In our current idiom, faith has become something rather foolhardy, something risky and uncertain. We might say, "that requires a lot of faith"-meaning a sensible person would do something else. This month's readings challenge us to reexamine our understanding of faith and what it means in our lives. The scripture for weeks three and four contain the element of risk we often associate with faith. Abraham is called to leave the security of his homeland for an unknown future, and the Israelites and Paul experience the sufferings that can beset us when we answer God's call in our lives.
But readings for the first two weeks counterbalance this. Peter's letter talks of the importance of focusing on the fact that Jesus' power and glory will be revealed in our world. The temptation narrative in Matthew reminds us that true faith in God can give us insight into the truth-far beyond the superficial untruths that temptations offer us. Following God can feel risky, but underneath everything there is a certainty. Faith involves allowing the details of our lives (such as where we live and what we do) to be uncertain while knowing that the fundamentals are unshakeable. The difference between a life of faith and a life of unbelief is that a life of unbelief contains only the details with nothing to underpin them; a life of faith has solid foundations, which make the details much less important. Paula Gooder is a lecturer at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, England, and a freelance biblical lecturer and writer.
Focusing on the Light
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9>
The season of Epiphany celebrates the transforming, transfiguring power of God's glory. There is no better place to end this season than with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. For here the glory that had been hinted at, and glimpsed occasionally during Jesus' life, was revealed with full force to Peter, James, and John. Here we are left with no doubt that in Jesus, the full glory of God is revealed to the world. But the story does not end there.
The story of the Bible is one of increasing inclusion. In Exodus, Moses goes alone to the top of a high mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and to encounter the glory of God that settled on the mountain for six days. In Matthew, three disciples go to the top of a high mountain where they encounter Jesus, transfigured and glorious. Today's epistle, however, reminds us that this is only the beginning. Though important in itself, the transfiguration also points to the "power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:16). Here Jesus' glory will be obvious not just to a few chosen ones on the top of a mountain, but to the whole world.
This reading reminds us of the importance of looking ahead to when Jesus' power and glory will shine forth. This, the author tells us, is something we should be attentive to "as to a lamp shining in a dark place" (2 Peter 1:19). What a wonderful image! This hope that God's glory will break forth in the world transforming, enlivening, and invigorating all people truly is a shining light in our dark world. Focusing on this, rather than on the darkness, cannot help but transform us and the way we live our lives.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Midway through the readings for this week, the famous quote from playwright Oscar Wilde popped into my mind: "I can resist everything except temptation." In different ways, these readings raise the question of how we deal with temptation, and they present two ways of responding: as Eve and Adam did or as Jesus did. Paul pushes the point home in Romans: Eve and Adam's way brought death, and Jesus' way brought life: Which will you choose?
Eve and Adam's response to temptation in the garden of Eden is epitomized by Wilde's quotation. They were overwhelmed by temptation without thinking through the consequences of what violating God's requirement would mean. Even before they were evicted from the garden, things had changed. After they had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they no longer felt comfortable in God's presence and sought to hide. Their actions spoiled their relationship with God even before God had spoken to them about it. The problem with temptation is that it clouds our judgment and crowds us with alluring opportunities that often mask the truth. It is only after we have given in to them that we realize the truth of our choices.
In great contrast, Jesus, in Matthew's temptation narrative, sees right to the heart of what he's being offered. While each temptation was, on the surface, relatively innocent, Jesus understood what they meant in practice, for each one required him to turn his back on God and what God wanted for the world. Our modern, Western culture encourages us to be seduced on so many sides by the superficial falsehoods of temptation. The way of Christ demands that, like Jesus, we see the deep truths of choices that we make and proclaim them to the world. Which will you choose?
Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Was Abraham faithful or just plain stupid? It depends on who is making the judgment. With hindsight, we see Abraham as a man of deep faith and trust in God. To his contemporaries, however, he must have appeared crazy. He was prepared to leave the security of a settled, urban life for the danger of a nomadic future spent wandering across inhospitable Middle Eastern deserts looking for a new home. He even took his family with him on this wild adventure.
Faith requires us to make decisions using evidence that others cannot see. God's call on our lives so often demands that we throw caution to the wind and, like Abraham, set out to who knows where? God did not even tell Abraham where to go; God simply said leave this country and "go to the land that I will show you."
In our journey of faith we often act as though we are rock climbing, keeping firm hold with one hand (and two feet!) while we reach tentatively for the next handhold. God, however, calls us to rappel, kicking off with both feet and free falling from the top of a cliff, trusting that the rope will hold. Others looking on-who cannot see the rope-will exclaim at our foolishness.
In John, Nicodemus is poised on the edge of the cliff-will he launch himself off or turn and walk away? John does not tell us at the time; we only learn the answer later when, at great risk to his own safety, Nicodemus went with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. Like Abraham, Nicodemus discovered what it meant to live a life of faith. The call is costly but the reward is priceless.
By God's Standards
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
The readings last week were about responding to God's call. This week two of the readings focus on, among other things, keeping the flame of faith alive. It is hard to overcome fear sufficiently to follow God's call in the first place; it is even harder to persevere with this call when the going gets tough. In Exodus, the Israelites began to waver almost immediately. They had just crossed the Red Sea, but began to wish that they had not left Egypt: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 16:3). They doubted whether God was with them at all: "Is the Lord among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7). They quickly became discouraged when things did not go as expected, and began to doubt God's presence.
Human nature does not change much. We so easily believe that immediate success will meet us when we follow God's call. These passages suggest this is not the case. The Israelites began to starve, and Paul experienced numerous sufferings, though on this occasion he does not declare what they are. Worldly success and godly success work on different principles and timescales. By worldly standards, Moses was a disastrous leader; he led the Israelites out of slavery only to wander around with them in the desert for 40 years. He died before he reached the promised land. In some ways, Paul also could be considered a failure (and indeed was thought to be something of a failure by the Corinthian church). Yet Moses and Paul are two of the great heroes of our faith. This surely tells us that godly success is judged by very different criteria than we might expect. It challenges us to revisit those things we consider to be a success or a failure and to ask on whose criteria they succeed or fail.