Sunday, February 24, 2008

Water Rights

Water Rights

© 2008 Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
John 4:5-42
February 24, 2008

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it that they do not remain that way.” Our passage for today is one that is filled with hope and marked by both of hope’s daughters.

Here we have a wonderful story that provides the exception to the usual rule which declares that all the gospel stories are about Jesus, not about the characters he bumps into. This is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus had with anyone in scripture. It has the wonderful ironies and multiple meanings characteristic of John’s gospel. If not the whole point, at least one large and unmistakable point of this story is the Samaritan woman herself, all the things about her, who she is, what she was, what she becomes, and, of course, who Jesus is in relation to her. She is both of hope’s beautiful daughters rolled into one.

Often we jump to too many disparaging conclusions about her, based on our own perversities and prejudices. As Winston Churchill once said, “A lie goes halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” We may take on a Jerry Springer Show mentality, thinking of her as one of those talk show guest targets, for whom Jerry has the surprise of all five husbands waiting in the wings to come out and confront her. She realized that Jesus knew everything she had ever done. But we don’t.

“To be sure, Jesus knows she has been married five times and now ‘has’ a man who is not her husband, but what are the particulars? Deaths? Divorces? Legal tangles? Or is it promiscuity? We do not know... Jesus does not urge the woman to repent or change her behavior.”1

So maybe it would be good to set all snickering, behind-the-hand remarks about her aside and consider two critical, and often overlooked elements of the story:

[1] Jesus found himself in what was, for all practical purposes, enemy territory. And while he was there, he ran into someone who shared his monotheistic faith, though the Samaritan woman’s faith had reached lots of particular conclusions differing from classic Jewish faith. It is in some ways like the way our monotheistic faith in Jesus has some similarities to, but is very different from, contemporary Muslim monotheism which celebrates but does not worship Jesus. It is while he was in this hostile territory that he identified himself as the awaited Messiah, the gift of God who can give living water to those outside the fold of Judaism.

[2] The story then provides a grounds for resolution of an age-old animosity between peoples, when many Samaritans believed in Jesus “because of this woman’s testimony.”

This story provided the early church with important guidance regarding the new healing and hope in Jesus available to all whose wounds and divisions are long-standing. It can serve us in that way as well. It is no accident that this meeting took place at Jacob’s well (a place that can still be seen today) a spot where two widely diverging traditions had a common beginning place, connected with Jacob, a common ancestor.

Jacob’s well was the place for the entirely unlikely meeting between Jesus and the despised woman of the hated Samaritans. The Samaritan people were considered a sort of half-breed of near-Jews by the people of Jerusalem and the officials of the sanctioned Temple religion of Judea.

By the time of Jesus, the rupture between Samaritans and Jews had had a long, long history over almost a thousand years. It began after the time of King Solomon, when the ten northern tribes of Israel broke away from the southern tribes of Judah with their capital in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom in Samaria was eventually defeated in battle over 700 years before the time of Jesus, and most of the leaders and well-to-do folks were carried away into exile, never to return. Those who remained in Samaria were poor, largely ignorant, powerless people. They intermarried with other peoples around them. Yet they retained the first five books of our Old Testament as their scripture, having this in common with the Jews to the south of them. The two peoples remained bitterly divided over political and theological differences. There is still a very tiny Samaritan community in Israel today, mostly in the city of Nablus.

Just 200 years before the time of Jesus, the Samaritans had built a shrine to God on Mount Gerazim, claiming that this shrine, not the Temple in Jerusalem, was the proper place for worship by the people of Abraham who had received the laws of Moses. Jews destroyed the Samaritan shrine a hundred years before Jesus, and the bitter hatred between them only grew worse.

So when Jesus met the unnamed woman of Samaria at the well, both of them carried a lot more than a water bucket to the meeting.

A friend of mine2 wrote,

“I’ve begun to think of this text as a way to explore the phenomena of the walking wounded. Old wounds can be emotionally crippling, social mores can be functionally crippling, and animosities between peoples and groups can be spiritually wounding. To the extent that healing takes place in this incredible conversation, it seems to take place on all those levels. Theologically, Jesus as ‘the gift of God,’ is the source of this healing, the woman becomes the instrument of this peace. We probably can’t honor her enough for what she can mean to our churches... in her own way she re-forms the church. Now they have a polygamous Samaritan woman on their hands with quite a following at Sychar. Imagine that!”

