The Man at the Gate

God enlightens our ignorance bit by bit, story by story, revelation by revelation.

Easter 3b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power of piety we had made him walk?”
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins a bit abruptly, including a reference to an “it” and a “him” whom some of us might not recognize. We are fortunate in having a beautiful stained-glass window depicting him and it, right on the southern wall of the sanctuary — take a look at it as you come up to communion because it is hard to see from the nave of the church; it will be on your right as you approach the altar rail. It depicts Peter and John standing before the man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. He is the “him” and the “it” is his miraculous healing through the name of Jesus. To refresh all of our memories, let me read a slightly abridged portion from the Acts of the Apostles just prior to our first reading today, as it sets the scene for what follows.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer... and a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John... he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms ... and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him....

That’s the “it” and the “him.” Our reading today continues the tale with Peter’s testimony to the crowd that are amazed at all of this; that it is the power of Jesus’ name that has wrought this miracle. He castigates the people and their rulers for having rejected and killed the author of life, and testifies that he and the apostles are witnesses to the resurrection of God’s chosen and righteous one, in whose name and by whose name this man has been healed. And he calls them to repent, even though, he says, they “acted in ignorance.”
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Ignorance is a theme that runs through all of our readings today, including the bit I added from the first part of chapter three of Acts. But before I go any further I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding, and that revolves around the meaning of the word ignorance. Sometimes people will use the word ignorant as a synonym for an insult, for “stupid.” They’ll say, “Oh, you’re ignorant!” But that is not really what ignorant means. To be ignorant is not to know something — not to be incapable of knowing something, but merely not knowing a particular something or some things. Even the smartest people in the world are ignorant, because no one knows everything. In fact, the smartest people in the world know that they don’t know everything, and they are always willing to learn. It is the people who think they know everything that are usually the most untrustworthy. And the other good news is that ignorance can be remedied: as soon as you learn something that you didn’t know before you are no longer ignorant of that fact. Once you have new information, you are no longer, but informed.

So with that cleared up, let’s look at some of the ignorance laid before us in the Scripture passages we read today, beginning with that passage from Acts. In the part that I read, it is the man at the gate who is ignorant. He is not a disciple. Although he’s lived in Jerusalem for a long time — for the Scripture tells of how people would carry him in every day, and set him in the gate to beg for alms, and after his healing they all recognize him (they’re not ignorant about him; they know him very well!) — but he is ignorant of who Peter and John are. He doesn’t know them from Adam. He is ignorant of them — he doesn’t know who these out-of-towners from Galilee are. He’s lived in Jerusalem his whole life; people from Galilee may come and go, but he doesn’t know who they are. All he is interested in is what he can get out of them, and as soon as Peter addresses him, you can well expect that he stretched out his hand for a coin or two. Peter immediately remedies his ignorance, informing him that he and John have no money to give him; and I can well guess he is disappointed! But then Peter surprises him, and says, I’ve got something better than gold: he reveals the name of Jesus, the best bit of information this world has ever known, at which point Peter takes him by the hand to raise him up, healed of his weakness and able not just to walk, but to leap for joy! More than his ignorance is remedied! His heart is filled with the knowledge of God’s healing power, known in his own healed limbs.
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The next ignorance addressed is that to which Peter refers in what follows. He charges the people for having rejected Jesus, even when Pilate was ready to release him, and they chose a murderer to be released instead. But, as Peter continues, they and their rulers acted in ignorance — an ignorance that helped in its own ironic way to fulfill God’s promise that the Messiah had to suffer. However, now that the suffering is over and Christ is raised from the dead, the school of God is back in session: it is time to learn something new, something of which they were ignorant before. It is time for them to put that ignorance behind them, to become informed by the Gospel, and to embrace the truth of the power of Jesus’ name — not just to heal a disabled man, but to restore all of them to the wholeness that God intends for each and every one, through grace by faith.
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The next ignorance described in our readings — this one from the First Epistle of John — is double: The world is ignorant of God and of us as children of God; but we too are not without our limitations, our own ignorance: As John says, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” There is still more to learn, more revelation to come, more opening of the eyes of our faith. The good news is that our ignorance is not total: “What we do know,” he writes, “is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We don’t see him yet, but when we do we will be like him. We will learn something wonderful and new. This is the hope of all who seek Jesus, who number themselves among the company of those who have believed in his name, and are washed with his blood, united with him in a death like so that we may be united with him in a rising from the dead like his. At present, as St Paul would also affirm, our knowledge is partial as if seeing dimly in a mirror. But when Christ is revealed we shall know as we are known, fully informed, fully enlightened by the light of the world, the revelation of the Son of God.
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And so it is fitting that the final ignorance with which we are presented today is that of the apostles themselves. They have heard the testimony of Peter and the disciples who had encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus. And while they are still arguing and trying to understand all of this, Jesus himself appears among them — to their amazement, and in the case of some, disbelief. And Jesus, ever the good teacher, gently instructs them, relieving their ignorance with the good news, reminding them that this is what he had told them beforehand would happen, before they came to Jerusalem in the first place, before the time that he said he would suffer; and, moreover, that all of this was attested in the Scriptures (in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms) — Scriptures they had read their whole lives, Scriptures they knew by heart and yet somehow they had never put two and two together even when those holy promises were being fulfilled before their eyes. Such was the ignorance of the apostles that they needed not only to experience, but to remember, to be reminded that the experience matched the promise. They needed a good teacher to inform them of how the promises of the past become real in the present.

And this is the gentle way in which God continues to enlighten our darkness, to lift our ignorance, to inform our minds and rejoice our hearts. Not suddenly, but bit by bit, story by story, and revelation by revelation. By promise and reminder, by poetry and prose, by repeating the lesson until we understand; by words from on high and hopes uttered in our inmost hearts by the groaning of the Spirit within each of us — so it is that the Good Teacher teaches, and the Great Physician heals.

May we, like the man at the gate, reach out for what we know not, but find that we are grasping the hand of the One who brings us gifts better than we can ask or imagine, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Looking and Seeing

When we come to the place of a skull, what do we see: a king or a criminal?

Proper 29c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The beloved Son… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

I am sure that everyone here is familiar with optical illusions. These are the sometimes puzzling images that fool our eyes — or perhaps I should say, fool our brains, since it is the eyes that look, but it is the brain that actually sees. In these images our whole visual apparatus is tricked either into seeing something that isn’t there, or seeing something as other than it actually is. Some of those illusions can make two lines of the same length look as if they are unequal to each other — but when you get out a ruler and measure them, they turn out to be the same. Your vision may fool you, but the ruler tells the truth.

Another kind of illusion presents us with a picture that at first we see as one thing, but then realize with a shock that it can be seen as something else. Likely you are familiar with that image of two faces in profile looking at each other — and then you realize that it also forms a chalice.

Or perhaps more striking, I’m sure you’ve noticed the image I’ve included on the back of our worship bulletin today. It is called “All Is Vanity”; it was drawn by an 18-year-old artist, Charles Allen Gilbert, back in 1892; Life magazine bought it, and reprinted as a poster, a greeting card, and in just about any other form you can imagine. If it was around today they would produce it as a mouse pad and a screen-saver. The image was so popular that almost a hundred years later, the perfumer Christian Dior used an updated photographic version to advertise their new perfume aptly named “Poison.”

So what did you see first — the woman sitting at her vanity table, or the skull? Some of it depends on how close your eye is to it, or how far away; the further away you hold it, the more you see the skull; the closer you get, the more you see the woman at her vanity. You might say that that is the “real” picture — the one of the woman at her vanity table — certainly in the Dior advertisement, it’s a photograph of a woman seated at a table, posed exactly as in the original drawing - and that’s what the photographer recorded. Yet that skull — and the message it conveys — that all is vanity — is very hard to miss. So hard that it strikes me as odd that a perfume company would think it a good idea to use it to advertise their perfume; though I also wonder why they thought “Poison” was a good name for something you dab behind your ears! It is a bit like using the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to advertise cosmetics: as Hamlet addresses poor Yorick’s skull and says, “Get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” It is a sobering reminder to see a vanity table as “the place of a skull.”

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Today’s celebration of the last Sunday in the church year presents us with just such a double image — and death is involved in it, and as well as a “place of the skull.” For we are told on the one hand that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. That is to say, God is invisible, but in Jesus you see of God all that can be seen; in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. But we are then confronted with the image of that same Jesus mocked and crucified, about to die upon the cross, with its mocking label, “This is the King of the Jews.” The irony is brought home by the fact that this Sunday is popularly known as the feast of Christ the King — but here that title of kingship becomes the means for mockery.

The problem is that the mockers — the bystanders, the soldiers, and one of the two thieves — look at Jesus and they do not see a king, but a failed revolutionary, perhaps even a madman who imagined himself to be a king. The English Christian author C.S. Lewis, the 50th anniversary of whose death fell just this past Friday — yes, the same day as John Kennedy’s assassination, so there’s another double image for you — he once wrote that people make a huge mistake when they try to picture Jesus as just a good man or a wise teacher. Jesus presents himself and describes himself as more than a mere wise teacher; at least the Gospels portray him as doing so. He presents himself as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. If that is not true, and he made those claims, then he is either lying or mad. As Lewis put it,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil out of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.

So Lewis said, and he was right. The problem is that most of the people standing at the foot of the cross cannot see Jesus as a King, cannot see him as the son of God or the Messiah, in spite of the fact what that sign over his head says — even if Pilate was merely making a cruel joke. Perhaps Pilate had begun to see something in this man more than most of the people could — it is always hard to tell exactly what politicians think. But for the most of the crowd, this was no son of God, this was no King — they simply couldn’t see it.

Its like someone who could look and look and just not see the skull in “All Is Vanity” — someone who insists “This is just a picture of a woman at her dressing-table, with her reflection in the mirror. What do you mean, a skull? Look, there’s the woman, her reflection, there’s the table, there’s the little drapery in front of the table; there are all her bottles of perfume, and her cremes and jellies. There’s no skull there!” And to a degree such a person would be right, for that is what the picture is.

Yet for those of us who see it, as the artist intended, it is the skull that stands out, rather than the woman at her vanity, even as we appreciate because of that artistry the artist’s message that life is fleeting and vanity is no refuge — with perhaps an echo of Hamlet in our ears that you can put on as much makeup as you want, but the bones underneath the skin will be around long after the rest of us has turned to dust. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, saith the Preacher!”

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There is a huge difference between looking and seeing. Some who followed Jesus even from the beginning knew him to be more than simply a good and wise man. Yet some of those are also among the ones that fled when he was taken prisoner, were those same people. How deep was their trust? How deep was their faith, if they could run off like that? It is a lesson to us that Peter, the first one openly to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and son of God, was also quick to deny him three times that night he was arrested, when suddenly it seemed that everything was falling apart.

However, Luke gives us one short glimpse of a character entirely new to the story, not a follower of Jesus who had been with him from the beginning on the road, or who had heard his teaching, as far as we know, yet one who recognizes him and sees him — even though all he knows him as is a fellow prisoner, a fellow criminal for all he knows, condemned to death just like that other thief — and yet this crucified thief somehow is given the grace to see in the crucified man beside him, not only innocence, but salvation. At least one person there at the “place of the skull” looked at Jesus and saw him — not as a failed huckster or a madman or a demon, but as the Messiah, the Christ, the image of the invisible God, the Way to Paradise, the Truth of God, and Life everlasting.

May God give us the grace to see that Christ in the unlikely places, even the crucified places, in our lives — to rejoice with him in our joys, but to know him as well even in our sorrows and in our pains. May we look and see the one through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross; even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Seeing By Ear

Why does God more often speak than show?

Easter 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

I’m sure that all of us have heard someone say, “I can’t read music but I can play by ear.” What that means is that a person can hear the notes that they need to play in their head and follow the melody along themselves as they go along. Although I have to admit that whenever I hear someone say that they can play the piano by ear I get the unfortunate image in my head of someone bashing their head against the piano keyboard. I don’t think even Victor Borge did that one!

But I saw an even more astonishing example of someone doing something by ear a few weeks ago on a science program on TV. It’s a young man who has been blind since infancy — he lost one of his eyes when he was about six months old and the other before he was two — and he is able to ride a bicycle through paths in the forest. And the way he is able to do this isn’t some kind of high-tech marvel like the electro-mechanical visor that chief engineer Geordie Laforge wore on “Star Trek Next Generation.” No, this young man makes use of something that isn’t high-tech, or even “tech” at all — as he rides along — slowly to be sure — he makes clicking sounds with his tongue and he has been doing this for so long, that the echoes that bounce off of the shrubbery and the trees are enough to tell him which way to head. He has been doing this for so long that his brain actually “sees” by sound, and it keeps him from running into trees, shrubs, or other bicyclists and joggers. He is a real, live “bat man.”

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I raise this example because of that odd turn of phrase at the beginning of the passage from the Revelation to John, that we heard this morning. It comes and goes so quickly that you might not even notice the oddity; but it says, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels.” “I looked and I heard” — not “I looked and I saw.” God speaks: think about this — how often in Scripture it is God speaking, God’s voice that is heard rather than something that is seen. God speaks — or in the case of the tablets of Moses, or the handwriting on the wall, writes — and the word of the Lord is just that: word, not vision.

