Upside-Down Truth

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 6:17-26

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

 This sermon series is called, “The Truth about God.”  How do we find the truth about God?  We look to the Word of God: the Bible.  But even then we need to remember that the Bible was written by people: inspired by God but limited by their humanity.  If we really want to know the truth about God we have to look to Jesus: the Word-made-flesh.  John 1:18 reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God.  It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  So, we turn to the Gospels, our very best source for the things Jesus did and said while he walked among us, but even then we may not get the whole story.  Near the end of John’s Gospel the author writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

If you have ears to hear it, John is admitting that he has picked and chosen from among the many things Jesus did in order to achieve his own objectives, and his primary objective is to convince his readers to believe in Jesus.  When I was teaching religion to college freshmen I used to say, “John has written this entire Gospel to make a believer out of you.  If you’re not a believer by this point, the Gospel will have failed, and you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?  Well, would you?”  And that’s when they remembered that I was not only an adjunct professor, but also a Baptist preacher.  Making believers was John’s objective, but the other Gospel writers may have had different objectives.  They may have picked and chosen from among the things Jesus did as well, and according to John there was no shortage of those things.  The last verse of his Gospel makes the incredible claim that if every one of the things Jesus did were written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

This idea that the early evangelists were making decisions about what they would include or exclude from their Gospels is essential to a field of study known as redaktiongeschichte, a German word that means, literally, “the history of editing.”  It begins with the idea that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark and an anonymous collection of the sayings of Jesus, which scholars refer to simply as “Q.”  From those two sources, and from their own sources, Matthew and Luke wrote Gospels that would achieve their own purposes.  Matthew, for example, seems to want his readers to understand that Jesus was the “prophet like Moses” mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 18:15-19), and that his life and ministry were a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  For Luke, Jesus is the one who levels the mountains and lifts up the valleys.  He is the great equalizer, and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus seems to have a special concern for women and the poor.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount.  There he is, just like Moses, handing down the Word of the Lord.  And maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Luke Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, that level place where the valleys have been lifted up and the mountains brought low.  It shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” since so much of that Gospel has a spiritual concern, or that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” since, as a doctor, Luke would have been concerned for the most vulnerable in society.

Some people want to know which one Jesus actually said, but I want to know why it couldn’t have been both.  John tells us that if everything Jesus did and said had been written down the world itself would not contain the books.  Isn’t it possible that on one occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” and on another occasion said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  Both kinds of people need blessing, and Jesus certainly knew both kinds of people, but the thing Luke remembered, the thing he held onto and included in his Gospel, was Jesus’ blessing on those who are actually, materially poor.

Gustavo Gutiérrez was born in Peru in 1928, a mixed-race child who suffered with osteomyelitis and spent much of his adolescence in a wheelchair, but it was in those days that he learned the value of hope through prayer and the love of family and friends, the things that made him want to become a priest.  He completed his theological studies in Europe and was ordained in 1959.  When he came back to Peru he was confronted with what he called the Latin American “reality”: the fact that 60 percent of the people in his country lived in poverty and 82 percent of those lived in “extreme poverty,” currently defined as living on less than two dollars a day.  He began to focus his efforts on the recovery of Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” as the central axiom of the Christian life and became known as one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology.

His impact on the church’s relationship to the poor was huge.  My own father, in his ministry among the poor in Appalachia, would often cite the teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez, especially these three bottom-line principles:

First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed.  “It is not simply an occasion for charity,” Gutierrez said, “but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”

Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.   “Poverty is not inevitable,” Gutierrez insisted; “collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”

Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. “To be poor is to be insignificant,” Gutierrez said.  “Poverty means an early and unjust death.”[i]  Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino once said that for people who are extremely poor, “When they wake up, they know that because of poverty they may die before the day is over.  That is the greatest injustice.”  As Gandhi put it, “Poverty is the greatest form of violence.”[ii]

Which raises the question: Who is inflicting this violence?  Well, it’s whoever creates and controls the “structural injustices” mentioned in Principle Two, the ones that “privilege some while marginalizing others,” and in every era those people have been the rich and the powerful.  That was certainly true in Jesus’ time.  When he talks about the poor he is talking about the nation of Israel in general, crushed under the heel of the oppressive Roman Empire.  Most of the people he was preaching to that day were living in extreme poverty.  Most of them didn’t have two sticks to rub together, much less two dollars.  Luke tells us that “they had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases” (vs. 18), and let me just say, you don’t go to a faith healer if you can afford a doctor.  You go to a faith healer when you have no other options.  These people had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, but they didn’t know they were going to hear this:

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…..  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).  It sounds like the start of a revolution, doesn’t it?  As if Jesus were inciting the crowd to march on Rome, to drag Caesar off the throne and dismantle the Roman Empire, to establish God’s kingdom in its place—an upside-down kingdom where the poor will have power, and the hungry will be filled, and those who are weeping will laugh for joy.  It sounds like the start of a revolution, but it’s not, and while Jesus would insist that ultimately God’s kingdom will come, I think he would also insist that it will not come “with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums.”  I think he would say that God will change the world the way he always has, one human heart at a time.

Think back to those other times when God’s people needed help.  What did God do for his people in Egypt when they were enslaved and oppressed?  He worked on Pharaoh’s hard heart until it was broken by grief and Pharaoh was willing to let God’s people go.  And what did he do for his people after Nebuchadnezzar had carried them off into exile?  He put it into the heart of Cyrus, the conquering Persian king, to let them return to Israel.  And what did he do for his people who were suffering under Roman occupation?  He sent Jesus to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  In each case God made it clear that his own heart was on the side of those who were captive, impoverished, enslaved, and oppressed.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he is once again telling us the truth about God.

Mark Gordon has a friend named Trish who sometimes asks him difficult questions after church.  Mark is a committed Catholic layman, but also the president of a local soup kitchen in his town.  One Sunday, after hearing a reading like this one from Luke 6, Trish asked him, “Does God love poor people more than he loves rich people?”  “On the surface, it would seem that he does,” Mark writes.  “In Scripture, there are nearly 3,000 verses concerned with justice for the lowly, the oppressed, and the stranger. Almost 400 of those verses specifically refer to “the poor.” In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord commands his people to “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The Psalmist declares that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34) and calls upon God to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82). The author of Proverbs insists “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14) and “the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29).”[iii]

All that scriptural evidence could leave you with the impression that God loves the poor more than he loves the rich, but that’s not what Mark Gordon said to Trish.  He said, “NO!  God loves Bill Gates every bit as much as he loves the lowliest beggar on the streets of Calcutta.  The ‘preferential option for the poor’ [that Gustavo Gutierrez talks about] isn’t about God loving one person more than another. No, the option for the poor is about providing a counterweight to the inordinate prestige and privilege our fallen world confers on the wealthy and powerful. It is a call to justice, which in the biblical tradition implies the restoration of balance and equity in the relationships between individuals and among social classes.”[iv]

So, the truth about God is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that God loves the poor just as much as he loves the rich.  He wants the poor to enjoy every benefit and every blessing that he has to offer and he hates it when those who have wealth and power use it to push poor people away from the table of life.  He loves it when those at the table make room for the poor and pull up a chair.  Jesus has shown us that way.  He loved the poor and spent most of his time with them.  And when we who are his body on earth embody the way of Jesus, it warms God’s heart.  When we don’t, the heart of God is broken.

