Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

For many of us, Easter worship this year will look dramatically different than it has in years past. I know I am grieving that we won’t be packing into a sanctuary adorned with spring flowers, raising our voices as the swell of the organ and brass carries the sound of our joy, celebrating Christ’s resurrection with all the glory and gusto we can manage.

Recognizing that loss, I’ve heard pastors say that when we can gather together again, in person, with our people—that will be Easter. And it will—it will be a marvelous rebirth of our community after a long (much too long) dormant period.

Yet in some ways, I think this Easter will be much closer to what Easter originally felt like to the disciples. For them there was no glory or gusto. Instead, as they peered into the tomb at dawn, there was emptiness and gloom; confusion and contradiction; fear and doubt. No one began Easter morning dressed in new spring finery and no one gathered with special instruments to sing songs of praise, because on Easter morning the disciples were still in mourning, still lost and heartsick over devastating loss, still trying to grapple with a breath-taking new reality they had hoped never to experience.

Sound familiar?

For me, Easter Vigil (and Easter sunrise service) comes a little closer to this reality than the traditional Sunday morning pomp-and-circumstance celebration in the sanctuary. Of course, we still know the outcome, but there is a hush in the air; a sense of humility as we gather in plainer clothes and simpler circumstances. We are here to meet Jesus, not in the sanctuary, but in a cemetery.

And isn’t that the point? Jesus doesn’t wait for the moment of triumph. Instead, he meets us in the midnight hour, in the darkness before dawn, in the hopelessness of our lives and the brokenness of our world. This year—and every year—that will most definitely preach.

The first time I attended an Easter Vigil service was in college, at the UCC church just a mile from my campus. The thing I remember most about it was gathering outside and kindling a fire while the sun set and ancient words were read. It felt very elemental, and I remember feeling pleasantly surprised that such a primal-feeling service was part of my tradition.

The second time was a few years later at the Catholic cathedral where I sang in the choir during my year studying abroad in the south of France. We gathered before midnight to watch our friend Emanuel, a catechumen robed in white, be baptized into the church. When the clock rolled over to midnight, we broke our Lenten fast with platters of langoustines and profiteroles. Again, it felt ancient; sacred—like we were let in on a secret hours before anyone else would know the good news that Christ was risen…risen indeed!

In the lectionary readings for this service—famous for their quantity—there are the primal accounts of creation and the flood; stories of our foundational covenant with God and God’s making good on that promise by bringing the people out of bondage; pronouncements and praise and promise; zombie army performance art (thank you Ezekiel); good old Pauline exposition; and finally—finally—the Story; the good news that death has not triumphed! Love has!

I think each of these scriptures has the two pieces I felt at the vigil services I’ve attended: something elemental, fundamental, pointing to ancient forces playing off of each other in the oldest dynamic there is—light and dark, death and life, fire and flood, ancient wisdom, divinity and humanity. And good news that reads almost like a secret passed from person to person, people to nation, whispered in gardens and shouted from rooftops.

The Gospel reading, for instance, begins with an earthquake, an angel whose appearance recalls lightning and snow, and guards who faint at this blinding apparition. And then there is the message shared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (identified in Mark and Luke as Mary the mother of James, and likely the same Mary as the mother of James and Joseph who watched the crucifixion in Matthew 27:56): He is not here, he is raised; go and tell the others. (vv. 6-7)

Did you notice that even though the angel also tells the women not to be afraid, the Marys run off to share the news with a mixture of “fear and great joy” (v. 8)? (Maybe you’ve been there before, afraid to believe that what you could barely allow yourself to hope for has actually come to pass, your pulse racing and your stomach dropping even as your heart fills to bursting.) It doesn’t say so, but I imagine that the women’s fear only subsides when they actually meet Jesus, discovering for themselves that the angel’s good news is true.

This Easter, may we and our people encounter Jesus not just by hearsay, but for ourselves: in the midst of our fear and our joy, in the middle of the humility of our circumstances and in the celebration we manage to pull together anyway. In other words, may we meet him this year—and every year—where we need him most.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a nice long walk, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Easter, the first Sunday.

