Save us… from what?

All the events of Palm Sunday are wrapped up in one little word: “Hosanna”.

For ‘church’ people, it’s a familiar word: every time we celebrate communion we join our voices with angels and archangels to proclaim “holy, holy, holy … blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!”

But as familiar as it is, what does “Hosanna” mean? 

What, exactly, were those crowds singing and shouting on that morning in Jerusalem so long ago?  And, what exactly do we proclaim when we, together with all Christians across time and space, join our voices with theirs?

One Little Word

On the one hand, the answer is simple, though it might change or even challenge how we’ve come to read and picture the Palm Sunday gospel.

First and foremost, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise, or a shout of triumph for a parade through town.

No, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise… it’s a plea.

The Hebrew word הושענא (hosanna), used throughout the Psalms, means “save us”.  “Please save us, we beseech you to save us; be our saviour; be our rescuer; please, please, be the one who saves us.”

As Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, riding humbly on a donkey in fulfilment of the sign given by the Prophets,[1] the crowd lines the street, coming out of houses and workrooms and marketplaces to shout “Save us, O Son of David”; “Be our saviour – please be the one who comes in the name of the Lord”; “Hosanna in the highest – please be the one to save us from on high”.

Save us.

The Palm Sunday scene in scripture isn’t a triumphant throng singing a victory chant: no, the scene is that of a longing, unfulfilled, anxious crowd trusting – hoping – that this Jesus is the one who will save them.

But as we join our voices in their plea for salvation, we have to ask: save us from what?

Save us from oppression.

The obvious answer for those people gathered to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem is oppression.  Save us from oppression.

As we know, the entire region was under Roman control, with heavy foreign taxes imposed, foreign soldiers in the streets to keep people in line, and constant political unrest as people and families were divided about the solution to their problems.

It’s this freedom from oppression that was front and centre in the minds of the crowd that day.  That crowd really was no different than ourselves – it’s part of our fallen human nature to focus on our own needs, on our own immediate situation rather than seeing the big picture, or how things will end up when the paths we’re on are stretched out across eternity.

They were thinking about the here and now.  They faced high taxes and low income.  Businesses were held hostage by high-interest loans from wealthy Romans, and the livelihood you worked a lifetime to build could be crushed by a single decision by a government hundreds of miles away.  Really, times haven’t changed that much, have they?

The crowd called out from freedom from this oppression: Hosanna, save us, Son of David, our earthly king.

But Jesus was more than they bargained for. 

As the anxious, unsettled, oppressed masses gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover – the annual celebration of God’s deliverance of his people, saving them from slavery through the waters of death – the oppression from which Jesus will deliver them on Good Friday goes much deeper than bank accounts, job security, and food on the table.

Yes, without a doubt, all of those matter, but the oppression that Jesus breaks is so much more.

Jesus enters Jerusalem not to fill their bellies or their pockets, not to break the yokes of an oppressive government, but to break the chains of death and hell: to untie, for those willing to let go, the weight, guilt, and shame of sin that weighs down our heads so that all we can see is the decay and squalor of this fallen world.

Jesus hears their plea, he saves them, not by magically wiping away the consequences of the greed and pride of the world around them, but, in the words of the Psalms, by being the one who lifts up our heads, who takes off the blinders, casts off the heavy yoke around our neck, and allows us to look heavenward, to see the big picture as it unfolds, to recognize the blessings of God at work around us, and to praise God for his salvation, as we, too, have been delivered from slavery to sin as we die to self in the waters of baptism.

Save us from oppression, they cry.  And he will.

Save us from false religion.

And, as we join our voices in that plea to save us, Jesus has even more in store.

As you read through your Bible this week from Matthew 21 onwards, you see the first thing Jesus does is walk into the temple and overturn the tables of the moneychangers: what we call the cleansing of the temple.

Again, Jesus gave them more than they bargained for.  He saves us from false religion.

There’s so much we could say here, but the one point I want to make is this: Jesus saves us from the many ways we find to give ourselves cheap and easy hope by trusting in things that cannot last. 

One of the proofs that we are made in God’s Image is that every person alive finds something to worship.  We worship our bank accounts, we worship science, we worship family, we worship our image, we worship relationships, we worship mindfulness and positive thinking.  But, as Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers; as the holy curtain of the temple is ripped in two as Jesus dies, he shows us that no real and lasting hope is to be found while our heads and eyes remain weighed downward by shame and grief. 

No false idol on our level, no matter how good it makes us feel, can do for us what Jesus does when he is lifted up on that tree, and just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness, we must cast off our weight and look up if we’re to see His salvation.  Finding hope, finding something to hang our trust on in the world around us is like finding the most comfortable armchair on a sinking ship.  Lasting hope is found in the one who overcame death and the grave.  True religion isn’t made in our image; it’s found in the One in whose Image we were made.

Save us from Ourselves.

But the biggest surprise for that crowd on that first Palm Sunday was something they never saw coming.

“Save us, O Son of David”.  “Be the one who saves us from on high”.

Save us… from ourselves.

That’s the drama of this day.

The same crowd that cries for salvation is the crowd that cries “Crucify him”.

The Church, and you, and I, every time we gather, every time we share the Eucharist, every time we sing “Hosanna”, need to realize that we are the same crowd that shouts “Crucify”, that we are the ones who call for his death. We are the fickle crowd that is never satisfied, that is weighed down, chained down by our own sin to only see the decay around us.

“Save us”. 

And that’s the glory of this week. 

The King of Glory emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

He died to save us from ourselves.

He died that we might take his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light, and lift up our heads and see him on that awful tree, as we cry “Save us”, knowing full well that His love for us held Him there.

Save us from oppression.  Save us from false religion.  Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves.

And seeing him, seeing his love for us as by death he overcame death, as the grave loses its sting, and the gates of hell could not withstand the Lord of Life Himself: then, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of the Father.

Hosanna.  Save us.  Amen.


[1] Zechariah said the Messiah would come from the Mount of Olives near Bethphage (Zech. 14:1-11), and riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9)

Can these bones live?

And they said to Jesus, “Lord, by now there is a strong stench”.
John 11:1-45

One of the blessings in worshipping in our tradition of Christianity is that, if preachers are attentive, we have incredible opportunities to let God speak through Scripture.

In some traditions, some denominations, part of the pastor’s task is to decide what passage will be read each week, praying that they’ll find lessons that will be encouraging, and edifying, and timely for their congregation – a challenging task for even the most gifted preachers.

Have you ever wondered where our set of Bible lessons come from?  The Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel we hear each week?  For us, as with most Anglicans and the majority of Christians around the world, the lessons come from the lectionary – the table of readings assigned years, even decades in advance. 

So that means, this Sunday, at a time when all of us need encouragement, when our economy is facing enormous struggles, in a week when CBC is reporting that over a million Canadians applied for EI, a week with reports of overflowing hospitals in the South and widespread anxiety about how long this pandemic will last, while part of me would love to open up my Bible to preach on the first encouraging verse that came to mind, instead – by God’s grace – we’re presented with the readings officially chosen for this day, way back in 1994.

