Archive for the 'Series B' Category

Trinity Sunday, Isaiah 6:1-8

May 22, 2012

Historical Description:  

Trinity was inspired by questions that have occupied me for some time: the ever-present suffering in the world; the question of God’s presence during such times; and the desire to reconcile such times with faith.

Though the questions seem eternal and have occupied generation after generation, the concept for the painting came in a moment—a picture in a local German newspaper of two male concentration camp survivors standing next to a Bavarian boy in German traditional clothing provided the vision for this walk of faith.

Nathan Kurz (brother of Miriam Kurz, Pr. Erick Kurz, and Pr. Joel Kurz of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, MO. and the son of Pr. Rudolph and Carol Kurz) lives and works in Germany together with his wife Marion and 3 children.  We thank him for his multi-faceted contribution to this project, weaving together art, poetry, and biblical reflection.

Devotional Reflection:  

Sometimes difficulty descends like a sudden summer storm.

The tempest takes its toll—and shaken, perhaps shattered, we search for meaning.

A string of personal and professional events has forced intensified reflection lately—one of the things I found myself returning to was the 23rd Psalm.

The peace and tranquility that the Psalm offers dominates our altar pieces and Sunday school lessons—yet the darker portion is often ignored.  For many, daily reality is not the peaceful pasture but the dark valley, filled with shadows, with memories that haunt and with fear that is hard to shake.

In art (as in life), the magnificence of light is revealed through the dark—and not in its absence.  Shadows are essential to complete the work—to shape, reflect and give meaning to the light.

A poem I wrote several years ago entitled “Heaven” touched on this point. “To touch the heights of heaven…we must fall…we must be broken…we must surrender…and become the prodigal…mired, desolate and alone, to grieve and hunger, till nothing is left but faith—and the hand of God.”

There is good reason for the Gospel message: “Do not be afraid.” Christ purposely and visually presents himself as “light in our darkness”—to lead us—this moment, this day, each day. This message is embedded in the very nature of creation, played out, as night gives way to day—as fear gives way to hope.

Trinity”, a painting from 2011, inspired by a Dietrich Bonhoeffer seminar earlier that year, focuses on the presence of Christ in our lives—specifically in dark and difficult times.

A bald and beaten Christ—perhaps ten years old—takes his place in the center of our circumstance. The “distant” and powerful king from Isaiah’s vision…is here—lowly and suffering in our midst. This boy, this innocence, this power, this hope is Emmanuel—God with us.

The two other figures, a man and a woman in prison clothing, stand against an unsettling orange background. Mary, Joseph. (You? Me?). They wear the scars of their earthly journey, vision and hope obscured by life itself.

And the Christ child?

He stands in their midst—bearing the scars of His earthy experience. This is the holy family—where Jesus dwells.  This is the trinity.

The tree of life/death anchors the piece and is central to the work of the carpenter—purpose and patience essential for the beauty of finished work.

A triangle provides an inner frame—joining humanity to the divine. In Christianity, the triangle marked the mystery of the trinity. In history, the triangle, in various combinations and colors, has marked the “unwanted” and the “non-human”. The divine trinity and the earthly one stand in stark contrast. While divine mysteries and purpose may remain hidden, Christ steps out of our bitter and broken trinity, His gaze set, penetrating and clear.

He knows where He is leading as night gives way to day.

If we are willing to accept any truth that the 23rd Psalm might offer, let us accept following:  the intentions of the shepherd are good; His role (and desire) is to lead. Our task is to follow—and to trust.

Following may involve prolonged periods over dry and dusty ground or very real and personal pain. The path may be hidden, the destination unclear—yet we must remember that we are being led—and our journey has a reason.

“Trinity” was accompanied by the following Bonhoeffer poem (my translation):

            Tag (Day)

This day is the border of our worries and efforts…

this day is long enough to hurt or to heal…

to preserve faith or fall into shame…

to find or lose God…

in the history of the world there is only one important moment—this day.

Proper 20, James 3:13-4:10

May 3, 2012

Historical Description:

Though it is known for its extensive Rembrandt collection, the Rijks Museum of Amsterdam is also the home of one of the most famous works of Laurens Alma Tadema. The work is entitled, “Death of the Firstborn” (1872), which earned Tadema numerous awards and widespread recognition in his day.

Tadema had a passion for the ancient Egyptian world. In “Death of the Firstborn,” he set out to portray a historically accurate scene from the Exodus event, rich with detailed artifacts from the period. Yet through these details, he also endeavored to depict vividly one of the most horrific, heart-wrenching moments in the scriptures.

Devotional Reflection:

Gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh. That vacant stare is hardly watching mourners and musicians surrounding him. Tonight, those eyes recount the days that have passed him by. Days of joy. Days of laughter. Days he haughtily believed he was the untouchable god of Egypt.

Gaze into those eyes. These are eyes that remember the wonders of Yahweh — water turned to blood, frogs, boils, hail, darkness — yet, time and time again, these are eyes that had merely scoffed at the will of this “God of Israel.”

