On Knowing God

We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit.

That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God.

Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God.

Only God knows how to speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.

The Church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse [Jesus] even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for  other people and other things.

The revelation of a triune God [God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] in the unity of a sing nature, the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason. It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things. We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, “Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.”

And we can avoid pretending that knowledge of God could be the fruit of our gray matter.

Then, and only then, shall we be capable of prayer; borne to the frontier of our radical incapacity, which love has made the beatitude of poverty, we shall be able to invoke God’s coming to us, “Come, creator Spirit!”

—Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes

A Prayer to Know the Truth

O God, we thank you for all those in whose words and in whose writings your truth has come to us. For the historians, the psalmists and the prophets, who wrote the Old Testament; for those who wrote the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament; for all who in every generation have taught and explained and expounded and preached the word of Scripture: we thank you, O God.

Grant, O God, that no false teaching may ever have any power to deceive us or to seduce us from the truth. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would encourage us to think sin less serious, vice more attractive, or virtue less important. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would dethrone Jesus Christ from the topmost place. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which for its own purposes perverts the truth.

O God, our Father, establish us immovably in the truth. Give us minds which can see at once the difference between the true and the false. Make us able to test everything, and to hold fast to that which is good. Give us such a love of truth that no false thing may ever be able to lure us from it. So grant that all our lives we may know, and love, and live the truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

Carlo Carretto on the Paradox of the Church

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.

—Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes

Fr. Ron Feister: Jesus—The Light In the Darkness

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 3A, January 26, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.1-4; Psalm 27.1, 4-10; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We started this month with the Feast of Epiphany way. As you will recall this term means a revelation or revealing, a discovery of something new. In that first Sunday’s Gospel we see the Magi being lead to Jesus by a star and in so doing they have revealed to them the Messiah — a revelation not just for these learned men but the revelation that would effect the whole world both Jew and Gentile.

Following came the Sunday when we reflected upon the Baptism of Jesus with its revelation through the coming of the Holy Spirit as if in the form of a Dove and by the words of the Father that this is my beloved Son. There is another Epiphany. Jesus is revealed not merely as the one sent by God, he is not even just the Messiah, he is the Son of Father. Today we understand that Jesus indeed shares the Divine Nature with the Father and the Spirit, but to John the Baptizer the simple revelation of a direct relationship with God the Father must have been an awesome revelation.

Building on the Baptism of Jesus, the following week reveled that Jesus would be a different kind of Messiah than expected. He would be the Lamb who would be sacrificed and he would be the Servant — indeed the Suffering Servant of God. In today’s Gospel, we are invited to even more revelations concerning Jesus. He is the one who brings light into darkness. The one who lights up even the darkest corners of our world.

The Gospel begins by stating that when the Baptizer had been arrested that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. We might at hearing that wording believe that Jesus was just acting sensibly — laying low for awhile in a safe place where perhaps he could begin the process of building his ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The term that is most often translated “withdraw” in English bible translations actually is better understood to mean he returned to this place where he had come from or he had choose to, if you will to use modern terminology, establish a base of operations in that territory.

But why there, why in Galilee in this land once part of lands of Zebulon and Naphtali two of the Twelve Tribes that made up the nation of Israel? It was a territory that had been severely damaged physically, economically, emotionally by almost constant wars between the Northern Kingdom and its arch enemy Syria. It was a territory were foreign invaders would bring in non-natives who were very different in language and culture with the intended purposes of diluting the native population. Given the mixtures of languages, cultures and peoples, it suffered from economic and political hardship. If this was not bad enough, this was the very territory that fell under the same Herod who had arrested John and would have him beheaded. Jesus did not withdraw or retreat, but rather Jesus bravely and deliberately made his home in the darkest place that could be found in his part of the world.

Why? Because Jesus came to be the Light. Where does a light shine forth the brightest? It is in the dark. The darker the environment the brighter the light seems to shine. The more it is noticed. The more it is appreciated. There is a TV commercial that talking about human sight points out that a human eye can detect the light from a candle at a distance of several football fields, but it can only do this in the dark. Jesus may have come as the little babe in a manger or been greeted by the Magi as a small child — a seeming little candle light of God’s love, but before His earthly ministry was over the Light of Jesus would flood out from this dark corner of Israel and begin sweeping through the whole world. What was this Light? In short it was that Jesus made tangible the love of the Father for his children. He did this by reminding them of God’s promises. He did this by calling them to repent; that is to change their ways of relating to God.

