This week’s Old Testament passage contains some of the best known lines in the Bible—“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”, “You have increased in joy.”, and (just beyond where we read)…”For a child has been born for us….Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” It is part of the final unit of sort of a cluster of writings that began with chapter 6 that deal with events taken to have happened during and immediately following the Syro-Ephraimitic War of c. 734 BCE.
When you read this poem, it is rich in graphic images that depict hope in the midst of despair—darkness and light, or death and life, harkening back to the Creation story. “For God said “Let there be light.” And there was light.” There was life as God spoke it into being. There is a scene of celebration as people shout and sing to this God, as if were the thanksgiving festival at the end of a good harvest or the great joy when a war has ended and a time of peace has begun.
In the eighth century, these words were uttered about the birth of a specific king in Judah, subsequently applied to other kings, and even later to the Christian understanding of the expected Messiah. The central message of the text is that newness and celebration are a sign of hope, grounds for confidence in God’s future. In the prophet’s view, God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace is made flesh here on this earth.
For the Hebrew hearing these words of the prophet, there is much more of a stark contrast between “what was” and “what will be”, between the “former time” and the future. They had been through years of despair and even desolation and now the promise of something new is being presented. In essence, it is a complete reversal.
a. What does this passage mean for you?
b. What perhaps stands in our own way of sensing the importance of that contrast?
c. We talk a lot about hope. What does that really mean to you?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
Last week we look at the opening of this letter to the Corinthian church. This week, the passage continues as Paul begins to appeal directly to the church. This passage is at the beginning of the more than three chapters that Paul uses to set the context of the whole letter. Once again, Paul begs them to be united, to get rid of the divisions that have arisen between them, primarily over definitions of what is “right and wrong”, “righteous and unrighteous”, “moral and immoral”. Like the passage by the prophet Isaiah, Paul wants his readers to reframe their lives and see something in a different way.
First of all, note the terms “brothers and sisters”. Paul clearly assumes that women are included and that they are part of the common ground claimed in Christ. Divisiveness is unthinkable to Paul for those who profess to be “in Christ”. Essentially, he is warning them not to let the “ways of the world” influence who they are. This passage prompts the question of “To whom do you belong?” Paul is warning against those competing allegiances. Paul even goes so far as to knock down the assumption that one is better than the next because of who may have baptized them. It is another affirmation of our baptism, not as a human thing, but as God’s gift of bringing us into oneness with Christ.
For Paul, reconciliation with God must mean reconciliation and unity with others. Paul saw no room for certain loyalties or factions. He actually saw it as a misuse of the power that God offers. For Paul, this unity would have been described as “perfectly united in mind and thought.” Essentially, Paul is making the claim that the church needs to get itself together if it is going to get on with its mission of spreading the power of God in Christ.
a. What does this passage mean for you?
b. How does it speak today to our divisiveness?
c. What do you think the message would be for our own society, for our own church, or for the broader church?
d. Do you think that there is a possibility of unity in today’s world?
e. What definition of “power” do you think Paul would give?
GOSPEL: Matthew 4: 12-23
Last week, we read the “prelude” to Jesus’ ministry. This week, it begins. The writer of this Gospel does not date the beginning in terms of the calendar but, rather, in terms of events in salvation history. There is no real indication as to how much time has passed. Keep in mind that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is probably of Jewish descent and well-versed in Jewish Torah readings as well as the prophets. It was important to him to confirm Jesus’ valid ministry in the terms in which he had been taught. The writer makes the proclamation of the kingdom of God (which was very important in this Gospel) as the common denominator between Jesus’ ministry and that of the church.
In the first verse, this word “withdrew” is not meant to imply cowardice or self-preservation but a representation of Jesus’ alternate vision of kingship, which is non-violent and non-retaliatory. Once again, the world is being “reframed”. Along those lines, the use of the word “repent” here means “turning around”, in other words reframing and reworking one’s life. The call of the first disciples (according to the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew) is the beginning of the messianic community, the beginning of the church. This is not meant to be a special call to apostleship but a representation of the way every believer is called to Christ.
