Saturday, January 30, 2021

Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." 28At once Jesus' fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Prayer from Psalm 111

Give thanks to God with everything we've got—
Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation.
Splendor and beauty mark God's craft;
Divine generosity never gives out.
This God of Grace, this God of Love.
Remembered to keep the ancient promise…
And ordered the Covenant kept forever.
The good life begins in the awe of God—
God's Hallelujah lasts forever!

The Message (MSG), alt. Copyright 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Jesus' Inauguration Day

Each of the four gospels brings us a different perspective; even synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke with a "one eye" viewpoint have marked distinctions. Each gospel inaugurates Jesus' public ministry with a different event. Which was first? Most likely they all happened within a month or two after Jesus' baptism. Jesus Initial Public Offerings broadly set the style and stage for the rest of Jesus' ministry according to each writer. They also preview style and content of the ministries God calls us to in Jesus' name, lives of services the Holy Spirit of life enables.

• Matthew 5-7
Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses; Jesus' public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount and parallels Moses receiving the Ten Words/Commandments on Mount Sinai.

• Luke 4:16-29
Luke's Jesus inaugurates his ministry by reading in his home synagogue on the sabbath. Via Third Isaiah and echoing his mother Miriam/Mary's Magnificat, he announces good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for imprisoned and oppressed: the Jubilee year.

• John 2:1-11
John's Jesus literally performs signs of his identity and mission to bring abundant life; he begins with a splash by turning ordinary water into best ever wine at a wedding.

• This Week: Mark 1:21-28

We're still in the season of Epiphany that particularly reveals Jesus as light for the world—not only for ethnic, religious, and geographical people like him. This is the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) year of Mark's gospel. In today's pericope (selection cut out from the surrounding scripture), he's in the synagogue after calling Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus called those first disciples after John the Baptist baptized him in the Jordan River. You may remember the Trinitarian theophany, or revelation of all three persons of the Triune God at Jesus' baptism: the voice of God the Father; bodily presence of Jesus the Son; a visible icon of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus begins his public ministry in Mark in the synagogue during worship by battling forces that defeat life. This opening salvo is especially striking because when Mark asks where we tend to look for God and where we usually find God, his gospel generally shows us we don't most often discover God in conventional religious, economic, or political institutions. In Mark, we most often find God's reign of life in the wilderness, on the margins of polite society. You may remember Mark starts out at J-The-B's wilderness assembly and incessantly leads to Jerusalem and the cross, where Jesus dies outside the city limits, where a Roman Centurion identifies him as "Son of God." A foreign military officer and an agent of empire rather than an insider to God's people is the first to recognize Jesus.

The unclean spirit (demon in some translations) Jesus confronts and casts out of the guy in the synagogue (during worship!) contrasts with the Spirit of Life that at baptism identifies and calls Jesus and us into ministries of defeating death and resurrecting dead individuals, institutions, and ideas. The Good News according to Saint Mark begins by announcing, "The beginning of the gospel." The gospeled Good News of our baptism is life-giving, world-changing, society-transforming, creation-renewing death and resurrection stuff!

COVID-19 and Other Deadly Forces

Martin Luther reminded us all sin is idolatry; all sin violates the first commandment to have no other divinity than the God of life, love, truth, mercy, and justice: God whose Word creates out of nothing—God whose Word summons the New Creation out of the death of the old.

Despite still worshiping and interacting as church mostly online, the USA and many other countries continue battling a death-dealing triple threat of global pandemic, ethnic injustices, and political fragmentation. With micro and macro always closely intertwined, life-negating forces creep into cracks and crevices, sometimes when no one's paying attention, sometimes well-disguised. Are they in our own worship, in our committee meetings and scripture study groups, even when we gather virtually? Are our eyes open? Do we see them? Are we listening? Do we hear them? Are we in denial? Will our life together during this uncertain season and later post-pandemic confront and defeat them?

Questions This Week

Martin Luther reminded us all sin is idolatry; all sin violates the first commandment to have no other gods besides the God of life, love, truth, mercy, and justice.

• If Jesus ventured onto your church campus and into worship on a typical Sunday, what would he find?
• If Jesus happened into your homeowner's association, elementary school board, or neighborhood watch meeting, what would he hear?
• Can we easily discern deadly (demonic) forces within the church, in civic gatherings, in local and national politics? Or do they tend to hide?
• Can we easily notice life-affirming powers in church (local congregation, regional judicatories – presbytery, synod, conference, classis, district – national / global expressions), in not specifically religious gatherings, and in the world at large? Or are they mostly hidden?
• Mark's gospel narrative mostly discovers and uncovers God outside religious, political, social, and economic establishments. Can people find God in the mainline church and in mainstream society?

