holiness

Children, You Are Conquerors

1 John 5:1-8 (NLT)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.


This is the fifth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Before I went into professional ministry, my family attended Forest Park United Methodist Church in Georgia, and most Sundays we had a habit of eating afterward at a nearby Wendy’s. A lot of the church members ate there, as did other people we knew from the community.

One fellow we saw regularly was an older man named Steve. He and I volunteered at the same youth center. Steve and his wife attended what I thought of as a fundamentalist church.

Steve liked my son Charlie, who enjoyed talking about Bible stories even at the age of six. Steve always had some kind of Bible question for Charlie to see what the little guy would say.

One Sunday, Steve walked over to Charlie, held up his big black Bible and asked, “Charlie, what’s this book about?”

Charlie swallowed a bite of chicken nugget, studied Steve’s Bible cover for a second, and said, “Love.”

Steve pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “No, it’s obedience. Obedience!” He then walked away to order his lunch.

Charlie looked at me quizzically. “It’s okay, son,” I told him. “You’re both right.”

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIf you’re paying any attention at all to our text today, you can see why this story came to mind. Two threads that have been dancing around each other in the letter of 1 John, love and obedience, twist together as one. Scripturally, they really cannot exist without each other.

The easiest way to understand what I’m saying is to imagine one without the other, although it really doesn’t take much imagination. Most of us at some point have tried to live as if one can exist without the other.

Love Alone

Love can be a good feeling, of course. It is good to love and be loved.

John has reminded us already in his letter that love is an action. Love is what we do. But love without obedience to shape our actions can quickly dissolve into something meaningless.

A husband might tell his wife, “I’ll always love you, but to be happy I’m leaving you.” Even if he’s telling the truth about how he feels, the effectiveness of his love has been destroyed by his wrongful action, his unwillingness to be obedient to the marriage covenant God asks us to live under.

Or maybe we love someone who lives a lifestyle clearly opposed to God’s will. As Christians, if we say “I love that person too much to speak the truth,” our failure to declare God’s will is a betrayal of whatever love we may be feeling. We have chosen to leave someone we love in a state we believe might ultimately separate that person from God for all eternity.

James, the earthly brother of Jesus, understood this: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)

Obedience Alone

Obedience simply means that we listen to God’s guidance, particularly his guidance in Scripture, and align our behaviors with God’s will.

Obedience without love becomes something rigid and repulsive. Obedience without love is actually disobedience, because God is love, and love is the major part of his plan for salvation.

Religious obedience without love usually ends up being expressed as some form of legalism. Jesus spent a lot of time going after the legalist Pharisees for emphasizing rules while ignoring love.

Matthew 23:27 comes to mind: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”

WWJD

I hesitate to boil all this down to what is now a Christian cliché, but “What would Jesus do?” was a pretty good notion back in the 1990s. The question can be applied to most situations, particularly if we’re willing to study the Bible with some seriousness.

The Bible is, of course, the ultimate source for understanding God’s will. Even when God’s will seems to be revealed to us in other ways—in prayer, in visions, or in holy gatherings, for example—those ideas have to be tested against what we find in the Bible.

In the Bible, we see Jesus was perfectly loving, and our best lessons are drawn from Jesus in action. Jesus was very welcoming to all who were drawn to him. He also was quick to say to forgiven sinners, “Go and sin no more.”

To War

John, having twisted these threads of love and obedience together, switches somewhat shockingly to the language of battle and conquest, as if he has fashioned a whip instead of a string. We have to remember the highly metaphorical nature of how he speaks. His churches had no worldly power, and were happy to get through the day without being persecuted.

He did, however, have great faith in the power of love and obedience working in tandem. He was saying that when we combine the two, we achieve something ultimately more powerful than swords, guns or even atom bombs.

Evil will be fully defeated by God’s obedient people working in the world in loving ways. Again, John’s language is startling. It is as if each of us, standing with God and filled with God’s love, has the individual potential to finish the job.

We conquer primarily by evangelizing, telling the world the truth about the God who loves us so much he would die for us, about the God we should seek to emulate in every moment of our lives.

Those of you in Life Groups will talk more this week about what it means to evangelize, to tell others of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Approach this lesson with both love and obedience in your hearts, and the Holy Spirit will lead you.

 

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Children, Abide

1 John 3:1-7 (NLT)
See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.

Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous.


This is the second sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


As we’ve already discovered in our opening sermon and first Life Group study, God is relational. Most of us have heard the assertion “God is love,” but we sometimes fail to make the connection that God’s love implies a desire for a close relationship.

Thinking God wants us near him is hardly a leap of imagination, though. “I have loved you from afar” is a poignant statement, not a happy one. We automatically understand a long-distance romance to be a difficult situation for lovers. Loving parents do not want to be separated from their children indefinitely; there may be no greater pain for a parent. God’s love for us is no different.

