Easter 2021

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Have you ever lost something that was precious to you and just about the time you have given up hope of ever finding it, it suddenly shows up. The relief and excitement at recovering the lost article is enough to brighten any day.  This is such a common experience to people that Jesus used this illustration several times in his teachings: the woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and even a man who loses a son.  Loss is part of the shared human experience.

This year, most of us are feeling loss with an intensity we have seldom experienced before.  Most of my friends are either clergy or musicians.  We live in front of a live audience for a good part of our life.  That evaporated and is just now beginning to come back slowly and with many changes.  Many of you may have lost a feeling of freedom and security.  The ability to go where you want, when you want, hug who you want, sing when you want, share a meal with others when and where you want. I suspect, this year, more than most I am ready for Easter.  I am ready for Resurrection and I suspect you are too.

In our gospel reading today the people in the story believe they have lost someone very precious to them.  They have lost their friend and teacher who has been the center of their lives. Jesus has been their life. Despite his constant attempt to prepare them for what he knew would happen, they refused to accept the idea that he would not always be with them.  When he was arrested, tried, condemned as a traitor, and crucified, they fled in fear, confusion, and sorrow.  Joseph of Arimathea, understood death.  A discrete follower of Jesus before his death, he stepped up and claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and placed it in the tomb he recently had built for himself.  The tomb was then sealed with a large stone disc which was rolled in front of the entrance.  All of this happened, very hurriedly, just before the Sabbath. 

Sunday morning before the sun came up, Mary Magdalene and some other women went to Jesus’ tomb, bringing some spices to anoint his body as was the custom.  When they got there, the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  Imagine the surprise and the grief of these women.  First their beloved teacher is taken from them by death, and now even his body has been taken. Jesus had told them he would rise again on the third day, but in their grief they had forgotten it.  Even those who had witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus, were unprepared for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Their process of grief has been interrupted by this unexpected occurrence.

They run to tell Peter, and the other disciples.  Peter, and another disciple, probably the young John, set out to see for themselves what has happened.  As  they approach the tomb the two men break into a run and the other disciple gets there first.   The women appear to be following behind them. As the first disciple approaches the tomb, he peers cautiously inside and sees the grave wrappings rolled up having been set on the ledge where Jesus’ body should have been.  He is frightened and bewildered and does not go in.  Impetuous Peter goes right in to check things out for himself and the other disciple follows behind him.  They can see that Jesus’ body is missing and that his burial cloths are still there, but at this point, they leave saddened, confused, perhaps angry, but it doesn’t yet click for them what has happened.

Mary Magdalene, remains by the tomb. The presence of Jesus seems to cling to this place, and even though she knows the tomb is empty, she longs to be near the memory of his presence.  The others have gone, but she can’t bear to leave.  She peers in the tomb, as though perhaps if she just looks one more time, he will be there.  Instead she sees two angels casually seated on the ledge that had once held Jesus’ body.  “Why are you weeping?” they asked?  Didn’t they know?  Didn’t they understand that the most important person in her life had just been taken from her?  She turns away and there is another man behind her.  He asks her the same thing “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” 

Mary cries out to the man she assumes is there tending the graves. “Have you moved him?  Please tell me where you have taken him.  I will take his body.”   Perhaps Joseph didn’t want Jesus in his tomb; perhaps the Romans had said he could not be laid there.  Where was her precious Jesus?  The man speaks her name “Mary.”  

It is incredible how much is conveyed in the human voice.  While Mary did not recognize the physical body of Jesus, she would always know his voice.  “Teacher!”  Mary rushed to put her arms around him, but he held her at a distance.  “I have not yet ascended to my Father.  But go and tell the others, I am ascending to my Father, your Father, my God, your God.”

 Mary rushed back to the others, being the first to share the good news, “Alleluia, our Lord is Risen!”  This was good news.  This was the best news she had ever experienced and she could not wait to tell those whom she loved.  If Mary had lived today, she probably would have tweeted everyone on her contact list and the news would have gone viral in a few minutes.  But then again, it would have been forgotten a few minutes later when some other world shattering news hit social media. 

God knew what he was doing when Jesus came two thousand years ago.  The Good News was spread person to person, with relationships built and strengthened as people shared their stories and experiences of Jesus.  Two men walking down the road toward Emmaus shared it with a stranger, who happened to be Jesus himself.  Peter shared it in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and three thousand people embraced the Good News and began sharing it with other people. 

The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost experience changed Christianity for the about 120 followers of Christ.  I am sure for many of them, they longed for the days when they could sit at Jesus’ feet and just listen to him.  Now they were the teachers.  Christianity was moving and spreading in new ways, embracing new groups of people, and facing new challenges. 

If COVID 19 has taught us anything I hope it is that Christianity is not about our buildings.  Christianity is not about which songs you sing, what instruments you play or what clothes you wear. Like the early Christians who found life had changed after Jesus’ resurrection, yet Jesus and his teachings had not.  We too must revision the life of our congregations in this new world, but our purpose has not changed. Christianity is about sharing that Jesus whom we love was once dead, but is now alive and has promised that we too can overcome death and experience resurrection.  Our lives will not end when our days here on earth run out.  We will not cease to exist, but will be transformed. 

This is the Good News.  This is what we are called to proclaim to everyone we meet.  Halleluiah!  Christ is Risen!

Good Friday 2021

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Several times in the gospels, Jesus challenges one or more people to “take up [your] cross, and follow me.”  This challenge is found in all three of the synoptic gospels, and occurs long before Jesus is crucified.  So what did the cross represent before Jesus’ crucifixion?  What was Jesus telling the people to do?

Crucifixion was typically reserved for non-citizens and traitors.   Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17).  There is no dual citizenship.  One must choose obedience and allegiance to Jesus, or to the princes of this world.  For Christians, when a decision has to be made to either obey one or the other, obedience to Christ must be chosen.  This becomes nothing short of treason to the other.

Who are the princes of this world?  Obviously in Jesus’ time the Roman government was top of that list, but other things made the list as well and these were not intrinsically evil things. These were good things given to us by God, but not intended to be placed before God.

