The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top, in front of Peter, James and John, is well known to most Christians – in our church we celebrate this event at least once a year just before Lent starts (Matthew 17:1-9).
But this year I noticed for the first time the narratives about Jesus’ death on either side of the transfiguration story. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus tells his disciples that he will shortly be killed. Peter challenges him for this negative comment, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” How devastated Peter must have felt, both hearing about Jesus’ fate and hearing Jesus’ stinging rebuke.
And shortly after the transfiguration, in Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus repeats this statement, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. And they will kill him.” The disciples were filled with grief at these words. What dark encounters to have immediately before and after the transfiguration.
In addition to hearing these words, the disciples hear other difficult-to-swallow messages. In Matthew 16:24-28, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life. A hard teaching – they thought they were going to journey with their saviour towards the Eternal Life that Jesus so often spoken about. But instead, they hear these hard words.
And after the transfiguration, they go out to heal people and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-20). But there is one child they cannot save. Jesus comes and heals the body immediately. They ask Jesus why they couldn’t drive out the demon, and Jesus responds “Because you have so little faith.” Ouch! Tough, harsh words from their Lord.
It is like there are these tall walls on their left and their right, before and after the transfiguration, that block out the sun and that undermine and disrupt the disciples’ faith. Almost like they are at the bottom of a chimney tower, with walls all around that reach up into the sky, so that no light gets down.
And yet is it is in this very space – in this dark place – that the transfiguration takes place. It is here, in this darkness, that the light of Christ, his dazzling divine nature, is revealed to Peter, James and John.
Here is an important lesson: It is often in the darkest spiritual times that we we have the brightest encounters with God.
It is clear from Matthew 17 that Jesus goes immediately into the transfiguration – he wastes no time. It is as if this is exactly why he brought them up the mountain – so that in the midst of their darkness, they could encounter his light. And they hear the voice of God speaking, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Here are hope and courage and spiritual resources to sustain the disciples, in the midst of spiritual testing.
Have a look back at Exodus 24:12, where Moses is invited to go up the mountain to meet with the Lord and to receive the Ten Commandments. God says to him, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here.” What a remarkable invitation! To be not only invited up the mountain to meet with God, but also to stay there with God. And Moses stayed there 40 days and 40 nights. All around the mountain, the Israelites saw a storm, thunder and lightning, dark clouds – it was terrifying. But Moses was safe in the light of God within the darkness of the cloud, just staying with God.
During the period of Lent, which kicks off on Wednesday this week, many of us will experience an intensification of spiritual attack. We will be working to deepen our faith, to nurture our spiritual life, to strip down the outer layers of excess, to step away from sin and get down to a more fundamental and authentic relationship with God. But in this very time, when we are trying so hard to grow spiritually, Satan attacks us the most. We experience increased difficulties, challenges, disruptions, criticisms, failures, hardships, losses. These are the dark walls of the chimney tower rising up around us.
It is in these times that we are most in need of the light of Christ. Peter, having recounted his experience on the mountain top, provides us with some helpful advice (2 Peter 1:19):
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
‘The light shining in the dark place’ and the ‘morning star rising in our hearts’. This is the transfiguration of Christ taking place within us as we seek to follow Christ, even when the world is dark around us, even when our faith seems weakest, even when we feel besieged by evil. This is where we encounter the transfigured Christ.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
In our Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:10-17) we read a less familiar story about Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled – bent over double – for 18 years. He heals of her on the Sabbath, and for that he (and all those present) are reprimanded for seeking healing on the Sabbath. Come on any of the other six days of the week for healing, the synagogue leader says, but not on the Sabbath.
Jesus then compares the situation of his healing of this woman, with helping an oxen. He says,
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, …whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
Jesus here is calling out the synagogue leader for his deep patriarchy, even misogyny. Because he regards a donkey as more important than a woman. The church has a long history of supporting patriarchy. Even in our Bible, there are numerous patriarchal passages. And the church too often upholds patriarch – that women are less than, less than men, less than human. Even women contribute to patriarchy. Research in South Africa by a colleague of mine (Prof Shahana Rasool) shows that women (mothers and aunts) are often the first person to tell a battered woman to return to her abusive husband. So, while today’s message is in many ways particularly for men to take up, it is indeed for all of us.
