Sermons For These Times
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1).
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote the following words in the middle of the twentieth century. “The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”
“I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain… The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies…”
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…”
Merton quotes the 5th century Syrian mystic Philoxenos (d. 523) who writes, “You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
This is one way of summarizing the spirit of Mark’s Gospel. In this Gospel Jesus frequently retreats like this to the wilderness for periods of prayer and renewal. He seems to instinctively know that as in the story of Noah, God’s covenant is not just with human beings but with “every living creature,” and all creation (Gen. 9). Of the four gospels Mark uses the most compact, direct and simple language. He speaks in a forceful, abrupt, and repetitive way that is difficult to appreciate in translation.
My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says that it is written in the “Hellenistic Greek of the uneducated lower-class residents of the rural countryside.” More importantly he points out that Mark is not writing a biography of Jesus. This is not intended to be a documentary record of the past (in the style of someone like Ken Burns).
Instead this is an aesthetic literary creation. Like a novel it forms its own world. Although Mark uses materials from the first century (places, ideas, political relations, forms of life), his world is not the past world. In many respects it is more connected to us and to our story than an ancient history could be. It is a story of us.
Mark writes about Jesus coming from an obscure, even despised region and being baptized by John in the Jordan River. The heavens are ripped apart. A voice says, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” This spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is “with the wild beasts and the angels minister to him.” John is arrested. Jesus returns to the Galilean countryside and gives his first sermon.
In this symbolically important statement Jesus says four things: 1. The time is fulfilled, 2. The kingdom of God has come near, 3. Repent, 4. Believe in the good news. Let me talk briefly about what each of these statements might mean today.
- The time is fulfilled. This week the people around me are at a breaking point. They are talking to me because they have had enough. They are sick of being at home, of working remotely, of having businesses and schools closed. They desperately miss seeing their friends and loved ones. A few people this week told me the same thing, “I just can’t take this anymore.”
And to us Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” Whatever it is that you enjoy about this strange COVID time, make the most of it, because soon it will be a faded memory. Whatever you want to accomplish during these days, whoever you wish to connect with by phone, do it now because these days will not last. We’re not going back to the way it was before and it certainly won’t be like this for long. This is true of any historical moment and is especially the case right now.
- The kingdom of God has come near. During his lifetime, the Roman Catholic church banned the theological writings of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He died on Easter Sunday in 1955. Only ten people attended the funeral and only one person accompanied his body to the graveyard. No one yet knew that he was one of the most profound religious thinkers of the twentieth century.
Yes, he had made arrangements to have his ideas published after his death. Teilhard believed profoundly that God lies absolutely near at the heart of everything and that the world addresses us by name. He writes, “without leaving the world, plunge into God.” He prays, “O God… in the life which wells up in me and in the matter which sustains me, I find much more than your gifts. It is you yourself whom I find.”
According to Teilhard Jesus helps lift the veil, so that we can see, “the transparence of God in the universe.” We can see God in physical matter. Teilhard writes about what he calls “ex-centration” where we leave behind our ego, become free of our own individuality, so that we can find ourselves in others and in the whole world. Over the years my experience of the nearness of God keeps growing stronger. I love the Lord. I feel God’s presence in prayer.
- Repent. Jesus asks us to repent. The Greek word is metanoia and it means literally to change your mind, to alter the habits which shape how you think about the world and perceive it. For me a person doesn’t repent and then start experiencing the goodness of God. God’s generosity always comes first and then we move toward God in love and this motion changes our way of thinking.
In the 1940’s a blizzard made traveling next to impossible for the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). They performed in Chicago, parked their car in Sacramento flew to Arizona, then Denver, returned to California to pick up the car and from there drove through ice and snow to Columbus, Ohio. They arrived just in time for the performance and went right up on stage without even resting.
The people at the party afterward told them how miserable their work was and asked how they could possibly devote their lives to this. Cage himself wondered why do we go to such trouble for something that people don’t even enjoy. And then ten years later he received a letter from someone who had been at that exact performance who thanked him and said that it had changed his life.
Cage once said, “Thoreau got up every morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.”
- Believe in the good news. The good news is that we don’t have to blinded by ourselves. Like Jesus we can be fully God’s children. And when we are consciously in God – the world, every person and creature in it, will be transfigured miraculously to our sight.
