In the passage from Genesis, we encounter a word that deserves our attention. It is the word covenant. We may not talk about it enough. Covenant means an agreement or a contract. Some might say it is a partnership between God and God’s people which by the way means everyone. God gives gifts to God’s people and in return God’s people agree to make commitments to God. I like to say the word promise. We promise that we will do certain things. We know that God is always faithful to God’s promises.
Last week we heard about the covenant between God and Noah. Noah had been faithful to God’s wishes by preparing the ark and saving all the living things on earth during the flood. After the flood, God provided a rainbow, a sign of the commitment that never again would a flood cover the entire earth. The rainbow continues to be a sign of that promise. We find God’s promise in the beauty of a rainbow.
In today’s passage, we learn about the covenant between God and Abraham. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations. He even gave Abraham and his wife their new names. The name Abram means exalted father but when he became Abraham he became the father of a multitude, a patriarch for many people and nations. Sarai became Sarah. Both names mean princess but I think of Sarah as the loving mother to countless generations. She was the woman who thought she was too old to have a child and yet became the mother so many. Next week, we will read the ten commandments which was part of the covenant between God, Moses and the Israelites.
The importance of covenant is continued in Paul’s letter to the Romans. God gave the gift of parenthood to Abraham and Sarah. But Sarah and Abraham were always faithful to God. Faith meant giving over their lives to God, it was their constant trust in God. Abraham’s faith was also God’s gift to Abraham. After all, it was through faith that God gave Abraham the strength for all the things Abraham did. Paul suggested that Abraham and Sarah were hoping against hope that they would have a child. Their faith was rewarded. Faith is our way to respond to God and yet our faith is also a gift that God gives us to help us through the difficult times.
It is the faith of Abraham that we are called to follow. Abraham is the example of faith that we need to emulate. One writer said it this way, “Abraham is not only the father of a single ethnic nation, he is the spiritual ‘father of a multitude.’” And this faithful multitude, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, is too large to number (Rev 7:9). Through him, all the nations of the world are blessed (Gen 22:18)”. I believe that God will reward our faith just as God rewarded the faith of Abraham and Sarah.
In this Lenten season, I suggest we consider our faith journey. How can we live like our father Abraham? How can we be so faithful that we are always seeking to follow Jesus? Can our faith be an inspiration to others? Part of our challenge is that faith takes some giving up or giving in. It means that we trust that God knows what is best for us. It means that we will seek to find God’s way and not always follow our own way. I think that last one can be difficult. You see, I think God wants us to use our own intelligence, skill and energy to do God’s work in the world. So, how do we know when we take action whether it is something that God wants us to do or something we are doing on our own? I think it all comes down to prayer. We pray to be sure what we are doing is God’s will. It also takes a willingness to yield to God’s plan. By the way, while some would say that we should follow God’s plan someone suggested this week that a better way to think about it is to follow God’s dream.
This week, I received a meditative thought about what faith or belief really is. Brother David Vryof suggested it is about yielding,
“Belief involves our whole being and orientation toward God. It is the yielding up of our selves – our bodies, minds and spirits – in trust and in confidence to the One who has created us and redeemed us and called us by name. It is to enter into relationship with this God and to live connected to God’s life and power, like a branch that draws its life from the vine”.
Is it possible during this Lent to focus on giving up our own way and finding the way of God?
Faith will help us follow Jesus. In the gospel, Jesus taught that he would undergo suffering, that he would be rejected and that he would be killed. Those were hard words for his followers to hear for the first time. Then, he shared what it meant for he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Does that sound like the words of the covenant to you? Jesus will always be with us and asks us to commit to him by taking up our own cross. It is a command that requires faith. We must trust in the strength of Jesus to help us on that journey.
In this Lenten season, we ask ourselves what can we do to take up our own cross? We are not expected to physically take up a cross such as the one Jesus carried. This may be a metaphorical statement, but it still has great meaning. C. S. Lewis encouraged us not to be complacent. Lewis said that “Some wrongly conclude that carrying the cross is nothing more than living a respectable life and subscribing moderately to charities.” Let us this lent imagine what God’s plan or dream for us is meant to be when we take up our own cross.
Can we find a way to let go of our anger, fear or frustration? I know that the changes that have been forced upon us the last year have caused many people to build up feelings. Perhaps Lent is a time when we can give some of those negative feelings to God as we look forward to the light of things opening up.
Can we stop thinking of a way to get revenge for times when we have been wronged and instead seek a place of reconciliation? I am not suggesting that anyone put themselves in harm’s way. I am rather suggesting that maybe we can listen and learn and accept who that other person is.
Can we find a way to be less selfish? Bishop Michael Curry says that the opposite of love is not hate but selfishness. Is there a way this Lent that we can focus on others instead of focusing on ourselves?
During black history month, perhaps we can learn from two of the rules, that Martin Luther King Junior gave to his freedom marchers. One is to make sure that we are in good spiritual and bodily health so that we can do good for others. It is difficult to do God’s work when we are sick. May you find some way to be healthy both physically and spiritually.
The second expectation of Dr King touched me. He said that we should refrain from the violence of fist, tongue and heart. It is easy to see the violence of fist. We have seen it many times on the news as they describe killings that have occurred. But we do not often remember that violence comes in the form of what we say. Bullying is a good example, but our words can be harmful even when they are said quietly. And how might we address the violence that we might feel in our hearts. If we can find a way to deal with that challenge, I am sure that we will be carrying our own cross.
I read something by Rolf Jacobsen that seems to sum up our lives in Lent. He borrowed an idea from Ecclesiastes and suggested that “For Christians, Lent is a time to die to our sins, to die to our self-centered wills, and a time to die to our very selves. And when that happens, Lent is also a time for the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins, to raise up a new creation in Christ in place of our self-centered wills and renew ourselves with the breath of baptismal new life.”
Whatever you choose to do or not do in Lent, I would ask you to remember the partnership that is found in covenant. While we may work to come closer to God in Lent, we can be assured that God is moving closer to us, that God is standing beside us always ready to listen, to help and to forgive. Amen.
It has been almost one year since the Covid-19 pandemic closed our church to services. So much has changed in that year. On this Ash Wednesday, I am feeling sadness because I have known so many people who have died in the last year. I have lost friends, colleagues, family members and church members. It seems so overwhelming. I miss them and wish they were still here. But this year gives such special meaning to me of the imposition of ashes.
This year, you will be placing the ashes on your own forehead. And you will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We know that we are mortal human beings. We know that we are only here on earth for a short time. The cross on our forehead reminds us of the suffering that Jesus experienced. We wish to give back to Jesus for all that he did for us. What might we do this Lent to prepare ourselves for the sadness of Good Friday and for the glory of Easter?
Some would say the season of Lent is a sad time. We change the colors in the church from white and green to violet or purple. We stop singing uplifting or joyous hymns and instead we choose hymns that are quiet and reflective. Once Lent begins, we stop saying Alleluia as a part of our service. That is a difficult thing for this congregation. We really like our Alleluias. At the 10:00 service many insist that they say Alleluia three times at the end of the service.
I worry about people who think that there is no fun in Lent. It is not that we should be sad during Lent but rather that we should be serious. It isn’t that we shouldn’t smile but that we should be quieter, more contemplative. It is as if we are an athlete training for a big event or a concert pianist practicing for a concert. We are preparing ourselves for the event of Easter.
Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect and consider where we are going. We are encouraged to consider actions that focus our attention on God. For some it will be a time to give up something they like, perhaps chocolate or sweets. Maybe some people will choose to read scripture or participate in some online Bible study. In the past, people may have stopped going out for dinner but that doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice this year.
This past week, my attention was drawn to a passage from Romans. Paul said,
“But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:17-18.
Is it possible that during this Lenten season, we can imagine what causes us to be slaves of sin? Perhaps we can find something in our lives that keeps us from being totally dedicated to Jesus. It might be a sin such as greed or envy. But it might be something else that keeps us from God. Is there some relationship which causes us anger or resentment, keeping us from feeling the love of Jesus? Is there some wish we have that keeps our focus from being on God?
I read this week about a loving woman who taught her grandchildren important life lessons as she was chopping vegetables for the family meal. It caused me to ask myself what unhealthy parts of my life can be snipped off or moved so that all that is left is the beautiful fruit of God’s love. I also remember from years past that Lent is not just about what we stop doing but also about what we create. Perhaps you might identify something in your life that could use some nurture, like putting fertilizer and water on a plant. Or perhaps you might imagine that you are a painter who has just placed an empty canvas on an easel. What might you create this Lenten season?
Our creation might take some imagination as being with other people is hard and getting together in community is difficult. May you find some unique way to show your love for your fellow human beings this year. So, as we begin this Lenten season, let us do so with confidence and hope. We remember that our lives are short, and we should do all we can to live our lives in the best way possible. Rather than dread this time, let us listen especially closely for God’s word in our lives. We should do so knowing the good news that comes to us in today’s Collect: With penitent and contrite hearts we acknowledge our sinfulness but we look to obtain from the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness. The result of our Lenten efforts is just that, to bring us closer to God, our fellow humans and to obtain God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace. Amen.
Fr. Bob - I always look forward to this day because it has so much meaning for me and for this church. The name of our church does not come from the name of a patron saint. Rather our church is named after an event. It is the event we celebrate today in our gospel lesson. It is the transfiguration of Jesus. Some people have come to the church and ask what does the name of the church mean. I wish everyone knew the story because through it we can see the transforming power of Jesus and we can ask Jesus to transform us.
We are so fortunate that we have an icon of the Transfiguration which normally hangs on the large cross. This icon was written, not painted by our own Bill Robinson. I have asked Bill to join me today to share information with you about the icon. It was a surprise to me when the icon appeared on the cross on the afternoon of my ordination, January 19, 2014. Bill, would you come and explain this icon for us?
Icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration - Bill Robinson
To understand the icon of the Transfiguration, you first need to have a short understanding of the nature of an “icon”, and why this particular graphic format is different from a standard piece of religious artwork. To begin, it should be mentioned that the word “icon” is kind of an overused word. We speak of Martin Luther King as an icon of the civil rights movement. We think of Elvis as an icon of Rock and Roll, or of Kobe Bryant as the icon of professional basketball. Yet the word “Icon” is simply the Greek word for image. For 1,700 years in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and 450 years in the Anglican Communion, “icons,” have been specific symbolic images of Jesus, Mary, the Saints and, occasionally, the events of the church year. They are usually painted on wood, fresco or done in mosaic, and they always illustrate portions of scripture. Icons are regarded by the major liturgical churches as “graphic scripture”, and like scripture, icons are said to be written rather than painted. By interacting with them, in prayer and contemplation, icons can be a doorway to a spiritual connection that one might not otherwise experience.
If that seems like a bit of an anachronism with no relevance in today’s world, consider this: We call those little images on our computers and phones “icons”, and there is a very intentional reason for that. They work exactly the same way as religious icons. Instead of with prayer, we interact with computer icons by clicking on them and, with luck, a whole world of information opens up behind the icon. (Though, in my case, I haven’t completely abandoned the interaction by prayer—“Please God, let this program open up!”) Such is the case with the icon we have before us today: the icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is intended to be interacted with in prayer to get it to open.
The three synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus took the three apostles, James, Peter, and John “the beloved” and led them up a high mountain. There, as Matthew tells us, Jesus was “transfigured into blinding light; both his face and clothing changing before their eyes”. Luke, in today’s Gospel, writes, that “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became dazzling white.” And again, Mark says that his clothes were “such that no one on earth could bleach them”.
Luke tells us that the transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying. This last commentary is what is depicted in this icon, where Jesus is raising His hands in prayer and, as Luke says, “While He was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white.” Then, before the eyes of the apostles, appeared the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Then, if that was not already enough, a voice came out of a cloud and said, “This is my Son, the beloved.”
The icon we are discussing today is a symbolic representation of the event described in the Gospels. The composition of this icon follows a strictly symmetrical scheme. A stylized mountain landscape is characterized by a central peak, flanked by lesser peaks on either side. Jesus stands (or almost floats) on the central peak. He is clothed in a white and gold robe that appears to have dazzling light coming from within it. This is not sunlight. It is what students of theology refer to as the “uncreated light of God”-- a source of light, unlike sunlight or chemical light that appears to come right out of darkness. Furthermore, He is surrounded by a gold and red boat-shaped image known as a “mandorla—the ancient symbol of the creator God. At Jesus’ feet is a round medallion showing an Agnes Dei—the lamb of God, which is one of the earliest symbols for our Lord, and which appears in one of the panels in the stained-glass window around the entrance to the church. It represents what John the Baptist said as Jesus approached him to be baptized: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” On either side of His upraised arms are the Greek letters that form the abbreviations of His name (Jesus) and His title (Christ). In the ancient world, names and titles were believed to have great power and most icons in both the Orthodox and the Western Church are tagged with the name of the principal subject.
Jesus is flanked by the two prophets. Moses is on His left (your right), and Elijah on His right, each standing on his own peak. The image of Jesus is larger than the two prophets. This follows an iconic convention, which calls for the most important figure to be the biggest. Moses carries the tablets representative of the Law, and Elijah wears the “mantle of prophesy” that he passed on to Elisha before ascending to Heaven in the chariot of fire. We heard about Elijah’s mantle, or cloak, in today’s Old Testament lesson, and in the icon, it is shown as a somewhat ratty covering. The same cloak is also depicted, somewhat differently, in one of the stained-glass panels at the entrance of our own church!
James, Peter, and John are represented by the three medallions at the bottom of the icon. Normally, the three apostles are shown as figures rather than symbols, however, the round shape of this icon did not permit that design. The medallions, however, are accurate copies of the symbolic representations of these apostles that also appear in the stained-glass windows at the entrance of our church. These designs have been a part of this church since its construction. James is symbolized by the three shells. After his martyrdom in the first century, James’ remains were moved to the village of Compostela in NW Spain, and the cockle shell became the symbol worn by pilgrims to his tomb. Peter is symbolized by the crossed keys, based on what Jesus told him: “I give you the keys to my kingdom.” James’ brother, John is identified by the serpent in the chalice, which symbolizes his willingness to drink from the same cup as Jesus, and which leads to his death.