In this passage in Luke, we see Jesus doing five transformational anti-patriarchal things in these few verses (vv12-13, 16):
He sees her – he picks her out among the crowds, recognises her as a human in need.
He calls her – in the synagogues then, men and women were kept separate, like in orthodox synagogues today – he calls across the synagogue and calls her to him
He speaks with her – he speaks words of healing to her: “Women you are set free from your infirmity”
He lays his hands on her – he doesn’t merely touch her politely on the shoulder. He “put his hands on her” – almost unthinkable in those days.
He affirms her – and then later he refers to her as a “woman, a daughter of Abraham”.
These five acts set for us an example of recognising the full humanity, and indeed, the divine createdness of women. There is absolutely no space here for patriarchy, and even less for misogyny. Jesus see her as a unique and individual daughter of God, a person in need, who is as deserving of the ministrations of God as any one else.
Indeed, we find narratives like this throughout the scriptures. Many women and some men have given up on the Bible, because it is so saturated in patriarchy; and unfortunately, this is true. I struggle with it myself, constantly. But, when we read the Bible closely, in the context of its own time, we find that the Bible frequently challenges deeply held cultural beliefs about the relationships between men and women, and about the the status and place of women in God’s plan. Scripture is, in many ways, countercultural when it comes to patriarchy. And these challenges seem as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
Four quick examples – two in Genesis and two in John:
In Genesis 1:27-28, the writer describes the creation of humanity – God created man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them. Both are fully created in God’s image. It is not that man is in God’s image, and woman is in man’s image. No! Both man and woman derive their image directly from God. And then God goes on to mandate both of them (not just the man) to rule over earth, its plants and animals – both of them! There is nothing that says Adam should rule over Eve – no! Both of them are equally commissioned with the authority of God to jointly rule over the world. This is how God created humanity! Yet, so many churches teach something different about the differential authority of women and men. It does not exist here in Genesis 1!
Two chapters later, in Genesis 3:16, we read the story of the fall of humanity. Both Adam and Even eat of the Tree of Life – both sinned. And God pronounces consequences of their sin on each of them. One of the consequences for the woman is that her husband “will rule over you”. There are Christians today who argue that this rule of husbands over wives is God’s plan for how gender relations are to be structured following the fall. Honestly, this is absolute rubbish! A consequence of the fall of humanity is patriarchy. It is not God’s desire for humanity. If it were, then all men should be out toiling in the fields to produce crops by the sweat of their their brow, because this is a consequence God gives to the man in v18. Yes, men are not doing that – they have invented machines to do it for them, or hired migrant labourers to work on their behalf for nearly nothing. Singling out this ONE facet of the fall, from all of the others, and raising it up to God’s plan for humankind post-fall, is a clear sign of patriarchy, and indeed of misogyny. It is NOT God’s desire! Indeed, Christ’s mission is to undo the effects of the Fall, including patriarchy, not to reinforce them!
Let’s move to John’s Gospel. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well on a very hot day (John 4:1-42). Knowing who she is – Samaritan, not Jewish; a woman of ill repute – Jesus engages with her in a deep theological conversation. They don’t talk about baking or raising children. They talk about complex matters of faith. And she becomes the first female evangelist, as she returns to her community to tell them all about this man she had met. Jesus engages with her as a human being; not as a woman per se. Her gender, and the social norms around the relationship between men and women, are completely irrelevant to Jesus – he simply walks over them. Patriarchy is no barrier!