Why bother, you might say… it’s not like whatever committee of men and women sitting in some conference room in the early 90s was choosing lessons for a pandemic 25 years later.  But that, I would say, is actually one of the great mysteries of God working through his Church by the Holy Spirit.  If those, in 1994, choosing the lessons for today in 2020 had prayed and invited God to guide their work, and were seeking to be faithful in providing for the Church; if those two or three or 15 gathered in Jesus’ Name had Christ there in their midst, and it goes without saying that God, in his infinite wisdom, though He didn’t plan this pandemic, was not at all caught by surprise, then maybe, just maybe, we were given today’s lessons for a reason.  And, in that case, preachers have a responsibility to prayerfully see what God may be saying through what He has guided the Church to read today, before simply (and selfishly) turning to the easy words of encouragement that I myself would like to hear.

…And, I must say, God has given us some great material.

Never in a thousand years would my mind have gone to the Valley of Dry Bones for a time like this.  Never in a thousand years would I have turned to that great Biblical affirmation in John 11 of just how awful a situation can be: “My Lord, there is an awful stench”.  In fact, this is one of those occasions where I wish we were reading the old King James Version: “Lord… by now he stinketh”. 

The Valley of Dry Bones

In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees himself in a dried-up valley, a valley where a once-mighty army, an army of God’s chosen people, lie knocked down in their prime.  This vast army is now picked clean, as the prophet sees in a dream this valley with dry, sun-bleached bones scattered everywhere.

The Lord says to Ezekiel: these are the bones of my people.  These are the remains of those who cried out “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost”. 

I don’t know about you, but I know there have been times for me this week, with all the disruption, all the adapting to a new and uncomfortable way of life, with all the uncertainty of not knowing how long this will last, of not knowing when my own relatives and friends who have been laid off will be called back, of not knowing the effects this will have on even the strongest businesses and charities; this week of those who struggle with addiction being tempted to turn back to the bottle or the pill or the ungodly website; this week of those who live with depression and anxiety being tempted to slide back under the covers; this week of realizing just how essential, just how utterly dependent we are on the truckers and the minimum-wage warehouse workers, stock clerks, and cashiers about whom we rarely stop to think; this week of hanging up the phone after hearing of another lay-off, another company struggling, and wondering where these billions of dollars of government money is going to come from when we already have a huge national deficit… this week of sitting in my chair, feeling… dried up; knowing that as much faith as I have in God, as much trust as I have in his never-failing mercy and love, the fact is that I sometimes feel as though my hope is lost.

I know, I really know, that God will sustain us, and everything that we really and truly need to be made like Jesus will be provided, but sometimes, to my limited, fallen mind, all I can see is the bones, not the new life that God has in store.

And the great news provided by God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit for us to read today is that it’s ok to be honest, to feel that we’re in a valley of dry bones.  There’s nothing un-Christian, and there certainly isn’t any sin or shame in naming our anxiety and our confusion. 

There’s a shiny, glossy, half-true version of Christianity that would tell people to just think positively, to put their mind on Christ: the same ancient heresy, the lie that the body and its afflictions don’t matter, the lie that only the spirit matters, when we know, we believe, that God created us as body and soul joined together in one, and our faith is that, at the last day, not my spirit, but this body will be restored as we live not on a cloud, but in a renewed city: the new Jerusalem.

That half-truth to simply think on heavenly things does little to encourage those who have lost their jobs, or who face addiction or mental illness, or who are anxious because of things beyond our control – that half-truth falls flat because it simply isn’t of God: it’s un-Biblical, and it’s un-Christian.

No: God stood with the prophet Ezekiel in his dream, not of a pleasant pasture of happy thoughts, but in the very valley of death itself.  God showed Ezekiel death, and then asked him a simple question: “Tell me, can these bones live?”.

Can these bones live?

Faith doesn’t whisk us away from the anxiety, death, and decay of the world around us.  No, that’s not it’s purpose.  As we heard today in Romans, even though Christ is in us, the body is still subject to death because of the sin of the world.[1]  

But it’s faith that determines how we answer the question.

Can these bones live? 

Well, from my human perspective, looking at a pile of dry bones picked clean by vultures under the baking desert sun… I don’t see how.

But what did Ezekiel say? 

I find this so encouraging: he didn’t say, “oh yes, of course they can!  You’ll bring them back to life and all will be fine and dandy.”

No, the great prophet offered the most faithful answer I can imagine.  “Lord… only you know”.

That’s faith. 

Not pretending that we have easy answers when we don’t. 

Not relying on glossy half-truths that lead us to ignore the suffering of those around us.

“Can these bones live?”

The response is a perfectly confident, a perfectly faithful, yet a perfectly simple: “God knows”.

God will restore his creation; God will restore his people.  The Lord will do it.  How will it look?  When will it happen?  Will we be spared the learning opportunities of wandering in the desert, or austerity, or depending on one-another rather than our own strength?  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  But God knows. 

And his wisdom, his understanding far surpasses all that you or I can ask or imagine.  A wisdom so great, so over-arching, so focused on his offer of eternal life with Him, that it looks like foolishness to those who are perishing, as his power is made perfect not in strength, but in weakness. 

Human weakness that Jesus came not to eliminate in this world, but to share.

The Death of Lazarus

In John 11, Jesus came to the home of his dear friend, Lazarus, who became sick and died.  He got there, and the whole neighbourhood was gathered for mourning.  Mary and Martha were there, with friends and neighbours bringing over food, sharing memories, and weeping together at the death of their brother.

Then Jesus came. 

He didn’t break in singing and dancing.  He didn’t admonish them for their little faith or tell them to look at the big picture, or tell them to think positively about heavenly things.  He came along side those who were weeping, and what did he do?  He wept.  He acknowledged, he understood, he came along-side the very real grief, confusion, and even despair that they were feeling, and entered into it with them: he shared their burden as the tears flowed down his holy cheeks.

But, in the midst of that despair, comes the question of faith.  Can these bones live?

The Lord himself comes to the tomb, and after sharing in their grief, says: open it up.  Open the tomb.

As I read this, I can hear the gasps of those gathered. 

No, we don’t open it.   He’s dead.  Look around, we’re in a cemetery – a valley of dry bones.  “Lord… he’s been in there four days.  Don’t you know, Lord, what happens to a body after four days?  Lord, we don’t re-open tombs.  Lord… this stinks.  Lord, he stinketh.  This is literally a rotten situation.

Can these bones live?

Well, God knows. 

Jesus said to Martha, “your brother will rise again”.  She said, “oh yes, I know he will rise again at the last day when all the dead are raised for judgment… and, if only you had been here before it was too late, you could have healed him before he died”.

But, the answer of faith is: no matter how hopeless the situation, no matter how dried out the bones, no matter how strong the stench, no matter how bad the rot, no matter how bad things look from our perspective, no matter how unlikely or illogical it may seem, God knows what He will do, God knows how he will reveal his glory so that we and all the world may believe on his holy name and worship him in spirit and in truth.

