Our hearts may sing as we hear the glorious prophecy of Isaiah, as repeated in Matthew’s Gospel: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” But as we listen to the epistle a nagging voice suggests that the Corinthians have been remarkably busy in their attempts to put that light out.
I am often at a loss for words when people ask me what I think. To me, thinking—making clear and linear progress through my mental swamp—is drudgery that I perform only when it is necessary. But if someone says, “Tell me a story,” I am in my element.
Several years ago I was invited to preach on this gospel passage from Matthew at the National Cathedral on the Sunday designated to honor the state of Hawaii. I struggled with the subject of Jesus’ baptism, partly because baptism is not an easy concept to explain, and this story seemed strange indeed.
Though the liturgical calendar reminds us that it is Christmastide, a lovely 12-day season extending to Epiphany in January, you cannot live in this culture without experiencing how the air is let out of the holiday balloon on December 26. The Magi may not arrive in Bethlehem until January 6, but the culture abruptly drops the whole matter practically before Christmas Day is over.
At Epiphany, the feast of the shining, we come to the end of the journey that began six weeks ago with the portentous announcement of the coming of the Lord, the streaming of the nations toward Zion, and the invitation to walk in the light of the Lord. We find ourselves with an array of kings—Herod, David, the Magi—and a newborn child. We have become accustomed to understanding that the One coming in will do so quietly, in vulnerability, in the midst of violence, prepared for suffering. So it's easy to forget that the whole point is that all of these kings were left in the shade by the radiance of the King of kings.
In the hospital emergency room, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan, and urine sloshes onto the floor. After several hours of waiting, my mother is finally admitted. I pay for TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons on the remote. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night she was taken down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why someone left a black Scottish terrier in the corner of her room.
In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, the main character works to come to terms with who he is. At midlife, after going through a crisis, he says, “Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was.
Last fall a friend of mine attended a lecture at the University of Mississippi delivered by Stanley Hauerwas. His talk was followed by an invigorating, hour-long question-and-answer dialogue. My friend reported that afterward he and some students, another minister and several laypeople went to someone’s house and talked about God for another hour or so.How novel.
He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?
When I run across texts like these from Jeremiah and Luke, I’m always asking, “What kind of community does it take to raise prophets like Jeremiah and even Jesus?” Being a Baptist, I have few doubts about God calling prophets, preachers, missionaries and everyday Christians. The call of God tends to be very personal, but it is not private and does not come in a vacuum.