Archives: Epiphany

Why Is God’s Revelation So Unhelpful?

It’s the Last Sunday of Epiphany, which means we read the story of the Transfiguration.

“Transfiguration” is the fancy church word to describe this story of Jesus being transformed before his disciples on the mountaintop, his clothes becoming dazzling white as he talks with Moses and Elijah. The voice of God speaks out of the cloud and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Why do we always end Epiphany with this story?

We end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, or “The Fig” as it’s affectionately known among preachers, because it is the closest anyone on earth has ever come to seeing the fullness of Christ in his divine nature.

Peter, James, and John get to see the end of the story, Jesus in all his heavenly glory, while they’re still in the middle of the story.

It’s a revelation to them about this man they’ve been following around for the last few years. They’ve seen him do amazing things—heal the sick, feed the thousands, and walk on water—but this surpasses it all.

The season of Epiphany is all about revelation. It’s about the world coming to understand who Jesus is and why he came to earth.

During this season, we read of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple as a baby, of his baptism in the River Jordon, and of his first miracles.

The Transfiguration is the pinnacle, quite literally. It’s a mountaintop experience for the disciples.

But here’s the thing. It’s revelation, but it’s not particularly helpful revelation.

What do we learn about Jesus in this miracle?

What lesson for living an ethical life does it teach us?

How do we come away from seeing Jesus in dazzling white clothes better able to love our neighbors?

I don’t think we particularly do, which is why I hate the Transfiguration.

Well, perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s just say it’s not among my top ten miracle stories from the Gospels. I moan and groan about having to preach on it every single year.

What I want out of my revelations from God, whatever they are, is something practical.

“What am I supposed to do next?” I ask God. “What’s the right path forward? How do you want me to change?”

Reveal that to me, God, if you’d really like to be helpful.

And that, I realized this year, is precisely my problem. Continue reading

Are We Charging People for the Gospel?

We have a fascinating window into the life of early-career Jesus in our gospel lesson today.

This is right at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 1. Jesus has been baptized, called the disciples, healed one other person, and then we arrive in our scene today.

Simon and Andrew take Jesus to their house, presumably to show their other relatives this amazing person they’ve decided to follow.

I can imagine the skepticism of their parents, spouses, and other siblings. “He’s who? And he does what? Heals people? Proclaims the Kingdom of God? And you’re going to follow him? What about your job and your responsibilities?”

Peter and Andrew are totally sold on Jesus, but the rest of their family isn’t. And so it’s not surprising that they want proof of the miraculous works Jesus supposedly can accomplish.

Conveniently, Peter’s mother-in-law is right there, and she is ill.

And Jesus heals her.

The word spreads through the town like wildfire, and by suppertime, as Mark says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.”

Scores of broken and hurting people offer themselves to Jesus in desperate hope of being healed.

And he heals them all.

But it takes a severe toll. Continue reading

Why You Don’t Have a Conscience

We all want to “do the right thing.”

We want to make ethically and morally sound decisions. (Most of the time.)

But how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we decide?

Most of us rely on vague intuition mixed with general social pressure.

We basically try to do what everyone else does.

Some of us have a highly developed inner moral voice that cracks the whip and dangles us over the fiery flames of hell.

This usually comes from early (sometimes abusive) religious training that focused more on strict and rigid moral codes than God’s loving forgiveness.

Most people “do the right thing” out of shame, wanting to be liked, or fear of punishment.

That doesn’t seem like a very sound foundation for living a good life, especially one that abounds with joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.

As Christians we rely on conscience to help us make moral choices.

But most of us have not taken the time as mature adults to reexamine whatever childhood images we had of “the still small voice.”

Conscience is not just the internalized voice of the parent or the authority figure. That’s a child’s vision of conscience.

It’s a good place to start—we all learn how to care for other people by coming up against structure and boundaries as children.

But moral decision-making as adults should have a spiritual character deeper than a memorized set of rules.

(And many times, those most obsessed with “the rules” use them mostly to build up their own power and beat others down with shame.)

So how do we explore conscience as adult actors in a moral universe? Continue reading

Draw the Other Arc

Today’s scriptures are nothing but a bunch of fish stories.

You know what I mean, “I went out today and I caught a disciple this big!”

Or in Jonah’s case, “I got thrown off a ship in the middle of a hurricane and got eaten by a fish this big!”

What is it about fish stories?

Why does the fish always have to be this big?

We do that about a lot of things in our lives, though, don’t we?

We may not talk about it in terms exactly that blunt and unsubtle, but we’re happy to tell our friends about our big car or our big job or our super successful children or our ministry that is growing by the day.

There’s one thing we don’t often brag about, maybe because many of us can’t, myself included.

The size and depth of our commitment to our discipleship.

How far we’re willing to go for Jesus.

What we’re really willing to give up for the sake of the gospel. Continue reading

Come and See: The Unreturned Invitation

“Come and see.”  I discovered something new as I studied these words in Gospel of John, and it totally changed how I think about them and what I think they mean.

In our gospel passage today, we read, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”

Nathanael is doubtful.

He has the prejudice that probably many of his friends had, that Nazareth was a do-nothing backwater town.

It would be like hearing that someone from the local junior high basketball team had just been drafted by the NBA.

Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

So Philip invites Nathanael to come and see for himself what the big deal is with Jesus.

But the I don’t believe Philip says those particular words or makes that invitation just out of his own inspiration.

Jesus has already said these words of invitation himself, just a few verses earlier: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”

Philip’s “come and see” invitation to Nathanael is born out of Jesus’ “come and see” invitation to him. It all begins with Jesus.

And Jesus is not displaying a resume and a list of qualifications that make him the Lamb of God.

It is an invitation to experience it yourself, with no prerequisites at all.

Just show up, and see what Jesus is doing.

That is an invitation that Jesus is making to us all the time.

But the disciples, in their usual loveable cluelessness, spend the next weeks and months mostly failing to understand what Jesus is trying to do.

They’ve made a start—Jesus asked them to come and see, and they did. And Philip invites Nathanael to come and see—they have learned that they need to extend the invitation to others.

But the problem is that the invitation to “come and see” is all about Jesus in his role as a miracle-worker and potential king and rescuer of Israel.

It’s all about what Jesus can do that is eye-catching and extraordinary, that bends the laws of nature and gathers a crowd.

It’s not about actual relationship with Jesus.

Jesus invites the disciples to come and see, but they think he’s just inviting them to see miracles like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish.

They will come and see, but they’re coming to see the wrong things. Continue reading

Is Your Baptism Incomplete?

What does it mean to have an incomplete baptism?

That is the question suddenly confronting the believers in Ephesus we read of in our lesson from Acts.

Paul arrives and says to them, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’”

We might initially assure ourselves that this story has nothing to do with us.

We were baptized into Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the name of God the Father. Our Trinitarian credentials are secure.

But to read this text on that literal, surface level is to miss what it has to teach us.

Let’s take a step back and ask in what ways we were baptized into John’s baptism, why that was valuable, and what might still be missing from our baptism.

How are we failing to live into the full baptism of Christ? Continue reading

We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?

Do you hate your body?

I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.

And that is a tragedy.

We are members of an incarnational faith.

We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.

We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.

We call our collective self the Body of Christ.

And yet we hate our own bodies.

We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.

What is wrong with this picture? Continue reading

The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading

Jesus Sets Us Up

In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.

Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.

And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.

The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.

Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.

Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.

And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.

Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.

The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.

In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.

Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.

It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.

But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.

There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here. Continue reading

Trump: The American Shadow Concretized

Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.

I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.

The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.

And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.

Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?

President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.

I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.

I think we have a deeper problem. Continue reading

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