Not long ago I was driving to church when I saw a man sitting at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard holding a sign that read, “Brain Cancer Patient.”  He didn’t look well.  He was sitting on one of those Rollator walkers that doubles as a chair.  His head was in his hands and as I drove by I could see the scars from his surgery.  I pulled over at the next available spot and then walked back to talk to him.  I was almost angry.  I thought, “Here is this man practically sitting in the shadow of First Baptist Church—a brain cancer patient!—and if we haven’t done anything to help him I am going to be ashamed and embarrassed.”  I said hello and then recognized him as Michael, someone my daughter had told me about, someone I had talked to before in another location.  I said, “Michael, has this big church on the corner done anything for you?”

And then I held my breath, waiting for his response, and thinking that if he said no I might just have to resign, because obviously I haven’t taught you anything about the love of Jesus in all these years.  But he said, “Oh, yes!  I go over there all the time to get food, and clothes, and hot showers.  They’re the ones who gave me this Rollator.  I couldn’t get along without it.”  And I breathed a sigh of relief.  I mean, we’re a long way from full equity.  Michael doesn’t have the things most of us have.  But he has a place at the table of life, and somebody at First Baptist helped him pull up a chair, and on that day at least (I know because I asked him), Michael felt blessed.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2011 (

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Mark Gordon, “Does God Love the Poor More than the Rich?” Aleteia, January 7, 2014 (

[iv] Ibid.

Getting Personal

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

I am honored and humbled to stand here before you today in this pulpit where so many great preachers have stood. Although I have stood here many times, this is a different experience and it may be the craziest thing Jim Somerville has ever asked me to do.  When he asked me about a year ago to preach during the Martha Stearns Marshall woman’s month of preaching, I said to him, or at least I thought I did, “are you crazy? I’m not a preacher.

Maybe I should have said no. Many of you have given me the lecture on saying no. “It is a short word.” “Stick to your no.”  “Don’t let them overuse you.”  “Be careful, not saying no – will lead to exhaustion.”

Do you want to know why I have a hard time saying no? I love just about everything in this church. I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in all areas, with all ages, from newborns to the most wise-aged. This place holds a loving church family full of compassion and hope.

During my first trip to the Holy Land, I was challenged to look at love in a whole new way. Preparing for baptism, Lynn asked us to come up with a scripture to be read. The verse that came into my head for no apparent reason was  1 Peter 4: 7-8.  It says,

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.  Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 

Jesus preached love, Peter preached love and when we maintain constant love for each other we preach love. Ever since reading these verses, I have been drawn to Peter, what others say about Peter, and what Peter had to say.

Peter was a fisherman like his father and his father’s father. Fishermen were often illiterate and perceived as lower class. Peter had rough, calloused hands, strong and sure. He was quick to say what he thought and, He was one of those people that got the job done. In John’s Gospel chapter 1 verse 42.  Simon is first introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew. Jesus tells Simon that from then on, he will be called Cephas, translated to Peter meaning a rock.

Peter did some great things in his life. He is usually listed first when referring to the disciples. He is mentioned 109 times in the gospels and 156 times in the New Testament. Peter is the one who preaches the first sermon at Pentecost. He is the one who is known for sharing the good news with the gentiles. He is the one to whom Jesus says, “upon this rock, I will build my church.”

But Peter is not perfect. He makes a lot of mistakes along his journey as a disciple of Jesus.  Among other things,

he said no when Jesus wanted to wash his feet,

he cut off the ear of a soldier,

and he denied Christ 3 times before the cock crowed.

Peter’s mistakes make him relatable. His mistakes are why I love Peter and am drawn to him. Maybe his mistakes draw you to him too.  Through all his blunders, Peter never stops loving Christ, and Christ never stops loving Peter.

Foil is a literary term that highlights the features of the main character in a story also known as the protagonist.

Think of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy … hero  – villain

Or Batman and Robin…. Strong  –  silly

or Sherlock Holmes and Watson –  Highly perceptive and literal

These literary relationships do not have to be good against evil, but the foil allows the protagonist to shine out in all cases.

Historically, the literary term of foil comes from backing a gemstone with thin metallic foil so that the gemstone shines more brightly. As Adam Hamilton puts it in his book, Simon Peter, “Often it is the foil’s shortcomings and missteps that magnify the protagonist’s virtues. The Gospel writers portray Peter bumbling, fumbling, and stumbling again and again. Each time, Peter’s blunder serves to reveal some dimension of Jesus’ character or to make clear some aspect of Christ’s message.”  In the New Testament, Jesus, the protagonist, shines all the brighter because of Peter.

Can you relate to Peter? Sometimes we do our best only to realize we have missed the mark yet again. I know I often miss the mark.

I became a Christian when I was 8 or 9. After my baptism, my parents took me out to High’s Ice Cream Parlor to celebrate. High’s Ice Cream Parlor had the best milkshakes, thick and rich in flavor. And you got to swivel on the stools at the counter. In my family, High’s was the celebration place. This celebration meant baptism was special. As I moved through high school, I realized that I wasn’t fully living my life for Jesus. I decided to rededicate my life to Christ. I knew I didn’t need to be baptized again, but I needed to acknowledge my sin publicly and start over. I have had many rededications in my life. Some people may call them revelations of the divine. Looking back, I think each time, it was about acknowledging my sin and humanness and allowing Jesus to get more personal with me. Remember when I said God gave me the verse from 1 Peter? I believe that was also a time of rededication.

Pretty clear words…

the end is near,

get serious and disciplined, pray

and cover it all with love.

I wish I could say that all has been good ever since. But you and I both know that would not be true. As many times as Peter failed, I have failed tenfold. I want to think I have been repentant and, like Peter, been forgiven each time. These urges to rededicate were tugs from the Holy Spirit to repent, transform, and follow in ordered steps.

So what happens in this story of the fishing experience as told by Luke? Earlier in his gospel, Luke shares that Jesus has been in Capernaum near the Lake of Genneserat, also known as the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus has been teaching, preaching and healing. Scholars believe Jesus stayed at Peter’s house. Peter had the opportunity to hear what Jesus was saying again and again. Many bibles title this section “Call of the Disciples.” I have another name for it… “Getting Personal.”

In our Gospel Lesson today Luke writes,

“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’  Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”.

Going back to the beginning of our scripture reading, Peter, Andrew, James, and John were out fishing and came back with empty boats. They were overwhelmed with frustration, disappointment, anger, and exhaustion. Even though the nets had been empty they were cleaning their nets. Jesus came to the shore, which means the crowds came too. Things are noisy and hectic and then, Jesus gets into Peter’s boat.

Jesus may have thought at this moment, “A chance to get Peter alone.”

Peter probably thought, “are you kidding me?”