The first competitor for our allegiance is life itself. One of the first things Jesus tells the twelve he chose to be the leaders in training for his new kingdom was “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10: 28).  Jesus also told his disciples “those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10: 39).  It was a hard lesson to learn. Peter later rebuked Jesus when he said he must be killed and Jesus called him “Satan” and a “stumbling block.” (Matt 16:21-23). Fear of death leads us to worship the false god of immortality.  Not the immortal soul or life in eternity, but the desire for immortal here in this life on this earth. From the Conquistadores search for the fountain of youth to today’s obsession with beauty and youth, we seek to be like God.  Taking up our cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”

Jesus’ next instruction to the twelve is not to allow family to become more important than commitment to him. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37)  Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from their boats and the family members that were on them to follow Jesus.  To what extent they stayed away we do not know, not completely, because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, but I am sure there were many times their families and the other disciples’ families had “other plans” for them that they had to forgo. At one time Jesus’ family, including his mother Mary tried to talk him into returning to Nazareth and stop his crazy behavior.  Jesus responds asking the rhetorical question “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12: 48) He answers his own question saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 12: 50).

Material possessions are another of the princes of this world that call us to worship at other altars.  In Mark, chapter 10 it was the man who came up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to whom Jesus said take up your cross.  Some translations just say “come, follow me”, but the KJV and some Greek manuscripts indicate that he was told to first to give away all that he owned to the poor and then take up his cross and follow Jesus.  The world tells us we need to worry about how much stuff we have and do we have the right stuff.  The billions of dollars that are spent on advertising each year are testimony to the importance the world places on buying and selling stuff.  Jesus says the stuff is not important.  Following me is what counts.

With Jesus’ crucifixion, the cross takes on an additional meaning.  The cross becomes for us the symbol of our Passover from everlasting death.  Jesus is the director in this Passion Play. While the leaders of the synagogue, Herod, and Pontus Pilate may all believe they are in control of the events of Good Friday, Jesus reminds Pilate, that God is the one in charge and that they can only do what God allows.  The scene is set at the Passover which has deep symbolic meaning for the Jews, but the meaning would not have been unknown to the local Gentiles because Passover was a huge holiday.  All the merchants and innkeepers would have geared up for the hordes of people that would descend on Jerusalem for the Passover, just like coastal communites prepare for Spring Breakers.  

After declaring during the previous night’s meal that that wine is representative of his blood that will be spilled and that the bread is representative of his body that will be broken, Jesus allows history to progress normally with his betrayal by one of his own disciples, his arrest by both the Jews and the Gentiles, his trial and physical abuse that so resembles the agony of Psalm 22 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 to 53, and finally his crucifixion.  This was not a coincidence; it was carefully staged by Jesus to occur at this time in this manner.  It is clear that Jesus intended his sacrifice to call to mind that first sacrifice in Egypt on the night of their deliverance out of slavery and bondage and to be a reminder for all time that with his blood, we are delivered from the plague of sin and eternal death.

We cannot take up Jesus’ cross.  There is only one cross of Christ.  Richard Harris says in a poem he wrote about the religious struggles in Ireland, “There are too many saviors on my cross, lending their blood to flood out my ballot box with needs of their own. Who put you there? Who told you that was your place?”  We are not called to take up our cross to save the world.  Jesus has already done that.  We are called to take up our cross by swearing allegiance to Christ and to Christ alone.   We should stick out as aliens in a foreign land and no one should have to guess at our nationality. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven whose allegiance is first and always to our king, Jesus.

Maundy Thursday 2021

Photo by u0410u043bu0435u043au0441u0430u043du0434u0430u0440 u0426u0432u0435u0442u0430u043du043eu0432u0438u045b on Pexels.com

Many of you may remember Art Linkletter and his radio and film clips called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  It was later picked up by Bill Cosby for a couple years in the late 1990’s.  They were funny, because the children unabashedly spoke the truth they had witnessed or experienced, often in ways adults found refreshing in a child, but would never dare to say themselves.  Someone once asked a young girl why we have to be quiet in church.  Her response was “because people are sleeping.” What the girl had witnessed in church gave her a wrong impression of what was supposed to happen in church. Our actions do speak louder than our words.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples through both words and actions from the time he called them until this night.  They still haven’t caught on to half of what he has been trying to tell them.  They still don’t understand that he is about to die.  They are still expecting some sort of military rebellion, perhaps not a full army behind a general on a white charger, but at least some kind of resistance activity.  They are still anticipating that Jesus will supplant Herod and actually sit on a throne ruling Israel, and they are still arguing about who will be second in command.  So, Jesus demonstrates two things and gives them one new commandment. 

First, he washes their feet.  In a country where most of the people walked, wore sandals, and the roads were traveled by livestock as well as humans, a good host or hostess provided a bowl of water and a towel for their guest to wash their feet as soon as they entered the dwelling place.  A wealthy host or hostess also provided a servant or slave, usually the lowest ranking one in the house, to do the actual foot washing.  Jesus assumes this position among his disciples and begins to wash their feet for them.  At first, Peter is appalled.  His mentor, his teacher, has stooped, literally to take on one of the lowest jobs in a household.  Peter may have understood what Jesus was doing better than even he himself realized, because the reason he was appalled probably was tied to Peter’s own ego and his relationship with Jesus.  How many of you have ever been embarrassed by something your parent, child, or friend did?  You were probably embarrassed because you didn’t want anyone to think you would do that, or hang out with someone who did.  When Jesus basically tells him, if you don’t let me wash your feet you are not my friend, Peter suddenly wants a whole bath thinking this is some kind of purification ritual.  Jesus says no, I am just washing your feet because they are dirty and it is the kind thing to do.

Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership.  He is a mentor; a teacher not a political or military figure and they are called to be mentors and teachers not soldiers or politicians.  We are called to be mentors and teachers as well.  I suspect the reason the current generation is not engaged in religious activities is because they watched what we did, rather than did what we said.

The second thing Jesus did was he took the story of the Passover and appropriated its symbolism to help us understand the cross and to alter the way we approach God.  Up to this time, animal sacrifices were used to symbolically demonstrate our desire for forgiveness and assure us of God’s mercy.  Jesus puts an end to animal sacrifices and moves the focus of our relationship with God to the dinner table.  We are no longer subjects expected to cower in fear before God, we are children who are to gather as a family to share in the bountiful mercy of God’s love.

Finally Jesus gives them a new commandment.   Jesus had summarized the law given though Moses to the people by quoting two scripture passages: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)   But tonight he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). 

