Serpent of Bronze | 4th in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. 7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.”

9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live. (CEB)

Serpent of Bronze

Our text today deals with one of several “murmuring stories” in the book of Numbers. The story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is full of instances where the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against God, and after each instance of murmuring it is Moses who successfully intercedes on behalf of the people.

The reason this murmuring story is so interesting is because it’s different from most of the other examples of Israel’s murmuring. In most instances, Israel’s murmuring gets results from God. The people complain about their situation—they’re hungry or thirsty—and God provides for their needs by giving them food or water. God can be influenced by their complaints, and God responds by giving good gifts. This kind of thing may work a few times but, like any parent, God eventually grows weary of the complaining.

It’s something any parent can readily understand. When our older two children were little, I would take my day off on Thursdays and stay home with the kids so Joy could go to work. Any day a parent spends at home with their children will inevitably be a day filled with complaining.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

Ok, let me get you something to eat.

Daddy, I want a drink.

Ok, let me get you a cup of water.

No, I want juice.

How about water instead?

No, I want juice.

Ok, here’s your juice.

Daddy, I want to watch Berenstein Bears.

Ok, I’ll let you watch one episode.

Daddy, can I watch two?

No. You can watch one.

But mommy lets me watch two.

Well, I’m not mommy; you can watch one.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

But I just gave you a snack.

But can I have another snack?

And it would go on and on and on. Nevertheless, when the children complained they usually get what they wanted. That is, until my patience ran out. Eventually the dialogue of complaints broke down into one little girl or little boy getting very upset because something didn’t quite go their way. Various kinds of punishment soon followed: from spending a few minutes in the Naughty Chair to being sent to a bedroom to having a certain toy taken away – or any combination of the above.

There are a couple of places where God loses patience with his beloved children, the people of Israel, and punishes them. This is one of those instances. The complaint of the people is rather incoherent ranting. They complained that they had no food and no water, yet they also said, “…and we detest this miserable food,” meaning that they did actually have food in their possession.

Maybe they had soda crackers, but they wanted something fancier like Sociables or Tomato & Basil flavored Wheat Thins, and maybe a nice fancy cheese ball to boot. The food God had given them wasn’t good enough for them. So they hearkened back to the good ol’ days when they were slaves in Egypt. At least there they had better fare for their table. Their complaint accused the Lord of infidelity toward Israel by not taking care of them. And it accused Moses of poor, failed leadership. That’s what people do when the economy tanks. In Israel’s situation in the wilderness, there was barely any economy of which to speak.

This is the point where God has had enough. God sends הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים  (ha-netashim ha-seraphim) among the people to bite them, and many Israelites died. One question about verse 6 is how to translate these Hebrew words. Some possible translations include “venomous snakes,” “poisonous serpents,” or “fiery serpents.”

The Hebrew word seraphim could be taken as an adjective or a substantive. If it is to be taken as an adjective, then it describes the serpents as being venomous, or poisonous, or fiery.

If it is to be taken as a substantive, then it tells us what type of serpents they were: Seraph Serpents.

However you take it, another question remains. What were they? Again, the word used is seraphim. The seraphim are the angelic beings surrounding God’s throne. So, were these things that were biting the people actual snakes like the kind that slither through your yard? Or were they angelic beings coming down among the people in the form of serpents to punish the people? Either way, it sounds like something straight out of a Stephen King novel!

It’s this event of divine punishment that makes the people of Israel realize that they’ve gone too far with their complaining. This time, they’ve sinned against the Lord by spurning the gift of food already given, and by spurning the gift of freedom from slavery, which the Lord enabled. They came to Moses and confessed to him that they have sinned by complaining against the Lord and against Moses. They became submissive and repentant because of what had come upon them. They asked Moses to intercede for them: to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away from them. Those who were so impatient a short while ago had suddenly recognized that they needed to come to terms with God’s sovereign rule. They also realized that protest against God’s rule is not only futile, but self-destructive.

Recognizing and responding to the change that had come over the people, the God who had allowed death to come among the people now provided a way of life. God told Moses to make a Seraph Serpent—or fiery or poisonous serpent—and set it upon a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

On a side note, you’ve all seen copies of this bronze serpent on a pole. Nearly every physician’s office in the world has one posted somewhere. This is where physicians got their symbol of a snake wrapped around a pole. When you need healing, you go see your doctor.

Notice that God did not take the serpents away as the people hoped. The serpents were still among the people, and people still got bitten by them. The people still had to live with the consequences of their sin, and those consequences could very well have meant death! But God provided a way of salvation, a way of life. The very thing that brought death to so many people, the serpent, now brought life to those who looked toward it. God took a symbol of pain, suffering, and death, and transformed it into a symbol of life.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell from original righteousness into original sin, they had to live with the consequences of their sin. From the moment they were cast forth from Eden, they were subject to suffering, pain, and death. They, and all their children after them, have lived with these consequences. I’m sure that they repented and they begged God to change God’s mind and let them back into the Garden where every need they had was perfectly met. But what’s done is done, and there are consequences for sin.

We may think this is awfully callous on God’s part, even hardhearted. But how often do we read in Scripture that God punishes those whom God loves? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that consequences are, in the long run, in our own best interest, and are a shining example of God’s ever-present love for us. After all, without consequences we would never learn. Parents know that consequences are what help children learn to avoid bad behavior and do the right thing. If I want my kids to pick up their room, then I can tell them that they can’t have electronics until everything is picked up and put away properly. Believe me, they might complain, but when I start collecting their Kindles, things start getting picked up.

