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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C


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.  Why not in Oakville and Canada and our
world too?


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?

************

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..." (v.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 (vs.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.  (Be warned, however, ordination
today does 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.  His mission had much wider
implications, both negative and positive.  It reached beyond Israel to the
nations (v.10).  It was 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, who was the longest reigning and the most reviled
monarch, according to the Deuteronomists, because of his love for
syncretist religious practices.  Vassal states like Babylon and Media
quickly filled the political vacuum.  Jeremiah's ministry began the very
year in which Assurbanipal, the last of the Assyrian emperors (669-627 BCE)
died.  From this brief discussion of historical events, we may conclude
that the details of vs.10 were written after the fact, reflecting the 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 among 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 (vv.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 (v.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 the recent earthquake in Iran? 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 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
town, in 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 our every-day human relationships.

The Greek word translated "love" throughout this passage is agap‚.  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 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.  Jesus would have none of it.  So he made them listen.  He challenged
his hearers 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
down the road by the Sea of Galilee.  And he wasn't there to make then
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 enter the
new century with the prospect of ethnic 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?

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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