Yet now, as Pharaoh holds his lifeless son in his arms, he realizes his son was not the only thing stricken down tonight. Along with his firstborn, so also died his pride. He may be the god of Egypt, but tonight he was powerless. No power he possesses, no magical words, no heartfelt prayer could ever bring his son back to life.

But gaze into those eyes again. Something was interrupting the wails and songs of lament. He hears something just over his left shoulder. Notice Moses and Aaron that are peering into the scene in the upper right corner.

Perhaps tonight was the night. His eyes had seen enough. His pride was dead. Perhaps now was the moment to surrender his pride to the will of Yahweh.

As we turn to today’s text, we now gaze into the eyes of James. In his world, James sees a timeless truth of human nature: pride. He sees fellow Christians quarreling and fighting, all because of their prideful inner passions. They choose their own desires over their neighbor’s. They choose their own desires over God’s. Just like Pharaoh, they have fallen victim to the sin of pride.

Yet, true to his style, James spares no words for these prideful Christians. God opposes the proud (4:6). Like Pharaoh, their ill-founded laughter and joy is spiraling into a pit of mourning and gloom. Not only will their sin be judged by God, but even now it’s darkening their relationships with those around them.

The timeless truth of human pride certainly persists in our world, too. Just take a look around. Everywhere, we see people so caught up with their own desires that they easily forget their neighbor and their God. We see it everywhere, even in our own hearts.

As we gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh, we may marvel at how such a man could have  resisted Yahweh again and again, plague after plague. But as we gaze into our own hearts, we understand. That our life, again and again. And, like Pharaoh, our pride only leads us to gloom and mourning over our sin. James must be right. Pride only leads to a world of despair.

So where to from here? What can bring us out of our gloom? What can bring us from our mourning? Can anything interrupt our wailing and tears?

Gaze again into the eyes of Pharaoh, but this time, look at him as a different kind of father. One who mourned the death of his only son. One who tragically sat by a mother overcome with grief. One who in his arms held his lifeless son, slaughtered by the sin of human pride. (Notice how Tadema even portrays the lifeless son in a strikingly Christ-like pose.) Yet this son was being held by a different kind of father. This father could turn around the mourning and gloom. This father could bring this son back to life.

He could, and he did. Gaze into those eyes, and you see the eyes of our Heavenly Father. They are eyes that have seen our prideful sin. They have seen us in our gloom and despair. Yet interrupting our night of mourning, today those same eyes look upon us with grace.

Through Christ, God turns our gloom to joy. He turns our mourning to laughter. Through Christ, God resurrects us from our pride, and brings us into a whole new kind life. It’s a life of humility. It’s a life of purified hearts. It’s a life of being carried by a loving, forgiving Heavenly Father.

Easter Sunday, Mark 16:1-8

March 18, 2012

Historical Description:

If The Athenaeum Portrait (c. 1796) by Gilbert Stuart looks familiar, it might have something to do with the fact that you’ve seen a reproduction of it almost every day of your adult life.  A slightly revamped version of it graces the front of every American one-dollar bill.

The painting was never finished in Stuart’s lifetime. First-time viewers naturally conjure up theories about what happened to keep the artist from putting the final strokes on this canvas: maybe the artist died, or perhaps there was a paint shortage in 1796, and the artist simply ran out of his medium, thus leaving us in the lurch about what exactly the President was wearing that day and what symbolic object he may have held in his hand. The truth is a bit stranger than most of the theories.  To the ire of many, Stuart did not want the portrait finished.  Not only could an unfinished portrait stay in his possession, it could also be used to make dozens of replicas (around seventy before he died) in which the details, such as Washington’s aforementioned attire, could be endlessly reimagined.

Devotional Reflection:

The Athenaeum Portrait has one important feature in common with our Gospel text for today: both give the unmistakable impression of incompleteness.  Granted, in the case of our Gospel lesson the essential scenery is all there: the crucified is proclaimed as risen, the tomb is there sans body, the angel is heralding and witnesses have been told to pass the word on.  But just as the three-quarters of vacant canvas around Washington’s head bespeaks an unfinished masterpiece, so too does Mark’s famous, perhaps infamous, ending, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Certain scholars have their conspiracy theories.  Perhaps we lost a page.  Maybe Mark wasn’t sure how to bring it to a close.  Maybe it was those meddling scribes we keep hearing about from that Ehrman fellow.  No doubt, such theories fail to give credit where credit is due. Those who have tracked with the kerygmatic artistry of this evangelical lion from chapter one onward would offer a more satisfying response to the seemingly unresolved coda:  this is not some cruel twist of history or a bumbling author; this is ancient ellipsis.

Questions abound in the space where a period should be . . . Did the women talk about what had so unnerved and disoriented them about the empty tomb?  Did they conquer the fear and trembling to do as the angel commanded?  If so, how did the twelve receive it?  In what ways were they, in turn, transformed (or upended) by the awesome news that Jesus Christ, crucified, is risen – that resurrection happened?