Jesus asks Peter to stop what he is doing and take him out a little from the shore. Peter, becoming more frustrated, tired, and hungry, takes Jesus out into the lake.

We don’t know what Jesus says that day to the crowds, but he teaches them and the people listen. I think hearing Jesus that day in Peter’s boat opened Peter’s heart to hear Jesus in a new way. After he finishes teaching, Jesus tells Peter to put the boat out farther and to lower the nets.

What in the world?! Right in the middle of an exhausting and overwhelming day, Jesus is asking Peter to go out again to fish. This request is not convenient and probably not polite and most likely Peter thought Jesus was crazy.  There is no hope of a miraculous catch of fish. But Jesus gets in the middle of Peter’s world, in the actual context of his life. Now Peter can’t resist the intrusion.

From the commentary, Feasting on the Word, David Ostendorf says of Jesus,

“The word has come to dwell in the midst of everyday lives and everyday fishermen.”  “God’s living word cuts through the din of pressing crowds and the lives and labors of common people.”

Jesus has gotten into the thick and the thin, the very fabric of Peter’s life, his boat.

The boat is Peter’s world. He is a fisherman, a descendent of fishermen. Now that Jesus is in his boat, Peter listens to Jesus’ teaching without distractions. Although Peter could have said no, his response to Jesus is, YES,

“if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Doing this is very risky for Peter. Everyone knew his boat had come back empty. But, they are watching Jesus, and since Jesus is in Peter’s boat, they are watching Peter. Also from Feasting on the Word, Howard Gregory suggests that Jesus’ invitation to put out into the deep is a call to approach new and unfamiliar ground. Peter has every right to be hesitant. Yet, what Jesus taught that day to the crowds standing on the shore touched Peter’s heart in a new and more profound way.

I think Peter was now starting to understand who Jesus was. Jesus had taken Peter out to the quiet, away from the world, away from distractions.   And at the moment the fish start breaking the nets, a transformation takes place within Peter. A new and profound relationship is forged, a personal relationship with Jesus. Peter names himself a sinful man, repents, and his immediate response is to fall to his knees. Peter, first overwhelmed with fatigue, then overwhelmed with fish, is now overwhelmed with Divine Love.

Let’s stop right there.

Think back to when you realized who Jesus was. Did you fall to your knees as Peter did? Did you stand in praise? Did you cry? Did you get overwhelmed with such emotion that you froze? A personal encounter with Jesus can do any of these things and the encounter is transforming. And like Peter, until you let Jesus get in the boat and get personal, you won’t be transformed.

Jesus came into the heart of that community in Capernaum. He came to Peter at one of the worst times, after a failed fishing trip. He did not want to get back to work. He was filled with disappointment and exhaustion. Jesus doesn’t necessarily come to us when it is convenient. He doesn’t necessarily ask us to do something when everything lines up neatly. Jesus calls us when there is work to be done. He calls us personally to do His work, and his timing can be unpredictable.   How do I know?

Since coming to First Baptist Church in 1986, there have been two different times when Jesus took me by surprise. One of them was meeting my husband, who I love dearly.  But Richard was not who I thought would be my life partner. The second surprise was joining the church staff. Music was my hobby, not my job. And yet, Jesus brought me to this church and changed the direction of my life. Both experiences have prepared me for the work Jesus calls me to do.

These 2 events were very personal callings and yes they have been overwhelming but also transforming.

Jesus wants a personal relationship with us. Peter had many chances to see Jesus for who he was. Jesus came to Capernaum. He preached in the Synagogue and taught in the town square. He ate with Peter and had healed Peter’s wife’s mother. Jesus had given Peter a new name.

It took a personal encounter with Jesus moving into the middle of Peter’s life for Peter to realize who Jesus was. Then, having recognized the Holy, Peter realized who he was, a sinful man. And I love that Peter’s reaction was to repent and worship – quick, not showy or fancy. Right there in the middle of everything Peter worshipped.

Jesus called the most sidelined and lowly, a fisherman named Peter, on whom he would build his church. This relationship gets personal and at the moment of the catch, Peter sees the Holy. Peter is caught too and enters a personal relationship with Jesus.

Two more vocabulary words for today. Theophany, a revelation of the presence of the divine. Epiphany, a sudden revelation. I think Peter had an “Epiphanic Theophany.” This may not really be an official term, but it defines this moment for me. Even though Peter had many opportunities to figure out Jesus it was a sudden revelation of Jesus and that Jesus was indeed Holy. This realization happened when Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat, his life.

Let’s finish out the scripture reading for today.

 “For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Jesus called Peter into action. Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people not fish. We can all think of times when God says do not be afraid. In the Old Testament, God says through Joshua to the Israelites before crossing into the promised land, “Be not afraid, be strong and courageous.” The most familiar may be the angel Gabriel telling Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.”

When we hear or read “Do not be afraid,” we can be sure something big is about to happen. Peter had no idea what it meant to be a fisher of people, but he heard those words, and he followed.   And so, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry took hold and began to spread.

What or who is in your boat? Are you watching from the sides like Peter? Are you living your story, the one Jesus has called you to live? Sometimes we are content with letting Jesus dabble in and around our boat, or our lives. Sometimes, when we feel called to do something and we may think to ourselves, say no, think again. Maybe, you haven’t allowed Jesus into the very crazy and messy middle of your life. You may be fearful of what Jesus will bring into your boat. When you understand what Jesus has in store for you, your boat will be overflowing with blessings.

If you have never met Jesus, maybe you hear a voice saying, “put out farther and let down your nets.”  Move out into the quiet, the deep, and listen. If you do, like Peter, there may be so many fish in your boat that it gets overwhelming. But Jesus said, “Be not afraid.”   A new adventure is about to begin.

I am often surprised how Jesus uses me. He puts me with different people and in different situations that often don’t make sense. I am learning to trust the call and say yes, even if it seems crazy. Listening for God’s call through Jesus has filled my boat with overwhelming surprises and love. They have transformed me from the inside out. Jesus doesn’t necessarily call us to do just one job in the kingdom but to do whatever we can to bring Heaven to earth.

Because Jesus personally connects with us, he knows what is right for us. When we listen and follow, we are transformed, and when we are transformed, we can join the adventure of living and working in the kingdom of God.

Jim’s sermon series has been called the Truth About God. The truth I would like you to walk away with today is that God wants to get personal with each of us. When we embrace that personal relationship, we are filled with love.   And yes, the relationship can feel overwhelming but, it is truly transforming.

Jesus gave it all so that we could have life. He got into the messy middle of life and took it upon himself to love us unto death.

Reflect upon your life.           Is Jesus on the shore?

Is he near your boat?               Or is Jesus deep in the center of your life?

Threatened by the Truth

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

Welcome back to this Epiphany sermon series called, “the Truth about God.”  How do you find the truth about God?  You look to Jesus, the Son of God.  John tells us that “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1:18).  Which is to say that Jesus himself is an epiphany, or rather, he is the Epiphany: he is the One in whom the truth about God is revealed.

And that’s a relief.