And then, standing in the midst of the truly unimaginable stench of death and decay, Jesus says, “Lazarus – come out!”. 

And those who had done the right thing, those who were consoling their neighbours, those who had prepared the body, binding it with linen strips, find now that the right answer is always “only God knows”.  For with God, all things are possible.

A Word to the Church

Together with the anxiety and confusion of the past weeks, the real hardship being experienced by so many, I see another set of dry bones.

How much has the Church looked like a pile of bones, picked clean, baked by the scorching sun?  How much has the Church said, “our strength is dried up; our hope is gone”.

Just months ago, our own national office predicted the extinction of the Anglican Church of Canada by the year 2040.  Attendance is down, expenses are up; the volunteers are grey-headed.  In many ways, as a young priest, across much of the Church, it looks as if we’ve already begun to prepare the body for burial.

But… can these bones live?

Maybe, just maybe, after generations of congregations everywhere retreating inside our buildings, in many cases, rolling the stone over the door, knowing this isn’t a place many people would really want to come; after decades of binding ourselves with the burial shroud of “business as usual”, the traditional refrain of “what we’ve always done”, perhaps now, as our buildings are locked and business as usual is forbidden, perhaps we’re the ones in the tomb.

What if, in the midst of all that is happening, Jesus is standing outside, calling, crying out with a loud voice through the stench of staleness and decay, “Church, come out!

Unbind the burial cloths of business as usual, and breathe in the fresh air, not of the decaying world around us, but the breath of God, the same breath that breathed over creation, the same Spirit who speaks in the unfailing, unchanging words of Scripture, the same Spirit who sends us out of the stale tomb where the body has been bound, and out into a world that needs to hear that peace springs from hope, and hope doesn’t come from having all the answers… hope comes from trust in the One who has the answers, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Can these bones live?

God knows.  Let’s unbind ourselves and find out.


[1] Romans 8:6-11

Eyes wide open — to see what matters

Open our eyes, Lord… we want to see Jesus.

Scripture has a lot to say about blindness: one of the promises revealed by the prophets of old was that the Messiah would come to give sight to the blind; in fact, the whole purpose of God revealing himself through his covenant with Abraham was so that his chosen people would be a light to enlighten the nations; a great light for those who were walking, living in the dark.

Jesus Heals a Blind Man

Even if we’ve heard these readings a thousand times, though, it’s absolutely critical that we allow ourselves to hear them again with fresh ears… to read them again with fresh eyes, eyes that are opened to see Jesus at work.  After all, no apostle or missionary risked life and limb for the sake of a history text of what Jesus did… No, the good news of the Gospel is alive, and the one it proclaims – that Lamb who was slain who now reigns in glory – is not just a figure of history to teach us good moral lessons.  He’s at work, even now, as that good news goes forth into all lands, even as Christians around the world are gathered in their homes; he’s at work today, as eyes are opened and light begins to shine in the darkness.

Who Caused this Blindness?

We know how this healing goes.[1]  The man who has been blind from birth is sitting along the road, minding his own business.  Then, the disciples start to talk amongst themselves, pretty embarrassingly, wondering “why is that guy blind?”.  It’s kind of like when you take a young kid out to the grocery store… you know, the first time the child really notices someone without an arm, or with a scar on their face.  You, the parent, try to answer them as quickly and quietly as possible, hoping, praying that they’ll just be quiet and that the person in line in front of you somehow didn’t hear.

…But that’s the scene: the disciples, walking down the road, talking amongst themselves about why this guy is blind.  And, we might say, they offer some common, but childish suggestions:  ‘Jesus, he was born blind because his parents were sinners, right?’  ‘Oh, Jesus, I think he was born blind because his father broke the commandments!’  ‘Well, I think it’s his own fault; I think he sinned while he was a baby’.

And Jesus patiently settles them down, and then sheds light on the situation: ‘guys’, I imagine him saying, ‘that’s not how it goes’.  No one’s sin caused this; it’s not like he somehow got what he deserved.  Blindness, sickness, plagues, even pandemics are just part of the reality of a broken, fallen world; a world in which people have the freedom to choose love and sacrifice over pride; free to choose to worship the God who made it all, or free to live under the illusion that we are somehow in control.

No, Jesus says, this man being born blind, like so much of the illness and brokenness in the world, isn’t caused by anyone.  But, in every broken situation, there is an opportunity for God to work even the worst situations together for good for those who love him, as he works out his eternal purpose of calling us to share in his eternal life.[2]

And then, without even asking the man minding his own business on the side of the road, Jesus spit on the ground, wiggled his finger around in it, made some mud, and wiped it on this guy’s face… so much for hand sanitizer and social distancing! 

Then he tells the man to go wash his face; and suddenly his eyes were open.

It’s remarkable; sometimes God wants us to ask for healing, like the paralyzed man lying for years at the pool, where Jesus stopped and asked the man if he even wanted to get well, before telling him to simply pick up his mat and go.  But, this time, the gift of God came without any request or act of faith on the part of the man, other than washing this stranger’s spit off his face, which I’m sure he would have done anyway.

God just did it, while the man simply washed his face, as he was expected to do.

And, I think that’s the point.

The brokenness, the blindness, the illness, the pain, the injustice are part and parcel of life in a fallen world.  Any relief from physical suffering is, by nature, only temporary until that day when God restores all things and makes them new, sharing his life and light with those who have chosen to call him Lord.

Jesus never promised to protect and keep us from physical pain or suffering.  The blind man went on to have other pain and struggles.  Even the people that Jesus raised from the dead went on to die again when their bodies wore out. 

Spiritual Blindness

You see, as good as sight is, the point was never about physical blindness.

Jesus said to him, “do you believe in the Son of Man?”  Confused, the man who is just seeing the world for the first time in his life says, “who is he?  Tell me so that I can believe”.

Jesus looks him in his now-opened eyes and says, “you have seen him”.

Just like that, the purpose of this healing comes into view.  Why did Jesus open this man’s eyes?  Was it to make his life better, to ease his suffering as a beggar on the road?

No, as much as we might wish that was Jesus’ mission.

He opened the man’s eyes so that Jesus could reveal himself.  And then, coming face-to-face with the one who blessed him, who changed his life without even asking, the man says the most important words of his earthly life: “Lord, I believe”.

Suffering, pain, plagues, pandemics, and even death itself are our lot in this fallen world.  God is at work not to give us a life full of sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops; no, God, in Jesus, meets us in the messiness of this world, literally in the mud of the dirty roads, in the fear and uncertainty and masks and gloves and hands raw from sanitizer not to whisk us away, but to show us that when we say “Lord, I believe”, then, whatever we face, we have no reason to fear, for even in the valley of the shadow of death, a valley we’ll all walk, his rod and staff are there to comfort and guide,[3] and what a comfort it is once our eyes are open to see that the same Lord who meets us where we are is the one who has conquered death and the grave and even now has prepared a place for us.  (If it wasn’t Lent, I’d shout Alleluia!).

