“Transfiguration” by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824. Public Domain.
Gospel Lesson Mark 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The Transfiguration story in Mark tells the story of Jesus' ascent of a mountain in the company of his three closest disciples. We know that Peter, James, and John are close to Jesus because they are the only disciples Jesus gives nicknames. Jesus calls Simon "Peter," originally meaning "rock or pebble." Jesus nicknames the brothers James and John "Boanerges," meaning "Sons of Thunder." Scholars assume that they were likely loud or rowdy guys, and in some cultures, today, the name "Boanerges" is still used as a nickname of loud and charismatic preachers.
At the top of the mountain, Jesus' physical appearance is changed, metamorphosing into incandescent light, a light that blazes from his face and clothing. Two of the greatest (long-dead) prophets of Israel's past appear beside him, conversing with him. The disciples, meanwhile, are over-awed at the spectacle and respond with incomprehension and bewilderment. Even the Sons of Thunder are silent. Peter, perhaps not knowing what to do with such a situation, proposes to erect three tents or shrines to house Jesus and these impossible visitors.
Fortunately, a cloud intervenes, overshadowing the heavenly figures, and a voice speaks from the cloud, declaring Jesus to be the beloved Son. The voice in the cloud also states that it would do the disciples of Jesus well to listen to him. Then the miraculous signs recede, and Jesus is left alone to descend the mountain with his bemused disciples.
Today's story is a bizarre story even for the Bible. Maybe we assume that it's bizarre because it was written by a different culture nearly two millennia ago, but the reality is, the first readers of this story would have thought it was weird too. Things do not start glowing, let alone people. Clouds do not talk, and long-dead prophets do not come back from the dead.
It's a weird story, and it even has a bizarre name: "The Transfiguration." A formal definition states that Transfiguration is "a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state."
We could make the argument that transfigurations happen around us (consider how caterpillars turn into butterflies or how little dirty bulbs produce wonderful lilies). Still, we don't use the word to describe these processes. And while this is an annual story in the life of the church, a story told from one of the gospels each year the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, it remains a neglected story, at least in the West. Biblical scholar Dorothy Lee notes:
For the most part, post-Enlightenment biblical scholars have shown little interest in the Transfiguration, minimizing its theological status. If anything, biblical studies has tended to 'experience the story as alien' and to 'rationalize this strangeness' (2004, 1,2).
Likely we've neglected this story because it is such a strange one, and we wonder how it might make any difference in our lives if we tell it again. We live in a time that is uncomfortable with transcendence and mystery, in a time that is not very comfortable merely being in the state of wonder. Perhaps it is because our world feels less certain these days, more anxiety-producing, more frightening even without a global pandemic taking place. And we might choose to turn to religion to find firm foundations, guiding principles, and a moral code to organize life around.
I sometimes feel this way. I can get behind Jesus' teachings, even if they are sometimes challenging. Jesus was a wise teacher who used various methods to bring insight, love, and justice into the world. He seemed to regularly bring to light the case of the marginalized, the underdog, and the pitied. And he worked to subvert abusive political, cultural, and domestic power to make positive change happen.
I can also get behind his death. Jesus was killed by Rome as a political rebel sometime in the first century. In his death, I see humanity's tendencies to perpetrate violence on those that challenge power and advocate for loving, accountable, and inclusive communities.
Even in the resurrection story, I hear a call for hope that violence and death cannot stop love and justice. But here we have the Transfiguration. It still feels like an outlier.
I wonder if we might approach this story from the point of being in awe. When were you last in awe? When did you experience something so incredible and so good that you were either stunned to silence like our Sons of Thunder or just began blabbering like Peter in our story? Close your eyes and try to relive it. What were your surroundings like? What time of year was it? Who was there? If something was said, what was it? Perhaps it was an experience in nature or with someone or some folks very close to you. Maybe it was good news, something that provided a reminder that there is still so much good in the world. Consider those feelings and those experiences and think about how much time you spent trying to figure out the meaning of those events, why you were in awe, why you found relief, why you were uplifted.
I remember going to the Grand Canyon a few years ago. I don't think I've ever said "wow" more in my life. And when my mind returns to that visit, I still have a hard time thinking about it without saying "wow" because I still lack the words for it.
I wonder if God provides these glimpses of grace as a way of encouragement or challenging us to think bigger. Vincent Van Gogh once said, "For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." And perhaps, in our story, more than anything else, these three disciples needed to see that Jesus was more than a wandering itinerant preacher and healer. Maybe they needed to see that their world needed more than someone who could cleanse the occasional leper or feed a few thousand people, as excellent and necessary as these things were. Perhaps for people of faith, the Transfiguration reminds us that we need more than just a good moral religion or a place that offers support and comfort in times of trouble. We need something that provides a far grander vision with a more significant impact on this world. The Transfiguration asks us to look at the sight of stars and dream.
Our faith is more than comfort in times of distress, a moral compass, and a hope of healing. Our faith is more than a prophetic word, a faithful charity, and a steward of all that is sacred. Our faith is more than a call to justice, a way to fight for the oppressed, and an invitation to love. We cannot limit where our faith speaks and heals, and transforms. This caution for us comes from Peter. And we've had this caution now two weeks in a row. Last week, Jesus began healing folks in Capernaum, Peter's hometown. When Jesus goes away, Peter hunts him down in the hopes of bringing him back to town where he can serve as the local physician. But Jesus resists that notion and tells Peter that he must travel around to do this work in other places. Likewise, on the Mountain, Peter offers to build shrines for Jesus and the resurrected prophets of old. A shrine, a place set apart as holy, a place one can visit from time to time, a place not part of everyday life. Again, Jesus (or the cloud in this case, or the silence) resists this notion.
The work of God in this world wants to resist our need to categorize it or contain it. It defies our need to locate it on a map and leave it there. Our story should cause us to wonder what shrines we have erected throughout the centuries to bottle faith, to set its boundaries. Because a faith that is bigger than our imaginations, present in all places and in all times, working in ways we've yet to consider is a little scary, even demanding.
Our incredible story gives us pause on the eve of the Season of Lent. It asks us to consider breaking down our expectations and customs that we follow this season if they impede God's work in the world, in our lives. And it calls us to imagine what God is doing in this world in new ways, awe-inspiring ways, ways that leave us speechless or babbling.
May we resist our desire to bottle faith and instead allow ourselves to imagine what's possible with a God that never ceases to bring the awe. Amen.
“Amulet Carved in Intaglio” Coptic, 6th-7th century. This amulet identifies the one being healed as the
Woman with the Issue of Blood from Mark 5:25-34. This amulet was carved from hematite, which was
believed to stop the flow of blood. Public Domain.
Gospel Lesson Mark 1:29-39 “Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House & a Preaching Tour in Galilee”
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
“Necessary & Sufficient”
The beginnings of each of our four gospels are quite different. Matthew begins with a detailed genealogy that traces Jesus’ lineage back to the patriarch Abraham. Luke starts with angelic visitors announcing the impending births of John and Jesus. John’s gospel begins in the heavens with the origins of the cosmos and the incarnation of God’s divine logos.
We are in “Year B” of the three-year lectionary cycle, which means most of our gospel readings in 2021 will come from Mark. Mark’s gospel is my favorite version of Jesus’ story, and I love how it hits the ground running.
In chapter one, John the Baptizer has been introduced, Jesus has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, John has been arrested, Jesus has begun his preaching tour in Galilee, has called his first disciples, and healed the troubled. It takes Matthew and Luke four chapters to get to this part of the story.
Like last week’s gospel lesson, we read about a topic that rings awkwardly in our ears: demon possession and Jesus’ work to cast out demons. In the prescientific age of our gospels, physical and mental maladies were also considered spiritual maladies. Demon possession could be ascribed to folks suffering from any ailment whose origins couldn’t be discerned. People in the gospels and other literature at the time receive the label “demon-possessed” when today they might be diagnosed with anything from schizophrenia to the common cold. What we can gather from these gospel stories about Jesus casting out demons is that he was a general practitioner of sorts when it came to his healing ministry. People came to him with a wide range of illnesses and issues, and Jesus treated them all.
In today’s lesson, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus and his early followers have just left the local house of worship and planned to have a nice Saturday lunch together at Simon Peter’s home nearby. But when they arrive, they find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. The original Greek here suggests that the illness was significant.
We don’t get a lot of information about this woman. She is likely a widow, the reason for being in her son-in-law’s household. We might remember too that fevers and the infections that bring on fevers in the pre-antibiotic world were potentially severe, life-threatening events. A fever could readily cause death and could also spread to others in the household.
On a side note, it’s interesting to think about how this passage has been read throughout the centuries. This passage meant something very different to anyone that heard it before the 1920s. It’s only within the last 100 years or so, since the invention of penicillin, that readers would have read about this woman’s illness and thought it wasn’t a big deal.
In our story, Jesus gives his hand to Peter’s mother-in-law, and the fever left her, language used by Mark to also describe the casting out of demons. The illness resolves so quickly that she begins serving her company.