On Friday morning I was doing my daily Bible reading when I was stopped by one verse in Exodus 32.  Moses had just come down the mountain after speaking with God and he found all the Israelites dancing around a golden calf they had made.  Moses was furious.  He called out, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” and all the Levites gathered around him.  He said to them (and this is the verse that stopped me), “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’”  And then it says, “The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about 3,000 of the people fell that day.”

I was horrified.

I wondered, “Is that true?  Did God really command the Levites to kill their brothers, their friends, and their neighbors?  What kind of God is that?”  And then I remembered: “No one has ever seen God (not even the person who wrote the Book of Exodus).[i]  The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known.”  This is actually part of the Baptist tradition.  The Baptist Faith and Message—which is as close to a statement of faith as we get—says, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”[ii]  I tried to imagine Jesus telling the Levites to kill their brothers, and their friends, and their neighbors, and I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t imagine those words coming from the lips of the one who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So, I did what I have tried to teach you to do.  I asked myself not, “Did it really happen this way?” but, “What on earth is God trying to say?”  Because I believe the Bible is the most reliable way God speaks to us, even in these parts that are hard to understand.  And I thought, “Maybe God is trying to say that we should be horrified, not by the fact that these Levites were willing to kill their brothers, friends, and neighbors, but that these Israelites—the people of God, the ones he had brought out of their slavery in Egypt—would bow down and worship a golden calf!  Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to be horrified about, and maybe we are supposed to respond with the zeal of these Levites by putting to death anything in us that would tempt us to bow down to anyone or anything other than God.

Do you see what I mean?  The Bible has to be interpreted.  You can’t just take it at face value, at least not most of the time.  If you do you end up killing your brothers, your friends, and your neighbors in the name of God, and some people have done that.  Some people still do that.  But not us.  Thank God we have Jesus to teach us the truth about God and the Holy Spirit to help us interpret the Bible.  Because we need help.  The Bible isn’t always easy to understand.

Take today’s Gospel lesson for example: if you were here last week you know that Jesus was visiting his hometown synagogue in Nazareth when he was invited to preach.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled it, and found the place here it is written:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me

For he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

To proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[iii]

When he had finished reading he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him.  He said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Now, look carefully at the next verse, Luke 4:22: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”  And then skip down to verse 29, just seven verses later, where Luke tells us:  “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”  You have to ask yourself, “What happened?  How did these people go, in the space of only seven verses, from speaking well of Jesus and being amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, to being filled with rage, ready to take him out to the edge of town and throw him off a cliff?

I’ve been trying to imagine what I would have to say to produce the same results.  I mean, it’s not hard to say something offensive.  It’s not even hard to say something so offensive that someone would feel the need to get up and walk out of a sermon.  I’ve done that before, usually without meaning to.  But I’ve never said anything so offensive that the entire congregation got up, dragged me out of the church, and tried to kill me.  What would that be?  No, really, what?  It would have to be something that made them feel threatened.  It would have to come across as a threat to them, their homes, their families, their status, or their security.  They would have to perceive me as a danger.  They would have to be thinking, “This man must be stopped!”  Apparently that’s what they were thinking about Jesus.  Something he said in those few verses threatened them so deeply that they all felt they had no other choice than to put him to death.

What was it?

Let’s take another look at verse 22.  That’s where all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  But this is where I wish we had a tone-of-voice indicator in the Bible, because in light of what has come just before this saying it would make sense to assume that they said it positively: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” as in, “Hasn’t little Jesus done well for himself?!”  But it’s also possible that they said it negatively: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” as in, “Who does this whippersnapper think that he is?”  It’s that second reading that helps me to understand what Jesus says next, because while he has been speaking “gracious words” up until this point, he suddenly changes direction.

If we had a tone-of-voice indicator we might hear him say, “Oh, now you’ll probably start quoting that old proverb to me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’  You’ll ask me to do for you what I did for those folks in Capernaum!  Well, let me tell you something: real prophets get a warm welcome everywhere except in their own hometown, among their own people.  Truth is there were plenty of widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, back when it didn’t rain for three-and-a-half years and nobody had anything to eat.  But Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them.  No!  He was sent to some widow woman in Zarephath, over in Sidon.  And listen, there were plenty of lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time, but none of them was healed, none of them got cleansed.  No, it was only Naaman, the Syrian.”  And that’s when everybody in the synagogue was filled with rage.  That’s when they got up, drove Jesus out of town, and tried to throw him off a cliff.  It was as if he were saying, “Yes, the spirit of the Lord is upon me, and yes he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, but not you people.  God’s blessings are not for you!”  That might be enough to make you want to kill someone.

But there’s another way to read this passage, in another tone of voice.  When Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and everybody began to speak well of him and marvel at the gracious words that came from his mouth, they might have said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” as in, “Isn’t this one of our own?  Didn’t he grow up right here in Nazareth?”  It’s as if Jesus has told them that he just won the lottery and they begin to turn to each other and say, “Did you hear that?  We just won the lottery!”  That’s when Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  That is, “Hey, lottery winner!  Charity begins at home!”  And they start holding out their hands.  But Jesus responds as if he were saying, “Do you think God’s favor is only for you? Do you think you can keep his goodness to yourselves?”

It reminds me of that story from 2 Kings, where the entire Aramean army surrounded the city of Samaria and laid siege to it until the people were starving to death.  They would have eaten almost anything, and paid almost anything to get it.  But there were four lepers sitting outside the city gate, and they finally got so hungry that they said, “Let’s go into the Aramean camp.  If they take pity on us and feed us, well and good, and if they don’t and they kill us, well, we’re dying anyway.”  So they went, and found that the camp had been deserted.  God had thrown the Aramean army into a panic and they had fled for their lives, leaving everything behind.  Suddenly these four lepers had more than enough to eat.  They were stuffing their mouths, rejoicing in their good fortune, when one of them said, “Wait.  This isn’t right.  Here we are, gorging ourselves, while the people of our city are starving.”  So, they went back and shared the news that God had worked a miracle, and now there was enough for everyone (from 2 Kings 6-7).

Hold on to that last line for a minute—“God had worked a miracle, and now there was enough for everyone”—and then picture Jesus, preaching in his hometown synagogue, where people seem to think that because he grew up there they can keep him and all his blessings to themselves.  “All spoke well of him and said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”  It may be another way of saying, “Doesn’t he live just down the street?  Next time my bunions start acting up instead of going to the doctor I can just go to Jesus and ask him to work a little miracle.”  But Jesus says, “Not so fast.  I grew up here but you don’t own me.  You can’t expect me to work only for you.  I work for God, and God’s mercy is bigger than the little town of Nazareth.  It’s bigger than the entire nation of Israel.”  And maybe that was what filled them with rage and made them think they needed to kill Jesus: the idea that they weren’t as special as they thought.