Jesus reminds them that they are children of the Father not just in some academic way but in the very personal and intimate way that a good daddy relates to his child. He called them to turn away from sin and embrace righteousness. He taught them to care for the neighbor, even if that neighbor is someone with whom they had great differences. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, was at hand. These were people whose kingdom had been destroyed and his proclamation was a source of great hope — little did they realize that God’s Kingdom would extend not only in a small section of what we call the middle east or for a historic period of time, but would be a Kingdom that would last for eternity and reach even to the farthest corners of creation. These were a broken people and Jesus showed not only God’s love but the fact that the Kingdom of God had begun to be present by working many signs but most effectively by His many healings or as the Gospel states, His “curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Jesus healed the brokenness of the people and His light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. Jesus brought the Light of God’s Love into the world, but he would not be the only bearer of that Light. He would call others to be his disciples and to multiply His own efforts.

Also in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus inviting others to follow Him. The first to be called is Andrew who seems to have been a follower of John the Baptizer. His time with John, no doubt prepared him for the call of Jesus. He had already been challenged to repent and he already been given a sense that something powerful was going to happen. He brings along his brother, the one we know as Peter, the one would lead the disciples after the resurrection. Jesus also calls James and John the sons of Zebedee, men of great passion, if not the best judgment. In leaving their father, these brothers no doubt sacrificed a loss of wealth and status. Jesus invites others. In the second chapter of Mark, we see Jesus asking Levi, better known to us as Matthew, to come an follow Him. Matthew is a tax collector and as we know these were some of the most disrespected and hated people. Jesus seems to simply call these folks and they respond by joining Him. What could motivate such a response? Perhaps it is simply that in their dark world they could not resist the light and warmth of a loving God in the person of Jesus the Christ.

What does this mean for us? Today we again live in a world of gathering darkness. We constantly hear of war in some part of the world. Terrorism is a constant possibility extending to even such noble activities as the Olympics. Just like the territory of Galilee we live in geographic communities as diverse as any that have existed in history. Many of values run expressed run contrary to even basic Christian teaching and regrettably even as in Galilee the Jewish religion had been largely corrupted so many of our Christian Church have chosen societal acceptance rather than faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Teaching of Christ.

But all is not lost. Christ is still the Light and Christ now calls us, as perhaps never before, to bring His light into the lives of those whom we meet, work with, and socialize. We can be instruments of reconciliation and healing. We can be one who is willing to speak a word of encouragement. We can reach out an care for our neighbor who is neighbor and yet stranger. We can and must be willing to speak God’s truth even when those around us do not want to hear it. We may, on our own, be mere reflections or a spark of the light of Jesus, but like the candle light that can be seen football fields away, in this darkening world, our faithfulness to Christ, will be seen.

Christ called first the Twelve and then many others to be his co-workers. Some like Andrew had been prepared to respond by prior experiences. Some like Peter were brought to know Jesus by someone else who had already come to know the Lord and could not wait to introduce Him to others. Some gave up little and some a great deal. All came when the Master called. All came to know what it was like to bring the Light of Christ to others.

Christ the true Light now calls us. Are we willing to let His light shine in and through us? Are we willing to blaze forth in the darkness? By God’s Grace let us say Yes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

NBC News: Holocaust Survivor Meets Her Liberator Seven Decades Later

Don’t forget the Holocaust happened and was terribly real. General Eisenhower made American troops tour the concentration camps so that they would not forget and to counter the future lie that the Holocaust is fiction. Smart man because unbelievably, that’s what many think now.

Beyond that, this is a heartwarming story so please do read it all.

Marsha Kreuzman weighed only 68 pounds and was near death when American soldiers freed her from the steps of one of Hitler’s concentration camps where Jews were cremated.  She was 18 years old at the time and says she looked like a skeleton.

Now, almost 90 years old, Kreuzman is still haunted by the bitter realities of her painful past.

“They murdered [my father] in front of me” she said.  Her mother and brother were also killed.  There was a time, Kreuzman says, when she wanted to die too.