We might sneer at this story a little because it seems that Jesus heals the woman only so she can perform one of the duties assigned to the women of her day; to serve men supper. And our sneering is reasonable. This passage has a hard time escaping the patriarchy of its time and culture, even to the point of forgetting to give this woman a name.
It is interesting of note, however, that Mark has a particular use of the Greek verb diakone,w, a word transliterated as “deacon” in English and used in an elevated and official way in the church of folks that take care of physical and spiritual well-being of a faith community. Mark's author is very careful with this word and only uses it when referring to what Jesus, angels, and the women around Jesus do. The author seems to treat the act of serving others as something virtuous and heavenly, something that Jesus, the women around him, and angels fully understand and do, and something his male disciples fail to grasp until after his death. Here, the word is used for Peter’s mother as she serves Jesus and his companions, marking her as a model for the official church office.
The Sabbath ended Saturday at sundown, and the story transitions to Jesus curing the town’s sick and troubled people well into the night.
Early the next morning, Jesus wanders off to a quiet place to pray. This happens a lot in the gospel of Mark. Jesus disappears for a while until his disciples track him down.
Jesus then reiterates his purpose to proclaim the message broadly and heal folks in other towns.
This is the brief introduction to the work of Jesus in Mark's gospel. In the first chapter of Mark, he is a traveling physician, a man of faith, a religious scholar of sorts, but mainly a person that heals failing bodies and brings back the troubled, so they are no longer living on the margins. There’s something holistic to his work that defies easy labels like wandering sage, itinerate preacher, country doctor, or revolutionary leader. When it seems that his ministry is being defined only by these characteristics, like the “country doctor” label here, he heads off to a quiet place, finds his purpose and center through prayer, and restates it to his disciples.
It’s valuable for us to reflect on how Jesus holds the physical, spiritual, and social aspects of his divine vocation in tension and how he intentionally takes time to balance his work. Like Jesus, the church has been called to holistic work, which involves ministering to the physical, spiritual, and social needs of individuals and communities. Without reflection, prayer, and discernment, we might begin to focus on only some aspects of the church’s holistic vocation.
What is the church to you? How do you think of the church as a larger concept, like when we say, “the church?” Further, what is the purpose of our local church? Christian ethicist Erin Dufault-Hunter says that we can fall into a fallacy when we focus only on some aspects of what the church can be. She writes that “Some [want us to focus only on meeting] physical needs such as food and shelter, others on spiritual ones such as prayer or counseling, still others on teaching or preaching.” These areas of focus are noble and necessary but not sufficient for what the church is called to do and be.
Our spiritual lives provide faith, hope, and a reason to love. Faith, hope, and love are our greatest motivators, but they can also be fragile. The church works to nourish those parts of our lives and heal us when our faith, hope, or love is broken.
But that’s not all we do. James’s letter in our Epistles pushes back on the work of the church only being about spiritual matters:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17).
Our lives of service are expressions of our faith and hope and a sign of God’s love for all creation. Like Jesus, our work is about healing broken and unattended bodies. That’s why churches worldwide and throughout time have worked to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and house the homeless.
But the work isn’t done. We need community, and we all need a just and loving society. In other words, we cannot sufficiently live out our faith with our prayers and donations. We must also work to make healthy communities possible. As an old pastor mentor once put it, if we are working tirelessly to pull people out of the raging river of life, perhaps we should walk upstream, see what’s causing so many people to fall in, and fix that broken bridge or crumbling bank. Our commitment to community and social justice allows us to imagine a world closer to God, where all life has dignity, and all places in creation are sacred. This is done by working directly in our communities to address systemic poverty, environmental degradation, institutional racism, and other injustices that distort God’s desire for this world.
As we will find in 2021, Mark’s gospel is a little hard on Jesus’ male followers. Mostly they don’t get what Jesus is trying to do. Often, like in today’s passage, they want to limit Jesus to necessary work, to that of a country doctor, or a revolutionary, or a holy man. They fail to see over and over again the holistic approach Jesus takes to make lasting change. In this way, they serve us well whenever we compartmentalize our faith or think too narrowly about the work of the church. They point to something very human in all of us as we encounter Christ. And we read on as they learn too, little by little.
May our faith and our actions be both necessary and sufficient this week. May we draw closer to God, serve our neighbors, and find ways to be in a healthy community, even during this pandemic. For the sake of all creation and the sake of God. Amen.
The Quote from Erin Dufault-Hunter, is found in Connections A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Edited by Joel B. Green, Joel D. et al. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, p. 243).
“Moses Shown the Promised Land” by Benjamin West, 1801. On view at the Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 753. Public Domain.
Lesson from the Hebrew Bible Deuteronomy 18:15-20 “A New Prophet Like Moses”
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ 17Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’
Sunday Homily “Transitions”
The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book in our Bible and the last book in the Jewish Torah. Its name comes to us from the Greek Deuteronominon, meaning “second law” because it retells the law code and stories found earlier in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus.
Deuteronomy retells the law and these valued stories uniquely, though. It frames the ancient law code in the context of Moses’ farewell address. We can think of this book as the last few sermons Moses gives to the Hebrew people during a time of transition. Moses is old and about to die. The people stand on the border of the promised land, about to transition from a culture of tribal nomadic wanderers to a settled, agrarian culture. Interspersed between the many laws and ordinances in these sermons are Moses’ recollections of important events and an exhortation to follow new leaders when he is gone.
You might remember how this story begins. During the Life of the Patriarchs, a famine hits the ancient near east, and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah travel as refugees to Egypt when crops fail and pastureland dries up. They are greeted warmly, but over time, these people, called the Hebrews, are enslaved by Egypt. At some point, God commissions Moses and his brother Aaron to lead the Hebrew people out of Slavery. Several tense conversations with the Pharaoh ensue, and ten plagues later, the Hebrew people are released from their chains.
The company travels east, eventually making it to Mount Horeb. There Moses leaves the people and spends 40 days and nights on the mountain conversing with God. When he returns, Deuteronomy chapter 5 describes a vexing scene: God proclaims the ten commandments to the Hebrew people as a disembodied voice booming out of pillars of fire, storm clouds, and thick darkness. This experience, a direct encounter with God, is too much for this community of newly liberated people, so they ask Moses to serve as a mediator between them and God. Moses gains a handful of titles from the role, a man of God, a minister of God, and a prophet of God.
The Hebrews continue to live a nomadic life for 40 years or so after experiencing the unfiltered presence of Divinity. Moses serves as their leader in the wilderness, developing a law code, interceding with God when the people are in trouble, and preparing them for entry into the promised land. But he will not make the final journey, and the people will need to trust a new generation of leaders.
To mark this transition, Moses delivers a rather long and wide-ranging sermon about how to be God’s people in this new land, living in this new way. As such, this book has been described as the “preached law” or the Law of God applied to life – that is, the life of an ancient agrarian people. There’s some pretty weird stuff in this book - regulations for clean and unclean foods, tithing, the redeeming of firstborn livestock, restrictions about having too many measuring cups.
And there’s some gruesome stuff in the book that reminds us that this book was written a long time ago in a violent world. It’s worth a read, though, because, at its heart, the book proclaims a rather radical way of life that is concerned with social justice and obedience to God. Some of the most beautiful agrarian and ecological language of our Scriptures comes from this book, along with a recurring theme that the land will be plentiful if God’s people take care of it and do good to one another.
In chapter 18, Moses is concerned that once the people enter this new land, without him, they will forget their leaders and instead follow the loudest voice in town. Specifically, he is worried that the people will begin to practice a handful of local Canaanite religions that used child sacrifice to appease the gods.
Moses reassures the Hebrews that God will raise up another leader, a prophet from their ranks, once he is gone. This person will serve as their leader and continue to mediate between God and the people. Moses notes that there will be folks pretending to be prophets of God, but the people can tell if they are prophets of God only if they speak the truth.
Clearly, a lot is happening in this short passage. The people need a new leader that can mediate between them and God. Truth-telling is the primary attribute ascribed to prophets of God. And, the community faces a series of difficult transitions.
Transitions are difficult. According to the American Institute of Stress, some of the top stressful life events are transitional events that include the death of a loved one, divorce or the end of a valued relationship, injury, illness, and career change. Social or political stresses include some obvious ones like war, famine, corruption, poverty, and incidents of mass violence. And some that hit a little closer to home might be the transitions of leadership in a family, town, or company, down-sizing, the loss of benefits, and the continued uncertainty around the pandemic.
There’s a body of literature and self-help information that can guide us through these moments of uncertainty, change, and transition during stressful times. And some are very good. The Chopra Center talks about getting rest, surrendering control, and acknowledging that every end is also a beginning. An article by Paige Smith talks about managing political stress by identifying your triggers, being proactive, and prioritizing what you can do to change a situation.
In our story, the leader of the Hebrew people acknowledges that his time is over, and the people are worried. So, what’s next?
