Blessed Are Those Who Love - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (January 29, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Micah 6:1–8 | Psalm 15 | 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 | Matthew 5:1–12
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”
(1 Corinthians 1:18).
What does it mean to be blessed?
What kind of blessings are we looking for?
In our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus has a lot to say about being blessed. But what He says tends to turn most of our expectations upside down… inviting us to have our own imaginations realigned, and opening us up to receive God’s true blessing.
Our passage today comes from the very beginning of a long section in Matthew’s Gospel, a collection of His teachings often called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. The Anglican priest and theologian John Stott gives this helpful introduction to this important part of our Lord’s mission and message: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do.”
As Christ’s followers today, we are being offered not advice, but the teachings of our Lord… wisdom intended to reshape our lives, and help us see things God’s way.
And so, Jesus starts off this collection of His teachings by pronouncing certain people blessed: the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; and those who are abused because of Christ.
At first glance, even for those of us who have grown up in the Church and have heard these words many times, it can be hard for us to see how any of these folks could be called ‘blessed’. In fact, it seems like the opposite is the case: all of these people… the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted, the abused… all of them seem pitiful and powerless, not blessed. At least, if we’re talking about the way we usually understand blessings.
But something else is going on here. Jesus is not simply describing some natural benefit for being in these states… He’s offering Good News that undermines many of our assumptions about what it means to truly live well… that is, to live God’s way in the world… in line with the life of our Creator. N.T. Wright puts it well: “In our world, still, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life, victory in battle. Jesus is offering wonderful news for the humble, the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers.”
In other words, Jesus is challenging and re-defining here what it means to be blessed, and He’s calling together a new community that will share in this blessed life.
The way St. Matthew tells the story is meant to bring to mind the memory of Moses, one of the heroes of Israel’s story who at Mt. Sinai also called God’s people into a whole new way of life… committed to the LORD, and to each other too. Many centuries earlier, Moses had gone up the mountain and received from Yahweh, the Living God, the Law, or Teachings, a gift meant to guide God’s people to live His way in a world living very differently… to help them stand out and shine as a living sign of God’s blessings intended for all nations.
If we read through the entire Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew Chapters 5-7, we’ll hear Jesus, again and again, calling all His followers back to the heart of God’s ways, that not only echo the Law given at Mt. Sinai, but bring it’s full meaning into focus… shining a spotlight on what it really means to be God’s blessed people today.
But just like the Law of Moses, Christ’s teachings in the Sermon are a gift meant to guide a whole community… to map out a way of life for God’s people to share in together.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “the sermon is not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples. The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another.” 
So then, far from creating a bunch of rigorous religious rules for individuals, in His teachings Jesus is re-establishing within the life of this new community of disciples, what it means to live in line together with the Living God… and that includes what it means to receive the blessings God has in store for His people to share. In short, we’re talking about something that always has a social, a communal element. The blessings Christ speaks of are not merely about our own private experiences. We can’t separate living God’s blessed way in the world from how we relate to one another.
Something very similar is going on in our first reading today, from the prophet Micah, where the Lord is challenging the assumptions of His unfaithful people, and calling them to return to Him, and follow His blessed ways.
But what does that look like? Is God after some grand gesture, or religious ceremony? What must God’s people actually do to please the Living God? Micah 6:6-7,
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
This kind of thing made sense in the ancient world. To please the gods, you gave them elaborate gifts… even sacrificing one’s own firstborn children would not be off the table. And in our own day, we too can be tempted to think that God wants us to placate Him… imagining that if we just do this or that ‘religious’ or ‘righteous’ thing, then He’ll bless us. Then He’ll give us all the things we want.
But the message that Micah was entrusted to share turns this way of relating to God on its head, reminding God’s people that the point is not to use our connection to the LORD to get what we want, but to seek the LORD and walk in His ways… which is itself the blessed life that He longs to share with us. As the biblical scholar John Walton points out: “God was not asking to be appeased through extravagant gifts. The most extravagant offering they could give him would be their obedience.” And Micah points out what obedience to the Living God looks like: it looks like love.
“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?”
We’re brought right back to the heart of the Law of Moses… and the two great commandments that Jesus says uphold the entire Covenant: Love the Lord your God wholeheartedly… humbly walk with Him… and love your neighbours… do justice… do what is right, and love to show kindness and mercy.
This is the blessed life: to love God, and to love one another… to share His love together. If we want to receive God’s blessing, this is the way that Jesus gives us.
