Preaching Notes for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany (January 17, 2016)
This week, I will introduce three miniseries tracks to be preached over the course of this year’s very short season of ordinary time after Epiphany. Each series will end on the last Sunday in January. The first Sunday in February, we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord as we prepare to enter into the season of Lent. I would encourage you to stick with either the Old Testament, First Corinthians, or the Gospels for the next three weeks.
Our Saving God
It is an interesting time we live in. Warnings and dire predictions about the future combined with the uncertainty of the present has created a frightening world for many people. All we have to do to get a feel for the plight of modern-day humanity is watch the nightly news. There are fires, floods, earthquakes, freak ice storms and tornadoes and record heat, hurricanes, tsunamis, and seventy-degree weather in East Tennessee on December 16 as I write these words. Could all this signal that the end times are near? Did the recommendations and agreements made at this week’s summit on global warming in Paris come in time to save us from destroying the planet, or is it too little, too late, as so many predict?
There is the refugee crisis. This morning, I heard a story about how the Greek island of Lesbos is dealing with the influx of refugees as they sit on the frontlines of Europe. The crisis has become all the more complicated in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, sparked by radical Muslims calling for holy war against the West and against Christianity. People of faith have responded in a variety of ways. Should we welcome refugees with open arms as we pray for peace in the name of our faith in Jesus Christ? Should we close our borders to all people of the Muslim faith in order to protect ourselves? Should we put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq to stop the ISIS movement from growing?
There is the religious frontline. We lament that Americans and Europeans are abandoning religious practice and spirituality in practically all faith groups. The world seems to be relying less and less on divine powers and more and more on human ingenuity. The number of nones is rising and the congregations in nearly every denomination are aging.
And then there is our own denomination, the United Methodist Church. As we speed toward General Conference 2016, there are a number of proposals on the table about how we will deal with our declining numbers and the division in our household of faith. Many people predict a dire future for not only the United Methodists, but for all mainline Christian traditions. Is the end of United Methodism as we’ve known it drawing near? What will happen to us if the denomination decides to split? Will the teachings of Wesleyan heritage simply disappear into the annals of history, or will they survive and evolve into a new and different form?
The hard truth is that none of us knows the answers to any of these things. We certainly all have opinions. Many of us have fears. Some of us think we have solutions. But the fact is, we must all live with uncertainty about both our present and our future.
But living with uncertainty does not mean living without hope. For our hope is not in human ability to solve all problems, but in our God who created us in our Lord Jesus Christ who came to save us all from our sins.
The Israelites during the time of Isaiah were living in a time of great uncertainty. This passage, written sometime around or after the exile ended and the refugees returned to their homeland, indicates that life back in the Promised Land was not going as smoothly as people had hoped it would.
Isaiah brought his prophetic message to a mixed group of formerly exiled Jewish elite and the very poor who had been unable to leave during the exile. The return home was not easy. The economy was shot, Canaanite rituals and beliefs had taken hold and had become blended with Jewish practices, and many people had married outside the faith. Isaiah preached a tough message calling for an end to idolatry and pagan worship, and condemned those who failed to observe the Jewish law.
But alongside these hard words, Isaiah also offered a vision of God’s glorious restoration of Jerusalem. In chapter 60 Isaiah prophesied that Zion would one day be delivered and held in highest regard by all the nations. The exiles would come home, and a prophet would appear to bring liberation to the poor.
In the lesson for today, the prophet announces that he will pray continuously until God restored Jerusalem completely to its former glory. Even though times were hard and people of faith had lost their way, God’s promises would stand. It was a word of hope spoken in the midst of a very uncertain time.
Did Isaiah’s words bring comfort to the people of his day? Did they believe that God would restore their holy city and all of its inhabitants? Were there other voices offering hope and promises in different forms, or calling for actions that might have led to very different outcomes? We don’t know. We can’t get inside the heads of the people of another time and place. We can only look to the words Isaiah offered to the hurting and frightened people of his day and try to hear them as words of hope for our own struggles.
I believe that no matter how scary things seem today, we must not respond out of anger and fear, and we must never lose hope. I believe in the good news of Jesus Christ and his promises. I believe that we have to live in faith and trust in a future that is not ours to determine, but God’s alone. I believe the words Isaiah spoke to Israel are words for us:
See, your salvation comes;
His reward is with him,
And his recompense before him.
They shall be called “The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord”;
And you shall be called, “Sought Out,
A City not forsaken” (Isaiah 62:11-12, NRSV).
Reconciliation in Christ
The church in Corinth was an interesting place with a number of issues. Here is a brief sketch of the context:
- Corinth is located about 40 miles southwest of Athens on the Gulf of Corinth.