There are some beautiful ideas in our passage, too, about navigating stressful times. First, Moses reassures God’s people that God will continue to provide new leaders for generations to come. Our scriptures give the command “do not be afraid” about 70 times, and the idea of combating fear is an integral part of this story. Here, Moses provides people with hope that they will have good leaders and prophets in the future, prophets like him, leaders who speak the words of God and lead the people to new ways of faithfulness.
It’s important to notice, though, that these words of consolation are about as far as Moses is willing to go when it comes to providing comfort during a transitional time. God calls prophets, after all, and prophetic leaders have a difficult challenge. They are called to speak the uncomfortable word. In progressive and mainline Christian traditions, the term “prophetic” is used a lot, but it isn’t often explained. Essentially, the term is applied to people who speak a difficult truth, one that is often resisted by the wealthy, or the powerful, or those of us that wish to live our lives in peace and quiet. Often prophetic leaders speak about the oppressed, the disenfranchised, or the marginalized. They advocate for the environment, children and women, undocumented people, and those who have lost their healthcare or jobs. Today, these folks are pastors or religious leaders, but not always; in fact, most are not.
We can think back to that part in the story when the Hebrew people encounter God's raw presence at Mount Horeb. God was too much for the people. But it probably wasn’t because of the booming voice and fire and storm and darkness. The people were overwhelmed because the word of God, what God calls humanity to do and be, is really hard and challenging. How can we be loving, and just, and humble, and truthful, and inclusive, and kind, and encouraging, and real, and merciful, and forgiving, and courageous, and hard-working, and faithful, and creative, and honest, and accountable, and supportive, and persistent, and all of those other virtues that we hold as being vital for healthy human flourishing? We experience what the Hebrew people experienced when the presence of God and the overflowing of God’s goodness and its demand on our lives is too much; we can’t take it all in and wouldn’t even know where to start.
Perhaps that’s why God continues to call prophets, people that experience some part of God's great goodness and help us, even call us to be faithful in tangible ways. These prophets are often not terribly popular or well-known because they tell the truth, even when that truth is vexing, inconvenient, and heavy. What’s more, they call on us to make changes, to transition from one way of thinking and being to another, better way of thinking and being.
Who are our modern-day prophets? Who speaks the truth, especially the uncomfortable truths that challenge us and stretch us? Perhaps we can call Rev. William Barber of North Carolina a real prophet. For the last twenty years, Rev. Barber has worked in tangible, grassroots ways for a moral revival to end the injustices of systemic poverty, mass incarceration, and other inequalities based on race, sex, ability, orientation, and class. Recently he challenged President Biden’s focus on unity, saying:
It cannot be just kumbaya. It has to be fundamental change. We cannot be the wealthiest nation in the world, where billionaires in this country made a trillion dollars between May and November during COVID, while poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed, color, sexuality have suffered and continue to suffer.
There are other prophets as well. Perhaps Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry are prophets – two people who call on us to live more closely to the land and take less.
Perhaps Naomi Klein is a modern-day prophet, one that calls us to push back on unchecked materialism and its corrosive role in our democracy.
Perhaps Gabe Brown and Mark Shepard are God’s prophets because they point out the destructive realities of our modern agricultural practices and provide realistic alternatives to factory farming, monoculture planting, and the overuse of harmful chemicals.
God continues to call prophets, people that we may never be entirely comfortable around because they call us to be better, to live closer to God’s will in direct, tangible ways. We all have these folks in our lives, people whose words stretch us because their words are true, but truth hurts, especially those truths that hit our prejudices, our rhythms of life, our pocketbooks.
Our faith can provide comfort. Our faith can provide a community of support that helps us through life’s many transitions, losses, and changes. I am thankful for this community that continues to find ways to support one another during this pandemic when every day is both Groundhog Day and something new and horrific. But our faith (our faith) is supposed to be challenging too, even in challenging times like these.
This week, I pray that we challenge ourselves a bit. What issue are we avoiding, what relationship are we ducking, what New Year’s resolution have we already given up? How might we heed the call of our prophets to live better lives and make life better for those around us?
May God bless us in our exploration. For the sake of the whole world. Amen.
Notes Paige Smith’s article about managing political stress can be found at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/political-stress-how-to- help_n_59495dcce4b08709c82fd85e?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&gu ce_referrer_sig=AQAAADCBIX2wsM39SUTEFfDpsSebYqkJR-Z0UWoHR6KWIckcmRPXEwulbk43PvVR- BxqaZaMPr5DcEgN54PBSxVM3u422FbqvaLGy10fX4JSsHZkJEcf-j4rK1POLA0d8utrPB8qhpMpz5sN1Q6Od0P4Of- G2Aho7YW3McrI0E9AkzjA. Rev. William Barber’s quote about unity and change can be found at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/1/25/rev_william_barber_covid_inequality.
Cross with Fish
Drawing based on ironwork at Benton Chapel, Vanderbilt University.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Mark 1:14-20 January 6 seems sure to become one of those dates when we remember exactly where we were as we watched the news unfold, and one of those dates that becomes distilled in our memories into iconic images: the pictures that tell the story of the day as we remember it.
As the shock has worn off, I find myself continuing to wrestle with two images from that day.
Outside the Capitol, rioters espousing white Christian nationalism and white supremacy and anti-Semitism and misogyny carried signs that read “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020.” They knelt in prayer invoking the name of Jesus before storming the Capitol.
Inside the Capitol, meanwhile, Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat from Delaware, found herself trapped in the gallery of the House chamber after others had been evacuated.
As chaos broke loose around her, Representative Rochester started to pray. The moment is caught on video.
In the name of Jesus, she prayed for healing.
She prayed for protection, for those protecting the lawmakers, and for all of her “brothers and sisters in this Congress who protect America.”
She prayed for peace: “Peace.” “Peace in the land. Peace in this country. Peace in the world.”
Reflecting on the experience the next day, Representative Rochester said that she knew that “God is bigger than this,” and so she laid down her sadness and her anger and she just started to pray.
Two stories of that one day.
—-- And the question on my mind is how do we move forward from this place?
How are we called as Christians ,.. to respond to a riot that distorted the symbols of the Christian faith in service of the agenda of white supremacy and white Christian nationalism?
As we turn our eyes to the future this week, how do we avoid simply papering over what happened under the guise of a false unity?
How do we heal from this breach? _____
Theologian James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, writes that story “is the history of individuals coming together in the struggle to shape life according to commonly held values.”
Cone wrote this about the ways in which the stories that shape us can also confine us.
“When people can no longer listen to other people’s stories, they become enclosed within their own social context, treating their distorted visions of reality as the whole truth.
And then they feel that they must destroy other stories, which bear witness that life can be lived another way.”
Cone describes the history of enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples in this country as attempts “to establish the white story as the only truth in history.”
Cone wrote those words in 1975, but he could have written them on January 6, 2021.
But here’s the thing: although our stories can confine us, Cone assures us that stories can also liberate us.
He writes that the biblical story, which is independent of our own stories, “lays a claim upon us in our contemporary existence.”
“God’s story,” he goes on, “becomes our story through the faith made possible by the grace of God’s presence with us.”
God’s story lays a claim upon us and by the grace of God becomes our story.
I think that’s part of the answer of how we move forward from this place.
By embracing anew a very old new story.
One that shows us that things can be different. One that can liberate us from all that confines us.
And it turns out that today’s Gospel reading takes us right there.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus calling the first disciples.
To be a disciple is simply to follow.
To walk the same road that Jesus walked and to learn from him.
In calling us to discipleship, to be his followers, Jesus calls us into a new story.
A new story to shape our lives. A revolutionary story. The story of Jesus.
The story of Jesus: in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the captives are freed, the oppressed are liberated. The story of Jesus: in which the man Jesus was killed by the forces of empire because he called out injustice, because he stood with the oppressed and persecuted.
The story of Jesus: in which Christ, the Son of God, was resurrected “thereby making good,” theologian James Cone writes, “God’s promise to bring freedom to all who are weak and helpless.”
The story of Jesus: the living Christ, in whose resurrection we find the promise that Christ is with us now and with us always.
That’s the story into which, by grace, we are called.
And that sounds like a story we sorely need. That’s the story that lays claim on us as Christians. _____
But Mark’s Gospel makes clear that when we step into that story, when we embrace it fully, we have to leave our old stories behind.
The disciples leave everything behind.
Their nets, their boats, their livelihoods: left behind.
James and John even leave their father. They leave all of it and follow.
They leave behind their old story, the story of men who fished for fish in a tightly knit seaside community, to step into the story of Jesus. And so, too, are we called, to leave behind our old stories and step into Jesus’ story.
We don’t necessarily have to leave our jobs and our families and our hometowns in order to follow Jesus.
But we will have to leave the old stories that keep us from giving the whole of ourselves to the One who says to us: “Follow me.”
Maybe those are stories that tell us that the point of life is to acquire things.
Maybe they’re stories that tell us that love is something we have to earn.
Whatever they are for each of us, following Jesus, stepping into his story, means leaving behind the false stories, the self-referential stories, all of the life-limiting stories that keep us from him.
