The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?
On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.
Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.
Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well.
During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read:
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.
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.
One of our most basic human needs is the need to belong. In fact, this is one of the concepts I drill into my Intro to Religion class—why are people religious? We have lots of reasons to be religious, but a major reason is our need to belong. We are social. We need community! One of the downfalls of the human need to belong, however, is that people often shove some people out of the group to make clearer the boundary around it. We deal with the temptation of proving we belong by insisting those other people don’t belong. I am on the inside. I know what is going on. I belong here. This place, this circle, this church is for me.
On Epiphany we celebrate that the Gospel includes the outsiders, that Christ did not come only for some, but for all. We experience this with the traveling Magi, who bring gifts from afar through a long journey to meet the Christ child. They are enthusiastic, recognizing the transformative power that has entered the world, seeing the miracle that not even all on the inside recognized. They even go to visit an insider, King Herod, to celebrate this new joy. Yet the insider, King Herod, cannot be trusted. He does not see this new birth as a time to celebrate transformation and embrace outsiders, but instead, it is a threat to his place, to his power.
I am struck by the idea that the Magi tried to include King Herod, building a bridge between outsiders and insiders around this new birth, this new joy to the world, this new reign of peace and justice. I am further struck that they realized he was not to be trusted through a dream, and afterwards, affirmed their own sense of self-knowledge by prioritizing what they learned from the dream. What can we gain from this story?
I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might recognize truth that insiders miss. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might be the ones that offer invitations, even when rejected by insiders. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might bring truth that supersedes what the insiders know to be true—that King Herod is not their king, and so going against his wishes because they have discerned a truth outside of him is a reality made possible due only to their outside status.
I think all of us can resonate with the sense of being an outsider in an insider space. I did not grow up in a denominational setting, so sometimes I feel like an outsider in denominational church spaces. And yet, there is a deeper level to the insider/outsider status that is rooted in justice and oppression in our world. So now, I turn to a reading of this story through the lens of prioritizing those on the margins. We read through the lens of those on the margins not only because we see a grown-up Jesus doing that time and time again, but because we see through Epiphany that those on the margins have a full story they are living, too. They might even invite us into their narrative if we are receptive to the invitation.
And all the while, even as all are included, and all leave their mark on the story, sometimes those on the margins have reasons to distrust those in power, like King Herod. And when that happens, I can’t help but hope they follow their instincts, listen to their dreams, and persist following the way of light and justice and transformation.
In the introduction of Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he writes this: “To live as a human being means that we use tools” (2). Prayer is a tool, however, “prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” When I approach the Psalms, I am reminded of this — they offer a tool for becoming closer to God, for being fully human.
When I read the Psalms, I also find myself stepping back in time, while in the same moment, being fully present today. The emotions they felt then are emotions I feel today. The distress they experienced then are experienced here and now. The uncertainty, the celebration, the anger, the joy — it unites us across centuries. The Psalms remind me that my feelings and experiences are valid and welcome when I turn to God in prayer.
Each psalm offers me a reminder of my humanity and it turns out I need a lot of reminders!
I think we all need reminders, which is why the Christian calendar and worship liturgy are important parts of our faith. Yearly, monthly, weekly — we need reminders. We know what’s going to happen every Advent season; there’s no surprise or shock when we hear the story year after year. And yet, we keep showing up to hear that story, to relive the moments, to be reminded of what we already know.
Psalm 111 reminds me of what I already know — that God’s deeds are majestic, that the LORD is gracious and compassionate, that God’s actions are faithful and just.
Psalm 111 also reminds me of how I can respond to these things I already know about God — to praise God with all of my heart, to name the good deeds God has put forth in my life, to acknowledge this presence in the world.
Additionally, Psalm 111 reminds me how to pray — one of the many prayer outlines found in the book of Psalms. This one goes like this:
A Promise to Give Thanks
Praising God for God’s Deeds
Naming God’s Deeds
Beginning to Understand God’s Ways
More reminders on how to be in relationship with God. More tools to help me be and become.
“I will extol the LORD will all my heart…” I’m grateful for the reminder to commit to thanking God. My personality type is responsible, so if I’ve promised to do something or made a commitment, it’s highly likely that I’ll follow through. Being reminded to commit myself to thanking God regularly for my breath, the sunset, or a good plate of food is so helpful. Before going any further into the words of praise, the psalmist recommits to thanking God. A reminder we could all use, I suspect.
“God has caused God’s wonders to be remembered…” I’m grateful for the reminder to praise God for all that God does for us. And, not just us humans, but for all of creation. Before even naming what God has done, the psalmist praises God for who God is. What a great reminder to be aware of God’s nature before focusing on God’s actions. Because of God’s character, God is worthy to be praised.
