This passage from Second Isaiah points to the coming end of exile by the Babylonians. There is rejoicing and gladness that comes alongside hesitation and worry. The people have long been away from their homes, the ancestors, the temple, and have forgotten, or are at least questioning, where God has been in the midst of it all. Could it really be that God has finally delivered them?
We have been in the midst of a pandemic for nearly a year now. Many of us, and our congregations, have asked where is God in the midst of this? We have been out of our sanctuaries and daily routine for so long, when things return to some sort of normal will we even be able to go back? These verses invite us to remember who we are, and to remember who God is. It is our memory and experience of God that ground our faith and give us hope.
The prophet, too, calls upon the people of Israel to remember who they are and to remember who God is. They begin the chapter by showing that there is nothing greater than this God, who laid flat the mountains and lifted up the low ground (v 4), who holds the seas in one hand (v 12). God was present, alone, in the very beginning, and stands, unwavering in all of history. Starting in verse 21, the author asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
In other words, how have you forgotten how creative and powerful our God is?! Verses 21-26 focus on Israel’s God as creator and controller of the nations. We are reminded that God was in the beginning, that creation itself is the dwelling place of God. Our creator is not far off in the cosmos like the gods of the Babylonians, but here and present, acting in the world at present. In sum, look around you, this is all proof of a loving and present God.
The author goes on in verses 28-31 to assert that God will never fail. God offers God’s strength and might not to the powerful, but to the weak and weary. God’s power is unmatched, new, young empires and peoples may seem to be in control, but they will grow exhausted. God will not. God continues to act in the world by offering hope. Finally, the author says those who wait for God will be transformed, they will run and not be weary, they will soar like eagles.
It is in remembering that God has proved Godself over and over again that we are given hope. God created out of nothing, God led the people out of Egypt into the promised land, God raised up leaders to bring justice and mercy to the people, God became human so that God might offer love and salvation, God promised that after death always comes resurrection. This is our God, says Second Isaiah. God has been present since the beginning and will never leave us, we are the ones who turn our backs and forget. This week remind your people who they are. Perhaps they have a long history of mission work or justice work in the community. Remind them of this, encourage them to find ways to start this work again safely. Think about your congregation, who they are or who they have been, and remind them of this. And remind them of what God is doing in their midst even now.
The last thing to happen between Jesus and his friends, just before this incredible and miraculous story that we call the Transfiguration is a heated argument between Jesus and his closest companion, Peter. Just before Jesus calls Peter up to witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus sharing time together on the top of a mountain, he refuses to trust Jesus’ prediction that he will suffer and die at the hands of elders, chief priests, and legal experts.
And just before that, all twelve of the disciples demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus overcame a worrying lack of nourishment in a crowd of thousands by multiplying a few loaves of bread and pieces of fish that might have fed three or four families into an abundance of food that fed more than four thousand families with baskets of bread and fish left over.
Of course, the response to that miracle among the religious insiders is just ridiculous: the religious leaders demand that Jesus should perform a sign. As if the news of abundance and healing weren’t enough. The religious leaders—the Pharisees and Sadducees insist that they need more. They heap on doubt and criticism in a way that multiplies itself.
So, Jesus warns his disciples, who were closest to him to be careful around the religious authority. Their subversion of the gospel grows like yeast. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t understand Jesus. After Jesus mentioned yeast, the disciples spin around in circles looking for bread, and complaining that there wasn’t any food to eat.
They just don’t get it. And their misunderstanding has potential ramifications for the future of God’s movement. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus knows that he will suffer, he will die, and he will rise up, but he needs to have his disciples there to lead this radical movement and carry Jesus’ message of grace and love into the world so that the Kingdom has a place to take root. In order for this movement to be effective, the disciples can’t be taken over by the subversive doubt manifesting in the religious leadership. They need to resist the impulse to doubt Jesus’ incredible ministry. They need to resist the impulse to categorize and contain Jesus’ message.
So, after Jesus and Peter get into a pretty nasty argument, culminating in Jesus yelling at Peter for embodying the power of temptation, Jesus invites a few of his disciples, including Peter, to come and see one more sacred sign that might lead them towards a new alignment with the Kingdom of God.
It is hard to understand what is happening on the top of the mountain without taking a quick glance at where we’ve come so far. In this tense moment with his disciples, just as he is beginning his journey towards the cross, Jesus brings his close friends to a thin place, where the Kingdom is fully tangible. There are no crowds around to distract the disciples. There are no other religious folks there to critique and question what they were seeing.
