“The Problem with Prophets”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Problem with Prophets” Luke 4:21-30

By our very nature, human beings mentally sort experience into categories.  It is how we make sense of a complex world.  We have in-groups.  Those are groups that we are a part of.  For example, I’m a woman, I’m a follower of Jesus, and I’m an enthusiast of corgis.  If you share any of these characteristics, you’re my people.  Human beings also naturally form the notion of out-groups.  These are the folks with whom we do not share a sense of affiliation.  We relegate folks to an out-group for any number of reasons: race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, or their love of cats.

Psychologists tell us that we naturally tend to negatively evaluate folks in the out-group.  In a well-known series of mid-twentieth century studies, social scientists Muzafar and Carolyn Sherif considered in-group and out-group dynamics in twelve-year-old boys.  They brought the boys to summer camp, divided them into two teams, and pitted them against one another in competitive games.  The Sherifs found that the boys consistently gave better ratings to their own teammates and to their own team, regardless of their performance or real achievement.  The boys also reassigned their feelings of friendship and care over the course of the experiment.  Boys who began the summer as friends, but were placed on opposing teams, weren’t always friends by summer’s end.  In fact, 90% of the boys by the end of the camp identified their best friend from within their in-group.

We have all experienced the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups.  Remember your experience of cliques in high school?  Think of the time that you were passed up for a promotion in favor of an office-insider.  How about when you realized that your male colleagues were paid more?  For friends of color, what about the time that the sales person followed you through that high-end boutique, expecting you to shoplift?  Our in-group / out-group dynamics are entrenched, sometimes unconscious, and hard to overcome.

Jesus got into trouble over in-group / out-group dynamics on that morning he preached in Nazareth.  His neighbors praised him with gracious words when they heard that he was their long-awaited Messiah.  Who could have imagined it?  Joseph’s son—a hometown hero, one of them—was going to bring them all God’s blessing.  They were ready for that good stuff.  They nodded to one another and exchanged knowing looks in the pews.  “C’mon Jesus!  We hear of the good things you’ve been doing over there in Capernaum.  How about a few miracles for your in-group homies?”

There were no miracles in Nazareth that morning.  Rather, Jesus told his neighbors that he was just as concerned about the out-group as he was the in-group.  To make his point, he told those two prophetic stories.  Elijah resurrected the son of the widow of Zarephath, and she was a foreigner and Baal-worshipper.  Elisha healed the leprosy of the Syrian General Naaman, and he was an enemy of the Hebrew people.  In fact, the only reason he knew of Elisha was through a Hebrew war captive who worked as a slave in his household.  According to scripture, God’s love and goodness weren’t only for the in-group.  God’s love and welcome were broader than the people of Nazareth liked to imagine.

We struggle to understand the immensity of God’s love.  We are so scandalized by God’s limitless grace that our minds boggle.  We can’t take it in.  The neighbors in Nazareth didn’t like the reminder that God had a long history of reaching beyond the in-group.  They really didn’t like Jesus standing there and telling them that he was going to practice a breadth of holy love that would make a lie of all those in-group and out-group assumptions.  The initial disappointment and confusion of Jesus’ hometown friends shifted to anger, rage, and rejection.  They cast Jesus out of the in-group and ran him out of town.

In-group / out-group conflicts continue to plague our world and trouble the church.  That’s why denominations split over who can preach in the pulpit, who may hold office, who will be welcomed into membership, or how we can spend our mission giving.  Whenever we follow Jesus in practicing a broader, holier love or extending a more generous welcome, we can count on conflict.  That’s the problem with prophets.  They aren’t content to allow us to mete out God’s love in tablespoons.  They push us beyond the comfortable familiarity of the in-group.  They confront us with our bias, and we don’t like it any more than the people in Nazareth did.  Lukan scholar R. Alan Culpepper points out that Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth was a foretaste of what was to come.  That near-death experience on the cliff in Nazareth anticipated the lonely hilltop where Jesus would be nailed to a cross when he ran afoul of those ultimate in-groups of Temple and empire in Jerusalem.

