4th Sunday of Epiphany
1st February 2015
Responding to God’s call, wherever it may lead us
As we come to the end of the Christmas cycle – the seasons of Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany – we are called to remember how Christ reveals God to us. As a theological motif this is at its most refined at Christmas itself when we remember ‘the Word made flesh’, or ‘God made man’ in Emmanuel. But since Epiphany we have been following the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity in his ministry – with the story of the Wedding at Cana in Galilee being the focus for our readings last Sunday.
This week our Gospel reading takes us to a place that is common in Jesus’ ministry – the Synagogue; and an activity that is common – the healing of a damaged person. Both of these activities have something to say to us about how God is revealed to us in Christ. Until he was rejected and ejected, Christ’s ministry took place in the structures and patterns of the Jewish faith – he is commonly found talking with others and teaching in the synagogues and (as we will remember in our prayers tomorrow) we find him attending the various festivals of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. It is also clear that he had a vigorous life of prayer, study and discussion within his immediate group – first of all his family and then the group of close disciples who gathered around him. All this brings home to us that, though he undoubtedly brought great changes with his teaching, Jesus was not set against the structures of religion – so long as they were focused correctly on God and not on their self-survival.
This is good news for us who are gathered together here as successors to those people who attended the synagogues – so long as we remember the message the Jesus preached to the Pharisees then the institution of the Church can truly be a vessel for God’s grace. However, we are given a harsh reminder of the dangers of not keeping our focus on God in our first reading – from Deuteronomy. For here are recounted the words of Moses who said that a prophet would follow him, and God’s promise that this prophet (normally associated with Jesus in the Christian tradition) will speak words in the name of God – words that must be heeded. And the price for not heeding the words of that prophet – the prophet we believe to be truly the Christ – is not just a rebuke but death – maybe not immediate and physical but definitely spiritual. This may seem a slightly harsh way of putting things – hear the message of Christ or else – but actually that is a truth we sometimes need to hear; that following Christ in the way of God’s love is not always easy – but will always lead to spiritual fulfilment.
This contrast between the vision of heaven and earth perfected in God’s love and the reality of getting there is brought out in the poetry of our reading from Revelation. A bit like reading a novel I think that Christians often try to skip to the end of the story – we seek to land in heaven straight away. The Book of Revelation is a reminder – in spectacular poetry – that this is not the case – that there may well be traumas and distresses on the way. As with the reading from Deuteronomy there is an obvious parallel between the image of the pregnant woman giving birth to the child who will rule the nations and the birth of Christ of Mary. But the poetic retelling of this in terms of a battle between good and evil is a vivid reminder that the triumph of God’s love may well be a complicated and difficult task.
If we return for a moment to our Gospel reading we find the end, or the object of our search – for it is in encountering Christ that the man with an unclean spirit is healed. Whilst the term ‘unclean spirit’ has many meanings its most common at the time the Bible was brought together was a person who was distanced from God – someone who was troubled in spirit. Whilst this may have also been connected to physical illness this was not necessarily so – and I suspect that we have all at some time or other been in the position of finding ourselves distanced from God. But in listening truly and honestly to God revealed in Christ we are given a means of being touched by the grace of God – of finding ourselves healed by the love that is God. And this is the greatest gift – the gift we anticipated in Advent, celebrated and Christmas and now seek to connect with during Epiphany.
If we piece this together then find a compelling story which we are called to join:
· in Jesus healing of the man in the synagogue we find that we ourselves can be called to be healed – to see God in his fullness and to be draw to imitate the love that is God himself;
· though the love of God flows in many places, when the Church keeps its heart focused on the love of God then it becomes a vessel for that love;
· To remain focused on God’s love demands that we see beyond the immediate human concerns that press in and distract us from God to more human concerns for self or institution; and
· We are called to remember that the task of making God’s love known will sometimes involve great pain, before the love of God triumphs.
So I pray that as we remember the love of God revealed in Christ we may lift our hearts and minds to hear where God is calling us – that our life as a church may be truly focused on being a means of God’s grace, bringing his love to others, and that we might grow closer to God in that love. And given our readings today, I pray that we will have the strength to respond to God’s call with love and joy, wherever it may lead us.