In the Gospel of John there’s a very short reference to this narrative in the book of Numbers. In John 3:14, Jesus says, “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.” The consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to suffer death. And Paul says that death is the result of our own sin as well. He wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God took the cross—a symbol of grotesque suffering, torture, pain, and death—and by the lifting up of God’s only Son on that cross, transformed a symbol of death into the means of life. The consequences of sin remain with us, and we must live with those consequences. But whenever we’re bitten by the consequences of our sin, we know that we can look toward the cross of Jesus Christ and live.

God has provided a way for us to live, not only in the here and now, but in the hereafter. The promise of God to humanity is that those who believe in Jesus Christ may have eternal life. God transforms everything God touches. It’s not just that the serpents of death were transformed into something that saves. And it’s not just that the cross was transformed by Christ into something that saves. It’s also that when we believe, God transforms our lives so that we become ambassadors of salvation to the world. We become God’s own people, God’s own children. And through our proclamation of the Good News we become bringers of salvation to the world.

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


Foolishness | 3rd in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called– both Jews and Greeks– Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (CEB)


This text about the foolishness of the cross follows Paul’s appeal for unity in the church. It begins an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, and tries to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel. The fundamental theme in this part of First Corinthians is the opposition between human wisdom and the lo,goj, which is the Word of the cross.

Paul diagnoses the root causes of the conflicts and rivalries within the Corinthian church by showing that they glory in superficial human wisdom. People are boasting about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence—or at least they’re infatuated with leaders who possess these qualities. In a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, strong rhetoricians were the pop-stars of the day. It hardly mattered what was said, so long as it the speaker had a convincing argument or strong emotional appeal.

Paul wasn’t necessarily an excellent speaker. He was laughed at in Athens after attempting a speech there. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he writes that he knows what others are saying about him: “I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’” (CEB). Paul wasn’t a gifted orator. So, he used this fact about himself as an example of the very point he was making. God’s message to human beings doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in pretty packages. God’s true nature is revealed in weakness, not in the powerful and mighty and strong, which is what most of us would expect.

God has revealed in Jesus Christ a kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of the world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and helpless death of the crucified Jesus. If the crucifixion is the revelation of the deepest truth about God’s character, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned up-side-down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross. Paul takes the central event of the Christian story and uses it as a lens to bring what we know and see into focus so that everything—what we see and assume to know—is viewed afresh.

Much of the controversy among the Corinthians may have stemmed from the tendency of those Christians to regard Paul, Apollos, and Cephas as competing for public approval and attention alongside other popular—and probably pagan—philosophers and rhetoricians. The wisdom that Paul refers to is both the possession of divine knowledge, and the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful, eloquent, and rhetorically polished way.

Here, Paul forcefully argues against the idea that the gospel is just another kind of human wisdom, and reframes the debate into different categories. The gospel is placed into a category apart from the wisdom of this world. The gospel, the Good News of salvation offered through Jesus Christ, is not a secretive or mysterious body of religious knowledge. It’s not a slickly packaged philosophy. It’s not a scheme for living a better life. It’s not a handy self-improvement course. Instead, it’s an announcement about God’s intervention in the world for the sake of the world.

The perspective of God’s radical intervention to bring about something new, is signaled by the way in which Paul describes the encounter between the world and the gospel in verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (CEB). As the word of God—the word about the cross—breaks into the world, it divides all of humanity into two groups. The present participles that describe the two contrasting groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved indicate, significantly, that Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as something that’s underway right now. Paul describes the church not as those who are saved, but as those who are being saved. That distinction is important, because Paul will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed, still-in-process, character of salvation in Christ.

Part of the trouble with those who claim to have wisdom is that they suppose they’ve already arrived, already are in possession of the full truth. But for Paul, the power of God is presently stirring, presently occurring, presently percolating, presently on the move in the world through the gospel, bringing both destruction and deliverance: destruction to those who are willfully blind to the truth of God, and deliverance to those who believe.

Paul is saying that the books are not yet closed; God’s final verdict for our lives has not yet been rendered. Thus, as the power of God is at work in the world through the proclamation of the gospel, members of the church find themselves on a trajectory toward salvation, but they cannot unqualifiedly claim salvation at the present time. Salvation, at least in this instance, is described as something we work on throughout our lives. We can have confidence that God will achieve salvation for us in the end, but it only comes through the unmerited grace of God.

Paul’s also making another point. Simply put, Christians—those who are being saved—should see the world differently than those who are perishing. The fixation of the Christian church on a crucified Lord seems to be the height of absurdity to those who are perishing. To them, the word of the cross is not wisdom, but foolishness. The Greek word used there is μωρία (moria), and the root of that Greek word is found in our English word “moron.” The way the rest of the world sees it, we who believe in the power of the cross are a bunch of morons. But we who are being saved see the supposed foolishness of the cross from a different perspective.

The Christians of Corinth, who were celebrating their own wisdom, were celebrating something other than the gospel. It revealed that they still viewed the world from the perspective of those who are perishing. Those who are being saved, however, recognize the cross as God’s power.

This perspective changes the way we understand everything. This is Paul’s great paradox, and he sees its truth revealed in the Old Testament. He quotes from Isaiah 29:14 when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 CEB). Isaiah’s verb ἀπολῶ (apolo) I will destroy is echoed by Paul’s reference in 1:18 to those who are perishing ἀπολλυμένοις (apollumenois) which literally means those who are being destroyed. According to Isaiah, the thing that God is going to annihilate is the wisdom of the wise, precisely the thing that the Corinthians were prizing.

Therein lies the Corinthian problem. They were relying on human wisdom, which God is going to thwart and destroy. They talked about possessing Godly wisdom, but their behavior of quarreling and causing divisions revealed something else entirely. They made a show of honoring God with their lips, but their behavior toward each other revealed that their hearts were far from God.

