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Fulfillment in Darkness

“Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained along the path of righteousness. Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” Proverbs 16:31. While this might hold true in certain areas of the Ancient Near East, try telling this to an upper middle-aged person in America who has “aged out” of their job in an organization, or no longer has a “made for TV” face. A daily look in the mirror reminds people that the body grows old, as does the mind. Gray hair can translate into a termination pink slip for those whose facial persona shows signs of wrinkled skin, graying hair can translate to more visits to the medical community. The good news of today’s texts is we are always invited to remain as a citizen of the covenant community or kingdom of Heaven.

In a world where people may often flee to assorted forms of social media, podcasts, videos and emoji reproductions, the world of the Hebrew Bible does have fulfillment in such darkness of finite time of being in the spotlight. It is called the kingdom of Heaven.  Epiphany season is a season of light amidst darkness.

In many areas or the nation or world, the wintry months of Epiphany season can be full of dark days which grow shorter. The Christmas holidays are now long past in the rearview mirror. Ash Wednesday which leads to Lent is the next major church season. However, “Epiphany” describes the manifestation or self-revelation of God as an ordinary invisible power. That is the world is [still] attracted to a light or appearance or intervention of a divine power into human affairs (Farmer, NIBD, Volume 2, 287).

For the aging person who use to be the up-and-coming youth celebrity, the kingdom of heaven still welcomes them as disciples or life-long learners. Each of the texts today addresses varying points to a juncture which greets covenant people or disciples of the kingdom of heaven. Micah 6 anticipates difficult times when people of faith do stumble and as a result suffer the consequences. 1 Corinthians 1 provides the good news that God uses precisely that which is foolish in the populist (or media friendly image) wisdom of the world as a source of power and wisdom. Finally, Matthew 5 lays out a roadmap toward fulfillment of a person’s deepest yearnings, as they travel down the road of committed discipleship. Where is the light of Epiphany? All three texts point to discipleship within an eternal kingdom of heaven. [(Sakenfeld, Katharine D. Editor, Farmer, Kathleen A., “Epiphany,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, volume 2, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007, p. 287)].

Micah 6:1-8
Some background on this sixth book of the minor prophets include Micah as a miniature Isaiah in his message. Micah means, “Who is like God?” He was raised in a rural area of Moresheth, or a small village southwest of Jerusalem. Micah was an 8th century BCE prophet alongside Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea.

The prophet Micah spoke against both Samaria [northern kingdom] and Jerusalem [southern kingdom of Judah].  Scholars have had a difficult time reading the book, as it seems to lack a common “thread.” So, it is viewed as a “literary collage” of independent units, often juxtaposing previous messages and contexts.

Both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were engaged in international trade. They imported military materials, luxury goods, building construction materials and monument architecture. They exported fiber and food stuff such as wheat, olive oil, and wine.  The ruling classes placed pressure on the farmers to intensify agriculture; even it meant overuse of the land.

Many farmers were forced to take out loansand could not repay them due to the lowered prices of grain and agricultural items. So, they became indentured servants on their own lands. Foreclosures abounded as the wealthy landowners continued to take the land. Micah’s words were against the powerful landowners who oppressed the poorer farmers.

The laws in the Book of Deuteronomy were intended to prevent unfair usury among citizens of Israel. As the economy grew more competitive and the northern kingdom went into exile after the Assyrian invasion in 722 BCE, such laws were not implemented. Micah warned the southern kingdom in Jerusalemthat the northern kingdoms’ conquest is an “object lesson” to repent and turn back to God’s ways (Specifically as King Josiah’s reforms recommended in the Book of Deuteronomy, 2 Kings 23:4-20).

Generally, the book is divided into two units: 1:2--5:15; 6:1--7:20. As with Isaiah, Micah follows a judgement > salvation pattern. After a period of judgement, God will later work through a remnant people. God’s ultimate goal the people are to a witness to all nations.

Today’s text is in the second section of the book, which is a trial scene with proceedings between God and the covenant people. Alternates of voices (answer-dialogue) is one literary device used by Micah. The people believe that sacrifices of eight-day old calves should satisfy God’s desires of this covenant people. However, God appeals to salvation history of how they were brought out of the land of Egypt as evidence that righteous acts are to be preferred. Doing justice and loyalty are what God desires.

The preacher might have used Micah 6:8 as the interpretative lens for this and other texts in Micah, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Establishing justice for the poor and powerless, steadfast love and loyalty to God and walking an ethical daily life are specific recommendations of how people of faith respond to being God’s covenant people.

Such a pattern of living brings assurance that the words of Psalm 23:4 will always be true for people of faith regardless of their age, economic status, or level of power within the community, “Even though I walk down the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” [Sources: Limburg, James, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching ad Preaching: Hosea—Micah, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 1988); Mays, James L., The Old Testament Library: Micah, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), Rendtorff, Rolf. The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament. (Leiden, Netherlands: Deo, 2005). Sakenfeld, Katharine. Editor. “Book of Micah,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009)].

