the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: the ancient rule/following the rule


John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival
were some Greeks. They came to Philip,
who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him,
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “The hour has come
for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life
in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.
Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
Now is the judgement of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.

I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word (from Psalm 119).

Our story takes place soon after Jesus left Bethany—
a small community some two miles outside Jerusalem,
where he raised Lazarus from the dead—
where Mary, Lazarus’ sister anointed him with nard,
which he interpreted as preparation for his burial—
right after his entry into Jerusalem.
In fact, in John’s gospel,
Lazarus is the reason offered for all the crowds showing up
to see Jesus enter the city.
And the authorities were saying to each other,
“Look, the whole world has gone after him” (John 12: 19).

Now among those who went up to worship
at the Passover festival were some Greeks.
This, right after the religious authorities were worrying
about the whole world going after him!

Presumably God-fearers, those who valued Judaism
without wanting to be proselytes, they came to Philip,
who was from Bethsaida in Galilee—
so a man with a Greek name from a Gentile friendly area,
and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
We wish to see Jesus.”
Maybe they were interested in following Jesus
in seeing what he had to show them.
Maybe they were interested in discipleship.
“We wish to see Jesus.”

Philip’s the disciple who, when called as a disciple,
went to Nathanael and said, “Come see this Jesus” (John 1:46).
Philip went and told Andrew,
who was one of the two disciples,
who following Jesus, queried Jesus,
and to whom Jesus said,
“Come and see” (John 1:37-39).

Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
“There are some Greeks, who want to see you.”
This, less indicative of some chain of command,
than a network of conversation, experience and relationships—
except, we notice, they didn’t just bring the Greeks with them.
That would have seemed natural,
“You want to see Jesus? Come on.”
So there would seem to be some question here—
some reservation—some doubt—
some sense of possible impropriety, maybe?
What are the right rules here?
“This seems like the right thing, but I want to make sure.”
“Yeah, me too. Let’s go ask Jesus.”
“Hey, Jesus, there are some Greeks here who want to see you.”
And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come
for the Son of Man to be glorified.
That’s his response to being told some Greeks want to see him.

So, the hour has come?
At Cana, Jesus said to Mary,
“My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4).
After teaching at the temple at the festival of booths,
there were those in Jerusalem who sought to arrest him,
but no one laid hands on him,
because his hour had not yet come (John 7:30).
Again, after confronting the authorities seeking to stone
the woman caught in adultery,
and teaching in the treasury of the temple,
no one arrested him because his hour had not yet come (John 8:20).
Now—now the hour has come?

There is a tension here between hour understood
as a time frame and the hour as a particular time.
The sentence, in the Greek, is in the perfect tense:
“The hour has come and stays with us”
(Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971] 593),
which would seem to indicate a specific, particular time—
now that the Greeks wanted to see him.

Everything I read indicates this hour refers to Jesus’ death,
but if so, the writer’s off in terms of a specific time
by a matter not just of a few minutes or hours,
but by up to as much as five days!
I’m noticing that; I’m wondering about it.

And the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
The verb “glorified” goes back to a root, doxa,
associated through the New Testament with the being of God.
It’s one of the two Greek words from which we get our word “doxology”
(the other being logos).
The verb, “to be glorified” then, has to do with participating
in the very being of God
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 232-255).

In the synoptic gospels “the application of the word [doxa]
to the incarnate Jesus is strictly limited” (Kittel, 248)
to the risen Jesus and, in Luke,
to the birth and transfiguration accounts.
John, making a theological point,
uses it of Jesus during his ministry (Kittel, 249.)

So there’s something powerfully significant about this moment.
And Jesus moves forthwith into story and parable:
Very truly, I tell you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

And again, there must be something about the hour at hand
that has to do with this observation—
something about Jesus’ glorification
that has to do with this observation and this particular time.
For Greeks and disciples, this is what there is to see.

And it has something to do with bearing fruit—
a common theme in the gospels and in Jesus’ stories and teachings—
often bearing fruit that are works of righteousness,
but here, also, bearing fruit that is community—
and community that includes the excluded.

And all somehow tied to Jesus’ death and the cross?
It is the death and resurrection, most say,
that create the community of faith.
And I’m not saying that’s not the case, but as we’ve seen,
we can’t dismiss the immediate circumstances either.
There is a particular story unfolding here,
and it’s not the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

The hour has come here and now
in which outsiders want to see Jesus—
in which we see the desire of those excluded to be included—
in an appeal that transcends ethnicity and language,
country of origin and religion—
in a radically, inclusive and graceful vision of community
because of who he was—because of how he lived—
because of what he said and the way he said it.
All before he died.

And while a seed dying works alright as a metaphor—
to point to the death of Jesus,
I would point out that anyone close to nature
(which Jesus was—look at all the agricultural stories he told)—
anyone familiar with agriculture would know a seed doesn’t die.
It changes. Its outer shell is shattered—its boundaries extended.
It grows beyond itself and becomes a tree.

Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.

Again, scholars point our text to Jesus’ death. Sure.
But why not also to the implicit question:
are you happy with and invested in the way things are?
Last week, we were talking about the present tense
of eternal life—
how that related to knowing God and Jesus—
how the presence of God with us in time
opens up that time into eternity—
literally the life of the age to come.
So, are you living into the life of our age,
or the life of the age to come?

Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Now we’re not to follow Jesus to death,
and that isn’t where Jesus is—at this hour.
To suggest we’re to follow Jesus to a cross is not just silly.
That’s sick.
We are to follow Jesus in a way of life
that is astonishingly welcoming. That’s where Jesus is at this hour—
always willing to break the rules that are wrong.
Some Greeks want to see you at this Passover celebration.
We’re to follow Jesus into the grace that challenges the powers that be
enough that we risk our lives—our reputations—our jobs.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—
“Father, save me from this hour”?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
This is John’s version of Gethsemane, right?
But here in the immediate context of inclusion
and the costs of including.

And while you might could point to an apparent distance
created by having it be a prayer Jesus considered
instead of one he prayed,
that is doing the text a disservice.

In Johannine theology—Johannine Christology,
the cross was not anything anyone did to Jesus.
It was chosen by Jesus.
He was not sacrificed. He gave himself.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard—
that there weren’t very real temptations.
This is not what I would choose,
if it were up to me to do the choosing.
But I have chosen God.
And so, my choices are made.
Sure it would be easier just to play nice
within the cultural and religious expectations,
rather than riling everyone up
by calling so much into question—
by valuing people—all people over accepted rules
of who’s in and who’s out.
But there are consequences to crossing boundaries—
to inviting in to the party those who’ve been left out—
to rearranging the borders that kept them out—
and breaking down the walls
and changing your identity as so apparently homogenous.
There’s a risk. Do you accept the cost?

Jesus goes on, “Father, glorify your name.”
Now that’s struck me as a bit strange as I thought about it.
For something to be glorified
is for that something to participate in the being of God,
but here the prayer is “God, glorify your name,”
which is a way of saying, “God glorify yourself.”
“God let yourself participate in your being.”
Which makes no sense—
unless God’s name can go unrecognized—as truly God—
unless it can exist unknown—anonymously.
Glorify your name in this hour—in these circumstances.
And sure, it works to emphasize the unexpected
truth of God manifest in Jesus’ commitment
unto an ignominious, painful death,
but why not in this immediate, unexpected circumstance
of risking inclusion and welcome?

Then a voice came from heaven,
“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
First, there’s this separation of time
into what has been done/accomplished and what is yet to be.
I have glorified it, and I will again.
Something has already happened in keeping with the being of God,
and there’s more to come.

So this is either a post Easter comment—
resurrection has happened, and judgment day is coming—
the second coming is coming,
or, as the story is unfolding, something has already happened
in this appearance and inclusion of the Greeks,
and there is yet more to come—
maybe pointing to the death and resurrection—
or to the ongoing inclusion of the community of faith.

Second, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”
reads our translation, but there’s no “it” in Greek.
It’s assumed.
The Greek actually reads “I have glorified and I will glorify again.”
And if there is no designated object, then the object is open—
to what? The unexpected … unrecognized.

There’s another kind of a kick here
that we’re going to consider before we try and put it all together.
The word doxa, in all non-biblical Greek,
coming from the verb “to think” or “to count,”
means either the opinion I have—what I think,
or the opinion others have of me—what they think.
It can be translated “expectation,”
and it’s typically favorable—to hold in esteem (Kittel, 234-5).
So in addition to the root from which we get “doxology,”
it’s also the root from which we get our word “paradox”—
contrary to expectation/thought/appearance.

The word doxa transitions from what people think or count as significant
to the being of God through the translation of an OT Hebrew word
in the Septuagint, meaning the honor or power of God
(Kittel, 238-245).

We all clear here?
A verb meaning “to think” or “to count”
spawned a word meaning “what I think or am thought of”—
usually positively, that came to be used in the Greek version
of the Hebrew Bible to translate the “honor” or “power” of God,
subsequently becoming a New Testament word
representing the very being of God.

Now a quick side note: the Greek of the gospel of John
is deceptively simple—elegantly so.
In its straightforward beauty, scholars point
to the influence of both Greek philosophy and Greek literature.
They by no means limit influences on the gospel to Greek ones,
but they certainly include them.
And surely the kind of thinker and writer we come to know in this gospel,
would have known the different meanings of doxa,
and would have played with them—intentionally.

This past week, I came across a presidential quote
that I very much appreciated—
a tweet-able comment well within the 140 character limit.
President John F. Kennedy said,
“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion
without the discomfort of thought.”

How much of our understanding of the Bible—
how much of our theology—
how much of the way we understand our faith,
is comforting opinion
for which we have assumed there was sufficient thought?
Or for which we thought (or assumed),
once thought through, always thought through?
Either way, of course, relegating any discomfort
with Bible study, theology, or our faith
to the distant past.

Here’s to reclaiming the discomfort of really working it through,
to hopefully achieve a comfort with integrity.

The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.
Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
It’s as if the crowds knew there had been an epiphany—
these are signs—but weren’t clear on who and what was revealed.

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
Now is the judgment of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”

Again, some separation in time and accomplishment.
Now is the judgment, and when I am lifted up (not now—later),
I will draw up all people.
All people.
All people.

He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
There can be no doubt that this story is interpreted
through the death and resurrection of Jesus,
but there can also be no doubt that that is,
as one scholar points out,
looking at it with the eyes of faith—
the eyes of a believer (Kittel, 249).
To glorify doxa you have to know what counts doxa.
To see glorification (participation in the being of God),
is dependent on your perspective—what you think—
what counts for you—on what you expect to see.
But the being of God is always there to be seen
in those unexpected ways and places.

I was telling someone recently about how I alternate
between dismay, anger, and embarrassment, on the one hand,
and surprise, wonder, and joy on the other,
that folk music writers and singers
seem to be more consistently honest with people than preachers.
I have glorified and will glorify again.

