Sunday, 27 January 2013

Listening to the inaugural address

Reading from the scrolls in the synagogue … ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,’ Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Vienna. 1878, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

27 January 2013,

the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

11 a.m.,
Solemn Eucharist sung by the boys and men; Haydn, Missa Brevis Sanctae Johannes de Deo; Wesley, Blessed be the God and Father.

Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19: 7-15; I Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21 [22-30].

Hymns: 345, 302, 300, 388.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Christmas is over – it’s over a month since Christmas Day. New Year has come and gone. And I wonder how many of us have forgotten our New Year’s Resolutions.

Although the Church Calendar is telling us that today is the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, for many of us this is a mere hiccup in the Church Calendar most people think that Epiphany ends on 6 January, not that it begins on 6 January.

Looking at the advertising in newspapers and reading about the Holiday World Show near here in the RDS this weekend, it is obvious many people are already focussed on their sun holidays in summer and are eager to shake off the cold and snow of winter.

I imagine there are very few places where cribs are still to be seen.

It’s an amazing ritual in many places, where the three wise men, or the three magi, are placed in cribs on 6 January, and then the whole assemblage is removed – almost overnight.

But the Eastern Church – and the Lectionary – remind us that Epiphany is a whole season of commemorations and celebrations with a whole series of its own stories, and three in particular, which we have heard on successive Sundays this year:

● The Adoration of the Magi (The Epiphany, Matthew 2: 1-12);
● The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Epiphany 1, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22);
● The Wedding Feast of Cana (Epiphany 2, John 2: 1-11).

On each occasion, Christ is unexpectedly seen for who he truly is:

● The Kings lay their gifts and their treasures before a humble child in an obscure village;
● John singles out Christ from among the crowd on the banks of the river;
● Jesus gives us the impression, gives his mother the impression, that he would rather be one among the many guests at a provincial wedding.

And in each Epiphany story we see a return movement – coming and going:

● The Wise Men return – but by another road (Matthew 2: 12);
● After his baptism, Christ returns from the Jordan (Luke 4; 1), and goes into the wilderness (verse 1) and then returns to Galilee (verse 14);
● After the wedding at Cana, Jesus goes back to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers and his disciples (see John 2: 12).

Going and returning, sending and receiving, these are important subplots in the Epiphany stories. And here this morning, we are presented with what that return means.

Returning to their kingdoms, the ageing magus asks, in the words of TS Eliot (‘Journey of the Magi’):

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? …

And he reflects on what he has returned to:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Returning from the Epiphany moments leaves us no longer at ease with old dispensations, clutching to old gods. Instead, Epiphany challenges us to examine what religion means, to ask what true religion should be like.

And we have a response to that challenge in our Gospel reading this morning.

After the Epiphany moment at his Baptism, Christ has returned to Galilee, and is preaching in the synagogues. And in this morning’s reading when he stands up to read from the scrolls the passage he reads is almost like the agenda that is going to set out the rest of his ministry.

These words spoken by Jesus are his first adult words, his first words in ministry, as recorded in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

We should ask what the Epiphany is all about:

● Why were the Magi anointing the Christ Child with myrrh (see Matthew 2: 11)?
● What are those great deeds that John says Christ will do when he clears the threshing floor and gathers the wheat into his granary (Luke 3: 17)?
● When Mary says at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2: 5), is she saying this not just to the servants but to us?

If we ask these Epiphany questions, then we get our answers this morning.

Inaugural address … President Barack Obama speaking after his inauguration in Washington last Monday

Many of us may have watched President Barack Obama’s inauguration last Monday or watched the news report. His inaugural address set out his priorities, his agenda for the next four years of his presidency, even if Congress refuses to co-operate and refuse to vote along with him.

With all the hype about the movie Lincoln and its premiere in Dublin this week, it is worth recalling that Abraham Lincoln also used his second inaugural address to do something no President had ever done before – to speak in critical terms of the nation. He did so in order to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and to address the need to stay the course and bring an end to both the war and the cause of that war.

One commentator this past week said this morning’s Gospel reading is like Christ’s inaugural address. Here he sets out his priorities, his hopes, his expectations, even if people of faith are reluctant at times to co-operate and give him their votes.

If we see who Christ is then we must journey with him towards Calvary and Good Friday and the Garden and Easter Morning. And on that way, we take with us, we take up, the challenge to “Do whatever he tells you.”

He tells us this morning what is at the heart of everything he does and everything he asks us to do:

● to bring good news to the poor
● to proclaim release to the captives
● to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind
● to let the oppressed go free
● to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

There are three Epiphany-like moments in this reading:

● Jesus reads as king, prophet, and priest: King, in the majestic way in which he proclaims the Jubileee Year on behalf of God who is the Sovereign Lord; priest in the way he becomes the mediator between God and his people, in a liturgical context; and prophet in bringing to their true completion the promises of the prophets of old.

● The Spirit that descends on him at his baptism is manifest that morning as he declares: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (verse 18). That Epiphany moment at the Jordan was not a once-off experience of the Spirit; the Spirit remains with Christ, and he continues to act throughout his ministry in a Trinitarian movement.

● The miracle at Cana was a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and as a consequence the disciples believed. In this reading we see that God’s promises are not just fanciful, they are to be fulfilled. And as a consequence of what Jesus said, “all spoke well of him and were amazed …” (verse 22). Jesus is not merely reading the words, he is promising to see them put into action, to transform hope into reality.

It is Good News, but it is a risky Gospel to proclaim. Those in need of that good news are not there to hear him, the captives are not free to rejoice at what he says, the blind are not present to see him, the oppressed are not there to hear him.

But those who are there and hear the year of the Lord’s favour proclaimed that Saturday morning are filled with rage – so filled with rage that they drive him out of the synagogue and out of town, and bring him to brow of the hill planning to hurl him over the edge to sure and certain death.

● Who are those who are poor today because of our lifestyles or because I ignore, because the nation ignores them?
● Why are they poor? Who am I blind to? Who continues to be oppressed by my demands, my expectations?
● Who is left hopeless because I continue to pursue my hopes?
● Who is disempowered because I remain powerful?

Yet Christ offers the promise that God’s plan finds its completion in him.

Just a few verses earlier, immediately before this reading, the devil brings Christ to pinnacles and great heights and dared him to throw himself down (see Luke 4: 1-13).

It is a daring thing to proclaim this Good News. It is good news for those who are oppressed and marginalised to be told they are welcome in the kingdom. But it challenges those who would still be at ease with the old dispensation, who are tempted to clutch to their idol-like image of God.

This inaugural address brings death threats to Christ. Living out the promise of that inaugural address eventually leads to crucifixion and death for Christ. Just as TS Eliot’s magus observes, there is a direct link between the epiphany experience and death.

If Epiphany is a new dawn, then it only has significance because it looks forward to the dawn of Easter Morning. And along the way, old habits must change:

● We must become uneasy about old dispensations.
●We must be open to a new understanding of what the Kingdom of God is about.
● We must identify with those for whom the proclamation of the Kingdom is good news.

These Sundays after Epiphany invite us to join the dots that link Christmas and Easter. We cannot live lives that fail to make that connection, for, to quote TS Eliot again (‘East Coker’):

In my beginning is my end.

In Christ’s beginning is his end, and this morning’s Gospel shows us how we can, challenges us to, join him on that journey.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

Almighty Father,
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
May your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped,
and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin, on Sunday 27 January 2013.

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