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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
As Advent opened, so the Season after the Epiphany closes: on a holy mountain where God may be found. It is a place of sacred mystery, where shining and shadow convey holy presence. It is a place of community across time, where God’s people of past and present meet. It is a place of silence and witness, where visions are kept quiet and God says of Jesus: “Listen to him.” Matthew 17:1–9 Matthew often links the stories of Jesus with allusions from Hebrew Scriptures. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus echoes the story of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29–35). Both are encounters with God on a cloud-covered mountaintop; in both, God’s voice is heard from within the covering cloud. Jesus’ face shines as Moses’ did on his descent from Mount Sinai. The symbolism of Moses and Elijah in this text connects with key themes in Jesus’ life and destiny. Both Moses and Elijah endured rejection by the people, but had support from God. Both were supporters of the Torah (law) and performed miracles. Elijah was taken up into heaven without having died (2 Kings 2:11). Legends in first-century Judaism suggest Moses also was taken up into heaven before death. “Transfigured” in verse 2 translates the Greek verb metamorphoo. Elsewhere in the New Testament, that verb is used to suggest changes deep within a person. For example: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). The story of Jesus’ transfiguration uses outward details to hint at the deeper mystery of metamorphosis. The face of Jesus shines. The clothes of Jesus become like light (“dazzling” translates a word that literally means “light”). Jesus takes James, Peter, and John with him up this mountain. Jesus later asks these three to remain with him while praying in Gethsemane. All three were major figures in the early church. Peter became a leader among the disciples. John, whom many believe is the one referred to as “the beloved disciple,” served as a model for closeness of relationship with Jesus. Matthew does not tell us if this was James the brother of John or James the brother of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus was a leading figure in the Jerusalem church. In the four lists of the twelve disciples in the New Testament, the name of James the brother of John always appears among the first three named. The voice from the cloud makes the same affirmation that Jesus heard at his baptism (Matthew 3:17). The one difference is the command: “listen to him.” “Listen to him” clarifies that this holy encounter is meant to lead to obedience and following. Jesus’ words, “do not be afraid,” likewise make it possible to take up the challenging call of discipleship. Listening to Jesus reveals what is required to follow Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. Sunday's other texts share themes of encounters with God that are rich in mystery and awe. Exodus 24:12–18 tells of Moses ascending Mount Sinai. God’s glory meets Moses in shadow and light. The words of Psalm 99 balance God’s holiness with affirmation of God’s justice. The “holy mountain” of the Temple on Mount Zion continues to offer a place of holy encounter. In Psalm 2, the psalmist warns against those who act with indifference toward God. God cares, and out of that care comes invitation to faithfulness. In 2 Peter 1:16–21 we hear of God’s majesty in an account of Jesus’ transfiguration. This witness summons our attentiveness to God. The Season after the Epiphany closes with Jesus’ holy encounter on a mountain. Transfiguration reveals Jesus not merely in the details of “shining,” but in the words of God’s favour and our summons to “listen to him.” What have been your experiences of holy encounter and transformation? In what ways do you and your faith community listen to Jesus; how has such listening changed you?
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Following in God’s way is a journey that calls for choice and brings change. When Jesus calls ordinary fishers to follow, they choose to do so. Paul appeals to the church at Corinth to choose unity in Christ’s mission. As the call to follow in God’s way unfolds in our lives, such choices are our each day. Matthew 4:12–23 This passage in the gospel of Matthew marks the time that Jesus begins to preach and gather disciples. The arrest of John the Baptizer, noted in verse 12, is a pivotal moment. Upon hearing this news, Jesus withdraws to Galilee. (The Greek verb for withdraw here is the same verb that was used to describe Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with Jesus.) Jesus settles in Capernaum in Galilee, an area with many Gentiles. This was the ancient land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. When Jesus withdraws to this area, it is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1–2. Matthew points to Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, the one of whom Isaiah and John the Baptizer had spoken. Jesus picks up John’s prophetic ministry and makes it his own. Jesus’ call to the crowds is to repent, for God’s reign is near. This call to repent is a call to change – to turn one’s life in a new direction. Choosing to follow in the way of God was the call of the prophets. It was the heart of John’s message before his arrest. Now the call to change directions and journey in God’s way becomes Jesus’ message. And, it becomes the church’s message of good news across all time. The call of the disciples in verses 18–22 seems abrupt. It may be helpful to note that the writer of Matthew relates significant events in salvation history without necessarily indicating the passage of time. Jesus speaks and the fishers respond. These brothers do not ask, “Where are you going?” They change the direction in their lives and follow. Within this one passage, all the elements of Jesus’ earthly ministry are included: proclaiming the presence of God’s reign; teaching, healing, and calling disciples. An indication of the manner in which Jesus ministers can be found here, too. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus responds to violence or threats of violence by withdrawing rather than retaliating, demonstrating Jesus’ leadership in God’s reign of righteousness (see also, for example, Matthew 12:15, 14:13). Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s description of God’s faithful and peaceful servant. This response is an indication of God’s new way, and the way of the church who worships and seeks to follow Jesus. In the focus scripture, Matthew connects Jesus with the prophetic message of Isaiah as the saving light of God to those living in despair. This saving light of God is celebrated in Isaiah 9:1–4. This text speaks of the light of a new king, probably originally referring to a new prince born after 732 bce, following a time of war. This king was to inaugurate a time of peace and justice. Since the early church, Christians have associated this promise with Jesus, seeing Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” and a king in the Davidic line. God as light and salvation also is extolled in Psalm 27:1, 4–9. The psalmist trusts in God’s presence as a refuge in the midst of difficulties. These words might form the prayer of all who respond to the call to do God’s work. In 1 Corinthians 1:10–18 Paul calls the Christians in Corinth to repent – to change direction and be united in outlook. This miracle is possible, Paul believes, because of God’s saving grace. Paul calls them to follow in God’s way, secure in the knowledge that they belong to Christ. Living into the way of God will change the community of faith. In all times, God calls us. This unfolding call becomes our invitation to follow in God’s way, extending the good news of the gospel to others. In what ways does the faith community support those who choose to heed Jesus’ call to follow?
