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Introduction To The Scripture For The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year A
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1,4-9; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman ( of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

The Third Sunday After Epiphany - Year A

ISAIAH 9:1-4             Christians have always related this prophecy to
the coming of Jesus, the one whom we believe fulfilled Israel's hopes for a
Messiah,  However, the context is related more to a significant event
promising a new era after a disastrous period of privation resulting from
war or a foreign invasion,  It is more likely that the oracle was first
intended for the coronation of new king of Israel or the anniversary of
that event,  The word Messiah meant "the anointed one." After being
anointed the monarch became a sacred person  and stood in unique relation
to God,  Something similar is expressed in the anointing of the British
monarch as the "Defender of the Faith."

PSALM 27:1,4-9           This very personal prayer expresses trust in God
in the face of hostile opponents,  The psalmist seeks access to the temple
where he may meet God as if face to face,  

1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-18    There appear to have been some serious divisions
within the Corinthian congregation,  Paul seeks to address these by calling
on all who are quarrelling to remember that they belong to Christ, not to
the particular apostle who may have baptized them,  It is the death and
resurrection of Christ, symbolized in their baptism, which brings them
together and is the secret of their salvation.

MATTHEW 4:12-23          At first, Jesus preached a message quite similar
to that of John the Baptist: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come
near." The difference was that in Jesus, this gospel was to be fulfilled, 
The calling of the his disciples, four ordinary fishermen of Galilee, was
the beginning of this fulfilment - the creation of a community of those who
would follow him,  His  healing ministry was also a sign that the reign of
God had already begun


ISAIAH 9:1-4   This hopeful oracle has many historical references to the
Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733-32 BC,  During that
invasion, the Assyrians subjugated the territories of two of Israel's
tribes.  Zebulun and Naphtali, and threatened the Southern Kingdom of
Judah.  A look at the map of the period will show that the tribal territory
of Naphtali was located along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and
northward from there toward Mount Hermon.  That of Zebulun was located in
the hills to the west between Naphtali and Asher, which lay along the
Mediterranean coast.  

In later OT times, this was simply known as Galilee.  The gospel authors
referred to it by that name, although by the lst century CE it was part of
the Roman tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea ruled by Herod Antipas.  From
ancient times there had been a major military and trade route through
Galilee from Damascus in Syria to the northeast and the Mediterranean
coast.  It was known as "the way of the sea," (vs.1) a name which persisted
into Roman times and is referred to still by tourist guides driving along
the major thoroughfare which follows this same route.
The people in the captured territories as well as in the southern kingdom
of Judah felt deep anguish because of the Assyrian invasion.  The most
serious burden they had to bear was the idolatry adopted by Ahaz, king of
Judah, as part of his appeal for help from Tiglath-Pileser, the Assyrian
overlord, for protection from surrounding enemies (2 Kings 16).  The
prophet Isaiah, however, a member of a reform movement during the reign of
Ahaz, saw the situation as an occasion for great hope.  The light that
shone in the darkness (vs.2) was apparently  the birth of a new prince,
heir to the Judean throne of David (vs.6), This is may have been Hezekiah,
son of Ahaz (715-687 BCE) whom Jewish tradition has always linked with this
passage. 2 Chronicles 28-31 gives some highly idealized details of a
religious reformation during Hezekiah's reign.  
It is also entirely possible that the oracle refers to an ideal king whose
ascension would be greeted with great rejoicing at the overthrow of an
oppressor and, as might be expected, a harvest saved from destruction
(vs.3).  At least one OT scholar has also suggested that this passage may
be an extract from an enthronement liturgy.  
Isaiah hoped that a decisive victory would be won over the oppressors like
that of Gideon, a celebrated hero of an earlier, pre-monarchic saga, over
marauding Midianites, a semi-nomadic tribe who may have lived east of the
Jordan (See Judges 6-8.)  
Following Matthew's Gospel (4:15-16), Christians have commonly interpreted
this prophecy as being fulfilled by Jesus, Israel's true Messiah.  This has
been further underscored by the use of the whole oracle (9:1-7) as the OT
lesson for Christmas Day.  It should be noted, however, that the role of
Messiah which Jesus fulfilled was quite different from the wise political
figure described in the extended oracle (vss. 6-7).  

PSALM 27:1,4-9   The content of this psalm conflicts with its
superscription, "Of David."  Actually it is two psalms composed from what
originally existed as two separate psalms (vss. 1-6; 7-14).  It seems
unusual for this reading to select from both parts.  The first is a psalm
of trust by one who sought God's presence in the temple in gratitude for a
secure and comfortable life.  The fact that the temple has such a
significant place in the psalmist's devotional life provides proof enough
that it comes from a date much later than David.  Its probable provenance
was Jerusalem in postexilic times.
The second part has the form of a lament petitioning God for help in some
situation approaching despair at the malice and false charges of personal
enemies.  It too expresses a deep desire for the presence of God, but makes
no mention of the temple as the place where such fellowship may be found. 
For whatever reason, the psalmist has been rejected even by his own kin
(vs.10) and has been threatened with abuse from adversaries (vs.12).  On
the other hand, he expresses an attitude similar to that of wisdom psalms
in which the devout person seeks to be taught "the way of the Lord" (vs.11)
As with most laments, the psalm ends with an expression of patient trust
that God will rescue the petitioner in due time.
One must assume that the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary has
reasons for including parts of both parts and terminating the reading
abruptly at vs.9.  These reasons are not immediately obvious and the
reading suffers from being truncated.  It would have been better to have
included the whole composition in the form in which we have it in the
accepted text.  

