Veiled | Transfiguration of the Lord

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

12 So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence. 13 We aren’t like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites couldn’t watch the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. Right up to the present day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The veil is not removed because it is taken away by Christ. 15 Even today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But whenever someone turns back to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. 18 All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

4:1 This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. 2 Instead, we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. Instead, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. (CEB)

Veiled

Reading and understanding Second Corinthians is difficult. Preaching from it is even more so. It’s difficult to follow Paul’s argument when we take a small section of it, like 3:12-4:2, because Paul’s arguments are long and complex. The first words of our text: “So…” in the CEB and “Since, then,…” in the NRSV, tell us that this text continues an argument or point that Paul had made in the preceding verses.

Yet, even if we were to go back and look at the preceding verses in Second Corinthians, there’s still the problem that this letter is correspondence with a church community, and we don’t even have half of that correspondence. What we call First Corinthians was at least the second letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (c.f. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

The letter we call Second Corinthians was at least the fourth letter Paul wrote to them. On one of Paul’s visits to Corinth, he experienced a falling out with the church there when one man publicly accused Paul of falsehood and no one in the church came to his defense. Paul left, and he was so upset that he canceled a later planned visit and, instead, he wrote a letter of tears in which he told the Corinthians of his overwhelming love for them. We don’t have that letter of tears.

Second Corinthians chapters 1-9 was Paul’s attempt to reconcile with the church at Corinth. In fact, having found out that the Corinthian church had punished the person who attacked Paul, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive and comfort the man (c.f. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).

But, chapters 10-13 are such a severe shift in tone from the first nine chapters that some scholars think those chapters are a fragment of yet another letter that Paul wrote sometime after he wrote the first nine chapters of Second Corinthians. So, Paul wrote at least two letters to Corinth that are now lost to history.

And, we don’t have any of the letters that the Corinthian Christians wrote to Paul, but we know that they wrote to him (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:1). So, the obvious difficulty in tracking Paul’s already complex arguments is that we never have the whole story. That lack of information, which is a lack of context, makes Second Corinthians a little challenging at times.

What we can determine is that, in our text and in the previous verses at the end of chapter 2, Paul was defending his ministry as having come from God. The work he was doing among the Corinthians wasn’t because he was qualified for it in his own right, nor was his success at Corinth something that came from him. Rather, God qualified him for the work of ministry among them by the power of the Spirit. And, because it is a ministry of the Spirit and not a ministry of written law, Paul declares how much confidence and hope we can have that this new thing God is doing is permanent and everlasting. “So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence” (2 Corinthians 3:12 CEB).

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. The ministry of Jesus was to reveal God and God’s deep love for every person to a broken and lost humanity. Paul used the imagery of the veil over Moses’ face to describe the separation between God and mortals, just as there was a curtain in the temple to separate worshipers from God’s holiness. But, in Christ Jesus—who is God the Word made flesh—that veil is removed. Jesus revealed God’s glory to the entire human race and opened the way of salvation to everyone.

The separation between God and human beings is taken away, and we now operate by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus for his ministry, and Paul for his. There is freedom where the Lord’s Spirit is. We Americans love the idea freedom. We believe we’re free, we will patriotically, insistently assert how free we are… even as we’re in complete bondage to almost everything around us… not to mention sin and death, and as we approach April 15: taxes. Don’t believe me that we’re in bondage? I dare you to take off your watches and turn your clocks face-down and see how long you last without utter reliance on the taskmaster-of-time telling us exactly where to be and when. And that’s only one example. But that’s not really the kind of freedom Paul is talking about.

We might ask what we’re freed from, or for. What Paul wants us to understand is that we’re free from any sense that we have to earn acceptance from God. Those illusions are shattered so that we are free to see Christ and follow him.

You see, freedom, for Paul, is not something we can accomplish or generate for ourselves. We can’t free ourselves by revolution, or smashing our clocks to bits, or gaining wealth. Freedom is a gift of God that liberates us to be what God created us to be: namely, servants to all whom we encounter. That’s what Christ did for us, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 CEB).

We’re free to see Jesus Christ and be who we’re meant to be because God has already accepted us and forgiven us. That freedom means we can reach out in service to others—as Christ did to the world. And we can have confidence in our activity of reaching out because we trust that God will equip us in the ways we need to be equipped for the ministry we do.

We’re also free from having to worry about human definitions of success and effectiveness in the ministry we do. Where the Spirit of God is, we’re free from the fear of failure and fear of criticism.

Paul also says, “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB). Paul dares us to imagine that we are being transformed in a way that gives glory to God. As humanity was created in God’s image (c.f. Genesis 1:27), yet that image was distorted through sin, the image of God in us is being restored as we are being transformed to more perfectly reflect God in our lives.

In that sense, our lives are being transformed by our God-given freedom. Our actions, our words, our thoughts all begin to reflect Christ as though we’re looking in a mirror. The end of the chorus of the song, Lord I Need You, says, “Holiness is Christ in me.” It’s exactly what Paul is talking about here. God’s Spirit equips us. God’s Spirit works through us. God’s Spirit leads us to lives of service to others. That is the freedom we have in Christ. We are free to be transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to another.

John Wesley described this process as Sanctification. The work of God’s grace in us does not leave us unchanged! The Christian life is a process, and Paul is a prime example of this. He was an enemy of the church, a persecutor who approved of the murder of Stephen by stoning, who traveled around with official letters that allowed him to arrest anyone who belonged to Christ so he could drag them back to Jerusalem for prosecution. It was Paul’s encounter with Christ that began a life-long process of transformation into the image of God.

As Robert Prim put it, “…no one falls head-first into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, vol.4, pg. 451). We are all works in progress. The work of God’s Spirit moves each of us from one degree of glory to the next: oftentimes our transformation comes as one baby step at a time or like a spilled jar of molasses in a deep freeze. The Christian life is one of growth and improvement as God’s Spirit is at work in us.

Even as we move forward through this process of transformation, we experience setbacks. We occasionally flounder. And there again, Paul is a prime example, and so were the churches and people to whom he ministered. As I said earlier: this letter, Second Corinthians, was written as an attempt at reconciliation after Paul and the church at Corinth had a severe falling out. We know that change isn’t always a welcome experience. At times, it’s upsetting, unsettling, and downright annoying.

It is in the nature of God’s grace, and it is an ever-loving action of the Holy Spirit, to interrupt, turn around, and overturn so that we can see Christ more clearly and reflect Christ’s image more perfectly. Change brought about by the Holy Spirit moves us to new places, opens our mind and heart to new understanding, and opens our eyes to new views.

Our hope and confidence is in Jesus Christ and in the transforming power of God’s loving grace. When we act with love and mercy toward others, we reflect Christ to them and—by God’s grace—in some small measure, represent Christ to them. When God’s love works in us and transforms us into God’s image from one degree glory to the next, we begin to reflect, not ourselves, but Christ who lives in us and moves through us.

Even during a season as disheartening as this one must have been for Paul, he says that we don’t lose heart or get discouraged. Christ is the Lord of the church. And our ministry—whatever it might be, however it might take shape—is to invite others to the freedom we find in Christ Jesus: to live in hope as those whom God accepts, embraces, and loves. In Christ, the veil is lifted, and our lives are transformed to the glory of God.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Measure This | 7th after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (CEB)

Measure This

Yesterday, in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opened for a day of worship and prayer. They didn’t get to any business—that part begins today. Yesterday, they spent the hours worshipping and praying together. What they’ll be discussing and voting on today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, are four plans for A Way Forward for the United Methodist Church. The conversation is about one issue: human sexuality. How will we, as United Methodists, move forward?

I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. Depending on how the General Conference votes, we might allow for the ordination of LGBTQ persons or we might not. We might move forward together as one United Methodist Church, or we may move forward on divergent paths by separating from those who think and believe differently from us regarding human sexuality. So you’re aware, the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, including our bishop, Julius Trimble. They don’t want to see a divided or segregated church. They believe we can move forward together, as one United Methodist Church.

As for me, I hope our bishops are right. I don’t want to see division. I don’t want to see the pointing of fingers and other actions that would inevitably follow a path that leads our church to break apart. I’d rather our church not rename itself The Divided Methodist Church. So, I ask you to pray for General Conference. I ask you to pray for our delegates. And I ask you to pray for yourselves. Ask God for the grace to see you through whatever the General Conference decides for our church.

Yesterday Bishop Gary Mueller said, “One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a human being, as a Christian, as a bishop, is to set my desires aside and to seek God’s will. I have a hard time surrendering to God’s purpose. I think it’s because I like what I like. I think it’s because I can dress up whatever I like with fancy-sounding theological words, with eloquence and beauty. And I think it’s because I find myself able to convince myself that what I want is also what God wants. I suspect that many of you can identify with that.”

And I think he’s right. Sometimes, we put our desires, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our ideals into a box and label it with God’s name. We assume that God must be on our side of whatever issue we’re examining in the moment. Prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history have smashed religious ideas that everyone else knew to be true. In Jesus’ day, everyone knew that people who were handicapped, sick, or poor were in that state because God was punishing them for their sin. God is just, and obviously God doesn’t let bad things like that happen to good people. Yet, the prophet Jesus challenged that notion several times (c.f. Luke 13:1-5; John 9).

So, whatever convictions you hold, whatever you believe to be true, we all need to ask God for grace. God’s grace is the only thing that will see us through this process as one body.

It’s probably not without some irony that the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 6:27-36. That’s just what the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany in Year C. I think God must enjoy making real-world events and the lectionary texts collide in potent ways. It happens enough that I’m fairly certain God does it on purpose.

The first words of this text, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27 CEB) contain a paradox. You see, the word enemy here is ἐχθροὺς, and the root meaning is hate. Jesus tells us, “Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (my trans.).

One thing we need to be careful of when we look at this text is that Jesus is not encouraging a passive response to violence, evil, or abuse. In no way does this text suggest that an abused woman should stay in a relationship with an abusive man and meekly offer her other cheek every time the jerk beats her. We need to keep the context of Jesus’ words in mind.

So, let’s put this in its proper context. Slapping someone on the cheek was a way of mocking them and paying them back for blasphemy. Two instances of this kind of religious retribution come to mind. One was when Kings Jehosephat of Judah and Ahab of Israel were considering military action. First, they consulted the prophets who all said the kings should attack because they would win.

Except for one. Micaiah said that he saw all of Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd (cf. 1 Kings 22:17). “Then Micaiah said, ‘Listen now to the LORD’s word: I saw the LORD enthroned with all the heavenly forces stationed beside him, at his right and at his left. The LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab so that he attacks Ramoth-gilead and dies there?” There were many suggestions until one particular spirit approached the LORD and said, “I’ll persuade him.” “How?” the LORD asked. “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets,” he said. The LORD agreed, “You will succeed in persuading him! Go ahead!” So now, since the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of every one of these prophets of yours, it is the LORD who has pronounced disaster against you!’ Zedekiah, Chenaanah’s son, approached Micaiah and slapped him on the cheek. ‘Just how did the LORD’s spirit leave me to speak to you?’ he asked.” (1 Kings 22:19-24 CEB).

The prophet Zedekiah slapped Micaiah because, to him, Micaiah blasphemed against the Lord by accusing the entire company of prophets of speaking in the Lord’s name by a lying spirit. These prophets were called by God to speak God’s word, and Micaiah said they’d been infected by a lying spirit so they couldn’t speak God’s word. It was blasphemy. But, as it turned out, it was also the truth.

The other instance is when Jesus stood before the High Priest and answered his questions. “After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. ‘Is that how you would answer the high priest?’ he asked. Jesus replied, ‘If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-23 CEB). The Gospel of Matthew records that, when Jesus was mocked by the chief priests and council, they spit in his face and hit him saying, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:68 CEB).

So, in this text from the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus told the people in the crowd that when someone strikes them for blasphemy because they believed in the kind of healing and salvation that Jesus offered, or the kind of faithful living that Jesus demanded, they should offer the other cheek and get on with living faithfully. Christians are not to participate in that kind of religious retribution, which is often born of self-righteousness rather than true faithfulness to God.

Jesus does not call us to suffer endless cycles of violence. Rather, Jesus calls us to live faithfully even when others mock us or declare to the world that we’re wrong, that we’re blasphemers, that we’re not holding to religious law and propriety as we ought.

“Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (Luke 6:27 my trans.). It’s not only a paradox, but also a challenge that acknowledges there are people whom we—yes, even we wonderful and innocent disciples of Jesus Christ—there are people whom we hate. And there are people who hate us. The challenge of discipleship is to love those we hate, and to do good to those people whom we know—beyond the shadow of a doubt—detest us. That’s. Not. Easy.

That’s why Jesus goes on to say, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:32-36 CEB).

Sometimes loving others is difficult business. Yet, the demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand this bigger picture of love, and broader inclusion of those whom we love.

The last verses of this text have to do with judgment verses forgiveness, and it’s really about the way these two disparate things work. These words are as difficult as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 where we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, and the place where Jesus said, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEB). “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37a CEB) is a tall order to fill because we’re really good at making judgments, whether is unfiltered and voiced or the inner monologue of our minds that we don’t dare speak out loud.

The reason we’re told not to judge is because only God is good (c.f. Luke 18:19). Only God is capable of making right judgments. So, when we live into a religious or social culture based on judgment, the inevitable result is condemnation for everyone and everything. As one scholar put it, “A world bent on justice through judgment fulfills the anonymous maxim “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.” (Allen in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke vol. 1, p. 172). When we live into judgment, we draw lines, define purity, and defend the borders that separate righteousness from sin.

But disciples of Jesus Christ must live into a different reality than that of judgment. When we live into God’s generosity of forgiveness and grace, we can find goodness that overflows. When we remember that we, too, are sinners, yet God has deigned to forgive us and include us in God’s coming dominion, we’re set free from the bondage of judgment. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return” (Luke 6:37-38 CEB). When God’s people live into the overwhelming abundance of grace and forgiveness, we’ll find that God’s good measure is overflowing in our lap and spilling all over those around us—even those we hate and those who despise us.

Can we live with that?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Send Me | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 6:1-13

1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!”

6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

9 God said, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. 10 Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”

11 I said, “How long, Lord?”

And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” 12 The LORD will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. 13 Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.

Send Me

Last week, we looked at the call and commissioning of Jeremiah. Today, we get the more familiar account of Isaiah’s call. It ought to be familiar because we recite part of this every Sunday in our Communion liturgy.

Isaiah’s call story is different from Jeremiah’s in some ways. First, it’s much more visual than Jeremiah’s, which is more auditory. Isaiah’s calls story is a powerful and vividly described vision-event where he’s transported, apparently, from the temple in Jerusalem to God’s temple in heaven. We can see the event in our mind’s eye as it’s described to us. Or, at least, our minds will do their best to construct in our imaginations something that is, to our feeble human minds, unimaginable.

God appeared to Isaiah in regal brilliance: giving us a truer sense of what the word awesome actually means. God was seated on a high and lofty throne. The edges of God’s robe filled the temple. Imagine if the temple was filled with only the edges of God’s robe, how much more of God’s mightiness remained unseen by Isaiah? Yet, even the edges were this potent, brimming with power and majesty.

The doorframe shook when the Seraphs spoke of God’s holiness and glory, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s a scene that would have made most of us wet our pants, and it seems clear that Isaiah had a reaction that filled him with dread. Isaiah probably assumed he was about to die. After all, God told Moses that no one could see God’s face and live (c.f. Exodus 33:20), and Isaiah was confronted with the sight of God seated on a throne. Maybe the hem of God’s robe blocked Isaiah’s view of God’s face, but the prophet was clearly undone by this encounter.

We should note that it wasn’t a sense of inadequacy on his part that caused Isaiah to cry out, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB), it was Isaiah’s sense of guilt. He knew that he was guilty of sin, and his people were guilty of sin. There are both individual and social sins of which we are guilty and, when confronted with God’s holiness, Isaiah felt the guilt of his personal and his people’s sin profoundly. We, too, are lost and unclean, no matter how pleasant we think ourselves to be. We are all guilty of individual and corporate sin. In that sense, Isaiah’s dismay could be ours, too.

A Seraph reacted to Isaiah’s cries as if recognizing that a mortal had suddenly appeared in God’s throne room and quickly took action to save Isaiah’s life. The winged creature took a burning coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, apparently cauterizing and burning away Isaiah’s sin.

People often wonder about the coal and what it meant. To me, there’s something sacramental about the coal: a visible sign of invisible grace. That’s what sacraments are: outward and visible signs of God’s inward and invisible grace, and a means by which we receive grace. How God can use physical objects of creation to bear and convey grace is a mystery, but since God has created and is creating all that is, God can use anything as a sacramental means of grace.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God became a human being, is the fullness of this kind of divine action in which something physical bears and conveys what is holy. The incarnation is, itself, a kind of sacrament that conveys God’s merciful grace to us. This cleansing of Isaiah’s sin allowed him to hear the voice of God deliberating, either with God’s self or with the heavenly court, saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB).

Isaiah, in one of the rarer displays of willing volunteerism to serve as God’s prophet, immediately responds, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8 CEB). For Isaiah, forgiveness came from being touched with a burning coal, which enabled him to hear God’s voice. For us, forgiveness comes through the blood of Jesus Christ which washes our sin away. In an odd description, when John the Seer of Revelation asked about the people he saw who were wearing white robes, he was told, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood” (Revelation 7:14 CEB).

Because we have been forgiven of our sins, we are enabled to hear the voice of God calling us to serve. God moves alongside and within us all our lives long. Sometimes God’s calling is gentle, and sometimes it’s like a professional wrestling smackdown, but God is always moving, always prompting, always nudging us with sacramental grace so that we can respond to God’s call with our own raised hand and offering of self.

Sometimes we imagine God as separate and out there somewhere in a so-distant heavenly realm that God must be out of touch and unable or unwilling to show care for humanity or individual humans. Yet, as separated and vastly other as God appears in Isaiah’s vision of glory, the topic of God’s discussion reveals God’s concern for us, the Lord’s creatures whom God crafted in God’s own image. The docket of God’s court-business for the day was—and I would imagine always is—about us. God’s love, care, and concern for us runs deeper than we can possibly imagine. Even the conversations of heaven are about taking care of us.

At the same time, God’s call isn’t always what we expect. It isn’t always simple or easy. When I read the rest of this story, I kind of get the feeling that Isaiah was the eager kid in class who often raised his hand to volunteer before he knew what the job was but, by the time he figures that part out, it’s too late. He’s the one.

The mission to which God calls Isaiah seems confusing to our modern ears. “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10 CEB). Shouldn’t a prophet’s words open our eyes to God’s will, and help us find new and different paths that lead to faithfulness? Should a prophet help us to hear God’s word so we can understand with our minds and be renewed by God’s grace through repentance? Shouldn’t a prophet’s word—which is God’s word—guide us to comprehend new insights into God’s intention for us and how we can live faithful lives?

Why would God tell Isaiah to make people’s minds dull, our ears deaf, and our eyes blind so we can’t see, hear, or understand and turn away from sin for healing from God? It almost sounds cruel of God.

Yet, God isn’t cruel. For the answer to this strange commission, we need to look deeper into the context of Isaiah’s world. Isaiah tells us that he saw this vision of the Lord in the year of King Uzziah’s death. We know that Uzziah lived, reigned, and died in the 8th century B.C. He died in 742. And, within ten years, the Kingdom of Judah became a tributary state of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under King Tiglath-Pileser III. Although Uzziah’s son, Jotham, inherited a strong government, the Kingdoms of Israel and Aram to Judah’s north began to attack Judah. The Philistines, to Judah’s west, began to raid the Judean countryside. The Kings of Israel and Aram tried to coerce Judah into joining their rebellion against Assyria. Things became a mess very quickly.

There’s a not-so-subtle hint of a deeper spiritual issue in Isaiah’s words. King Uzziah has died, but Isaiah declares that he has seen “the king, the LORD of heavenly forces” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). This hearkens back to the days of the prophet Samuel, before Israel had a king. The elders of the people gathered before Samuel and said, “‘Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.’ It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us,’ so he prayed to the LORD. The LORD answered Samuel, ‘Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them’” (1 Samuel 8:5-9 CEB).

The reason Israel had a king at all was due to the sin of envy. The people of Israel saw how other nations had kings to rule over them, and Israel wanted to be like them, to look like them, to have that same kind of representative power that a king and organized government conveys. Israel rejected God as their king in favor of a human king.

So, the deeper context of God’s mission for Isaiah to speak is, why would the people listen to the words of a prophet who was sent by the true King of Israel whose kingship they had already rejected? Isaiah would speak the true King’s truth and criticize with the true King’s judgment. But truth and criticism are difficult to accept.

Jesus Christ came as God’s living Word and he quotes God’s word to Isaiah, saying: “This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand. What Isaiah prophesied has become completely true for them: You will hear, to be sure, but never understand; and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing. For this people’s senses have become calloused, and they’ve become hard of hearing, and they’ve shut their eyes so that they won’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears or understand with their minds, and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them. Happy are your eyes because they see. Happy are your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:13-16 CEB).

We have to wonder whether we are more capable of seeing, hearing, and understanding than the people of Judah were in the days of Isaiah. I would say that we are not—except by the power of God’s grace. Grace opens us up to the possibilities of changing our hearts and minds. God’s merciful grace gives us power to amend our lives. God’s grace enables us to see, to hear, and to begin to comprehend the unimaginable depth of God’s love and care for us. The grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ, and the grace conveyed to us in and through the sacraments and other means of grace, enable us to turn to God and offer ourselves to God. It is by Gods grace alone that we are able to say with the prophet, “I’m here; send me.”

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Known | 4th after Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10

4 The LORD’s word came to me:

5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”

6 “Ah, LORD God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.”

7 The LORD responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say.

8 Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the LORD.

9 Then the LORD stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth.

10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”

Known

What does it mean to be called by God? And, how do you know when God is calling you? What does a call even feel like? While there are some similarities between most call stories in the Bible and the modern call stories we hear from others, there isn’t a single way to answer those questions. In Bible Study on Tuesday morning, someone asked how you know you’re being called. The answer I gave is that my call was inescapable.

I’ve likened my call to ministry to the experience of Samuel in that it first came to me when I was young, probably late elementary or early middle school age. When Samuel heard God speak, he didn’t recognize the voice of the Lord, and neither did I. I didn’t know what it was, where it came from, or why it came to me, and my response to hearing this weird call was fear and resistance. So, I pushed it away every time.

My grandmother, Betty Romain, loved the hymn Here I Am, Lord (U.M.Hymnal #593) because it reminded her of me. But my call was definitely not like Isaiah’s. I never really had the heart to tell her, but I never had an “I’m here. Send me!” moment like in Isaiah 6:8.

In fact, my call didn’t come all at once. It was spread out over several years and came at different moments of my life. The earliest moment I remember was when I served as an acolyte for worship at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville. I had to sit in the front pew with the other acolyte, so, of course we had to behave and, you know, pretend that we were paying attention. I mean, it was the front row.

While the pastor was preaching, I remember a voice, or a thought, or whatever it was, tell me I’d be doing that; or that I could do that. And my immediate response was terror! I was like, Unh uh! I’m not gonna get up and talk in front of people. No way! I remember the thought—the call—sort of backing off at my denial, but I was still scared of the idea and adamant that I would NEVER be a pastor.

Well, that scenario came and went a few more times through my middle school and high school years. And my response was always the same. Nope! Not me! Not gonna do it! But things changed during the week leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day, 1996. That was the second semester of my Freshman year at Findlay.

During the first half of the week, that voice, or thought, or idea, whatever it was, had been crashing into me. And I was getting annoyed because, this time, it didn’t go away when I pushed back. By Wednesday, it was overwhelming. I tried to go about my day. I sat at my dorm room desk to study chemistry, but everything came to a crescendo when I heard loud, and clear, and audibly that God was calling me to ministry. I can’t quote a voice or the words spoken, but it was a kind of audible-certainty: you will do this!

This time, my response was anger. I got SO mad! I shoved my book away, threw my pencil across the room, and shouted, “All right, God, I’ll do it!” And, as soon as I acknowledged and accepted that call, my anger disappeared—along with the pounding of that voice—and I felt peace. At the same time, I didn’t have a clue what to do with this call thing. But I needed to figure it out, and taking that step was scary, too. I mean, have you ever told someone that you’re hearing voices? Nevertheless, I sought the wisdom of others who had been called: my campus pastor, Will Miller; my home pastor, Mac Hamon. And each time I spoke to someone, God confirmed my call in so many ways: big and small and weird.

When we look at the major call stories that are recorded in the Bible—even when we hear call stories from some people—we can feel amazed, and awed, and… so incredibly insignificant in their shadow. Stories like Jeremiah’s call can leave us asking, What about me? What am I called to? Don’t I get to have a calling? I’ve never heard God speak to me like that. Where’s my vision, my burning bush, my hearing of God’s voice?

I mean, why do some people today get cool call stories that resemble the call stories we see in the Scriptures while others—even faithful people who want to find their calling—struggle to recognize anything that looks remotely like a call from God. In theory, we might know that everyone is called by God. Every Christian is called to live this radical thing we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ through faithful obedience to God. The Christian faith speaks of baptism as a kind of call—even as a kind of ordination into the priesthood of all believers—in which we’re set apart and called to serve. But in practice—and in reality—we might not see, or hear, or experience anything “big” enough for us to imagine or name as a call from God.

In January of 2014, God got into an argument with me—which I lost—and told me that I needed to write. When I told Joy about this other call, she was deep in the midst of trying to discern her own path forward. Charlotte would start Kindergarten soon. She had considered going back to school, but she hadn’t settled on a degree by that time. And I think she was a little annoyed with me when I told her. She was incredibly supportive, but she told me, “You know, it’s really not fair. You get two calls, and I’ve spent YEARS asking God to give me one. Why do you get two calls when I get none? Where’s mine?”

It was a fair point, I think. But I know my wife. I’d argue that she did have a call, even if she hadn’t discerned the specifics of it yet. We took a walk one evening and we ended up talking about what she might want to do in the future. While she talked a little about what she might like to do, she talked more about the needs of Fort Wayne as a community. That’s where her heart was (and still is). Partway through our discussion, I said, “You know, if you could start an orphanage and take care of every needy kid in the world, you’d do it, wouldn’t you?” And her response was a very startled, “YES! I would!”

Joy’s call is to advocate for children. Whatever she does, you can bet that taking care of children in some way, shape, or form is going to be a part of it. While we lived in Fort Wayne, she was going to enroll in IPFW, earn her master’s degree in School Counseling, and hoped to work in Fort Wayne Community Schools. The 2018 Census Bureau estimate is that 21.8% of children in Fort Wayne Community Schools live in impoverished households, and that’s down from what it was when we lived there. She wanted to be an advocate for those kids.

Then, we heard that we would be moved to Mount Vernon. Just when Joy figured out a path to live out her call, we moved. And it took her time to discern a new path. Joy earned her master’s degree in Public Administration from USI and started Thrive, which began as a project for one of her classes. She’s called to take care of children. But discerning exactly how she could live out that call was a long and winding path, with a few switchbacks and Road-Closed-Due-To-Avalanche signs to boot.

The reason I mention my wife’s call is because, when we read a call text like Jeremiah 1:4-10, or Isaiah 6:1-13, or Ezekiel 1:1-3:27, or the call of Moses in Exodus 3:1-4:17, or of Gideon in Judges 6:11-24, we can feel like our own call is a disappointment, or maybe not even there, because it’s not some grand sound and light show with burning bushes, wheels-within-wheels, visions of God enthroned, and a wet fleece when the ground is dry. Christian calling is not reserved for those whom God asks to do mighty things. Call is the invitation to every Christian to witness to the gospel in whatever ways God opens to us.

Sometimes… Okay, oftentimes, call is something we resist. Either we feel inadequate, or unprepared, or we lack experience. We have really great reasons for resisting our call. Jeremiah was too young. Moses couldn’t speak well. Gideon doubted, and didn’t have the right pedigree to be a leader. We have reasonable objections to excuse us from pursuing whatever call God places upon us. Isaiah, with his volunteerism, is an exception.

Mary also stands out as an exception. She was called to be an unwed mother and said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38 CEB). I think Mary also shows us that our call from God can be something as simple as being a parent—though every parent knows that there’s nothing simple about being a parent.

To have misgivings about our call is nothing new. Jeremiah’s reaction to his call, and his lifetime of work as a prophet, show us that fear, anxiety, resistance, inadequacy, and even resentment are understandable reactions to the demands of a call that God places on us. But, what we also learn from Jeremiah and others is that those feelings and reactions don’t disqualify us from God’s service. It’s not our suitability, nor our list of achievements, nor our level of confidence that caused God to call us.

“Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5 CEB). It sounds similar to a Psalm we might have read before, “You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful—I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo, and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me, before any one of them had yet happened” (Psalm 139:13-16 CEB).

God knows each of us more intimately than we know ourselves. God is the one who calls, not because we’re perfect or perfectly ready to take on a task, but because God knows us. God empowers us to fulfill the call we’re given.

How do we recognize what our call is? I think I’d start by asking a question. And it’s not, what are you good at? It’s not what are your skills? Rather, what moves your heart? What do you see in your family, your church, your community, or your world that tugs on your heart? Even if you don’t have any idea how to begin addressing it, even if you’re certain that you’re inadequate to the task, what are those things?

It might take time to discern exactly how to live out the call or calls that God places on each of us, but that’s okay. We might even be as terrified of our call as I was of my call to ministry, and sometimes we have good reason to be afraid. Yet, it’s God who prepares us to live out whatever vocation or call we’re given. What’s more, every person who is called by God—and I’d argue that every person is called by God—is offered the most often-uttered command in the Bible: “Don’t be afraid” (Jeremiah 1:8 CEB).

God is with us. When we follow our call, God is with us. When we’re struggling to find or hear our call, God is with us. When we’re following our call and having difficulty, God is with us. When we do our level best to ignore the call and pretend that God isn’t pounding on the door of our lives to claim us and all that we are, God is with us. We don’t have to be afraid to answer and accept God’s call, because God loves us, and God is with us always, even to the end of the age (c.f. Matthew 28:20).

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Baptism of the Lord |1st after Epiphany

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 

21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (CEB)

Baptism of the Lord

I have a bit of a testimony to share with you this morning. It’s one of the most significant things that ever happened in my life. In fact, I have little doubt that this event adjusted the trajectory of my entire life’s course. It was one of those statement moments: irreversible and cosmically potent. It’s probably the reason I’m here in this pulpit, preaching this sermon.

That moment was when I was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Webb Garrison at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville, Indiana.

We know why we need to be baptized, right? The human race is a fallen race. Our human nature is not what it was created to be. Our inclination is to do sinful things, think sinful things, say sinful things, and desire sinful things rather than good things. This proclivity to sin even makes us turn good things and ideas into agents of sin and ungodliness.

We need God’s grace to even begin getting out of this mess. And Christian baptism is a means of receiving that grace. When we’re baptized, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism brings us into union with Jesus Christ, with each other as a community, and with the church in every time and place. We’re baptized because we need new life through Christ.

We’re baptized because we need forgiveness for our sin. Baptism is the sacramental sign of that regeneration and new birth. It’s a work of God’s grace that makes us new creatures. That new birth is the beginning of the process of sanctification by which we grow in grace and holiness and our lives are shaped more closely to the image and pattern of Jesus Christ. Baptism is one of the many crucial thresholds we cross in our journey of faith, including that final transition from death to eternal life.

These are the reasons why we need to be baptized. But this Sunday is called the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is divine. Jesus didn’t sin. So, one question we might have this day is, why did Jesus need to be baptized? That question is especially significant when we consider that Jesus was baptized by John, and John’s baptism was clearly tied to God’s judgment and human repentance of sin. Why would Jesus need to experience this kind of baptism?

Luke gives us a clue in the text that follows his account of Jesus’ baptism. He lists the genealogy of Jesus back to “Seth son of Adam son of God” (Luke 3:38 CEB). In that genealogy, Jesus’ royal lineage is established, but it’s a lineage that includes flawed and tragic figures just like our lineage’s do.

Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin. His baptism was a sign that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. He wasn’t merely showing solidarity with humanity or identifying with us. In his baptism, Jesus fully acknowledged the tragic structures, rulers, principalities, and powers, of the human world: that his life, his choices, his teachings, and his actions are done within a messed up, fallen creation.

Our lives are so interconnected and intertwined that there are no innocent or sinless choices in our world. Our immediate lives do intersect with the lives of people around the globe. We’re neighbors to everyone even if, as we often are, we’re absentee neighbors. One requirement of Christian holiness is to recognize that we are all strands in the tapestry of a fallen creation. Our choices—whether of action or inaction, care or neglect—they affect other strands, other lives that are entangled in that weave, whether it’s a person in this sanctuary, a meth addict down the street, a homeless child, or a refugee on some distant border. What we need to remember is that Jesus came for all of us. That fact should guide how we, as individuals and participants in larger systems, act and react to others.

Jesus lived in a messed-up system, and so do we. He is both the son of Adam and the Son of God. While Jesus came to redeem and save humanity, he did so from within the confines of this fallen creation. So, his baptism and ours, connects us to the church and those whom Jesus came to redeem, which is everyone. We’re all a part of the same fallen human race.

On this Sundays another question we ask ourselves is, what does this say to us about who Jesus is? There’s a lot more than simple baptism at stake in the baptism of Jesus, not that any baptism is a simple matter. What is at stake in this event?