Some of you may remember my list of Marvel movies
that I suggested, in their storytelling,
were moving closer to the truth of God
even as churches seem to be moving away from it
(and that was before Black Panther came out!).
I have glorified and will glorify again.

There was another thing I saw on-line in the past few weeks.
Someone observed
how in a certain kind of science fiction or fantasy story,
the time traveler is always warned before going back in time
not to make the slightest change—the most insignificant seeming change,
because of the potential for profound effects on the future.
This warning was then juxtaposed with our tendency
to dismiss the small seemingly insignificant things we can do—
every act of kindness—every act of decency—every act of respect—
every act of fairness—every act of justice—every act of grace.
I have glorified and will glorify again.

God is always at work outside the boundaries
within which people think God works—
which some would presume contain
God’s grace—God’s work—God’s love.
Because for John, what you see of God in the world
will change what you think—will change what counts—
will change where you look to see God.
Because it’s not about affirming who we are,
but who we are becoming—
as we welcome and include—
as we grow into an identity (as a tree)
we couldn’t have imagined (as a seed).

So if it makes you nervous—
this grace of God outside the boundaries
you thought defined you—in which you are comfortable—
including people who don’t look like you
(if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who don’t sound like you—who speak another language
(if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who don’t identify themselves as you do—
by gender or sexuality (if that makes you uncomfortable)—
by religion (if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who push your boundaries and make you feel uncomfortable,
then choose the discomfort of celebrating
changing your opinion of what it means to participate
in the ever surprising grace of God!

On this fifth Sunday of Lent,
I confess to you I heard Jesus this past week.
This is what I heard him saying:
“If you’ve been welcomed and included
then get beyond needing that constantly affirmed,
and get to welcoming and including
those who don’t expect it.
I am so much less concerned with who you think you are
than with who you don’t know you can be.
And I will always be where you least expect me.
Count on it.”


the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: the basic rule?


John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already,
because they have not believed
in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world,
and people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed.
But those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen
that their deeds have been done in God.’

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship (from Psalm 107)
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good;
for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,

from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and God saved them from their distress;

God sent out the word of God and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love,
for wonderful works to humankind.
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Pastoral Prayer
Hear now our Confession of Sin:
We too much divide into us and them.
In our politics and culture, yes,
but also as followers of God in the way of Jesus.

Would you pray with me?

Our God,
Into the smallness of so much of our day-to-day,
breathe your love and grace.
Expand our minds and hearts
that we might remember,
when we’re full of you,
what’s small is big,
what’s last is first,
what’s unnoticed is valued,
what’s ignored is treasured,
what’s them is us,
what’s us is them,
and what we thought was small and day-to-day
turns out to be the vast eternity of Immanuel—
Thanks be to you,
in Jesus’ name,

And here, our Words of Assurance:
God so loves the world … everything and everyone in it,
and so, grace is the deepest truth.

Let’s start with some context for our text
from John’s gospel this morning.
It’s taken from a longer conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus,
the Pharisee, who visited Jesus in the night
to ask about some of his teachings.

As the story is known and told,
Jesus told Nicodemus about the need to be born again.
That’s the way I learned it.
That’s the language of my faith tradition.
It created a lot of stress for me, growing up.
You have to be born again.
Oh, I didn’t struggle conceptually, like Nicodemus,
with what exactly being born again means.
I got that that was symbolic.
But I struggled with what seemed required in order to be born again—
the intellectual consent to certain affirmations:
that Jesus died for my sins, that Jesus was raised from the dead,
that believing these affirmations assures my eternal salvation.

The Greek is actually literally you must be born from above (John 3:3),
not again—
be born from water and Spirit (John 3:5)—
which goes back to creation imagery, right?—
the Spirit/wind hovering over the waters of chaos and turmoil.

“Are you a teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” asks Jesus.
I mean, this is what Immanuel means, isn’t it? always?
The restless energy of creation hovering over every chaos—
including the chaos of the status quo we take for granted—
including the chaos of our own rituals and traditions.
And commitment to Immanuel requires us
to persistently hold even reality accountable to the vision and call of God.

Jesus goes on, “We speak of what we know
and testify to what we have seen,
yet you do not receive our testimony.”
Now that is an interesting “we”!
We speak of what we know. Who is that?
Jesus and John the Baptist and the disciples?
Is it a shout out to the early church
which wouldn’t have been a part of the story unfolding,
but the context in which the story was told?

And the “y’all” when Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus
(because that’s a plural pronoun too),
indicates this conversation is bigger than both its participants.
There are those of us who have seen Immanuel—
God with us—amidst us, and then, there’s all y’all who have not.

Literally—grammatically, this testimony
(we testify to what we have seen)—it’s not about Jesus,
because Jesus is included in the “we”.
Notice that! Wonder about that!
Because wondering’s good for you.
The conversation is always bigger than the ways we talk about it.

Again, Jesus goes on, “No one has ascended into heaven
except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
That’s pretty exclusive—
especially since we started with a plural pronoun.
We speak of what we know.
And he was just talking about the need to be born from above, right?
And if you’re born from above, wouldn’t that have something to do
at least with descending?

And let’s not forget, he was talking to a Pharisee!
someone who knew the sacred stories of their shared tradition.
No one has ascended into heaven? What about Elijah?
In fact, let me read to you 2 Kings 2:
“As they continued walking and talking (this was Elijah and Elisha),
a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them,
and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Enoch and Moses, as the stories are told.
Jacob’s ladder is an image of beings
ascending and descending from heaven to earth.

So at a couple of different levels, Jesus was just flat out wrong.
At another level though, what he says makes us wonder
what is it about Jesus that’s different?
In this gospel in particular, ascending and descending
have more to do with naming the distinctiveness of Jesus
than a distinction—a separation between heaven and earth.
Somehow, in Jesus, there is a unique connection between heaven and earth.
Jesus is a thin place made flesh.

Then, having dismissed several Old Testament stories,
John offers us another Old Testament reference:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness—
so, an Exodus reference, more specifically,
from the book of Numbers, recounting a story of the early days
in the wilderness wandering. You may know it.
It was one of those times the people spoke against God and Moses—
murmuring—grumbling, and God sent poisonous snakes among them,
which bit the people so that many died.
this prompted repentance
(or generated fear expressed as repentance, you decide):
“We have sinned against God and you,
pray to God to take these things away.”
Whereupon God had Moses make a poisonous snake
and set it on a pole and whenever a serpent bit someone
that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Numbers 21:4-9).

It’s a strange passage.
From the initial complaint:
“There is no food and we hate this miserable food!”
Let that sink in!
Then we have an apparently petty God
responding to an admittedly immature people—
a people who followed God into the wilderness—
for whom God has provided,
who are just getting tired of it.
Then we have Moses making a poisonous snake—
that’s what it says first.
And we assume that means crafting the image of one
(which is what it says the second time),
but remember his staff turned into one—twice (Exodus 4:3; 7:10).

And the snakes remained!
The people prayed for God to take these things away.
Instead, amidst poisonous snakes that remained, an antidote of sorts was given.
Weirdly, it’s an image of what caused the problem that’s the solution.
And snake venom is part of the antidote to snake bite.

So we have a story of a people being saved—
being made well—being made whole
in the face of an ongoing dis-ease—a persistent threat.
No once saved, always saved.
Not when there are poisonous snakes around.

There is another scriptural reference to the snake lifted up,
and in 2 Kings, we read about Hezekiah, who
“did what was right in the sight of the Lord
just as his ancestor David had done.
He removed the high places, broke down the pillars,
and cut down the sacred pole.
He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made,
for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it;
it was called Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:3-4)—
which means a brazen thing—
which no longer means made of brass, but that is its etymology!
So it is what it used to mean (made of brass),
and also what it came to mean, brazen,
boldly and without shame—
given more power and authority than it deserved.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
John writes, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
and whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Let me start with the last line there.
Whoever believes in him may have eternal life,
and first, let’s consider eternal life.
“The Greek words translated into English as eternal life
mean ‘the life of the age to come.’ ”
(Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian [New York: HarperCollins, 2001] 163)—
the truth of God now.
“ ‘Eternal’ does not mean mere endless duration of human existence,
but is a way of describing life
as lived in the unending presence of God”
(Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 552).
Both “judgement and eternal life as present tense
are at the theological heart of this gospel” (O’Day, 553).
And in the farewell discourse, Jesus will say
“This is eternal life, that they may know you,
the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Note the present tense!
Eternal life is knowing God now
and knowing that relationship is all and all.

Second, consider the verb “to believe.”
Marcus Borg, in his wonderful book Speaking Christian
suggest the etymology of the verb goes back to being loved—
and is more a matter of believing in than in believing that (Borg, 118).
He points out that “[e]ven the two most frequently heard Christian creeds,
the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding.
They both being with the Latin word credo,
most commonly translated into English as ‘I believe.’
But the Latin roots of credo mean ‘I give my heart to.’ …
Moreover, [he goes on,] believing ‘as believing the right things’ does not
intrinsically lead to a changed life.
It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs,
and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned,
angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent….
But Christianity is not about ‘right beliefs.’ It is about a change of heart.”

And yet, in our tradition, predominantly,
salvation and eternal life and faith and Christianity—
are all taken to mean
you have affirmed the crucifixion and the bodily resurrection
as God’s plan for your salvation.

Our friend, Don Flowers, though, had classes with James Fowler,
who wrote the seminal book, Stages of Faith.
Don remembers Dr. Fowler, on several occasions,
speaking of faith as “where you rest your soul.”
I do not rest my soul in propositions,
but in trusted relationship.

As Nehushtan is lifted up, so too, must Jesus be—
on a pole—on a cross—
in order to give life.
As image of the very thing that created the problem?
Uhhh. No?
As a symbol invested inappropriately with authority and power
needing to be destroyed?
Uhhh. No?

My impression of the writer of John is
of someone who certainly would have known the context of an allusion made,
not someone just thumbing through Old Testament imagery.
“Oh, look! Something being lifted up to save people.
I can use that.”

There are, of course, different ways the cross can be understood.
Traditionally, it’s presented as what Jesus suffered for us,
in his commitment to God, that is salvific, for us.
But there is also a scriptural tradition of the cross as expectation of us.

I find I am more often a both/and kind of person,
instead of an either/or.
So I do believe, absolutely,
that the grace of God manifest in Jesus’ commitment unto death
is, in truth, what saves us,
but that it also sets the level of expectation
for what a life lived following God in the way of Jesus can be.
And when we make the cross all about Jesus and not about us,
we make our offering to it and create a symbol better destroyed.

Hear these words by the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Little does contemporary religion ask of [men and women].
It is ready to offer comfort; it has not courage to challenge.
It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols,
to shatter callousness. The trouble is that religion has become ‘religion’—
institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event.
Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain.
Religion has achieved respectability by the grace of society ….”
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy
for the eclipse of religion in modern society.
It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.
Religion declined not because it was refuted,
but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
When faith is completely replaced by creed,
worship by discipline, love by habit;
when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past;
when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain;
when religion speaks only in the name of authority
rather than with the voice of compassion,
its message becomes meaningless”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom
[London: Macmillan, 1963] 3).

