All the ends of the earth

Saturday

Psalm 22:23-31

File:Machek1.jpg

Josef Elter, Auferstehung (Resurrection), 1978

24He did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

(I have also written about this verse at Jacob Limping, a site named for the one who was wounded by his encounter with God and entered the promised land limping.)

Psalm 22 is the Good Friday psalm, the one found on the lips of Jesus as he hung from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It contains those pregnant and prophetic words “All who see me mock at me” and “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

But here, at the end of the psalm, we have only the last hints of the poet’s suffering. Here we have moved on to the poet’s joy that his prayer has been answered. God has not turned away from him. God has heard his cry. And in the poet’s joy and thanksgiving we hear echoes of resurrection and Christ proclaimed to the nations:

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.

His healing will become legendary, proclaims the poet. God’s deliverance will be told to all.

30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the LORD,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

The psalm is rooted in one man’s prayer, a man lost in the ages. But his prayer endures. It endures because the words are universal. They can be spoken by people in every generation who endure trial and affliction. There have been moments for all of us when we would cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And there are moments when we each would cry out in praise that our lives have turned away from death’s door and into the light of day.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

It is common for us to refer to these words of Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel as a passion prediction. And we should not miss that shocking element of the narrative. It is what causes Peter to rebuke Jesus. But it is not just a passion prediction; it is a resurrection prediction. Jesus will be rejected and killed – but God will vindicate him.

No doubt Peter hears only that Jesus will one day rise at the resurrection of the just, but God’s work is more stunning than this. The resurrection to come is dawning already on the third day. The day of the earth’s redemption, when all things are gathered under God’s reign – the first fruits of that day are already at hand. They are at hand in the words and deeds of Jesus. They are at hand where the powers that oppress are cast out. They are at hand where the sick are healed. They are at hand where the human community is reconciled. They are at hand where bread is shared, where compassion and faithfulness flourish. The first fruits of the kingdom are at hand, for God has not turned away from the suffering of the afflicted: God comes in mercy and grace. As the poet was raised, Jesus will be raised – and all creation will hear. They may count all his bones and cast lots for his clothing, but “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”

 

Image: By Josef Elter [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Abram to Abraham

Thursday

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

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God’s Promises to Abram, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

“No longer shall your name be Abram.”

I can’t quite get my head around what that would be like to get a new name. This is not just a nickname. This is a new identity. He who was Abram is now the ‘father of a multitude’. Albino Luciani becomes John Paul. Karol Józef Wojtyła becomes John Paul II. Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Francis I. Whoever they might have been, they are now someone new. Kings take throne names. A woman (once not so long ago here, and still in many places) took the name of her husband and became Mrs. ___. She was once one person and became another, an identity and destiny now derived form her husband’s family not her own. Norma Jean Mortenson becomes Marilyn Monroe; it is a new identity, a new destiny.

No longer shall your name be Abram, the 90-year-old childless one. You will be Abraham, the ‘father of a multitude’.

And Sarai, no longer will she be Sarai; she will be Sarah, ‘princess’. And a child is coming whose name will be laughter. Joy. Delight. Descendants like the stars. The father and mother of nations. Those who had no future are given a future.

“No longer shall your name be Abram.”

No longer shall you be David; you shall be David, child of God. No longer are my children Anna and Megan, but Anna, child of God, member of the household of heaven, and Megan, daughter of heaven. “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people.”RSV

Of course, those from elite families have no desire to give up their names. Who would surrender a name like Rockefeller or Kennedy for the appellation “child of God”?

Those who would save their life.

Taking up the cross

Wednesday

Mark 8:31-38

File:Diorama of Lunch Counter Sit-Down Protests - National Civil Rights Museum - Downtown Memphis - Tennessee - USA - 01.jpg

Diorama of Lunch Counter Sit-Down Protests – National Civil Rights Museum – Downtown Memphis – Tennessee.

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

It’s important that we understand what it means to take up the cross. Jesus is not talking here about enduring the trials and tribulations of mortal life. This is not an exhortation to endure nobly a weak heart, a rebellious daughter, or a drinking husband. Life has many crosses to bear – but these are not the one to which Jesus refers. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. There he will encounter the entrenched power and privilege of the wealthy elite who have made their alliance with Roman imperial power. They are the movers and shakers of their time – only they were not movers and shakers but preservers and defenders of the status quo. They would say, “Preservers of the peace,” but Jesus has suggested they are preserving their privilege not the way of God, the way of justice and mercy.

