We know Mark’s gospel was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. It is a brief and fast-paced read.
The author intends for us to take in every detail and moment.
The gospel begins by introducing us to John the Baptist, who by verse nine is baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. In Mark’s version of the baptism, when Jesus comes up and out of the water, he alone witnesses something spectacular. The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, while a voice from heaven said, just to him: ”You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”(1:10).
From there, Jesus retreated into the wilderness. When he reemerges, he does so as a leader of a movement. In this role he proclaims the good news of God’s love in his preaching, teaching, healing, and in the way he models being in relationship with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized. Seemingly everyone who encounters him comes to understand there is something special about Jesus. His disciples know he is a servant of God, a prophet, maybe something more.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain for some time away from their robust ministry. While together in this sacred space, Jesus takes on a blinding brightness. It is only then the disciples notice Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses.
These three disciples are in a state of shock, even terrified. Peter’s first reaction is to recognize the sacredness, the presence of the holy. He longs to do what we all tend to do when we encounter the holy--build a box or container or in this case dwellings--where the holy could remain forever.
Yet before Jesus could respond, a cloud moved into the space, making it difficult to see much of anything. From within the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (1:7)
This time when God calls Jesus, ‘my Son, the Beloved’...
Elijah and Moses heard.
In the overarching narrative of Mark’s gospel, this is a critical moment where the circle is widened. God has not only spoken directly to Jesus, but now has spoken to his inner circle. This was not just some wild and crazy experience that only Jesus can vouch for at his baptism. Those he loves the most have now heard from their Creator that Jesus is somehow both human and divine.
It did not need to make sense to ring true for the disciples. Nor does it really need to make sense to ring true for us. Like the disciples, we may have more questions than answers, and that's okay.
The aspect of this story that I find most powerful is actually the vulnerability shown by Jesus in the transfiguration. He takes his innermost circle with him for some sacred time apart. With God’s help, Jesus reveals the fullness of who he is. Jesus can let down his guard; be vulnerable; and share with those who understand him the most*.
It’s poignant that God did not transfigure Jesus in the feeding of the 5,000, or while he was teaching in the temple. This was not a public act meant for the people. This was a tender and private moment, for Jesus to name for his own beloved exactly what he has been holding onto all by himself.
Think about your own innermost circle. When one of your beloved has named something tender and private, as part of their ongoing journey of transformation. Maybe your beloved found the courage and the vulnerability to…
...express their gender or sexual identity.
...share a hope and dream they’ve been holding onto.
...reveal abuse or a decaying marriage.
...get brutally honest about the amount of racial reconciliation work they must do.
...admit just how empty their well is as we approach the one year anniversary of living in this pandemic.
The thing about being human is we need one another. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, needed to share what was really happening with a few trusted friends. We may like to put on stoic faces and march ever onwards, but generally all we are doing is burying tender and sacred parts of who we are that God means for us to share with one another. To hold one another in support and friendship.
Some of you have probably seen the show Grey’s Anatomy, where the lead character routinely refers to another character as “My Person”. They were not childhood best friends. They met as residents in a surgical program and as different as they were from one another, found deep and lasting friendship.
We all need to be able to look at another human being and say, “You’re my person”. We need to ask our inner circle to join us and get real about what’s happening in our lives, just as we see Jesus model in the transfiguration.
Twelves months into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to give surface level answers when friends or family ask us how we are.
“Will be glad when this is over.”
What if this week we got honest with one person about what is happening in our own inner life? To share the burden we are carrying or the dream we are nurturing. Call one friend or zoom your inner circle. It’s easy to think we do not need to be so vulnerable.
Yet if even Jesus in all his full divinity and humanity needed to be vulnerable with a few close and trusted friends, surely we do as well. This kind of vulnerability and rigorous honesty is part of our own ongoing transformation. Without it our faith and growth can remain stagnant. In the coming week, I invite each of us to lean into our own inner circles. Find a time to connect virtually or in person, and share what’s really happening in our lives--the joys, the fears, the challenges, and the hopes. Amen.
*St. Stephen's introduced this idea in their weekly bible study reflection February 14, 2021, Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year B. This is a great weekly resource which I encourage folks to check out as part of ongoing scripture study.