They simply witnessed a reunion of Israel’s past, present, and future illumined on the crest of a hill.
Then, from there, Jesus and his disciples go about business as usual. Jesus heals another young child, then teaches about the ethics of the Kingdom of God.
The Transfiguration doesn’t seem to change much. It certainly doesn’t give the disciples a sudden burst of clarity. It doesn’t change Jesus’ fundamental ministry. It doesn’t even change the timeline or the outcome of Jesus’ challenging message. He continues to heal. He continues to teach. He continues to frustrate the religious folks. He continues to expect more from his disciples than they ever are able to follow through on. Ministry just continues, which makes this sacred moment on the top of a mountain all the more interesting.
Transfiguration Sunday is such a weird and wonderful day to celebrate. In so many ways, nothing really happened. Nothing changed. The world wasn’t turned upside down. The disciples weren’t suddenly flooded with a new understanding of God or of Jesus. In other ways, it was incredibly important.
In reality, the moment highlighted how quick we are to categorize our experiences of holiness into easy, comfortable boxes. Peter’s response was just perfect: “something holy happened, let’s put up a tent!
But, in the scheme of life and ministry and faith, big moments are always just that. They are moments that stand out as significant and important nestled between other moments. For most people, life is filled with significant moments. Even if they are big and mind-blowing, those moments are rarely actually life-changing. Very few people have had single moments that changed the course of their life. That’s just not how life works.
Most of us require several moments strung together to start making an impact on our lives. We need multiple experiences nudging us in the same direction before we start walking faithfully.
As I read the Gospel of Matthew, that is exactly what I see. I see a group of friends who experience a series of significant moments together in the presence of Jesus, who slowly allow their lives and their perspective to be changed.
They witnessed healings and exorcisms, miraculous meals, thoughtful teachings, resurrections, and even the transfiguration of a friend into dazzling white. They witnessed faithfulness, and doubt, and growth. They witnessed lives transformed. They witnessed lives reborn.
For the disciples, it took every single one of these moments for them to start to understand the immanence and power of God’s Kingdom.
I wonder sometimes about the cultural preoccupation that we have with immediate gratification. I wonder if we look too hard for a life-changing moment or experience that will alter everything in our lives, missing the small moments that lead us towards transformation. I wonder about our habit to cancel the people who irritate us most. I wonder what would have happened if Peter had walked away after Jesus called him Satan. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have seen the transfiguration.
Without every moment leading up to the Transfiguration, I’m not sure Peter, James, and John would have seen Moses, Elijah and Jesus talking together. I think they needed the time together, traveling through villages and towns. I think they needed to see every single sick person healed. I think they needed to hear Jesus speak about a faithful ethic for the Kingdom of God. I think they needed the arguments and the debates. I think they needed the challenge.
All of that led to the top of a mountain. Then that moment led them back down the mountain. And life continued for them. And because life continued for them, it continues for us.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so we would behave. I firmly believe that. With four law-heavy texts this week, one could easily stick to interpreting the rules. While they bear some explication, simply sticking to the “do’s and don’ts” of these texts could result in a proclamation that rings hollow in sanctuaries and hearts alike. With lots of law, what then of the Gospel? Moses tells the Israelites to “choose life,” and elsewhere James tells us that faith without works is dead. In this interplay between life and death, one can find a starting place for a meaningful and evangelical (i.e. Gospel-centered) proclamation.
Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book, The God of Life, makes a simple claim that roots what Protestants would call both law and Gospel in God’s identity. “God causes all that exists to be because God is the source of all things; God gives life because God is life,” he writes. With God as life, God the father can be seen as life-creator and Jesus Christ becomes life-redeemer. In his crucifixion, Jesus takes death upon himself, and his resurrection is the eternal triumph of life over death. Crucially, for our purposes, Gutiérrez writes, “Oppression in any of its forms means death.” Since God righteously defends life, God righteously opposes oppression, and since God have us life, we too oppose the same.
The authors of Deuteronomy illustrate more than they legislate. Though in the imperative, “Choose life” serves as a hearty reminder that the one who gave life and freedom is the one worthy of obedience. The law becomes more than a way to live but indeed a way of life.
Moses exhorts his people to keep the commandments as a kind of farewell, immediately after a renewal of the Covenant and before his death. Knowing his time is limited, he begs his people to see that the Law will preserve their lives, root out oppression, and foster peace among them. Gutiérrez writes, “The law or Torah must be put into practice; it is life because it is a way to God.” Because God is a God of life, and oppression deals death to the oppressed, the law will bring life to the people. Likewise, because the law brings life, God’s law is a gift of life.