The reality is, we don’t always love ourselves or treat ourselves very kindly.  I am sure Jesus was aware of this.  If we only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, we may not love them very much or treat them very well.  But, if we use Jesus and the love he had for his disciples as the measuring stick for what love looks like, then we cannot fail.  What did that look like?  Jesus was about to show them.  Nothing that was said or done to Jesus by anyone lessened his love for them.    Jesus asked them to pray with him and for him in the garden during his greatest hour of need, and they fell asleep.  Only a very feeble attempt was made to stop Jesus from being arrested as one of the disciples whacked the ear of the servant of a soldier with a sword.  Jesus had compassion on the man and healed his ear even as he was being arrested.   The disciples slunk around in the shadows as Jesus was being tried and convicted.  Peter went so far as to deny he even knew Jesus on three different occasions that same night.  Jesus’ response is after the resurrection to ask him three times to confess that he loves him and to commission him to “feed me sheep.”  Only John and a few women stay with Jesus while he is dying.  After the Resurrection, Jesus first greeting is not, “Where were you jerks?” but, “Peace be with you.”   Jesus is brutally scourged and crucified, and Jesus’ response is “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus said if you do this, people will know you are my disciples.  One of the biggest complaints about Christians is that they are not very Christ like.  Some of this comes from people who expect Christians to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, but what Jesus demonstrates is not submission to evil.  He cast out demons, reprimanded religious officials, and even his own disciples.  What Jesus demonstrates on the cross is that forgiveness, not evil is the more powerful force.  We are called to forgive one another for our failings, even when the consequences cause us great pain, because in the long run forgiveness is our best weapon.

This week, be aware of what your actions say to those around you, demonstrate a Christ like love through servant leadership, and remember that forgiveness is the strongest weapon you have for combating evil.

Palm Sunday 2021

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When we hear the word prophet or prophecy, we are inclined to think of someone who predicts the future, but in reality, this is a common misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of prophecy from the biblical point of view.  A biblical prophet was a spokesperson for God and a prophet did signs and wonders that revealed God’s will to the people.  According to Old Testament scriptures, Moses was the greatest prophet.  The last paragraph in the Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah states:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Deut 34: 10-12

Moses, is quoted as saying, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:15).  Early Christians believed the Messiah was prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, a king like David.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, relates the history of Israel and reminds the crowd in the sermon that brought about his stoning, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.”

We have little trouble identifying Christ as priest or king.  The earliest images of Christ is the Christus Rex where he wears both the chasuble and crown, but prophet we have a harder time grasping.   Prophets are wild men, like Elijah or John the Baptist who look like they might smell bad and whom you would not be inclined to invite home for dinner.   

In our first gospel reading we heard the story of Palm Sunday.  Like much of scripture we are accustomed to hearing the sanitized version of the story where sweet humble Jesus rides into town on a donkey and everyone comes to greet him singing Hosannah and waving palm branches, and this is not far from the truth, but we have missed the point. 

King David had promised his son Solomon the rite of succession, but as David lay on his deathbed, there was an attempted coup by Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother who prior to David’s death tried to set himself up as king.  David gave orders that Solomon was to be put upon David’s mule and brought to a particular place just outside of Jerusalem, where he was anointed king by the priest Zadok and then rode in a joyful procession.   

The prophet Zechariah spoke to the people who had returned from exile in Babylon about the restoration of Israel and Judah.  He declared:

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

When a Roman general had been victorious in battle, they threw a giant parade called a triumph.  But not anyone could organize or claim right to a triumph.  It made a political and religious statement, and only the Senate could give permission.  By Jesus’ time, triumphs were typically reserved for the Emperor and his family. 

Jesus makes a very dangerous religious, political, and social statement when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey.  He is making what is called a prophet sign act.  He is acting outside of the social norm in critique of the status quo and claiming to speak for God.   He is claiming that he is the rightful king and heir to the throne of David.  This is sure to upset Herod, whose family gained the throne through battle, not bloodline.  This is sure to upset the Romans, because Jesus is defying the right of the Roman emperor to rule in Jerusalem and is claiming victory over that city.  This is sure to upset the Temple priest and officials because if they do not believe him to be the Messiah this is an act of heresy.  As we participate in the Palm Sunday procession, even if we have to do it sitting in our chairs, we are aligning ourselves with the rebellion.  

This is what liturgy is. Liturgy calls us to anamnesis. That fancy Greek word we translate “remembrance,” but it mean more than just calling something to mind.  It means to remember in such a way that we are united with those participating in the original act.  We are traveling though time, so to speak, and embracing the sights, sounds, and emotions of some significant event in our history and making it a part of who we are.  

Jesus performs another prophetic sign act on Thursday night.  The Gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, tells us that Jesus and his disciples had gone to the upper room on the first night of Passover.  The Passover as now celebrated, and very possibly celebrated in Jesus day, involved the drinking of 4 cups of wine and 3 pieces of unleavened bread were set aside in a special pouch.  The first cup is the cup of blessing, the middle piece of bread is broken symbolizing the parting of the sea of reeds.   Half of this piece of bread is hidden at this time.  Later in the celebration, after the meal has been eaten, this half piece of the middle piece of bread is “found” by a child, and it is broken in to small pieces and everyone shares this with the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption.  It is believed that it is at this time that Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my body” and “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14: 22, 24).

Jesus used symbols that were already heavily laden in meaning and added to them by associating them with his physical presence.  By the act of eating and drinking the bread and the wine, Jesus made those at the table with him one with him.  If they were one with him, then they too in a spiritual sense participated in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Paul says to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19b-20) When we participate in the Eucharist, we are at that Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples and we do then participate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ next prophet sign act was to associate himself with the Passover Lamb.  The story of the Exodus was the defining religious and cultural moment for most of Jesus’ disciples.  The story of how Moses ordered the children of Israel to sacrifice a spotless lamb, place the blood on the lintel and doorposts of their home, and then to remain inside, protected by the sign of the blood of the lamb while death passed by informed their understanding of redemption and their understanding of God.  Jesus placed himself in this story by allowing himself to become the final sacrificial lamb, protecting all who trust in him from eternal death.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, who came and dwelt among us and offered to us a means of eternal life and salvation to all who put their trust in him.   We worship a powerful God.  Our liturgies are designed to help us remember and, in a sense, participate in these power sign acts that Jesus initiated.  If you think your priests are fussy or grumpy about the way we do liturgy it is because it means something more than just niceties. Do not relegate Jesus to a kind man in children’s stories. It is in his humility and gentleness that Jesus demonstrates just how powerful he really is.  Jesus can ride into town on a donkey and cause emperors to become nervous.  Jesus can allow himself to be crucified to demonstrate just how powerful love can be.  Jesus is our king to whom we owe absolute allegiance.  He is powerful enough to be victorious over powers and principalities, triumphant over all the forces of evil.   Jesus is the bread of life.  He is the one who gives us life and sustains our life.  Jesus is our redeemer.  He is the one who defeated death at its own game and rose victorious to lead us to victory.

This week we are asked to pause and to remember the price of this victory before we celebrate the joy of it.  May you have a meaningful Holy Week.