An encounter with power can have only one outcome. They will do everything they can to shame and discredit and silence Jesus. Stripped naked, tortured, mocked – “Come on down if you are the Christ!” – and crushed. Powerless. Worthless. A worm not a man.

Follow the Freedom Riders and you can expect spit and violence. Follow the young people at the “Whites Only” lunch counters and you can expect hate and vitriol (see photo).  Speak up in their defense and you will incur the wrath of your neighbors. Those with any sense are silent. Those who would keep their jobs did not dare to register to vote during that Freedom Summer – or dare say that African-Americans had a right to vote.

This is what it means to bear the cross. To endure the hostility, shaming and violence of the powerful because you stand on the side of the kingdom.

The disciples are altogether unprepared to do this. Peter rebukes Jesus for trying to suggest this is what Jesus will find in Jerusalem. But Jesus knows this is no victory march into the halls of power. The way to the kingdom involves a much more traumatic convulsion, a dying and rising – even as the path of becoming a disciple involves dying and rising. Peter will betray Jesus before he becomes the Peter who feeds Jesus’ sheep, before he becomes the Peter who heals the lame man at the temple, before he becomes the Peter who would serve God rather than man, who baptizes Cornelius the Roman Centurion, who is crucified upside down in Rome because he said he was not worthy of dying as Christ did. The soldiers gladly obliged.

Letting go of life in order to find it. Letting go of the privileges of this world for the sake of the new world dawning in Jesus. Taking up the cross cast by a world that wants not to change, wants not to be born from above, wants not to die and rise. This is the awesome, terrible, holy, liberating journey of following Jesus.

 

Photo: By Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A new world in the making

Watching for the Morning of March 1, 2015

File:Three Crosses monument at sunset (8178234419).jpgThe Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday the texts point us towards Jerusalem. That is where we are headed this Lenten season, to that hill outside Jerusalem where three crosses await, and the open tomb containing none but angels. Jesus has troubling words for us about taking up the cross, about finding life in laying it down, that fidelity to the kingdom of God means we cannot avoid the hostility of the kings of this world. But they are not dark words, unless you stop listening before you hear Jesus say “and be raised.” A new world is about to be born.

It is a world where a homeless, childless couple receive the promise that they shall be the parents of many nations. It is a world where the psalmist crying out in despair at death’s door now stands and calls all people to praise God. It is a world where people of every nation are gathered to God by trust in his promise, not by birth or merit.

It is to such a world made new that we are called to show fidelity, to endure the mockery and hate of the powers that be, to take up the shame of the cross, for a new day is dawning. The tomb will be opened.

And so we are not far from the core of Lent, the season of spiritual renewal, the season when we are called to let God renew faith, renew relationships, renew families, renew communities, renew the world.

(For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran Church, and for sermons and other information on Lent, see our Lent site.)

The Prayer for March 1, 2015

In steadfast love, O God,
you bound yourself to Abraham by your promise,
and came among us bearing the cross.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and the ties that bind us to others
that, following in your footsteps,
we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for March 1, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Photo: By Guillaume Speurt from Vilnius, Lithuania [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Pretzel Sunday

Sunday Evening

You can find Sunday’s sermon on Lent and renewal and a daily verse and thought for this season at our Lent blog site.

 

Psalm 25

File:Absolute bretzel 01.jpg5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Sunday was Pretzel Sunday – or so I refer to it with the children in the children’s message. The pretzel apparently is designed for the season of Lent, having the shape of arms folded across the chest in repentant prayer, salt for tears of repentance, and an absence of yeast in keeping with Jesus warning to “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.”

We adapted the Kyrie in a new way this year, using the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” The words of the Kyrie are spoken during the long final note of each line so that it looks like this:

A   For the reign of God in our lives and in our world,

I want Jesus to walk with me;

      For peace and justice among the nations,

I want Jesus to walk with me;

      for the well-being of all people.

all along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

A   For your people gathered here and your church throughout the world,

In my trials, Lord, walk with me;

      for courage to trust your promise,

in my trials, Lord, walk with me;

      for strength to live your Word.

when my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

A   For charity and compassion to abound.

When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me;

      For joy and beauty to advance.

when I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me;

      For your renewing Spirit.

when my head is bowed in sorrow,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.

From here we go straight into the Prayer of the Day.  It was nice, and fit well with our Lenten them of Renewal.

