January 26 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Theme: "And So to Work" springs to mind this week; or perhaps something along the lines of "Purpose, Staff, Action". The sense of launching the mission that Jesus has come to carry out: the purpose is to call people to a new way of life, summed up in that rather treacherous word "Repent"; the staff being the disciples through whom that message is to be spread initially; and of course the action being Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing (in that order!) that he is about to undertake. As most people are still in the process of getting back to action after the holiday break, either of these approaches may provide a point of contact.
Introduction. Again we start with Isaiah. The obvious reason for choosing this short passage is to provide the background for yet another of Matthew's scholarly attempts to show how Jesus has fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament; but for us it provides a useful reminder that Jesus is not Plan B; God has been working his purposes out (according to his Plan A) from the beginning of time, and the Advent of Jesus is simply another stage in the implementation of that Plan. St Paul's contribution today is to keep us grounded: even in the Church, conversion is patchy at best!
Background. For reasons that I hope I will have thought of by next week, next week we are going to "regress" to Jesus the very young infant, as his parents bring him to the Temple, marking the end of the liturgical period of "Epiphanytide". Those of us who prefer a linear or chronological approach to history and biography may be tempted to think this order of liturgical observances shows a crankiness that, even by ecclesiastical standards, goes too far, but that's next week's worry. Today we have a picture of Jesus in the prime of his life: he has been baptised and experienced the love and affirmation of God, and the empowerment of God through his Holy Spirit to "fulfil his potential"; and he has come through an intense period of challenge in the wilderness unshaken by the satanic effort to undermine everything he experienced in his baptism by sowing self-doubt. He is ready for action!
Or is he? That's not quite the picture Matthew paints for us this morning, is it? Far from charging into battle, Matthew says Jesus starts his campaign with a strategic retreat. On hearing what's happened to John, Jesus heads for safer country. Yet again we see Matthew struggling with a difficult question, either one that has occurred to him or one that has been put to him. If Jesus is the Son of God, affirmed, anointed and empowered to save the world – and if he has already "faced-down" the devil in spiritual combat – how come he didn't just go to Herod's palace and demand John's immediate release from imprisonment? Or, at the very least, stand his ground and get on with his ministry right where he was? How come he took off for Galilee?
And as always Matthew finds the answer to his puzzle in Scripture: Jesus' departure was to fulfil a prophecy, and, in doing that, to give a further sign of who and what he was. The tribe of Napthtali's land was the northernmost area of Israel, and had been the first to suffer from the Assyrian incursions and eventual invasion. Now God is "righting the wrongs" suffered by his people at the hands of his enemies; and it is only right that those who suffered first should be the first to experience such divine vindication. Jesus the Redeemer and Saviour of the World starts that universal mission in the region of Napthtali because it is (and always has been) God's intention that he should do so.
At least, that's Matthew's take on it; and having answered (to his own satisfaction) the question he was struggling with, he has also set the scene for the start of Jesus' ministry; and so, for the first time in this gospel Jesus speaks to his fellow human beings. (If I remember when we get to Lent, I shall say something about the significance of the fact that in this gospel Jesus' first words are addressed to the devil.) This week I shall merely draw attention to the fact that the first words Jesus speaks to a human audience is a briefer and less colourful version of John's message at the Jordan: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." If we do nothing else this week it would do us a lot of good to spend some quality time with that apparently simple sentence, and to un-learn what we probably think it means.
It does not mean, "Confess your sins, because God is just about here and you'll be in dead trouble if you don't clean up your act in time." Frankly, I suspect that's what John thought it meant: his image of an axe lying at the root of the trees does not seem compatible with a warm invitation from God to a new way of life – quite apart from the offence it causes to our eco-friendly souls today. The problem is that for centuries the Church has somehow given us to understand that "repentance" is just another word for "confession", which it isn't. The call is to repentance is a call to change direction – to turn away from one way of life and adopt another. To confess my sins is simply to acknowledge that, while my life in general is going along the right track, there have been some specific instances where I have screwed up in some way. To repent is to acknowledge that I am on the wrong track.