It is the clergy’s Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. It is the biggest moment of the church year, rivaled only by Christmas, which is an inferior feast, by my estimation, only because of the simple fact that any human can be born. But this — this feast is when our all-human, all-God deity was raised from the dead. It’s quite a feat, rising from the dead — even for the Son of God.

This is the Sunday that most churches pull out all the stops. We blast the organ. We bring in the trumpeters and maybe even the dancers. We decorate the sanctuary with white and gold and lilies galore. We have potlucks and champagne and bright, ornate decorations. And if we don’t, we should.

As N.T. Wright now famously reflected: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simple the one-day happy ending tacked onto forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in the Church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope)

The late Gail R. O’Day, my own preaching professor, always encouraged her students to simply tell the story people came to hear on big feast days such as Easter. Often, we attempt to find a new, hot take when we know that more people than usual will be gathered to hear our sermon. Yet what they came to hear — the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who defeated death forever — is far better and far more powerful than the hottest of new takes on Easter. Really.

So this is the day when we simply get to tell the best story ever: one of a God who became human and showed people how to really live and really love, who healed the sick and challenged the powerful and befriended and comforted those whom society shunned. And all of this upset humanity so much that we killed him, yet that still wasn’t the end of the story. That same God, still human, reappeared in the garden three days later, alive.

It really is a great story, worth throwing our hats into the air over. It is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. Our big moment as the Church.

And yet.

To most of the world, it’s anticlimactic. By the time April 12 rolls around this year, Easter candy will have been in the stores since February, and there will have been more than a few Holy Saturday Easter egg hunts. What’s more, half the congregation you see before you might have been dragged to church against their will. Many of the people you see gathered before you will be experiencing grief or anxiety or pain and will have considered it a victory simply to have beaten the crowds to find a pew.

For all the clergy’s deep and abiding feelings around Easter (I myself get weepy at the very mention of the Exsultet at Easter Vigil), Easter itself, to most people, isn’t a big event. It’s barely a ripple in the massive movement of the world. Most Christians would likely list Christmas above Easter in their list of favorite Jesus-themed holidays, regardless of the ease of being born as it compares to coming back to life after a public execution.

If you look at the Gospel text for the day, however, you might notice that the first Easter had no trumpets. There were no lilies, no big celebrations. There was an earthquake, but that seems to have been more anxiety-producing than celebratory.

It began almost mundanely. Mary Magdalene and Other Mary get up and dawn and make their way as soon as they can to where Jesus has been buried. They come to care for their friend’s body. There are guards posted to ensure they don’t steal the friend’s body, likely adding indignity to an already fraught situation.

Just as they’re getting there, there’s an earthquake, and everyone present understandably freaks out, and the Angel of the Lord comes and rolls back the stone and plops down on it. The guards are, quite literally, shook.

The angel then informs the women that Jesus is risen, revealing that he didn’t roll away the stone to let Jesus out; Jesus had already managed to get loose on his own.

He’s alive. Wait — he’s alive?! How could that be?

There must’ve been a rush of confusion and questions, but the women know what to do.

The Marys run to tell their friends, the disciples, what they’ve seen and heard, and Jesus “suddenly” meets them on the way. Does he say something profound? No. He says, “Greetings.”

There are still no trumpets; there’s just the guy who was formerly known as dead appearing and saying “What’s up?”

Then Jesus gives Mary & Mary some travel instructions about where he’ll meet the disciples, and that’s it. That’s the big story. It’s a story so anticlimactic that the disciples themselves heard it secondhand from the church’s first Gospel preachers, Mary and Mary.

But you know, and I know, that that was only the beginning.

Jesus rose again on Easter. Hope rose again on Easter. And it was only the beginning.

Maybe, just maybe, this Easter is only the beginning for someone out in that congregation, too. Someone who has just started on the long road to recovery from addiction. Someone who feels unloved and has just shown up at a random Easter service because that’s what it feels right to do. Someone who just lost their mother and feels hopeless. Or maybe even a preacher who is preaching for the twelfth Easter Sunday in their career and just can’t find anything else to say about it anymore.

Those people need hope to rise again. They need a spark.

Easter 1 is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union.

And it is also only the beginning of a 50-day celebration. It is the spark of hope that ignites the flames of Pentecost.

