The First Sunday after Epiphany
January 12, 2014
“The Prophetic Office of Christ”
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1-3
The Gospel Lesson for the First Sunday after Epiphany recounts how the twelve year old Jesus stayed in the temple after his parents had left for home. He asked the teachers questions and he amazed them with his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. The first recorded words we have from Jesus are: “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Where else would the Son of God be than in his Father’s house? That’s where he belonged.
Today we consider the first sermon Jesus preached. It was in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town. I usually begin to prepare a sermon a few days before I preach it. The first sermon that Jesus preached was written by Isaiah the prophet several hundred years before Jesus was born. Jesus stood up and read aloud from the Book of Isaiah the words of our text. Then he closed the book. Every eye in the synagogue was fastened on him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah wrote about Jesus and what Isaiah wrote is what Jesus preached.
Epiphany is that short season of the church year when we celebrate Jesus as the light of the world. Christmas is the celebration of God becoming flesh. Epiphany is the celebration of God in the flesh being revealed to the Gentiles, that is, to the nations of this world. God reveals his glory in Christ. Christ’s glory is revealed to the Gentiles. How? Listen to Jesus tell us how. He begins by saying: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach.”
Jesus is the Christ. Christ is a title, meaning anointed one. The Old Testament word for Christ is Messiah. When Jesus says, “The LORD has anointed me,” he is claiming to be the Christ. Throughout the Old Testament, beginning immediately after our first parents’ fall into sin, God promised to send a Savior who would rescue sinners from their sins. The promised Messiah would have a three-fold office: as prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, he would proclaim God’s word to enlighten the people with the saving truth. As priest, he would offer up his own life as the sacrifice for sin and would, on the basis of that holy sacrifice, intercede for his people before God. As king, he would rule over his people by his grace in a kingdom which would begin here on earth and continue in glory forever and ever. The three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, summarizes for us his saving work.
Today we consider in particular the prophetic office of Christ. In the Nicene Creed, we confess that the Holy Ghost “spoke by the prophets.” The prophets spoke as God gave them the words to speak. There is therefore a unity in the prophetic word. All the prophets taught the same doctrine. They preached the same gospel. The Spirit who spoke through Jesus spoke through all of the prophets who came before him.
The prophets spoke and they wrote. What they wrote was the standard by which to judge what they said. The greatest prophet next to Christ was Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah or Law. Every prophetic utterance after Moses had to conform to the teaching of the Torah of Moses before it could be acknowledged as God’s word. All of the subsequent prophets and all their writings had to pass the test of the Torah. The prophets were preachers. They preached God’s word. The people knew it was God’s word because it corresponded to what was written. Just before Jesus preached his first sermon he withstood the devil in the wilderness. In response to every one of the devil’s temptations Jesus replied: “It is written.”
The prophets all spoke about the promised Christ. This is the golden thread that binds together all of their preaching and writing. They proclaimed Christ. When the Spirit came upon Christ, he anointed Christ to preach about Christ. Jesus preached about Jesus!
Jesus is not a new Moses. Jesus preached the law. But the heart of his message was God’s grace – his undeserved love for sinners. As St. John writes, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Christ did not come to lay down the law. He came to fulfill it. The gospel of Christ is not a higher form of law with prescriptions on what to do and how to do it. The gospel is good news to the poor. It doesn’t lay demands on them. It heals their broken hearts. It doesn’t impose restrictions on them. It proclaims liberty. It tells them they are free from their shackles. Isaiah wrote and Jesus therefore preached of the “acceptable year of the LORD” and the “day of vengeance of our God.” The nation of Israel observed a year of jubilee every fifty years when all debts were forgiven and all slaves were set free. The gospel of Christ acquits us of all blame, forgives our debts, and leaves vengeance to God alone. Forgiven, we forgive. Comforted, we comfort. Consoled, we offer the same consolation. The gospel is preached into the lives of those who hear it and it changes them. The ugliness of sin is depicted by ashes. It’s a symbolic reminder of where our sins lead us – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – to death and the grave. Ashes are replaced by beauty. The gospel makes us beautiful. The ugliness of sin cannot be seen anymore.
Mourning our sins and their consequences gives way to the oil of joy as we celebrate the new life that the gospel gives us to live. It is not a life defined by, marked by, or haunted by our sins and folly. The heavy load of our failures, the load of guilt that brings us down and makes us sad, that sets before our eyes a bleak and unpromising future is taken off of our shoulders. We wear instead garments of praise.
Jesus is the one who proclaims the gospel to his Church. Jesus is true God and true man. As true God, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from him. As true man, the same Holy Spirit comes upon him and anoints him as the Christ, the prophet of prophets, the last word of God to us. The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with these words:
The twelve year old boy Jesus in the temple learned of his priestly office. It was the festival of the Passover after all that was the topic of study. Jesus was himself the Passover Lamb whose blood would mark the doors of his people and keep the angel of death from striking. The blood of Jesus shed on Calvary turns away the anger of God. It forgives sins. It sets the captive free. It brings comfort to those who mourn their sins. It justifies. The blood shed for us on the cross renders us righteous before God. This is the priestly work of Christ. The prophetic work of Christ is to preach what the priestly work of Christ has accomplished. And this preaching is what plants the Church in this world as the kingdom of God. Christ in his kingly office rules over this kingdom.
Wherever Christ’s gospel is preached, Christians are born from above by the power of the Spirit who came upon him and anointed him to be our prophet, priest, and king. These Christians are called “trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” They glorify him by the very fact that they exist. They are righteous, not by what they have done, but by what they have received from him. They glorify God by magnifying his grace. They were the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, the hopeless, the dying, and the dead. By the preaching of Christ they became trees of righteousness. They are Christians. The Psaltery is the hymnal of the Old Testament Church. It begins with a description of the Christian. We read in Psalm 1:1-3,
His delight is in the Torah of the LORD. That’s just another way of saying that he’s a Bible believing Christian. He listens to the biblical gospel and he believes what he hears because he knows that the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are infallibly true. He meditates on the preaching of the cross because he knows his own deep sin. He doesn’t deny it. He confesses it to God. The gospel heals his broken heart, comforts him in his sorrow over his sin, and sets him free from sin’s power.
Christ suffered and died once and for all. He will never suffer again. He lives and reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ’s priestly sacrifice was completed at the cross where he suffered and died for the sin of the whole world and made peace between God and sinners by bearing the world’s sin in his own body. He shed his blood and his blood sets us free.
But we live in bodies infected by sin. We need to hear the gospel. The prophetic office of Christ is for our benefit. Jesus told his mother that he belonged in the temple. We belong here in Christ’s church. We don’t come to church because we’re so holy. We come because we’re so sinful. The root sin is pride. God humbles us. He lays us low. He attacks our pride. He shows us our many sins, not to demean us, but because he loves us. He wants us to find comfort in Christ. He teaches us to treasure the forgiveness of sins that he freely gives us for Christ’s sake. This gospel is our true joy. It is our most precious treasure in life. Christ sets us free. We have no debt to pay. We can set one another free. We don’t need to hide in the darkness that the guilty use as cover. We can live in the light, enlightened by the true Light of the world.
Rolf D. Preus