The Latin word for transfiguration, transfiguratio, means “to be changed to another form”. The Greek word is metamorpheos and has much the same meaning. The Transfiguration, therefore, is a revelation of Christ’s divine nature, a manifestation of the Trinity, and a confirmation of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. This is shown symbolically by all of the white and gold lines that crisscross the image of Jesus and seem to come from within Him, rather than from an external source. This light is the central feature of this icon and is known as the uncreated light of God. It is a supernatural light with transforming power that has its source in God’s own being. It is the light that Jesus Himself speaks of in John’s Gospel when He says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As Jesus becomes that light, his true nature is revealed. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.
Today’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration also serves as a very early recognition of the Trinity. The disciples hear the voice the Father, they see the Son, and they were enveloped by the Holy Spirit in the brilliance of the uncreated light. They also witnessed Moses and Elijah, who represented the “Law and Prophets”, and who confirmed that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament. Thus, the God they had served so faithfully for so long, without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to face to face. Here, in the blinding light on the mountain of the Transfiguration, the prophets and the disciples were able to witness God’s personified radiance directly.
Bill mentioned the symbols of Peter, James and John that appear in the icon and in the stained-glass window of the entrance to the church. I love the fact that the top of the church entrance has an image of the Superstition mountains. It says to me as you enter this place, God is present with us here and is ready to transform our lives. Bill has already explained a great deal about the transfiguration story. I would like to discuss the symbols of light, mountains, clouds and transformation that are common in the stories of Moses, Elijah and Jesus and talk how those symbols might bring us closer to God today.
Moses received the Ten Commandments while the Israelites were in the desert. He went up on the mountain. The mountain was covered in clouds and it appeared to those of the Israelites that fire was coming out of the mountain. The mountain and the fire signified the power and strength of God. The clouds indicated that only Moses was allowed to see God. Moses brought the law to the people.
Light and fire played a prominent role for Elijah as well. In his battle with those who worshipped Baal, Elijah called upon God to set fire to an altar of wood. God did so immediately. Later, Elijah also went to the mountain in order to escape the wrath of Jezebel. While on the mountain, he experienced an earthquake, fire and lightning. And then God spoke to Elijah. God was found in the light and on the mountain.
In the transfiguration story, Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. For us, Jesus represents both the law and the prophets for us. He interpreted the law in a way that we are expected to follow, just as Moses did. Jesus told the truth of how we are to behave just as the prophets did, especially Elijah.
As Bill has described, there is much symbolism to be found in today’s reading. We find uncreated light, whiteness, clouds and all of this happens on the mountain. Moses and Elijah found God in the light from a fire or from lightning. But during the transfiguration of Jesus, the light emanated from his body. It was uncreated light. Light is an important element in all of our understandings of our faith. In the transfiguration, we encounter God's light emanating directly from Jesus. We pray that the light of Christ will show forth in our lives. The glory of Jesus is revealed to us through this light. We celebrate the divinity of Christ in this event.
We believe that we are made in the likeness of God. One way that we enter into that relationship with God is through baptism. We leave behind a life of sin and we enter into a life of grace. Many parents often clothe their children in an outfit of white. White signifies purity but it also signifies the glory of Jesus. Just as a white light emanated from Jesus, we pray that we will be clothed in that same light of God. We can pray that we will receive just a small portion of the grace and purity that flows from Jesus. We pray that we will live our lives in a way that the light of Christ shines forth from us.
People often refer to a unique and special event as a mountaintop experience. As Christians, we often think of a mountaintop experience as a special time when we encounter God. While we celebrate the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration of Jesus, I would suggest that we try to put ourselves in the place of the disciples. Here were the close friends and followers of Jesus. They encountered God in a special way while they were on the mountain. Today, I would encourage you to remember a special time that you encountered God. I know for me one of those times was the weekend that I spent learning about Christianity at Cursillo.
Let us remember how Jesus has transformed our lives and continues to do so each and every day. Let us remember that special time that you encountered God and use that memory to strengthen anew our faith and our determination to follow Jesus. Amen.
I always say that any prayer we offer to God is a good prayer. I believe that God hears our prayers and knows what we need even though we may not say it correctly. But sometimes the prayers that we offer out loud can come out a little differently than we plan. Here are some examples.
One day, a young lady was asked to offer a prayer and she began, “I pledge allegiance to the flag”.
I always have the slight worry that I will say something wrong during the service. Here is an example of the kind of mistake that a priest can make. A priest once started a prayer by saying, “O God, the eternal water”.
Children can teach us important things about prayer, about how God listens and about asking God to help us in our worries. There was a church that was located a block from the train tracks. Every week, a boy offered the prayers. At the end of the service he would say, “and please bless the train that it won’t jump the tracks and destroy the church and kill us all”.
A man found some scribbles on the pew in front of him. He turned to his daughter and said, “don’t do that, Jesus doesn’t want us to draw on his bench.” So the daughter looked up and said “Jesus, can I color on your bench? OK, Thanks.”
God is always ready to listen to our prayers even when we think we mess up the prayer. Another way to pray is to turn to Jesus asking Jesus to guide our own prayers. We also can learn from Jesus for we know that he often prayed.
The gospel for today has so many beautiful messages about Jesus healing others and Jesus proclaiming the good news to all people. But I found myself drawn to this verse, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Why did Jesus go out to pray this time and what did he pray to God about?
We are told many times that Jesus prayed by himself. Perhaps the time we remember best is when Jesus prayed to God at Gethsemane just before he was arrested and crucified. We know that in Gethsemane he prayed that this cup would pass him but Jesus also prayed that he would do the will of God the Father.
We are not certain why Jesus prayed in Capernaum. I wonder if he just left to escape the pressure of the crowds of people asking for his healing touch. His prayer may have been that he would be able to deal with all of these people. I wonder if during this prayer time Jesus asked for help in deciding what he should do next. After his prayer, Jesus decided not to return to Capernaum but to go out to other cities in Galilee. Maybe his prayer was an expression of concern about how he could bring these people to God. He certainly didn’t want to simply be seen as a magical healer. I am sure that many of the people who were gathered around that house in Capernaum simply wanted to be healed. They didn’t want to change their faith or grow in their faith.
It is clear that the disciples were not focused on prayer at that time. They figured they had a good thing going. Jesus was very popular. Let’s go back and heal some more folks. That is the sign of success.
The prayer might have been a call for strength. I remember the time when a woman who was hemorrhaging touched the cloak of Jesus. Jesus knew something had happened because he was aware that power had gone forth from him. Did all of those healings cause Jesus to lose energy and did he need some time to rebuild it?
We will never know why Jesus prayed that night but we do know that having spent time in prayer, he decided on next steps and he acted with strength and energy. I believe the prayer time made a difference.