Eyes to see the Light

But that’s not all. “For once you were darkness, but now you are light.  Live as children of the light”.[4]

If you’ve ever known someone born blind, there’s something remarkable: they don’t think of themselves as being “in the dark”.  What we call “blindness” is simply all they’ve ever known, as their minds and bodies adjust in absolutely incredible ways to interact with the world around them.

Jesus is the light of the world; the whole purpose of God’s revelation is to shine light into the darkness; we’re called to be a well-lit city on a hill guiding travelers in, a lamp lifted high in a dark room to shine into every corner.

But here’s the thing about light.  Light doesn’t change what was there in the darkness.  Light just makes it visible.  Light lets us see things as they really are.

As a kid I can remember waking up, scared in my bed as a terrifying shadow with horns and claws appeared on my wall.  In the dark, it was absolutely horrifying.  But, once the light let me see things as they really are, that life-threatening monster was a pile of laundry with a Power Ranger action figure lying on top.

Jesus said, “for judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those that see will become blind”. 

In our circumstances, even in a pandemic, God gives us opportunities to let the light illuminate the darkness; to let Him open our eyes so that we can get beyond the shadows that we think we understand, and instead see things as God sees them – see things as they really are.

And, if we’re willing, it’s eye opening.

This week, with reacting to the news, the uncertainty of how things will play out, the work of figuring out what it really means to be the church when the doors are closed, God opened my eyes.

Delivering newsletters and public health notices hanging from the doorknobs of those without email, I saw for the first time just how disconnected our world has become through technology.  Having to adjust to the school, the arena, the pool, and the library all being closed, my eyes have been opened once again to just how addicted I can be to “things to do”.  And then again, with no runs to bring the kids home at lunch, to the arena for skating, to the pool for swimming, my eyes were opened to realize that it isn’t the activity that I miss… I’m not missing my swim; I’m missing running into friends and neighbours, chatting to the guy named Danny at the rec centre counter for even 2 minutes.  In the midst of a pandemic, the fault of our fallen world, God has opened my eyes to see what really matters; and, like the blind man, face to face with the one through whom all things were made, at a time like this when — without our permission — everything changes, Jesus stands across from us, looking us in the eyes. 

And, as the light pierces through the darkness, letting us see things as they really are, not as we in our blindness think they might be, the time comes for us to say those most important words that we can ever utter:  “My Lord, I believe”.

He doesn’t need our permission to open our eyes… he’s doing it even now.

And, for those with eyes opened, this is an opportunity:
this is the time for us, too, to realize ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.’

To God be the Glory now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] John 9:1-41

[2] Romans 8:28

[3] Psalm 23

[4] Ephesians 5:8-14

Motivated by Hope

Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…[1]

This morning we find ourselves gathered for worship, following through on a number of wise, science-based precautions, while many Christians in the United States, Europe, Asia, around the world, and even in our own country are unable to worship in person because of how very easily this new virus spreads when people are close together, and because of the overwhelming strain our health system would face if even one or two percent of the population required hospitalization.  Though the World Health Organization says that most cases are mild, in our case, if even 1% of our town’s population needed oxygen to help them breathe, that would be 25 people, well beyond the beds available in our little health centre.  We’re right to be vigilant.

We gather today, following the advice of the experts in public health and disease control; experts who say that we, in our corner of the world, do not need to panic and hoard supplies, and are still low risk until cases of the virus arrive, though public events drawing large crowds with people who may have returned from infected areas out-of-town are wisely being cancelled.  We gather today knowing that, depending on how things play out, this may be our last large gathering for a while, though no matter what happens, daily prayer will continue here in God’s house, even if it means that your priest is here alone, ringing the bell to call this town to remember Almighty God, and faithfully praying for each of you on behalf of us all.

We’re right not just to be cautious, but to be concerned, and for that concern to lead us to be vigilant in caring for our families, for our neighbours, for the elders and those with health concerns, and for ourselves.  We follow the best advice and serve Christ in one another, even if it means inconveniencing the healthy for the sake of the weak. 

But, as Christians and together as the Church, there’s one thing that should not be found in our response: fear.

What’s our Motivation?

You see, as we find in scripture, sometimes our actions are simply neutral – they’re not good or bad in and of themselves.  Sometimes it’s our motivations, our intentions, our heart that makes an action right or wrong, good or bad, sinful or righteous, depending on whether not just the action, but the motivation, make us better imitators of Christ, or if they seek to protect and preserve ourselves, and thus miss the mark.

For example: we’re told to honour our parents.  But, if a child helps their aging parent because they want to protect their future inheritance, that help isn’t honouring them at all; the action of helping their parent becomes self-centered and sinful.

Or, as we heard in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, we’re told to be generous and faithful in prayer, but if we write big cheques and come faithfully to church only to be seen by others, then those good actions are no longer faithful, and as Jesus says, “truly I tell you, they already have their reward”.[2]

And so, we must ask ourselves: as those who profess faith in Jesus, as those who know and firmly believe that trials produce endurance and endurance produces godly character, as those who know that the gates of death have been destroyed, and for those who die in faith, death itself is the start of a better, fuller life in Christ’s kingdom: what is our motivation.  What is driving our concern, our vigilance in these days?

If our actions are motivated by, and founded firmly upon wisdom, sober-mindedness, truth, and true love for the common good, then we’ll find that when faced by trials, that house built on the rock will stand firm.

But, that doesn’t come naturally.

The Problem with Fear

Rather, if we look around, and perhaps even if we look within, we find that all too often our actions aren’t built on a firm foundation, but on the shapeless constantly-shifting sand of fear.  And no matter the effort, any shelter built on shifting sand can only ever collapse, hurting those very loved ones it was meant to protect.

Fear, of course, is nothing new.  In Exodus 17 we heard once more of God’s chosen people who find themselves crippled by fear.

Of course, God had provided for their escape from slavery and had kept them safe and blessed them along the way, and God had just provided the sweet grain of manna to eat in morning and the tasty meat of quails to roast at night, but once again, they find themselves doubting and afraid.

Did they have reason to be concerned?  Yes.  They were travelling bit by bit through the desert, and now find themselves camping at an area without water.

But, did they have reason to be afraid?  No – after all, the Lord had provided everything they needed, and even more practically, it’s not like this was their destination… this was just a stop along the way.

But, as always happens with fear, rumors started to fly.  The rumors turned to mumbling, the mumbling turned to doubt, and then, like an angry mob fighting over toilet paper for fear of a lung infection, they lost their minds and were ready to stone the one person who was able to help.[3]

And, I have to be honest, there’s something in this story that I never noticed before today: of course, this lesson is about God’s provision.  But, in this case, Moses prays to God and says “what am I to do?  They’re ready to stone me!”, but God doesn’t reply with “I’ve heard your prayer” or “I’ve heard your grumbling in the wilderness… I’ll take care of you now that you’ve prayed”. 

