Collect for Epiphany IV
Almighty God, creator of all things, who in the beginning didst command the light to shine out of darkness:
grant that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all thy people, and reveal the knowledge of thy glory
in the face of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah, 1, Vv 4 - 10
New testament lesson:
St Luke 4, Vv 21 - 30
Today’s readings had a common theme, ‘Speaking in the name of God.’ Let us think for a few moments about Jeremiah, from whose Prophecy our First Lesson came. Although his is the next book in our Bible after that of Isaiah, Jeremiah appeared on the scene about a century later. He was the son of Hilkiah, one of the High Priests of Judah. It was Hilkiah who, while carrying out the purification of the temple in Jerusalem, discovered in a hidden corner of the building a volume called ‘the book of the law’ (2 Kings 22, 8) or ‘the book of the covenant’ (23, 2). Some have supposed that this ‘book’ was nothing other than an early copy of the Pentateuch, the five Law books of Moses (Deut 31, 9-26). This remarkable discovery occurred in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign and it permanently affected the subsequent history of the nation.
As we heard, the Lord chose Jeremiah at a very early age, in fact, before he was born. As our reading said, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I set you apart.’ Some scholars have interpreted this latter phrase to imply that Jeremiah was born already circumcised. Jeremiah is sometimes called the reluctant prophet. We read of him saying, ‘I do not know how to speak, I am only a child.’ The Lord, as persuasive as ever against Jeremiah, as against all who try to backslide out of doing his will, said, ‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.’ Then we reach the nub, as it were, of God’s action. Just as Isaiah had his lips touched with the burning coal so the Lord reached out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth, and said, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth. I appoint you over all nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’ Thus Jeremiah was sent off to speak in the name of God. His very long book, which extends to fifty-two chapters, tells of this sensitive, unselfconfident man who, though his life was often in danger, never compromised his message from God. He could not help but declare the terrible fate he saw in store for his nation and he grieved over their stubborn refusal to take notice of his words. These were dark times and Jeremiah’s message was naturally of sombre mien. Yet, to write him off as a pessimist is quite wrong – a strong streak of hope runs through his prophecies. After God’s judgement and after the exile to Babylon God did restore joy and prosperity to his chosen people in their homeland.
Had this been a Eucharistic service we should have heard the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christian Church in Corinth read as our Epistle. Who does not know this scriptural passage about the three Christian virtues of faith and hope and love? Who has not learned it by rote when at school, or since? Who has not heard it read at countless weddings and funerals; for some of us, as recently as last Tuesday in this very church? Who cannot remember its concluding verse: ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’? Saint Paul was writing to a troubled church in Corinth. He began his great paean of praise to love by considering what happens when he does not speak in the name of God. In this passage Paul writes about faith, hope and love – faith in God, hope for the fulfilment of God’s purposes and love for God. First he explains that if he speaks with the tongues, or languages, of men or of angels, and has no love for God, then he is only making an awful lot of noise; being a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal, as he puts it. Similarly he considers having enough faith to move mountains, and giving his body to be burnt, but considers them as useless activities unless accompanied by a love for God. As the church’s principal evangelist and the writer of the earliest books in what we now know as the New Testament, Paul was commissioned to go out and speak in the name of God. You will remember that, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul was sent, blinded by God’s light, to the house of Judas on Straight Street. God called Ananias to visit Saul (as he then was called by his Jewish name) but Ananias complained bitterly that this Saul was a serious persecutor of the church, the people he called, ‘the Followers of the Way’. Ananias was promptly told to, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.’ So, Paul (to give him his Greek name) was commissioned to speak in the name of God. In his hymn of praise to love, perhaps one of the most glorious passages in the whole Bible, he explains to the recalcitrant members of his fledgling church at Corinth the importance of his love for God in all that he does. We could spend the whole morning exploring the difficulties that Paul faced in this very Roman City of Corinth. But Paul, as part of his endeavours to justify himself and his faith as examples to the church members, gives them this wonderful insight into the love of God and its significance in his own life as one who speaks in the name of God.
In our Second Lesson we heard Saint Luke’s account of Jesus being rejected by the people of his hometown of Nazareth. Our reading began part way through the story. In earlier verses, as we heard last Sunday, Jesus had suffered forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Then we hear that he returned to Galilee, ‘in the power of the Spirit. He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.’ Jews introduced synagogue worship after their exile in Babylon, which happened in Jeremiah’s time. Jews of the Dispersion or the Diaspora could not attend the Temple for sacrificial observances, so synagogue worship was devised, consisting principally of readings from the Law and the Prophets, with prayers and psalms, sometimes a canticle and perhaps a sermon. It was the sermon that caused Jesus his problem. Invited to preach he opened the scriptures to the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and quoted, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ So far, so good: this was what was expected of a visiting rabbi. Then the difficulties began. Jesus gave back the scriptural scroll, sat down and said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ Initially the assembly listened to him politely, but after a further exposition of his text his listeners became furious. What right had he to tell them, as he did, that God’s message was to be for Gentile listeners if the Jews did not readily accept it? Jesus gave them two examples from the scriptures – of the healing power of Elijah and Elisha, but both to Gentiles, not to Jews. This incensed his hearers. Such was their anger that they drove him out of town and attempted to throw him from a cliff top. Is it any wonder that, thereafter, Jesus took up residence in nearby Capernaum? The significant feature of this story was that Jesus too was commissioned to go out and speak in the name of God – the Holy Spirit of God anointed him, among other things, ‘to preach good news to the poor’.
What does all this mean for us in the early days of the twenty-first century? Are we to be like Jeremiah and Isaiah and have God touch our mouths so that we may speak fervently in his name? Are we to be like Blessed Paul the Apostle, commissioned to carry God’s words before the Gentiles? Shall we hear Jesus telling us that today these scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But we cannot, as Christian witnesses, do nothing. God does not allow us that freedom, not if we want to be considered as part of his kingdom on earth. If we do not want to be so considered then we could reasonably ask, ‘what are we doing here this morning?’ Many of us know, and even know by heart, a prayer called The General Thanksgiving, composed by Edward Reynolds, Bishop of Norwich, in the seventeenth century. In lay led Eucharistic services we use it in lieu of the Prayer of Consecration in the 1970 Liturgy. This prayer teaches us to ask the Holy Spirit to give us guidance and help us when we offer to God the words, ‘that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.’ Let us leave this place this morning with thankful hearts, mindful of those powerful words of Bishop Reynolds. Let us show forth God’s praise in our lives and, like Jeremiah, like Paul, like Jesus before us ‘speak in the name of God’ to those we meet while journeying along our respective Christian pilgrimages.
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