Thursday, January 17, 2008
The Spirit brings change. When Andrew and Peter meet Jesus their lives change. They choose a new direction. God’s Spirit continues to form faithful servants who bring God’s way of justice and peace to the world. As we listen to the witness of those who have been called by God’s Spirit, we encounter our own Spirit-led call. John 1:29–42In this text we read how the writer of John’s gospel relates the story of Jesus’ baptism. It is reported by John the Baptizer, and reflects his testimony that Jesus is the Messiah sent by God. Jesus is the “one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (verse 33). John the Baptizer makes the remarkable announcement that Jesus is the “Lamb of God,” the one who “will take away the sin of the world.” This may have been a reference to certain places in the Hebrew Scriptures where animal sacrifice is indicated as a “sin offering.” The gospel writer uses several other names for Jesus in these verses. Each reveals something of Jesus’ identity and mission. “Son of God” designates Jesus’ close relationship with God. “Rabbi” is a Hebrew title of respect meaning “teacher,” indicating Jesus’ role as a teacher of God’s way. “Messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning “the anointed one.” The Hebrew prophets spoke of God’s anointed one as the righteous ruler who would usher in a reign of justice and peace. After John the Baptizer’s powerful testimony, two of John’s disciples respond to Jesus’ invitation to “come and see.” They follow Jesus and stay with him. Andrew, one of these disciples, identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Andrew invites his brother Simon to also “come and see” God’s anointed one. Both Simon and Andrew leave their fishing behind, changing direction to follow Jesus. Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas (Peter), a sign of the great changes to come in Peter’s life as he chooses to follow Jesus. Indeed, Peter is named in lists of Jesus’ twelve apostles and becomes a key leader in the early church. Andrew also is named as one of the Twelve. Tradition holds that Andrew preached the gospel in Scythia. It is thought that he was martyred in Achaia. The mission of God’s chosen servant is described in Isaiah 49:1–7. This faithful servant reveals God’s faithfulness. Through the efforts of this servant, God’s restoration will be brought to the world. Those to whom the servant is sent are invited to “come and see” God’s glory. God’s saving work is praised by the psalmist in Psalm 40:1–11. God has pulled the psalmist and the nation out of the deepest of pits in the past. There is no doubt that God will do the same again. The emphasis in this psalm is not on what the psalmist will do, but on what God will do to save God’s people. In 1 Corinthians 1:1–9, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God has called them to be saints in community with Christ. It is God who gives grace and peace. It is God who enriches, strengthens, and gives spiritual gifts. It is God who is faithful. It is God who will count them as blameless at the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When we meet Jesus and join the community of disciples, we can expect life-giving change. The Holy Spirit continues to reveal God’s very self to humankind. The Spirit continues to bring people to life-changing encounters with Jesus. When we meet the Christ, we can expect our viewpoint and our direction in life to change. What might Jesus be calling the church today to come and see? What life-giving changes might we expect as we follow
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
We might begin our reflection on Matthew's story of the baptism of Jesus by first reading the Hebrew Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah 42:1-9, a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God's promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One who will "fix" the mess we've made, transforming it into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. This transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God's soul delights, has the very Spirit of God within him. The same themes consistently appear in Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for the poor and marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope – better, the promise – of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God's own faithfulness and care. In our Gospel reading, Matthew 3:13-17, we hear Jesus speak at last. We even get to eavesdrop on the conversation of these two men, and John at least is already used to speaking to the crowd, speaking "big." The words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, perhaps worried, perhaps awed. In any case, they're not untroubled. So this baptismal scene, rather than pretty or nice, is full of power and questions, and perhaps even struggle. One might say, "trouble and beauty." Coming onto the scene and asking for baptism, Jesus is announcing himself as the one promised by God through the prophet long ago. He "announces himself as the fulfiller of the grace which gives sinners who have no standing before God a place to stand in a new relationship to God. He himself is that place" (F. Dean Lueking, Lectionary Commentary). How do you think that might have affected the expectations of the crowd, who were presumably familiar with, and shared, the promises in Isaiah? When Jesus speaks of "righteousness," a word that appears often in Matthew, he relates it to salvation, which is another word for healing the damage that has been done to our relationship with God. Lueking again: "His baptism is the decisive opening event that further unfolds that for which he came, to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again." But this healing comes not with gentle words and soothing balm; it involves a cracked sky and the voice of God. Commentators observe that the scene offers a response to the ancient cries of the prophets as