Our personal experiences of criticism and rejection may be a sign that we are butting up against in-group / out-group dynamics.  Pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen and Presbyterian minister and children’s broadcaster Fred Rogers were friends who corresponded for years.  At one point, Fred was particularly discouraged.  You may remember that Rogers broke color barriers, welcomed children with disabilities, told little girls they could be astronauts, and assured all children that they were loveable just as they were.  Rogers sent his friend Henri a copy of an especially nasty attack in the press.  Nouwen sympathized.  In his experience, “little persecutions” within the in-group of the church hurt the most.  Nouwen assured his friend Mr. Rogers that he was probably on the right track.  Nouwen wrote back to Fred that, attacks “come and will keep coming precisely when you do something significant for the Kingdom. . . It was Jesus’s experience and the experience of all great visionaries of the church, and it continues to be the experience of many who are committed to Jesus.”  Reaching out with God’s surprising love, welcoming outsiders in, breaking down barriers is always risky business.

The social scientists tell us that overcoming divisions of in- and out-groups isn’t easy.  It confounds our most essential assumptions and forces us to question our perceptions.  We naturally resist that.  But dividing walls can come down.  It helps if in- and out-groups can work together toward a shared goal.  Groups also need a level playing field—or at least the buy-in from both sides that all people have equal standing and rights.  Overcoming divisions is easier when we have visionary leaders, like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.  We are better able to transcend our in-group if we can envision outsiders as part of a larger, shared group—like the Kingdom of God. 

But the most essential way of ending long-standing divisions is through relationship and friendship.  That means extending ourselves to connect in meaningful ways, even if it feels uncomfortable.  Jesus was so good at this.  Think about Jesus with his compassion for lepers, forgiveness for sinners, welcome for tax-collectors, and healing care for foreigners, like Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, Romans, and Samaritans.  Jesus intentionally broke down all those insider / outsider barriers with listening, advocacy, and love.  Could we dare to do the same?

I am sure that Jesus continues to work in ways that confound our in-group sensibilities, in ways that might disappoint, puzzle, anger, and maybe even enrage us.  He just does that—ask the folks in Nazareth who knew him so well.  I invite you to join me in imagining some of the places where Jesus is at work this morning.

Today Jesus is on the southern border.  He’s leaving water in the desert for weary, thirsty travelers.  He is suffering in the back of a super-heated tractor trailer, driven by human traffickers.  He is listening to harrowing stories of drug cartel violence.  He is trying to reunite families.

Jesus is on death row.  He is innocent and falsely convicted.  He is hearing last minute confessions.  He is listening to the same old lies and excuses.  He is praying with people whose gods have been violence or addiction or hate.  He is hoping, always hoping, to welcome them into his Kingdom.  He longs for last minute stays of execution.

Jesus is in the ICU.  He whispers the twenty-third psalm to the anti-vaxer on the ventilator and reminds her that she is his beloved.  He refreshes the spirit of the nurse who has been working double-shifts on and off for almost two years.  He eases the fear of the aids and housekeeping crew who take bodies to the morgue, clean up the mess, and work silently at great personal risk for relatively low wages.  He comforts the spouse who goes home with a broken heart.

If any of those examples of where Jesus may be right now touched, startled, troubled, or offended you, then perhaps I got something right this morning.  Jesus is always pushing the borders and widening the circle.  He dreams of the day when there will be no in-group, no out-group, just one precious Kingdom of love.  May we, this week, have the courage to accept the improbable breadth of God’s love and welcome the outsider in.


David Baggett. “Letter from Henri to Fred” in Moral Apologetics, August 5, 2019.  Accessed online at https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2019/8/5/letter-from-henri-to-fred

Gay L. Byron. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

R. Alan Culpepper.  “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Howard K. Gregory. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Lisa J. Cohen. “The Psychology of Prejudice and Racism” in Psychology Today, January 24, 2011.  Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.

Luke 4:21-30 (HCSB)

21 Jesus began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” 22 They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth, yet they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Then He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. So all we’ve heard that took place in Capernaum, do here in Your hometown also.’” 24 He also said, “I assure you: No prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 But I say to you, there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months while a great famine came over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them—but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time, there were many in Israel who had serious skin diseases, yet not one of them was healed—only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was enraged. 29 They got up, drove Him out of town, and brought Him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl Him over the cliff. 30 But He passed right through the crowd and went on His way.

Photo by Keira Burton on Pexels.com

The Task

Poem for a Thursday — “The Task” by Denise Levertov

As if God were an old man
always upstairs, sitting about
in sleeveless undershirt, asleep,
arms folded, stomach rumbling,
his breath from open mouth
strident, presaging death . . .

No, God’s in the wilderness next door
— that huge tundra room, no walls and a sky roof —
busy at the loom. Among the berry bushes,
rain or shine, that loud clacking and whirring.
irregular but continuous;
God is absorbed in work, and hears
the spacious hum of bees, not the din,
and hears far-off
our screams. Perhaps
listens for prayers in that wild solitude.
And hurries on with the weaving:
till it’s done, the great garment woven,
our voices, clear under the familiar
blocked-out clamor of the task,
can’t stop their
terrible beseeching. God
imagines it sifting through, at last, to music
in the astounded quietness, the loom idle,
the weaver at rest.

in Oblique Prayers. New Castle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1984.

Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. When she was twelve, Levertov sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. She published her first book of poems in 1940 at age seventeen. She served as a nurse during the Blitz in London. Politics, war, and religion all became major themes in her life’s work. Levertov published more than twenty books before her death in 1994. She received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Catherine Luck Memorial Grant, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

“Entering the Mission Field”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Entering the Mission Field Luke 4:14-21

Before coming to Saranac Lake, I served as an Associate Pastor in Morton Grove, IL.  Each Sunday following the service, my colleague Pastor Michael would stand at the back of the sanctuary and greet worshippers as they ventured forth.  Above the door to the Narthex of the Morton Grove Church, a banner is hung.  It says, “You are entering the mission field.”  Exiting beneath that banner was a weekly reminder that the life of faith doesn’t stop when we leave the sanctuary behind on Sunday mornings.  In fact, our work is just beginning as we go forth with love for God and neighbor to pursue our mission as Christians.

I expect that Jesus is especially fond of that banner.  Luke’s gospel tells us that as Jesus traveled the Galilean countryside, he visited his hometown Nazareth.  There, he returned to the rhythms of his growing years, worshipping in the local synagogue on the sabbath day.  In an act of respect for his growing reputation, Jesus was invited to read and teach from the Torah.  He chose to read from the Prophet Isaiah and then sat down to interpret and teach.  We didn’t get to listen in on Jesus’ whole sermon, but Luke preserved the heart of his message.  Jesus believed that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in him.  He was the long-awaited Messiah, who was bringing good news to the poor, sight for the blind, release for captives, and freedom for folks who lived amid oppression.

Bible scholars like to suggest that Jesus specially chose these words from Isaiah as a sort of personal mission statement.  Afterall, that reading from the prophet captures the values and intentions that Jesus would make a priority in his mission.  Jesus reminded his vulnerable neighbors that God loved them and was with them—that’s good news for the poor.  He restored sight to the local blindman in Bethsaida and shocked the Temple by healing a blind beggar, who had sought alms at the side door.  Jesus set free the Gerasene demoniac, long captivated by a legion of dark spirits.  Jesus reminded his neighbors that, although they resided in the tetrarchy of Herod and were a vassal state of the Roman Empire, they belonged to a Holy Kingdom that always prevailed.

Jesus held onto that vision and purpose that he announced in Nazareth, even when it got costly.  He held to his purpose despite hostile questions from the Pharisees and open criticism from the scribes.  He stayed the course, despite coming into the crosshairs of the religious powers of the Temple and the political power of Herod.  He stuck to his mission, even in the judgment hall of Pilate.  In fact, Jesus’ mission was greeted with criticism and opposition from the start.  If I had read a few more verses, we would have heard how those Nazareth neighbors got so angry at Jesus that they drove him out of town with the intention to throw him down from a high place.  You might even say that Jesus narrowly escaped a lynching.  How is that for commitment to purpose?

This church has a mission statement.  Early in my tenure here, I resolved to read it for you each Sunday as a reminder of who we are and the holy purpose that God calls us to serve.  Some of you know it by heart.  “God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer calls the First Presbyterian Church of Saranac Lake to love and serve one another and the world around us with joy and thanksgiving.  We are a congregation that prays and supports each other and seeks to forgive and be forgiven.  We aim to share the Good News and to do God’s mission with love and compassion, both near and far.”

It’s a clarifying statement of our identity, values, and vocation.  We developed and adopted this mission as we emerged from a time of deep division and spiritual crisis.  Over the years, it has served us well by reminding us each week of the centrality not only of the Triune God but also of love, compassion, forgiveness, prayer, and care for vulnerable people.  That vision for mission has allowed us to welcome new purposes over the years.  It has inspired us to care for those tiny, vulnerable infants of the Mzuzu Crisis Care Nursery.  It has engaged us in supporting Malawi’s widows with microloans, the Clint McCoy Feeding Station, and the sewing project.  It has prompted us to feed hungry neighbors with the produce of our Jubilee Garden, our monthly food offering, 2-cents-a-meal, and the Souper Bowl of Caring.  All this outreach and more may be an expression of our mission, but we trust that it is also God’s mission, an expression of our love for Jesus, and a hopeful anticipation of his coming Kingdom.