Which brings us to,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.

One of our best known
and most beloved (believed?)
and … misunderstood? texts.

Again, let’s start with the last part.
Notice that the qualification is those who believe in him—
not in his death—not in his resurrection—in him—
in who he was not in what happened to him.
Why would we make the story smaller than it is?
Other, of course, than to make things easier for us—
to require less of us.

So when God gave Jesus in love,
(for the world may so reject God,
but God will always love the world)—
when God gave Jesus in love,
it was not to die.
God did not give Jesus to be known only,
or mainly,
for one part of the story.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Last week, I suggested we ponder Jesus not having come to save us,
but to love the world.
And if the church focused more on loving than saving,
more would be saved.

Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already,
because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Remember Nehushtan, who was the image of the problem?
And we wondered how Jesus could possibly create the problem he saves.
What if Jesus coming creates a problem for us—
the problem of a life lived in the image of God.

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world,
and people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed.

So there’s something profoundly important
about exposure and hiddenness.

I have wondered before
if one part of growing up consists of the accumulating of secrets held.
That’s less a result of reflection,
than observation—
of two girls who used to tell us everything—
share everything,
but who now have secrets.
And some of that is good—normal—
part of maturing.
But some of it is isolating.
And the more of your life you feel like you have to keep secret,
the more you absolutely need to consider why.

But those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Matthew and Luke both put it this way:
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,
and nothing secret that will not become known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed from the housetops
(Matthew 10:26-27; Luke 12:2-3).

It’s good advice.
It’s good advice online.
It’s good advice for life.
Don’t be one way with someone—anyone—or alone,
that you won’t be proud of with those you love most.

Please hear this not as threat of punishment,
but as warning of consequence—
advice for a better, richer, more abundant life.

And remember, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus,
who came to see him under the cover of darkness!
Amidst the deep symbolism of John,
we sometimes risk losing the obvious, concrete meaning.
“Do you value what I say—who I am,
enough to come talk to me in daylight,
when others can see?”

Nicodemus, interestingly, appears three times in the gospel of John!
This conversation marks the first time.
Second, we will find him advocating for Jesus before the Sanhedrin,
reminding them that someone must be heard before being judged (John 7:50-51).
Finally, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings embalming spices
and helps Simon of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42).
In the arc of their relationship and conversation,
Nicodemus comes out of the darkness into the light.

There is a duality to John’s gospel and thought—
there is an either/or—that frustrates this both/and person—
challenges me—
reminds me that while I believe (ha!)
that life is both/and,
there is an either/or truth.
Jesus is the crux of our living—
the choice we face and make one way or the other.
Set before you, life and death.

We’ve talked before about the two wolves
wrestling for your soul.
One that stands for everything good,
one that stands for everything bad.
How’s that for dualistic?!
“Which one wins?” asks the disciple.
Responds the master, “The one you feed.”

It probably won’t come as a shock to you
on this fourth Sunday of Lent,
that I heard Jesus this past week.
And this is what I heard him say:
“Rest in the grace of God’s eternal love.
Let that transform your living and being.
Do not live in fear. Do not live out of anger.
Remember always that the love that washes over you—
baptizes you,
washes over every other person too,
and their stories, like yours,
are intertwined with the story—
the presence, the truth, and the love of God.”

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: remembering/recovering the rules


John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near,
and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep,
and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables.
Making a whip of cords,
he drove all of them out of the temple,
both the sheep and the cattle.
He also poured out the coins of the money-changers
and overturned their tables.
He told those who were selling the doves,
“Take these things out of here!
Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”
His disciples remembered that it was written,
“Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple,
and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews then said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and will you raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
After he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this;
and they believed the scripture
and the word that Jesus had spoken.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship (from Psalm 19)
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world….
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

I’m reminding you not just that we’re in John this week—John’s gospel,
but also that we’ve been in Mark.
And this story, in John,
is set at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
near the beginning of the gospel (chapter 2 of 21).
In the synoptic gospels, it’s set at the end of Jesus’ ministry
at the beginning of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem
(in Mark, the story’s in the 11th chapter of 16).

That should be problematic
in terms of the chronological and the literary context.
I mean it matters, right,
it makes a difference if something happens near the beginning
or near the end of a story.

But we are trying to think less of problems,
than of things to notice—
of invitations to wonder.

So going in, I want us to consider this:
a/ that this temple story happened
(it’s one of the few stories that’s in all four gospels);
and b/ that its chronology (when it actually happened in the bigger story),
is less important than why it might be placed at different times.
We’re assuming, let’s name it,
that the writers are making a point—
a point so important, they think it’s more important
than getting the timing exactly right.

For John, who has Jesus known as the Christ from the beginning,
identified with the authority and power of God from the beginning—
for John, what is the beginning of the end in the synoptics—
what we have come to know of Jesus,
is the end of the beginning—what we have known about Jesus
from the beginning.

We move to another consideration
in the chronological and liturgical contexts:
it’s Passover, we’re told.
One of the three great annual festivals of the faith,
Passover remembered and celebrated the Exodus—
that foundational story of identity and heritage
in the Jewish faith tradition.
So Jesus joined thousands of pilgrims
going up to Jerusalem—
up to the city of God—
to the Temple mount in the city of God—
the holiest site in the Jewish faith—the seat of God,
where Jesus finds sheep and oxen—
smells them—hears them—
where he finds doves—caged,
and money changers—
the noise of hustle and bustle.

Now these sheep, oxen, doves—
the moneychangers, they were all necessary for the system—
for the religion—for the rituals
“Laws requiring that only unblemished animals
be used for sacrifices meant that most pilgrims
purchased the animals for sacrifice after they arrived in Jerusalem.
The prohibition of coins bearing human images
meant there was also an active trade in currency”
(R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1998] 132).
And it’s not like they set up shop in the Holy of Holies.
They were in one of the outer courtyards—
the court of the Gentiles.

The temple was set up in a way
that you got progressively more holy the deeper you went in.
The Court of the Gentiles around the outside,
then the Women’s Court, the Court of Israel,
the Priest’s Court and the Holy of Holies.

Jesus took the time, we read, to find cords
to braid together into a whip
with which he drove all of them out of the temple—
both the sheep and the cattle.
It’s not particularly violent imagery.
Angry, maybe, but not violent.
He braided together something with which to swat large animals
to get them moving
and he drives them all out of the court—off the temple mount.

Now it’s not everybody he drives out.
Because he then addresses those selling the doves,
“Take these things out of here!”
The verb, interestingly enough, translated “take—take out”
is literally raise/elevate/take up/lift up.
Remember, we’re talking birds here, friends.
Let them fly.
Set them free.

Having chased out the livestock and set the birds free,
Jesus poured out the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables, saying
(one would imagine shouting).
“Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”
The Greek from which we get the word market-place
contains the root from which we get our word “emporium!”

The term “my Father’s house” might better be translated “my Father’s home”—
the Greek word can be translated both ways,
and the word is repeated—
though we don’t see that in our translation.
“Stop making of the house or home of God
a house or home of the emporium.”

So there is an affirmation here maybe undermining a progression
of holiness from less to more.
There is an indignation
that the Court of Gentiles would be deemed acceptable
for the animals and the money.
But why stop there?

I’ll be honest with you,
most scholars agree in rejecting
a rejection of the sacrificial system here.
But it’s what I see.

The Greek word for house or home, oikon.
It’s where we get the word economy—
based on the household budget.

Stop making of the economy of God and grace,
an economy of money and things.
Stop making grace a commodity.
Stop making forgiveness something to earn or buy.
Stop making love something killing affirms.
Stop this obscene economy of relationship.

Over the last few weeks,
looking at different texts,
we’ve been noting how the preceding story
is often significant—meaningful—helpful—
in better understanding the story that follows.
And the story before our story in the gospel of John
is the wedding at Cana—
which most immediately identify with the miracle
of Jesus turning water to wine.
But do you remember, what Jesus had the water poured into?
Six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification.
Stop making ritual more important
than the celebration of relationship—of love.
Stop pretending ritual makes relationship
instead of being one vehicle for celebrating it.

His disciples remembered that it was written,
“Zeal for your house will consume me.”

But it’s not the house, is it?
It’s who’s at home here.
And where on earth is God not at home?
It’s the love and grace and truth that live here—
and everywhere—
that can’t be bought—earned—
can’t be manipulated.

Now that’s way too simplistic a condemnation
of the Jewish sacrificial system.
But it’s the risk of the Jewish sacrificial system.
It is what it can turn into.

The Jews then said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Okay. First. Sign?
It’s often understood as authority.
What authority do you have to do this?
But it’s the same word as in Cana—
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,
and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him (John 2:11).

So, “What sign can I show you for doing what?”
I imagine Jesus asking.
“For driving the money changers out—
the sacrificial animals?
Or for rejecting grace on the market?
A sign? You want a sign?
An indicator? A pointer?
Something that explains what I’m doing?
Why I’m doing this?
Sure. I’ll give you a sign.”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple,
and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews then said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and will you raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

There are two levels of understanding operating here.
We could call the first one the literal level:
destroy this building—this Temple building.
It’s the immediate—the obvious understanding.
Then the narrator introduces this other level.
But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.
Destroy it, and in three days, I will raise it up.

Here again, remember,
it’s the odd truth that this story is written
with knowledge of the crucifixion and the resurrection,
which in the story haven’t happened yet—
and in John, as opposed to the synoptics,
isn’t right about to happen either.
So why would the Jews be expected to understand?
They wouldn’t.
They’re not.
Even the disciples didn’t get it.
We read: After he was raised from the dead
his disciples remembered that he had said this.
Years later.

So there is truth we will only be able to see later
in retrospect.
Wonder about these things.
Think about what you notice.

And it’s at this point in the story, there’s a progression we can point to
we have no idea happens in our translation.
The first two references to what is translated “temple” in our translation,
are from a word meaning sacred space or sanctuary.
It’s the Greek word iero.
It’s not commonly used in either the Septuagint,
the Greek translation of the Old Testament, or in the New Testament.
Maybe because it’s a word that comes from pagan traditions.
It’s associated with any sacred space—like a sacred grove or cave.
As such, it would encompass the whole temple mount—
including the outer courts and the Court of the Gentiles
where the livestock and the money changers would have been set up
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume III
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965] 221ff).

Then there are two uses of the word “house”
referring to the temple
and one referring to the way of the world—
the home of the emporium.
We mentioned that one already, oikon.
which when coupled with “of God”
does specifically mean the temple in Jerusalem
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume V
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967] 119ff).