Edna Hong taught me to break bread. She and her husband Howard Hong were responsible for the English translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s letters and papers, but I learned much more from her than Kierkegaard and bread. Her book on Lent, The Downward Ascent, is a wonderful exploration of the human heart and the journey of this season.

It takes time for bread to rise. It requires that we wait. We must adjust ourselves to the bread rather than the bread to ourselves. Spiritual renewal takes time, its own time. We seek it. We work it. We add the right ingredients. But it’s not in our control. It is something we seek, we pray for, we trust – even as we trust the bread to rise in its time.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55)

 

Photo: By Jonathan M (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Renewal

Watching for the Morning of February 22, 2015

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Ilya Repin, Tempation of Christ.

Our theme for the season of Lent this year is Renewal: renewing faith, renewing friendships, renewing families, renewing the earth. We will still read the texts in our Sunday service; they will still infuse our worship, but our hearing of them will be shaped by the theme of renewal.

It makes me nervous, of course. I don’t like preaching on themes.   I remember reading a little book on preaching my senior year in seminary where Gerhard Von Rad (I think) said that every young preacher has about six sermons in him – and after that, he or she has to start preaching the text. There is nothing eternal in my words. But there is life in the words that come to us as scripture.

Still, every text is shaped by the time and place in which it is read, by the health or weariness of the community, by the cries and joys that surround us. The text is shaped by the day. It speaks to a moment in time. And our moments in this Lenten season will be shaped by our hope for renewal.

The readings this coming Sunday are rich and wonderful, starting with God’s promise to Noah and all the creatures aboard the ark that God will never again war against humanity. God binds himself with a promise, and sets a sign of that promise in the sky.

1 Peter will use the story of those eight saved in the ark as an image for baptism and God’s promise to carry us safely to a world washed and renewed.

And Mark will tell us of Jesus in the wilderness, tested by Satan, and attended by angels. He is the faithful Son. He is the new Adam – dwelling in peace with the “wild animals”.

The psalmist rightly sings of God’s faithfulness. So it will be proper to speak about renewing our trust in God, and praying with the psalm “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

The Prayer for February 22, 2015

In the wilderness, O God, you watched over Jesus
and he kept faith with you.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, rooted in your Spirit and in your Word,
our trust in you may be deepened,
and we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 22, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”

 

Image: By Ilya Repin (Bukowskis) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Time to plow

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday

File:A Stiff Pull.jpgWednesday we begin our Lenten journey, our spiritual pilgrimage to the three days in which the great mystery of God’s healing and reconciling work in Christ are celebrated. The “holy city” to which we travel are those events in which Christ kneels to wash our feet, breaks with us the bread of life, is arrested and stripped of all honor and glory, is debased and broken upon the cross, and laid in a tomb. The work of God to heal and reconcile and save our sorry world is brutally rejected. No single act could reveal the collective rebellion of humanity from the way of God than this. Among us, when the emissary of a king is so treated, it is cause for war. But God chooses not to take revenge. He raises Jesus from the dead, bearing witness to us that Jesus is the perfectly faithful one whose words and deeds are true.

We have to prepare ourselves to experience again that story. It’s not that we are cleansing ourselves by some outward ritual to participate in a sacred rite – we are tilling the ground, breaking up the soil of our hearts, so that we will be ready to hear and receive all the power and grace of this message – so that it can take root in good soil and bear abundant fruit in us.

We need time to get ready. We need to plow the ground. We need to pull the stumps and clear the weeds.

Ash Wednesday is the first step of this spiritual journey. It points the direction we must travel. Repentance is not about guilt; it is the recognition that we need to turn back to the path, renew the journey, remember the stunning grace of God and live it anew.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

By your prophets, O God, you call us to repentance and faith
leading us on a journey into wholeness and life.
Watch over us, renewing our lives and our world
that, abiding in your grace, we may prove faithful to you and to all

The Texts for Ash Wednesday, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (We are using the alternate this year)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

Assigned First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes, rending their hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

 

Photo: Peter Henry Emerson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A beacon in the dark

Sunday Evening

2 Corinthians 3

File:Peggys Cove Lighthouse (3).jpg17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Jesus is fully human. This is a very bold declaration of the Christian tradition. What he is able to do he does by the power of God working through him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the hearts of others he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the future he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. The sins he forgives, the bread he breaks, the water upon which he walks – it is all the power of God working in and through him. Jesus is not a fundamentally different creature than we are. He is just better at it. He is a better human being. He is a human being in whom the link between God and himself is never broken. His trust in God does not fail.

The Transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t belie what is to come; it sustains us through it. Jesus is not Superman, letting Peter, James and John peek behind his Clark Kent suit. He is not revealing himself as the Lord of Glory as though the suffering that is to come were but a minor detour. We look at Jesus through the lens of the centuries and the doctrine of the Trinity and we tend to think that Jesus was God in a way that denies his full humanity.

But Jesus is not a divine being hiding in human form. He is not omniscient and omnipotent pretending to be limited by time and space. He is fully human. And the works that we see in him are done by faith, by his perfect trust in God. Jesus mediates the blessing and wonders of God. Technically, Jesus is not healing the sick and casting our demons, he is bringing into these places the healing power of God. He is God’s anointed, God’s Christ, God’s agent to dispense the gifts of God, to bring God’s reign of grace and life.

What happens on the mountain is not a sign of Jesus’ divinity, but a witness to Jesus’ authority – that Jesus is, in fact, God’s beloved son.

Peter, James and John need to hear God make this declaration because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And ignoble end is coming. A rejection. A suffering. An accursedness. The apparent failure of the promise. The apparent triumph of Rome.

The customary response to the crucifixion of a hoped for Messiah (assuming any followers survive the purge) is to go home disillusioned. We were wrong. We hoped, but we must have been mistaken. This is what the disciples on the road to Emmaus say: “We thought he was the one.” … Apparently not.

In the face of those moments in life that seem to belie the grace and power and love of God, we need to remember that God spoke with Jesus face to face. We need to remember that God has designated Jesus as the beloved son. We need to remember that Moses and Elijah came and bore witness that in Jesus the reign of God is dawning. Even when we lose sight of it.

The Transfiguration stands as a beacon in a dark world. It is one in a chain of lighthouses that mark the coastline and sustain us in the storms: the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism; the voice from heaven and the heavenly visitors at the Transfiguration; the angelic witness at the empty tomb. Again and again God bears witness that Jesus is the one in whom earth and heaven are reconciled, in whom the new world is born, in whom we are born of God.

For a long time I didn’t understand or appreciate the importance of this story. I kept thinking it was Jesus who shines when, in fact, it is God who shines upon Jesus. Jesus is radiant because he is the perfect mirror of God.

Would that there were more in the world who glowed with the radiance that comes from true faithfulness to God and one another. Would that there were more in the world who were clothed in Christ as a daily garment.

 

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“This is my Son”

Saturday

Mark 9:2-9

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Interior of Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart,

We read this story of the transfiguration every year at the conclusion of the Sundays after Epiphany.  It is a wonderful element in the architecture of the church year.

This season follows the celebration of the Epiphany, the feast day that tells the story of the Magi kneeling before the child Jesus. It echoes with all the great themes of the Epiphany: Christ Jesus revealed to the nations; Jesus the light of the world; Jesus the incarnation of God.

With the incarnation God declares that human life is a fit vessel of the divine, the finite can bear the infinite. And, in a stunning reversal of the natural order of things, the divine is not rendered ‘unclean’ by its contact with the fallen world, the world is made ‘clean’ by its contact with God in Christ.

Dropping ‘clean’ food on the floor doesn’t make the floor clean; but the Christ has made us clean. The earth, once holy and perfect and good, is made holy again. God, who once walked with us in the garden, walks in our midst again. The water set aside for cleansing has become wine.

On the first Sunday of this season we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord and heard the voice of God declare that Jesus is God’s beloved son. It is the kind of declaration made by the emperor when he has chosen a successor and declares him his son. It is the Old Testament language for kingship. God has designated Jesus as second in rank only to the Father. In Christ God has come to reign in us and among us. And so, in the Sundays that follow, disciples are summoned, demons are driven out, the sick healed, sins forgiven, prisoners released. A new reign is begun.

With Lent the church calendar will turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem: the holy city that has bent the knee in service to Rome. The holy city that has chosen power and wealth over justice and mercy. The holy city that has exalted temple and cult over the spirit and truth. The holy city that reflects the truth of every human heart.

Jesus has a destiny there: to be rejected. To be condemned. To be branded a liar. To be shamed and degraded and killed. The holy one is rendered unholy. The apparent triumph of an ‘unclean’ and unholy world.

