Epiphany

light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

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I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.


calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

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It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

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Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

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So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


prayer for Ordinary Time

It’s true, Ordinary Time is about the ordinals—
the 3rd, the 13th, the 23rd Sunday.
But we usually think of it as…
ordinary time.

It’s ordinary; it’s everyday.
It’s a placeholder in between times.
It’s in between Epiphany and Lent.
It’s between the light shining over the whole world
and the call to reflect, renew, and repent
(you know, do an about face).

It’s in between Pentecost and Advent.
It’s after the fire has fallen
and the Spirit has set the church on her course.
It’s before your Son arrives as the God-baby
and returns in glory and power.

But that’s not where most of life is lived.
We don’t spend much time in those grand, majestic moments.
No, we live in between.

In ordinary time.

That’s where life happens.

 

Ordinary


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

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{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

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It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

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The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

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Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

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But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


light unexpected

“O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them.  We are wasting the resources of the earth in our headlong greed, and they will suffer want…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.

“…Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy…”

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Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

Those are words from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; they date back to 1910—over a century ago.  They’re in a book published in 1917, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith.[1]  It was published during what came to be known as “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”

Human knowledge and technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as we might know all too well, knowledge and wisdom rarely progress at the same rate.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Fosdick calls “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[2]

So far, the twenty-first century has amply demonstrated that lack of wisdom in dealing with conflict, at the international level and elsewhere.  To the unknowns of this unfolding century, the impulse to respond with fear is always present.  The future can be seen as a void, filled with darkness.  We have to be cautious of morbid or despairing outlooks that expect disaster and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like the “law of attraction,” which can go under various names.  It’s the idea that whatever we project into the world, the universe, the ether, is what we attract.  I’m reminded of the verse in Titus which goes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (1:15).

To this vision of darkness, we need something that’s light.  Literally.  Epiphany, which falls on Saturday this week, is all about light.  It’s all about the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the appearance, or manifestation, of Jesus to the Gentiles—to the world.  Our word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek term επιφανεια (epiphaneia), which appears in several places, such as 2 Timothy 1:10, where we learn that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing [or through the epiphany] of our Savior Christ Jesus.”

Our gospel reading, the visit of the Magi, is the primary image of Epiphany.  The Magi were more than likely Zoroastrian priests, the ancient faith of Persia.  They’ve been called “wise men,” “kings,” “astrologers.”  But whatever you call them, they’re the first Gentiles in the Bible to see the Christ child.

They notice a star which they interpret to signify a special birth.  So off they go to Judea, asking questions about “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2).

2 epiphany

The guy currently claiming that title, Herod the Great, gets nervous when he hears about it.  (His campaign pledge was “vote for me, and I will bring you cruelty and paranoia.”)  Learning from the religious leaders the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he wastes no time and sets up a secret meeting with the Magi.  Herod wants to know two things.  When did you first see the star?  Will you find the child and let me know where he is?  “After all, I want to pay my respects, too!”  (Wink, wink.)

The Magi, upon finding the young Jesus and offering their presents, have a dream telling them, “Don’t go back to Herod.”  So they leave for home, taking the bypass around Jerusalem!

Herod tries to stamp out the light that the Magi found.  Not simply a light in the sky, the light they found is the one who enlightens all of humanity.  The deeper we go into the epiphany of Jesus, the more wonders we find.

There’s another meaning to epiphany, which I imagine we know.  It has the sense of a sudden awareness of truth, a flash of understanding.  It’s when the light goes on.  Eureka!

I want to tell you a story.  It didn’t happen to me, but I think I can identify with John Artz, the one it happened to.  It’s the story of a personal epiphany.[3]

He says, “I suppose that most people never bother themselves with questions about the meaning of life.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to think of much else.  One day as I was driving home, I filled the empty moments with musings about the possible meanings of life.  As the car bottomed in a dip and began to pounce over the next rise, I turned the wheel to the left and leaned into the turn to overcome the centrifugal force.

