Tag Archives: Lent

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 http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/the-practice-of-paying-attention-sermon-series-on-altar-in-the-world-by-barbara-brown-taylor/).  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.)

  “A Lenten Warning”

A Sermon for 1 March 2017 – Ash Wednesday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  Listen for God’s word to us:

“’Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  . . .

“’And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’”

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


I grew up in Wisconsin in a home in the woods along the shores of Lake Michigan.  More than anything, my sister who is two years older than me and our neighborhood friends LOVED to explore outside.  In the summers we’d ride our bikes as far as we could without being away too long for mom to ask too many questions when we returned home.  We spent a lot of time playing on the rocks along the shore line – something we were NOT supposed to do lest we slip and get our shoes wet.  (Getting our shoes wet was a sure sign to mom that we were up to something of which she did not approve!)  We tromped through the woods for as far as we could go without getting totally lost.  And it was on those treks we’d discover the signs.  “Beware of Trespassing,” they shouted.  We were about to leave our parents’ property lines.  You haven’t met my sister, so it may come as a surprise that I was the cautious one among us.  Those signs made an early impression.  They were all it took to keep me from crossing the line.  Beware.  Beware because beyond this point you shall not go!

You too may be familiar with such warnings to beware.  Perhaps you heard the tornado sirens this morning warning us all to beware.  Maybe you have neighbors with a ferocious dog.  “Beware of dogs” reads a sign hopefully posted on their property to be sure no one accidentally gets hurt.  Chemical cleaners tout such warnings.  Medicines not to be taken while operating heavy machinery or consuming things like alcohol have ‘em.  Even roadway signs warning us of fast rising water and trains barreling down the tracks.  Beware each warns because conditions hazardous to life lie before us.

According to the annual Ash Wednesday text of chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, beware kicks off the church season of Lent.  Beware Jesus says mid-way through what has been recorded in Matthew as the infamous Sermon on the Mount.  . . .  As the primary sermon of Jesus in this gospel, it’s of note that his words take his listeners to the edge of his parent’s property.  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).  Which goes to prove that Jesus was a good Presbyterian – lifting up that Reformed Theological principle of ours to “shun ostentation and seek proper use of the gifts of God’s creation” (PCUSA Book of Order, [F-2.05]).  We’re not to do anything in our faith lives in order to be showy.  It’s not like we can draw enough attention to ourselves that the LORD God of the Universe would take note of us.  We must beware of making a to-do because it’s not about bringing notice to ourselves as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s about proper use of the gifts of God’s creation.

We don’t consider it enough, do we?  That we are part of God’s creation.  That we are a gift, beloved by the Creator of the heavens and earth.  . . .  How are we using the gift that is our life?  . . .  This is what Lent asks – what Lent warns, really.  For against the span of eternity that is God, our lives are just a speck.  As one wonderful song puts it:  we just get so many trips ‘round the sun (Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”).  Beware!  We must not waste it!  . . .  Three times in the last six weeks, my work as a pastor has taken me to the liturgy we Presbyterians use for a Service in Celebration of the Resurrection of Life and of the precious deceased person.  “The grass withers.  The flower fades.”  Quoting the Psalmist, I led the congregations in prayer with these words in every one of those Memorial Services.  From an eighty-year-old to a seventy-two-year-old to a twenty-three-year-old.  In my twenty years of ministry, I’ve been a part of such services for one as young as a still born baby, a seven-year-old, those approaching 100, and every other age in between.  None of us knows how long our days on earth will be.  A Memorial Service is too late.  Too late to be warned about the reality of how fleeting life is.  . . .  That’s the beauty of Lent.  Of Ash Wednesday especially.  Every year the liturgical calendar brings us back to it.  We cannot escape.  Nor should we want to.  We need the reminder that is Lent.  The re-prioritizer that is this night.  . . .  Later in this service we each will have the opportunity to be warned.  To hear the truth that is meant to keep us alert to the gift that we are, which is to be purposefully used.  Tonight we remember that we are dust.  And to dust we shall return.  We feel the ash trace across our skin to mark us for all the world to see.  AND we feel the sign of the cross.  We are reminded that we are to live likewise – the Way of self-giving love.  We are to let go of how we want it all to be, in order to follow in the footsteps of the One whose Way leads to Life.  Lent tells us to make it all count here and now – and let God work out the happily ever-after.

Welcome the sign, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let this Lent be the warning to give of ourselves now as the gifts God intends us to be.

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

©Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


A Sermon for 7 February 2016 – First Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:1-13. On this first Sunday during the season of Lent, we hear the gospel of Luke’s version of what happened to Jesus right after he was baptized. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

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

If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, then perhaps you remember his Narnia Chronicles. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are the siblings who step through the wardrobe door to discover the wonder-filled world of Narnia. The whole series is an adventure in that magical place where the siblings come to know their true selves. They live in the real world – and similarly at first in Narnia – unaware of who they really are and what their lives have been destined for from the start. It is as if the circumstances of life in the real world left them with a sort of amnesia. A film of forget-fullness regarding their true identity. Through a series of fanciful events in Narnia, the siblings finally see that they are royalty. Heroic kings and queens of the land – there to ensure the forces of evil are battled. Aslan, the great talking lion, guides them in their quest that is as much about them discovering who they are and what their lives have been destined for from the start, as it is about fighting against the malevolent forces trying to capture Narnia. . . . It’s the classic hero’s tale. The unsuspecting under-dog who rises to the challenge of their life to impact the world for good. To claim the fullness of who they are – the hidden powers within that are needed to battle inner and outer demons on the path that twists and turns until at last the hero stands triumphant. If only the hero can remember their true identity, then for sure all else shall be well.

If only . . .

Naturally the gospel of Luke is going to start the adventure with such a struggle. If only the hero can claim his true identity. If only the one of royalty can remember his deepest self. If only the one freshly baptized in the Jordan River by John and driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness place of testing. If only Jesus can remember who he really is and what his life has been destined for from the start; then, for sure, he will stand triumphant in the end. . . . Each Lent we’re given this story on the Sunday at the start of the season. Too often it’s been presented as some sort of super-human ability to best the devil at his own game. You know – withstand with the strongest will-power the deepest temptations of our lives; so that somehow people end up making empty vows during the season of Lent to overcome the temptations of certain vices – like chocolate cake or swearing or beer. As if that’s what the season of Lent is all about: shoring up our own will-power in order to beat some devil at his own game. . . . If only. If only. . . . If only we realized the testing in the wilderness is the hero’s training ground. It’s not so much about temptations as it is about amnesia – a forgetfulness of his true identity and the God-given destiny about which his life is to be.

A close reading of the text shows us that Jesus just has been baptized. He’s just heard the Voice declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The very next voice he hears echos: “If . . .” Really? “If you are God’s son . . .” To the best of our knowledge no one was there but Jesus and the Tester – and the Spirit. Which goes to show that if is a powerful, little universal word that pops up in the voices in all of our heads. Forty days fasting in the wilderness left Jesus vulnerable. Would he remember The Voice? Would he remember the Way of the Voice: the self-emptying path of the Voice that is love – the greatest force for good the world ever has seen? Would he overcome any doubt the Tester sought to provoke? Would Jesus remember his true identity and that for which he had been destined from the start? . . . That’s what’s at stake out there in the wilderness. If only this one can remember.

If only we can. Because how easy is it for us to forget who we really are and what our lives have been destined for from the start? Lent is about that remembering. It’s our annual forty day testing ground to see if we can remember our true identity and that for which we have been destined. In years when snow doesn’t prevent it, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – or today as we’ll do in a few minutes – with the self-emptying sign of love traced in ash. Right there on the same spot where we received our mark of baptism, we begin our Lenten journey with an ashen cross that calls us to deeper dedication in following the path of Christ. We are reminded that we too are royalty: sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe! Children of the LORD God Almighty! Heroes on the winding way of life here to wrestle inner and outer demons until at last we stand triumphant. If only . . . If only we remember our true identity, then we too can empty ourselves of our own wills to pray in deepest trust with Christ in Gethsemane: “Thy will be done through me, O God. Thy will be done through me.”

Life out there in the real world can make us forget, or leave us wondering if it ever was true in the first place. The pains we experience, the losses, the other voices that shout. Before you know it, we succumb. If wins the day. The memory of the Voice grows dim. We take the path that’s easier than the way of self-emptying love. . . . The sun sets and the sun rises, and we are given a new opportunity to re-claim our true identity. To ground ourselves in God, so that we can face whatever challenge that comes. If God were afar watching, I’m sure there would be cheers of encouragement. Messages to get back up and give it another try. . . . The good news is that God isn’t afar at all, but within and all around. When we feel like we’re in the throes of the hardest battle, God is right there with us willing us to remember our true identity – pleading for us to rise to live out our destiny as sons and daughters of the Sovereign of the Universe – ones who follow the path in every encounter we have. If only . . . If only . . . We’ve got the rest of this special church season to remind us – and one another to encourage us along the path as well. For we’re needed in this world. We are in this world to live the alternative way of Christ – so that others will remember, or discover for the very first time, their true identity too. Until at last every other force is redeemed and for sure all else is forever well. . . . If only, brothers and sisters of Christ. If only we daily remember . . .

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

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)