Maybe you remember the joke about the man who got to heaven and was surprised to find that it looked like a big hotel.  He was also surprised to find that St. Peter looked like a bellhop.  Peter said, “Ah, yes!  Mr. Jones.  We’ve been expecting you.  Let me show you to your room.”  But as they went down the long hallway to the elevators they passed a huge conference room where there seemed to be some kind of party going on.  The doors were closed and Mr. Jones asked, “Who’s in there?”  “Shhh!” said St. Peter.  “Those are the Baptists.  They think they’re the only ones here.”  One of the funny things about that joke is that you can tell it about any denomination.  It works equally well for Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.  But one of the sad things about that joke is that there is some truth to it.  Each of us think our way is the best way to get to heaven, which we should, but some of us think our way is the only way to get to heaven, which we shouldn’t.  Why is that?  And why, if anyone should ever try to contradict us, do we get so angry?

Anger and fear come from the same place, and behind the anger of the crowd in Nazareth was the fear that if God started sharing his blessings with Syrians and Sidonians there wouldn’t be enough for them.  They imagined it as a zero-sum game in which anything given to others would mean less for them.  Maybe that’s where our own fear comes from.  Maybe we are so careful about being in the right group and having the right beliefs because we can’t imagine that God has enough love for everyone.  Haven’t we been listening to Jesus?  Don’t we know that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea?

That’s the truth about God, and it comes to us as good news.  If there is enough of God’s mercy to go around then we don’t have to hoard it any longer, we don’t have to fear that we won’t have enough.  As Jesus has reminded us again and again,

There is plenty to share.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] To be fair, the authorship of Exodus is often attributed to Moses, and Moses came closer to “seeing” God than most. “And [God] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:19-20).

[ii] Baptist Faith and Message 1963, Part I. “The Scriptures”

[iii] From Isaiah 61.

Preaching the Truth

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 4:14-21

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

Back in the mid-nineties I went to something called the College of Preachers on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.  I went to see if I could learn something from Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who had just been named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.  Barbara was a brilliant teacher, and somewhere during the course of that week-long workshop she handed out brown paper lunch bags to each of the participants.  She told us that the sense of smell had tremendous power to evoke memories, and then she told us to open our bags and smell what was in them (which we did very cautiously).  Each bag held something different; my bag held a small, round tin of shoe polish. I opened it and smelled it and immediately I was transported thirty years back in time, to the laundry room of our family home in Wise, Virginia, where I sat on the linoleum floor, polishing my Buster Brown shoes before Sunday school.

If memory serves I was also studying my catechism, because I was a little Presbyterian kid in those days and a catechism is “a manual of religious instruction arranged in the form of questions and answers, used to instruct the young.”  In my case it was a little pink paperback copy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that began with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” followed by the answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what I was doing while I was polishing my shoes on the laundry room floor at the age of six: I was studying my catechism and saying out loud, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!” I wanted to be ready for Sunday school, although my mother (who was also my Sunday school teacher) would have told you that I should have shined my shoes and done my homework the night before.

Today we turn to the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue, from Luke, chapter 4, and the more I think about that story, the more I think about Jesus going to that synagogue when he was a little boy.  I don’t think he polished his shoes on the floor of the laundry room, but he, too, may have may have been studying for Sabbath school.  He may have been memorizing verses, or getting ready to answer his teacher’s questions.  At Temple Beth-El, just a few blocks down Grove Avenue from here, they offer “Tot Shabbat,” described as “a lively session for little ones and their parents with music, stories, and games!”  And back when my friend Ben Romer was alive he always tried to make sure that children were included in everything.

I remember visiting his synagogue on a Friday night, for their regular Shabbat service. Maybe it’s like this in every synagogue, but at Congregation Or Ami, when it was time to read from the Torah scroll, everyone got very excited.  Someone who may have been a deacon opened the special cabinet where the scroll was kept and lifted it into his arms like a very heavy baby.  It was covered in blue velvet, embroidered with Hebrew letters, and as he paraded it around the room people would reach out with their prayer shawls, touch the scroll, and then kiss their shawls.  But it wasn’t a solemn thing; it was a joyful thing—like a party!  People were clapping and singing in Hebrew, and I don’t know what they were saying, but it sounded sort of like (to the tune of Hava Nagila), “We’ve got a Bible! We’ve got a Bible! We’ve got a Bible, Yay, good for us!”  Yes, good for them, because a Torah scroll—which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, hand-lettered, on sheepskin parchment, with a quill pen—can cost as much as $100,000.  It’s not something you take for granted.

When the parade was over the Torah was brought to a big table in the center of the sanctuary where Rabbi Ben carefully removed the blue velvet cover.  Then he unrolled the scroll and began looking for the lectionary reading of the day (yes, there’s a Jewish lectionary, too).  When he found it he invited the children to come and join him.  And that’s when I noticed all the little step stools under the table; the children came and pulled them out and climbed up on them so they could see what Rabbi Ben was reading.  He took out a silver pointer (because you wouldn’t want to touch the actual scroll), and began to point to individual words and explain what they meant.  I remember that he pointed out one word that had been corrected.  He said, “Do you see this?  Where the scribe left out a letter?  We think that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it, but the scribe who wrote this scroll left out a letter right here and then he went back and tried to squeeze it in.  Do you see that?”  And they crowded in close to see.  If I use my imagination I can almost see Jesus as a child, in his hometown synagogue, leaning in close to look at the text as the rabbi explains the reading.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom,” Luke tells us.  Did you get that?  It was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.  That’s just what he did.  And he had been doing it since his parents brought him home from Bethlehem.  He continued to do it through his childhood and young adulthood.  He was still doing it when he was a full grown man.

It was his custom.

And when he walked into that synagogue in Nazareth that day everything would have been familiar to him: the smell of the sputtering oil lamps, the worn pulpit furniture, the face of his rabbi, the collection of sacred scrolls.  We know that they had a Torah scroll in that synagogue— you couldn’t have a synagogue without one—but thanks to Luke we also know that they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and I suspect it was one of their favorites.  I can imagine them bringing it out every other Sabbath and asking someone to read from it.  And I can almost picture Jesus as a boy, and then later as a young man, leaning in to savor the words of the prophet.  I think those words shaped his life.  I think they informed his ministry.  And I don’t think he was alone in that.

I believe that we, too, are shaped by worship, and formed by Scripture.  When we bring our children to church, when we present the first graders with Bibles, when we teach them to read and help them to understand we are saying, “This is important.  It matters.  If you make this a habit it will shape who you become.”  And we are speaking from experience.  I remember telling some of our new members, “There is something very special about coming to worship and sitting in a pew for an hour each week, about opening your mind and heart to receive a word from the Lord.  It’s a way of acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, that you need some help, and that you are listening for the voice of God.  That’s powerful.”

I read an article recently in which Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, made the claim that “Culture catechizes.”[i]  There’s that word again.  Did you hear it?  The same word from which we get catechism?  He said, “Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters.  Our current political culture has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them.  People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.

“On the flip side,” he said, “many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all.  They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate.”  But as Jacobs points out, even those pastors who really are committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people.  Sermons are short.  Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups.  Cable news, however, is always on.  “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?”