And this moment in history is calling us to take seriously the work of untangling ourselves from all of those stories, conscious and unconscious, that stand between us and the revolutionary, liberating story of Jesus.
The events of January 6 make that much clear.
Those who invoke Jesus’ name in support of white supremacy and anti-Semitism and all manner of hate are not telling the story of Jesus. They are attaching the name, Jesus, to a very human story of hate and fear.
And it’s important that we speak truth to that lie.
Yes. But that’s not all there is for us to do.
I heard a talk on Monday by Resmaa Menakem, author of the book My Grandmother’s Hands, which is about healing from racialized trauma.
Someone asked him how white people who want to be allies in the fight against racism should be responding to the Capitol Riots.
“Don’t distance yourselves from your cousins,” he said. “Ask yourself what’s my part in this?”
It’s a challenging answer. And an important one as we consider what stories we need to leave behind to fully embrace Jesus’ call.
Because the truth is the underlying story of white supremacy that was on display on January 6 is one that we all have to reckon with.
All of us, in this country, no matter what body we are in have been shaped, in part, by our country’s racial history.
And leaving that behind means acknowledging that, and then working to understand and start to undo the impact of that the pervasive story of white supremacy.
That means understanding privilege, learning to be anti-racist.
That’s hard work. But it’s necessary work.
Work we’re called to do if we are to leave the old, life-limiting stories behind and step fully into the story of Jesus and the good news of liberation and justice that he proclaims
Jesus called the first disciples out of their quiet lives into lives of speaking fierce and dangerous truths. Lives of healing the sick. Feeding the hungry.
Proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom come near.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes their story this way.
“Until that day, everything had been different. They could remain in obscurity, pursuing their work as the quiet in the land, observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But now he has come, and his call goes forth. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting - they must rise and follow him.”
We, too, must rise and follow him.
That means setting down “the human ballast,” as Bonhoeffer put it, that we have “overlain on the pure Word of Jesus.”
It means giving up trying to fit Jesus into the stories we tell and instead allowing his story to claim us. —-
And I think that’s where we start this process of moving forward.
By letting his story claim us. Fully.
And that asks much of us.
There’s a lot to leave behind, as we embrace Jesus’ call and step fully into his story.
But there’s good news in this story. Plenty of it.
Because the story of discipleship is not really about the disciples.
It’s a story about Jesus. About grace. The grace we need to do what we need to do. Jesus didn’t send the disciples forth alone.
He met them where they were, and called them to follow.
Jesus is the one who meets us where we are, who comes to us in our place of uncertainty, not knowing.
In those moments when our despair and our anger and our not knowing what to do drives our knees into the dirt, Jesus meets us there.
And reminds us that as disciples, we walk in his story.
We are called, with the help of God, to live lives that bear witness to the fact that things can be different.
We can be part of that story.
Follow me, Jesus says.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that if we say yes to his call, we don’t know where the road will lead.
“Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy.”
A road of boundless mercy. It starts with answering, with the whole of our lives, those astonishing words.
“Follow me.” By grace, we will. Follow him.
Into his challenging, transformative, amazing story. The road awaits, friends. The time is now.
John 1:43-51 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
John 1:43-51 I’ve mentioned before that baseball was an essential part of my life growing up in central Ohio. I began playing in first grade for my hometown of Gambier, Ohio. We played other teams in the area, teams from other little rural towns with names like Bladensburg, Martinsburg, Howard, Utica, and Danville. We weren’t very good most years, winning some, but losing most games against the other towns. But over time, I really began to dislike the town of Danville, Ohio.
At a population hovering around 1,000, Danville was able to field three baseball teams of farm kids, and they were all very good. Their teams were bigger and stronger and faster, their pitchers threw harder, and they all knew it. Their fields were also better, with outfield fences and huge stands for all the overly involved parents and families, who gathered and watched us get trounced every spring. It didn’t help that their town mascot was a blue devil, and their main restaurant in town was called the “Devil’s Den,” all images my very religious mother associated with Satanism.
But, when I was in 8th grade, the doctor’s office my mother worked for moved to Danville. And then my aunt and uncle and my three cousins moved from Alabama to be closer to us. And they settled in Danville, and I spent a lot of time at their house. And in high school, one of my closest friends, who I met at church, was from Danville, and we spent many weekends driving around the country roads in and around Danville.
Today, my sister lives in Danville with her husband and six children. Her children play baseball on those same fields I played 30 years ago for the same teams that triggered my youthful prejudices. And whenever we go back to visit family, I spend a lot of time in Danville.
Nathanael’s prejudices for the town Nazareth in today’s gospel may be the result of something like this, and the story in today’s gospel is about how prejudices break down when we get to know one another.
John’s gospel has moved past the cosmic origins of Christ and has begun telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the calling of his first disciples. Andrew and Simon Peter are already on board when Jesus returns to Galilee, the rural region north of Jerusalem. Here, Philip joins Jesus too and runs to tell Nathanael of Jesus. Later in John, it states that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, a small town geographically close to Nazareth.
The region of Galilee was rural, agrarian, religious, and mostly poor, but it was also diverse. Since the eighth century BCE, conquering nations forcibly moved populations around their empires in an effort to control their subjects. Galilee was one of the places where populations were moved in and out over the centuries. Today we might think of rural areas as places where families can put down roots for generations and some Galilean towns like Nazareth looked like this. Others town, neighboring towns, however, might be ethnically and culturally very different.
Cana is the location of Jesus’ first miracle in John, and while small and rural, it was more cosmopolitan and wealthier than its neighbors. Meanwhile, Nazareth was a tiny town of perhaps 400 people during the first century CE, known for being a pretty poor and profoundly religious place. It’s possible that Nathanael’s prejudice stems from the cultural differences between the two neighboring towns.
But there might be more to the story. Nazareth has become troubled in recent memory. In 6 CE, the local protectorate of King Herod was replaced by the Roman official Quirinius, and local taxation of the peasant population in Galilee to Rome had doubled. This led to a series of violent revolts against Roman occupation by bandits led by Judas the Galilean, a revolutionary leader from Nazareth. This group was ruthless. Not only did they target Roman strongholds, but they also burned the house and property of their fellow countrymen who paid the tax, seeing them as complicit in the occupation.
Judas’ revolt did not end well. Rome massacred Galilean Jews from Nazareth and other Galilean towns. It’s possible that the region harbored resentment toward the town of Nazareth because one of theirs brought so suffering down on everyone.
Also of note, In the early second century, likely around the time of our gospel’s formation, another revolutionary, Simon bar Kokhba from Nazareth, would stand against Rome with similar motivations. His movement, and the surrounding region was again, met with the same disastrous results.
As an inconsequential place, as a poor place, as a place that bred revolutionary bandits, Nazareth, in particular, was not seen by Nathanael as a fitting place for the coming Messiah. When Philip runs to Nathanael and tells him that he’s found a new leader, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael can’t believe it.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael complains.
Philip’s answer is straightforward. “Come and see for yourself.”
The dialogue that transpires between Jesus and Nathanael is pretty cool, with symbolic elements. Jesus meets Nathanael with affirmation, despite his prejudices, stating that he’s an honorable man of God. When Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says that he saw him under the fig tree, a symbol of national hope, freedom, and prosperity in the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels. Nathanael then gives three titles to Jesus, Rabbi, meaning teacher, Son of God, and King of Israel, to which Jesus tells him that he will see even greater things if Nathanael joins the cause.
Place and prejudice are current issues for us, issues that we are living with today. We track the pandemic by country and state, and region and watch as the colors change in our counties from green to yellow to red. We think about wearing masks in the same way, associating geographic locations with mask wears and non-mask wears. During the election, we watched closely as states and their counties were color-coded in one of only two colors, either red or blue, marking regions of the country as siding with our political leanings or against them.
In a recent Mother Jones article entitled “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Trump Country,’” Becca Andrews lays into this notion that we can write off entire regions and their people because of a color-coded map. Andrews reminds us that places do not vote, get COVID-19, or wear masks. She writes,
Country is just that—country. The cotton fields in the county where I grew up do not have a political preference, nor do the soybeans or the pastures or the highways that connect little farming communities together like pearls on a string.
She also notes that where she grew up in western Tennessee is often labeled “Trump Country” by both white supremacists and those willing to write off an entire region as “other” or a lost cause. Yet, this same region contains multitudes of people of every type of color, shape, politics, religion, and citizen status. Writing off places as “other” forgets all those living there working for justice, love, and safer, more inclusive communities.
In our gospel, Nathanael carries with him a notion that Nazareth is bad, and that everyone from Nazareth is too. But his encounter with Jesus challenges this notion. He asks how Jesus “knows” him, and it seems that being known is a pivotal part of this story. Despite the prejudice, Jesus affirms his dignity as a child of God, “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” as Scripture puts it. Jesus’ work is not only for a select few, those that buy into his message whole-heartedly. Jesus works to make life better for everyone, even folks that carry deep seeded prejudice. People like Nathanael also need liberation, healing, and peace.
We probably learn something about our faith from the way Jesus speaks with Nathanael and how we are called to know and be known.
