INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
JEREMIAH 1:4-10. This is a classic example of the call to a prophet for his special mission. The young Jeremiah is summoned by the direct intervention of God in his life. The divine message revealed that God had intended this role for Jeremiah from before his birth. God not only called, but also equipped the prophet for his vocation by reassuring him and by "touching his mouth" to give him effective powers of speech. The prophet would need all of these gifts because his task was to pronounce God's judgment in a difficult religious and political situation in Israel at the end of the 7th century BC.
PSALM 71:1-6. The psalmist makes several urgent appeals to God for deliverance from unnamed enemies. Throughout his prayer, he prefaces his appeals by confessing his trust in God as his only refuge and hope.
1 CORINTHIANS 13: 1-13. Paul's hymn to love remains one of the great pieces of poetry in any language. It has universal application - from marriage and family life to all forms of human relationships. Yet there is a firmness about it that denies all sentimentality. It goes straight to the heart of the problems of human communication and issues that drive us apart.
For those who doubt that this approach to life can be effective, Paul has a special word of counsel. This is how mature people relate to each other. There is no other way to settle disputes such as those he had encountered among the disciples in Corinth.
LUKE 4:21-30. By telling the audience in his home town that they are witnessing the inauguration of the new age of God's rule in all of life, Jesus challenged his hearers to believe in him. They ran him out of town. Wouldn't we still do so? Don't we, though perhaps in more subtle ways?
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
JEREMIAH 1:4-10. How does God call someone to be God's spokesperson? Is it always a direct vocal summons such that heard by as Moses, or Samuel, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah - a mystical experience which comes to very few? Or is there sometimes a less dramatic way: a still, small voice within; or a gentle suggestion from a friend; or an inner desire expressed in a wordless prayer of commitment and a deep, reassuring confirmation that this is what God also desires? God has as many ways of calling as there are those whom God has chosen to lead.
This passage tells of a classic example of the direct call to a prophet for his special mission. As the prophet himself reported the experience, Yahweh intervened in the life of the young Jeremiah with a summons. "The word of the Lord came to me saying, ...." (vs.4) The divine message revealed that Yahweh had intended this role for Jeremiah from before his birth. Although Jeremiah felt predestined, he also felt unsuited for the vocation to which Yahweh had called him. That too is a common reaction to what must have been a very intense experience.
For anyone who has had a similar experience, Jeremiah's protests have a familiar ring to them. We all can think of every conceivable reason not to accept such a call. He didn't know how to speak. He was too young. (These days, we might say, "I am too old." Or "I am too busy raising my family." Or "I am too busy saving for my retirement.) Actually, he was afraid. And so are we. That was what Yahweh reassured him about most (vs. 8).
Yahweh not only called, but also equipped Jeremiah for his vocation. He received promises that Yahweh would give him the words to utter and to be with him whenever he was commanded to speak (vss.7-8). He would become "the mouthpiece of the Almighty," as William Sanday described the prophet's vocation. Then Yahweh acted to ordain him by "touching his mouth," thus giving him effective powers of speech. Isaiah had a similar experience (Isa. 6:5-6) Be warned, however, vocation and ordination today do not guarantee effectiveness in preaching.
The prophet would need all of these gifts because his task was to pronounce God's judgment, not only on Israel but on other nations too. His mission had much wider implications, both negative and positive. It reached beyond Israel to the nations (vs.10). This happened in a time of great disruption when the power of the great Assyrian empire had declined to the point where it was in its death throes. The kingdom of Judah had been ruled by Manasseh (697 ? or 687-642), a vassal of Assyria. He had been the longest reigning and the most reviled monarch, according to the Deuteronomists, because of his love for syncretist religious practices. Idols and worship of foreign gods had been introduced into Judea and Jerusalem rivaling and corrupting the worship of Yahweh. Vassal states like Babylon and Media quickly filled the political vacuum left by the decline of the Assyrian empire.
It is thought that Jeremiah's ministry began the very year in which Assurbanipal, the last of the Assyrian emperors (669-627 BCE) died. That could well have been the incident which occasioned his call. From this brief discussion of historical events, we may conclude that the details of vs.10 were written after the fact, reflecting what had already taken place.
Jeremiah's active ministry is thought to have extended over the next 40 years to 586 BCE. In that year Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and a great many of the leaders of Israel were marched away to exile. Jeremiah was not among them, but was carried away to Egypt by a group of refugees. However, some scholars doubt that his ministry began before 612 or 609 BCE because there is a gap of some 20 years in biographical information. This is so despite the fact that no other prophetic book includes so much biographical data. Some regard the date of 627 BCE as the time of his birth, which gives poignancy to his protest about his youth in vs.6.
PSALM 71:1-6. In some respects, this psalm does not conform to the traditional style of a lament with its sequence of appeal, complaint, petition and vow of thanksgiving, such as we find in Ps. 56. Here we have a sick, fearful and depressed old man (vss. 9, 18) who appears to have reached the end of his resources. He feels that God has all but deserted him. He makes several urgent appeals to God for deliverance from unnamed enemies. Yet, throughout his prayer, he prefaces his appeals by confessing his trust in God as his only refuge and hope (vs. 3).
We must conclude that the psalm was composed at relatively late date. It draws on material found in other parts of the Psalter: vss. 1-3 = 31:1-3a; vs. 6 = 22:10, etc. Be that as it may, the psalm still expresses the intensive search of the lonely and distressed soul for the assurance and hope of a living relationship with God in the utmost extremities of life.