Andy Crouch: Medicine Does Not Know What ‘Dead’ Is

A thoughtful interview around the issues involved with the tonsillectomy that went wrong for Jahi McMath and her family’s wishes to keep her on life support despite her doctors declaring her brain dead. Make sure you also read Crouch’s accompanying piece, Lost in the Valley of Death.

The problem, of course, is that our moral and ethical thinking have not caught up with technology’s ability to keep our biological processes functioning. But what is life? What is living? Being a Christian minister who had to make end-of-life decisions around my mother five years ago, I have a different perspective about using extraordinary means of life support than the one attributed to Christians in this piece. I was (and am) mindful of what the old preacher said: For everything there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die (see Ecclesiastes 3.1-8, especially verse 2). Death is a sad part of life, the result of God’s curse on our sin and the evil it unleashed, and it has never been revoked (Genesis 3.17-19). So our mortal body must die.

But Christians should not fear death because we have been healed and reconnected to our Life Source (God) by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and have a glorious future awaiting us when the new creation comes in full. Therefore, the matrix that guided my decision-making about what kind of measures the docs took for my mother dealt with quality of living, both as she would have defined it and as Scripture helped me to define it. Consequently, I was not interested in the docs taking extraordinary measures to keep my mom’s body going when it was terribly clear that she was gone. I was able to commend her into God’s hands in great sorrow but also in great hope, because I believe this God is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17). Given what I was observing in that hospital room versus where I knew my mother would be (with the Lord who loved and claimed her for all eternity), the choice was not all that difficult. Of course, I miss her terribly to this day. But this decision wasn’t about me. It was about what was best for my mother who was a devout Christian.

Your mileage on this may vary, but please do read the two pieces and have a conversation around them with your family and loved ones.

From Christianity Today online.

Medicine would do well to recover a sense of humility in the face of mystery. I think we should stop using the naturalistic, reductionistic language we tend to use. Honestly, medicine doesn’t know what “dead” is. If you can’t say what dead is, then you don’t know when someone is dead. If the hospital says we know what death is, that’s when a brain is dead—well, how do you know that?

Very probably these doctors did what doctors are trained to do. They tend to think their goal is to provide information. They do one test, then another test, then they check for a rise in CO2 when you turn off the ventilator, and so forth. And they keep getting more information which is supposed to demonstrate a biological fact. But the family is not living in the world of biology, the family is living in a world of spiritual powers.

Instead we need to talk in terms of ends, goals, and purposes. If you sit down with the family and you say, “What are you hoping for, what’s your goal, what are we trying to achieve here?” that can lead to a very different conversation. You may disagree about the likelihood of achieving the goal, but at least you’ve talked not in terms of so-called facts that we actually are very unsure of—like the question where does life begin and end—but in terms of purpose. At least you’re talking about something meaningful rather than something that, frankly, medicine, by its own standards for what counts as knowledge, doesn’t know.

Read it all.

So Who’s This Servant (and Why Should We Care)? Come and See!

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 2A, January 19, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In this morning’s OT lesson, we read the second of the four so-called “Servant Songs” in Isaiah that describe God’s anointed one, the Messiah. You might recall that last week we read the first of those songs from Isaiah 42, where God’s Servant would bring God’s healing and justice to the earth, and we saw that Matthew applied that particular song to Jesus at his baptism. As we reflect on this second Servant’s Song from today’s readings, we want to ask Isaiah exactly who is this servant and why should we as Christians living in the 21st century care? His answers (and our other texts’) is what I want us to consider briefly this morning.

We ask this question about the Servant’s identity because in 49.3, Isaiah refers to him as being Israel. But two verses later, the Servant clearly is an individual whom God will use to rescue Israel from her exile in Babylon and all the nations that oppress her. So who is the Servant? Israel or an individual working on Israel’s behalf? Well, both. As this passage makes clear, God called his people Israel to bring his healing love and justice to a sin-sick world. But Israel had failed to do this. Instead of being God’s light to the world to bring God’s healing love to the nations, Israel had fallen into idol worship and practiced all kinds of injustices (among other things), imitating the very nations they were supposed to heal! So now through his prophet, God was reaffirming his promise to his wayward people to give them a Messiah through King David’s line (cf. 2 Samuel 7.8-17) to do and be for Israel what Israel could not do and be for itself, the promise itself being an act of grace.

