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RCL Year A: Epiphany of the Lord, Matthew 2:1-2

Revised Common Lectionary: Year A Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

February 5, 2023

 

Highlighted Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Summary of the Text

Restored or Thrown Out?

Having grown accustomed to the redemption theme that permeates Scripture, I find the answer that Jesus provides to his own question in v. 13 unexpected and unsettling—like getting to the end of a Disney movie and having the princess be eaten by a dragon. “How can it be restored?” I expect: “For mortals it is impossible, but nothing is impossible for God,” or “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!” But instead the implied answer is that it can’t be restored: “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under foot.”

At one time I tried to redeem this apparent lack of redemptive possibility by arguing that at least it is good for something—even if that something is to be thrown out and trampled upon (perhaps preventing a dangerous fall on an icy path). But I have come to see that reading as a bit of a stretch, especially since the Sermon on the Mount was not delivered in the Himalayas.

Part of the seeming dearth of redemptive hope expressed here likely stems from the plural “you”— “y’all, collectively, are the salt of the earth.” And this is not to say that Christian communities that fail to function as salt cannot be reformed and redeemed, but it’s different from suggesting that individual prodigals are only good to be trampled upon—and it’s a potent warning against communities drifting into this useless state.

Salt experts (who are not, but should be called “halasologists”) will tell you that at the molecular level salt can’t, in fact, lose its saltiness—that Jesus must be referring, then, to salt becoming impure by mixing with other substances. And perhaps the ministry of a Christian community that has lost its gospel in a mix of greed, abuse, moral relativism, or idolatry does need to be thrown out completely; but God is surely able to renew such a community with brand new salt.

 

From Being Seen to Giving Light

I love the shift in the function of light in vv. 14-15. It seems at first as if Jesus is giving two examples of light to make a single point, but the two images he presents have the light serving two different ends; then he ties the two together to make the first end to serve the second.

“A city on a hill cannot be hid.” Here the point is that a light is itself seen. Then, a lamp is not put under a basket but upon a lampstand, not in order that it might be the more visible itself, but so that it might give “light to all in the house.” Here the point is that a light serves to illumine that which is around it.

So the first image draws attention to the light, and the second away from the light to objects around it. Jesus’ concluding comment indicates the ultimate purpose of our light to draw attention away from us: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
[There are of course limitations to how an image can be employed, and one must take care not to make unwarranted conclusions based on an image or metaphor—more on this in the word study below…]

Promise and Fulfillment

Verse 17 sums up the basic hermeneutic of many Christian traditions (stressed especially in my own Reformed tradition) for connecting the Old and New Testaments: “not to abolish but to fulfill.” This pattern of promise and fulfillment, taken as a basic interpretive principle, highlights the constancy of God through the ages, and the unity of the one covenant of grace that we find throughout the scriptural witness. This unity of God’s purpose rules out alternative ways of reading the two testaments as the New Testament doing away with the Old, representing God’s “Plan B,” or offering a parallel plan of redemption running alongside but distinct from God’s previously expressed promises.

 

Doing and Teaching
James tells us (3:1) that those who teach are judged with greater strictness. We don’t necessarily see the “greater” strictness here, but Jesus is clear that the content of our moral instruction matters a great deal. “Whoever breaks [commandments]…and teaches others to do the same” will be called least, and “whoever does them and teaches them” will be called great. There is no provision here either for “do as I say but not as I do,” or for “watch what I do, but take what I teach with a grain of salt” (whether the still-salty or lost-its-saltiness variety).
Of course, in practice—especially for those with positions of authority (as a parent with children, a professor with students, or a pastor with a congregation)—any division between doing and teaching is artificial. Every action doubles as instruction, so that a lax approach to discipleship and obedience will sound louder than any sermon about God’s law.

One challenge for the preacher/pastor, then (as for the parent), is how to communicate (in word and act) the necessity of following God’s moral direction together with the impossibility of doing so perfectly, and the yet greater necessity of grace. This tension has existed throughout church history in different manifestations of antinomian debates, and the next sermon is not going to finally resolve that tension. Still, we do well to avoid stepping in those potholes that are especially deep—the ankle-breaking variety—and walk around both hypocritical self-righteousness and lawless libertinism.