But… won’t we just get walked over if we’re led by love while everyone around us doesn’t live this way? This sounds really nice and spiritual, but it doesn’t seem all that practical. Not practicable. What would happen if we actually lived like this in today’s world?
That’s a question worth asking, and sitting with for a while. And it brings to mind the many times that good people have been taken advantage of by those who don’t live this way… those who don’t really care about God at all, or about the wellbeing of their neighbours.
I’m sure many of us have stories like this… times when we’ve been open and loving to others, only to be burned. When this happens, we face the temptation to temper our openness and love for those who might end up hurting us… limiting what we’re willing to do to work for justice and mercy… and all that comes with it, in order to protect ourselves… to hold onto some sense of control… and not feel so powerless.
But right from the start, Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him on a different, difficult path… the path of God’s love… a path which will at times leave us all vulnerable… but even so, it is the path that leads us into God’s own blessed life.
Looking back to our Gospel reading, we can see that there’s one thing each group that Jesus calls blessed has in common: they are all vulnerable… apparently powerless people… open to the abuse of the neighbours they are called to love.
The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst, who are deprived of what is right; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; and those who are abused because of Christ. None of these describe the people our world considers powerful, those who call the shots, who get their own way, and protect themselves from harm… those most would consider blessed.
So why does Jesus call these vulnerable folk blessed? Because they will share in the God’s own blessed life. Their ‘blessedness’ may not be apparent, or obvious, but it is promised, awaiting the fulfillment of what has been assured… like a seed, planted in the soil will one day bear its fruit, even if for a time it gets trampled under uncaring feet.
The way of love, which lies at the heart of all those Jesus calls blessed, requires faith and hope… trust that despite all of the dangers involved, it will be worth it, not because we can see how right now, but because our Lord has promised it will be… and He Himself has already led the way.
Christ is inviting us to join Him… to follow God’s love all the way to the cross… which upends the wisdom of the world that says only the powerful and strong can be happy and blessed… revealing in His own sufferings our world’s injustice, cruelty, and prideful rejection of God, and drawing near with compassion and mercy to all those who are beaten down, vulnerable, and abused.
At the cross, Jesus made Himself entirely vulnerable… embodying all of the weakness and need of those He promised would be blessed. At the cross, He surrendered His life in order to bring God’s saving love to the world, even to those who had abused, betrayed, and brutalized Him. But this was precisely how He would bring God’s blessed life to everyone… making things right with God on our behalf with His own broken body… covering us with kindness and mercy we didn’t deserve with His own blood… dying, then rising again to lift us up so we too could share in full fellowship, communion with God… sharing our life with Him, and humbly walking in His ways.
None of this would have been possible if Jesus had not been vulnerable… if He had not faithfully walked the path of self-giving love, that first led Him to the cross, but ultimately brought Him to the glory of God’s right hand, and opened up the way for us to share in His blessings forever.
The life of the Church, this new community that Christ is calling into being, is blessed only as we share in His life… in faith and hope, following Jesus into the way of God’s self-giving love. Even when it means we will face suffering along with Him, we know we too will share in the glorious blessings of His Kingdom.
So may the Holy Spirit renew and re-align our hearts and minds, to receive God’s blessed life today. May we be drawn together as brothers and sisters in God’s family, empowered to encourage and support one another as we follow our Saviour together. And may we be filled with the faith and hope we need to share in Christ’s self-giving love for our world… even when it means sharing in His vulnerability, confident that God Himself will be at work through it all.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Amen.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 14–15.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 36–37.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 61.
 Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Mic 6:7.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon this week can be found here:
And our Songs this week can be found here:
Following Him Together - Sermon for the Third Sunday After Epiphany (January 22, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1–4 | Psalm 27:1, 4–9 | 1 Corinthians 1:10–18 | Matthew 4:12–23
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19-20).
I haven’t been on that many teams in my life. I wasn’t exactly the athletic type when I was younger… or now, for that matter. But there was a time in the years shortly after high school when I played soccer for one season in a men’s league in my hometown. Before you get too impressed, I must admit, I was the worst player on this team… which ranked the lowest in our division… which happened to be the lowest division in the league.
The crazy thing was that, apart from me, we had some really great players on our team. People who loved soccer, and had been playing it for their whole life. But we weren’t just supposed to be a bunch of great players… we needed to be a team. And that’s where we struggled.
This was our first season playing together… and although we (that is, my teammates) had lots of talent, we didn’t yet know how to work well together. And so, despite our best efforts and hard work, we couldn’t pull together a single victory.
