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Sermon: What Are You Looking At?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 19, 2023, Lent 4A

Psalm 23; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

What Are You Looking At?

In some ways the hardest part of making this week’s sermon happen was choosing which of the scriptures to start from in that preparation. The gospel reading is a fascinating account of Jesus’s healing of a blind man from John 9, one of those Very Long Readings with all sorts of detail and conflict and struggle written into it. The psalm for the day is no less than Psalm 23, which has probably been the subject of more sermons than any other psalm, by far. Even the epistle reading, from Ephesians, is an interesting reflection on darkness and light which suggests that the best thing for us to do is to expose those wrongs done in secret, which would be pretty interesting to explore. Thinking of the church as a legion of investigative reporters out to expose the evils of the world could be quite fascinating.

For whatever reason, though, today’s reading from 1 Samuel wouldn’t let me off the hook. It’s a familiar enough story, one that introduces the one who would become perhaps the most eminent figure in the history of the biblical people of Israel. Indeed, it is the future king, David, who shows up at the climax of this account, the one whose story would occupy so much of this book and those to follow in the canon of Hebrew Scripture, and also the man whose name is connected to so many of the Psalms collected in the book of that name, including none other than Psalm 23. 

Part of the trick to getting this story right, though, is that this is not a story about David, no matter how much we want to jump ahead to his prominence in Israel and in the scriptures. The principal actor in this story is God, of course, as the One who provokes and moves the actions that take place. As for the humans here, the principal character here, the main mover and vessel of the action and the one who has the most to learn, is the old priest and prophet and judge Samuel. 

Samuel’s time is starting to end, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Things haven’t gone so well in his later years. His sons, meant to be judges and prophets after him, have turned out to be as corrupt and ill-suited to the task as the priests who had come before Samuel. He had been bitterly disappointed when the people demanded a kingto govern us, like other nations,” and maybe even a little disappointed when God acquiesced so easily (though not at all joyfully) to that demand. Nevertheless, Samuel had done his best to guide the new king, Saul, in this unprecedented role. Whatever his intentions, Saul had been too ready to give in to the temptations of so much power and had ultimately been ready to violate direct commands from God in the conduct of his office. Ultimately God declared to Samuel that Saul was no longer in God’s favor as king, a fate which hung upon Samuel with particular bitterness. Despite his own alienation from Saul and his convictions that Israel should never have demanded a king, Samuel grieved for Saul. 

We enter the story in today’s reading with God essentially saying to Samuel, “enough is enough.” God had a job for Samuel to do, and Samuel needed to get off his pity party and get to work anointing a new king. 

Samuel’s not wrong to be concerned about this. Whatever God had said about Saul, Saul was still king. Going out to anoint a new king without Saul’s knowledge or approval, in a strictly political sense, was treason, and Samuel knew darn well how Saul would take to such an act of betrayal. God basically tells Samuel to engage in a bit of subterfuge to hide the action, and the old priest gathers up a heifer and heads to Bethlehem, to anoint one of the sons of a man named Jesse as essentially king-in-waiting. Once the elders of the town of Bethlehem are calmed (for they are as aware as Samuel of the risks inherent in his visit), he makes his way to Jesse’s place. 

In truth, the pivotal moment of this story happens here. Not when David is fetched from his shepherding duties, but now, when Jesse’s first son Eliab comes into Samuel’s view. In modern jargon, Eliab “looks the part.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the oldest son, as that was The Way Things Are Done in this time – oldest son gets pretty much everything. It’s also easy to recall the first time Saul appeared in the narrative, literally standing head and shoulders above all the rest. Whatever it was, to Samuel, Eliab “looked the part,” and he was ready to perform this anointing and get on his way.

Not so fast, says God. Just because he stands out in the crowd and looks the part, don’t assume this is the one. I know his heart. This is not my future king. Move on.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we don’t always get that unpacking right. The point is not, for example, that physical handsomeness and height of stature are disqualifying for God’s call. After all, once David appears, the narrator has an awful lot to say about David’s own handsomeness, particularly about those “beautiful eyes” David apparently had. All those Hollywood tropes about the handsome hero and the creepy-looking bad guy? Wrong. No, it’s closer to say that a person’s external features – their appearance – tell us nothing about what’s going on in the heart. 

Actually, that word “heart” is worth a little unpacking as well. In our modern usage the “heart,” besides being that bodily organ that keeps the blood flowing throughout our bodies, has the metaphorical role of the center of our capacity to love. Not so in this culture in which Samuel is living; rather, the “heart” as spoken of here encompasses such human functions as understanding and reasoning, as well as empathy and feeling; it sits somewhere between what we metaphorize as the “mind” or the “soul.” At any rate God has seen what’s in Eliab’s “heart,” and has concluded that this is not the one.

Interestingly, we might just get a little confirmation of this judgment of Eliab in the very next chapter, when he and two of his brothers are part of the Israelite army arrayed to do battle against the Philistine forces and their un-humanly large warrior Goliath. Yes, this is the famous story where David, still a youth, shows up and takes down Goliath with his slingshot, but before that happens, we get another view of Eliab, and it’s not pretty. He gets angry. It’s not entirely clear if it’s mostly older-brother jealousy at the cheeky younger brother showing up in a place he isn’t supposed to be (even though Jesse has sent David to take supplies to his brothers and to the army), or if he knows that he got passed over in favor of David and is jealous about that. One doesn’t read too much into one moment, but Eliab might just be showing something of why God “rejected” Eliab as king. 

As for David, well, there are many, many chapters to come about his coming to the role and his service as king (he doesn’t even get anointed as king of any part of the region until 2 Samuel 2). Let’s be clear; David was not perfect. He was also susceptible to the temptations of power and turned out to be a pretty horrible father in the bargain. His heart, however, never fully abandoned God, and for all his foibles and failings, David remained a servant of God. 

