I have to admit. I was a bit baffled this week by the relationship between the Gospel and the first and second lessons. Not that we have to make a connection every time, that’s for sure. But you never know what interpretive gem might surface when you put texts in conversation, which is why the lectionary frequently fascinates me.
But I stuck with it for a while, and here’s what I started seeing. Abraham and Sarah? To what extent they “deny themselves” just as Jesus asks. But it’s not a denial of the self. It’s a denial of remaining by themselves. That is, they deny a life that is autonomous, secured, enclosed, safe, and just the two of them, for a life that propels them into relationship – with God and with a future realized by abounding relationship.
I wonder if this is exactly what Jesus means.
Because I have to say “deny yourselves” has always been problematic for me. It rubs against my incarnational theology that says who I am matters to God. And Jesus wants me to deny that? No thanks. I’ve worked really hard to be me. I’m not giving that up now. And denial is ever so popular during Lent. So we jump on the denial bandwagon and give up all and sundry aspects of our lives that actually might simply give us joy.
Moreover, I think way too much of that kind of denial happens in church, especially for preachers. You know what I mean. To be someone or something you are not. To eschew your truth for the sake of the truth of the Gospel. What do you deny about yourself for the sake of your ministry? And that whole business of “getting out of the way” when you preach to let the Word of God be heard? That’s a load of crap. If God wanted us to get out of the way, God wouldn’t have decided to become human in the first place.
So, what if we take deny “yourself” totally literally? Hang in with me here.
That is, you deny your selfhood when it rescinds relationship. You deny your autonomy when it refuses community. You deny your individualism when it rejects intimacy.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross can also mean – not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying. At least today I do.
Because Lent cannot be just about yourself. Somehow, you have defined your identity as that which is connected to Christ and to a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is this radical communal experience in many ways. People willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People willing to talk about their Lenten disciplines – out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize it’s not just about our own selves. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, the self that refuses community. The self that thinks it can survive on its own. The self that rejects the deep need of humanity – belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. It’s an invitation to imagine that your self needs the other. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what to be human is all about – intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others in our lives acknowledging, regarding who we are. We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to be become narcissistic in its truest form, where those around you are only pawns to placate your self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do as a pastor, as a preacher. And this is where a lot of pastors and preachers go array. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Your own sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “deny yourself.” The sense that your own authority trumps that of your people, the Scripture, and our God.
And we have seen it. Perhaps even done it. So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on ourselves alone and seek the help of others. To deny the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some sort of skewed assertions that we have all the answers. To deny the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our own worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that you can’t live in this world, you can’t live your life, without your self being in relationship.
A different kind of denial indeed.
The first Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation. Always. But when was the last time you noticed just how brief Mark’s temptation story is? It’s virtually non-existent. A summary only. To the point. No details really. Just that it happened. One could say, and you probably have, “Well, that’s Mark for you. The Reader’s Digest Condensed Version” of the Gospel.” Of course, Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation would be abbreviated!
It’s kind of hard to preach on the temptation of Jesus when there’s not much to go on. Sure, you could bring in Matthew and Luke, but that’s Matthew and Luke. What if we take Mark seriously? Mark – why so short? Not important? Should we be paying attention to something else?
Maybe temptation doesn’t matter as much to Mark, or it matters differently. So then, what does matter? In asking that question it appears that I am giving more weight to the baptism of Jesus which is as brief as his temptation. Which wins? If you choose temptation, then you have to read forward in Mark. What tempts Jesus? What tempts us? Yet Jesus’ baptism totally matters for Jesus’ temptation, as you know. God rips apart the heavens. The Spirit descends. The Spirit enters into Jesus. It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on Satan in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God.
It’s that now, all battles with evil, with that which tempts us, the game is changed because God is present. We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, “While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out.” We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith, intimates our inability to thwart sin. It seems we are even good at pretense before God.
But that’s where Jesus’ temptation in Mark should shatter our carefully constructed faith worlds, or at least the ones we create for the eyes of others only. Jesus goes into the wilderness, not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to rip to shreds any boundary, any structure, any ecclesiology, any denomination, any doctrine that would separate him from God. He enters the wilderness only with the promise of God’s presence. Not with fighting skills, not with self-help strategies, not with techniques for passing the tests, but only his personal knowledge because of God’s direct words to him alone that God will be there. To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark means that our preaching task is not to offer a list of temptations that tempted Jesus that then we should be able to deflect. Really? We are talking about Jesus, after all.