Created in God’s image, we also are very capable of love, although our ability to love is hampered by sin. As we understand how much we are loved by God—as we experience how love was expressed in action on the cross, feel that love through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and grow in that love by being in community—we should find ourselves able to love more freely. And as we grow in love, we also see the reason for pursuing holiness, an act of love that has so often been misunderstood.

Love in Action

Holiness is just a churchy word meaning we behave as God would have us behave. It’s a difficult concept for people who resist or reject Christianity because they perceive conversations about holiness as evidence of God’s authoritarianism, or worse, a church’s attempt to control society at large.

By the way, this is why I don’t like to see Christian behavior forced on people through government legislation—such tactics simply reinforce the idea that churches exist to impose rules rather than offer a loving relationship.

But the call to holiness you hear from God in Scripture and through Holy Spirit-inspired churches has nothing to do with such negative motives. We simply are being reminded to live in a way that should be a natural response to God’s overwhelming love.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeJohn goes so far as to make a bold, flat statement: “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin.” That’s from the New Living Translation; older or more formal translations use that wonderful but slightly anachronistic word “abide.”

John is talking about people who stay so spiritually close to Jesus that it is as if they were pressed against him, like the beloved disciple in the dinner scene in John’s gospel, or the woman who knelt to anoint the Savior’s feet and wash them with her hair.

Abiding is much more than being in the building with Jesus, or even the same room with Jesus. When we find ourselves asking, “Why am I still trapped in sin,” a good follow-up question might be, “How far have I strayed from Jesus lately?” Odds are, we’re not truly abiding, gazing at him through our study of Scripture or leaning against him in prayer and worship.

Little Children

Let me switch back to the image of a loving parent and child. Where are children the safest? Well, when they are near a loving parent, of course. It’s hard to get into trouble when you’re holding a parent’s hand.

In the wrong setting, even the slightest distance between child and parent can mean potential trouble. As good parents, we’re always trying to manage that distance, sometimes literally keeping our children on a short leash.

When my oldest child was beginning to move from toddling to real walking and running, we bought a springy little wrist tether so she would have more freedom to move when we were out in public. I still remember attaching the adult end to my left wrist and the complicated system of velcro and watchband-style straps to her right wrist.

Being spatially gifted, she studied it for about five seconds and had it undone, proudly handing it back to me. I did the only thing I could do—I went back to holding her hand.

It’s good for children to have that desire to be independent from us. Ultimately, their instinct to go it alone makes it possible for them to grow into independent adults, although parents certainly have to manage those impulses over a couple of decades.

Acting like independent-minded children in our relationship with God is a bad idea, though. We are not little gods, needing to pull away in order to grow. We instead are part of God’s creation, designed to abide in our Creator for all eternity. We grow by remaining close to the Father.

In fact, the author of 1 John makes an interesting promise: Abide long enough, and we not only will see Christ, we one day will be surprised at how much we resemble the one who has shown the greatest love of all. We will not be gods, but we will bear the same purity and speak the same glorious truth as our Savior.

Those of you in Life Groups will learn more this week about how we can help each other live into our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In the meantime, stay close to God every moment of every day, and if you fail in some way, run back to the one who loves you perfectly.


The featured image is a depiction of Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus’ feet. It is a detail from an altar in Saint Vincent Church in Heiligenblut, Austria.

Children, Seek the Light


1 John 1:1-2:2 (NLT)

This is the first sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Quick: In your mind, define what you mean when you say “God.”

Humans are bound by finite time and space, so none of us can hope to provide a complete definition of an eternal being. That doesn’t mean, however, that God is unknowable. People of faith believe there have been powerful revelations from God about God, and from those we can assert certain important truths.

We gather in church, a short word for a Christian community, primarily because we have a common understanding of these truths. If we are not gathered together because of a common understanding of God, we remain a community, but we cannot call that community “church.” We instead would be some kind of club or civic group.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John understood in a most practical way the importance of church members having a common understanding of God’s nature. Later in this letter, it becomes quite clear the churches he led in the vicinity of Ephesus had divided because some of their members asserted a different understanding of God. In particular, a dispute arose regarding whether Jesus was fully God in real human flesh.

Those who disagreed, saying Jesus simply appeared human, eventually left. There was little point in people who couldn’t agree on God’s nature staying together in worship. For all practical purposes, each group would have been worshiping a different god.

Just as the author does in the opening to the Gospel of John, he gets directly to his point in this letter to the churches. Let me tell you some important details about God, he is saying. Let me tell you about those truths that bind us together as a church. Let us cling to the idea of who God is with our very lives, letting the truth about God shape our behaviors.

He speaks as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and also certainly as one who experienced the full presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  He speaks as one touched by the divine mind. This is deep stuff.

