As we never tire of reminding parishioners, Epiphany means “manifestation,” and the readings of the season between Christmas and Lent make manifest to us realities about God that we fallen human creatures would never guess apart from a revelation of God.
Take the famous (and in some circles infamous) line, Micah 6:8, “and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Every religion has ethical demands: things its god, gods, philosophy, or reason (yes, secularism is a religion!) define as “good” and which they command their adherents to do. That holy writ should include guidelines for the behaviors of the faithful is not only not an epiphany, it is not even exceptional.
The preacher who uses this text as a platform to give his or her congregation a moral shellacking is missing the point of the text and why for the Christian it appears in Epiphany and is paired with the other texts of this Sunday. This famous text is not so much an exhortation as a sigh of exasperation from the living and true God. God has done so much for His people; why are they weary of Him? Why do they turn to the false gods who never deliver on their promises? Why do they invest their ultimate hopes in idols, especially in our day idols like power, romantic love, professional achievement, identity politics, a fat bank account, or the paltry consolation of knowing they are “on the right side of history” when the living God has revealed Himself to us in mighty acts of salvation, for Christians, preeminently the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
What is amazing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is that He does so much for us and what little He requires, He requires as a response for salvation given, not a command for salvation to be earned. To give into the temptation to preach the faith as any sort of self-improvement program is to betray the Gospel, whether you fall into the conservative temptation of thinking you can preach “too much gospel” so that moral chaos results or the liberal one of construing the demands of justice, kindness, and humility as empty vessels into which we can pour ethical particularities informed by modern values.
Indeed, the inability of human intellect to grasp the values of the true and living God is the focus of this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians. If we would understand how to please God, God Himself must tell us how, which He does first and foremost in the crucifixion of His only Son. This word from God—the Word of the cross—confounds our every expectation and inverts our understanding of every passage like the previous one. How is justice fulfilled? The cross. How is the kindness of God known? The cross. What does true humility look like? The cross… and if we would respond to God in faith, we must “pick up our cross and follow Him.”
And it is only the cross of Christ that can make sense of the beatitudes that are the centerpiece of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. If the cross of Christ is not true, then the beatitudes are patent nonsense. The word that is translated as blessed, makarios, has not only the denotation of being looked upon favorably by God, but carries with it the connotation of happiness, which the mourning, persecuted, and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness clearly are not in anybody’s experience. Only if reality is not what it appears to be from the standpoint of our fallen human reason—only if the word of the cross is objectively true—can the beatitudes be anything other than utter nonsense and false consolation. Only if the word of the cross is true can Christianity be anything other than the slave religion Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx believed it to be. For if God is anything, He must at least be the ultimate reality, and if what reality requires is “nature red in tooth and claw,” then the ethics of Christianity and by extension its God is false. Only if the word of the cross is objectively true—will the meek inherit the earth, do the poor in spirit possess the kingdom of heaven, or will the pure in heart see God.
What do you believe? We must believe it enough to preach it straight. God requires so little of us for our salvation—in fact, nothing—precisely so that our response to such grace may be from a truly pure heart, one unsullied by self-interest, that we may in fact see God.