Psalm 145, Isaiah 62: 1 – 12 and Matthew 5: 17 – 32
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all he has made. Psalm 145: 8 and 9
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. Isaiah 62: 1
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. Matthew 5: 17
Almighty and Everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
As the season of Epiphany draws to a close, we conclude our thoughts about the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to the Gentiles, and come to the end of the lectionary exploration of some of the latter chapters of Isaiah. From the choice of verses shown above, there is some very weighty subject matter in our readings this evening, and Isaiah 62 is a good place to start. Our collect also points us to the crux of the problem, when it speaks of our ‘infirmities’ – in other words our human weakness caused by sin. As part of God’s campaign to offer salvation to the wider Gentile world, He will vindicate and save Israel. The Apostle Paul speaks in Romans 11: 11 of the way in which Israel had stumbled; the nation had lost its way, fallen into sin, neglected God’s law and thought they could manage without Him. But through this stumbling, the opportunity would be given to the rest of the world to find forgiveness and inclusion in God’s kingdom. In verse 31 of Romans 11, Paul then speaks of the mercy God would ultimately show to Israel. Returning to Isaiah, from verse 3 of Isaiah chapter 62 the direction of the language changes. Instead of speaking indirectly about Israel’s salvation, the rest of the chapter becomes far more personal – almost a love song, using words of endearment to describe how precious Israel is to God, and how that relationship between heaven and earth will serve as an invitation to other nations.
This thought of God’s love for the whole world is brought out in the quotation from Psalm 145, verses 8 and 9, where it speaks of God’s compassion over all he has made. God’s kingdom is glorious and everlasting; the Lord is faithful and gracious, and upholds those who are falling; the Lord is just and kind, he is near to those who call on him, and answers their cries; the Lord watches over all who love him. These are all reassuring and positive promises for us to grasp and hold on to during these successive months that are trying our faith and testing our resilience.
Then we come to Matthew chapter 5 and are confronted with major challenges. We sometimes think of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the chapter as a manifesto for being nice people, meek, submissive and merciful. This is all true, but when we explore the teaching Jesus gives to the disciples as the chapter progresses, we see how difficult this is. We are called not to be reactive, but to be proactive, to be salt and light in a hostile world. At the beginning of our reading from verse 17, we read of Jesus not coming to abolish the law or the teaching of the prophets, but to fulfil it. He even indirectly compliments the Sadducees and Pharisees on their attempts at gaining righteousness through their zealous adherence to the law. Jesus is setting the bar even higher when he then speaks of murder – something we can sit back complacently and think we would never commit – but adds the tendency towards anger of which we are all guilty as being directly comparable. We are told to make peace with our brothers and sisters before offering our gift at the altar. Jesus then turns to the subject of adultery – another subject where many can feel self-righteous and think it is inapplicable to them – until Jesus then talks of lustful looks. No wonder our collect for today speaks of infirmities, dangers and necessities, as we ask God to help and defend us!
With these contrasting thoughts that make us realise it is impossible for us to earn salvation through our own merit, we fall back on God’s mercy and offer thanks that His mercy overcomes all our sinful weakness. We rest in the thoughts of how precious every soul is in God’s eyes, of the wideness of His mercy and the desire that no one should perish. This is the wonder of the Epiphany, that Jesus – the fulfilment of the law and prophets – came to earth to sacrifice his own perfect life to enable sinners to find forgiveness, of whatever race. Israel will be saved because of God’s promise to Abraham and people of every other nation have the continuing opportunity to find salvation.