These are things that Samuel could not see. His seeming willingness to act quickly based on external appearance is, as we are painfully aware, all too common in our own time. Whether it’s however many hundreds of channels of television or streaming available to us (news orentertainment, or entertainment pretending to be news), or numerous corners of social media or advertising or print media, we can see way too many examples of people out there, famous people, influential people (even some social media figures who identify blatantly as “influencers”), sometimes even powerful people who, upon closer inspection, have nothing to offer besides their pretty or handsome external appearance. It’s enough to drive one to despair if you let it.

Fortunately, the One whose vision matters knows better. God sees beyond the pretty trappings or enhanced appearance. God also hears beyond the pretty words or inflammatory rhetoric or even the most eloquent voice in song. God sees us, in all our imperfection, no matter how much we try to put up a pretty exterior to fool the world. 

This does bring up the question of what we are really looking at. In our daily lives, in our political leanings, in our fumbling following of God, what are we looking at? What are we not seeing? It’s not a bad question to keep in the back of our minds, or as this scripture puts it, our hearts.

In the end, the miracle of it all, really, is that God sees beyond that outward appearance, and sees the heart, … and loves us anyway.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #30, God Moves in a Mysterious Way; #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness


Sermon: The Way of Water

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 12, 2023, Lent 3A

John 4:4-42

The Way of Water

When you think about it, water is actually awfully prominent in scripture. The second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The last chapter of scripture, Revelation 22, starts with John being shown by an angelthe river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (that is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem that had just been introduced in the previous chapter. And there’s a lot of water in between. The Hebrew people cross through a sea to escape Egypt and then through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Jonah flees across the waters to avoid God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh; the Assyrian general Naaman is told to dunk himself in the Jordan to cleanse himself of leprosy. Today’s Old Testament reading also has an interesting interaction with water. Even the psalmists have a thing for water on occasion, such as the famous Psalm 23 and its description of the Shepherd who “leads me beside still waters.” 

Things don’t change that much once we turn to the New Testament. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, calls fishermen as some of his first disciples, and crosses the sea of Galilee a time or two in his travels. The Ethiopian persuades Philip to baptize him after hearing the good news. The Apostle Paul spends much of his vocation traveling across the sea we know as the Mediterranean in his missionary journeys. 

Even wells, such as the scene of today’s reading, have some history in scripture. Both Rebekah and Rachel, eventually wives to Isaac and Jacob in Hebrew story, were first met at wells, and Moses also met his future wife Zipporah while waiting by a well. One might wonder if those readers of John’s gospel might have wondered at such a setting here, but if they had any thought of such a trope repeating itself those thoughts were dispelled quickly here. Something much better was in store.

It’s hard not to notice some similarities and differences between this reading and the gospel reading appointed for last week’s lectionary, from the previous chapter of John’s gospel. You probably remember that reading for The Most Famous Verse of Scripture in the Universe, but one of the key features of that passage was the befuddlement of the important religious figure Nicodemus when Jesus crosses him up by talking about being “born again” or being “born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus was down for the count quicker than Mike Tyson used to knock out some of his earliest boxing opponents. 

In the case of this week’s dialogue, Jesus crosses up his dialogue partner by starting up a dialogue at all. There are multiple reasons this is non-typical; for one, men typically disdained to speak to women in public, except perhaps their wives, and probably not even them. For another, this was a Samaritan woman. I had to type that word in italics – Samaritan – to make sure and emphasize just how wrong and misguided and, well, icky it would be to a typical Judean even to be in Samaria, much less to speak to a Samaritan (and a Samaritan woman at that!). The most likely reaction to a Judean reader of this passage, particularly what we have as verse 4, would have likely been along the lines of “no, he didn’t. He didn’t have to go through Samaria. In fact that is the one thing he absolutely did not have to do, or had not to do, or to not do or something. Why is he going through Samaria???” 

A third factor has to do with the time of day. Much like it was, well, odd for Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night in chapter 3, it was odd for this woman to be at the well at midday. Most water-drawing took place early in the morning, before the day got so unbearably hot. 

A caution needs to be vocalized here. Much of the lore that has accrued around this story assumes that this woman has to come at midday because she was somehow outcast or “shamed” in the town. This of course leads to more assumptions; that this woman has somehow divorced the five husbands she has had (as will come out in the dialogue later) and is probably, as one might say today, “living in sin” with the man with whom she now lives who is not her husband. This is not supportable by anything in the reading. Given how little agency women had in being “married off” at this time, it’s not necessarily likely that a woman divorced once would have much of a chance to marry again. An alternate possibility, not necessarily any more unlikely, is that she had been passed down from one brother to another, according to the supposed law about levirate marriage, whereby a woman whose husband dies without a son then marries the next brother to provide an heir for her original husband. It’s a thing the Sadducees try to trip Jesus up about in Matthew 22. As to the man who was not her husband, it could have been a father of one (or all) of the husbands, or even her own father. The shameful behavior shouldn’t be assumed, even if the locals might have done so – how many times have folks been completely wrong in their assumptions about a person’s behavior or morals? Don’t be those people, right? 

As this dialogue goes on (it turns out to be the longest Jesus has with anyone in any of the gospels), the Samaritan woman might be caught off guard, but she never dissolves into a puddle the way Nicodemus did. Her response to Jesus’s naming of her current marital status is to press him right back: OK, you’re a prophet. So explain this… and “this” is nothing less than the very thing that divides Judeans and Samaritans. Her reward for this questioning, for not backing down, is nothing less than being the first person in this gospel to whom Jesus directly names himself as the Messiah, the Christ. 

She goes back to the city and tells everyone what she has seen. It’s not as if she’s giving some kind of lead-pipe cinch “testimony” – she’s still asking “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and this witness persuades the whole city to come and listen, and ultimately to be persuaded of Jesus. First she, and then the people of the city, found living water.

Yes, let’s go back to that early part of the exchange. It all starts off with Jesus asking her for a drink of water. One might suspect that, in Jesus’s mind, the fact of the Samaritan-Jew conflict and the male-female division and the time of day potential scandal, there was something more important at play: he was tired and thirsty. If we truly believe that Jesus lived a fully human life, we have to believe he could get thirsty, right? And if you get thirsty enough, you’ll break whatever taboo you have to break to get something to drink. 

