The reason we have Transfiguration Sunday is to inspire us to follow Jesus into the season of Lent. But who is this Jesus we are to follow?
- The three heroes on the mountain
- In the presence of the holy
- Jesus above everything, even religion
- Following Jesus in Lent
- Questions for discussion and reflection
If you could select your heroes to meet with on a mountain, who would you choose? Some contenders for me: Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer. The list goes on.
For Peter, James, and John, the lineup included Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Moses: the one who had the showdown with Pharaoh, who spoke to God in the cloud and devouring fire, who sat with God face to face. He was the great lawgiver. And Elijah! He stood against Ahab and Jezebel, met God in the “still small voice,” and had that great showdown with the prophets of Baal.
What does it mean that Jesus would be joined by these heroes? Today’s Psalm adds Aaron and Samuel to the inner circle who talked to God in the cloud and on the mountain. Peter, James, and John must have been thinking of all these “greats:” Moses the Lawgiver, Aaron the Priest, Samuel the Judge, Elijah the Prophet, and Jesus the Christ.
When you’re in the company of greatness, there is gravitas, it is weighty, and it is holy. In religious circles, the mountain is a symbol of the habitation of the gods, of the divine presence, of the holy. We have two responses in the presence of the holy. On one hand, we have awe and inspiration. If you’re a musician in the presence of a great musician, for example, you just enjoy and dream.
The other response betrays a deep insecurity. And here, before the Lawgiver, we have to admit that we are lawbreakers. Before the great Prophet, we have to admit that our devotion is only halfhearted. And before the Christ, we have to admit that we are in need of a savior. So the mountain is a double-edged metaphor: it is majestic to us, representing our goals and achievements and aspirations. But to God is but a footstool.
When you’re in the presence of the holy, you are aware of two things: what you could be, and of what you aren’t. There’s a mixture of excitement and trepidation about what God is calling you to be. This is how you know you are on sacred ground.
All this is going on for Jesus’ three disciples, and then there is the voice which says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.” There was a time when God was frustrated with Moses. God was also disappointed with Elijah. But with Jesus, all God has to say is that he is well-pleased. So the holiness on this mountain takes on something new; it takes on intimacy and delight.
But there is more: “Listen,” God says, “to him.” Over the Lawgiver, over the prophet, over the whole OT, over religion itself—listen to him. When Moses met with God, his face shone. But here Jesus’ whole body was shining, right through his clothes. What new brand of holiness is this? What kind of calling? Above Mosaic obedience to the law, above Elijah’s exuberant devotion to God, this is new, this is being God’s beloved, this is being God’s delight.
We balk under this new holiness. It is hard enough to obey the law. It is hard enough to keep up our exuberance. This new calling, a calling to follow Christ above Moses and Elijah, above law and prophets, above religion, is unsettling and disturbing. It’s an invitation that goes beyond evoking and inspiring us—it overwhelms us. It raises our doubts . . . and fears.
Peter, James, and John heard this and they fell to the ground and were overcome with fear. We despair, we fear, we make excuses, we run, we avoid, we bury ourselves deeper in religion because the relationship God wants with us is too much.
And then it happens. Just when we want to take refuge in the comfort of laws and prophets, in obedience and exuberance, all the showy stuff of religion in order to avoid actually relating to God, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches us. “Get up,” he says, “and do not be afraid.” And we lift up our eyes, and discover it is only him. Just Jesus. No Moses, no Elijah. No obedience, no exuberance. No religion, no show. Just Jesus, just the man, just like us, inviting us to follow him.
Lent is traditionally a time of preparation for baptism and for penitents to be restored to the church. Today it is a time of deep reflection on what it means to follow Jesus. Sometimes it gets buried in obedience and exuberance, in laws and prophecies. Today, Transfiguration Sunday, reminds us that on one hand that Jesus is above these things. But on the other hand, it reminds us that it’s just Jesus we’re to follow. We’re to follow him back down the mountain. Back into our ordinary lives.
Second Peter urges us to be attentive to this, as light shining in a dark place. Don’t pay attention, Peter says, and you’ll find yourself in the dark, lost, mindful that there once was a light, but now it’s out of sight. But pay attention, Peter says, and this light will begin to shine like the morning star and the dawning day in your heart.
Lent begins soon. It’s time to follow Jesus. It’s time to let the light of Epiphany shine ever brighter in our own lives. It’s time to come down from the mountain, and follow Jesus—only Jesus—to Jerusalem.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think of the heroes of your faith journey. What would it mean if you put following Jesus even above these heroes? What does it mean to you to follow Jesus above religion?
- When have you been both inspired and fearful, both awestruck and intimidated? Do you recognize this as a holy place, as “sacred ground”? What is God calling you to in this place?
- Christian theology teaches that Jesus is both “fully divine and fully human.” Have you ever contemplated what it means to follow the “fully human” Christ, that Jesus is “just” a human like you? What impact would it have this Lent if you followed “just Jesus”?