Short Overview of Mark's Gospel

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Epiphany 3B

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

1The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2"Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.

Pray for Today: Psalm 62:5-8

Wait calmly for God alone, my soul; for my hope is from the Lord.
Only God is my safe place; my strong place from which I cannot be shaken.
My welfare and worth depend on God, my strong rock; my refuge is in God.
Ever trust in God, O people, pour out your joys and your sorrows before the Lord;
God is our refuge!

Psalm paraphrase from The Billabong, a lectionary worship resource by Jeff Shrowder, Uniting Church in Australia

Epiphany. Jonah. Lovely Enemies.

We're still in the season of Epiphany that emphasizes God's love for all people and all creation, Jesus as savior and redeemer for all the world, not only the Jewish people. Because of this, during Epiphany we especially consider evangelism and other less formal ways of reaching out. We've celebrated the Baptism of Jesus that's a call – and identity – narrative, just as baptism identifies us as God's people and calls us to love, mercy, justice, and service. Last week we read in John's gospel about Jesus calling his first disciples to follow him.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) brings us a passage from Jonah only once in the 3-year cycle, and it's more of a small sliver than a substantial chunk. You might want to blitz read through Jonah; there are many summaries of Jonah online that summarize the historical situation.

The day and the season of Epiphany focus on God's inclusive embrace. Today's reading relates well to the divided USA with its different viewpoints, differing ideologies, an extremely wide political spectrum, and religious diversity. Please notice, the book of Jonah doesn't say anything about a whale—it talks about a Great Fish. (Not that every translation of every text always is word-for-word; besides, whales are mammals, not fish.)

From this section in the Book of the Twelve/Minor Prophets, we read about God calling Jonah to reach out to people he considered enemies; this Old Testament book also is about God's love for those Assyrian enemies. (For details, read the entire book and maybe some related history). As individuals, as a church, as residents of the USA or another relatively free country, do we have enemies? Are there people we try to avoid or (minimally) would prefer not to associate with? There well may be some on the perimeters who wouldn't be good to approach, but that's a separate concern. Only Jesus truly could be a friend to everyone.

Who are our enemies? Do we want to tell them about and show them them God's infinite, expansive love and mercy? Maybe telling them in words isn't too difficult, but how about showing them by inviting them into our circles and spaces? Earlier this week I read an excellent explanation of the buzz phrase "diversity, equity, and inclusion":

• Diversity means everyone is invited to the party.
• Equity means everyone gets to contribute to the playlist.
• Inclusion means everyone has the opportunity to dance (to dance or not to dance is their choice).
Attributed to Robert Sellers

We and they – us and them – ours and theirs aren't wrong at all! Each individual and each group has unique gifts and characteristics. Relationships would be impossible if everyone was an undifferentiated blob. The apostle Paul talks a whole lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion. He celebrates baptism incorporating everyone (the far-off and the near!) into Christ so everyone then can take part according to their abilities and desires.

• Diversity means everyone is invited to the party.
We might be okay inviting everyone, we might be fine if all of them show up to the (party, concert, committee meeting, worship, convention) event, because we want our organization to appear diverse to outsiders and to ourselves, and/or because we deep-down believe everyone needs to be invited.

• Equity means everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. Actually allowing and even encouraging everyone to contribute might be something else. Excuses? They're not our style, they don't understand our mission, we're mostly about something they're not very good at. Most individuals take time to observe and discern what's safe or not when they're new, so a newbie might or might not say yes the first time someone asks them to participate.

• Inclusion means everyone has the opportunity to dance.
"Everyone has the opportunity to dance?" Think about it, especially as we slowly prepare to return to church campus and reach out again to our neighbors.

Types of Christ

We sometimes refer to types or icons of Jesus Christ in scripture. For example, Moses as liberator and law-giver is a type of Christ. As ruler or sovereign, David is a type of Christ. Adam, the first human, is an icon of Jesus Christ, the new human. Jonah spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the great fish; Jesus spent 3 days and 3 nights buried in the earth. In addition to God's inclusive love, in Jonah we find death and resurrection. Sounds like Jesus!

We've studied many (many) passages from the apostle Paul. For Paul, the good news of the gospel is death and resurrection! For us as well, the gospeled good news is our dying in every way possible, God raising us to every possible kind of new life.

