Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What can we say January 26? 3rd after Epiphany

   Isaiah 9:1-4 pulls my heart back toward Advent. Walking in darkness, seeing a great light: we ponder the magi, Jesus’ birth, the Gospel of John’s vivid imagery of light shining in the darkness. Isaiah, back in the 8th century, was not foretelling the future. But how intriguing is it that he names the historic degradation of Zebulun and Naphtali – the very tribal areas where Jesus grew up and ministered as an adult! The “way of the sea,” the Via Maris, was the great road connecting Egypt to Mesopotamia. I’m not sure the heavy trade that made it a profitable route was what Isaiah had in mind; but Jesus did take up residence along this road, where moneymakers and tax collectors stayed busy.

    Isaiah dreams God’s dream of a day of greatness and joy, when the yoke of oppression is broken. How poetic his words: “There will be no gloom (mu’af) for those who were in anguish (muzak)” – rhyme and assonance, making it more memorable in Hebrew even than in English! God’s character as one who keeps promises and ultimately brings immense blessing to God’s people and the world is eloquently declared here. No sunny optimism here, no Try harder! counsel here. God will bring God’s good creation to its ultimate, promised purpose.

   Psalm 27 will be the focus of my sermon, linking it to Jesus and the fishermen. The Psalm, like Isaiah, fixates on the light. Because “the Lord is my light and my salvation,” then “I will not fear” – an echo of Psalm 23. You can almost picture someone with good cause to fear repeating to himself, “I will not fear, I will not fear.” Don’t the words, when coupled to trust in the Lord as light and salvation, actually scuttle some of the fear?

   Mark Smith, in his lovely book Psalms: The Divine Journey, demonstrates that this Psalm emerged from the Israelites’ experience of worship in the temple. It was oriented toward the east; so as the sun rose over the Mt. of Olives, the blazing light would strike the eastern wall of the temple, creating a brilliant glow on the outside. But the inside: high windows were designed to let that rising light in (after a night of watching and praying), and the bright light would then glisten off the golden interior creating a nearly blinding display of radiance. Other nations worshipped sun gods. In Israel, the sun was a vivid illustration of God’s bedazzling nature – and they knew as well as we that the sun is God’s instrument of life, light and warmth. This light symbolized God’s immanence and God’s transcendence all at once! As Smith puts it, “In the temple experience, internal and external perceptions merged, and thus there was experienced the God of superhuman size and brilliant light giving joy and perhaps even healing to those who trust in his name.”

  As always, Ellen Charry's fabulous Brazos commentary is rich with insight. She notices that Psalm 25 pleads for forgiveness; Psalm 26 proclaims that the speaker has relocated himself to a cleaner place; then Psalm 27 "takes the protagonist's reconstruction of his life a step further. These 3 Psalms provide snapshots of progress in the spiritual renewal of life." Wow. Then this: if you're attentive to Psalm 27 you'll notice "the speaker moves rapidly back and forth between his local hearers" (fellow worshippers) "and God.. One can almost see his human audience watching expectantly as he turns his body now toward them, now away from them, toward God, and back to them again." Prayer, witness, community. Just lovely.

   “One thing have I asked of the Lord.” When Jesus visited Mary and Martha, just across the valley from the temple, Jesus dissed Martha a little for being obsessed and “distracted” by “many things.” “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:38-42). That one thing was sitting at Jesus’ feet. In Psalm 27, it is simply being present in the house of God. We can resonate to the Psalmist and reflect on the privilege and joy it is today to be in a sanctuary. It is the house of God, God our salvation is there.

   The Psalmist asks “to behold the beauty of the Lord.” Dostoevsky said “The world will be saved by beauty.” We do not think of beauty nearly enough, and simply to ponder the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the story, the beauty of the Church, the beauty of holy lives: isn’t this the antidote to fear?

   I spoke at a Pentecostal conference years ago. During the opening song (which took at least 20 minutes!), the guy next to me stopped singing the song, raised his hands toward the ceiling (or toward heaven?) and muttered, over and over and over, “Oh Jesus, you are so beautiful.” I want to grow up to be like him. We sing “Fairest Lord Jesus… Beautiful Savior.” Didn’t Jesus say his body was the real temple? The ultimate dwelling of God on earth? Didn’t Jesus have to be beautiful, or maybe magnetic or charismatic or beguiling, as total strangers dropped everything to traipse off after him, with no idea where they were heading?

   The Psalmist probed deeply into his own soul and then reported on what he found there to God: “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Ancient Israelites had a profound sense of coming face to face with God in the temple. The disciples looked on Jesus’ visible, tangible face, and saw the face of God. I think of the blind in Scripture being cured; the first thing they saw? The face of Jesus, who had just given them sight. Such a lovely emblem of Jesus' desire that we see, really see, perceive, in order to glimpse and know him face to face.

  There is no shortage of sentimental thought about the “face of God.” The World War II pilot John Gillespie Magee wrote “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; sunward I’ve climbed… With silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God” – words Ronald Reagan made famous in his eulogy after the Challenger disaster (thanks to his great speechwriter, Peggy Noonan!). Christian art has tried its darnedest to get the face right; the Christ Pantocrator at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai is awfully good. Jesus was and is the literal, human face of God. The disciples saw, and were transfixed, and followed.

    And so, Matthew 4:12-23. Jesus, walking out of Zebulun and Naphtali, on the Via Maris (did he look around and think, Wow, Isaiah is resonating in my soul right now? He saw fishermen. Not Andy and Opie fishing as a hobby, but a business (was it called Zebedee and Sons?). Little details have figurative import here. Jesus wait in the synagogue for them to come. He went to them, to their place of business (a very John Wesley-ish thing to do). He didn’t have a nice visit, and say “See you when I’m back” as he waved goodbye. They had to leave plenty behind to follow: business, family, home. We sometimes diss the disciples for their slowness – but geez, they left everything.

   Hard for me to ponder this text without thinking of the “Jesus boat” archaeologists found – dating to the time of Jesus! I wish it said “S.S. Simon Peter” on the prow! But this is a boat Jesus surely saw, maybe stepped into or floated in. We forget the realities of Bible stories – so this salient reminder of the tangibility of the life of fishermen is astounding. I wonder if, just maybe, when they saw the face of Jesus, they ventured in their minds to the 27th Psalm and this seeking the light, the face of God.


  If the Psalms interest you as a preacher, as they do me, check out my book co-authored with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms.

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