To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark is to call attention to our greatest temptation – the temptation to think that God is not present.
We are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.
To preach Mark 1:9-15 as the first Sunday in Lent is to say clearly, unapologetically, without any doubt, that God is present in it all. We will not have the same temptations as Jesus. And naming Jesus’ temptations as some sort of comfort in our experience of the same implies that we can get through it, whatever “it” may be. But, we are talking about Jesus. JESUS!! The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there.
God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most.
Oh wow, preachers. The beginning of Lent. Are you ready? I am imagine you are. Your Lenten theme is in place. Small groups are lined up. Soup suppers are in control. Dramas are written. You are READY!
Yet, when I sat down to write this column for Ash Wednesday, I was reminded of a cartoon. The first picture/caption is “Christ is Risen!” with the pastor decked out in all of the expected Easter regalia, at least in my denomination – alb, white stole, cross – and surrounded by lilies and white paraments. In the next frame, we see the pastor collapsed in a heap with the caption, “And the clergy is dead.”
Is that ever the truth! Lent is hard. That’s probably the understatement of the year, right? It’s a sprint to Easter. You know that. But how do you get from here to there, and maybe without collapsing in a heap?
Recently I was asked by the marketing department of Luther, “what does Lent mean to you?” I fear they may never ask me again to respond to their questions. Because here’s what I said about Lent – “If it means giving up things, constant reminders of how worthless and temporary I am, any glorification of suffering, then it means nothing to me. If it means embracing the importance of self-reflection when it comes to your identity as a disciple, who you believe Jesus to be, what (if anything) the cross really means to you, how you understand the meaning of the resurrection, and that you take the resurrection forward to the meaning of the ascension, then Lent has meaning to me.”
Do you feel that Lent needs to conform to ecclesiological and liturgical determinations? Do you feel obliged to present and preach Lent in a certain way, with a certain ethos, so as to create a sense of appropriate contrition and confession? The right mood of penitence and remorse?
What does Lent mean to you? If you haven’t answered this question in recent years, then maybe that’s why Lent seems less than appealing. But it seems worth contemplating, especially when we are asking our parishioners to do the same.
The goal of Lent is not to get through it. What does Lent need to be for you this year? I wonder how your members would respond, to hear from you what Lent means for you, what you are doing, or not doing, as the case may be, to mark this liturgical season or to make these forty days meaningful.
I have a feeling that they would be relieved. “Wait. I don’t have to berate myself with my inadequacies? I don’t have to think of myself as a worthless soul, whose only redemptive value is in what God sees in me? Wait, I don’t have to give up all kinds of things, things that actually give me joy? Maybe I could embrace things, do more of the things that matter to me?” This could be a different kind of Lent.
You, we, model Lent for those to whom we minister. I get that many of you will read this and say, well, that what’s Lent is all about. It’s about discipline. Determination. Denial. Then maybe you will just stop reading. That’s ok. But for those of you who wonder, can Lent be different? Can Lent be about…?
How you preach Ash Wednesday and this Lent, indeed sets the tone for imagination about this season in the church year. What your parishioners hear what Lent means for you and not a third person, ecclesial explanation of what Lent should mean, could make a difference. What if you invite them into their own imagination for and commitment to this season that might be shaped by their own place in life and place in faith and not what they perceive the church needs them to think?
I wonder. If you actively engage and invite those in your church to imagine Lent in the way they need to, maybe that will give you permission to do the same.
This season needs to be about you as much as it needs to be about those to whom you minister. Because as soon as you detach, as soon as you offer a third person, “This is what we should do for Lent” your people will say, “well, why?” Can you answer that question? If you can’t, then rethink what you are doing for the next six weeks and what Lent means for you.
Preach Lent. Preach the season. Preach the lessons through the lens of liturgical determinations. But then, and maybe before, answer yourself, “why Lent, why the season, what difference does it make?”
Because then those listening to your sermons will actually hear you and say, “Wow. Maybe this really matters. It doesn’t have to matter in the way it matters to Pastor… But now I can imagine for myself what it matters to me.