Oh, there are visions to be sure, there are images but they are very few and far between compared to the words — there’s the burning bush of Moses, the plumb line of Amos, or the descent of the dove upon Jesus at his Baptism — but as you will recall these visions are accompanied by a voice that speaks — and a voice that is heard. When God warns Belshazzar that his time is running short, it is the sight of a hand writing upon a wall that startles the Babylonians — but it is words that it writes, even if the Babylonians can not understand them, until Daniel explains that their days are literally numbered. And let us not forget, that one of the very first commandments, one of those written on those tablets, is not to create graven images of divinity, not to bow down and worship them — but instead to remain faithful to the “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Similarly, when God knocks Saul off of his high horse on the road to Damascus, although there is a display of light flashing, the primary message comes in the voice that speaks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The others with Saul also hear the voice, but see no one. And as if to bring the point home, that the message is to the ear and not the eye, Saul is blinded — and though his eyes are open, he can see nothing.

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So why is it that God so often seems to rely on the ear rather than the eye? Why on words instead of images? Another part of that TV show about the real live “bat man” who can cycle by sound, was about how easily our eyes are fooled by optical illusions. I’m sure that many of you have seen them, even from school days — we were brought up on those optical illusions: those lines that look like one is longer than the other, but when you get out a ruler and measure them, you discover they’re the same — and yet, without the ruler you can look at them and look at them, and your brain will keep telling you one is longer than the other. What you see, takes over, and tells you thing that aren’t there.

Sometimes, what you see can even deceive you as to what you hear. There was another thing in that TV show, that science show, called the McGurk illusion, after the man who discovered it. In it, scientists record the sounds of a man saying, “bah, bah, bah” with a “b” but they take that soundtrack put it with a different and silent film of the man saying, “fah, fah, fah” with an “f.” And the amazing thing is that most people, when they are shown that spliced-together video, “hear” the man saying “fah” with an “f” — even though what is actually on the soundtrack is “bah” with a “b” — they are actually hearing “bah” but because they are seeing the man saying “fah” that’s what they hear. What they see takes over, and dominates even what they are hearing.

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In short, our vision is less trustworthy than our hearing — it can easily mislead us — and if this is true in common things, how much more so when it comes to trying to understand the will and word of God. For God has spoken, through the prophets, and through his son Jesus Christ our Lord. He has not presented us with just some fleeting vision, some pretty picture, but words to live by.

I gave that example of Amos and the plumb-line, and of course, God showed Amos the plumb-line, and asked, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb-line.” But then God went on to explain what that plumb-line meant; he didn’t just rely on the vision, he explained, as you’ve heard me preach before, about how the “wall” that was the people of Israel had gotten out of kilter, and was no longer plumb, no longer vertical. And so God spoke to explain the vision, as God so often does. God speaks to us, my friends.

And we hear an example of how insistent God can be when he speaks to us in that passage today, in which our Lord speaks to Simon Peter, son of John. To make sure the big fisherman gets the message, Jesus repeats his question, and emphasizes his answer, three times. It is a question and a commandment for Simon Peter, but it applies to all of us.

For Jesus asks each of us, “Do you love me?” He asks three times, speaking clearly and enunciating each of those four syllables like the four beats of a kettledrum. “Do you love me?”

Like Peter, we immediately respond, yes, of course, we do love the Lord Jesus. But are we deeply committed to that love? Do we know the tune by heart, or are we just playing by ear? Are we concerned by the third time he asks, that Jesus has seen through us? — for his vision, unlike ours, never fails him, and he suffers from no optical illusions — he knows us through and through. Are we, like Simon Peter, hurt that Jesus asks us a third time if we love him, perhaps as we realize that we do not love him as we should, and we suffer the shame we rightly deserve for having failed to follow where he leads?

Jesus questions us three times, and commands us three times: and the command is as important as the question. Like Peter, we are called to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, and to feed his sheep. Jesus says it three times to give us no excuse for having misheard or misunderstood. Each and every one of us is called and commanded to this work of care for the flock of which we are also members, the great gathering of sheep and lambs that is the church that Jesus purchased with his own blood. We are called, called and challenged and commanded to care for each other — and none of us can say, “We never heard that” or “You never told me that” — for he has said it three times!

So let us, sisters and brothers, trust, trust to the word that God has delivered to us. Our opening prayer this morning asked God to open our eyes; but let us also pray that God will open our ears. And then, let us respond with appropriate actions to the words once spoken through the prophets, and the words spoken through the Son, the very Word of God made flesh, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Telling Secrets Kept

A secret kept from the beginning of time... kept for a bit longer, but told at last.

Epiphany • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.

I’m sure you all know how distinctive and off the wall British humor can be, sometimes even irreverent. Whether “Monty Python” or “Little Britain,” the humor is bound to be unusual. Well, a few years back there was a Brit-com, as they are called, appeared that was even by these standards a little bit unusual. It took place in a small North-of-England town in which all of the inhabitants looked as if they were rejects from some botched genetic experiment gone awry. When anyone normal would show up in this little out of the way town, and go to the one shop, the odd shopkeeper and his equally odd wife would, before saying anything else, confront the visitor with an accusation: “You’re not local; there’s nothing for you here!” And if the visitor was wise, he or she would take the warning and leave town very quickly.

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In ancient times most localities and nations were like this; however odd or imperfect or peculiar, they thought they were normal, and everyone else was bizarre. “Foreign” was a synonym for “bad.” To be different meant to be “not one of us.” So it was with the Egyptians, so it was the Babylonians, and so it was with the Israelites, too. They came to think of themselves as God’s special people, a peculiar people and proud of it, God’s own chosen ones, and they claimed that their God, was special, too; their God, not anyone else’s.

And so it was for many years. Anyone who wasn’t “local” — that is, who wasn’t an Israelite, or to put it as they would, who was a Gentile, an alien, one of the Goyim, one of “them” from the outside world, the Godless world, or worse, the world of false gods, of idols — such people didn’t matter to God, and they had no share in God’s kingdom.

Then along came Isaiah. What a man he must have been! It is the prophet Isaiah who championed the idea that God was not just the God of Israel, but of the whole world. God was not, whatever else might be said, just local, but universal. God was God not only of the Jews, but of the Gentiles, too — even though they didn’t know it. In fact, they didn’t know it — this was a secret, the best-kept secret in the world revealed only and ultimately to those chosen people — chosen not because they were particularly good; in fact their own written history showed them most of the time to be particularly bad! — but chosen nonetheless precisely for this particular and peculiar task: that through them the secret kept, the plan of the mystery hidden for ages, might be made known to the whole world. And so it was that Isaiah began to speak not just of the salvation of the people of Israel, but of the salvation of the whole world, through one Lord, one God of whom most of the world’s peoples were utterly ignorant at that time.

And not only salvation, but exaltation! For not only would God bring the Gentiles, — the “nations” that would come to that light, these people, all of those peoples, these Goyim, those Gentiles, those aliens — not only would they be brought to the light but God would even do the unthinkable: God would take some of the Gentile and make them Levites and priests. No longer would one have to be “local” to serve the God of the universe: people of all flesh, of every nation under heaven would worship God in his holy Temple. All — all people — would be welcome to worship together, welcomed by God to the glory of God, finding the walls of division, the old sense of who is “local” and who is “foreign” fading into insignificance in the light of dawning revelation of the presence of God, uniting former strangers into a single congregation, uniting former enemies in the bond of love, a universal peace that would replace the endless, endless years of war and division.

