John

A Creation That Groans

I think it is safe to assume that most of us are familiar with the account of creation found in Genesis 1. I mean, it has become so mainstream that even those that aren’t religious most likely have some idea of the story of God creating the animals alongside Adam and Even in the garden. I’m afraid it has become so familiar, in fact, that it has lost its charm, or beauty.  We read it and don’t embrace all that is happening, or we simply hear it as a literal story and miss the beautiful imagery of creation coming into existence, of a God that works all things together for good. So help us with that, I want to read Genesis 1 right now, but read it from the message version, which as you may know is written to sound more like  a story we’d  read in English rather than a literal translation from the Hebrew. The message’s version of Genesis 1 is rather poetic, so I wonder if reading it now would help us really appreciate all that there is to this story. And let’s try a response together. After I read a section, and motion to you, respond together say, “God saw that it was good.”

1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day One.

6-8 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;
separate water from water!”
God made sky.
He separated the water under sky
from the water above sky.
And there it was:
he named sky the Heavens;
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Two.

9-10 God spoke: “Separate!
Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;
Land, appear!”
And there it was.
God named the land Earth.
He named the pooled water Ocean.
God saw that it was good.

11-13 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
of seed-bearing plants,
Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”
And there it was.
Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
all varieties,
And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
God saw that it was good.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Three.

14-15 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!
Shine in Heaven’s sky!
Separate Day from Night.
Mark seasons and days and years,
Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”
And there it was.

16-19 God made two big lights, the larger
to take charge of Day,
The smaller to be in charge of Night;
and he made the stars.
God placed them in the heavenly sky
to light up Earth
And oversee Day and Night,
to separate light and dark.
God saw that it was good.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Four.

20-23 God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!
Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!”
God created the huge whales,
all the swarm of life in the waters,
And every kind and species of flying birds.
God saw that it was good.
God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Ocean!
Birds, reproduce on Earth!”
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Five.

24-25 God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind:
cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.”
And there it was:
wild animals of every kind,
Cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug.
God saw that it was good.

26-28 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them
reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
the birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself,
and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

29-30 Then God said, “I’ve given you
every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth
And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,
given them to you for food.
To all animals and all birds,
everything that moves and breathes,
I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”
And there it was.

31 God looked over everything he had made;
it was so good, so very good!
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Six

On this day of celebrating God’s creation, what a wonderful message to be reminded of. Yet, I often feel that such a message seems to be a thing of the past, as I more often than not think that creation is no longer good. I mean, if creation was so good then, why does God’s creation seem to be in chaos now? As far as the earth goes, we’ve got record breaking hurricanes occurring year after year, massive droughts in the west, huge famines in parts of Africa, glaciers melting at an alarming rate, the average temperature globally rising to dangerous levels, earth quakes, volcanoes, floods, yo name it, the world seems to be in chaos. And that’s just the natural world. As far as humans go, war has killed thousands in Ukraine, refugees leaving Afghanistan and many other countries throughout the middle east, civil unrest in Myanmar, Economic collapse and the destruction of health, education and other critical systems in Yemen, the list goes on. What has happened to God’s good creation?

I feel like Paul was feeling the same way when he wrote the passage from Romans that we read earlier. He said that whole creation groans, and labors with birth pangs together until now, and he goes on to say that “Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

Now, to honest to the context, Paul isn’t really speaking on issues of creation care, but rather the “not yet” that is God’s kingdom, and how it encompasses all of creation, but still, I think it is a message worth noting on this day of celebrating God’s creation. Because on days like today, I’m not sure what to feel, and maybe you’re there too. I am thankful for God’s creation, but I’m also ashamed at how we’ve treated it, and I’m a little uneasy about the direction we are going in terms of correcting. When I think about creation, maybe you’re like me, as I’m often led to one of two schools of thought.

On one side, you have the orthodox view of Christianity, that God is in control, so if God is in control, why should we care how we treat the Earth, I mean, God is in control, could we really do harm? The world is so big and we are so small. Could we really cause irreparable harm? And God gave us these resources. Shouldn’t we be able to use as much as we want, as fast as want, without any consequences?

I’m afraid many Christians feels this way, and I’m afraid this rhetoric is not only doing harm to our environment, but harm to our cause of Christ followers to share God’s love to others. I think this is a big concern for our young people as well and it’s why they often feel that their concerns aren’t shared by their older leaders. I mean, we wonder why young people today seem to be more cynical, and have higher levels of anxiety: it’s because they see their planet exhibiting symptoms of damage, and so often the adults in charge don’t seem to be doing anything.

And this can be where people end up on the other side of the spectrum.  They’ve tried and tried to get others to feel the same way they do about the environment but it feels like there is no longer any point, so they stop caring, they stop working towards a cleaner and greener tomorrow, and they succumb to the ways of the world and only maintain hope that humans will eventually kill themselves off with their overconsumption to leave a prospering Earth for the plants and animals left behind.

But is there not another way, because both of these perspectives seem to be hopeless. How do we care for God’s creation that seems to be crumbling while still maintaining hope that what we are doing matters and that we can save our planet from the negative effects we’ve had on it for the past couple of centuries?  It’s a challenge, but one that I think we need to wrestle with.  I think it is a question that humans have been asking for quite some time, especially as we’ve realized our capabilities of doing harm to the world.

