The Word of God
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In this Third Sunday of Epiphany, we see a new appearance of Christ, revealing something new about him as his life story unfolds for the readers of Matthew’s Gospel. Here we see the life-giving words of Jesus, the Word from the Word begin to go forth into the world, changing it forever. This is the first thing he does after being tempted in the wilderness by the devil for 40 Days. What sustained him there, what allowed him to come face to face with the devil and leave victorious was the Word, the words of Scripture. In each temptation, whether bread, earthly power, or demonstrating supernatural supremacy, Jesus answers the temptation with the words of Scripture. The Church has long conflated the Word of God as Scripture and the Word of God as Jesus. I’ve witnessed liturgical Christians getting condescending on this point toward other believers who seemingly put too much emphasis on Scripture. They might say something like, “You should take some of the weight you put on Scripture as the Word and put it on Jesus as the Word of God.” This may be true. Scripture is the book of the Church. It was assembled by the Church and is rightly interpreted by the Church. And to strip it away from that context and use it against the Church and her right teaching is wrong. To go the route of “It’s me and this here Bible,” is almost certainly going to introduce error and the sin of pride. The Bible is meant to be read and interpreted by the Church. But there’s another side to this, and that is, before Scripture was the book of the Church, it was the Word of God. Scripture’s authority, when rightly understood and applied, transcends the church and governs her, not the other way around. And so, we need to be careful when introducing our three-pronged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. We need all of these things, yes, but if you run into a burning building and can only save one of them, it needs to be Scripture. Only one of them is the Word of God.
We have to be careful about drawing too fine a line between the Word and the Word, between Christ and Scripture. They are meant to go together. The light of Christ shines in, around, and through all the pages of Scripture. Even the ones that don’t sit well with us. Especially those ones. Those are the pages we need the most. To fold our arms and say, “that’s just Paul,” or to write off the whole Old Testament, because we don’t know what to do with it or because we think it’s somehow invalidated, is to throw away Jesus who waits for us in those pages. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible is famously full of holes, holes he cut, because he found many passages unreasonable. Reason, it was thought, sees through Scripture. The problem with seeing through everything is that eventually you don’t see anything at all. To remove the pieces of Scripture that we don’t want to cross-stitch and hang on our living room wall, to cut out the pieces of the Bible that don’t seem reasonable to us, is like participating in some small way in Christ’s torture and death. You can’t do that to someone and expect them to be happy when you sing their praises on Sunday. So we need to be careful with the Word. We need to see it as an extension of Christ himself, because it is the best place to meet him. He meets us there and enlightens our minds and our spirit with his Holy Spirit. Paul thought preaching the good news of Christ, the news found in his Word was so important that he said that he did not come to baptize, but to preach the gospel. To make his point, Paul pits the good news against baptism and the good news wins. He is there to preach.
And in the Gospel reading, we see that so was Jesus. The words from the Word are that important. The miracle of the nearness of the kingdom of God needed to be proclaimed. The Son of God, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, victorious over the temptations of the devil in the wilderness, doesn’t use that momentum to make a throne in his first moments of ministry. No, his throne awaited him in heaven. But he did start bringing his kingdom near. And he did it simply, proclaiming that it was near. The effectiveness of his words are demonstrated further in his encounters with the disciples. His first disciples began following him through the preaching of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Two of John’s disciples started following him. Jesus continues the initial work of building his kingdom at Capernaum, acting very much like a prophet. As Amos told us this morning in chapter 3, verse 7: Amos 3:7
7 “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.
The faithful prophets revealed the secret things of God and communicated his very words. They bore witness of the righteousness of God and let it stand in righteous judgment, ministering to the faithful and calling the wicked to account. The good news is good to the faithful, to the ones who trust God and obey, and bad news to the principalities and powers who stand against God. The same Word has a different effect on different hearers. And so speaking the word of God, speaking the good news of Jesus Christ, is both bringing the peace of God into the world, and declaring war in the spiritual realm in the same moment. Through it, Jesus builds his kingdom and tears down the kingdom of darkness. So, as we look at this milestone in the narrative of the incarnate Word, at the beginning of his ministry, how do we respond to the Word of God, to Jesus and the Scriptures that tell of him? What do we do with these words?
First, look at the content of Jesus’s words in the passage in front of you. His first words are Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here. Just because it isn’t Advent or Lent doesn’t mean we stop repenting. To repent is to turn. To turn from our sinful ways and to turn toward Christ who has the power to heal you from the harm you’ve done to yourself in walking away from him. And when we do this, with the kingdom of heaven near, we’ll be able to see it. Our spiritual blindness will melt away and we’ll be able to see the big picture clearly, that the kingdom of heaven is near.
Second, once we’ve studied the words in front of us and submitted to them, how do we approach the Word of God, the Scriptures? Look for Jesus there, in all of Scriptures. Wherever your study or the lectionary has taken you, what is the passage in front of you saying about him? How is it pointing to him? Does the promise of God point to a time of blessing and grace? Could it be pointing to Jesus and his final victory? Does the passage revolve around suffering? How does it relate to Jesus who takes suffering on himself to ultimately remove it from you? Is something completely chaotic happening like the wars of conquest? The need for Christ and his kingdom of peace are borne out. Meditate on the Word. Find Jesus there. Find a new aspect of Jesus there and get a clearer picture of him. In doing so you’ll get a clearer picture of what is real, what is true, what is right, what is noble, and what love is. And Jesus’s call to you will be as effective as it was to James and John mending their nets. And that leads us to the third way to approach Jesus and his word.
We make it known, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. The Good news of the gospel is neither good nor is it news, if it isn’t proclaimed. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew fishing, he said “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” A fisher of men is someone helping to make the kingdom of God visible by proclaiming good news. And it doesn’t need to be done perfectly. It doesn’t have to be done in flawless wisdom. Paul tells us that he was sent to preach the word and not with eloquent wisdom so that the Cross of Christ would not be emptied of it’s power. The gospel is amazingly multi-faceted and takes captive many thoughts, but it’s power is not in posturing or syllogisms or reason. Paul gets us back on track after people start getting tribal about their leaders “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos.” Even “I am of Christ” in the battle of words is posturing. It’s using the word “Christ” to trump everyone else. But Paul isn’t interested in any of this worthless conversation. “I am of antitraditionalism” and “I am of symbolism” are ultimately unhelpful. With words and posturing swirling around, Paul helps us remember what’s important. The Cross of Christ. It’s the Cross of Christ that has power. The good news, all of Scripture, all that Jesus did, is headed there. It points there. And it’s the Cross of Christ that has the power to make the kingdom of heaven visible, to change lives. When all the politics and posturing stops and we silently watch as the Son of God who came into the world to meet with us and share his kingdom with us is nailed to a piece of wood, to bear our sins and make peace with God, the picture of “Man on Cross” shuts up our cynicism our power-seeking, our lies, our lust, our gluttony. Man as he was supposed to be, nailed to the Cross, in its tragedy, in its horror, in the beauty of its love is what has the power to reach into our souls and re-form them. It’s from that moment that all meaning flows out. It flows out into the pages of the Old and New Testaments. And there we see it’s beauty from new angles and find new strength. It flows out into our lives and into our relationships and into the world. When we see the Cross of Christ, we hear Jesus’ first words at the beginning of his ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” in all their clarity. And they change us because we see the one speaking as not another self-help guru or an Instagram influencer, but the one who would go on to suffer and die in our place to make peace with God on our behalf. And from the vantage point of the Cross, we trust, we believe, and we can even obey. So, let us obey these first words ofJesus said to his first disciples, follow me, and submit our hearts to the Word of God.