So he asks for a drink, she quite logically wonders why a Jewish man would speak at all to a Samaritan woman, and then comes the curveball. If you knew who was asking for water, you would ask himand he would have given you living water.

The woman doesn’t really get it, not unlike Nicodemus, but she keeps pressing. OK, how do you draw this water with no bucket and no rope. You know whose well this was, right? (referring to the ancient patriarch Jacob). Perhaps impressed by her composure, Jesus actually explains himself a little more than he did to Nicodemus, and she’s ready; so give me this water, so I don’t have to keep coming back here for water in the middle of the day. From there Jesus diverts the conversation to the husbands, and we see how it goes from there. 

The image of “living water,” though, is worth unpacking. What happens to water that stands still too long? Particularly out in nature, still water isn’t necessarily the most appealing thing. Who knows that is growing in it or infesting it? Even today water that has been sitting in the refrigerator too long can seem unappealing, even if we can’t say why. 

I think our cat Mickey gets this better than we humans do. Every now and then he might resort to drinking from the water that is in one of the bowls we keep for the cats in the kitchen. More often he’ll drink from the cat fountain we also have in the kitchen. Most of all, though, he clambers up onto the counter in the bathroom, positions himself by one of the basins, and yowls piteously until one of us comes running to turn the faucet on and provide him running water. Even Mickey knows that running water, moving water, is better. 

Jesus even plays on that image a little bit in verse 14, when he speaks of this living water that he gives, saying that it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” From a wind from God blowing across the waters of the primordial deep to the River of Life flowing from the throne, living water moves. It’s not static. It moves, it flows, it springs up, it gushes. It moves.

I wonder if sometimes that frightens us about this living water. It moves too much. It’s not stable, it’s not predictable. It’s changing. Better to stick with that nice safe water in the big jug in the fridge or on the counter in the big dispenser, stuff that doesn’t move unless we pour it or open the spigot. 

No, living water moves, and if we’re doing it right we move with it, as unpredictably as it may flow. And we don’t thirst anymore. Like the unpredictable wind in John 3, the living water fills us and refreshes us in ways we can’t predict or explain. 

This is the water that Jesus offers. We won’t be the same after we drink of it. It might just move us to places we don’t expect. But this is what Jesus offers us, living water.

Drink up.

For living water, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken; #53, O Lord, Who Gives Us Life; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah


Sermon: Trespass and the ‘Free Gift’

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 26, 2023, Lent 1A

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Trespass and the ‘Free Gift’

The scriptures for this first Sunday of Lent, in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, offer up three separate yet interrelated passages for our understanding: the Genesis account of the “original sin,” Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, and from Romans, Paul’s attempt to make the connections between the two. 

The Genesis account is painfully familiar. Adam is given the garden in which to live (as of 2:15-17 Eve had not been created yet), with only one thing forbidden; goaded by the serpent’s twisting the words of God’s command, that one forbiddance is quickly violated. Our lectionary reading leaves off as after eating the fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (3:7, Revised English Version). 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza one]

In his addressing of this event in Romans 5, Paul uses some interesting words to describe just what Adam has done. (To clarify: Paul does not mention Eve at all in this discourse, mostly because he is working to create a rhetorical parallel between Adam, the first created one, and Christ, the harbinger of new creation. This isn’t the first or last time a woman has been treated as inconvenient for a man’s narrative, to be sure.) The word “sin” appears, to be sure, but Paul also uses the word “trespass” several times here.

For us modern types, that word might appear in one of two contexts. If you were to attend, say, a Methodist church that uses what they would regard as a traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, you would hear the word “trespasses” just about the time your reflex leads you to say “debts.” There were a number of Methodists attending the seminary I attended, and this contrast was the subject of a running joke. Regarding the Lord’s Prayer, one of the Methodists would accuse us Presbyterians (based on that word “debts“) of being obsessed with money. In turn, the Presbyterian at hand would retort (based on that word “trespasses”), that Methodists were obsessed with property. (To be fair to us Presbyterians, at least Matthew’s version does use the word “debts;” Luke actually uses the word “sins.”)

The other context in which we know the word “trespass” is most likely on a sign reading “NO TRESPASSING,” found on the edge of some property or other. Doesn’t immediately set off biblical expectations, does it?

But back to Paul, who seems to be the main one to describe sins as “trespass.” It might not be typical, but it’s not necessarily a bad choice. To speak of “trespass” (as in that stereotypical “no trespassing” sign) is an indication entering into a place one doesn’t belong. In making the choice to eat that fruit, Adam (and Eve) put themselves in a position or place that was not theirs to claim; the authority to eat that fruit from that tree was not theirs. God put the two in the garden as caretakers – “to till it and keep it,” as Genesis 2:15 says, not to “run” it. Eating the fruit was a repudiation of God’s authority over the garden, a violation or indeed “trespass” onto a property – that one tree – that was not theirs. 

Now in our world, when we speak of “trespass” we expect the response to be some kind of citation, perhaps a fine, maybe even an arrest if some major location is the one that has been trespassed upon. Paul will spend a good bit of ink demonstrating how that isn’t so, but first let’s remind ourselves of what happens in the gospel reading, where temptation is in fact not victorious.

Jesus has been out in the desert those forty days and nights, presumably very hungry by now, and as if on cue the Tempter shows up. Since there aren’t any shiny fruit on hand, the Tempter turns to another food temptation, something quite within Jesus’s powers. Then the Tempter tries luring Jesus with a spectacular display of his heavenly connection, and finally with the lure of ultimate power – which, strangely enough, already belongs to Jesus, and which the Tempter did not have to offer at all. Suffice to say that Jesus rebuffs all three temptation attempts, each with an appropriate verse from the book of Deuteronomy. 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza two]

Of course, this resisting of temptation was really just a starting point for Jesus’s earthly ministry. In all that is to come in that earthly work, Jesus shows God’s reign in a word that does not submit to it. In his execution on a cross, and in refusing to stay dead, but instead being raised up by God, Jesus became (among many other things) the One who fulfilled the Law, that Mosaic record that (even though it was given after sin entered the world) made sin all the worse by making it known and inescapable. As that One who fulfilled the Law (and, you know, Son of God), Jesus was in a position to execute authority over humanity.