No – remember, this wasn’t their destination; they were just stopped along the way. 

And God’s response is simply – ‘Moses… keep walking!’  Take the leaders of the people, keep walking on the path that you’re on, and you’ll find the water I’m providing for you. 

Was God leading them into the desert to die of thirst?  No!  Had he provided all that they needed, and would he provide water too?  Yes, of course.  But, what if the only reason they hadn’t found that water was because they had become bogged down, crippled by fear.

They were journeying, then rumors started to fly, then murmuring, then a mob-mentality took over, and the only thing that was accomplished by fear was stopping them from reaching the spring of water from the rock that was just up ahead on their path. 

If only they had kept walking, not slowed down by fear, God would have revealed it – but, motivated by fear, they expended a whole lot of energy accomplishing nothing of any benefit whatsoever. 

The same is true with us. 

Yes, fear is a natural response, but what hero has ever accomplished anything of any benefit with fear as the motivation?  No, we’re called to overcome fear, and as those baptized and commissioned to be the mouth, hands, and feet of Christ in a confused world, we’re called to act as those whose faith is built upon the solid rock, the source of all wisdom and truth, as we must believe and proclaim that even the most recent medical advice – if it’s true in any sense – is built upon the one source of truth that is Jesus Christ our Lord.

And we must be vigilant, because fear is contagious.  And worse still, fear is addictive.  Once we’ve become fearful, we become addicts, who can’t get enough.  You only have to watch the news: it becomes all we can talk about, all we want to talk about, and suddenly we’re committed to finding new things to be afraid of under every rock and in every dark corner.

At times like these, we are to take to heart the words of St. Paul to Timothy during a time of great difficulty and confusion: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God … for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love, and self-control.”[4]

Not fear.  No, be not afraid.  Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. 

So, then, what does it look like not to be motivated by fear in times like these?

The Christian Alternative

Well, God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.

With wisdom and truth as our motivation, our concern and vigilance in this pandemic will be confident.  We don’t worry about tomorrow because we know the one who holds tomorrow in his hand. Does that mean we don’t take preparation seriously?  No – the opposite; we prepare as those who know that God is with us, to strengthen, to guide, and to comfort, no matter what happens, even when the day comes that each of us will breathe our last and meet him face to face.

And, in that confidence, we have hope.  Our epistle from Romans 5 said it perfectly: we’re not crippled by fear; rather, we can even “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”[5]  God is in control, so much that, in spite of our rebellion and sin, before you were even born, he sent his Son to redeem not just the world, but you, personally.  God will see us through… but, if we’re stuck mumbling and fighting on the path, we’ll miss out on the great provision God has for us just up ahead.

And, fundamentally, in times like these, a Christian response, motivated by wisdom and truth, is one that is not self-serving. 

And that looks different depending on where we are on our journey.

The best wisdom that we’re receiving from medical professionals – by the grace of God, I’ll add – is that, once the risk of infection becomes moderate or high, there are further precautions we must take, not just for ourselves, but for the common good.  And the Christian response is to serve the common good, to serve God in all persons, even when it limits ourselves.

Those who are 70 and older, or who have health issues or weakened immune systems will be told to stay at home at some point.  We should do that.  Not out of fear, but out of wisdom, as even those of us who think we’re strong need to heed the truth, for the sake of those who might need a hospital bed or oxygen tank.

Those who are low risk, for whom the symptoms wouldn’t be much more than the common cold, might also be told to stay home.  We should do that, not out of fear, but because if just being angry and holding a grudge is, in God’s eyes, equivalent to murder, how much worse is it if, by our stubbornness, the vulnerable in our community become infected and die.

For all of us Christians, this is a time of sacrifice.  The time may come when this congregation sets up a phone tree to check on those living alone; the time may come when those who are healthy and low-risk are called to pick up groceries and do errands for those who, for the common good, must stay home even if they are well.  We’re all called to sacrifice: those older or at higher risk will sacrifice their pride and independence, while those who are younger will be called to sacrifice their time and strength. 

This is the Church’s moment.  This is when, each of us, in our actions as appropriate to our place in life, acts in such a unified way that the world around us says, “see how they love one another”.

And, finally, if we live as those who turn from fear and walk in truth, who live in the confidence and hope of a sure and certain faith, together with confidence and hope, we’ll be faithful.  Faith overcomes fear.  Turn off the news, and pray.  Lay down your phone, and pray.  When the virus reaches our community, pray.  When your friend becomes infected, pray.  If a state of emergency is declared, pray.  When the first death is recorded, even in the isolated North, pray.  And pray not as those who have no faith; but pray that our wills would be conformed to the image and likeness of Christ, so that each of us will be at peace, and will have the grace to do what is best not for ourselves, but for this Body of which we are all members, and for the world which we are called to serve.

Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  Amen.


[1] Romans 5:4-5

[2] Matthew 6

[3] Exodus 17:1-7

[4] 2 Timothy 1:4-7

[5] Romans 5:1-11

Ye must be born again?

“…Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again...” John 3:1-17

“Born again”. 

Few phrases receive such an immediate and silently emotional response as “born again”.  For Christians, as people who are supposed to be united in the truth of the Gospel, united in our mission in the world, and united in our hope of the resurrection, it’s a phrase, taken from the lips of Jesus, which more often than not divides rather than unites us as his Body.

What do you think when you hear those words, “you must be born again”?

For some, proclaiming that they are “born again Christians” is a way of saying that their church and their pastor are real Christians, meant to distinguish themselves from both the comfortable, wishy-washy forms of self-help religion, while also announcing proudly that their real, old-time religion has cut itself off from the faith handed down by the apostles as guided by the Holy Spirit; cut off from the same faith that united us in the Apostles Creed of baptism.

For others, and I’ll admit that I spent a long time in this camp, hearing someone use the words “born again” caused me to think, “ok, good to know… you’re one of those Christians… note to self: stay clear!”.

It’s a phrase that makes people uncomfortable, not least because our culture, in movies and shows, uses those words, usually shouted and accompanied with a fiery message about hell and damnation, as a broad brush to paint an unfortunate picture of Christians on the defensive.

But, like any phrase or verse taken out of context and turned into a motto, those silent, emotional responses put us at risk of glossing over what is actually being said.  After all, like it or not, Jesus – the same Jesus that we claim whether we’re Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, or King-James-Only fundamentalists – was the one who said, “very truly … you must be born again”.

It started with a compliment…

Here, in today’s Gospel, we have an expert of the Law given to Moses, and a leader in the Jewish government; Nicodemus was his name.  This Nicodemus was paying attention – he knew that God sent the prophets, and he believed that the promises of God would be fulfilled, that God would send the Messiah to redeem his chosen people, that, through Israel, the nations of the world would come to worship God in spirit and in truth.  Now, Nicodemus was being careful – after all, there were many eyes on him as a government official, and many of his colleagues were more than a little skeptical about this son of a small-time rural carpenter. 

