Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

When I was a younger man, I used to go to these novelty shops with my dad, who had a strange fondness for them.


Most of what these shops sold was kitsch. You might go to one to buy a gag gift, something to be enjoyed for a while at a party, and then discarded afterward.


I remember one of the more popular gifts. They were these 3d posters. I’m sure you’ve seen them before. On the surface, there appear patterns of shapes and lines of various colors, an abstract design.


But if you look at them long enough and allow your gaze to shift, a hidden image will emerge. Suddenly, the poster is no longer a pattern of lines and shapes, but instead wild horses running in open meadows, for example.


Now I cannot explain exactly how our eyes perceive a three-dimensional image in the two-dimensional pattern. But I want to use the poster here as an illustration of faith.


What is faith? The classic biblical definition is found in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith does not see; it hears from another. According to the Apostle Paul, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).


For good reason, then, it’s been said that Christianity is a religion of the ear, and not of the eye. On this point the sixteenth-century Reformers strenuously insisted as they stripped the altars and smashed the images in the churches that they claimed for the Protestant cause.


But there is a further consideration here—and it’s an important one. True, faith does not see, but when it hears the Word of God, it integrates what it hears into its seeing, into its imagining, into its experiencing, with the result that all things begin to appear to it differently.


In this connection, author William F. Lynch makes a profound observation: Faith involves a recomposing of experience, so that a fact can be seen within the creative presence of its contrary.


Now I admit that this is a mind-bender, but hang on to it for a few moments, because we will soon see how it applies when we look at our lessons.


So then, faith begins with hearing, but it does not end there. It transforms how we see. If we don’t grasp this point, it will be difficult at best to accept with conviction the claims of our faith.


Consider in this light what the Apostle Paul is writing in our first lesson. Paul resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. 2:2). That is his message, which he proclaimed tirelessly to both Jews and Greeks.


But what kind of message is this? It’s a message about a homeless itinerant teacher executed by a method of torture reserved for slaves, insurrectionists, brigands and pirates. That is a fact.


If this is how Jesus appeared, how can the message be anything but a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks?


But this is how he appeared to those who rejected the message, to those who had no faith. He appeared to them as a complete nobody whose cause had failed.


But to those who are called, to those who accepted the message by faith, both Jews and Greeks, he appeared differently. To them he appeared as the power of God and the wisdom of God.


Now we can return to Lynch’s observation. Faith transforms how we see Jesus. Faith comes to us and Jesus’ weakness is seen as God’s power. Faith is born in us and the foolishness of the gospel is seen as God’s wisdom.  


This is not to say that faith invents or makes up something that isn’t really there. That 3d image is there in that poster whether one sees it or not. Faith recognizes and receives the gift of God: Christ as our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.


Lynch’s observation applies no less to what we find in our Gospel lesson.


The scene is a mountain where Jesus is teaching. The lesson contains the beginning of the famous Sermon on the Mount. To be more exact, it contains the beatitudes, which you may have memorized as a child in Sunday school. “Beatitudes” is a Latinized word that simply means “blessings.”


On the surface, the majority of these blessing-sayings seem doubtful at best and outrageous at worst.


Take, for example, the “poor in spirit” in the first blessing-saying. In the words of author Rebekah Eklund, this expression could refer to those who are “poor in spiritual resources: those who are on the verge of giving up, who have lost hope, who are fainthearted or despondent. They are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient.”  


This provokes the question: in what sense can we call “blessed” those for whom life has not gone very well? We would not describe their condition as “blessed.” When we see someone happy in his marriage and family, successful in his business, flush with cash, we would say that he is blessed.


We’re not saying that this is a wrong response. On the contrary, we should be thankful for the good things that come to us in this life.


But we have to be careful here. If it’s true that good things are evidence of God’s blessing, does it follow that the absence of good things is evidence of God’s curse? It’s hard for us to think otherwise. But Jesus calls “blessed” the people who lack these good things.


The poor in spirit are the least likely candidates for the kingdom of heaven—both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. But then faith intervenes and their condition is seen within the creative presence of its contrary: The poor in spirit are rich in heaven’s accounting. To them belong heaven’s riches.


We can make a similar point in regard to the next three blessing sayings.


“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”


John Calvin understood “mourning” as our natural state arising from the ceaseless trials of everyday life. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, mourners are those who refuse to be in “tune with the world.” They mourn for the world, for its guilt, for its fate and fortune. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world in which “mourning” in this total sense will ever be comforted.


