Year C — Transfiguration Sunday

Commentary for February 10, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Exodus 34:29-35
One of the favorite gospel songs of my youth was, “Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” (If you know Southern gospel music, you might enjoy this clip of that old chestnut.)

It always seemed like such a nice thing to be able to do — to sit down with the Lord and have a chat. The reality here with Moses seems a bit more challenging — even a little bit scary.

One may wonder what it was that made the “skin of Moses’ face shine.” Was the presence of the Lord so intense that Moses got a sunburn? Was there some change in the cellular structure of Moses’ skin that caused the luminescence? Was the thrill such that his heart rate increased and the blood flow to his head rushed up and caused a permanent blush?

Of course, such speculation is pointless, and only serves to miss the point. Moses was different because he had been in the presence of the Lord. The light here is a symbol — which, of course, connects us coming from the Epiphany to the Transfiguration in the gospel reading for today. 

But — gospel quartet antics notwithstanding — there is always a bit of shock and awe associated with the presence of God. And that’s not a bad thing, I’m thinking….

Psalm 99
The psalm text continues the theme of “fear and trembling” before the presence of God — as well as a connection with Moses (who appears on the mountaintop with Jesus.)

Notice that this mighty King, before whom the earth itself quakes, is also a lover of justice and a provider of equity.  This awesome God is quite interested in righteousness, and is intently focused on the cries of His people. 

Two of my favorite theological tensions — transcendence and immanence.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
The readings from Corinthians make a shift this week, as Paul brings the experience of Moses and his “veiled face” to bear on our on experience with Christ.

No need for a veil any longer, the apostle says; we see the glory of the Lord directly (albeit in the mirror) and are commended to “shine” for the sake of God’s mercy.

“We do not lose heart.” While easier said than done, I suspect that this statement is an appeal to that mercy and light that we find in Christ. As Jesus himself said, “Let your light so shine before the people that they may see the good deeds you do, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Luke gives us two stories — both of which illustrate the absolute superiority of Jesus as the Christ over all other considerations. 

Moses and Elijah represent so much of the great and brilliant history of Israel — of God’s great power made known amongst God’s people in the past. Jesus “shines” so brightly as to overshadow these two, though Peter would have invoked worship of all three. The voice of God reminds him that there is only One who is Chosen, and One who is to be worshiped here.

The second story affirms that Jesus is not only greater than his disicples (poor guys got dissed in front of the whole crowd for not being able to pull their weight!) — but is greater than the power of evil in the world. The demon leaves, the boy is healed and is restored to relationship with his father. 

The folks that witness this scene are astounded. Awed? Afraid? Inspired? Intimidated? Confused? Moved to commit their way to Jesus?

That all remains to be seen, does it not?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was reading Marcus Borg’s and N.T. Wright’s book on Jesus this week, and in it Borg made reference to the relationship between history remembered and history metaphorized. Borg’s point was that there are actual things that happened that were remembered and turned into stories like Moses going off on the mountain to see God and returning with a shining face and Jesus being “Transfigured” on the mountain.

For Borg, obsessing about what exactly happened or denying it could have happened or arguing “Oh yes it could happen, God can do anything,” is a waste of time and energy.

Our efforts are better spent looking at how the folk who remembered the story made use of it to teach religious and spiritual truth; i.e. the metaphor they made out of remembered history.

It was a distinction that made sense to me. History turned into metaphor, or more correctly, personal story turned into a metaphor, is my sermonic stock in trade.

Just because you teach spiritual truth through the use of a story doesn’t mean the story isn’t factual, it just means that sometimes the facts are beside the point.

So I’m assuming there is an actual, historical, real and remembered moment underneath the Moses story. I also assume that figuring out the actual “facticity” of that moment is nigh onto impossible and would yield very little of value if it were possible.

What we have is remembered history metaphorized and the questions for us today are; “Why does this story about Moses have such staying power within Judaism and what significance does it have for Christianity?”

The same idea applies to the Transfiguration. Something happened, nobody made it up. But what really happened, the exact facts, “history remembered,” is unavailable to us. There are all sorts of “reasonable” (or not so reasonable) speculations, but no way of knowing for sure.