The Dalai Lama tells the story of a king who invited the Buddha and his friends to lunch. On the way, the Buddha passed a beggar who praised the king and talked about the magnificence of the palace. After many courses of rich banquet food it came time for the prayer that would dedicate the karma of the meal. But the Buddha, instead of dedicating the merit to the host, to the king for his generosity, the Buddha chose to bless the beggar outside.
When his senior monk asked what he was doing. The Buddha replied that the king was proud of his kingdom, but the beggar was exceptional because he was able to rejoice in the king’s good fortune. Can we believe in God’s good news so sincerely that we take joy in others’ blessings? Can we begin to realize that we ourselves have and are enough?
My friends during this holy Lent I dare us to not be blinded by our self. Let us live by the rhythms in the world that we have not yet learned to recognize. Let the rain be something new to us. Let whatever is come to us like liquid in a glass.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is near. Repent. Believe in the good news.
“You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
 Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Raids on the Unspeakable (1964) also published in The Norton Book of Nature Writing ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (NY: Norton, 1990) 598-607.
 Ibid., 604. Philoxenos of Mabbug.
 Herman C. Waetjen, A Re-Ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014 originally published in 1989) 1-3.
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperCollins, 2021).
 Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (NY: Penguin, 2012) 192, 187.
 Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isa. 58).
How can you be healed spiritually this Lent? In 2003 it would have been hard to predict what was about to happen in professional British bicycle racing. Since 1908 British riders had won only one gold medal in the Olympic Games. In 110 years they had never won a single Tour de France. Their performance was so mediocre that some top manufacturers refused to sell them gear because they thought it would hurt sales if other pros saw them using it.
But that year they hired Dave Brailsford as a coach. He had a really simple philosophy. He reasoned that if you can just break down everything involved in riding a bike, and then if you could just make a 1% improvement in each relatively small thing, and you kept doing that, all those gains would end up making a significant impact on the team’s success.
So they got better seats, put alcohol on the tires for a better grip, wore electric shorts that kept their muscles at the optimum performance temperature. They even tried different kinds of massage gel. They learned the best way to wash their hands to prevent colds. They got the best pillow and mattress for each rider’s sleep.
These may seem like silly things but the results were spectacular. From 2007 to 2017 British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories.
Today we observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Season of Lent. What small change could you make to your daily life that would have a transformative spiritual effect in forty days? My mission tonight is to offer you a suggestion. The ancient prophet Isaiah writes, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Isa. 58).
For two thousand years Christians have used the forty days before Easter to focus on spiritual growth. It is time to move more deeply into the life of God. For that reason I love Lent. It gives me the chance to take on a spiritual discipline or focus that will change who I am for the better.
Usually on this day in church a priest will put ashes on our foreheads and say, “Remember that from dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.” Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death, not out of some morbid preoccupation with our finitude, but in the recognition that nothing other than God will last forever. It is a reminder of just how precious the people, the experiences of this moment are. It is God’s way of saying “this is YOUR time!”
Jesus gives instructions about how to be transformed spiritually. He talks about giving money to the poor, prayer and fasting. He reminds us to be careful, not to ruin the power of our faith by using it for another purpose (for instance to impress others). He says, “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray… so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6). Jesus is not saying that you should keep your faith a secret, only that we should use our spirituality for its intended purpose
The Greek word upokritai back then meant just what it does today – a hypocrite, someone without what we call integrity, someone whose actions don’t match what they say they believe. But the Greek word also had another meaning. It meant interpreter or actor.
We do this kind of acting all the time. We pretend to be something that we are not. We act as if we are competent, smart, desirable, successful, righteous, friendly, normal, perfect when we are not. So much of what we do comes out of this desire to control how others perceive us. So much of our life is simply pretending.
Instead of this acting, Jesus encourages us to be who we really are as children of God. He invites us to return to our true self, to that part of us that doesn’t have to be afraid about how others perceive us.
One important way that Jesus does this is by reminding us of a truth. He says that, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6). Your treasure may be mansion in Pacific Heights, a prestigious career, a huge social media following, a perfect family, or being happy. Jesus teaches us to redirect our energies from a focus on accumulating physical things or social standing to spiritual well-being and wholeness.
There is a falsehood that nearly all of us live by much of the time. We talk and act as if our outward circumstances are what will really make us happy. We say that we will be happy after we make the varsity baseball team, or get accepted to a prestigious college, pass the bar exam, make partner, receive our degree. We say that we’ll be happy after we retire. In doing this we wish our lives away. In particular we assume that success will make us happy.
