Sunday, January 27, 2008

Epiphany Three
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Jehovah, and to inquire in his temple.

Lydia was a businesswoman. She was a seller of purple, an expensive cloth. It was highly prized because it was a mark of great wealth. The purple cloth was made from a dye extracted from snails. Most dyes in that day were made from plants, so the colors were often muted and faded quickly. Purple was different. The color was intense and permanent. It would have been noticeable if there was even just a small stripe of purple on a robe compared to the other colors. By the forth century A.D. purple was reserved for the Caesar and his closest advisors. During the excavations at Qumran, a purple ball of wool was found still as bright as the day it was dyed. She met a man named Paul who introduced her to the story and grace of Jesus. She received that word with joy and became an active Christian disciple. God had work for her to do.

Dorcas was a seamstress who was known for making clothes for the poor widows in her community. We do not know much about her, but it seems she was a woman of some means because her charitable works were numerous. She was a Christian who lived with a community of Christians in Joppa. Her name has become synonymous with charity and numerous charitable organizations bear her name. The only other thing we know about Dorcas is that she died. Her death brought great grieving to her community and they sought the aid of Peter. Peter came, prayed over her and she was raised. God still had work for her to do.

Phoebe was a Christian woman who was from the church in Cenchrea. We know even less about Phoebe than we do about Lydia and Dorcas. She is commended by Paul to the church in Rome in his letter to that congregation. It is believed that she was the bearer of that letter to Rome. She is described as a deaconess, so she was a leader among the Christians. Paul was able to trust her with a very important task: the delivery of a letter that helped a new and growing church—and the church today—understand the life of faith that Christ calls us to live. God had work for her to do, too.

We single out these women on January 27th as co-workers with the Apostles. We know so little about them, yet they are names we remember because of the impact they had on our lives. They touched the lives of so many that it is odd we do not know more about them. But then, we aren’t necessarily called by God to be famous or to have a large impact on our world. They were servants, willingly helping others and by their stories we see examples of the gifts God gives to His people and the work He calls them to do. We also see that it is not part of our ministry to be remembered, but to help the world remember God and to see the light of His grace.

I always laugh when I read the part of this week’s epistle lesson where Paul starts rambling about the people he baptized. “I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus and Gaius; lest any man should say that ye were baptized into my name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.” He goes on to say that he was not sent to baptize, but to preach the Gospel. I don’t think that Paul is dividing the work of ministry, suggesting that preaching and baptism are performed by people in different offices. I also suspect that he baptized a great many more people than those he named in this passage. As a matter of fact, it is written in the book of Acts that Lydia was baptized after hearing Paul preach. It is possible that another member of his party did the baptism, but it is equally possible that Paul did the baptizing that day by the river.

Paul does not mean to imply that baptism is unimportant. He is reminding us that it is the baptism that matters, not the one who does the baptizing. The Corinthians were divided over their leadership—something that is still a problem today. How many churches lose part of their membership when a pastor decides to leave, particularly when there is a problem in the congregation? I’m sure we have all heard of a church that has split over less. I certainly know too many people who go to a church because of the pastor.

The point of Paul’s writing is that they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. What mattered were the Gospel and the power of God. Paul says that he did not speak with eloquent wisdom, yet how many will follow a charismatic preacher because they like what he has to say? We think there is more power to the words when the person speaking is educated and articulate. Yet, how many times have we been persuaded to believe a lie because it was said well?

Paul brought the focus of the Corinthians back to the work of Christ. Some of the followers were focusing on the evangelist from whom they had heard the Gospel, rather than focusing on the message they brought. They were loyal to Paul or Apollos or Peter rather than loyal to Jesus Christ. There were some very real differences between those fellowships. Paul preached to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. They were gathered around his message because it met them in their experience and understanding. Peter was sent to take the message to the Jewish community. He preached to them in a way that helped them juxtapose their heritage and faith to this new understanding of God. Apollos preached the Gospel with a baptism of repentance like John, which is a message with which many people identify. Human beings have a hard time accepting a free gift, even one like the Bible, if is not accompanied by some word of Law.