So why these stories? What are the metaphorical truths contained within what “really” happened? What do these stories tell us about God and what do they tell us about ourselves and our lives of faith?

Well, they tell us that here are peak experiences in the spiritual life; they do happen, and, we can never predict them, create them, nor repeat them. We don’t know when they might happen, we can’t do anything to make them happen, and we can’t do everything the same as we did last time and make them happen again.

They happen when God wants them to happen. They happen when God’s grace descends on us as it wills.

Our liturgical and homiletical contrivances may be able to stimulate a similar experience, but such a thing will always be counterfeit to the real experience.

They also tell us that spiritual highs come and go, but the real spiritual life is lived in the ordinary day-to-day. In chapters four through eight of Luke, Jesus goes off alone to pray five times. The first was the temptations in the wilderness, not exactly a “high”. Four other times in the first eight chapters, Jesus goes off to pray, and each time nothing happens. Well sort of nothing. He gets interrupted a lot. “Hey Jesus people are looking for you.”

But in none of the “go off alone and pray” episodes did Jesus change form or hear heavenly voices. He just prayed and that’s the point. The first eight chapters of Luke tell the story of Jesus going about his business of preaching and teaching and healing, with times of synagogue worship and private prayer. This was his life; long periods of ordinariness with only an occasional moment of luminosity.

Dr. B.S. Brown was pastor of Lutheran Chapel in China Grove, NC from 1945 to 1960. I was pastor there from 1984-1985. I found one of his old, hand-written sermons in the archives. It was about his first car, which he got in 1920, while pastoring near Johnson City TN, deep in the Smokey Mountains.

He talks about going on a trip to Knoxville. Often times he had to drive along in creek beds because there was no road, backing up hills because his Model-T had a gravity feed fuel system, etc. Occasionally, he would top a mountain and he could see the lights of Knoxville off in the distance, but most of the time was spent in the valleys in the darkness. Dr. Brown compared this to our lives of faith. We catch occasional glimpses of the Holy, but it’s mostly plodding through the dark and shadowed valleys.

God is constantly present in our lives. Our awareness of that presence of God is mostly a matter of perception, of trusting that God is indeed with us, not only in the moments of high feeling and intense spirit, but also through the yawning and lonely valleys of life.

It is a matter of paying attention to God in the ordinary things we do, of looking for God’s hand in the simplest of circumstances.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 3, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Jeremiah 1:4-10
The striking line is in v. 7: “Do not say to me, ‘I am only a boy….'” Jeremiah is not allowed to excuse himself from doing his duty — nor is anyone else allowed to dismiss him —  because of his youth or inexperience.

This will play in to the gospel reading for today, where the synagogue-goers of Jesus’ hometown see him as merely “Joseph’s son” — who is he to speak so sharply to them, to deliver a message of God’s faithfulness to outsiders while passing over those who ought to be first in line for the blessing?

There are a number of “boys” (and a couple of “girls,” too) who figure fairly prominently in the ongoing story of God’s work in the world. Joseph and David spring to mind — so does Mary. It appears that both Jeremiah and Jesus are in good company.

Psalm 71:1-6
The psalm continues the theme of God’s watch care over the young. Perhaps a psalm David penned after one of his near brushes with death?

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Ah, the lofty language of 1 Corinthians 13! 

What an awesome text — beautiful as it may be for wedding ceremonies — it fully deserves to be read in this context and considered for the power of its challenging call to “true love.”

What preacher would not like to be gifted with the “tongues of mortals and angels” — to be able to call for “prophetic powers” and to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge?” (Not to mention that whole moving a mountain thing — cool!)

But, in the end, we want to be sure that — above all — we are faithful in our love with and for one another. The power to heal in community is profound. Couples, families, friends, churches, communities of all sorts need to be reminded of this erstwhile treatise.

Luke 4:21-30
We have the “rest of the story” from last week’s gospel reading. After Jesus sat down from the reading of the scripture, he goes ahead with the “sermon” for the day. It’s a zinger, for sure!