Lastly, let’s look at John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The male religious leaders bring the woman to Jesus and ask Jesus what they should do, in accordance with the Law. Note that the man is no where to be found! It’s takes at least two to commit adultery – but where is he? They say, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery”, meaning they were were caught in the act of having sex. So he was there having sex with her; where is he now? And Leviticus instructs that both the man and the woman must be stoned – not just the woman. In this highly hostile context, Jesus kneels down and doodles in the sand. I imagine that in response, all the men shift their focus from the woman to what Jesus is doing. In so doing, he redirects the ‘male gaze‘ away from her and towards himself. He spares her the shame and humiliation of this gang of men staring at her. He champions her dignity as a human being, as a child of God. And then he challenges the men, and of course they must go. And then, at the end, he holds her accountable for her sin – she really had sinned, she has the capacity and agency to make both bad and good choices – and he forgives her and sends her off to choose to sin no more. But in the process, he has dismantled the deep patriarchy and misogyny that was at work in this narrative.
There is a great deal of patriarch in the Bible – the Bible was written in patriarchal times, mostly or perhaps entirely by men. We live today in patriarchal times. Our world is full of domestic violence (physical and verbal); of women getting passed over for promotion in favour of men; of the ways men silence, dismiss and diminish women; of the brutal rape of women and girl children; and of the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. There is certainly a lot of patriarchy in the Bible and in our church.
But there is no patriarchy in Jesus. No patriarchy in God. Our Triune God celebrates the full humanity of both men and women, and all gender fluid and nonbinary people. Jesus saw her, he called her, he spoke words of healing over her, he laid his hands on her and he celebrated her as a daughter of Abraham. How much must we follow in his footsteps.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.
In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.
Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.
Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.
The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.
And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.
John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.
We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.
There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.
Psalm 22 knows something about this:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?
The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.
Yet God makes himself unfindable:
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:
13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:
The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:
26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!
You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.
This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.
Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.
But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.
In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sets out in great depth and compact detail, his views on God and God’s relationship with us. This message is so timely in these days when we feel beset by Covid, together with the many other challenges we face in society. In a time like this, we need these words in Ephesians to take root in our hearts, where they grow and flourish. Paul’s writing is dense and compact, so I’ve extracted the words and phrases he uses and clustered them under three headings as follows:
The generous love of God
Blessed us, in the spiritual realm, very spiritual blessing, in Christ, in love, according to God’s pleasure, he has freely given us, redemption, forgiveness of sins, riches of God’s grace, bring unity to all things, under Christ, he lavished on us, according to his good pleasure.
These words speak about the extravagant, lavish, abundant, never-ending love of God that God pours out in a continuous and faithful stream into our lives. We are washed, saturated and soaked in the love of God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from this love.
God’s plan and God’s sovereignty
He chose us, before creation, he predestined us, according to his will, all wisdom, all understanding, he purposed, when the times reach their fulfilment, predestined, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
God is King. God is in charge. God has a plan, God’s will shall deliver on that plan, God is sovereign. Sometimes it may feel that God has lost control and we are floating free in the ocean, battered by the storms of life. But God is always in control, and we are always in the palm of God’s hand, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t feel that way.
Our place as God’s beloved
You also were included, you were marked in him, with a seal, (the sign of Christ), a deposit, a guarantee, an inheritance, God’s possession, adopted, sonship.
God holds us firm. God has marked us with the seal of the Spirit. We were marked at our baptism with a cross, the sign of Christ – that sign does not fade or dissolve. God can spot us in the largest, densest crowd. God knows those who are his own – he does not lose sight of us. He has adopted us as ‘sons’ – as those who receive the full and complete inheritance of God, even though we are not God’s own offspring. We are utterly precious and valuable to God.
Jesus is in the boat with us in the midst of the storm. He is not sitting far off watching, dispassionate. No! He is right in the storm with us, in the boat with us.
Jesus controls the storm that buffets and scares us. He is more than capable to put the storm in its place.
Jesus reminds us of the many times before that he has been faithful and capable, so that we can have faith in him, confidence in him, even during the storm.
Today, I want to add two additional stories to this one, so that we can build up our faith muscles when we are weathering a storm. This is particularly important, given that we are in the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and given that our churches have, once again, closed their doors and moved online for services.
