What can we say February 5th?

January 31st, 2023

Isaiah 58:1-12. The preacher’s role is well-portrayed by the prophet: I am a “watchman.” Ron Heifetz and other business gurus speak of wise leaders as taking the view from the balcony, above the fray, seeing the big picture. Can I persuade my choir to sing the Bob Dylan / Jimi Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower”?

“The Fast I Choose” would make an intriguing, and maybe haunting sermon title. Odd to us: the Israelites are fasting! – an alien practice for us modern consumerist Christians. We would assume if we fasted (and really fasted, not just doing with donuts for a day), we’d join the ranks of the super-spiritual. To regular fasters, God says I want something else – or really, something in addition to fasting, or really the ultimate purpose of fasting. God wants justice, shalom for everybody. 

Walter Brueggemann’s sarcasm makes me chuckle: “The Israelites enjoy worship” – something my people crave! But it’s nothing (for them and for us) but self-indulgence; they see the Lord as potentially useful… It’s not just our foolish thinking we might use God as a tool for what we want; it’s also our failure to get in sync with God’s vision for social justice. Brueggemann nails the issue: “Worship not congruent with humane economic practice is bad worship.” Worship isn’t a time to garner God’s help. It’s worship, sheer adoration of God – and then getting on board with God’s projects, not ours.

On the idea that worship is not instrumental, as if for some other benefit, but is all about God: Thomas Aquinas was on his deathbed. Those around him heard a voice from above: “Thomas, you have spoken well of me. What reward would you ask for yourself?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but Yourself, O Lord.”

To fast, to think and act differently with respect to economics, requires a self-imposed (or God-imposed) weakness. Hence, our Epistle:

1 Corinthians 2:1-16. What was Paul’s weakness? Ben Witherington: “For whatever reasons, whether physical appearance, a weak voice, lack of training in declamation, or inadequate rhetorical delivery, Paul in his oral performance did not come across as rhetorically adept… God chose a weak agent to proclaim the message of God’s weakness on the cross.”

Notice the oxymoron tucked into the phrase, “They crucified the Lord of glory.” It’s a “mystery,” not solved or solvable, but entered into, lived for, in awe of. Understanding this may be “maturity” in this life of faith. The mature are those who know they are weak.

Church and clergy just don’t get weakness, yet it’s at the heart of who Jesus was/is, and at the core of Paul’s ministry. We trust in strength-finders, or even spiritual gifts (religious strength-finders, right?). We want skills, resumes, productivity. But Paul comes in weakness, and brags about it. Wasn’t his real weakness simply being human? Aren’t even the good-looking, agile and eloquent weak? In 2 Corinthians 12 we see the bookending of today’s text: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

Brené Brown has drawn a massive following with this theme. Why does it seem unusual to church people? It’s in vulnerability, in our weakness, that love, good, hope, relationship, and actually everything good happens. Weakness isn’t something to be overcome. It simply is. My leadership book is appropriately titled Weak Enough to Lead. Are you?

In this blog, I try to direct you to texts and comments that aren’t mere fodder for sermons, but actually nourishment for the preacher’s spirit. I adore this word of encouragement from Michael Knowles, commenting on just this text: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity.  And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it.  Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work.  The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness.  Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

The preacher might want to clarify that when Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus,” he is light years from the way preachers or believers today might say “Just give me Jesus.” Which Jesus? We remake him in our own image so swiftly and unwittingly. Paul adds “and him crucified,” which helps. Paul doesn’t exactly keep Jesus simple. Isn’t the plea to keep theology simple really an evasion of the complex claim of the Gospel on all of life?

Matthew 5:13-20. Jesus’ wonder-sermon on the mount continues. The scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian hilariously pictures people trying to hear Jesus, and mistaking what he was saying (Blessed are the cheesemakers!). The preacher might try to set the scene – the lovely Galilean hillside, not much changed today from 2000 years ago! And also the shock, the mental revolution Jesus was hoisting on his listeners.

And then how personal all this is! The Greek “you” (humeis) is emphatic, like “You yourselves” or “You – yes you!” Jesus speaks of salt without explaining the connotation. Salt preserves, seasons, purifies, fertilizes; it’s a metaphor for wisdom, and was used in sacrifices at the temple. Jesus again left it open-ended for them and us to poke around, find peculiar meaning just now for me and others. 

Regarding salt: I plan to reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s 240 mile march to the coast of India protesting the British tax on salt. Hundreds of thousands trailed behind him; 60,000 were arrested. When Gandhi got to the shore, he made a little salt – his point being it occurs quite naturally in God’s good world, is so essential to life, and thus should not be a high control government monopoly. Sounds like grace, or compassion, or even justice.

The lamp would have been utterly familiar, the small terra cotta kind that didn’t cast a lot of light, but cast what light there was. Laughably, Jesus says you wouldn’t put it under a bushel!  The “city set on a hill”: Jesus may have pointed north above the Galilee to the town perched up there: 

Safed, elevation 3,000 feet above sea level, the highest city in all of Israel, and to this day a fabled center for Jewish learning and mysticism. The image of “the city set on a hill” fed the dreams (and fantasies) of America as God’s chosen people (so the Puritans, and on into modern political Evangelicalism). These visions haven’t been wicked, and there is a holy dream at the core of it; and yet the perils, the implicit arrogance, pose problems. Jesus is inviting his people, the nobodies, to be the bright hope of the world.

We who dig notions of being saved by grace not works, and we whose religious life is really I do what I want, I ask God to help with what I want or when I’m in trouble, then I go to heaven one day, should shudder at the clarity and height of Jesus’ soaring demand (or isn’t invitation the better word?). Our righteousness is far beyond even the Torah. Jesus doesn’t want mere adherence to rules – although rules mattered to him, he wasn’t a lax, do whatever you feel like kind of guy. The commandments must be exceeded in the heart of God’s holy people – as he explains in subsequent verses (next week's text!) in this same amazing sermon. Don’t murder? If you’ve harbored anger… Don’t commit adultery? If you’ve harbored lust in your heart… It’s a profound inner and outer holiness Jesus is after. And it’s not a straitjacket. It’s the way of freedom. So important for preachers: to underline how God’s commands aren’t commands so much as compelling invitations, open paths to live freely and joyfully. Can the preacher devise a few thoughtful examples of how this unfolds? A story from your life or someone you love and admire?


What can we say February 5? 5th after Epiphany originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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