Of course, we aren’t the only institution with a mission statement.  Here is the statement for the Marion Medical Mission: “Marion Medical Mission seeks to share the love of Christ with the extreme poor in Africa by providing all in need with a sustainable source of clean, safe drinking water.”  The mission of the Women of Grace Widows Fund is to “alleviate the extreme poverty of Malawi’s widows with food, shelter, and safety and to empower self-sufficiency and independence.”  Even the Souper Bowl of Caring has a mission: their mission is to “unite all communities to tackle hunger.”  Faithful organizations and people make it a practice to ground their service to God in a pithy statement that guides their purpose and brings them closer to Jesus.

What is your mission?  Do you have a pithy statement of faithful purpose that guides your life and directs your actions?  I invite us to allow Jesus’ mission statement to inspire us to think about developing our own personal statements.  To get us started, I’ll suggest three principles that should guide and shape our individual purposes.

The first principle is that your mission must give glory to God.  Anyone can have a mission that enlarges their bank account, pads their resume, or adds to their personal power or prestige, but as people of faith we seek first the Kingdom of God.  That means that our actions and outcomes are meant to praise and honor God.  For example, when Marion Medical Mission partners with African villages to install shallow wells, they bless and seal each well with an inscription in both English and the local language. That inscription reads: “To the glory of God.”  That well, which will bless the community for generations to come, is a perpetual reminder of the Holy One who satisfies our deepest thirst.

The second principle for your mission statement is that it must follow in the way of Jesus, in keeping with those actions and values that Jesus claimed as his own when he read the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, long ago in the Nazareth synagogue.  Does it bring good news to poor and vulnerable neighbors?  Does it offer help and healing?  Does it free us and others from our captivity – to poverty, addiction, shame, sin, anger, unforgiveness?  In pursuing our mission, would Jesus say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant?

There is a final principle for our mission statements.  We must be guided by the ethic of agape.  Agape is the choice to love others, regardless of kinship, affiliation, or interest.  Agape seeks the best for others, even when we don’t know them, even if we dislike or fear them.  This is the love that the Apostle Paul encouraged his friends in Corinth to pursue: love that is patient, kind, forbearing, accepting, and forgiving.  It’s the sort of love that Jesus practiced, allowing him to bear with those dense disciples, care for those on the margins of society, and forgive his executioners.

What is your mission?  I invite us to take some time this week to listen, pray, reflect, and begin to develop our personal mission statements, statements that give glory to God, follow Jesus, and make the world a more loving place.  You don’t have to proclaim your mission from the pulpit like Jesus did, but you might like to share it with me, or with your beloved ones, or with a friend in the faith.  If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.  A mission statement envisioned and articulated is a promise of action that can make this world a more loving, just, and holy place.  I look forward to hearing your mission-minded musings.

This church may not have the words, “You are entering the mission field” hanging above the sanctuary exit, but we can trust as we go forth this morning, whether we are worshipping here in church or we are worshipping online, that the mission field awaits.  There’s work to be done.  What’s your mission?


Carol Lakey Hess. “Theological Perspective on Luke 4:14-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Ernest Hess. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 4:14-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Linda McKinnis Bridges. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 4:14-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Elisabeth Johnson. “Commentary on Luke 4:14-21” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 23, 2022.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Luke 4:14-21

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Image source: Marion Medical Mission https://www.mmmwater.org/

As the Ruin Falls

Poem for a Tuesday — “As the Ruin Falls” by C. S. Lewis

“All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love —a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.”

C.S. Lewis was perhaps the most influential Christian writer of the twentieth century. A noted scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Lewis wrote more than thirty books. His most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Mere ChristianityOut of the Silent PlanetThe Great DivorceThe Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures.

Photo by Gije Cho on Pexels.com

Chi who ly?