Like many of you, I was shocked at the Capitol Riots on January 6th. I don’t know if I was surprise though. It was awful to hear more hateful and deceitful rhetoric from Donald Trump and his allies, as they incited an armed crowd to storm the Capitol building. It was heartbreaking to see symbols of Christianity in the crowds interwoven with symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, misogyny, and violence. Evangelical leaders this week are beginning to voice calls for self-examination and repentance for supporting Trump all this time. It will take time for Christians, all of us, to wash off those symbols and reclaim them as symbols of healing and inclusivity.
I have often associated this particular brand of extremism with certain parts of the country, and a certain kind of person, even if those parts of the country were where I grew up and those kinds of people were friends and relatives. I have people close to me that have had Facebook posts taken down and been banned from other social media platforms because they use the same dishonest and violent rhetoric as Trump. Likely, some of us listening today have folks in our lives like this also.
What do we do? How do we engage with folks in our lives that are so hate-filled, our relatives, college roommates, spouses, that have been poisoned by this latest evil?
Jesus names the Nathanael’s God-given dignity and reminds Nathanael that he knows him. This is the same God-given dignity that everyone in Jesus’ life shared, one that everyone we know today shares. It acknowledges that God loves what God creates, and God does not stop loving even when that creation is broken, poisoned, or harmful. We also do not know the outcome of this gathering. Nathanael is only invited to come and see. It doesn’t say that he joined the cause. In fact, Nathanael isn’t present on any of the disciples lists in the New Testament. Likewise, we might hope for a time of unity as we move on this this divisive time. Our faith often uses a different word though, reconciliation. Unity can lack some of our best virtues like truth telling, accountability and justice. Reconciliation on the other hand, requires truth telling, accountability, justice, and grace. We must be careful when we hear calls for unity that do not include our higher virtues.
Right now, I’m probably a little too sore to reach out to my loved ones who supported Donald Trump and his failed rebellion. But I work to remember that they too have a God-given dignity that these sins cannot destroy. They too, are loved by God and called to be holy. They too are my brothers and sisters of faith, of our common humanity, creatures of this wonderful cosmos. And if the truth can be told, then perhaps reconciliation can, one day, take place.
May we continue to work and pray for justice and peace, especially this week. May we remind people of their God-given dignity too. And ay we love those around us, those closest to us and those that feel far away, for the grace of God. Amen.
“Plaque with the Baptism of Jesus” South Netherlandish, ca. 1150-1175. Currently on display at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 304. Public Domain.
Mark 1:4-11 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Mark 1:4-11 As your custom and faith dictated, you traveled from your little town in the rural countryside of Galilee to the big city, Jerusalem, three times a year. These pilgrimages celebrated important holy festivals for your people and took place after a regional harvest, where farmers and landowners could bring offerings to the temple and food to the market.
You’ve made these trips for as long as you could remember. The journey was long, taking as much as a week by foot. Usually, you traveled with your family and people from your town, sleeping out along the road by night. Once, when you were twelve, your parents even began the journey back to Nazareth without you, figuring you were with another family. They were pretty upset with you when they had to return to Jerusalem because you had snuck away to the temple to argue with the priests. There was a lot of silence on that trip back. But most of the time, these trips brought you joy. You caught up with neighbors and extended family, learned about current events, and laughed and sang together.
Times have changed, though. Maybe everything was getting worse, or perhaps you notice more now that you’re older. You see that the first fruits of the harvest are smaller, a sign of poverty in the region. Fewer people are making the pilgrimage too, and folks say it’s become the roads have become more dangerous. People talk less openly, worried about Roman interlopers. And as you enter the city, the roads are lined with crosses: so many crosses, so many people, your people, condemned to death by the empire.
You reflect on the journey to Jerusalem during the festivities. You perform your sacrifices in the temple and join your friends and family in singing and conversing around luscious meals. But you notice more this week. You notice poverty in the streets. You notice ill and injured people calling out for help. You see the way everyone walks by them as if they aren’t there. And you notice Rome. It’s standard in the temple; an eagle, a bird of war, stands over the house of worship. Its soldiers are everywhere, scuffling with the locals. Its leaders share a table with city leaders. You feel the joy of this harvest festival, but that joy is damped by the feeling that all is not right.
As the festival ends, you leave the city but take a detour into the wilderness, down to the Jordan River. In the last few years, after each festival, you visit your cousin John and stay with him and his followers for a few days. John lived in the middle of nowhere and was, by far, your strangest relative. He dressed like a wild man or an ancient prophet, and you always made sure to bring your own food because his food was pretty gross. But you looked up to your cousin. He had committed himself to help people and made no distinction between city dwellers and poor rural folks like yourself. He preached the same message to everyone, calling on folks to return to God. He contended that God’s people did not need to live lives of political, economic, and spiritual oppression. He called out the corruption of local leaders. He stated that Rome’s occupation of this God-given land was illegitimate. He talked about how people can repent and not go along with the awful things in this world. They could resist, peacefully even, by returning to devotion to God and the virtues of a loving and just life. He gave people hope, and direction, a little light in a bleak world.
This year, as you made your way down to John, you traveled with an enormous crowd. John’s message was being heard by people in the city and folks from all over the region, but clearly, his popularity had grown since you saw him last.
As you entered the clearing, you saw a familiar sight, John, wearing his characteristic camel’s hair attire and thick leather belt, preaching on the banks of the River. Some of his followers sang ancient hymns from the Psalms and the Prophets, songs of lament, joy, and trust in God. And people responded to his message by entering the water, confessing their sins, and being dipped under the water and raised back up, a symbol of forgiveness, renewal, and a new start.
You had responded in this way too in previous trips. Like the others, you felt compelled to confess those terrible thoughts, feelings of despair, and social injustices you’ve witnessed recently. You felt that each time you were dipped in the water, you have a chance to begin again, to do something meaningful moving forward, something that could help your people who struggled to survive.
And so, this time, you entered the River again. One of John’s attendants came to you and heard your confession, and saw your tears, and held your hand as you plunged underneath the waters. But, when you came back up, something was different. It was like the sky was on fire, ripping with a bolt of lightning. And it felt like the lightning struck you, entering into you, and you imagined a dove, a symbol of God’s spirit of peace. And you heard a voice saying, “You are my child, and I love you, and I am pleased with you, and I choose you.”
You turn to the attendant and ask if they saw or heard anything. They answered only with a blessing.
You stick around on the bank of the River into the evening, considering what just happened. As the crowds disperse, your cousin comes over, greets you warmly, and invites you to stay with him and his followers for a few days.
At dinner, you catch up. John mentions that he’s been approached by local authorities recently and that he fears arrest. His followers are uneasy, too, wondering what will happen if their leader is taken into custody.
Then share your starling experience in the water. John is thoughtful, listening quietly, and intently. After a prolonged silence, John begins to tell you stories about other people who were anointed to do God’s work in the world, how they had similar experiences. He talks about Moses and Elijah about the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. He laughs and jokes about your carpentry skills and wonders if a new line of work would suit you better. More seriously, he talks about the harvest that everyone just celebrated. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. And then he offers advice: “Go deep into the wilderness and fast and pray. Stay there as long as necessary and discover what God will have you do.”
You set out that very night into the wilderness, leaving everything behind to find answers.
This Sunday commemorates the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. Mark’s telling of the story is sparse and based on action. Jesus comes to John, is baptized, receives a vision, and is led into the wilderness. Immediately after, John is arrested. Only then does Jesus begin his public ministry.
We can fill in the story a bit by the baptism stories in our other gospels and other literature from the first century CE. John and Jesus were cousins. John preached and baptized in the wilderness for a while before Jesus came on the scene. John’s popularity grew over the years, and people visited him regularly for messages of hope and ritual purification. Jesus knew John well and also knew his followers. When John was arrested, some of John’s followers began to follow Jesus around the Galilean countryside as he embarked on his own work.
This is how everything gets started in Mark. This gospel is not concerned with annunciations, genealogies, and nativity scenes. There are no shepherds, wise men, and angelic choirs. Everything begins at this particular instance of Jesus’ baptism, a ritual he likely experienced many times before.
The difference lies in what Jesus experienced this time. The skies open up, and the spirit of God descends on him, like a dove. And a voice speaks directly to Jesus here, saying, “You are my son, my beloved. In you, I am well pleased.” A better translation of the phrase, “In you, I am well pleased,” is “I have chosen or selected you.” At this moment, God selects Jesus to carry out God’s purposes.
I wonder if telling the context of this familiar passage and telling it as a story helps us to enter into it. Otherwise, I find the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River to be a little too abstract. Theologians have debated for centuries over the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, whether or not it was necessary, and whether it changed Jesus in any substantial way. The debates weren’t terribly helpful, led to a great deal of division, and left almost everyone else disinterested or confused.
But I think something more accessible is happening here.
Have you ever been stuck? I mean, really stuck? Stuck in an awful job, a toxic relationship, a compiled and collected set of harmful habits and practices? Have you looked closely at big issues like poverty, racism, political corruption, fake news, or climate change, and instead of feeling inspired to act, you mostly feel horrible inside and don’t even know where to start? That’s being stuck.
