Archives for February 2009

To become more merciful, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2009

February 25, 2009

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the epistle we just heard, St. Paul beseeches us to be reconciled to God. And his way of being reconciled may surprise you. Paul does not suggest a confession, or propose any self-examination, or lay out a lengthy program or exercise. He tells us that we should simply accept the grace of God when the time is right, and, behold, now is that acceptable time.

This is not a message many of us are ready to hear. Most of us were taught that the lengthy period of Lent was one of penitence and fasting, a time provided for those who were separated from the church by their sins, so they could be reconciled by acts of penitence and forgiveness. In fact, we will hear words very similar to those following this. That is, of course, one meaning of our Lenten season.

For most of us, Lent is the time of sometimes painful self-examination, during which we scrutinize our habits, our spiritual practice, and our very lives – hoping to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves worthy of the love of God.

We “ramp up” our prayer, fasting, and self-denial in order to remove worldly distractions from our lives. And we take on Bible study, classes, and service projects in order to add meaning and depth to our existence.

For some children, Lent means no candy. Or a coin in the box whenever they say a bad word. For adults, it may be consuming less meat or alcohol, or attending that Lenten program at the church.

However we go about it, the goal is pretty much the same: Lent makes us ready for Easter. Quite simply put, we are better able to appreciate Resurrection joys come Easter Day by enduring these Lenten disciplines now.

Except, just a moment. St. Paul says we need to be reconciled to God – now, today.

Not after enduring a forty-day fast. Not after lengthy Bible study. Not even after we pray, but now, here, today: Be reconciled to God.

And the blessed apostle not only invites us to be reconciled to God, he actually beseeches us. That is, he pleads, implores, presses, begs, and demands. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”

For many of us, this could mean a whole new kind of Lenten discipline. Instead of putting our hand into the refiner’s fire, we would be dancing in flames of love’s delight. Instead of seeking to squelch the voice of sin within us, we would be cultivating the sounds of joy. Instead of wallowing in our guilt, we would be reveling in our gratitude.

For not only did God create us, and everything there is; not only is all of creation wonderfully good; and not only are we offered the grace of God; but we are also offered that again, and again, and again.

We are offered God’s love in times of hardship, affliction, and tumult; in times of hunger, calamity, and sickness; and in times of peace, surplus, and prosperity.

We are offered God’s love both in times of distress and in times of accomplishment; in times of triumph and in times of failure; in times of righteousness and in times of sin.

Yes, that’s right: even when we sin. When we do things we know are wrong; when we hurt ourselves or others; when we lie, cheat and steal: that is when God loves us most.

Because when we sin, we need God even more. We need courage to turn away from darkness and to face the light. We need daring to turn away from the world’s false comforts and to accept the enduring grace of God. And we need faith to turn away from death, and face the new life that is freely given to all of us.

To paraphrase the blessed Apostle, God has put no obstacle in anyone’s way. God finds no fault in anyone’s ministry. And so, as servants of God, we are called to commend ourselves in every way. We are called to seek those qualities St. Paul writes about: purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.

Some of these are character traits we can cultivate in ourselves. We can commit ourselves anew to promote forbearance through patience, to emulate purity through simplicity, to encourage knowledge through study, to foster kindness through gentleness, and to nurture truthful speech.

The rest are not things that are up to us, really. They are not results of our labors, or products of our will. The Holy Spirit, genuine love, and the power of God are not up to us. There is nothing we can do to create these, nothing we can do to snuff them out.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is whether to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, whether to let genuine love enter our heart, and whether to open ourselves up to the power of God.

And in this we have an entirely new idea for a Lenten spiritual discipline. Not giving up things, if such a discipline makes us miserable. Not taking on things, if that makes us miserable. But cultivating good qualities and opening ourselves up to the power of God, because only that can make us truly satisfied and content.

So, let’s go through that list of St. Paul’s in detail.

First, forbearance. What can we do to increase our patience, to cultivate self-control, tolerance, and restraint? The list of specific steps will be different for each of us, but the objective is the same: to become more merciful.