Instead, what Jesus did was the “free gift.”

Paul will, many times, declare that “the free gift is not like the trespass.” That’s how he describes it in verse 15, and he’ll go on to say many times how the “free gift” isn’t like what happened through Adam. In short, the one “free gift” is the negation not of the one trespass, but of many, many, many trespasses, indeed a whole human history of trespasses. 

By the end of this passage Paul is now ready to acknowledge how the trespass and the free gift are alike, in verses 18-19. One man’s disobedience set sin loose among all humanity, and one man’s obedience set righteousness loose among all humanity. 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza three]

For the “free gift” that blots out all the trespass, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #275, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; #440, Jesus, Lover of My Soul; #166, Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days


Sermon: What Is Revealed, What Is Concealed

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 19, 2023, Transfiguration A

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-18; Matthew 17:1-9

What Is Revealed, What Is Concealed

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to drive around town or perhaps across the state on a cloudy day? Not a rainy day, but a cloudy one, when the sun isn’t constantly beating down and creating a glare that obscures everything? I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing. 

In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God. 

It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night. That cloud, in a sense, revealed God.

There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. And again, the cloud reveals the presence of God. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. Music, after all.)

So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.

Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties most of the time. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness makes that drive so bearable is that it obscures the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida). 

And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.

(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)

In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!” 

Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him. You get a brief reminiscence of this in the reading from 2 Peter, likely written by a follower of that apostle recording his teacher’s recollection. 

After this transfiguration, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say. (Somehow, 2 Peter doesn’t include this part.) And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud takes over.

The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before. 

In concealing Moses and Elijah from the overly enthusiastic disciples, the cloud also reveals; Jesus is revealed not merely as an equal to those two, but something completely other, something so far beyond what either of those figures could represent or offer. The Son of God, the Eternal, is revealed by what the clouds conceal. 

As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:

Eternal does not mean “that which has no end” but “that which belongs to the world to come”. Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.

That which belongs to the world to come” – a world without end. 

At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a time and season nearly impossible time for us to bear, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope. 

This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Listen to him!

(Stanza 4, “Upon a holy mountain”)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #191, We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding; #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!

Credit: agnusday.org


Sermon: God Everywhere

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 12, 2023

Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 19:21-41; Matthew 28:19-20

God Everywhere

Perhaps it’s appropriate that in order to support this final portion of A Brief Statement of Faith, one gets some unusual and maybe odd scripture accounts, like the readings from Numbers and Acts we juat heard. 

It’s a curious story, this reading from Numbers. A little context: the people have (again) complained against God and against Moses for the awful horror that the people haven’t had any meat to eat for a long time. Never mind the miraculously provided manna that has been keeping them alive for s long, they haven’t had meat, and so they’re frankly whining. (Sounds like a bunch of Texans to me.) God has, one might imagine, muttered “oh, you’re gonna have meat, all right” (in verse 20 God promises they will have meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you“) and instructed Moses to gather seventy of the elders of the people and take them to the meeting tent for, well, something special. Those men were gathered and visited with just a little of the spirit that God had put on Moses, just enough to engage in a little bit of prophesying. 

Two of the elders of the people, however, somehow missed the memo and didn’t go with the others to the meeting place, staying behind in the camp. That spirit, however, didn’t care that they weren’t with the others; they got the same prophesying impulse that those elders in the meeting place, much to the surprise of those around them in the camp. A youngster runs out to the meeting tent to tell Moses about Eldad and Medad. Moses’s right-hand man Joshua wants to stop them (side note: whyyyy??? what’s the point of that petty idea?), but Moses shuts him down vigorously – “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Then they go back to the camp. 

Strange story, yes, but there is something to learn from it: the Spirit of God is not limited by us in any way. That opening sentence of this section – “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life” is more than boilerplate talk; it is the vital and characteristic trait of this member of the Trinity. We don’t get to decide where and upon whom the Spirit will move; we don’t get to decide who is and who is not worthy; we don’t dictate. 

The organization of this section is thoroughly effective at laying out the work of the Spirit, which draws us in (54-57), prepares and equips us (58-64), and gives us courage to go and do (6571). And as with all of this statement, there are so many pieces of scripture and references to other statements in the Book of Confessions that one could draw upon (even if the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds don’t give us that much to work with; the latter goes no further than “I believe in the Holy Ghost…“) that one could spend weeks upon weeks on the subject.. 

Still, I can’t escape one particularly compelling line in this section, perhaps the most striking statement in any document in the Book of Confessions. There in line 69, among those many things we are promised, is that “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage … to unmask idolatries in church and culture.” That’s a heck of a challenge. 

There was some difficulty in agreeing on the final form of the line. Originally a version was proposed that started off “to smash idols” or something similar. The harshly violent image of “smashing” idols didn’t necessarily last song, but the challenge is to understand the change from “idols” to “idolatries.” What’s the point of that? Why make that change?

The odd little reading from Acts helps us understand that distinction. So far as we can see Paul is mostly working on travel plans. He directs a couple of his aides to go to Macedonia while he waits a little longer in Asia, maybe to rest, maybe to pray, maybe to plan. The disturbances that break out seem quite disconnected from anything that is happening on the ground. But one silversmith decides that these strangers are a threat to his business, uses the city of Ephesus’s point of pride to stir up his fellow tradesmen with the fear of the loss of their main tourist attraction and economic draw, and suddenly there are riots in the streets.

Note that Paul and his co-workers haven’t done anything to provoke such a reaction. As far as we know they’ve said or done nothing about the temple of Artemis (or Diana); they’ve just been proclaiming their good news, and apparently people have been listening. From this one man has stoked up fear and riled up potential violence. (If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, you’re not alone.) 