Morean Arts Center, St. Petersburg

Dale Chihuly is an American artist, best known for his work with glass. Chihuly is a pioneer in glasswork. As a Rhodes Scholar, he learned from master glassworkers in Murano, Italy. He later went on to innovate new ways of working. Chihuly utilizes gravity and centrifugal force to let molten glass find its shape in its own organic way. Asymmetry and irregularity is a defining principle of his work. His lifelong interest in architecture and gardens has inspired him to create site-specific glass sculptures for public spaces, museums, private homes, and gardens. Chihuly says, “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced.” (resource: https://www.chihuly.com/life)

“Ode to My Socks”

It was eighteen below zero in Saranac Lake when I took the dog out on Tuesday morning. I hear that we are headed back into the deepfreeze for the weekend. What better time could there be to savor the beauty and goodness of wool socks?

Poem for a Thursday — “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda

“Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft
as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
with threads of
and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish made
of wool,
two long sharks
sea-blue, shot
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere
as schoolboys
as learned men
sacred texts,
I resisted
the mad impulse
to put them
into a golden
and each day give them
and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
and then my shoes.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter.”

in Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) had a long career in foreign service with posts as Consul in Burma, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico. He was elected to the senate in 1943 but was later forced out of office and into hiding for his communist views. When Chile’s government swung back to the center seven years later, Neruda again found favor. Neruda was awarded the International Peace Prize in 1950 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

“Precious in God’s Sight”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Isaiah 43:1-7

Curt lost his job on the assembly line, not long before the pandemic.  His employer made a big investment in new technology, and Curt’s work went robotic.  He found a new job, no problem, but it pays less, and the benefits aren’t as good.  Curt has a good ten years until retirement, so he now has a second part-time job to help with bills.  Curt always saw himself as a company man, but now he’s not sure who he is.

Monica was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  She’s a busy single parent with a full-time job and kids in middle school.  She has surgery ahead, followed by chemo and radiation.  Thankfully, her aging parents are on-hand to help out.  Monica puts on a brave face, but when she is alone, she is filled with fear and doubt.  Some days, it’s overwhelming.

George and Katherine met in their senior year of high school.  George says it was love at first sight.  Katherine said he wore her down.  They married when they were only twenty.  Over the years, they dreamed about one day being snowbirds, buying a little retirement place in Florida or Arizona.  But then Katherine got COVID, early in the pandemic.  George couldn’t even be with her when she died.  Now George feels like his dreams died along with Katherine.  The future feels uncertain, lonely, and scary.

We all have times when life serves up a double-helping of unwanted change, crisis, or tragedy.  The proverbial rug is pulled out from under our feet.  We wonder who we are now, how we will cope, and what the future will bring.  We grieve and lament.  We question and worry.  We fear and doubt.  We wrestle with big existential questions.  We wonder, “Where are you God?”  “Don’t you love me?”  “How can I possibly go on?”

The people of Israel were well-versed in unwanted change, crisis, and tragedy.  They were a conquered nation, living in exile in Babylon.  They had seen the defeat of their army.  They had watched as their city walls were breached.  They had witnessed their fields and homes being burned.  They had watched helplessly as their Temple was destroyed.  They had endured the countless unspeakable tragedies that always accompany war, the things that no one wants to talk about or remember.

Cut off from the land that they had loved, exiled from a way of life that had brought them meaning and purpose, mourning untold death and destruction, the Israelites asked themselves big questions.  Who are we? How can we cope? Do we have a future?  Beneath those big questions were sacred and existential queries that kept them up at night, questions that we know well.  Where is God? Does God love us? Can we be redeemed?

Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah allows us to listen in on a holy and intimate conversation.  God almighty speaks to the people of Israel.  God speaks to those exiles who feel they are going down for the third time amid a raging flood, who fear they are being consumed by unquenchable fires.  God speaks words of promise and consolation, saying “I have redeemed you.  I know you.  You are mine.  I will be with you.  You are precious in my sight.”  Those holy promises must have sounded to the exiles like water in the desert, a lifeline amid the raging seas, a healing balm for the gaping wounds of hardship and loss. 

Scripture tells us that God kept those promises.  God raised up King Cyrus of Persia.  His armies toppled mighty Babylon.  Then, Cyrus did the unthinkable.  He set the people of Israel free and gave them the resources to go home and rebuild.  From the north and the south, from the east and the west, God called the people home to the land that they loved.  They endured 500 miles of desert heat.  They forded the waters of the Jordan.  They returned.  Ruined homes were rebuilt.  Fields choked with weeds and brambles were cleared.  Neglected orchards were pruned and became fruitful.  City walls rose again.