The Sign of Jonah: Lovely Enemies

In Matthew's and Luke's gospels, Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah; death and resurrection has become the most traditional interpretation of this phrase. Last week we discussed (I wrote about) signs and symbols that aren't actual objects or events, but point beyond themselves to something else: a sign on a street or freeway or shop; words on a printed page or on a screen; a product label; a rash, fever, or pain a clinician can interpret to make a diagnosis.

Matthew 12

38Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to jesus, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." 39But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth."

Matthew 16

1The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered them …"You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah."

Luke 11

29Jesus began to say, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation."

In these readings, the Sign of Jonah is death and resurrection, burial and new life. Isn't the sign of Jonah also God's love for everyone, followed by the love of God's people for all, when even supposed enemies become lovely?!

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Epiphany 2B

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50Jesus answered, "Do you [singular] believe because I told you [singular] that I saw you [singular] under the fig tree? You [singular] will see greater things than these."

51And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you [plural], you [plural] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

Prayer for the Season of Epiphany

God of revelation, you govern all things on heaven and earth; mercifully hear the prayers of your people, and guide the course of our days in your peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who is alive with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

From Bosco Peters' Book of Prayer in Common

Where We Are

Last week we heard about Jesus' cousin John baptizing him from the version in Mark's Gospel. All three synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew that view Jesus' life and ministry through a similar lens) tell us Jesus then spent forty days deeper into the wilderness than the wildness of John the Baptist's riverside assembly. Immediately after his month apart, jesus returns to community and begins his more or less formal public ministry. By contrast, although John's gospel also includes Jesus' baptism, immediately afterwards his cousin John the Baptist identifies Jesus as Lamb of God and Son of God.

From now through Transfiguration Sunday three days before Ash Wednesday we continue in the season of Epiphany with a short stretch of Ordinary Time that's about the work of the Holy Spirit alongside and within God's people. Stars and lights are primary symbols for Epiphany that means revelation, manifestation, or shining forth. Two Sundays ago for the day of Epiphany we read about the religious, ethnic, and geographic non-Jewish magi visiting Jesus. You may remember the magi found Jesus by following signs in the sky, by reading their own scriptures, and by interpreting their dreams.

Increasing light as days grow longer in the global north, recognition of God's revelation to and embrace of all people beyond the Jewish nation has made Epiphany a season to emphasize evangelism, or reaching out to others with the Good News of the gospel. Like stars in the sky, our lives and actions manifest, reveal, and shine forth the good news of God among us. It takes only a tiny light to show through the darkness.

Call and Response

Although we're in Mark's lectionary year, today our gospel reading comes from John (please see end of this post for brief distinctives about John's gospel). Like Mark, John writes about Jesus' call of his first disciples. They include Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John. John includes Philip in this call story (the other gospels list him among the twelve), but only John includes Nathanael anywhere.

In our live discussions we sometimes mention our sense of God calling us to a certain activity, ministry, or occupation. We've talked broadly about how (maybe especially) people in direct service professions such as teacher, pastor. nurse, frequently have a strong sense of call, though that doesn't exclude people who delight in balancing financial books or creating a beautifully presented succulently fresh dinner. Especially as we begin considering limited return to the church campus and outreach to our immediate neighbors, our call or callings probably will include smaller, shorter mini-ministries or micro-ministries.

Have you been thinking about some different from the past ways we can reach out to our immediate neighbors? We'll probably keep on with food and toiletries for the nearby unsheltered population, but in the Spirit of Epiphany Evangelism, there may be some newer ways or revitalized older ways to call and invite others to follow Jesus.

How do we determine long-term or shorter term callings Jesus gives us? Similar to Day of Epiphany Magi, by reading the signs around us (who where needs what) and within us (what are my own skills, interests, aspirations), by interpreting scripture (love your neighbor, feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty), by heeding dreams God gives us when we're asleep and when we're wide awake.

Geography and Context

Last week we pointed out how all four gospels begin telling about Jesus' baptism with a physical, geographical, location: Nazareth, Galilee, Bethany, Jordan. Today's scripture references Galilee, the larger geographic area of Jesus' hometown Nazareth. These other guys were from Bethsaida. We've heard Nazareth was typical small-town; Nathanael's question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" reveals more than a bit of dismissive snark. Hey, having relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego, I can tell you San Diego has a small town feel, tends to consider itself at least semi-backwater, has an inferiority complex from being in the shadow of megalopolis LA, has a border town sensibility in both wonderfully positive and disparagingly negative ways. Philip's "Come and see!" reply is basic invitational evangelism that pervades the gospels, that extends to "Come and see the stone rolled away" of Easter dawn, into the Acts of the Apostles, and then into our own twenty-first century.