And then maybe, when you arrive at Easter Sunday, you will recall the cartoon I mentioned above and say, “Actually I am not dead. In fact, I think I have been resurrected.”
The last week of January, Luther Seminary hosted its annual Midwinter Convocation – a popular event for many, but especially alums. For the first time this year there was an opportunity to have breakfast with the faculty. At my table, one attendee had not missed a Convo in 48 years! This year’s topic was “Religious but not spiritual.” Why am I telling you all of this? Because in reflecting on how to preach the meaning of the Transfiguration, I was struck by the fact that at the heart of the whole conversation around religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious is the desire to experience transfiguration here and now, regardless of the terminology we choose to use. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the numinous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder.
Whether spiritual or religious, either way, there is a need to know transfiguration in our lives.
That’s what Peter wants, right? I am not so sure that he wants to keep Jesus and his friends in tents forever. Peter wants to encapsulate the experience. He wants to capture the feeling.
Transfiguration matters, it seems. It’s not just a convenient event to mark the Sunday that bridges Epiphany and Lent. It’s not just a bizarre story that might cause some Christian embarrassment.
We need transfiguration.
What if we take Jesus out of the picture? Then we realize that this story is not just Jesus’ revelation of his glory but the fact that what we wish for is our own sense of glory. Not in a narcissistic, look at me, kind of way. But a recognition of the deep human need for transformation, change, conversion, makeover, alteration, metamorphosis.
We need transfiguration as much as Jesus needed to be transfigured.
Liturgically, biblically, christologically, the transfiguration is a turning point, a transition from one way of seeing Jesus to another. Its’ not just about securing the Jesus of the future or holding on to the Jesus of the past but points to the real human struggle with change, with transformation.
Transformation is hard. Change is hard. Traversing from one place to another, from one way of being to another? It’s easier to stay the same. Stay the course. Convince yourself that what you’ve always known is satisfactory and sufficient even when you have glimpsed what could be.
So we just sit. We wait. For what? The right time? The right place? All of our questions answered? Everything figured out? All of our proverbial ducks in a row?
This is why the transfiguration rocks. It just shows up. There is no right time. It just happens. Now what? No amount of planning can predict the right kind of change. No amount of preparation can prepare you for an altered reality or an altered perspective. No amount of strategizing can make you ready for a transfiguration to be truly a transfiguration.
I think that Peter’s issue is not so much about holding Jesus to his expectations. Nor is it capturing the moment.
I think Peter’s issue is the realization that if Jesus changes, then Peter will be changed as well. “I cannot be the same. I will also be transfigured, transformed. And maybe I don’t want that. So, let’s pitch some tents, keep things the way they are, hunker down, and ride it out. Maybe the whole thing will just pass by. I can come out of my tent and all will still be the same. Jesus will be the same. I will still be the same.”
So that’s why the Transfiguration. Jesus gets this. What will it be that gets you to move, to come out of your tent, or maybe even not to want pitch one in the first place?
Rather than blame Peter for his myopia, maybe we admit our own. I am guessing that not much about human nature has changed in the two thousand years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. Transfiguration means exposure. I mean, look at Jesus. You can’t miss him. Vulnerability is less than comfortable but it seems absolutely essential for life and thus for a life of faith. At least Jesus seems to think so. When we exchange vulnerability for certainty all we do is live the lie that authenticity does not matter. That the truth of who we are can be absconded by our denominational structures, doctrinal commitments, and dogmatic insistences, that is, our tents that we secure, pounding stake by stake into the ground.
Tents are not just about shelter. They repel the forces of nature. They keep out that which might harm. They keep as much in as they keep out.
And Transfiguration will rip our tents into shreds.
Transfiguration means change. We think we welcome change, but when it actually happens, we adopt stances of resistance and rejection. Or convince ourselves that the change can wait. That it really isn’t necessary. That the time is not right. That the problems that will ensue are not worth the result of living into who we really are.
Transfiguration means a new way of seeing the world. And replacing the lenses of our lives is a lot more complicated than picking out new fashionable frames.
Because at the heart of the matter is that transfiguration not only signals change, but alters life’s direction. It certainly did for Jesus. And when that happens, well, no tent in the world is going to give you the security you think you want or need. Because when we shore up the shelters that protect us from harm we also run the risk of keeping out that which is so very, very good.