Next, purity. Now, we can’t become more pure, we cannot restore innocence – but we can cultivate decency, transparency, and simple cleanliness.

Then there’s knowledge. This may be more like a traditional Lenten discipline than many of the others, for we can increase our knowledge and love of for the divine by meditating on God’s holy Word. We can increase our knowledge of the church through reading. We can devote ourselves to learning more about who were are as Christian people.

After this comes kindness. This Lent, let us all seek to be more compassionate, more gentle, more considerate. It can be our aim to set aside all spite, viciousness, and harsh talk – no matter how people treat us.

Last among the virtues we can work on, is truthful speech. Honesty, candor, and integrity can be elusive. It is sometimes easier to tell a white lie than to maintain fidelity to truth. But if we take a few tentative steps in that direction, we will be better for it.

To become more merciful, more pure, more knowledgeable, more kind, more truthful – these cause us to behave more like God. And how can we do this? How can we emulate perfection, how can we aspire to the goodness that is the divine?

That’s where the second part of this discipline comes in: to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, to let genuine love enter our heart, and to be open to the power of God.

The only way any of this can work, the only means of making this a life-changing season, the only method for making permanent changes from destructive patterns of behavior is to seek divine assistance.

And that is what we are especially called to do in Lent. To acknowledge that we are not doing the best we can, to aspire to do better, and then to seek God’s guidance and God’s help in the lifelong process of becoming all that we can be.

For in each one of us is a spark of divine goodness that compels us to persevere with great endurance through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and hunger.

We do this because we know at our core we are called to something better. As Christians, we are called to cultivate purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, and truthful speech. And this we do through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the force of genuine love, and by the power of God.

So, this Lent, may we all be reconciled to God; for, behold, now is the acceptable time.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

We are called to listen, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (B) – 2009

February 22, 2009

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

The transfiguration of Jesus is perhaps the definitive mountaintop experience. Here on the top of a mountain, Peter, James, and John are left with no doubts as to Jesus’ credentials. In this account from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is filled with the radiance of the presence of God with his “clothes becoming dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

Then we read of the presence of Elijah and Moses, further confirmation that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah. And finally there is the voice of God booming through the clouds declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Who could argue with the voice of God coming through a cloud?

In response to Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter wanted to preserve this Kodak moment for eternity; he wanted to capture this event by building three houses: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Just as Mary Magdalene wanted to hold onto Jesus after his resurrection and never let him go, Peter wanted to keep hold of this moment and preserve it forever.

But this is not how God wanted the disciples to respond, God asked the disciples to “listen” to Jesus, not to preserve him like an archive in a museum.

Peter, James, and John were not just invited into the mystery of the person of Jesus; they were also called to listen. The voice of God from the clouds declared, “This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, LISTEN TO HIM!”

At this point, it is important to note that at the end of the previous chapter in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus called to the crowd and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Immediately following this invitation by Jesus to become active participants in his ministry, we have the account of the transfiguration, with God telling the disciples to “listen to him!”

These are the same words that we heard at Jesus’ baptism with the addition of the phrase, “listen to him.” The phrase “listen to him” in this case carries the Old Testament connotation of “obey” as well as to pay attention and to listen. Through our own Baptismal Covenant we not only accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we also say that we will “listen to him.” We say that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace amongst all people.

We are all called to seek out the transfigured Christ in the world, and as we do so, we are called not just to wonder and delight in that presence, but we are also called to “listen” and to respond with a servant’s heart and in humility. We are called to listen when our brothers and sisters are suffering, when they are in need, when they are disenfranchised and subject to injustices.

We are called to listen not only as individuals but also as a community, as part of the body of Christ. As a community, we raise up individuals on our behalf to be in relationship with and to listen alongside our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. We lift up these people we call missionaries as our ambassadors, our representatives to be in an active relationship with those who experience the transfigured Christ through different lenses.

As we celebrate World Mission Sunday today, we especially remember the missionaries of the Episcopal Church; those individuals who are called by God and our communities to leave their homes and to encounter God in other parts of the world, to be in relationship with and to listen to people from a culture and a land that is different from their own.