- In Paul’s time, Corinth was a hub of commercial and religious activity.
- Corinth was home to artisans, especially metal workers and potters.
- Its location near the sea made Corinth home to many sailors and travelers who were making their way into the community and who brought with them their various religious traditions.
- Modern archeologists have found evidence of Egyptian and Greek religious shrines in addition to the Roman imperial cult.
- Corinth was home to a large, strong Jewish community
Corinth in the time of Paul was thus an economically thriving, multicultural, multi-religious community located geographically close to Athens, which was the governmental center of Roman life. However, even with all its successes, Corinth had something of a bad reputation. It was known by that familiar name we hear in modern times as “Sin City.” Why?
Well, because it was filled with these upwardly mobile immigrants from other parts of the empire: transitory business people, sailors, and the like. So when compared to other, more established places, the people in Corinth were “new money” folks, to use a modern term. Those from the outside looking in judged Corinthians as being rather shallow. Its inhabitants had wealth without culture. And so, without more deeply rooted social structures to support the system, abuse of the poor by the wealthy was a common theme. Documents from the period have characterized the people from Corinth as lacking a certain grace and charm. Today, we might say they just weren’t very sophisticated.
Like most communities, the church in Corinth found itself shaped by its cultural environment, which is why they had some problems. Basically, what you could say about the larger culture of Corinth you could also say about the church. There were all kinds of folks in the Corinthian church—a steep social pyramid—in which very few of the Christian believers were on the high end of the wealth spectrum. The majority of the people in the Corinth congregation were working-class poor people.
Now in the Corinthian culture, just like in our culture, social status and wealth played a part in how everything ran. The rich enjoyed the protection of the judicial system. And just like today, the political system served the wealthy better than it did the poor. Rarely did you see the wealthy stockbroker who fleeced his rich investors going to jail for his crimes. Mostly what you saw were the poor, struggling folks getting into trouble with the law.
Likewise, in the church, only the really wealthy people had homes and staff that were large enough to host gatherings and provide for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Let me remind you here that at this early, early stage of the Christian faith (Paul’s letter to the Corinthians dates to the late fall or winter of 53-54), less than twenty years after the death of Jesus, that there weren’t any church buildings in which to worship. During this very early stage, people gathered in private homes to share the stories of Jesus and his ministry. At this point, these stories were not written down or collected into a holy text. The earliest gospel, which is Mark’s gospel, wasn’t written until about twenty years later, around the year 70.
So in Paul’s time, people gathered in a home, and they shared the stories of their personal encounters with Jesus, or they told stories they had heard about other people’s encounters. Then they shared in a simple meal around the table—bread and wine, shared in remembrance of Jesus’ meals with his disciples. They prayed over the bread and wine with the words they remembered Jesus had taught them. And if someone became a believer, they would baptize that person. That’s about it. That was worship in the early church.
So worship was occurring in people’s private homes—the homes of the wealthy—and according to the previous chapter, this was one of the problems. Because the leaders would schedule the meal for early evening at the home of some wealthy patron, perhaps someone who didn’t have to work long hours, and you know who would show up first? Other wealthy people who didn’t have to work long hours.
The problem was that these people wouldn’t wait for everybody else to arrive. They’d get started eating and drinking all the best food and wine before the poorer folks, those who had to work later, could get there.
With all this is going on, people were getting frustrated with one another. The poor people, who really needed the food offered at the community gatherings, literally weren’t getting enough to eat because the wealthy ate it all up before they even got there.
Just like in the larger culture, the wealthy didn’t have much regard for taking care of the poor. And there was more than just food scarcity at issue. This social pyramid extended to include the different roles and abilities of the people in the congregation. Apparently there had come to be a sense that some people’s roles and abilities were more valuable than others. Like, for example, maybe those who had the ability to teach and interpret, who knew more stories and had a more “mature” faith, felt like they were more important to the community than the newer Christians, the new people who didn’t know as much.
I would venture to guess that the people who didn’t know as much about the faith were probably the poor people. Why? Because they were busy working, and didn’t have the leisure time to sit around listening to stories for hours and hours. They had houses to clean, and babies to feed, and clothes to wash, and bills to pay, and at the end of the day, it was probably all they could do to just get over to the Christian gathering to hear a few stories and get a bite to eat. So there came to be in this church, just like in the larger culture, a kind of stratification. A hierarchy. A pecking order.
Some folks just thought they were more important than the others, and they were dismissing those who didn’t have as much to offer. So Paul writes them this letter, trying to encourage them to not be like the larger culture in which they lived. Paul encourages them to instead value each person in the community as a unique gift of God, and to understand that each person had something really important to offer to the whole. Each person was a critical part of the larger puzzle which made them, together, the body of Christ.
And so he fusses at the rich people for eating up the food and not saving enough for those who arrived later in the evening. He tells them that those who have the leisure of knowing more ought not to see themselves as better or more important that those who know less. And he tells them that they are all equally important in the eyes of God:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same god who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-7 NRSV).
Then he encourages them to treat one another with the same respect with which God treats all of God’s children:
The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. For if one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12: 22-26, NRSV, emphasis mine).
It’s not hard to see how Paul’s words to the people in Corinth apply to us. Because we are just like the Corinthians in so many ways. We are humans, with all the same kinds of issues and attitudes that challenged the Corinthian Christians.
- Do our members not compete with one another, hoping that others will notice how much we are doing around the church, because it makes us feel like we are good Christians?
- Do we pastors not compete with each other hoping that the bishop and the cabinet will notice how many hours we work, how many people we are baptizing, and how much of a difference our leadership is making in the church?
- Are we not tempted to look down our noses on those who have less time to give, or who have less knowledge of the Bible, or who don’t put as much in the offering plate?
- Do we not get irritated with the Christmas and Easter people who only surface twice a year?
I know we don’t want to be that way.
But we are that way.
We just are. It is the nature of humanity, the curse of original sin.
We just can’t help it.
The good news is that Jesus Christ is the great equalizer. “For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12: 13, NRSV). That means that whatever we have to offer, whatever gift we bring, however big or small, noticeable or quiet, visible or invisible, it is sufficient. Whatever we bring is enough.
Whatever your members bring, whenever they show up, even if it is late in the day and they are tired and all they have to bring is their complaints and tears, it is sufficient. And it is not just sufficient. It is significant. Just as significant as what anyone else has to offer.
Jesus: The Miraculous Healer
Around the time I was born, my parents bought a plot of land in the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas. My dad had a dream of building a cabin from the ground up. And so he and my mom proceeded over the next fifteen years to fulfill that dream. Together the two of them spent every vacation and free weekend building a small cabin. Since there was no electricity that reached our land, they built the cabin entirely with hand tools. We lit our cabin with kerosene lamps. It still stands proudly today, tucked back into a grove of trees at the peak of a mountain that overlooks a wide valley below.
Picture of my father building the cabin, circa 1968. Author on left, standing with her older brother.
The cabin today.
Not only was there no electricity, but there was no running water at the cabin. What I learned over my many years of staying at the cabin is that it is easier to function for long periods of time without electricity than without water. About a half a mile down the dirt road from the cabin there was an old pump from which my mom and dad drew water from a deep well to provide for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Every couple of days they would spend an hour pumping water into five gallon jugs, which they brought up the hill for us to use. We had to be careful not to waste water because replenishing our supply was not easy.
When we were at the cabin for only a few days, it wasn’t so bad. Each evening, my mom would boil a kettle of water and pour it into a basin where she mixed it with cold water. She would bathe my brother and me by the light of the Aladdin lamps with soap and a washcloth. But when we stayed at the cabin for longer periods, especially during the summer, instead of the sponge bath, she would take us down to the pump for a bath. She had a kiddie pool that she would position under the spigot. We would stand in the pool while she pumped the cold water from the well for our bath. In the heat of an Arkansas summer, when we were filthy from running around all day while my parents labored over their cabin, having a cold bath in the heat of the midday sun was a wonderful and refreshing experience.
I’ve always loved baths. After my parents finished their cabin they bought a turn-of-the-century Victorian house to work on for their next project. They live in that house to this day. One of the best features of the “Old House,” as we call it, is the extra-deep clawfoot cast-iron tub in the upstairs bathroom. Even though they have a more modern shower, I never use it when I’m visiting them. I just can’t pass up the opportunity to soak in that wonderful old tub.
Living as we do in modern-day America, where clean water is abundant and easily accessible, we have a hard time imagining what it must have been like to live in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Suffice to say that conditions were more akin to my childhood at the cabin than they are to the house I live in now, with cold and hot water running from the tap whenever I want it.
Bathing was very important to Judaism. One of the ritual requirements for observant Jews was to take a bath in a prescribed manner before coming into the synagogue, or in preparation for any holy day. For any good and righteous practitioner of Judaism, cleanliness was literally next to Godliness. Not only did people take full baths, but because it was so dry and dusty, and because people mostly walked from place to place, the first thing they would do when they entered into the house was to wash their faces and hands. Then they would remove their sandals and wash their feet. Living in that dry and dusty land, people were glad to take baths and grateful for water.