Yet, quietly, after dark, Nicodemus came to Jesus to present him with the very claim that many of the skeptics of our own age would bring: “We know you’re a teacher who has come from God, and God is with you”.  Or, to put it in today’s language: “That Jesus is a good man.  Sure, he’s one of many wise teachers.”

And what does Jesus do with this compliment?  Does the kind, gentle, polite, blonde hair and blue-eyed Sunday School Jesus look at him with a gentle smile and say, “thank you for noticing; you’re not far from the kingdom”; is that how it goes?

No, Jesus, hearing this complement from a respected Jewish leader, ignores the niceties altogether.  Jesus looks him in the eye and says, ‘as sure as you’re standing there; mark my words: no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’

Huh.  Quite a greeting, isn’t it.

Nicodemus, not your average working man like the apostles, but a faithful expert who knows the scriptures inside and out, doesn’t recognize what Jesus is talking about.  After all, the Jewish religion, faithfully tracing its roots back to God’s promise to Abraham, is firmly founded on birth.  Each child born is a fulfilment of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be like the sand of the sea, and birth – being born to Jewish parents – is the normal, expected way to become a Jew.  Sure, some people take their faith more seriously than others, but as long as your parents brought you to the priest after you were born, and as long as you bring a socially-acceptable amount to place in the offering plate, you’re in… right?

And then, provoked only by the claim that Jesus was a good teacher, Jesus proceeds to do the least socially-acceptable thing possible: to point out, how very wrong this guest actually is.

…And, in doing so, if we take the time to read it, he challenges us too, right to the core.

A Lesson from the Old Testament

If we think back to Genesis 12, yes, God chose Abraham as the one through which he would bless all the peoples of earth; yes, God chose Abraham to receive a land of promise, and to be the father of many.

But, right there in the midst of that, is something remarkable, a first.

We know that Abraham wasn’t the first that God chose.  Before Abraham came Noah.  And Noah, we’re told, was chosen because he was the only faithful, righteous person to be found.  In that respect we might say that Noah, through his actions and manner of life, earned God’s favour.  God made Noah a promise, and you know how the story goes.

But, once life was back to normal, what become of Noah?  Well, as soon as there was a crop of grapes, he made a mighty batch of wine, drank it, took off his clothes, brought terrible shame to his family, and all the good works of this righteous man went to hell in a handbasket. 

So much for choosing the brightest and best.

But why was Abraham chosen?  Surely, this forefather of the proud nation chosen by God was a great hero to be celebrated?

No.  By the grace of God, and St. Paul would say in Romans, to make an important point, Abraham is just a guy, a normal guy raising his father’s sheep, a guy whose name is destined to be forgotten, as his wife is childless.

And it’s to this childless couple that God says, “go”.  Leave your land, leave your family, leave your inheritance, and follow me.  Abraham didn’t do good or live righteously to earn God’s promise; rather, God’s offer came first, as St. Paul would say, his righteousness came by faith: the faith to give up what he had and take God at his word.

So much for being “born into” the faith of their fathers.  Turns out the very founder of the faith was called to leave his father’s house, and that was the only thing that counted him righteous in the eyes of God.

As Moses lifted up the serpent…

So then Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, brings up Moses – that greatest teacher of the law, the one whose writing Nicodemus and the Pharisees knew inside and out.

Of course, it’s through Moses and the law that Jews could know if they were being faithful or not, if they were righteous in the eyes of God.  

But where does Jesus go with this?  He cuts straight to the heart of the misunderstanding: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness”.

After God had miraculously freed his people from slavery, after Moses had given the law, after God had forgiven them for the idolatry of bowing down to a calf, after God had led them through the desert and defeated the leader of the Canaanites, Numbers 21 tells us that God’s chosen people were, and I quote, “impatient”.  They were sick of the desert, and though God had provided manna and quails to eat, they cried out, “we detest this miserable food”.

And that very day, poisonous snakes slither into their camp and many of them die.   

It’s then that people realize that they need to repent, and God tells Moses that he must make a snake out of bronze, hoist it up on a pole. God doesn’t take away the snakes.  Instead, those who are bitten can turn and look at the snake on a pole – can come face-to-face with death itself – and live.

But wait, do they have to offer two pigeons?  Do they have to offer a lamb without blemish, or the blood of a bull?

No.  They must turn, look upon death itself hoisted onto a tree, and that act of faith is accounted as righteousness, and they are saved.

Yes, God gave the instruction that children should be brought to the priests.  Yes, God requires the offerings of the people.  Yes, God provided rituals to remind the people of his goodness toward them, to train them in righteousness, and to give them the words with which to call upon his name.  But, as much as those are God-given, it’s faith that enacts the promise of God.

Born Again?

“You must be born again.”

This isn’t about being born in the right faith tradition, but it also isn’t about a “right” set of works, so that any can boast before God.

Rather, we must be born again

“Who can enter again into his mother’s womb?”  Nobody.  And that’s the point.

No one chooses to be born.  Actually, the one being born has very little say in the matter, and certainly, no one can be born twice.

But, how can one who was born, who has a family, a people, a name, be born again, given a fresh start?  Is it a special prayer prayed after one reaches some arbitrary age of maturity?  Is it the good work of baptism in a river?

No – one who was born can be born again by adoption.  It’s in adoption that one who was born receives a new name, a new status, a new family – not on account of their own action, but by the free gift of the adoptive parent.

Or, as St. Paul puts it, God chose us, before the foundation of the world, to become holy and blameless in his sight.  Out of His Love, he prepared us for adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ.[1]

Jesus said, “you must be born by water and the Spirit.”  As St. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship”, so that we call God “our Father”, and if we are children, then we are “co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory”.

Born again, adopted as heirs by faith, being willing to leave all and follow, like Abraham.

Born again, adopted as heirs if we share in Christ’s suffering, or, as Jesus says, like the snake-bitten Israelites, if we turn, come face-to-face with that which kills us, look to the Son of Man on a tree, and live.

This was a challenge to Nicodemus.  It’s a challenge to all Christians today.  To those who proclaim themselves “born again” by their right words and actions, it’s a call to repentance and humility, as no baby chooses to be adopted; the only choice is if we will live by the family rules, or if we will run away.  To those who, like me, cringe at the phrase, it’s a call to remember that the God-given, Spirit-led worship of the Church handed down from the apostles trains us for righteousness, but that nothing but God’s grace, God’s call to look to Christ means anything.  Not to glory in an empty cross, but to accept and live into his invitation to adopt us as his children as we turn in faith, look death in the face, and trust him as Lord.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him, might be saved.  And this is the gift of God, our Father by adoption, so that none can boast, so that none have any glory, apart from the glory of the cross, the glory of the Son of Man lifted up for the sake of the world.

To God be the Glory forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Ephesians 1:5

The Terrible Lie

There is a terrible lie going around.

A dark, evil, truly terrible lie.

After all God has given us, and all the safeguards he put in place to guide us back to himself, that ancient, terrible, original lie persists: God is holding back.  God doesn’t want us to be happy.