The message in the opening of 1 John is very similar to the message in the opening of the Gospel of John. Even before taking on flesh, the aspect of God we call the Word existed, “from the beginning,” an echo of the assertion in John’s gospel that the being we now think of as Jesus was present at the creation.

We also hear that within the being of God, there is fellowship—God is naturally relational regardless of whether we or any other intelligent part of creation exists. Through Jesus Christ, a full and complete relationship is offered to human beings despite our sin.

Living in that relationship is like living in light. There is no shame when we stand with Christ, and therefore, nothing needs to be hidden in the dark.

Because of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, living in the light also cleanses us. The more we place ourselves in that light, the more we are purged from our sins. We are like sheets initially cleansed in the wash and then thoroughly sterilized while hanging on a line during a clear, sunny summer day. (Does anyone do that with their sheets anymore?)

In this letter’s opening, we also see how repentance is necessary for salvation. People who try to claim they aren’t really sinning have not yet reached this first step toward salvation. “Yes, what I’m doing is wrong, it offends God,” we have to say to ourselves. From there, we can begin to hand our sins over to God, trusting they no longer have power to make us repeat them or cause us condemnation.

As a sinner in the room, I pause when I hear this call to repentance. Have I thoroughly and completely examined myself—how I live, how I think—trusting God’s revelations in Scripture and prayer to guide me? Can I say I repeat this process from time to time?

This process of self-examination is the only way we can achieve the goal of John’s letter. The author wanted us to not sin, to put aside our brokenness. The author also was a realist, however. Even when we let Christ into our lives, we are human, and we are likely to continue sinning. Are we humble enough to continue to go before the throne, admit our mistakes, and let the light continue to do its work?

Whatever state of sinfulness or holiness we find ourselves in, we move toward eternal life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no other way forward, there is no other path out of darkness and death and into light and eternal life.

Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done, and what he offers us—is the central truth of the community we call church. As we move further in 1 John over the next six weeks, we will hear much more about how we live and grow into this truth together. We’ll do this as we are gathered in worship, of course. I’m also particularly excited about the deeper experience some of you will have in Life Groups.

Let’s be praying for vibrant life in our church as we go through this process.

 

Now We Know

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


The prophet Jeremiah lived in the midst of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He watched and warned while what remained of the people of Israel fell away from God and into the hands of their conquerors.

It was of course a painful time. The prophet’s tone was so consistent that a loud complaint  is sometimes called a “jeremiad” even today. And yet, Jeremiah also declared a hopeful promise from God. We as Christians see ourselves as beneficiaries of that promise.

Depending on how much time you’ve spent in church, you may or may not know what a covenant represents. We practice a faith built on covenants, holy agreements offered to us by God.

In these covenants, God makes an opening offer to humans through the people of Israel: I love you already, I’m reaching out to you, and if you’ll do certain things, we can be in relationship, despite your sinfulness.

When Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, spoke of a broken covenant, he was referencing God’s attempt to relate to the Israelites through the law. By accepting the law transmitted through Moses, the people were supposed to grow in their understanding of who God is and what God expects. They were to learn to approach God with respect and obedience, in the process also experiencing his great love and mercy.

Sometimes the relationship worked, and the Israelites found themselves greatly blessed. Sometimes the Israelites turned to other gods or let worldly concerns overwhelm them, and they would suffer. Once the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites in Exodus, it also becomes cyclical. When the people followed the covenant, times were good; when the people ignored the covenant, metaphorically cheating on the husband, times could be quite terrible.

The cycle had to be broken. From the moment sin first damaged the union between God and humans, God had one goal—full restoration of the relationship, but without violating the free will he gave us to make us special. At a low point in the cycle, Jeremiah was given a glimpse of that time to come.

The poetic language used to describe that day is more bloody than we might initially think. The first covenant was chiseled in stone. The second covenant would be written on human hearts, evoking a picture of an iron stylus going to work on flesh. This image is aligned with similar promises found in other Old Testament writings, where we’re told a heart needs to be  “circumcised” to be holy.

Fortunately, these images are not literal. Blood was required to establish a new, cycle-breaking covenant, but we understand that Jesus Christ shed his blood so we would not have to do so. He died on the cross to break the cyclical power sin had over us. Again, God initiates covenants; God first shows us he loves us.

God’s law—that is, an understanding of his will—is actually written on our hearts in a most special and even pleasurable way in this new covenant. We believe in the bloody work on the cross, and then wonderful things begin to happen.

God rushes in, this time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Even after believing, we can resist this deeply personal incursion, either out of ignorance or fear. But knowledge should overcome ignorance, and what is there to fear from a loving God who offers us eternity?

We are changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I cannot explain why the experiences are different from person to person, except again to point to free will and varying levels of resistance rooted in our personalities. But God does go to work in us, and that always changes us for the better, as painful as change sometimes can be.

To the unconverted: You cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for you once you come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Take that first step to opening yourselves to the experience of God that truly can remake you.

To the converted: Let the Holy Spirit work! Engage with God directly. And never forget to rejoice in each new stage of spiritual growth God gives you.


The featured image is Michelangelo’s “Jeremiah,” depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Temple Most Real

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


The Passover of the Jews was near … “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The story of the cleansing of the temple is so important that we hear versions of it in all four gospels. In John, this cleansing happens early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he has performed his first miracle, changing water into wine. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes late, and is seen as one important trigger bringing about Jesus’ execution.

The scene in John is a crowded one. People came from all over Israel for the Jewish Passover, and just like today, where there was a crowd, there was money to be made. For Jesus, the problem was that business had spilled into the outer precincts of the temple itself, which of course served as the home of God among his people.

Two basic commercial acts were going on. First, animals needed for sacrifice were for sale. Most travelers did not bring animals with them for the journey. Second, Roman and other foreign coins had to be exchanged for Jewish coins if they were to be used in the temple, along the lines of how we might exchange dollars for euros or yen when traveling today.

We can assume that with high demand came high prices and inflated exchange rates, although that may have been a mere side issue for Jesus in this version of the story. The very presence of commercialism in this holy place was what ultimately disturbed him.

Jesus’ response was certainly aggressive. People sometimes cite this passage as evidence of God acting in anger, but as I read it, it seems Jesus took his time to devise a calculated plan. We’re told he made a whip of cords to aid driving the larger animals—fashioning such a device would have taken a few minutes, at least.

There’s also no evidence humans were endangered in this dramatic cleansing, although I do imagine the moneychangers bruising their knees as they scrambled to recover their coins bouncing and rolling across the pavement. It’s an ironic posture for people who were being irreverent before God just a few minutes earlier.

This story of cleansing raises an interesting question for us. Do we ever go too far in letting worldly desires, passions, and objects enter into our sacred spaces? What about worldly ideas? What is among us as we worship that might keep us from properly revering God?

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus was a good Jew, and the temple represented the primary way God had related to the “chosen people,” the Israelites, for thousands of years. Because of sin, even the people of Israel had difficulty with the idea of being in God’s direct presence, preferring instead to have him symbolically housed in some way, with God’s permission and according to God’s instruction, of course. (This is another example of God meeting us where we are.)

Early in their history, while escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had seen and heard from God more directly, experiencing him in the form of fire and smoke, earthquakes, terrifying trumpet sounds and a thunderous voice. God had spoken his commandments out loud to them, but the people then asked for an intermediary, telling Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

Later in Exodus, this need for separation led to an elaborate tabernacle, a portable holy place where God could be among his people and yet separated from them enough for their comfort. Centuries after taking and occupying the Holy Land, the Israelites established a temple in Jerusalem as a more resilient expression of God’s house, replacing the portable tabernacle. (The first link details King David’s desire for a temple and God’s response. You also might want to take time to read the account in 2 Chronicles 3 of the construction begun by David’s son, King Solomon.)

By Jesus’ day, the Israelites were on their second temple, the first one having been destroyed in an invasion. Like the tabernacle before it, the temple became holier and holier as one moved deeper into it, until one finally reached the Holy of Holies, considered the abode of God, a place where only the high priest could enter once a year.

The “zeal” quote is a reference to Psalm 69:9, a prophetic statement about the Jewish messiah. Obviously, Jesus cared deeply for this great expression of God’s holiness in the midst of the humans he was trying to save from sin.

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

As much as Jesus cared for the temple as a Jew, he also knew his very presence marked a change in how humanity would relate to God. Where the tabernacle and temples had symbolically represented God’s presence, Jesus, God in flesh, literally existed to be God’s direct contact with his unholy creation.

Of course, for the relationship to be maintained, a path to holiness for all people had to be created. The Gospel of John indicates that even early in his ministry, Jesus knew where he was headed.

The Jewish leaders, in ways they could never imagine, did tear down the temple, with help from Pontius Pilate and the Roman guards’ whips, nails and cross. And crucified Jesus, working with the authority of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, did rebuild the temple most real in three days, through the act we now call the resurrection, making the temple of his body indestructible.

This is the great work of history, the path to eternal life and holiness for all of us no matter how sinful we are. We hear this story of tearing down and rebuilding, we understand how much God loves us, and we believe, making salvation our own.

Eternity is ours, and from the temple now in heaven, God’s Spirit flows forth on his redeemed, sustaining us until we see God’s glory in full.


The featured image is Luca Giordano’s “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple,” circa 1675.

One of Us


Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.

 

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.