Unity, working together with others is such an important part of life. But even more important than unity itself… is the thing that unites us. The hub that holds the wheel together… the trunk from which the branches spring.
In our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the Apostle’s account of the calling of the first disciples of Jesus. This is the very beginning of the community that will one day become the Church: the worldwide family of disciples of Jesus, committed to His Kingdom and mission, and bound to one another in God’s holy love. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of the Scriptures, and the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this about it’s significance:
“The very first thing Jesus did, according to Matthew, was to call followers. The beginning of a community, the Kingdom people; the first sign, earlier even than the remarkable healings, that something new was afoot. They left jobs, they left family—both vital symbols of who they were—and became part of that something new, without knowing where it would lead.”
These first disciples didn’t know what they were in for when they left everything to follow Jesus. But as they responded to His call they were becoming something new together… a community, united simply because of Christ Himself.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to imagine the Christian life as a ‘solo sport’, so to speak. A private pursuit we take part in simply for our own benefit. In our highly individualistic culture, this can be a big temptation for us: to live as a bunch of scattered, spiritual seekers… instead of the family of God’s Kingdom that Christ has called us into. We may desire to love and learn from Jesus, but without all the mess of having to love and learn along with our brothers and sisters up close and personal.
But to follow Jesus is also to be drawn closer to others whom He has called too. No one is an island… and there really is no such thing as a solo disciple.
On the other hand, the Church is not just a collection of like-minded folk content to keep to themselves together, like a sort of religious club. In our increasingly unstable times, this temptation to circle the wagons can also be hard to resist. Understandably, we might long for security, familiarity, and a strong sense of belonging, especially if we’re feeling, like so many others today, more and more disconnected and alone.
The danger is that we transform the Church into our own social club, connected more to each other by our shared interests and tastes and natural bonds than by our commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. We might want to love each other, without having to worry about where God may want to take us… without having to actually leave our old ways behind to follow Jesus.
But Jesus didn’t just go around Galilee and Judea to start up special interest groups ,and gathering like-minded people together with no other purpose… He called people like us to let go… to leave their old life behind, and to follow Him into something new… building a new community, and drawing us closer together as we learn to follow our Lord where He will lead us… to share the Good News of God’s Kingdom with everyone sitting in darkness.
The Church is a community where we can find belonging, comfort, and peace, but it is a community centred on and united by the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is what binds us together, and leads us into God’s light. We can have nothing else at all in common, and still be united because of Jesus… drawn together as we follow Him out into the world… sharing in His Kingdom, and serving in His mission.
Is this how we imagine being a part of the Church today? Not bound together by our shared interests, or history… but by our connection to Christ Jesus and to what the Living God is doing through Him even now?
Our Scripture readings today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians can help us remember what being a disciple of Jesus entails: what it asks of us, and what it gives us too.
St. Matthew recounts the calling of the first disciples… two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John… four average Galilean fishermen.
They had some similarities, of course. They shared a trade, and a hometown. But they also had their own familial and financial commitments. Personal connections that they all surrendered in order to become Christ’s disciples together… sharing now a new connection together because they were all now following Jesus. Peter and Andrew were still brothers, of course, and so were James and John. But that natural connection became secondary as they left their nets, their livelihoods, and in James and John’s case, their father, to follow Jesus, not where they wanted to go, but where He wanted to take them. They trusted Him, and that trust, that faith began to bind them to one another.
Thinking beyond our Gospel reading today, to include all of the other disciples, this becomes even clearer. At least these first four were all fishermen, and all from the same village. But as Jesus gathered more and more disciples, calling them to come follow Him, in this new community He was creating, the differences between them all grew and grew as well.
They came from all sorts of walks of life, backgrounds, and even rival political camps, but they were called to leave aside the things that separated them in order to share in the new community of the Church. Sure, they shared a common ancestry as part of the people of Israel, and a cultural heritage, but those were not the reasons they all got together and traveled from town to town. They were held together by their faith in Jesus, who drew these strangers together, to share in something greater than any of them could have imagined.
And after His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus would turn to these same disciples and send them out into the world… into the Gentile world… a world full of Greeks, and Romans, and Parthians, Egyptians, so-called Barbarians… sent out to invite people they had absolutely nothing in common with to hear the Good News of Jesus, to trust in Him, and follow Christ along with them. Inviting everyone to become disciples of Jesus too, so that all those sitting in darkness can be drawn together into God’s light.