5 Lent 2021

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Wednesday night, during our CS Lewis study, we talked about “tokens” or symbols and some ways we use them and how powerful they can be.  I was in Food Lion the other day and the man behind me noticed the cross around the neck of the woman behind him and immediately started asking her where she went to church.  That symbol was a sign of a common bond.

Jesus made great use of the images and symbols that were part of everyday life for the people he lived among, first century Jews living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Remembrance of cultural events were part of the cycle of their lives – reading of the Psalms and participation in the annual festivals.   Some have criticized Jesus claiming he manipulated his life to appear to fulfill scripture, but I think this was his great strength.  Rather than hold great theological discourses that could not be understood, he chose to illustrate the mind of God, his own and God’s purpose with stories and even events of his own life recalling symbols they knew and understood.  There was also a historical, cultural precedence for this.  They were called “prophetic sign-acts” and there are about thirty of them in the Old Testament.  Some of the most memorable are the life of Hosea – who takes a prostitute for a wife and then names his children No Mercy and Not My People to show the people their unfaithfulness to God and Jeremiah walking around the streets of Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck to warn the people of their upcoming enslavement. Jesus’ whole life is a prophetic-sign act demonstrating the faithfulness and mercy of God.

In our Gospel reading today from John we are between Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the feet washing at the last Supper.  We are told some Greeks come to Philip requesting an audience with Jesus. There were numerous Greek speaking Gentiles at this time who were attracted to and participated at the periphery of Jewish life.  They were allowed in the outer court of the Temple, the area where Jesus had cleared out the merchants, but no further. Isaiah declares in chapter 56 that “foreigners” will join themselves to the Lord (v6) and …”my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (v7).    The appearance  of the Greeks, though not mentioned again, seems to be a sign for Jesus that it is time to complete what he came to do because he does not tell Philip and Andrew either yes or no, but states ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23).

Jesus frequently used illustrations from agriculture to illustrate his points.  That was the life of the people – fish, sheep, grapes, figs, olives and grains. This time Jesus illustrates what he is about to do by talking about seeds.  A single seed out of the ground is inert and appears lifeless.  When you plant it, the seed itself is destroyed, but out of it come roots and shoots and life.  From that single seed will come a whole plant  – Jesus will later call himself “the vine” (John 15:1) and from that plant fruit will be produced which will bear many new seeds.  Jesus is telling his disciples that for new life to spring forth it is necessary to go through death.  He will soon die, but it is not the end it is the beginning.

Jesus tells his followers that they too are like seeds.  I think this can be applied in two senses.  While we are yet alive, we are called to put God’s will ahead of our own self-interest.  Having been granted free will, to surrender that will to another, is in a sense death of self, but as C S Lewis put it in Screwtape Letters, God wants “little replicas of Himself…not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform to His… He wants servants that can become sons” (Lewis, p.46-47). This death to self is a re-birth like the one Jesus described to Nicodemus, a spiritual rebirth. The other death is the one we will all eventually experience before we can experience Resurrection.

Jesus makes the most out of the historical rituals of his people to make his death and resurrection a neon flashing light that proclaim God’s forgiveness of their sins, the restoration of the covenant relationship, and the defeat of their number one enemy – death, by proclaiming a cure for its cause – sin.  I think COVID has given us a taste of what life was like for most people prior to the last hundred years or so. The difference being, we have hope that this plague will go away soon and have taken extreme measures to avoid it.  For most of history, death was the enemy lurking around every door, there was no cure, no escape. Any injury, accident or act of violence, childbirth, plague or common disease could quickly end a previously heathy life.

Jesus does not approach his death with the romantic notion of glory in battle.  He knows he will be tortured and executed in the most painful and humiliating way possible.  Public executions were the norm at this time.  It was seen as a way of controlling the population by fear. Jesus had probably witnessed a crucifixion growing up in a Roman controlled state. Jesus acknowledges the horror of what is about to happen, but Jesus knows that it is only though death that he can demonstrate resurrection. I think it was intentional  Jesus set up a situation where both Jews and Gentiles would conspire together to have him executed. All people, are equally guilty and all people are equally forgiven. The way the people of his time understood sin and the barrier between it and their relationship to God was deeply tied to ritual animal sacrifice. Jesus makes use of this understanding and times his arrest and execution to coincide with Passover. He uses the Passover ritual to redefine the covenant and ties it to his sacrificial death, he will wash the disciple’s feet and talk about servant leadership, but he has also linked his name with Melchizedek.  He is high priest and king predating the Mosaic covenant, who offered bread and wine as a sacrifice but because he is a high priest, he evokes images of one praying for the remission of sins for the people and performing the blood sacrifice that completed that ritual.  Jesus portrays himself as the righteous king of peace and the suffering servant. He is the good shepherd that looks after and cares for his flock and he is the lamb that will be given as both sacrifice and food for the people. He is the prophet enacting God’s will in story form for the people and he is the fulfillment of God’s prophecy.

The symbols Jesus used may seem strange to us today.  They may feel difficult to look at or imagine, but the message has not changed.  Jesus willing gave up his life so he could demonstrate to us that death is not our enemy, that our sinful natures can be reconciled, that an eternal relationship with God is not only possible, but greatly desired by God.  Jesus has offered himself as the path and has called us to walk with him.

4 Lent 2021

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I had a houseful of kids, if something went missing or got broken there were plenty of possible suspects and of course no one ever wanted to confess to being the guilty one.  Now that I live alone, there is no one but myself to blame and when something goes missing, I know who misplaced it.

Confronting our own guilt is never easy, but it is what we are called to do on a daily basis as Christians. The remarkable thing is that we are told over and over again that if we confess, we will be forgiven.

In our Old Testament Lesson we have a rather odd story.  The children of Israel are making their way from the Red Sea which they crossed to escape slavery in Egypt toward the Jordon River and they are taking the long circuitous route to avoid the tribe of the Edomites.  Along the way the people begin to get tired of traveling and begin to complain. They are remembering the good-old-days in Egypt when they were slaves, but had easy access to food and water.  They even called the mana sent down from heaven “miserable food.”  Poisonous snakes invaded their campsite and many people were bit and died.  The people saw this as a sign from God that they had sinned by complaining against God and Moses and they begged Moses to intervene on their behalf so the snakes would go away.  God tells Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole.  Then when anyone was bit by a snake, if they would look at the snake on the pole they would live.  In effect, what they were doing was acknowledging their own guilt by looking at the snake on the pole, acknowledging the mercy of God by the simple act of looking at the cause of their illness, and receiving mercy from God who prevented them from dying.