And this would be God’s doing. As poet George Macdonald wrote, “‘Tis but as we draw nigh to thee, my Lord, We can draw nigh each other and not hurt.”

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Isaiah had a vision of the dawning of that light — a light that would rise from Israel to draw the nations to its dawning. And he described the coming of kings on camels bringing gold and frankincense to proclaim praise to the Lord. That vision did not come to reality during Isaiah’s lifetime; nor for some hundreds of years after he died. It began to come true one cold season long after Isaiah died, but long before any of us were born, when Gentile visitors from a foreign land, guided by a star at its rising, approached a humble dwelling with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The child to whom those gifts were brought was not only going to be the glory of God’s people Israel; he was also, as old Simeon had said, to be the light to enlighten the Gentiles — the foreigners represented by these visitors from afar. They were not kings exactly, but wise men, sages, though perhaps they looked like kings as they must have been dressed in the exotic silks and finery of their homelands; and whether there were three or not Matthew’s gospel does not say; the tradition arose because of the three gifts that are named — and who would come to the king of the universe without bringing a gift!

So it was that the secret kept from before creation was on the point being revealed. The light of salvation had dawned in Israel, and wise men from afar who looked like kings had come to the brightness of this dawn, as had been foretold. The local was about to become universal.

I have to say, though, that there is — as alluded to at the end of our gospel — one sour note in all of this glorious affair; there had to be one more secret. This time it was a secret that was kept, not told. For in addition to the three so-called kings, there is another king, a real one, King Herod the Great. And just so you know he was not called “Great” because he was good, but because he was powerful. The wise men inadvertently tipped him off — innocently because they thought they’d go to the palace if they were looking for a king, a new king — and at the beginning of the account, you see them go to the present king to ask where this child is. They gave him quite a fright when he heard about some other king. This Herod was bloodthirsty character — he was very protective of his power — he was so bloodthirsty, that he had even killed one of his own sons when he got wind of the rumor that his son might be planning something to take over. So at the end of the account, the wise men in their wisdom, warned in a dream, and do not go back to Herod to fill him in on the identity of the one whom they had sought, found, and then chose to protect.

Our gospel left out the rest of the sad story, but you know it, I’m sure. You remember the story of how Herod, because he didn’t have the exact information, but knew the town, sent and had all the boy children killed up to the age of two, in that town. As I said, he was a bloodthirsty man, out to protect his throne. It is a sad story, which we’ve seen echoed even in our own time; may we pray that it not be echoed any longer.

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But that secret, that secret that this was the child, that secret that this was the one who would bring the light, had to be kept a just a little longer — that secret that had been kept from before creation, was kept just a bit longer, about thirty years longer; that secret that the good news that God had come in person to visit not only his chosen people, but all of humanity, it had to be kept under wraps for a few more years, until that holy Child was grown to adulthood, and John the Baptist would herald his arrival on the scene.

That holy Child is the one in whom all are welcome, the one in whom all division comes to an end. He is the one in whom all localities find their universal source, the one in whom no one is foreign, no one a stranger, no one is an alien. He is the one in whom we set our hope. It is a hope that will not be discouraged despite the continued struggles of peoples and nations and clans. It is a hope that will not be denied despite the continued warfare and violence perpetrated in the name of local gods for local ends. The one in whom we hope is the ruler of all localities, the universal king of all nations, the one before whom every knee will bend and every head will bow. It was in accordance with God’s eternal purpose carried out in Jesus Christ our Lord, that we and all people have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in him.

And we as his people will continue to hope and continue to witness and continue to welcome all to this place, this place where no one will be cast out for being a stranger, or turned away because they are foreign, but welcomed, welcomed in as Christ has welcomed us. To him alone be the glory, from the beginning to the end of the ages, a secret long kept but at the last revealed, a child shielded in secret, but at the last proclaimed to the farthest corners of God’s good earth, to nations near and far.+

Now You See It

God plays peekaboo with his children... a sermon for Last Epiphany B

SJF • Last Epiphany B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.+

Throughout the season since the Epiphany in early January we have been exploring concepts revolving around perception, knowledge and belief. We have reflected on why and how we have come to believe in God, and how our faith and our belief changes our lives, transforms and transfigures our lives, and how we spread and share that faith, the faith in our own transfiguration through God. This Last Sunday after the Epiphany is no exception.

Today we return to the theme with which the season began, when we spoke of that old blind priest Eli and the attentive boy Samuel. The theme is vision and perception — partial or, more precisely in the case of our readings today, on again and off again. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The transitory nature of revelation seems characteristic of the way that God deals with — and appears to — humanity. God does not, it seems, choose to reveal himself in permanent form, but in transitory glimpses, passing appearances. Revelation is not a constant stream, but more like one of those fountains that pulses and pauses. You will recall that in the story of the young Samuel the passage began by saying that visions were rare and the voice of God was not often heard — until, that is, God revealed himself to the boy Samuel with news that made every ear in Israel tingle. Recall also that when God appeared to Moses at the first, it was not as a rock or a monument but as a burning bush; and when God was revealed to the whole people of Israel it was not in a form like a mountain, but in the form of a cloud that descended upon the mountain. God was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night — not a thing like the gods of the Egyptians, idols of metal or stone. God was not an object, like the Golden Calf that the Israelites foolishly tried to substitute for the living God who had chosen them to be his people.

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So it is that God — constant as God is in his own being — did not reveal himself with a kind of permanent constancy in those bygone days. We can see an echo of this in the account of Elijah’s being whisked away by God, and the clear message to his disciple Elisha concerning it: Keep your eyes open and watchful — if you see me being taken from you, you will inherit that double share you asked for; but if not, not. Indeed, when it happens, it is so quick and astounding, all fiery chariot and horses and whirlwind so that Elisha only has time to cry out to his vanishing father in God before he is taken from his sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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One might say that Elijah performs a similar guest appearance, and disappearance, on the mount of the Transfiguration. Joining Moses as the representative of the Law, Elijah as the spokesman for the Prophets appears to the wondering eyes of Peter, and James and John, there on the mountaintop, conversing with Jesus. And sure enough, as soon as Peter the Big Fisherman opens his big mouth — trying to prolong the vision by building dwellings, instead of accepting the transitory revelation for what it is — as soon as Peter tries to lay hold on it, make it permanent, a cloud envelopes them and God himself has the last word: this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! And suddenly, Elijah, Moses and the cloud are gone, and only Jesus remains. Now you see him... and now you see him still!

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But isn’t that the point, after all. Jesus is still with us. He is the final revelation of God, the very image of God — the last word, as indeed he was the first Word, the Word who was in the beginning with God. and who was, and is, God, and who has appeared to us in these latter days for our sake and for our salvation. So at the Transfiguration it is not Jesus who disappears — he is the one who remains, and is the one to whom the others defer as they step from the stage: even God the Father himself, turning the microphone over to his Son and telling that small audience, “Listen to him.”

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Lent is about to begin this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and during it we will journey with our Lord on up to Calvary on Good Friday, and through the Holy Saturday vigil as he lies in the tomb, and then on to the great celebration of his rising on Easter Day. Over those three days we will take part in that last great game of peekaboo that God played with his children — now you see him, now you don’t — and again after a little while you see him once again, but then, at the last, for ever.

God played peekaboo with his children when they were young, but now that we are growing to maturity in Christ the time for the games of childhood is past. Good Friday was the last time God in Christ ever said to humanity, “Now you can’t see me!” ... and then, again, we see.

Easter put an end to that, when the light shone out of the darkness, shining into our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, behold, is with us always, even unto the end of the age. His Father wants us to listen to him, and he himself wants us to walk with him, in his presence and by his light, every day of our lives. Let us do as he commands, our mission high fulfilling, and follow him where he leads.+

Signs of Our Times

SJF • Easter 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations; I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Our Gospel hymn assures us that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” It refers, without a doubt, to Doubting Thomas, the disciple who lived by the old motto “seeing is believing.” Jesus assures Thomas that those who believe without seeing are indeed blessed; and so we earnestly hope they are — for we are numbered among those whose faith in Christ is not based on a personal encounter, not on seeing, but through hearing the lively word preached, the good news told to all nations.

And yet we too have signs and sights to go by. We are not left completely in the dark, depending only on the spoken word to find our way, as if the Christian faith were a sort of blind man’s bluff, or pin the tail on the donkey, or a child’s game of “you’re getting hotter, you’re getting colder” as we feel our way guided only by these spoken instructions. No, we have visible signs that God has given us, signs that help us to find the way, to find the one who isthe Way, the Truth and the Life.” God has not left us totally without evidence.

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And so it has always been, even for earthly matters. From the very beginning human beings have learned to read the signs of the world around them, to tell from the way the wind is blowing or how the sky or the sunset looks what the weather will be. The islanders of the South Pacific Ocean even learned to navigate that featureless expanse. On the pages of an atlas it may look like nothing but blue, the islands mere pinpoints smaller than their printed names; but those islanders have learned to find their way by watching the shapes of the waves on the open ocean — truly a miracle for us landlubbers, for whom all waves look more or less alike. The sea is very good at keeping its secrets!

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So it is quite natural for poor old landlubber Noah to feel completely lost at sea, even after the rains have stopped. Everywhere he looks is water, no sign of land, just the monotony of the clearing sky and the lapping waves spreading off to the featureless horizon, as far as his eyes can see. And strangely enough, God — who before the flood has been in regular conversation with Noah — God is now silent, no longer instructing Noah what to do next.

So Noah goes to the birds — literally! He gets the idea to send out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find any foothold in this watery world. We don’t know what becomes of the raven, but the dove comes back, finding nowhere to set down — a sign that the flood still covers the ground. So Noah waits, and then sends the dove out again, and this time back she comes with a fresh olive leaf — a sign that the waters have drawn back enough for the trees to begin to show their branches. And again Noah waits, and lets the bird free once more, and this time she doesn’t return — a sign that the waters have receded and the dry land has appeared, and the bird has found a place to take her rest. Then, and only then, does God break his silence — acting a bit like proud parents who stand by and silently watch their children work out a hard problem by themselves, and only when the problem is finally solved speaking words of congratulation. “Go out of the ark,” God says. And then, to punctuate the end of this era, God sets his sign in the clouds, the glorious rainbow, as a sign and a testimony of his covenant promise never again to destroy the whole earth by a flood.

All of these signs were significant long ago — but what do they mean for us? God has kept the promise of his covenant, and we are not deluged by a flood of waters to wipe out all the world; though I’ll tell you the folks who lived through Katrina, and in the present floods out in the midwest might not feel that way.

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But are we not in the midst of another kind of flood, another kind of incessant rain — not a flood from God to destroy the world, but a flood from the world to try to drown out God? Think about that for a moment.

The world has grown more and more turned in upon itself, the selfish and self-seeking world of pride and riches and power, and this selfish world seeks to drown the people of God, pulling us into its whirlpool of acquisition, drawing us under into the quicksand of greed and selfishness.

We look about, and all around us we are assaulted by waves of terrorism, fear and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I can no longer hear a jet plane fly overhead, or see one flying low through the sky quite the same way as I did prior to September 11, 2001.

We lie awake at night and hear the drumming rain of anger and racism and hatred, incessantly muttering the same old lies, the same old cutting and wounding falsehoods — the incessant muttering of hatred only briefly silenced when, as comedian Jon Stewart said, someone like Barack Obama has the courage to address us as if we were adults.

But comes the dawn, the mutterers are back at work with their incessant rain of criticism and negativity. We awake in the morn a look out the window — you know the window I mean: the electronic one, that TV screen through which we see so much of the world, running all day long like a spigot of criticism and carping — we look through that window to see the continued drizzle of confusion and despair, of hunger for the word of God, of disillusion and deceit, and we are moved to shout out, “Are there no signs left for us to see? How long, O Lord?”

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And then we remember Noah, how he too must have felt as he watched the featureless sea, longing for a word from God now that the long rainy time was over. And like him, we send out the dove of hope — a pilgrim to assay the state of the world. And when she comes back we know it is too soon. It is not yet the time for us to step out into action. But we don’t give up hope; we just keep still for a time. We wait a bit and then we send her out a second time, our hopes launched again into a world of disappointments, and this time she brings back that precious olive leaf, that first glimmer that we are not alone, that even if the time is not yet fully ripe, still there is emerging somewhere a green promisethat will one day bear fruit. And our hope is renewed, and we wait in stillness for yet another opportunity. And then we send her out a third time, and learn that the world is ready at last, ready for us to get out of the ark, to be about the work God gives us. Our hope then impels us to action.

And if there is any doubt, any temptation to hold back rather than to march forward, God then speaks to us with the command to go forth, forth into the world in the power of the Spirit. And if we are afraid that the flood of the in-turned world, the selfish world, the false and fearful world, will drown us, or the rains of hatred or the drizzle of confusion and doubt dampen and dismay us, God sets his sign in the cloud to assure us that never again, never again will such things trouble us. Never again will we need to fear the selfish world, the rains of hatred or the drizzle of despair. For God has set his sign in the clouds for all to see.

And the sign he has set for us is now no longer the ephemeral and fading rainbow of Noah’s day. No, the sign in which victory is assured is the shining cross of the Risen Christ, the standard and ensign that flies on high, the banner of salvation raised over the world, the sign, as Peter said, of a victory and inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are protected by God’s power through faith for salvation. This is the sign our blessed Lord has left us, the sign of his saving cross, the sign in which we glory as it towers over the wrecks of time, as the light of the gospel story gathers to it and around it.