There are then three uses of the word
naon, translated “temple”
which to Jesus means his body
and which to the Jews means the temple structure.
This one’s most common in the New Testament
and is used by Christian writers,
who begin thinking in terms of a spiritual temple
most familiarly, Do you not know that you are God’s temple
and that God’s spirit dwells in you?
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume IV
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967] 880ff;
1 Corinthians 3:16; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 11 Corinthians 6:16)

Several things struck me about this.
I play with such things in my mind—
wonder about them.
Wondering’s good for you—
I keep telling myself!

It struck me that there are three different words
used in this story for the temple.
Two of the three words are used three times each (oikon and naon),
and in each case used twice in conjunction with one understanding
and used once to mean something different:
house of God twice, house of emporium once,
naon referring to Jesus’ body twice, referring to the temple building once.

Now, the pagan word, iero, is the only one not used three times—
used twice …
until you consider that in Greek,
those are the first letters of the word Jerusalem!
So, also, used twice meaning one thing, the temple,
and once, all of Jerusalem.

All three words are used three times
with two identical meanings and one outlying one.


And together they blur the lines.
And I love that too!
The meaning and location of the holy and scared
can be shrunk and/or it can be expanded—
from all of Jerusalem to the temple mount
through the courts of the temple to the holy of holies.
A space can embrace God,
or simply constitute a place in which to barter.
And if you shrink the holy down to one person,
you have expanded its potential to its fullest.
And that’s Jesus, yes.
But it’s also you. And me.

And none of this can be completely understood,
and there’s always misunderstanding.
And this is not just fascinating,
but important!

After he was raised from the dead,
(that’s the third use of that verb “raised,” by the way!)
his disciples remembered that he had said this;
and they believed the scripture
and the word that Jesus had spoken.

They believed the ancient sacred texts and the new word—
which is maybe more familiar in the formula:
“You have heard it said, but I say to you.”

Of course, the “word” Jesus had spoken is the logos, in Greek,
and we just read that the logos became flesh.
And the word is more than just what is spoken.
It is lived.
It is the holy made manifest in one person—one life.
Jesus’? Yes.
What about yours? Mine?

All of which leads me to wonder,
what constitutes our Passover—
a fundamental story of our tradition
that has come to be celebrated
in a way that undermines the story itself—
that changes the way the story is told and understood
and then locks the distortion in place?

We sang the hymn, “Grace Greater than Our Sin,”
earlier in our worship.
I remember that hymn from growing up—
from Sunday night church—
from hymn sings.
It was one of the fun ones to sing.
And it has a chorus of astounding truth.
But what else are we singing?
“Dark is the stain that we cannot hide;
What can we do to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today”
(Julia H. Johnston, “Grace Greater than Our Sin”).

What if all we’ve done is change the currency
and not the economy?
Maybe we still need to hear Jesus saying,
“Stop making forgiveness something to earn or buy.
Stop making love something killing affirms.
Stop this obscene economy of relationship.”

A quote from Richard Rohr popped up
on my Facebook feed this past week.
I’ve tried to track down the book it’s from
and have so far, been unsuccessful.
It is listed on his own website though, so there’s that!
“Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world
that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.
However, we made it into an established “religion”
(and all that goes with that)
and avoided the lifestyle change itself.
One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain
in most of Christian history, and still believe
that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior”
The world has no time for such silliness anymore.
The suffering on Earth is too great.”

It probably won’t come as a shock to you
on this third Sunday of Lent,
that I did hear Jesus this past week.
And this is what I heard him say:
“I didn’t come to save you.
I came to love the world.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it,
is not about being saved,
but about committing to love the world.
Please get it right!”

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: confronting/rejecting the old rules


Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them
that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and after three days rise again.
He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples,
he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind
not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
‘If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world
and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation,
of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed
when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it. (Psalm 22:23-31)

Pastoral Prayer
Hear now our Confession of Sin:
For those so consistently told to fear not,
we live too much afraid.

We pray this day, our God,
for fear—
paralyzing, heart-pounding, mind-racing
this-can’t-be-happening, what-do-I-do? fear.
Fear of violent death, yes.
Fear of injustice, yes.
Fear of the systems, yes.
Fear of no good opportunities, yes—
no sense of a viable future, yes.
Fear of rejection exclusion, yes.
Fear of loneliness, yes.

We pray for fear that turns into anger.
Sometimes a righteous anger;
often not.
Often acrimonious—

Sometimes appropriately expressed;
often not.

We pray for fear and anger that divide—
that end conversation and relationship
turning them into rhetoric and … well, us and them.

We pray
for light,
for non-anxious presence,
for inclusivity and welcome,
for the work of justice and then, peace,
for commitment to the common good,
for a sense of how critical they always are to us.

We pray this day
for hope,
in Jesus’ name.


Hear now these Words of Assurance:
love casts out fear.
Be not afraid.

“Then he began to teach them,” our text begins this morning,
and maybe that “then” is supposed to make us wonder
why then?
Because it’s interesting when a text
is explicitly abstracted from a bigger story.
I mean, you can legitimately argue
that any biblical text is implicitly part of a bigger story,
but here, events follow directly what just happened
that’s not a part of our reading.
And maybe what’s left out is left out so we’ll go find it—
a lost sheep kind of part of the story.

We’re still in Caesarea Philippi with Jesus and the disciples,
and he has just asked them who people say he is,
and Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah.
That seems like important information to leave out.

And if we went looking for our lost sheep—
if we went back to find and read Peter’s confession,
then we’re to intuit
that Jesus is teaching in direct response
to being named Messiah,
which leaves us two basic options:
he’s either teaching how he is Messiah,
or how he isn’t.
Then he been to teach them.”

And maybe it’s obvious,
but I want to reiterate:
you teach what you know that others do not.

And it’s up to the student to learn.
because it’s a formal relationship—
this one between teacher and student,
and there will be a pop quiz—
a test—an exam—a final—
a grade.
Did you learn what I taught?—
that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering—.

Now see, that’s interesting.
He is called Messiah.
He calls himself Son of Man—
that ambiguous title
that can simply mean human being,
that is associated with the prophetic tradition,
that is associated with the mysterious figure in Daniel,
that is identified with the righteous of Israel who suffer
(Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 624),
and transcends them in apocalyptic power.

There’s a lot Son of Man could mean,
but we’re not exactly sure what Jesus meant by it—
which is no doubt what Jesus meant by it!
“If you’re not as sure what Son of Man means
as you seem to be of what Messiah means,
then I can make it mean what I want it to!”

It’s not necessarily a rejection of the title “Messiah.”
It could be that’s just a complicated title—
that there’s a lot of baggage that goes along with the term.
“Hmmm. So can we talk about what you mean by Messiah?
I mean, there’s what Messiah has come to mean in our culture.”
Kind of like we have to do with Baptist—
and evangelical—and even Christian!
I just want to make sure you understand,
I’m not that kind of a Messiah!”

Because that’s what he’s teaching them, right?—
if he is Messiah, what kind of Messiah he is—
confronting whatever view Peter had of Messiah.

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

It’s called the first passion prediction (see also Mark 9:31; 10:33-34),
but he’s not predicting.
He’s teaching.
Although prophesying,
as we should understand it in the biblical tradition
(I hope we’ve said this enough),
is less about predicting the future
that it is about speaking the truth.
He teaches them.
“Here’s what I know to be true.”

The Son of Man must suffer—
must suffer greatly—
not will—
Must be rejected by the authorities.
Must be killed,
and must,
after three days,
rise again—
must, at the perfect time,
rise again.

You teach what you know that others do not.
There is an inevitability to this path that must unfold—
confronting whatever view Peter had of Messiah—
presumably a view endorsed by—taught by—
promoted, promulgated, and enforced by
the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes—
the very authorities who will reject Jesus.
Theirs an understanding of Messiah that evidently excludes suffering.

Oh and not that we can blame them!
Because triumphalism reigns supreme in our story telling.
And so we, today, with this text in hand—at hand,
speak of Jesus in the context
and with the expectations of triumphant success—
of vindication—
of glory.

And if we speak of suffering,
it’s only in light of victory to come.
It’s sequential.
It’s passing—
even strategic.
It’s God’s plan.
It’s obedience to God’s plan.

And Jesus calls BS.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The disciples took in what Jesus was saying,
and Peter, very considerately we might note, took him aside
and rebuked him, we read—
rebuked Jesus, we read!
For what he was saying, right?
For these preposterous ideas.

But rejecting consideration and privacy,
Jesus turned to all the disciples
and rebuked Peter back (same word).

Now I want you to picture this.
We’re given enough detail to do just that.

Jesus was teaching the disciples.
They were all clustered together.
Then Peter took him aside—away from everyone else
and rebuked him, quietly, probably.

But Jesus turned back to the disciples.
See, that’s the most intriguing detail to picture.
He turned back to the disciples—
so away from Peter,
and said to them,
“Get behind me, Satan!”

A singular imperative.
“You” get behind me,
not “y’all.”
So looking at the disciples, in front of him,
he was talking to Peter, behind him,
saying, “Get behind me,”
where Peter was at this point, right? right behind him.
Because he turned away from Peter back to the others
from whom Peter had led him away.

It’s confusing. It doesn’t make sense.
I love it!
It gives us room to wonder.
And wondering’s good for us!

It could be that Jesus rejects and warns not just Peter,
but anyone who suggests a compromised
triumphalist understanding of Messiah.
Peter said what they were all thinking.

But what if it’s less rejection of Peter
than it is of the very real temptation?
“Get behind me, Satan,
because I can’t afford to look at that option—
that very real option of an easier way.
I can’t look at that too much.”

We typically focus on the demonic and the terribly difficult,
when the greater temptation is usually
what’s easier and more convenient—
less painful.

Ben Witherington suggests “The severity of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter …
corresponds to the magnitude of Jesus’ temptation here:
the rebuke is sharp because the temptation is profound”
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
[Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991] 241).
Though again, maybe it’s less a severe rebuke of Peter,
than Jesus giving honest expression to the strain of rejecting temptation—
clarifying commitment and loyalty.

In the oldest traditions, Satan, the accuser,
was no demonic figure in opposition to God,
but a functionary within the divine court
whose job it was to help clarify people’s true commitments and priorities.

Could it be that clarifying commitments and priorities
is not a once and done,
but a consistent challenge—a persistent temptation
throughout all the ever-changing particulars of life?
And that so it was for Jesus?
Or how can he possibly understand me?

In which case, if we make this about Peter being wrong,
and Jesus being right,
we’ve completely missed the point.

And it’s interesting, that Jesus goes right on
to set up a dichotomy between divine things and human things—
between setting your mind on divine things or human things.
Because to divide reality into that which is divine and that which is human—
into heaven and earth—
the sacred and the mundane—
is very much not in line with Jewish thought and theology.

And if it’s not about dividing—
if it’s not about rejecting either,
what if it’s about again choosing—
choosing again—
to live in the world in the way of God
not in the name of God in the ways of the world?

