3rd Sunday of Epiphany [by Rosalind Gnatt]

1. Reading
Isaiah 62.1-5
2. Reading
1 Cor 12.1-11
John 2.1-11

Sustainable preaching: a critical approach to writing a sermon

“using the special spiritual gifts”

Rev. Rosalind Gnatt, the United Church of Christ, i.A. Ev. Dekanat Wiesbaden 12.16.2018

The 20th century historian Joseph Vogt, saw the core of early Christianity as the renewal of the world through the transformation of human beings, an ongoing revolution of the spirit. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, peace activist and founder of the anti-nuclear Plowshares movement, said this: “One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the US around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.” Berrigan, like the early Christians, was a spiritual revolutionary.

What is our responsibility to this tiny planet, to our siblings worldwide? The Deuteronomist  says,“ This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live… this is not difficult to do: the words are already in your hearts and on your tongues. We just have to do it.

Nothing is sustainable that isn’t able to change. Jesus did not call us to worship tradition: we are called to love God and love our neighbor. Sustainability needs to be flexible, open to discovery, open to exercising our calling to love our neighbor. One of the things that brought Jesus into conflict with the “old guard” was the practical, if not orthodox, way he addressed real-time situations. He brought the law down to its core: if people are sick, heal them. If it’s the Sabbath and folks are hungry – well, love your neighbor. It is what God wants us to do.


Here is my personal method for working with the weekly texts:

  • I Read the pericope; then read the entire chapter. I take the time, if I can, to read the book – at least up to and including the pericope.
  • I Read more than one translation. I go back to the Greek or Hebrew, at least for the most significant words and phrases. I consider a different translation for the congregation. Since every single text has been translated many times before reaching us, we do our calling a disservice when we don’t bring our own intelligence to this work.
  • I Respect history. The Christian theology of my childhood is notorious for co-opting the ancient texts of the Hebrew Scriptures as mere precursors of their future messiah. This is not only disrespectful: it is lazy. I can learn so much more from the ancient texts if I take time to learn what was going on when the texts were written. Far too often, we miss clues to the real connection with these texts for us today when we take the fallback position that “it’s all about Christ.”
  • I Take time to let what I’ve read marinate. This is important. I’m amazed at how often, in the course of the days that follow my first reading of the upcoming texts, something I hear or see or otherwise experience relates to them and knits them together – whether it’s on the news or in the course of daily business, the “back then” and the “here and now” come together in a new way.


Here are the pericopes for January 20th, the third Sunday of Epiphany:

Isaiah 64: 1-5, Attributed to the prophetic chapters of the post-exilic era, this prayer for restoration of a decimated nation speaks to us now:

Because I love Zion, I will not keep still. Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem, I cannot remain silent. I will not stop praying for her until her righteousness shines like the dawn, and her salvation blazes like a burning torch. The nations will see your righteousness. World leaders will be blinded by your glory. And you will be given a new name by the Lord’s own mouth. Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City” or “The Desolate Land.”

I, a citizen of the United States, feel this prayer personally. I love my country. I do not love what is happening there. Before the invading army of Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judah, Babylon had installed a puppet king. According to the prophet Jeremiah, this king Zedekiah “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

The prophet loves Zion, yearns for her return to righteousness; foresees a glory for her that impresses world leaders. I yearn for my country to turn toward righteousness. What does a return to righteousness look like to you? Where do we fall short in advocating for our neighbor? The early Christians, having only Paul’s letters to guide them, changed the way slaves were treated – at least for a time. Paul tells the Galatians, who were themselves second-class citizens, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.” What happened to Paul’s message of equality under God as the State Church of Rome gained political power? How can we get back to the basics of Jesus’ ministry to love God and love our neighbor?

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11 – Spiritual gifts; one source

How interesting that this well-known part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian congregation is put together with the story of Jesus’ first miracle – turning water into wine – in the Book of John. The “miracle story,” in my opinion, is a kind of excuse, wherein Christ is the miracle-worker and we are his worshipping admirers. Paul, whose letter was written just a few years after Jesus’ ministry, lists the kinds of God-given spiritual gifts that are, or should be, active within the congregation. Among those gifts are wisdom, intellectual capability, strong faith, the ability to heal illness, a prophetic talent and the ability to perform miracles. Evidently, the Corinthian congregation was having trouble recognizing the equally valuable and interdependent importance of each other’s talents, or spiritual gifts that together make up the Body of Christ.

As pastors, we meet any number of people along the way who don’t recognize their special spiritual gifts. A congregation is the ideal place for God-given spiritual gifts to be recognized, respected and used. How can we help each other bring our spiritual gifts into the light and then into action? Important to remember is that Jesus couldn’t use his gift of healing in his hometown because the people who ought to have known him best just couldn’t see him other than as the carpenter Joseph’s son. Do we discount the spiritual gifts of people closest to us just because we think we know them too well?

Our congregation’s discussion group will be using this text to help each other see and own our special gifts and put them into action. It will be a challenging, and hopefully fruitful, exercise.

John 2: 1-11 – Jesus turns water into wine, thus saving the wedding host from an embarrassing situation. Jesus does not appreciate his mother imposing on him: “What does that have to do with us, woman?” You can hear the annoyance in his voice. Being a miracle worker was not unknown in the 1st century world, but Jesus didn’t want his spiritual gifts to be the focus of his calling, which was to preach.

The conflict between Paul’s words about our spiritual gifts and John’s “water-into-wine” miracle, that was supposed to revealing Jesus’ “Glory,” asks the question, are we to follow Jesus or are we to worship Christ? In the 6th chapter of Luke, we hear Jesus saying (obviously with frustration), “Why do you keep calling me Lord, Lord, when you do not do what I say?” In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the rich young man calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Jesus asks him, “Why do you call me good? There is only one that is good, and that is God.”

I’m certain Jesus wanted to be listened to, not worshipped. He had a saving message: Love God. Love your neighbor. Preaching the kingdom of heaven on earth, through the wisdom of the children; in active love for one another: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick:  that would be heaven.

Rosalind Gnatt