The journey from Epiphany to Lent brings us from the brightness of our dawning to the bleakness of our sinfulness. From God manifest as Lord of all to Godly power expressed in emptying itself of power. A babyweak, unarmed, and wise, in the words of 16th-century poet Robert Southwelloverturns a world.
These weeks we join generations of followers who wondered, perplexed as we, at ineffable light coming into sharpest focus on a cross. What a strange faith we profess.
Our life as children of the covenant is spent trying to make sense of this Jesus we claim to love, and of the God whose love claims us. This isnt mere headworkits what we do, how we love, the quality of our trust. In so doing we stand in a long line of faithful people who believe that death has lost its dominion here and now, all evidence to the contrary.
This mystery is ever new. No matter how many times we sit through the storiesthe Magi, Jesus baptism and that voice from heaven, his Transfiguration and testingold meanings are recovered and new ones generated.
The Bible speaks with many voices, diverse in style and theology. Try as we might to squeeze out a definitive Jesus or claim that our reading, however learned, is exhaustive, we will fail, and mercifully so. Matthew, John, Micah, and 2 Peter give us different takes on the same story of Gods covenant faithfulness, each reflecting a particular refraction of the light that shines in our darkness.
Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, is an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A Birth Announcement
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Set aside, if you can, some of that Midrash we call Christmas and step into Matthews world. Forget the manger, the Magnificat, shepherds, and an overstuffed innthey belong to Luke. Try to get "We Three Kings" and your neighbors illuminated front yard out of your head. Keep going back, past the medieval saints calendar telling how the Magi died as martyrs for the gospel. Beyond their names and faces, fixed in the seventh century.
You should be surrounded by a plurality of traditions, crammed together in a mish-mash of relocated people from across the empire. You and your fellow Jews have tested the limits of the tolerance Rome prides itself on, but your alternative take on reality doesnt leave room for even token assent to other gods. Now your temple has been destroyed and youre living in exile, but youre used to thisyour God has never taken apostasy sitting down.
Remember the long conversations you grew up around, working out the details and significance of Moses birth? Perhaps you imagined, as first-century Jewish historian Josephus did, that Egyptian persecution of the Hebrews resulted from a prediction of a marvelous child. Or that God announced Moses birth to his father in a dream, telling him that his son "shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt" (Antiquities).
Come back home now, and see Isaiahs estranged children returning homesons from far off, daughters on their nurses hips (Isaiah 60:4) The promise thenthe promise nowis that Yahweh will come through on Yahwehs singular claim to authority. Birth announcements written in the stars dont bode well for competing empires, no matter how cozily we reside within.
Becoming the Covenant
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Once again, pay attention to where we are. Details that might seem insignificant to us were loaded with meaning for Matthews audience.
The Jordan river, the site of Jesus baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), is the same place where Elijah ascended in a fiery horse-drawn chariot, at which point his spirit fell in double portion on Elisha, his successor (2 Kings 1:11). Elijahs assumption was taken as a sign that he would some day return as the inaugurating moment of the Day of the Lord, prophesied in Malachi 4:5.
John the Baptist, in his "clothing of camels hair with a leather belt around his waist," looks exactly like Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 ("a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist"). And where there is an Elijah, theres a twice-as-powerful Elisha. All of which lends support to the texts portrayal of Jesus baptism as much more than a ritual cleansing. Coming up from the water, he receives his portion of Gods Spirit, punctuated by a voice from heaven that identifies him as the "Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).
Acts recalls this moment differently. While Peter is still coming down from his visions of impure foods dancing in his head, the Spirit tells him to get ready for three visitors (remember Abraham and the three strangers in Genesis 15?). According to Peters catechism-like summary of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, John the Baptist only announces the baptismit is God who does the anointing (Acts 10:37).
In baptism, Christians become one with Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. We get written into the text, becoming the covenant Isaiah writes of, "given...to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness" (Isaiah 42:6-7).
The Father or the Son?
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Another layer of Jesus meaning is presented, here, in the only place in scripture where Jesus is called the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The image of Jesus as the final scapegoatthe necessary offering to make us cleanappears in a different form in Revelation, there in apocalyptic triumph over the forces of the present age and as herald of the new.