In his Sermon on the Mount, the life-redeemer fulfills this Law of life. Yet, if God is a God of life, the abundant life Christ brings hardly means the death of the law. The law becomes similarly abundant, similarly expansive. A simple injunction against murder becomes an exhortation to peace and reconciliation. The prohibition of adultery is a call to a pure heart. Divorce, which was once permitted, is reinterpreted with the oppression of women in mind. Honesty is similarly abundant, wherein a vow becomes unnecessary if one’s daily word is true. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a triumph of God’s righteous life over sin and death.
Elsewhere in his Sermon, Jesus commands his disciples to “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” highlighting two main themes in Matthew’s Gospel. First is the eschatological reality of Jesus’ coming on earth. Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth in his very person. Second is the righteousness of God in Jesus. If the kingdom of God is the locus where God’s law reigns supreme, Jesus’ arrival expresses the law’s fulfillment. Gutiérrez writes, “When Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel of seeking the kingdom and righteousness of God, he is calling attention to the demand that the seeking implies.” So, then, the law becomes a mark of seeking God’s reign on Earth. The church seeks an eschatological reality by practicing the law here and now.
With this interpretive lens, a preacher has a little bit of grace with which to interpret the law. The God of life gives the law to bring life, not death, for people of all genders. Some interpret the command, “choose life,” as the prohibition of reproductive justice. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount appears to proscribe divorce. Yet, with an eye to a God of life, and thus a law of life, one has freedom beyond the plain text. Divorce would have been a means by which a woman lost all protection in a society where she could not work or hold property. It would have negatively impacted her life. In situations of abuse or an unhappy marriage, marriage could be death-dealing. In line with a great many thinkers, we ask ourselves, “What brings abundant life?”
I find grace in this text because it does more than show us how to behave. It shows us who God is, who God makes us to be through Jesus. The law of God gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, as if that kingdom were an earthly country. “This,” it seems to say, “is what life will be like when God’s kingdom fills all things.” In that kingdom, both faraway and near, death is forever conquered by life. Murder, adultery, and lying are no more. Relationships are healed and whole. All of this because God is life, and God gives us life abundant.
The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
 Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 1, Kindle.
Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.
In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.
Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).
One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.
As is the case with most other types of literature, we as Biblical interpreters should give an exceptional amount of weight to the beginning and end of major formal elements in books of the Bible. They are often quite revealing regarding what the author is trying to communicate through his story. This passage from Matthew 4 stands at a pivotal moment in the form of Matthew’s gospel: this is the point where we move from Jesus’ pre-ministry to his ministry proper. As such, this passage is particularly important for understanding Matthew’s gospel message.
Our story starts off with an ominous sign. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’ eventual fate, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist (who modern scholarship suggests was Jesus’s mentor) was arrested. Jesus’ response to this was to leave home and move to Capernaum. Exegetes for millennia have tried to figure out why Jesus did this. He certainly wasn’t fleeing for his safety: Capernaum was directly in the center of the Galilee, the very domain of Herod Antipas, the Roman-installed client-king who was responsible for John’s arrest, who would later kill John the Baptist, and would put Jesus on trial. So clearly, Jesus is not fleeing toward safety here.
Interestingly, this is in contrast to his parents under the previous Herod (“the Great,” Herod Antipas’ father). The Holy Family fled as refugees to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being killed in the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents. At this time however, Jesus, now convicted of his ministry, steels himself and moves straight into the lion’s den, toward his confrontation with the powers that be. Over and over again, Jesus foretells his own death: throughout his entire ministry, he has a resoluteness about his behavior and rarely shies away from delivering his message, even though it comes at considerable personal risk.
In reflecting on Jesus’ relocation, Matthew cites a passage from First Isaiah. Along with the whole of Jewish biblical interpretation in this time period (including both Rabbinic and early Christian interpretation), Matthew would fail a modern exegesis class. He cherry-picks a ”prophecy” from the Bible (remember, there was only one Testament at this time), which he appropriates, giving little if any regard to its original context, simply plucking out the phrase that suits his purposes and disregarding the entire rest of the passage. This would not go over well under the rules of modern exegesis; he violates the most core principles of the discipline of Biblical Studies. However, in Matthew’s defense, few if any Jews in the first century C.E. would pass muster by modern exegetical standards. So Matthew’s use of Scripture here indeed is crass, but he also is behaving within the interpretive principles of this time.
However, all is not lost. We can still understand the intertextual relationship between Isaiah’s passage and Matthew’s productively, even if we add more nuance than he does. The original passage, coming from First Isaiah, reflects on the Jewish experience of exile. The people ”who sat in darkness” are those hauled off into exile in Babylon. (Which, note, is a classed experience. The Babylonians didn’t see it as worth the effort to haul off the poor into exile.) These elites who used to be so high on the cultural totem pole have now suffered a severe reversal of status and have been kicked out of their homeland, never to go back within their lifetimes. Notice as well that for many of these exiles, their descendants would never end up returning to the Holy Land. Despite the prophets’ best urgings and the laments of some of the most fervent of those exiled, many Israelites did not experience the Babylonian exile as suffering and in fact saw a marked increase in their standard of living. This then created the conditions whereby they would decline to move back to the Holy Land when they were allowed to, creating a significant Jewish community in Babylon. (This Babylonian Jewish community is so significant that it will eventually produce one of the versions of the Talmud.)
However, Isaiah is not speaking from this perspective of those who have accommodated to life in Babylonia, but from the perspective of one who sees the Holy Land itself as a fundamental part of God’s promises to Israel. Thus, beyond the emotional distress and trauma of forced displacement, the Israelites have suffered the loss of God’s gift to them. So for Isaiah, returning home was indeed a blessing, a “great light.” These people who have been sitting in darkness, as Matthew adapts Isaiah poetry to say, are finally able to return.
For Isaiah, this is fundamentally a story of God’s restoration at work in the world, restoring that which has been broken. And for Matthew, this same restoration that Isaiah talked about has come to be through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.
Matthew continues to expand upon Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 17 by describing what Jesus’s mission ministry looks like. It contains the core of the message for Matthew’s Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change your lives, for this restoration that God is bringing to pass has arrived. Come participate in this restored world. And what does this restoration look like? Verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus’ restoration-ministry consists of preaching, teaching, and healing. The restorations of hearts, minds, and bodies that have been broken down by Empire and exile—finally restored to how God originally wanted them to be.
So Matthew provides us a fitting beginning for Jesus’s ministry: encapsulating Jesus’ emphases, providing a characteristic example of Matthew’s crass deployment of Scripture to try to prove his point, and demonstrating how Jesus’ message fits within the broader narrative of God’s redemption of the world that the people had been waiting for in the figure of the Messiah—all of which done is a characteristically Matthean fashion to demonstrate who exactly Jesus was.
Colin Cushman is passionate about teaching the Bible. His particular areas of interest are around the intersection of social justice and the Bible: race, sexism, imperialism, poverty, etc. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, daughter, and dog.
Last week, churches celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord as narrated by Matthew, and this week, we hear it again—except this time, it’s narrated by John.
The contrasts between John and the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so well-known by most preachers that they hardly bear repeating here—except to say this: I have come to believe that John’s gospel doesn’t simply happen to be different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke; rather, it is my conviction that John is intentionally different from the other three. Moreover, it is from these differences that the Spirit can speak an important word to us.
Notice, for example, that in John’s gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize anyone. Rather, he reports what he has seen. The Spirit descends upon Jesus, and John shares with others what he sees.
Then, the very next day, John is again gathered with a few of his disciples when Jesus passes by. Immediately, the Gospel says, John shouts, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples hear this, they follow Jesus. And then Jesus turns to them and he doesn’t say, “Welcome aboard!” he says, “What are you looking for?”
In other words, “What are you hoping to find in following me? What is it that you need?”
That’s a remarkably simple question, isn’t it? “What is it that you need?”
And yet, how often do we create space for it to be asked authentically and discerned faithfully?
Several years ago, my Diocesan Convention hosted a series of workshops—one of which was on the topic of Millennials (translation: people born roughly between 1980 and 2000) and the Church. Given that I’m one of a handful of professionally religious Millennials in my Diocese, I signed up.
When I arrived for the workshop, we were asked to self-identify by generation: baby boomers, Gen Xers, the Greatest Generation, Millennials, and so on. Here’s how it panned out: Number of people attending the workshop born before 1980: 57. Number of people born in 1980 or after: 3—including myself. For the next hour, my two fellow millennials (both of whom were also church leaders) and I listened as the 57 other people in the room asked and answered the question of “what do millennials need” without ever actually asking the three millennials in the room.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this was an earnest and well-intentioned conversation. But it followed an all-too-familiar pattern: “I know what you need.”
Jesus, however, shows us a different way: “What is it that you need?”
If you want to know what young people need, ask young people, and then listen for them to answer.
If you want to know how to support and uplift young families, ask young families what they need from their church family, and then listen for them to answer. Note well, however, that the answer you receive may not be comfortable or easy to hear. Don’t ask the question if you can’t tolerate the answer. Madeleine L’Engle was on to something when she observed, “The truth I have to tell may not be the truth you’re ready to hear.”
Even when we struggle to name or understand or articulate our faith; even when we opt for cheap substitutes we think we can buy or earn; even when we struggle to share our faith with others; even when we wonder if we believe anything at all, there stands Jesus, arms outstretched, still asking what it is that we most deeply need; still inviting us to come and see; and still determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine!
Who knew it could be that simple?
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.
If you’ve read my bio line at the end of this entry, you’ll know that I am a huge fan of the Transformers. I don’t have nearly the time to go into the ‘whys’ and ‘what-nots’ of my hobby, but one of the (few) highlights for the Transformers franchise in recent years was 2018’s Bumblebee, a movie about a giant alien robot that turns into a VW Beetle and befriends a young woman named Charlie Watson. Their stories mirror each other beautifully: Bumblebee is far from home, separated from those he knows and loves, and to make matters worse he has lost both his voice and his memory. Charlie is estranged from her family following the death of her dad. She doesn’t really know who she is anymore and feels lost. Their paths cross, and together they go on a journey of discovering who they are meant to be. Girl meets alien robot. Tale as old as time.
Like Bumblebee and Charlie, we find Jesus today on a journey of self-discovery, as the time has come for him to become the person that he was always meant to be. And what is the initial public action in which Jesus participates when he takes his first steps into this larger world? It’s the rite of baptism. It’s the rite of belonging.
But we can’t help wondering why Jesus would need to participate in such a rite. Luckily, John the Baptizer wonders the same thing. Jesus’ response to him is: “We must fulfill all righteousness.” I’ve often wondered what he meant by this, and over time I’ve come to believe that at the core of Jesus’ desire to be baptized was the need to belong to the human family, that this is what he means by fulfilling all righteousness. How could Jesus do what he did, be who he was meant to be, if he were not one of us? How could we possibly look to him as not only our Savior but also our model for how to live faithfully in this world if he did not do what we do, including participate in our rituals? It wasn’t that Jesus needed baptism to wash away his sins—we know that he was the sinless one—but he chose to be baptized so to fully embrace his own humanity, to share in the human journey with us, to be part of our family. This is what baptism does. It brings us into the family of Jesus and gives us a place of belonging.
But there’s another layer to it. Baptism doesn’t just bring us into the family, it commissions us for the lives that we were always meant to live. In his own baptism Jesus is declared by the voice of God to be God’s “Son,” God’s “Beloved,” and in our own baptisms we are called children of God, we are called beloved, and like Jesus we are sent out into the world to do what God has called us to do: to be agents of God’s love and reconciliation in the world. Before Jesus can begin his public ministry, he goes through the rite of baptism, taking his place in the family of God, and the same is true for us. The waters of baptism not only make us brothers and sisters in this family, but like Jesus we whom the Holy Spirit has sealed and marked forever are called to go into the world, empowered by that same Spirit, to love and to serve. Those waters transformed Jesus from the simple carpenter of Nazareth into the Savior of the world, and they have the same transformative power to make the wounded, vulnerable, and lost part of the family of God.
The desire to be part of something, to belong, to have a family—whether one of blood or one of our own choosing—is a fundamental characteristic that is shared by every person. Is there anyone who does not seek some form of belonging? Who does not seek a relationship with someone who tells us that we matter and that we are loved? This is what makes Bumblebee such a good story, not because it’s about a car that turns out to be an alien robot—although that’s cool, that’s cool—it’s because in the characters of Bumblebee and Charlie we see that desire played out, and we see these two form such a relationship. The whole world is longing with such a desire, and we are the agents who can go and say to the lost, lonely, and outcast, and tell them: “You matter. And you are loved!” We not only discover our own selves when we become part of the family of God, but we are equipped to go and invite others in.
I suspect many of you, like me, refer to your congregations as your sisters and brothers in your sermons. It seems natural, doesn’t it? We belong together, as a family, united by the love of God made manifest in Jesus and given outward representation by the same waters of baptism that washed over him and washes over us. I wonder how we will live into this journey of discovery and belonging among our congregations. How will we equip them to be sent out, to find those who need to hear such a message? We have been transformed by baptism into children of God, now how will we transform this world that God loves so much?