When you read the whole of Isaiah’s oracle from which Paul quotes one line, you see that that is what Isaiah was talking about as well. The people of Judah honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. The message is that talk about God is cheap. Honoring God with the way we live is what ultimately matters. The Corinthians stood under the sentence of divine judgment which would nullify their professed wisdom and unmask their professed piety as a sham.

Having stated his paradox about the word of the cross and supporting it by a citation from Isaiah, Paul cranks up the tension of the passage even higher by developing a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The four rhetorical questions of verse 20 pose a direct challenge to the philosophers, scribes (who were experts in Jewish Law), and debaters of the world (the pagan orators). They all belong to this age. In apocalyptic thought everything of this age will be swept away, or simply made to appear ridiculous when the new age is inaugurated. The wisdom of this world will be revealed as foolishness by God’s strange way of revealing grace through the cross.

In the ancient world, rhetorical eloquence was highly prized. Powerful orators received the same sort of acclaim that today we reserve for movie stars and professional athletes. But Paul now regards all this acclaim as utterly negated by God. “Where are they now?” Paul asked rhetorically.

Philosophers, Torah scholars, and popular orators—all the most esteemed pundits of Paul’s day—failed to understand what was really going on in the world. All their wisdom had failed to grasp the truth about God. Paul notes the irony. He says it is “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 CEB).

Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are contrary to what our fallen minds would call common sense. In contrast to this age God has blown common sense away by revelation “through the foolishness of preaching.” That Greek word, μωρία (moria), suggests the utter craziness of the gospel message by the standards of common sense wisdom. How can the humiliating death of Jesus on a cross be the event of salvation for the world? One would have to be a fool, a moron, to believe it!

I guess that makes us fools for the Gospel.

Paul’s language throughout this part of 1 Corinthians reveals the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. But this isn’t just Paul’s version of worldly wisdom and rhetoric. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are shaken up and dumped up-side-down. The outlandish message confounded Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably sought evidence of a more credible sort, either “signs,” which would be empirical demonstrations of power, or “wisdom,” which would be rational and persuasive argumentation. But Paul offers neither signs nor wisdom. Instead Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB).

The scandal of this message can be a little difficult for us Christians of later eras to imagine. In Paul’s day, to proclaim a crucified Messiah was to speak nonsense. Crucifixion was a gruesome punishment administered by the Romans to make an example out of rebels, insurrectionists, and those who would otherwise disturb the Roman peace. It was a horrible form of public torture and execution, designed to demonstrate that no one should defy the Empire. Yet, Paul’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion of Jesus is somehow the singular event through which God has triumphed over Rome and all other worldly powers. Rather than confirming what the wisest minds already knew, the cross confounded the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Those Corinthians who had been converted to Christianity under Paul’s preaching ought to have known this, because his whole message was “Christ crucified.” This proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and absolutely nuts to the Greeks. But for those who are a part of the church—made up of Jews and Gentiles together, those who are called at Corinth and elsewhere—the mind-warping paradox is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

To enter the world of the Gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination. It’s to see all values transformed by the foolish and seemingly weak death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t do things the way we expect. Human wisdom is subverted by the power of God which is revealed in weakness. And the seeming defeat of death gave way to the victory of resurrection.

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


Credited to Us | 2nd in Lent

Romans 4:13-25

13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have. 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. (CEB)

Credited to Us

My health insurance’s wellness program is pretty cool. We use Virgin Pulse, and it gives rewards based on physical activity and participation in features of the program. I wear my FitBit Blaze, which tracks my steps, active minutes, stairs, heartrate, and even sleep. All that information goes into the cloud and gets recorded by the Virgin Pulse website. I earn a certain number of points based on how many steps I’ve taken, and how many active minutes I’ve had in my day. I can record meals and healthy snacks. They have health coaches who call me and talk me through setting goals for physical activity and give me encouragement. I can even challenge friends of mine who are also in the Virgin Pulse program. I get points for all it.

All those points add up on my account, and I can earn small cash rewards based on the number I’ve earned. I usually dump mine into an Amazon gift card to help feed my book-reading habit, which my daughter appreciates because she gets to read the books, too. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to earn rewards for my healthy activity. But I wouldn’t earn anything if it weren’t for the wellness program that offered them. They have faith my ability to work toward better health, and that makes me want to work for it even more. Besides, I’ve already got my Amazon Wish List ready with my next book orders.

In the same way, our faith is a gift to us from God. It may be credited to us as righteousness, but faith isn’t something we have apart from God’s gracious gift. God offers faith to us as our response to God.

Paul’s writings are some of the more difficult to put into a sermon because you often have to look at his full argument, instead of pieces of it, and understand the context from whish he’s writing. It’s difficult to take a single text and preach about it because the preceding and following verses are also part of Paul’s argument as a whole. And, with this text, we need to include the reading about Abraham from Genesis 17 if we’re going to understand it.

Abraham is the key to understanding Paul’s argument here. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abraham represents something important. But it’s different for each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. For Jews, Abraham is the literal father of the nation. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham. For Muslims, Abraham is the example of a model Muslim—one who submits to the will of God. For Christians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the “father of many nations” is fulfilled in the faith of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, here’s a little background. Back in the year 49, Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. As a result of that decree, Priscila and Aquila had emigrated from Rome to Corinth, which is where Paul first met them on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-2). When the Jews were expelled, the Gentile Christians in Rome likely rose in prominence.

Less than a decade later, during the winter of the year 57 or 58 while he was staying in Corinth on his Third Missionary Journey, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church. By then, the ban of Jews in Rome had been lifted, and Priscila and Aquila had moved back. We know that because Paul sent his greetings to them in verse 16:3. When these Jewish Christians returned, it probably caused some ethnic discord between the Gentile and Jewish Christian congregations.

Remember that the earliest communities of the church often had Jewish and Gentile congregations who worshipped separately. It was a struggle for some, especially the Jewish Christians, to fully accept their Gentile sisters and brothers in Christ as such. Some Jewish Christians even argued that Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, because Christianity was a Jewish thing. The main thrust of Paul’s argument here is ethnicity, and he’s trying to show both groups that they’re actually equals through faith.

Earlier in Romans, Paul argues two main points. First, he argues that everyone knows the law, including Gentiles, because we can clearly see and understand God through the things God has made (c.f. 1:20). Yet, everyone rejects God instead of honoring God. Second, he argues that no one follows the Law, even the Jews who might boast of possessing it (c.f. 2:23). It seems like he’s painted himself into a corner with his argument when he concludes, “It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in his presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law” (Romans 3:20 CEB). In fact, he uses a list of Psalms in verses 3:10-18 to add to his point that no one is righteous.

At this point, we almost want to toss up our hands and throw in the towel, thinking, Well, who can win? And that starts the next phase of Paul’s argument. We can’t win. But God can. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, BUT all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 CEB).

Then, we get to chapter four, and our text for the day, where Paul introduces Abraham as his primary example of righteousness, not because Abraham followed the Law, but because Abraham had faith in God and believed in God’s promises. It’s important to note that, in Greek, faith and believe (or had faith in) share the same root: πίστις and πιστεύω (pistis and pisteuo). So when Paul is talking about faith as a noun, or believed as a verb he’s talking about the same thing, though the words are different in English. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was reckoned as righteous, not because he followed the Law, but because he believed God’s promises.

Only God can create faith in those who have faith. Righteousness is credited to those who believe, not because it’s something they earn through having faith, but because it’s accounted to them by God as a something God freely gives. Adherence to the Law depends upon human choice and agency. We choose to either obey or disobey the Law. In that sense, if the Law makes us righteous, we would essentially be making ourselves righteous by obeying the Law. But, Paul argues that the Law doesn’t make us righteous. The Law is educational, and serves to show us that we aren’t righteous. And, faith comes before obedience. The gift of faith to us is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s agency. God makes us righteous because of our faith, we can’t make ourselves righteous by following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.

For Paul, the timeline of Abraham’s life is important. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises, for which God reckoned him as righteous, came before circumcision as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:10. So, it wasn’t any act of covenant or Law that made Abraham righteous. According to Scripture, itself, it was Abraham’s faith in God back in chapter 15 that made him righteous.

Paul also argues that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of MANY nations, not merely the father of one nation. Jews thought of their birthright as Abraham’s direct descendants as an advantage, but Paul argued that it wasn’t really an advantage. John the Baptist made a similar argument when people were coming to him for baptism. He said, And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3:9 CEB). He went on to argue that what mattered was the fruit we produce. How we live matters to God.

It’s all people who have faith, Jews and Gentiles together that fulfills the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. God is able to bring forth life from what is dead (Abraham was nearly a hundred years old when he got Sarah pregnant) and from that which is barren (Sarah was also around ninety years old when she finally got pregnant). In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God again brought forth life from death.

Now, we can wonder about Paul’s words in in verses 19-21. He says Abraham’s faith never wavered, he didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith, but believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations even when it seemed impossible for him to have children. But we know Abraham’s story. We know that he fell on his face, laughing when God qualified the promise to mean that Abraham’s son would be with his wife, Sarah (c.f. Genesis 17:17). We know that, before that episode, Abraham got worried and he and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah had him get Hagar pregnant, which didn’t work out well for Sarah (c.f. Genesis 16:2-4). So, in one sense, it seems that Paul views Abraham through some rose-colored glasses.

But, it might be that Paul says these things about Abraham’s faith because Abraham really did have faith and believe in God’s promises. If Paul sees Abraham’s faith as unwavering, it’s not because Abraham never had doubts, it’s not because he never tried to take matters into his own hands. It’s because, in Abraham’s story as a whole, he really did have an unwavering faith. When Abraham was about seventy-five years old, he left the security of his home, his family, and his community because God told him to. (So much for kicking back and enjoying retirement, right?). He journeyed through the land in stages despite the dangers. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son, and all the hopes of God’s promises that were attached to him, because he had faith that God would accomplish the promises despite his son’s death.

The reason Paul can say that Abraham’s faith never wavered is because, when God called, Abraham put it all on the line and trusted God. As messy as things got at times, Abraham had faith in God, and he lived that faith out completely. Abraham was convinced that God could and would do what God promised. That belief, that trust, that faith, is why God accounted Abraham as righteous.

And there’s one last thing. Paul wrote, “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us” (Romans 4:23-25 CEB).

Muslims view Abraham as a model Muslim. Long before that, Paul used Abraham to describe a model Christian and to show us that, no matter who we are or what our genealogy is, faith puts us in a right relationship with God. The good news that Paul preached was that those who have faith in God, whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, are made righteous through that faith. We can believe that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give us life, too.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to this kind of unwavering faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ll never try to take matters into our own hands. But it does mean that when God calls, we lay it all on the line and step out in faith. It means that we have permission to go out in boldness, even if we don’t know exactly what it will mean or where God’s call will lead. But we can trust that, when God calls and we follow in faith, our faithfulness becomes a blessing to others, and God credits our faith as righteousness.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Transfiguration | Last after Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (CEB)


Human beings have a fascination with power. The entire comic book industry, and a lot of movies and books, are about people who have powers. Star Wars is about Jedi and Sith who have the power to manipulate the Force.

On the DC side of comics: Wonder Woman has super strength, she can fly, she has indestructible bracers and a lasso of truth. Vixen has her ancient Tantu Totem that lets her harness the powers of animal spirits. Batman has his wealth, his tech gadgets, and his fearlessness. The Legends of Tomorrow have a variety of skills, abilities, and cool technology. The Flash has his superspeed. Green Arrow has his fighting skills and perfect accuracy with the bow. Superman has his array of powers thanks to our yellow Sun. And Supergirl has everything Superman has, and I watched her beat him in a straight-up fight on the CW.

In the Marvel world of comics: Black Panther has his super senses, strength, speed, agility, stamina, and healing abilities, plus Wakanda’s advanced technology. The X-Men (and Women!) have all kinds of powers and abilities based on their x-gene mutations. Captain America has his serum-induced strength and self-healing. Iron Man has his wealth, tech, and an awesome suit full of weapons that lets him fly and make things explode. Spiderman has his web-slingers and spider abilities.

We can find worlds full of magical powers in books and movies: the Harry Potter series, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Waterfire Saga, and The Lord of the Rings series. And when it comes to computer games, my favorite class is the Elementalist, which uses earth, water, air, and fire magic to blow bad people and monsters to pieces.

But our human fascination with power isn’t limited to fiction and imagination. Our president wants to spend a few million of our tax dollars to put on a grand military parade to show off our military might, as if we need to put it on display. He certainly wouldn’t be the first president or world leader to do so. Lots of modern nations do them. The Roman Empire liked their military parades, too. For some reason, leaders of nations like to flex their muscles and display their elegant tail feathers to show everyone else how big and tough they are.

Jesus had some pretty cool powers, too. He could heal people who were sick. He raised a few people from death. And this Transfiguration thing, that was God’s power on display for all the world to see, right? All of a sudden, everyone knew that Jesus had the power of God in the palm of his hand, and he was the new guy to be afraid of…

Except, that wasn’t how it went.

Jesus didn’t put his power on display the way nations and leaders of nations like to do. He only took three of his disciples with him as witnesses to the event. In fact, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from death.

When we put the Transfiguration in context with what Jesus had just taught his disciples in chapter 8, and with the rest of what happened in the Gospel of Mark, we see a completely different picture of power, and a different picture of purpose for those who would follow Jesus Christ. It’s chapter 8 where Jesus tells the crowds that any who want to come after him must take up their cross and follow him (c.f. Mark 8:34). While it’s never explained what cross-bearing looks like for the rest of us, it’s the story that follows and the example of Jesus that teaches us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The Transfiguration becomes the first important lesson of cross-bearing. It shows us that power is not something we pursue or wield so much as something we expose. Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth is what provoked the powers to make their oppressive, murderous response by killing Jesus. The powers of this world rule by fear, greed, and falsehood. They use violence, hatred, and despair to turn people against each other and distort everything we’re meant to be as human beings who are created in God’s image.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to die by exposing the corruption of earthly powers. He stands in a long line of prophets who were persecuted and murdered by the political and religious establishment for daring to speak the truth about their misuse of power and fraudulent, unethical operations.

Jesus came so that he could be the anointed-one who would be rejected and murdered by the corrupt powers that rule through fear, backhandedness, and violence. Several times throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll be killed and raised from the dead (c.f. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

At the same time, the disciples had their minds set on earthly things that didn’t allow them to see God’s reign on earth as anything more than human powers, such as the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom. You might recall that, when Jesus told the disciples that he would “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (Mark 8:31), Peter’s response was to take hold of Jesus firmly, as if Jesus were a child, to scold and “correct” him.

Peter couldn’t see beyond the things of earth, which is why Jesus turned and corrected Peter in front of the other disciples by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). The disciples were thinking about power, but in the same twisted way that we humans are so fascinated with it. They intended to make Jesus-the-Messiah into a hero of their nation, the savior of the earthly kingdom they desired. And, they would ride the coattails of their hero to fulfill their own this-worldly ambitions.

James and John even asked Jesus to let one of them sit at his right hand, and the other at his left, which angered the other disciples because the request got in the way of their ambitions. There could only be one right-hand-man, and one left-hand-man, but there were twelve disciples all vying for Jesus’ favor, and they acted and argued as rivals (c.f. Mark 10:35-45). Really, the other ten were mad that they didn’t have the boldness to ask that favor of Jesus before James and John did. They were thinking earthly things. Their minds and actions were stuck on a horizontal plane.

One scholar even suggested that, for Jesus’ first disciples, resurrection was more of a scandal than crucifixion. Death was something they could understand. Lives ended all the time. But resurrection? The glory of God? Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that that was downright scary stuff. Notice that every time the disciples are confronted with God’s glory—Jesus walking on the water (6:50), the Transfiguration (9:6), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the women at the tomb (16:8)—the word used to describe what the disciples felt is terror. This isn’t the kind of fear that a person can heroically overcome, but the kind of terror that incapacitates and turns the bravest among us into a useless blubbering heap.

These glimpses of glory remind us that there’s more to the story of Jesus than human ambition and earthly power. The fact that Jesus didn’t use that power to his own gain tells us that followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom should live and act differently from the world. In Philippians 2, Paul’s hymn says of Jesus: “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.” (Phil. 2:6-7a CEB). Paul also tells us to have the same mindset (c.f. Philippians 2:5).

That’s why Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to talk about the Transfiguration they had witnessed until after Jesus had risen from the dead, until after he had exposed the corrupt earthly powers for what they were. Then, the disciples could talk about the display of power and glory they had seen at the Transfiguration. But even then, sharing what they had witnessed wasn’t a way for the disciples to seize earthly power or prestige. Instead, it encouraged the followers of Jesus to take up their cross and follow Christ, and live in a way that will inevitably provoke the powers against us by insisting on the values of Jesus.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and he told us that, if we want to come after him, we have to take up our cross and follow. Taking up our cross means we die to ourselves. We set aside our earthly ambition and desire for power and live for others as Jesus did. It also means that our love as Christian people is not a passive thing. We don’t get to keep our distance and love others from afar.

It’s almost hard to believe that earthly powers would act so violently against love, nonviolence, acts of mercy, and acceptance of those the world rejects. But the values of Jesus, which are the values of God’s kingdom, end up exposing the corruption earthly powers.

Nothing exposes the hatred and viciousness of earthly power like people working on behalf of refugees or undocumented immigrants and demanding that the world recognize them as human beings worthy of our love, compassion, and direct assistance. Nothing exposes the injustice of earthly power like someone working on behalf of people the world would happily sweep under the rug: the poor, incarcerated, homeless. Legality is defined by the powers, and Christians have long recognized that what is legal is not always what is right, just, loving, or good.

Jesus ate with sinners to show them and the establishment that he was their friend, that he accepted them, and that he loved them. Those actions exposed the fact that the establishment had rejected and ostracized people.

As a glimpse of God’s glory, the Transfiguration reminds us that God is bringing a new world into being. The ways and values of this new world stand in stark contrast to the ways and values of the earthly powers. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to set aside the games of domination and exploitation that earthly powers like to play. And, we have to set aside the violence, hatred, greed, and deception that such powers use to win those games.

The voice of God which came from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Are we listening?

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


Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

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


A Prophet | 4th after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

15 The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. 16 That’s exactly what you requested from the LORD your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the LORD my God’s voice anymore or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!” 17 The LORD said to me: What they’ve said is right. 18 I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites–one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will holda ccountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. 20 However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods– that prophet must die. (CEB)

A Prophet

Our text today occurs in a section of Deuteronomy called the Torah of Moses where Moses authorizes a series of leadership roles: judges, king, priests, and prophets. These leadership roles are to guide Israel so that the people may maintain their peculiar identity and vocation as the people of God.

This is a continuation of Moses’ speaking to the people, telling them of God’s commandments, statutes, ordinances, and promises that the Lord himself had spoken to Moses on the mountain. In order to help the people remain faithful to the Lord, God promises to raise up for them a prophet like Moses who will speak the word and will of God to them.

This promise was to fulfill what the people of Israel had asked of God on the day of the assembly, when the people had gathered around the holy mountain to hear the voice of God speak to them the Ten Commandments. When they heard God’s voice, the people were afraid, and they believed that if they heard God’s voice again they would die. The voice of the Lord was too great, too powerful, for them to hear with their own ears. The sight of God’s glory in the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness was more than the people could endure. So, the elders of the people went to Moses and asked him to intercede on their behalf: they wanted him to go and hear the words of the Lord and then tell them what God had said them. If Moses would do this for them, the elders promised that the people would listen to Moses and do what he relayed to them as God’s word. (c.f. Deuteronomy 5:22-33).

It almost sounds like that trope in a movie where a group of people comes to a really scary part of the haunted woods, and they nudge the little guy and say, “You go first. If you die, we know it’s not safe.” And the little guy’s like, shrug “All right,” and marches right in.

God thought the people’s request was a good idea. God said to Moses, “What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites– one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deut. 18:17b-18 CEB).

God expected the people to listen to the words of the prophet and heed the prophet’s words as the words of God. Anyone who disobeyed the word of the prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord was guilty of disobeying the Lord, and God would hold that person accountable. And any prophet who spoke in the name of another god, or who put himself in the place of God by presuming to speak a word that the Lord had not commanded the prophet to speak, that prophet would pay the penalty of such arrogance with his life.

That’s why none of the prophets ever wanted the job when they were called to the role of prophet.

Throughout the history of Israel, God raised up prophets to speak God’s word and will to the people. Occasionally the prophets made predictions concerning the future but, by and large, prophets spoke out against the evils of immorality, idolatry, unfaithfulness, disobedience, unfair economics, injustice, exploitation of the poor, and bad politics. The prophets didn’t predict the future so much as offer if-then statements. If you keep doing this bad thing, then this is how things are going to go down. But if you turn away from that bad thing and do this good thing, then this is how things will go well for you. The prophets were less about predicting the future, and more about laying out the consequences of evil human activity for everyone to see and understand.

God was faithful in sending prophets to the people but, wouldn’t you know, the prophets were often met with resistance. It was dangerous to be a prophet in Israel. Prophets usually had very short lives because people didn’t often like what they had to say, especially those who were part of the establishment in those other three vocations: the judges, the kings, and the priests.

In a society like ours where we like true authority to rest with our own personal autonomy, it can seem odd to us that God called and authorized—and still calls and authorizes—certain persons for certain purposes. This holy authority runs against our modern cultural assumptions. People in our culture want to think that we are the authority. We like to believe that we’re in charge, that our way’s the right way.

The Israelites weren’t all that different. When a prophet spoke out against something they were doing, they often reacted like any one of us would: as though they were offended that some Bozo-the-prophet was trying to set them straight. Those in positions of power and authority had an especially difficult time accepting the words of prophets because prophets challenged their authority.