So what is the problem here? Is it the idol, or is it the idolatry?

As far as we can see those little silver shrines of Artemis haven’t actually done anything. They are nothing but pieces of silver. What can they do? If you remember your story about Elijah’s contest with the Baal prophets at Mt. Carmel, you know that those idols didn’t really do anything because they can’t do anything. Same for these silver shrines. They just sit there.

Those who have wrapped themselves up in the cult of Artemis, however, that’s a different matter. By the time this story concludes we can’t be entirely sure whether the idolatry is centered. Is it being riled up by worshipers of Artemis, or is it being riled up by those who make their living off the worship of Artemis? It looks like the latter, to be honest. Either way, the “idolatry” is fully exposed here, even though all Paul and his colleagues were doing was sharing the good news. But the Spirit uses that witness to reach listeners who heard and responded to the word, and the Spirit also unmasked the real idolatry of the craftsmen of Ephesus. The town clerk has to call them out for their false charges and rebuke them and send them home. 

This business of unmasking idolatries isn’t about some kind of crusade against whatever we have decided is the enemy. Like Paul and his colleagues, all we are called to do is bear witness, both in word and deed, and the Spirit moves from there. Do you job and let the Spirit work.

The final lines of this section take us back to the bigger picture. Echoing the Trinitarian formula of the Great Commission and reinforces that last point – serve Christ in our daily work – it continues by charging us to “live holy and joyful lives” and watch for God’s new work. That really is it. It’s not about being a superhero or super-Christian; serve daily, live joyfully, watch faithfully. 

It seems appropriate to wrap all this up, this reminder of what our denomination wanted to say when it was first founded, with the next three lines of the Statement:

With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #292, As the Wind Song; #—, We trust in God, the loving Holy Spirit; #688, Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart


Sermon: God Over All

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 5, 2023

Hosea 11:1-9; Titus 1:15-16; Luke 15:11-32

God Over All

Moving to the middle section of A Brief Statement of Faith, we are now charged to think of that member of the Trinity long known as some variant of “God the Father.” Creating an opening identifying statement turned out to be a fierce challenge. 

That formula, “God the Father,” has been used almost mindlessly in the church for ages, despite the obvious problem of how one can say that women are created in the image of God if God is exclusively male. Hard-baked as it is in the church’s confessional statements and liturgies, it’s still awfully limiting. On the flip side, use of such language for God has a sometimes-harmful inverse effect; fathers can end up being attributed godlike qualities within the family, a sure way to guarantee abuse and harm for all involved.

The solution found here can seem like a cheat to some, but actually points to an important characteristic of relationship to God as demonstrated by Jesus, one which thoroughly undermines any patriarchal intentions about the term. The key word, it turns out, is less “father” than that Aramaic word “Abba.” 

Probably the closest word we would have in English is “daddy,” or maybe “papa.” You can see the difference between calling one “father” or “daddy,” yes? “Daddy” (or “papa”) is a much more familiar and even intimate term than “father,” and indicates a closeness and personal-ness of relationship.

To note that Jesus used the word “Abba” is then to indicate that the “Father” spoken of in confession and liturgy is not limited to a far-off, forbidding, formal figure of authority and power; “Abba” is close, comforting, eager to love and care for the child (something not characteristic of fathers in Jesus’s time, and not characteristic of a lot of fathers in our time).

This intimate kind of “daddy”-ness is reinforced in the concluding lines of this section, a direct reference to the parable of Luke’s reading. A typical patriarchal father of biblical times might well have tossed the younger son out of the household with not a possession to his name for making such a request, and then would absolutely not have received the son so warmly and lavishly upon his return. Yet this father does quite the opposite of societal expectations in both cases. When Jesus called God “Abba,” something like this comes close.

Of course, “father” is not the only metaphor used in scripture for God. Look at Isaiah 49:14-15:

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

If you want a more direct image, try Isaiah 66:13:

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

Or check out what God says through Isaiah in chapter 46:3-4:

Listen to me, O house of Jacob; all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

Pretty clearly scripture has more than one way of describing God, and our confessional language should too: “Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.

The inner portion of this section – the “middle of the middle,” so to speak – turns on God’s action of creation, our rebellion in sin, and God’s redemption of us sinful folk. Lines 29-32 leave no wiggle room in declaring that all, or perhaps even more emphatically all y’all are created in God’s image, an idea over which this denomination would struggle mightily for the next few decades, and which some still resist. New denominational groupings would split from the PC(USA) as a result of their, in their own actions, being unable to accept this truth.

In describing human sinfulness, we don’t exactly come off looking too great, do we? For a statement that was initiated forty years ago and completed and added to the Book of Confessions a little more than thirty years ago, this sounds awfully timely, doesn’t it? 

Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.

That’s almost prophetic, especially that “accept lies as truth” part.

Apparently, some folks in the creating process of this Statement got squeamish about line 39, “We deserve God’s condemnation.” Honestly, did they pay attention to those lines just before it? It seems that folks struggle with realizing just how destructive our sinfulness is and what damage it does to creation around us and to those with whom we share this planet. I confess I can’t get those who struggle with that statement. Heck, yeah, we deserve it. (The brief reading from Titus brooks no doubt on this.)

But God doesn’t do it.

God acts through Abraham and Sarah to make a covenant people; God delivers that people from bondage; God makes us joint-heirs with Christ, to borrow language from Paul; and God loves us still. God is faithful still, even when we humans aren’t. This is the God who, in the reading from Hosea, can’t bear to forsake the people of the covenant no matter how much they break that covenant. God is faithful still.

Frankly, if you’re looking for a short and sweet way to encapsule this section of A Brief Statement of Faith, that might be as good as you can get: God is faithful still. Not forsaking the covenant people, refusing to forsake the nursing child, running to welcome the prodigal home; God is faithful still.

For the God who is faithful still, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #—, We trust in God, whom Jesus called his father; #17, Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!