Did you ever see that movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still? There was one that came out in 2008, but I’m talking about the one from 1951. Don’t get me wrong, the one from 2008 is good, but I don’t think it compares to the one from 1951. In fact, I think the difference in the two movies may highlight how we have come to view creation and the negative ways of thinking that have evolved since the original movie came out in 1951.

In both movies, an alien named Klaatu, who inhabits a body that looks human, and actually is human in the new one, comes to Earth, alongside a large robot named Gort. Gort in the original inhabits a large silver suit that looks robotic, with ridged arms and a robotic type walk characteristic of most sci-fi movies in the 50s. In the 2008 film, Gort gets an upgrade with CGI and is much, much larger.

In the 1951 version, Klaatu says that he comes with an important message that he needs to communicate to the various world leaders, but as you can imagine, this proves to be difficult. To awaken the Earth to the severity of Klaatu’s message, Gort causes all of the electricity to stop working for thirty minutes. Shots from London, Paris, New York, Moscow, are seen alongside images of factories at a standstill, a woman taking wet laundry out of her dryer, a worker trying to make a milkshake at a soda fountain lifting the cup onto a stationary mixer, even the poor dairy farmer can’t use the pumps to milk his cows. Hence, the title of the movie, the day the earth stood still.

After such a display of power, the military was set on capturing Klaatu at all costs, and they do catch him, and end up killing him in the process. But, his new friend Helen, who has become a vital character in the story, manages to get Gort, remember the big silver robot, to go retrieve Klaatu’s corpse. Those of you that have seen it, do you remember the line that Helen has to tell Gort? Klaatu barada nikto

Gort temporarily revives Klaatu so he can communicate his message, which he does, before the spaceship is seen departing Earth. His message was that humans must learn to live in peace or face certain annihilation.  The movie ends there, leaving viewers to wonder: Do we have what it takes?

The 2008 version, unsurprisingly, is much different. In that version, Klaatu is here to check up on the Earth, and quickly decides that humans are too destructive to be allowed to continue ruining Earth, only one of a few planets in the cosmos capable of sustaining complex life he says. So, we then see futuristic arks harvesting animals in to them before Gort, who can now apparently turn himself into microscopic flying insects that eat everything in their path, begins wiping out the human race. As we see this occurring, Klaatu tells one of the main characters of the reasoning for such a cruel act: if the earth dies, you die. If you die, the earth lives.

But as the events unfold, Klaatu begins to have a change of heart. We see Klaatu speaking with another alien who has been living among humans for several decades. This alien decides to stay on Earth and die with the humans because he has come to love them.  Even among our destructive tendencies, this alien considers himself lucky to have lived life among humans.

In another scene, Klaatu sees two characters at a tombstone, crying over the loss of a loved one, and this sight moves him enough to sacrifice his own life to stop the destruction of the world, and as the spaceship leaves, the earth is left standing still reflecting on the events that occurred and their meaning for the future.

Now I can already feel your judgement: oh Justin, stop being so critical. That message is still good. Humanity is flawed, but still worth saving. Can’t you see the value that Klaatu sees in humans.

And yes, sure. I think there’s a point to it, that even among the hardships of life, love is worth saving. But in comparison to the 1951 version, I feel that the 2008 dodges the underlining question of the original. The 2008 version implies that Klaatu was the one who needed to change.  He was the one who needed to learn from humans, where the 1951 implies that humans are the ones in need a change of perspective.

Yes, the 1951 version of Klaatu, changes his mind too, but he does so with a warning: the choice is up to us. We can live peacefully together, or face our end, because as he states, “There must be security for all, or no one is secure.”

Do you see my critique now? The 1951 didn’t make excuses for humanity but gave us a warning, as the film ends without the viewer knowing if humans were capable of changing or not, yet the 2008 version just assumes we should be saved without the tension of questioning if humanity is capable of actually living in peace with the rest of creation.

As dark as it may seem, I prefer the warning, because I think it’s rooted in our calling to live in the struggle of life without succumbing to apathy.

Because I think there is a third perspective to creation that we can hold, besides the two I mentioned earlier that lead to apathy, and it’s one I think was what Paul was getting at in our gospel reading today. He said,

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.

Did you catch that? Creation itself is eagerly waiting for the sons of God, us, to be revealed.  Just like us, Paul says that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of [f]corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

I think this is what Jim was referencing last week when he spoke of the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Do you remember what he said? To God, there is no time, so this time of not yet and the time of redemption are both at hand. To God (slap) there is no time and both are at hand. But for us experiencing linear time, we are not at a place where we can fully know all there is to God’s kingdom, so we must die, and our bodies lay lifeless until God’s final redemption is made known. Until then, creation, and us, eagerly wait for God’s kingdom to be made known.  So, we work to bring in God’s kingdom as we maneuver this life where it hasn’t yet fully materialized, maintaining hope that we are moving towards a time when all things will be made perfect.