For many years we have named these people “missionaries,” but perhaps they can be more accurately described as pilgrims, as people who travel outside of their own communities to encounter, to listen to, and to relate to the transfigured God present within our sisters and brothers throughout the world.

You can read about them on the many blogs and Web sites through which they record their journeys, their joys and sorrows, their successes, and their challenges. The Episcopal Church has over 70 missionaries working in 35 countries around the world. Our missionaries are young adults serving as part of the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) program, they are young families serving together, and they are older adults who desire to share their faith and their skills and to listen to our partners around the world.

You are invited to support the ministry and work of our missionaries, to learn more about what they are doing on our behalf, and to learn about the culture and faith of the people they are traveling alongside. You can support these missionaries through your prayers, through corresponding with them, and through your financial support of these representatives of the Episcopal Church as they relate with other parts of the Body of Christ in the world.

The transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is the Son of God, but more importantly, the transfiguration reminds us to listen to Jesus. We listen as we seek out and relate to the transfigured Christ in the world, both as individuals and as a community through our relationships with other parts of the Body of Christ.

 

— The Rev. David Copley is a seasoned missionary with experience in Africa and Latin America. He joined the Episcopal Church Center staff as Mission Personnel director in 2006. He is responsible for the recruitment and support of more than 70 persons serving as missionaries and Young Adult Service Corps members in approximately 30 countries worldwide.

It begins in our hearts, 6 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 15, 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

“O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus … Because he first loved me.”

These words from Hymn 95 in our Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal come to mind as we think about the amazing miracles of Christ. Today’s story, about the healing of a leper, reminds us of why we love Jesus, why we’re so moved by who he was and what he did – why his story is the focus around which we have built our religious and spiritual lives. Jesus must have been an incredible person – courageous, compassionate, committed. And we love him because he loved us first.

To understand what this story really says about not only how great Jesus is, but about how much he loves us, we have to talk about leprosy and about the cultural norms of those times. The term “leprosy” in the Bible was used to name a number of different skin diseases. And according to the religious law of the Jewish people, a person with any one of these so-called leprous diseases was considered unclean, untouchable, unwanted.

Here’s how the code of Leviticus puts it:

“The person with the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He shall live alone, his dwelling place shall be outside the community.”

Leviticus also tells us that anyone who touched a person with leprosy was considered unclean. Being unclean meant being removed from the community, barred from the Temple, and an elaborate and potentially expensive series of rituals and sacrifices was required to be made clean again.

Now, not only was the person with leprosy considered unclean, but the disease was also seen as a sign of God’s punishment. Moses conveys these words to the people in Deuteronomy 28:

“If you will not obey the Lord your God then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: the Lord will afflict you with boils, scurvy and itch, of which you cannot be healed; the Lord will strike you with grievous boils from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.”

People with skin diseases were society’s rejects – shunned and cast out, stigmatized with the mark of God’s punishment, abnormal, unacceptable, unclean. From the “festering boils” of the sixth plague in Egypt to the “loathsome sores” endured by Job, burning itch and open lesions were taken as signs that an angry God wasn’t kidding around.

In our reading from the second book of Kings this morning, we hear the story of the great warrior, Naaman, who suffered from leprosy. And in the story, Elisha, the legendary prophet and holy man, heals Naaman. We should note that immediately prior to this healing, in the previous chapter of the second book of Kings, Elisha restores to life a young boy who has died. And he does so by lying on top of the boy, putting his lips on the boy’s lips and his hands on the boys hands. But following the religious law of the day, Elisha wants no part of Naaman’s leprosy, no physical contact with the afflicted hero. Instead, he sends him to wash himself in the river, preferring to let the water do the dangerous work of healing.

We must keep these social mores in mind as background for what Jesus does when he encounters the leper. “If you choose,” the man says in the Gospel of Mark, “you can make me clean.”

This unclean man, cast out, probably rejected from healing by the priest, comes to Jesus in faith, asking to be healed. And Jesus, we are told by the evangelist, is moved with pity. So moved, in fact, that he stretches out his hand and touches the man, proclaiming, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Only by understanding the place of leprosy in the minds of the people can we grasp what a courageous and compassionate action this is. Jesus, moved with pity, stretches out his hand and touches the leper. In doing so, he ignores an entire category of religious law and social acceptability. He overthrows generations of commonly held beliefs about people who’d been rejected and cast out. He touches the man, and instead of becoming unclean himself, he heals the leper. Jesus, in an act of mercy and grace, takes away the leprosy and thereby restores the man physically, socially, and religiously to the community.

That’s why we love Jesus – because of the breadth of his love for us. Jesus did this amazing thing at great personal risk. He knew, from the start, that his message of repentance and of love as the underpinning for all the commandments would invite a lot of enemies, would invite a lot of resistance. Healing a leper by touching him, declaring him clean, which only the priest was supposed to do, could get Jesus into a lot of trouble. In fact, Jesus instructed the healed man not to tell anyone. And when the man disobeyed, Jesus had to go into hiding, at least for a little while. But here in the first chapter of the first gospel, at the very beginning of his public ministry, we see that Jesus had come to challenge the customs of the day with his boundless love for humanity.

Now, the story of the healing of the leper is wonderful not only for what we learn about Jesus, but also for the example set by the man who is healed. His openness to Christ’s healing touch, his desire and confidence, provide a model for us. Because we all have leprosy. Some people suffer from modern-day equivalents – AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness – conditions that put them on the margins of society. But we all have something; we all have those places in our lives where we feel disconnected, rejected, alone. We all may have those times when we feel ashamed or unclean, perhaps even as though we are being punished by God. We don’t necessarily have outward signs of it, such as boils and scurvy, but we carry around those boils and open wounds in our souls: old hurts, private fears, anxiety, anger, loneliness. These are the leprous tumors disfiguring the tender flesh of our inner being.

Can we be made well? Can we let Jesus stretch out his courageous and compassionate hand to touch us, even in those secret places we don’t want God to see?

Our healing, our cleansing, begins in our life of prayer, where we must be willing to try to show God everything. The leper in the story is our example. Outwardly bearing a shameful disease, he nonetheless goes to Jesus in faith, begging him and keeling down before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Like the man, we have nothing to hide from God. When we present ourselves to Jesus in faith, the Lord will also respond to the leprosy of our souls with the same grace and generosity which he shows to the man in the story. We can pray for mercy, showing those open wounds and allowing ourselves to accept God’s forgiveness. We can pray for strength, exposing our boils and our itch and allowing ourselves to receive Jesus’ healing touch.

If we can approach God in that open, humble, yet confident and faithful way, the Lord will help us to know that we are clean, restored, forgiven and beloved. Then we may recognize in our hearts the joy of today’s psalmist: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”

From the sense of healing and trust in God’s presence that we find in our spiritual lives, we move out to the community – to the world around us. And there, we reach across the leprous barriers of our modern world, the dislocation of our daily lives, putting aside fear and prejudice to reach out with courage and compassion to touch our sisters and brothers. In other words, we have to be Christ for each other, and we have to pray for the grace to let others be Christ for us.

Forgiveness. Compassion. Love. It begins in our hearts, in our own spiritual lives, and moves out to the world around us. We love Jesus because he first loved us – boils and all. And in loving us, he gives us power to do the work. He taught us what we need to know to be his disciples, giving us the example of his limitless love.

As Hymn 95 says of his holy name: “It tells of one whose loving heart can feel my deepest woe, who in each sorrow bears a part, that none can bear below. O how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”

Praise be to God for both inviting us to come forward and show our true selves, and for healing us and sending us out to our sisters and brothers with the power of his Spirit.

 

— The Rev. Timothy Crellin is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston and founder of the B-SAFE program, which serves more than 500 children and teens in Boston every summer, and the St. Stephen’s after-school program, which serves more than 125 young people every afternoon. He lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife  and 7-year-old son.

Nobody is beyond the scope of God in Christ, 5 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 8, 2009

Isaiah 40: 21-31; Psalm147: 1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1: 29-39

At first sight, it may seem odd that the lectionary offers us a reading from Isaiah that is all about God the cosmic creator and giver of power, and then there is a reading from Mark’s gospel that includes the small scene of Jesus’ healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. How does the might, majesty, dominion, and power of God the Creator, as set forth in Isaiah’s poetry, shed light upon Jesus exorcising demons and healing people in the Gospel of Mark?

The first clue lies in our liturgical context: the season of the Epiphany, which began with twin themes of our baptismal identities and the light of Christ shining in the world.

These themes led us first into readings about God’s call to us. By trying faithfully to understand the shape of that call, we have revisited our responsibilities as outlined in our baptismal promises. As we have been engaged in this, we have invoked the light of Christ to shine ever brighter upon our path, helping us to discern our ministries and mission in the world.

Now we turn to pick up another side to the Epiphany message: that Christ is a light “to the Gentiles” – to those who lie outside our usual framework.

Our Isaiah reading today shows the prophet encouraging his despondent hearers. It was a long moment of great crisis for our ancestors, who continued to live in exile away from the Land of Promise, without Temple or monarchy, and under the rule of a foreign, pagan people. Isaiah wants his hearers to know that their God is a lot bigger than they seem to think he is. Not only is God the maker of their covenant relationship, the maker and savior of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the savior manifest in the mighty acts of the Exodus, the God of Moses, the God of David, and so on; their God is also the Creator and maker of the universe.

In a magnificent reinterpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, our reading from Isaiah slowly and deliberately shows that in calling into existence the whole cosmos, God has also called into existence all the peoples of the earth. They are consequently under his divine jurisdiction as are the sun, the moon, the stars, and everything else “on high.” Therefore, although God’s understanding of the various nations and peoples may be quite inscrutable, the reach and scope of God’s activities are universal and endless in scope.

Beneath and behind the vicissitudes of any given political situation, this God is hard at work; for the God of Israel is also the God of the Gentiles. So even in crisis and in a situation where they cannot see any positive outcome, Isaiah’s hearers are instructed to “wait for the Lord.” By “waiting,” Isaiah means trusting, even when things look hopeless we are still to trust this God.

When we turn to the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus the Son of God manifesting the universal reach and scope of God’s activity. Because his gospel is first and foremost the Good News about Jesus, Mark does not worry about cosmic matters.

Unlike Luke, for example, Mark does not even fill out the historical and political context for us; he simply rushes Jesus onto the stage and shows the Son of God in action. Unlike Matthew, Mark does not paint in the background of Torah and the rest of the Sacred Writings. With Mark, it is for us to infer that this Jesus is Son of the same “God of the whole universe” whom Isaiah was talking about, and that the people of God are, once again, in some sort of historical and political crisis.

In last week’s gospel reading we saw that Jesus has the authority and power to cast out demons, and now we have a scene of Jesus with the power to heal bodily illness. In terms of Mark’s first-century audience, both episodes demonstrate the universal reach and scope of God’s activity embodied in Jesus. You and I would call psychiatrists, doctors, and spiritual directors when we have mental, emotional, psychological, or physical symptoms of some sort. In the world of the New Testament writers, such symptoms were understood as the manifestations of cosmic spiritual disorders.

What Mark shows right up front in the first chapter of his gospel is that God is establishing the beginning of His kingdom on earth in the person and work of his beloved Son, Jesus. This kingdom is about reordering the condition and priorities of peoples’ lives – not only in opposition to the political order established in King Herod and the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, but also against what St. Paul and others generally call the unseen “principalities and powers” that operate outside the control of human beings.

These principalities and powers were every bit as important to the people of Galilee in the first century as their political oppressors. Jesus’ healing brought Peter’s mother-in-law back into everyday life in God’s presence. She is the first of several nameless women in Mark’s gospel whom Jesus heals and thus reestablishes to their proper social and religious lives.

The good news of God in Christ is intended to set us all free from everything that blocks our ability to “get up and go” into the kingdom of God in our time. Nobody is beyond the scope of God in Christ, no matter the crisis: not the people of Zimbabwe, not the Palestinians in Gaza, not the population of Mosul and Basra, not the men and women in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and Kurdistan, and certainly not your best friend with breast cancer or your uncle with Alzheimer’s.

Nobody and no circumstance is outside the reach and scope of this God. Yet for us, as for Isaiah, the ways of God in dealing with Zimbabwe, Gaza, Mosul, and Kabul are often hard to understand. What we have to do is trust in this God and live into our Baptismal Covenant as best we can. This means focusing on our own political reach, attending prayerfully to the scope of our created gifts and skills in the communities where we work and vote, sending the fruits of our life and labor to assist in God’s liberating work in places of crisis, praying for the peace of God, which alone can reestablish order in everyday life.

The Epiphany light is still shining on our paths so that we can be a light to the world.

 

— The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York.

The candles have been blessed and lit, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 1, 2009

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

Tomorrow, February second, is a cross-quarter day, more or less.

Never heard of it? Well, you are probably not alone. A cross-quarter day is the mid-point between a solstice and an equinox, the halfway point of a calendar season. It means we are nearly halfway through winter. And here you thought tomorrow was just Groundhog Day!

February second might not amount to much in Florida or Southern California, but in many parts of our country, making it halfway through winter is a big deal. Just ask any groundhog.

A cross-quarter day means, in effect, the gradual return of light and warmth; and in ancient times, this was worth celebrating. Pagan and Celtic rituals often included the burning of great fires around this time of year to welcome back the sun from its winter sabbatical. People could once again begin thinking about spring planting and summer growth.

The Church, without missing a beat, appropriated the concept and designated the winter cross-quarter day as the day to celebrate the gradual return of the sun’s light by blessing and lighting candles. It became known as the Feast of Candlemas, and it is celebrated in many of our churches, reminding us that Christ is the light who brings salvation and the warmth of God’s love.

Still today, the gradual shift from winter to spring provides an apt metaphor for our own spiritual journey from dark to light, from pagan to Christian, from mundane to sublime.

The Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading today is taken, is also about journey and transformation. As Bernard Levinson writes in his New Oxford Annotated Bible commentary, “Deuteronomy directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present.”

The Book of Deuteronomy also addresses the distance between the exile in Egypt and life in the Promised Land. Passing through Moab on virtually the last leg of their long and arduous Exodus journey, the people of Israel became tired and increasingly irritable. They were ready to settle down. And so they said as one, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

The “great fire,” of course, is not the fire of our pagan ancestors lighted to ward off the evil spirits, but the fire of Mount Horeb – or “Sinai” as it is more frequently called – the sign of the Lord’s manifestation in the wilderness. Like a beacon in the night, the fire of Horeb for years brought reassurance that the Lord is still with his people, even in exile.

But now that time of journey and exile was coming to an end. Change was at hand.

As the people were about to enter the land given to them, the Lord promised a prophet who would speak his words with authenticity and authority after Moses was gone. “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak … everything that I command,” said the Lord.

The people would not die in Moab. But neither would Moses complete with them the journey to the Promised Land. It was time for new leadership.

Christ is for us Christians the prophet who now speaks “with authority,” as we are told in our gospel account today. He brings light and life to our cold world. As the Israelites in the wilderness longed to settle in the Promised Land, so we await the coming of the Lord’s kingdom. The Exodus passage is for us the way or “path,” as the earliest followers of Christ called their newfound faith.

For Christians, transformation must become a way of life. Christ has changed everything. He has brought reconciliation and hope to a world darkened by the consequences of sin and death.

This world’s transitions and vagaries are not optional. They come as standard equipment on the engine of human life – as does the cross itself. Only in the cross of Christ is life possible at all. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the term “cross-quarter day.” Like all living things, we turn to the light – to Christ, the light of the world – to fend off our fears and overcome our despair.

The candles have been blessed and lit. We in turn must now become beacons of Christ’s love for our worried and fretful world.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar, California.