These men preached to their audience and their audience was drawn by the message they preached. What Paul was writing to the Corinthians, however, is that there is not a different message. Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter) were united in the same mind and the same person, to share the message of the Cross. There is only the Gospel. It is not necessarily a bad thing that the people of Corinth were gathering together in like-minded groups, but he wanted them to realize that they were not divided. They were one in Christ. Paul, who is among the greatest of the evangelists and preachers, did not want anyone ‘following him.’ He was really nothing. It was the message that mattered. He was calling the people in Corinth to a life following Christ, not man.

Elton Trueblood, the Quaker author, educator, philosopher, and theologian, once said, “There is no vital religion in the world today that is not sectarian, and there cannot be. The reason for this is rooted deeply in human nature. We naturally form into groups and find our best life in reasonably small fellowships. Like-minded fellowships in different committees strengthen one another in conscious loyalty to a heritage. Such groups are called denominations. There is nothing very dangerous or surprising about this and certainly there is nothing about it that is unique to religion. We do it in everything else, as the existence of lodges, political parties and service clubs so abundantly testifies. It is very curious, indeed, that a man who takes for granted the existence of separate organizations for Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions Clubs should profess to be shocked by the fact that Christians are organized in a similar way.”

It is God who does the work of grace that is found in the baptism we offer and it is in His name that we are baptized. We will continue to gather around the Word and Sacraments in fellowships with people that are like ourselves. It is natural for human beings to do so. However, we are reminded that we should not be following denominations or pastors, opinions or practices. The Gospel is the foundation of our faith and Jesus Christ is the one whom we follow.

But as Paul writes, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The message of the cross is that all men are equal—not in their ability to be righteous but in their inability to be right with God. The work of the cross is that the Son of God, the Word made flesh, came to die so that we might be forgiven. To accept a message such as this, we must first accept that we are sinners in need of a Savior. To believe it is to die. That is why the message is foolishness. The Jews believed they were made right with God through their acts of worship, sacrifices and offerings. The Gentiles did not see this need to be made right with God for they were good by nature. How many people today still think that righteousness is either earned or innate?

Jesus Christ came to teach a different message. He came to restore people to God. I think that is what makes our Old Testament lesson and the connection to the Gospel lesson so important.

Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob, the sixth son of his wife Leah. He became one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe that eventually settled to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The name Zebulun has two possible meanings. It could mean “gift.” Leah saw Zebulun as a gift, particularly in her sadness over Jacob’s rejection of her. It could also mean “honor,” and it stems from the idea that Leah hoped that her sixth child would finally bring her the honor due to her from her husband. The people from the tribe of Zebulun were known to be scribes and they are remembered for their sacrificial willingness to fight for Israel.

Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, the second son of Rachel’s servant Bilhah. The tribe of Naphtali settled north of Zebulun, also just to the east of the Sea of Galilee. His name came out of Rachel’s grief over her own barrenness, “with great wrestlings have I wrestled my sister.” When blessing his sons, Jacob said of Naphtali, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.” Naphtali had an independent spirit, set apart by geography and topography as it was from the rest of Israel. The people from the tribe of Naphtali were fighters, and like Zebulun they gave their lives sacrificially for the sake of the whole nation.

Both these tribes were conquered by the Assyrians, exiled and lost forever. There are still some people who claim to be from the lost tribes, but between the exile and the intermingling of foreigners with those left behind, there is some question to the credibility of that claim. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were located in the same region that came to be known as Galilee, where Jesus roamed and did much of His work. It was home to the Gentiles, foreigners. They were not Jews, and yet Jesus spent time with them. He took His message of hope so that they too might know God’s grace. Though the tribes were lost, Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah that people who walked in darkness would see a great light. He was the light.

When John was arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee. John’s arrest was probably major news in Jerusalem. The leaders knew that they could not rest until they stopped all rebellion, so they looking for those who might take over the ministry of John. In calmer times, we might have expected Jesus to work out of Jerusalem, after all that was the center of religious life in Israel. But Jesus went to Galilee of the Gentiles.

Was Jesus running away? We might think so if we did not have the prophecy from Isaiah. God promised that the Messiah would come out of the area known as Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew recognized the connection when he quoted Isaiah. During this season of Epiphany we are reminded that Jesus came to bring the message of hope to all the nations. He came to be a light in the darkness. He came to bring peace between peoples. Zebulun and Naphtali represent all those who were once tribes of Israel, but were lost. God had not forgotten.

There were still Jews in the region around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were Jews. We don’t know much about them. Were they strictly observant Jews? Did they travel to Jerusalem according to the Law? Did they attend meetings at the temple and synagogues regularly? They were fishermen, and while the Jews took the Sabbath seriously, did those fishermen really put down their nets for the Sabbath? Did they study the scriptures? Did they know the Law? As we hear the stories about them in the Gospels, I think we see a picture of ordinary men who were not devout or religious. They were like us—worshipping and serving God as they were able in the midst of their lives.

The first disciples, the ones we hear about in today’s lesson, were fishermen. Jesus ran into them one day when He was walking near the Sea of Galilee. According to our Gospel lesson from John last week, Andrew and Peter had already met Jesus, but then they apparently went back to fishing. Now Jesus found them and called them to join Him. It always amazes me when I see their response to this call. “Straightway they left their nets.” Other versions use the word “immediately.” Can you imagine dropping your work and following a man with no notice? In our day we would think it is irresponsible to do such a thing. Jesus found two other fishermen, James and John, and called them to join Him. They left their boat behind—again an irresponsible thing to do—yet they did so seemingly without thought or concern.

We look at these men and we are taken aback by their dedication to Jesus’ ministry. Would we do such a thing? Would we drop our work and walk away from everything to follow Jesus. This is a point that is often preached in our churches in relation to this text. But we have to ask, is that what Jesus calls us all to do? Jesus had many followers. Some of them actually traveled with Him from place to place and town to town. However, what of the people who stayed at home? What of the mothers who took their babies to be blessed and then returned to their housework? What of the businessmen in all those towns who returned to their shops when Jesus left? Did they have less faith than the disciples who dropped everything? Certainly not. Jesus does call some to extraordinary ministry, but for most of us, He calls us to faithfully in the everyday experiences of our lives.

As we look once again at Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, we see ordinary women doing extraordinary things because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Lydia may have been known for her business sense, Dorcas for her charity and Phoebe for her leadership and courage. Yet, there would not have been headlines in the Jerusalem gazette announcing their accomplishments. They might have gotten a one line mention on page thirteen, much like we see in the scriptures about them. However, they lived their faith and supported the Christian community with their resources and their lives.

We, too, are called by God to serve our neighbors, to share the light of Christ and to help others through their sufferings. We do not do this for reward. We do not do it so that we will benefit in any way. We do it because we know God is faithful to His promises and that He will fulfill all He has proclaimed through Jesus Christ. We live in hope—not wishes and dreams, but expectation of what will be—and in that hope we continue revealing that light that is Christ to the world.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise found in the passage from Isaiah that those who walked in darkness would see a great light. This is the work of God, not the work of man. The salvation to which we cling comes from Jesus Christ, not by the gifts of the preachers or the work of the people who have share the Gospel with us. God Himself multiplies the nations. He increases our joy. He has broken the yoke of our oppressor—sin and death—and made us right with Him.

We can look at the lives of those women and praise God for their dedication, their humility and their charity, but we must beware not to let these things define our mission. It is good to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. It is right to teach one another how to live in our faith. But none of those things define our relationships with God or one another. They are not necessarily our calling in this world. We are called as Christians to be of one mind and purpose, not that every Christian is gifted to serve in exactly the same ministry or situation. Rather, we are called to share the message of the cross, that foolish message of life that comes out of death. We are called to die and to bring others to the cross so that they too might see the light, die and be raised to new life in Christ. We are called to sing to the Lord a new song of praise and thanksgiving for being our light and our salvation.

The psalmist writes, “One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of Jehovah all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Jehovah, and to inquire in his temple.” This is what it means to die—to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe lived their lives of faith in less extraordinary circumstances. We might be called to live like Peter or we might be called to live like Lydia. However God calls us to live, let us die to our old life and walk with Christ, sharing the message of the cross with the world.

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