But this time of waiting isn’t meant to be wasted. We are called to embrace the “not yet of this world” where, as Paul states in verses 26-27, we are to embody the tension of bringing the new creation into the old. Christians must be at the forefront of bringing in this new creation, for it is a foretaste of God’s eventual perfect kingdom of full healing and redemption. We can’t put off this work until some other time in the future. The time is now. God’s kingdom is at hand.

Yet, instead of bringing in new creation, we seem to want to hold onto the old.  We want to make salvation merely about individual piety rather than bringing other people into God’s love.  We decide that certain people can be included in God’s kingdom and others can’t. We think it’s okay to make jokes or look down upon about others that dress differently than us, live differently than us, love differently than us, and even worship differently than us. We prioritize the desires of the wealthy over the needs of the poor. We prioritize our own convenience over the needs of the world. We prioritize affordable goods at the expense of low-paid workers and environmental devastation. We shed blood to maintain power.
We have decided that not all of God’s creation is good, so we ignore call to address wider issues of corruption, injustice, oppression, division, and war, all things that prevent God’s creation from fully prospering into what it was originally intended. But do you remember our Genesis reading? God created humans in God’s image, and found them to be very good.

That’s the thing about creation care. It is just as much about how we treat our neighbors as it is about how we treat our environment, because everything is a part of God’s creation.

I think the 1951 Klaatu was an inspiration, not just for his message, but also because of his sacrifice, and I wonder if we too would be willing to give up our own biases and prejudices and desires, to truly embrace the new kingdom that is coming, would we too be willing to make the sacrifices to help make this world look more like heaven.

After Gort brough   Klaatu back to life, Helen spoke with Klaatu. She said:

Helen: “I thought you were…”
Klaatu: “I was.”
Helen: “You mean he [Gort] has the power of life and death?”
Klaatu: “No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit. This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.”
Helen: “But how long?”
Klaatu: “You mean how long will I live? That, no one can tell.”

Even with the uncertainty of life, do we have what it takes to truly see God’s creation as good, to repair it when it has been harmed, and to sacrifice in order to help others experience this good creation? It is difficult,  but as Paul said, in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose. Friends, we have our purpose.  Let’s care for God’s good creation together.

What Kind of Truth Is This?

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 2:1-11

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Jesus was at a wedding, John tells us, when his mother came to him and said, “They have no wine.”  And he said to her, “What concern is that to you and me?” which is only another way of saying, “That’s not our problem.”

But maybe it was their problem.

This is only a hunch, so don’t quote me, but I have a hunch that Jesus was at a family wedding, maybe his cousin’s wedding.  I don’t think I would have had that hunch before a sermon I preached here last November, when I was talking about the women at the foot of the cross and mentioned that in John’s Gospel one of them was Mary the mother of Jesus, and another was her sister… which would make her Jesus’ aunt.  I looked up from the sermon and said, “Did you know Jesus had an aunt?”  Nobody said anything, but if I didn’t know it I’m guessing some of you didn’t know it either.  And if he had an aunt, and if she had children, it would mean that Jesus had some cousins.  And if she lived in the village of Cana, just up the road from Nazareth, and if one of her children were getting married, it is altogether possible that Jesus would be invited to his cousin’s wedding.  And when he asked if his disciples could come, too—not his “plus one” but his “plus twelve”—his aunt may have grudgingly given her permission.

But that was before she knew how much they would drink.  Again, this is just a hunch, but I can almost see Bartholomew (or one of the other disciples we never hear anything about) pouring the last bit of wine into his glass and looking around for more as Mary’s sister pulls her aside and hisses, “Thanks a lot!  It’s only the second day of the wedding festival and your son’s wine-bibbing buddies have just polished off the last bottle!”  It was a problem, and it wasn’t only a problem of going to the liquor store and getting more.  Chances are good that this family had spent everything they had to host this wedding, and now they had run out of wine.  It would have been like telling everybody in town, “Hey, we’re poor!”

Back when I was in college (and before I met Christy) there was a girl I thought I was in love with.  And so, while I was working at a summer job in South Carolina, I made plans to visit her in Ohio, just for the weekend.  I got off work early one Friday, cashed my paycheck, and flew to Cincinnati on Piedmont Airlines (remember them?).  She picked me up in her daddy’s car, and drove me back to her parents’ place, which was impressive.  We spent the next day together and that night I asked if I could take her out to dinner.  “You pick the place,” I said, “and make it a nice one.”  And she did.  She picked a very nice place.  As soon as we walked in I knew I was in trouble.  Because this was back in the days before everybody had a credit card, or at least before I had a credit card.  If I couldn’t pay for dinner with the money in my pocket, I couldn’t pay for dinner, and that began to look like a real possibility.

When the waiter came around she ordered an appetizer (something I had never done in my entire life), and then she picked out what looked to be the most expensive entrée on the menu.  I countered by picking out the least expensive entrée, and I tried to enjoy it, but all through the meal I was doing math in my head, and I’m not very good at math.  I was trying to add up a long column of figures and measure them against the money in my wallet.  I think I was trying to carry the one when the waiter stopped by and asked if we would care for dessert and before I could say no she said yes.