John the Baptist insists, "I myself did not know him" (John 1:33). "The one who sent" the Lamb gives John the signthe "one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." This, so Jesus "might be revealed to Israel" (John 1:31).
Notice that we are in the fourth gospel, not Matthew. Johns logos was in the beginningalways eternal, co-equal with the Fatherwhereas Matthew isnt as evidently concerned with Jesus eternal divinity.
By now weve harmonized the four gospels, if only in our heads, and pass over the differences easily, yawning through the Nicene Creed. But in the third and fourth centuries, people were so caught up with trying to work out Jesus relationship with the Father that public demonstrations were organized, complete with chants and slogans.
Gregory of Nyssa complained in "On the Deity of the Son," one of his five Theological Orations (circa 381 C.E.), that "The whole city is full of it, the squares, the marketplaces, the crossroads, the old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: They are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of a reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask Is my bath ready? the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing."
Leave Your Nets
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus begins to announce the kingdom of heaven at hand, echoing John the Baptists cry in Matthew 3:2. The Greek word translated "come near" in the NRSV is eggizo. Here it is in its perfect tense, suggesting something that has happened in the past and come to completion, and yet has lasting impact for all time. This carries the linguistic implication of being perpetually in the state of happening: the kingdom of heaven is always in the midst of drawing nearimminently imminent, as it were.
Two chapters later, Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus explications of what this kingdom both looks like and requires. Deceptively simple, even the beatitudes leave ample room for interpretation.
Paul, writing to the community in Corinth, pastorally intervenes in an all-too familiar scenario. Left to their own devices, ideological camps have formed with competing schemes for sanctity and true believing. Paul implores them to remember whose they are, "so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power" (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Just what is the power of the cross? Left to our own devices, it has been a most effective weapon of oppression, used to justify suffering and thereby pervert everything Jesus stood for. As theologian Jon Sobrino insists, suffering people need to be taken off of the cross, not to have their "crosses" sanctified.
To choose to follow, like those fishermen who "immediately left their nets" (Matthew 4:20), is to throw our lot in with the God who expresses divine power by giving completely, in full knowledge of the consequences. In doing so, the power of that ultimate threatdeathhas been unseated. Have we come anywhere close to grasping this?
Let me put it another way. Do we love with abandon, no matter how imprudent, uncool, or tasteless we appear? Does fear paralyze us from living as if we neednt fear death? Does shame blind us to how forgiven we truly are?
Have I Wearied You?
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Moses ascends the mountain, talks with Yahweh, and comes back with clay tablets. Jesus goes up, sits down, and begins teaching, acting as mediator and content of the new covenant. Written on hearts of flesh, Jesus covenant demands absolute loyalty.
Two kinds of covenants reside in the Hebrew scriptures: the Abrahamic/patriarchal covenant (preferred by kings)an unconditional pledge of faithfulness from God, who is bound to uphold the covenant. And the Mosaic/Sinai covenant (favored among prophets)a conditional bond that obliges the people to uphold Gods stipulations, else God is released from his end of the deal.
Micah, in true prophetic fashion, casts his lot with Moses. Using the image of a covenant lawsuit (in Hebrew, rib), Gods people are tried in front of the heavenly courts, charged with infidelity. As soon as Israel is in the defendants seat, Yahweh turns the trial around and demands that they come forth with a charge against Yahweh. "What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!" (Micah 6:3).
More courtroom drama followsthe evidence presented is a rehearsal of Yahwehs history of hesed (steadfast love or covenant grace)in a guilt trip that would put any child to shame. Remember how you were set free? God asks. Remember how I intervened with the Moabites, using Balaam (in Hebrew, "not of the people") and his donkey to send King Balak packing? You must have forgotten. Why else would you act with such an appalling lack of mercy and justice (not to mention ingratitude)?
Israels reply, sardonically scripted by Micah, is rapid appeasementelaborate offerings, exaggerated rituals, anything to get them out of court as quickly as possible.
Theyve missed the point. As covenant children, theyre obligated to imitate Yahwehs hesed. Theyve bound themselves to a way of life that must act in all thingsnot just the culticout of the heart of God.