Sermon: God Incarnate

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 29, 2023      

Psalm 22:14-18; Colossians 1:9-14; Matthew 11:2-6

God Incarnate

<sing> Credo in unum Deum…

Those notes have, for literally centuries, been the opening notes of many musical settings of a particular movement of the mass as set by composers from Palestrina to Mozart to countess others. The movement, most commonly known as the “Credo,” is (like all the other movements) taken from the liturgical texts used in the mass in Roman Catholic worship. That Latin word “Credo” is translated as “I believe.”

This traditional musical rendering shares that opening with the Apostles’ Creed as found in our PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. In the case of the Apostles’ Creed, that reflects its frequent usage as a statement made by an individual, perhaps being examined for baptism or confirmation to be received into the full fellowship in the church. While it might have been administered by a hopeful and supportive membership, one doesn’t have to work too hard to imagine it as being a potentially nervous or fearful moment, struggling to get it right (and sound convincing) before an imposing panel of judges. 

This “I” statement stands in sharp relief to the beginning of part one of A Brief Statement of Faith which we examine today. It is not necessarily unique that this text begins with the word “we” instead of “I” (even the Nicene Creed has, over time, been adapted to begin plurally), it does make a point about how this text is to be used. The point of this statement is not judgment or evaluation or any kind of “gatekeeping.” This statement is one for the community to make in unison. We speak together, as a statement of belief.

Except…not exactly. We only have to speak one more word to see how this statement stands apart from those traditional professions of the church over the centuries. It doesn’t say “we believe“; it says “we trust.” We trust in Christ, and to trust in is a far different thing than to believe in. To believe in is far to easily reduced to a matter of mere verbal assent; say the right words in the right order and you’re in. To trust in is different; mere words won’t ever be enough to demonstrate trust. It has to be shown. It has to be lived. 

We put ourselves under the microscope, for all the world to see and evaluate, when we say “we trust in Christ.”

There is of course another difference in this text from A Brief Statement and those traditional creeds. That sung portion, “Credo in unum Deum,” translates fully as “I believe in one God,” and the text continues with “the Father Almighty.” A Brief Statement opens with Jesus, typically regarded as the “second person” of the Trinity in most ways the Trinity is named. We observed last week how A Brief Statement took its order from the benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Paul’s formulation of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” and how that ordering reflected Paul’s encounter with Jesus in his vision on the road to Damascus at his conversion. We are thus confronted directly with God Incarnate, Immanuel, God-with-us, God present with humanity in human flesh and blood. 

Once those ancient creeds got to Jesus, those words wouldn’t be out of line. Take the Nicene Creed, for instance, which describes Jesus as:

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,

begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

That’s a mouthful, but notice what it does and doesn’t say; a lot of trying to pin down who and what Jesus is, not a whole lot about what Jesus does.

That contrast becomes even more noticeable:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here. He was born and then he was crucified? Not a bloomin’ thing about Jesus’s life and works and teaching on earth? Those four gospels full of Jesus’s words and deeds basically ignored? 

A Brief Statement, by contrast, continues: 

Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:

and continues with nine lines reminding us of how Jesus proclaimed the reign of God.

Yes, the crucifixion does show up. The Statement doesn’t ignore that by any standard of justice Jesus’s crucifixion was immoral and unjust. That puts Jesus in the company of way too many people who get executed in electric chairs or lethal injection chambers or frankly on the streets of Memphis. When we sing about “fairest Lord Jesus” as in our last hymn of the morning, that becomes hard to reconcile with a man wrongly crucified.

Part one of A Brief Statement does take us to God’s raising of Jesus, carefully echoing scriptural wording of the Resurrection in numberous places. 

The reading from Psalm 22 echoes its usage on Good Friday, reminding us of Jesus’s crucifixion; the Colossians scripture shows us the resurrected and exalted Jesus, exalted and redeeming. Matthew’s words remind us of Jesus’s own view of his work on earth, in the face of John’s skepticism. And of course, there is a year-long Bible study’s worth of other scriptures cited by the authors of A Brief Statement of Faith to support this statement on Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human. 

As to the God who raised this Jesus from the dead, that’s part two.

Remember how this Statement came about; commissioned in the act of reunion of two Presbyterian bodies, divided since before the Civil War, into the Presbyterian Church (USA). To make the statement, as a denomination, that “we trust in” the Jesus described in these words is a remarkable testament. It is also one that this denomination has inevitably struggled with in practice, coming to live into its implications only slowly and fitfully, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming. Yet it remains for us as a call, a call to accept no human standard or dogma, but to settle for nothing less than trusting in the Jesus Christ who proclaimed the reign of God, was unjustly crucified for doing so, and was raised by God, delivering us from death to life eternal.

For Jesus Christ, in whom we trust, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #156, Sing of God Made Manifest; #—, We trust in Christ, both God and fully human; #630; Fairest Lord Jesus


Sermon: Reunion

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 22, 2023

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Romans 8:31-39; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Reunion

This church, as I’m guessing most of you know, is a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What you may not know or remember is that, as a denominational organization, PC(USA) is fairly young in the grand scheme of things. PC(USA) was officially formed only in 1983, at a special General Assembly that summer, in the reunion of two Presbyterian groups, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) (sometimes called the “northern” church) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS, frequently the “southern” church).

Such an act of reunion should not be taken lightly. The groups in question traced their origins to a common body that first split in the United States in the years before the Civil War. Presbyterians were hardly the only religious entity in the US to split in that contentious time; almost every Protestant denomination experienced some form of schism in the period in which the practice of enslaving Black persons became the issue provoking contentious division, political secession, and ultimately armed conflict. Some of those denominations have never re-united (there’s a reason the large Baptist group is called the Southern Baptist Convention), and there were splits and reunions amongst a number of smaller bodies over many decades, but for Presbyterians the act of reunion gained momentum in the 1970s and was completed with the 1983 General Assembly.