The gospel accounts, all of history, and our own lives all take place in particular contexts or settings: geography; time of year; time of day; family; religion or none; workplace; friends; class/ethnic culture… As twenty-first century urban dwellers, all of us inhabit more than one context.

Sign and Symbol

John's gospel refers to Jesus' actions as signs instead of miracles. We talked about sign, symbol, and meaning almost as much in design classes as we did in cultural anthropology classes. Maybe it's no surprise that linguistics is a branch of anthropology—the study of human culture, artifacts, habits, and communication. Words printed on a page, spoken out loud, or communicated silently using hands, arms, face, and body – "sign"– language symbolize realities beyond and other than themselves. I've heard that most interpreters don't wear masks (though I've noticed two or three have) because facial expression is a critical aspect of re-interpreting the audible word.

A sign on a street or a freeway, a label on a product isn't the actual thing, but points beyond itself to something else. In short, signs and symbols lead to substance. We sometimes refer to Scriptures and Sacraments as the church's symbols. Theological traditions that include Lutheran and Reformed sometimes refer to their Confessions (Catechisms, Creeds) as symbolic books. As interpretations of scripture, they point beyond themselves to scripture and finally to Jesus Christ.

Jesus told Nathanael he had gotten to know him because he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. There's no historical or scholarly consensus about the meaning of this phrase, but figs were one of the seven agricultural gifts of the promised land [Deuteronomy 8]; the sycamore fig was Israel's national tree; and there was a tradition of studying Torah underneath a fig tree. Jesus cultural background would have told him a guy reading underneath the fig was a Jewish son of the Sinai Covenant

The Gospel According to Saint John

Although this is the year of Mark's gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), because Mark is the shortest gospel, we'll hear quite a lot from John that doesn't have its own year. John is the rogue, outlier gospel that brings a different perspective on Jesus than the three synoptic gospels Mark, Luke, and Matthew.

Scholars believe the community gathered around John the Beloved Disciple that compiled this version of the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ had at least two written sources: the Signs source and the I Am source.

(1) John refers to Jesus' signs rather than to his miracles.

(2) Jesus describes himself as"I Am," referring back to God's self-revelation to Israel as "I Am."

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Baptism of Jesus B


From A Lament in the Shadow of the Capitol by Pastor Roger Gench

We lament, O God, the tragic display of violence at the U.S. Capitol this week, and pray that the horror of it might open our eyes to the sins that are on the loose in our nation. We pray for a country so divided, so full of anger.

Help us, God of justice, for we have failed to discern and to name the myriad ways racism has warped our common humanity. Forgive us for the divisions that have kept us from really knowing one another across the lines of race and religion and class, making us oblivious to the pain, to the real-life struggles and joys of people who don't look like us or talk like us and who may live across town, but who are all God's beloved children. Yet we know that the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ can help us to regain our sight. Empower us by your Spirit to become people who more fully live into the promise of our baptism and trust your assurance that in Christ the dividing walls of hostility have come down.

You have called us to be a beachhead of your new creation—a new community united under Christ's lordship in which there are no longer divisions and subordinations. Help us to name our own brokenness. Empower us to stand with all who are crucified by the power of institutional violence and discrimination, and to recognize our participation in all such inhumanity.

We lament what this week has laid bare; we ask for your strength and courage to be all you have called us to be and to participate in your reconciling work in all the world. Amen.

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

6Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
baptism of Jesus in the four gospels

Ordinary Time; Baptism of Jesus

We're in the season of Epiphany and we've moved into a short segment of Ordinary Time. You may remember Sundays after Pentecost stretch into about six months of Ordinary Time. In this context ordinary means ordered, arranged, organized, arrayed, planned more than it means common and conventional, yet with the Spirit of Pentecost filling the world, and the Pentecostal people of God freely at work in the world, Ordinary Time is common, conventional, and everywhere.

This week for the baptism of Jesus we continue in the short, energetic gospel according to Mark. Here's the summary of Mark I blogged when Advent started.

Very few events are in all four gospels; surprisingly, all of the gospels don't even have a birth story or a resurrection narrative. But we find Jesus' baptism in all four, strongly signaling us to take notice! Lots of "spilled ink" has asked why Jesus, the sinless Son of God would need baptism. However:

• John's baptism wasn't as much about individuals as it was a political, religious, and economic new beginning for Israel. Earlier on, before entering Canaan that was full of other gods and death-ridden claims, they had to cross the Jordan River. The Jordan formed a border and boundary between their old existence of Egyptian slavery, decades of exodus desert wanderings, and a new life of repentance, obedience, and grace in covenanted community. During their wilderness trek, God's people received the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant.