they observed the broken, alienated world in need of God's hand: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," Isaiah prayed and "Ezekiel's vision of the heavens opened to reveal the God who never abandons his people is fulfilled. John called the multitudes to the Judean desert to warn of the cracking open and breaking up of the old order. Now that time has come" (Lueking). Cracked skies do not sound lovely or reassuring! We would do well to remember that immediately after this passage, Jesus heads to the desert himself and experiences the great temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he is. "Remembering" our baptism, isn't just a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents) but closer to seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are. The Harper's Bible Dictionary gives us helpful background information to the story, including a geography lesson about the "dry" season when Jesus and the repentant people of Judea could be dipped, "when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the sun had warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature" (The Cultural World of Jesus). Have you ever been in a river, or even in a tank, when someone is baptized? Getting soaked is a good reminder of one's baptism, if it brings home the power of what was once done to us long ago. Pilch also wrestles with that question of Jesus and John, and the embarrassment for early Christians that their leader was baptized by another. This awkward situation, he says, is explained by that cracked sky and voice of God, which says that "Jesus is baptized because God wills it. God is pleased by Jesus' obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers." Thomas Long gives even better answers to the question about Jesus and "righteousness": he outlines "human" righteousness, "the possibility that people can live in right relationship with God and others…by being joined to Christ," who has come to "save the world, to make righteousness a reality for humanity through joining himself to sinners, and his baptism signifies this identification with all humanity" (Matthew, WBC). It's as if Jesus knows he can't address our human condition unless he gets down into the mud, or into the tank, with us. But Long also describes "the righteousness of God…the way God works in the world to set things right." In other words, to respond to that ancient cry of the prophets. While most commentators address things like Jesus' identity as the beloved Son of God (and Matthew's persistent claim for that), or the presence and relationship of all three persons in the Trinity at this scene (even without an explicit Trinitarian theology being presented), the most interesting and stirring interpretation comes from Richard Swanson in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew. He gives new meaning to the words, "troubled waters." His commentary is full of words like "killed…erupts…explodes…accuses." And he speaks of John's fire, and snakes and judgment, but mostly "fire, and fire, and fire, unquenchable fire." And the winnowing hook, too, to let us know that "This will be a Jesus who will make sharp divisions. This will be a Jesus who erupts just as John erupts. The face of the earth will change." Swanson doesn't really connect this scene to our own baptisms, and after reading his reflection, it's hard to see the connection. Instead, he draws a picture of faithful Jews being drawn out into the wilderness, "to volunteer for service, to be washed, purified to participate in the long-awaited new thing that God was doing in the world." Rather than comforting or sweet, there is a "disturbing force" in "John's eruption. The face of the earth was changing. Jews came out to enlist." Swanson's powerful reflection draws us back to fire and water, the many uses of burning (including "Herod's murderous attempt to defend Empire by burning hope out of the Jewish people"), and the power of being washed and readied for service. It's another way to remember our baptism, perhaps a different lens through which we might look at it in our memory. Still, in the midst of fire and water and snakes, there is that word: beloved. When the skies open, the words we hear are "beloved," and "listen," hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear. What does this tell us about the "Spirit of God," the Spirit that accompanies us on our way? How do you experience God's loving faithfulness and care in your own life and in the life of our congregation, today? How often do you think about your baptism? When you do, can you imagine yourself as beloved? Can you imagine each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God, and would pausing to remember that affect how the person is treated? How does this sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many – perhaps even for you – an empty ritual, an occasion for gifts and parties, a misunderstood theological statement? Have you ever thought of baptism as conferring servanthood, of all things? Would we throw a party for such a gift? How does lifting up servanthood clash with our modern system of values around position, class, and prestige and celebrity? What would happen if we pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God? What does "righteousness" mean to you? Does it have an ironically unpleasant connotation, as in "self-righteous" religiosity? How have you experienced the Spirit of God within you, at what times and in what circumstances? What difference did it make in your life, and the life of your congregation? How does God’s Spirit work in us today, move through us today, speak to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things? What former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and what new words of hope need to be spoken? What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, even now?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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