Glimpse Gods Glory
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Now things take a turn for the weird. The Transfiguration, observed traditionally in this last Sunday before Lent, brings Epiphany to a close with another divine irruption into the earthly. This is a tough passage for modern (and post-modern) Christians to swallowapocalyptic visions seem irrelevant at best, escapist at worst.
But apocalyptic literature is immensely political. Contemporary author Timothy LaHayes dramatizations of life amidst the rapture are full of social commentary and political interpretations of the kinds of behaviors and identities that land people on either side of judgment day.
Apocalyptic literature, as theologian Pablo Richard explains, sees the world as so corrupt that reform is impossiblea complete destruction of the current system is necessary before God will build a new world. Writing in Apocalypse: A Peoples Commentary on the Book of Revelation, Richard explains, "The prophet acts within the existing world; [the] apocalyptic condemns the existing order and announces the building of another world."
Jesus and his community are immersed in this apocalyptic sensibility. Powers and principalities vie for controlnot just of souls, but of bodies, economies, and nations. It is fitting that just after they come down from the mountain, Jesus frees a boy plagued by a demon (Matthew 17:14-21).
What we have here is an eschatological visiona glimpse of Gods glory like the one Moses catches on Mount Sinai and which is being fulfilled in Jesus. Like the visions in Daniel and Enoch, Jesus, the seer, is transported temporarily into the cosmic realm. This breakthrough moment means the barrier between the cosmic and earthly realms, which always co-exist and yet remain mutually exclusive, has been rent open.
To Be Human
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
In Matthews gospel, Jesus refuses to step outside of the confines of humanity. No matter what good ends are dangled in front of him, he resists displays of might, choosing to draw people to him by remaining faithful to his full identification with us.
So why is it that the Spirit, not the devil, leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested (Matthew 4:1)?
Matthews world wasnt as troubled as we might be by the idea that Jesus, needed to be tested to prove himself fit for the apocalyptic struggle at hand. The Greek diabolos is not the devil we love to hate. Even the term Jesus usesSatan or the Prince of Demons (Matthew 12:24)can be translated, simply, as adversary.
The adversary reaches back to Job, where the accuser (Hebrew ha-satan) resembles the spies kings employed to sniff out sedition. These ancient narcs had equivalents in the pantheonlesser gods who tested peoples fidelity. So when Satan suggests that Jobs fidelity be tested, hes just doing his job.
Does God really cause suffering to see what were made of? Or does a whole lot of suffering stem from a disdain of creaturely dependence?
Isnt that what Genesis 2 portrays? Rather than live as recipients of Gods gifts, Adam and Eve swap their humanness for a cheap imitation of omniscience. This propensity to grasp rather than receive infects our lives, crafting economic and political structures that protect our own at the expense of others, and creep into the tiny choices we make every day between loving or resisting love.
As poet Scott Cairns writes in "The Entrance of Sin," published in Recovered Body,"For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the mans hand and he withheld it...." This take on the root of suffering is quite stunning: In Cairns eyes, it is a tiny act of withholding love, of which we are all so guilty.
When We Love, God Loves
Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Psalm 121, in my family, was the vacation psalm. Every summer wed read it early in the morning of departure, just before loading into the packed car. It was a tradition my father carried over from his family, and which I brought with me to Sojourners, adapting it for when wed pray people off to places not known as choice vacation spots, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Colombia, and Sudan.
Such beautiful promisesYahweh will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. The Lord will keep you from all evil; she will keep your life (Psalm 121:3).
Kind of cheeky to walk around as if this were so, dont you think? Feet stumble, the sun strikes. In our neighborhoods, across the globe, in those tender and most vulnerable places of our relationships, evil seeps in. What right do we have to pretend that our travels enjoy some privilege with God, while the rest of the world can go to hell?
But whats this in Genesis 12? "I will make you a blessing." "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3).
Weve inherited this covenant promise as well. We, children of the new covenant, are Gods pledge to this world. When we love, he loves. Where we go, she goes. And when we refuse to be shade, or walk in those places of great danger, Gods saving work, strangely given to us, is hampered somehow.
Whatever was God thinking?