• When the gospels were compiled, questions of Jesus' divinity hadn't yet started circulating. Those concerns belong to a century or two later, so no one would have drawn upon "our" baptismal theology and wondered why the sinless Son of Heaven needed to be baptized. The Definition of Chalcedon that describes Jesus Christ as fully human, completely divine, dates from 451.

• Although it has similarities to Jesus' baptism, our trinitarian baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not baptized a Christian.

Describe, Draw, Map, Picture…

Notice how all four gospels begin telling about Jesus' baptism with a physical, geographical, location: Nazareth, Galilee, Bethany, Jordan. Throughout the witness of scripture and in our lives, God acts at measurable longitude, latitude, and linear time. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about "The Word that Redescribes the World." Describe, inscribe, scribe, script, prescribe come from the same root. When we write, speak, design, or draw, we create a picture image of place, person, or event. When God's written Word the Bible, and God's living incarnate Word Jesus Christ Redescribe the World, they redraw and remake what's there with justice, mercy, love, grace, and newness.

"And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him." Mark 1:10

The end of Jesus' public ministry joins heaven and earth even more dramatically:

"Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." Mark 15:37-38

In both passages "tear, tore, torn" is a rip or rupture that can't be mended. We've discussed how the Jerusalem temple had been modeled after temples of other religions because people wanted a place where their God (actually the name of God that in Hebrew Bible theology is God's identity) could reside and be kept safe. Ripping apart the temple veil that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the world revealed a God for all, God of all, who cannot be limited or contained. Tearing the temple curtain tore away distinctions between heaven and earth, sacred and profane. So here at the start of Jesus' public ministry and later at the end, an irreparable tear unites heaven and earth.

Doing the Word

Heaven opens wide to earth at our baptism and fills us with the Holy Spirit, literally equipping us to serve others directly in a plethora of ways, to advocate for justice, sometimes to challenge empire—directly and indirectly. In his small catechism, Martin Luther asks, "How can water do such great things?" It is not only water, but water combined with the Word of God…

This is the word that redescribes, redraws, and remaps the world into God's justice, love, mercy, and shalom. With the Spirit of Pentecost filling the world, and the Pentecostal people of God freely at work in the world, Ordinary Time is common, conventional, and everywhere, with the Word that changes fear into understanding, hatred into love. A Word to subvert injustice into justice, to transform poverty into shalom.

Moses read the book of the covenant in the presence of all the people, and the people responded with one voice, "We will do all the Words of the Lord." And we – or our sponsors – heard the words of our baptismal covenant and promised to renounce sin, death, and the devil, to work for justice and righteousness. When God's people doing the word Redescribe the World, we redraw and remake with justice, righteousness, love, grace, and newness. At our baptism, water and word unite heaven and earth in a way that cannot be undone.

Five weeks from now (on Valentine's Day!) in Mark's Transfiguration account we'll hear God announce, "This is my Son, the Beloved" and command, "Listen to him!" Listen to Jesus. Listen to God's Living Word. Do not pay any attention to all the confusing noise and conflicting claims that clutter our ears. Do. The. Word.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Epiphany 2021

Exclamation from Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; the light of the world has come, and God's glory shines on us! Darkness enveloped the earth, but now the light of Christ has become our glory. We will see someday—no, we have seen and we've become radiant. Our hearts rejoice with all creation as we live out God's splendid praise.

Matthew 2:1-12

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was.

10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, household, etc, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Epiphany: Day and Season

We sometimes announce we've "had an epiphany." Today we're having an epiphany and then we move into a several weeks long season of epiphany. Combining roots "epi" = upon and "phan" = manifestation, revealing, revelation, illumination, uncovering, an epiphany is a shining out, showing forth.

The day and the season of epiphany (Sundays leading up to Transfiguration, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) focus on light, particularly the light of Christ. The Bethlehem-born Jewish baby Jesus is savior of all, Lord of all, king and shepherd for all cultures, social statutes, abilities, ethnicities, and religions. In the global north Epiphany arrives shortly after the winter solstice, making its symbolism of light especially full of meaning. Stars are THE epiphany symbol.