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“Then it came to me in a flash.  There were four principles basic to all aspects of life.  These four principles could be combined in various ways to explain everything—why we are here, what we should do, why we are the way we are—every nagging question I had ever pondered.

“It was an epiphany.  It was one of those two or three seconds in your life when it all makes sense.  When you are one with wisdom and understanding.  When there is no more asking, only doing.  I raced through examples in my mind to come up with something that these four principles did not explain, but I could find nothing.

“‘Well,’ I thought. ‘I’d better write these down before I forget them.’  I had had moments of insight before and knew how quickly they could evaporate.  I steered with my left hand and rummaged through the glove box with the other, looking for something to write with.  I looked through every cubby hole in the car but there was no pen to be found.  I looked around and realized that I was just minutes from home and that I could preserve the insight by just repeating it to myself for a few minutes.  Once in the door, I would head to my desk and jot down these ideas before they decayed.

“I pulled into the garage, turned off the ignition, pulled up the emergency brake, left the car and headed for the door.

4 epiphany“When I opened the door, the kids were fighting over a [video] game.  The cat was tormenting the fish.  And my wife started rattling off a list of everyone who had called and left messages.  Then she asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chased the cat away from the fishbowl, tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the kids, and then turned to my wife and said, ‘What are the choices?’

“By the time I got to my office only a few minutes had passed, but the inspiration had disappeared like a dream upon waking.  It left a residue of that feeling of understanding, but nothing to hang that understanding on.

“Many times I have reenacted that car trip in my head trying to recall the four principles but the muse of understanding never returned: until yesterday.  As I drove home yesterday the insight returned—not the four principles, but the understanding.  The significance was never in the four principles, but in the story about them.”

For our friend, what were most important weren’t the particular ideas he came up with; it was the process itself.  It was the experience of having the light come on, of experiencing an epiphany.  Returning to the biblical understanding, what matters is experiencing the light—the glory—of God in Jesus Christ.  And when that happens, the principles, the insights, the vision—all of that comes with it.  We’re changed for the better.

Thinking again about the Magi, we know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report the location of Jesus.  Instead, as the scripture says, “they left for their own country by another road.”  I believe they did just that.  But I wonder if that statement isn’t true at another level.

These men had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey.  The Magi were accustomed to associating with those in positions of power.  Surely the star they saw promised a change in regime, perhaps one who would bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Who could know that the king of the Jews would turn out to be the humble child of a poor family—a family which soon found themselves fleeing their homeland, fearing their rulers, becoming refugees?  And who can say how meeting this family effected these wise men from the East?  Perhaps in leaving “for their own country by another road,” the Magi also were choosing another path in life.

5 epiphany

Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ is for the entire world.  And it’s also an experience of light that’s deeper than the words we use to describe it.  Our words, our language, about God and Jesus and life in general give us a picture of reality.  We talk about things; we use names, but that’s not the same thing as actually meeting them, experiencing them.

The light sneaks up on us; it takes us unaware.  It’s such a joyful, shocking, unexpected source of grandeur.  The darkness of Fosdick’s warning loses its gloom.  Our poor, stumbling lives are radiantly exposed by something wondrous and holy. 

When we encounter the humble, holy child, we are changed—and we’re challenged.  We see, by the light of the Epiphany of the Lord, our own lack of humility; we see our own arrogance.  But thanks be to God, into the darkness that wants to enshroud us, Jesus says, “Let there be light!”

 

[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), 60.

[2] Fosdick, vii.

[3] gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~jartz/alter/stories/epiphany.html


are we ready?

New Year’s Day.*  Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is on Friday).  The eighth day of Christmas.  The morning after New Year’s Eve.  A lot of stuff is coming together today.

Maybe that makes sense.  Each new year has an unbelievably complex set of joys and fears, anticipation and dread.  That might be especially true as we enter 2017.  Many people are glad that 2016 is over!  Although, in speaking with Banu, we recognize that 2016 had a whole lot of blessing to it, and we thank God for it.