Dear Karoline: I follow your posting since you took over from David Lose and thank you for your regular weekly powerful insights, particularly this week! You made it simple to grasp and with hope.Many thanks for inspiring us week in and week out.
Full disclosure. I do not like hockey, I really, really don’t. This coming from a Minnesota resident whose 13-year old son is a big time hockey player. My reason? I am a native Californian. Need more reasons? I don’t get it. I’m not a big sports fan. And then there’s this: I just think that if it takes 45 minutes to put stuff on your body to protect yourself from serious injury, well, maybe that’s something you should not be doing in the first place. Also, being in the warming room, locker room, whatever you want to call it, helping my son get on the gear and lace up the skates, here’s the thing, there’s simply not enough deodorant in the world to make that smell go away. And then after the game, the gear and the boy get in my car.
What am I doing here? I don’t like hockey. I’m freezing my you-know-what off even in an indoor ice rink and not even my venti nonfat no-foam latte from Starbucks can help.
But there I am. As many games as I can attend, swearing I would never do this, but screaming with the rest of parents, “Get in there, Stellan! Go for the puck! Ice it!” like my son could even hear me. And like I even know what I am saying. And here’s the weird thing. I am actually now watching the games and get some things. And I’ve started to realize, wow, this is a really hard sport. This takes a lot of skill. It’s a fight for the puck at every turn. For all intents and purposes, this is exciting! Yet, at the same time, I’m watching my son’s head hit the ice, a lot of very sharp skates coming dangerously close to his face, and wondering if the gear that took 45 minutes to put on will really protect him. Really. And I think concussions. And CTE. And checking next year.
What am I doing here?
This is the question you ask when you are called back to yourself.
You see, hockey reminds me who I am. Yes. I am a preacher, a teacher of preachers. A scholar. An author. A theologian. And I spend a lot of time doing and being all of those things. And maybe too much time. Because I am also a mom.
What am I doing here? Maybe this was the question Simon’s mother-in-law asked when she first realized she was healed.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is a classic healing story. It’s all fine and good. It’s what Jesus does. It’s what he’s good at. But there is something sort of disturbing about this story that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with healing. “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” What? She’s healed so that she can serve? Whom? Did she want to? That’s all she could do? Didn’t she have any other aspirations? If you are brought back from the edge, from almost death, or from the brink of what you thought your life had to be, shouldn’t there be something else for you, some sort of new vocation, new career, new identity? And she served them? As if that was what she was expected to do. As if that was the only thing she thought she could do. As if that was the only thing she could do?
But, what if the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law was bringing her back to be the mother she always was and that she always wanted to be? And in being brought back to who she was, she became a disciple, called to minister, to serve, like the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness and like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve?
Have you ever felt like God has brought you back from the brink…to yourself? That you were called back from a place that was not fully you, to be you?
Jesus lifted her up. What if resurrection is being raised up to be who you always were and were always meant to be? That it won’t be hilltop houses, driving 15 cars, or bathrooms you can play baseball in (Rockstar, Nickelback) but the radical, emotional, incredible feeling of being you. That being raised up is not just some sort of spiritual future but your present reality, here and now, to live you. Your mind, spirit, body, everything together, everything that you were always meant to be. The story of Simon’s mother-in-law tells us that God does not call us to be something we are not but is in the business of restoring us to who we really are.
Of course, most of the time it’s easier to live on the brink, to surround yourself with people and projects and performances that allow you to pretend this is you, that let you avoid the feelings and frustrations and fears that come with acknowledging what is important in your life. It is so hard to live who you are. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, “The world is full of people who will go their whole lives and not actually live one day. I do not intend on being one of them.”
I think a lot of us spend a good part of our lives living on the periphery of ourselves.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and I so wish she had a name, is God being, living who God is. God called Jesus to be who he was. That’s what the incarnation is all about. Jesus didn’t go around pretending to be something that he wasn’t. “Please, please, let this cup pass. My God, my God, why have you forsaken ME?” are not laments about what should be but the truth about what is. Being human is to what God committed God’s self and therefore, being who we are is what God wants us to be. God brings us back from the brinks of our lives, from despair, from disease, from desperation, to live. Because then, maybe, we will actually know, feel, and get that we are a part, that God needs us to be a part, of what’s at stake for God when God decided to become one of us.
