Grace in the Darkness

Season of Epiphany  |  Baptism of the Lord  |  Matthew 3:13-17

SidewalkPlantThe lectionary leads us into the season of Epiphany, the showing or manifestation of Christ. Think of wise men seeing the young Jesus, and of Jesus becoming known to the world around him.

ἐπιφάνεια – ephiphaneia – epiphany – from the Greek verb “to appear” or “to show forth”: a manifestation, an appearance, a moment of realization

Consider Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, an odd passage.

Jesus approaches John the Baptist and presents himself for baptism. At first, John refuses. It would seem to be a reasonable position: if Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, God incarnate, why would he need or submit to baptism? Why would such a ritual have any use for a god, let alone the God?

Not that the answer John gets is much use either: to fulfill all righteousness.

It may be that John simply threw his hands up at that point and said, “Fine.”

I have never read a single explanation of the baptism of Jesus that made any sense to me, at least none offering reasons of purity, or of a new beginning, or anything else that picks up on the customary uses and meanings of the baptism ritual—repentance, cleansing, dedication. Surely God has no need of repentance, or of cleansing, and surely Jesus was dedicated to his purpose in the very beginning (as John’s Gospel tells us).

Maybe for us the idea is closer to simple submission, or humility, even in the face of apparent meaninglessness. John submits to Jesus and performs the ritual, though he clearly does not understand the meaning of it himself. Jesus is submitting to the hands of John, though there is nothing to be gained; instead, Jesus’ submission may itself be a sign of grace. God is made known not only in human form, but humble even for a human.

We may sense God moving us to do something, though we do not understand the meaning or the value of it. Perhaps there is a meaning we do not comprehend. Humility and grace in the service of God, even when we do not see the purpose of what we do, may form the greatest experience and expression of faith.

We may not see the value of giving away our last candle. Perhaps it is simply that the other person lacks the faith to walk in our darkness and still find God.

X By Any Other Name

Christmas  |  John 1:1-18

[Alternatively, Second Sunday After Christmas, not observed in 2016]

For the second Sunday after Christmas, or this year for Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary offers John 1:1-18 as the Gospel reading. (You may also see a passage from Matthew referenced, there being some variation among lectionaries.)chi

The prologue of John is famous. These are the words offered in advance of the more ordinary telling of the Gospel story, and they begin, as most stories do, at the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word” is a recasting of the opening words of Genesis, the penultimate “in the beginning”.

At Christmas we often see the shortened form of Xmas, ‘X’ as used for ‘Christ’ even by the ancients in the times before storefront displays and decorated trees, and ‘Xmas’ itself for hundreds of years. The X of Xmas is not the ‘x’ of modern English: it is a Chi, an ancient Greek letter and the first in the name of Christ, written as Χριστός in the Greek alphabet.

The opening verse of John is, in fact, called a double chiasm. What does that mean? The thought structure of the verse, in Greek, would form two of our letter x’s, or two of the Greek letter Chi’s. Here is what the pairing of ideas look like using the Greek word order (different than the word order of the English translation):

The Beginning (God)                                          The Word


The Word                               With God


God                                           The Word

If you connect each reference to God (left to right to left again), and each reference to the Word (the Logos, or Christ – right to left to right again), you will have drawn two x’s. Or two Chi’s. The Gospel is using the image of the letter ‘X’ to emphasize the unity of God and Christ.

And yes, people in the ancient world did listen for that kind of thing, just as should we hear a modern day speaker offering a list of Light and Love and Life, we would expect the next item in the list to begin with an ‘L’ as well.

There is another comparison here in the beginning of this Gospel. It is a comparison of Jesus, the light of the world, and John the Baptist, who we are told quite plainly was not the light. It is an odd thing, surely, for an opening passage. Why bring out such a contrast, and right at the outset, if it did not have some overarching meaning for what was to come?

John, very much a human being, came to live in the wilderness, and the Gospel tells us that all John could do was point out the light to others. There is the obvious sentiment, of course: all we ourselves can do is point to the light.

There must be something more.

Right through the end of this passage in verse 18, the Gospel writer keeps alternating between the nature and work of Christ and the nature and condition of human beings. The contrasts go something like this:

God was in the world; we did not know God; God gave us power to transcend humanity (verses 10-13).

God became as us; we have not seen God; God the Son has made God known to humanity (verses 14-18).

God is starting with us where we are and taking us where we could not go.

Christians tend to take the later verse of John 3:16 and put it on every card, bumper sticker and billboard in the world. Perhaps we might consider that John 1:12-13 as a better summary of the Gospel message.