For when the woes of our earthly life threaten to drown us, when the world’s false promises deceive us and the persistent badgering of the babble and draining fears of the worldly city annoy us — the sign of the cross shall never forsake us. This is our standard, this is our sign, the sign for our time and for all times, the sign of the new and everlasting covenant — the cross of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. And this is our story and this is our song, that Jesus Christ our savior, through that cross has won the final victory over death for all who believe, and to whom we give, as is most justly due, all praise and honor and glory for ever and ever.+

Dry Bones

SJF • Lent 5a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Well, here it is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and already we are beginning to get hints of what is to come on Easter — the resurrection of the dead. We hear Saint Paul’s reminder to the Romans, to which I referred two weeks ago: that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. And Ezekiel and John present us with two very explicit and compelling images of death and life. The prophet tells of being set down in the midst of something that looks like it came right out of a horror movie, a valley full of dry human bones — all that’s missing is the Terminator’s metal foot crunching up the skulls; and the evangelist shocks us with what must have been an equally terrifying moment for the crowd of people gathered at that tomb, as the mummy-like figure of Lazarus emerges still tied and wrapped in the linen bands of death.

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These are vivid images and powerful testimonies in part because they go against our common sense everyday experience of life and death. Death we have seen; but resurrection is not in our actual experience. Who among us here has not lost a friend or relative to death? Who among us has not known that empty feeling, and the knowledge that things don’t work the other way — the way they are described in these biblical passages this morning? The film doesn’t run backwards. Dead people don’t come walking out of their graves; the doors on the fancy mausoleums up at Woodlawn never get opened from the inside. Skeletons don’t put on flesh and stand up to take a breath of fresh air. This is just not the way things work.

And yet, in spite of our experience — or perhaps I should say in this case our lack of experience — still we have this faith that this will not always be the way of things. Still we have this faith that death is not in fact the end, and that the miraculous events of which we hear from prophets and evangelists alike are still awaiting us out there at some future time when the world is fully redeemed and reborn through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And why is it so? Why do we believe in the resurrection of the dead — since none of us have actually seen it happen? What is it that gives us this sense that there is more to life than just this one go-round. You know, Christianity isn’t the only religious tradition that teaches that there is more to life than just a “once-through and then you’re done.” It isn’t even only the three religious traditions deriving from the faith of Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that teach there is a life in the world to come. Even ancient pagan Greek philosophers believed in the immortality of the soul; and the Egyptians built their pyramids and wrapped their mummies with a purpose, not just to kill time — or to ensure full employment or a big government budget! The Brahmans and the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and the Confucians honor their ancestors as if they were still alive. Very few people who have walked this good earth of ours have ever believed that “this is it and that’s the end.”

But why? Is it just our sense that it simply isn’t fair; that it’s like taking children to a wonderful amusement park and then telling them they can only have one ticket for one ride and then you have to leave? Is it just wish fulfillment, just a forlorn hope in an outmoded faith? Well if it is, then we are, as Saint Paul said to the Corinthians, “of all people the most to be pitied”!

There is, of course, the other possibility — and it is why we are here instead of sleeping late on a Sunday morning, especially having lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time — or sitting at home reading the Sunday Times. It is because of faith, and because of hope — faith and hope in things we have not seen, things reported to us from thousands of years ago that we have no reason to believe except our own inner conviction, that feeling you get deep inside when you know something is right. And it is the source of that inner conviction of which I wish to speak — for it is the source of that inner conviction that gives breath and life to the dry bones of what might otherwise simply be a doctrine, the source of that faith that moves us beyond the Scripture itself into the life which the Scripture promises — just as the story of the valley of dry bones is itself much more than a historical episode — it is a prophetic vision of how God works and is at work even now.

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When the Spirit of God sets Ezekiel down in that valley of dry bones, God challenges the prophet with a question, much as we are challenged. “Mortal, can these bones live?” The prophet’s answer, if it were based on his own experience, would likely have been, “Of course not. Dead people stay dead; that’s what death means. After a few days the body begins to stink and decay; and as for these dead here in this valley, well they’ve been dead so long the flesh has long since turned to dust.”

Thus Ezekiel could have answered in the practical fashion of Mary and Martha in our gospel. Mary shows her anguished disappointment that it is too late: that if only Jesus had come sooner he might have prevented this death. And Martha, as much as she believes in Jesus, and the eventual resurrection of the dead, right then and there she reminds Jesus that her brother’s body is four days dead, and ripe.

Ezekiel, however, is a prophet. He knows that God is up to more than simply planting him in a valley of dry bones and asking him a question to which a negative answer seems obvious. No, God is clearly up to something, and so, as a prophet — or as some might say an astute politician — rather than answering yes or no Ezekiel says to God, “You know.”

And indeed, God does know; and commands Ezekiel to begin to prophesy, and the bones come together just like in the old song, shin-bone to knee-bone to thighbone, with a whole lot of rattling! And then comes the sinewy cartilage and then the fleshy muscles and finally skin covering them all nice and neat and newly packaged like fresh-made sausages in their casings.

But they are still as dead as sausages. The bodies are reconstructed, but there is no life in them. Something is missing. God knows it and Ezekiel knows it. And just as Jesus speaks at the tomb of Lazarus, not out of his own need, but for the sake of those standing by, so God commands Ezekiel one more time, to prophesy to the wind from the four corners of the earth to enter and literally to inspire those bodies and bring them to life.

This breath, this inspiration, this spirit is the missing element, the spirit of faith and of hope that lifts up and revivifies people who claim their bones are dried up, and their hope is lost, and that they are cut off completely from any future, hopeless and faithless.

The breath that brings them back to life is the spirit of faith and hope that fills us with the knowledge of the truth of God’s call from death to life. This is the spirit of faith and hope that fills that gap in our experience of the world — a world in which we have yet to see a resurrection — and yet convicts us in our heart of hearts with an assurance so deep that nothing can shake it.

This is the Spirit of life and inspiration that fills us when we take up the Scripture — its pages are as dry and lifeless as the bones in the valley. But they can come to life as the Spirit flows through our hearts and our minds as we encounter their testimony: and by faith and hope are raised from the dead. This is, in the long run, the difference between the pagans and us: God has given all humanity a glimpse of the truth that this is not the end, but has given to us a written Word in the Scripture, and what is more, a living Word in Jesus Christ — whom we encounter as we worship in Spirit and in Truth.