Note that these fishermen were already doing what they were called to do, they were already acting upon their gifts for this vocation. The address “Follow me”, then, is not to fill a vacuum in their lives, but is intrusive and disruptive, calling them away from their lives, their work, and their family. True discipleship is not just following God; it is changing our lives.
Once again, there is a statement made here about dominant values in our lives. (“To whom do we belong.”) There is also once again a statement made about reframing our lives. But Jesus’ call to each of us begins with what we know. “Follow me, you fishing people, and I will make you fish for people!” God starts where we already are.
And notice that these fishermen were not especially gifted people. In the first century around this lake called Galilee, Simon and Andrew were pretty ordinary. But Jesus asked them to follow anyway. And they went. In fact, the text says they went immediately. They didn’t wait until they had enough money or enough time or enough talent. They just went. And Jesus did not stop himself by assuming that they were too poor or too busy or just too locked into their family business. He just asked. And by asking them, he brought significance into their life. By asking them, he empowered them for ministry. You see, it’s important to ask and it means something to be asked.
These brothers were instead asked to take on the work of discipleship and they ended up with a life that neither of them could have foreseen. Simon would become Peter, the “rock”, one of Jesus’ apostles and ultimately would be made a saint in the tradition of the church. But he needed to be asked.
In this season between Christmastide and Lent, this ordinary time, we are reading accounts of callings and responses. It’s not because we lack some big incarnation or resurrection to carry us through the season. It is rather because it is in our ordinary lives that God finds us and asks us to join in the work. It is in our busyness and our day-to-day struggles that God enters our lives and compels us to put down our nets if only long enough to look up and see the shore. And it is when we are fully convinced that we are not gifted enough or rich enough or young enough or just enough that God shows us how to be someone new. God has asked you to follow. What is your response?
In a sermon on this same text, Richard Zajac tells the story of a young boy who goes into a restaurant with his mother and his grandmother and sits down to order. The waitress took the grandmother’s order, then the mother’s order, and then she turned to the little boy and asked: “What would you like?” The mother immediately said: “Oh, I will order for him.” The waitress, without being overly rude, ignored the mother and again asked the little boy: “What would you like?” The mother once again spoke up: “I will order for him!” The waitress ignored her yet again and asked the little boy one more time: “What would you like?” “I would like a hamburger!” he stammered. “How would you like your hamburger?” asked the waitress. “Would you like it with onion, mustard, and the works?” His mouth now open in amazement, the boy said: “Yes, I would like the works!” The waitress went over to the window and she howled the grandmother’s order, then the mother’s order, and then in a loud voice she said: “And a hamburger with the works!” The little boy turned to his mother in utter astonishment and said: “Gee, Mommy! She thinks I am real!” That waitress, by asking the little boy what he wanted, provided him with status. The asking gave him recognition; it gave him a feeling of importance that he had never had before. (From “Asking”, a sermon by Richard E. Zajac in the books, Life Injections II: Further Connections of Scripture To the Human Experience, available at http://www.sermonsuite.com/content.php?i=788029029&key=t8lpon8elTIzrnex, accessed 18 January, 2011.)
It is, after all, that great light that we were always promised! Those who have been walking in darkness, unable to see, have finally begun to see the dawn.
a. What does this passage mean for you?
b. What does it say to us about our own loyalties?
c. We’ve talked a lot about “reframing” today. What does that mean in the context of our own lives?
d. So what gets in the way of our discipleship?
e. What gets in the way of our inviting others to discipleship?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
There are two ways of spreading light—to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. (Edith Wharton)
We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are. (Thomas Merton)
Give yourself fully to God. [God] will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in [God’s] love than in your own weakness. (Mother Teresa)
You are the god who makes extravagant promises. We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity, and we exude in them. Only to find out, always too late, that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience. You are the God who calls people like us, and the long list of mothers and fathers before us, who trusted the promise enough to keep the call. So we give you thanks that you are a calling God, who calls always to dangerous new places. We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us that we may be among those who believe your promises enough to respond to your call. We pray in the one who embodied your promise and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen. ((“A Hard, Deep Call to Obedience”, from Searcy’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 90)