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.
The darkness arrived a few months ago and now we are right in the middle of it. Last week I told my husband that I was heading to bed. He looked at the time… it was only 7:30 pm! As much as I love the moon, it’s the sun that gives me energy. On long summer days, I can stay up late working in the yard, but now, as we are in the midst of winter, I can barely keep my eyes open past 7:30. The darkness is here.
And yet, each year when those of us in the northern hemisphere are in the depths of darkness, we read passages declaring — no, shouting! — that the Light has come. Isaiah seemed to understand our experience: “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you” (v. 2a). He’s right about that… darkness and gloom abound, so where’s the Light he refers to?
He has an answer for that too: “Lift up your eyes and look all around” (v. 4a). Because the Light is shining upon us, nations and kings are drawn to us. If we look all around us, we’ll see them coming toward us.
We are only seen because the Light of God shines upon us. The same is true for the moon — without the Light of the sun it wouldn’t shine in the night sky. So, with this Light on us “[we] will see and be radiant” (v. 5a). Our hearts will tremble and open wide — the abundance will be turned over to us.
It’s because of the Light that the shepherds found Jesus.
It’s because of the Light that the Magi found Jesus.
It’s because of the Light that we find Jesus year after year.
The shepherds were drawn to the Light of Jesus.
The magi were drawn to the Light of Jesus.
We, too, are drawn to the Light of Jesus.
And, we are drawn that brilliant, shining Light because we live in darkness.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the darkness — it’s all around us. Unending wars. Children separated from parents. Despair and hopelessness. Lack of care for the vulnerable. Chronic illness. Unimaginable loss abounds. Political leaders speaking words of hate. We are in the depths of darkness. We cry out, how long, O Lord?
In the depths of this darkness, the Light shines bright. It only takes a pinprick of Light to illumine our faces in this kind of darkness. A small candle can brighten an entire room when darkness overcomes us. It doesn’t take much Light to show us where to step next.
How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?
I was diagnosed with infertility during a fall season, just as the darkness was beginning to take over the light. It felt right. It made sense to be in the dark when all the hopes and dreams for my future were ripped away. I didn’t want to see the sun; I wanted to sit in the darkness. But I noticed during these dark days that Light still found a way into my life, despite my persistence in pushing it away.
One Advent candle after another began to light up my dark mornings. Denali, my constant four-legged companion, urged me to walk in the dark, our path lit by the light of the moon. Friends sent empathetic texts — ones that didn’t require me to fake positivity but allowed me to sit in my grief. It was the light of my phone screen reminding me of their love. Small moments of laughter and joy, hugs from loved ones, warm quilts — the Light couldn’t be kept away even on the darkest of days.
My heart was broken open, that’s for sure. My heart trembled because of the Light shining upon me — a Light I couldn’t hide or push away. A Light that claimed my pain and heartache. A Light that came in the form of a child, which then breaks my heart all over again.
“Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.”
We all find ourselves in darkness at one time or another. We all know what it’s like to sit in the darkness. But the Light appears in big and small ways. The Light shines upon us — the Light is here.
How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?
After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.
I’ve never been a big fan of this passage, so when I got this passage to write on, I wasn’t thrilled. However, as a preacher, that’s part of the game; that’s what we sign up for. The lectionary serves up these stories to us, whether we like them or not. And so, preachers are forced to take them up and wrestle with them, even if we would rather not. And this is a good thing, as it forces us out of your comfort zone and makes us work through that which we would not do so otherwise. Personally, I’ve never understood the story of the Transfiguration. Some people get a lot of richness and depth out of it, but I never have.
One of the things I dislike is that this passage encourages theologians to wax philosophical. This is especially prominent when you read ancient Christian commentaries. For example, Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) finds in this passage a metaphysical rumination about God’s “essence” versus God’s “energies.” I’ve never particularly liked philosophy and when I hear this breed of interpretation, my eyes just glaze over. Plus, I can only imagine that philosophical exactitude was really only a preoccupation of social elites. I can’t imagine that the average ancient manual laborer was sitting around trying to figure out what the difference is between essences and energies (or even what they are in the first place). Maybe that’s why I’ve never been wild about this passage.
When we focus on the philosophical level of the story while skipping the literary level, we miss something important. After all, the literary level is how most of the listeners through the ages would have understood the story. When we look at this particular story through a literary lens, we see that it is chock-full of all sorts of allusions, cross-references, and symbolism to sink our teeth into.