This might have just remained one of those odd stories in the Bible except that Jesus made use of this symbol to explain what he, himself will do.

Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to him in the middle of the night. This is right after Jesus had driven the merchants off of the temple property.  Nicodemus may have been one of the men who witnessed this event and asked Jesus for a sign.  He obviously is concerned about what his peers would think of him if they caught him speaking to Jesus as a believer – otherwise he would not have come at night.  It is obviously important to him to speak to Jesus, otherwise he would not have gone to all the trouble to seek him out after the others have all gone home to bed.  Nicodemus tells Jesus “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has been watching Jesus and has witnessed what John in the previous chapter calls “the signs that he was doing.”  I suspect this was healing the sick, the wisdom of his teachings, and perhaps Nicodemus was beginning to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures as Jesus intended.   

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above;” sometimes this is translated “born again.”  This should have been a compliment to Nicodemus.  He has just confessed that he has seen the kingdom of God unfolding in the presence of Jesus and Jesus has responded that Nicodemus has experienced this new birth which has granted him this vision, but instead, Nicodemus takes what Jesus is saying literally and questions how one can be born again, thinking only of biological re-birth.

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be ‘born of water and the Spirit”. Nicodemus is still stuck – he is not getting any of what Jesus is saying despite his earlier confession that he knew Jesus had been sent from God and the signs that he did were testimony to that fact.

Jesus is now rather astonished and appalled at the lack of spiritual knowledge in this person who claims to be a religious leader of the children of Israel.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  I can empathize with both Nicodemus and Jesus at this point. Science and math can be hard, but at least you can point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify it is true and if you will observe it, you will see that it is true.  In spiritual matters, we can also point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify this is true, but telling someone else how to observe it for themselves can be difficult. Spiritual experiences are often difficult, if not impossible, to repeat even by those who first had the experience.  

Jesus continues to try to explain to Nicodemus what he is talking about and this is about the place we pick up todays gospel.   Jesus tell Nicodemus that if he is having trouble understanding something earthly, like birth and re-birth, how can he ever understand the heavenly things, but Jesus doesn’t stop trying to help him understand.

He tells him that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  Son of man is a term that goes back to Daniel where Daniel has a vision of one “like a son of man” (a human being) who is presented to “the Ancient one” and to him is given “dominion and glory and kingship…” Jesus is using passages of scripture that should be familiar to Nicodemus to tell him, I am the one  – I am the Son of Man that Daniel describes and I have come to earth as a man. 

Jesus pulls out another story from the scriptures that Nicodemus should know.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Jesus is describing his crucifixion and comparing it to the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole in the wilderness.  Jesus will take on the sins of the world at his crucifixion and all one needs to do is look to the cross and acknowledge that Jesus has taken on their sins and has forgiven them and they will be saved – not just for the moment, but for all eternity.

Verse 16 is the first Bible verse most people learn – “For God so loved the world that he give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “  It is a beautiful summary of the mercy of God, but we seldom pay attention to the rest of the passage and it is a statement of fact intended to cause Nicodemus to wake up to what Jesus has been telling him. 

Jesus emphasizes that he did not come to condemn the world.  The ancient notion of the last days was all about judgement, but mostly about judgement against the other person.  The prophets often reminded folks that in the day of judgement everyone, including you, would be judged, so be careful what you wish for.   Jesus states that we pronounce judgement on ourselves.  “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3: 18) None of us are put in the role of judging another person’s relationship with God, but I can’t state I believe the scriptures to be the inspired word of God and turn around and say it doesn’t matter what we believe.

Jesus gave this warning to Nicodemus – that we could tell the difference between good and evil because “those who do what is true come to the light.”  Symbolically, Jesus is comparing himself to the light but he is also saying that what is true, what is good, can stand up to the light of day – is not afraid of being exposed.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was afraid for others to know what he was doing.  His motives are questionable.  He is drawn to Jesus and yet, he places the esteem of his peers higher than his desire to be with Jesus.

Looking on our own shortcomings is never easy, but the solution is easy, we only need to turn and look at Jesus, to acknowledge what Jesus did on the cross as the path to our salvation.  We don’t have to completely understand it, but we must be willing to be seen in the light of day embracing the cross.  Are you willing to look at Jesus on the cross and acknowledge that is where your salvation was obtained?  Are you willing to let others know, or do you carry your faith only in the dark recesses of your own heart?  Jesus tells us to put our lamps where the light can be seen.  We are the lamps, Jesus is the light, but it is up to us to determine where we allow His light to shine.  

Lent 3 2021

Photo by Trinity Kubassek on Pexels.com

How do you picture Jesus?  Today’s reading is sometimes difficult for people because we tend to picture Jesus as what in literature one would call a flat or underdeveloped character.  We like the wise teacher who is kind to children, but we shy away from the strong, assertive, and sometimes rigid aspects of his personality.   Part of that, I think, is because we don’t really understand the adjectives that we use to describe Jesus as they are used in the Bible.  The one in particular word that comes to mind is humble.

Humble is not low self-esteem. It is not being shy or fearful. It is not necessarily being polite, though I think those two often are found riding side by side. 

The best description I ever heard of ‘humble’ I think will make a lot of sense, especially to all the horsemen and women, in our community.  A wild horse is fast, strong, and will kick, buck and bite to resist being controlled.  Humans by nature are the same way.  But when a skilled person trains the animal to follow their commands, the horse, under certain circumstances becomes gentle, affectionate, and the best horse and rider combinations move as one being, the horse using its power and agility to accomplish the will of its rider.  The horse has lost none of its power and could chose at any moment to disregard the wishes of its rider, but a well-trained horse under most circumstances will be compliant.

Moses was an example of a humble man.  He is the only man, other Jesus, that the Bible describes as humble.  He did not get there overnight and there were occasions when he overstepped his authority and because of that, he did not cross the Jordan with the people he had led for forty years.  God spent 80 years training and molding Moses into a person who could be that connected to God that he could represent God to the Pharoah of Egypt and the infant nation Israel.  Moses was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually strong.

Jesus, by the very nature of being God incarnate, is totally in-sink with the will of God.  When Jesus attempted to teach in the synagogue in his home town the question arose, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Mark 6:3). The statement indicated that Jesus was not raised as a scholar, but that his father, Joseph built things with his hands for a living and Jesus would have grown up helping him. Therefore, they questioned where he got his knowledge of scripture.  If you have ever worked with wood you know that it requires both strength and agility to build large items like boats, yokes for oxen, and other farm implements out of wood, especially before the advent of power tools.  The times when Jesus was gentle was because he was so strong, not a sign that he was weak.  Jesus could step outside of the customs of his own people and show compassion to women, to children, to the physically ill or disabled, and to the mentally ill or disabled because he did not need to prove himself to anyone.  He was not afraid of anyone, not even the devil himself. That does not mean he did not get sad, tired, hungry, or angry, but Jesus was in total control of his physical self and intimately aligned with God so that when he spoke or acted it was as though God the Father had done so.