I wonder how long Jesus had been stuck before that day at the Jordan River. I wonder how he processed his faith’s reminder to be thankful to God for all good things while interacting with a world that seemed utterly broken. God’s will for this world and the world as it is stand so far apart. Where do you even start?
But you know how our best ideas and inspirations come to us in our modern-day rituals? That new insight that seems to come from nowhere over morning coffee or in the shower; the unique perspective we gain while our hands are busy knitting or sewing; that inspiration we gathered chopping wood in the spring or during the yearly trip to the beach in the summer. Likely, our minds have been hard at work on these complex issues for a long time, but our rituals allow us to think and feel differently. They provide space in us to hear what we really need to hear.
During the ritual of confession and being dipped in water, Jesus heard what he needed to hear. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.”
I wish our insights were so clear. Maybe that’s what made Jesus so unique: That he felt such a close bond with God; That he felt so loved by God; That he felt truly affirmed by God as is; And that he felt so chosen by God to go out and work in loving and just ways.
I wonder what we might do if we ever heard these words. “You are my child, and I love you. I am pleased with you, and I’ve chosen you.” I wonder how we might shape our lives differently if we heard these words and used them to make our decisions. Would we feel less stuck? Would the most significant problems of the world feel more conquerable? Would we feel secure enough to reach out and take risks?
I pray that we hear these words this week. Or that we consider them. I pray that we are comforted by them during this difficult time. And I pray that these words heard by Jesus, but also meant for us, challenge us to take on some new task for God’s good work in the world. Amen.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
John 1:1-18 We are still in the season of Christmastide, the 12-days in the Christian Year that celebrates the Birth of Jesus. This season is pretty short, running from December 25th to January 5th every year. But by today, the Second Sunday in the Christmas season, most of us have already moved on from Christmas reflections. We’ve begun taking down Christmas decorations. We’re no longer listening to Christmas Carols. With New Year Day taking place just a few days ago, we’re ready to move into a new year, set some resolutions, make changes, get moving.
It seems like today’s confounding gospel lesson from the book of John has moved on as well. Gone are the mangers, shepherds, and angels. They are replaced by the complicated prologue to John’s gospel. Divine, pre-existing Word, the means of all creation, Wisdom, rejection, incarnation, divine grace, and the concept of mediation are just a few of the theological concepts that are densely packed into these verses. This passage is really thick, and it seems to be better suited for the ivory towers of abstract theological debate in far off seminaries than the stuff of Sunday morning worship and reflection.
But that’s not what the writer of this gospel intended. In fact, these verses are an early Church hymn whose form and content come from even older sources. It is styled as a hymn, so everyone could learn its message, even those who could not read. Its purpose was to convey a worldview that sets the foundation of the gospel and the story that follows.
Within the gospel’s community and other parts of the ancient Near East, there was a myth regarding Wisdom. Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, existed at the beginning with God and was the means by which God created all things. Three hundred years before our gospel’s writing, the Books of Sirach and Enoch tell a melancholy story about Wisdom. The German theologian Ernst Haenchen summarizes this story well:
The world in which we live was created by divine Wisdom. Wisdom was at the side of God from the beginning, and when he began to create, Wisdom served him as supervising architect. For that reason, everything could and would be truly good. [However] humanity shuts itself up against divine Wisdom. No one anywhere wants to know anything of Wisdom. So, Wisdom has to wander always further since no one wants to accept her. The outcome of all this was that Wisdom returns to heaven.
It’s a sad story that was told over and over long ago. Likely, Mary told Jesus this story growing up or sang it to him as a hushed lullaby when he slept. Like all folk songs, it conveyed a strong message:
The world was made to be virtuous and loving, filled with wise people making wise decisions for the good of all creation. But humanity either rejected wisdom’s tenets or forgot about them. Violence, and war, oppression, and corruption reign because people have forgotten to look for the wisdom that’s woven into the cosmos. Sure, Wisdom shows up and prompts thoughtful action and loving-kindness every once in a while, but those places are fewer and farther between these days. Continued rejection has caused Wisdom to retreat to heaven. And that’s why the world is so hard these days.
This story is always on our gospel author's mind as he writes his account of the story of Jesus Christ. Generally, he’s less interested in the who’s and what’s and when’s of Jesus’ life and more interested in exploring what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal to people about God. He wants to think through why all of these stories of a Galilean holy man matter and what good they might do if told once more. So, he takes this sad story about Wisdom, swaps out Sophia for logos, or “wisdom” for “word,” and makes the ending a little happier.
When humanity failed to follow the virtuous principles revealed to all people throughout the centuries, the virtues took human form in Jesus Christ, and witnesses experienced God’s grace and truth by experiencing this person.
In its way, then, John chapter 1 is a nativity story, a story about something new taking place in a hostile world. God loves this world and wishes to impart on it grace and truth, wisdom and love. Thus far, God’s been a little too abstract with these lessons, so God restructures the curriculum, appearing to humanity in another form, one more recognizable, more personable, one more tangible.
There is a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though, like John’s prologue, it likely comes from more ancient sources. It’s found in Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
I’ll repeat it:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
If I could take today’s gospel passage and all of its language traps and theological prepositions and boil it down to something short, it would be this:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
John’s gospel adds something valuable to the story of Christmas. It reminds us that we are involved in it. All of us. We are involved in an incredible and still unfolding story, one that’s authored by a God that loves us and is willing to meet us where we are as we are in tangible ways. Our faith is not some abstract set of dogmas or a list of seventeen virtues that we either follow or rebel against. We can read about faith without having it, and watch Youtube videos about Christian charity without practicing this virtue. But when we are involved in our faith, when we are invited into the work, and when our teacher is gentle and wise, guiding us as we try our best, then, maybe, we learn. When God, our teacher, is present with us as we try to better ourselves, as we try to recover from 2020, and plan for a better world in 2021, we become involved in this great story.
May you feel the presence of God dwelling among you and those around you in 2021. May you hear in this year's Christmas story God’s invitation to get involved in this developing story of redemption. And may we seek wisdom, and virtue, grace, and truth this year as we place awfully high expectations and hopes on what 2021 has in store for us and the world. Amen.
The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple – from the Menologion of Basil II,
an eleventh century illuminated manuscript. Byzantium. Public Domain.
Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him
Luke 2:22-40 It’s been some time since your child was born, perhaps a month or so. After the whirlwind evening in the stable, some extended family in Bethlehem set you up with better accommodations for awhile while everyone got used to the new addition. The boy was circumcised on the eighth day in the local house of worship. This was your custom. And while there, a local priest talked about the unique role of first-born sons.
He reads from the Torah – from the book of Exodus:
“Every first-born male among your children you shall redeem (buyback). When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘This reminds us that by the strength of hand the LORD we were brought out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
This ritual should be performed in Jerusalem, at the temple, where an offering can be made. Maybe we can stop in Jerusalem on our way back to Nazareth, you think. So, when everyone is okay to travel, you and your little family head up to Jerusalem to present your son to God.
The city is a busy place, of course. You are a bit of a country bumpkin, growing up in more pastoral settings, but you’ve been to Jerusalem enough times to know what to expect. The roads are heavy with people as you get closer. A few crucified bodies along the road – reminders of Rome’s presence, signs that insurrection will be met with brutal violence. You shield the eyes of your infant instinctively as you walk by.
You make your way through the winding streets to the temple area. It’s a prominent place and was renovated about 20 years ago by Herod. In the outer courtyard stand countless people – some talking business, others begging, some selling offerings, others exchanging money. You overhear two older men talking about a recent attack by a group of zealots and the swift action of Rome. One of the older men leans close to the other and whispers something about Herod. He’s power-hungry and self-indulgent, and he maintains his power by doing whatever Rome wants. The other man tells him to keep his voice down.
As you head toward the tables, an old man stops you. He greets you warmly and is excited to see your newborn son. He talks to you about God’s faithfulness to God’s people – how God has always been faithful and will soon bring about salvation and comfort to all people.
He asks to hold the child. He seems like a devout man, and given the last month, you’ve become accustomed to folks doting on this child.
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” he says, looking to the sky. “For today, I’ve seen your salvation in the face of this child. You’ve prepared this salvation in the presence of your people – like a light revealed to all people for the glory of Israel.”
He then turns to you and offers a sincere blessing. Maybe it was something like:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”’
But he also offers a prophecy:
“Listen closely – this child will bring about the falling and rising of many in this land. He will be like a walking irony, a contradiction of power and might, and you will not go unscathed from his work. For a sword will pierce your soul as well – and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
He hands your child back, and you feel a little rattled by this moment. You look at your spouse and wonder what to do with this encounter. The two of you talk about it and all the strange happenings since your son’s birth as you head toward the table where vendors are selling animals for sacrifice. You cannot afford the lamb, so you purchase two turtledoves and take them to the priests. In the distance, you hear a woman praising God for bringing about the consolation of Jerusalem.