Did you know you can bend the rules or even break the law if told to do so? But it really depends on who’s doing the talking.
- Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and how we try to get around it
- Ways of understanding “holy” and “perfect” that actually helps us be so
- How possessiveness and retaliation keep us from peace
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Last week while traveling I was shuttled into the TSA pre-check security lane, even though my boarding pass didn’t allow for it. But since a uniformed TSA official directed me there, I went. It was nice, but I don’t imagine on my word alone I’ll be able to do the same thing next time. It depends on who’s talking when the rules are bent.
In this part of the Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the “six antitheses.” They all begin, “you have heard this, but I tell you that . . .” They deal with murder, adultery, divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, and our attitude towards our enemies.
For the entire Sermon on the Mount, I recommend reading Taking Jesus at his Word by Addison H. Hart. In this message I’ll be dealing with the final two antitheses.
Some famous one liners come out of this part of the Sermon: “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile” for example. Today we use these phrases figuratively. Jesus’ first audience heard them literally. And this is the first way we get around the hard sayings of the Sermon.
Some other ways:
- Jesus is just inspiring us to be better
- Jesus hopes our failure to live this way will drive us to seek forgiveness and grace
- MAYBE this would work on a personal or individual level, but not on the corporate or national level (which renders any talk of a “Christian nation” ambiguous)
- These are good tactics for truly powerless people to carve out some psychological and emotional dignity, but they really only apply to them
We all have our own ego-defenses against the passages of Scripture we don’t want to take literally. (To be clear, I don’t think the entire Bible should be taken literally. But I do think we dismiss many passages out of ego defensiveness rather than theology, which does justify non-literal interpretation.) The clue, I think, to understanding this passage is the closing where Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
He appears to be quoting Leviticus 19, “Be holy as I am holy.” What follows in Leviticus are community laws concerning generosity, truth-telling, employer/employee relations, and matters of justice. In each of these laws, we find two underlying principles.
The first is revealed by the fact that each law ends with the clause, “I am the LORD.” In other words, because of who God is, and because of who we are as God’s chosen people, we are to live this way.
The second is the concluding sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, God knows that if we live this way, it works out better for everyone. Loving others this way is a form of loving ourselves.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on these principles. We are to be holy because we belong to a holy God. God is our God, is our “Father” or “Mother” or “parent” or source, so naturally we reflect this fact. We are children of God—this is what baptism is all about.
Some will counter, “Maybe, but we’re only human.” The question isn’t whether we’re only human, but whether we will be truly human. We, not any other creature, are created in the image of God. Being human is special. There is no “only” human in God’s eyes. There is only the human we were created to be. That kind of human was revealed in Jesus Christ.
Who Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount is not some theoretical truly human, but himself. He perfectly fulfills this vision of humanity, and invites us as fellow children of God to fulfill the vision also. Christians believe this will be true “in heaven;” Jesus is simply calling us to live this way now.
Jesus also believes living this way works out better for everyone. I wonder how much of our inter-personal strife, and intra-personal spiritual angst, result from our attitude of possessiveness. How much more peace would there be between us and within us if we were less possessive?
I think this is what Jesus’ words about giving your cloak and lending to others is about—to rescue us from the demonic possession of possessiveness. It is to remind us that we are possessed by God, not by our possessions.
Throughout most of our lives, this dispossessive attitude is a choice. Jesus is calling us to make this choice now. But sometimes it isn’t a choice. In our congregation recently some families have been dispossessed by fire and burglary. They are a reminder of what will happen to all of us in the end—death dispossess us all of our earthly attachments in order that we might be filled with God.
But what about the verses concerning retaliation? The law of equal retribution, “eye for eye,” was written to protect the offender. We usually think it is an assurance of justice the victim, but the opposite is actually the case. Lex talionis (as it’s officially called in Latin), ensures that we don’t take a life for an eye—we take only an eye for an eye.
Research on the brain confirms that we cannot accurately judge how hard we’ve been struck. We always over-estimate the blow. So when asked to strike an equal blow to the one we’ve received, we always hit back harder. Part of this is psychological—we want to make sure the other realizes how much pain we’ve endured. Part of it is how the brain is wired. (This is the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, by the way.)
So what predictably results is a perpetual exchange of blows in an attempt to “even the score.” No peace is possible in retaliation. Jesus wants to break the cycle of retaliation. His war is not against opponents, but against opposition itself—the whole system giving rise to violence. Non-retaliation invites everyone, even opponents, to peace.
Isn’t this what God has done with us in Christ? Imagine if God had been retaliatory? Perhaps the story of the Flood is about God trying to retaliate and learning that it doesn’t work. So instead, according to Paul, “while we were enemies, (note: not after we repented, not after we were illumined, but while we were enemies) we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, and much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10)
Here we have the essence of loving your neighbor as yourself. One of the most far reaching ways to love ourselves, is to love our neighbors, even our enemies. It’s better for everyone in the end.
