As the years pass, I am finding myself appreciating the Epiphany season of the Church Year more and more. I used to think of Epiphany as the time when the Church could “relax and catch her breath” between Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. But that’s not right. Epiphany has it’s own focus, during the season of the year when the days can be seen to be getting longer (and brighter), even though winter appears to be dominating everything. During Epiphany we have seen the Gentile Magi worship the toddler-Jesus; we have seen Jesus brought to the temple and recognized as the long-promised messiah by two ancient prophets; we have witnessed Jesus’ baptism as the voice from heaven claimed Him as “My beloved Son”; we have seen Him change water into wine — “God in flesh made manifest”, as the hymn proclaims. In a few weeks, the Epiphany season will conclude with the story of the Transfiguration, as we will see God’s glory shining in and through Jesus’ human nature. We will have spent the entire Epiphany season being enlightened as to Who it is Who pitched His tent among us and was born in our midst as a fully human being on Christmas.
But not all of the Sundays after Epiphany focus on events of Jesus life that reveal Who it is Who has come among us, prior to the culmination of this revelation with Easter. Bracketed among these “epiphanies” of Who this Jesus is, we find some of what Jesus taught. And whenever we hear the words of Jesus, we are supposed to measure ourselves against them: how faithful have we been? How obedient have we been? And by these Scripture readings, our attention is subtly turned to the fact that Lent is coming … Jesus is going to the cross to die for us all. We have not done what God told us we were to do to be good. We have not kept the Law. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, that Jesus the Savior was born for to die for poor ornery creatures like you and like I …”
After we heard the story of Jesus’ Temptation by Satan in the Wilderness (the Gospel for Epiphany 3) our attention turned to what Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes — and then moving swiftly into what Jesus taught about the Law of God: “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses … whoever disobeys even the least important of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” As Lent nears, we hear Gospel lessons that look hard at the requirements of the Law of God, which we have not kept; Satan may not have gotten very far with his temptation of the Christ, but he has done pretty well against us. The readings for this week are magnificent in their clarity! In the Old Testament reading, Moses says to the gathered Israelites, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His rules, then you shall live and multiply and the Lord your God will bless you … but if your heart turns away … you shall surely perish. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) The Psalm for this week is select verses from Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Bible, and the psalm that sings the praises of the Law of God in every single one of its verses: “Blessed are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of the Lord.” In the Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the requirements of the Law even more stringent than they were in the 10 Commandments as He speaks about murder, adultery, and taking oaths. (And exactly who has the right to edit what The Lord of the Universe wrote with His own finger on those tablets He gave Moses?) Jesus clearly states that anger is as sinful as murder, that lust is as sinful as adultery, and that rather than “swear to God” we should simply do what we say we’ll do. The Law of God is shown to be that flawless mirror in which we look and see how badly we need a Savior. It isn’t Lent yet, but Lent is coming. And we need it.
The Processional Hymn for this Sunday is “Holy Spirit Ever Dwelling.” (To see and hear the YouTube videos of the hymns, just click on the title of this blog.)
“Holy Spirit, ever dwelling in the holiest realms of light; Holy Spirit, ever brooding o’er a world of gloom and night; Holy Spirit, ever raising those of earth to thrones on high; Living, life-imparting Spirit, You we praise and magnify. // Holy Spirit, ever living as the Church’s very life; Holy Spirit, ever striving through us in a ceaseless strife; Holy Spirit, ever forming in the Church the mind of Christ: You we praise with endless worship for your gifts and fruits unpriced. // Holy Spirit, ever working through the Church’s ministry; quick’ning, strength’ning, and absolving, setting captive sinners free; Holy Spirit, ever binding age to age and soul to soul in communion never ending, You we worship and extol.” Right at the beginning of worship we sing praises to the God who dwells in light but stoops to absolve and free captive sinners.
The Hymn of the Day is “Oh, that the Lord Would Guide My Ways”, a simple prayer that God would guide us to do what pleases Him in our daily lives.
The first verse sings about the focus of this hymn; then verses 2-4 are a prayer directed to God. “Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways to keep His statutes still! Oh, that my God would grant me grace to know and do HIs will. // Order my footsteps by Your Word and make my heart sincere; let sin have no dominion Lord, but keep my conscience clear. // Assist my soul, too apt to stray, a stricter watch to keep; and should I e’er forget Your way, restore Your wand’ring sheep. // Make me to walk in Your commands, ’tis a delightful road; nor let my head or heart or hands offend against my God.” This short hymn was written by Isaac Watts, arguably the greatest English hymn-writers.
The Distribution Hymn for this Sunday is “Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ.” You already know the tune: it is Adoro Te Devote and ordinarily we sing “Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior Thee” to this tune. You can hear the tune here:
Here are the English words we sing when we sing this hymn: “Eternal Spirit of the living Christ, I know not how to ask or what to say; I only know my need, as deep as life, and only you can teach me how to pray. // Come, pray in me the prayer I need this day; Help me to see Your purpose and Your will, where I have failed, what I have done amiss; held in forgiving love let me be still. // Come with the strength I lack, bring vision clear of human need; oh, give me eyes to see fulfillment of my life in love outpoured: my life in You, O Christ; Your love in me. Amen.”
The Recessional Hymn this week is “O Christ Our Hope”.
All of the hymns and lessons focus on the goodness of God’s Law which we have not kept. We have not been obedient; we have not behaved as God wants. We are such willful sinners! To hear lessons like these, and to sing hymns like these, turns our attention to the fact that Jesus was born to die for us all. Lent is coming! Because He cherishes us, Christ is going to the cross to save us. And we need to be redeemed! We have not done what God clearly told us we were to do to be good. We have not kept the Law. When we hold up the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Lent is not here yet, but lessons and hymns like the ones for this week, remind us that it is coming. Thank God for all the trouble He went to for our salvation!
I hope to see you in church this Sunday.