And this remains the mission of the Church today, and the mission of all of His disciples: to bring the light of God’s Good News, Jesus Christ, to the whole world… to those sitting in darkness even now… even here in Gondola Point. This is the ultimate goal we are working towards… the mission of Christ He has shared with us as we follow Him: to share in the life, and love, and light of God, and help others do the same.
This all sounds wonderful. But as St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us, being drawn into this new community of Christ’s disciples doesn’t mean we will all know how to get along, and work together.
As we read through the New Testament, the temptations to cause divisions and factions… to cut ourselves off from each other, and form various factions within the one body of Christ, have been with us since the earliest days of the Church… causing all sorts of grief.
Among the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church community which St. Paul had played a huge part in gathering together, people had begun aligning themselves with various popular preachers and leaders, and had started turning against one another… a destructive temptation that we Christians have fallen for over and over again.
“It’s a sobering thought” N.T. Wright says, “that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a single family those who had obeyed its summons.”
But St. Paul’s response to this terrible temptation for division is to remind his brothers and sisters about what truly holds them together: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of the crucified one, who has now been raised from the dead, sent to reconcile the world to God, and to one another in Him… to shine God’s light on all who sit in darkness and draw them together in His love.
For St. Paul, and for all of us who are called to follow Christ and care about the unity of the Church, the priority must always be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here at St. Luke’s we too have been called to trust and follow Jesus, to share in this new community that He has created called the Christian Church. We are all have some similarities, and many differences as well, but we are being drawn together by Jesus, and invited into His mission.
How are we tempted towards spiritual individualism, or forming factions within God’s family? And how might we have to ask God to save us from falling for these traps?
How can we move away from approaching discipleship as simply a private matter, and learn to lean on each other as we follow Jesus together?
How can we start to overcome the sad divisions that exist within the Church? Not simply here at St. Luke’s… but what about how we relate to our fellow Anglican Churches, not to mention our Christian brothers and sisters in other traditions and branches of the Church?
And how can we always keep before our eyes the whole point of it all: the Good News of Jesus Christ and the mission He has shared with us?
Like Peter and Andrew, and James, and John, we were not called to be “fishers of people” just for our own sakes, but because God in His great mercy and compassion longs to bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the sick, freedom to those in bondage, and love to those who are alone.
Like the first disciples, what might we need to leave behind to follow Christ in this way?
Like the first disciples, what will we gain by dropping our old nets and joining Him together?
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 23.
 N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 8.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon this week can be found here:
And our Songs this week can be found here:
"What Are You Looking For?" - Sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany (January 15, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49:1–7 | Psalm 40:1–11 | 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 | John 1:29–42
“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” (John 1:38).
What are we looking for?
Today is the second Sunday in the Season of Epiphany, a time when we Christians reflect on the mystery revealed to us regarding Jesus Christ our Lord… His divine identity, and divine mission to rescue God’s beloved world. It is a season when the entire unfolding story of God comes to a head in Him, and through Him, we find it carrying on even today… even here in Gondola Point. Even here in this room… inviting you and I to be drawn into His story.
That’s why we’re here, after all: in all sorts of ways, we too have drawn near to Jesus. We have seen something in Him, maybe something we do not yet fully understand, but that has still pulled us closer to Him, and closer to each other too.
So what is it we’re looking for in Jesus today? And what are we meant to see in Him? These are some of the questions Epiphany invites us to wrestle with.
Thankfully, we aren’t the first ones to have done so. Our reading today from the first Chapter of John’s Gospel deals with these very questions, as a part of the Apostle’s careful attempt to open up for us a much wider vision of who Jesus really is… a more ‘complete’ picture of His glory for us to see.
But before we get right into what the Apostle John says, we should take a second to look at how he says it… starting with his creative use of the number seven in this first Chapter.
In our culture, numbers are usually used in a fairly straightforward way to count and quantify. But in other cultures, numbers can also carry important symbolic meanings. Seven is a very special number in the Jewish imagination, which a number of scholars point out “came to symbolize completeness and perfection.” So, for instance, in Genesis Chapter 1, when God completes creation and rests on the seventh day, this is all highly symbolic imagery for the perfection and wholeness of God’s good world.
So whenever seven shows up in the Bible, it’s a big clue that something important is going on… something that asks us to slow down and contemplate to get a more complete picture. And in the Gospel of John Chapter 1, part of which we read today, seven shows up in an interesting way: there are seven titles given to Jesus… six significant, and symbolic names that others give to Him, and one that He uses Himself.