Jesus will take you by the hand. God will raise you up. When you are brought back from the edge, from the brink, your question will be that of Simon’s mother-in-law, “What am I doing here?” What will your answer be? “I am ___________.” That’s who God wants me to be. This is who I am.
What you do reveals who you are.
But more than walk your talk, your actions are revelations of your true identity – who you are at your core.
The Gospel writers got this truth. It’s frequently helpful to place the four evangelists side by side for comparison when it comes to preaching. Now I know, many of you would rather poke forks in your eyes than have to engage in a redaction criticism exercise in preparation for a sermon. But in the case of Jesus’ first public act in his ministry according to each Gospel? Well, this is the big reveal. You want to know who Jesus is and not wait until the end of the story? Then take a look at his first public act in each of the Gospels and then ask, “according to that, just who is Jesus anyway?” Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus – the teacher extraordinaire. Luke? A well-received homily in his hometown until people realize to whom he was actually referring when he talked about the poor and the oppressed. John? A sign of abundance. Yes, water into wine is pretty great, especially if you live in MN and want a nice bottle of Chianti to go with your pasta on a Sunday evening. But the main issue – 6 jars, 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine, when you least expect it.
And Mark? An exorcism. What does that reveal about Jesus?
That he was the first Father Karras? That Jesus is best remembered as Jesus, the Exorcist, and not Jesus, the Teacher, the Shepherd, the Savior, the King?
We would do well to remember how this Gospel starts – in the wilderness with the heavens ripping apart.
Who is Jesus? A boundary breaker, which an exorcism confirms exponentially.
And Jesus reveals a boundary breaking God. We will see this all over Mark. Each and every boundary we try to put in place, we think is in place, even that which we perceive as impenetrable, God bursts through. Political, social, religious, ethic, racial, sexual, gendered, cosmic, even if we are honest, the final boundary we persist in thinking is beyond God’s ability to shatter – death.
As a result, Jesus the Exorcist seems the only logical first ministry act for Jesus in Mark – not a sermon, not a miracle, not even a healing. But stepping into the realm of opposing supremacies, the world of other spirits, the potent power of possession and saying, “God is here;” breaking through the barrier that holds at bay the unclean, the evil of the universe, the places and spaces where it seems God could never be, the very presence of the opposite of God.
Because what does the good news/Gospel of Jesus Christ really mean (Mk 1:1)? Mark isn’t just making stuff up. Mark knows Isaiah. And what is the good news, the gospel in Isaiah 40:9 and 52:7? The herald of good tidings, that is, the one who brings good news says, “Your God reigns. Your God is here.” This is the good news. This is the meaning of the heavens being ripped apart, a suffering Messiah, death on a cross, and an empty tomb. When all looks that God is absent? God is present. Your God is here.
Yet, perhaps this sounds good but is rarely believed. Indeed, there will be people sitting in your pews who will say in response to your well-meaning words, “Preacher, that’s a load of crap. As far as I can tell, God is nowhere to be seen.” And they have every reason for thinking that doubt, voicing that disbelief. In fact, it will make profound sense. So what do you preach in a sermon that promises, “But wait, your God is here! I know it doesn’t look like it, but it’s true! It really is!” when you know the response could very well be, “Well, you are a big liar.” What do you say to convince them that Mark knew what he was talking about, when you know their eyes will look away in shame and believe otherwise? Why should they heed a prophet such as you (Deut 18:19)?
You tell the truth. You be the prophet. That’s what prophets do: “I know, I know. I know exactly what you are going to say. I do. Because I say it, too.” And you mean it because you know it. “Where is God in all that possesses me? in my depression, my addiction, my disease? in my loss, my grief, my sorrow? in my own attraction to other gods (Deut 18:20)?
What do you say? “Your God is here. Your God is here. Your God is here.” Maybe that is all you can say. You voice the disbelief. You acknowledge the doubt. You respect and tend the disappointment and despair.
And still, you utter the truth.
Yes, the title is correct. Not the immediacy but the immediately of Epiphany. Bear with me. I hope this will make sense at the end.