Keep Dreaming

First Sunday after Christmas Day  |  Matthew 2:13-23

Three times in this passage we read that Joseph was warned in a dream. Just as before when Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant and an angel appeared to guide him, it seems that Joseph’s angels appear to him only in dreams.Rainbow Wash 001

Dreams are that space where the walls we build around our innermost thoughts crack and come falling down. In our waking world we keep our fears at bay and we block out our hearts. In dreams, our fears disguise themselves and walk up to us, our desires walk out into the light to be seen. And in dreams, sometimes God speaks.

Maybe God is speaking to us all the time, and it is just that our dreams are the only place where our minds are quiet enough to hear.

The Magi came, strange wise men from the east. We know nearly nothing about them. It is likely Joseph knew nearly nothing. They came to see the child, left astonishing gifts, and departed never to be mentioned again. And after they leave, Joseph begins to dream.

He believes in the message of his dream enough to take his new family and hide them in Egypt, finding safety in what had been the land of Pharaoh. He has yet more dreams, and he believes in these enough to uproot his family again and to return to Nazareth.

Unlikely as it may seem, Joseph believed his dreams were the voice of God and acted on what he heard. Just like that.

A voice in our heads does not mean that God is speaking to us. Still, though the voice is just in our heads, it may be the voice of God. We only hear God when we stop to listen.

If we never act on our dreams, they remain only voices in our minds. When we act on our dreams, we meet God face to face.

Hineni – Here Am I

“Hineni,” the young boy said.IMG_2928 - Version 2

In the third chapter of 1 Samuel, we read of a young Samuel, hearing the call of the Lord three times, and answering three times, “Here I am.” What he actually says, each time, is the Hebrew word hineni. (It sounds something like the ‘hi’ in ‘hit’, then ‘nay’, then the ‘ni’ in ‘nit’ or the ‘nee’ in ‘knee’.) The most common translation is ‘here I am’.

This Hebrew term is found in other places within scripture. In Genesis 22, Abraham responds to the call of God with hineni. Abraham responds to the call of his son with hineni. And he responds to the call of the angel with the same hineni.  In Exodus 3, Moses hears the Lord calling his name, and Moses answers, “Hineni.”

We can learn a lot from this one little term. I invite us to consider two aspects–our response to God and God’s response to us.

How might we recognize the voice of God, or of a messenger of God? Among the many answers we may offer, the fundamental answer is simple: by listening. To say “here I am” to God is to pause quietly in the expectation that God is going to say something. That is no trivial thing. There are plenty of people who believe in God, who live wonderfully exemplary lives, and who never actually stop to listen to God and who never actually seem to expect God to communicate anything. It is easy to believe, or not, in something that is far away, a concept. It is another thing altogether to consider the immediate presence of God and to actively, expectantly listen. It is still more removed if, having heard, we respond.

Consider Abraham. It is interesting that he did not see fit to explain to his servants what he was doing. He did not begin by telling people that he was responding to the voice of God. Perhaps he still wondered himself. And take Moses–suppose someone came and told you that he had heard the voice of God speaking from a bush, and that the bush was on fire, but the fire did not burn the bush. You might very reasonably think that he had eaten the wrong mushrooms.

Entertaining the possibility that a small, faint voice may be the Almighty speaking is an act of faith. It is also an act of freedom, freeing us from the worldly constraint that says that truth always speaks loudly, and that we should listen to the powerful, the mainstream, that we should wrap ourselves in the terrible chains of normality. If we are paying attention, it is pretty clear that Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul were not normal people.

So how we distinguish faith from lunacy? It may be that the only answer is found in these old stories of faith, the stories of Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, of people who responded to God and whose response was, finally, embraced by the continuous body of the faithful over the centuries. Time and faith were the winnowing fan of scripture. If we are hearing a voice that speaks something radically different from the voices found in scripture, it may not be a voice to follow.

What does it mean when we say to God, “Here am I?” What did the folk in our faith stories bring with them when they said, “Hineni?” There is nothing of ‘Hey, look what I can do for you’, nothing of ‘Here I stand with ability and worth’. In fact, the only thing we can bring is recognition of our emptiness, of our unworthiness to respond to the Almighty.

There is a blessing. When we stop to respond to God, we recognize that all of these burdens, ideas, conceits, and worries we carry around are what they are—nothing in the face of God.

Remember that we are not the only ones saying, “Hineni!” …They shall know that it is I who speak; here am I. (Isaiah 52:6)

These are words of comfort, that we might hear God calling us, and a promise that God is always listening, always present, always waiting. If we pause, quietly, expectantly, we may hear the voice of God whispering, ”Here am I.”