So what happened in John chapter 2? Jesus and his disciples have gone from Capernaum, in Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is about a three day walk.  When Jesus gets to the outer courtyard of the temple, he sees the place is set up like a flea market.  The merchants, taking advantage of the fact that many people had traveled for several days to Jerusalem are set up ready to sell you all those things that you will need to properly celebrate the Passover, in particular, they had the animals you would need for your sacrifice so you didn’t have to bring them on the journey with you and worry that they might not be in perfect shape when you arrived.  They also had people who would exchange your Roman money (which had the blasphemous image of Caesar, who was worshiped as a god) for temple money appropriate for making your tithe to the temple, and of course there was a fee for those services.  Jesus becomes furious. He is angry because people are taking advantage of other people who are trying to worship God on the very grounds of the temple. 

Ritual purity is a hard thing for us to understand because we no longer observe those kinds of laws.  Ritual purity has nothing to do with sin.  You became ritually impure for common things:  having sex, even with your spouse; having a baby; a woman during her monthly period; touching a dead body which included caring for the sick and dying.  Jesus was criticized because his disciples did not wash their hands before they ate.  It had nothing to do with germs or dirt and everything to do with ritual purity.  The merchants in the courtyard were using the laws of ritual purity to make money off of travelers who came to worship in the only place at that time one was allowed to worship on these high holy days.  The temple grounds were considered so holy that latrines were set up off the property so as not to ritually contaminate anything on the temple grounds, yet they didn’t mind making a few bucks off their neighbor.  To Jesus, this was an abomination.

Jesus comes in and creates total chaos.  He makes a whip out of pieces of cords and chases the sheep and cows out into the streets. He upturns the tables of the money changers so Roman and temple coins are rolling around on the ground, and I am sure there were people frantically scrambling to pick them up and sort them out.  Probably still with whip in hand, he yells at those who are selling birds to get out of there.  Today, if this happened, someone would be videoing the commotion while their friend called 911.

We are told the scene caused Jesus’ disciples to remember a passage from Psalm 69:9 “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me: the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  John quotes the first half of this verse.  I suspect the temple elders remembered this Psalm as well because they don’t call the temple guards to have him thrown out, instead they as ask him , “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18) They are asking him to prove to them that he is the Messiah and that he is in fact doing this as a fulfillment of prophecy.  Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Jesus is offering them resurrection as the proof of who he is.  He is calling his own body the temple – the place where God dwells among men. The gospel of John makes no apologies for stating that Jesus is god Incarnate – from his beginning passage “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) His statement at the end of chapter 20 “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you many have life in his name.”(John 20:21). John points out the spiritual blindness of the temple leaders who take Jesus literally and tell him that it took 46 years to build the temple, how can you rebuild it in three.

I would challenge you this week as you read your Bibles to begin to picture Jesus and God the Father as acting as one, just like a well trained horse and its rider, each one acutely aware of the movements of the other, responding the words and actions of each other for a single purpose.  Then imagine what it would be like if you had that kind of relationship with God/Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Lent 2 2021

Photo by Cliford Mervil on Pexels.com

Last week we looked at the story of Noah, the Ark, and the rainbow. It was a story of a new beginning for humanity in covenant with God.  This morning, we look at God’s next great act of mercy and covenant with humanity as we explore what it means to be righteous in God’s sight.

According to Biblical genealogies, it has been slightly less than 400 years between the time Noah stepped off the ark and the time of God’s first conversation with Abram later re-named Abraham.  These should not be taken as too exact, different calendars were in use and numbers were used more symbolically than literally.  We are told Abram was 75 years old when God told him to leave Haran  and said “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…”(Gen 12:2). Abram did as God asked.  He packed up his family and his possessions and began making his way to Canaan. God did not promise the land to Abram, but to his offspring. (Gen 12:7). In fact, it would be many generations before that part of the promise was fulfilled. The patriarch Jacob/Israel would be remembered by later generations as a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) They sojourned for a time in Egypt, then were driven out and sojourned in the Negeb (Negev), a desert region south of present day Jerusalem.  He had many adventures over the next twenty five years, many of which are recorded in the book of Genesis but he and his wife Sarai remained without heirs.  Sarai tried to take matters into her own hand at one time and according to the law of their time, sent her maid, Hagar to Abram as a surrogate, so that she and Abram might have a child, but if you know that story – it was outside of God’s plan for them and it did not go so well, but God had mercy on the child Ishmael, blessed him and promised to make a great nation of him, just not the nation that God had set aside for his immediate purpose. 

Here we enter today’s Old Testament reading.  Abram is now 99 years old and his wife Sarai is way past the time of being able to have a biological child.  Yet God had not forgotten his promise to Abram.  At this time he appears to Abram, renews the previous covenant and gives both Abram and Sarai new names to mark the significance of this promise.  Abram (exalted father) become Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarai (princess) became Sarah (noble woman).  God establishes another sign of the covenant at this time. “God said to Abraham, ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.’ (Gen 17: 10-11).  And we are told that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males of his household – both family and slaves.

In a prior verse two chapter’s back, we are told that before this conversation and after a great battle in which Abram is assisted by the King of Salem, named Melchizedek.  (Here again – names are important – this is the king of “Peace” also believed to be the city we know as Jerusalem and his name means “my king is righteousness” or “the king of righteousness.” Christian theologians believe Melchizedek prefigures Christ.) Abram has a dream in which Abram asks of God what God plans for him because God promised to make of his offspring a great nation and his only heir is a slave in his household.  God affirms his intent to make Abram’s offspring as numerous of the stars in the heavens and we are told Abram believed him.  Gen 15:6 states “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  All this happened before the establishment of the rite of circumcision, before the birth of either Ishmael or Isaac (his son by Sarah). It is long before the giving of the Law to Moses. It is this verse that Paul picks up on in his letter to the Romans.

We are going to fast forward about 2000 years – past Moses and the giving of the law, past David and the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem, past the Assyrian conquest of the ten northern tribes of Israel and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, past the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. But there are some things that happened during these 2000 years of which we need to be aware.