The ceremony is done rather quickly. The animals are dispatched, a Scripture read, and a prayer said. You pack everything up and begin the journey back to Nazareth, where the boy will be raised.
There’s a lot to the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. I’d like to offer three insights that might help us gather some meaning from it. First, Jesus was raised in occupied territory under Roman rule. Jesus’ people resisted occupation and hoped for freedom. The importance of this context cannot be understated. One of the founding stories of the Jewish people was the exodus from Egypt. In this story, an entire people, held by slavery, were liberated by their God. The story was told over and over in many different ways. One of the ways this story was told was through the ransoming of the first-born son.
If you remember your Hebrew Bible, the last plague on Egypt was the slaying of the first-born. In this plague, the angel of the Lord visited the land of Egypt and killed the first-born males – both human and animal. The ancient Hebrew people were protected if they killed a lamb, painted their doorposts with its blood, and ate the Passover meal together.
The ceremony that Jesus’ parents undertake early in his life is a retelling of that story. Usually, a lamb would be sacrificed, the stories would be read, and prayers would be said. If you were poor and could not afford a lamb, you could give a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons. Regardless, Jesus grew up in a society that believed in a God that liberated the oppressed. Jesus also grew up as one of the countless oppressed, longing for God’s liberating work in the world.
Second, two unique characters in this story, Simeon and Anna, serve essential roles in our story as prophets of God’s coming liberation told in Luke’s gospel. There’s a cross-generational encounter here. Both prophets are advanced in years and serve as meaningful connections to Israel’s past – noting that the coming Messiah figure has deep roots in the history of God’s people. Both are also lay-folks devout but not authorities of people in power. Likely this highlights Jesus’ outsider status even more and places him on the side of the devout oppressed and not the powerful but complicit. Finally, both are considered prophets. Luke likes to make a distinction between prophets and witnesses. Prophets wait for the coming of God’s salvation. Witnesses experience God’s salvation. Prophets hope for the day of the Lord. Witnesses partake in the Day of the Lord. Moving from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, the church experiences both roles in some form or fashion. For most of December, we’ve waited. We’ve hoped. Images of light and darkness are prevalent with the idea that the light of salvation is coming in the many different ways we define it. But after Christmas, the church moves from waiting for Jesus to proclaiming Jesus – from prophetic hope to earnest witness.
Third, three words are really full of meaning in this passage: “Salvation,” “Revelation,” and “Redemption.” Simeon has seen God’s salvation in this child brought to the temple. This child, he declares, will be a revelation of light to all people (Jews and Gentiles). Anna sees the child as part of the story in the redemption or consolation of Jerusalem.
Salvation longs for a day where evil is no more. Where individuals, communities, and the entire world are set free from bondage and oppression. Salvation happens when justice is levied yet is mixed with contradictory elements of grace and forgiveness. It longs for a world set just right, and in this gospel context, it longs for a world where God rules in place of a foreign power or the devil or Herod or whatever personification of evil we might conjure.
Often, and especially in religious expressions in the US, salvation is associated with the saving of personal souls, conversion experiences, and eternal life. “Are you saved?” is a question echoed across the centuries by many firebrand preachers and evangelists before altar calls, confession, and baptisms. In some ways, it provided the hearer with direct agency to affect their eternal destiny. To the historically marginalized, this is empowerment. But the salvation found in our Scriptures is probably something more than this. For Simeon, salvation has nothing to do with accepting Jesus into your heart or being with God when you die. It’s also not just for a chosen people, God’s holy elect. Instead, this salvation is inclusive, something available to gentiles – our Scripture’s way of saying that it was for everyone. In these words, Simeon envisions an entire world set free from the things that hurt people and harm creation.
Unfortunately, Anna is not given any lines, but we read that she speaks a lot, spreading the news of this child to all who looked for the consolation of Jerusalem. While Simeon sees God’s salvation on the world stage, Anna sees God’s work in the world in the streets of her city. Salvation is not an abstract notion – it’s not just a lovely thought we have about life after death, or justice, or lasting peace. God’s saving work happens in the streets of a city that has seen its share of loss and disaster.
I love this story. And, although the text doesn’t allow for this reading, I’d love to think that Simeon and Anna do this for all the babies and their tired parents as they enter the temple to present their child to God. What a way to mark life as sacred. To say something like:
I can die in peace, knowing that your child is in this world. Because your child is so important and the world will never be the same. In fact, it will be a lot better because of this child.
And while it might have been Simeon and Anna’s role to praise and bless Jesus, to mark him as special and unique, perhaps it’s the role of the church to do the same for all of our young people, to greet them and their parents with a blessing and sense of relief, knowing that the world will be better because they are in it.
The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways. Some have carried the brunt of insecurity, being laid off, or furloughed, wondering where the money for rent, bills, and food will come from. Some have had to carry the brunt of loneliness, vulnerable populations that can’t get out as usual because catching COVID could do serious damage. Others bear the brunt of being overwhelmed. Many parents have continued to work full-time while educating their children at home with limited time and resources for essential self-care.
As we enter this new year, we’ve got a few more months of this pandemic, maybe a little more. It would be a good practice to remember our parents with small children these days in our prayers and actions. They are working hard to make life safe and semi-normal for their children with limited tools in this unprecedented time. We can play that role of Simeon or Anna for these parents in our lives, offering reassurance, pointing to a better future, doing a little bit of the leg work to make the days go just a little smoother.
May God bless you and keep you this New Year. May God give you hope and comfort in 2021. And may God bring salvation to this world for us, through us, and for the sake of all creation. Amen.
Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:1-20 Likely, under normal circumstances, we set some pretty lofty expectations for Christmas. We plan to get our Christmas Cards out early in December. We make lists of gifts to purchase and take some time off work. We plan to attend Christmas tree lightings, and gatherings with extended family, and work parties. Some plan vacations during this time as kiddos are out of school. We do a lot of extra baking and coordinate an extensive holiday menu for the big day.
But while Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of the Festival of Christmas in many Christian traditions, this year, we might contend that Clark W. Griswold is a more appropriate one.
In the classic Christmas movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Griswold patriarch sets high expectations for the Holiday season. This year, everyone is going to experience “a good old-fashioned Griswold family Christmas.” But these expectations are met with mishap after mishap. Technical issues with his exterior illumination project, animal hijinks, an unexpected visit from Cousin Eddy, house fires, sewer explosions, and financial problems hijack the carefully planned Christmas season, and we get to watch as Clark unravels.
This is not the Christmas season we planned. The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic has changed all of us this year. Perhaps at first, when things began to change in mid-March, we thought we would have to forgo Easter gatherings or put off a conference or spring vacation. By summer, we talked about how our children may or may not be returning to in-person schooling in the fall. When the surge hit in November, many of us returned to strict, pre-summer precautions. And this evening, we gather on our own and can’t but help but feel that this Christmas is somehow diminished, somehow broken by the cousin Eddy’s and tree fires of this pandemic year.
At first glance, we might have heightened expectations about the scene that takes place in our gospel reading. We picture Jesus’ birth as it's been represented on thousands of Christmas Cards, Nativity arrangements, and classic works of art. A child lies in a comfortable looking manager after the work of labor is over. Gathered around him in the cleanest barn ever depicted are doting parents, friendly animals, and well-dressed shepherds, or Magi. The sky is clear, except for a single bright star hovering over the scene. It’s beautiful, perfect, and just as we wish it.
But Luke’s telling defies those expectations of perfection. During winter, Joseph and his pregnant fiancé have to travel for a census so the Roman Empire can impose higher taxes in the region. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only 90 miles, an hour in a half for us by car, but several days of walking for this couple back then. When they finally get there, Mary has gone into labor. Lodging is hard to come by. Our story says that there was no room “for them” at the inn, not no room "at the inn." Were they not permitted entry because of the couple’s marital status or the baby’s questionable paternity? So they find a barn, where animals eat and sleep and poop and stink, and there, Mary, after hours of labor, gives birth to a baby. They have nothing to wrap him in, so they tear strips of cloth from their own garments and tightly wrap Jesus to keep him warm enough to survive the elements.
We can imagine the holy family that first night: concerned parents worried about a baby’s survival; plans made about completing their census requirements and how to travel back with a post-labor mom and infant child; a shared fear that their presence and non-traditional family structure might cause a problem in the little town.
At some point, a band of wild-eyed shepherds arrives, young men dressed for sleeping outside, among their flocks. They looked rough and probably smelled as good as that stable. And they want to see the child. Is this safe? They are invited in or force themselves in. Unexpectedly, they are overjoyed. They shared the strange vision they had about a child born in Bethlehem and a choir of heavenly angels singing about a coming peace. And Mary, who was still in pain from labor, and worried about her future, heard the words of the shepherds and, as the original Greek “compared” these words to her present reality, and treasured them in her heart. Somehow, in that smelly barn, God was there.
Our Christmas story is not about creating high expectations and pulling off the plan to perfection. Instead, our Christmas story is about how God showed up in the unlikeliest of places and was present with a couple of outcasts and their newborn child.