On my oldest son’s next birthday, he will be 15. If you are a parent, you know what I am about to say – how did this happen? How am I the mother of a 15-year-old? How did the years go by so fast? All true.
But what comes to mind each and every year – and I wonder what year will be different – is the fact that my son’s epiphany was terrifying.
He was born at 31 weeks, 3 pounds, 10 ounces and I had yet to take my childbirth classes or get to that chapter in the book. Within 12 hours I went from being six months and three weeks pregnant to being a parent. From woman to mother in twelve hours. No amount of Terbutaline, no going back over my “What to Expect When You are Expecting” notes, no review of the nursery design was going to postpone this baby. That’s immediately. That’s epiphany – like the transition from autonomy to motherhood. Epiphany is an immediate and meaningful understanding of something. Surprising. Sudden. Profound.
What I am struck by in the calling of the disciples according to Mark is not the “follow me,” not the calling, but the immediately. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” We can rationalize the “immediately” all we want – they saw something in Jesus. Or, that’s just Mark’s theme. Any preacher knows that Mark loves the word “immediately” and in repeating it creates an urgency unlike any other Gospel. But what if we eschew rationality and take our homiletical cue from Mark – that something about Epiphany demands immediately. It calls for urgency. Otherwise Epiphany is more like, well, “that’s interesting.”
I think that “immediately” can be less about marking time and more about describing action. Immediately does not only designate a when but a what. Not only a place in time, but an event that changes the meaning of life. Granted, the disciples have no clue at this point how life has been changed. But we know. And maybe immediately is all we can do, all we can manage. Because, preparation? Maybe it makes faith matters worse. Builds up anticipation, expectations. And then, when things do not go as planned?
Maybe a life of faith can only happen in immediately, in the surprising, sudden, profound epiphany of God at work, God revealed in our lives.
Because if we think we can adequately prepare for God’s epiphanies, that we can be fully ready for what we will see, well then, God might be less than epiphanous. Like taking childbirth classes will really prepare you for having a baby or being a mother. Let’s be honest.
We are called, perhaps not so much to follow, but to take Mark’s immediately seriously. This is not, “wait a few minutes. Let me pack my bag. I have a few more arrangements to make.” No – epiphanies just happen. No preparation. No packing list. No recommendations of what to take, what to do.
And so, Jesus just happens. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee. No time to think. No invitation to take your time. Just go. Here is truly epiphany according to Mark. Epiphanies are untamable and unpredictable. Unexpected and even undeserved.
But maybe we knew this already. We just needed to let it sink in. Mark reminds us that we shouldn’t get too far into Epiphany and get comfortable.
There is nothing comfortable about epiphanies. They rock your world.
We could spend a lot of time speculating why the disciples followed Jesus. At the end of the day, I am not sure I care. They did. Maybe there was no choice. I don’t know. When we place our emphasis on the immediately we are directed more toward the event and less on the how. I don’t know how. I just know that it happened.
In other words, maybe we tend to overthink Epiphany. Overanalyze the how. Overthink the what. And most certainly, overemphasize the need for our reaction. Epiphanies just happen. There you are – and what will you do? There’s not much time. You just go with it, and see what happens.
Epiphanies, especially of the divine nature, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection but instantaneous commitment and risk. Or, to put it another way, no real choice. Naming epiphanous moments, describing those times when your response is out of your control, that might be getting close to articulating what happened with the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, well then, get ready for a wild ride. This can be simultaneously freeing and terrifying. Free to respond in the moment. Terrified of what beyond the moment will unfold.
According to Mark, Epiphany is when your life is changed forever because Epiphany celebrates, in part, that God was forever changed.
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Look it up. What does epiphany actually mean? Of course there will be several possible definitions, but here’s one that caught my attention – an immediate and meaningful understanding of something. Surprising. Sudden. Profound.
Have we thought of Epiphany in this way? Or have our Epiphany anticipations been tilted more toward ecclesial and liturgical expectations? Not that these are bad. But here’s where the Gospel lesson from John that begins Epiphany in Lectionary Year B upsets the proverbial apple cart.
We tend to expect that Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus. About finding Jesus, witnessing Jesus in various epiphanic moments. It’s not supposed to be about being found ourselves.