And that’s when I became almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to pay the bill.  And that feeling, the feeling of knowing you may not have enough, is a terrible feeling.  So, I don’t know what I said as I watched that girl spoon crème brûlée into her mouth, but I knew that in about twenty minutes, when the waiter brought the check, I would face one of the biggest embarrassments of my life.  It turned out to be even bigger.  I must have forgotten to carry the one because when I saw the total my heart just sank.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I am so sorry.  But I don’t have enough money to pay the bill.”

Now, multiply my embarrassment by a hundred times, and step back in time 2,000 years, to a wedding in First Century Israel, where the host runs out of wine.  In that time and place the categories of honor and shame were the only categories that mattered: honor was what you wanted to acquire, and shame was what you wanted to avoid.  If you were throwing a wedding banquet you wanted everyone to have a good time, and you wanted to have enough of everything, especially the wine.  “Wine gladdens the heart,” as the Scripture says (Ps. 104:15), and there is no time when you want a glad heart more than at a wedding.  So, imagine Mary’s sister coming to her with a panic-stricken look on her face, and telling her, “We have no wine!” and then imagine Mary, who may have had some ideas about why, going to look for Jesus.  When she found him she said, in a voice loud enough for his disciples to hear, “They have no wine!”

Jesus looked up and said, “Woman, what is that to me and you?  My hour has not yet come.”  It sounds disrespectful, but it was also true.  This is only chapter 2 of John’s Gospel.  Jesus’ “hour” will not arrive until chapter 13.  That’s when he will begin to enter into his glory.  But his mother doesn’t seem to care.  She turns to some of the servants who are standing there and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” and they look to him for instruction.

Jesus sighs and sees that he has no other choice.  He looks around and sees six stone water jars standing there, used for the Jewish rites of purification.  He says, “Fill up those jars with water,” and they do, and it must have taken a while, because each of those jars held twenty to thirty gallons.  And then he says, “Dip some out and take it to the steward,” and they do, and when the steward tastes it he says, “Oh, where did this come from!?”  He turns to the bridegroom (who may have been Jesus’ cousin) and says, “Everyone always serves the good wine first, and then, when the guests have become too drunk to tell the difference, brings out the cheap stuff.  But you people!  You’ve saved the best until last!”  And suddenly the shame that was gathering over the event is blown away by a sudden gust of honor.  This is the best wedding ever, and the hosts are the most generous hosts in history!

But Jesus’ disciples are there, and they’ve seen what just happened.  They’ve seen how it wasn’t the hosts, but Jesus, who brought out the good stuff, and plenty of it.  They saw how he did it, by turning ordinary water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted.  “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” John writes; “he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

What kind of truth is this?

Let me say two things about that: 1) John calls this a sign, and a sign is more than a miracle.  A sign always points to something beyond itself.  This sign allows the disciples to see Jesus for who he really is: the Son of God.  And 2) when he did it he revealed his glory, “glory as of a father’s only son,” which is to say that his glory was God’s glory and when he revealed it he revealed something of the truth about God.  And this is the truth: that with God we never have to be afraid of not having enough.

Walter Brueggemann writes: “The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance.[i]  Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity.  It tells how well the world is ordered.  It keeps saying, ‘It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.’ It declares that God blesses—that is, endows with vitality—the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the Creator as saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’  In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit.”  This is the glory of God, and it is what the disciples see in Jesus on the day he turns 180 gallons of water into 180 gallons of the best wine anyone has ever tasted.

Brueggemann goes on to say that Israel celebrates this kind of abundance.  “Psalm 104, the longest creation poem, is a commentary on Genesis 1.  The psalmist surveys creation and names it all: the heavens and the earth, the waters and springs and streams and trees and birds and goats and wine and oil and bread and people and lions. This goes on for 23 verses and ends in the 24th with the psalmist’s expression of awe and praise for God and God’s creation. Verses 27 and 28 are something like a table prayer.  They proclaim, ‘You give them all food in due season, you feed everybody.’ The psalm makes clear that we don’t need to worry. God is utterly, utterly reliable. The fruitfulness of the world is guaranteed.”

And then Psalm 150, the last psalm in the book, is described by Brueggemann as “an exuberant expression of amazement at God’s goodness. It just says, ‘Praise Yahweh, praise Yahweh with lute, praise Yahweh with trumpet, praise, praise, praise.’ Together, these three scriptures proclaim that God’s force of life is loose in the world. Genesis 1 affirms generosity and denies scarcity. Psalm 104 celebrates the buoyancy of creation and rejects anxiety. Psalm 150 enacts abandoning oneself to God and letting go of the need to have anything under control.”

All of this is the truth about God, and all of it is evident in the sign that Jesus performed that day at a wedding in Cana, when he made enough wine to gladden the hearts of everybody in town.  And yet, those of us who call ourselves his disciples often remain paralyzed by the fear that there won’t be enough, a fear that doesn’t even enter the Bible until the 41st chapter of Genesis, when Pharaoh dreams of famine.  Apparently that dream has crossed oceans and centuries to haunt the sleep of those of us who live on this side of the world.