And I wonder if our greatest moments and memories of Christmas are not about how a family gathering was pulled off to perfection; rather, everything did not go as it should, and still, the presence of God was felt, and the spirit of Christmas was shared.
My favorite memory of celebrating the Christmas season here at the United Church of Hinesburg happened a few years ago at the Holiday breakfast. As is our custom, we have a gift exchange. We match gifts to their recipients by matching the first line of a Christmas Carol to the second. A host sings the first line, and everyone joins in the second. But our regular host, Judy Parker, has a previous engagement and asked Mary Eddy Stewart and me if we could take over. Mary can sing. I cannot. But I’m the pastor of the church and can’t really say no to such requests. So, Mary and I sang the first lines to many of our favorite Christmas carols together. A train wreck ensued. Somewhere between not knowing the tune, starting in different keys, and a lot of mumbling by me, we painfully performed our hosting duty, singing the worst renditions of Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, and Frosty the Snowman you can imagine. Peg Pratt, a long-time member of the church, heckled us the entire time for good measure. And it was a blast. Those who were there remember it well, I guarantee. And the joy of Christmas was there too, not because it was perfect, but because it wasn’t.
If God showed up in a backward, backwater, poverty-stricken town 2000 years ago to give Mary and Joseph a little hope and peace and love during a difficult and challenging time, why wouldn't God show up, in the same way, today to all of us?
2020 has not gone as we’d hoped. And this Christmas season has defied expectations in many challenging ways. None of this was in the plans. But maybe God likes to show up when our worlds seem lost, when we face challenges from every side, when hope is had to come by. Maybe God’s presence, which provides comfort and love, justice, and hope, can feel even closer this year because we need it more.
We know that a vaccination to combat the virus is here and close to us. We know that at some point in 2021, we will be able to gather again, sing together again (for better or worse), and laugh together again. We know that soon, and very soon, we will be able to visit our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, and all those COVID babies in our lives, born during the pandemic. We have some hope this Christmas that the world will get better.
May God be present with us this Christmas. May the God of hope, peace, joy, and love comfort us during this challenging year. And may we take time to treasure these moments in our hearts, with all their joys and troubles, and imagine what good God has for us, for the entire world, in the coming year. Amen.
“The Annunciation Window in the UCH Sanctuary” by Guido Nincheri.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."
7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"
7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 1. The Hook: Family at our Fingertips
Many of you already know that I grew up on a dairy farm in central Ohio. The 100-acre farm has been in the Hamilton family for three generations.
I have very fond memories of my time there, and before the pandemic set in, I would return to the farm with my family once or twice a year to visit my parents, brothers and sister, and extended family.
My mother is a frequent traveler and has come to visit us when we lived in Massachusetts or here in Vermont several times. Like many farmers and perhaps especially dairy farmers, however, my father does not get out much.
As kids, we joked that Dad was a hermit, a designation that he fully embraced over the years. I wonder if he was simply preparing the 2020 pandemic, practicing social distancing all those years.
But even though my Dad is a homebody, and I’ve lived several hundred miles away from the farm for nearly 20 years, we are close.
We usually speak by phone about once a week. Sometimes the conversations are mundane: we talk about the weather, our football teams, or some piece of broken farm equipment he is currently working on. Sometimes we talk about our jobs, family news, or some new homesteading idea we’ve recently read about. Sometimes the conversations are hard: a health scare, politics, difficulties in life.
And recently, my Dad turned in his 14-year-old flip phone for a brand-new smartphone that has video calling. The first time I called him on his new phone, he was out at the barn and didn’t even know his phone could make a video call, remarking, “If I knew me and the mess here, I would have cleaned up first.” Now I see him about every week, get a tour of what he’s working on, joke about how gray his hair has gotten since the pandemic began.
It’s rather incredible that the first transcontinental video call took place over fifty years ago. In 1964, the Bell Picturephone was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. There, Fair visitors could talk to and see Disneyland visitors in Anaheim, California. While the concept was met with great fanfare, the role out of this new technology fizzled out.
Commercial service started in June of that year with calling booths in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Customers needed to schedule their allotted 15 minutes of screen time in advance and had to pay $16 per call, equivalent to $120 in today’s money. The high price, limited coverage, and scheduling issues sunk the Picturephone, and by early 1968, the company abandoned the endeavor altogether.
Today, many of us rely on video conferencing. We chat with family in other parts of the world. Our children go to school using video conferences, and company meetings are held on platforms like Facebook Messenger, GotoMeeting, and Google Hangouts. Today’s worship service is presented over Zoom, which has seen its shares jump by over 500% since the beginning of the year.
While it cannot replace being physically present with those we love, work with, and worship with, seeing other faces can make us feel more present and connected than an old-fashioned phone call. And, no matter where we are, video calls have allowed many of us to be present this year as grandkids celebrate birthdays, as loved ones pass on, and as couples get married.
2. The Text:
Our story from 2 Samuel is not talking about the value of video calling, but maybe something adjacent. The story describes an interaction between David and God about the importance of place, presence, and divine care.
We might remember David as the young man, a shepherd, who was brave enough to take on Goliath. We might remember his close friendship with King Saul’s son, Jonathan. We might remember that he was musically gifted and that he was the most important King in Israel’s history.
In today’s lesson, David has come to power, and finally, after years of fighting, there’s peace in the land. David sits in his palace and reflects on how he has a permanent residence, but God does not.
The Ark of the Covenant, the physical representation of God at the time, dwells in a moveable tent. It has done so for generations, ever since the Hebrew people were liberated from Egypt in the stories of our Scriptures.
This tent, called the Tabernacle, traveled with God’s people as they wandered in the wilderness, faced war and famine, and gained land of their own. It went where the people went, so in a very physical way, God was always present.
But David, now no longer a wandering shepherd, has gained experience in the world. He’s traveled to other parts of the ancient Near East and has seen how other local deities have extravagant temples built in their honor.
Why shouldn’t God finally get a permanent abode as well?
The other character in our story is Nathan, a prophet of God, and likely the only one in David’s powerful circle that can challenge David’s intentions and actions.
Here, he speaks for God, reminding David that God provides for him, and not the other way around.
He reminds David of his pastoral upbringing and the nomadic nature of God’s people with this beautiful line:
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people, and I have been with you wherever you went.
God’s place, Nathan reminds David, is with God’s people, wherever they roam.
3. The Point: God is present wherever God people are
This story from 2 Samuel is handed down to us by David’s descendants who were exiled from their homes and living in a foreign land sometime after these events. The Temple, later built by David’s son, Solomon, has been destroyed, and all that’s left are the stories and practices of a people with a common heritage.
I can imagine then how this story might come to mind when those religious scholars sat down to record the story of their most famous king.
The idea of place is really confusing these days. I’ve been in one place, my home, more this year than I’ve been home at any other time in my life. Because of the pandemic, I either see less of or none of my usual places: a movie theater, family farm, store, a friend’s home, a restaurant. Like most, the novelty of being home alone, tied to one place, has already worn off, and I miss those other places. I miss the people of those places. I miss the experiences those places seemed to generate.
4. The Word in the words:
It will be pretty weird this week on Christmas Eve when, instead of preparing for two or three Christmas Eve services with full crowds, I will come into the Sanctuary, sit by myself, and share a worship service over Zoom. Likely, you will realize the weirdness of this all too because you will not be able to drive down to the church for worship and caroling either.
And Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as we’ve always experienced them, will be different too. Even if we host Christmas gatherings in our homes and are in our usual places, the place is missing the right people, our people, the ones we choose to share this special time of year.
5. The Comfort/Challenge: God with Us
But I remain hopeful this Christmas season. Stories like the ones from 2 Samuel and today’s gospel lesson, the Annunciation, remind me that we can still be present with one another, even when we are not in the same place.
More than that, though. God is present with us wherever we are these days.
In fact, it seems that God prefers not to be pinned down at all, stuck in a specific place like a temple, worship hall, or church sanctuary.
And God doesn’t really need you to clean up your house or shovel the sidewalk before God showing up. God’s not picky. God lived in a dirty tent for years and seemed completely content in doing so.
God goes with us where we go.
We get a similar message about God in the story of the Annunciation. Certainly, God, the creator and sustainer of all things can only be accessed by esoteric mystical experiences, or in heaven, beyond the boundary of death.
Not really. In the Annunciation, God is present in a powerful but completely normal young woman and a baby born to modest means during a time of great conflict.
If God shows up to a little stable in the backwoods of the world, two-thousand years ago, why wouldn’t God also show up now in all of our lives, and homes, and Zoom calls, and home offices, and messy living rooms?
God is at home where you are right now.
And maybe in some small way, those that we love and miss this time of year are too.
While we are apart for this brief time, may we find ways to be present with one another this Christmas season. May we use all the resources at our disposal and remember to call, write, text, videoconference, wave, yell, or send smoke signals to those we love. And may we feel the presence of an ever-loving and close God, a God that prefers to travel with us, wherever we are. Amen.