But John’s Gospel invites us to imagine that these can be one and the same. That is, finding Jesus in those revelatory moments, those unexpected moments, or even in those transfigural (I made that word up) moments, is also when you find yourself – who you are, who you are called to be. When you realize your identity as a follower, a disciple, and get a glimpse, perhaps a new glimpse – and here is the epiphany – of something you have not seen before when it comes to your own faith story, your own discipleship, your own concept of what it means to believe.
The Gospel lesson from John for the second Sunday after Epiphany (John 1:43-51) helps us maintain a connection between Christmas and Epiphany, between incarnation and revelation. Otherwise, Jesus’ humanity runs the risk of fading into the background in favor of Jesus’ divinity.
What is revealed is what it means that God became human. That God entered into our world, no longer satisfied just to be with us but now has to be one of us. I think when that happens, we change too. Our humanity changes. Suddenly, who we see ourselves to be can be no longer remain the same because we have seen God in who we are. That just has to change the perception of ourselves.
Sometimes, a lot of the time, we don’t want to be found. Let’s face it, being found is not always a good or comfortable thing. Nor, if we are honest, are epiphanies.
What about you do you not want found? Or, what about Jesus do you not want to find out?
Maybe this epiphany season might take on a mirror effect. That is, when you hear these texts, when you look for Jesus, when you experience these revelatory moments of Jesus, you simultaneously see something about yourself.
That’s relationship. Epiphany cannot be all one sided. It can’t just be “oh look, Jesus, cool. Wow.” You then have to ask, so what? Not only for the sake of your theological and Christological commitments but also for the sake of who you are as one who answers the call, “follow me.”
Earlier in John we discover that Jesus does not do the finding first, Andrew does. He finds Simon Peter. Yes, Jesus finds Philip. He will find the man born blind whom Jesus healed after he had been thrown out for his confession about Jesus (9:35). When the blind man is found, he is changed. He is a disciple. He is a sheep. He recognizes who Jesus is. He worships him. Jesus will find the disciples locked behind closed doors and then, and only then, are they sent out. Jesus will find the disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee and Peter’s expectations of discipleship will be radically altered when Jesus says to Peter, “you are the Good Shepherd now.”
This is the reluctance to being found. Let’s admit it. Because to be found is not only to be known – it will change your life.
Epiphany is a short season. Not much time to reflect what you want to find out about yourself and what you don’t. Expect to discover many things about Jesus. But in the process, anticipate learning something about yourself. We can’t dare assume that we are unchanged by what we witness. Sometimes the change is monumental. Sometimes incremental. Either way, something will happen. Something epiphanous!
Embarking on such a self-reflective journey may mean keeping a few journal notes, whatever of how you are changed when Jesus reveals himself to you. I am not a big journal keeper and was never good at diaries. I had all kinds of intentions that quickly faded away after the newness of the first few days. We are very good at Lenten disciplines, maybe so as to appease our lack of success at New Year’s resolutions. What would happen if Epiphany is the new Lent?
Of course “finding yourself” or being found takes on numerous forms, too many to articulate in this column. But you know what I am talking about. And you know what it feels like to be found – a simultaneity of fear but also a profound sense of peace.
Maybe that’s even what this season is all about. If we do indeed stake our theology on the incarnation, well then, Jesus, God has something at stake as well. God has chosen to be found, to be known, in the most intimate way possible. If God truly became human then we should not expect that God is immune to our same fears. When God chooses to reveal God’s self in Jesus this season of Epiphany, well, God is also on the line with the same realities of rejection, of questioning, of being exposed, of being known – fully.
Jesus first says to his followers, “come and see.” This Epiphany season, see Jesus. See God. But also, see yourself. All of which might truly be epiphanies. And, I am guessing, nothing you expected.
I have said this before and I will say it again – preaching on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday can quickly and despairingly devolve into bland, benign, boring, and banal descriptions of baptism, why it’s important, and why we should do it. Please don’t preach this kind of sermon.
This is the proverbial danger of festival Sundays. You have heard me and my Sermon Brainwave colleagues, Matt Skinner and Rolf Jacobson, articulate time and time again – preach the text, not the festival. This is ever so important when it comes to baptism. Why? Because people actually care about baptism. More so than Trinity Sunday, that’s for sure. They make plans to get their kids baptized. They go to classes. They invite family. And preachers, you know the times you have been called to perform, or have heard of, emergency baptisms. Baptism matters. For all sorts of reasons.
