The lessons for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany are
Old Testament Isaiah 9:1–4
Psalm Psalm 27:1, 4–9
New Testament 1 Corinthians 1:10–18
Gospel Matthew 4:12–23
The first few chapters of Matthew have been overture. Now the action of the plot unfolds. Now it’s Light for the people in darkness.
This evangelist has used geography all along. God is already fulfilling old promises as the infant’s story begins to unfold. From as far away as the exotically foreign home of the magi of the East, the search is on for the promised King. They go to royal Jerusalem, but must travel to the insignificant Bethlehem of Judea to find this surprising Messiah. The Holy Family reverses, then retraces, the path of redemption between Egypt and Nazareth.
The geography continues as the plot unfolds as Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist is “handed over.” Jesus withdraws from the Jordan river banks, where he was anointed by his Father. But he is not running away in fear. He is running to face humanity’s deepest misery in the place where it was perhaps felt most intensely. His new headquarters for his struggles with the demons is Capernaum, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
The years between 732 and 586 BCE were the time of absolute crisis that marked the death of Israel and the birth of Judaism. In 722 BCE the great northern kingdom of Israel would fall to Assyria’s war monster, Tiglath-Pileser III; and in 586 BCE the smaller southern kingdom of Judah would fall to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonia. But ten years before it all started, and before Israel as a whole would fall, the old tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali would be crushed, and its leading citizens scattered. Here were the first fruits of disaster—the heart of darkness.
But in Isaiah 9:1-4, the prophet passed on a promise from God: this first territory of darkness would also be the first to see the light of God’s salvation.
But the fulfillment of the promise was postponed. Isaiah saw the refugees from the North flood into and “multiply” the population of Judea and Jerusalem. Archaeologists have recently found evidence that Jerusalem’s population doubled after Israel’s fall. And Isaiah was full of hope that because of the spirit of prophetic humility, faith, and hope, that these northerners brought with them, the people of Judah would wake up and embrace the Light.
But it didn’t happen that easily. Indeed it would be centuries of exile and depression and the hard graft of inventing a new religion that would go far beyond devotion to nation or king or Temple. But the Light would come in the form of a new kind of anointed King. Jesus would be that counter-intuitive King who defies human reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:1-18) born in the stable of a humble home, a fugitive in his infancy, anointed in the trickling waters of the Jordan.
Matthew’s Gospel goes on to trace the Light through Jesus’ ministry. He will now go on to call followers to “fish for people.” He will proclaim good news and heal masses of people—among them the much-feared demoniacs and epileptics. He will declare to the world that happiness is not what we think it is. Jesus will say that ultimate blessing does not come to those who turn inwards, to protect, enrich or empower themselves, but to people who turn toward others. He will announce blessings for the peacemakers and those who love even their enemies. He will call his followers to pick up their crosses and be willing to even die in the service of others. Zeal for God is not expressed in fighting or killing others, but in serving and sacrificing for them.
The darkness we face today is the same old darkness that threatened to devour the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, and the crowds of people who came to hear the good news that Christ proclaimed. This demonic darkness calls itself Christian and patriotic, but it must be seen as the opposite of Christian because it denounces all the virtues that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified. While Jesus opened his arms to welcome those who were strange, foreign, and even threatening, counterfeit Christianity says we should shut our doors to immigrants, arm ourselves against those who take to the streets to protest police brutality, and deny the right to happiness for those who identify themselves sexually different.
Darkness says to affirm others is to endorse their sin. The Light says to not affirm others is to surrender us all to the power of sin. Living forgiven frees us to forgive others.
Epiphany is the season of light. The days are lengthening. They will get warmer. The good news proclaimed this church year season alerts us to give thanks to God that Jesus Christ came to light our way out of darkness and the shadow of death.
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