Is this foolishness? Yes it is, especially according to the wisdom of the world. This is what Paul has been hammering on in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians. In today’s passage, he reminds us that we can only build on God’s foundation which is Christ. Each of us does this, one step at a time. In the spiritual life, “perfection” isn’t an end product, it is a process. But the foundation is set, and that is our assurance for the future and our inspiration in the present.
Jesus is inviting us to find our next step, and to take it “perfectly.” When we do this, we process into the kingdom of God. He gave specific examples of how his first disciples could follow him. Our world is vastly different than theirs, but if we still want to be his disciples, we can find the steps we are to take. We can start with the prayer of Psalm 119:37, “Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, and give us life in your ways.”
I suppose I could have said no to the TSA official and gone the way my boarding pass directed. But I listened to one with greater authority and enjoyed something better. May we do the same with Jesus.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some ways the Sermon on the Mount makes you uncomfortable? How do you deal with this discomfort? Are some of your answers more a defense of your ego than a wrestling with the Sermon?
- How does viewing our holiness as a result of our relationship with God’s holiness change your attitude about holiness?
- How does the idea that our perfection comes from taking one step at a time towards loving our neighbors and enemies empower you to more faithful living?
Does Jesus teach that you can be too concerned about religion? Yes. Yes he does.
- The metaphors of salt and light and what they suggest to us about religion
- The problem of religion according to Isaiah and Jesus
- Judgment and living in the kingdom of God
- Some places to start
- Closing prayer
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Several years ago someone I knew began to lose his mind. He washed his hands with toothpaste, used the garage door opener to try to control his TV, and grieved the death of a celebrity he never met more sorrowfully than I have ever witnessed. In fact, he was suffering from hyponatremia, a salt deficiency. It can be fatal.
Too much salt can be fatal also. In ancient China, those who had dishonored themselves and their families could commit ritual suicide by ingesting too much salt.
Salt has to be in the right amount. So does religion. In Leviticus 2:13, God commands Moses to season every sacrifice with salt—not too much, not too little. Even today most recipes conclude with “add salt to taste.”
Why does Jesus use the metaphor of salt (and later, light) to direct his disciples in the appropriate use of religion? Here are some instructive observations. First, we only notice salt and light when there is too much or too little of them. Salt is never the main dish; it’s never on the menu but it’s always on the table, ready to serve according to each one’s personal preference.
Second, both salt and light are necessary, but must be appropriate. If you’re brining a salmon, you need a lot of salt. If you’re seasoning a dish, only a little. If you’re performing surgery, you want a lot of light. If you’re enjoying a romantic dinner, only a candle is necessary.
These metaphors help Jesus’ disciples to manage their religion. There is always a place for religion, but it is governed by appropriateness (not to be confused with decorum, which is another sermon).
But what about Jeuss’ statement that our righteousness should “exceed that of the Pharisees”? Isn’t this an indication that Jesus wants us to be “sold out” “Jesus freaks” (I’m showing my age here).
I don’t think so. The problem with religion is that it can mask unrighteousness. I know a lot of very religious people who are anything but righteous, but don’t try to convince them of it. They’re too surrounded by religion to realize it. This was Isaiah’s observation. The people were complaining to God: “Day after day we delight in you! We fast, we serve, and we humble ourselves. Why are you silent?!”
The reason is that religiosity isn’t necessarily true righteousness. True righteousness is justice, generosity, and hospitality. From this perspective, fasting is simply self-restraint in order to capture some resources for the benefit of others. You fast a meal and instead donate the money to alleviate the hunger of someone else.
Isaiah says true righteousness results in the light of God’s presence shining ever brighter. We are more assured of God’s protection. Using another metaphor, our lives become lush gardens. And society is healed.
Jesus would agree. True righteousness is salting and lighting the world, not with prescribed amounts, but to taste, according to what is just, generous, and hospitable in the moment.
Paul calls this spiritual discernment. Through this spiritual (rather than religious) perspective, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul are able to see God’s kingdom throughout the world. They are already living in the kingdom of God through salting and lighting the world with justice, generosity, and hospitality.
But can it be this easy? Doesn’t Jesus warn us with a judgment; “Getting trampled underfoot if we lose our saltiness”? I don’t think so. I think this statement is more about being and usefulness, what our tradition calls “vocation,” than it is about judgment. Remember that blessedness is something we receive, not something we achieve.
Jesus is reminding us that each of us is called to salt and light the world, but only according to our situation, and only according our saltiness and light. Some of us are salt-shakers; some of us are fertilizers. Whether you’re called to season a dish or melt ice off the sidewalk, you’re called to be salt. Some of us are flashlights; some floodlights. Whatever your capacity, God has equipped you to shine in a dark place.