The truth however is that we were not made to be satisfied by these things. Happiness does not come from outside in. It begins in our heart. It is only by being in harmony with God that we will ever feel whole. Hoping to derive joy out of success is like trying to put molasses in the gas tank of an automobile designed to run on petroleum fuel. We are made to run on God’s spirit, nothing else will be enough for us.
I have known people who are successful beyond all imagination – but mostly they are not any happier than others. Here is the secret. If happiness is defined as something that is only possible on the other side of success, we never really get there. As soon as we achieve that success it is almost instantly not enough because we are already longing for the next thing. The goal posts are always moving, the sales quotas are always being adjusted.
This approach to life teaches us to exist in a universe where joy is always put off and deferred. It is never present to us in the moment. And as a result it trains us to never be happy. So what can we do?
Happiness, or to be more precise, joy comes from being as fully in God as we can be in the present moment. The secret that no one tells you is that we can fall in love with God. If we can learn to pause and see, we can be in love with the one who is nearer to us than our very selves.
Prayer over time teaches me to come back into the presence of the holiness that is our only real hope. When I was a young person, I would have a transcendental experience of beauty in an art museum or in a Sierra sunset or in a great cathedral or in a connection with a friend. But the older I get, the more this kind of experience of God is with me through the whole day.
All this brings me back to what I promised at the beginning when I wondered if we can make a little 1% change that could transform us spiritually. Jesus teaches us to pray in secret. My suggestion to you for these forty days is to adopt a simple practice. Every day during this time pray to God. Every day thank God for three things you are grateful for, three new things that you noticed about how the spirit is alive in our world. You might even write them down in a kind of spiritual journal.
Do not store up your treasures on earth. Leave them behind as you journey inward into the heart of God. Let prayer, let gratitude change your life over the next forty days. I look forward to hearing about your spiritual adventures.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6).
 James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (NY: Avery, 2018) 13-15.
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- “What are you looking for?” These are the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. It is a good question for us too. What is making you dissatisfied or causing suffering? What will bring you relief? What do you want?
It could be healing, security, respect or just to hear from your children or feel connected to your friends. Maybe you want your life to make a difference. Or maybe through this time of turmoil you don’t even know what you are looking for. You just want to feel okay again. What we seek tells us something about how we understand God. If nothing else, over the years people who pray begin to finally realize what it is that they really want.
Emblepo is a wonderful Greek word. It describes the experience of looking into someone’s face and really seeing that person. The ancient writer Philo uses it to mean clarity of vision, true insight, a “grasping of transcendent matters.” This word describes how John the Baptist sees deeply into who Jesus is. Then he says, “Behold, the lamb of God” (Jn. 1). Hearing this two of his disciples go to approach Jesus. Jesus asks what they are seeking. Perhaps they are flustered but all they can manage to say in reply is, “where are you (and the Greek word means) staying or abiding or remaining.” Jesus knows what they really hunger for and he says to them, “Come and see.”
On a spring Sunday in 1934 an evangelist came to visit the packed sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In those days the five year old Martin Luther King, Jr. was known as M.L. His maternal grandfather had founded that church and his father was the Senior Pastor. For the rest of his life he remembered that day – the choir, the clapping, the energy of the moment. When that guest preacher invited people to come up to join the church, his sister Christine was the first one to stand.
M.L. immediately ran ahead of her, not as he was later to say out of some “dynamic conviction,” but because of a, “childhood desire to keep up with my sister.” Even at his baptism King was “unaware of what was taking place.” Hearing God’s call did not happen for him in an single powerful moment but was a matter of gradually taking in what he learned from his family and church.
- Today scripture confronts us with so many different ways of encountering God, of hearing God’s invitation to come and see, to walk through the doorway into a holy life. Samuel is a kind of apprentice to the priest and sleeps in the Temple next to the most sacred object of his people’s faith, the “ark of God” (1 Sam. 3). Three times Samuel is awakened by what he thinks is the priest calling him. Each time he goes to Eli who finally tells him that the next time the voice calling he should reply by saying, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” Samuel does this and God then says to him, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
Have you ever wondered how you can know that it is really God speaking to you, and not just your ego or insecurity? The seventeenth century Puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote a lengthy theological treatise about this subject that I find still helpful today.
This story about Samuel seems to suggest that among other things a calling from God is a prompting or encouragement, an intuition that persists and repeats. We really begin to hear when we make time and space in our life for stillness and reflection. Often another person (like Eli) helps to confirm our interpretation. Finally, at some level of our being we have to want to understand if God’s invitation is going to reach us.