Let’s begin by looking at the story of Eli and his household, which begins a couple of chapters earlier. Eli is the established leader in the temple, and he is anything but ideal. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, comes into the temple to pray at the beginning of 1 Samuel, and Eli confuses her prayer for drunkenness (1:12-18). An indication of his dimming senses and grossly off balance intuition. (We likely have all experienced getting away from our self-care and relationship routines--with God or loved ones. When we do, things easily can get off balance and we begin missing things that might seem obvious to onlookers).
Possibly of far greater concern is Eli’s complete and utter failure at managing the behavior of his sons, who serve as priests in the temple. His sons have completely misunderstood the responsibilities of priestly ministry. They are actually described as ‘scoundrels’ (2:12). It was routine for people to bring sacrifices for the temple, and the very best cut was always meant for God. Eli’s sons kept that portion for themselves (2:12-17). They also have a history of sexually assaulting and raping women who serve at the entrance of the tent of meeting (2:22).
As appalling as the behaviors of Eli’s sons are, what is far more disturbing is Eli’s gross neglect. He simply sits on his throne, negligent, letting abuse after abuse take place. God warns Eli to stop his sons, yet Eli’s love of power and privilege prevents him from taking God’s voice seriously (2:27-36). A bit like a child who thinks they could probably get away with a bit more.
Turning to Samuel...His mother had been unable to have children, though following her trip to the temple (the one where Eli thought her prayers were the behavior of a drunk woman) she became pregnant. Hannah was overjoyed and promised to give her child as a servant to God. After Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli, to minister in the temple, while she went on to give birth to five more children (1:28; 2:21).
When we meet Samuel in today’s lesson, he is asleep on the temple floor near dawn.
A voice cries out: “Samuel! Samuel!” (3:4).
Samuel assumes it must be Eli calling after him, so he runs off to find Eli.
“Here I am, for you called me” (3:4)
Eli, who had been asleep, says, I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.
Samuel returns to the temple floor, only to hear his name again. He goes back to Eli who says the same thing--go back to sleep. Then it happens a third time. Eli begins to realize this may be God calling Samuel. While it might seem they are both slow on the uptake, in reality, Eli has been the one in a leadership position and should be well versed at recognizing the voice of God (in spite of his choice to disregard God), while Samuel is a newbie and needs a bit of help deciphering what is going on.
Eli instructs Samuel to go lie down, and this time should he hear his name called, he was to respond,
“Speak God, for your servant is listening” (3:9).
Samuel returns to the temple floor and when he hears his name being called, he lets God know he is listening.
“Speak God, for your servant is listening” (3:9).
In response, God says to Samuel:
“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle” (3:12).
God then goes on to explain all that will befall Eli’s family, since Eli did not heed God’s warning.
Samuel laid back down, and in the morning, Eli insisted Samuel tell him everything God had said. While a bit reluctant, Samuel spoke the truth in love to Eli that his family would soon lose everything. Eli essentially said, May it be so.
This lesson contrasts two different responses to the voice of God. On the one hand is Eli whose senses have grown dim--both literally and metaphorically. God has asked Eli to put an end to the abuses of power taken by his family. And yet….nothing. Eli does absolutely nothing. His household’s love of power has become their primary driving force and they will not stop until God forces them out.
On the other hand is Samuel. Who answered God each and every time. Samuel has a servant’s heart and he holds a posture of listening. Samuel was informed by his mother’s powerful love, which helped shape his calling to prophetic ministry from within her womb. Eli learned at a young age how to speak the truth in love to those who did not want to hear it---something that can only be done with the power of love driving us. Samuel goes on to become a trustworthy prophet of God whose ministry is focused on putting an end to corruption.
It seems pertinent that this particular story shows up in the lectionary on the weekend we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the days before our nation seeks a peaceful transition of power. A little over sixty-three years ago, a dynamic Black preacher offered a sermon on “Loving Your Enemies” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the redemptive power of love in that sermon, and the words are still ringing out to us, crying out for our attention, maybe more urgently than ever before.
“We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.”
In the calling of Samuel, God reminds Eli and any corrupt leader who will ever hold power, that the power of love is more powerful than the love of power.
The power of love is redemptive and can transform us into better people, a better society, a better world.
This is the message that Jesus proclaimed again and again.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that grounds us.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that must light the fire within each of us, within every local church, and within the universal Church.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that must ground our nation as it seeks a peaceful transition of power.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that we must hold tightly to as we move forward in uncertain times.
Love is the only way.
However, this year is unlike any in our collective memory. This year we have been reminded again and again that the best way we can express our love for our family, neighbors, and community is by staying home. By calling our loved ones and sending notes instead of dropping in for a visit. By sharing in holiday meals over zoom, google meet, or facetime instead of in one festively decorated dining room. We have attended church online, even as a piece of us aches to sit in a crowded church, taking in the fragrant smell of poinsettias and incense, the lilt of children’s laughter, the beauty and majesty of the flickering candles as the gathered people sing Silent Night.
The joy of this Christmas is laced with grief, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Over one point seven million families around the world will spend today longing for loved ones who died from COVID-19. Even as we hold onto the hope we see on the horizon with the first round of vaccine distribution, an eventual return to the gatherings we love, and discovering new normals, we cannot forget the pain that this year has held for so many.
In some ways, the pain of this year helps us to better understand the mixture of emotions that Mary and Joseph would have been grappling with as they awaited the birth of their child. Their love was not a Hallmark special, even if we want to pretend otherwise. Mary really was an unwed, teenage mother who embraced a vision proclaimed by an angel. Joseph really was committing his life to a woman that society would encourage him to leave. The birth of their child was not attended by doting grandmothers and aunts. It was in a manger, as they travelled home to be counted for a government census.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was anything but perfect.
It was in equal parts messy, mystical, strange, and wonderful.
Most of all, the birth of Jesus was a proclamation of God’s love for creation.
Christina Rossetti captured the meaning of this moment in her Christmas hymn:
Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus,
but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.
It is no mistake that we witness this story of extraordinary love through the lens of a handful of shepherds and their faithful sheep. On the night Jesus was born, shepherds were guarding their flock, when suddenly an angel, a creature of light, stood before them in the night sky. They were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
For a few brief moments after, the night sky lit up, and it was as if all the heavens were singing God’s praises, while the shepherds stood awestruck in the fields. When it was over, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to go and see this child, God’s love in human form.
I have often wondered what the shepherds did with their sheep as they made their way to see Jesus. Did the shepherds leave their flock behind? While a shepherd might circle a route, leaving a flock untended for a short while, this trip to the village would have taken them away for an extended period. It would mean a predator could attack the flock, risking the shepherd’s very livelihood.
Or maybe, the shepherds brought their flock with them, and overwhelmed the narrow streets of the small village. If the shepherds and their flock all knelt down before Jesus, in and surrounding the manger, then maybe the story is reminding us that God did not just come for all of humanity, but rather for all of creation? Showing us that not only did the angel proclaim good news to the most ordinary of people, but the animals they tended as well.
With or without their sheep, the shepherds were not coming from the next field over. They traversed rocky terrain, from the mountainside and down into the village. The journey, whether short or long, would have tired out their flock. Yet any weary feet or hooves were forgotten by the mere presence of the child lying in the manger. As the shepherds and their flock returned back into the fields, they were “...glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…”(Luke 2:20).
The shepherds and their flocks were changed by God becoming flesh, by experiencing a radical and unconditional love in human form. And every time we pause to remember that God has come to journey among us, we too, are changed. Because the greatest gift of all is the gift of our God, the God of all creation, choosing to become incarnate; choosing to become flesh; choosing to become “emmanuel” or rather, God with us.
Emmanuel was born to show all of creation just how much God loves us, to show us that even in the harshest moments of our lives, the Love of Christ is always with us.
Even in this most impossible and challenging of years, we know that the Love of Christ is with us. Carrying us, encouraging us, inspiring us to keep moving forward towards the dream God has for all of creation.
God is with us. This is the greatest, most unimaginable of gifts. Our faith calls us to join the work of transforming creation through our acts of love. Love of God, love of neighbor.
As we take in the mixture of emotions this day holds for us in 2020, I invite each of us to spend some time this Christmas season reflecting on what ways we have experienced God’s love this year, and how we hope to engage in acts of love in the coming year. Amen.
We can either have apples or oranges.
We can either leave the lights on or off.
We can either be liberal or conservative.
We can either be right or wrong.
We can either make choices that are good or bad.
We long for clear, precise, and easy answers. Yet whenever we change our perspective, by looking under the microscope or looking down from 20,000 feet above--we recognize a binary approach sometimes leaves us polarized. Particularly given how nuanced life is and how complex the systems and institutions we are a part of really are at their core. Life is really more of a spectrum, or a direction we journey towards, where at different moments we may travel forward, backward, north, south, east, or west.
Take for example living faithfully. How often have old systems, including within the Church, told us if you do X, you are living faithfully, and if you do Y, you are not. If you are a good Christian then you make God happy, and get to go to heaven. If you are a bad Christian then you make God angry, and well, all that weeping and gnashing of teeth business will set in.
Yet faithfulness to God is not so binary. Our God cannot be boxed in.
The theme we see within scripture indicates faithfulness, like most of life, is really a spectrum or direction we journey towards. Take for example the bigger picture of what is at play in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In 1 and 2 Samuel, the people of Israel have been in a moment of transition from a tribal form of governance to a monarchy. To be clear, it was not part of God’s vision for the people of Israel to have a monarchy, but rather what the people of Israel desperately wanted. God did not refuse them. Through the prophets, God explained all that would befall the Israelites if they went down this road. They kindly ignored the caution sign. God understood the limitations of their faith at that moment in time, and met the Israelites where they were.
In today’s passage, we get a glimpse of what is happening for the people of Israel as they have transitioned from King Saul to King David. David has become concerned that the tent, which has housed the Spirit of God since their time in the wilderness, is no longer good enough. After all--they were now an established monarchy, and doesn’t God deserve the best? Even the prophet Nathan was swept up in David’s vision, before God does some clarifying for them, once again. God does not need or want David to build a temple. Rather, God will make the people into a temple. God cares about the gathered people, and is always inviting us to grow in our faithfulness. Yet when we are caught up in our own ideas, and limit our faithfulness, God still meets us where we are.
So at one place on the spectrum we have the Israelites, who at that particular moment in history were only willing to travel with God up to a certain point. At another place on the spectrum, we have a soon-to-be teen mother, who will be invited to lean completely into her faith.
Mary is a young woman, and it was understood that she would marry Joseph. The angel Gabriel visits this young woman, and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Understandably, she was a bit perplexed by this surprise visit and greeting. Gabriel goes on to tell her “Do not be afraid, Mary”, you have found favor with God, you will conceive a son and name him Jesus. This son will go on to do things for God that will turn this world upside down and right side up again. Mary, still understandably a bit perplexed, wonders how any of this is possible. Gabriel speaks of the Holy Spirit at work within her, and then lets her know her relative Elizabeth, who had been unable to have a child, is also pregnant. The primary point Gabriel was trying to make to Mary is, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Now this story is one of the most curious that we explore each year. Yet the part that startles me every single time, is not the surprise conception. What surprises me is Mary’s faithfulness, her response. Her willingness to walk down this path with God. A path that we know will hold beautiful and tender moments, as well as the deep grief and agony of a mother burying her child. Mary’s response is a simple one. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s faithfulness is an expression of beauty that might take our breath away if we sit with it long enough. Mary doesn’t say, I don’t know about this… or I’ll try my best. She simply says, Here I am; your servant. May all you will be so. Could you imagine what our world might look like if every day we woke up and said, Here I am God. I am your servant, and I’ll go wherever you send me?
Mary is an exemplary model of faithfulness, while our earlier stories from 2 Samuel are a reminder that even when our own faithfulness is limited--God is still with us. Sometimes we are going to feel fully alive, and in complete solidarity with God as we make this journey. We will wake up and say, Here I am God. I am your servant, and I’ll go wherever you send me. Other times, we find we can only trust God up to a point, because we simply are not ready to go any further.
I would even argue that we can experience both during the same season of our lives. The bible doesn’t tell us whether Mary had sleepless nights of wonder and hesitation, but it would be pretty normal if she did. While the invitation to go further in our journey with God is always, always waiting for us, it is important to note that God does not shove us. God walks the path with us, no matter where we may find ourselves on the journey of living faithfully.
As we draw nearer to the Christ-child this coming week, I would invite us to take stock where we are on our journey of living faithfully. Where on the spectrum do you find yourself at this moment? Or where is the compass directing you to walk towards? What do you need to take that next step of journeying with God? And know wherever we are on that journey, God is with us, and that our God isn’t going anywhere without us or until we are ready. Amen.
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