Where can we start? First, we have to be convinced that the kingdom is present and that the world needs it. Unless you accept that the world needs salt and light, you’ll never recognize the opportunity to be so. Second, we must be filled with Christ’s Spirit. We can’t offer what we don’t have. Our light is a reflection of Jesus’. Third, we must be open to being led. We can find prescriptions on religious behavior in scripture (like the tithe). But we have to let the Spirit lead us in the particular ways we ourselves are called to be faithful. (On giving to the church, see here.)
For me, the disciplines of the sacraments and contemplative prayer help me to be salt and light. The sacraments remind me of the kingdom’s presence even in the ordinariness of the world. If God is present in the water, bread, and wine as he promises to be, and I cannot deny my hands are wet and my mouth is dry, then God is present in the world. And silent, spiritual, receptive prayer often leads me to a place where I recognize opportunities to be salt and light.
Jesus you lived without sin because you lived according to your Father’s will. You salted and lighted the world perfectly according to the needs of the moment. You observed religious ritual with your fellow Jews, and you transgressed religious rules in the name of justice, generosity, and hospitality. For us, in our own lives, you have been salt and light. When we have needed strength, you have supported us. When we have needed comfort, you have held us. When we have been lost, you have led us like a shepherd. When we have despaired, you have raised us up on eagle’s wings. When we have grieved, you have wept with us. When our joy was running low, you provided more wine. Help us to be salt and light as you were. Teach us to pray as you prayed, keep us ever mindful of your presence, fill us with your Spirit, and give us eyes to see every opportunity you have ordained for our righteousness to be as yours and to exceed that of the Pharisees, that we may share the salt and light of God’s kingdom with others. Amen.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Given the metaphors of salt and light, and what you know about them, what other suggestions can you make about how to be a disciple of Christ?
- What are some other examples of people being religious but not righteous?
- How might your own practice of religion be masking unrighteousness?
- What are some ways you can be salt and light? Are you a salt-shaker or a fertilizer; a flashlight or a floodlight?
The fundamental problem religion addresses is human self-centeredness. Here’s how the Bible addresses it.
- Some evidence of the main problem
- Even religion isn’t immune
- How Micah the Psalm boil it down
- Jesus and what it means to be blessed
The problem with us humans, spiritually speaking at least, is that we’re so self-centered. This is why the first of the Ten Commandments is that we shall have no other gods before God. The first god we put before God is ourselves. This is why Jesus summarized Judaism with the Greatest Commandment to “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s the same problem Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. In the first chapter he challenges the Corinthian’s affection for “human wisdom and power.” What the Christianity shares with all other religions is that the purpose of religions is to address this problem. Religions call us to a de-centering of our lives. Christianity call us further to a re-centering of our lives around Christ.
Ancient Israel had experienced a time of national renewal under kings Uzziah and Jotham. They were safe, secure, and prosperous. Under these conditions, worship had been reduced to a civic duty. It was what all good Jews did.
But this isn’t the motivation God wants us to have towards worship. And this is why God brings a complaint against his people through the prophet Micah. The people answer with more of the same. They want to bring more and better offerings—the same kinds of offerings they see other religions making, even child sacrifice.
These kinds of solutions demonstrate that the human problem finds its way even into religion. Wanting to do more liturgy and ritual are the expressions of human wisdom and power in religion. So Micah boils it down. In one of the most famous and directive verses of the Bible, Micah directs us to three things:
To really live the way God wants us to live, the order is better reversed: when we “walk humbly with God,” we will offer kindness and advocate for justice.
I like these definitions from Texts for Preaching Year A, p. 120: “Walk humbly with God, to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God. Love covenant loyalty. The translation of ‘kindness’ is disastrously weak. The word hesed means to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity. Do justice, to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.”
So Micah calls us
- From ritual to relationship
- From liturgy to lifestyle
- From checklist to checking in
Micah knows that living in community with God and one another confronts our self-centeredness and makes our worship and our lives pleasing to God once again.
The psalm suggests the same. It asks the question, Who may dwell in God’s presence? The list is instructive. Those who
- Speak truth, not slander
- Do right by their neighbors in action and speech
- Fulfill their oaths, even to their disadvantage
- Do not exploit others, financially or otherwise
These “abide” in God’s tent—but not only there. Obviously they are living in God’s presence throughout their lives.
And this kind of de-centered living is available to everyone. One doesn’t have to be a religious professional, a priest or a monk, to experience God throughout a life lived with justice and compassion. But this kind of universal opportunity offends those of us who are achievers. We prefer checklists, liturgies, and rituals, because they are something we can do ourselves. Returning to Paul’s words, checklists allow us to boast in human wisdom and power. There it is again; our human problem.
But this is not God’s way. According to Paul, God’s way is foolish and weak. In an image, it is the way of the Cross. It is the way of Jesus. Jesus’ way is the path of self-denial, even self-sacrifice, not out of self-hatred, but out of love for God and others. Jesus’ is the way of Micah, the way of justice and compassion.