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Of course, many of us make new year’s resolutions.  (Such as resolving to exercise—I mean, to exercise more!)  How long folks keep at it is another question.  Still, that speaks to the human need to look to the future and the felt need to change.  We remember the past, with both the good and the bad, but maybe we want a do-over as well.

What I’m about to say should be no surprise to anyone.  When we’re young, our storehouse of memories is very limited.  Everything is directed to the future, and most of us can’t wait to get there!  As time goes on and we get a little more of life under our belt, a little more experience, things begin to even out.  As the years go by, most of us have a wealth of memories, and if you’re regarding life as simply a measure of numbers, the future seems quite foreshortened.  (Still, as I often say, no one is promised tomorrow.  Any of us could be gone tonight.)

Perhaps not regarding life as simply a measure of numbers is a big part of keeping one’s heart young.  We welcome times to come (however that works out), while remembering “auld lang syne,” times gone by.

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I begin with this little meditation on memory because we can see that in the Old Testament lesson.  Today’s passage from Isaiah 63 speaks about memory.  Verse 7 begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord.”  This person who is doing the recounting has seen times that are both awful and awesome.

Here’s a quick note about our author.  The first two-thirds of the book of Isaiah date to the time of the prophet himself, in the eighth century B.C.  Starting with chapter 40, we’re at a point in the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century.  This latter part of the book, sometimes called Second Isaiah, is considered to be the work of an anonymous prophet in the “school” or the “spirit” of Isaiah.

When we get to chapter 56, we’re a couple more decades into the future.  This final section is sometimes called Third Isaiah.  This is after the return from exile has happened.  For a while, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among those returning to their homeland.  Over time, however, hopes began to fade as cold reality sinks in.  Among other things, there is constant opposition from many who have settled the land while so much of the house of Israel has been held captive in Babylon.

This is probably about the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.  One of the things they emphasize is the need to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  The people need a kick in their complacency.

Last week, part of my Christmas sermon dealt with one of the seven deadly sins, sloth.  The sin of sloth isn’t a matter of being physically lazy, although it might include that.  Rather, it is a sickness of the soul, in which a person simply ceases to care.  It is a resistance to the Spirit of God which results in a hardening of heart, not in an angry way, but in a way that loses the desire to grow.  It’s a settling down into a dull routine in which the prompting of the Spirit is ignored.

The prophet’s audience in today’s text is largely afflicted by sloth.  They need a fire lit under them.

But you might not get that, based on the snippet of the chapter that is today’s passage.  The compilers of the lectionary tended to chisel out some of the “troublesome parts,” the scriptures that say things we find embarrassing, or stuff we just don’t want to hear.  Whenever I see scriptures that are deleted, I have a hard time letting that go—even if it’s something I don’t want to hear.

As I said earlier, our reading begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” because of all the wonderful stuff the Lord has done for us.  Verse 8 has affirming words about Israel being “my people, children who will not deal falsely.”  Things get wrapped up nicely with God’s “presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9).

Those are good memories.  It is vital; it is life-giving, to remind each other of what God has done for us.  It’s especially important when we’re in times of distress.

Still, this has been plucked out of its context.

The first part of the chapter talks about vengeance being unleashed.  Verse 3 is especially lovely.  “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”  The juice from trampling grapes is compared to blood!

However, this isn’t the action of a bloodthirsty god.  Our Lord isn’t roaming around, looking for heads to smash.  This crazy language is actually about grace.  George Knight talks about the way “the nations have made life for each other on this planet hell on earth.”[1]  So what does God do in response?  “God alone knows how to use [humanity’s] hellish activities for good; he does so by taking upon himself the absurdity of human violence.”[2]  That’s how we get the language about juice staining the garments of God.

We see here a preview of the sacrificial love perfectly demonstrated by Jesus.  Still, I guess that stuff about blood made our lectionary friends squeamish!

Now, what’s going on after today’s reading?