Brueggemann writes: “We [Americans, who live in the richest nation on earth] never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity—a belief that makes us greedy, mean and un-neighborly” (just like Pharaoh).

“The conflict between the Bible’s liturgy of abundance and the American myth of scarcity is our defining problem,” Brueggemann says.  “The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal confession declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things—nothing can separate us from God.”[ii]

Why then, do we worry about our lives, as Jesus asks in Matthew 6?  Why do we worry about what we will eat and drink, and about what we will wear?  Our heavenly Father, who made the world and everything in it, knows that we need these things, and if we simply continue to seek his Kingdom and his righteousness all these things will be added to us.  We know that.  We’ve heard it a thousand times.  And yet we still worry.  I’m guilty of it myself.

Last week our business manager showed me the church budget we had projected for the year 2022, a budget that is nearly $400,000 more than we took in last year.  I felt a little bit like I did that night in Cincinnati when the waiter presented me with the check.  I said, “You know, when we came up with this budget we didn’t know we would still be dealing with COVID.  We thought it would be over by now and everything would be back to normal.  We thought the pews would be full of people and the offering plates full of money.  This budget, under these circumstances, doesn’t seem very realistic.”  Turn the clock back 40 years and it could have been me, explaining to that girl, “You know, when I asked you out to dinner I thought we would go to some reasonably priced restaurant, where you would order reasonably priced food.  I certainly wasn’t counting on this.”  And she would have said, “No, but you also weren’t counting on this,” and then she would have dropped her father’s platinum credit card on the table and paid for the entire meal—which is exactly what she did![iii]

It’s the kind of thing Jesus did at that wedding in Cana of Galilee.  He dropped his father’s glory on the table.  His disciples saw it, and remembered it for the rest of their lives.  When John was writing about it years later he said, “The Word that was with God and was God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only Son” (John 1:1, 14).  It’s another way of saying that Jesus’ glory was God’s glory, and Jesus’ abundance was God’s abundance—that the one who made wine out of water that day was merely reflecting the nature of the one who made everything out of nothing.

And that’s the truth about God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” Religion Online (from an article that originally appeared in The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999 [https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/]).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] She laughed and told me, “I wasn’t expecting you to pay for dinner. You paid for your plane ticket. I have a summer job, too. I’ll pay daddy back later.” If I had known her better I probably would have known that was the plan all along. I didn’t, but I do know Jesus better. I know that when he says we don’t have to worry about our lives, we don’t. And now I simply need to learn how to live the truth of what I know.

Searching for Truth

The Sunday before Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

“You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will make you free.”  He said it a long time ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant than it is right now, when we Americans seem to be having such a hard time agreeing on what is true.  Seriously, is it only me, or have you had some conversations in the past few years where you think you are saying two plus two equals four, but the other person says, “No, it doesn’t; it equals five”?  And you say, “How is that possible?  Two plus two has always equaled four,” and they say, “No, it hasn’t.”  And you stand there, with your mouth open, not knowing what to say next, because you can’t even agree on the facts.

One nonprofit global public policy think tank notes that “the line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred.” [i]  They call this phenomenon “Truth Decay,” and this is how they explain it on their website: “America’s current era of Truth Decay is defined in part by an increasing disagreement about objective facts that exists on a scale not observed in previous periods,” and that includes the period in which I grew up.

When I was a boy my family didn’t have a television, but when I visited friends I would sometimes watch theirs.  I was so fascinated by TV itself that I didn’t care what was on and once ended up watching the evening news with my friend’s parents.  There was a man with a mustache telling us what had happened that day.  It lasted about half an hour and when it was over he said, “And that’s the way it is.”  That man was Walter Cronkite, and although I was seeing him for the first time a lot of Americans thought of him as “Uncle Walter.”  They loved him and trusted him to tell them the truth, and night after night that’s what he did, in about thirty minutes, on black-and-white TV.

But a few years later some crazy person decided that what America needed was a 24-hour cable news network, and CNN was born—all news, all the time.  But there’s really not that much news, not even if you look for it all over the world.  So, what we began to get was news plus commentary, and we didn’t mind that; sometimes it helps to have a little commentary.  But then, as competing cable news networks began to spring up, we began to get news plus commentary plus opinion, and we didn’t always mind that either.  Sometimes we like our news with a saucy side helping of opinion, especially if it’s an opinion we agree with.  But then social media made it possible to “like” those opinions, publicly, and to share them with our friends, until our friends who had different opinions began to argue with us, and call us names, so that we had to unfriend them and find other friends who agreed with us, who shared not only our opinions about things in general, and not only our commentary on the news, but also our understanding of the facts.

That’s where we are today and this is how the people at Truth Decay sum it up.  They see: 1) an increasing disagreement about facts and data; 2) a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; 3) the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact; and 4) a declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.  And then they list the consequences of Truth Decay: 1) an erosion of civil discourse; 2) political paralysis; 3) alienation and disengagement; and 4) Uncertainty, when we just don’t know what to believe any more, when we have no real way of knowing what is true.[ii]

So, to hear Jesus say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” is exciting.  “Yes!” we say.  “Give us some of that!”  And if we had lived in the time when the Gospel of John was written, we might have been even more excited, because that’s what those people were searching for: a truth that would set them free.  John was written near the end of the First Century, AD, at a time when a new philosophy called Gnosticism was gaining in popularity.  Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has within us a “spark” of the Divine, but it is trapped inside this physical body, and the flesh is essentially evil.  So, what we need to release that spark, so it can return to its source, is some kind of special knowledge (that’s where the word Gnosticism comes from: gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”).  That knowledge has to come to us from outside the physical world, and the one who brings it to us will be our “savior.”

With that in mind, hear Jesus say, once again, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  For those who were just getting acquainted with Gnosticism, it may have sounded like an invitation to learn from Jesus the special knowledge (or, as he put it, the “truth”) that would liberate the divine spark within them from the prison house of the flesh so that it could return to its Divine source.

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, and in Greek the Gospel lesson from John 1 begins like this: En arch hn o logoV: “In the beginning was the Word.”  Rebecca Denova explains, “In the philosophical thought of the time, logos was the principal of rationality that connected the highest god to the material world.”[iii]  In other words, the logos was the mediator between God and people.  Keep that in mind as you hear John say, “And the logos was with God, and the logos was God…and the logos became flesh and lived among us.”

It would have been very exciting to those early adherents of Gnosticism to think that they might learn from Jesus the truth that would set them free from the prison house of the flesh, in the same way it excites me to think that we Americans, who have become so polarized by our competing versions of the truth, might find in Jesus something that would bring us together, and set us free.[iv]  At a time when we can’t agree on the facts, is it possible that we might come to know the Truth?

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, but it is also the Sunday before Epiphany, when we focus on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew, chapter 2.  You’ve already heard some references to that story in today’s worship service, but I don’t think you’ve heard this: that the wise men may have practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism.  I had heard that rumor somewhere before, but last week I began to do some research and was amazed by what I learned.  First of all, this religion was named for an actual man, a Persian named Zoroaster who lived hundreds of years before Christ.[v]  He grew up in the religion of his time, a religion which had many gods and offered animal sacrifices, but when he was thirty years old he had a vision of an angel standing on a riverbank who said that he had been sent with a message from the one true god.  From that message came a new religion, or at least a radical reformation of the old religion.  One of the first things Zoroaster did was put an end to animal sacrifice.  But he also taught that there is only one God.  He called him Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—and believed that he was not only all-wise, but also all-good.  He believed that human beings should reflect that goodness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.  And finally, he believed that each of us has free will to choose between good and evil.

Joshua Mark writes, “The central value of [Zoroastrianism] was human free will. If one chose to follow the precepts of Ahura Mazda, one lived a fulfilling life; if not, one became tangled in deceit and experienced strife and confusion.”[vi]  And so to believe in the one true God, to believe that he was not only all-wise but also all-good, meant reflecting God’s goodness by thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds, specifically:

  • Telling the truth at all times – especially keeping promises
  • Practicing charity to all – especially those less fortunate
  • Showing love for others – even if they did not return the sentiment
  • Moderation in all things – especially in diet

The new religion caught on, and it spread throughout ancient Persia, not so much through evangelistic efforts as through the virtuous behavior of believers who adhered to three core values:

  • To make friends of enemies
  • To make the wicked righteous
  • To make the ignorant learned”[vii]

I have to confess: I didn’t know any of this before doing my research for this sermon and I am astounded by all of it.  I’m not planning to become a Zoroastrian, but on this first Sunday of a New Year I can hardly imagine a better set of resolutions than these: to tell the truth at all times, to practice charity to all, to show love for others, and to practice moderation in all things.  And I can also hardly imagine a better way to win converts to the Christian religion than by doing what these Zoroastrians tried to do: make friends of enemies, make the wicked righteous, and make the ignorant learned.

And so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the wise men, the magi, who show up in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 2, were probably not three kings named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, and probably not Professors of Astrology at the University of Persia,[viii] but were instead probably Zoroastrian priests.  Listen to this description: “While little is known about how the faith was observed or how rituals were conducted, sacrifices, probably in the form of food, grains, and precious objects, were delivered to the magi—the priests—in return for their intercession with [God], and this practice made the clergy one of the wealthiest and most powerful social classes of Persian society.”  Nevertheless, they remained seekers of the truth, and they scanned the night skies perpetually looking for signs from Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—that would lead them in the right direction.

They used logic, they used reason, but when they saw a new star blaze into existence in the Western sky, they must have been like schoolboys, jumping for joy, and they must have saddled their camels almost immediately to follow this sign to where they first spotted it, rising above the mountains of Israel, announcing by its very presence the birth of a new king.