What “thing” does God want? Not a thing at all! Simply loving kindness and steadfastness in humble loyalty to God. One sermon path might be to explore ways people still try to appease God’s wrath for a person or community wrongdoing. What does it look like in any given community to be God’s covenant community? (Genesis 12:1-3, God calls Abraham to be blessed and be a blessing).

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
This text is a digression from his previous thoughts, as he believes the Corinthians have a skewed vision of what wisdom is and wants to correct. Paul is the uncontested author of this epistle, which is usually dated around 53-55 CE (AD) from Ephesus (Taylor, 170). “By cultures’ standard evaluation of wisdom, power, and status, [the Corinthians] would be excluded, but in fact God has chosen them in a way that turns upside down humanity’s system of hierarchy” (Taylor, 172).

Greek chiasms are used in this text with wisdom/foolishness and weakness/strength. The Corinthians believed that certain types of Greek knowledge lifted them up above regular, fleshly people. Paul considers such knowledge to be temporal and still resultant of death in a grave. God uses that which is weak and folly as God’s power.

Paul depreciates the world’s wisdom in what was considers the foolishness of the cross, or execution instrument of common criminals. In today’s judicial world of robed justices, lawyers in expensive suits and police in uniforms, God’s wisdom and strength would be in the person wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, walking in orange crocs with messy hair, standing behind a plexiglass shield. Those who see strength and power in human institutions are still spiritual infants (Taylor, 172).

The Jews of that time looked for a Messiah who reflects the power of the Roman empire (or any other power empire since then). They looked for a man of power! They wanted signs and wisdom that would topple the imperial domination of the Roman empire.  An executed Messiah was an oxymoron. This is precisely who Jesus as Messiah is. It is a scandal (Greek: “skandalan,” vs 23).

Isaiah 29:14 illustrates God’s ways in contrast of the ways of the Roman empire of that time,

“The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.” However, this Messiah has defeated death at the cross and points people of faith to new life. The secular/pagan definition of salvation had to do with matters of health, and benefits sought in this life. There is no hope in the afterlife. God’s wisdom of the Messiah dying on the cross and rising from the grave provides hope in this life and the life to come.

This is a gift of life that Paul addresses to a socially diverse congregation in a community who had benefited from the windfall of becoming an economically prosperous port city in the Roman empire. Regardless of station in life, God chose those who are weak and viewed as foolish to do great acts which lead to a fulfilled, eternal life.

To the person who worries about aging and losing their position in front of a camera, Paul would respond that this is who the crucified and disgraced Messiah is in the New Testament. There is new life, and such people are in good company of saints. This was not earned, but rather a gift of grace. No level of social stratification can come close to the community Christ has started as the new Adam who ushers in a new race of people. With that said, Christians are still called to live in the world without being part of it (Witherington, 118-120).

One clause which often gets ignored among communities which favor Pauline teaching is that of 1:30, “In contrast, God is why you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” This is important because it points to an ongoing growth journey of discipleship. The gift of grace does have to be kept in a dynamic tension with the witness of how one lives out their righteousness, sanctification and redemption.

To be called into this covenant community is living a life a journey for the long haul. It is not merely a “get out of hell free card,” as with a modern board game. Being a people who live under the cross also recognize that this is where God meets us, molds us, and points us to new life beyond the darkness. This is indeed a fulfilling life in a world which ignores those who do not live up the image, economic, or physical power standards of the time. During the darker days in the Epiphany season, this is good news for those weary, tired people who see bad weather outside, and might have car problems in an inflationary economy of upscale costs in car repairs as well as providing housing and meals on the table. God is present in a mighty way—despite all outside appearances, according to the theology of the cross which Paul teaches here. [Sources: Bruce, F.F., The New Century Bible Commentary: I & II Corinthians, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmann, 1987), Harrisville, Roy A., Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: I Corinthians, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1987), Hays, Richard B., Interpretation, A Bible Comminatory for Teaching and Preaching: First Corinthians, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), Taylor, Walter F. Paul: Apostle the Nations, an Introduction, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2012), Witherington, Ben III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995)].

Matthew 5:1-12
Today’s text is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the first of five blocks of teaching in Matthew. The sermon itself has four purposes. First, to emphasize God’s grace and blessing. Second, it sets high ethical standards for the people of God as a response to God’s grace. Third, it addresses suffering and persecution. Finally, the sermon points to eschatological hope as Jesus is the fulfillment of mosaic law. Historically, it has been contested as to how literal one should take these teachings. Most historical authors do agree that the Sermon on the Mount contains the content of the kingdom of Heaven (term Matthew uses 31 times); recasts what righteous is through the lens of God’s intentions, and is a manual for the teaching of the essentials of discipleship.

One sermon path might be to address the Sermon on the Mount as a block of teaching. One need not go to formal theological education to carry on discipleship ministry, if this sermon is read and practiced as a community of faith. This might be a manual of operation of sorts for any faith movement.

Another approach to this text might be to use other Matthean texts as “interpretive lens” to read through each one of the beatitudes. For example, Matthew 28:16-20 is to apply the “great commission” on “go make disciples….” These beatitudes would be a great place to identify how one goes about making disciples. What does “poor in spirit mean? And what exactly does one envision as the kingdom of Heaven? Another such interpretative lens would Matthew 1:23 and 28:20, “I am with you” or Emmanuel. How does Christ remain with any given congregation during this chapter of their discipleship journey?

Some scholars prefer to compare or juxtapose this Sermon on the Mount in Matthew with the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. Matthew has nine beatitudes, while Luke has four, but also includes “woes.” Matthew has Jesus sitting down on top of an unnamed mountain like a second Moses, whereas Luke places Jesus preaching on the same level plains as the average person. Jesus interprets and fulfills the mosaic law the correct way in God’s eyes. In Luke, this is part of a larger mission tract to Theophilus and other non-Jewish Christians. A sermon of comparison for how a congregation carries out mission today might be appropriate.

The beatitudes are both promising and problematic these days of populist religions and social media. Blessings have often been recast to translate into a “prosperity gospel,” that being they may translate into both social and monetary reward. This need not be mutually exclusive to Matthew’s intention. The two groups of blessings related to God, and other community members and an additional blessing for being reviled as were the prophets—seem counter cultural in times of individualism, zero sum contests and success being measured by profit margins.

Each beatitude could easily be connected to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) passage, which as a potential toward a preaching path. For example, Isaiah 61:1-2 [might] echo the beatitude of those who mourn, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,” Knowing that this portion of Isaiah is addressed to people whose high expectations of returning home from exile have been dashed, how might Jesus’ words to those who mourn find comfort during the Epiphany season?

Blessings are given to those who mourn in a time when grief is supposed to be finished after the funeral dinner is another counter cultural promise from God, despite the social pressures to suppress varying forms of grief. This is another sermon path to explore.

Another beatitude in Matthew 5:5 refers to, “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” This echoes Psalm 37:11, “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” These are words of patience and trust for this season when people are anxious about their future as their body and mind’s age.

Another example of a preaching path might be blessed are the peacemakers in 5:6, Isaiah 11:6 points to finding ways for  “the wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them.” Does one value those with skill sets to get both sides of a conflict to sit down and negotiate compromise or tentative agreements for the sake of the younger generations? How can the church be a community which repairs relationships?

Possibly, lack of such peacemaking practices informs the reason why there are a growing number of “none and done” people who disaffiliate with organized religions altogether. Again, making peace during the darker times of the year might suggest an “epiphany” moment.

Psalm 24:3-4 might find fulfillment in the “blessed are the pure in heart” beatitude, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false and do not swear deceitfully.” Purity, integrity and walking one’s talk are never out of date, regardless of the age of the person.

Finally, another direction might be of how prophets have been oppressed by those of power who insist on maintaining the status quo regardless of how distorted or corrupt the current organizational structures can be in any establishment. For those who believe that only certain paid professionals are called to be prophetic, Matthew’s Gospel might point to Numbers 11:29, “But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” The entire community of faith is ideally called to be prophetic in some way within contexts they live and exist in.

A modern prophet might be the underpaid cleaning person in an office finding a large amount of money under an office desk. Rather than keeping the cash, the person turns the money in, only to be scorned for finding it at all, thus pointing the reckless mishandling of money of the office worker. Doing the right thing is integrity and creating a better community. This is a glimpse of the kingdom of Heaven which Matthew refers to 31 times in his gospel. [Sources: Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Testament Library: Matthew, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), Hill, David, The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972); Smith, Robert H. The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1989)].

What might the “kingdom of Heaven” look like today? In the 2005 movie with the same title, Jeremy Irons plays the part of Balian of Ibelin who travels to Jerusalem during the Crusades of the 12th century, and there he finds himself as the defender of the city and its people. This occurs in 1184 during the Middle Ages period of the Crusades. His father Godfrey passes his sword of knighthood to Balien before his death. However, Balian must take a sacred oath to, “protect the helpless, safeguard the peace and worth toward harmony between religions and cultures, so the kingdom of heaven can flourish. Then Godfrey slaps Balien on the face so he does not forget it.  [Source: HBO, DirecTV, accessed June 2022)].

As the movie comes to an end after a series of bloody battle scenes, Balien comes to peace terms with Saracen King Saladin to surrender the city of Jerusalem. The two men exchange words. Balian of Ibelin asks, “What is Jerusalem worth? Saladin walks away and replies, “Nothing.” Then he looks back at Balien, “Everything!” This might be a question congregations might ask about their church buildings in this time period many writers are calling “post Christendom.”

Alternative application
What sort of credibility is needed to be a teacher of wisdom within the community? Matthew’s Gospel is placed at the beginning of the New Testament canon, though Mark is dated earlier. However, Matthew’s view is that Jesus is the one who interprets the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as God had intended. Do such people exist in our communities of faith?
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