It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that is within us that gives us life. It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that teaches us truths of which no mere mortal experience can instruct us. This Holy Spirit teaches us that if God can give life to our mortal bodies by means of the earthly breath we first take in when the doctor or midwife holds us up and gives us a good slap to shock us into mortal life — how much more will God’s own Spirit give new life to our immortal bodies by the spiritual breath that rushes upon us and calls us from our graves. Even in the midst of Lent, this is our Easter hope and Easter faith, which we proclaim as true not because we have seen it, but because God’s Spirit has been poured into our hearts to ratify the testimony of the Scripture that it is true — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

As God said to Ezekiel, it is by the Spirit we shall know that God has spoken and acted. What now we discern in the Scripture and hope for in our lives, what now we hold by faith, we shall then behold in earnest, as called from our graves by the powerful Spiritof the one who calls us forth, we take full possession of the new life promised us in Jesus Christ our Lord — the promise fulfilled, the bonds of death dissolved, so that, unbound and free, we will rejoice and live with him for ever and ever.+

Don't Tell It In The Valley

SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.

We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.

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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!

However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.

And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.

What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.

So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.

But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.

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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.

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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.

But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.

It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.

Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.

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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+

Hide and Seek

SJF • Epiphany 2a • Tobias Haller BSG

John the Baptist said, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed...”

As I said in my sermon two weeks ago, Epiphany means “showing forth.” By implication, something that is now shown once was hidden. Now, it’s clear that curiosity is very much a part of our human makeup. Even very young infants appreciate a game of peek-a-boo, and what game is more universal the world over than hide-and-seek?

The very idea of something hidden being revealed builds up anticipation. Perhaps I am aging myself, but I can well recall, not so very many years ago, car manufacturers would all bring out their new models at the same time each year. And in the weeks before the new models were set to debut, the car ads on TV would feature the new models — draped in sheets, so that all you could see was the outline of the car’s shape. And only after weeks of anticipation would the sheets be pulled off to the oohs and aahs of the eager public.

Of course, here in church we are interested in more important things than cars. But it seems that God works in much the same way as the car dealers, taking advantage of the human desire to look into secrets. We curious creatures want to break the code, Da Vinci or otherwise, to solve the mystery, finally to see what it is hidden under that sheet. So God takes advantage of our curiosity, and hides, and then reveals himself.

God, who remains to us unknowable in full (because a limited human mind cannot contain the infinite actuality of God) still allows himself to be known in part. As author H.G. Wood observed, “God would not be God if he could be fully known to us; but God would also not be God if he could not be known at all.” The question is, How do we know God? And the answer, as we will see, involves both God and us in give and take, a divine game of peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek or tag that God plays with his beloved children.

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The starting point, in this as in all else, lies with God. Our knowing God begins with God knowing us. God knows us completely, all that we are and all that we ever can be, because “God made us and we are his.” As Isaiah says, God called his chosen servant Israel before he was born; while still in his mother’s womb, God gave him a name. God didn’t simply see the future Israel; God saw all of the possible Israels that yet-unborn child might become, and worked with loving care to “form him in the womb to be his servant” like a potter slowly modeling a pot as the clay spins under her firm hands, urging the clay, balancing her own strength against the resistance of the clay so that it takes shape exactly as the potter wishes.

Yet clay would be no use to a potter if it didn’t also have its own inner strength, its own cohesiveness, its own native ability to take on form. God knows us, and knows what we are made of, and knows that what we are made of is suitable for the work he has for us to do. God does not sculpt with Jell-O; but rather with more enduring and solid stuff — for even if our flesh is grass, even if Adam was made from clay, still we are inbreathed with God’s own breath, and capable of bearing God’s likeness. What we are made of, that inner reality of what it means to be human, lies is our being made after God’s image, which means that we are able to know, and to love. So God’s revelation to us begins in this: God knows us, and so, knows that we are capable of knowing him.

If you are traveling in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, what’s the first thing you look for? Why, someone who speaks your language, someone who knows what you’re saying, right? God comes to us precisely because of all things in creation, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, we were made to know God, and to love God.

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So the game of hide-and seek continues. God has found us, “searched us out and known us,” God has tagged us, and we are now “it” — and it’s our turn to seek for God. So when we run after God with our questions, like the disciples of John we run after Jesus full of excitement and wonder. And how does Jesus respond? Well, the game of tag continues, and rather than giving a pat answer right away, he says, “Come and see.” God in Christ keeps the game going. Just when we think we have him cornered, he is off in another direction.

But not without a leaving a trail! When we get to where we think God is hiding, we find another clue to yet another hiding place, clues in the form of words and acts, of Scripture and Sacrament, each one an invitation to come to know him better. God continues the ongoing revelation, as he opened himself and revealed himself to his people Israel, step by step as they grew to know and love him better, and then in Jesus himself, and in the Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth: adding moves to the game, recurring surprises and unforeseen turns of events, each of which brings us deeper into a relationship.

Like all relationships, the relationship each of us has and all of us have with God — personal relationships and corporate relationships, as Israel and the Church have learned — will have their ups and downs. There have been times in my life when it seemed like God was completely hidden again, completely distant from me, utterly silent to my search for an answer. There are times I’ve felt like “It” in a game of hide-and-seek, in which all the other kids have been called home to supper, and I’m all alone in the gathering dusk, looking for people who aren’t even there anymore.

Isaiah experienced the same sort of desolation. Look what he says in today’s reading: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.” He feels like he’s wasted his time trying to redeem Israel. They just won’t play! Then look how God responds, finally, out of that silence and desolation. God doesn’t just say, “There, there. Yes, you’ll redeem Israel; yes you will.” No, God tells his servant, “It is too easy for you to redeem just Israel… I’m going to give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” God doesn’t just restore the relationship, God raises it to a higher level.

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Like all good and lasting relationships, the relationship we have with God grows and expands in unexpected ways. And the primary way that relationship grows and expands is in community, the community of the church. For it is here, where the Word and Sacraments are shared, that the knowledge of God is opened up, that the love of God takes form. Here we become God’s agents for letting God be known.

What’s the first thing you do when you’ve had a wonderful experience? What was the first thing Andrew did after meeting Jesus and spending a day with him? He went and found his brother Simon Peter. Building on his own relationship with God, he opened that relationship to his brother, bringing him into the growing circle of disciples. The church reaches out to those who feel abandoned, surprising and reminding them that they are not alone.

What, after all, is the church? It’s as if you finally found all your friends, who you thought had gone home for the night, all hiding in the same place — and it turns out it’s a surprise party just for you! This is how the church grows, sharing the knowledge of God; and it is the only way in which it grows right and true and firm and secure.

A church that grows on slogans and gimmicks, on false promises or glitzy promotions, will quickly crumble when problems arise. But a church that grows in the knowledge and the love of God will endure. This is the kind of church we are called to be: a church built upon the truth that God has known us and chosen us; a church built upon the relationship each of us has with our loving God and Father in heaven and upon the relationships we have with each other; a church in which each and every one of us, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known and loved, worshiped and adored to the ends of the earth.+

Three Gifts for the Child

Saint James Fordham • Epiphany • Tobias Haller BSG

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.+

This year is one of those rare years (about one in seven) when the feast of the Epiphany falls on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day that marks the beginning of the post-Christmas season, the day after the twelfth day of Christmas — I assume the day when people go to the department store return-desks with arms full of geese a-laying, calling birds, French hens, a pair of turtle-doves and a partridge complete with pear tree. Perhaps they should go to the poulterer’s instead of the department store! I suppose one would hold on to the five gold rings, of course...