This morning, I want us to do something a little different: instead of looking closely at the narrative or context for our readings, I’d like us to slow down and simply spend some time reflecting on each of these seven names St. John gives us in Chapter 1 that together give us a more complete picture of Jesus our Lord. Not all of these seven names turned up in our Gospel reading today. Some came earlier, some later, but they all belong together if we are to see Jesus in all His fullness.
The first name comes at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, in verse 1, where He is referred to with the mysterious title: the Word of God.
These opening verses intentionally call to mind Genesis Chapter 1, where the Eternal Living God creates everything that is by simply speaking it into being. By calling Jesus the Word of God St. John is making the startling claim right from the start that Jesus shares in the eternal existence of the Divine… that He “was God”, and “was with God”… the same, and yet distinct from the Father in ways that mess with all our categories, but is mysteriously true.
As the Word, St. John wants us to see Jesus as both God’s agent of creation, as well as the way God communicates and reveals Himself to the world. As we can share what’s in our hearts by speaking to others, God shares His heart with us through His Word, who took on flesh and shared our human life to make God known.
The second title given to Jesus is the one St. John the Baptist proclaimed today in verse 26: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, he says. And again, in verse 39: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The Lamb of God that takes away sin is a reference to an atoning sacrifices some of the most sacred practices of ancient Israel taking part in their Holy Temple. The pure life of a lamb or other chosen animal was sacrificed, in order to restore the shattered relationship between God and His sinful people. This was a sacred means of bringing forgiveness and restoration, instead of destruction… one life laid down to bring life to another… a powerful image of love.
These practices, and this title also point us back to the story of Exodus, and the Passover Lamb, whose blood was used to mark the doors of the Israelites in Egypt, so they would be spared from the final plague, and find God’s freedom at last.
So for Jesus to be called the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the World, St. John is calling our attention to the connection between Israel’s sacred sacrifices, and God’s act of deliverance, and the story of Jesus, seeing Him as the one who will be the Ultimate sacrifice, not just to bring freedom and forgiveness to Israel, but to bring freedom and forgiveness to the whole world.
Next, in verse 38, we’re told two would be disciples were following Jesus, and in response to His question “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
In some ways, this is a simple enough title: Rabbi… Teacher… an honoured but not uncommon role within the Jewish community as someone who’s duty it is to help God’s people learn, and live in line with the Divine Teachings, also known as Instructions, or Law. That is, the Torah, the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. These disciples see Jesus as a godly Teacher, one who could guide them in God’s ways. And St. John wants us to see Jesus in this light too… but as the supreme Teacher and Guide, not just one voice or opinion among a host of others, but as the one who is the Truth, and longs to make it known.
So far, we’ve looked at the first 3 names: the Word of God, the Lamb of God, and Rabbi, or Teacher. The fourth title for Jesus that St. John introduces is the “Anointed One”… which is the Messiah in Hebrew, or in Greek, the Christ.
To be anointed was a really big deal. It refers to the sacred ceremony of pouring sacred oil on someone’s head, marking them as chosen, and set apart for God’s holy service, and inviting God’s Spirit to empower them to faithfully fulfill their calling. In Israel, kings and priests, and occasionally prophets alone were anointed, those who were designated to reign, to proclaim God’s word, and to intercede for God’s people. But in time, the term Messiah came to refer to a promised deliverer… a “Chosen One” that God would send as a Saviour to His people, whose whole life would be dedicated to God’s rescue mission.
Around the time of Jesus, many were eagerly awaiting the Messiah, imagining that they would come to defeat their enemies, and set Israel on top of the nations. But as St. John wants us to see, it means something else entirely to be God’s true Messiah.
Which leads us to the fifth and sixth titles given to Jesus in this Chapter. In verse 49, well after the end of our reading today, but still connected in St. John’s mind, we find an excited Nathaniel, blown away by the small glimpse of glory revealed in His first encounter with Jesus and he blurts out: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
These two titles Son of God and King of Israel are deeply connected, and carry more meaning than we might imagine at first glance. First, Son of God suggests a unique, direct, and intimate connection with the Living God. In the Bible, this kind of language is sometimes used to speak of Israel as a whole, imagining God’s covenant people as His beloved but often wayward child. Non-Jewish cultures also made use of language like this. For instance, Caesar in Rome was said to be a “son of the god”, and therefore worthy of devotion and worship.
But for St. John, to call Jesus the Son of God is not just a way to stress His Israelite heritage, or to cast Him with the likes of Caesar, as someone using people’s faith as a way to gain prestige and power. For St. John, Jesus is the only true Eternal Son of God, the one who comes from the Father in Heaven, to draw us all into God’s family as adopted sons and daughters, through our faith in Him.