Jesus is famous for saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s probably best to hear in this statement an invitation. To paraphrase, “Mine is the way, truth, and life. If you want to walk the path of truth and life, mine is the one.”
Which brings us to what it means to be “blessed.” Jesus most famous sermon begins with the so-called beatitudes, nine character qualities that Jesus says are blessed. And Jesus would know, because he himself is blessed. Jesus is
- Poor in spirit, because he does what Micah prescribes, he walks humbly with God
- One who mourns, for the way things are does not fully resemble God’s intent, God’s kingdom
- Meek, because he isn’t at the center of his life
- Hungers and thirsts for righteousness, or social justice to use Micah’s words
- Pure in heart, defined by 18th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, as “to will one thing”
- A Peacemaker
- Persecuted and derided for his fidelity, his “love of kindness” to use Micah’s words
Jesus Christ is all of these, and he is blessed. Baptism makes us one with Christ, which means that we, too, are already blessed in Christ. The Beatitudes are not intended to awaken our spiritual problem, our desire for human wisdom and power. They are not a checklist to achieve. Rather they are an identity to receive. A de-centered life. A re-centered life.
For those who truly want to be blessed, here is the Bible’s answer. De-center your life by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. And re-center your life by receiving Christ.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- John the Baptist said of himself and Christ, “I must decrease, and he must increase.” How has Christ been increased in your life? Do you realize that this means a dying to self? Where are your lines of struggle with this?
- Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his own cross, and follow me.” In what ways are you denying yourself, dying on a cross, and following Christ?
- In baptism our identity and destiny are established—we belong to God. How does this truth find expression in your life? Could it be that living with justice, kindness, and humility are easier if we remembered the truth of baptism?
- Augustine said of the Lord’s Supper, “Behold what you are, become what you receive.” When you celebrate communion, do you become more like the Christ who serves you his own life? Is the Lord’s Supper as much a lifestyle as it is a liturgy for you?
By now our New Year’s Resolutions are broken. It’s time to start again . . . again. God is calling us to new resolutions, not based on our aspirations alone, but beginning somewhere else.
- Matthew’s stage is set by Isaiah
- The three parts of Jesus’ ministry
- The shortest summary of Jesus’ good news
- Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven
- What results when we become learners and doers
The prophet Isaiah set the stage for the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Eight centuries before Matthew, the Assyrians were conquering the tribes of Northern Israel including Galilee, Naphtali, and Zebulun. In this situation, Isaiah promised the birth of a new king, frequently symbolized in the ancient world as the coming of light, who would bring hope to God’s despairing people.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the coming of a new light and a new king in the birth of Jesus Christ. After Christmas we celebrate a season of Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” when the luminosity of Christ’s light grows.
Matthew uses this imagery. He reports that Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum, that is, the very regions of Isaiah’s text. His ministry is revealed following John’s arrest. And as his light begins to shine ever brighter, his following grows.
Matthew breaks down Jesus’ ministry into three parts when he closes this passage with the words, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
The proclamation of Jesus was simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This was the same proclamation as John the Baptist’s (cf. 3:2). Jesus built upon and developed John’s message. Jesus’ proclamation leads to the calling of the first four disciples, Andrew, Peter, James, and John. But it begs two questions: What is repentance? What is the kingdom?
The second of Jesus’ ministry activities according to Matthew was teaching, and content of Jesus’ teaching was the nature of the kingdom of heaven. In the following three chapters in Matthew, Jesus delivers the famous Sermon on the Mount which begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom.” Here we have a summary depiction of God’s kingdom.
The foundation is, of course, the list of Beatitudes. From there we learn that in the kingdom, people are as concerned about their thoughts as about their actions. In the kingdom, people love their enemies, and serve beyond what is required. They do not judge others, and they are generous without seeking attention or reward. In the kingdom, heavenly treasure is valued over earthly treasure, and worry is replaced by daily trust in God. And as a summary of this teaching, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray for and live according to the kingdom using the Lord’s Prayer.
This presentation of the kingdom teaches us also what the nature of repentance is. It is most simply living a life of wisdom. The Sermon on the Mount ends with the promise that those who hear this teaching of Jesus and orient their lives around it are wise. Repentance is changing our attitudes and actions to conform to the teaching of Jesus’ kingdom.
Here’s a final observation about Jesus’ teaching ministry. Jesus taught at all times and places—this sermon was delivered “on the mount,” yet Matthew makes a point of telling us he taught in synagogues also. Psalm 27:4-6, after identifying the LORD as our light, like Christmas and Epiphany, directs us to “seek God’s face in his house, in the temple.” Disciples of Jesus listen for God’s Word to them everywhere, but especially in worship.
When we become disciples, when we become those who learn, hear, and do, what can we expect? If we become wise builders who repent because the kingdom has come near, what will result?