It’s a long way from Persia to the Promised Land.  It would have taken them more than a year to get there.  And when they did they would have followed the same road everyone else took from Jericho up to Jerusalem, the royal city, the place you would expect a king to be born.  But something happened as they traveled up that road, something that may have happened to you.  Do you know how it is in the city, that you can’t see the stars at night?  Their feeble glow is overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city.  And so it was for these wise men: the closer they got to Jerusalem the less they were able to see the star, until finally it was gone altogether, lost in a blaze of ambient light.  So they asked Herod, “Where is the child that has been born king of the Jews?”  And although he didn’t like it, he asked his wise men what they knew.  “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, which was a little town just seven miles from Jerusalem.  Only as they left the bright lights of the big city were the Wise Men able to see that star again, and they followed it until it seemed to rest on top of one particular house, and when they saw that, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Their long journey was over.  When they entered the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother.  And they did something that tells us a lot about them: they knelt down and paid him homage, that is, they worshiped him, this little boy with dirty cheeks and shining eyes.  And then they opened their treasures and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts fit for a king.

In a story about the wise men Garrison Keillor says, “They came from a great distance, following a star, which for wise men was not really very smart.  Because a star is up in the sky, and so the sense of direction you get from a star is going to be a little bit general, and which [house] the star is ‘right over’ kind of depends on where you are standing at the time.  So these guys were navigating on faith.  They took a long trip based on less hard information than a person might like to have.  But, they came through, and they found Christmas, on faith.  They actually found it, and so may we, although it may be even more of an adventure for us today than it was for them back then, because there is so much artificial light during Christmas, and so much reflected light, that there’s kind of a general glow, and it may be hard to pick out stars in the sky, just as it is in the city, even a very bright one.  But it can be found, and it can be followed, and we can find [Christmas].

“There is hope.”[ix]

You’ve seen that bumper sticker: “Wise men still seek him.”  So they do, and so do wise women and children.  They are seeking the truth, the special knowledge that will set them free, and what today’s scriptures tell us is this: that the truth we are seeking can be found in Jesus.  When we know him—when we truly know him—that truth and that knowledge will make us free.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] The 70-year-old RAND Corporation, which claims to be nonpartisan.

[ii] https://www.rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay/about-truth-decay.html

[iii] Rebecca Denova, “Gnosticism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (https://www.worldhistory.org/Gnosticism/)

[iv] Just to be clear, Gnosticism was denounced by the early Christians as a heresy: they didn’t believe that that flesh was evil, and if they had John certainly wouldn’t have told us that the Word that was with God and was God became flesh (ugh!).  But they did believe there was a truth in Jesus that was liberating, a truth that liberates us still.

[v] Joshua L. Mark, “Zoroastrianism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (https://www.worldhistory.org/zoroastrianism/).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] As I have sometimes imagined them, bumping across the desert on camelback smoking pipes and wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.

[ix] Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, “Faith: Stories from the Collection” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_hcFU4wGiw)

Mary

Reign of Christ Sunday
John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

You may already know this, but the Christian year is a little different from the calendar year.  The calendar year runs from January through December while the Christian year runs from Advent through Ordinary Time.  “Ordinary time?” you ask.  “Is that the opposite of Daylight Savings Time?”  Well, no, and ordinarily, it wouldn’t make much difference.  But today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, which means we have come to the end of the Christian year.  It’s the perfect time to gather in the harvest of the past twelve months and reflect on what we have learned about Jesus.

As we have worked our way through the Gospel readings each Sunday we have listened to Jesus teach and preach.  We have watched him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  We are at the place, finally, where we can sum up all we know about him, and the way we usually sum things up at the end of the Christian year is to crown him king.  That’s what some people call this Sunday: “Christ the King.”  Others call it “Reign of Christ.”  Either way, it holds out the hope that those of us who have been following Jesus closely in the past year will have come to the place where we can affirm what the New Testament so boldly proclaims: that Jesus really is the “king of kings and lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; Rev. 19:16).  That seems especially bold when you consider that the only crown Jesus got to wear in this world was a crown of thorns, and that when he was “lifted up” (as he put it) it wasn’t onto a throne, but onto a cruel Roman cross.  Nonetheless, he was a king, and some people seemed to know it all along.

We’ve been talking about the “Faith of Our Mothers” recently.  We’ve looked at the stories of Ruth, Naomi, and Hannah.  I thought we might conclude with those women who were there at Jesus’ crucifixion (what some people might call his “coronation”), but as I tried to identify those women I found that each of the Gospel writers has a different list.  Matthew mentions “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”  Mark also mentions Mary Magdalene, but adds “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  Luke only tells us that “the women who had followed him from Galilee” were at his crucifixion, but in the next chapter names them as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.”  And finally John says, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  By the way, John is the only one who mentions a man at the foot of the cross, and it won’t surprise you to learn that that man is “the disciple Jesus loved.”

But look how many women!  There’s the wife of Zebedee, Salome, Joanna, Jesus’ aunt, his mother Mary, and about four other Marys, including Mary Magdalene, the only one mentioned by all four Gospel writers.  I thought about focusing on her today, but the Bible really doesn’t say that much about Mary Magdalene.  And so I decided to talk about this other Mary, the mother of Jesus, if only because we know so much more about her.

According to Luke, Mary was just a girl when the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you!” While she was wondering what sort of greeting this might be, Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and name him Jesus.”  “How can this be,” she asked, “since I am a virgin?”  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” Gabriel said, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.  And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was thought to be barren, for nothing will be impossible with God!”  And that’s when Mary said, “Well then, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be unto me according to your word.”  In other words she believed everything the angel had told her, but after he had gone she thought it wouldn’t hurt to get some proof.