Turning now to the sixth title for Jesus: the King of Israel. Again, there are political as well as prophetic dimensions to this name, all wrapped up with God’s promise to the most famous King of Israel: that is, King David.
Centuries earlier, God had promised King David that one of his descendants would be raised to the throne, and that his kingdom would never end. Since that time, Israel’s kingdom was divided by civil war, and conquered by Assyria and Babylon, sent into Exile from which only a fraction had returned. And even then, they were oppressed in their own lands by powerful Empires, like the Romans.
And yet, God’s promise to David remained a central hope for Israel’s future on this earth… not just someday in heaven, but a future here and now as well. And so, wrapped up with their hopes for the Messiah, were the hopes of a return of God’s good Kingdom… and of an eternal King.
Yet for St. John, Jesus is a very different kind of King. One who will indeed rule forever, but who would first be executed like the lowest criminal.
At the climax of John’s Gospel, Jesus is arrested, falsely accused, unjustly sentenced to death, tortured and mocked mercilessly, with the soldiers making him a crown of thorns, and hailing Him “King of the Jews”, which is what the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate has inscribed on a sign above Jesus’ head as he hung naked and dying in agony on the cross.
No one would look at Jesus on the cross and see a King. And yet, that is the amazing truth St. John is inviting us to believe… to see in the cross, not defeat, but the beginning of Jesus’ eternal reign: suffering and dying to bring about God’s good Kingdom at last.
This leads us to the seventh and last name applied to Jesus in John Chapter 1. The name He most frequently uses for Himself: the Son of Man.
In one sense, this name means ‘mortal’, or ‘human one’, a descendant of the race of Adam & Eve, who were given the chance to share God’s eternal life, but chose instead to listen to the Serpent, that symbol of spiritual rebellion and evil at work in our world, and found themselves under death’s thumb.
But in this same story from Genesis God offers hope to His beloved but now broken human creations: He promised that one day, a descendant of Eve would finally crush the head of the Serpent, that instigator of evil, once and for all… even though he would also be bitten by the Serpent in the process. In other words, the promised Saviour of the human race would win the victory through suffering.
This promised suffering but victorious Son of Man is a theme that runs all through the story of Scripture, and from the outset of His ministry, Jesus uses this name, identifying with us in our weakness and vulnerability, but also pointing forward to His role as the promised suffering Saviour.
All this and more is meant to be brought to mind by the seven names of Jesus in John Chapter 1. From the start of his Gospel St. John wants us to see that Jesus is all of these things at once… not only back then, two millennia ago, but today as well!
Jesus is the Word of God… the One who shared in the Creation of all that is, and who has made known God’s own character and heart. In our times of chaos and darkness, we can look to Jesus and find God’s eternal, life-giving word bringing order, beauty, and light, and making all things new.
Jesus is the Lamb of God… who laid down His life to deal with the sins of the whole world once and for all at the cross. In our times of failure, regret, and shame, we can look to Jesus and find He has revealed God’s love for us, in that while we were still sinners, He died… not just for the whole world, but for you and me… to cleanse and set us free from our sins and wickedness… and to pour out on us God’s gracious forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
Jesus is the great Teacher. In our times of doubt, as the truth we need seems harder and harder to comprehend, we can look to Jesus and find the One who still truly shows us God’s holy ways… the One who is Himself the truth, and who leads us into life.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ… the Anointed One, set apart for God’s mission. In our times of confusion and uncertainty, we can look to Jesus and find Him completely dedicated to doing God’s will, and bringing God’s deliverance to us all.
Jesus is the Son of God… uniquely sharing in His self-giving life. In our times of being pushed around by those who hunger for positions and power, we can look to Jesus and find the one who truly embodies God’s greatness… by caring for the outcasts, the hurting, the powerless… by seeking and saving the lost.
Jesus is the King of Kings, the One who reigns even now at God’s right hand. In our times of being caught up in the conflicts and struggles of our days, where we are pulled in a hundred directions by those who demand that we give them our loyalty, we can look to Jesus and find God’s good Kingdom at work even now in our lives: the Kingdom whose victory was won by Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross even for His enemies… the only Kingdom that will endure forever.
Jesus is the Son of Man, stepping into our mortal human existence, and sharing in all our sufferings. In our times of fear and fragility, even as we face the shadow of death, we can look to Jesus and find the one who confronted the powers of death, and endured it’s worst at the cross, only to be raised again as the firstborn of God’s New Creation… and who will raise us up with Him, to share in His risen life for all eternity.