It wasn’t easy.  It took time.  It was hard work.  But the people knew who they were and whose they were.  They were precious and beloved children of the one true God.  They found hope in the promises.  They trusted that God was with them in all their hardship and heartache.  One day, the people gathered to worship in the shadow of a new Temple and wept with gratitude and humility for all that God had done for them.

On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember the promises of God.  We remember the promises made long ago to those lonely and hurting exiles.  We remember the promises of Jesus’ baptism.  As our Lord emerged from the Rover Jordan, a voice from the heavens thundered, “This is my Beloved Son.  I find in him my delight.” 

Today we trust that those promises belong to us.  The promises belong to those who were sprinkled as infants in the care of parents and congregation.  The promises belong to those baptized as adolescents, who claimed Jesus as our Lord and savior as we were confirmed.  The promises belong to those who came later to the fount of every blessing, who came to faith as adults and laid claim to their belonging and redemption.  The promises belong to each of us.

If we listen with the ear of our heart, today our biggest questions find an answer.   God says, “I have redeemed you.  I know you.  You are mine.  I love you.  You are precious in my sight.”  God’s promises are for us, my friends.  Can you hear it?

When we live with the assurance that we are welcomed, loved, and will never be alone, we find the wherewithal to stand amid the flood and come through the fiery trial.  It isn’t easy.  It doesn’t feel good.  It takes time.  It’s hard work.  Somehow, like Curt, we are able to endure hard times at work.  Like Monica, we find strength for those challenges to our health.  Like George, we discover comfort in the midst of grief and unspeakable loss.  We trust that there is redemption for us, even when we are exiled and cut off from our better selves.

We return today to the waters where it all began.  We lay claim to those holy promises, and we find what is needed.  We remember who we are and to whom we belong.  Amid our worry and big questions, despite our fear and uncertainty, through the grief and anguish, hope is found and a way is made.  We are precious in God’s sight, beloved sons and daughters of an infinite and intimate God. 


W. Carter Lester. “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 43:1-7” in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Kathleen M. O’Connor. “Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 43:1-7” in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Valerie Bridgeman Davis. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 43:1-7” in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

PCUSA Office of Theology and Worship. “Baptism of the Lord” in Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

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Remember Your Baptism

Qasr el Yahud, West Bank Territory, 2017

On the second Sunday in January, Christians remember Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. I’ve visited two baptismal sites in the Holy Land. Yardenit in the north, near the Sea of Galilee, has plentiful, clear water that invites the pilgrim to jump in for a rite of baptismal remembrance. Qasr el Yahud in the south, near the Dead Sea, isn’t nearly so inviting. By the time the Jordan reaches Qasr el Yahud, the river has been hard at work, irrigating fields and orchards. I’m told that, until a few years ago, raw sewage was sometimes pumped into the river, making your remembrance unsafe. Nowadays, the river is relatively clean, albeit muddy. The vegetation along the banks is thick and resounds with the twitter of birds. This photo was taken at the end of April on the Israeli side. It was a blisteringly hot morning. Three new Christians were preparing for baptism. Across the river, Jordanian worshipers also gathered for baptismal remembrance. Soldiers in uniform, on both sides of the Jordan, kept watch with rifles at the ready.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”–Luke 3:21-22

“Boy at the Window”

Poem for a Tuesday — “Boy at the Window” by Richard Wilbur

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

in Good Poems, New York: Penguin Books, 2000. p. 319

Richard Purdy Wilbur published his first poem at age 8. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1957 and 1989. He served as the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987. Wilbur was profoundly shaped by his experience in the Army during World War II. He once described how the war changed his writing, saying, “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” He taught for decades at Amherst College and Wesleyan University. He died in 2017 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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From Homage to Home

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Matthew 2:1-12

I was walking in the neighborhood on the day after Christmas when I saw it: the first discarded Christmas tree of the season.  Bushy and long-needled, it looked lonely curbside, stripped of its ornaments and lights.  Some home owner, eager to restore their pre-holiday order, must have risen early and cleaned house.

Some of us may, likewise, already be parting with our signs of the season.  The traditionalists among us will insist on keeping our trees until the sixth of January, the Feast of Epiphany.  A few Christmas fanatics, you know who you are, will hold onto their trees until the dropping of needles becomes unbearable.

All of us in the coming days or weeks will say goodbye to our holiday decorations.  We’ll box up the ornaments.  We’ll carefully coil strands of lights.  The nativity set will be shrouded in bubble wrap and sequestered in the attic.  Eventually, even the evergreen wreath will disappear from the front door.  Our thoughts will turn away from the season of Christmas and focus instead on the year ahead.

This Sunday, we celebrate the arrival of some final guests of the holiday season.  Like family members who celebrate first at the in-law’s house, they arrived late.  Although we like to welcome them on Christmas Eve, Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Magi arrived long after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks and the angels had stopped singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Royal astrologers who scanned the night sky for heavenly portents of earthly events, the wise ones had seen a singular star rising in the east.  It was a star that heralded the birth of a Hebrew king.  The magi compared notes, organized a caravan, and embarked on a long overland journey to Jerusalem in hopes of confirming their hypothesis.

They didn’t find exactly what they were looking for.  Indeed, when they arrived at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, there was no royal infant swathed in silks and surrounded by luxury.  It must have felt like a disappointing end to their long travels.  But then the guidance of scripture directed them onward, to the Judean hill country.  As they turned their backs to Jerusalem, that portentous star that had risen in the east guided them to Bethlehem, like a big heavenly affirmation.

In the City of David, they found more than they had ever hoped or dreamed imaginable, a holy child, deserving of their reverence and awe.  Matthew tells us that the Magi paid him homage.  They fell to their knees in humility to worship the newborn king.  They gave their costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in response to the greater gift of the Christ-child himself.  They knew that God’s priceless love had been made flesh in the guise of this tiny peasant babe.

Christians have long called that eye-opening visit of the wise ones to the Christ-child Epiphany.  That name was first mentioned by the Patriarch Clement around the year 200.  The name Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means revelation or manifestation.  It had been revealed to the Magi that the star that they had seen at its rising was a heavenly sign of God’s new outpouring of light in Jesus.  The wise ones took one look at the holy child and knew without question that the unstoppable light of God shone in the world’s darkness.  William Danaker Jr., the Dean of Theology at Western Ontario University, teaches that on Epiphany Sunday we “raise our hearts to the shining beauty of eternal light.”

On this Epiphany Sunday, we especially remember that the beauty of God’s eternal light continues to shine in our world’s darkness.  It cannot be quenched by COVID-19.  It is not dimmed by the untimely death of our beloved ones.  It is not deterred by Capitol Hill gridlock.  It shines even above the threat of violence at the Ukrainian border.  It outshines our mounting years, declining health, frayed marriages, and workplace worries.  The light of Christ shines on in our darkness.

God’s great outshining love finds us where we least expect it and when we need it most.  Light comes in the smile of an infant.  Light comes in the sharing of communion together for the first time since March of 2020.  Light comes in the sparse gathering of those who would worship on a low and snowy Sunday after the New Year.  Light comes even as we worship virtually in the quiet of our own homes amid the post-Christmas clutter.  Christ’s light shines in our darkness.  Thanks be to God!

On this Epiphany Sunday, we recall that Jesus, who is light, saw his followers as light.  He taught his disciples, “You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:14, 16).  The light of Epiphany shines in us whenever we go forth in Jesus’ purpose. 

In our simple acts of kindness, light shines in the darkness. 

As we share the good news by praying for others or inviting them to church or sharing a sermon, light shines in the darkness.

When we make a healing difference in our families, light shines in the darkness.

As we nurture our children in body, mind, and spirit, light shines in the darkness.

When we care for the least of these, our vulnerable neighbors, light shines in the darkness.

That holy light that brought the Magi to their knees on that distant night in Bethlehem continues to shine through us, if we will let it.

In the coming days, our Christmas clean-up will continue.  We’ll see more trees curbside.  Our holiday keepsakes will return to the safety of their attic cubbies.  The last stale cookies will be nibbled or trashed.  Our thoughts will turn away from shepherds and angels.  The Magi will retreat to distant Persia until next Christmas. 

As we turn away from Christmas and step into the New Year, don’t pack away the light, my friends.  It longs to shine in you as it did in Bethlehem all those years ago; it longs to dispel the darkness that plagues humanity still.  The stars sing on in the night.  May the Christ-light that God shone at Epiphany kindle our hearts and send us forth to illumine our world.  Amen.


John Calvin. “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-6.”  Accessed online at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31.ix.xix.html

William Danaher Jr. “Theological Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Barbara Brown Taylor. “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  When Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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