A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Alabama to attend the Celebration of Life for a mentor, colleague, and dear friend that recently died. To cut the cost of this last-minute trip, I chose not to pay for any amenities on my flight, including selecting my seat. As luck would have it, I was assigned a window seat, sitting next to a young mother with a toddler in her lap. To put it mildly, the first hour of the trip was utter chaos as the toddler spiraled into a complete meltdown. The kicking, screaming, and crying were epic and I couldn’t help but feeling trapped. I became aware of two emotions coursing through my heart and mind. First, gratitude for my noise-canceling headphones. Second, compassion for this mom, who tried numerous strategies to soothe her child’s distress, all of which proved to be futile.
When we reached cruising altitude, the seatbelt lights were turned off, and passengers were free to move about the cabin, this mom took her child to the mid-plane lavatory, where they disappeared for what seemed like another hour. Fellow passengers were irritated, not only because of the earlier screaming and crying, but also because they now had to use lavatories at the extremities of the plane. When the mother and child finally reemerged for the last half hour of the flight, the toddler was calm, pleasant, and delightful. While taxiing to the gate after landing, the mother looked at her precious child and announced, “When we get to grandma’s house, mommy is going to have a big glass of wine!” I leaned over and said sympathetically, “I think mommy deserves two big glasses of wine.”
Feast of the Transfiguration
One Christmas, rather than giving individual presents to members of my family, my aunt gave my family several posters to hang in our basement room. That fall we had built a very 1960’s “rec room” where my siblings and I could invite our friends and not have to worry about either noise or mess and my parents could then reclaim the living room as their space. So, my aunt decided to help us decorate the space, and hence the posters that Christmas as her gift to all of us.
There were several posters, but the one I remember best was of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. I remember it, not because even then I was a budding theologian, but because I found it so curious. Created in the early years of the Sixteenth Century, Michelangelo’s Moses was regarded by the artist himself as his most lifelike creation. Once finished he is reputed to have struck the statue on the knee with his hammer and exclaimed Now, speak! To this day you can see a chip in the marble on Moses’ knee where Michelangelo’s hammer is said to have hit.
But that’s not what I found so curious about this image. It wasn’t the chip in the marble. It wasn’t the power and force of the figure. It wasn’t the lifelike quality of the statue. No, none of these drew my attention. What drew my attention, and what I found so curious, and what I did not understand until many years later, and you may know this, but what drew my attention is that Moses had grown horns! Yes, there are two stubby horns emerging out of Moses’ head like horns emerging out of the head of a maturing goat!
Tonight, we remember a key part of our story, the rescue at the Red Sea. We retell the story as part of God’s people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and their twelve sons and daughter.
Sold as a slave, Joseph, saved the whole family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years in Egypt, that mighty empire, whose wonders we are still discovering and marveling. Freedom from Egypt? Impossible!
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharoah refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. Our people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that coming death would pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom! But soon they were dead-end at Red Sea. Pharaoh came after them. Trapped between water and enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “Do not be afraid; stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”[i]
If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Do you remember what it feels like to be at the threshold of something new in your life?
Imagine you are a student preparing to go off to college. It’s new and exciting and full of possibilities – (what courses shall I take? will I meet someone and fall in love? will I make lifelong friends? how will these years shape my future?) You’re excited, but it’s also a bit daunting because you can’t fully imagine the challenges ahead (will I get along with my roommate? will I experience heartbreak or disappointments? will I fail?)
Or imagine a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child. They’re thrilled, of course, but they’re also wondering, “What will it be like to be responsible for this tiny human being? Will we be good parents?” They anticipate the joys and possibilities of parenthood, but they also know it won’t be easy, and there is at least a possibility that it won’t as go well as they hope it will.
“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.” (Psalm 91:14)
Many nights, if I am awake enough by the time the Compline bell rings, if my attention has not been too blunted by the heavy-laden hours of the day and the familiarity of daily repetition, this verse from Psalm 91 finds its way into my heart and brings me peace.
Isaiah 52:7-10 / Psalm 98 / Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) / John 1:1-14
It’s Christmas Day. I love Christmas – and I love singing at Christmas! Christmas is a time for singing: everyone and everything seems to be singing. Have you noticed when you are in a really good mood, or at a birthday, or you’ve just heard a wonderful piece of news, you want to sing, or ring bells, or jump up and down – you can’t help it – it’s just joy! Particularly at Christmas, the Scriptures are full of singing. Our Psalm today: “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things – lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.” And not just people, but the whole of creation: “Shout for joy all you lands, lift up your voice, rejoice and sing … let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands … let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96) At Christmas, it is as if the whole of creation is singing with joy!