So Jesus calls people on to a new track – one that leads us into a new way of life that he calls the Kingdom of God. It is a way of life that he makes possible for us – hence, in his advent, the kingdom has drawn near. In and through him we now have an opportunity that wasn't available before his coming. So far from his first words being a demand backed by a threat, they are an invitation accompanied by an assurance. But like all invitations this one only has effect if it is accepted; and so, in Matthew's account, we find Jesus issuing the invitation to specific people – he doesn't just call for volunteers. And we find those specific invitees responding in full and dramatic ways: they abandon their present way of life and their present loyalties and embrace the new way, which, however imperfectly at this stage, they somehow recognise embodied in Jesus. And all this happened, of course, not in The Temple, or while these men were deep in prayer somewhere: it happened at their places of work, while they were about their daily tasks. As we "get back to it" after the Christmas-New Year break, that might be the first important lesson for us to learn. With God, no one and nowhere are off-limits!
Isaiah. Just as Matthew calls on the teaching of Isaiah to present his message to the people of his time, so Isaiah reached back into history to illustrate his point. Not only does he recall the trials and sufferings of the people of Naphtali, but he also draws attention to the fate of the Midianites. It is worth reading chapter 7 of the Book of Judges to get what all this is about. It's about God working with and through Gideon to rescue his people in battle against their enemies. That, of course, would have been known to Matthew, so that in reminding us of this passage from Isaiah Matthew is also reminding us of this lower level in the faith history we have inherited through Jesus: God was with his people in Gideon's time: he was speaking to the people in Isaiah's time; and now he is with us through his Son – and always for the same reason – to call us back to himself, to abandon the track we have chosen for ourselves and to get onto the track that leads to him. Notice, too, how the "epiphany themes" are picked up this passage: the reference to "Galilee of the Gentiles"; the "great light" seen by those who had been living in "a land of deep darkness"; and to the joy and exultation of the people. [We should try not to be too distressed by Isaiah's image of people sharing the plunder: if need be, we could substitute "winning Lotto" as a modern equivalent.]
Taking It Personally.
· Continue to reflect on your experience of the Christmas-Epiphany celebration. Was it "enlightening" in some new way? Were you particularly aware of God's presence with you – of Emmanuel?
· How does it compare with previous years? Was there any particular moment when you were reminded of some previous Christmas – or when you drew on some such experience to help you understand or cope with some challenge?
· When did you feel most joyful or exultant? Did you feel particularly liberated by this holiday period?
· Is there any sense in which "dividing plunder" comes uncomfortably close to "opening the presents" in your mind?
Corinthians. I did warn you last week! St Paul has finished the positive stuff and is now telling them what is really on his mind. It has been reported to him (and he names his sources) that there are factions in the local church at Corinth. [Always a good passage to quote when someone expresses the wish that we could be more like the early church.] It seems that people are forming "teams" around the person who first brought them to Christ, or who baptised them. St Paul will have none of this, even though some are pledging allegiance to him. This is yet another illustration of our inability to grasp the fundamental truth at the heart of our Christian faith – we are all one in Christ! Remember how St Peter put it recently – "I now understand that God has no favourites". We shouldn't either – whether we're talking about vicars, preachers, wardens, organists or whatever. (That's the old way of life – the one we have been called to leave behind us. We are already being shown that "repentance" is so much harder than "confession"!) St Paul puts it all in perspective in verses 17 and 18: the only thing that really matters is the saving power of God released for us through the cross of Christ.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on your local church. Are you aware of any factions among its members – cliques or in-groups, "gate-keepers", "power couples"? Have you ever felt excluded from anything going on in the church – left in the dark? Could anyone else get the impression that you're one of the in-group and they're not?
· What do you think of "Chloe's people"? Are they whistle-blowers or gossip-mongers? How would you feel if you discovered that somebody from within your local church had raised a concern of this kind with the Bishop?
· In what circumstances, if any, have you ever raised any such concerns with the Bishop or some other person "in authority? If someone raised such an issue with you what, if anything, would you do about it?
Matthew. When the action starts (verse 18) it could hardly be more dramatic. The fishermen abandon their means of livelihood and their families – everything and everyone they have ever known – to follow Christ. Where is he going? What does he want of them? What's the plan, man? If those sorts of questions occurred to any of those guys he kept is to himself. At the literal level, of course, this story doesn't make a lot of sense: according to Luke, Jesus expressly warns people to think about the cost of discipleship before signing up: Luke 14:25-33. But that's not the point of this story here. Matthew and the others are talking about a change of fundamental direction - of mindset and of values. We can't just add on our Christian faith to everything else we do. Christ must be central in our lives: out of our love for him comes everything else in our lives including our commitment to our families and to our work. We cannot put Christ on hold until our families are off our hands, or our careers are well-established.
Taking It Personally.
· It's really quite simple this week, isn't it? It's time for a thorough spiritual stock-take. Is Christ the central reality of your life or not?