Sermon and hymn suggestions for Epiphany
In The Service of God: How Worship and Ethics Are Related (Abingdon, 1983), William H. Willimon says that before preachers can summon the congregation to action, "We move aside and point the people to see God who has summoned us, telling them what we see and hear… The first job of the preacher is to give them a vision so true, so concrete, so clear, so demanding, so gracious, so alluring that it evokes their most courageous response" (p. 156).
Epiphany is the season of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We point people to Jesus—what he said and what he did—and thus see the glory of God revealed. Throughout it all we see that the mission of God and the glory of God are inseparable. This "seeing" becomes a vision for God's people, evoking their missionary, evangelizing response. This Epiphany season we are concentrating on the Common Lectionary readings from the psalms and the gospels. However, preachers and liturgists should also note the selections from the Old Testament and the epistles. They present many themes that focus very directly on the awesome glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
The suggested psalms and hymns are taken from the following hymnals: The Hymnbook (HB), Psalter Hymnal (PH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), Trinity Hymnal (TH).
Dirk J. Hart is director of evangelism for the CRC Home Missions office.
First Sunday After Epiphany
Baptism of the Lord
This psalm invites worshipers, especially "mighty ones" (angels or other great powers of creation), to celebrate Yahweh as the King of creation. The Canaanites thought that Baal's power rumbled in thunder and flashed in lightning, but the true worshiper hears and sees in such things the power of the Creator.
Seven times in this psalm we hear a reference to the voice of the Lord. Glorious as God's revelation in creation is, we see and hear him more clearly in Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God in the flesh and of whom the heavenly voice said, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him" (Mark 9:7). Hearing and seeing God in nature and in Jesus humbles us to join the creation's chorus and cry, "Glory!" (v. 9). This is the praise for which we were created and which is made possible through the work of Jesus. The realization of this praise sends us on our way with the benediction (v. 11).
In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' baptism is his first public appearance— the beginning of his public ministry and a significant epiphany of worldwide importance. As the apostle and high priest of our faith (Heb. 3:1), Jesus is on a unique mission. But he is also modeling what being on God's mission entails (John 20:21). In his baptism, Jesus submits to the Father's will for him and identifies with sinners. This baptism was both a humbling and a glorious experience for Jesus: his glory shines through his humiliation even as it did at the cross, where his baptism in due time led him.
The significance of the occasion is underlined by the visible appearance of the Spirit and the voice of the Father, who speaks in the words of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. For the expecting believers who were present there could be no doubt that seeing Jesus is seeing the promised Messiah who is ushering in a new age.
Other readings: Isaiah 42:1-9 and Acts
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 29 (PH 29, TH 36)
As with Gladness Men of Old (HB 174, PH 358, RL 228, TH 154)
Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized (RL 241)
O Love, How Deep (PH 364, RL 342, TH 121)
Lord of the Universe (PH 362)
Second Sunday After Epiphany
These verses celebrate the joyful outcome of a period of great distress in which the psalmist waited on God—not passively seeing what might happen but actively expecting Yahweh to deliver him. Now praise fills the psalmisf s lips (vv. 3-5) and he makes himself a fully-available bond servant who wants to do God's will (w. 6-8)—one on whose heart is etched all that God desires. All this, in turn, drives him to be a good-news witness among God's people. The author to the Hebrews sees verses 6 through 8 as a prophetic reference to Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice alone makes the believer holy (Heb. 10) and to whom John the Baptist points as "the Lamb of God" (John 1:29).
John's identification of Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" comes after Jesus' baptism. If, in the mind of believing Israel, Jesus' willingness to be baptized was somewhat a mystery, the identification of Jesus as the Lamb unfolds the mystery, at least to some degree. Jesus is meant for sacrifice. He alone is the unblemished sin offering acceptable to God for the reconciliation of the world (see Gen. 22, Ex. 12, and Isa. 53).
After his baptism Jesus begins to select his disciples. He not only begins to feel the weight of the cross through John's designation of him as the Lamb, but also lays the groundwork for the continuing mission that must take place after his ascension. He is, after all, the Lamb of the world—not just the Lamb of Israel. Later events were to show that the disciples had a long way to go in understanding who Jesus was and what he had come to do. Discipleship does not depend first of all on a full understanding. Rather, discipleship begins simply when people recognize Jesus as the anointed one who is God's sacrifice for sinners.
Other readings: Isaiah 49:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Psalms and Hymns
(HB 413, PH 40, TH 565)
All Glory Be to God on High
(PH 247, RL 620, TH 92)
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies
(HB 47, PH 481, RL 463, TH 330)
O Christ, the Lamb of God
Songs of Thankfulness and Praise
(PH 361, RL 231)
Third Sunday After Epiphany
This psalm has long been a favorite with untold numbers of believers, especially in times of danger and confusion. The psalmist expresses supreme confidence in Yah-weh as his light, stronghold, and protector (w. 1-3). In a burst of single-minded adoration, this poet expresses what he most wants out of life: to live in God's house and gaze upon his beauty—God's infallible grace. God's revelation of himself in the temple is to be the center and purpose of the worshiper's entire life. This is the essence of both worship and discipleship to which Jesus, God's greatest temple, now calls us in this present kingdom age. In all that we seek and desire, Jesus must be first and last.
When John the Baptist's ministry is cut short by imprisonment, Jesus begins to preach the same message as John: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Through Jesus, God reveals his kingdom—a kingdom that requires a new beginning for all who would be part of it.
Matthew next relates the calling of the first disciples: brothers Simon Peter and Andrew as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Matthew emphasizes the quintessential calling entailed in discipleship: to follow Jesus means not only to learn from Jesus, but to be, like Jesus, on a mission of disciple-making. For the next three years, as Jesus is revealed in his humble glory, the disciples will be learning how to continue Jesus' ministry. To qualify as Jesus' disciples appears to require no special characteristics or training—other than the willingness to take him at his word.
Other readings: Isaiah 9:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 27 (HB 347, PH 27, RL 95, TH 568)
Come, Labor On (HB 287, PH 526, RL 75)
Jesus Calls Us (HB 269, PH 553, RL 259, TH 491)
Lord, You Give the Great Commission (PH 523)
The People Who in Darkness
Walked (HB 153, PH 192, RL 167, TH 123)
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
The first eleven verses of this wisdom psalm give us a series of beatitudes, or proverbs, in which the wicked, who are doomed, are contrasted to the righteous, who will inherit the land (v. 11; see also Matt. 5:5). Through the psalm worshipers can address one another in divine wisdom.
The psalmist describes the attitudes that are at the heart of kingdom living under the rule of Yah-weh, the one who is trustworthy and whose justice will finally set all things right. Believers are not to be anxious or envious but to trust and do good. They must commit their way to the Lord and quietly expect him to act. They are not given to anger or to nursing grievances, but they look forward to the unmixed blessings, the shalom, of the land that is the rightful inheritance of the children of God.
The psalm thus anticipates the even greater promise of Jesus that makes believers look forward to inheriting not simply the land, but the new heaven and earth.
What we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount begins with the familiar Beatitudes. The Beatitudes themselves echo Old Testament wisdom literature. But Jesus taught them "as one who had authority" (7:29) and so reveals himself as not just another itinerant rabbi but as the originator of the words. What Jesus says is what God says. In the Beatitudes Jesus describes what true blessedness is: being completely dependent on God's resources, displaying some of God's own characteristics, and standing firm in these things even in the face of lies and persecution. What keeps such people going with joy is the glory which is to come (Heb.12).
It would be a mistake, however, to see the Beatitudes as describing an other-worldly life. The attitudes and characteristics that make for blessedness are here and now in a very real, difficult, and sinful world.
Other readings: Micah 6:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 37 (HB 422, PH 37, TH 569)
Blest Are the Pure in Heart (PH 206, RL 234, 236)
Lord, Whose Life in Humble Service (PH 603)
Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God (PH 209)
What Does the Lord Re-quire?(PH 293, RL 176)
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Even if our best obedience is but a beginning of righteousness and we remain unprofitable servants, there is nevertheless great (and gracious) reward for those who fear Yahweh and delight in his commandments. Even in calamitous times (darkness), there is life and salvation (light) for the believer whose actions are characterized as gracious, compassionate, generous, charitable, and just (w. 4 and 5). Such a person is a living testimony to the happiness of being a child of God. In fact, the same language is ascribed here to the believer that is elsewhere ascribed to God (v. 9).
In this way, believers are partakers of the nature of Yahweh or, in New Testament terms, they display the fruit of the Spirit and thus reveal something of the greatness of God. They become imitators of God, who must be given the praise and glory for such transformed lives and blessedness.
The appearance of Jesus into the world brings with it the appearance of his followers. At the conclusion of Matthew 4, jesus' ministry is summarized as a ministry of "teaching…preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness."
Jesus' followers have a similar ministry: they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Kingdom living is not separation from the world but transformation and penetration of the world. As the salt of the earth Jesus' followers are to be an example of purity; they are to keep the world from every kind of decay and pollution and to bring a new kingdom flavor. As the light of the world Jesus' followers must exercise a public, visible discipleship that spreads grace, truth, and shalom.
The source and power of the salt and light must be clearly identified so that praise is not given to the believers themselves but to God, whom they know with the intimacy of the father-child relationship.
Other readings: Isaiah 58:3-9a and
1 Corinthians 2:1-11
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 112 (PH 112)
Hail to the LORD'S Anointed (HB 146, PH 72, RL 232, TH 224)
Hope of the World (HB 291, PH 524, RL 414)
How Would the Lord Be Worshiped? (PH 609)
Your Hands, O Lord, in Days of 01d(PH 363, HB 179)
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
This psalm is a long meditation on the revelation of God and the God of revelation (the Scriptures).
These first eight verses offer several synonyms for this revelation: law, statutes, ways, precepts, decrees, and commands. The modern reader must take care not to read these synonyms as meaning only the Ten Commandments and other Old Testament legislation. The psalmist intends these words to refer to everything God demands and promises—especially in the context of his gracious covenant, the love bond that is the bedrock of the believer's security, happiness, and direction for life. In the covenant, Yahweh has revealed much about himself and has given all the direction needed for blessedness.
God's demands and promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is God among us and with us. He came to fulfill the law so that Psalm 119 might be illumined by his appearance and made all the more intelligible through his work and words.
The kingdom life of the new age has been described by the Beatitudes and discussed in terms of salt and light. Now Jesus goes on to give specific examples of kingdom life, warning against the legalistic exter-nalism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus does not repeal the teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures but rather fulfills them and gives them their true meaning.
Our passage includes the first of six "you have heard that it was said ... but I tell you" teachings. Through these teachings, Jesus reveals himself as one who is greater than Moses, for he teaches the meaning of the law rather than only setting forth the law itself. Moses could say, "This is what God says" but Jesus says, "I tell you." While there is, therefore, continuity between the old and the new, there is also discontinuity. With Jesus, the new age has come. In verses 21-25 Jesus opens up the sixth commandment, 'You shall not kill." He teaches that in the kingdom problems of anger, insult, and contemptuousness are at the heart of this commandment. We cannot be at odds with another person and expect our worship to be acceptable. Jesus is telling us that to be right with God we must also be at peace with one another and that we must settle our disputes as quickly as possible.
Other readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
and 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 119 (HB 258, PH 119, 276, 584, RL 40, TH 264)
Christ Is the World's True Light (HB 492, PH 600, RL 181)
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast In Your Word (PH 598, RL 615, TH 91)
O God of Love, O King of Peace (PH 608, RL 491)
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee (HB 304, PH 573, RL 428)
Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
Psalm 62 is a supreme expression of complete trust in God. Even though the psalmist is beset by enemies, he will not be shaken. His confidence is sure because he knows God is unshakable.
Using images of rock and fortress, the psalmist portrays God as an unshakable, impregnable source of protection. God's child can find protection in this rock, rest in this fortress. And God is not only strong, but also loving (v. 12). This powerful love and loving strength will provide more secure protection for God's child than all human power.
The rest that the psalmist envisions finds its fulfillment in Christ's words: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). And a loud voice later proclaims full salvation: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ" (Rev. 12:10).
These verses deal with three "you have heard…but I say" sayings in the Sermon on the Mount that focus on sexual purity, the permanence of the marriage bond, and oath-taking.
In each case, Jesus penetrates beyond what is forbidden or permitted to what is really at stake in the constant struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. In the process, a whole new standard of living emerges. The kingdom standard forces us to search our hearts to see what kind of persons we are and what motivates us in life. Such a search ends meaningfully only when we bow before the one who is speaking and meet him at the cross. The solution for sexual impurity, then, is not simply to avoid adultery; the person who does so could be outwardly obedient but inwardly still polluted by lust. The evil must be rooted out by replacing self-centeredness with the service of God and one another. In this way the marriage bond is kept inviolate and one marriage partner protects and cares for the other.
In the same way, the solution for cheap talk and promises is not oath-taking. For the kingdom-focused person plain talk and promises are sufficient and oath-taking becomes unnecessary. God is our partner in what we say—whether we invoke his name or not.
Other readings: Isaiah 49:8-13 and
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 61 (HB 113, PH 61, TH 571)
Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation (RL 392, TH 268)
Fill Thou My Life (PH 547, RL 147, TH 495)
In Our Households (PH 586)
Our Father, By Whose Name (RL 522)
Eighth Sunday After Epiphany
In this psalm the enthronement of an earthly king gives the writer reason to soar in a visionary leap beyond historical reality in prophetic utterance. What is at stake is, finally, a powerful assertion that the nations and rulers of the earth must recognize how dangerous and even laughable it is to oppose the One who is ultimately the Lord of all the earth and who will crush all opposition.
Yet those who with reverence, awe, and trembling entrust themselves to this universal King will rejoice and be blessed.
It is no wonder that this is among the most quoted of psalms in the New Testament. The prophetic vision became and is still becoming reality in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus. He is the King whom God has installed at his right hand. The appearance of Jesus is the hinge of history and leads the worshiper to kiss the Son, bow down before him, kneel and adore him.
The transfiguration on the "high mountain" is a decisive point in Jesus' ministry, a point at which he prepares to face the cross. It is also an event that greatly encourages the disciples who are with him as they become "eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16).
On the mountain three of Jesus' disciples see him transfigured. They receive a glimpse of the glory that was his before the incarnation and that will be his again when his saving work is finished. With Jesus appear Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets. The entire event is a confirmation of who Jesus is (Matt. 16:13-20) and a preparation for the difficult days to come (Matt.l6:21-28).
If only they could stay on that mountain! Jesus could avoid the cross and the disciples could forget about cross-bearing. But that is not the way the kingdom comes. The Father's voice strengthens Jesus and commands the disciples to "Listen to him!" That's the way it still is. We see Jesus, his work completed, at the Father's right hand. His glory will be our glory when he returns. But until then we must lose our lives (Matt. 16:25) to save them. We must live in the valley where the power struggle between light and darkness continues in full force (Matt.l7:14-23).
Other readings: Exodus 24:12-18 and 2 Peter 1:16-21
Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 2 (PH 2, TH 227)
Christ upon the Mountain Peak (PH 369, RL 257)
Holy, Holy, Holy (HB 11, PH 249, RL 611, TH 87)
O Son of God the Father (PH 368)
Praised Be the Father (PH 582)