Saturday, February 9, 2013

Coincidence and Transformation

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed. (2 Corinthians 3.17-18)

God’s Way

The 2013 liturgical calendar barely gives us time to recover from Christmas before catapulting us into Lent. Truthfully, I’m not sure I’m ready. When I opened the lectionary to see that this weekend’s Gospel (Luke 9.28-43) returns to the Mount of Transfiguration—as always happens on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday—a shroud of fatigue and dread settled over me. Was I up for this? I could probably rally, much like I do when I drag myself out of bed in the wee hours to catch an early flight. But that wouldn’t be the right approach to this season. We should come to Lent with eyes and hearts wide open, knowing it will ask more than we expect, yet eager to meet its demands. I wasn’t sure I had enough in me to do that. I told myself, “Better dose up on faith, Buster.” Then I did what I always do when faith is in short supply: I prayed. “God, I hope You’ve got this,” I said, “because I can’t make this journey on my own.”

A few hours later I got an email from a close friend who’s never set much store in “organized religion.” He’d just heard an interview with Gloria Loring (an actress neither he nor I recalled) discussing her autobiography. I’ll let him tell the rest:

Well, she really is a fantastic lady… open-minded, etc. I know you don’t like the word, but amazingly spiritual. Anyway, the most interesting quote is the title of her book, Coincidence is God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous. When I heard it, I just could not stop thinking about it… so simple, yet effective. Well it turns out to be a quote of Albert Einstein’s. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.

I’d never heard the quote and now I can’t get it out of my head, either. A fountain of faith burst through its seven words—from Einstein, no less! I was overcome with reassurance. I’ll be frank: at this moment, I just don’t have the energy for the wilderness that lies ahead. But when Wednesday comes, it will be there, because God is at work. Whether through direct inspiration or the anonymity of happenstance, strength for this journey will arrive. How can I be so sure? Because the Transfiguration story portrays one of Scripture’s greatest examples of how God is revealed in seeming coincidence.

Good for Us to Be Here

The story begins uneventfully. Jesus needs to get away to pray. He takes Peter, John, and James with Him and they climb a mountain, leaving the other disciples behind. Scripture doesn’t indicate why Jesus selects them. In retrospect, we know they become pillars of the Church and what transpires on the mountaintop will be a pivotal moment in their faith lives. Whether Jesus intends for them to see what transpires there we can’t say. We can, however, suppose that from their perspective, witnessing the Transfiguration is purely coincidental. They have no idea if this is a singular event, or if this sort of thing happens regularly when Jesus prays in solitude. All they know is they’re there by seeming coincidence to see Jesus utterly transformed, conversing in spirit with Moses and Elijah, after which they’re engulfed in a cloud of God’s undiluted presence. A voice instructs: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” (Luke 9.35) And there it is: this is no coincidence at all. Peter, James, and John have been brought to this mountain to discover Who Jesus really is. God has chosen this experience to provide them with very particular knowledge in a very particular way. When the veil of coincidence is removed, they have no doubt God is at work in their lives.

After seeing Jesus transfigured—essentially getting a preview of the Resurrected Christ’s appearance—Peter starts to get it. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here.” (v33) His first impulse is to build three structures, one each for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, to commemorate the experience. But God dismisses Peter’s idea with the proclamation, because Peter is called to construct something more enduring and significant than a mountaintop memorial. He will the become the Church’s chief engineer, relying heavily on John and James’ assistance as they build the living, breathing Body of Christ together. And when he says, “It’s good we’re here,” he doesn’t grasp the import of his comment. He doesn’t realize that, by watching the changes in Jesus’s person, he too has been changed. Once they leave the mountain, God’s redemptive plan will take shape through a series of apparently random events that, only by hindsight, reveal God’s intentions. A long journey of unanticipated challenges and uncertainty awaits Peter, James, and John. The transformative nature of this experience will strengthen them more than they know. The unshakable assurance that Jesus is God’s Son will sustain them in the coming days, when He’s slandered and persecuted as everything but God’s Chosen Son.

Constantly Being Transformed

Coincidence is God’s creative license. It frees God to move anonymously in the background, bringing us to places where we experience Christ’s transformative power up close and personal. In 2 Corinthians 3.17-18, Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed.” We are being transformed, as we discover God’s glory at every turn—sometimes through deliberate prayer and study, but just as often through ostensibly random circumstances that cause us to say, “Master, it is good for us to be here.”

Perhaps you’re primed for Lent. I pray you are. But if, like me, you’re concerned about mustering stamina for the days ahead, know that God is working behind the scenes to bring you to a place of renewed strength and commitment. Lent’s season of consecration begins with confessing we can’t make this journey on our own.

We don’t have to be Einsteins to discern that God is at work in our lives, moving behind the scenes to bring us to places of renewed strength and commitment.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Safe and Sound

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts… Happy are those who live in Your house, ever singing Your praise. Selah (Psalm 84.3-4)

Controversial Figure

In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2.22-40), we return to a well-known scene. Forty days have passed since Jesus’s birth—a time period defined in Jewish law as “purification,” after which the Child and His mother are presumably free of disease and officially welcomed into their faith community. Their appearance at the Temple is a common rite, akin to our christening and baptismal ceremonies. But it quickly takes an uncommon turn that invites us to look at it more closely. Two elderly members of the congregation, Simeon and Anna, instantly recognize Jesus as the promised Hope of Israel. Both of them make prophetic declarations that embrace Him as their long-awaited Savior and Redeemer. And their words set off tremors that will resonate throughout Jesus’s life. In an instant, this tiny Baby becomes a controversial Figure Who will ultimately challenge the traditional beliefs and customs of all who claim Jerusalem’s Temple as their spiritual home.

After praising God for honoring the promise to send a Savior, Simeon eerily predicts Jesus’s death in a warning to Mary. “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel,” he tells her, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (v34-35) Anna turns her attention to listeners who share her longing for a Savior, “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” verse 38 says. These are stridently subversive, and alarming blunt, statements that probably mesmerize average worshipers and cause their hearts to race. But they’re also spoken in the presence of the Temple establishment, which no doubt perceives a major threat has arrived. Simeon and Anna are highly respected heavyweights in the Temple community. Their confidence in Who Jesus is sends a potent signal that something new and radically different is on the horizon. In essence, they announce a changing of the guard that puts the power elite on high alert. What they hear surely troubles them. This moment will be much regaled and remembered. This Child will bear watching and anything He may try to do to overturn the status quo will need to be quickly contained, lest He usurp control of the religious culture they’ve created. The persistent dangers that confront Jesus during His adult ministry have their origins here.

Discovering Safety

It’s interesting, to say the least, that Simeon sees the Infant and immediately identifies tensions within Jesus’s own faith community that will dog Him for the rest of His life—to the point that they will explode in a concerted effort to put an end to Him. The sorrow that hovers above the scene, however, is seen in how the blatant rejection of Jesus baldly contradicts everything God created the Temple to be. We get a vivid picture of God’s vision for the ideal faith community in Psalm 84, a spectacular hymn extolling the Temple as a place of welcome, composed by none other than its founder, David. “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” it begins. David says his soul “longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.” (v2) This is a man who not only loves his church; he loves going to church. “My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God,” he writes. And David wastes no time explaining why he loves going to church so much: he's totally safe there.

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts,” David sings. (v3) These images strike us as charming. Our Disneyfied imaginations conjure visions of chirping birds flitting around the Temple and newly hatched chicks peering over the rim of their nest. But ancient hearers of David’s song sensed something more than natural wonder in this tableau. As Rabbi Benjamin Segal explains in his marvelous study of Psalm 84, the Old Testament depicts swallows as migratory birds that fly great distances, which adds a unique nuance to the metaphor. David suggests that discovering safety in God’s house requires effort on our part. We must seek it out and travel toward it with compelling resolve. 

What’s more, there’s an added layer of menace that must be dealt with. Sparrows and swallows are commonly used in Temple sacrifices. To alight on the very altars where so many like them have been slain is an audacious act of trust. Priests and congregants who would sacrifice them without thought are nowhere to be found in this scenario. Faith in their Creator emboldens the birds. They have every confidence that God wants them to make their home at the very place where religious tradition would deny them safety. They are, in every way, like the Christ Child in Luke’s story—controversial figures that disrupt the status quo, traveling extraordinary lengths to become living testaments to God’s immeasurable grace. They are totally safe in this sacred place. And their desire to be seen here, to participate in the life of this faith community, is totally sound. “Happy are those who live in Your house, ever singing your praise,” David exclaims. (v4) It’s an arresting image that resonates deeply.


David caps this stanza with a musical direction—Selah—that calls for a momentary pause in the music to give the audience time to absorb the full depth of the lyric. He wants us to understand that, by divine intention, God’s house is a safe place. Yet, as we see in Luke, this ideal breaks down when religious leaders abuse power to exert control over their communities. Any challenge to their authority is instantly perceived as a threat, a fact that cannot be concealed. Go back to Simeon’s prophecy: simply by showing up, Jesus becomes “a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But the story doesn’t end with opposition. The conspiracy to destroy Jesus is ultimately undone and freedom of worship for all who believe rises out of the ashes of defeat. Safety is restored through the decisive victory of the cross.

These truths should guide every believer, regardless how he or she is pigeonholed by traditions and doctrines. Discovering the safety of God’s house requires tremendous effort on our part. Many of us will travel great distances, soaring above prejudice, suspicion, and hostility. We’ll take great risks, relying solely on our trust in the God Who made and welcomes us. We’ll ignore how many are eager to sacrifice us in pursuit of self-righteousness. But God’s Word promises we have a home, at the very altars where the blood of others has been shed. We weren’t created to be destroyed. We were made to live in God’s house, ever singing God’s praises. If we allow fear and hatred to steer us from sacred worship, there can be no song. Soar. Sing. Witness the beauty of your making. Defy death and destruction. Something radically new is on the horizon. Show up. The good news of the Gospel is borne on our wings. Selah

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts.