Prophet on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

Choosing is an action that’s full of consequences; some intended and some unintended.  Especially when it comes to choosing people.  If you choose someone, you’re passing over or not choosing someone else.

You know, back when I was a kid, this was played out almost every day on the school playground. When it came to choose sides for kickball, two captains would gaze over the crop of perspective kickers and choose the most popular and most athletic kids first. Now, what we learned from this pre-game tradition was that it feels pretty good, rather affirming to be the first chosen for something. It makes you feel special and wanted. It doesn’t, however, feel so good when you’re the last one to be chosen, if you’re chosen at all.

Now, the Bible is full of the language of choice. We can read passage after passage about God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, to be “God’s people.”  And as the centuries progressed, this gave the Jewish nation a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a people chosen and blessed by God. Unfortunately, as many of the prophets have made clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity, of the Jewish faith, was the belief that they were chosen by God. In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).

But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations”.  This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.  It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur, and God called him for a special purpose.  The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.[i]

Now, I think this is a big part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum–a city they considered sinful and filled with sinners.  It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Realm with those who were not a part of the “chosen” people. That’s why Jesus gave them two examples of God doing just that; examples of Elijah and Elisha sharing the blessing of God with Gentiles.[ii]  In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s Realm of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for a chosen few, but for the whole human family; that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth”.[iii]  My friends, God does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. Matthew tells us that God visits sun and the rain upon all people, and the Psalmist reminds us that God’s compassion and care extend to all the people on earth. [iv]

I think this is the first thing that Jesus was trying to teach us through this exchange in the synagogue, and this was the second: Jesus wanted his audience back them, and us still today, to have the courage to “speak truth to power.” Remember, Jesus had fame, he was “the hometown boy who done good” but rather than exploit that power by falling in line with the religious authority and spouting the party line, he chose to risk being tossed off a cliff because of what his hometown religion had become.

Which leads us to an interesting question. How might this challenge to “speak truth to power” translate into our time, our context; how might it inform our worldview?

Well, the most obvious answer to that question ties back into this idea of “refusing to forget.” It’s not enough to simply remember or give lip service to the concept that Jesus came for all people, we must refuse to forget, activity resist the notion that we are somehow specially chosen above all other nations, races, or religions.

Former President Ronald Reagan quoted Isaiah when he famously said, “America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” Now, some people in the years since have taken this quote to mean that we’re a nation chosen above all others, set apart by God. And they have allowed this concept of separation to breed isolationism and a fear of the other; whether the “other” is a refugee or an immigrant, an adherent of the Islamic faith, or a person of color.

But that’s not what President Reagan, or Jesus for that matter, would have us believe. In that same speech, Reagan also said, “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”[v] In other words, President Reagan held that God has blessed us to be a shinning beacon to all who wish to seek freedom; to all who seek to be  liberated from oppression. Somehow that lesson has gotten lost over the years.

But maybe it’s time to rediscover it. Perhaps today, in our context, our call to “speak truth to power” takes the form of welcoming refugees, immigrants, no matter what their religion, ethnicity, or skin-color. And I specifically quoted President Reagan today for a reason. I chose him because his words defy the place we find ourselves as a nation today when it comes to welcoming refugees. You see, this isn’t and conservative vs. progressive thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, or Green Party, or an independent; it’ finally a matter of living-out our covenant with God and humanity as a people of faith. A covenant that challenges us to extend an extravagant welcome to all people, just as Jesus did.

One final thought this morning. I think Al Carmines encapsulates the essence of Jesus’ love for all people in his hymn God of Change and Glory. The refrain from that song goes like this: “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Word, one God known in many ways.”[vi]

My friends, as we come to the sacred table today, and as we refuse to forget Jesus and his compassion and grace and love for all people and all creation, may we do so with the confidence that we have been chosen, along with all of humanity, to be God’s hands and feet, heart and voice in this world. And as we leave this place today, may the blessing of the One God, known by many names, go with us.

May it be so. Amen.


[i] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.

[ii] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!