As a marker of the reunion, that assembly established a commission to create a new theological statement of faith to become a part of the new denomination’s Book of Confessions. As you all know, Presbyterians are a deliberate bunch. Everything is done, as the old saying goes, “decently and in order,” and nothing is rushed. Combine that with the fact that theological confessions or affirmations of faith are not easy to create, and it was 1991 before that statement was completed, reviewed, revised, and finally affirmed and added to the Book of Confessions. While the Confession of Belhar is the statement most recently added to the BoC it was in fact completed earlier, so the Brief Statement of Faith remains the “newest” such statement in our Book of Confessions

Creating a statement that could be agreed upon by two church bodies that had been divided for more than one hundred years was no small task. One part of the process was to consider and examine the confessional statements already in use between the two groups. This was an area of some difference between the two, as the PCUS had no statement later than the Westminster Confession and its two catechisms of the 1600s, while the UPCUSA had taken in the Theological Declaration of Barmen from the 1930s and had created the Confession of 1967. The work of finding theological and confessional common ground was, despite the time it took to complete, an act of reaffirmation of the reunion between the two previously separated bodies.

That work was matched with extremely detailed examination of scripture. I wish I could show you just how extensive the scriptural annotations are for the various sections of the statement. In some cases you can find six or seven or eight or more scriptural references for a single phrase of the statement, much less sentence or paragraph. I want to point to three particular scriptures; one that is key to the statement’s preface, one to its conclusion, and one to the organization of the statement itself. 

The very first sentence of the Statement points to the Reformed heritage of theological statements: it is a very close echo of the beginning of the old Heidelberg Catechism, which (in its question-and-answer format) begins: 

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. 

A Brief Statement of Faith condenses this to “In life and in death we belong to God.” There are eight scriptures listed in support of that sentence. The preface continues with five more lines. We’ll get to 2-4 later, but the fifth and sixth lines take us to Deuteronomy. We heard what is known as the Shema, with its inescapable call reminding us that the Lord, and only the Lord, is our God. Statement lines 5-6 place that assertion directly next to the triune formula of lines 2-4 with the declaration of trust in “the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.” (We’ll get back to lines 2-4 momentarily.)

At the end of the statement, lines 77-79 should sound at least familiar after the day’s reading from Romans:

With believers in every time and place,

we rejoice that nothing in life or in death

can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul certainly goes through a longer list of things that can’t separate us from that love of God, but his point is retained and made explicitly clear. This makes as strong a conclusion as you could want for a statement of faith, too.

But let’s go back to the beginning again, and notice something about lines 2-4. How do we trust in the Holy One of Israel? We do so “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit“. You can hear the echo of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians very clearly here (and some of you are noticing that this formula is how I tend to pronounce the benediction at the end of the service). 

This might seem like an unusual formula. We’re accustomed to invoking the Trinity in a different order, traditionally something like “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit“, yes? 

On one level this is no big deal; the Triune God is the Triune God, yes? And yet it can be discombobulating when you get locked into the old way. It’s also worth noticing that the oldest confessional statements we use – the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed – proceed in that traditional order. They may give most of their words to God the Son, but God the Father is invoked first. So why the difference? Why does Paul phrase the Triune God in this order?

You might remember how Paul came to be Paul; the dramatic, blinding encounter on the road to Damascus. Who was it that Paul saw and heard in that encounter? Nothing less than Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. Paul interpreted that saving encounter with Jesus with how the human heart first encounters God most directly through Jesus’s earthly intervention and salvation.

Taking this cue, the Statement addresses Christ first, then God, “whom Jesus called his father,” and finally the Holy Spirit. We will address these individual portions of the Statement these next three weeks. Understand here, though, that this ordering of the Trinity seeks to recount how we first come to experience God, not necessarily how we hear about God. Certainly not all will agree. 

What is shown in this document, with the rigorous application of scripture and Presbyterian theological heritage that went into its creation, is that the act of reunion that provoked its creation was no mere sentimental gesture or public relations flourish. The foundation of that reunion could not be anywhere but the scriptural heritage that both denominations held. Even more, that unity could only be founded in the God, the Holy One of Israel, the Triune God, to which those scriptures bore witness. 

No such act of church unity could flourish otherwise. If our foundation is in anyone or anything other than the Holy One, the Triune One, then we’re faking it and will inevitably come apart and be unmasked as a fraud, with nothing of Christ about us. May it never be so.

For the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One In Mission; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #—, In life, in death, we are God’s own


Sermon: After the Baptism

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 8, 2023, Baptism of the Lord A

Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

After the Baptism

One of the quirks of the lectionary calendar, especially at this time of the year, is that the timeline of Jesus’s life on earth gets messed around with pretty severely. We begin Advent with teaching from the adult Jesus, near the end of his earthly ministry, warning of things to come and encouraging his followers to be awake and prepared – our one real acknowledgment of the “second Advent” for which we all wait. One week later Jesus isn’t born yet, and isn’t born until Christmas Eve (or the fourth Sunday of Advent if you’re in the year of Matthew’s gospel, as we are now). 

But the confusion only gets worse after that. Depending on which year of the cycle you’re in Jesus can be anywhere from infancy to as much as twelve years old (for that account in Luke of his parents losing him only to find him in the Temple discussing scripture with the Temple leaders). We then arrive at Epiphany, the visit of the Magi, at which point Jesus was probably no more than two years old. Then, with the whole holiday cycle done, we arrive at this first Sunday after Epiphany, where we find Jesus just at the beginning of his earthly ministry, coming to John to be baptized. 

Each gospel treats the baptism account slightly differently. The gospel named John, for all that passes between the two men in it, never actually has anybody get baptized. The gospels of Mark and Luke give accounts that are cursory at most. As brief as today’s reading is, it is the most elaborate account of Jesus’s being baptized in the gospels. 

