Monthly Archives: February 2018

Theophany: Encountering God

A Sermon for 11 February 2018 – Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:2-9.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Christ.

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


Scripture is filled with theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine when it’s best to take notice.  Just three chapters into the history of the people in Egypt, the man Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.  He goes out beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb, known as God’s, with the presence of mind to turn aside when a bush was on fire but not consumed.  There God appears to Moses.  In the great theophany, Moses encounters God.  His life’s work is re-directed, as he learns the very name of the Divine:  Yahweh, I will be what I will be!  (Exodus 3:1-15)

When at last Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, another great theophany takes place.  This time Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.  The mountain shook like a volcano waiting to erupt when God called Moses to ascend.  The LORD gave command after command, as the terrified people waiting below begged for mercy.  They could not tolerate the tumultuous event directly.  “Stand in our stead,” they told Moses, “lest we encounter God and die” (Exodus 20:18-21).  The theophany – the appearance of the Divine – scared them so.

Isaiah records a similar awe-provoking event.  When he saw the pivots of the temple shaking.  The throne of the LORD filled with the Presence as seraphs rejoiced:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!  The whole earth is full of God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).  And before that, again at Horeb.  When the prophet Elijah is worn out from fighting the prophets of the idol Baal who had been welcomed by the wicked queen Jezebel.  Elijah flees for the wilderness only to find himself fed that he might prepare himself to stand outside the entrance of the cave.  The winds rush.  The earth quakes.  A fire blazes.  At last sheer silence prevails from which the Voice queries:  “what are you doing here Elijah?”  The theophany instructs, until restored; Elijah returns to his post  (1 Kings 19:1-18).

Three of the four gospels of the New Testament record the theophany read of today.  Second Peter 1:16-18 refers to it as well.  Six days after Jesus has begun to teach his disciples that the Way he’s on leads to death before resurrection, the gospel of Mark records Jesus taking Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain.  What they see stands in the long line of biblical theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine that instruct even as they demand.  In Mark’s gospel the experience is pretty straight forward, of course – as little detail as possible for this gospel’s rush to record the whole story.  Like Moses on Sinai for the commandments, a thick cloud overtakes them all.  The Voice proclaims:  “this is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him! – exclamation point, meaning:  emphasis intentionally added.  To be sure they don’t challenge Jesus on his teaching again.  And like that, the flash is gone.  Theophany over so that Peter, James, and John can spend the rest of their lives seeking to make sense of just what they saw.

Yes, scripture is filled with theophanies.  Times when the Divine is seen.  It’s a wonder we don’t talk about them more.  The times in our lives when God appears.  When we know deep inside that the ground on which we stand indeed is holy.  The Presence has slipped into our midst – rather we have slipped into the awareness of the One who is ever-present.  As English mystic Evelyn Underhill says:  God always is coming to us in the Sacrament of the present moment.  Carl Jung put it simply:  Summoned or not God is present.  In An Altar in the World – a book that would be a wonderful read during the upcoming season of Lent – Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure (the treasure that is connection with God).  They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens.  They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize.  The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives.”  She continues:  “the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.  . . .  The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are” (2009, p. xiv-xv).

Perhaps with our consent to be where we are, opportunities will arise for us to be enveloped by God’s Presence – even if for a mere second.  We talked about it at the most recent Renewal Team meeting.  Because whether or not the tradition has emphasized the importance of Divine encounter, the great mystics of the faith long have known.  Encounter with God is what truly matters.  Connection, as one philosopher has written, with “something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding” (Paul Woodruff as quoted by Rev. Cathlynn Law, 20 Sept. 2015 at  It’s what the whole spiritual but not religious movement is all about.  Encountering the Divine who appears everywhere – not just in the ritual of Sunday morning worship in a sanctuary.  But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  right under our feet – in things like “a trip to the grocery store . . . (or) something as common as a toothache” (An Altar in the World, p. xiv).