Sometimes people listened, but often enough they simply killed the prophet so that the word that the Lord wanted them to hear was extinguished. Yet, what they should have done was take some time to breathe, ponder on the prophet’s words, do a little self-examination, and honestly consider their own actions.

But no one likes it when someone points out our faults or tells us we’ve done something (or are doing something) contrary to the will of God. And, let’s be honest, every scandal that hits the clergy or leaders of any Christian church denomination erodes the authority of clergy and church leaders everywhere. Those scandals, and other matters, can cause us to wonder why God would give an assurance of holy authority to fallible human beings.

Yet, the holy authority of the prophets was one that counterbalanced the hereditary authority of the priests and kings, which could become inflexible, detached, and unresponsive to the actual needs of the people. It also served to counterbalance those times when the people, themselves, grew apathetic and got too comfortable with not caring for others. Because the office of the prophets wasn’t based on hereditary succession, it was an authority that could pop up in any person in any tribe at any time.

In the fullness of time, God did something different. Instead of sending another prophet to speak the word of God, God sent his Word, his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to speak to us directly. This time, God’s people would hear the word of God from God himself! God himself came into our world. Taking on flesh and becoming one of us, he lived with us as an example for every eye to see. He spoke the words of the Father in a unique way, because he himself is the Word of God incarnate. He taught with authority as no other prophet or scribe or Pharisee had done before because he himself was and is the authority. God raised up a prophet like Moses, and yet a greater prophet than Moses.

Jesus is the Light of the world, which enlightens every person. Those who are illumined by the light of Jesus walk according to the ways of God. They live in the light and are strengthened against the works of evil. They stay on the path of righteousness. They do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the God who calls us out of darkness.

Jesus and his disciples went to the city of Capernaum in Galilee and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and taught. Mark tells us that the people were astounded at his teaching because he taught them as one having authority—like Moses himself. When a man with an unclean spirit entered the synagogue, the demon recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Holy One of God. Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and cast it out of the man. The people in the synagogue were already impressed with Jesus’ teaching, but this casting out the demon episode was like making a half-court shot when the game was already won. It was icing on the cake. The people said, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” (Mark 1:27 CEB).

Still, many people didn’t like what Jesus taught, and like so many prophets before him, he was killed for speaking the word of God to the people. But as I said before, with Jesus, God has done something different. On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead. Forty days later he ascended into heaven. And in the fullness of time our Lord will return to establish his kingdom forever.

God has raised up for us a prophet like Moses. Yet, Jesus of Nazareth is more than a prophet. He’s our advocate in the judgment, our high priest, our king, and he’s God’s Son. He has authority over all things: over unclean spirits, forgiveness of sins, setting certain people apart for certain tasks in life, and he has authority over us.

Jesus spoke out against the evils of immorality, idolatry, unfaithfulness, disobedience, unfair economics, injustice, and exploitation of the poor and marginalized. He called people to repent and turn instead to a righteous life of faithfulness, obedience, love, justice, and mercy. Before anyone realized he was the Messiah, people were amazed that he taught with authority.

While Moses liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus liberated the whole world from the power of sin and death. Jesus redeemed us on the cross and offered salvation to everyone. The world has been a mess since the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The human race, even all of creation, needed a savior. God sent Jesus to make a way for us, to allow reconciliation with God to happen, because we needed it. We needed to hear that love casts out fear, that loving each other is how we love God and is the right way to live, that seeking justice for the oppressed and the poor is how we serve God, and that right living is more important than proper ritual.

In Jesus Christ, God has raised up for us a prophet like Moses to teach us how to live now and how to have life after we die. It’s up to us to heed the words of the prophet, to change our minds, hearts, and purpose, and to live in a way that points others to the kingdom of God.

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


Followers | 3rd after Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers. (CEB)


The words that mark an end to John the Baptist’s ministry and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus foreshadow what’s to come later in Mark’s Gospel. The words aren’t flowery, congratulatory, or even joyful. They give us pause. They’re ominous. “After John was arrested.” Jesus’ ministry began after John was arrested.

The next words should make us scrunch our eyebrows and leave us wondering if we heard them correctly. “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news.” Jesus began his ministry in Galilee? It wasn’t really a center of anything. Aside from the Roman cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias, The Galilee was mostly small villages like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin. The area wasn’t a seat religious or a political power.

In fact, Jesus mostly ignored the places of power and authority in Judea. We have no record of him ever stepping foot in Sepphoris, though it was only a few miles north of Nazareth. Sepphoris was known as the ornament of the Galielee and served as Herod Antipas’s capital until he built the city of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee around A.D. 20. There’s no record of him setting foot in Tiberias either. Instead, Jesus preached his message of God’s good news throughout those small towns and villages. Sometimes, he preached the good news along the way as he travelled from place to place.

Jesus’ message wasn’t about religious or political power. Jesus came to preach God’s good news. The prophet Isaiah described it this way: “The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement” (Isaiah 61:1-3 CEB).

So Jesus preached to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners of empire, the mourners. If Jerusalem, where Jesus was rejected, was a portrait of religious authority and Roman political power, The Galilee region was a portrait of God’s kingdom. Jesus chose Capernaum as his home base. The only big thing it had going for it was that it sat at the crossing of a Roman road and smaller local roads. But a lot of towns did, too. There wasn’t anything particularly special about Capernaum or Galilee.

Then, we get to Jesus message, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15 CEB). Other translations render Jesus’ words as, “The time is fulfilled” (NRSV, RSV, KJV), which makes it sound like something has been accomplished, finished, completed, and done. But the story is just beginning. It’s not that history and circumstances were awaiting some kind of ripeness before Jesus could show up on the scene. It’s more the idea that the coming of Jesus brings the fullness of time with him. Time, itself, has come to a fullness of its meaning.