Just as Jesus may have had many reasons to come to God the Father in prayer, I encourage you to share everything with God. God will listen to everyone of our prayer concerns. Saint Ignatius wrote about opening ourselves in prayer. He wrote this,
'We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, servant to his master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking His counsel.' --St. Ignatius of Loyola
When we spend time in prayer and reflection, I believe it will make a difference in our lives. I offer two quotes of people who wrote about the importance of prayer. Saint John Chrysostom wrote this in the fifth century, Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness. --St. John Chrysostom
Fifteen hundred years later, C. S Lewis said this about his prayers,
“I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” I think we sometimes miss the power of pray for us because we may think that prayer is meant to be a time when we pray for someone else.
Is it possible that through prayer we might find joy. I am reading a book called the Book of Joy and it was based on an interview conducted over five days with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It is interesting that these two men would write about joy. Neither man has had an easy life. Desmond Tutu struggled through all of the issues of apartheid in South Africa. He lived for a time in England. Upon his return to South Africa, he sent his children to school in another country because they couldn’t go to the school of their choosing in South Africa. The archbishop dealt with the violence in his country and overcame many illnesses including polio and tuberculosis. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet to save the lives of thousands of his countrymen and now lives in exile in India. For many years he has dealt with the challenge of trying to lead the spiritual lives of his people from a remote place in a climate where the Chinese government leads his former countrymen and whose government opposes his involvement in any way.
These two men who have suffered so much live lives of hope and joy. And together they wrote a book about it. Both of these men spoke about how joy is something we create from within. For Tutu and the Dalai Lama I think one way they do that is to spend hours each day in meditation or prayer. I think even short times in prayer will make a difference for us.
Tutu believes that joy is much bigger than happiness. Happiness is seen as being dependent on external issues while joy is not. Being joyful does not save anyone from hardship or heartbreak. Rather we can prepare ourselves so that if we find more joy in our lives, we can face and deal with suffering. I believe that when we spend time in prayer and meditation we can find God’s peace and that peace will help us find joy.
These two great men also shared that our greatest joy comes when we seek to do good for other people. In fact, the Dalia Lama offered a meditation that we can offer for friends who are struggling. The key steps begin by thinking of the loved one who is suffering. Then we reflect on the fact that just like you and I, they wish to overcome suffering and to be joyful. Next ,we inhale and take on their suffering. Finally, as we exhale, we imagine sending that person our love and compassion and our joy. Those steps can be repeated. Perhaps our joy can grow as we seek to give joy to others.
As I think about Jesus offering prayers in Capernaum. I imagine that he must have felt that no one would leave him alone. More and more people wanted to be healed through his amazing work. Jesus had to run away and hide so that he could spend time in prayer. Even then, the disciples searched for him determined to get him to come back and heal more people. It is as if they believed that healing was more important than prayer. But Jesus knew that prayer was first for him.
May we always search for time to pray. I believe that the more we pray the more things we can accomplish, the more people we can help and the better we will feel about ourselves. Perhaps we will even find the inner joy that the Dalia Lama and Desmond Tutu spoke about. Amen.
This past week, I attended the clergy retreat for the Diocese of Arizona. As with everything else in the world today, it wasn’t like any normal retreat. It was all done from a distance using Zoom. I found the retreat to be helpful. The group meetings and the prayers brought us together.
On Wednesday, we were encouraged to take the day in some sort of quiet reflection. Some people went for a hike and others did daily prayers intermixed with quiet time. I chose to spend time alone. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned. In the morning, I had some medical issues to take care of. But I was finally able to sit quietly, pray to God and listen. It was wonderful to reflect on the glory of God and the gifts that God has given to me and to many. Later, I was able to reflect on things we might do together in the future and to think about what we will do when we finally come out of the pandemic.
There are some things about today’s lessons that you must wonder about. Why do we read about exorcisms or about eating food that was sacrificed to idols? I think that despite the strange topics, we can learn from these lessons. I felt I was reminded of a series of steps that we might take as we sit and reflect. We begin by being amazed at the marvelous works of God. I certainly experienced that in one way this week as I gazed upon the snow-covered peaks that are just east and north of us. The glorious works of God bring us to a place of thanksgiving. Next, we might wish to call upon God to help us with our troubles and to help us find our way. Finally, we reach a point where we once again commit ourselves to Jesus and promise to follow him in all that we do.
Today, the glory of God is described in the Psalm and we are reminded to be thankful. First, let us hear the words of glory. “God’s work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever. God makes marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.” The psalmist reminds us to be thankful for these mighty works.
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. Great are the deeds of the Lord”. As we listen to the words from Deuteronomy, I am thankful that God has sent prophets to help us follow God’s word. As Christians when we hear that God will send us a special prophet, we think of Jesus. For God blessed us by sending Jesus to help us learn and live a spiritual life.
Then in the Gospel, we listen to the marvelous words and works of Jesus. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. We are so blessed to have the words of Jesus. They have been written for us in Scripture and we can always read them and hear them. One of my fellow clergy persons has done a study of all of the words of Jesus. We can find them so easily in a red-letter Bible. The words of Jesus are always there to help us.
And in the gospel, we hear about God’s marvelous deeds. Jesus dealt with the demon in the man’s body. Jesus said, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
I have not seen an exorcism in person or heard about one except in the movies. In the present time, we prefer to think about people having psychological problems rather than imagining that they are possessed of a devil. Yet, all of us have our own demons. We are always challenged by temptation.
We may not need an exorcism but I think we all call upon Jesus to help us avoid the evil spirits that keep us from being close to God. We can call upon Jesus to keep us from temptation. The devil may lurk inside of us. The devil my not be found in the way we speak to Jesus as this demon was, but the devil is always testing us. It might be that the devil is using our sense of pride to lead us from God or it may be that we are envious and the devil will use envy to have us do something wrong. Let us pray that Jesus will take the demon out of us and help us to live the wholesome life that Jesus desires for us. Jesus, help me to always hear your word and to ignore the cries of the evil one.
Paul wrote about temptation in his lesson for today. He wrote that knowledge can lead to pride whereas love leads us to care for a better community. Much of the food in the marketplace came from offerings that were made to idols. Some people believed that eating this food was like worshiping the idol. But some wise Christians said that idols are not gods therefore they cannot be worshipped. But the wise must not be prideful or hold this knowledge over the foolish. Paul wants us to help the weak, care for the suffering and love one another. Let us not lead others into temptation. Let us not think we are smarter or better than someone else. Once again it is about asking Jesus to help us avoid temptation, to avoid the evil inclinations that might easily come to us.
There has always been a separation between the haves and the have nots. But during this time, I think we have become even more a country of the haves and the have nots. Paul said, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. He went beyond the question of what we should do to help another and asked the question what might I be doing to bring others into sin. Can we see that something we are doing causes a problem for another? We must understand our neighbor so well that we can anticipate how what we do or do not do makes it difficult for them to follow Jesus or to be healthy. In a world of haves and have nots, am I doing something or living a certain way or spending money a certain way that causes someone less fortunate to lose their faith? How can we bring those who have lost so much, jobs or houses, back to a place where they were before?
During Epiphany, we speak of Jesus as the light of the world. Jesus has blessed us with words of wisdom and miraculous acts of power and caring. As our light, we wish to follow him and let him care for us as we seek to care for the needs of others.