[iii] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152: “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.

[iv] Alan Brehm Chosen ( 2013.

[v]  Ronald Reagan The Shinning City Upon the Hill, January 25, 1974

[vi]  God of Change and Glory by Al Carmines, New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995)

Extravagant Signs

John 2:1-11

Who doesn’t love a wedding? It’s a time of joy and covenant and fellowship; two lives joining as one. And here’s the coolest part of all. As a pastor, I’m invited to witness the moment when the newly married couple realize for the first time, their married! That, I think, is one of the most joyous moments in life.

But what happens when everything doesn’t go as planned? What happens when the standard advice for the bride to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” doesn’t bring good luck? I mean, it’s been my experience that weddings seldom go exactly as planned. So, I’ve decided to tinker around with the old saying a bit: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, if something goes wrong, shrug it off and continue.” Well, it’s a work in progress.

Here are some examples of weddings not going according plan.

First, the screaming child. I officiated a wedding with a friend for his stepdaughter and it was going just as we had rehearsed. All that was left in the ceremony was to light the unity candle, pronounce them married, kiss, and go to the reception. It was all good. But the bride’s three-year-old daughter had other ideas.  While they were lighting the unity candle, she escaped her grandmother’s grasp, made her way up to the altar pushing her way in-between the bride and groom to see what they were doing. The moment, however, didn’t last. Before the unity song ended, she had made her way into the choir loft, and just as the music stopped, she fell, hitting her head with a loud thump, followed by a wail that could be heard for miles.  Now, at this point, the entire wedding stopped. Nobody moved. Finally, I said, “Paul, go pick up your granddaughter. He did and she was quickly taken next door to the parsonage. But by this time the wedding had been at a complete stand still for about five minutes. So, I got everyone back in place, and whispered, “let’s just finish.” At which time, I looked down at my notes, I looked at the bride and then the groom, I look back at my notes, and then said to the assembled crowd, “I can’t believe I have to say this… but… may you home be a sanctuary of peace and tranquility…” Everyone burst out laughing for what seemed like another five minutes.  Finally, I said, “just kiss her already.” Oh, by the way, the little girl was fine, she was more frightened then injured.

Fast-forward now to a few years ago. I was asked to perform a wedding for Becky’s cousin. And, like the previous story, all was going perfectly, that is, until I messed up the bride’s name. Yes, I said the wrong name! You see, the groom’s name was Tony, and he wanted to be called Tony all throughout the ceremony, that is, until the introduction the couple, at which time he wanted me to use his formal name, Anthony. Fair enough. But when the moment came, I was so focused on making sure I said “Anthony” I said, “it is my honor to present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Tony Pape.” The funniest part is that no really caught it, except the bride, who insisted I do it over again correctly. Believe me, the family hasn’t let me lived that one down yet.

And then there’s my daughter Brianna’s wedding. This is the final wedding story, I promise. Just as Brianna was about to take my arm and head into the sanctuary to begin her wedding, the power went out. And to say my youngest daughter had a panic attack would be an understatement. I thought her mother and I were going to have to administer CPR there for a while.  But even though it didn’t go exactly as planned, it turned out to be a beautiful ceremony held by candlelight.

Now, I shared all these wedding stories today for a reason. Weddings, like life, don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we bump our heads, or mis-speak, or something beyond our control, like a power outage, can throw our lives into chaos. Whether it’s an illness or an accident, or a silly mistake or words said in anger that we wish desperately we could take back, or some other outside influence; life seldom goes exactly as planned.

So, when this happens; when chaos displaces calm, where do we turn? I don’t know. Perhaps stories like the Wedding at Cana can bring us some reassurance. How? Well, consider the bigger picture here. Remember earlier I said that one of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that he invites the reader to enter into the story? Well, it goes even deeper than that. John is inviting us not only to see ourselves in the story but to use the narrative and these deeper connections the assist us when we bump our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out; John is opening the door for us to invite the Living God to journey with us through this life.