And since this passage is clearly addressed to the nations, God is also putting them on alert that he will not only rescue his people Israel from the nations’ evil designs toward them by punishing the nations, but that God also intends to rescue those from among Israel’s enemies who will respond to God’s plan of salvation offered through his Servant on behalf of Israel. This is what being “a light to the nations” is all about and we can imagine that Isaiah’s message would have been met with incredulity and scorn by many of his people. They would have liked his message about God rescuing them, but Israel’s enemies? Not so much. It would be like God promising today to forgive and heal [insert your favorite enemies here]. Where’s the justice in that?

“That’s all well and good, Fr. Kevin, but enough with the history lesson and 50 questions. Get on with it, dude. We’ve got brunch to catch and football to watch. What does any of this stuff have to do with us?” Just this. We must remember that Isaiah’s words were written to a people languishing in the darkness of exile. It would have been quite easy for them to dismiss God’s promises to them as hogwash. After all, if God were so powerful, why had he allowed his people to be conquered and exiled to a pagan nation? Now we may not be a people living in exile geographically, but we still have to deal with plenty of darkness that makes us want to ask God the same kinds of questions. I know there are many of you who are facing serious problems in your life at the moment, problems that distract you terribly and tempt you to dismiss as irrelevant passages like Isaiah’s and our gospel lesson with their message of being God’s light to the world. “I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails and you want me to go out and tell others about Jesus? Really?” If we get to this point in our life, it is precisely the time to pay careful attention to what the prophet and our other lessons are telling us.

To those who react in despair or anger (another form of despair) to the darkness that oppresses us, whatever its form, the prophet reminds his people and us that when our present and future look bleak, we must call to mind the many ways in which God has acted on behalf of his people to rescue us from our enemies and how God has always remained faithful to his promises, despite our unfaithfulness to God. We must do this so that we can have confidence that God is with us now and have real hope for our future. Isaiah does this by telling his people that just rescuing Israel from its enemies is too small a thing for God to do. God has bigger fish to fry through his Servant. God will do the impossible. He will heal the nations! A God who rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, who planted them in the land he promised and vanquished enemies that were much stronger than Israel is surely able to rescue us from our enemies and the dark powers behind them that bedevil us, a claim that the NT in fact makes (cf. Colossians 2.14-15). In telling us this, God is reminding us to keep our priorities straight, that there is nothing more important in this life than developing a real and life-giving relationship with God that will sustain us even in the darkest hours of our life, and then sharing that secret with others so that they too will have the power to overcome darkness.

This message is reinforced in our epistle and gospel lessons and both add their answer to our question about the Servant’s identity, reminding us that Jesus is the Servant. In our epistle lesson, Paul is getting ready to address the church at Corinth that has its fair share of problems. Among other things he will address the problems of false teaching, human pride, divisive cliques within the body of Christ at Corinth, and condoning sexual immorality in the name of grace. These folks were in trouble and living in darkness in a lot of ways, but here Paul reminds them Whose they are. He refers to God six times in this passage and to Jesus eight times (nine if you count his indirect reference to Christ’s testimony), and will go on to teach them why having a relationship with God through Jesus is mission-critical to them as human beings and people of God. Clearly their relationship with Jesus had not made them immune to being afflicted by darkness, just as our relationship with Jesus does not make us immune. But in reminding the Corinthians and us Whose we are, Paul is preparing them and us to hear how living as Jesus’ people will allow Jesus to live in and through us in the power of the Spirit so that he can help us overcome the darkness that sometimes afflicts us and enable us to be his beacons of light.

Likewise, John reminds us of the power of God by calling Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In telling us this, John surely wants us remember the Exodus with its story of the Passover lambs. Just as God passed over the houses of his enslaved people that had the blood of the lambs smeared on them as part of his rescue operation on their behalf, so we who are covered by the blood of the Lamb through faith are rescued from an older and darker slavery to sin, precisely because Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Word made flesh. As a result, our alienation from God disappears and we can tap into a real power that will enable us to live our lives with purpose, power, and joy that transcends the circumstances of life.

In each case the respective writers are reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing and not to let the lesser things of life distract us from being the people God created us to be. This is not easy, of course, because dealing with our darkness always seems more immediate and more pressing than our relationship with God. “Not so fast,” they say. If you remember why you were created and what God has done for you in Jesus and is doing for you in the power of the Spirit and the fellowship of his people to help you live in ways that will make you fully human, the darkness will not overcome you.

But John also seems to be expanding on who the Servant really is. In telling us about the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus at his baptism, John is clearly identifying Jesus with the Servant. And in describing Jesus’ interchange with Andrew and the other disciple and their subsequent behavior (new people are called, names get changed), John is reminding us that as God’s Messiah, Jesus is calling his followers to help share in the Servant’s work of bringing God’s healing love to the nations. When Andrew and the other disciple ask Jesus where he is staying, i.e., if he really is the Messiah as John had claimed, Jesus tells them to come and see. And in telling them this, Jesus is not just inviting them to share in his work. Like Isaiah, he is promising them that they ain’t seen nothing yet. Of course Jesus’ disciples didn’t initially understand that this would ultimately refer to his death, resurrection, and ascension, or even that his mission was to bring God’s light and healing to those outside Israel. And this remains the challenge for us today. Do we really understand what Jesus is all about and the work he calls us to do in his name—to announce God’s judgment and salvation to the world in and through Jesus and to engage in acts of self-giving love, healing, mercy, and reconciliation among God’s enemies, ultimately to reconcile them to God through Jesus, i.e., to bring God’s light to the nations?

One thing is for certain. If we don’t show enough interest in Jesus when he invites us to come and see who he is through regular prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and partaking in communion, we will never really be able to embrace the promise that accompanies Jesus’ invitation to us. And if we do not know who Jesus is, we cannot possibly hope to bring God’s light in Jesus to the world. Why would anyone in their right mind want to follow Jesus when they see us living in the darkness just like everyone else? So here’s the question for us to consider, not only this week but on an ongoing basis. If Jesus invited others to come and see him through St. Augustine’s, what would they see if they spent some time with us? Here I want to encourage and commend you because I think we do an overall good job in being the body of Christ. Among other things, folks would see us welcome strangers, preach the Good News, reach out to the poor and needy, visit the lonely, and care for each other in a variety of ways, all in Jesus’ name.

But since each of us goes out into the world every day, an equally important question is to ask ourselves what others would see if they were to come and see Jesus through us. Would they see the love of God pulse through us, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and tender hearts that are full of love and mercy for God and all people (cf. Galatians 5.22-25) or would they see the works of the flesh with all of its self-centeredness and hard-heartedness (cf. Galatians 5.19-21)? In reality, if folks hang around us long enough they will see both sets of attributes because none of us is completely free of sin while we are still in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 6.7). The critical question is which group of attributes embodies the basic pattern of our living? Put another way, when people come and see us in the context of our daily lives, are they typically seeing Christ in us or something else? The extent we can answer that they are seeing Jesus in us is the extent we are fulfilling Jesus’ invitation (and call) to us to come and see.

As you consider these things—and please do consider these things on a regular basis— remember this. If there is work to do on your discipleship (as surely there is; none of us is perfect), then don’t despair or feel guilty about it because you are covered by the blood of the Lamb. Simply remember that the God who calls us to follow Jesus also equips us in the power of the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do, both inside and outside the Church (Ephesians 4.12; Philippians 1.6; 2.13; 1 Thessalonians 5.23-24). So rejoice and be glad that God loves and honors you enough to call you to help bring his healing light and love to the nations and remember that nothing is too great for God to overcome, not even your sin or the darkness that currently afflicts you. If you really believe this, you will respond accordingly because you know you have Good News to share, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus’ Baptism and Yours

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1A, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 12, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29.1-10; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning we celebrate the baptism of Christ as well as our own and that is what I want us to look at briefly. What can we learn from them both? If we do not read (or listen to) Matthew’s text carefully, we are liable to miss the interesting and tense interchange between John and Jesus that he reports. John has been preaching a baptism for the repentance of sins along with the terrible and just judgment of the Lord in fulfillment of OT prophecies like the one we read from Isaiah this morning, a judgment that will establish God’s righteousness on earth through God’s Messiah. And while Isaiah focuses primarily on the positive aspects of God’s judgment—e.g., justice will be established, prisoners of all sorts will be freed, sight will be given to the blind—the baptist has focused primarily on the negative aspects of justice—God’s wrath and punishment poured out on evil and those who commit it.

Now as Jesus comes to him to be baptized, this raises a troubling question for John, who clearly thought Jesus to be the Messiah. If Jesus is the Messiah, God’s appointed agent to bring God’s righteousness and justice to Israel’s enemies (i.e., to punish them), why would Jesus come to receive John’s baptism of repentance? It should be the other way around; Jesus ought to be baptizing John! But Jesus would have none of it, telling John that Jesus’ baptism was the proper way to fulfill all God’s righteousness, i.e., God’s plan to put the world to rights by healing all who would accept God’s rescue plan through his Messiah and judging all those who would not. In saying this, Jesus is identifying himself not so much with God the judge but with those of us who face God’s judgment and need to repent.

John, of course, was shocked by this understanding of God’s plan of salvation as evidenced by his interchange with Jesus. Jesus would indeed bring about God’s judgment on all evil and evildoers, but not in the way John or most of Israel expected. Jesus would bear God’s just judgment on our sins himself, sparing us from that terrible fate. But as we saw during Advent, this did not sit well with John and most of his contemporaries because Israel’s enemies were not being punished in the manner they hoped for or wanted. The bad guys were still ruling over Israel. The nations had not been vanquished. And now here Jesus was redefining how God’s justice would ultimately come about, a scandalous prospect to most Jews of Jesus’ day. This raises the question for each of us. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear the truth about God’s love and grace as embodied in Jesus or are we still trying to make him into our own image? How we answer that has profound implications for our discipleship as we shall see.

And of course there is Good News for us in how Jesus viewed his own baptism. When Jesus redefined for John how God’s justice would be implemented, Matthew is helping us see the value of our own baptism because when we are baptized we are brought into the newly reconstituted family of God under our Lord Jesus. Paul is even more explicit about the value of our baptism. In his letter to the Romans he tells us that our baptism is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible reality that we are buried with Christ in a death like his so that we may also be raised with him to share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). In other words, because Jesus would bear for us God’s just judgment on our sins and invites us into his family of healed and redeemed people through baptism, we have the real hope of eternal life. We do not have to wait until we die to claim this hope because God’s forgiveness through Jesus is available to us immediately. As God rescued his people Israel from their slavery in Egypt by bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea, even more so does God rescue us from our slavery to sin and death through the waters of baptism that signify the grace of our Lord Jesus who promises to gather, heal, and transform into his likeness those whose lives are open to him through repentance. This is the only real medicine to heal our anxious, lonely, and alienated hearts because it is only God who can give life to the dead and call into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17). And we are only reconciled with this God in and through the cross of Jesus Christ. This, of course, was exactly the message Peter preached to Cornelius and his household. Simply put, our baptism is a sign that the Christian faith is not another futile self-help program but about the generous and healing love of God made known to us in and through Jesus. If there is someone here today who is struggling with sin and God’s forgiveness of it, take the lessons of Jesus’ baptism and your own to heart and be strengthened.

So how are we to live out our baptism? For starters, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to accept Jesus on his terms, not ours. At his baptism, Jesus received his commission to carry out God’s mysterious and costly rescue plan by ultimately going to the cross for our sake. We notice that when Jesus came up out of the waters, the dove descended on our Lord and the voice from heaven proclaimed him to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased, not the sovereign we humans might want or expect. There is great humility to be learned from reflecting on this. And the fact that the gospels constantly challenge our expectations about who Jesus is like Matthew does in today’s lesson also means that we need to be reading those texts (and others) on an ongoing basis to prevent us from making Jesus and his mission into our own image.

And just as Jesus’ baptism was a commission for his own saving work as God’s Messiah, so our baptism is our commission to pattern our lives after Jesus. As we have seen, our baptism is a visible sign that we have been included in the household of God’s forgiven people. But we should never get careless about our membership because we all know people who have been baptized but who act like they’ve never even heard of Jesus. No, taking our cue from Paul’s teaching about baptism, that in our baptism we die and rise with Christ, we are reminded that our baptism is a call to repentance and humility so that we are open to God’s healing love that is available to us in the power of the Spirit. Our baptism reminds us that we are healed only by the grace of God, not our own efforts. Yes, we have to put to death our sinful nature and that is hard work, even with the Spirit’s help. But we do that not to get our ticket punched but rather in response to God’s gracious call to us to have life in our Lord Jesus.