The twelfth day of Christmas? That must have come from someone who couldn't quite count. When January 6th doesn't fall on a Sunday, many churches celebrate epiphany on the nearest Sunday. Days after Christmas offer several possibilities. Last Sunday we discussed Jesus' Presentation in the Temple; the Circumcision and Name of Jesus on January 1st also would have worked well for today. January 6th was Christ's birthday until the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine moved it to after the solstice to correlate with the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun people already knew about. After that, January 6th became the baptism of Jesus, as it still is in Eastern expressions of Christianity. Next Sunday we'll observe Baptism of Jesus.

Visitors from the East / Revelation

The gospel reading for the day of Epiphany always comes from Matthew, because Matthew is the only gospel with the visiting Magi. On Epiphany we usually sing "We Three Kings of Orient Are," but scripture doesn't say the gift-bearing visitors were kings, and it doesn't say how many visitors from the east there were. However, it mentions three gifts, which likely is the reason the Western Church says three, though the Eastern Church says twelve. There are only two kings in this scripture: the Roman puppet King Herod the Great and King Jesus.

These visitors most likely were religious leaders, probably Zoroastrian priests who also were astrologers who studied and interpreted stars for signs and meanings. They well may have been astronomers in our sense of people with expertise about the heavenly bodies. In any case, they were from a different culture, religion, and ethnicity then the Jews; they were outsiders. This narrative closely relates to Matthew's genealogy with its many non-Jews and ethnic "others." Especially In Matthew's gospel, we find Jesus revealed to the non-Jewish nations.

• Revealed? How? Signs/stars in the heavens!
• Revealed? How? Scripture, especially Micah 5:2 and its reference to Bethlehem!
• Revealed? How? Dreams!

These wise persons based their decision to set out for Bethlehem…
• on studying signs in the skies
• on reading their own scriptures or holy book
• on heeding messages they received in a dream

God does whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace everyone: a star for people who knew the skies and the stars and trusted sky signs; a scripture passage for people who were biblically literate and trusted those texts; dreams for those who relied on less conscious, rational, cerebral information. Skies and scriptures and dreams all point to the same Bethlehem Baby.

Light / Revelation

Isaiah and Matthew both celebrate light. Isaiah 60 announces our light is here! It take very little light to blaze through a dark space. Without light there are no shadows. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) a star in the sky often signaled the birth and death of a great individual. Numbers 24:17 names stars as a Messianic sign.

Matthew writes about the star at "the rising" of the sun, at daybreak, at dawning. Stars are scattered all over the Matthew passage with east, east, star, star (and magi in the room, not back in the stable). "From the east" is anatolia—the rising of the sun. (Not Bruce Springsteen's The Rising!) Latin words oriens and orient mean the same as the Greek anatolia—the other side of the world from ours?

Because this story of persons from the East, from The Rising – the direction where the sun rises to start a new day – opens up questions of inclusion, of boundaries, of people who are like us and different from us, the season of Epiphany emphasizes evangelism beyond the ways we've "always done it." Especially during this lockdown when nothing continues as we've always know it, revealing Jesus with a star, a scripture passage, and a dream, enlighten our imaginations and our outreach.

Only one question this time:

• With COVID-19 vaccines getting on track, is it time for us to get on track for returning to church campus and reclaiming ministries we'd been doing, or exploring new ones?

Star Words to Light your Path

Some people make and soon break new year's resolutions. Some observe them quite thoroughly. Alternatively or in addition to, there's an Epiphany tradition of choosing a star word as a guide for the upcoming year. You can ask someone else, or in the Spirit claim a word to guide you the way a star led the magi.

epiphany chalk house blessing Chalk House Blessing

Epiphany is the traditional day for announcing the date of Easter. Blessing your house with chalk is another historical practice for New Year's Day, Epiphany, or any time. An internet search will provide resources to make the blessing short and simple or long and elaborate. Chalk comes from the earth, it's a communication medium, it's often part of play. The inscription for this year is 20+C+M+B+21—the calendar year with CMB sandwiched in the middle. You can write above the door, beside the door, on the door, vertical or horizontal. You can bless the main entrance and/or separate rooms. If you have an office, workshop, or studio outside your home, you can bless those, too.

CMB can stand for traditional magi names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or it can be initials for Christus Mansionem Benedicat / May Christ Bless this House. Although the Latin house is similar to the English mansion for a huge dwelling or manse for the pastor's house, it doesn't imply large. It's simply a home or dwelling, a way station or stayover place. I got the blue door in my illustration from Pixabay with legal reuse rights. There's no reason not to write twice or more than once as I did.