For example, take two of the most evocative symbols in the story: mountains and clouds. First of all, mountains evoked a sense of connection to the divine throughout almost all of the ancient world. In a universe where the prevailing thought was that the Divine was located in the heavens above, a mountain was an axis mundi that bridged heaven and earth: in ascending the mountain, we get closer to God, both physically and spiritually. That’s why in the Bible, we see important revelations happen on mountains. The most notable example is Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Through its many details, that story connects altitude with nearness to God. Or take another example: Elijah. When he was being hunted and panicking that he would be executed, he took refuge upon that very same Mount Sinai. While there, he communed with God, who renewed him and sent him back on a mission. And if that’s not enough, Elijah also makes two additional appearances earlier in today’s gospel: (1) the disciples discuss him amongst themselves, and (2) the crowds suspect that John the Baptist is Elijah come back to life.
Note, too, that these two figures—Moses and Elijah—are the very same figures who also appear at the Transfiguration. Interpreters have offered myriad interpretations of this fact, some more compelling than others. Moses and Elijah might represent the Law and the Prophets, the two components of the Hebrew Scriptures. Or, both Moses and Elijah had become eschatological figures and were believed to be coming back at the Day of the Lord, when God dramatically steps into history and sets things right. Or, since Moses and Elijah are the most important characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, this places Jesus among esteemed company.
When Jesus stands alongside these two giants of the faith, it evokes a number of important theological themes. Jesus is worthy of being included among the holiest of past figures. Jesus isn’t breaking from the religious tradition of the past; rather, he stands squarely within it. Jesus is an eschatological figure concerned with setting the world right. These two figures have a lot of symbolism wrapped up just in their being present at the event.
The second evocative symbol, the cloud, appears toward the end of the story, where it completely engulfs the disciples. If in the ancient mind, mountains are the bridge between the heavens and the earth, the clouds surely are Heaven itself. In the Hebrew Bible, clouds stand in for God’s immediate presence and power. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, when a cloud rested on the tabernacle, they knew God was there. Then when that same cloud left the camp, they followed that cloud to a new location. Hundreds of years later, the cloud of God’s presence streamed into the Temple at its dedication—comically making it so that the priests couldn’t do their jobs! Thus, when the disciples in our story find themselves surrounded by a cloud, they understand themselves to be encountering God in an intimate and all-encompassing fashion.
Along with these two symbols, the Transfiguration story weaves in strands from other parts of the gospel narrative. It both echoes the (narrative) past and foreshadows the future. First, it clearly hearkens back to Jesus’ baptism, which kicked off his ministry. In fact, Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration are the only two times in the gospel that God (the narrative character) speaks. On both occasions, God affirms Jesus’ mission and his identity as God’s son who is specially set apart. But whereas the baptism proclamation ends with the affirmation “in you, I find happiness,” the transfiguration ends instead with a directive reinforcing Jesus’ authority over the disciples: “Listen to him!”
The story of the Transfiguration also calls forth the impending story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both narratives, Jesus retreats from the public scene at a crucial inflection point in the narrative. He takes the same three disciples with him to pray—Peter, James, and John. And in both stories, the disciples can hardly stay awake while Jesus is busy talking with God. They are partially privy to the private yet momentous events taking place between Jesus and God.
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I still do not fully understand why people love this passage so much. Maybe for some, this passage not only holds together the gospel narrative but also integrates the various parts of the Bible, weaving them into an integrated whole. Maybe it’s because it clearly confirms Christ’s divinity. I don’t know. In the end, it’s still not my favorite story. Maybe I’m still just bugged by the fact that I don’t get it. So I think I’m going to stick with my cop-out answer: this passage is a mystery and we can never know what all it means.
 An axis mundi is a feature common in many world belief systems that there are geographical “centers” around which the cosmos spin, and which feature vertical features, such as trees or mountains, that allow for travel between the earth and the higher and lower worlds.
 Mount Horeb, as it is called in the Elijah story, is an alternative name used by some ancient authors for Mount Sinai.
Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church serving two small churches in the Seattle area. He lives north of Seattle with his wife, his newborn daughter, and his dog. He loves reading, mountain biking, playing music, and bird photography.
I was in 4th or 5th grade and a classmate and his friends had been picking on me for months. They would make cruel and untrue comments about me, both behind my back and to my face. They would steal small items when the teacher wasn’t looking, and they would tell the teacher I had done something wrong even when I hadn’t, just so I would get in trouble. There was one classmate in particular who always instigated, and our mutual hostility grew throughout the year.
