The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany remind us of our joy and duty to share the gospel of the Incarnate Lord made manifest, but it also reminds us of the difficulties we can face in doing so.
One of the main benefits that I have found reading alongside the Lectionary readings is that it forces me to both read much more widely than I would on my own, and it forces me to think about topics that wouldn’t come up too naturally. Last week, it was easy for me to talk about a theology of the Christian Scriptures. This week, I am being challenged to think in terms of missions. This is because the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany brings us through a lifetime of Christian mission, one that everybody who professes Christ should be willing to walk through. It is a life fraught with difficulties, both from external pressures and internal sins, but a life well-lived and well-spent in service to the One who gives us life.
Jeremiah, a prophet to the sinful nation of Judah, had a hard task ahead of him. He was given the dreadful task of tearing down and building up nations, of encouraging God’s people to come back to Yahweh, and to ultimately tell Judah that she was doomed, and that she would have to get used to life in a foreign nation. Not many Christians, even today’s self-proclaimed prophets, would truly want to take up that job, if they had a choice, thank you very much. But God is good, and was not prepared to let Jeremiah flounder in this mission.
Most prophets in the Bible have a “calling scene”, wherein we see Yahweh’s first interaction with the prophet when they are commissioned, sometimes equipped, and given the contents of their message. But Jeremiah gets a special bonus in his calling scene: Yahweh lets him in on a little secret. Turns out, Yahweh has been preparing Jeremiah his entire life for this mission. More than that, Yahweh promises that his presence will be with Jeremiah throughout his service.
This is good news for Jeremiah, because as Jesus warns, “A prophet is not accepted in his home town.” Shockingly, both Jesus and Jeremiah suffered persecution from their own people. Jeremiah would come across many false prophets, those who explicitly told Israel that Jeremiah was wrong and that they were fine as is. Jesus only gets a single message out in Luke’s Gospel before the crowd turns on him. All Jesus did was point out that God was expanding his mission far beyond only Israel’s walls! Imagine what happens when Christians today preach against the dangers of sexism, empire, racism, and more.
The startling news that a lot of Christians learn when they start preaching the gospel and faithfully preach and teach the Scriptures is that they will face opposition. As both Jesus and Jeremiah demonstrate, unfortunately, this opposition can come from even those who identify themselves with God’s people! But thankfully, the Lord not only has the Christian’s back, but he’s been before them, preparing the way for them to remain faithful. Both Jesus and Jeremiah gain supernatural help to carry on a successful mission. Jeremiah is told that Yahweh has been preparing him for birth, and that his presence will always be with Jeremiah. Jesus, reading from Isaiah, tells his listeners that the Spirit of the Lord has empowered him on his mission. The same is true of Christians today: the Spirit indwells us to faithfully and boldly obey God’s command to disciple the nations.
Because the Spirit indwells in us, we can be even bolder in how we evangelize. Of course, dangers and oppositions will rise against us; because the Spirit, who is the Lord, is with us, we can confidently pray for refuge, to never be put to shame, and to be delivered from our enemies. The Spirit can give us deliverance in ways we never would imagine, either in the dissolution of the enemy’s advances or in their conversion. Ultimately,
Christians are those who were crafted from in their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139); prepared for service since their creation (Ephesians 2:10; Jeremiah 1:4-10); and those who know the Lord delivered them safely to life; in light of all of this, we can lean on the Lord for safety even as the fiercest opposition to the gospel flares against us.
This gospel confidence, that we are ultimately safe in the Lord because we will be resurrected at the end of this age, helps us live a life of love. We can preach as boldly as we want; we can be as controversial with our messages as we want; we can be brilliant rhetoricians and bring multitudes into our churches, but without love, it is all for naught. We have to live in light of the love of God, which is poured into us through the Spirit, to have the most effective mission that pleases the Lord. Anything else is loud, irritating sounds that harm the listener rather than building them up.
So, as we evangelize, we can’t let the opposition stifle us. The prophets have historically been poorly received by their own people. Regardless, the Lord who calls us is the Lord who stands with us, who goes before us even unto death. We can trust him as a place of refuge and deliverance because he has proven himself faithful to us even before we were born! And because the Lord is a place of refuge for us, we can live a life of love for one another; anything less is a useless, un-Christlike attempt at self-aggrandizement.