The first story is an echo of the one above and comes from Mark 6:45-51. The disciples are again in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, but this time Jesus is up on the hillside praying. He can see that the disciples have encountered a storm and are struggling. So he walks down the hill and across the top of the water towards the disciples’ boat. They are terrified, thinking he’s a ghost, but he calms them, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbs into the boat with them, and the storm calms down. Mark does not say Jesus calmed the storm, but it seems an unlikely coincidence that the storm just happened to subside when Jesus arrived. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are in a storm:
Jesus sees the disciples plight and comes to them and speaks words of comfort to them: ‘I am here, it is I, don’t be afraid.’
Jesus climbs into the boat. In the previous story Jesus was already in the boat when the storm arrived. In this story, Jesus climbs into the boat with the disciples in the midst of the strong winds. He chooses to enter the difficult place where they are.
Jesus calms the waves, demonstrating (again) that he is more than capable.
The second story is a healing story, that is located within a larger healing story. The larger story is about Jairus’ daughter who is mortally ill and (it seems) dies before Jesus gets there, because Jesus is delayed by the inner story, which is recounted in Mark 5:24-34. The story is set in a large crowd – many people, all jostling around and up against Jesus, as he walks the streets.
The crowd feels like a storm – buffeting, noisy, knocking up against, pushing, threatening. (Hence the picture for today’s message.)
This is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and all her efforts to find a cure were futile. He hears about Jesus and believes that even if she can just touch just the hem of his outer clothing, she will be healed. Even though she is unclean due to her persistent bleeding, she enters the crowd and manages to just touch Jesus’ clothes. And she is fully healed! Jesus can feel that power has gone out of him and wants to see who was healed. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are struggling in life’s storms:
Jesus cures her. She merely needed faith, and without him even knowing or intending it, without even actually touching her, she is healed. It is as if Jesus’ natural instinct is to heal and make whole, so it just pours out of him when someone has faith in him.
Jesus knows her. He initially doesn’t know who touched him, but he knows someone did, and when she owns up, he fully engages with her as if the crowd is not even there – like the still centre of a tornado.
Jesus restores her. Her healing is primarily physical. But the result of that physical healing is that she becomes clean again, and thus able to touch other people, able to engage in the life of her family and community, able to participate in her faith.
There are many storms raging around us. Covid is the most public and universal. But there are others: financial concerns, loss of work, mental health issues, substance abuse, marital problems, divorce, illness, death, loneliness, addictions, and so on and so on. The list is almost endless.
But there are three important take-home messages for you today:
Jesus sees you. He sees and knows you right where you are. He knows everything about you and your circumstances, no matter how private you are and no matter how alone you might feel. He sees you.
Jesus joins you. He does not remain remote. He does not watch from a distance. He climbs into your boat, into your life, into your shoes. He is right there with you – so close, there is no gap between you and him.
Jesus acts for you. Jesus calms storms, he banishes fear, he heals disease. He is more than capable and he is more than willing. We just have to reach out to him, to touch the hem of his robe.
The disciples find themselves in a boat in the midst of a ferocious storm (Mark 4:35-41). They cry out to Jesus: “Don’t you care?” We sometimes find ourselves in a similar situation. The world seems to swirl around us, exploding, destabilising. We wish for a granite foundation, but instead we are in a boat in the storm; at sea. But the disciples learn three things in this experience:
Jesus is in the boat with them. He is not standing at a distance, watching. He is right with them in the boat, in the midst of the storm.
Jesus demonstrates that he has the power to subdue nature. He is more than able to overcome any adversity we may experience, to calm any storm we may experience.
Jesus reminds his disciples that they have experienced his capability in the past; and so should remember it in the present. “Do you still have so little faith?” he asks them.
When we are in the midst of the storm – as we are now with the third wave of Covid threatening to overwhelm us – we need to keep turning back to Jesus. He is the source of strength, healing and wholeness.