As I look back at the fight decades later, I can’t remember what finally set me off. I remember being in the gym and hearing him make yet another cruel comment about me, and I remember the months of anger and frustration that finally exploded as I tackled him. I remember how furious my gym teacher was when he pulled me off. There isn’t anyone in my life now who I would call my enemy (thankfully), but years ago if someone had asked me, I would have ranted about this student and all the hatred and animosity I felt towards him, and I would have seen the idea of trying to love him as laughably naive.
This is the hardest part of being a Christian; that we are to extend love to everyone, even if they are abusive or work to sabotage us. It’s a lesson that goes against every aspect of American culture that tells us whenever we’re hit, we need to hit right back twice as hard. The hardest part of being a Christian is that, just as rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, we are to extend God’s love freely to all.
I want to be clear that loving an enemy is not the same as condoning their actions and it is not about letting a pattern of abuse continue. A person in an abusive relationship may forgive and love their abuser but that doesn’t mean they should stay married. Someone who lost their life savings may learn to forgive and love Bernie Madoff, but they still shouldn’t trust him with their investments. Actions have consequences and offering an offender forgiveness and love is not the same as empowering them to do it again. Love is the double-edged sword that requires us to call out and fight injustice while still recognizing and loving perpetrators as fellow children of the Most High God.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, this Gospel from Luke is paired with Genesis 45:3-11; when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. It is a perfect complement to Luke 6:27-38 because if anyone had a right to bear a grudge, it’s Joseph who was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph, whose life gets hijacked and whose father spends years mourning a death that never happened. Joseph had every right to be furious and we almost expect him to enslave his brothers as the consequence of reaping what they sow. Yet when they are reconnected Joseph feeds them and ensures their survival. In a reversal of fortune Joseph now has authority over them and while he confronts them with the wrong they did he is also aware of God’s activity in his life, and because of Joseph’s forgiveness a family that was once broken apart by jealousy and sin is reconciled and gather around a table to share a meal. It’s a moment that mirrors the Eucharistic feast when we are all to put aside grudges and grievances and greet each other with a sign of peace before breaking bread together at the table of God.
Loving someone who doesn’t deserve it is hard to do, but if love and mercy were only given to those who deserve it, then we would all be lost. The sacrificial grace of God’s love is extended to everyone like rain that falls on both the just and the unjust alike. By the death of Christ on the cross we have already been judged by God and even though all are unworthy and none of us deserve it, we receive God’s mercy. We have all sinned against each other by what we have done and by what we have left undone, but unworthy as we receive the grace of God’s love. Like the servant whose great debt is forgiven by the master, shouldn’t we follow the example of God and forgive the lesser debts we have against each other? When our day comes and we stand face to face with God, we will all petition for the mercy of God. We have been forgiven much and, as hard as it is, we must extend forgiveness to each other.
People are difficult and loving difficult people is even more difficult. It requires a kind of determination and tenacity to care about people when you don’t want to, or when they don’t deserve it. So why do it?
We do it because it’s not about them. While we are alive on this earth, we have an opportunity to work with God and craft our souls to be formed into the holiest versions of ourselves we can be. In the world yet to come we aren’t going to be concerned about the promotion we didn’t get, the alcoholic mother who ruined our financial future, the stalker that got us fired or whatever else it is. We can’t control other people’s actions towards us, but we can control our own. The ability to control ourselves, the refusal of letting someone else dictate our emotional response, allows us to enter deeper into the heart of a God who acts in all people. We have to love our enemies because love is our only option and the only way for us to grow closer to God. Aside from loving our enemies we could feel hatred or indifference towards them, but hate is an acid that destroys its container and indifference is a callous that becomes numb to the holy. We have to love because love is the only weapon we have. Resilient and tenacious love is an immeasurable power that creates a barrier against bitterness and cynicism and is the antibody to hatred and indifference. We don’t love because someone they’re likeable, we love them because they are a child of God. Loving our enemies requires overcoming pride even when we’re in the right. It means having the faith and confidence that one day we all stand before the throne of God and all wrongs will be made right, the ones that have been inflicted on us and the ones we’ve inflicted on others, knowingly or not.
It’s not easy but it’s good, and it’s not simple but it is holy.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff earned a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and currently serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Church, Southport, North Carolina. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs and spends his free time on the beach, reading, or playing chess (poorly).