“God provided redemption for God’s people; God ordained God’s covenant forever…” I’m grateful for the reminder of what God has done for us. Because of God’s characteristics like graciousness and compassion, we can see God’s deeds from the beginning of time until now. God has proven to be trustworthy and just. We recall not just God’s nature, but how we see God’s nature carried out in our lives.
“All who follow God’s precepts have good understanding…” The last few lines of this psalm remind me that much is up to interpretation! I suspect that one person’s understanding of God’s precepts might vary from the next. However, the psalm ends with one final phrase we can agree on: to God belongs eternal praise.
The Psalms are a tool we can use to help us remember. When we forget how to pray, use the Psalms. When we feel alone, turn to the Psalms. When we struggle to worship, open up the Psalms. When we are unclear about our relationship with God, let the Psalms speak for you.
I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminders. I’m grateful the Psalms offer me page after page of reminders about God’s compassion no matter what I’m going through in life.
After fourteen 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 Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — 12 year old husky and 2 year old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility, and writing at www.annebrock.com or on Instagram.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Jonah. This Hebrew Bible prophet who lived somewhere around the 8th century BC is instructed by God to go to Nineveh to declare to the people that God intends to destroy their land.
Instead, Jonah runs away, finds himself on a ship where the occupants toss him overboard after they realize that the trials they were facing were due to Jonah’s disobedience, and then he ends up in the belly of a whale.
This is Jonah who, after all of that, finally submits to what God instructed and after being told a second time to go, he arrives in Nineveh to declare thus sayeth the Lord. After travelling a day’s distance, he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
What stands out to me is the amount of time God allows the people before God makes good on God’s threat. Think about it. If God wanted, God could have simply destroyed them when the thought crossed God’s mind. According to the text, their wickedness had come to the attention of God and so God decided their only recourse was to be destroyed.
God gave them time. God gave Jonah time and God gave the people of Nineveh time. God gave them all a moment to decide for themselves. Would they continue down the path they were going, or would they choose another path, another way of doing and being, and living in the world? Would they continue in their wicked ways, or would they choose honor, integrity, simplicity and a new way of being? What would they choose?
Now, let’s be clear. In no way am I suggesting that they, or us for that matter, have the ability to change God’s minds with our actions. There is no way of knowing whether or not our choices, our actions, our ways of being truly impact God’s choices. Yes, it is something that has been taught to us from generation to generation. But there is a danger in suggesting such theology because such theology sometimes leads us to believe that the trials and tribulations we all face in life are our fault.
And I am sorry, but I struggle with such declarations. I struggle to believe that those who are homeless are so because of something they did when there are systems in place that cause outcomes out of our control. I struggle to believe that the person who experienced sexual assault, something I myself have experienced before, deserved such a violation. I struggle to believe that those that are enslaved, poor, blind, barren, broken and battered are because of something they did or failed to do. And I struggle to believe that the wealthiest of the wealthiest achieved some extra grace from God that led to their success when they have gained their success from the suffering and exploitation of others.
No, I am not suggesting any of that. But what I am suggesting is, instead of God following through with God’s punishment, God chose to allow the people a chance to adjust. And I believe that is what the year 2020 was for many of us – a chance to readjust.
Here we are, this third Sunday of the new year 2021. We have made it through advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth. We are just a few weeks into a new year and, like last year, we have all sorts of hopes and dreams, expectations and wishes. And yet we are still faced with uncertainty. We are still in a reality for which we just don’t know. We found ourselves detoured and unsure.
But I think we have an opportunity to perceive where we are and where we have been differently. What was it that you needed time for? What was it that you learned about yourself, about others, about life, and about where you are and where you want to be?
Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about running, but maybe it all has been about time.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a colleague who I have only met a couple of times. The email said, “Dear Jerrod, I heard about the virtual rosary gathering and I wondered if we could set up a time to talk?” The message felt somewhat innocuous on the surface. However, my anxiety heard it as, “We need to talk.” That dreaded phrase that no one wants to hear and that incites both fear and anxiety about the possible content…. I tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to manage the anxiety, but we scheduled a time for a phone call. The day came and I rang the individual on the phone not certain of what I was going to hear on the other end of the line, but I was pleasantly surprised by the tenor of our conversation. She had laid out before me her own experiences of the holy and how she had heard God’s voice at work in her own life. It was a deeply spiritual moment.
We never know how or when or through whom God will speak. I have regularly found that it is through individuals that I most rub personalities with that God speaks into my life. Maybe that’s just me.
Earnest Holmes once said, “Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it.”