People were filled with expectation about whether or not John the Baptist might be the Messiah. He looked the part. He wore clothes similar to what Elijah wore. His message was about repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. He criticized the political and religious leadership. Messianic expectations were already running high in Jesus’ day. Several potential candidates had come and gone: Theudas and Judas the Galilean are mentioned as two such persons in Acts chapter 5.

But when the people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered by saying, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (Luke 3:16-17 CEB).

When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and the voice of the Father thundered from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These two verses are the first place in the Scriptures where God is fully revealed as Three-In-One. Christians believe God is one God, but God has revealed God’s self to be three Persons. Even though we call Jesus God’s Son, there has never been a time when God was not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are hints of it throughout the Old Testament, but here, it’s revealed fully.

First, the heavens opened when Jesus prayed, and he was addressed by the voice of God as his Son. This tells us that the origins of Jesus are not merely human. While Jesus is a human being in all the fullness of what that means, he is also a Divine being. Jesus is God’s Son, which means that Jesus himself is Divine.

Second, the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form. Jesus received the Holy Spirit, and God the Father addressed Jesus directly as his “Son, the Beloved.” We worship the Living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons. Jesus Christ is the Son, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity.

Third, in order for Jesus to be called the Messiah, which means anointed one, he had to be anointed. It’s at his baptism that Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah. The Holy Spirit serves as the unction of the anointing of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was with Jesus in power throughout his earthly ministry.

John’s prophetic words about the Messiah also reveal to us the significance of our own baptism. John says that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. After Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit into the world in a new and powerful way on the Day of Pentecost. Baptism is by water and the Holy Spirit. At our baptism, we were baptized by water to symbolize the spiritual cleansing which takes place as the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

At baptism, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the baptismal water and upon the one who is baptized. It is in baptism that the Holy Spirit imprints upon us a mark which states that we belong to God. In several instances the New Testament speaks of baptism as sealing. It’s kind of like writing your name on the tag of a coat or shirt. The mark of the Holy Spirit imprinted upon us in baptism says, this person belongs to God.

The importance of the Baptism of the Lord and all the Sundays during the Epiphany season, the importance of searching the ways in which God reveals God’s self to us through Jesus Christ, is this: The Jews of Jesus day had a variety of preconceived ideas about what the Messiah would be and what the Messiah was coming to do. Most of these ideas were limited, having only to do with the people of Israel. Many of the people, therefore, kind of missed the boat.

People today aren’t too terribly different. We have our own preconceived ideas about God. The problem is that God’s ideas are always bigger than ours. God’s vision is always broader than ours. And God has a history of revealing a plan that is far and away beyond our expectations or imaginings.

God reveals God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t send his Son, the Beloved, to condemn the world or crush the people we don’t like. God sent his only begotten Son to make all things new—to make us new. Jesus Christ came to bring us a baptism that washes us whiter than snow, to share in our humanity, to carry our sins upon himself, and to offer salvation freely to all.

Jesus reveals God to us in ways that transform, renew, make whole, and bring peace. God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ, the Son, is much more than anything we could have imagined. It’s healing from the brokenness of sin for all who call upon Christ’s name. And it connects us to others around the world more intimately than we can imagine.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Epiphany | Day of Epiphany

Ephesians 3:-12

1 This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles. 2 You’ve heard, of course, about the responsibility to distribute God’s grace, which God gave to me for you, right? 3 God showed me his secret plan in a revelation, as I mentioned briefly before 4 (when you read this, you’ll understand my insight into the secret plan about Christ). 5 Earlier generations didn’t know this hidden plan that God has now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets through the Spirit. 6 This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

7 I became a servant of the gospel because of the grace that God showed me through the exercise of his power. 8 God gave his grace to me, the least of all God’s people, to preach the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. 9 God sent me to reveal the secret plan that had been hidden since the beginning of time by God, who created everything. 10 God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church. 11 This was consistent with the plan he had from the beginning of time that he accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In Christ we have bold and confident access to God through faith in him.

The Epiphany

One question with which the church wrestled in its earliest days was whether certain racial and ethnic groups could be included in the church. It’s probably not all that difficult to believe given the past and present racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious discrimination in the United States.

And, before any of us raise our eyebrows about the religious discrimination part, remember that before John F. Kennedy was elected, no one thought a Roman Catholic could be president. The fear was that a Catholic president would be a puppet of the Pope. That’s religious discrimination. The United States has a long, ugly history of discrimination that persists as a part of our national identity. To be sure, so, too, do other nations. The United States certainly isn’t the only one now or historically.

But it might come as a surprise to learn that the early church had to wrestle with matters of this nature, too. This was the church in its infancy. Many of these people—women and men—were disciples who had walked with Jesus. So, how could people in the church have held the idea that race or ethnicity could keep one apart from the salvation of God?

I’ve mentioned in previous sermons how the Judaism of Jesus’ day had evolved from its earliest roots. The architectural layout of the Jerusalem temple differed from that of the original tent of meeting in that it had various courts which excluded certain people. Gentiles could go no farther than the Court of Gentiles. Jewish women could go no farther than the Court of Women. Jewish men could go no farther than the Court of Israel. Only priests could enter the Court of Priests. The architecture of the temple, itself, shows us that access to God was being limited based on the consequence of a person’s birth: male, female, priestly family, non-priestly family, Jew, non-Jew. One’s physical nearness to God was limited by these factors. Dividing walls had been erected between people and God: walls designed and built by people. These demarcations were not from the Bible.

The first Christians were Jewish women and men, so these ideas of barriers and exclusion that existed in the Judaism of their day persisted into the early church, especially the idea that salvation was for Jews, not Gentiles. If a Gentile wanted to be saved, then he or she must become a Jew first and follow the law of Moses. Otherwise, they didn’t have access to God’s promises or salvation. Judaism of the first century could not imagine the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan.

Gentiles were known within first century Judaism as sinners. The word Gentile was practically synonymous with the word sinner. So, it wasn’t entirely a surprise that many—if not most—Jews who believed in Jesus Christ held that view of Gentiles. The salvation of Jesus was for Jews. The light to the nations was imagined as a beacon that would draw Gentiles to Israel so they could become Jews (c.f. Isaiah 60) and follow the law of Moses. Gentiles were on the outside looking in unless they were circumcised into the Covenant of Israel.

You might remember the event recorded in Acts 10, where Peter had a dream and went to visit the Gentile Cornelius. Even when he arrived at Cornelius’s house Peter was hesitant about the whole matter, and he confessed to Cornelius, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Note that Peter didn’t say that he’d learned that lesson fully, he spoke as if it were still in progress, “I really am learning…” He was on his way. Getting there.