This leads us to the third point of Jesus’ ministry as summarized by Matthew. After proclaiming and teaching, Jesus healed. Healing is the sign and the evidence of the kingdom. Following the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 8-9, Matthew provides many dramatic examples of the healing that comes with Jesus. He heals a Roman centurion’s servant and Peter’s mother-in-law. He heals demoniacs and a paralytic and a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. He raises a dead girl to life, gives voice to a mute man, and sight to two blind men.
By these dramatic healing stories, Matthew makes his point that repentance towards the kingdom brings healing. The healing we expect today may be less dramatic but is no less transformative. Imagine the results if we were to live according to the kingdom of heaven! Let me suggest three. We would experience healing through forgiveness, both given and received. So much of our spiritual, psychological, and even physical health is compromised by our inability to forgive (see 1 Corinthians 11:30 and Matthew 5:23-24).
Another result of living according to the kingdom of heaven is social justice. Look over the characteristics of the kingdom again. If society organized itself around these principles, there would be less poverty, more industry, and greater societal stability.
And finally, if we practiced forgiveness and social justice, peace would naturally result. Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven and his lived example inspires and equips us for forgiveness, social justice, and peace.
This is the kingdom we hope for and which Jesus proclaimed. But how are we to begin? We may study and learn the teachings of Jesus on the kingdom. We may repent of the ways we don’t live according to the kingdom. But where does the power come from for the transformation of our lives and our world?
For Paul in 1 Corinthians, the answer is the Cross of Christ. Paul was often challenged in his ministry by people who preached with greater eloquence than he. In this passage from the lectionary, Paul asserts the authority of his message derives not from eloquence or personality (cf. his comments on baptism), but on the content which was exclusively the power of the Cross to transform lives. For Paul, we can live according to the kingdom by remembering Christ’s own self-sacrifice for the kingdom. For there, on the Cross of Christ, we die with him. And the same Spirit that raised him from the dead raises us to new life now.
So let us dedicate ourselves anew to kingdom living. May our lives show the learning and repentance that characterize faithful discipleship. And may Christ’s light shine ever brighter through us as we die to self and live for God.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- As the days are beginning to lengthen and the light increases (at least in the northern hemisphere), how is the Christ-light of Christmas and Epiphany increasing in your life? Or where are there dark places in your own life where that light can bring hope?
- How familiar are you with Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven? There’s no better place to start than the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). As you read these chapters, what is God calling you to do?
- So often we think about repentance in moralistic and negative terms. I have suggested a more positive and constructive understanding of aligning with God’s kingdom. What do you think about that?
- In what ways does your life exemplify the kingdom fruits of forgiveness, social justice, and peace? Where in your life can you begin to live in such a way to bear these fruits?
- When we remember our baptism and Christ’s sacrifice at the Lord’s Table, we remember that God vindicated Jesus’ faithfulness to the kingdom vision. How does our celebration of the sacraments inspire and strengthen your own faithfulness to God’s vision for the world?
This sermon was preached at the 5th Presbyterian Church of Baranquilla, Colombia with an interpreter.
While We Wait, 2nd Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A
Almighty and Everlasting God,
As we gather to worship you in this time called Epiphany,
Make your presence known to us once again.
You who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” come shine in our hearts.
Give us the light of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
In his light, transform us from glory to glory.
And as in 1562 you sent Saint Luis Bertran to Colombia to preach in Spanish to the native people
Though the language was foreign to them, he proclaimed your Word and the Gospel of Christ.
So on this morning may I faithfully proclaim
And those who are gathered faithfully hear
Your Word to us in Christ, across our many differences, including language.
For it is in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen.
The prophet Isaiah called the coastlands to listen, and to the people far away to pay attention.
And so we know that all who listen for God’s Word are one together.
Though we may be far away from one another,
As far as the coastlands of Baranquilla are from the mountains of Colorado,
God’s Word brings us together, and makes us one.
And so Paul also says, because God has made us holy in Christ, we are all saints together.
We who call upon Christ’s name in every place, are one by that name.
We may feel alienated and alone by the powers of sin.
In the face of evil, we may feel there is nothing we can do, being so small and alone.
In the blackest moments of the dark night of the soul, we may feel blind, and lost, and destitute.
But we are not alone.
The Word of God is heard in the coastlands, and by the people far away.
Though we may not see one another, God has made us family, and we are not alone.
We are connected in the Spirit, and what one does here affects another far away.
This we have seen during our visit here to Colombia.
When my congregation prays for peace throughout the world, we pray for Colombia.
When our families adopt children through Compassion International, it is Colombian children we come to love.
When our presbyteries become partners with other presbyteries, it is the presbyteries of Central Colombia, the Uraba Presbytery, and the North Coast Presbytery with whom we partner.
These are fundamental truths we have to remember when we feel we are alone.
These are realities we may not see, but which we hear about when we listen to one another.
The Psalmist speaks of being lifted out of the desolate pit and the miry bog.
How we long today to have sure footing.
How we desire to walk through a country free of violence.
How we pray for countries to be free from the fear of roadside bombs and land mines.
How we long for the peace of Psalm 40.
In the United States we had a prophet who stood for the rights of African Americans.
The preacher and martyr Martin Luther King, Jr. stood against systemic injustice and prejudice.
While in prison for breaking unjust laws he wrote about peace.
He wrote about peace as the absence of tension.
This is a peace we would welcome, indeed.
This is the vision of peace promised by the world’s politicians.
It is a peace that can be enforced with power.
It is a peace that is possible when opposites are equals and they fear mutual damage from hostilities.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called this kind of peace a “negative peace.”
“Negative peace is the absence of tension,” he wrote.
But, he said, there exists a “positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
This is the true peace for which we long.
It is the peace proclaimed not by politicians in the world, but by Christ as the Kingdom of God.
It is a peace that is realized not by force, but by self-restraint.
It is a peace that is enduring because it depends not upon fear, but upon God’s grace.
This is the peace that results when justice is present.
Justice characterized by safe working conditions.
Justice characterized by fair wages.
Justice characterized by work that is freely chosen.
Justice characterized by workers of an appropriate age.
Justice characterized by caring for those who cannot work.
Justice characterize by sharing instead of stealing.
Justice characterized by restitution instead of displacement.
In the presence of such justice, peace results.
“I waited and waited for the LORD,” says the Psalm.
“God inclined to me and heard my cry.”
. . . We so often find ourselves still waiting.
What are we to do while we wait?
The psalmist says God had given him an open ear.
Let us pray that God will open our ears to hear God’s Word to us while we wait.
The psalmist says God’s Word resides in his heart.
Let us meditate upon God’s Word while we wait.
The psalmist speaks of God’s deliverance in the great assembly.
Let us sustain one another with stories of deliverance while we wait.
Stories of deliverance we read from the Scriptures, like Psalm 40.
Stories of deliverance we remember from our own past.
Like we are, the Corinthians were also waiting—they were waiting for Christ to be revealed.
Paul assures them that God will strengthen them to the end.
Even though they are waiting, Paul says, they are already rich in speech, and knowledge, and in spiritual gifts.
Even though we may be called to a season of waiting, there is action that may also be taken.
Like the Corinthians, we are rich in speech.
This week we have heard your stories of deliverance; now our waiting may be hopeful.
We have heard your psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; now our waiting may be joyful.
Like the Corinthians, we are rich in knowledge.
We know our destiny is in fellowship with Jesus Christ, so our waiting is full of faith.
We know that we call upon God together with all the saints, so our waiting does not despair in loneliness.
And like the Corinthians, we are rich in spiritual gifts.
Whether gifts of service, or teaching, or prophetic speech, or mercy,
Whether your gifts are in leadership, or care, or wisdom, or generosity,
These gifts of the Spirit are given to us to use in service to the church and to the world while we wait.
While we wait, we pray and remember God’s faithfulness.
While we wait, we encourage and serve one another.
Ten years ago the Presbyterian Church USA started training people in the United States to accompany people in Colombia.
We have trained 150 people to wait with you for the peace that comes from justice.
Many of you have met our accompaniers over the past 10 years.
When we accompany one another in waiting, we begin to experience together the peace for which we long.
When we accompany one another in waiting, we invite others to join us in faith.
“Many will see and stand in awe,” the Psalm says.
“Many will put their trust in the LORD.”
When we accompany one another in waiting, the Spirit of God is incarnate with us once again in the body of Christ which is the church.
On December 25th we celebrated the incarnation of God’s Word in the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the ancient Eastern church, they celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6th.
It is called the day of Epiphany, which means “appearance.”
Not only did they celebrate Christ’s birth on Epiphany, but they celebrated other appearances of God in Christ.
They celebrated his baptism and his first miracle of changing water into wine.
Today we speak of a season of Epiphany following Christmas.
It is a time when we see more and more clearly that God is indeed with us in Christ.
And so in John’s Gospel, instead of stories about Jesus’ birth, we find a gradual epiphany, a gradual appearance, of God with us in Christ.
When John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God, Andrew began to follow him.
Jesus turned to Andrew and said to him, “What are you looking for?”
This is the question Jesus continues to ask his disciples today.
It marks a new beginning of the spiritual journey, every day, no matter how long we have followed Jesus.
“What are you looking for?”
“What are you waiting for?”
“What are you hoping will appear?”
. . . The prophet Isaiah promised that the servant of the Lord does not labor in vain.
The servant of the Lord does not spend his strength for nothing.
The servant’s cause is with the LORD, and his reward is with God.
The one chosen by God will be a light for all the nations.
We declare that this servant has come in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
He takes away the sin that makes victims of the poor and the powerless.
He takes away the sin of oppressors who idolize wealth and power.
But we also declare that we are God’s chosen ones in Christ.
Christ’s light continues to shine in us, God’s servants, God’s chosen ones.