If life is a mirror and we see in the world what we see in ourselves, it raises a provocative question about how and where and why we find God in the places we do or in the places we don’t. When we find the prickly edges of ourselves that is when we are most prone to realize why they are prickly and attend to them. In the passage from First Samuel 3, God speaks but Samuel isn’t prepared to hear it. God calls out and Samuel being so limited in his scope of thought can only imagine that it is his master Eli. This passage is a beautiful metaphor for all of those places where God is speaking in our lives, but we haven’t yet tuned in to realize that it is God’s voice. God speaks in our lives through some pretty unsuspected people and situations.
This year has been so very difficult for all of us. We’ve been on lockdown. Businesses have folded, jobs have been lost, people have been sick and died from this virus. Trying is not a good enough word.
I work day to day as a hospital chaplain at the Alberta Children’s Hospital here in Calgary. In my work, we often talk about people experiencing a series of losses as “complex grief.” Anyone who has made it through this year knows well what complex or compound grief is. It is one grief stacked on top of so many others. We have had to adapt to a world where we can’t safely gather with friends, or family, or work family. A world where it seems like each day brings harder news not easier news. But it is important for us to remember that even in the midst of fears and anxieties God is still speaking. I know how hard it is to believe that in the midst of tremendous fear. God is still reaching out God’s arms in love to bring the whole world within Christ’s saving embrace.
I hope that as you look at this passage you will find the truth of God’s love stronger than the fear and anxiety that we might generate. Look into your own hearts and hear the voice of God. You might hear it in the cry of the baby behind you in church or in the neighbour who just can’t seem to mind their own business. If we look and listen for God’s voice God will make God’s self known to us as God has done for four millennia. Anytime God’s people were lost and couldn’t find their way, God called out. May you have eyes to see and ears to hear what the spirit of the living God is speaking to you today.
One of the benefits of this prolonged season of Coronatide and Church at Home has been the opportunity to pay attention to the visual cues in our nave. When the goal is to beam a worshipful experience through a couple of camera lenses onto phones, tablets, and screens of all sizes, it helps to be aware of what the camera is seeing as well as what it isn’t. In the lead up to Advent and Christmas, one of the things we really began to explore was the power of light. During the Season of Advent, in the northern hemisphere, the outside world grows darker and darker as the nights grow longer and longer. Inside the nave, however, the light grows, from a single candle on the Advent Wreath, to the brightness of the light of Christ born in a stable under a star that brought the Magi from the East.
As we thought about how to play on this theme of light and darkness, we went a little overboard on candles. From five on the wreath, the vision grew and grew and grew, until we were lighting 49 candles between Advent 1 and Christmas Day. We cobbled together some memorial funds and purchased two brand new candelabras to help hold them all. Maybe I’m not a good Episcopalian, but I always guessed candelabras held nine candles. In the process of buying them, I learned they hold seven, and thanks to the good people at CM Almy, I learned why—the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, there really is a theological reason for everything in the church.
Outside of singing Veni Sancte Spiritus or Veni Creator Spiritus at ordinations, it seems Episcopalians don’t pay much attention to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Heck, for the most part, it seems we’re quite comfortable to leave being baptized in the Spirit to those other churches, but on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord in Year B, it seems impossible to ignore. Whether it is John the Baptizer promising that one was coming that would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” or the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, or Paul laying hands on the believers in Ephesus so that they might receive the Spirit, we ignore this important component of baptism to our peril. In fact, if I might be so bold, this Epiphany 1, I suggest every congregation that has one, pull out your seven-light candelabra, light ‘em up, and let’s talk about what it means to not only join with Jesus in his baptism, but to be baptized by the Spirit through Christ. Let’s open up for our people, and ourselves, what it means to carry within us seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Now, if you are anything like me, it can be difficult to discern the nuanced differences between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Maybe your particular understanding of the beatitudes holds meekness in high regard and doesn’t allow for might to be a gift of the Spirit. Perhaps piety’s definition has become so narrow as to be made simply for show. If you are feeling any of these things, imagine what your congregation might be experiencing as they hear phrases like “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues” or “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” As a place to start, I offer the following basic definitions of each of the seven gifts for you to explore.
Wisdom – the ability to discern between what is good and evil, truth or deception
Understanding – a deeper comprehension of God in terms of both who God is and what God desires
Counsel – seeking the diving will of God in the pursuit of poverty, chastity, and obedience
Might – perseverance in righteousness in the face of hardship
Knowledge – the ability to more deeply perceive God at work in the world, broadly, and in your life, specifically
Piety – devotion expressed in actions both internal (ex. prayer) and external (ex. worship) that show reverence to God
Fear of the Lord – awe and reverence toward God whose perfect righteousness is wholly other
Clearly, these definitions are not all encompassing, but I hope they are a beginning, a jumping off place to explore, for yourself and for your people, what it means to be baptized in the Spirit and to hear the voice of God declare, “you are my child, whom I love,” whether that experience came at baptism, confirmation, or on a pier, in the woods, or in a church surrounded by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
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.
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.