The entry of Jesus into the world brings a new era, a new age, a new time and reality. We’re living in a time-between-the-times, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will inaugurate a new time in which God’s kingdom reigns, and the values of that kingdom are lived.

What does Jesus mean by saying, “here comes God’s kingdom”? There’s some leeway on the meaning of the Greek word ἤγγικεν (engiken). It can mean has come near or has arrived. There’s obviously some difference between the two. When I turn onto Lincoln Avenue in Evansville, it might mean I’ve come near to my Grandmother’s house, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve arrived. So, which nuance of ἤγγικεν (engiken) is meant here?

Oddly enough, both are true. Jesus made God’s kingdom present from the moment the Word became flesh at the incarnation. The kingdom of God has come near. It is here, now, as a present reality. The whole world is invited to live in that kingdom as followers of Jesus.

At the same time, the fullness of that kingdom is a future reality. It’s near, it’s here, but it’s not all the way here yet. It’s now, and not yet. The fullness of God’s kingdom will come with the return of Christ. It’s a reality the disciples were told to pray about, and it’s something we pray about every time we say, “Your kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. The kingdom has come in Jesus Christ, but we’re still awaiting the final fulfillment of that kingdom.

Then, we’re told to repent and believe in God’s good news. That word, repent, is another one of those church words that we hear a lot, but sometimes our minds just gloss over the meaning. The Greek word means to change your mind or to change your purpose. But it’s not just a head thing, it includes a nuance of the heart. When we change our mind or our purpose, we have to come to grips with the fact that we might have been wrong beforehand. We might even feel bad, a little or a lot remorseful, about how we acted before we changed our mind or purpose.

On Thursday, I talked on the phone with a friend of mine who had a change of mind and heart over the past year. He’s a great guy. Every time we hang out, we’re laughing, and I mean borderline hysterics. He’s quick with a joke, and his sense of humor is sometimes so deadpan that it takes the rest of us a second to catch on. Then, we’re just in stitches. He’s also a person who had given up on God, the church, and Christians. When we talked on the phone, he told me that he’d been doing drugs and he drank too much. But, he realized that, because of these things, he wasn’t being a good husband or father. His marriage is rocky. He realized he couldn’t keep doing this stuff. So, he changed his mind and his purpose. He’s trying to get better. He’s doing rehab. He’s trying to be the husband and father he knows he should be.

That’s repentance. When you realize something’s not right, you change your mind, you change your heart, and you work your butt off at living life in a new direction.

The fact that God’s kingdom has come has consequences in the lives of those who receive and believe in the good news Jesus proclaims. We’re called to change our hearts and lives, and to trust in God’s good news. If we want to understand what the values of God’s kingdom look like, we look to Jesus. He loved those whom the religious authorities and other people rejected. He told the supposedly righteous religious authorities that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. He loved and accepted everyone, and encouraged people to change their minds, their hearts, and live in a new direction.

If or when we mess up and turn back in a moment of weakness or despair, that invitation to repent—to change our mind, our purpose, our heart—is always there. Repenting and believing, believing and repenting: these are ongoing aspects of every Christian’s life. It’s exactly what played out in the lives of the disciples. In our text, we see four of them make immediate decisions to follow Jesus, but we also know that they lived the rest of their lives making mistakes and repenting of those mistakes. To believe and repent takes both faith and courage.

When Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, and offered them an invitation, “Come follow me, and I’ll teach you how to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 CEB). The difficulty with translating this verse from Greek into English is that one way gives us a task, while another way gives us an identity. If Jesus teaches us how to fish for people, that’s a task. Tasks are important. Tasks get things done. But the problem with tasks is that they have a beginning and an end. When we’re done with the task of fishing, we can move on to other tasks.

But a better translation takes into account the Greek verb that means to be or become. Jesus tells Simon and Andrew, “Come follow me, and I’ll prepare you to become fishers for people” (my translation). If Jesus prepares us to become fishers, that’s an identity. That promises a lifetime of fishing. One of my buddies in Churubusco, Indiana is a fisher. Fishers are always fishing. Every time my friend has the chance to be on the water fishing, he’s going to be on the water fishing.

Now, the difference between fishing and becoming fishers might not seem like a big deal until we realize that Jesus is talking about discipleship—following him. Is discipleship a task, as in something we do, or is it an identity, as in something we become, something we are? I think it’s a matter of our identity. Following Jesus prepares us to become fishers for people. It prepares us to love the way Jesus loved, to accept people as Jesus accepted people, to serve as Jesus served, to sacrifice for others as Jesus sacrificed for others.

Sometimes following Jesus requires us to move in new and unexpected directions. My bachelor of science degree is in Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management with an emphasis in Environmental Policy and Compliance. My call to ordained ministry changed the course of my life. Now, I’m a pastor. Another call, my call to write, got me learning how to become an author. Now, I can’t stop writing books. And pursuing that call has opened a whole new world for me. (The friend I talked with on the phone who’s trying to get off the drugs and alcohol, I never would have met him if I weren’t pursuing my call to write).

Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. We’re told that James and John left their father, Zebedee in the boat with the nets and the hired men, and followed Jesus who prepared them to become fishers for people. Then, the disciples prepared others to become fishers for people.

Jesus proclaimed God’s good news that the kingdom of God has come. We’re invited to follow Jesus, to take on new identities, to live our lives in new directions. Jesus calls us to change our minds, change our hearts, change our purpose, and believe that God loves us—that God loves all people—so much that God became a human being to announce the good news in person.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay