority issues that were present for a particular segment of the early church.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 
 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.

 ( Note: This last portion of v .14 is found written only in two Italian manuscripts, where it was written… “ and when he was baptized a huge light shone from the water so that all who were near were frightened.”)

 And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."  (Matthew 3:13-17)

Look This Way…
Though some biblical scholars challenge the historical actuality of this event, I beg to differ with them. We examine this scene from Matthew and note that though not all scriptural accounts agree verbatim, the threefold witness is made concretely as coming from the earliest source in the Gospel According to Saint Mark (c.70A.D.). However, scholarly suspicions arise because the beginning verses of our reading for this week (vss. 13b & 14a), are contained only the Gospel of Matthew. As well, this first text contains a variant reading at the inclusion at vs. 14b, as available from certain minor Latin readings, as quoted in italic print above.
 I argue that this latter inclusion seems to symbolically stress the supernatural nature of the historical event. In the variant, we might only ascertain that the later church simply raised very high the sinless nature of Jesus as he came to the Jordan for baptism. With this historicity in mind, we may entertain two thoughts as we begin study.
 First, we consider that the writer of Matthew gave very high attention to the issue of priority for the two men. The opening words here firmly pronounce which of the two men was of the greatest importance. In the text we note that though Jesus came to John, Jesus was said by John to be the purest personage of the two. Fitting then with Old Testament prophecy, John was classified only as an introducing prophet:

“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? "For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.”  (Malachi 3:1-2)

 Therefore, knowing the words of Malachi and accepting them as relevant, we may with the early church realize that the very presence of this statement in Matthew says the status of John and his followers was at issue. It seemed important enough for the writer of this gospel to take valuable scroll space and insert this scene. Thematically then it may be said that we humans as usual are sinfully stubborn, because this writing occurred in the 8th decade of the first century, some 50 years and more after the Resurrection of Our Lord. The controversy was still likely at issue for the early church! Given the present disparities over baptism still present among us today, we have hardly progressed at all.
 We can agree that the text established firmly for the hearers of the reading, the emergent theology of Matthew’s community during the latter part of the first century. The purity and priority of Jesus was firmly stated by the writing, because John the Baptist himself exclaimed that Jesus was an exception in the matter of both prophetic priority and human purity.

Order Reversal?
Second, yet no less important than establishing the role of both characters, is the direction that Jesus gave to John as to the purpose of continuing the baptismal event. He related that a reversal was in order. Baptism was no longer just for the sake of righteousness. Baptism, as a Jewish purity washing, should be done to Jesus so… “all righteousness should be accomplished”… at a future occurrence! Baptism became an sacred event meant as a preparation, wherein he (and we) are set aside for great heavenly purpose.
 I hold this up so that we note the word “all”. With these words Jesus changed the very nature of baptism from a personal ritual washing to that which the act becomes for us… a universal, pan-effective act of righteousness accomplished by God. The righteousness is not for Christians to accomplish by our own power, but is an external quality put upon us by God through our submission to baptism.
 You see, baptism in water changed in this scene to become an event wherein those deeds that Christ did for us, now allows us forgiveness... so that we may receive the graceful gift of eternal life with God. We shall be accepted!
 Matthew told his church through this gospel witness, that we who believe are those who receive benefit from this act as established by the Son of God. Baptism was changed from a mere physical a combined physical and spiritual experience that our words cannot fully describe, nor our minds explain.
 We rightly observe that the occasion of Jesus’ baptism derived its fullest meaning with the death and Resurrection of the pure person of the Christ. Jesus Christ is the one and the same person who received Holy Baptism for us and who completed a blessed exchange upon the cross. He took the punishment for our sinfulness and because of his baptism also gave us divine purity and innocence. In this completing the task… he is definitely our Savior, and at Pentecost our Lord rained upon us the spiritual cleansing “fire” provided through the Holy Spirit.

Water World Upside Down!
This blessed exchange was stated as growing from the described scene at the banks of the Jordan, We note that Jesus, who would soon be identified with sinners according to the Law... even while yet sinless, was cleansed in eternal fashion by baptism. Therefore, our Lord's divine presence changed the water ritual into a Sacrament that is always effective for us. As believers we know that through this event, coupled with his crucifixion and Resurrection, our sinfulness was thereby drowned.
 We notice that almost immediately the Holy Spirit bore witness to the event. A dove descended, pointing all observers and hearers to the emergence of grace that had been present from the very beginnings of creation. We derive this everlasting grace meaning as we see that in the beginning the Holy Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2), and a dove was sent by Noah out to find safety (Genesis 8:8).
 Thus referring us to the baptismal water by the very presence of imagery, we too are invited to share what the people of the early church recalled. God identified Jesus as his “Beloved Son”, and we note that “beloved” may also be interpreted as “chosen”. This Jesus was and yet is God’s only begotten Son, and he was chosen to deliver God’s people through baptismal faith.
 However, note also that Mark and Luke differed from this chorus of Matthew's witness. Each used the text that God had pronounced, “with you I am well pleased”; whereas, Matthew related, “with whom I am well pleased.” Though seeming minor, the object of the conversation was a noticeably different in Matthew.
 In Mark’s telling, and the Lukan similarities, these words were spoken to Jesus. However, in Matthew it seems that God addressed not just Jesus, but the community gathered… as a testimony. I offer that this slight variant provides an argument that the writer of Matthew emphasized priority and purity upon Jesus. God’s voice in Matthew forcefully spoke about Jesus to the church. The scene emphasis switched from Jesus to inlcude the people watching the baptism... and through Matthew's written words... to us. From this reading, therefore, we in the modern church know that John baptized (washed) his followers as an act of ritual purification according to the Law. We are thus also informed that we who are condemned by sinful impurity are not left adrift to do our own dirty laundry. Though we may wash our hands and more on the outside for cleanliness, we must also be washed by baptism so that we are forgiven in the depths of spirit. Baptism was changed... made for us to be a similar, yet different event…. a more certain event.
 Indeed John the Baptist was a predecessor prophet. His actions dealt with sinfulness of his people according to the Law. Properly the rites of water purification were performed. Sacrifices could be purchased and these were offered for the forgiveness of sin. But upon Jesus participation in the baptismal event on that wondrous day, Matthew spoke that his appearance before John at the banks of the Jordan provided fulfillment of the Law. From John the Baptist we then hear that the graceful good news of righteousness may soon be proclaimed. Consequently in a blessed exchange that was planned from the very beginnings of creation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit reached into our disobedient and sinful world. Jesus came to save us from the penalty of deserved death.
 Our Lord’s baptism was a first earthly step taken by Jesus toward working our salvation! Today we may be uplifted in knowing that through this baptism by John, our Lord Jesus began his work. By his death and Resurrection he rightly completed that redemptive work. This is evidenced with certainty by his words that were spoken upon the cross. Our Lord said… “It is finished.” Thus the purity and purpose of Jesus Christ became our justification eternally before God. Lifted up by such wondrous wisdom and power, now we Christians may echo across the centuries from the church of Matthew… “Thanks be to God!”