When Moses was given the Law at Sinai, he was building a new nation that was intended to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, through the descendants of his grandson Jacob aka Israel, for them to inhabit the land of Canaan and to become a blessing to the rest of the world because of their knowledge of and faith in the true God. Pagan worship had taken over the world at the time of Abraham, thus his separation from his native homelands. It had again taken over Abraham’s descendants while they sojourned in Egypt.  Part of the law was much like the laws of other lands, intended to maintain civil order, but part of their law was intended to remind them with every breath they took, every bite of food they ate, every article of clothing they put on, that they worshiped the true God, they were his and he was committed to them. Paganism is insidious and God was giving them the tools they needed to combat it, but time and again they would repent, attempt to live according to the law, and then fall back into their old habits. I think we can probably relate.  It is part of the human story.

One of the things that happened between the time of Moses and the time of Paul is that the Law itself became what was worshiped by many. We know from writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was not just theological concerns that separated the various sects of Judaism in centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus.  Sadducees, Pharisees,  Essenes and Zealots also argued over the interpretation of the law over such matters as calendars and ritual purity.  Jesus frequently criticized the religious leaders of his time because they used the law to oppress the poor and the different and they twisted the law, finding loop holes that allowed them to do as they pleased.  The law was intended to unite the community in faith and to protect the vulnerable.

Paul is writing to Christians about 20-30 years after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ.  Christians, who initially were a small group united by their experience of Jesus and their belief that he was God Incarnate and savior of the world, were now doing the exact same things that the Jews of Jesus’ time had done.  They are building up walls between themselves and other Christians based upon interpretations of the role of the law post Jesus.  Circumcision in particular, but some of the Roman Christians were pointing fingers at other Roman Christians because of cultural differences.

What Paul is pointing out is that it is not the law that saves us or makes us righteous – puts us in right relationship with God, it is our faith in God and salvation offered through Jesus Christ.

Lest we forget – this conversation did not end with Paul and the first few generations of Christians. It was not just an issue between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Christian church had its first major split in 1054, what is called the Great Schism.  This was theological but also cultural and political between the Latin west and the Greek east. Then the Reformation of the 1500’s split the western Latin church into Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and others.  There were political and cultural differences between the Italians, Germans, French, English, Scots, Swiss, (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Huguenots, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Anabaptist) and others including internal to these groups issues concerning salvation – faith vs works, as well as liturgical practices, theological understandings, and political motivations.

Going back to Paul, who goes back to Abraham – righteousness, being in right relationship with God, and therefore salvation is based on faith.  James in his letters reminds us, that when we have that faith, when we are in right relationship with God, that works naturally follow.  To claim we have faith and to behave as those who do not have faith calls into question our honesty with ourselves.

This Lent, we are called to self-examination for the purpose of affirming our faith, strengthening us in that faith, and multiplying the fruits of the Holy Spirit by becoming attuned to when we are walking in that path and when we have strayed.  Jesus’ reminder is that we are choosing the more difficult path.  It is easy to do what the world expects us to do and to please the world, or to please ourselves, it is much harder to walk in his footsteps.  My prayer for you this week is that you will clearly discern Jesus’ footsteps on the path before you and that you will be strengthened in this journey by your relationships with one another and in company of the Holy Spirit.

Lent 1 2021

Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev on Pexels.com

Symbols can be powerful things. They can tell you at a glance a lot about a person who uses them.  They can cause people to suddenly smile, or become angry.  But I don’t think any symbol has been adopted by more groups of people and used to mean such a wide variety of things as the rainbow. Outside it’s biblical meaning  – in Irish mythology it is the place Leprechauns stash their gold and a sign of the quest for riches, during the Peasants War in Germany it became a political sign of the reformation movement, in 1939 Judy garland sang “Over the Rainbow” and it became a symbol of wishes come true, in the 1940’s the Christian Cursillo renewal movement embraced the rainbow and the Spanish folk song De Colores as a celebration of new creation in Christ, in the 1960’s it was used in peace demonstrations, in the 1970’s it became the symbol of LGBTQ pride, in the 1980’s the “Rainbow Bridge” became the assurance to many that All Dogs Go to Heaven and recently in England, the NHS (National Health Service – free public medical care) has tried to use it which has brought both criticism and confusion to them, their supporters and the general public who has tried to figure out what social or political message is being sent. You may have seen Paul Hollywood’s regrettable rainbow bagels on the Great British Bake Off last season.

Noah and his ark have also had an unusual cultural history.  In the 1800’s and perhaps earlier than that it was one of the few toys children were allowed to play with on Sundays or the Sabbath, an early notion of Godly play. It later became a popular theme for nursery decorations and in Corpus Christi, TX there is a shelter for children entering the foster care program called Noah’s Ark .  Of course there are no Titanic like scenes depicted in these children’s versions, though I imagine a good number of little boys used their knowledge of the story and their imagination to create havoc in the waters.

What is odd about all these varieties of uses of the rainbow and Noah and the Ark is that most of them miss the point of the story which means that over time the symbol of the rainbow has become confused.

The Bible begins with creation, then the story of Adam and Eve and their failure to keep God’s commandments.  Their great sin was the desire to be like God to the point of disbelieving that God had their best interest in mind. They consciously defied God choosing to believe they knew better.  The consequence was they were removed from the garden, from the immediate presence of God, and had to start working in order to eat and have protection from the elements.  The other thing that happened was the relationship human to human was also corrupted.  This is demonstrated in the story of Cain and Abel where Cain kills his brother out of jealousy because Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not.   Chapter 6 of Genesis begins by telling us that human life on earth had become so corrupt that it breached the boundaries between the human and divine realms.  The story of the Nephilim mirror stories in Greek mythology of heavenly beings having sexual relationships with humans and this story may point to the embracing of pagan religions. It was romanticized in the 1998 movie City of Angels, but scriptures state it was a sign of the total depravity of humanity.  We are told in verse 6 that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

Enter Noah – Noah seems to be the one person on earth at this time that was still in constant communication with God.  One man left in all of creation that continued to say his prayers and God let him in on God’s plans for salvation.  God determined to flood the earth, to cleans it with water and to start over with Noah and his family. (This becomes an foreshadowing of baptism.) We have a tendence to focus on Noah saving the animals and fail to see that God saved Noah when he brought judgement to the rest of the earth because of human corruption.  Even the Bible does not dwell on what happened outside of the ark.  It is too horrible to comprehend and while the judgement was executed, the mercy of God is demonstrated in sparing Noah, his family, and two of every animal is the focus of the story.