The hymns for today support and echo this idea of Jesus being our hope in times of trouble, the one who keeps us from trouble. We started by singing that all of our hope is founded on God. God is with us through times of change and chance. We are beset by temptations of mortal pride and a desire for earthly glory. Our earthly towers will fall into dust but God’s wisdom and power will help us build an eternal tower. As we praise God, we remember that Jesus calls all of us to follow him and if we do, we will not fall into a life of sin.
From the glory of God and from our thankfulness and from the saving grace of Jesus, comes our commitment to follow. The gospel hymn says it so profoundly. “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end”. We pray to Jesus asking him to always be near, to be our Master and our friend. If Jesus is at our side, we will not fear. If Jesus is our guide, we will not stray from the correct path. We ask Jesus to speak and make me listen, to be the guardian of my soul. Lastly, we remember that in following we will receive everlasting glory and we ask Jesus again to help us be his follower and our friend.
The demons may be near, the devil is always lurking, Satan, may always be tempting us. But our faith and trust and hope is in God. It may all start with our opportunity to see the glory of God’s work. And so, we pray that Jesus will be our shield from all troubles, our guide along the way, the one who protects us from all evil. We have so many reasons to follow Jesus. Let us ask for his help always. Amen.
Have you ever felt as if God was trying to get your attention? It doesn’t usually happen when you are looking for a specific thing but rather when you have an unexpected experience more than once. I felt that happen to me this week. I have mentioned before that a group of us were studying a book called Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. It contains a series of over 40 reflections based on scripture and the words to hymns, all of which were written by Charles Wesley. This past Tuesday our group discussed a hymn that begins with the words “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”. I was drawn to those words, “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown”. What was Wesley trying to say to us? Our group shared some interesting views. After we were done with our meeting, I put it aside.
Then, on Wednesday, Gary Quamme sent the music for today’s bulletin. I was a little surprised to see that he chose an offertory anthem called Come O Thou Traveler Unknown. Yes, it is the hymn with the same words I had just read the day before. An unusual hymn presented to me on successive days. I don’t believe much in coincidences, so I feel that God is speaking to me.
Charles Wesley was the younger brother of John Wesley who started the Methodist Church. Charles was an Anglican priest and supported his brother but remained a priest in the Anglican Church. Charles was a prolific writer of hymn lyrics. He may have written as many as 8500 hymns, quite a few of which are found in our hymnal. Some of my favorites are Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
I wasn’t familiar with the tune Come O Thou Traveler Unknown. It is not often sung in our church. It was originally published under the name Wrestling Jacob based on a passage in Genesis Chapter 32. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau. He went off by himself for the night. Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown being. In the morning, Jacob said to this being, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” It was a sign that Jacob realized he had been wrestling with an angel or God. The being responded, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Jacob named that place Peniel which means Face of God. It was the place he had experienced God.
Wesley’s writing reminds us of Jacob’s struggle with God and reflects on his own spiritual struggles. We know a little about Wesley’s struggles. He had gone to the colony of Georgia to convert the natives to Christianity. But he only lasted a few months as he was rejected by the colonial leaders, the regular people and the natives as well. He returned to England despondent and spiritually lost. He wrote about his own misery and his sadness about his sins. Later, Wesley struggled with the death of his son and wondered how God would let his own child die. He asks who is this God that he struggled with? In this hymn, Wesley comes to understand that God is Love. God died for him and God is all merciful. The name of this unknown traveler he struggled with is love. God had called Charles Wesley and Wesley finally heard the call and responded.
Isaac Watts, known as the father of the English hymn declared that this one Wesley hymn was worth all the religious verse he had ever written. I have printed the words to this hymn for you so that you can experience the struggle and joyous acceptance of God’s call in this hymn. You might also read chapter 32 of Genesis and reflect on what that passage means to you and me.
Today, we have the chance to think about our own spiritual struggle and our own call from God. Have you questioned your spiritual life or asked God where are you in my life? Scripture has many examples for us.
In the reading from Jonah, we hear about how Jonah went to Nineveh to warn the people to repent and return to the Lord. The people heard God’s call, they repented so God decided not to punish them. Jonah was a prophet who tried to avoid God’s call to him. He tried to run away but God would not let him avoid this call he had to go to Nineveh.
In the psalm for today, we are reminded that God is our source for everything good. I like the verse that says, “Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge”. Let us trust that the call we receive from God is the place where we will find peace and comfort and strength.
In the gospel we hear Mark’s version about Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. As Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee, he called first Andrew and Simon. Then soon after, he called James and John. In today’s reading, it sounds so easy. All four of these disciples dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus.
I have always wondered if their acceptance of Jesus’ call was that straightforward. I wonder if they had already learned about Jesus before he called them that day. I wonder if they had struggled with leaving their families to do God’s work. We learned later that Peter was married and I wonder how Peter was able to juggle discipleship and marriage. I wonder if they thought accepting the invitation from Jesus would help them to be more successful or famous. Did they really understand how hard it would be and did they understand how much they would lose in this endeavor?
All this wondering causes me to realize that I am putting my own spin on things, looking at this call through my own filter. And I realize that when God calls us we may not hear that call because of our own preconceived ideas. What then might we do to seek God with an open heart and follow the call Jesus has given to us?
The first suggestion I have is that we must listen. Many of us get caught up in the things of the world and we don’t even take the time to sit quietly and listen. It took a long time in my life before I listened to God’s call for me to become a priest. I often ask myself why I didn’t hear that earlier in my life. Was I too concerned about my career or my hobbies?
I have decided it does not good to go back I can only look forward and try my best to listen now. Listening can be difficult because we often turn to God when we need something. God may speak to us more clearly when we don’t need anything but rather when want to hear what God needs from us. Mark Batterson is a pastor and author who suggested that “God often speaks loudest when we're quietest.” Perhaps finding some quiet time will help us.
My second thought is that we must be careful not to prejudge a call that we receive. Humans are really good at coming up with all the reasons why a plan will not work or why a call we have received cannot be accomplished. We usually identify our excuses before the call has even been clearly identified.
That brings me to my third suggestion which is to find a way to trust. It is just as we heard in the Psalm for today. When we trust in God, God will take care of us. God is our source of strength. God will help us through the struggles.
Finally, I think we should respond to God’s call and take some action. It is easy to act like Jonah and run away or even to simply go on with our life as if nothing had happened. It probably won’t work because God will still be there.
Before Jesus called his disciples, Mark wrote that Jesus was proclaiming the good news. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Perhaps our time has come. Our time to listen and respond may be now.
We live in interesting times. The pandemic has created a new norm and people are suffering. I know people who are angry or frustrated. They choose not to listen to what those who disagree with them are saying. Maybe, just maybe, God is calling us to some new ministry, a ministry for our times. Maybe our time is now. I said last week that I believe in the power of prayer. Let us pray that we may hear God’s call for us and respond. Amen.
There was a lady lawyer from California whose name was Scharlette Goldman. Her legal practice consisted of defending inmates who were on death row. She was defending an inmate whom she believed was legally insane. (He was schizophrenic with an IQ of 58 and very much out of touch with reality.) She had to prove his insanity to the court to save this man’s life because it’s illegal to execute someone who is unable to understand why he is being executed. The state of California didn’t agree with Scharlette’s interpretation of the defendant and had him medically assessed. The psychiatrist testified that she believed the defendant was able to understand his fate because he’d played tic-tac-toe against her and won. Scharlette believed that one’s ability to win at tic-tac-toe did not indicate the ability to appreciate the finer points of execution. But the court agreed with the psychiatrist.
The lawyer struggled with her defense. She racked her brain trying to find a solution. Then suddenly she had an ah ha moment. She remembered visiting the fair when she was young and seeing chickens that could play and win at tic-tac-toe. She searched for and found an upstanding chicken to prove that one doesn’t need a high IQ to win at tic-tac-toe. Can you imagine a chicken being called to testify in court? Well, Goldman’s challenge was successful.
In the gospel, Nathaniel has one of those Ah ha moments. When Philip first told Nathaniel that he had found Jesus, the Messiah, Nathaniel responded with doubt, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He didn’t think it was possible for Jesus to be the Messiah. Then Nathaniel met Jesus and Jesus told Nathaniel that he knew him before they met. Suddenly, Nathaniel’s heart was changed and he declared “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Do you remember some Ah ha moment in your life? It is a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, recognition or comprehension. Sometimes we say that a light bulb goes off in our head. I say that light bulb might come from the light of Christ.
Have you ever had a sudden realization about God or about Jesus? I remember once feeling the presence of Jesus beside me. It was a sudden realization. I have felt the crucifixion of Jesus as a personal gift to me.
I also think about times when a passage of scripture hit me suddenly and I found new inspiration. I remember questioning the legitimacy of Jesus speaking about the lilies of the field. He said why do you worry? God takes care of the lilies and God takes care of the birds. My thoughts had been negative because I felt that God hasn’t stopped hunger in this world. My moment was when I chose to consider the words about fear. Jesus told us not to fear because God was always with us. Of course, I later concluded that part of the message is the expectation by Jesus that people who have should help those who don’t. It changed my entire perspective about the passage.
Sometimes our moments of new-found inspiration come from another person. Philip shared his understanding with Nathaniel that Jesus was the Messiah. Without Philip’s witness, Nathaniel would not have seen Jesus as God. Our witness is important.
In Hebrew Scripture, we hear about the words of God that were given to Samuel. God spoke three times before Samuel heard it and it took the help of his mentor Eli for Samuel to understand that it was God speaking to him. We may miss God’s message to us if we don’t listen.
In Epiphany, we focus on Jesus as the light of the world. Our lessons for today point to Jesus bringing us the light of knowledge and truth. We use the teachings of Jesus to understand God’s wishes for us.
The light of Christ, Jesus reaches out for us, seeking to bring us out of our darkness. Let me share some thoughts from a commentary I read. John’s account of the calling of his disciples reveals the concern that Jesus has for every individual. Jesus can see the true nature of each person and offers himself in a unique way to each. Jesus approached Philip, and before this Andrew and Simon, one way. He approached Nathaniel differently. Jesus referred to Nathaniel as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Nathaniel was being honest in his creation and Jesus accepted and helped him to see the light. And Jesus told Nathaniel that there were more ah ha moments to come. Nathaniel would see the heavens opened.
A person’s epiphany is often unique and not something that is easily understood by others. As a child I remember the story of Archimedes. The king had a problem because people were making things out of silver, making it look like gold and charging him as if it were gold. Archimedes looked for the answer. While sitting in the bathtub, he thought about how his body displaced water. He suddenly realized that silver would displace more water than gold because it is less dense. Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran to the king yelling Eureka, I have found it. How many people laughed with scorn when watching Archimedes run? I am sure people thought he was crazy.
And we might react in the same way to what Nathaniel experienced. What made his exchange with Jesus a moment when lights flashed in front of his eyes? It is not clear to me. I think even Jesus was a little taken back by Nathaniel. Jesus gave him a little kidding joke something like, “what did I say that got you so excited? Stick around and you will see more than that.” Jesus recognized Nathaniel as he sat under the fig tree and said some nice things about him. That doesn’t seem so special to me. It is helpful to know that some religious texts of the time would say that a person is gathering figs when what they really meant was they were seeking God, studying the Torah. Jesus was probably saying that Nathaniel was a genuine person, a sincere follower of God. Nathaniel thought the words of Jesus were special, insightful, something that could only be seen by the Son of God.
As Jesus continued to share with Nathaniel, his words seem to be directed to all believers not just one. We are followers who search for God and who proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus responds to our efforts, proclaiming that we will experience magnificent things, that the gates of heaven will be open to us.
I believe that God is always reaching out to us, trying to touch us in our own unique place. And our response may be unique to us. I am reminded of that line from amazing grace “I once was lost but now am found”. John Newton who wrote the words Amazing Grace was found by God. Newton was at the helm of his ship ashamed of his sins when Got came to him. Newton would later write, “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” It was his ah ha moment.
Not all of us will hear the voice of God speaking to us as Samuel did. None of us will have the chance to speak with Jesus during his time on earth. Some people never hear a message from God directed to them. But all of us have the opportunity to open ourselves to the power of Jesus’ words. We can all learn from the steps that Jesus took while he lived on earth. Let us search for Jesus just as he searches for us every day. Let us look for the light of Christ in our lives.
Paul wrote this so clearly in 2nd Corinthians, For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
An unknown author wrote, Let us not ask of the Lord deceitful riches, nor the good things of this world, nor transitory honors; but let us ask for light. With the light of Christ and with knowledge and strength, we become witnesses just like Philip was a witness to Nathaniel. It doesn’t take some brilliant oratory or some long discourse to be a witness. For Philip it was a few short words. We too can be witnesses. If we just let our own light shine, people will see that we love Jesus.
I believe in the power of prayer. Over and over people tell me how important it was that people prayed for them. Pray is especially important given our situation today. We struggle with peace in our country and we struggle to survive during the pandemic. Prayer will make a difference. Our collect today mentions our belief that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us pray again that God will illumine our lives through the Word and Sacraments. Let us pray again that our hearts will shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.
When I was in college many years ago, I sang in a men’s glee club. There are about fifty men’s voices in the group. We loved to sing all kinds of music but the songs that were our favorites and the ones most remembered by the alumni were powerful and strong songs with an important message. I am sure there was a sense of masculine pride coming out in our wish to sing in a controlled and blended but louder voice. One of the songs we sang was called “The Creation”. The first words of Genesis were put to music. It began quietly and grew in volume. The song ended with the verse, And God said, Let there be light and there was light. The last word “Light” was sung with the full force of everyone in the group.
I often reflect on the personal relationship that I have with God and with Jesus because it is such an important part of our spiritual life. But in so doing, I leave out some of the other attributes of God such as Omnipresent (always with us) and Omniscient (all knowing). Today I ask you to consider another attribute of God which is omnipotent or all powerful. Our all-powerful God gave us light in a physical sense, made life possible and gave us light through the presence of Jesus, our Savior.