And so as we, like the Psalmist, wait for the LORD, may God incline and hear our cries.
Let many see and stand in awe.
Let many put their trust in the LORD.
Let us pray.
Strengthen us to the end, Powerful and Holy LORD of hosts.
Do not withhold your compassion from us.
May your steadfast love and faithfulness keep us safe all our days and into your kingdom.
As you reveal yourself to us in Christ, may we reflect your light to the nations.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
There are two major distorted understandings about baptism that have robbed the church of a vital spirituality. The passages from today’s lectionary help to correct this.
- Two distorted understandings of baptism
- God’s power in water
- God’s Spirit in water
- God’s Word in water
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
The early church had a very robust understanding of the cleansing aspects of baptism. The waters of baptism thoroughly cleansed both “original sin” and any sins committed since birth. So people sometimes delayed baptism until their deathbeds in order to maximize the effect of the waters. (You did have to get the timing right!) It wasn’t until the theology of Augustine (d430) became popular (aided by the rise of Christendom) that infant baptism became routine.
This over emphasis, even exclusive emphasis on baptism as providing the forgiveness of sins is one distorted understanding of baptism. It gave rise to some of the critique of the Protestant Reformers. But some of them created the second major distortion, that baptism is primarily a testimony. In this case, baptism represents repentance following a conversion experience, and the rite testifies both to the church and to the world that salvation has come to an individual. Obviously this understanding precludes infant baptism.
For a fuller understanding and application of baptism, the entire scriptural witness must be considered. Today’s lectionary passages provide a sampling.
The Psalm testifies of the relationship between God and water. Originally a Canaanite religious hymn praising fertility, the ancient Israelites modified the psalm by asserting that the LORD (the Hebrew word for God, which appears in every verse of this Psalm) abides over the water. The original hymn suggests that God is in the waters and the powerful storm that breaks and twists trees, flashes lightning and shakes the earth with thunder. The Psalm recognizes this power and how it testifies to the power of God, but asserts further that the LORD is even more powerful.
This conviction led the great 16c reformer Martin Luther to write his famous “flood prayer” which he added to the baptismal liturgy. It prays for us to have faith in the God who is powerfully at work in and above the waters:
“Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to Your great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. You drowned heart-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, prefiguring this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood, and a lavish washing away of sin. We pray that You would behold [those who are baptized] according to Your boundless mercy and bless [them] with true faith by the Holy Spirit that through this saving flood all sin in [them] which has been inherited from Adam and which [they themselves] have committed since would be drowned and die. Grant that [they] be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, [they] would be declared worthy of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Isaiah presents another picture of the power of God. In the first of four “Servant Songs,” Isaiah describes what the true servant of God is like. It is right to think of Jesus in these words, but in fact we are all called to be servants of God like this. God’s servant promotes justice through peace-making. Isaiah presents a servant who will not break a bruised reed or extinguish a faltering candle. This is not a servant who brings justice by judgment and force, but who nonetheless “shines” righteousness. All of this occurs, Isaiah tells us, through the Spirit of God who anoints the servant.
When John baptizes Jesus, he sees this Spirit descend upon Christ like a dove. John’s baptism is for repentance, which makes it awkward for Jesus to be baptized. Both John and Jesus recognize this, but Jesus assures John that it must be so “now” and “in this way” to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is showing the way of the servant. Both John and Jesus demonstrate submission. The way of the servant is a way of solidarity with sinners and a way of submission.
This is what “righteousness” truly means—seeking and doing God’s will. And baptism depicts it and invites us into it, because God is powerful, because the Spirit is upon and within us, and because Jesus is our example. Baptism makes us a servant like Jesus.
Peter had to learn this. Being a good Jew, he refused to eat certain “unclean” foods. He knew his Bible and his tradition and what his church taught: Jews were to avoid the “unclean.” So when a non-Jew wanted to learn more about Jesus, Peter questioned. As he summarized the Gospel of Christ, he mentions that after John’s baptism of repentance came Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit which enabled him to do good and provide healing—the Servant Song ministry. Suddenly the Spirit descends upon the “unclean” Cornelius and Peter cannot but conclude that he too should be baptized.
When Luther was describing God’s powerful presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion, he described it as “in, with, and under” the bread. In his baptism, this is exactly what Jesus depicts with the water: he goes “in, with, and under” the water, and because Christ is there, we can be assured of the presence of God’s power, Spirit, and Word in the waters of baptism.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- How has your thinking been distorted by the two over-emphases regarding baptism? What can you do to begin to round out this distortion?
- In what ways are you living as a servant of God—pursuing justice and righteousness through peace-making? How is God’s Spirit bearing fruit in your life?
- Where is a “Cornelius” area in your life, a place where you judge something as “unclean” when maybe God has a different perspective?
- Think about your own baptism, or if you were an infant, the baptism of others in which you participated as a witness. How many other images and meanings of baptism were present in the liturgy? How do these meanings have ongoing application in your life?