But before we start this path through Lent to Good Friday and Easter, the architecture of the church year gives us the Feast of the Transfiguration so that we hear one more time the voice from heaven declare, “This is my Son, the beloved.” And then the voice of God commands us: “Listen to him.”

Something unexpected is coming, and we need to not lose faith before we get there. Something unexpected is coming, and we need to see this journey through. Something unexpected is coming, and we need to hear the promise that death will lead to life, the grave will yield to the empty tomb, the violence of the world will not stop the kingdom.

Hate cannot conquer love. The darkness cannot overcome the light. The lie cannot defeat the truth. The Father of lies will be dethroned. The Spirit will be poured out. God’s reign of grace and life is begun. The world is being made holy. We are being made holy, fit vessels of the Spirit of God.

“This is my Son. Listen to him.”

 

Photo: By Skier Dude (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We have seen the Chariots of Fire

Wednesday

2 Kings 2

File:ElijahAscension.jpg

Fiery ascension of prophet Elijah. Russian icon (Novgorod school), Late 1400’s

1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.

The opening words of our first reading for Sunday troubled me as I met with colleagues to study the upcoming texts. It took me a while to put my finger on it. I thank them for their patience and tolerance as I groped for what felt wrong.

The use of a temporal clause sets the stage for a story; it doesn’t announce the story. If I begin, “When 9-11 happened,” you know the story isn’t going to be about 9-11; it’s going to be about something in which 9-11 serves as the backdrop, the context for the story. If you start, “When King was killed,” I know that you are certainly not telling me what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. You assume I know. What I don’t know is the piece you are about to add.

So this isn’t a story about Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind. The writer assumes everyone knows that story. It’s just the background for the story the author wants to tell. So the text isn’t about Elijah; it’s about Elisha. It’s not about the whirlwind or the chariots of fire; it’s about Elisha. And maybe it’s not even about Elisha; maybe it’s about what happens to the prophetic voice in Israel. When Elijah perishes, who will speak? Will the prophetic voice continue?

Elijah has been a great champion of the LORD. He has fought the king (and his lovely bride, Jezebel) for the faith of the nation. Will they worship a prosperity God, Baal, or the God who rescues the poor from slavery? If you are the king, which narrative do you want to be the national narrative: Freedom for slaves or prosperity for all? Care of the poor or letting loose the constraints on the wealthy? Sabbath observance (a day off even for slaves) or markets open for business?

What will happen to this prophetic voice that fought tirelessly for the desert God who parts rivers and gives land to the landless, strength to the faint, hope to the poor?

Elijah keeps telling Elisha to “Stay here.” “Go back. Go back and hang with the rest of the prophets who praise the LORD and serve the people but have not fought with kings. Go back to your place. Go back to your brotherhood. Go back to a quiet and peaceable life. Go back.”

But Elisha is determined. Elisha will not be left behind. He will go wherever his teacher/master goes. He will not be separated from him until he obtains the inheritance: a double share. As a double share falls to the eldest son, he would be the eldest son, the successor to Elijah.

But it is not Elijah’s to give. It can only come from God. And what will God do? This is the tension that builds in the narrative. Will the prophetic voice endure? Will God, the LORD, speak? Will God, the LORD, continue to challenge kings? Will God, the LORD, continue to part the sea to rescue his people? Everybody knows Elijah is going; what will remain?

What will happen to the voice of truth, to the call for justice, to the cry for mercy? What will happen to the weak and the widowed and the poor? Will God, the LORD, speak or will the voice of Baal triumph?

God gave us a prophet in Martin Luther King Jr. I did not realize at the time what a rare gift it was for the voice of the voiceless to find a national stage. And what will happen now? Are we doomed to have the airwaves filled with self-serving politicians and billionaires? Are we doomed to prosperity preachers getting rich off the sheep?

That is the haunting question that isn’t answered until Elijah sees the Chariots of Fire, until he picks up the prophet’s mantel, until he strikes the water and parts the river.

But it is answered.

It is answered in the time of Elijah and Elisha. It is answered in the time of Nathan who stood before David with pointed finger. It is answered in the time of Jeremiah who was thrown into the cistern. It is answered in the time of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Micah and so many others. It is answered in John the Baptist whom Herod killed.

And it is answered in the Word made flesh whom Rome silenced but God raised.

Thanks be to God.  We have seen the Chariots of Fire.

 

Image: By Anonymous artist from Novgorod (http://www.bibliotekar.ru/rusIcon/2.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons