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3rd Sunday of Epiphany

17 January 2014


Isaiah 9.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23 

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. Amen.

ISAIAH and the Gospel plunge us into times of endings, beginnings, and fulfilment.

The tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali lay in the fertile hill-country, north and west of the Sea of Galilee, at the northern end of the Promised Land. On a significant trade route, they contained many fortified cities, which were needed against invasion from the north - the Syrians ravaged the lands, and a century later, the people of this region were the first to be deported by the Assyrians.

It is in that Assyrian context that we should hear Isaiah's remarkable prophecy, which must be read with the end of chapter 8, where there is only distress, darkness, and anguish. Otherwise, chapter 9's life-changing "but" is robbed of its power.

Isaiah dared to look forward to the ending of oppression by a superpower, and the beginning of joy for a downtrodden people. As we hear of South Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic, we gain an idea of how radical this vision was of the shining of God's light in places that were walking in deep darkness. There was an ending because there was God's beginning.

Jesus grew up in this same region. Matthew makes the connection with the centuries-old prophecy, partially fulfilled when the exile ended, for which there was now a less immediately obvious but deeper fulfilment, because the light of the world walked this territory: Nazareth was in Zebulun, and Capernaum in Naphtali.

The Gospel is about beginnings and endings. There are two significant endings before there are new beginnings. With John's arrest, his public ministry ended. Traumatic for John, this was a beginning for Jesus, who withdrew from his home of thirty years to make a new start by the sea. We can only wonder what went through his mind as he walked there, knowing that everything had changed for him, as he began to call for repentance because the Kingdom of God came near.

The familiar story of the call of the first disciples differs from John's account, which we heard last week. Both can be part of a process of calling for the men involved. John does not imply a radical abandonment of their nets; so what he describes may have been a first encounter that paved the way for this more decisive response. Sometimes we need to hear the call in different ways, and at different times.

There was an ending for the men before there was God's beginning. Yet Matthew indicates that someone else, too, faced a significant ending. Whereas Peter and Andrew left their nets, Matthew records that James and John left their boat and also their father, Zebedee. Peter lived with his mother-in-law, which may hint that his parents were dead. But James and John left their father, precipitating a devastating ending for him. Already sharing his family fishing business with his sons, he would suffer drastically from the withdrawal of their younger, stronger labour.

Recently, sorting through family papers, I found the letter I wrote to my parents when I decided to move to the United States. Memories flooded back to me of struggling to find words to explain why I was leaving a successful career in local government to test my vocation in a Benedictine community in an economically devastated area, and trying to express my very mixed emotions at leaving my family behind.

The next time I stayed with them, my father took me aside, and we both ended up choking on our hard-found words, as he gave me the freedom to go, with his support. Neither of us could dream where it would lead - when I did return to this country, he had died, and I had been ordained. All we knew then was the mutual cost of my following what I believed was my calling.

One of my first journal entries in the US, while all the farewells were still raw, was: "Why can't there be beginnings without endings?" At times like that, we can pray the petition in the collect: "in all our weakness, sustain us by your mighty power", and draw strength from the promise of God's renewal by heavenly grace, as well as the knowledge that Jesus, too, faced endings, in order for there to be life-giving beginnings.

Sometimes, we have to free those we love to pursue new beginnings; trusting, like Isaiah, that there will be God's "but" in the midst of it.

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