After sharing the good news about Jesus with these Gentiles, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his entire household, which surprised Peter and the Jewish-Christians who were with him. We’re told Peter and the circumcised believers “…were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45 CEB). Since these Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, Peter decided they should probably be baptized, so this household of Gentiles were baptized into the church.”

And not everyone liked it. When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and laid accusations against him for going into a Gentile home and eating with them (c.f. Acts 11:1-18). Peter’s actions were unacceptable to them. So, Peter had to explain himself and his actions to these men.

(And we know his critics were all men because they’re described as “the circumcised believers” in verse 3).

After Peter’s explanation, the critics concluded that God had apparently enabled Gentiles to repent—to change their hearts and lives—so they might have new life. But it was unexpected, and it took a lot of God-led intervention before anyone—even Peter—came to that conclusion: two visions, that of Cornelius and Peter (note that Peter had to see his vision three times!), and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles before the eyes of circumcised believers.

Accepting non-Jews into the church was neither automatic nor easy. There was resistance to it. The circumcised believers didn’t understand how the church—let alone a holy God—could possibly accept people whom they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt were sinners. Because, to them, the fact was that Gentiles were sinners. Period.

Later, in Acts 15, the situation with the Gentiles had become such a hot-button issue that the church in Jerusalem held a council to determine what to do about the matter. And Scripture doesn’t perfectly agree with what happened at that council. In Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a somewhat rosy picture in chapter 15, while Paul’s version of events in Galatians 2 is much less so. (Paul was actually there, Luke wasn’t). Paul even described how he called Peter out after Peter began to treat the Gentile believers differently—he stopped eating with them—when some Jewish believers who came from James to promote circumcision among the Gentile believers.

Paul had a heated disagreement with the circumcised believers who promoted circumcision for years. In fact, Paul got so mad at them that he wished they wouldn’t stop at circumcision. They should just go all the way and castrate themselves (c.f. Galatians 5:12).

The author of Ephesians, whether it was written by Paul or not, nevertheless echoes Paul’s insistence that God has unexpectedly and surprisingly expanded a formerly well-defined, black-and-white, clear-cut orthodox religious belief. God showed the author of Ephesians God’s secret plan in a revelation—an Epiphany. This grand plan of God, which had been hidden from all previous generations, had now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets. “This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesian 3:6 CEB).

It’s like feminism for Gentiles. Feminism says that females are equal to males in all aspects of culture, religion, and society. The author of Ephesians says that Gentiles are equal to Jews in the eyes and plan of God—that we have a place in God’s plan as co-heirs. Elsewhere, Paul declares that in Jesus Christ there is no longer any separation between us based on the consequence of our birth. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, circumcised nor uncircumcised (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). We Gentiles share with the Jews in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel: the good news.

Moreover, the author of Ephesians declares that his special mission from God is to declare this good news—that Gentiles are recipients of God’s immeasurable riches. It begs the question, if this is good news, for whom or for what is it bad news? Usually, good news for the outcast is seen as bad news by insiders. Good news for the poor is seen as bad news by the rich. Good news for the immigrant is seen as bad news by citizens. Good news for women is seen as bad news by men. It’s the established, the beneficiaries of power, and the rule-makers who want to keep the other fenced out, walled off, contained, divided, separate.

Yet, the author of Ephesians tells us that God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of God’s wisdom through the church. The “rulers and powers” in the heavens are a part of God’s creation. They’re representative of the forces at work in human life, such as political systems, social systems, institutional systems, even religious systems, among others.

In and of themselves, these rulers and powers in the heavens are not evil, but sin does work in and through them all the time. These rulers and powers also claim our allegiance in place of God. Sin exhibits itself in the rulers, powers, and principalities in many ways. Whenever institutions, political parties, governments, or governmental authorities express actions or even ideas that are contrary to God’s design—including discrimination—those authorities and powers act as agents of sin. When they woo human allegiance to themselves and their designs, thus away from God and God’s designs, then they’re acting as agents of sin.

What’s interesting about this text is that the church is explicitly described as something that confronts these rulers and powers with God’s wisdom. We, the church, are called by God to act in ways that confront and ultimately counter the sin of the rulers and powers. That’s why the church’s primary allegiance is to God, not to any particular nation or politic.

That allegiance to God, first, frees us—the church—to speak truth to power and bring the good news to bear on all parts of society. We don’t sit idly by. We don’t silently accede while the rulers and powers do their work. We—the church—bring to bear the rich variety of God’s wisdom that is within us against those sinful official policies and authorized mandates of the rulers and powers.

This good news—God’s eternal plan that was once hidden but now revealed—is that there is equality between those who were formerly not seen as equals. In Ephesians, that means there is equality between Jew and Gentile. For us, today, how might that reorient our imaginations about the way things are?

There’s something inherently subversive to the gospel: the good news. The dominion of God is more than a little subversive in its inbreaking-activity in our world. It came in a new and powerful way as a baby born in Bethlehem. It was announced to the rulers and powers by Gentile Magi from the east. And those rulers and powers responded by slaughtering the children all around Bethlehem and sending the parents of Jesus fleeing for their lives into Egypt.

The rulers and powers are terrified of the gospel. Jesus Christ was more than a little subversive to the rulers and powers he faced, and those rulers and powers responded by killing him. Yet, God thwarted their intentions by raising Jesus from the dead.

The thing is, we—God’s church—have bold access to God through faith in Jesus Christ. The author of Ephesians tells us we can have confidence in this. We can speak truth and wisdom to the reigning disorder of those rulers and powers so that the world might be transformed by God’s grace. As the author of Ephesians reminds us, God created everything. One day, the rulers and powers will answer to God. Until then, we are servants who are called to distribute God’s grace, just as the author of Ephesians was.

Jesus Christ came to reveal God to all people, including those people who were once considered outside the bounds of God’s grace and care. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany: because God’s hidden plan has been made known. The oneness and inclusion which God intends for humanity is good news, and it will not be thwarted.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Matured | 1st after Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.

His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them. 51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

Matured

The Sunday after Christmas Day typically has a less-than-normal attendance rate at worship services. It’s the same with the Sunday after Easter Day. The big celebration of Christmas is now over. Decorations are probably coming down in some people’s homes. We’re tired because we’ve all been busy with travelling, visiting family and friends, going to Christmas parties and gatherings, eating Christmas meals, the craziness of Christmas morning when the kids (or grandkids) open their gifts. Not to mention all the shopping that some people have been doing for more than a month.

It’s exhausting! Wonderful, but exhausting.

I feel like I had two Christmas Days because I saw Christmas morning twice. Once from midnight to about 2:00 a.m. after our Candlelight Vigil Service, and then again at about 8:00 a.m. when I woke up for the day. Honestly, by Christmas evening, I didn’t want to do anything but go to sleep early.

And now we have the revelry of New Year’s Eve to look forward to tomorrow. I’m still tired frim Christmas. My New Year’s Eve will be me sitting at home finishing off the last of the eggnog. I may or may not stay up to ring in 2019 because 2018 just made me that tired.