So go out and preach the story they came to hear, preacher. You don’t need to preach anything new. Just go preach the story they came to hear and let the Spirit fan that spark of hope into flame in due time. We have at least 50 days.

So let’s get find that spark in the pages of this Gospel reading, and let’s get this party started. Amen.

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Palm Sunday (A): Which Jesus Will We Choose?

Palm Sunday (A): Which Jesus Will We Choose?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

We hear it every year: “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to (insert evangelist here).” Our people know the story quite well; Jesus is presented for charges against the state, judged by the mob, and condemned to die in one of the most brutal fashions: crucifixion. Preaching something ‘new’ or ‘edgy’ on Palm Sunday can be an exercise in frustration. As preachers, we want to say something of merit. We pore over old sermons and read what others have written in hopes that we’ll find something for today’s context. Sometimes we strike out, sometimes we hit home runs; most of the time, we’re doing well just to touch the bases.

But this Palm Sunday offers a unique challenge in concert with current context. This Palm Sunday occurs during an election year.

For the past four years, this nation has seen the rise of nationalism, racism, ageism, misogyny, and many other horrific human constructs to a terrifying degree. Our populace is polarized, giving diatribe the mainstage where dialogue used to reign. The political wound has widened so far as to not only bleed into the faith-based realm, but to hemorrhage into it—a deluge of theological and political conflation. While these two arenas aren’t mutually exclusive (i.e. social justice), in times past we haven’t seen this level of disagreement. I have to wonder if ignoring the “voting” that occurs within Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion is tantamount to silencing the nature of Palm Sunday altogether.

Isn’t it striking that the mob, when presented with the option between two people named Jesus—Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah—choose poorly? This group is so hard-pressed to hang onto previously held truths concerning belief they would rather set a murderer free than turn toward a savior. These people don’t care for change, they only see things as the establishment presents them—the ‘way we’ve always done it.’ Yet, lest we forget, Christ came into the world to challenge the establishment, to throw off the yoke of an oppressive society set against itself. He came to impart change on a world that only cares for those who maintain the status quo; people who live in fear of challenging those in control in order to make way for a better life.

In this moment, we see the “best of times and the worst of times”—the tale of two Jesuses. What does it say to our congregations if we’re unwilling to place our people—and ourselves—in this story? The mob mentality of voting for the person who will change us the least must fade away. Our real goal should be to speak truth, no matter how difficult it becomes. We would do well to remember that ours is a task of proclaiming the gospel by word and deed—something that, due to the decline of church membership nationwide, we can be reticent to do.

Can we ask our congregations whether we have changed so much in two thousand years that we no longer vote along popular lines, but instead vote with conscientious hearts and minds? We may espouse a virtue-based decision-making mindset, but in reality, many of us and many of our people struggle with how to move past espousing actions to actually following through with them. Is the Jesus we vote for nowadays the one who fits us best, or the one who challenges us to be better versions of ourselves? The one who makes us feel warm and fuzzy, or the one who calls us to stand up and speak out against the realities of an increasingly isolationist society? Is he the version of Jesus we hold in our minds so that we can sleep at night? Or do we dare to challenge ourselves, and our people, to vote for the savior we so longingly proclaim on Sundays?

We must ask these questions of ourselves and of our parishioners. Which Jesus will we vote for today? Which Jesus do we want to see out in society—the one who will bring death, or the one who will bring everlasting life? Which Jesus do we want to preach? On this Palm Sunday, the power of that decision lies within us. I hope we choose well. I hope we cease shouting, “Crucify him!” and instead shout something else…

“Praise him.”

Fr. Sean Ekberg
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.

 

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.

After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.

In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.

As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.

We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.

I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.

Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”

Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.

Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.

In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.

What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?

Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.

What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?

Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.

Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Matthew 17:1-9

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

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.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

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.

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

By: Colin Cushman

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.

Picture1Colin 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.

Baptism of Our Lord (A): Jesus, Bumblebee, and Our Journeys of Self-Discovery

Baptism of Our Lord (A): Jesus, Bumblebee, and Our Journeys of Self-Discovery

Matthew 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Joe Mitchell

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?

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The Rev. Joe Mitchell

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.