At the end of the day, that was the message of the serpent in the garden. 

God, desiring to share his love with his creation, and to make us his sons and daughters by adoption – allowing us to share in the glory of his presence – created a paradise where every need was met, and we were free to be ourselves without shame.

And God, wanting our love for him to be real – to be freely chosen, as true love is – gave the simple instruction that we should choose to stay away from the things that harm us, from the knowledge of the dark, isolated alternative that is a life built solely around itself, isolated even from the God who created all things.

But then came the lie.[1]

“Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’, came the crafty message.

“No, we can eat all sorts of fruit from all the trees… except one.  There’s just one tree that isn’t good for us; he warned us that it would hurt us – it would even kill us – if we touched it.”

“…Oh, my dear, you actually believe that?  Come on.  Your Heavenly Father didn’t give you that rule to keep you safe.  He’s holding back.  He doesn’t want you to be like him.  He doesn’t want you to be truly happy.”[2]

That’s the dark, terrible, ancient lie that has infected all of human history.  It’s the lie that all of us face each and every day.

The truth, from the beginning is clear – the signs revealed in creation to every people and nation, the truth revealed in the law and the prophets, the deep truth spoken by the Word made flesh, is just the opposite: God’s not holding back, he’s reaching out, continually with a free gift of grace.  He’s holding out his hand, and would even send the Son to seek out us lost orphans, to bridge the chasm between death and life, to adopt us as his children, to make that relationship with our Father possible once more.

God’s not holding back – he held nothing back, even humbling himself to become like us in every way except sin.[3]

The truth, revealed in part to all the great religions of humankind, and found in the person of Jesus Christ, is that God wants nothing more than for us to be like him. 

The serpent was wrong.  The lie of the world, the flesh, and the devil is wrong.  God wants us to be like him; he wants to make us his own children, heirs of eternity.

And, in that, he wants us to be happy.

…But this is where the lie becomes attractive, even irresistible.  We have a hard time understanding what true happiness is.  For us, happiness is pleasure, and as we move through our days, it seems we need a constant supply.

This is precisely why God asked us to trust him in the first place, though the serpent’s lie was no surprise.  Once we’ve experienced isolation; once we’ve experienced pride and jealousy; once we’ve experienced the pain of going without or being outdone, we lose sight of what really makes us happy, and we’re left thinking that this mess is all there is, that our purpose, our goal, is just this.

Our happiness is fickle.  As Paul says in Philippians, our god is our belly; it’s our appetites that drive us, and even a little indigestion or a toothache can turn my happiness into self-pity, or worse, bitter jealousy of those better off.

God’s call to us, God’s instruction isn’t to keep us from something good; the invitation to follow Christ, to learn to love what is really good, is the opposite: it’s so that we can experience what is truly good, and to keep us from the pain and isolation that is the alternative.

But the lie persists.

When I was young, we lived in Sibley’s Cove, a small fishing community in Newfoundland.  Our house was the last one out on the point, just up over the hill from the wharf and the fish plant. 

There were benefits – this meant that our road was the only side-road that was paved.  But there were drawbacks, as the large, dripping fish trucks would come and go several times each day.

Now, across the road from our house was, from my perspective, a beautiful, lush field of chest-height grass to run through, leading to the little brook where dad would take us fishing, and where you could jump across the rocks to get to our friends’ house.

As young kids, 4 or 5 years old, we had a lot of freedom – we could wander all the garden behind the house, we could go up over the hill and pick berries, we could go up to the vegetable ground or play on the mossy rocks behind the shed.  …But there was one rule: we could not cross the road.

…But that ancient lie persisted.

Even with the wide open space we had behind us, even with the swingset and the large driveway to ride our bikes, my sister and I would stand for what seemed like hours, imagining the fun we could have if we crossed the road.  Mom and Dad are so mean.  We won’t get hurt.  They just don’t want us to have fun.

Sound familiar?

Well, one day, I crossed the road.  As it turns out, chest-high grass in summer isn’t as fun as it looks… it’s really just full of bugs.  And, when I turned, ready to come back, the large, dripping fish trucks were leaving the plant.  Mom and my grandmother came running, screaming from the house, and the driver stopped, the loud rumbling of the engine and the cloud of early 90s diesel smoke adding some drama to the tears running down my cheeks. 

The rest of the day is a blur; but I knew one thing – Mom was angry.  …Or, at least, I thought she was.

The Lie has a Twin

That old lie, that something good was being withheld, has a twin: that God is angry.  Now, sure, my mom was angry: but even that which, from my perspective, was pure anger was, from her perspective, sadness and disappointment that I would disobey, and shock, even grief, at the danger I had put myself in, and the unspeakable harm that could have come.

But, no matter how things might look from our perspective, don’t give into the lie, and especially in this season of Lent.  God, by nature, is not angry.  God, by nature, is pure, unbridled joy, and his desire, from the foundation of the world, is to welcome us into that joy.  He’s looking at all of eternity, at the trajectory each of us has chosen, to move closer to what truly satisfies us – Himself – or to choose the dark, sarcastic world of isolation and contempt.[4]

But, if we buy into these lies – that God is withholding something good, and that he’s angry with us for wanting it – then, from our perspective, things change.

Perhaps you know someone who is bitter, or maybe you’ve been bitter yourself.  You see, there is nothing worse to a bitter person than someone who is joyful, someone who is truly happy, someone who is unphased by the minor setbacks along the way. 

From the perspective of a bitter person, joy is infuriating; it makes their skin crawl.  Joy mocks the very existence of a person who has chosen to be bitter; from their perspective, the warm, life-giving fire of joy hurts to be around; it burns.

But, to the one willing to receive it, joy, and the love that lets us flourish is contagious, and leads to life itself.

There’s a terrible lie going around.  Don’t listen to it. 

God is not holding back.  God wants you to be like him, even though that means, for now, taking up your cross and following Christ on what is, at times, a hard, hungry path through the desert.[5]

This Lent, through study, and self-denial, prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, learn to love what lasts instead of what fills our bellies.  Learn to love what truly leads to happiness, what is truly good, instead of what feeds our appetites.

For it’s through obedience that we experience God’s joy.  And that’s no lie.

Amen.


[1] “The Terrible Lie” is from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ remarkable theological paraphrase of Genesis 3 in The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan, 2007).

[2] Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

[3] Romans 5:12-19

[4] I’m not suggesting that God does not detest sin, but that where human joy is dependent (“I’m happy if…” or “I’m happy when…” or “this made me happy”), following Augustine, God’s joy is fundamental to his Triune being, and following Nehemiah 8 and Hebrews 12, our joy is found in God.  I commend this article by Tony Reinke, and this from John Piper.

[5] Matthew 4:1-11

The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

Exodus 24:21-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel lesson today invites us to follow with Peter, James, and John to the top of a high mountain, for what, on the surface, is perhaps one of the weirdest events recorded in the New Testament.

We’re familiar with healings – God demonstrating his power in Jesus over the brokenness and disorder of this fallen world.