At the same time, baptism elicits all kinds of so-called theological issues for those who don’t seem to have anything better to do than make up ecclesiological rules.
And so, baptism has also been a cause for exclusion. As an ordained clergyperson in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there are evidently certain practices to which I am supposed to abide. It seems that over the course of my ministry I have been less than compliant.
- I have baptized outside of the assembly, outside of a church service.
- I support any baptism done by any person with the confidence and trust in the efficacy of God’s word and the truth of God’s abundant grace.
- I welcome anyone to the Lord’s Table because, well, last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. Are we going to require Baptismal ID Cards to be presented so as to share in communion? Are we going to say to those not baptized or not sure they are baptized, “Say, you. You in that pew wondering if you have been baptized or not. You just sit in that pew while everyone else comes up to share in the bread and wine. Why? Better to hedge your bets on the side of human reason than God’s grace. Better to think you are not worthy. Better to assume that you do not have the seal of approval. Why, you ask? Because Galatianism is alive and operating well in our so-called contemporary churches and you are our justification for the maintenance of boundaries accorded to the body of Christ.
Perhaps this is all a part of being in a denomination. Yet, I think these kinds of Sundays offer opportunities to reflect on with what we resonate or not, about what we have questions, and to consider where we might still be committed to being a reforming church.
I worry when we take a ritual executed in the wilderness, with God’s ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s son, to get to God’s people God loves, and create every possible restriction. As soon as we make baptism legalistic we have domesticated Mark 1:1-11.
A few years ago my husband and I repeated a dialogue sermon in our new church in Minneapolis that I had written for our congregation in Georgia. Originally, the sermon was, in part, meant to communicate the essential tenets of baptism according to Lutheran theology because the church in Georgia had few “lifelong” Lutherans as members. I essentially rewrote Luther’s Small Catechism, emphasizing that baptism is God’s doing, not ours. The Sunday we redid the sermon in Minneapolis one of the members approached me after worship. She was 90 at the time. I will call her Hazel. “Karoline,” she said, “is that really true?” “What?” I answered. Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.” “Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?” Hazel then told me about her sister who was born several years before she was. Her sister was born very ill, in the home, and never left the house because she was so sick. We are talking at least 95 years ago. The family knew she would not live long, she lived about two months as it turned out, and was baptized by her grandmother somewhere in that two month period. When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of the Lutheran church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.
Hazel then said to me, “Does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?” “Yes,” I said. “Your sister is OK.”
These are the pastoral results of practices for the sake of practices alone. Here was Hazel in front of me, 90 years old, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace. This is what happens when we tame God. Like translations do of Mark 1:9. The heavens are not “opened.” There is a perfectly good Greek word for “open” and it’s not there. The heavens are “torn apart,” a passive verb, because God cannot stand the separation any longer. Yet, look at what we do? Create systems and structures that mediate God’s presence. Insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace. Control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order, but for the sake of our own power.
Baptism of our Lord Sunday according to Mark? Well, get ready and hold on. There is nothing tame or complacent or orderly about baptism at all. There are no rules, no ecclesial documents, no constitutions or bylaws. Rather, we are plopped in the middle of the wilderness with Elijah and the heavens ripping apart before our very eyes. I wonder what a baptism service would look like if we actually had Mark in mind. I have a feeling it would be less comfortable, less controlled, and by that I don’t just mean a crying baby in response to some cold water on the forehead.
I realize that all of you preachers out there reading this are committed and beholden to certain baptismal practices, either established by your denomination, your particular church, even your own beliefs. This is not a plea to eschew structures for the sake of some sort of shock value.
My invitation to you is to let Mark spark your baptismal imagination. Is there one thing, one aspect, one particularity according to Mark that might change, albeit even momentarily, how you, or your congregation, have always imagined baptism to be? Because then you will give witness to God’s determination to deter all of our attempts at God’s domestication. For Mark, God’s entry into our humanity started at Jesus’ baptism and was then confirmed at Jesus’ crucifixion.
When baptism is a wilderness experience, an unexpected entrance of God, and a little terrifying, well then, we will know the meaning of baptism according to Mark.