So, what are these deeper connections? Well, first, we’re invited to look for the “extraordinary within the ordinary.” You see, Jesus often takes the ordinary things of life and uses them to demonstrate the most extraordinary aspects of faith. In this case, I think John wants us to understand that contained within even the most basic necessity of life, water, is the potential for the extraordinary.

What might it mean to share a cool drink of water with someone who’s thirsty? I mean, isn’t that an extraordinary thing? Maybe. But what if we were to think bigger? What if we were to share ordinary water, something we have in abundance, with other parts of the world, where water is scarce? What an extraordinary thing it would be if we were to share from our abundance; our time, talent, and treasure; our food, water, and resources with those who have little.

Which leads us naturally into our second deeper connection with this text: abundance. When Jesus changed the water into wine, he didn’t make one cup or even one pitcher; he changed “six stone jars each containing twenty or thirty gallons.” An abundance by any measure. More than enough for everyone at the party. And it wasn’t some screw-top or box kind of wine, it was the finest wine ever.

Now, it’s pretty clear to me that the wine is a metaphor of the Love of God. God’s Love is abundant beyond all measure, there’s more than enough for everyone, and it’s the finest thing we could ever encounter. Bishop John Sprong once said in a sermon that God’s love is like a faucet that’s been left on, filling the sink to overflowing.  And when that overflowing water spills out of the sink and covers the floor, it fills every crack and crevice, it floods every nook and cranny with the water of life. What a wonderful image of abundance; of the abundance of God’s love.

And, my friends, when we hit our head, or mis-speak, or the power goes out, it’s then that these words about God’s abundant love and our calling to bring extraordinary action into the ordinary problems of the world; it’s these things can bring us reassurance; it’s these things that have the potential to bring us back to life.

May it be so. Amen.


Sources Consulted

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, Chapter Four, “Cana and the Cross: The Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John,” (University of South Carolina Press, 1995).
Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). 
Alyce McKenzie. Wedding Mishaps and the Cross ( 2013
John Sprong sermon found in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Theology. Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten (Harper One 2012)


Good News, Good Ways

Luke 4:14-21 The Foundation and Application of the Ministry and Mission of Christ 

A movie came out a number of years ago called “The Kingdom of Heaven” Now, this movie was set during the second Crusade and as the Christian forces had retaken Jerusalem. But the rub in this story is that the Christians are divided. On the one hand, some people seek to maintain a fragile but stable peace with the Muslims by sharing the various holy places that are sacred to all religions. On the other hand, however, there are the Christian zealots who are bent on destroying all the Muslims, convinced not only that it’s their duty as Christians, but also that victory is guaranteed. Their slogan is “God wills it.” God wills the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime was that they practiced another religion?

Now, I’m not sure what it is about the nature of religion that seems to always make people think in those terms. Why those who belong to the “right” religion believe that they’re the chosen ones, and those who belong to other religions are condemned to eternal damnation? What is it about religion that breeds exclusivity, an “us versus them” mentality, rather than inclusion or at the very least, coexistence?

Now, the “religious” people of Jesus day, the ones who were under the law and subject to the Temple system, thought that way too. When Jesus preached his inaugural sermon in that Nazarian synagogue, the folks initially responded with proud approval for the “local boy” made good. But Jesus knew that they were missing the point, and so he made it clear: God’s grace is for everyone, everywhere, not just for a select group. As one contemporary theologian put it, Jesus “threw the book at them”[i] by citing examples from Hebrew Scripture; stories from their own Bible about how the prophets Elijah and Elisha went to and blessed outsiders, gentiles, people who existed outside the Temple system. And, as we heard in today’s reading, they tried to kill him.

But why the sudden change of heart?  How did Jesus go from hometown hero to public enemy number one in a single day?

Well, what scandalized the “righteous” people of Nazareth was the extravagant way in which Jesus offered God’s grace to everyone. You see, the religious people of his day expected God’s blessings for themselves. They believed they had earned these blessings through personal piety and a strict adherence to the letter of law. They were convinced that they deserved God’s grace, while the “sinners” deserved punishment. But Jesus came along offering God’s blessings indiscriminately to everyone. It’s hard to imagine anything more scandalous in Jesus’ day.