In verse 10, right after the language of blessing that was read to us, we get a splash of cold water in the face.  “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.”  But they rebelled.  Memories become a bit more painful.

Mike Stavlund has sarcastically noted, “With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers.”[3]  Then changing the focus to us, “who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves ‘God’s servants’ than we do acting like it.  Who pray for shalom while we make war.  Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.”

That’s an exceptionally biting comment: asking for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Can that be true?

As I said, we are on the cusp of a new calendar year.  2017 won’t automatically be better than 2016.  One of the narratives that was promoted this past year was that people are angry.  We were told that we’re angry.  Take our word for it.  And if you’re not angry, you should be!

But beneath all of that, we should remember that anger has its roots in fear.  We’ve been told to fear each other.  And that’s not anything new.  Fear is the opposite of love.  As 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).  It’s impossible to carry out the gospel imperative to love one another if we’re afraid of each other.  We are armed against each other, both literally and metaphorically.

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Fear can also result in loneliness.

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré, the spiritual formation ministry started by Richard Foster, talks about this in his review of 2016.[4]  He speaks of “an epidemic of loneliness in our culture.”  We can see this in America as a whole, but he especially focuses on feeling lonesome in the community of faith.

“This loneliness epidemic,” Hall says, “came into sharp focus for me several months ago, when I joined a group of Renovaré Institute alumni at a reunion in London, England.  One after another, often amid tears, people spoke of how desperately they missed the rich sense of belonging and connection they’d had while they were in the program.

“And it’s not just Renovaré Institute students.  We receive calls from folks nearly every day whose lives were altered at a Renovaré conference, or in the pages of a Renovaré book, and who now crave community with others who are on the same journey.”

He’s speaking in particular of those their ministry has reached, but clearly the reality that people are lonely reaches far and wide.  Going back to earlier comments, could the epidemic of loneliness also be the result of rebellion and bitterness on our part?  Does our fear prevent our loving each other?  And going back to the original audience of our scripture reading, do we suffer from the spiritual sickness known as sloth?  Does it keep us from caring, from really being with the other?

Like the new year we’re entering, we ourselves are a crazy, mixed up set of joys and fears.  We are beautiful, marvelous, wise, and courageous.  We are also afraid of our own shadows.  We are creatures desperately in need of a loving Savior.

We are in the season of Christmas, and God comes to us in the flesh.  God dwells with us in the flesh.

This is also Epiphany Sunday.  Like the magi from the East, we are drawn to the glory of Christ’s majesty.  But guess what?  That glory is also in us.

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Remember verse 9: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  The very presence of God saves us and is with us.

So are we ready for what this new year holds?  Are we ready to be led by the Spirit into the new thing God has for us?

I want to finish with a quote that was attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually comes from Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are we ready?

* This was for New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 73.

[2] Knight, 74.

[3] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/christmas1ot

[4] renovare.org/2016


light of transfigured Hiroshima

From the earliest times, in the dim recesses of the past, the quest for fire characterized the emergence of Homo Sapiens (and likely other proto-human species, such as the Neanderthals).  Fire provides two desirable qualities:  light and heat.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Today is all about the fire of light and heat.  Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord.  (The Revised Common Lectionary places it on the Sunday right before Lent.  It serves as the transition from Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to the world, and Lent, when the road of discipleship is revealed.)  But today is the traditional date for its observation.

On the mountaintop, the fire of the light of God is seen shining in the face of Christ.  Peter, James, and John are blinded by the glory.

Today also marks the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, one of the worst crimes in human history.  (As an added obscenity, the first atomic bomb test was nicknamed “Trinity.”)  The fire of heat burned the residents of a large city.  (Three days later, the residents of Nagasaki also felt the heat.)

Hiroshima

Out of the horror, the fire of Hiroshima has been transfigured into the light of peace.  The Hiroshima Peace Memorial bears testimony that war does not have the final word.  The transfigured one, the Prince of Peace, takes the cold darkness of our world and transforms it with the fire of warm radiance.