Today’s gospel helps us to appreciate what a different experience each of Jesus’ disciples had. One of the disciples of John the Baptist who went on to follow Jesus is unnamed but the other is Andrew. Jesus invites him to “come and see.” He recognizes who Jesus is by spending time with him (“remaining” with him that day).
Andrew enthusiastically tells his brother. Our state motto is “Eureka” it means “I found it.” This is the word Andrew uses saying, “we have found the Messiah… Christ). Andrew brings Simon to Jesus. Jesus looks into him (in the way I described earlier emblepo), says his name and renames him Cephas or Peter which means rock.
Philip comes from the same town as Andrew and Peter and we don’t know how he first encountered Jesus as the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He brings his friend Nathanael to meet him. Nathanael is cynical and doubting maybe even derisive. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But even as he approaches Jesus calls out, “Behold here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit?”
Incredulously Nathan asks, “where did you get to know me.” And Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” The electricity of this connection still shocks us twenty centuries later. Philip replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” This foreshadows the sign that the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate hangs at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Cynical, open, doubting, needing to see for one’s self, depending on the testimony of a respected family member or friend. Each of us comes to Jesus in a way adapted to our personality and circumstances. You may be the way by which someone learns about Christ. In these difficult times through your faith you may help to save someone who might otherwise be lost.
- The great preacher and writer Fredrich Buechner famously defines what a vocation is. He writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This sentence has been profoundly true for me. The idea behind it inspires me just about every day. I feel blessed to love what I do. I enjoy preaching, pastoral care and being part of a community that seeks to feed a world that seems so hungry for spiritual nourishment.
But my friend Matt Boulton reminds us that when God calls Moses from the burning bush his first response is to say, “Lord please send someone else” (Ex. 4:13). So Matt gives us what he calls another, and complimentary, truth. He says, “the place where God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.”
I believe both joy and discomfort are ways that God moves us and draws us to discover a truer version of ourselves. When I really listen to God these days what I hear is that this is our time to repair the damages to the fabric of humanity through racism and poverty. It is our time to heal the earth. The extraordinary inequality we see in this country, the mass incarceration of African American people, an inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, along with the crack cocaine and opioid epidemics, the rising tide of homelessness, climate change, these all happened on our watch. Why do we tolerate so much human suffering? Is it because we think that some people and the planet must suffer in order to give everyone else the incentive to work? Is it because we really believe there are not enough good things to go around?
Martin Luther King Jr. taught that time is not biased in favor of human progress. Things will not just get better on their own. We are responsible to make things better, to support the dignity of the people around us. This change means that we have to give up the idea that we will always feel comfortable about what is happening.
Some of us will say yes to ministries that bring us right to the edge of what we think we can handle. And yet, just as we receive our calling to act from Jesus, our help comes from him too.
There was a time when Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from reliable sources that there was a plan to have him assassinated. In a speech he talked about his death and asked his supporters to never retaliate with violence. King knew that in an instant his wife and daughter could be taken away from him and the fear kept growing in him. One night he came home late from a meeting. In the late hours of the night he was trying to sleep when the phone rang. An ugly voice threatened to shoot him and blow up the house if he didn’t leave town in three days.
King got up, went down to the kitchen and started pacing as he brewed a pot of coffee. He thought about what he had learned about evil as a theologian. He wondered if there was any honorable way for him to step away from his commitments. Finally, he sat down put his head on the table and prayed. “O Lord I’m down here just trying to do what is right… but I’m weak… I’m afraid… I have nothing left.” Tears came to his eyes.
And then he felt a kind of presence and then an inner voice which said with assurance, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you until the end of the age.” He later said that that was the voice of Jesus who promised that he would never be left alone. God was no longer an idea, an abstraction, or a “metaphysical category.” The living God was close to him and would never abandon him.
Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” He knows that the short answer to this is that we deeply desire the one who “has searched us out and known us” (Ps. 139), the one who loved us before anyone else, the one who abides with us forever. Jesus invites us to come and see, to listen for his voice in moments of stillness and to follow where he leads. This will involve the joy of really seeing into who other people are. And it will mean speaking honestly about injustice even when it makes others and ourselves uncomfortable. What are you looking for? Come and see.
Years later on the eve of his death Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd about his own death. He said that like Moses he had been to the mountaintop and had a glimpse of a promised land in which every person was treated with dignity. That night he said, “With this faith, I will carve a tunnel of hope from a mountain of despair… With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing… in the spiritual of old, ‘Free at last,’ ‘Free at last,’ Thank God almighty we are free at last.’”