Which brings me to my serious reflection for this day; for gold was also one of the gifts the wise men brought to the Christ child on that first Epiphany so long ago. What a strange name, for a day of strange gifts from strange people! Epiphany — it’s an old Greek word that has a simple meaning in English. It means showing forth! And the subtitle of this holy-day helps us understand just what it is that is being shown forth. For the Prayer Book, on page 31, tells us that the subtitle of Epiphany is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” Starting today, and throughout the season of Epiphany, we will hear in our Gospel readings just how Christ manifested himself in his earthly life, what he did to show himself forth not only to his disciples but to the whole world.

So it is on the feast of the Epiphany we start at the very beginning, with the coming of the foreign wise men to bring their gifts to the infant Christ. Many traditions have grown up around this event, most of them not actually included among the scriptural details in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve come to think of these visitors as the Three Kings, but the gospel doesn’t call them kings, nor does it even specifically say there were three of them. The gospel calls them “wise men.” It tells us that they came to find a child at the prompting of the rising of a star, a child who was to become the new king of the Jews. And the gospel tells us that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because of the three gifts, tradition assigned a wise man to each — for who would show up without a gift!

In addition the tradition portrayed the three wise men as representing three different races of the Gentile world, joining with the shepherds reported by Saint Luke, who represented the common poor Jewish people of Judea. In this way the faithful down the years wove together Matthew and Luke, and added imaginative details to fill out the story, and fill up our table-top creche. And this is not entirely out of keeping, even though it isn’t strictly speaking scriptural — for as my old liturgy professor used to say, “Listen to the people of God.” The church has its wisdom, and that includes all the members of the church — and the wisdom in this case lies in seeing what this feast-day is all about: the opening of the doors of salvation, so that the whole world, Jewish and Gentile, is represented kneeling at the Christmas crib — the Jews represented by the shepherds first on Christmas, and the Gentiles represented by the wise men following on the feast of the Epiphany.

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However, today, rather than exploring the possible ethnic background of the wise men, or the church’s embroidery on the story, I would like to stick a bit closer to the fabric of the gospel text itself, and take a careful look at those three gifts that the wise men brought. For here the text is clear and explicit, and we need rely on no uncertain tradition. The gifts presented to the young child were treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although in these days the latter two gifts are widely available and reasonably priced — the frankincense we burn in our censer costs only about six dollars a pound, and a little goes a long, long way — at the time of the birth of Christ all three items were very valuable, and the frankincense and myrrh were even more costly than gold.

But in addition to their value as mere commodities, and far more important, is the symbolic meaning of these gifts. Remember, Epiphany is about showing forth, it is about symbolism and demonstration, and manifestation. In short, it is about revelation. So what do the gold and the frankincense and the myrrh reveal to us? What do these three gifts tell us about the one to whom they were given?

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Gold is the symbol of royalty. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again” — so we sang in the hymn before the gospel. Royalty in just about every human culture for as long as we can tell were adorned with gold — from Pharaoh to the Inca to the Emperor of China. The first prehistoric person who found gold in the earth or in the river-bed recognized its special qualities: a shining metal that did not tarnish, flexible yet durable, which could be made into almost any kind of ornament; heavy and yet subtle, solid and substantial, and yet capable of being beaten into leaves as light as air, glowing in the firelight or the sunlight, a truly royal metal. So it is that golden crowns and necklaces have been cast for royalty for centuries. And so it was that the wise men offered gold to this child who was to be the king not just of the Jews but of the whole world.

Frankincense is the symbol of prayer and praise. Again, as our hymn at the gospel said, frankincense “owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising gladly raising.” In ancient times frankincense was offered in temples all over the world as a sign of worship. As Psalm 141 puts it: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice...” This costly resin was harvested from trees that grew in Ethiopia, carried by caravans to the distant East, and into Europe, valued all over the known world, and offered in the worship of many faiths. We continue to do the same to this day. For we still burn frankincense in our liturgy, the symbol of prayer ascending in a cloud, a gift that is utterly consumed as it burns, something we must give up completely and offer to God, for once it is burned we can’t take it back; and as we offer this up, we commit to God’s gracious hands all our needs, concerns, and gratitude. And so it was that the wise men offered frankincense to this child who was the Word made Flesh, the nearer presence of the unapproachable God who dwells in inaccessible light, come down to earth to receive the prayers and praise of all people.

Myrrh is the strangest of the three gifts to be offered to this child. Yes, myrrh was another valuable kind of incense, a resin used in a number of different ancient brews. But the primary use of myrrh in the ancient world was in embalming the dead, preserving dead bodies and preparing them for burial. “Its bitter perfume breaths a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Hardly the kind of thing one brings to a baby shower! Yet this was the third gift of the wise men, and their wisdom was vindicated in the end. For myrrh is the symbol of death, and this gift reminds us that even in the joy of Christmas death is not that far away. Matthew’s gospel continues its story to tell how Herod would soon send soldiers to murder the innocent children of Bethlehem, so set was he on wiping out the threat to his throne. Only a dream to warn Joseph, and another to warn the wise men not to return to Herod give the Holy Family time to escape to Egypt. So even at the manger, death is looming not far away. And let us remember as well, that the village of Bethlehem where Christ was born is only five miles from Jerusalem where he died; Golgotha and its cross are also not so very far away from the stable and its manger.

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Gold, frankincense and myrrh: these are the gifts that the wise men gave to the Christ child, symbols of royalty, worship, and death. They show us what these wise men thought of the one to whom they brought the gifts. They honored his kingship, they acknowledged his divinity, and they foretold his death.

But these three gifts also show forth and reveal what Christ gave to us. He gave us his humble royalty, not lording it over us but coming to us as one of us. He gave us his divine presence, assuring us that we are not forsaken and alone, but companions with him on our earthly pilgrimage, as he walks with us to teach us and opens his words to us even as he hears the words of our prayers. And he gave us his saving death, that precious gift that opened the way of everlasting life. These are the gifts that Christ gave to the world.

And the gifts the wise men brought also show us what we are to give to Christ in return. For in return for his royalty and divinity and death, we give him our obedience, our worship, and —not our deaths — but our lives, dedicating ourselves to the pure service of the love of God and neighbor.

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The Epiphany season has begun, the time to behold God revealed to us as one of us, and it starts with the gifts at the birth of the babe of Bethlehem. May we throughout this Epiphany season remember the meaning of those gifts, and offer to our Lord and God all obedience and all worship, and the tribute of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable and holy sacrifice to him who saved us, even Christ our Lord.+