 

Word Study: phōs

The image of light in Scripture is broadly applied, which makes it a useful, enlightening image, but also one that can easily be misapplied. (Any time an identical term is used to describe Christ and the Church we risk confusing the two and granting ourselves messianic status). In Matthew alone Jesus himself is the great phōs who has dawned on the people (4:16), the Church is the phōs of the world (5:14-16), there is a kind of moral phōs derived from a healthy eye (which nonetheless can become itself darkness; 6:23), and in the phōs all things are ultimately revealed (10:27). When we turn to the Johannine literature we find all of these meanings and more.

While this broad usage makes for a powerful image, one also has to be particularly mindful of the immediate context. Christ and the Church are both called the phōs of the world, though one in an original and the other in a derived sense. And we have to be careful not to think of ourselves as being “in the light” (en tō phōti; 1 John 1:7, 2:9-10) only and always in a manner that suggests our moral uprightness, to the exclusion of that phōs that exposes and convicts.

Mark Brewer

Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.

Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).

After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the hapless Sacramento Kings.

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

Morning in Hebrew has the meaning of “penetration.” God’s day is not complete until light shines again, penetrating the darkness and dispersing the shadows.

Eugene H. Peterson, Every Step an Arrival, The Crown Publishing Group.

Key Illustration

 

Why Space is Dark

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson taught me why space is dark. Why does our sun not light up space? The answer is fairly simple: light needs something to reflect off of. Sunlight from our sun and other stars float through space, but without anything to reflect off, there is only darkness. This is how we get moonlight. The moon is just a rock in space. It does not have any light of its own. But because it reflects the sun’s light, the moon offers us a bit more light to guide us in the evening. 

When John the Baptist pointed to Christ, he said something similar, his role was pointing to the light. In some ways, this is also an apt analogy for those of us who follow Jesus. We are not the source of the light, but hopefully, we point to the light of Christ with our words and actions. But there is one glaring difference between moonlight and Christians. Christians don’t merely reflect light, they are the light through the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is at work within us, we become a dwelling place for God’s own Spirit. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians that you are a “temple of the Holy Spirit, who is at work within you.” (1 Cor. 6:19)

Rev. Mia Levetan, Adapted & Expanded by Stuart Strachan Jr.

Additional Sermon Resources

Liturgical Elements

Call to Worship

 

Depending on the focus of the sermon, psalms that speak of light, God’s glory, and God’s commandments could all provide relevant material for the call to worship. Psalm 119 (long enough to touch on most any theme) could be drawn on for language related to light, commandments, shining, and the earth. Psalm 139 speaks of light and the earth. Psalm 29 is a good one for drawing attention to God’s glory.

 

Adapted from Psalm 119

Leader: May our lips pour forth praise to the Lord, for his word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

People: We will seek God with all our heart, so that we will not stray from his commandments.

Leader: May God’s face shine upon his servants and teach us his statutes.

All: The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord; may God accept our offerings of praise!

Or 

Adapted from Psalm 139

Leader: The Lord searches us and knows us. God discerns our thoughts and is acquainted with all our ways.

People: Even the darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to the Lord.

Leader: God formed our inward parts, knitting each of us together in our mother’s wombs. Our frames were not hidden from him when we were being made in secret, as we were intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

All: Praise the Lord, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

Or 

Adapted from Psalm 29

Leader: Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

People: The God of glory thunders. The voice of the Lord is powerful and full of majesty.

Leader: May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

 

 

Prayer of Confession

Gracious God, You have called us out of darkness and into the light of Your love. You have redeemed us and made us whole in order to set us free from bondage. The challenge You place before us is to die to self, surrender our wills, and serve sacrificially. But we cling to our sinful humanity and to the trappings of this temporal life. Forgive us for being stubborn, selfish, and sinful. Set us free to embrace the values of Your Kingdom, transform our hearts to long for You, and empower us to live courageously as Your children. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church

 

Assurance of Pardon

 

1 John 1:4-7

And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

Benediction 

Psalm 121:7–8

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.