When the waters had subsided and the ground was dry enough to walk on – symbolized by the dove returning with an olive branch in her mouth (another powerful symbol) Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark.  The first thing Noah does is build an altar.  He doesn’t pitch his tent and get settled, he makes a thanksgiving offering to God by offering one of every ritually clean animal and bird (he had taken more than two of each of these) and sacrificing them to God. This would have been a timely and strenuous task for someone having just spent 40 days at sea, so to speak.  God in turn, in appreciation for Noah’s righteousness – his right relationship to God – makes a covenant with Noah.  God promises he will never again, as long as the earth endures, curse the ground because of humans.  God acknowledges the sinful nature of humans and agrees to remain in relationship but there were some conditions, some acknowledgements of the state of things that God clarifies.  Animals will now fear humans, but humans will now be allowed to eat meat.  God claims right to the blood – the life of all animals, including humans belongs to God.  It is forbidden for one human to take the life of another and God states that “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed: for in his own image God made humankind.” (Gen 9:6)

The story of Noah explains further the situation humanity had created for itself.  It explained the conflict between humans and the rest of nature.  It explained why humans were allowed to eat meat, but the blood was forbidden.  Even today there are pagan cultures that sacrifice animals and drink the blood believing they can absorb the life force of that animal.  God says this is strictly forbidden.  The life of all creatures belongs to God, only the carcass is ours for nourishment. 

The consequence of murder is the loss of one’s life at the hands of another. I think this may be more a statement of fact than a command.  Jesus says those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  In ancient times this led to revenge, and later passages of the Bible address this.  Moses’ “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was an early attempt to curb feuds and make the punishment fit the crime.  Today we focus on the recognition that all life belongs to God and is therefore to be cherished.

And finally, the rainbow –

The rainbow is a symbol of the covenant God made with all creation.  It is a reminder to us of our sinful nature and God’s mercy.  God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”  The rainbow is our sign of God’s presence, God’s promise to love and care for all of God’s creation, and a reminder to us of the mercy God has show in the past and will continue to show in the future. We may each embrace one of the historical meanings behind the symbol of the rainbow. It is obviously a powerful and meaningful symbol, but when we see a rainbow – let’s us also remember the true meaning of its symbol – a reminder of our sins, but the promise of God’s mercy and redemption.    

Last Epiphany (Transfiguration) 2021

Photo by Andreas on Pexels.com

As I read today’s passage out of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I had to read it twice, because the first time I totally misconstrued what he was saying, and it made me realize some of the difficulties individuals who have been participating in our C S Lewis study are having with the Screwtape Letters.

For those of you who have not been reading this with us, it is a satirical piece that is written from the perspective of an older demon trying to coach his nephew in the art of turning people away from Christ.  The language is upside down because of the perspective.  When I read Paul saying “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” I missed the “of this world” part of Paul’s statement which turns everything upside down.  What he is saying is that Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.

Talking about Satan may seem like an unlikely place to begin a sermon on the Transfiguration, but I think considering the last two weeks we have read stories of Jesus casting out demons; if we remember it was after his profession of faith, but just before the Transfiguration that Jesus told Peter, “get behind me Satan,” and in consideration of our Lenten study, I think it is a good place to start.

The word Satan comes from Hebrew and it should draw to mind a court of law, not a man in red tights with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.  The Satan is the adversary or the accuser.  He is the attorney for the prosecution whose intent is to prove us guilty, and is not above trickery, fast talking and manipulation to accomplish his purpose.  My apologies to any attorneys out there, but this is the image the Bible gives of Satan. 

It is Satan that suggests to God in the book of Job that his servant Job is not faithful because he loves and is loyal to God, but because God has never given him any reason not to be grateful to God.  It is Satan that meets Jesus in the Wilderness and suggests that he should take the easy way out. Why fast when you have the power to make bread? Why suffer when you can demonstrate who you are by your command of the heavenly realm? Why win hearts the hard way, but preaching, healing, feeding, casting out demons and raising the dead, when I (Satan) will give them to you if you worship me?

Mark 8: 31-33 states “Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said this all quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan!” for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, in rebuking Jesus for saying he will suffer and die, is doing just like Satan did, suggesting Jesus take the easy way out, that he skip the hard part, the suffering and death.   The Corinthians, to whom Paul is speaking had at first accepted the Gospel that Paul had preached.  They understood why Jesus had to suffer and die and that he had been resurrected reconciling them to God, but some “super-apostles” had come behind Paul and told them that suffering was not necessary. They had told them that they could reach God through heavenly ecstatic experiences and skip all that suffering.  Paul tells them that Satan has blinded them to the truth.

 It is with Jesus’ words of preparation for the disciples, revealing that he is about to face suffering and death before his resurrection and his public rebuke of Peter for suggesting he need not go through that pain that we approach the Transfiguration.

Six days have past, and Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go for a walk with him.  I have often wondered if they worried that they were getting a pink slip. That Jesus had had enough and was sending them back to their fishing boats.  These are the three that seem to get in trouble. Jesus leads them far away from the others upon the top of a high mountain.  Mark does not mess around telling a story and he immediately gets to the good part, Jesus is “transfigured” before them.  Jesus starts to glow.  They have been hiking up a mountain and I suspect they are all dirty and smelly, but Jesus looks like an advertisement for Clorox.  His clothes are dazzling, whiter than humanly possible, like lightening when it lights up the sky and he strikes up a conversation with Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the greatest of the prophets), long dead heroes of the Jewish faith.  What Jesus has offered Peter, James and John – not his troublemakers, but his executive committee, is a model of Resurrection. He is giving them hope.  He is giving them a glimpse of the future.  Peter recognizes the holiness of this moment and suggests they erect of three tabernacles much like the tabernacle that sheltered the Ark of the Covenant during Moses’ time. But Peter still has not really grasped what he has witnessed.

A cloud overshadows them and a voice calls out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Peter did not get fired, but in a sense, he did get taken to the principles office and was told, quit running your mouth and listen to your teacher.  We do that, don’t we.  We get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we miss the miracles happening before our very eyes. 

In the Screwtape letters, Lewis talks at length about how our own self-centeredness gets in the way of our relationship with God and with our neighbors.  He very astutely points out that sometimes our insistence in being righteous according to our own rules– a “lust for delicacy” he calls it, can be the very stumbling block we put between ourselves and God, as well as making our family and neighbors miserable in the process.

As we approach Lent, let us use this time to examine the ways that we look for the easy way out. It is one of the great temptations.  Jesus never said the Christian life was easy. In fact, he said it will kill you, but I will resurrect you. Let us look for the ways, like Peter, we run our mouths and act like we know better than everyone else and instead, look for the humanity and the godly in our neighbor, and perhaps we will see God.  And finally, let us not miss the transfigurations of life before us by getting so caught-up in the ordinary that we miss them, even when they are right before our eyes.