We’re familiar with mighty miracles – Jesus calming storms, as nature itself remembers the voice that spoke at creation.

But today, on the top of a high mountain, something different happens.  Jesus, it says, is transfigured before them.  Jesus is changed or, literally, in the Greek, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis before their very eyes, as his face becomes bright as the mid-day sun, his clothes become dazzling bright, and Moses and Elijah, the prophets of long ago, appear with him, in conversation as three old friends.

It’s a situation unlike anything else we’ve read… or is it?

A surprisingly familiar situation

While this mountain-top experience may be difficult to wrap our heads around on first glance, and many a preacher has created all sorts of theories about why or how this happened, if we acknowledge – as we have throughout this season of Epiphany – that God is, fundamentally, in the business of revealing himself to the world, then perhaps we can bring these gospel events into focus.

And, together with that, I believe this is one of those occasions where one of the richest gifts of Anglicanism to the Church shines through – our basic belief, though we sometimes forget it, that God has given us the entire scriptures, and that it’s not acceptable to mine out the scriptural jewels that support our arguments, but that, simply put, the best tool to interpret scripture is scripture itself.

So, we read, after faithfully leaving their worldly occupations and committing to follow Jesus, and just a few verses after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we’re told in Matthew 16:21 that Jesus begins to teach his followers about the way of the Cross – that the Glory of God is revealed not in worldly power, but in “denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him”.

And then, some time passes.  But not just any amount of time — according to today’s lesson, six days pass.  This is now the seventh day; a point that should ring a bell and pique the attention of any faithful Jew or Christian well-versed in scripture.  After all, it was the seventh day, after the work of Creation had been accomplished, that God declared holy, and on which God revealed the intended glory of his creation: a peaceful garden that provided for all who lived in it, and in which humanity and all of nature were united in his presence.

But, for anyone who knows the Old Testament, this isn’t the first mountain-top experience on the seventh day.  As we heard today in Exodus 24, after God had led his chosen people into the desert, teaching them to trust in him for their daily bread, and teaching them not to serve themselves, but to be a people of justice and mercy, it was the Lord who said to Moses, “come up to me on the mountain”.

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

And, as we heard today, he was there 6 days.  And then, on the seventh day, from within a bright cloud upon the top of the mountain, God revealed Himself to Moses.  And what was revealed?  Well, the next 7 chapters of Exodus told God’s chosen people how they were to worship, and the details of how they were to build and worship in God’s House.  The house, the tabernacle, which, the Book of Hebrews tells us, is a copy of the heavenly sanctuary.[1] 

Moses, after six days, heard the voice of God in the brightness of the cloud on a mountain, and, we read this morning, he stayed on that mountain forty days and forty nights, receiving the Lord’s instruction, His message to be delivered to the people, and ultimately, the message, the light to enlighten the nations of the world.

But, if we know our Bibles, we know that as good as those 40 days were for Moses, they didn’t go so well for those whom he was supposed to lead. 

They, like many of us, think 40 days is a long time to wait for something; sure, God gave us literally everything we have, and sure, with him a thousand years is like the twinkling of an eye, but to commit to be faithful for a whole 40 days?  I don’t know…  So what did they do?  Well, they gathered up as much shiny gold as they could find – gold, after all, they had worked hard for – and made an idol that they could worship instead, and proclaimed a great festival to celebrate the work of their own hands.

Finally, after Moses goes back down the mountain to clean up that mess, God invites Moses up to the mountain once again, and Moses sees God’s glory revealed.  And, we’re told, that in the eyes of those wayward followers, those who had forgotten God’s goodness so quickly, those who were so quick to bow down and worship their own possessions, the skin of Moses’ face appeared to be bright like the sun, to the point that they were afraid to even come near him.

Now, fast-forward to the Gospel.  The disciples, after six days, go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and a bright cloud surrounds them.  Jesus, the light of the world, the source of life that enlightens every person, the light that pierces the darkness, is revealed to those who, while still sinful men, have denied themselves and have committed to following him.

And the light is dazzling.  The various Greek versions in the Gospels point to just how bright this was – it’s brighter than they had words to describe.  Not just a brightness that makes you squint, but a brightness that knocks you backward. 

One preacher[2] said the best analogy for us today is that it’s like the brightness of an arc welder, if you’ve ever seen one welder at work.  It’s the brightness of pure, unbridled energy; energy that, for those who are prepared with the proper equipment, can join mighty metals, building machines that literally move mountains.  But, brightness that, for those unprepared, without the proper mask, will actually burn your eyes; in Exodus, it’s that brightness described as a consuming fire – enormous power and energy that does wonders for those who are ready, but burns up those who approach unprepared.

And what happens in this cloud?  Well, we see that the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God who is outside of time and holds time itself in his hand, reveals that the eternal Word, the eternal voice of God, the Word that was God, and through whom all things were made, is Jesus.

Moses and Elijah, the great giver of God’s covenant, and the great prophet who revealed God’s promised future return, appear with Jesus, talking, chatting, as old friends.  It’s here that those who follow Jesus see God’s glory, and see that Jesus is the very Word of God from the Beginning.

And, from the cloud itself, comes again the great Epiphany: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”.  And, as God’s glory is revealed, as they see that inescapable power and light that either works wonders or utterly consumes, they hear the eternal message, the sound that has gone out to all lands says, simply: “listen to him”.

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

God wants you to be part of that, revealing Himself to the world around you though word and deed.

The incredible truth of the Gospel is that God wants to show you his glory – he wants to show you his great mercy, his incredible power to heal and to save.

But he won’t do it unless we follow him up the mountain.  And it’s a good thing, too.  All of us – every person – will one day see the glory of God.  If we’re prepared, if we’ve followed his lead along the narrow mountain path, if we acknowledge that all our strength and health and the blessings of this life are gifts to be used in his service, then we encounter his glory as the remarkable, dazzling, life-giving power that it is, and like the disciples who fell down to worship, Jesus reaches out his hand and invites us to stand in his presence.  But, for those who stay in the dust on the broad, easy plains below the mountain, those who rely on their own strength, who bow down to their own wealth or pride, that same glory of God isn’t life-giving, but all-consuming, just as the experience of an arc welder depends on whether or not you’re prepared.

We’re invited up the mountain.

Jesus invites us to experience his glory up on the mountain, the glory of his resurrection power revealed on the Cross on Good Friday and in Easter’s empty tomb.

But, first, we need to be willing to follow.

Just 40 days of obedience in the desert was too much for those whom God had rescued from slavery in a foreign land.  40 days of patient faithfulness was too much, as they molded an idol of gold.

Jesus calls you to follow him all the days of your life.

And as we learn that together, the Church invites you to 40 days of repentance and obedience, just 40 days of Lent, 40 days of preparation to experience the glory of God at Easter.

One day we’ll all see that glory face to face. 

Will we be ready?  Do we have what it takes to deny ourselves and follow Him?

Or is even 40 days just too long to lay aside the idols and excuses we have made?

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.