 “Grasping transcendent matters” comes from one of the Bauer Greek lexicon editions. See Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 102.
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper and Row, 1982) 1-2.
 Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, 1746.
 I asked that Jn. 1:35-42 be added to today’s reading. I hope it’s not too much.
 Matthew Boulton, “Come and See: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two,” SALT, 11 January 2021. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/1/9/lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-2
 Mitchell Weiss, “We the Possibility: It’s Helping Time,” Harvard Business School, 7 January 2021. https://www.hbs.edu/news/articles/Pages/we-the-possibility-its-helping-time.aspx
 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper and Row, 1982) 84-5.
 Ibid., 467-8.
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1).
“Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” Do you believe this is true? I asked you this question in a sermon only days after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. And now it is time to ask this again. This sentence comes from the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) as she tried to preserve the poetic legacy of her husband Osip after he was killed by the Communists.
These days we are realizing that technologies that were supposed to bring us together, have more deeply divided us. What has been disrupted is not just the media as we used to know it – the newsrooms, professional journalists, small town papers and local television stations – but the traditions that helped us understand what is true. It is natural to feel afraid as human society becomes unmoored from truth.
How do we respond to “primitive fear” and the powerful lies that subjugate and divide us? How should we face the forces that distort and manipulate us? This week the president threatened the Georgia Secretary of State to overturn the fall election saying, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” Then on Wednesday he incited a white mob both in person and through social media. They overran the US Capitol building. Five people were killed including a Brian Sicknick, a Capitol police officer.
We all know that far more blood would have been shed if Black people had acted in a similar way. My 70 year old aunt was arrested at the Capitol a few years ago protesting a massive pipeline project. She could not believe what she saw this week.
And so here we are with those persistent images in our consciousness. A confederate flag being waved in the rotunda. A grinning white man with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. The doors to the Senate chambers being barricaded by a heavy table as an agent points his gun through a broken window. Shameless politicians telling us that really the mob was a group of liberals impersonating right-wing protesters. Broken glass. Smashed doors. Other nations looking on in horror. The Dean of Canterbury Cathedral sending a video message to America saying that it is darkest before the dawn.
This is the natural culmination of years of hearing people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh telling us that our own government is the enemy. Beyond the totally unnecessary loss of life, and the ugly desecration of a place that is sacred to democracy, there is such a tragic element to all of this. That crowd really believes a conspiracy theory that is clearly not true. They accept the president’s lie that the election was fraudulent or stolen.
And yet after all that shouting on the Capitol steps that this was their house, once they made it in they hardly knew what to do. All they could think of was to break things, steal some stationary, to take pictures of themselves on the senate floor and post them on social media. Is that it? Is that all that matters these days? Does it really just come down to how many likes we get on Facebook? Isn’t there more to life than this?
After the events of the last few days it is a relief to get back to the truly big picture that encompasses all time and space. The good book says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1). And today we celebrate the ancient Feast of the Epiphany. It’s name comes from the Greek word epi which means upon and phaino which means to shine as when John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).
So we are entering a season of epiphanies, of new insight into our connection with God and the world. Another way to put this is that we will be looking more deeply to see the unveiling of the truth, the longstanding reality, that we only barely apprehended before. My old teacher Peter Gomes used to describe Epiphany as the season when the “identity of Jesus” becomes “clearer to all those who will look and see.” He says that the story begins with the angel’s appearance to Mary and like a stone in a pond ripples out through all the water of time and space even as far as you and me.
Traditionally at Epiphany three stories in particular reveal who Jesus is. The first is the story of the Magi, that group of wise ones from the East who, over great distances follow a star. They suffer in order to experience Jesus and to present their gifts to him. The second is the story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus takes our watery life and makes it infinitely more delightful. The final story is what we have before us today.
Mark calls this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1). He doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth and in a way this is his Christmas story. John appears in the wilderness. People who seem vastly different from one another are deeply attracted to him. They come from urban and rural places, from Bakersfield and Santa Monica, from Salinas and Carmel, from Hayward and Belvedere.
They share an understanding that something is wrong in their lives. They suffer in the way that we do when things go badly and there is no one else to blame and we wonder what we could have done differently. John really sees them. Like the best of preachers he helps them to discover a new relationship with God. He baptizes them with water.