That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said. “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

But when people’s values are shaped by the media they consume, rather than by their religious leaders and communities, that has consequences. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs argued. “They make bank when we hate each other.  And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it.  The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.” [ii]

Jacobs knows about places like that.  He is a faithful Christian and a committed churchgoer.[iii]  I believe this place is a place like that, and I believe that when Jesus came to Nazareth, he, too, came to a place like that.  He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.  He had been doing it his whole life.  From the earliest days of childhood he had sat within the walls of that synagogue and allowed his life to be shaped by worship, formed by scripture.  He was catechized not by culture, but by the Word of the Lord.  So, when they handed him the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he knew exactly what to do with it, and he knew exactly where to find what he was looking for.  He unrolled the scroll to the place where it said,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And when he looked up from reading he saw people wiping tears from their eyes.  Because of all the beautiful passages in the Book of Isaiah, this one, from Isaiah 61, would have been one of their favorites.

Biblical scholar James Sanders once described it as “the going passage of the time,”[iv] and, just as we do, these people had applied it to themselves.  Living under Roman occupation, crushed under the heel of Tiberius Caesar, when it said that God was going to send someone to preach good news to the poor they said, “That’s us!”  When it said that God was going to send someone who would proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, they said, “Us again!”  When it said that God was going to send someone who would let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor they said, “Again, that’s us!”  So, imagine how astonished they must have been when Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There was a long pause between those words and the next words in this chapter, and we’re going to take a long pause—a full week—before we come back to what happened that day in Nazareth.  But I’m preaching a series called “the Truth about God,” and the truth I want to share with you today is this: God is still speaking.  You find it in our Old Testament lesson, when people begin to weep as they listen to Ezra read and interpret the Torah scroll.  You find it in the Call to Worship from Psalm 19, which says, “the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”  You find it in today’s Gospel lesson, when people were stunned by Jesus’ announcement that God’s word had been fulfilled.  And you find it in church, when children are given Bibles, and encouraged to read every word.

This year I’ve encouraged our adults to read every word of the Bible, and I want to tell you why.[v]  Just after I came to First Baptist I had coffee with one of our members who said, “I love what you’re saying about bringing heaven to earth, and I want to do that, but I don’t know where to begin.  There’s just so much I’m angry about.”  I said, “Tell me more.”  He said, “Well, I listen to talk radio in my car, and the more they talk the madder I get.  I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do.”  I said, “How long is your commute?”  He said, “About 45 minutes.”  I said, “Let me make a suggestion: instead of listening to talk radio, try listening to the Bible on CD, and then let me know how it’s going.”  I saw him a few weeks later and his face was almost glowing.  He said, “I did what you said!  I started listening to the Bible in my car!”  “And…?” I asked.  He said, “I’m not mad anymore.  In fact, just the opposite.  I feel like heaven is coming to earth inside my car!”

Your experience may be different.  The Bible isn’t easy to understand.  You may need some guidance along the way and this is a good place to get it.  But the truth about God is that God is still speaking, and the only question is this:

Are we still listening?

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2021.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Alan Jacobs” (academic), Wikipedia.

[iv] James A Sanders, God Has a Story Too: Sermons in Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 71.

[v] Jim Somerville, “Invitation to a Journey,” Jimsblog, December 14, 2021

Marked by Truth

The Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I didn’t have time to introduce it last week; I was too busy talking about Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism and that took up most of the sermon; but last week was the first week in a series that will take us all the way through the Season of Epiphany.  It’s called “The Truth about God,” and I started by talking about truth in general, about how hard it is to come by these days and how sometimes we still don’t know what to believe.  So, how can you be sure that the truth I’m going to share with you over these next few weeks is, actually, the truth about God?  Well, because I’m going to be talking to you about Jesus, who once referred to himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  If we can’t get the Truth about God from him, we probably can’t get it from anybody.

Last week I was reminded of a sermon I preached here on December 26, 2010—the First Sunday of Christmas.[i]  It was a sermon about the Incarnation, but in the introduction I talked about how we get to the truth about God.  I said: “As far as theological concepts go, incarnation isn’t as hard to grasp as the Trinity—the idea of one God in three persons—but it still isn’t easy.  One of the best treatments of the subject is in a book called God Was in Christ, written by Donald M. Baillie back in 1948 and still a classic.  Baillie writes, ‘It is astonishing how many people assume that they know what the word “God” means.  But it is still more astonishing that even when we profess Christian belief and set out to try to understand the mystery of God becoming man we are apt to start with some conception of God, picked up we know not where, an idol of the cave or of the market-place, which is different from the Christian conception, and then to attempt the impossible task of understanding how such a God could incarnate in Jesus.’  That is, instead of looking at God through the clear and well-focused lens of Christ we turn the telescope around, and look at Christ through our clouded, preconceived notions of God.  For example, if you begin with a God who is a kindly old grandfather, perhaps a bit senile, you will arrive at one understanding of Jesus, but if you begin with a God who is a stern and unforgiving judge you will arrive at another.

“I find this especially interesting in light of a book called America’s Four Gods, written by two professors at Baylor University.  According to Paul Froese (pronounced ‘phrase’) and Christopher Bader, the way Americans view God falls into four categories.  Using the results from a 2008 survey, the authors demonstrate that about 28 percent of Americans believe in an ‘authoritative God.’ ‘Someone who has an authoritative God believes in a God who is very judgmental and very engaged in the world at the same time,’ said Bader, adding that they also tend to be evangelical and male.  For 22 percent of Americans, mostly evangelical women, the Almighty is characterized as a ‘benevolent God’ who is thoroughly involved in their lives but is loving, not stern. ‘It’s definitely a personal relationship, like a friendship, like a companionship,’ said one. ‘Just in case somebody’s not there for you, he’s always there.’ Others believe in a ‘critical God’ who is removed from daily events but will render judgment in the afterlife.  Bader said, ‘We find a strong tendency for people who are at lower levels of income and education to believe in the “critical God.”’  The fourth and final way that those surveyed view God is a ‘distant God’ who set the universe in motion, but then disengaged.[ii]

“Can you see how your understanding of God would affect your ideas about the Incarnation?  If you thought of God as authoritative and judgmental, what kind of flesh would that God take on?  If you thought of God as loving and benevolent, what human form would that God assume?  What about a God who is critical?  Or a God who is distant and disengaged?  This is just the kind of problem Donald Baillie points out: that if we begin with our ideas about God and then imagine what sort of human form those ideas would take, we end up with a distorted understanding of the Incarnation.  Baillie writes, ‘It is only as Christians that we can hope to understand the Incarnation.’  That is, instead of starting with some vague, unformed notion of God and putting flesh on it, we need to begin with Jesus, and let him show us what God is really like.  But we don’t always do that.  David H. C. Read, the legendary pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, said, ‘We still find in our congregations many who struggle to fit the figure of Jesus into the image of God that they already possess.  They seldom seem to wonder where it came from.  Many sermons still seem to be based on the assumption that we all know what we mean by God and the Christian, particularly the preacher, has to demonstrate how the figure of Jesus can be shown to match this image.’[iii]

So, when we talk about the Word becoming flesh (as I was in that sermon), it makes a difference which word we start with.  Some people seem to think of Jesus as the incarnation of the word truth.  Others think of him as the incarnation of love.  Some seem to think of him as the incarnation of justice while others think of him as the incarnation of mercy.  What we need to do, instead of looking at a word, is to look at the Word—the capital “W” Word-made-flesh—and derive our understanding of God from him.  The author of John’s Gospel says as much.  In chapter 1, verse 18, he writes, “No one has ever seen God.  The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known.”  And that’s what Epiphany is all about: it’s about making God known.  It’s that season of the year when the light around Jesus begins to get brighter and brighter, when we begin to see him more and more for who he really is.  But this year let us agree that the more we see Jesus for who he really is, the more we see God for who God really is, that is, the more we learn “the truth about God.”  So, in the weeks ahead we might need to ask:

  • What kind of God would turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee? (next Sunday’s Gospel lesson).
  • What kind of God would preach in his hometown synagogue and eventually make the congregation so angry that they wanted to throw him off a cliff?
  • What kind of God would call a bunch of fishermen to be his disciples, telling them that from then on they would be catching people?
  • What kind of God would say to the crowds, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”?
  • What kind of God would say, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you?”
  • And, circling back to today’s Gospel lesson, what kind of God would come to the Jordan River and present himself for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?