It also includes the unique detail of John the Baptizer’s reluctance to perform the act where Jesus is involved. It makes sense, from his point of view. After all, we are told many times in these accounts that the baptism John gave was for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. Whatever John knew about Jesus, he knew enough to know that Jesus didn’t have anything to repent. Jesus insists, though, with the curious phrase that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 

There are a few different ways to read Jesus’s choice. If he was truly come to bear the sins of humanity, then one could argue that it was indeed proper to “fulfill all righteousness” by taking baptism for the forgiveness of all those sins of humanity. On a more basic level, if Jesus really was fully human, being baptized by John was a way to participate in that being fully human in a visible way, as a kind of act of solidarity.

However one reads this choice, John does consent, and Jesus is baptized. Two things then happen, and Matthew’s way of phrasing them almost sounds as if those two responses weren’t directed to the same audience. Matthew pretty clearly states that “he” – presumably Jesus from the context of the verse – “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” That structure suggests the vision was for Jesus and no one else. However, when the voice speaks from heaven, it says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark and Luke both record that statement as “You are my Son…”, suggesting that all around could hear the proclamation. If so, it was not just Jesus who was being affirmed in his ministry; all the crowd was being alerted to just who Jesus was. 

If the aftermath of Jesus’s baptism was actually public and noticeable in Matthew’s record, what Peter has to say about it in Acts expands that idea quite strongly.

A little context: this reading comes from the heart of possibly the book’s pivotal scene; the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family. A pair of visions has prompted Cornelius to seek Peter’s aid and compel Peter to go to Cornelius, despite his own misgivings about being unduly associated with non-Jewish people. What is here in today’s reading is the beginning of Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius, or at least what Peter probably imagined to be just the beginning. It doesn’t seem as if Peter got very far before the Holy Spirit took over and showed everyone present, including reluctant Peter and his accompanying party, that the Spirit wasn’t going to wait around for humans to get it and was going to go to work in anyone who was willing, whether they were of the right party or the right nation or the right religion or not.

What is striking about this little snippet of speech is how the event of Jesus’s baptism – “the baptism that John announced” – is situated in Peter’s narrative, rather like a key event. Indeed this baptism is marked here as the point from which the “message” – the peace of Christ – spread out across all Judea. Jesus’s ministry starts here, and how that ministry and message and good news and reconciliation spreads out after the baptism of Jesus is, in some ways, the message of all of the gospels and of Acts as well. 

Whatever was Jesus’s motivation or reason for being baptized by John, Peter (who wasn’t around by that point in Jesus’s life) sees it as a pivotal starting point. From this point, this moment of anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power” as Peter describes it, flows forth the ministry of Jesus, the very gospel itself. Given how the Holy Spirit moves among the household of Cornelius as they hear this message, it almost sounds like Peter is on to something. 

The baptism of Jesus wasn’t the end of anything. It was the start of everything.

You can guess where this is going. We may not have the Spirit descending like a dove or any heavenly voices breaking in, but for us, as for Jesus, baptism isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning of everything. Baptism is a point from which our witness as children of God and siblings of Christ begins to flow, whether the baptized one is a child later to be confirmed or an adult, just starting out or nearing the end of the road (and that confirmation is not the end of anything either; it is equally the beginning of everything). The decision to submit to baptism as Jesus did is itself a first witness, but only the first. It is a sign that there’s more to come.

It is not some kind of hocus-pocus magic to sprinkle someone with water or to dunk them in a spring. That’s not how it works. What does work is that God moves, the Spirit descends, and the witness begins. 

Big things happen after the baptism. That’s worth remembering, as we will do in a few moments. The trick is not to get in the way of those big things.

For what happens after the baptism, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God is Here!; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #320, The Church of Christ, in Every Age


To All the World: A Service for Epiphany

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 6, 2023; Epiphany A

Welcome

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We gather here this evening for Epiphany, the event on the Christian liturgical calendar marking the visit of the Magi who traveled from the east to bear witness to the child Jesus, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. It is an occasion easily skipped over in the Christian calendar, especially as those Magi are often conflated into our Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants with those shepherds (who only appear in the gospel of Luke). 

In many cases where Epiphany is observed (often on the first Sunday after this date), the emphasis of that observance is likely to be upon the star, the not-entirely-explained astronomical phenomenon from which those Magi took their cue to make that long journey. Themes about stars or light shining in darkness or being guided by the light of that star, as were those Magi, might be central to such a serivce, and that’s all good. In recent years I’ve noticed a trend towards such services including “star-words,” which participants can take home and use as a reference point throughout the coming year. (Last year I received from a pastor friend the word “balance,” and already this year, in an online variant of that practice, I have ironically received the word “grace.”)

Again, these are all good things. There is another side to the Epiphany event, though, one that perhaps needs to be heard in our own troubled time. Remember, those Magi came from the East; most scholars suspect from Persia. They came from “the outside,” apart from the ancestry or tradition or religion into which the child Jesus was born. To use the language found often in the New Testament, they were Gentiles. That makes these travelers, most likely, the closest representatives to any of us to appear in the different narratives around the Nativity in scripture. Unless you come from a long line of Jewish ancestors, you’d be a Gentile in the language of the gospels and epistles. These guys are us.

As the New Testament unfolds, we see more and more the good news bound up in Jesus being shared more and more with those Gentiles, first in Jesus’s own deeds and words, then in the scrambling history of the early church. In an age where many in the current church have appointed themselves guardians and gatekeepers and presumed to draw lines between those who are “out” and those who are “in,” we would do well to remember how this good news broke out and spread into all the world, sometimes despite the best efforts of its apostles. 

Let us then, in the pattern made familiar in the Service for Lessons and Carols popularized by King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve, mark this day, the beginning of the gospel’s spread into all the world, with words of scripture and songs of faith, reminding ourselves of the boundlessness of this gospel and of the fact that only by God’s grace is that gospel made known to us. Let us mark, from the appearance of the Magi to the breathtaking scene in Revelation of a great multitude from all nations praising God in glory, how this good news has come to all the world, including to us. Let us all the more, then, go forward from this day with resolve to put no roadblocks whatsoever in the path of the gospel to all who wait to hear.

Let us hear the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.