1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-18   Factional differences had created serious tensions
within the Corinthian congregation.  Peter, Paul and Apollos had all
visited and taught among them.  Each faction favored one apostle's teaching
over that of another.  From the rest of Paul's correspondence with these
sorely divided converts, we can conclude that his relationship with at
least some of the Corinthians had been particularly distressing.  

The general scholarly consensus is that the two Corinthian letters as they
now stand contain excerpts from several shorter letters written in the
early 50s CE.  Discussions about the order for these excerpts can be
discovered from several scholarly works.  It would appear that an earlier
letter had preceded this reading which deals in part with his founding
visit which lasted about 18 months, probably in 50-51 CE.  

In making his appeal for unity Paul sought to focus the Corinthiains
attention on the essentials of the gospel: the meaning of death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To him nothing else mattered although some
may have believed, as many still do, that this was just "foolishness." To
Paul it was the means God used for the salvation of the world.
Baptism also plays an important role in Paul's appeal to the Corinthians. 
It was not as important to him, however, as it had been to some of them. 
He protested against the apparent distinction some had drawn between
baptisms conducted by the different apostles.  Accordingly, he emphasized
that his task was not to baptize, although he had done some, but to
proclaim the gospel.
This raises some questions: If Paul did not commonly baptize those who
responded to his preaching, as he said, did that rite not yet have the
conclusive significance it later acquired?  Did Peter baptize as a result
of repentance, following John the Baptist's example, more frequently as
Acts 2:38 would indicate?  Were Paul's infrequent baptisms and those
conducted by Apollos, defective as Acts 18:24-19:7 leads us to believe, the
real issue behind this conflict in Corinth?  What exactly did Paul mean by
"baptism in the name of Paul" (vs.13) which he so pointedly rejected in
favor of "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 19:5)? 
It is difficult not to conclude that for Paul baptism had both a cleansing
and a participatory action.  It had the effect, spiritually and
symbolically, of cleansing the believers from the sin that so easily clings
to all humans by enabling them to participate in the death and resurrection
of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11).  Henceforth, the baptized were "saints" in the
sense that although they could still fall from grace and still commit sin,
they also possessed the Spirit enabling repentance to repair such
transgressions and guaranteeing full deliverance in the future.  Because he
believed in the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ, above all
else, Paul could no more baptize in his own name than claim to be the
Messiah himself.

MATTHEW 4:12-23   After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew from
Judea to his home territory of Galilee, but made the fishing village of
Capernaum his headquarters.  As he searched the  Hebrew scriptures,
probably in the LXX version, Matthew saw this as fulfilling the prophecy of 
Isaiah 9:1-2.  We may not retrospectively give credence to this
interpretation; but in rejecting such an approach, we do not thereby change
or deny the conviction which Matthew expressed.  Christian faith and
worship have consistently maintained that in Jesus light did dawn upon the
world in a unique way.  This remains the great hope of the world still
wracked by sin and violence.
Jesus first message of repentance was similar to John's, but his purpose
was different.  He had come to inaugurate the reign of God in all human
affairs.  In this instance, repentance meant that those who heard and
responded to his preaching would turn back to God, yielding themselves to
the sovereign love of God.  The idea of God's reign was not new, but Jesus
made it the central theme of his teaching.  There is an eschatological
aspect to it, something already here but not yet fully consummated. 
Conditions for participating in the kingdom are no longer national or
racial, but moral and spiritual.  Accordingly anyone could belong to God's
kingdom by accepting Jesus as its inaugural manifestation and following him
faithfully.  As his inaugural action, Jesus called four fishermen to come
with him and be his disciples.  

Each of the four Gospels and Acts uses the term 'disciples'; but each with
a different contextual reference related to the community for which each
author wrote.  In Matthew's Gospel, disciples are more positively portrayed
than in Mark.  Here 'disciple' does not mean a distinctive office or role,
but rather describes an ordinary follower of Jesus in Matthew's community. 
Unlike the stumbling efforts of the disciples in Mark, they understand,
teach and do what Jesus taught and did.  In several places they are given
and exercise Jesus' authority (6:15; 9:8).  Peter, the first named,
received a special nickname, perhaps somewhat ironic in the light of his
frequent failures.  Nonetheless, Matthew believed that he was also given
exceptional authority which the others may not have received (16:19

However we may read and interpret Jesus' calling of the four, the question
still exists whether or not this implies a distinctive character of an
apostolic order of ministry.  Do the lay people in the church today share
the same discipleship as those in ordered ministry?  In what sense are both
ordered and lay persons called and set apart to carry out their different
ministries?  Or is there too much emphasis on the individual disciple and
her/his commitment and too little on the shared discipleship of the
community in which all have fellowship and ministry?  It is instructive
that with the exception of Peter indicated above, in the gospel narratives
rarely did Jesus ever single out any particular one of the disciples for a
special role or function.

copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.

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