Monday, January 19, 2015

When the light bulb flickers

Epiphany 2B.  18 January 2015.

Alexander D. MacPhail


John 1.43-51


          From time to time, we notice that whatever has been working is no longer working the way it should.  Several weeks ago, I was in the little room in the hallway that we all need from time to time, and suddenly the light bulb went out.  Perhaps you know what that's like.  There is a moment of mild panic as you wonder if the electricity has completely gone out. 


          The same can happen in the spiritual life.  The heart and mind has been engaged in a particular prayer or discipline, and one morning it means nothing to us.  A moment of slight panic as we quickly seek to discern if this is a momentary flicker, or if we may need to rekindle the embers a bit.


          In the back of our minds we have the reassurance that God will never leave us or forsake us, but still, something has changed, and we may not be sure exactly what, or how to go about addressing it. 


          I usually address this problem by asking God where I am, and what's going on, and then I look through various books and articles, and see what I can find that helps.  One of the great blessings of my vocation is that I'm frequently needing to study the Bible; and doing so can be very enriching. 


          In the first century, it was common practice for the rabbis to study the Bible under fig trees.  So I would imagine that when Jesus mentions seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, it may be a reference to Nathanael's study, which of course indicates that Nathanael was already devout Jew.  


          We only meet Nathanael in John's Gospel.  And though the story we read today is very brief, there is a lot going on behind the scene.  We remember that John's Gospel is written in very mystical language.  John offers a lot of intentional symbolism. 


          St. Augustine noticed, many years ago, the similarities between the story of Nathanael and Jacob.  For instance, Nathanael is described as an Israelite without guile—meaning a very straight forward sort of person.  Jacob is described as a man of cleverness and savvy.  Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending; Jacob's vision at Bethel was of a ladder of angels ascending and descending. 


          Actually Jacob was given the name Israel, which is a name that implies that he is "the personification [or embodiment] of God's people rapturously beholding their God."[*]  And here, Nathanael rapturously beholds the living Christ, the Son of God, and calls him that! 


          There is a deep sense of fulfillment in this encounter.  That what happened for Jacob is happening again, but this time the living God is standing right there, and the angels ascending and descending are described by Jesus as ascending and descending upon himself.


          Also remember the key to understanding John's Gospel:  You remember the first verses—the Prologue—of John, that Jesus came to his own people and his own people did not recognize him, but those who did receive him received the power to become children of God."  So much of John's Gospel—so much of the point that John is making—is that some people saw Jesus for who he really was, and many did not.  Those who could only see a man were blind, but those who could see more than just a man, could see the living God.


          This encounter with Nathanael you may notice occurs in the very first chapter, in fact, right after the Baptism of Christ.  It may be intended to be a symbolic description of Jesus coming to every devout Jew in Israel.  Like coming to Israel himself, Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes.


           And if we look at it as such, it's a very poignant story, because even though symbolically, John has made it seem as if the whole of Israel is converted in this one encounter, we know that that is not the case.  We know that the prologue is still true.  Some could see Jesus through the eyes of faith—some could see him for who he really was—but many, many could not, and did not.


          And the even more bitter irony is that even those of us who believe we can see him, do not always see him for who he really is.  So often we see our own projection of him—what we want him to be.


          And perhaps that is the moment when the light bulb really goes out—when the prayers no longer work, and we begin to wonder what has happened.


          Jesus' words to Nathanael are words of surprise at his faith, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?"  (As if to say, "If that's all it takes for you to believe, what does it say about the people who will watch the lepers be healed, and the lame walk, and still not believe!?")  "Very truly, I tell you," says Jesus, "you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending..." 


          In other words… actually let me give you several paraphrases:


          "If you believe me because I said I saw you under the fig tree, then:

·       it's not going to take you any more faith to see the connection between heaven and earth in me."

·       you are about to see what happens when you live the Torah you have been studying."

·       what you are about to see me do is going to blow your mind."



          Now, I'm going to point out one more thing about this text because I think it will really bring this message home.  In John's Gospel, Jesus expresses surprise when people can see.  And so much of that seems to be because so many people saw his signs and did not believe.


          So fast forward through John's Gospel, past the teachings, the healings, the crucifixion story, and now find chapter 20, the story of Jesus and Thomas.  Remember it?  Thomas was not in the room when the risen Christ first appears to the disciples, and then a week later Thomas is there, and Jesus says, "Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe." Thomas then says, "My Lord and my God!"  And Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?" (Sound familiar?)  "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!"


          This is the exclamation mark John places at the end of his Gospel.  It is the final, emphatic proclamation to everyone who seeks after Christ Jesus, but who, unlike Thomas, unlike Nathanael, were not physically present when Jesus walked the earth.  That those who caught sight of him and really saw him for who he really was, rapturously beheld the living God!


          And the message that comes home to us is that those who have not seen Christ physically, but have seen him spiritually—through the eyes of faith—are blessed, and are not second class citizens in the kingdom of God.



          We who see him now though trust and holy hope know him just as surely as Nathanael and Thomas.  That time and space do not separate us from the living God.  That Christ Jesus is fully present by the presence of the Holy Spirit to us now, just as he was then.


          Our inability to feel that at times does not render it untrue.  So often the light bulb goes out because we place our trust not in God, but in a sensation we associate with God.  And I think often that sense of absence breeds a kind of panic. 


          But God has not left us, even for one instant.  God is fully within us at all times, though we may or may not experience a warm fuzzy feeling that we associate with him.  But you have to be willing to let go of that expectation, or rather, you have to develop the faith that Christ is just as present with you when you don't feel him.  And that requires genuine spiritual maturity.  It requires being a person of trust.


          I remember when my spiritual director, Mark Dyer, said, "You have to keep going, Alexander.  If the white hairs on my head mean nothing else to you, let them tell you that you have to keep going.  God is faithful."  And he was right.  Sensations come and go.  Happiness can come and go. 


          The beauty of this lesson is that we are able to look through Nathanael's eyes, and to receive the same acceptance and love that Christ gave him.  "Do you believe because I said I saw you under a fig tree?  You will see greater things than these."  But "blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe."



[*] Lee Barrett in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 1, pg. 264

Monday, January 12, 2015

Who we are when the snowflakes settle

​Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany: please click here to listen.  

There is no manuscript; I preached from notes.​

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The faithful parents of Jesus

Christmas 2B.  4 January 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail


Matthew 2.13-15,19-23



            The Gospel lesson I just read is found in Matthew's Gospel just after the visit of the magi.  Matthew writes that after they had left, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  So Joseph obeys the angel. 


            When Herod dies, Matthew writes, that the angel comes to Joseph suddenly, again in a dream, and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go home."  When Joseph gets back into the land of Israel, he learns that Archelaus had succeeded Herod.


            Now, let me just take a moment to talk about Herod and Archelaus.  Herod was an Edomite, meaning he was of Arab, not Jewish, descent.  And yet, he is responsible for rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding much of Jerusalem.  He was the client-king for Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor.  It is well known that Herod was crazy.  He killed people for nothing more than suspicion—including members of his own family.


            Herod willed his kingdom to his son Archelaus.  Actually, it had first been willed to his brother Antipas, but Herod changed his mind before he died.  Now, to say that the Roman Empire was tolerant of cruelty is to indulge in what can only be described as a gross understatement.  Life was very cheaply regarded.  These are the people who thought nothing of the torturous method of execution known as crucifixion.  So, with the understanding that Rome was fine with cruelty, consider this.  Archelaus was a so brutal that he even offended Rome.  There is a story that is told that Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 devout Jews when they removed the symbol of the Roman Eagle from the Temple.


            The people hated Archelaus.  Somehow the people managed to get Caesar to send him into exile, and when he was gone, Antipas, his brother was installed as the local client-king.  When Jesus appears before Pilate, Pilate will refer him to Antipas—who then returned the matter to Pilate.


            Okay, so, Joseph learns that Archelaus is ruling over Judea.  Judea was where Bethlehem was.  It becomes clear that Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral city, would not be a safe place to raise the child. 


            After all, Herod had just killed all the male first born children, and here comes Archelaus who is even more brutal than Herod.  So Joseph is warned in a dream to go north to Galilee, which would have been out of Archelaus's jurisdiction.  One wonders how things would have been different if the throne of Herod the Great had gone directly to Antipas.  Jesus might have been raised in Bethlehem, and things might have been different.


            What intrigues me about this story is that Joseph is guided by his dreams.  And of course we nod our heads to that.  Devout Christians and Jews throughout the last 2000 years have nodded their heads to Joseph dreaming dreams, just like the Joseph of the Old Testament, the son of Jacob, dreaming his dreams.  Josephs dream.  That's what Josephs do.  It shows that this Joseph is part of the saving narrative of God that started well before the incarnation of Christ, and has continued to this day.


            As I look at this text two things stand out for me.  One is that Joseph is guided by the dreams, twice, but then by his fear of Archelaus.  Notice that his last movement is guided more by fear than by a dream.  And I think Matthew is making a point by that. 


            Let me show you what I mean.  Have you ever heard of the rule of three?  It's mostly a humor principle.  Three things or jokes happening together are more interesting-funny-satisfying than twos or fours.  Some examples: Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Stop. Drop and Roll.  I came. I saw. I conquered. 


            In humor, or in writing, it works like this: Expected thing, expected thing, and then unexpected thing.  So Joseph sees an angel in a dream a he moves the family, then he sees an angel is a dream again and he moves the family.  But then he gets frightened of Archelaus, and the dream happens again, but this time no angel.  Why?


            Well, I'll tell you.  I don't know.  It could be that it's implied.  It could be that Joseph didn't need anything explicit to tell him.  (Ah..but you know there has to be a third option, because now you know the rule of three!  See how it works!) 


            And this brings me to what I find most interesting about this Joseph.  Joseph is guided from within.  And he is engaged to a woman named Mary, who is also guided from within. 

            They are going to be a very good couple, you see?  They are going to be very effective parents to the Christ child, because they will be able to show him how the devout life, how all of life, can be lived.


            Joseph is a reflective man.  A dreamer, but a realist—as evidenced by his understandable fear of a brutal dictator.  Mary is a reflective woman, a woman with reverence and internal strength, and together they will be raising Jesus to be guided both by tangible and intangible things.


            Jesus will learn from them how to navigate life.  How to think before he speaks.  How to handle conflict.  How to pray and believe.  These are crucial elements of the spiritual life, and though he is most surely the Son of God, he is also a human being who will need to be raised by loving and thoughtful parents.


            So here in this lesson we get a little more information about Joseph.  We already knew he was a righteous and devout man who did not want to put Mary to shame by dismissing her.  But here we learn that Joseph is a spiritual man, a righteous man who knows he needs to be guided both by what his heart and his mind are telling him.


            And the proof is in the pudding.  You'll find the story in the alternate Gospel reading for today, Luke 2.41-52:

Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"


            Where do you think Jesus learned to think and talk like that? 

            I think I know! 





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