But if we look at our baptism and make it only about ourselves we have already strayed from the light of God’s love in Jesus back into our own darkness because we are healed and saved so that God can use us to proclaim God’s love in Jesus to the nations, and there are two primary lessons our readings teach us about how to do this. First, as Matthew clearly implies, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and God affirmed Jesus to be his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, this fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s Messiah would do his saving work gently so that bruised reeds are not broken and dimly burning wicks are not extinguished. In other words, the Lord will not beat us over the head and force us into a relationship with him because to do so means that God does not respect our human dignity, fallen and distorted as it is, nor would that allow us to have a real relationship with God. True love always respects the beloved and honors decisions of the beloved, even when those decisions lead to destruction. We are to do likewise, proclaiming the gospel to others gently and humbly. Doing business this way, of course, is not the way of the world. We are all about power and control in our relationships so that we often try to force our agendas onto others, but this is not how we are called to be followers of Jesus. Are we listening and obeying, St. Augustine’s?

This, in turn, reminds us secondly that if we are to fulfill our baptismal call to proclaim the Good News of God’s rescue plan in and through Jesus, we must also be willing to speak the truth about him honestly, and here we can take a lesson from our NT reading. Notice that Peter did not change his story about Jesus out of fear that he might offend his Roman audience. He still told them essentially that salvation comes from the Jews, but that he now understood God’s salvation in Jesus was offered to one and all, not just to Jews alone. This is important for us to understand because we live in a culture that increasingly believes there is no transcendent truth, that truth is in the eye of the beholder. But this is not the message of our baptism. Neither is it the message of the whole of Scripture and we dare not fail to proclaim it in word and deed. We need to keep this in mind especially when we are tempted to modify God’s truth in an effort to reach out to folks with their misguided notions of what constitutes truth and real love. Yes, there will be those who mock us when tell them about God’s rescue plan in Jesus with its central proclamation of our Lord’s death and resurrection and its call to repentance. But the story of Cornelius reminds us that there is also power in proclaiming the gospel and that there will always be those who respond to it. This is echoed in texts like Isaiah’s when he proclaims that God’s purposes will be accomplished according to his word because God is the God who created all things and gives life and spirit to all people. If we really believe this, and if we are really being transformed into the image of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, we will not hesitate or be embarrassed to proclaim the gospel to a hostile world. It is the only loving thing to do. Are you ready for this challenge? Your answer will tell you a lot about your relationship with Jesus.

In a few moments we will invite you to come and renew your baptismal vows. As you do so, reflect on these things, on God’s great love for you in Jesus and how his baptism signaled the beginning of that work. Remember that you have been rescued from evil, sin, and death and how your baptism signifies that you have died and risen with Christ so that you can become like him in the power of his Spirit. As you think on these things, rejoice and give thanks, and then splash enthusiastically in the baptismal waters as a manifestation of that thanks. You can do so, of course, because we know that in our Lord’s baptism and ours, we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be praise, honor, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Epiphany of Our Lord (3)

Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh-endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery for ever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became one of us? Faith alone grasps these mysteries.

—Maximus the Confessor, Five Hundred Chapters 1, 8-13

The Epiphany of Our Lord (2)

Matthew 2:1-12

Let us now observe how glorious was the dignity that attended the King after his birth, after the magi in their journey remained obedient to the star. For immediately the magi fell to their knees and adored the one born as Lord. There in his very cradle they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the body he assumed was discerned, but the glory of his divinity was now made manifest. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of this divine honor! The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of the flesh on our behalf. The Son of God, who is God of the universe, is born a human being in the flesh. He permits himself to be placed in a manger, and the heavens are within the manger. He is kept in a cradle, a cradle the world cannot hold. He is heard in the voice of a crying infant. This is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion. Thus he is the One, the God of glory and the Lord of majesty, whom as a tiny infant the magi would recognize. It is he who while a child was truly God and King eternal. To him Isaiah pointed, saying, “For a boy has been born to you; a son has been given to you, a son whose empire has been forged on his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).

—Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 5.1

The Epiphany of Our Lord

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

—Matthew 2:1-12 (TNIV)

In this way marvel was linked to marvel: the magi were worshiping, the star was going before them. All this is enough to captivate a heart made of stone. If it had been only the wise men or only the prophets or only the angels who had said these things, they might have been disbelieved. But now with all this confluence of varied evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped.

Moreover, the star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled. He who was born was divine. They recognized this in their worship.

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7.4