Now, we might be tempted to think that we’ve moved beyond all that. But the reality is, not much has changed. I’m often amazed by the way people respond when they hear for the first time about the Bible’s hope for all people to be redeemed. The typical response is, “If everyone is going to be saved, why should we go to church?” As if salvation is based upon some kinda points system.

You know, I heard some wise words this week about salvation that I’ll share with you. When asked about the nature of salvation, in other words, who’s in and who’s out, this wonderful, gentile soul wouldn’t respond with a Bible lesson or a defense of his theological position; but instead, he would simply say, “My hope is that God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.”

“God’s grace is big enough to include everyone.” I think part of the problem is that we get confused regarding who salvation is about. It’s not primarily about us making the right choices or believing all the right things. In a very real sense, salvation isn’t about us at all! It’s about God. It’s about God’s love for all creation. It’s about God’s desire for all of humanity to coexist in harmony, justice, and peace. And this, my friends, is the very nature of grace. The unconditional, unearned, always available to every person, Grace of God[ii]

And I know, in our culture, and especially the Christian faith that we so dearly love, God’s grace comes with some challenges. First, Grace challenges us to embrace the essence, the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry, and come to realize that we are not saved apart from one another, but rather, that the Good News of salvation exists for all people. [iii] That’s the first challenge and the second is this: Grace finally isn’t a stagnate thing; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and once we’ve embraced and indwelled the universal nature of God’s grace, it’s then that grace is revealed in us and shared through us, as we reach out and tend to one another’s needs. In other words, the Good News leads to Good Ways.

So, what might be some examples of “Good Ways?” Well, consider three of the verbs that Jesus uses to proclaim the Good News in his proclamation about the direction of his entire mission and ministry: Release, Recovery, and Liberation. How might these words of hope be present in our world today?

Well, as you all know, in our nation and across the globe, we are a deeply divided people. We are divided in how we think about and respond to the plight of refugees, how we resolve the on-going violence and poverty we see around us, and as to the intrinsic worth and value of people of color. And as a result of this division, our government is shut down and people are suffering. And they’re suffering primarily because of the disfunction and distrust, the deception and fear coming from the very top level of our government. Indeed, the way ahead seems very dark and it seem unlikely that anything can change in this cultural climate.

But there is hope. There’s hope if we take seriously this idea of the Good News leading to Good Ways. What if, beginning with us, grace were to replace the disfunction cause by fear and distrust? What if we were to view national and world problems through the lens of release, recovery, and liberation instead of self-interest?

I submit, that even though Jesus’ words are ancient, and even though they originated from a culture that was very, very different from our own, they still contain a central and undeniable Truth. The Truth of God’s universal and unconditional grace.  And it’s this Truth that will set us free. This inherent Biblical Truth has the potential to turn the tide; to change hearts and minds. The Truth that salvation is for all people, including the poor, the marginalized, and those on the outside looking in. The Truth that God’s grace is big enough to include people from every nation, from every race, and from every life circumstance; including those deemed unworthy or un-savable by some caiming to follow Christ. My friends, the Truth is that God seeks to bring humanity release from the captivity of ignorance and recovery from spiritual blindness. The spiritual blindness that leads to things like bullying or domination or war, recovery from the spiritual blindness of things like fundamentalism or racism, or sexism, or whatever “isms” people can concoct. And finally, that God seeks to liberate all people from these injustices.

Friends, as we move forward and as we progress as a people, these are the priorities we must embrace. We are invited to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” right now, here in this place, through acts of kindness, gentleness, and yet, grace. This is the Good News! The Good News that hopefully will lead all of us, and all of humanity, to practice Good Ways.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.


[i] William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), pg. 20

[ii] Alan Brehm Prodigal Grace ( 2007

[iii] Nancy Rockwell Jesus’ Agenda ( 2016

Affirmed by Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 –  Baptism of Jesus Sunday

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. The story went like this. “By most measures,” Weingarten wrote, “he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play. It was about 8 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 45 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people passed by.