And Jesus calls the crowds along with his disciples
(which surely included Peter)
and said to them—
so now he’s not teaching or rebuking—
he said to them:

“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And again, we’re invited to imagine.
This time, we’re invited to imagine the chronology of our story.
Jesus is saying all this before his own crucifixion.
So he’s telling them something that would not have had
the significance and interpretation of his own death and resurrection.
But, of course, everything that was written
about what happened before his death
wasn’t written until after his death.

Again. Notice this!
Wonder about it.
Obviously, what Jesus says about picking up your cross
has the meaning of Jesus’ death attached to it.
Equally obviously, we’re to imagine it doesn’t.

And so we’re to think of the context
the historical context—
in which crucifixion was
“primarily reserved for murderous or rebellious slaves
(and for this reason was known as ‘slaves’ punishment’)”
(Craig A. Evans, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, A-C
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed. [Nasvhille: Abingdon, 2006] 806)—
in which according to Plutarch, “Every criminal who is executed
carries his own cross (Morna D. Hooker,
The Gospel According to Saint Mark [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 208).

And while “[t]he primary political and social purpose of crucifixion
was deterrence” (Evans, 807),
Jesus is clearly telling “his disciples that there are not merely many things
worth living for, but some things worth dying for.
Notice that he des not suggest that there are some things worth killing for”
(Witherington, 254).
So the identification of Jesus’ followers is not with the murderous—
of that or any time,
but with the rebellious.

So is your mind, as a follower of Jesus,
set on divine things or on things of this world?
Do you resist, as a follower of Jesus,
the violence and the injustice of our culture—
Do you resist the objectification of people—
resist the scapegoating of ethnicities and religions and countries,
resist the justification of the poor and powerless, the unemployed?
Do you resist the mistreatment of the widows and orphans,
the elderly, the aliens and the refugees?
Are you one of the rebels in our culture
undermining the expectations and priorities
that contradict the way of God?
Because “[c]rosses are not passively accepted;
they are actively chosen …” (Bonnie Bowman Thurston,
Preaching Mark [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002] 101).

Let me state that again—as strongly as possible,
taking your cross is not about passive acquiescence to circumstance.
Nor is it about obedience to what God wants.
The cross is not God’s plan.
It is not obedience to God’s plan.

Jesus calls BS,
as we, as followers, must as well.

This is more about what’s true and real than about some divine plan.
Here is the inevitable confrontation of God with the world in the world.
It’s not about obediently suffering,
but consistently being who God calls you to be.
So it is not about the necessity of suffering, but its inevitability.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
It’s that choice—
that basic, fundamental choice—
that commitment.
To what and to whom do you give your life?

Because only love—only love—is worthy of that gift.

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world
and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Oh, what a word for us today—
in a culture obsessed with gaining the whole world,
not even realizing what all is forfeited.
In a world in which the priority is too often a bank account
with dollars multiplying virally,
or a screen and a social media account
with videos and updates and likes going viral.
And the return—the return on such investment—
is a diminished life.

Only love—only love—is worthy of the gift of your life.

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation,
of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed
when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There will be a pop quiz—
a test—an exam—a final—
a grade.
Did you learn what I taught?

And let’s be sure and get this right.
This is not about a teacher judging a student,
but about what a student did and did not learn
when those lessons are critical.

So finally, here at the end,
I want to go back to where we were picturing
Jesus telling Peter to be exactly where he was.
“Get behind me.”
But, as we envisioned this,
for Peter to get to where Jesus was actually addressing him,
he would’ve had to get in front of Jesus!

And maybe, maybe, the bottom line
is not about following Jesus
(and I just said that in a baptist church!).
Maybe the bottom line is about resisting the temptation to follow Jesus
when that essentially just amounts to the easy way of hiding behind him—
leaving him to do it all—
leaving it to him to pay it all—
leaving it to him to actually live love—
to actually manifest grace—
to actually confront the ways of the world
and claim another way.

No. This is about stepping up—
taking center stage.
This is about you—and me—each one of us—in the spotlight.
And what will we do?
What have we learned?
What do we choose?
What is our commitment?
To what—to whom do we give our lives?

I heard Jesus again this past week.
This is what I heard him say:
“For God’s sake, people,
get out from behind me
and show me and show the world
that you’ve actually learned
what I’m teaching.”

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: changing the rules


Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
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.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,
proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
(Psalm 25:1-10)

I am generally leery of prefaces to sermons, but I push some boundaries today—theologically, culturally, of appropriateness. I have chosen not just to speak of and for Jesus, but as Jesus … which seems really … stupid … presumptuous. And yet biblical. I want you to know I have only done so after much prayer, and with much fear and trembling.

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan, we read,
unexpectedly—surprisingly, right?—we need to remember.
For Galilee was “regarded with contempt and suspicion
by most southern Jews …. Galilee was surrounded
by Hellenistic cities, populated heavily by Gentiles,
predominantly poor, and geopolitically cut off from Judah by Samaria”
(Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:
A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus
[Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988] 128).

He came out of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan—
which raises concerns and questions for some.
If we were reading through this gospel,
we would know Mark starts with John the Baptist,
and we would’ve just read about how his was a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:5).
So people get all wound up tight
by the very idea of Jesus needing to repent—
of Jesus needing forgiveness of sins.

I might could trouble you here with a little non-traditional theology
about an understanding of Jesus as savior
not dependent on some sinless perfection
(which is a part of that whole
sacrificial substitutionary atonement thing anyway),
but I will just remind you that while we think of sin
in terms of personal morality (Did Jesus ever lie to his parents?
Disrespect them? Abuse their trust? Did he ever pluck grain on the sabbath?)—
while we think of sin predominantly in terms of personal morality,
the tradition of Jesus was well aware of the systemic nature of sin.
Jesus’ tradition knew anyone born into the culture
participates in its sin.
We hate that.
We want sin to be a personal choice,
but Jesus was baptized into a baptism of repentance and confession of sin—
into a radical counter-cultural orientation on God for direction.

Later in this gospel, Mark will also make a connection
(in Mark 10, if you’re interested)
between Jesus’ baptism and his suffering (Mark 10:38-40),
when he asks James and John
if they are able to be baptized with the baptism
and the verb tense is interesting here—
“the baptism I am being baptized with.”
We make of baptism an event of identity and inclusion.
For Jesus, it was the ongoing reality of rejection and embrace—
an ongoing repentance for and confession of what needs to change.

You notice John doesn’t know who Jesus is.
Later accounts will change that.
Matthew’s John not only recognizes Jesus, but questions
the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17),
and in John, John recognizes Jesus, names him Son of God
and doesn’t baptize him (John 1:29-34)!
Later accounts exchange his anonymity for renown—
the perception of ordinariness for extraordinariness.
The further from the person of Jesus we get,
the more necessary it seems to become
to defend him from his humanity.
Didn’t bother Mark a bit.

And notice in Mark’s account, it’s only Jesus
who sees the heaven opened (Isaiah 64:1),
and the Spirit descending like a dove.
It’s only Jesus who hears the voice of God.
There is no great public vindication of Jesus.
There is just the life Jesus lived in response
to having heard God’s voice himself.

So how does Mark know all this?

There is what in literature is called an omniscient narrator—
one who knows everything.
There’s a certain irony to having an omniscient narrator
when God is a character in the story you’re telling!
But to affirm that we’re getting more than just what Mark believes about Jesus,
presumably, we’re to assume Jesus relayed the story—
which actually doesn’t so much sound like Jesus,
who’s not generally retrospective in any of the gospels.
I think we’re supposed to notice this—wonder about it.
Is this the story Mark tells in response
to having heard God’s voice himself?

Several things of resonance of which to take note
and to wonder about:
there was a tradition in Judaism
to use the imagery of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The Babylonian Talmud “refers to Genesis 1:2 in this way:
‘And the Sprit of God was brooding on the face of the waters like a dove …”
(Morna, D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 46). That works.
And speaking of a dove on the face of the waters,
the dove returned to Noah with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11)—
a sign of hope of life renewed and restored. That works.
And according to Leviticus, a dove was the only bird fit for sacrifice (Leviticus 1:14).

The Greek word translated “voice” is often assumed
to represent the translation of a Hebrew phrase:
bat qôl—the daughter of a voice—
an echo of a voice from heaven.
This from the time when there were no prophets
and yet still an echo of God’s voice—
but “essentially inferior—
a substitute for the direct gift of God’s Spirit” (Hooker,  47).
How appropriate for the unremarkable, unexpected, surprising
revelation in, of and through this one from Galilee,
unimpressive enough not to be noticed by those looking for him.

The voice—the daughter of a voice—said,
“This is my Son, the beloved”—
exactly what God will say in the story of the transfiguration,
when Peter and James and John hear God’s voice too.
Scholars point out the word translated “beloved”
can also be translated “that of which there is only one”—
as the Septuagint describes Abraham and Sarah’s only son, Isaac
(Genesis 22:2)—
which again raises questions for the thoughtful reader,
given that Jesus is not being described as unique—
that, of course, neither was Isaac—
with Ishmael already born back in Genesis 16!—
that beloved need not be not limited in number—
that the injustice of favoritism is a problem the Old Testament
doesn’t shy away from naming.
Not to mention that in just a few stories,
Mark will have Jesus claim anyone who does the will of God
as mother and sister and brother (Mark 3:35).

Then the spirit drove (it’s a strong verb
that Matthew and Luke don’t use)
Jesus into the wilderness
where he was for 40 days,
tempted by Satan.
You want to do some more wondering?
The Greek verb can be translated “tempted” or “tested.”
Was he tempted all 40 days or just within those 40 days?
And unlike the way Matthew and Luke tell the story,
we don’t get specific temptations or tests.
We are told he was with the animals and angels attended him.
Again, we might ask how Mark knows all this, right?
Wonder about that.
Don’t just let it go.
Wondering’s good for you!

Is the reference to the animals a reenvisioning of Eden (Genesis 3),
or of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9; 32:14-20; 65:25),
or of desolation and danger (Isaiah 13:21ff; Psalm 22:12-21)?
Is it imagery to describe enemies (Ezekiel 34:5, 8; Daniel 7:1-8),
or the habitat of demons (Deuteronomy 32:17; Isaiah 34:14)?

And surely we’re to think of the 40 years
the children of Israel spend wandering the wilderness
on their way to the promised land,
of the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God,
that Elijah spent traveling to Horeb to meet God.
In Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar was driven into the wilderness
and became a kind of wild beast,
until he affirmed and praised God (Daniel 4:28-37).
We’re supposed to ruminate over all these.

So, was this a time of temptation by a hostile, demonic entity?
Or a time of physical and spiritual testing
full of danger, but not of hostile, evil intent?

And no conclusive victory is named.
Some assume that Satan’s demonic power was broken here.
But maybe it’s more about knowing you can accept what’s hard in life—
what’s challenging and disturbing and tempting.
You can take the worst of life
and yet remain faithful and hopeful and committed.
That’s actually more helpful (and challenging) to me
than Jesus defeating some super-demon.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee.
Out of Galilee he came, and to Galilee he returned.
He did not retreat from society and stay in the wilderness;
he did not relocate to the center of that culture’s political and spiritual life in Jerusalem.

Again, we don’t know the timing here.
Was John arrested immediately on the heels of the 40 days?
There’s an undetermined time period between the two named events in time.

We’ve noticed this before in Mark—
this subtle reminder that we don’t get all the details
that the details we get are part of a bigger story—a longer journey.

So Jesus returns to the Galilee,
proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

It’s an interesting progression into good news, don’t you think?
40 days of testing in the wilderness,
John thrown in jail,
the reputation of Galilee—
the word of God from this unremarkable nobody.
Good news!

And notice the order here:
he returned to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, saying
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

The word “good news,” “gospel” forms an inclusio
a set of parentheses.
Take note of what they frame.
The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near.
Repent and believe in the good news.

Notice it is not the good news of Jesus.
Jesus did not preach Jesus.
He preached the good news of God.
Here’s a fun affirmation:
when we preach Jesus, we do not preach as Jesus did.
Wonder about that!

And repent of what?
The systems?
The systemic evils of culture and politics?
Certainly relevant—appropriate.
Certainly a lot of rules it would be good to change.
But this week it occurs to me,
repent and believe in the good news
could also be a call to repent
because we believe in the bad news.
Repent and believe in the good news.
It’s certainly not that we don’t have reason to believe in bad news.
We’re fed a steady diet of it; there’s plenty of it.
But amidst it all—within the worst of it,
hear this: the kingdom of God is near.

And while the kingdom of God affirms a context
of hope and anticipation and promise and expectation—
while it is future oriented by virtue of the expectations of conclusive victory,
which, remember, we haven’t gotten in this story,
nonetheless if the kingdom is at hand—if it’s near,
then we have, as all have always had, we profess,
the option of living into the presence of God in the world—
the option of a different set of rules.

And when the kingdom of God is near,
you hear the the voice of God—
the daughter of the voice of God.
You hear Jesus.

Joy Behar would say I’m nuts!—
like Mike Pence, right? Me ’n’ Mike.
But I have heard Jesus this past week.
I wonder if the Vice President has,

“Would y’all please—
would y’all please take care of the children?
As in don’t let them get shot—
at school—
in their homes—
on the streets—
in their neighborhoods—
in their communities of faith.”
Can anyone imagine Jesus not saying that?

“And while you’re at it,” I hear him go on,
“would you not let them go to bed hungry?
Would you make sure they all get the education
they need and deserve—
make sure they all get good health care?
You know, no matter their zip code.
No matter the financial resources they have to draw on—or not.
No matter the color of their skin—
the language they speak—
where they’re from.

That’s apparently not, as it would seem to be,
incumbent upon you as a nation
purporting to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is incumbent upon you, hear me clearly,
if you profess my good news that shall be for all people.

Doesn’t that all seems basic enough—
straightforward enough—doable?

I’m not saying it’s not complicated.
I’m not saying it will be easy.
It may well require more of you.
More risky conversations
with confrontation and compromise.
Less simultaneously generalizing and absolutizing.
A better sense of a bigger picture—
and of how to better foster wellness—
including more inclusion—
more efforts to reach out to the lonely—
more care for the least of these.
Maybe it will mean some businesses and individuals
won’t bank the millions and billions in profits they do—
continuing to justify the expression “obscene” profits,
because we’ll decide more money is needed for the common good.
Maybe communal responsibility
is an appropriate balance to personal freedoms.
Maybe meeting the needs of all is a better priority
than justifying all the wants of some.
Maybe your greatest freedom is choosing the restrictions
within which you will live.

Because children are more important
than whatever economic theory you espouse.
They’re more important than the stuff you have and the stuff you want.
They’re more important
than whatever political party to which you belong.
They’re more important than whatever religion you profess—
and if your religion doesn’t affirm their priority,
you need a new religion.

They should not live in fear—with hunger—
without health care—uncertain about their education.
It’s time to change the rules you live by.

Born into a culture, you participate in its sin.
You hate that.
You want sin to be a personal choice,
but even I was baptized into a baptism of repentance and confession of sin.

And just so you know,
I know,
y’all are a part of having failed
14 year old Alyssa Alhadeff,
14 year old Martin Duque Anguiano,
17 year old Nicholas Dworet,
14 year old Jaime Guttenberg,
15 year old Luke Hoyer,
14 year old Cara Loughran,
14 year old Gina Montalto,
17 year old Joaquin Oliver,
14 year old Alaina Petty,
18 year old Meadow Pollack,
17 year old Helena Ramsey,
14 year old Alex Schachter,
16 year old Carmen Schentrup,
15 year old Peter Wang,

You also failed
35 year old Scott Beigel,

37 year old Aaron Feis,

49 year old Christopher Hixon—
not children, but my children nonetheless—
who were faithful and committed to loving others—

each of whom was baptized this past week
in the tears of God—
embraced in the love of God—
assured of the dignity and value of their being—
assured that they were important enough
for their safety to have been a bigger priority in their society.
Each of whom was welcomed into the grace of God—
because what else would anyone who loves children do?

Time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near at hand.
You are being baptized—not into the world as it isn’t,
but into who God is
and who God is always in the world.
Repent, and don’t believe the bad news.
Love, and fear not.
Believe the good news
of possibility—of hope—of change
in an unfolding reality that demands and expects
an ever growing commitment—
that demands and expects the continuing transformation
of both people and culture
that demands and expects an ongoing baptism
of repentance and confession of sin.

And if it’s all you’ve got—if it’s all you’ve got,
damn your thoughts and prayers.”

when things become clear … for a moment


Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John,
and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them.
And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses,
who were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you,
one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud there came a voice,
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
Suddenly when they looked around,
they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain,
he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable,
gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits,
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (James 3:17).
This also comes from the Lord of hosts,
who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom
(Isaiah 28:29)—
the source of your life in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
and righteousness and sanctification and redemption
(1 Corinthians 1:30).
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this:
Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight 
(Proverbs 4:6-7).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
Show by your good life that your works
are done with gentleness born of wisdom (James 3:13).

Six days later,
so a/ in the incompleteness of time, right? six days;
and b/ later than what, you might well ask,
as the beginning of our story is again tied to the previous one—
which was the dramatic confession by Peter
of Jesus as Messiah in Caesarea Philippi.

And when Jesus subsequently began to teach the disciples,
you remember, about suffering and dying and rising again,
Peter rebuked him.
And he rebuked Peter back—
with that rather strong get-thee-behind-me-Satan rebuke,
before teaching the crowds and the disciples,
repeating, essentially, exactly what Peter dismissed:
to follow me means denial of self.
It means picking up your own cross.
It means you lose your life rather than hanging on at all cost (Mark 8:27-38).

Twice in that teaching section,
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man—
which he’s done several times already in this gospel (Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38).
It’s a term no one uses of him, he just uses it of himself.
On the one hand, it’s a Semitic idiom for an ordinary man
(David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation
[New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017] 66).
On the other hand, it’s a part of prophetic tradition.
“In the book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet
ninety-three times as ‘son of man’ ”
(Adela Yarbro Collins, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible
S-Z [Nashville: Abingdon, 2009] 342).
But then there’s also (on the third hand, if you will),
another dimension—an apocalyptic one.
And while Son of Man is an ordinary man,
it’s also the mysterious other worldly figure of power in Daniel’s vision.
In time, this “one like a son of man” came to have Messianic associations—
and was tied to Ezekiel’s strange vision of the chariot
and the one that seemed like a human form (Ezekiel 1:26).

There’s a certain irony, then,
that the very term used to name prophets as ordinary,
amidst what they see of the world and say and do in the world,
makes them a part of something extraordinary!

This teaching of Jesus, about discipleship, right before today’s text,
reads, basically, that followers of the Son of Man
will suffer as the Son of Man suffers,
and just so, followers of Jesus will be vindicated
as the Son of Man is vindicated.

Then, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John
and led them up a high mountain—
led them apart, by themselves.
That’s stressed; that’s repeated.
Jesus led them up the mountain away from others.

We separate ourselves—
distinguish ourselves from others,
to claim and fulfill
opportunities for significant growth and learning.

And mountains are, traditionally, a place of revelation—
a high up place to receive insight—
space elevated from day to day life.
Mountains are where epiphanies happen
(Exodus 19; 1 Kings 19:11-18; Isaiah 40:9; Ezekiel 40:2)—
a thin place.

And up on the mountain,
Jesus was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them.

So several things going on now at the same time:
1/ epiphany, right? Revelation. Insight.
Everything we were just talking about.

But 2/ it should simultaneously be stressed, Jesus didn’t do this!
This is a passive construct.
This is about what they saw, not what he did!

But make no mistake we’re well into exalted
Daniel 7 kind of Son of Man imagery.

And there appeared to them
(them being the disciples, right?
We’re still talking about what they saw.)
Elijah with Moses,
who were talking with Jesus.

Now we have these two giants of their faith tradition—
these two, a part of so many of the foundational stories of the faith:
the leader of the enslaved out of bondage—
the one who went up the mountain to receive the word of God at Sinai,
and the prophet, who went up the mountain
to confront and defeat the priests of Baal.

Now it is interesting, if you stop to think about it—
I mean, you can get all caught up in their reputations—
in their magnificent stories of triumph and success,
but you can also go back to one time,
when those significant moments on mountains
came after they had failed!—
and more specifically,
after they “suffered at the hands of God’s people”
(Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark
[Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002] 102).
Moses went back up the mountain,
after the people rejected the word of God the first time,
and came down to the golden calf (Exodus 32).
And it was after his dramatic confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18)
that Elijah went up the mountain to escape the authorities hunting him
and heard God in the quiet (1 Kings 19).

So there are mountaintop stories of discouragement, not triumph,
and our story can be read commending consistency, not success.

I wonder if it’s the fullness of these characters more than their greatest hits
that led Jewish theologian Herbert Basser to describe them
as those who “best represent the human capacity to see God”
(quoted in Thurston, 102).
Not because they’re without doubt and despair,
but because they keep talking to God—listening to God
through their doubts and despair.

With all this stress on what the disciples saw,
as opposed to what Jesus did,
I’m really not trying to cast doubt on this story!
I so so wish Lynne were here today, to hear me say that!

But I too, see Moses in Jesus.
And Elijah.

And Mom and Dad.
My grandparents.
Some teachers.
Some preachers (not all!).

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you,
one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

This fascinates me! Absolutely fascinates me.

Peter has just confessed Jesus as Messiah,
and now refers to him as “rabbi,” or “teacher,”
which is typically taken to mean he’s still confused—
still trying to figure out who Jesus is.