It doesn’t make sense.

It didn’t make sense to John the Baptist.  In Matthew’s Gospel he says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  And Jesus replies, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Do you see those words chiseled in stone above our baptistery: “to fulfill all righteousness?”  Sometimes we get confused by that, and think baptism is what we have to do to fulfill our righteousness.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.[iv]

The word we translate as “righteousness” in this passage is the Greek word dikaiosune.  It may have been Paul’s favorite word, and when Paul used it, it meant something like “the right-making power of a righteous God,” that is, God’s ability to make us right with him rather than something we do to make us right with God.  If you look at it this way, Jesus’ baptism may have been one part of that right-making process, a process Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-11 by saying:

Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

“Do you see how the line of movement in that passage goes down and then back up again, how Christ shrugs off his glory and descends lower, lower, and lower, until he is at last in the grave, and then how God lifts him higher, higher, and higher, until every knee is bending and every tongue is confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord?  If Jesus is going to fulfill all righteousness, if he is going to be the one through whom God makes us right, then it isn’t enough for him to be “like” us, he must become one of us, and I believe that’s what he was doing in his baptism.  Paul says he was “born in human likeness,” he was “found in human form,” but in his baptism “he humbled himself.”  He waded out into water that was still muddy with human sin; he allowed himself to be immersed in the human condition; he came up one of us because it is only as one of us that he can do any of us any good.

I remember, early in my ministry, standing on a front porch hearing confession.  I had gone to visit a woman who had dropped out of church years earlier.  She didn’t invite me in, but as I stood there she told me how she didn’t think God could ever forgive her.  She had done a lot of bad things, she said, but the worst of those was turning her back on God after the death of her mother.  I tried to comfort her.  I told her we all make mistakes.  I said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes myself.”

“Don’t say that!” she snapped.  “Don’t tell me you’ve made mistakes.  You’re a preacher, and I put preachers up on a pedestal.”

And then I wanted to tell her what she had told me: “Don’t say that!”  Because I know what every preacher knows—I am only human, and as a human I share with people everywhere the human tendency to make mistakes, to sin.  I’m not proud of that, but I do know this: while it might be nice to be up on a pedestal you can’t do ministry from up there.  You might be able to hand down judgment or blessing but you can’t sit by someone’s hospital bed when you’re on a pedestal; you can’t hug someone who’s hurting; you can’t hear what someone confesses to you in a whispered voice.  Jesus knew this, and so, when John tried to put him up on a pedestal—when he told the crowds he wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, and when he told Jesus that he, John, should be baptized by him—Jesus said, “Let it be, John, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  In other words this is the way God has chosen to use his remarkable right-making power—by emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and eventually humbling himself by wading out into the waters of the Jordan.  Jesus was baptized with a bunch of sinners not because he, himself, was a sinner, but because he knew you can’t do ministry from a pedestal.  No one can.

Not even God.

I’m not sure John understood that.  I think his head was probably still full of questions when he finally consented and dipped Jesus down under the water.  But later, when Jesus was praying by himself, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased!” which makes me think that even if John didn’t get it, the Father did.  He knew what it would take to make us right.  It would take someone who was equal to God but not afraid to empty himself of his divinity, to come down off the pedestal, to be found in human form.  It would take someone who wasn’t ashamed to humble himself, to wade out into water still muddy with human sin and be immersed in the human condition.  It would take someone, in other words, who knew that what we needed was not a God who was up there, somewhere, but one who was right down here where we are.  That is to say that what we needed, more than any of us even knew…

…was Jesus.

—Jim Somerville © 2021

[i] Jim Somerville, “The Word Became Flesh,” a sermon preached on December 26, 2010, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

[ii] Information in this paragraph is from an article by Dan Harris and Enjoli Francis on the ABC News web site (“A Look at the 4 Ways Americans View God,” October 7, 2010).

[iii] David H. C. Read, “The Paradox of Incarnation” (The Living Pulpit, Vol. 3, No. 1 [January – March 1994], p. 38).

[iv] In the following paragraphs I pick up on some of the ideas presented in a sermon I preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in 2009 and later published in a book called The Seven FIRST Words of Christ (Nurturing Faith, 2020). The sermon is “Let It Be.” If you’d like a copy of the book, I would be glad to send you one. You can email me at


The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-55

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Today is the last Sunday of Advent, and this is the last sermon in a series called “Advent Treasures.”  Over the past few weeks we have dug down deep into the treasure chest of this season.  We have studied its rich history and traditions.  We have read the Scriptures and sung the hymns.  We have brought up the themes of Hope, Peace, and Joy, but today we hold up the jewel of Love, and the brilliant idea of love made flesh.

I’ve been thinking about that for years.

At my last church there was a woman who told me she wanted to get married, but couldn’t, because she couldn’t afford it.  I said, “Of course you can!  You and your fiancé can come down the aisle at the end of a regular worship service, but instead of asking to join the church you can ask to be joined in holy matrimony.  I’ll ask if anyone has any objections and if not you can say your vows, exchange your rings, and voila—you will be husband and wife!  If you do it during the Season of Advent so much the better, because you’ll already have a good crowd of people there; the choir will be robed and ready to sing; the church will be decorated for Christmas; and with a little bit of advance notice I can preach a sermon called ‘the Incarnation of Love’ that will be perfect for the occasion.”

She didn’t take me up on that offer, and it was probably for the best.  The man she wanted to marry wasn’t ready to marry her.  But I couldn’t seem to let go of that dream of doing a wedding as a part of a regular worship service, and at some point I must have shared it publicly because not long ago Tamara Witte told me that’s the way she wanted to get married.  Do you remember Tamara?  She was a student at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond when she was with us.  She interned here and was ordained here.  I don’t think it was because she couldn’t afford a regular wedding that she wanted to get married during a worship service; I think it was because she understood marriage at a level most people don’t: she understood it as the incarnation of Love.