Now, the scene that Weingarten has painted thus far is one that might be seen in any urban train station. But the twist in the story is this. The man playing that morning wasn’t just some random street performer nor was he a homeless person trying to survive. The majority of the people walking past that morning didn’t know it, but the fiddler was actually Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

So, what happened? Well, several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one child managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds; Joshua Bell was recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself. And for his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 that day. But the thing that strikes me about this experiment in human behavior, is how many people just passed on by, never even noticing some of the greatest music they would even have the chance to hear. [i]

And I get the impression that something similar has happens when we think about baptism; especially the baptism of Jesus. The details, as they are shared by the gospel-story-teller Luke, are pretty incredible, but sometimes I think we miss the depth of their meaning for our lives and our faith. So, with this in mind, let’s look a little deeper into this important text. Let’s stop in the metaphorical metro station for a moment and absorb the beautiful music that is Jesus’ baptism.

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties or early thirties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that John was part of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were separatists, part of a movement who lived in the wilderness, away from everyone else, to keep themselves pure. And it was the pursuit of this purity that lead them to opposed the religious authorities of the day and the temple in Jerusalem. So, it’s important to understand that John the Baptist was most definitely an outsider.[ii]  And by joining John’s fringe movement, what Marcus Borg called a movement of “protest and renewal,” Jesus found himself also outside the mainstream of the Jewish Temple structure.[iii]

And this is the first of two points of connection that we have with this text; Jesus’s baptism by John identified him with what Luke describes as “all the people.” You see, the Temple system worked really well for the wealthy and the connected. Jesus however saw his ministry as being with and for all the people; especially the poor, the vulnerable, the outsider. So, Jesus was baptized not because he wanted his sins to be washed away, but so he could be with all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. And this is key for us today. By wading into the water with them Jesus took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

That’s the first movement of this beautiful Aria we’re listening to today, and the second is this: Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with all of humanity was vividly and Divinely confirmed. Luke writes, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

And, my friends, our Still Speaking God continues to say the same thing to us. Think about that for a minute. Think about the life-changing power contained within these words. God’s loving affirmation to Jesus, to us, has the potential to transform the way we think about and live-out our baptism. “You are my child,” God says, “whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Perhaps we if we view our baptism as an affirmation of love, then we will begin to view our relationships with others through that same lens. Perhaps if we not only hear but indwell God’s affirmation we will begin to say and demonstrate these same words in our lives. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!”

My friends, Baptism finally doesn’t end at the font, it’s only a beginning; a beginning of our covenant with God and each other. A covenant that meant to be lived out within the church community and beyond; it’s meant to be shared with people who think and act and believe as we do, and with those who do not; and finally, baptism, this affirmation of God’s love, is a precursor to peace.

One final thought this morning. The second author in the book of Isaiah writes that God says to each of us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

As we consider the waters of baptism today, as we endure the fires of life, as we feel the wind of the Spirit, and as we pause, if just for a moment, to listen to the beautiful music of our baptisms, we can be assured that God is near. Just as God was near Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much ministry and mission, healing and teaching still ahead of him. And as Jesus moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

My friends, as you go from this place today, and continue to be God’s child, loved and loving, cared for and compassionate to others; God’s words to Jesus echo across time and space, falling upon our ears today: “You are my child,” God says, “My child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”![iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.


[i] Dawn Hutchings Recognizing the Sacred in and Beyond the Stories We Tell: The Baptism of Jesus ( 2016

[ii] The Baptism of Jesus: A Vision and a Voice ( 2007

[iii] Cf. Marcus Borg in several books and articles.

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Remembering God’s Promises ( 2019

The Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Epiphany of the Lord

When my three oldest children were much younger, we took them to the Cave of the Mounds in the Southwestern part of the state. And while it was fascinating to look at all the cave structures, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the rivers of sediment that had collected from centuries of dripping water; the really memorable part for me, was when the tour guide turned off the lights. You see, when you turn off the lights in a cave, you experience absolute darkness; the total and complete absence of light. And I remember that it was a bit unnerving. Not that I’m scared of the dark, but because I had three kids in raincoats squeezing the life out of me until the light came back on.