They all thought that he read well (v.22) — no doubt, his Torah teachers were proud of his enunciation, accent, and projection. When he got to his interpretation, however, things did not go so smoothly. 

“That’s Joseph’s boy” turned from a badge of pride to an epithet filled with rage (v.28.) Preaching is oh, so much, a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” kind of gig, sometimes, isn’t it? I’ve known a lot of friends who have been hurled off of cliffs by congregations over the years — and not all of them deserved it!

I’ve also seen plenty of situations that the best choice was simply to pass through the midst of them and be on your way.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Ravi Zacharias was a grad student at Cambridge when he made a daytrip over to Bedford, the hometown of John Bunyan, the writer of The Pilgrim’s Progess. He was not disappointed. There in the middle of town was a life-size statue of the tinker/preacher/writer, and his restored house, and a museum, and the church he pastored in the 1600’s.

Zacharias had a great day wandering around town, praying in the church, examining the house, looking over artifacts in the museum. Finally it was time to go home, but he lingered in the gift shop of the museum, looking over the various editions of The Pilgrim’s Progressfor sale. He struck up a conversation with the young clerk. He asked her where she was from.

Right there in Bedford, born and bred. He asked her about Bunyan and she told him all the vital statistics (when and where born, books written, times in jail, death, etc.) He chatted with her about the different copies of the book available, and she told him all about covers and paper quality and print size. Finally, he asked her what her favorite part of the story was, what bit stuck with her? She said, “Oh, I wouldn’t know, I’ve never read it. It’s quite old and boring isn’t it?”

In today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus talks about how a “prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.” Bunyan was honored; but his teachings are now ignored. Is this the way it is with the church today; remembering Jesus but forgetting his message?

Following his baptism and time in the wilderness Jesus has comes to his hometown of Nazareth and goes to the Synagogue and reads the text from Isaiah about being the Lord’s anointed. It is here that our text begins. Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

At first people were pretty impressed. Verse 22 says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They are impressed.

It is in verses 23-27 that he makes them angry. Apparently they were pleased with his preaching, but they had heard that he had done miracles and healings elsewhere and they wanted him to do some for them. And Jesus refused. Apparently, he believed they wanted was a show, an exhibition. They weren’t interested in people being healed; they wanted to be entertained and Jesus was having none of it. We can read between the lines and hear the homefolks saying things like, “Who do you think you are? What’s the matter, you too good for us now? You gone off to the city and now you’re too big to do miracles for us?”

Jesus responds with two Hebrew Bible stories of healing; Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath and Elisha and Namaan. What’s important here is that both the widow of Zarephath and Namaan, were gentiles, foreigners, aliens. 

Jesus points out that there were many widows and lepers in Israel, but God chose to use Elijah and Elisha to heal the outsiders, and God has chosen Jesus to bring God’s love to everybody, not just the Children of Israel. This made the crowd furious. They ran him out of town and tried to kill him, but he eluded them.

Now, here’s the question for us today. Are we like the people in Bedford, honoring the memory of Jesus without actually knowing what he said or meant? Are we like the people of Nazareth, pleased with Jesus as long as what he says sounds good to us, but turning our backs on him when he says things we don’t like?

Now, most of us would never come right out and say we disagree with Jesus, so we often use wriggle room to avoid it. Whenever we hear something we don’t like coming out of Jesus’ mouth, we blame it on somebody other than Jesus: the professors, the liberals, the over-educated preachers, the bleeding hearts, the conservatives, the fundamentalists; anything to avoid admitting that Jesus said it and I’m supposed to believe it and obey it.

For example; I confess that I am a little hard-hearted about poor people and homeless people. My gut reaction is; “Get a job, go to work, get busy. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault.” Despite a UNC and Duke education and years of prayer and Bible study and living with a social worker for 38 years; somewhere in a place I don’t visit very often, somewhere deep in my psyche, I still feel that way.