She told me that she had dreamed of getting married since she was a little girl.  She had wondered what her husband would look like and what his name might be.  There were a few times in high school, when she thought she was getting close, that she wrote her first name followed by someone else’s last name, just to try it on.  But none of those had been the right one.  This one—whose name was Greg Walczak—turned out to be him.  He was an old friend from childhood who had recently lost his wife.  They re-connected during Tamara’s first ministry placement and before you know it they were talking about marriage.  Tamara was surprised.  She might not have picked that face.  She probably wouldn’t have picked that name.  But this is how incarnation works: what was only an idea at one time begins to take on human flesh until Love has a name, Love has a face.  In Tamara’s case it had the face and name of Greg Walczak.

On December 11, 2016, at the close of the regular worship service, Greg and Tamara came down the aisle while the congregation was singing “Joy to the World.”  Some of you may have been here.  Nobody but me knew why they were coming.  They might have assumed that they wanted to join the church.  But when I announced that Greg and Tamara had come to be married there was an audible gasp.  I asked if anyone had any objections.  No one did.   So, right there in front of God and everybody I asked Greg and Tamara to repeat the vows, exchange the rings, and within the space of five minutes they were husband and wife.  In my opinion it was perfect, or as close to perfect as such a thing can be.  It was the incarnation of Love, and a perfect illustration of that other incarnation, the one we celebrate at Christmas.

For so many of us God, like Love, begins as an idea.  We hear people talking about God in church, we sing hymns of praise to the Trinity, but in the beginning God is just an idea, and a very vague one at that.  God is “up there,” or “out there,” somewhere.  And—like Love—God often seems very far away.  But what the writers of the New Testament all seem to agree upon is this: that the abstract became concrete in a man with a particular face and a particular name— Jesus of Nazareth—who was, miraculously, God-in-the-flesh.  Rather than dig down into any single text this morning I’d like to take a broader look at how the New Testament bears witness to the idea of the Incarnation, and I’d like to begin with the Gospel of Mark.

Mark doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus, and so we don’t know whether or not he had any notion of a “virgin birth,” but he does say that when Jesus was baptized the sky was “ripped open” and a voice from heaven declared: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Whether or not Mark wants us to believe that Jesus was God’s son in any literal sense, he certainly wants us to believe that Jesus was God’s son in the sense that he did what was pleasing to God, and God loved him for it.

Matthew and Luke both write about his birth, and strive to show their readers that from the very beginning Jesus was the son of God.  Matthew says that an angel told Joseph in a dream that what was conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit, and adds that this was to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would conceive and bear a child whose name was “Emmanuel:  God with us.”  Luke tells the story differently but the outcome is the same.  In his version the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and amazes her by saying:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born [to you] will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

John doesn’t write about the birth of Jesus, but his version of the story makes the idea of incarnation remarkably clear.  He says in chapter 1 that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And then he says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (literally, “pitched his tent with us”).  There is no clearer statement of incarnational theology in the Bible.  If incarnation means “the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form” if it comes from Latin roots that mean “entering into flesh”; then John expresses that complicated abstraction with stunning simplicity:  God became human and pitched his tent among us;

The Word became flesh.

I didn’t get to do this at Greg and Tamara’s wedding, but at most of the wedding rehearsals I’ve done we practice that moment when the bride comes down the aisle toward the groom, and I tell the groom that it is his responsibility during that moment to have a look of absolute rapture on his face.  “Rapture!” I say, because his bride is going to be looking at him for some clue that she is doing the right thing.  In the same way, I think that the proper response to the Incarnation is rapture.  God isn’t coming down the aisle like a bride, in a beautiful wedding dress, but coming into the world as baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  It should make us gasp for breath, shout for joy, and today’s Gospel lesson has some of that quality to it.

It describes that moment when Mary realized that it was true—that the improbable announcement she received from the angel Gabriel was actually taking on flesh and bone within her womb.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, knew what no one else could imagine.  She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child 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!”  That’s when Mary threw back her head and began to sing the song we have come to know as the Magnificat.  “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sang, “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.”  It is the perfect response to the miracle of incarnation.

Paul wasn’t around for any of that.  He came on the scene a good bit later.  He never mentions the virgin birth.  In fact, he says very little about either the birth or baptism of Jesus; his focus is on the cross.  In Romans 1:3 he implies that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection—that in that act of power God raised him up, claimed him as his own, and vindicated his life and ministry.  But in some of his other writings Paul echoes the incarnational language that was circulating in the hymns of the early church.  One of them, in the first chapter of Colossians, claims that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” and that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  In the letter to the Philippians Paul quotes another hymn, saying:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Maybe you already knew it, but I wanted you to see that the consensus of Scripture is clear, and that in these writings we find a truth that is older and deeper than anything the present age has to offer:  Jesus of Nazareth was somehow, miraculously, God-in-the-flesh.  And if God is Love, as the Scripture says (1 John 4:16), then Jesus was the incarnation of Love in a way no one has ever been before or since.  What a gift to the people of his time and of ours!  Instead of remaining frustratingly abstract and forever distant God came near to us in Christ Jesus, entered into our own fragile state.  “He was born in human likeness,” Paul says.  “He was found in human form.”  It is a wonderful truth.  But it is also a dangerous one.  As long as you are God no one can hurt you.  When you become human you give up that invulnerability.  “He became obedient to the point of death,” Paul writes, “even death on a cross.”  Incarnation is risky business.

It was risky from the very beginning.  After Jesus was born his parents took him to the temple where Simeon sang his praises but also warned Mary that trouble was on the way.  In Matthew’s version no sooner was God-with-us than King Herod wanted to kill him!  The writer of Hebrews acknowledged that “becoming like his brothers and sisters in every way” also meant sharing in their suffering and sorrow.  And even as love is made flesh in a wedding ceremony we recognize the danger of it.  We cast the dark shadows of “worse,” and “poorer,” and “sickness,” over the bright promises of “better,” and “richer,” and “health.”  We feel it is our duty to warn anyone who would risk incarnation that you make yourself vulnerable this way; you open your heart like a fresh wound to another who may or may not be holding a handful of salt.

For God to do such a thing for us is to take the risk that we might abuse his gift, that we might seize Love-in-the-flesh and nail him to a tree.  Surely that shadow hung over the manger of Bethlehem, and surely God knew it, but still God did it, in the same way that people still get married.  If you ask the most honest among them they will tell you that they had to do it, that they were driven to it by a Love that had become so real, so strong, they really felt they had no other choice.

I think that’s how it was for God, too.

The Bible says that he loved the world, and that’s true.  He loved it so much he could no longer remain a distant abstraction from it.  He had to come near, had to make himself known.  Love gave him no other choice.  So he stripped himself of his invulnerability, emptied himself of his divinity, and entered—naked, frail, and tiny—into human existence.   It was a risky thing to do, and in the end it would prove to be the death of him.  But great love is capable of great risks, and is willing to take them for the sake of the Beloved.

That is what Christians celebrate in this season:  not gifts and toys and goodies, wonderful as they are, but the surprising truth that Love came down at Christmas, that the Word did indeed become flesh, and that in Jesus whom we call the Christ the incarnation of Love and the incarnation of God turned out to be one and the same.

—Jim Somerville © 2021