And the word our translation gives us as “dwelling,”
would more accurately be translated “booth” or “tabernacle”—
less a permanent structure than a temporary one—
reminiscent of the wilderness wandering,

and so, reminiscent as well, of the Festival of Booths—
the festival in and through which the faithful
remembered the Exodus, anticipating and celebrating its fulfillment.
This went along with some sense
that in the Messianic age, the people would again live in tents,
and God would again tabernacle amongst them.
So there’s this tension between being on the way and not having arrived,
and having arrived.

Peter is usually dismissed in this story
as someone completely missing the point—
his designation of Jesus as rabbi
as a stepping back from his confession of Jesus as messiah—
as one who thinks the messianic age has come,
when there is yet suffering and death ahead—
and as one who inappropriately puts Elijah and Moses on par with Jesus.

And, as our text reads,
we can actually completely dismiss Peter here
as a nervous babbler.
He’s one of those people who when afraid, starts talking—
without necessarily thinking.

But did you happen to notice that Elijah’s mentioned before Moses?—
which makes no sense in terms of chronology,
or in terms of historical and faith significance.
In fact, both Matthew and Luke “correct” this
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 216).
But what if it’s a hint?

What if, in truth, Peter gets it?—
that Messiah is teacher—
that Messiah doesn’t just effect our salvation,
but that we are to keep learning—
that we will always be figuring out who Jesus is—
that we live, most truly, in the tension between what’s been
and what is to be—
that it’s less a matter of who’s more important
than that we are on the way together with Jesus—
and with Elijah and Moses,
and the first will be last.

We are on the way with Jesus and Elijah and Moses …
and Peter and James and John …
and the rest of the twelve …
and the crowds …
and us.

Then a cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud there came a voice,
a Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones voice
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The Son of Man is the Son of God, the Beloved.
Could Jesus possibly get any more vindication?
He’s got the vindication of the past—
of the faith tradition—the prophets and the law—
of Elijah and Moses,
and now of God.

But amidst all this vindication,
it is incumbent upon us to remember,
he is vindicated precisely in this weird journey to the cross—
in this way of suffering.

And when God says, “Listen to him!”
He hasn’t said anything.
He has not said a thing in this whole story!
The last thing he said were the teachings in the last story:
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Pick up your cross and follow me.

And suddenly, when they looked around,
they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

All that vindication,
and then poof! It’s all gone.

As they were coming down the mountain,
he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
(and I guess they were supposed to keep listening to him
as, one more time in this story,
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man).

So now consider:
in the previous story, we have Jesus predicting his resurrection
and his coming in glory,
and here, his rising from the dead is looked ahead to—
at some time in the future
when vindication of Jesus and Jesus’ followers will happen.

And yet, in our story, in the transfiguration,
in Jesus shining like the sun,
the appearance of vindication is already present!

Enough so, that some scholars wonder
if this is actually a chronologically out of place resurrection story.

But it’s not what happens later.

When things become clear for a moment,
it’s that the whole of the story is now.
Suffering and death and resurrection are not sequential.
I mean that’s the way we tell the story—
have to tell the story.
We don’t just like linear, we’re kind of tied to it.
But it’s not that simple.
The victory and the suffering are not separated
into what you go through in order to win.
They are the winning.
Nothing that can be understood
and terrifying when glimpsed.

What? No vindication?
No victory?
No rubbing it in the faces of those who are finally revealed to be wrong?

We focus on winning.
That’s in part, a focus and a priority our culture instills in us.
But more than that,
deeper than that,
truer than that.
It’s part of who we are.

There’s a drive to singularity—
to stand out—
to be recognized—
to shine.

Any of you watching the Olympics?
Did you see the men’s short track speedskating final?
And to the great delight of the home crowd,
South Korean skater, Lim Hyojun, took gold—
which was great.
But did you see the favored Dutch skater,
the world champion in the event, Sjinkie Knegt,
who took silver,
and when the finality of the results sunk in,
straightened up, clapped,
and offered Hyojun a congratulatory pat on the shoulder?

That’s not who we are … most often.
That’s who we can be—
at our best.
But we daydream—
we fantasize—
we’re preoccupied
with the victory.

And it’s those images of success, triumph, vindication and glory,
that are all claimed by Scripture and faith,
but always in conjunction with community
and suffering
and service.

We keep coming back to that image in Philippians,
remember?—of the Jesus who humbled himself
and became obedient unto death,
and was therefore exalted.
And how we separate those images, sequentially,
when the truth seems to be more complex
than a linear story of ultimate triumph.
It’s not that Jesus humbled himself in order to be exalted.
It’s that somehow his humility is his exaltation.

Maybe you just find what you’re looking for.
Maybe I’m suspicious of triumph
and so I don’t see it—
won’t see it.
But a message of it-will-all-turn-out-in-the-end
doesn’t work for me—
As opposed to a message of how you live now—
what (or to whom) you choose to give your life to,
whether it costs you your life or not,
is the triumph—
when it’s love.

When you live for yourself—
when you live for money—
when you live for power,
it may, in fact, be that you get it.
But unlike love, it’s not what will give you moments of eternal joy.
There’s just not enough there—
not enough to it.
It is not of God.

I’d like to go off the rails here
and offer you something weird!
To do so, I’d like to add two verses to our pericope: Mark 9:1:
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you,
there are some standing here who will not taste death
until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

When Jesus says, “There are some standing here
who will not taste death
until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power,”
what does that mean?
Because all those who were standing there
are dead.

And then: Mark 9:10:
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

It’s like parentheses to our story, right?
And they might just frame the point of our story.
What if, for Jesus, death was not about being dead,
but about living dead?
Not zombie living dead,
but alive, and yet tasting death—
living with the taste in you mouth of ashes and despair,
as opposed to the life that truly is life (1 Timothy 6:19).

What if the way of God is at hand—
with power—
in glory—
ours for the choosing—
or committing,
now and into what is yet to be.
And we too can live without tasting death—
abundantly alive?

Daniel is the book people look to for the combining
of son of man as ordinary anyone
and as extraordinary other-worldly figure.
So let me leave you, finally,
at the end of our worship series on wisdom,
with another verse from Daniel:
Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12:3).

God as commitment, christmas


Scripture, i.
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined conversation:
“He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ ”
“Yeah, well, that’s incredibly idealistic—
less credibly realistic.”
“He said, ‘Forgive those who sin against you—’ ”
“That’s an aspiration, not an expectation—
“and he said to forgive our debtors.”
“Spiritually speaking.”
“He said, ‘Give your shirt, turn your cheek, walk the mile.’ ”
“Yeah, well, that’s all hypothetical—
and quite possibly hyperbole.”
“He said, ‘What you do and don’t do to the least of these,
you do and don’t do to me.’ ”

“Yeah, well ….”
“He said, ‘You cannot serve God and money,’
and ‘Go sell all you own and give it to the poor,’
and ‘Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God,’
and ‘Woe to the rich for you have received your consolation.’ ”

“Now he said that to particular people
who had problems with their money.”
“Everything he said, he said to particular people
and you don’t think the sacred part of sacred texts
has something to do with relevance transcending particular people?
He did, after all, say he’s the way the truth and the life.”

“Yes, but not the way, truly, to live your life.
It’s just what you believe about him that matters.”
Beware cheapening the significance of your own living
in excuses to minimize the affront Jesus is to culture
and the challenge he is to lifestyle.

As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

In the movies of the Marvel Universe,
the end of one movie is the beginning of the next—
with a bigger set of problems than the ones just solved.
That’s true for many sequels.
You’ve noticed that, right?
You get to the end of a movie
and it’s all cathartic and resolved,
and everything that was hard has been faced and dealt with,
when you realize it was nothing compared to what’s coming.

And of course, yes, that’s marketing.
It’s the psychology of the sequel—
that has to be bigger than what preceded it.
But there’s also an element of truth to it.
Part of maturing—of growing—
is facing bigger challenges—harder—more consequential ones.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child—
was challenged by what challenges children,
but when I grew up ….
Would that more of our leaders
knew there are challenges bigger than winning and acquiring to grow into.

Lectionary texts, abstracted from their larger whole,
sometimes have that same dynamic going on.
Our text this morning, begins with the section of Isaiah
that concluded our text on the third Sunday of Advent.
Scripture then, like Marvel, can show you
what you may at one point consider the end,
can, at a later time, turn out to be a beginning.
What is sometimes the culmination,
is sometimes the starting point.
Revelation can be genesis; genesis can be revelation.

I’m sure you remember the sermon
of the morning of that third Sunday of Advent,
but, just in case, I’ll remind you—
of how the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness,
with which we started today,
were all spun out of the way we live into the way of God—
proclaiming good news to the oppressed—
binding up the broken hearted.
Salvation follows the assertion that God loves justice,
such that any claim of salvation is inextricably tied to justice.
There are challenges beyond what’s personal to grow into.

So that Sunday, the emphasis was on a way of life
that led up to the affirmation of salvation.
This Sunday we start with an affirmation of salvation,
but it leads us where?
Back to living the life that is the incarnation of the way of God!—
not keeping silent about injustice—
not resting until the vindication that is the integrity of the people of God
shines like the dawn.

Separating salvation from the work of justice
has been and continues to be one of the great sins of the church
and the people of God.


Jeff Nicoll and his folks packed up
the Christmas tree lot across the street from the church
the Friday night before Christmas Eve—
which was just as well,
as it rained much of Saturday, the day before Christmas Eve.
They did well this year—
didn’t have too many trees left to chop up at the end.
Jeff and Frankie were telling me about one year,
they had to chop up 350 trees at the end.
“Not a good year,” Jeff said ruefully.
Conversely, twice in 48 years, Frankie said, they have sold every tree.
Jeff grinned, and said, “And when it came down to that last tree—
the last time, we were hanging out and we were, maybe, a little …
and this woman stopped by,
and she was, maybe, a little ….
“Inebriated?” I asked. He nodded.
“And now think about that last tree left.
It was the tree everyone else had rejected.”
“It was a Charlie Brown Christmas tree!” I exclaimed.
They nodded. “Exactly,” Jeff said, “a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”


Our text this morning, falls, you probably remember,
within what’s called Third Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah—
words directed to those in the ruins of Jerusalem
rebuilding life and community after exile.

So thinking of the big Isaiah picture for just a minute,
First Isaiah warned of a coming judgment
within political and military defeat.
Y’all are not living in the way of God.
You didn’t accept that challenge,
and there are consequences.
Second Isaiah was written to those in Exile in Babylon—
so living in the conditions that had been threatened in First Isaiah—
longing for a return home.
Third Isaiah was then written
to those living in what had been their deepest hope while in Exile
(having returned home),
but whose hopes realized turned out to be a new beginning
with its own set of profound challenges—
and the fundamental question:
would they live into justice this time—
incarnate love, living in the way of God?
Would they accept the bigger challenges
of life together in the way of God?


A Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Any of you not seen A Charlie Brown Christmas?
The TV special first aired on CBS, Thursday, December 9, 1965—
fifty-three years and basically one month ago!
It’s been on TV every year since then—
a beloved family Christmas tradition in many a household.

It was originally predicted to … fail—
written quickly, over the course of a few weeks,
with a jazz music accompaniment, no laugh track,
child actors, quoting Scripture.
Completed just ten days before its premiere,
remember again, to generally dismal expectations,
the director, Bill Melendez, actually said
he thought if it hadn’t been so close to the broadcast date,
it would have been cancelled!

How in keeping with the very character of Charlie Brown—
the perennial loser!
And the Charlie Brown Christmas tree was intentionally designed
to reflect that aspect of Charlie Brown himself.
So, a Charlie Brown Christmas tree is one
that does not conform to popular expectations of a Christmas tree.

But the very next day, Friday, December 10,
in The Washington Post’s review, Lawrence Laurent stated,
“Natural born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night!”
And the next year, Sunday, May 22, 1966, the special won an Emmy
for Outstanding Children’s Program, and Charles Schulz said,
“Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you!”


Totally unrelated to not winning, Susie and I
celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary two Wednesdays ago.
I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned over the years—
carefully filtered—heavily edited!

Love is not about what anyone says
(be that in a marriage … or in a church).
And love is never about perfection.
Love’s always about what’s real.

Love changes.
Love grows.
Love includes disappointment—
but is not defined by them.

Love is long-term,
and while there is sometimes immediate gratification,
there is always an eye to sustainability.
Now is never at the expense of later.
And tomorrow is a part of every big decision today.

Love is incarnational.
It is always physical or embodied,
but it’s not material.
Though it is what makes us richest,
yet it cannot ever be bought.
Could God be love without creation and the incarnation?
I cannot fathom it.

It is the foundation
on which ordinary, everyday life is constructed,
even as it adorns ordinary everyday life,
making it extraordinary.

So it’s not as simple as it’s the journey, not the destination.
It’s that it’s the journey and the destination,
and it’s both that the destination gets better for the journey,
and that the journey is enriched by the destination.
The means are the ends,
but the ends keep getting better (and more anticipated) because of the means,
and the means are deeper and richer because of the ends.
There is an integrity to consistency
that is maturity and growth as love grows into the bigger challenges
of a love ever growing.


Isaiah suggests that the garments of salvation—
the robes of righteousness
are the culmination of lives that reflect God and God’s will,
but they are also the beginning of faithfulness—
of the living of those who will not keep silent—
who will not rest
until the the way of God is vindicated
in the lives of those who don’t give up on it—
until those lives rest in the hand of God like a crown of beauty.

So, do you think, as communal life was reinstituted in Jerusalem—
rebuilt in the name of God, that what was good for a few—
for the strong—the powerful—
would have been good enough for God to celebrate?—
meeting the small challenges of individual success—
family success—
or the success of enough that those not included
could be overlooked or justified?
What a lousy story that would be.
So much not who God is—
compared to the possibility
that communal life could be organized around
providing for all—for the perennial losers—
ensuring that everyone was valued and cherished and cared for?

I read an interesting response a while back
to the decline of the church in Europe.
Instead of grieving this reality, the author, a Christian,
celebrated it, suggesting that with the safety nets European countries provide
(which the church was instrumental in establishing—
care for the poor—the elderly)—
that with the least of these provided for,
the church’s job was essentially done.
It worked itself out of a job.
I’m still not sure what I think about that,
but it’s a fascinating perspective to consider.
And more palatable to me, when simultaneously affirming,
that that’s not to say the story of God and God’s people is over—
that there’s just a new challenge—a greater one, right?
The church can/should/needs to grow beyond what we think it is now.


Some more love lessons gleaned through the years:
love is never how it begins!
It’s always what’s next.
It’s fragile that way—
because it can be undermined—
because it won’t necessarily stay what it is and was.
But it’s simultaneously tough for the same reason—
because it can always be redeemed.

Love is never what’s first.
That’s why God, who is love,
is eternal,
and both creation and Christmas,
as stories we associate with beginning—
are both really just what was next in the bigger story of God,
which is always the story of God-with-us—Immanuel.
So maybe while you might say, in the beginning, love
(I would say that too), we need to remember to also say,
it’s because there was love, that there was beginning.

Now it’s true, a baby may be loved from its beginning,
but there was a love it was born into.
A couple falls in love,
but that’s not the beginning.
That follows times shared and memories made—

Love also has legitimate expectations of another.
Love is never me at the expense of you.
Neither is it ever you at the expense of me.
There is a reciprocity—a mutuality inherent to love,
which is a covenant,
that makes the very idea of an unconditional love hard to grasp.
And yet even with the highest of legitimate expectations,
I find myself holding to the idea
that parents’ love should be unconditional.
I cannot comprehend parents who reject their children.
I pray I will not ever face the terrible challenge
of circumstances that put such an affirmation to the test.
I particularly do not comprehend parents
who reject their children in the name of God.
To not love in the name of God is a betrayal of God.
For love begets love.

Love is always within a process.
That’s why God is eternal.
I am that I am that I will be that I was—
without beginning and without end.
Love comes from love, and if God is love, God can have no beginning,
and if love ends, it’s not love—even if it once was,
and so, it’s not God.

Love is appreciation of memories;
love is celebration of presence;
love is anticipation of more.

God is alpha and omega and revelation is genesis.


It is absolutely fascinating to me—
especially as I have several times now,
held Marvel’s universe of superheroes up as not Jesus—
you know, Thor as the antithesis of God—
held Marvel up as pointing to the vindication of those who are strong,
and who use their strength in the service of what’s good …
or what’s good for most … or what they think will be good.

But in several of their movies,
and let me issue a spoiler alert—
but only for movies that if you were going to see them,
you probably already have!

The movie Captain America: Civil War,
(sometimes sermon research is a lot of fun!)—
the movie Captain America: Civil War,
deals explicitly with the fact
that there are those who suffer the consequences
of anyone doing what he or she thinks is right
and using violence to do so.
There is inevitably collateral damage.

Etymologically, our word collateral
goes back to the Latin, meaning “alongside.”
Collateral damage is damage alongside the greater mission, as it were.
But its primary meaning in our culture is “given as security.”
It’s something put up as promise of repayment.
Of course, it has come to mean more what we’re willing to pay
for our own sense of security,
but it’s always “them” who pay.
Have you noticed?

In the movie Dr. Strange,
cosmic power is defeated not by someone with more power—
someone stronger,
but by someone willing to lose over and over again
so that that cosmic power is trapped.
“You will never win.”
“No. But I can lose again and again and again and again—forever
(and to be clear—the losing is dying!),
and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but
“if I’m wiling to lose, then as the more powerful ‘winner,’ you’re my prisoner.”
in the end, power can’t beat commitment.

In the movie Thor: Ragnarok,
Asgard is defeated to protect Asgard—
the place falls to ensure the people—all the people—live.
What could only be perceived as defeat
turns out to be victory.

In the movie Guardians of the Galaxy 2,
Peter Quill, the Starlord, rejects the offer—
sacrifices the heritage—of divine power
for community and for friendship
and it is shown to be the deficiency of the celestial
who can’t comprehend that.

In days when too many churches—too many preachers—
too many politicians—
buy into a Marvel comic book theology of righteous violence,
Marvel inches closer and closer to divine truth.
In defensive fear, churches (and politicians) move from
divine inversions of expectation
toward that comic book faith in power,
while in storytelling, Marvel gets closer and closer
to what’s most real and authentic—
as storytelling is, fundamentally, about saying something profoundly true.
It’s what church is supposed to be and do,
but too often isn’t and doesn’t.

Marvel has discerned that focusing on who’s the biggest—
who’s the strongest, and assuming such a power will win in the end,
ends up not just being untrue,
but also being a very boring story—
which is the ultimate sin in storytelling!
And while that’s often the story of God told,
it’s not the story of Immanuel.

If you make it all about power, you see,
there’s always someone with more.
Or you end up positing a being of infinite power,
and then, who or what is there to oppose such power,
and how is that interesting—or true?
If you make it all about winning—about success,
what do you make of those who lose?
What do you make of a God who loses?
You deny them.

There is no moral value attached to power (or winning or success).
No one’s powerful—successful because they’re good
(as much as they might suggest this);
nor, if someone’s good, are they necessarily powerful or successful.
We as a country are not good because we’re powerful.
Nor are we powerful because we’re good—
because we’re right.

History is not written by winners who are good.
But history can neither deny nor forget
those willing to lose in order to remain good.

It can be so very hard.
Because when love confronts power,
power reacts in the only way it knows how.
It’s a very uncreative force.
It seals its own limitations in so doing,
while love transcends limitations in its integrity.

Both love and power are a sword that can take from you what you love most.
No rose colored filters here.
No fake news of cheap grace.
No rhetorical promise of prosperity and safety.

Is it better to lose everything and not give up love,
or give up love and keep what you just cheapened in compromise?

I have a theoretical answer I pray will never be put to the test—
an answer I hope I would live into.
But it’s so much more complicated than any absolute theoretical affirmation.
And it’s a question no one gets to answer for you.


It’s precisely the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, you see,
that you either come to see as beautiful or cannot comprehend.

It is a people rebuilding a dream
they themselves let crumble—
a people returning from an exile
they brought upon themselves
(an exile from God, you understand, not to Babylon)—
a community coming to see, maybe as if for the very first time,
that their community is defined by every member,
and so, by the least impressive among them,
the least powerful—the least of these.
It is a love that grows deeper through the years, not easier.

And love is commitment,
not just to another, but to the story that love wins,
and so commitment always, to the other.
Love is the commitment to love now so love will be next,
and so to put on and keep on
Isaiah’s robe of righteousness—the garments of salvation,
that you can only know when you work for justice—
which is, as Cornel West reminds us, what love looks like in public.

And that is God among us—God with us,
not as the strong and powerful,
but as the one who loses to win—who dies to live
so that redemption cannnot be conceived as winning,
but only as transformation—which is love—
the end that is the means that is the end that grows richer and deeper
and more profoundly wonderful.
Never now at the expense of later;
never later at the expense of now.
Never us at the expense of them;
never them at the expense of us.


These are our times.
The storytellers have more to say of God
than do too many of those who claim to speak for God.
It is time for the church to grow beyond what it’s been
and either work for what it’s supposed to have been working for
or cut bait and leave the fishing of people
to those who care about people and not abstractions.
We’ve lost sight of the winning
that only comes from not being a winner.

But there’s always a Christmas tree waiting to be loved into beauty.
There’s always a Charlie Brown, a loser, waiting still, to win.
And here on this first Sunday of 2018, there’s always what’s next.
May it be love.

Scripture, ii.
Luke 2:25-35
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;
this man was righteous and devout,
looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus,
to do for him what was customary under the law,
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed
at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary,
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.