Melville Scott, The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, Second Edition, 1903. Public Domain.
The Epiphany season is the devotional and practical commentary on the Incarnation as the revelation of human duties. Nowhere does our Church teach more happily and effectively than during these Epiphany Sundays, and it is much to be regretted that this complete and beautiful course of subjects is so frequently curtailed by the early incidence of Easter. The Epiphany Gospels claim the place of honour, and exhibit Sunday by Sunday some new manifestation of the character of Christ. Each Epistle enforces the special feature of its Gospel, and show how it is to be reproduced in the Christian character, while each Collect turns the Sunday lesson into a prayer.
THE GOSPEL — S. Luke 2:41-52 — Example of Duty
This Gospel contains our one and only record of the life of Christ between His childhood and the beginning of His ministry, and singles it out as a striking Epiphany of duty in every relation of life.
A. A Home of Godly Duty.
The Nazareth home was the scene of conscientious duty to God and His Church. Christ’s parents “went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover.” They rejoiced that “the boy Jesus” was now of age to take His journey with them and appear before God in Zion. It had been evidently a home of religious education, of careful holy teaching, of eager questions and understanding answers. The boy Jesus had been well taught, and long before He sat in the midst of the doctors must have learned at Mary’s knee.
B. Duty towards the Things of God.
It matters little whether we translate “My Father’s business,” or, as is perhaps more probable, “My Father’s house.” Either rendering displays early devotion to the things of God, and a budding consciousness of Divine Sonship and a Divine mission. These first recorded words of Christ have been often compared with His latest words from the Cross, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” From birth to death Christ manifested the Father. This was His own summary of His life, and it could not be more complete.
C. Duty to His Parents.
This devotion to His heavenly Father was not inconsistent with His duty to His earthly parents, for “He went down to Nazareth and was subject to them.” This applies not only to His actual childhood, but to His whole Nazareth life. Child, boy, and man, He submitted His will, time, and toil, becoming the carpenter of Nazareth before He became the Saviour of the world. This is the consecration of all labour; and especially of labour on behalf of parents.
D. Duty of Preparation.
Jesus increased in wisdom and stature. He spent thirty years in private to prepare for three years in public. The best preparation for the future is the present. He did not despise the secluded valley of Nazareth. Great is the value of quiet seasons, great the sacredness of home, great the sweetness of village life; in themselves, and to the Christian, all these are consecrated by the voluntary choice of Christ during the first thirty years of His earthly sojourn. We may even learn the needed lesson that it is quite possible to be good even in a bad village (for Nazareth, it seems, was all this), and that our surroundings are often part of our discipline.
THE EPISTLE — Romans 12:1-5 — Precepts of Duty
From the example set before us in the Gospel we pass to the precepts of duty contained in the Epistle. Having seen the manifestations of Christ, we are ourselves to be manifestations of Christ in daily life and conduct.
A. The Motive of Duty.
Duty, even the plainest, is to be done from the highest motive, the sense of “the mercies of God.” We are to act from the motive of love; not our love which is so weak, but from realization of God’s great love towards us. Duty is not a price to purchase love, but a thankoffering for love received; not a thing of dreary necessity, but of gladness, its only sorrow being its own imperfection.
B. The Sacrifice of Duty.
Duty is sacrifice—the sacrifice of the living will, the consecration of the life to holiness and of the body and all the powers to service. Such a sacrifice God will accept, and, indeed, expects, for it is our reasonable service, and no arbitrary demand. We cannot in reason do less for Him Who has done so much for us.
C. The Freedom of Duty.
Duty has been defined as sacrifice, and such, no doubt, it is during this present life. Men try to escape sacrifice by conforming to the world around them. The Christian has a better way of escape from the pain of sacrifice, by being inwardly transformed into likeness to the will of God. The old nature shrinks from sacrifice, the new nature finds the yoke easy and the burden light, discerning “that the will of God is the thing which is good, acceptable, and perfect” (R.V. margin) in itself. A ready will makes the sacrifice easy—in fact, to be no sacrifice at all, for when we have so chosen His will that it becomes ours, the bitterness of sacrifice is past. Thus we are face to face with the strange paradox that the greater the sacrifice the greater the freedom.
D. The Humility of Duty.
If duty to God demands sacrifice, duty to men demands humility. It is easier to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Duty to others is, however, duty to God, and arises from our common membership in Christ’s Church. In Christ’s mystical body none counts for more than one, and none for less. Every man is to be himself and do his own work, even if he thinks that his sphere might be more important. We are not to be above our work if it seems mean, nor to despise the work of others if ours seems more important. All duty done to others is duty done to Christ, and our highest dignity is to have done our best. Not what is to be done, but how it is done, makes the difference between one and another.
The Collect for Duty Sunday could not be more appropriate. We pray for:—
A. An Epiphany of Knowledge.
We need this in order that we may “perceive and know what we ought to do” with regard to our spiritual interests, the duty of our several positions, and, in doubtful cases, of conduct in ordinary life. We pray for the general direction of God’s Word, and for the particular suggestions of God’s Spirit. We pray for the enlightenment of conscience, lest the light within us should be darkness; for it is not enough to follow conscience until conscience has learned to follow Christ. God is our Teacher as to duty.
B. An Epiphany of Grace and Power.
It is not enough to know our duty; we need the power to perform it willingly, thoroughly, accurately, and without hesitation, and the source of this power is grace. God is not only our Teacher as to duty, but our Helper in our duty. Let us look to Him in both these characters.