What will the Spirit think of next? If this woman comes to know and share the love of God through Jesus, who could resist it?

Frederick Buechner’s lovely little book, Telling Secrets, includes the story of his daughter’s struggle with anorexia as well as his own struggle with his desire to ensure her recovery from the disease, to make her better through the sheer force of his own will and control. In the process, he discovered his life-long desire to control all outcomes, really. In a search for his own healing and help, he sought out a group for adult children of alcoholics, people who come from families that have experienced problems with alcohol even though they themselves do not. He wrote,

“They have slogans, which you can either dismiss as hopelessly simplistic or cling on to like driftwood in a stormy sea. One of them is ‘Let go and let God’ — which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow. Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straight jacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you — your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends — because this is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are God’s business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It is also God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought.”3

It is life-transforming only when we believe our lives are God’s business, as well as our own, that God takes an active interest in our lives and is not only actively interested but takes an active role in them. If we can recognize this one thing, passivity is thrown out the window and we are empowered to take up our lives again in a whole new way. God’s constant activity in our lives is what we look for at every turn in the road, and often when it is expected the least. It is so difficult to seek that when we are busy managing other people’s lives. It is even more difficult when we believe our lives are only our business. In the Psalms God says, “From your mother’s womb I have known you.”4 What a total transformation it is to seek to know ourselves as God knows us.

The woman who met Jesus at the well that day became the missionary of good news to her own people. It is odd that the first missionary was a non-Jew, and the church began to burst the bounds of culture and social norms almost before it got started, here near the very beginning of John’s gospel. And all because a woman realized her life was an open book to the One who knew God better than anyone ever had. She let go and let God.

“At the conclusion of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, most readers would have expected the hero to ride off on a white horse in view of a few baffled Samaritans ... instead, the One from Above chooses to submit to the way of the cross. With near unbearable irony, the Keeper of Living Waters will, on Good Friday, say to Roman and Jewish spectators, ‘I thirst.’ But once he is dead and pierced, out will flow blood — and water.”5

This beautiful daughter of hope came to know the truth of Jeremiah’s words6 when he said “I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, they are plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future with hope.”6 That kind of God met the woman at the well that day. That same God awaits us, prays we will open ourselves to him. Answer God’s prayer today.

© Copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder All Rights Reserved

1 Fred Craddock, “The Witness at the Well,” Christian Century, March 7, 1990. p. 243.
2 George Chorba, unpublished paper delivered at the Homiletical Feast meeting in Tampa, Florida, January, 2002.
3 Telling Secrets, by Frederick Buechner, Harper Collins, 1991, p. 92 ff.
4 Psalm 139.
5 Richard Lischer, “Strangers in the Night,” Christian Century, February 24, 1999.
6 Jeremiah 29:11.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Take It From the Top

Take It From the Top

© 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Second Sunday in Lent: February 17, 2008
Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-7

Have you ever sat before a TV set with a remote control in your hand switching from channel to channel, pausing only briefly to see what is on? There is a descriptive term for this behavior of course: “channel surfing.” Someone once told me that men and women are different in the way we surf channels or surf the Internet, declaring that women are interested in seeing what’s on, while men are interested in seeing what else is on. However that may be, one of the things that sometimes happens especially when we are “channel surfing” is that unrelated remarks made in programs or commercials occasionally coincide in funny combinations. We might call this “commercial roulette,” and if someone were sitting in an adjoining room, only hearing the audio coming over the TV as we switched it, it might sound to them like this: “

...So, next time you have excess stomach acid, remember (click)...
...tonight’s late movie, featuring (click)...
...bad breath. It will make you say (click)...
...I love what you do for me!”

What makes this humorous is that the conversational fragments have so little to do with each other, yet they appear to go together. They only accidentally make sense.

Once a national gathering of religious scholars was held in a conference center hotel. The wall behind the platform in the conference hall did not go up to the ceiling, and just behind it was a bank of pay telephones. Several times during the conference the participants could hear people on the other side of the wall talking on the phones, but at one meeting it happened when the convener had asked the group to bow in prayer. As he intoned the opening phrase, “Oh God,” a fragment of conversation drifted over the wall, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for some time!” Unfazed, the praying went on with several petitions, “O Lord, we ask...” concerning the health of various members, crisis situations around the world, and so forth. Again, the voice on the other side of the wall responded, “Yes, well I’ll see to that as soon as I can.”

Reading over this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, I am reminded of just such dialogues in which one participant doesn’t seem to be entirely aware of the presence, much less the meaning behind the words, of the other.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and though I’m sure his intentions were good, we can infer from that note about the time of day the very thing we are likely to believe about people who go about their business under the cover of darkness. As it turns out, Nicodemus was in the dark in more ways than one. When he came to Jesus, he offered a very respectful greeting: “Rabbi, you are a teacher who has come from God, because no one can do the things you have been doing apart from the presence of God!” I have done a lot of teaching in my life, and if someone were to say that to me, I would be flattered and perhaps even a little uneasy. Such an affirmation is a lot to live up to. So, I would have expected Jesus to have blushed and responded, “Well thank you, how kind you are!”

Instead, Jesus responded with, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.” One of the things we miss by reading this story in English is the fact that the very same Greek word used here can mean either from above, or again. Those two concepts don’t have a lot in common, but that is what the one word can mean, much like our English word “tear” which can mean either moistened eyes or a rending of fabric or paper. So, like the person channel surfing through commercials, when Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above,” Nicodemus hears, “No one can see the kingdom without being born again.”

It’s almost a prescription for misunderstanding, and it only seems to get worse the more Nicodemus tries to understand it. “You mean,” he asks Jesus, “I have to crawl back into my mother’s womb before I can see the kingdom? Ridiculous! Not only am I 5'10" and 150 pounds, but I’m 75 years old, and my mother passed away nine years ago!”

Nicodemus awaits an explanation. Looking over his shoulder at Jesus, so do we. We’d like to know how to see the kingdom too, but we’re not sure we’ve figured it out from what Jesus has said so far. Nicodemus thinks in terms of human, material origins — what Jesus calls flesh — while Jesus has in mind another sort of origin, one that occurs in the realm of the Spirit. So Jesus goes on, “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

See? No? Well, don’t feel lonesome, neither did Nicodemus! Jesus continues speaking at another level of meaning from the one Nicodemus is hearing, continues with another single word that in the original language has two meanings. The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, and that is also the word for “wind.” So now we hear that the flesh is flesh but the wind is the wind...or should that be, the spirit is the spirit, or the wind is the spirit or the spirit is the wind? I almost lose track where we are!

Finally, Nicodemus, by this time as baffled as we are, exclaims, “How can these things be?” He speaks for us all, in a way, and in doing so gives Jesus the opportunity to speak of the reality of the world of the spirit and the world of material existence. And what is the essence of these two worlds? What is God’s plan for both material and spiritual reality?

It is summed up in probably the most famous verse of all scripture, the one we often see flashed between the goalposts during televised football games, the one that many of us committed to memory at an early age: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Look at those two verbs that describe this central action of God: God loved, and God gave. Anyone who knows anything about the one knows that it inevitably leads to the other. Love without a desire to give of oneself is an empty love. And giving without love is never much more than a grim response to some feeling of obligation.

It seems to me that all this conversation about the material and spiritual nature of the kingdom results in this declaration about Jesus. God loved the world so much — this material world, terra firma, along with all the creatures on it — God loves this world we know and in which we live out our days. That’s quite a declaration in itself. There are plenty of religious perspectives which declare otherwise, which say that this world either is not real, or that it is a thing to be escaped or avoided. Plenty of people find no reason whatsoever to believe that the gods have any desire to have anything to do with this world. Not so this God who sends Jesus. He loves the world, loves it, lock stock and barrel, warts and all; loved it right into existence. God loves the world enough to want to redeem it. It turns out this passage isn’t about Nicodemus at all, but it certainly is about the sort of God we worship. This is a God of love, not as an abstraction, but as a verb: “God loved the world so much...”

And the way that love has been demonstrated, dear Nicodemus, was in giving: giving an only Son. Remember this Nicodemus, like so many of us, was caught up in a worldview which all but declared that the way to access the grace of God was through obedience and good works. The idea of God’s love as a gift didn’t enter into his thinking very much more than it does into ours during our average day. The very idea that this son who was given is a gift turns the entire merit system upside down, and that’s a lot to turn!

Do any of you watch Jeopardy? You know the key to understanding the game. Alex Trebeque reads the answer and you have to figure out the question. What if John 3:16 is the answer? Lots of people think it’s a pretty good answer, some have called it the “gospel in miniature.” So if this verse is the answer, what is the question?

Here are just a few of the questions this verse might answer:

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: My parents used to abuse me, what is God going to do about it?

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: What can be done about the inhumanity of suicide bombers who set off explosives or crash airplanes into skyscrapers, or who shoot unarmed people trying to retrieve relief parcels?

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: What hope is there for my life if I have tried to get myself back on my feet time after time, and each time I have failed?

It seems to me that at least one of the only answers that make any sense at all to any of our deepest human questions is filled with loving and giving. Not so much our loving and giving, but God’s. God’s giving of himself in Christ is what makes our pale attempts at loving and giving possible. God has given himself to us, unreservedly. Surely there is someone here today who has begun to feel the need to give himself or herself to God in return. Do it today. Do it with me as we pray.

Oh Lord, even as you gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves to you. Take us and make of us what you will, for your sake. In Christ’s name. Amen.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Fear of Falling

A Fear of Falling

© 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:1-7
1st Sunday in Lent, February 10, 2008

The forty days of Lent started on Ash Wednesday this past week, as most of us are probably aware. Three observations:

[1] I remember a time, several years ago, when Donald Trump was much in the news because of difficulties in his personal life. If newspaper accounts at the time were accurate, one of the reasons Donald Trump began having second thoughts about his relationships — and the meaning of his life in general — could be traced to the accidental deaths of two of his close associates. The most profound way he could find to describe his reaction to their loss sounded typically Trumpian. He said that he could not understand the meaning behind the loss of two people “of such quality.”

[2] A heroic account of the work of a Protestant pastor — who conspired to hide and transport Jews in German-occupied France during World War II — opens with the story of the death of his mother.1 When he was a boy, his family was in an automobile accident in which his mother was killed. That proved to be a turning point in his life. The contemplation of his mother’s lifeless body there on the road and his father’s reckless driving that had killed her, led him to affirm that human life is infinitely precious, whether it was the life of the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis, or the lives of the Nazis themselves.

[3] One bright morning along between the ages of thirty-five to fifty, many people look themselves in the mirror and are struck by the dawning realization that we are no longer what our society calls “young people.” We begin to discover that the models on TV, the actors that get the best roles, and the folks who pose with products in magazines are increasingly selected from people younger than ourselves. Professional football, baseball, and basketball players our own age are relegated now to the sidelines or described as “aging veterans.” Sure, there are likely to be comments from folks in their seventies and eighties about how they would love to be forty again, but the widespread use of the phrase, mid-life crisis, suggests that there is a special developmental task for those in the mid-life period of life which must be accomplished if we are ever to reach a well-adjusted viewpoint at sixty, seventy, or eighty. At age forty people have reached a time in which the end is in sight, when — statistically speaking — there is more time spent than remaining, and that the time which remains will include the subtle and not-so-subtle deterioration of physical abilities, accompanied by the increasing awareness of aches, pains, and assorted medical problems that now won’t just go away.

What do these three random observations have in common? Just this: the awareness — unique among all animals to the human animal — that we are mortal. Like the other animals, our bodies are not designed to last forever. Unlike other animals, we know in advance that this is so. Just because this has always been so does not make each generation’s accommodation to it any easier. Why is this pertinent to us on a Sunday morning? Because this is precisely what our readings from Genesis can help us to understand.

In his best selling book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (Schocken Books, 1989), Rabbi Harold Kushner correctly observed that people do not fear death itself as much as we fear what death might mean. Does the fact that I will die one day mean that my life has been meaningless? Does it mean that all the good things of life — the love we have experienced, the care that we have shared with others, the accomplishments we have managed to leave behind — are erased by our parting? Will my death be a time in which I am abandoned by those who once loved me, and all my life’s work will be seen as futile?

Our story in Genesis declared that God took dust from the earth, blew into it the mysterious and still little-understood breath of life, and God’s relationship with humanity was underway. Later, after the disobedience in the garden (where God’s warning turned out not to be that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit so much as that they would know they would die), the nineteenth verse of the third chapter says that from that point on, people would have to toil their existence out of the very dust to which they would ultimately return. Our own toil in the earth would serve as a daily reminder of our mortality. Humanity not only has to live with the fact that death ends our lives, but we have to live with the knowledge of that fact as well.

I have had the blessing over the years of the companionship of three different beautiful Golden Retrievers in my home. The dog in our home these days is named Maxwell, a beautiful three year-old Golden. Though he is only three, I know that one day he will die and I will weep. But he doesn’t know that, and is not confronted with daily reminders of his impending mortality. He eats, sleeps, and launches himself into gravity-defying leaps when he thinks he is going to have a ride in the car or a walk on the leash. His life is generally serene. His death is no source of anxiety for him today.

Not so with us. The story in Genesis proclaims that our daily toil itself, just the work of living, reminds us that we will die, in echoes that are as unavoidable for billionaire entrepreneurs and French pastors as for anyone who finds themselves occasionally mourning for their vanished youth. There shall be no exception to this rule. Its reminders will shadow us until the shadow one day claims us. That is the curse laid upon Adam and Eve in eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and whether we believe this is a good explanation of its origin or not, it is a fact of our lives to this very minute, as up-to-date as the morning newspaper. Death always makes the news. It always has. It always will.

Where does that leave us? The apostle Paul believed death was the result of sin, so that universal human mortality was the proof of our universal sin.2 The number one sin throughout the Bible is the sin of idolatry, generally setting ourselves up as little gods in the rightful place of our Creator God. When the serpent promised that they would become like God, he didn’t mention that it meant knowing something it would have been better to have let God keep to himself. Adam and Eve stand for all of disobedient humanity, but Paul suggested a new era has begun, that in view of the resurrection of Jesus, there is a new possibility open to humanity in addition to the necessity of sin and death: it is grace and life.

Clearly, this passage from Genesis shows that the biblical idea of sin goes well beyond a concern with little transgressions we may have committed on this or that occasion. The more fundamental problem for humanity, which the story of Adam and Eve shows to be a problem originating deep in the mists of human prehistory, is a rebellion against God. Further, it is a rebellion which — despite our best efforts — we are powerless to overcome. Try as we might, we make ourselves the measure of this world and the good God who created it, rather than letting our God be the measure of us, his creatures. We appear “incurably prone to the idolatry of regarding ourselves rather than God as the final hope of our redemption.”3

If Jesus had not shared this curse of death with us, then he could not have been truly human. If he had not contemplated with dread the prospect of his own death, he would have been only a pretender to community with us. But the entirety of his life and ministry makes clear the fact that he placed his whole trust and confidence in his heavenly Father. Paul declared that because of that unique sinless quality, Jesus has become the new Adam, creating the possibility for life where before there was only the possibility for death. Jesus has led us from the gates outside the Garden of Eden through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the gates of heaven. God raised Jesus from the dead, and his example of a new humanity makes possible an altogether new contemplation of the finality of our existence. Lives void of any other meaning may now be filled with the meaning that Jesus’ life gives us.

We have entered the season of Lent this week, but it is important that as we begin this time, we not lose sight of Easter and the hope of eternity which Easter provides. Our dread of death is taken up in God’s ringing affirmation of life in Christ. Praise be to God whose victory is ours in Jesus Christ!

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 53.
2 Romans 5:12-19.
3 Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation Commentary Series, John Knox Press, 1985, p. 101.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

We Saw What We Saw

We Saw What We Saw

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Transfiguration Sunday, February 3, 2008
II Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-5

We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty...
... We ourselves heard.

By late in the first century of our era — that is, just about 1900 years ago — the original apostles of Jesus had all passed away. The churches they had founded had to find ways to carry the message about Christ into the future without the first-person oral testimony of those who knew him in his earthly life. The collected New Testament, as we know it, did not yet exist. There were new circumstances in the world and the stress of conflicting teaching and world events was confusing the people in the church. As situations around him threatened the life of the church that the apostle had founded, an unnamed church leader committed to writing a call to the church to remember the faith that was taught to them by Peter and other apostles. He wrote this letter in Peter’s name to tell them things that Peter had declared orally to the church. This was a well-accepted, respectable way to keep a sainted person’s words alive in a changing, preliterate, forgetful world. The passage we have before us today comes from that time. And it is good to hear it together, because in its original time, it was read to assemblies of people like this, not in the privacy of a library or home, but in gatherings for worship.

We Saw

We had been eyewitnesses to his majesty.

Probably most of us have seen the paintings we refer to as icons in Orthodox churches, like the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox churches. They are paintings of Mary and the child Jesus or the saints, and considered so precious in those churches that when the Russian Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska caught fire and burned to the ground back in the 1970s, the people of the church raced in to rescue the icons, disregarding almost everything else in the building. Icons are paintings that are often adorned with precious metal and jewels, and they are generally of a nonrepresentational style, that is, they are not like the religious paintings of the renaissance period in Italy, with perspective and focus on the human qualities of the figures. In comparison, iconic paintings can seem rather flat, almost lifeless. Lifeless, that is, except for one aspect of them that captivates the observer. I once learned that those who paint traditional icons spend about 90% of their time working on the eyes. When you see one of these paintings, it is important to notice whose eyes in the painting are fixed on you, following you around the room. Often, when entering a darkened Orthodox church from the bright light, one of the first things we will see is the sets of the eyes in the icons that are looking at us. Icons are, in this way, windows to the soul. They are not paintings meant for a person to look at or admire, they look at us, and through us, and penetrate into our souls.

What does Peter mean when he says “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty”? He is talking about this memory from Jesus’ ministry, which we can find in Matthew’s gospel:

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white ... suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-5)

Peter knew what he had seen, but probably more important than that, he knew that they had been seen. God had them in view, God, through the eyes of Christ, saw, and heard and taught and traveled with them. Peter knew this, he would never forget it, it was sealed in his memory as one of his life’s transforming moments.

But he is talking about more than a memory. He is also reminding us that as witnesses — those who have seen — we are also those who have been seen. “We saw ... we heard” he said. And once we have seen and heard that Christ is in the world, we then have the eyes of eternity upon us as we carry the message about Christ forward.

The Morning Star

The morning star makes three appearances in the New Testament, the other two are in Revelation. The last star to appear in the heavens before the arrival of the dawn is what the Bible calls the morning star, which we know today is the planet Venus. It came to be associated with the return of Christ, the last heavenly body to appear before the full arrival of the new day, and the time of waiting until his return was compared with the long night which must pass before morning comes, announced by the morning star.

Now by the time II Peter was written, it was clear that the apostles’ expectation of Jesus’ physical return was going to be delayed by at least one generation. Today we know it has been delayed by many more than that. So this line is one of those early realizations that the coming of Christ is not necessarily a physical reappearance on the stage of history, but rather that the coming of Christ occurs in the hearts of those who love him and follow him. Every faithful act, every gesture of kindness, every decision to forego self-interest in favor of helping others is a fresh arrival of the morning star, the new day heralded by Christ’s presence in the world.

It is as if God said to those believers 1900 years ago, and now to us, “I am going to place you in a culture in which the primary task is to acquire goods and enjoy yourself as much as possible, but I don’t want you to do that, I want you to bear a cross. I want you to wait for a bus even when it doesn’t come.” And finally someone worries that maybe it isn’t coming at all, but here Peter breaks into the conversation and says, wait, I know the driver, he is coming.”

And then they remember the words spoken by Jesus, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” We aren’t sitting here today awaiting the return of Jesus so much as we are today celebrating his promise to be present among us. What a different quality human love takes on when “the morning star rises in our hearts.”

This is a nice alternative to the Valentine’s day heart which so many of us will send around to family and friends. It is not the heart that matters as much as the content of the heart. When we meet people in whose heart the morning star of Christ is rising, we know them and we know the gift they are to the world.

Men and women spoke from God

Since the time when II Peter was written, men and women have come to know the arrival of Christ, the morning star, in many ways. One published prayer I appreciate refers to this in a way we can all understand and relate to, saying “It beckons me, Lord, from the tawdriness of my everyday concerns — from a cluttered desk, a messy laundry room, unpaid bills, a car in need of repair. Thank you for hallowing such moments, and for sending a light in my darkness.”1

This passage reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon. You may remember it, it was a famous one : Lucy has her sign up offering psychiatric help for 5¢. Charlie Brown sits in front of her. The good “doctor” tells him, “Life is like a deck chair, Charlie Brown. On the great cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship to see where they’ve been. Others are at the front so they can see where they are going. Which way is your deck chair facing?”

It’s a good question. In many ways, our entire lives are spent in between times, reviewing and reliving our past, or anticipating and planning for our future. But Charlie Brown stays insistently in the present: Without hesitation Charlie Brown replies, glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”

The morning star of Christ beckons us away from our lives cluttered with anchors from the past and anxieties about the future to focus on the presence of Christ among us now. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”2

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 John Killinger, A Sense of His Presence, Doubleday, 1977, p. 70.
2 Matthew 28:20.