In the Lectionary

Sunday, January 23, 2011: Matthew 4:12-23, Isaiah 1:9-4

There are places where Epiphany light shines through people who do the best of things in the worst of times.

The Matthew 4 and Isaiah 9 readings assigned for this third Sunday of Epiphany each begin with geographic references that are easily overlooked. Zebulun and Naphtali are more than Galilean locations. Both words signaled to eighth-century BCE hearers what Vietnam, Abu Ghraib and Guan­tánamo Bay signal to our ears—the hellishness of war and the darkness engulfing those who live in its aftermath. But Zebulun and Naph­tali are also cited as "crossroads of the nations, where people sitting out their lives in the dark saw a huge light" (The Message). Jesus chooses this background, one weighted with historical meaning, as the setting from which to carry out his Galilean ministry. With astonishing boldness he announces that he is the One in whom Isaiah's prophecy is at last fulfilled, and who calls all to repent and receive the kingdom of heaven now at hand.

These texts are loaded with Epiphany promise—what lay hidden in the mystery of God's sovereign reign is now out in the open, offering the light of Christ's grace to all in every place and circumstance. We who are numbed by daily media reports on the plight of people still walking in the thick darkness of hunger, injustice, crime, disease and futile wars need ears open to other news. There are places where Epiphany light shines through people who do the best of things in the worst of times. For example, in Bethlehem where our Lord was born, 70,000 Palestinians are walled in by Israeli military occupation and surrounded by illegal settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. Here Palestinian Lutherans have defied all odds by building a wellness center, a medical clinic, a first-rate cultural center hosting local and international events and a K-12 school for Muslim and Christian students. Two months ago, the first fine arts college in the Arab world was opened under their sponsorship. Dar Al Kalima ("house of the Word") has 200 full-time students and a thousand more in part-time studies. Despite a dwindling number of Arab Christians, the inclusive organization called Diyar ("home") serves women, children, youth and the elderly; it is the third largest employer in Bethlehem. I asked Mitri Raheb, the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and founding director of Diyar, what keeps him from going crazy under relentless pressures.

"I start a new project," he said—his way of witnessing to the power of Epiphany light that breaks through the thick darkness of the seemingly impenetrable Arab/Israeli conflict.