For Sunday January 22, 2017

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)


Isaiah 9:1–4
Psalm 27:1, 4–9
1 Corinthians 1:10–18
Matthew 4:12–23

On January 6 the church began the brief season of Epiphany — just eight Sundays after Advent and before Lent. With historical precedents that date to the fourth century, the word comes from a transliteration of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning manifestation, unveiling, or disclosure.

The historical fact of Jesus's birth is one thing. But what are its ramifications?  What did it signal or mean? What did his birth reveal, disclose, manifest or unveil about God and the world?

In short, the birth of Jesus discloses a dream.  He unveils and reveals the heart of God for all the world, and, indeed, for the entire cosmos.  Paul calls it a mystery that has been made known.  We pray this dream every week in church when we ask God that his will be done in us "on earth as it is in heaven."

Dreams and visions loom large throughout the Bible.  In Genesis there are the dreams of Pharaoh, Joseph, and Jacob.  In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, John dreams the craziest of apocalyptic dreams.  The stories of Esther and Ruth revolve around dreams. 

 Margo Jeffersosn.
Margo Jefferson.

Isaiah 9 for this week dreams about people who flounder in the darkness living in the light.  In Matthew's gospel, the birth of Jesus revolves around five dreams, which culminate when Jesus speaks for the first time about God's dream for us all — the kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent, believe, and live this dream right now!

What does this dream look like when we awake from our slumber and darkness, and live in the light of God? There's a little phrase that I've always loved in a work called the Letter to Diognetus (c. 130 AD) that captures what living God's dream looks like.  He calls it "the wonderful and confessedly striking method of life" of those first believers.

They were known for their social generosity.  Care for the weak instead of privileges for the powerful.  Dignity instead of vulgarity.  Love instead of hate.  Peace instead of violence.  Inclusion rather than exclusion.  Generosity rather than greed.

About the same time as Diognetus, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) summarized the appeal of Christian dream: “Those who once delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone… we who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with people of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

 Colson Whitehead.
Colson Whitehead.

This weekend my wife and daughter will join about 30 women from our small church to participate in the Women's March on Washington on January 21, the day after the presidential inauguration.  It's an expensive trip for our budget, disruptive for my wife's work, with two days of flying coast to coast from California to DC, and just one day in between for events.

Nonetheless, the trip feels very much worth the effort.  And whereas it's easy to imagine that different people have different and worthy motivations for participating, I think the common denominator that ties them all together is reminding our nation of the dream of a better way for our country to live together — in contrast to the bitter election that divided us all.

I'm also grateful for the coincidence of the calendar this weekend to remember the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  His 1963 "Dream" speech remains one of the most important speeches in American history, and calls us all to a better way of civic life.

 Paul Beatty.
Paul Beatty.

Come February, we have the opportunity to live the dream by celebrating Black History Month.  For the apostle Paul, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  Our common humanity in the image of God transcends our many and important differences.

If you're looking for resources to help live this dream of God for all the world, I have a few suggestions.

There's the inspiring work of the attorney Bryan Stevenson — his book Just Mercy, his organization the Equal Justice Initiative, and his Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, that will honor the memory of the nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people that took place in the twelve states of the South from 1877 to 1950.

There's the Smithsonian's newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

 Ta-Nehesi Paul Coates.
Ta-Nehesi Paul Coates.

Here at JwJ we've recently reviewed (or will do so shortly) five books that speak to the dream of overcoming racism.  There's Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty's satire called The Sellout, Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

We're also reviewing the movies "13th" and "Moonlight," and have posted a substantial "Conversation" interview with law professor Margalynne Armstrong on "Race and Racism."

Where there is no vision, no dreams, says Proverbs 29:18, the people perish.  In his famous poem "Dreams," Langston Hughes (1902–1967), the African-American poet, novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist, urged us not to forfeit our dreams.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

So, live the dream of God.  Unveil the meaning of Jesus.  Hear what the Spirit is saying to God's people.  Disclose that "wonderful and confessedly striking method of life" that Jesus called us to when he said that the reign and rule of God has begun.  May it be on earth, right here and right now, as it is in heaven.

Image credits: (1); (2); (3); and (4)