Jesus is all this at once… and more! Even when we don’t understand Him all.
And thankfully, just like John the Baptist, and the first disciples in John’s Gospel… we aren’t meant to understand it all right from the start. No, just like them, we just catch a glimpse of Jesus… we hear a hint of His mission… a whisper of His story… and that is enough to draw us closer… only to find Him looking at us and inviting each of us to follow Him… to “come and see” even more…
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked those first disciples. And He asks you and I the same thing this morning: “What are we looking for in Him?”
This is His invitation to follow. To draw near to Him in faith, and find that He is far more than we could have ever imagined, and that He has more in store for you and I as we follow Him too. Like St. John, we too can come to experience Jesus in all of His fullness. And like St. John, we can with confidence invite others to do the same.
Whatever we started off looking for in Jesus, may we find in Him the fullness of God’s great gift of love to us and our world. Amen.
 Joel F. Drinkard Jr., “Number Systems and Number Symbolism,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1199.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon this week can be found here:
And our Songs this week can be found here:
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6 | Psalm 72 | Ephesians 3:1–12 | Matthew 2:1–12
What is the longest road trip that you have ever taken?
In my mid-twenties and my second year of University, my Dad and I took a trip over March Break from my school in Southern Manitoba all the way down to the Southern tip of Texas to visit my Grandparents at their trailer, where they would spend their winters.
It was my first time travelling in the states, aside from a few short trips just across the border, so I was in for all sorts of surprises, as the two of us crossed the continent. We ran into a few challenges along the way, like a flash-flood and tornado warning in Kansas, and getting turned around after dark in some unfamiliar cities, but after three days we made it. Then after a three-day visit, we had to turn around and head back North again. Six days on the road for a short three-day stay. The math might not seem to add up, but it was a great adventure with my Dad I’ll always remember, and look back on with gratitude.
Some journeys are about far more than just the destination… or the stay… they’re about drawing us together. About bridging the distances between us, so to speak.
In our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about another long road trip: the journey of the wise men, searching for the newborn King. We don’t know for sure where they came from, or how long they travelled, although some later traditions try to fill in these gaps for us. St. Matthew just tells us they came from “the East”, which at the time meant ‘outside the Roman Empire’, and more than likely they came from within the Parthian Empire, in what is now Iraq, Iran, and beyond, and which had once belonged to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian peoples… pretty big players in the story of Israel’s struggles, Exile, and return as told in the Old Testament.
Again, we don’t know exactly where they set out from, but to give us a rough idea of the kind of distances we’re talking about, Google Maps tells me that to drive from Tehran in Iran, to Bethlehem, it is almost 2,000 KM. Back in the first century, of course, there were no cars or highways. Travel was a much more costly and dangerous adventure, to be sure. But knowing the challenges, these wise men still thought it worth it to make the long journey West, following the star that had caught their eye.
This detail about the star, and the word “wise men” or magi, tells us a bit more about these mysterious visitors from the East: they were students of the stars, well learned experts of ancient astrology, a practice strictly forbidden by God for His covenant people Israel, but widely practiced and respected as trustworthy wisdom by many other cultures.
NT Wright offers some helpful insights about the ways astrology was understood in those days, which sheds some light into why the magi in Matthew’s Gospel were watching the skies so closely, and why they were willing to set out on their long road trip together: “Many people, particularly in the countries to the east of Palestine, had developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings. They believed, after all, that the whole world was of a piece; everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event on earth.”
And so, seeing signs in the heavens, they somehow came to believe that a new king had been born to the Jewish peoples far to the West, and not just any king, but one that warranted a truly cosmic announcement, and who was worth putting their own lives on hold to see face to face, and honour as best they could. These Gentile sages from far away were seeking to honour and pay homage to the newborn Jewish King.
But there was a problem: the Jewish people already had a King, Herod the Great, who ruled the region with the backing of Caesar Augustus in Rome. So news of a newborn King was not taken well by the folks in Jerusalem: the experts and scribes were taken by surprise by the arrival of the magi, having had no warning or clue that something so important was happening in their midst. St. Matthew tells us that Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Not simply surprised, but afraid.
Why? We don’t know for sure. The Scriptures don’t say.
But we could easily imagine why: A newborn King would be a big threat to Herod’s own power, and Herod was not one to take challenges to his position lightly.