So she packed her things and hurried off to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and when she called out to her at the gate the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy.  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?  For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears the baby in my womb leaped for joy, and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!”  And that’s when Mary threw her head back and began to sing a song we have come to call The Magnificat.  Listen:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Afterward, Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months, and then returned to her home.

Some of you know that my mother’s name was Mary—Mary Rice.  Most people called her “Ricie,” but along with that childhood nickname she carried the name of Jesus’ mother, and she carried it proudly.  She grew up in the Presbyterian Church but when she was sixteen she met some girls who were going to Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina.  They were Baptist.  They talked to her about Jesus and convinced her to be baptized in the Baptist way, by immersion.  That was a pivotal moment for her, and it was one of the things that got her thinking about being a missionary.

She went off to King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and while she was there she met a young man named Jim Somerville, the son of a Presbyterian preacher.  He thought she was the prettiest girl in the freshman class and told her so.  They began to go out together.  Eventually they were engaged to be married, but in the summer before his senior year, while he was sweating at a summer job in sultry South Carolina and she was cooling it at her parents’ summer cottage in the mountains of North Carolina, she sent him a letter breaking off the engagement.  He didn’t think twice.  He got in his car and drove to the mountains to see her.  He took her out on a lonely road somewhere, stopped the car, and asked her what all this was about.  “Well,” she said, “I feel called to be a missionary, and if I marry you I’ll never get to do that.”  Things were quiet in the car for a long time, and then my mother heard a voice that said, “There’s your mission field.”  She looked over and there was my dad.  And in that moment she felt as if her prayer had been answered, as if somehow, marrying this man would lead to the fulfillment of her missionary calling.  And so she said yes, and the engagement was back on, and maybe, because of what she told him, my dad followed in his father’s footsteps; he went off to seminary to become a Presbyterian preacher.

Mom went with him to his first church in Troy, Alabama, where two of her sons were born.  She went with him to Hayneville, Alabama, where I was born.  She went with him to Wise, Virginia, where her next two sons were born.  And finally she went with him to Boone County, West Virginia, where her last son was born.  In those days Dad was doing what was essentially missionary work, and my mother tried to help in every way she could, but she had six sons to raise, and the more she dedicated herself to that work the more she became convinced that that was her mission—raising those boys, and training them for their own mission fields.  I heard her say on more than one occasion, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

Would it surprise you to learn that every one of her six sons has been engaged in full-time or part-time Christian service?  That among them have been pastors, missionaries, musicians, worship leaders, lay preachers, and Christian educators?  My mother’s impact was felt in our lives, and although my father was the pastor I think it is fair to say that she was my single greatest religious influence.  So, I think about that other Mary, the mother of Jesus, rocking his cradle and singing that song, the one about the high and mighty being brought down while the meek and lowly were lifted up.  How much of that song ended up in Jesus’ life?  How much of his own mission and ministry was influenced by the mission of his mother?  They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and this hand—Mary’s hand—rocked the cradle of the one who would become the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate who asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’ eventual answer is that his kingdom is not from this world, and it is not.  If it were from this world the rich and powerful would be in charge and the poor and pitiful would not.  But in Jesus’ kingdom the least are great and the last are first and the world is upside down.  Listen to the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the

     kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be

     comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the

     earth.

If you listen to those words in the right frame of mind they sound like the announcement of a revolution, as if God’s Kingdom were about to break into the world like a rock through a plate glass window, and the people who had had almost nothing before were going to end up with almost everything.  Where do you think Jesus got that?  Did any part of it come from the woman who sang:

[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I know that Jesus was the Son of his Heavenly Father, but he was also the Son of his Earthly Mother, and who knows how much of who he was came from her?

According to John she was one of those women who was there at his crucifixion, and “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).  But think about that hour, when Jesus’ mother stood there, looking up at that cross, watching her own son die.  Is there any mother among us who cannot feel her pain?  If she had known it would come to this would she have said yes to Gabriel?  Would she have said, “Let it be with me according to your word?”  Or would she have said, “Please, please find someone else!”

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.  Mary did say yes, but maybe she should have seen where things were headed when she was forced to deliver God’s son in a stable, and wrap him in bands of cloth, and lay him in a feed trough.  And maybe she should have been warned when old Simeon, the prophet, told her that her child was set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and that a sword would pierce her own soul, also.  Maybe she was trying to keep this hour from coming when she and her sons came to take Jesus home, that time when people were saying that he had “gone out of his mind.”  And now here he was, hanging from a cross, condemned to die for claiming that he was “the king of the Jews.”

At least, that’s what some people said.

But as Mary watched the blood trickling from his noble brow like anointing oil, as she saw the crown of thorns turn golden in the afternoon sunlight, and as she read the word “King” written on the placard above his head, she may have thought, “Yes.  He is a king.  He’s a king like no other who has ever lived.”  And she may have said out loud the words he had heard so many times before, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

—Jim Somerville © 2021