Epiphany: God is Still Speaking

First Sunday after Epiphany

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.

All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.  Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood.  Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only  a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it.  Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.

I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers  “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.

It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.

God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.









Hebrews: We Can See Clearly Now

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews differs from the other New Testament letters in that it bears no salutation. We don’t really know who wrote it, to whom it was written, or when it was written. Based on internal references, many scholars speculate that it was written for second-generation Christians living in the lull between active persecutions by Nero and Domitian. The author seems to have been very familiar with both Platonic philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures, for he references both frequently in his arguments.  Various names have been proposed as its author, including Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquilla. I find the latter suggestion especially intriguing, as its proponents speculate that the reason the letter itself doesn’t tell us who wrote it is because it was written by a woman, which if known might have caused it to be dismissed.

The main message I get out of Hebrews is that if we want to know God, we need to look to Jesus.  God has been reaching out to human beings for millennia, trying to get through to us in all kinds of ways. From the dawn of human sentience, many people have managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a partial picture of God, or to hear a faint echo of his message of love. But until the coming of Jesus, no one person has seen or heard clearly. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Want to connect with God? That happens through Jesus, too. Jesus is the lens through which we can see and know God most clearly.

Again and again, the writer of Hebrews takes events described in the Hebrew Bible, and applies them to Jesus, sometimes giving them an entirely different meaning from that of their original context. That’s a fairly common technique for the biblical writers.  As history unfolds, old stories develop new layers of meaning. For example, when read in context Isaiah’s prophecy of “Behold, an almah (young woman or virgin) shall conceive and bear a son was clearly directed to King Ahaz, but the writer of Matthew takes this verse and applies it to Jesus. Jesus often had a tendency to put a new spin on old Scriptures by saying “you have heard it said (something) but I say (something else) Exodus 21:24 clearly prescribes an eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth payback for wrongs done, but Jesus commands his follows not to repay evil with evil, but with good.   People are still doing this today, even my most literally-minded, God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it friends. Jeremiah 29:11  was clearly written as a promise to the Jewish exiles that they would one day return to their ancestral lands. Yet this version is particularly treasured as a personal promise by many, including myself, when going through difficult times.

There is nothing wrong with finding new layers of meaning in ancient texts. That’s part of what makes the Bible a living book to me. But the Bible itself is not the lens through which we should see God; Jesus is. The Bible can lead us to God, but it is not a fourth member of the Trinity. The “word of God” is not ossified words on a page, but Jesus. who is  “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.  We cannot say “the Bible clearly says” anything without understanding it through the lens of Jesus. Jesus is the lens that can, and will, bring everything into focus.

And that’s good news to me.



Joshua: A Matter of Perspective

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on[b] its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.  There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

To be honest, the book of Joshua is the origin of my descent into apostasy (according to some of my more conservative friends, who think I have one foot on a slippery banana peel and the other in hell). In the Christian Bible, Joshua is considered a book of history, but in the Hebrew Bible, it’s one of the Former Prophets.  It was this book that first set me on the road of questioning the idea of Biblical literalism.  The idea that God would command his faithful followers to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the cities the invading Israelite armies attacked was a huge theological problem to me, one which could not be resolved by all the traditional apologetic commentaries I consulted, Most seemed to invoke some form of dispensationalistic reasoning; i.e.; those commands were only for that time period and God gave different commands later. I could understand the idea of not wanting the nascent  God-worshiping community to be contaminated by Caananite religious practices, many of which were quite horrible. But killing all the babies? Animals? I cannot square that picture of God with the picture I see in other parts of the Bible, much less in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Then there are the archaeological findings from the excavation of Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua, which do not support the destruction of those cities by any Biblical or extrabiblical calculation of the time of the conquest. And the book of Judges, which seems to indicate a gradual rather than sudden infiltration of the Israelite people into their promised lands. And the odd passage quoted above, which I do not think can be understood literally. The sun could not have stopped in the sky, because the sun does not orbit the earth. The earth could not have briefly stopped spinning, because the catastrophic geological events that would have followed would have given Joshua a lot more to worry about than the Amorites. I suppose God could have resorted to some kind of timey-wimey relativistic option, but I think there is a simpler explanation, and that is perspective.

From the perspective of Joshua, time stood still while the battle was raging. The brain does funny things to the perception of time when under stress, as attested by those who say “my whole life flashed before my eyes” during a traumatic event. I think that’s what happens a lot in the Bible. From the perspective of the writers of Joshua (which was probably written in hindsight hundreds of years after the conquest) God commanded the total destruction (herem) of everybody and everything in the conquered cities. God in fact punished Achan (and later Saul) for failing to totally destroy what was under the ban. I might point out that this perspective is exactly the one held today by Boka Haram, ISIS/ISIL, and other militant groups, and rightly condemned by the majority of Muslims as not being what God desires.

The way I have come to understand the Bible is that it speaks with many voices, some of them originating from a very primitive time in humanity’s cognitive, social, and moral development. God himself does not change, but the way humans understand God does change. The Bible is not record, but testimony, and testimonies always have an element of subjectivity.Not all the voices in the Bible have equal weight. The question for me is not “what does the Bible say?” for it says many things. Rather, it is “to which voices will I listen?”

As a Christian, the answer for me  is found in the person and way of Jesus, who I might add, was rather selective about the Biblical voices he chose to hear. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible. I like the way the writer of Hebrews puts it: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

And I think that’s good news.