As far as the people of Jerusalem were concerned, it’s a bit less clear. Perhaps they were worried about a disturbance to their own fragile peace? The ancient world was very familiar with bloody power-struggles, and any chance there could be a civil war could bring Rome’s wrath to the region as well. Or perhaps they were just happy with things as they were, and didn’t want another king challenging the status quo? What if they just were afraid of the unknown… even if it might be very good in the long run? Or afraid that if it was really God’s Messiah that had been born, then their less-than-faithful lives might soon be put under God’s righteous spotlight? Who knows? There were likely all sorts of reasons this news of a newborn king made them afraid. St. Matthew only tells us what fear led Herod to do.
He sends the magi off secretly to Bethlehem, saying: “‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’” (Matthew 2:8), so they head to Bethlehem. And as they go they see the same star they had followed before leading the way again. The folks in Jerusalem who had said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the coming King had gotten it right!
…but none of them had joined the Magi on their journey to see the Messiah for themselves, even though it was only about 9 km down the road.
What a contrast St. Matthew wants us to see!
On the one hand we have non-Israelite astrologers, not exactly the picture of faithfulness we might expect, who had travelled from far in the East, facing unknown trouble and great expense… searching for something they hardly understood, but believed was of great significance.
While on the other hand we have God’s own people, who it turns out knew exactly where to look but were too troubled and frightened or otherwise unmoved to be bothered to go just down the road to meet their long-awaited Messiah for themselves.
Of course, this also begs the question: where do we fit in this story? How far are we willing to go to come face to face with our Messiah King? How important is it to us to draw near to Him in worship and devotion? And what are the things that keep us from seeking to draw nearer to Him? What obstacles keep us at a distance?
We know there’s lots of things in our lives that can get in the way of our life with God, but one common obstacle that St. Matthew highlights for us today is fear: Like Herod, and all God’s people in Jerusalem when the wise men showed up, we too can find ourselves unsettled by the Good News that our King has been born.
Maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll lose, or what we will have to give up? Maybe we’re afraid of what will have to change if the Messiah has really come to reign? Maybe we don’t feel worthy to enter His presence… worried that He’ll turn us away? There’s all sorts of ways fear can grip our hearts and keep us standing at a distance, but the invitation to draw near always remains.
Will we join with the magi and draw near to Jesus Christ?
This is really our invitation, our journey… but it’s not really the most important journey St. Matthew wants us to contemplate today. Along with the journey of the magi, our journey to draw near to Christ in faith is just our response to the journey Christ Jesus has taken to draw near to us!
In being born of Mary, Jesus made the biggest trip of all: from sharing the exalted, eternal throne of heaven, to joining the humble human family… bridging the infinite distance between our broken sinful, and scared condition and Almighty God, with His tiny newborn body… re-uniting us to our loving Creator, once and for all, through the precious gift of His life, offered each day that He drew breath, but most completely through His saving death on the cross… all to draw all people… Jew and Gentile, you and I… all those covered in darkness, drawing us together into His gracious light… which is what St. Paul claims in Ephesians Chapter 3, God has been planning since the very beginning.
Ephesians 3:5-6, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
We tend to forget how big of a deal this is, but for St. Paul and many others this changed everything, and shaped how Christians not only understood God’s love, but how they practiced it too! No longer seeing some folks as outsiders from the start… as cut off from God’s concern because they were born into the wrong family, or community, or country. In Christ, God has revealed His saving love for the entire world at work, drawing everyone together as reconciled brothers and sisters at His side.
The feast of Epiphany which we celebrate today reminds us of this Divine surprise: that in Jesus Christ God has come to us to rescue not just one people… but all peoples… not just Israel, but everyone.
So when we are tempted to see those around us, or around our world… or even ourselves, as outside of God’s compassion or concern… as those who are too far off from His holy life and light to share in His Kingdom… let us remember the Good News that in Christ God has made the greatest journey of all to be with us… even when we were far off, and frightened, and fumbling in the dark, He came to find us… and through His death and resurrection He draws us all to Himself, and in Him, to each other, to live in God’s light together forever.
I’ll end now with these powerful words from the Prophet Isaiah 60:1-3
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
May the light of Christ shine upon us, and shine through us to draw those around us to Him. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 10.
Although the feast of Epiphany was earlier this week (January 6), we are choosing to celebrate this important feast together on Sunday, reflecting on the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary's child, to be the Son of the Living God, the Christ, and eternal King of Kings.
But though this Child, born to reign forever, has become one of us in our humanity, in Him God has completely upended our common concepts of kingship and greatness... calling us to let go of our pre-conceptions, and take hold of the life of His Kingdom.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon this week can be found here:
And our Songs this week can be found here:
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School