Our first reading takes us back to the beginning, as we read the first words in Scripture. I love the images we are given in the Bible and I ask you to close your eyes and imagine that you were there when God created the heavens and the earth. In our translation it says that the earth was a formless void, a mass of uncertain dimensions. And on the surface of this strange mass was a darkness. One translation indicates that the earth was covered by a raging ocean that kept everything in total darkness. And God decided it was time for life on earth. God said Let there be light and boom, there was light over the earth. Can you feel and maybe see in your mind’s eye the power of God’s mighty hand creating Light? Forty years ago, Mount Saint Helens exploded. The explosion leveled millions of trees, killed 57 people and impacted people hundreds of miles away. If that explosion was impactful, it is hard for me to imagine what the creation was like, how powerful it was.
As someone who believes that evolution took many years, that things didn’t happened suddenly I have wondered if God’s creation may not have been so immediate. But in the last few years, astronomers have given us amazing pictures of things going on in the Universe, like a massive black hole swallowing a star. Incredible things can happen quickly. Perhaps God’s light came all at once onto the earth. All through the power of God.
This is the God I ask you to consider today. God created light. God created order out of chaos. God’s light shines and all things make sense. God’s light creates order.
The power of God continues in our readings today. Let’s go forward to the gospel. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness with the locusts and the wild bushes and walking around in a strange outfit. God chose the wilderness as the place for Jesus to be baptized. It was another case of God bringing order to the wildness of the earth. It wasn’t just a quiet little event either. We may think that the dove descending upon Jesus was a quiet event but that is not what Scripture says. It says that the heavens were torn apart. God may come to us in the stillness of a quiet sunset, but God can also come to us in the majesty of the mountain or the power of an earthquake. God is present in powerful ways.
How quickly we have moved from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The baptism of Jesus occurred when he was an adult and is one of the early stories of his public ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration, God jolts us into the importance of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus declares that he is one with God, that he will bring God’s kingdom to earth. It is a time to remember our own baptism and what it means to our life.
My own baptism happened when I was still a baby. I have seen pictures, but I remember nothing. At a baptism the child is usually dressed in white and everyone else has smiles. The water usually is sprinkled on the baby’s head. All those nice surroundings may cause us to miss the point. For baptism is our commitment to God. We enter into a covenant, an agreement to be one of God’s children. Some faith traditions actually have a baptism with full immersion in the water. The idea is that all of our sins are washed away. I like the significance of the physical act of immersion. Everything about us is making a commitment to God. It is powerful just like the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps you can imagine putting your entire body including your head under water and coming out into the light of Christ, being changed by God’s awesome power and grace and love.
When we were baptized, we were changed, I like to say we were transformed. Because we opened our hearts to God, we allowed the light of Christ to enter into us. God is with us and in us. However your baptism occurred, whether you remember it or not, I ask you today to reaffirm your covenantal relationship with Jesus. We will once more make those promises again right after this sermon.
Scripture is filled with stories about God’s covenantal relationship with humans. As Christians, we are thankful for the covenants between God and Noah, Abraham and Moses, but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective of marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
The other day, a group of us were speaking about the three most important virtues of faith, hope and love. This individual said that love and hope have been inconsistent experiences in life, but faith has always been present. It is the rock of that person’s relationship with God.
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I think of times when a repair person has promised to show up at a certain time but doesn’t. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed. As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say.
But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
In a covenant relationship, each party gives something to the other. Our baptism is not just about what we commit to but about the promise that God makes to each of us. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. We receive God’s grace, and God’s love and yes, even God’s power and might.
The theme for Epiphany is the light of Christ. It is a statement about the coming of Jesus, for he brought God’s light into our world. During the season of Epiphany, I will ask you in many different ways how that light has impacted you. But today, I wish that you would remember that at the creation, God brought light to bring order to chaos. God’s light calmed the violent waters of the world.
In our baptism, Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring order to our life. Our lives are grounded, they give us guidance and help us to find our way. It is not the same cataclysmic event as that described in Genesis, but it is a dramatic shift in our lives. May you feel the presence of God transforming you and may the light of Christ keep you on the path of peace. Amen.
There was a man who had worked all his life, had saved all of his money, and was a real "miser" when it came to his money. You might say that he was the ultimate hoarder. Just before he died, he said to his wife..."When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me." And so he got his wife to promise him, with all of her heart, that when he died, she would put all of the money into the casket with him.
Well, he died. He was stretched out in the casket, his wife was sitting there - dressed in black, and her friend was sitting next to her. When they finished the ceremony, and just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, "Wait just a moment!" She had a small metal box with her; she came over with the box and put it in the casket. Then the undertakers locked the casket down and they rolled it away. So her friend said, “I know you were not fool enough to put all that money in there with your husband." The loyal wife replied, "Listen, I cannot go back on my word. I promised him that I was going to put that money into the casket with him." You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with him!?!?!?" "I sure did," said the wife. "I got it all together, put it into my account, and wrote him a check.... If he can cash it, then he can spend it.” I suppose you could say that the wife fulfilled her promise and obeyed her husband’s request, but perhaps not exactly the way that he meant for her to do so.
In today’s Scripture, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness. God has and will keep the promise to be with us always. God will love each and every one of us. In response, we are faithful to God. We choose to obey God’s wishes. The story about David in the book of 2 Samuel is an example of faith and trust. God lived up to the promise to watch over the Hebrew people. God cared for David, took him out of the farm, helped him to become king, provided a country and a house for David. We know that King David made many mistakes and sinned. But he always was faithful to God. As a faithful servant, David wanted to provide a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant. But God was not looking for a physical space. God wanted the people to offer praise and glory, to follow his commands. So, King David listened to the prophet Nathan and did not build a shrine to God. The Ark remained in the tent. David was God’s obedient servant.David wanted a house for God. God wanted a home for God’s people. It reminds me of the Christmas song, I’ll be home for Christmas” The singer did not want to arrive at a particular place but rather wanted to see some special people. Everyone is important to God. God welcomes us home when we respond to his faithfulness with our own faith in God.
The psalm also relates the story of God’s promise, “I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.” The words may have been written originally about the reign of King David, but they speak to us as well. As we wait for the coming of Jesus one more time, let us not forget that God is always with us. We have reached the point where we cannot wait for the vaccine to be distributed to all people. Let us be comforted as we wait by the presence of God in our lives. God is faithful to us, let us be faithful to God. Let us respond with the words of the Psalm, “My faithfulness and love shall be with him”.
Today, I am thankful for the gospel of Luke. For Luke told stories about what happened before Jesus was born. In the telling of these stories we hear of God’s gifts to the people and incredible journeys of faith and trust and obedience to God’s wishes. Luke told us about Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were both faithful to God. Zechariah was surprised when an angel appeared and told him that he would have a son. He was so surprised that at first he did not believe. The angel told him he would be unable to speak because of his doubt. Later, after his son was born and they brought him to be circumcised, the couple planned to name the child Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth said he would be called John. When Zechariah wrote that his name was John, he received his voice back. That is when Luke shared the proclamation of Zechariah, praising God, predicting the birth of a mighty savior and foretelling that John would be the prophet of the most high. Trust in God brought a son. Elizabeth’s faith gave the child the name John and Zechariah demonstrated obedience.