Absolute Darkness. That’s where the discovery of Light must begin; in complete and utter darkness. So, if the complete absence of light is the first step, what’s the second? Shadows.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, offers us a glimpse into the shadow world by taking us on a mental journey deep into the earth; into a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave written in 517 BCE and it’s probably his best-known story. Remember now, Platonic philosophy is chiefly concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and morality, something Plato called “the good.” So, bearing this in mind, let’ look at the story.

The allegory comes to us as a dialogue, a conversation between Socrates and his student. Socrates tells his student to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them: They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was reality.[I]

But does all this have to do with Isaiah and the Light of Epiphany?

Well, today, in our context, I believe we can look at the Allegory of the Cave and the absolute darkness of my experience in the Cave of the Mounds with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can combine these two stories and create a metaphor for we might come to understand the nature of God.

What do I mean? Well, as humanity evolved and began to become self-aware, and as we started move beyond just surviving another day, we started asking ourselves the big questions. Big questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Metaphorically, this was the move from absolute darkness to watching shadows dance on a wall. And this is where incarnation comes into play. I mean, God couldn’t let us keep believing that the shadows were reality. So, God, in human form, came to lead us symbolically into the light of day; to glimpse or grasp, if just a little bit, the nature of the Divine. And the life and teachings, the healing and miracles, the compassion and the grace that Jesus displayed over and over again in the gospels, this is Light that we are invited to enter and to share.

Maybe think of it like this. We often say that Jesus is the Light of the World, right?  Do you remember the blessing and commission on Christmas Eve? I said, “Let us go forth bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts and let is shine in the world.” I used that commission because Scripture challenges each of us not only to see the Light, but to be light.  My friends, we are invited to be a light in the darkness and shadows of this world. That’s the meaning behind Epiphany, and perhaps Isaiah’s words. Maybe they provide us with an opportunity to explore this invitation. An exploration that’s affirmed by Isaiah’s first words in this passage: “Arise. Shine. Your light has come!”

But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. There’s a second, implied imperative here. Let’s look at the next lines of this text again. “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.”

My friends, as we move from the darkness that covers the earth and emerge from the shadowy gloom that covers the nations; as we move into the Light of Christ, I’m interested in this concept of “nations.” Perhaps Isaiah’s “nations” serve as a second invitation to us from this ancient text. It’s a calling that transcends time. It’s inviting us to look beyond ourselves, our borders, our faith tradition, and reach out to all people with the Light of Christ?

And this is important. It’s important because this is how we are called to “live-out” our bit of light in a pluralistic world. You see, it’s through sharing the Light of Christ with all nations and all people that we can, someday, obtain Peace. Peace is the frist objective here. Not the darkness of isolationism nor the shadows of rhetoric, but actual peace; peace around and with us. But here’s the rub.  Peace cannot be only for a few, or those who perceive themselves as “chosen.” Peace, a real and lasting peace can only be enjoyed if everyone is included.

One final thought this morning. In 1969 Jim Strathdee, a songwriter and theologian, wrote a hymn in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. I would like to leave you today with the words of the refrain from that hymn because they illustrate so poignantly the meaning of Epiphany.

“I am the light of the world. You people come and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be”

My friends, as we leave this place today and as we continue our collective journey from darkness into the Light, may we too discover the mystery of what we were meant to do and be; and along the way, may we encounter the peace that God intends for all the earth.

This is my prayer.

This is my hope.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.


[i] There are multiple sources found at from a post by N.S. Gill

Buckle S. 2007. Descartes, Plato and the Cave. Philosophy 82(320):301-337.

Juge C. 2009. The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 7(1):16-30.

Ursic M, and Louth A. 1998. The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity. Hermathena 165:85-107.