But faith hears the word of Jesus and imagines otherwise. Comfort in the biblical sense is the remaking of the old age into the new age where there are no more tears (Rebekah Eklund).


“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”


Again, in a world where power and self-assertion are necessary to accumulate wealth and to get ahead, the blessing-saying on the surface seems doubtful at best. But faith hears and accepts God’s word, which changes how the fate of the meek is seen. For, as God promises in Psalm 37 (on which this this blessing-saying is based), the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.


The same applies to the next blessing saying: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” Those who do what is right often meet with indifference or even opposition in this world. They know the futility of efforts that seem to be wasted.


One thinks here of Elijah the prophet. After he defeated the prophets of Baal and proved beyond a doubt to God’s people that God was their Lord, Elijah had to flee for his life from Jezebel. She doubled down on her opposition to him and the God he served by putting out a warrant for his arrest. Elijah found a place in the desert, collapsed to the ground, and prayed a desperate prayer. “Take my life, O Lord, I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kgs. 19:4).   


But to all those like Elijah who feel empty and useless after their efforts at doing right are frustrated, Jesus promises that they will be filled with his righteousness.


The first four blessing sayings, then, teach us the truth about our situation when our circumstances seem to be telling us a very different truth. But only faith can perceive the former. Hearing and accepting the word of Jesus, it sees beyond appearances and comes to a conclusion opposite to that of unbelief.


This is what Calvin had in mind when he noted that in the realm of faith, two apparent opposites—evidence and things not seen—struggle with one another and are united.


It is the hidden things, inaccessible to sense perception, that are displayed to us by [faith].


Thus God promises eternal life—to those who are dead. He speaks of the resurrection—to those who are given over to corruption and decay. He pronounces those in whom sin dwells—to be righteous. He calls those oppressed with ceaseless trials—blessed. He promises abundance of riches—to those abounding only in hunger and thirst.


This is the faith that overcomes the world. This is the faith that is victorious. And why is it victorious? Because it clings to the promises of God even when the facts contradict it.


Calvin concludes this reflection by asking: what then would be our fate if we were not powerful in hope, if we were not hurrying through the darkness of the world along the road that is illuminated by the Spirit and the Word of God?


Bible students tell us that the first four blessing-sayings constitute a unit. With the next three, we move from passive sufferers to active doers. But do we have to draw a sharp distinction between these two groups? We should remember that in the Bible the purpose of a blessing is to empower, to make fertile and productive.


Hearing God’s word, faith not only sees differently. It also acts on what it has heard.


For this reason, the poor in spirit, who have the riches of heaven, can be generous with the mercy they show towards others.


Likewise, those who look to God for comfort will strive towards purity, with their hearts turned towards God.


And the meek, who will inherit the earth, will work to preserve peace upon it, thereby showing themselves to be children of God.


And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will endure persecution, because to them too belongs the kingdom of heaven.


One thinks here of those whom the author of the Letter to the Hebrews commends. Because of their faith in Christ, they suffered along with those in prison and gladly accepted the confiscation of their property, confident that they had better and lasting possessions (Heb. 10:34). 


Jesus dwells here on the theme of persecution, adding another blessing to those who are mistreated on account of his name.


And why should there be persecution for the follower of Christ? Does not faith in Christ make one a better person? And does not wisdom and experience teach us that the better one is, the less trouble one has?


And yet everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (1 Tim. 3:12). “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of John (16:33). Throughout history, Christians have taken a stand against a hateful and impure world, and the world in turn hates them for this resistance. But if the world hates Jesus’ disciples, we should know that it hated him first (cf. John 15:18). Nevertheless, we have to hold on. For great is our reward in heaven.


I remember buying a 3d poster at one of those novelty shops I mentioned earlier. When I brought it home, I displayed it to everyone who came over. “Do you see it, do you see it?” I would ask excitedly. Several did. “Oh, I see it.” But there were a few who, try as they might, could not make out the 3d image hidden in the pattern of lines and shapes. In their frustration, they said: “I don’t see it.”


This was the Apostle Paul’s experience when he preached the crucified Christ. It was a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others. “I don’t see it,” they said. And certainly this was Jesus’ experience when he came into the world to teach it that it was at odds with the kingdom of heaven. “I don’t see it,” they said.


Let us be sure that we see it. Let us be sure that we train our gaze so that we can see beneath appearances to the truth that God’s word reveals to us. Amen.  





Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top