Luke also tells us about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she will bear a son. At first, Mary is afraid that she has received such a visit and she is uncertain how it is possible that she will bear a son. But after all is explained to her she accepts the word of God that has been given to her. “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I think about so many important figures in Scripture who responded to God’s call with statements like I am not good enough or I couldn’t do that. Not Mary. How quickly she accepted. Her faith was strong. Her trust was complete. Her obedience was total. This is not a half-hearted statement. It doesn’t come out like OK if you say so. No, it is a positive acceptance. Yes, I am ready and I will do what you have asked.
A group of us are using a book called “Come Thou Long expected Jesus” as our Advent study. We talk about our yearning for Jesus to come. This week, as we reflected on the angel’s visit, we were reminded that Mary had a choice. God gave Mary free will and God will respect human freedom. The author of our book wrote about the universal desire for God to come. “All creation groaned for this moment and now awaits the virgin’s response” he wrote. When Mary said yes, great joy broke out. Even now, we are thankful that Jesus will come.
This passage about Mary is also about God. “God is here portrayed as a God of grace and power.” Grace fills the story because God is sending a gift to the world. Gift is the correct word because all of the conditions of human action and achievement are absent. We remember the Scripture passage, “This is the Lord’s doing”. We realize just as Mary stated, “Nothing is impossible with God.
Some think about faith as a set of beliefs or a group understanding about how we experience God. But our book study group spoke about faith as personal and intimate. It is about our own individual relationship with God. When faith is a personal thing, we realize that trust in God is not just about the big things. Obedience to God is not about letting go of the so called “Big” sins. It is about what we do every day. Each day we have the chance to show our obedience.
Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of Love. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It is so close. We have waited for a while now. We know that Jesus came to be among us as a sign of God’s love. And Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. God is faithful to us. God has given us grace and mercy. And God can be relied on to be with us always. It is out of this love from God that we are able to respond with faith and trust and obedience. It is in response to God’s faithfulness that we are faithful.
C.S.Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a sunhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” We have only a few days before Christmas. On Christmas day, we remember that God fulfilled a promise and sent his son, the Messiah, to earth. It was and is a gift of love. Let us be thankful for that gift and prepare ourselves for his coming with our faith and obedience. Amen.
The early days of World War II were very difficult for the people of Great Britain. Bombs were falling on their cities and the people were unsure of what the future would be like. They turned to Winston Churchill for strength. Churchill was committed and persistent. He would say, “we will never, never, never give in. Others looked to God for strength. A gentleman named James Dillet Freeman wrote a prayer that was intended to be used by people who were threatened by the conflict. His final product is called a prayer for protection. Now Freeman was not a part of an organized religion but his Christian faith comes through in this short prayer. He wrote,
The light of God surrounds us;
The love of God enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
The presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is!
What I especially like about this prayer is the image that the light of God is like a cloak that is all around us, giving us protection.
Light is a key image of our scripture for today. In the gospel we are told that John the Baptist came to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. This is the second week in a row that we read the story of John the Baptist. Last week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. Today we hear the story from the Gospel of John. There are similarities in the proclamation that we are to repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus and the importance of Baptism. But this passage also focuses on the role that John played and especially in John’s understanding of what he was called to do. Today, let us consider our calling to live in the light and also about what God might be calling us to do this year.
The call to live in the light comes from John and others. Jesus, himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” We follow the light of Jesus because Jesus himself offered it to us.
We also find our call in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We learn about God through Jesus.
Peter Abelard, the twelfth century theologian, said it this way, “I think that the purpose and cause of the Incarnation was that God might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of God”. With light comes an understanding of God’s love.
What does it mean to be in the light of Christ? Light can be different from one day to the next, it changes what we see. I always look at the Superstition mountains each day. In the early morning when the sun is just coming up, the Superstitions look so dark, foreboding and so rough. In the evening when the sun shines on them we see the details with the mountains looking bright and inviting. Sometimes, the mountains stand out as the sun seems to shine just on them while the surrounding valley is cloaked in darkness.
The different kinds of light change and light affects us in different ways as we encounter it. Watching a candle flame is an interesting experience. The light flickers and you can see different colors. The wick and the wax are constantly interacting in fascinating ways.
Just as light changes things around us change. The Light of Jesus Christ may impact us in different ways as well.
- The light of Christ brings us a knowledge of God that we cannot have without Jesus.
- The light of Christ helps us to be humble and to live in better relationship with each other.
- The light of Christ helps us to see the needs of others and to reach out to help.
- The light of Christ helps us to find peace.
- The light of Christ helps us to accept the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to help us forgive others.
- We often see the light of Christ exhibited by others and it help us to live a life in the light.
John the Baptist must have been a very charismatic person. Many people came out into the desert to listen to his words and to follow his encouragement. He must have been well known throughout the Jewish community. So much so that priests and Levites came out to see him, presumably at the direction of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I wonder if they were trying to trick him. Their questions suggested that some people wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not a prophet. Well then, who are you? They asked. I am just a voice calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. I baptize people with water as a sign of their repentance and their commitment to God. But someone will come who baptizes people in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was very clear about what he was called to be. He came to testify to the light.
Today, we heard the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of reflection when she visited Elizabeth. It comes soon after the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a son, Jesus. Her response at that time was, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The Magnificat continues Mary’s commitment to God’s call. She said I am blessed by God. God has done great things for me. I believe that God will do great things for us and I will be part of that.
Each of us has his or her own call and each call is different. Our call is not as well known or public as the calls that John the Baptist and Mary received. We may not know our call so clearly. God may call and we may not listen. Perhaps we do not expect the Lord to be concerned with us. Or we may refuse to recognize the call that we have is from God. But each call is important. John the Baptist was a witness to the light of Christ. We too can be witnesses. Being a witness can be difficult. We believe in Jesus and sometimes when you believe in something so deeply it makes it even more difficult to find the words to share with other people. I wonder if we sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves to say the right thing. Maybe it is just as simple as saying, I believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. Please come and see what you think.
Our call may be as simple as letting the light of Christ shine through us and sharing it with others. We find that message in the Acts of the Apostles, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Acts 13:47 We have the light of Christ in us and we should share it with others. The Light of Christ can penetrate even the places where people are mean to each other or fight with each other. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about how the light of Christ can change. He said,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Mother Teresa spoke about why we are to bring the light of Christ to this world,
“We need to give Christ a chance to make use of us, to be His word and His work, to share His food and His clothing in the world today. If we do not radiate the light of Christ around us, the sins of the darkness that prevails in the world will increase”.
Now, more than ever there is a feeling of darkness that has descended upon us. It is a time of fear and uncertainty. Many people find it difficult to be joyful, to be positive when there is so much sickness all around us. I have entered into that space at times as well. This week has been a struggle for Jan and I. We lost our brother-in-law to Covid-19 and we know of others that are sick. I struggle with how I can keep the doors of the church open when there are so many cases in our state. That is why we are called to bring light to the world. If we can just bring a sense of peace and comfort, a sense of hope, then we are giving the light of Christ to others.
My friends, let us open our hearts to let the light of Christ inside. Let us allow the light of Christ to be a part of everything we do so that others will see that light shining through us. What a gift to give this Christmas. Amen.