So, I get why church members stay home on the Sunday after Christmas.

In fact, today is almost an image of our Gospel text from Luke. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festival, as usual. Now that the festival had ended, they headed home with all the other faithful pilgrims who’d gone to the temple for worship. The temple, which had been a crowded place during the celebration would have boasted plenty of room for the few who might show up now that it was over. Maybe these were, like the young Jesus, the faithful whose devotion lasted year-round. There were people like that: people like Anna who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37 CEB).

Apparently, the smaller crowd allowed extra time to discuss important matters of faith, which was just what the twelve-year-old Son of God craved. Really, Jesus’ motive for staying in the Temple while his parents hit the road isn’t clear. Maybe he had questions that were important to him and wanted to discuss them with those who really might know the answers or, at least, how to find those answers. Maybe he lost track of time, like kids tend to do. Maybe he thought he was grown up enough to stay behind in another city while his mom and dad headed back home to Nazareth and figured he’d catch up with them later. Maybe he didn’t think he was lost at all.

His parents, Mary and Joseph, certainly thought Jesus was lost. At least, they came to that conclusion after travelling a day toward home before realizing that their son wasn’t with their group. The text suggests that Mary and Joseph were travelling back to Nazareth with a rather large company of extended family and friends, so it’s easy to imagine how a tween-age boy could get lost among the other kids in the group.

When we had our Romain Christmas gathering, we walked into my cousin’s house and I didn’t see my children for hours. I assumed they were somewhere in the house, but I figured as long as there wasn’t screaming that suggested pain or blood puddles on the floor, I just assumed they were good.

Now, I know that Mary and Joseph occasionally get a bad wrap from some people who think, how could they travel an entire day and not know their kid was missing? Were their parenting skills that bad? But, I’ll defend them. As a parent with kids currently ranging in age from eight to thirteen, I get it. I really do. Being a parent is exhausting on any day but being a parent on a holiday is ridiculous! I mean, nothing can prepare you for the energy it saps out of your bones.

When I first became a parent, every sound Kara made had me running to her cradle to make sure she was okay. Every! Sound! And it got tiring. I think it’s one of those learning curves every parent experiences. So, over time, a parent learns to pay attention to the kind of sound your kid makes. And we parse out whether the sound is just a sound, or a distressful sound. And we get really adept at learning to tell the difference.

So, for instance, take screaming.

Parents—and adults who are used to kids—pretty much know the difference between happy screams and screams of pain. But there are those moments when a scream’s pitch makes parents sit up with a racing heart and listen hard, because the way a scream sounded, it could go either way.

So, we listen, ready to get up and run, while pausing to see how this thing’s going to turn out. Those moments, they’re like restrained tension: parents are a loaded spring ready to go. Then, a laugh rings out, or there’s a tell-tale change in pitch that reassures our hearts that the child in question is actually expressing joy rather than pain. And we relax and go back to what we were doing because we’re reasonably certain that the kids are okay.

At my cousin Amy’s house, I just assumed my kids were somewhere… in the house. Same with my cousin Ryan a day later. I just assumed my kids were with their cousins… somewhere. I didn’t see them for hours. But again: no screaming, and no blood. So, in my mind, they were good.

I say that to put Mary and Joseph’s situation into a little perspective. They were not neglectful parents. They were not travelling as a nuclear family, they were traveling as The Crowd from Nazareth. Jesus is the one who decided to stay in Jerusalem when his parents left the city in the caravan full of family and friends. Why wouldn’t they have assumed Jesus was in the caravan with them? Why wouldn’t they assume their son was off with some of his cousins or friends? Leaving would have been as busy and chaotic as any family trip I’ve ever taken. Jesus knew they were leaving. In their favor, the text does say that Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was in the caravan, and they looked for him the whole day while they travelled. Jesus is the one who ditched them and chose to wander off for another visit to the temple.

And, he really didn’t waste any courtesy on his mom and dad when they found him—three days later(!)—in the temple. When Mary asked him why he did this to them and explained how worried they’d been and how they’d had to search for him, Jesus’ response was, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 CEB).

No. They obviously didn’t know that. Luke only tells us that his parents didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, which is a clue that there’s more going on in the text than at first appears.

On one hand, I try to imagine how I would respond to this situation if this were my son. But that really doesn’t compare because my son is a normal kid, and I’m a normal parent. Mary, on the other hand, knew that Jesus was God’s Son, that he was special and different. Maybe this wasn’t the first instance of Jesus doing something odd and acting like it was completely normal. In any case, it seems that Mary and Joseph exercised a rare kind of patience with their son that was equal to the moment and met Jesus where he was.

Where Jesus was, in this moment and so many others, was in his father’s house. One of the things we learn about Jesus is that the temple was immensely important to him. He was carried into the temple before he could walk when he was presented to the Lord and recognized as Israel’s redeemer by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-24). He, apparently, like to hang out there and ask questions of the scribes and elders. When Jesus visited the temple years later, Jesus threw the money changers out and turned over the tables of those who were selling things there. And he quoted Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, saying, “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks” (Luke 19:46 CEB).

Jesus called it his house, because his father’s house was his home, too. And what was going on in his house necessarily demanded his attention. “Didn’t you know,” Jesus said to his mother, “that it was necessary for me to be in my father’s house?”

I’d posit that it’s necessary for us to be in God’s house, too. We need to be present in God’s house so that we can mature and grow in perfection. God’s grace is necessary for us to grow, and that necessarily requires something of us.

Here’s the curious thing—at least it might seem a curious thing to us: even Jesus matured. Even Jesus grew in perfection. Even Jesus needed to be in the temple to worship God. Even Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath day, as the Gospel reminds us in Luke 4:16.

The fact that Jesus “matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52 CEB) wasn’t some miraculous event that just happened, it was due to the practice of his faith! He was in the temple. He was an observant Jew from a family of observant Jews who went to temple during the pilgrim festivals, and to the synagogue every Sabbath. It was important to Jesus to be in God’s house. Jesus grew steadily from his religious roots, not in spite of them. There is no such thing as being either a Jew or a Christian apart from the community of faith!

John Wesley saw this text as evidence for practical divinity, that growth in holiness is a process that requires progress. Jesus, though he was already perfect, continued to grow in perfection. If even the perfect Son of God had to mature and grow, it plainly follows that even the purest and most seasoned of Christians have room to mature, too. Isn’t that why we come to this place every week?

I’m glad you’re here to worship God on this typically low-attendance Sunday. Maybe you know why you decided to come or, maybe, you don’t really know. Maybe you just felt compelled by some inner-necessity to be in God’s house today with your extended family and friends. Whatever got you here, your presence on such a day suggests that your faith is important to you, and that—like Jesus—you know you have room to mature.

Which, if you think about it, is a rather mature insight.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay