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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/26/2020

I think it was my first year at seminary; the professor handed out copies of Psalm 133 and then read it to us a couple of times. It’s short, just three verses so I’ll read it to you: “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, flowing down upon the collar of his robe. It is like the dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. For there the Lord has commanded his blessing: life forevermore.”

After reading it, the professor then asked us to think about the images, images of oil flowing down Aaron’s beard and collar, dew flowing down on the hills of Zion, thinking about them not in order to try and figure anything out, just to sit with the images and see how they affect us…and I thought…this is stupid, a waste of time. So I just sighed and rolled my eyes and waited it out until we could get back to more serious academic work. For me, that’s what seminary was all about; it was an intellectual approach to the Bible and to faith, not this touchy, feely kind of stuff.

At that point in my life I had pretty much laid to rest the right side of my brain, the creative, imaginative side because that’s what intelligent, grown up people do; they deal with what is reasonable and logical as they try to understand and interpret things, things that include the Bible. It took me a long time to figure out that as useful and helpful as such academic study is, as much as it has been and continues to be part of my faith journey and while the Bible can be studied that way, it isn’t just an object of study. The Bible is a path to a relationship, a path to discipleship and you don’t just study a relationship; you live it. What I’ve done then over the past few years is to try and wake up the right side of my brain on a few different fronts but especially as I read and interpret the Bible, as I engage it with imagination.

That’s what my seminary professor was trying to encourage with his exercise on Psalm 133. Trust me, he could do the academic trip with the best of them, he’s written several scholarly Old Testament commentaries, but he was trying to let us know that there was more to the Bible than that. At that point though, I wasn’t ready for it. Maybe in your own journey, you’re not ready for it either perhaps thinking that what I’m talking about is stupid and a waste of time. On a day when the gospel is about Jesus calling disciples you’d perhaps prefer some practical advice on how to be a better disciple.

Discipleship though starts with a relationship with Jesus and what occurred to me in looking at this week’s lessons is how much images play a role in how we think about who Jesus is. In many cases, probably most cases, I would think the images play a bigger role than any academic study. Jesus can be and is an object of faithful, biblical study that gets into his life and times and history. But our relationship isn’t with the historical Jesus, a first century Jewish rabbi, as interesting as he might be.

Our relationship is with the Christ of faith, the Risen Lord the apostles encountered after his resurrection. During these weeks after Epiphany, as we talk about aspects of Jesus’ identity being revealed, the Jesus we’re talking about is the Christ of faith. To help us encounter the Christ of faith, the Bible makes extensive use of images which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense if you’re trying to convey truth about God. Logic and reason alone aren’t going to get you there. It takes more than that.

Light is the primary image of the Epiphany season; it’s on the cover of your blue bulletin and although this isn’t the only time during the year when the image of light is used, today’s lessons in particular are full of light. In Isaiah there’s a reprise of the first lesson from Christmas Eve: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” The psalm opens with “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” The gospel then repeats the Isaiah image of those in darkness seeing a great light.

Light is the dominant image today but it’s not the only one; there are others, including stronghold, including shelter, including rock. Last week the image of the Lamb of God was prominent and there are many more that are used to describe Jesus, most of them images the writers of the New Testament borrowed from the Old Testament. That too reflects the power of an image as it’s not limited but can be reborn in a new context. When Isaiah wrote about light shining in darkness I’m pretty sure that he didn’t have Jesus in mind but that image was used effectively in the gospels to get at what they believed about Jesus, to get at what we believe about Jesus.

Again though, my thinking is that these images, images like Jesus as light shining in darkness or Jesus as the light of the world, have more to do with how you understand and relate to Jesus than anything you might learn about the historical Jesus, more than anything you might know about the doctrine of the Trinity, more than anything you might know about what is called Christology, things like Jesus being one person with two natures, fully human and fully divine, with the natures not mixed but separate.

The formulation of those doctrines was an important part of Christian history and theology as it developed. They are an important part of our heritage and there are those of us who enjoy digging into these things. In terms of a relationship though, in terms of discipleship, Jesus as the light shining in darkness is likely to be more meaningful than trying to understand the doctrine of Jesus’ two natures. It’s more meaningful largely because it’s not an intellectual left brain concept that you have to think long and hard about; it’s a right brain image of light, something with which you are already familiar, making it something that you process differently.

Like last week’s, today’s gospel is about Jesus calling disciples. As I said earlier, discipleship is about relationship and images like Jesus as light shining in the darkness and as the rock of our salvation help us enter into that relationship. They help us to know who Jesus is, to know who the Christ of faith is, for us. He’s our light; he’s our rock, so as disciples we follow the light and cling to the rock.

Another image that is important in understanding who Jesus is and what our relationship with him is, is the image of the cross which is the best known, most common image of Christianity. The cross was at the center of the apostle Paul’s understanding of Jesus and it was at the center of Martin Luther’s theology. It’s different than other images that relate to Jesus though in that it doesn’t start as something good. Things like light and shelter are good things; the cross was an instrument of torture and death but as an image it becomes something entirely different, something positive. As Paul says in today’s part of his letter to the Corinthians, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

For Paul and for Luther, who Jesus is, for us, starts and ends with the cross. It’s there, in the mystery of the cross that we find the power of God revealed for us. It’s there that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. For us then, when we see the image of the cross, we don’t see an instrument of torture and execution, we see Jesus, we see salvation and the beauty of an image is that it doesn’t need an academic explanation, it doesn’t have to be put into words, it just is.

I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for about 24 years now and if you asked me to explain Luther’s theology of the cross, something I should know about, I would still have trouble doing it in a way that would make sense to anyone else. When I see the cross though, when I see the image, I know what it means. I can’t explain it using logic and reason, but I know that because of what happened to Jesus on the cross, I’m OK; my sin went with him to the cross and because of that my relationship with God is secure and so is yours.

I can’t explain it beyond that. It’s not about intellectual assent to any set of beliefs or doctrines. It’s the power of an image to move beyond reason to reveal the truth about Jesus. It’s the power of an image that enables us to hear Jesus say “Follow me!” It’s the power of an image that causes us to join those first disciples as we leave behind our nets, whatever they may be, and follow.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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