Perhaps God is met in various ways and places – because God’s people have been created for such connection.  “Having hearts that are restless until they rest in You,” Saint Augustine of the Fourth century professed.  No one way fits us all and no one way can sustain us all throughout all the days of our lives.  Thankfully, there are seven classic ways of encountering the Divine.  It’s best we try them all:  ritual – hence the heavy emphasis on worship, nature, art, community – which is why we Presbyterians love such times of fellowship like potluck dinners, dreams, the body, and one that life ensures we’ve got down pat:  suffering.  Ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering all are ways to open our eyes to the Divine in whose Presence we are saturated – like fish that happily live in water, but whose Presence we so seldom glimpse – like fish in the water who no longer recognize that in which they swim.

We call the liturgical feast celebrated today Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.  And long have we focused on what was going on with Jesus.  When we step into the shoes of those first disciples gathered around, to see as they might have seen; we begin to notice the theophany – the appearance of the Divine come to instruct, even as it confounds.  To connect with our restless hearts that thirst for something More.  To remember that encounter happens on mountain tops, deserts, and banks of rivers.  In dreams of the night and visions of the day.  In the process of creating and the pain housed in our bodies.  In what happens between people in community and what happens in the quiet recesses of our own hearts.  In the acts we do with intention together in here as we reach beyond ourselves for the Divine.  And in the places we walk out there as we live and move and have our being in the world.

In a few days we will enter the season of Lent.  Forty days for intentional practices that become the portal through which God appears.  We’re invited to remember the wisdom of the mystics as we choose how we’ll inhabit this Lent.  Looking for God to appear, open to theophanies of the Divine in ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering.  God waits to be encountered afresh – where we haven’t yet dared to tread.  . . .  Every moment offers the opportunity to see the God who is Present.  To give thanks for the Divine who appears.  This year, may we observe a holy Lent paying attention to the God all around.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

What Jesus Sees

A Sermon for 4 February 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:29-39.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear of the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, as told by the gospel of Mark.  Listen:

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.  32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.  34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.  35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.


Do you wonder what Jesus saw?  As he walked the few feet on the Sabbath from the synagogue in Capernaum to Simon Peter’s prominent house next door, what did his eyes behold?  . . .  I’ve been to the remains of Capernaum –along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  I’ve walked through the gate of what once was considered the city at the crossroads of the world – with routes in Jesus’ day leading from Capernaum to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and beyond.  There, in a once thriving, wealthy Jewish city; it is believed those of many faiths at least were encountered, if not found living side-by-side industriously beside the sea.  It also is believed that Jesus made Peter’s house in Capernaum his home-base during much of his public ministry.  Located right between the synagogue and the seashore – just a stone’s throw from each; when needed, Jesus took up residence there with Peter and the others.  Whether he already knew the family before calling Simon and Andrew to follow; Jesus is welcomed to make their home his own.  Which might explain why Jesus did many miraculous things in Capernaum – more than most anywhere else in the land.  The gospels record that in Capernaum Jesus “healed Peter’s wife’s mother of a fever, brought a child back to life, cured a leper, healed the centurion’s servant, ‘cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick’ (Mt. 8:16) [The Holy Land:  the Land of Jesus, Palphot-Printed in Israel, pp. 37-38].

On that first Sabbath day according to the gospel of Mark, after teaching with astounding authority in the synagogue, then casting a destructive spirit from a man; Peter takes Jesus and the gang back home for Sabbath brunch.  What they find as they enter is of distress.  Instead of pre-prepared Sabbath preparations, the woman of the house is ill.  Likely the eldest female of the family – with defined Sabbath roles to fulfill, Peter’s mother-in-law lies fevered in the bed.  The gospel records that at once, they told Jesus about her.  He must have seen the deep concern on their faces.  The helpless glimmer in their eyes.  That pleading catch in their voices – perhaps a hint of heighted anticipation; for the One who just has entered their home proved his gifts minutes before at the synagogue.

We don’t know much about the woman in the bed.  Connected through marriage with the celebrated Apostle Peter, history never tells her name.  As if just a mother-in-law no one really sees.  Her story nearly is lost between the other events of that day.  . . .  Perhaps it would be of benefit to imagine what Jesus saw.  When they took him to her bed, surely, he beheld a wonderful, wizened woman.  An elder saintly Granma, who scooped children up on her knee telling tales of the ancestors of old.  This was the woman who had prepared her daughter to be Simon Peter’ wife.  The one who assisted when time came for motherhood.  She knew how to work the little plot of land on the family compound and kept the fires tended for preparing the family’s meals.  Even taught the wee ones the prayers their families had been saying for years.  Here was the woman – a gritty Jewish grandmother, who was not about to let herself get pushed around.  I suspect Jesus stood at the bed of a woman who was a mighty contender – one who would not have it for a little fever to take her down.

You might think the description stems from an overly active imagination.  But we know that’s just not so.  The Greek of the gospel gives the clue.  For when Jesus took her well-worn hand, he lifted her up.  With the very same word the gospel will use 15 chapters later when three other women go to visit a tomb, only to find the crucified one had been lifted up.  Foreshadowing the day when Jesus will do likewise, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised by Christ himself to new, restored life.  . . .  What’s more, this foretaste of the resurrection takes place on the Sabbath.  The day set aside by the ancient commands for God’s people to follow God’s lead.  To complete the work of six days by resting to look with joy on it all.  To stop in order to consider the goodness of it all and delight in the abundant diversity of what grew.  Thus, God blessed the seventh day, making it holy, setting it apart.  . . .  It was clear:  service was NOT to take place on Sabbath.  Rituals of gratitude, restoration, thanks.  All that is a part of Sabbath.  Anything akin to work is not.  Lest one forgot their place alongside the whole creation.  Another marvelous making of the Sovereign of the Universe – beloved of, but NOT God.

Nonetheless, with one little word, we learn that the wise ole’ momma Jesus lifts up, gets up.  And, without hesitation, she begins to serve.  Clue number two and three:  on the SABBATH, Peter’s mother-in-law immediately takes on a ministry the Twelve later will fight not to embrace when they quarrel about which one of them is the greatest (Mark 9:35).  The restored woman becomes Christ’s first deacon – at least according to the Greek used in the text.  “A servant of the church gathered in her son-in-law’s house” (Ofelia Ortega, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, p. 334).  As one commentator writes, “Service is a key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus.  This woman gets up and turns the Sabbath into a paschal day of service to others.  Jesus does not command her.  She is the one that assumes the initiative and awaits the consequences, discovering the value of mutual service above the sacredness of the Sabbath.  . . .  This woman is Jesus’ first servant and joins him in the radical announcement, in action, of the kingdom of God” (Ibid.).  Wow!  What a woman – returned to wholeness, she is ready to give of herself like Christ, in service to those gathered round.

That’s what Jesus sees.  Likely why he lifted her up in the first place.  For when he looks at us, he sees us restored.  Whole again.  Able to be in service for the kingdom he has announced in our midst.

It’s the point of salvation – Christ’s work of healing in our lives.  Many of us have been steeped in the paradigm of punishment for sin.  It’s been drilled into our heads that we’ve done something wrong as individuals, and as a collective; and for that we deserve to be punished.  We neglect other views of Christianity found throughout scripture around Jesus’ ministry of healing.  His work to restore wholeness.  . . .  Since the time of Job’s friends, who did everything in their power to convince Job that God’s punishment for sin was the source of all that ailed him, the people of God long have wondered what to do with illness.  Jesus takes up a ministry of healing as a way to return wholeness.  He sees the brokenness that comes in body, mind, and spirit from daily life in this world.  But that’s not all he sees.  As the hands and feet of God on earth, Christ sees us lifted up.  He reclaims the health in us that somehow gets broken.  Embracing his vision of us as whole – here and now, and in full some day after death – we too can step into new life.  We can nurture the Life Force in us with care and sensitivity and vigilance so that the spirit of God within can animate us for service in Christ’s name.  We can look in the mirror to see what Jesus sees:  citizens of the kingdom in which joy and peace and love reign.  Whole again, we can get up.  And without hesitation, we can serve in Christ’s name.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)