So why am I spending all this time writing about water and baths? Well, because the story about Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana starts not with wine, but with water. In verse six John writes, “Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.” Note also that a few verses back John tells us that Jesus and his disciples were invited to a marriage on the third day. Why might that detail be important? Because in Jesus’ day, as part of the marriage ritual, a feast proceeded the ceremony itself. The marriage feast typically lasted seven days, with fresh guests arriving each day. Usually, when a new guest arrived, after walking in from the dusty road, the first thing the guest did was wash his or her hands and feet. The second thing the guest would do was sit down to be served some food and wine. Wine and food flowed freely at these festivals. Sometimes supplies ran short. That seems to have been the case when Jesus and his disciples arrived on the third day of the festivities. Could it be that Jesus and his disciples used up the last of the bath water in those six stone water jars? I wonder about that, since John tells us no sooner had they gotten themselves cleaned up and seated for the meal when the wine ran out too.
So Jesus asked the servants to refill the jars. Naturally they must have thought they were being asked to replenish the water for bathing. But to their surprise, Jesus told them to fill their empty wine jugs from the water jars, and then to take them to the chief steward for a tasting.
Of course the steward didn’t know where the servants had gotten the substance in their wine jugs. But when he tasted the liquid he knew for certain that it was the best wine that had been served for the entire feast! Perhaps what remained in the water jars was still water. Perhaps only what was drawn into the wine jugs in the presence of Jesus was changed into wine as God commanded it to be. That is who Jesus was, after all. Jesus was God’s command spoken in and through a flesh-and-blood human being.
What Jesus did at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee was not about making water into wine. What it was about was a clear demonstration of who he always was from the beginning to the end of time: Emmanuel, God with us, the Word of God made flesh.
The Gospel of John says that from the beginning of creation there was always the Word of God—the Word that, when spoken, created everything. This language comes from the book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1 NRSV). Then God spoke the command, “Let there be light.” And light appeared, and God was pleased. Then God separated the light from the darkness. The light God called “day” and the darkness “night.” Evening passed and morning came. That was the first day. Then God spoke the words, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters” (verse 6). And as soon as God commanded it, it was done. God named the blue dome “sky.” Evening passed and morning came, and that was the second day. Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (Verse 9). No sooner had God commanded it then it was done. God named the land “earth” and the water which had come together God named “sea.”
John says that Jesus was and is the very same Word of God that was spoken in the beginning. Only in Jesus, that Word became a human being, full of grace and truth. Jesus was and is the very Word of God which, when spoken, changed things.
Jesus was the Word that, when spoken by God, brought life into being. We need not get caught up in the simple miracle of water being changed into wine by Jesus. After all, life itself is a much greater miracle, is it not?
The big problem that we have today, with our electric lights and our hot and cold running water, and our bath tubs and hot tubs and showers and flush toilets and automatic clothes washers and dishwashers and central heat and air conditioning and refrigerators and ovens and smart phones and televisions and computers and electronic gadgets and games is that we are so surrounded by all of these modern luxury items that we forget that life itself is nothing less than an absolute miracle spoken by God.
Maybe we have become so accustomed to the wonders of the modern world that what God did in Jesus and what God did in Cana of Galilee no longer strikes us with wonder. Maybe the miracle of life itself no longer strikes us with wonder. But the Gospel of John reminds us that life itself is a wonder and a miracle.
John also says that there is a proper and true way that life is meant to be lived, and in fact that Jesus is that way, and that truth, and that life itself. This means that Jesus’ life is the standard by which the lives of all other disciples are measured. According to Jesus, life does not consist of how many luxuries, like hot and cold running water, we surrounded ourselves with. In Christ, life consists of looking and listening for God as long as we live, seeking to live as disciples of Jesus and holding our fellow human beings in the highest regard, second only to our awe for God who spoke this world and our lives into being.
What we need to do as his disciples is study the ways of Jesus more. What we need to do is make our lives about practicing discipleship. What we need to do is to learn to be grateful again: grateful to God for life, and grateful to Jesus for teaching us the way to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. What we need to do is practice being grateful.
How can we do that? What practices can we take on to remind us to be grateful? Can we give thanks for the water each morning when we take a bath? Can we give thanks for the rain that falls down to water the earth? Can we give thanks to God for speaking this world into being, and for separating the day from the night and the earth from the sea? Can we give thanks for Jesus for being our ultimate luxury, God’s crowing gift, and be filled with gratitude for the miracle of his saving love?
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