Could this not also be the prayer of those who even now endure unexpected natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis? And what of those many millions who flee for their lives in terror caused by war only to face starvation and death in refugee camps? Are there not also many single parent families or elderly people, ill, alone and threatened with being forced out of their homes because no one cares about them and governments have withdrawn support for the most vulnerable of this richest society ever in human history? The profound sense of justice implicit is so much of Hebrew prophetic literature comes to the fore in this psalmist's lament.
1 CORINTHIANS 13: 1-13. Paul's hymn to love remains one of the great pieces of poetry in any language. It has universal application - from marriage and family life to all forms of human relationships, individual and corporate. Yet there is a firmness about it that denies all sentimentality.
This love is more than words or even noble, sacrificial actions (vss.1-3). It goes straight to the heart of the problems of human communication and the fractious habits that drive us apart: impatience, unkindness, envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, selfishness, irritability, resentment, deliberate wrongdoing, deceit and dishonesty (vss. 4-7). Paul declares his unequivocal conviction that love can overcome all of these human failings common to us all. This should surely still form an important element of every marriage ceremony and the heart of every pre-marital interview for couples asking the church to bless their union. Conflict resolution programs never had a better means of
achieving success than following these few verses.
For those who doubt that this approach to life can be effective, Paul has a special word of counsel: this is how mature people relate to each other. (vss. 8-12) There is no other way to settle disputes such as those he had encountered among the disciples in Corinth. Why not in our homes, our towns, our country and our world too?
Enthralling as this poem may be, Paul wrote explicitly to the Corinthian disciple community – and to us in our context right now. Some may feel that while this may be the ideal formula for life in the Shalom of God, it is not very practical for life in the real world. If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, if we are indeed "his body," then this is the way we are to live here and now. This is the way he lived in the real world, costly though it was. This is what the cross means: Love that lays down its life for the world through every-day human relationships.
The Greek word translated "love" throughout this passage is agapé. Many treatises have been written comparing this word to other Greek words all translated into English as "love." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible has a nine page article on this word entitled "Love in the NT." It was written by a man I knew well and who more than once tested my love for him as a teacher and colleague in ministry, the late Professor George Johnston, one-time professor of NT at Emmanuel College, Toronto, then later at United Theological College and McGill University, Montreal. He concluded his exhaustive study by saying that this love had taken a human face in Jesus of Nazareth and had spoken by a human voice to and for all the scattered children of God. "Love had reached down from God to man, that man might rise up to enjoy life in God forever." Acerbic though he was in his criticism of less than adequate scholarship, Prof. Johnson has a genuine pastoral care for his students which exemplified the word love.
LUKE 4:21-30. So what does one say after one has told the audience in one's home town that they are witnessing the inauguration of the new age of God's rule in all of life through all the world? The message Deutero-Isaiah had delivered was simple, "Your God reigns." Jesus had come to implement that reign of God in his home town, among his own people.
The initial reaction to Jesus in Nazareth was quite favourable. Patronizing too. "Fine fellow, that boy. Joseph the carpenter's son, isn't he? His widowed mother must be proud of him. He'll go far."
That wasn't good enough for Jesus. He knew they hadn't really heard him at all. He would have none of it. So he made them listen by challenging his hometown audience to believe in him and his mission to the world. He had not come home to do miracles like they had heard of him performing in Capernaum a few kilometres down the road by the Sea of Galilee. And he wasn't there to make them think well of him; or to make them feel good as the preferred and privileged people, good Israelites all. Like Elijah and Elisha, he had come to minister to outsiders too.
Here Luke, ever mindful of his Gentile audience, lets his universalism stand out clearly. G.B. Caird wrote in his study of Luke's Gospel: "The stories of Elijah and Elisha should, indeed, have taught them that with God charity begins wherever there is found human need to call it forth and faith to receive it, irrespective of class or race." (Caird, G.B. Saint Luke. The Pelican New Testament Commentaries, 1963.) As Luke presents him, Jesus had a much wider vision than the Jewish community in the small mountain village in Galilee from which he had come.
George Santayana once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. After a century of the most destructive conflicts ever based on ideological rivalries between competing empires, we have entered a new century with the prospect of ethnic and religious conflicts within many smaller nations. Our 24-hour television news broadcasts feature violence and death occurring wherever the far-ranging eye of a television camera will reach. The problem is that when we see these tragic events, we fail to recognize that our own attitudes toward those who are "not like us" are being deeply challenged. For example, whenever we ask someone who has a skin colour
different from ours, "Where do you come from?" we expose our own racial prejudices. Or when we tell a joke that pigeon-holes people because of their particular accent or country of origin, we express the narrowness of our own minds.
That is exactly what happened when Jesus recalled the stories about the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian. Both of them weren't even Israelites, but had been ministered to by two of Israel's great prophets. "Open your eyes!" Jesus was saying to his neighbours in Nazareth. "The world is bigger than you imagine. The God you claim to believe in is far too small. God doesn't just favour Israelites like you and me. God's love extends to those who are most vulnerable, the most oppressed, the outsiders, the most in need."
My friend, Jim Taylor, recently wrote in his Soft Edges column on the Internet: "Canadians have been more subtle about our prejudices. We're only now coming to realize the second class status accorded to our aboriginal peoples. And our immigrants. Our women. Our elderly.... Racism's roots lie in one group's conviction of God-given superiority over another group, simply by belonging to that group. By extension, any member of the dominant group can feel superior to any member of the victim group."
Whether it was the way he said it or the unspoken implications of what Jesus said, the good citizens of Nazareth were enraged. They ran him out of town. Wouldn't we still do so? Don't we, though perhaps in more subtle ways?