And yet Jesus said the Holy Spirit had anointed him to preach Good News to the poor. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. There is that great judgment parable in which Jesus said, “If you did unto one of the least of these, the cold, the hungry, the naked, the poor, you did it unto me.” And he said many more things about the poor and my, our, obligation to help them. We have to deal with that. Do we sort of ignore it, like the nice lady at the Bunyan Museum ignored The Pilgrim’s Progress?Do we get mad about it and turn our backs on Jesus, like the people of Nazareth? Or do we swallow our pride and obey our master.

Have we stopped listening to Jesus? He says many things about loving the stranger and the foreigner, about turning the other cheek, about living a life of prayer, about selling what we have and giving it to the poor. Do we take Jesus seriously; or are we giving him the “yada, yada” treatment, nodding and smiling, but not really listening, putting him off and putting him on?

Listening to Jesus is hard. Many things he said challenge us; they challenge our ideas and our prejudices and our actions. But Jesus not only challenges us, he also invites us. He invites us to think about things in a new way, to think about others in a new way, to act toward others in a new way. Jesus invites us to join him in living in the world by the rules of the Kingdom of God, not the rules of earthly success and happiness. 

Jesus invites us to join him in blessing the world with God’s grace and acts of healing and love. Jesus invites us to join him in going out to all lands and all peoples with the great Good News that the Kingdom of God has come and we are all invited to be a part of it.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Commentary for January 27, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Click HERE to listen to the “Lectionary Lab Live” podcast!

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
I, yes, even I — the preacher — am guilty at times of taking the reading and the hearing of God’s word a bit too lightly. 

Nehemiah gives us the wonderful account — most likely inserted in the ongoing saga of the rest of the book from another source, but marvelous, nonetheless — of the people of Israel, who have been “exiled” from their home city for many years, discovering a Torah scroll and hearing it read for the first time in a very long time. 

For many of those in the crowd that day, the experience was completely new — not only had they never heard Torah read, they no longer recognized the ancient tongue of their own people. They had grown up in the Persian courts — Hebrew was foreign to them!

The “preachers” on this day had the holy responsibility of “reading from the book of the law of God, with interpretation…so the people could understand the meaning.” That is our call, is it not?

As always, the word of God does its work when we remove from it all obstacles, when we faithfully perform the task of interpretation. No fasting here — bring on the juicy fat and that sweet, sweet wine. It’s time to celebrate the goodness of God!

Psalm 19
Now, you want to talk about some interpretation? Psalm 19 says that “the heavens are telling” the glory of God! Look up the next time you need to see and feel the presence of God. Get a glimpse of what’s going on above you, around you, everywhere you can see. God is at work there (or, so we are led to believe….)

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
“Well, I’m no hand; I don’t think there’s really anything I can do here at the church. I’m sure not an eye, so there’s no way I can see my way clear to step up and be a leader!”

Our folks wouldn’t use these words, exactly, but don’t we encounter people all the time who offer one excuse or another why they are not “good enough” to serve a role in the congregation?

I am convinced that, for some folks, it is genuine humility — bordering on low self-esteem — that keeps them from taking part. They don’t want to be seen as “putting on airs.” But, there are other times when folks just don’t really want to get involved — don’t want the hassle or the inconvenience of committing to the cause of Christ.

Hold on there a minute! The church is a body, and it really needs all its parts! You may feel like yours is one of the “weaker” or “less honorable” parts (not to mention the “unmentionable” parts — and we know the body definitely needs all of those!)

Doesn’t matter; God designed you to fit in. So, let’s get to fittin’, shall we?

Luke 4:14-21
Jesus — the local boy who has, we assume, been away for a while — comes back home and does as he no doubt has done dozens of times. He reads from the Torah scroll in church. He is obviously accepted as a rabbi here in Nazareth; nobody disputes his “right” to read publicly.

There is also an air of expectation, even as he sits down after reading. It’s kind of like the old E.F. Hutton commercials — everybody leans forward expectantly, waiting to hear what he is going to say.

And, he says a mouthful. Claiming the fulfillment of prophecy from Isaiah — who does this boy think he is?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Today’s Gospel lesson is about knowing who you are. Specifically, it is about Jesus knowing who he is and what he is called to do. It is also about our knowing who we are and what we are called to do, for the two are intimately related. Our identity as Christian people flows directly out of Jesus’ identity as the Christ of God, and what we are called to do follows directly on what Jesus was called to.

As we look at this story, it is important to place it in its proper context. The flow of Luke’s story goes like this:

  • John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing.
  • Lots of people are coming to get baptized.
  • One of those people is Jesus.
  • After Jesus gets baptized the Spirit descends on him and he is declared the beloved Son of God.
  • The Spirit leads him in to the Wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil.
  • Then our text begins, in which: “filled with the power of the Spirit” Jesus teaches around Galilee.
  • On the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue, and reads and preaches/teaches about the Spirit anointing him for ministry.

Now right after this, in the part we didn’t read, his friends and neighbors were not too impressed by all this, indeed they got mad enough to run him out of town, in fact, they intended to kill him, but he got away. 

There are two things I want to focus on here, and we’ll take them in turn.

One is the business of Spirit and identity. As I retold the last half of chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4 in Luke, I purposely emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus was about was rooted in the leading of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit and the comfort of the Spirit.

All too often we in the church act as though what happens in the life of the church were up to us. We take a bow in God’s direction and say a prayer or two for guidance, but then we go about the church’s business relying on our own ideas and interests and abilities. We forget that even Jesus was dependent upon the Spirit. Who are we to think or act as though we can go it alone?

In the Bible, 40 is a number that symbolizes a long time, usually a long time of testing and waiting and getting clear spiritually. Think about the children of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 years, of the Noah flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, etc. When the Bible says Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, it means he spent a great deal of time in prayer and study and spiritual discipline, seeking to know exactly what it was God was calling him to be and to do.

Bishop N.T. Wright points out that what we often call an “inspired” performance is usually the result of long years of practice and preparation. A great musician, a fine actor, a superb athlete; none of them appears on the world’s stage without the blood, sweat and tears of dedicated work to get ready.

Jesus had spent the time in prayer and study to be prepared for the moment God called upon him to come forth as the Lord’s Anointed. The Spirit, the “inspiration” came on him because he was ready to receive it.

We are called to do no less. We are called to be prepared, to be ready, to be open to the Spirit; and the only way to do that is to take seriously our call to study scripture and to pray and to seek God’s will in the community of the faithful. It was not by accident that it was Jesus’ custom to go to synagogue. He didn’t go there because they were friendly (this bunch certainly was not) he didn’t go there because his family, his Mama and his brothers and cousins went there (though they were); Jesus went to pray, to hear God’s word read and explained, to prepare for the moment when God would call upon him to do something extraordinary, and when that moment came, he was ready. So, the first thing we see here is Jesus preparation for and dependence upon the Spirit.

The second thing we note the nature of what Jesus is called to do. I talked to a pastor friend not too long ago who saw a church sign which said, “WE CARE FOR YOU!” in big letters. 
Underneath, in small print, it said, Sundays, 10 am only.

The things Jesus is called to say and do as the Lord’s anointed shout out in large letters the message: GOD CARES FOR YOU! Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Love, care, act.

As the followers of Christ, we too are called to care, not just in our hearts, but also in our actions. And we are called to caring actions all the time, not just on Sundays at 10 AM. We are called to find ways as individuals and as a church, a community of faith, of doing those very things Jesus talks about it this Scripture lesson. To do any less would be to back away from our call to take up our cross and follow.

When I was a kid, Yogi Berra was one of my favorite baseball players. When I got older, I got even more fond of him as I began to read some of the Yogisms that were often quoted on the sports pages, things like:

That restaurant’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.
If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Anybody who is popular is bound to be disliked.

My all-time favorite is this: If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shows clearly that he knows who he is and where he is going. It is an awareness that has come to him through serious study of the scriptures, deep and impassioned prayer and a commitment to living within the community of God’s faithful people.

We are called today to follow Jesus in this ministry. We are called to study the scriptures, pray hard and long for guidance, to live out a commitment to the gathered people of God by coming together in worship and prayer and service. And we are called to follow the Spirit’s leading in serving the world in Jesus’ name.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 20, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Listen to this week’s podcast (click here)

Isaiah 62:1-5
Okay, I pretty much love any scripture passage that manages to work in the word “diadem.” I am immediately transported back to my home church as a child, falling with sacred throngs and ascribing majesty and such to the Lord. (“All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” one of my top ten favorite hymn texts!)

The primary images in Isaiah’s language, however, are of marriage; notice the “good news” in vv. 4-5: God’s people will no longer be “Forsaken” or “Desolate” (images here of the unmarried or barren woman) but will be called “My Delight is in Her” and “Married.” 

Sexist in this day and time? Maybe. Just take a stroll through the magazine shelves in Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million and count the number of glossy-covered tomes devoted to brides, weddings, and such. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

No doubt this passage serves as deep background for the gospel text and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. 

Psalm 36:5-10
Feasting, drinking, celebrating love. Also a great companion piece for the gospel text. 

Verse 6 interests me: God saves animals and humans alike. I suppose all dogs really do go to heaven?

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Nice touch to have the New Testament’s pre-eminent passage on “gifts” sandwiched in between all these verses about love and marriage!

The “spirituals” here in v.1 come from the wind, the breath — hence, Spirit — of God.  The root word, pneumatikos, can be translated “not human” or “not natural” — which makes a nice contrast to verse 2 concerning the way we acted when we were “pagan,” or very much natural.

God’s working in our lives goes far beyond what we can do on our own — naturally. 

John 2:1-11
Coming on the heels of the Epiphany and Baptism, we have here a further “revealing” of who Jesus is. This, as John tells us, is the first of Jesus’ “signs,” or miracles. Those present get a glimpse of his true nature — which, one might well assume, his mother had viewed for quite a few years.

I’ve always loved the interplay between Mary — a good Jewish mother, no doubt — and her eldest son, who is somewhat reluctant to be placed on display. “Just do whatever he tells you to do,” she says to the servants. She knows her boy — he will do what is best.

Interesting that, early on in John’s gospel, we hear that “his disciples believed him.” We might well ask, “Oh, really? Then why do they continue to struggle to understand him for 19 more chapters?”

Maybe it’s because believing doesn’t necessarily require understanding, at least not completely. 

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Some years ago I heard a story about an Italian trying to start a vineyard in northeast Georgia, near the town of Helen.The County Commissioners were a group of good southern, evangelical Christians, and at that time, the county was “dry” like most of the rest of rural Georgia, and the leaders were none too keen on granting a permit for a wine making business.
The man was very confused by their attitude. Most of all, he could not understand how making wine could be considered un-Christian.“After all,” he said, “did not our Lord turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee?”
Wall, that remark sure got them stirred up. Every good southern evangelical was very clear on the reality that though Jesus may have turned the water into what they CALLED wine, it was not wine as we know it; it was grape juice, unfermented,, non-alcoholic; the recipe for which was lost from Biblical times until the 1800s; when a dentist and Methodist communion steward named Welch rediscovered it.
(That’s a little bit true; Welch’s grape juice was originally created as non-alcoholic communion wine. The whole jams and jellies thing came later.)
Anyway, the Italian Catholic vintner stood there in amazement as the folks argued amongst themselves until the chair used his gavel and called for order and said, Well, I have researched this thing and I have to say there was no such thing as unfermented grape juice in bible times. They didn’t have the technology for it. Jesus really did turn the water into wine. . . .and I have to say that I’ve always been a little disappointed in the Lord for that!”
The story of turning water into wine at a wedding is very well known, and it has been used for a number of purposes. It is cited in the Lutheran wedding service for example; as a way, I suppose, of saying that Jesus endorses marriage;or perhaps that Jesus endorses drinking a bit and partying after a wedding. Along those lines, I’ve heard it cited on both sides of the drink/don’t drink argument.
As a miracle, of sign as John prefers to say, it’s not like a healing, or a Transfiguration, or a raising from the dead, or a feeding of the 5000, or even a stilling of the storm or a walking on the water. It doesn’t come with any easily discernible, easily preachable, easily applicable meaning. It’s just this extraordinary thing that Jesus did. It makes one feel more like saying, “Party on, Dude;” than “Amen Brother!”
So, knowing that John included this story in his gospel for a reason, we must ask the question – What are we expected to learn from this story?”If the fact that Jesus could turn water into wine is not the real point, then what is?
John is a writer whose work is full of symbolism.Unlike the other Gospel writers; Matthew, Mark and Luke; he makes no pretence that his is a straight forward, historical narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus.John’s intent is to reveal to us spiritual truth through the use of human stories.
Reading John is something like watching the TV show “Lost”.Things are always different from how they seem and this means it’s generally a bit tricky to figure out what John is getting at. 
A prevailing theme throughout John’s gospel is the dawning of a new age. To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.
This is why John prefers to use the word “signs” instead of the word “miracles.” These things that Jesus did, like turning water into wine, were signs to the faithful that the new age of God’s dealing with the world had come.
So – what Jesus did was not about an obedient son reluctantly doing what his mother asked; nor was it about Jesus making sure the host of the wedding was not embarrassed by the wine running out,nor was it about making sure those attending the party were able to keep drinking.
What is really significant in this story is that the water is special water. It is water that has been set aside for the Jewish purification rites.It is there for the people to wash up in. This washing was not about being sanitary or comfortable.This washing was a religious ceremony; it was a ritual cleansing in order to go before the Lord during the wedding feast.In this sign – Jesus takes the old- the ritual bath water;and turns it into the new- fresh wine.
It is important to realize that Jesus did not take the bad and turn it into the good! He did not take the useless and turn it into the useful.He took good things from the past and transformed them, changed them, into other good things for the future.
A good question for us today is “what does this text say to us?” today, in this place, in the year 2013.What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?
The new age brought by Jesus the Christ is an ongoing age of transformation and growth.
We are not the people we once were;nor are we the people we will someday become.
We are in a state of fluidity; we are water being changed into wine.
We have choices, as individuals and as communities of faith.We can face the future’s changes with fear and resistance;or, we can embrace them with faith and excitement.
Either way, change is going to happen, the new age is upon us, the water is beginning to change, and God is smack dab in the middle of it. 

 Amen and amen.

Year C — The Baptism of the Lord

Commentary for January 13, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 43:1-7
When something is “ours,” we tend to take particular care of it — something known as “pride of ownership.” 

We feel an attachment to things that we have purchased or that have personally been given to us; the feeling of care is particularly acute when it is something that we have made with our own hands. (Why else do I still have the useless plaster cast apple that I made for crafts during Vacation Bible School as a child?)

Isaiah informs us of the basis of the great care and protection of God, who will ensure our well-being through water, rivers, fire, and flame. God has created us, formed us. The definitive statement from the Holy One is, “You are mine.”

We all take care of our own — God does no less!

Psalm 29
The psalm reflects the power of the voice of God, which will be significant at the baptism of Jesus. When God’s voice is heard, things happen. Big, powerful, consequential things.

Remember when you were a kid and your heard your parent call you? You could tell by the sound of your mom or dad’s voice just how urgent the need for you to respond. Almost innately, kids can tell how much “liberty” they have in deciding whether to come when called or not.

Do we exercise the same liberty when deciding to respond to the voice of God?

Acts 8:14-17
This passage has always seemed a little quizzical to me; the believers up in Samaria weren’t quite “complete” due to their apparent ignorance of the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Receiving “only” the baptism in the name of Jesus wasn’t necessarily inferior — after all, what is it that saves us? 

(Hmmm, come to think of it, we may have to have some further discussion on that. Probably will be a hot topic on this week’s Lectionary Lab Live podcast. See the link to the right!)

Whatever the theological disposition of the baptism question, we see that a little prayer and conversation got it all worked out for the Samaritans. Might do wonders for us, as well.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
We are certainly wont to raise our hopes and expectations when we find ourselves in need of some good news.

Maybe the economy is really going to crank back up this year; I expect that our President and Congress will take positive action and accomplish real bipartisan cooperation. It sure would be nice if my congregation could see some numerical growth in the coming months; I anticipate that the pastor and church leaders will enact some bold new plans for producing new members.

Our expectations may be appropriate and rational, or they may not be. Certainly, as John did the best job he could do, there were those who placed Messiah-like expectations on him. “Not so fast, my friends,” the itinerant evangelist proclaimed. “I have my place, but I also know my place. The one you are looking for is going to do things very differently from me.”

As it turned out, the Messiah was right there among them, living as they lived and doing as they did. He even came to be baptized by John. Why? Well, there’s another healthy debate (see note above about joining us on Lec Lab Live this week.)

Suffice it to say that God spoke and made it known that God was well-pleased with the life of God’s Son. As we imitate Him, we seek that same pleasure and blessing of God.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

S.I. McMillen, in his book “None of These Diseases,” tells the story of a young woman who was applying for admission to college.  She was very uncomfortable with the question, “Are you a leader?”  She knew that colleges were looking for leaders, but she felt that the only honest answer was “no;” so that is what she wrote and sent in the application, expecting to be rejected.
A week or so later she received this letter from the college:  Dear Applicant; A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders.  We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.
As the our Gospel lesson begins, John is very aware that the people are wondering if he is the leader, the messiah, the savior, the one sent from God.  He is also aware that they are unclear about what the coming of a messiah will mean, both for them and for the world.  So he proceeds to set them straight by telling them, “No, I am most definitely not the messiah.
He then proceeds to explain to them the difference between what he is doing and what the coming messiah will do.  “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat.” (Luke 3:16-17)
Gee, I think I like the sounds of baptism with water a lot better than baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire, especially an unquenchable fire.  John the Baptist has long been seen as a hard-hearted, straight-laced and razor-toed religious fanatic; but in this text he comes off as a real softy when compared to the messiah to come. What is he talking about here?

What is the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus?
John’s ministry and baptism were primarily about repentance and the washing away of one’s old life.  In the Coen brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, there is a great scene where Delmar (no relation) gets baptized in the river.  Later in the car he is joyful as he exclaims, “I been redeemed.  The preacher said so.  All my sins and wrongdoings has been wiped away, including robbing that Piggly-Wiggly.”  “Uh, Delmar, I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.”  “Well, I lied, but I been forgiven of that too.”
John proclaims that while the messiah’s mission includes repentance and the removing of the old life (burnt way with fire rather than washed away with water) it also involves moving one’s life in a new direction under the influence and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.  John says something like, “I have the job of calling you to turn from your old life and to start in a new direction.  The messiah has the power to change your life, to create in you a new heart, to lead you into the new kingdom of God’s future.”
Luke treats Jesus baptism in two short verses.  “. . . Jesus was also baptized and was praying, the heaven 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.”
Too often too many of us act as though we have been baptized with John’s baptism only, redeemed from the past, but not empowered for the future. We sometimes forget that as Christians we have also been baptized with the Holy Spirit. 
One of the basic definitions of Christian baptism is that it be done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The service for Holy Baptism in many traditions includes this or a similar line, “Name – you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is to have the dove of God’s peace descend upon us as it did upon Jesus.  It is to be claimed, adopted, as one of God’s many beloved children.  To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is most especially to be empowered to be a follower of Jesus, to be an effective member of the priesthood of believers.
I once heard Desmond Tutu tell a story about his early days as a priest in South Africa.  He gave a Bible test to a group of young teen-age boys.  One of the questions was: “What did the voice from heaven say to Jesus after his baptism?”  Most of them got it right but one boy got it wrong in a very creative way.  He wrote, “The voice from heaven said ‘You are the Son of God; now act like it!’”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, you have been baptized.  You have been forgiven your sins; they have been burned away in the fire of God’s love.  You have been redeemed.  You have received the Holy Spirit.  You are a beloved child of God.  Dare I say it?  Go forth into the world and act like it!
Amen and amen.