Then Jesus comes with all of the power of the Holy Spirit. Mark writes, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1). Immediately after this the Spirit casts Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days by the Devil.
The writers of the most ancient Jewish scriptures saw the ocean and the wilderness as tumultuous places of terrible chaotic forces that threaten human life. I can’t help but think that the wilderness is where we are these days as COVID continues to overwhelm us spiritually, emotionally and physically, as we wonder what the future will bring for our nation and the world.
But again let’s take a wider view beyond our current situation and look very briefly at ideas from three of the most ancient Christians. The first is from the second century figure Justin Martyr (100-165 CE). Justin points out that Jesus had no need of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1). But out of humility and deep desire for solidarity with all people Jesus chose to be baptized. He wants to be with us. Justin says that the spirit descending shows the world that he was “far more than a mere worker of wood.”
Also from the second century Irenaeus (130-202 CE) writes that God anoints Jesus of Nazareth with the “Holy Spirit and power.” Our baptism in his name gives us a share of this same power. This is what renews us even in the face of fear and uncertainty.
Finally I want to quote from a fourth century hymn by St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 CE). “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you! See, Fire and Spirit in the river you were baptized! Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Spirit!” Being baptized we become the children of Mary fully participating in the divinity of her Son.
As I said earlier I’ve been wondering if, “Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction.” At my lowest point, after the longest day of worrying about the people of this nation, I decided to go for a run. I was too late and the sunset just looked like a smudge in the western sky. But as I ran alone on the walkway 265 feet above the dangerous currents of the Bay over the Golden Gate Bridge, I received my answer.
Looking East the light blue color of the Bay perfectly matched the blue of the sky. Instantly I knew that although everything appears to be distinct and individual, we are all one in God. We are all God’s children, the beloved ones. Over the last ten months, as we have wandered this desert together we have had Epiphanies: about the importance of being together in person, the value of our human connections, the simple joy we take in singing. What is also being revealed to us is the terrible situation of healthcare and employment insecurity, racism, inequality, the vulnerability of the natural world.
After the last ten months, after the last four years, we see more clearly what we are called to do. These are not tasks that we grudgingly take up. This is the work that we were made for, that gives us meaning as children of God.
Our identity shapes our habits and our habits in turn determine our identity. The crucial question for each of us today is what kind of people will we be going forward? Are we going to be people who live in fear and are therefore habitually outraged, angry and hopeless?
Or will we be children of God rejoicing in our share of Jesus’ spirit and power. How will we humbly and quietly help the people around us who are struggling right now? During this season of epiphanies the truly big picture is that despite all our failings we are beloved to God.
Let us pray: Holy God protect the world from COVID. Bless this nation and its ideal that each person matters and has a unique and irreplicable dignity. We pray for all the political leaders who may not understand any better than we do, the forces we are unleashing, or the demons we are serving in our fear and lack of trust in you. Give us the peace that passes all understanding and through the grace of your son Jesus, let us see the fire and spirit in the river in which we are baptized. Amen.
 26 Pent (11-13-16) 28C. “There is a story about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). As an internationally recognized twenty-nine year old he seemed to have everything. Then on January 2, 1936 the Communist Party officially instructed him to attend his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The country’s dictator Joseph Stalin himself was in attendance but invisible behind a curtain. Stalin left before the end and although the audience seemed beside themselves with enthusiasm, Shostakovich felt “sick at heart.”
Two days later the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda wrote an editorial about Lady Macbeth entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It condemned his work as “artistically obscure and morally obscene.” It went on to say that Shostakovich was playing a game that “may end very badly.” In hindsight we know what ending badly meant in Soviet Russia. One could be declared an enemy of the people, publicly humiliated, privately tortured and then executed. Others were sent to prison camps and many more simply disappeared.
Alex Ross writes that, “Shostakovich never shook off the pall of fear that those six hundred words in Pravda cast on him.” Sadly, while he agonized over whether his compositions would cause offense, this had nothing to do with the music. The same editor of Pravda later said privately about this incident. “We had to begin with somebody… Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions…””
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007) 220, 216, 228.
 1 Epiphany (01-07-18) B. Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 30-6.
 I’m grateful to my friend Donald Schell who answered my late night call for help on this sermon with such wisdom. This next section comes from the email he sent me. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies.
 Here are some words from Brian McLaren that give us a sense for how our ministry supports what God is doing in creation, “The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning we see embodied in the life of Jesus. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.” Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho: 2015), 11, 12, 14.