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Third Sunday of Epiphany


            This Sunday’s music notes will deal not with a specific hymn but instead deconstruct this particular service in order to note how all the constituent elements relate to one another. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to tell the relationship between, for example, the Hymn of the Day and Gospel lesson, or the sermon, or the hymns. But today it is not!

            The liturgy always proceeds from the lectionary (readings) for the day. In this case, the OT and Gospel are closely related. In Nehemiah, the activity conveyed seems very similar to our current liturgical practice—Ezra the scribe brings the Book of the Law of Moses (the Torah, or the first five books of our Old Testament) before the people, to whom he read from it “from early morning until midday. . . And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” After Ezra raised the Book, he blesses the people, to which they respond with a covenantal “Amen.” We learn from this that “the people understood the reading.” The Gospel lesson from Luke 4 similarly finds Jesus in the synagogue where He reads to the people from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind. . .”  He then remarks that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The contrasts between these two readings are obvious—Ezra did not fulfill the Law himself, but merely presented it to the people. Jesus, however, not only reads the Law, but fulfills it. Jesus indeed is a prophet, bringing “good news,” but He is also priest, offering Himself as a propitiation for humanity’s sin.

            The Epistle, from I Corinthians, is not related to the OT or Gospel; rather, it is a part of the lectio continua—we are in the process of consecutive readings from I Corinthians. Next week will be the famous “love chapter” of I Cor. 13. If you do note a connection within the Epistle to the others, it is purely coincidental!

            Psalm 19 is chanted in the midst of these readings in which we likewise sing of the sufficiency and power of God’s Word—“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandments of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Lutherans are proud of their concept of sola scriptura—scripture alone. Our liturgy that is not verbatim scripture is at least inspired directly by scripture. Yet, this writer has been to some “Lutheran” services in which there was minimal scripture reading, and that which was present simply served as a “proof text” to the pastor’s sermon (ie., the “worship leader’s message”). The lectionary and liturgy doesn’t work like this. It doesn’t ask the pastor what topic he feels most comfortable to address, nor the musician which hymn he’d like the congregation to sing. It presents God’s Word in an orderly, but sometimes confrontational, way. Next week we read of demons and sing about their exorcism! This week we read of the Law, comparing it to “drippings of the honeycomb.” This is not necessarily the lingua vulgate of twenty-first century America, but it behooves us to learn the vocabulary of scripture. The lectionary ensures we are occasionally confronted by topics which make us uncomfortable. After all, Jesus not only came to bring comfort and salvation, but prophetically to overturn the money changers in the temple.

            Our hymnody and choral music emphasizes the lectionary theme. In our entrance hymn, “O Christ, Our True and Only Light,” we pray not only that Christ “enlighten those who sit in night,” but that He “shine on the darkened and the cold.” The choral anthem between the readings is taken from Psalm 119: 33-40 in which we pray, “Teach me, O Lord, to follow Your decrees then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding.” Just as Ezra brought the Word of the Lord to the people and explained it to them whereby “the people understood the reading,” we pray likewise for the same understanding. The Hymn for the Word before the sermon comes from Martin Luther himself, first published in the Klug Gesangbuch of 1543. We pray along with Luther that the Lord “keep us steadfast in Your Word,” to “curb those who by deceit or sword would wrest the kingdom from Your Son and bring to naught all He has done.” Luther was not one to mince words. Even LSB, not a hymnal to cave to political correctness, omits (as most hymnals have the last several hundred years) Luther’s stanza that refers to saving us from the “Pope and murderous Turk.” (“Turk” being sixteenth-century vernacular for the Moslems.) Yet, these were his concerns—a Church which had largely obscured the Gospel with its idolatrous accretions, and a hostile religion of Mohammedans who were threatening Europe and had gotten as far as Vienna and Malta before being stopped heroically by Christian soldiers. How are these concerns substantively different from our concerns today? The characters may have changed, but the situation is strikingly similar!

            The musical offering is taken from Isaiah 52, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” In our Gospel reading, Jesus reads from Isaiah 62, but the spirit is the same. Both prophecy as to the presentation of the Gospel. In Isaiah 52, we are reminded of the Christmas season, only recently-past, in which the angels bring good tidings to the shepherds. But this could also be a prophecy for Christ who is not only the Messenger but the Gospel Himself.

            The final hymn comes from John Newton, an important hymnwriter who did much more than simply write “Amazing Grace.” This hymn speaks of the surety of the Church Universal, that “New Jerusalem” or “Zion” whose “words cannot be broken” and “on the Rock of Ages founded.” The Church is characterized by the presence of Word and Sacrament, our liturgy and hymns today focusing on the importance of the Word, through which the Holy Spirit works to create faith.