Posts Tagged 'light'

For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?

For Dec. 30, 2012: 1 Christmas, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The late chapters of the book of Isaiah were written probably around the middle of the fifth century BC for people returned to Israel from exile in Babylon to a Jerusalem still in ruins. Despite the difficulties, Isaiah rejoices that God’s vindication and salvation are already and at the same time are yet to come. Isaiah’s message is for each generation—including ours: let us not rest until salvation comes, but let us also exult, for Christ is born!

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Within the Christian community that Paul planted at Galatia, in modern Turkey, were some who insisted that non-Jews were obliged to convert to Judaism and observe Mosaic law before they could convert to Christianity.  Paul, though himself perhaps the best Jew ever, has no use for that position: Christ having redeemed us, all of us are no longer slaves under the old law but children of God the Father.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

 

Further thoughts

The month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates and of beginnings and transitions. Janus had two faces, for doors look both in and out, and beginnings and transitions are also endings in their way. The Christian in this world is in something of the position of Janus.

We look in one direction at the world that is, the world that came into being through the true Light but that does not recognize its creator and king in Jesus. We see a world in which justice miscarries, a world in which light seems lacking, a world in which the vindication and glory of Isaiah’s prophecy seems very far off indeed, a world in which, as the psalmist claims, the real God is only for Israel and the circumcision that marks God’s covenant is reserved only for men, a world in which the name “Christian” is smirched, to our shame, by association with historical and present abuses that we would love to disown but cannot honestly deny. We see our lives moving inexorably toward the end; as the gates close on our hopes and dreams, it can be hard not to despair.

At the same time, however, we look forward: forward to the vindication and righteousness that, Isaiah promises, Jerusalem will represent to all people—and already does, in God’s time and in God’s eyes. We look forward with Paul to God redeeming and adopting us—as God already has, in God’s time and in God’s eyes, for how else should we dare even to want to call God “Daddy!” We look forward to the Light of the World, Jesus, from whose unfathomable and eternal goodness we will receive grace upon grace—and already have. For, as John says, the light is already in the world—and, deep though the darkness may be, it is still the light that prevails.

O come, let us adore him!

 


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