Obviously, we are able to answer many such questions from other sources.  But maybe, just maybe, Mark purposely left this part of his canvas empty – a standing invitation to imagine for ourselves the implications and affects of hearing the Easter news.  Perhaps we have here an invitation to ask how we might have responded, should that first proclamation have reached our ears; an invitation to feel our own heads spinning as we hurry away from the tomb.

Above all, maybe Mark’s Gospel is left intentionally unfinished because the story isn’t over.  The empty stretch of canvas stares back at us as a reminder that until Christ comes to put the full stop on this history that began, “In the beginning,” the story continues to and beyond – soli Deo gloria – our stories.  That empty space is a place to find ourselves, taken up in Word and Sacrament into the wondrous, strange, world-transforming portrayal of the one “who was handed over for our transgression and raised for our justification.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed…

Transfiguration of Our Lord, Mark 9:2-9

February 13, 2012

Historical Description:  

Jeremy Cowart is a designer and professional photographer from Nashville, Tennessee.  Recently relocated to Los Angeles, California Jeremy is a Christian professional who uses his platform as a celebrity photographer to engage in the creation of social art.  He has worked to bring attention to those without a voice throughout Africa as well as in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake there.

In this composition, Jeremy captured two young people from Kiev, Ukraine standing in front of a wall mural at the entrance to St. Michael’s Church and Monastery.  It depicts the glories of the heavenly host as standing in sharp contrast to the two very modern (post-modern?) young Ukrainians who look otherwise occupied and very much less than impressed.  Although the Transfiguration is a text that brings attention to Christ’s heavenly glory, I do not know of a better composition for visually juxtaposing the glories of the heavenly which, though always with us, seems somehow to leave Christians today asking bizarre questions about what is “relevant” in our message and proclamation to a modern world that seems equally otherwise occupied and less than impressed.

Devotional Reflection:

The whole scene in this photograph reminds me of the tension felt in John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” where, in reference to Christ’s glorious resurrection, Updike performs the tension between modern skepticism and the faith encouraged by the gospels when he writes of “a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages.”

In this photograph by professional photographer Jeremy Cowart we see an entire wall mural that stands at the entrance of the Church and Monastery of St. Michael’s in Kiev, Ukraine.  And the tension in the photo’s composition is palpable.  There are two young people, a man and a woman, who could serve as Ukraine’s new Adam and Eve emerging out of years of Soviet oppression, but also having to leave the garden of Eastern Orthodox belief (because many leaders in the Orthodox Church colluded with the Soviets) in order to take their place in the modern world.  Behind them stands their history as a Christian nation, perhaps now nothing more than “a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages.”  And at the entrance to a golden-domed church and monastery, the division between Church and World couldn’t be more strongly felt.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ Transfiguration fills Peter, James, and John with awe-filled fear.  Peter, speaking for the group, says: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:5)  The desire to remain in the presence of the holy is a desire felt by many modern day disciples of Christ.  There at the entrance to a glorious house (tent) constructed as a monument to the holy, monks and priests in Kiev remain within while the modern Ukraine marches on outside, otherwise occupied and seemingly unimpressed by living in such close proximity to an expression of the holy.

Jesus’ transfiguration, however, blurs the lines between heaven and earth; the holy and the secular.  In his transfiguration Jesus makes manifest his heavenly glory that is always present, yet hidden most of the time.  In this fitting finale to the season of Epiphany Jesus shows forth his glory to three of his disciples.  The only fitting response is attested to by the Father who says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”  And the temptation to remain on the mountaintop in the presence of this divine glory is exposed for what it is- a temptation.  The only response appropriate for disciples of Jesus is to listen to his word that gives life.  The only action appropriate for disciples of Jesus is to then descend the mountain back into the World with a message of heavenly glory that is not relevant to the World as it is, but is relevant to the resurrection that would follow.  That heavenly glory is also our future.  It is the future of those two Ukrainian young people.  The resurrection of their nation is nothing in comparison to the resurrection of all flesh that is coming.


Easter 2, Psalm 148

January 22, 2012

Historical Description:  Café Terrace at Night was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888, and is a depiction of a still standing café in Arles, France. The painting has two contrasting sections that accent each other. To the mid-left is the yellow glow of the lantern that encompasses each character on the terrace of the café. Surrounding this is the dark blue of the night, fully accented by the handful of small stars in the sky. This is the first of Van Gogh’s star background paintings, with the next few paintings, Starry Night Over the Rhone and Starry Night featuring more of the stars and less of the buildings.

Devotional Reflection:  In this busy Easter season, I like to get tasks finished. I am often found with a to-do list in front of me. I like to squeeze what I want to do in between what I need to do. To me, this is responsible living, getting as many tasks crossed off of the list as possible. Being able to look down at this list is how I gauge a success filled day. This is also my biggest distraction to what truly matters in each day.

There is always one piece of art that seems to grab my attention. Whenever I glance at Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh, I seem to find a sense of solace in these busy night people. I wonder what it is that keeps them awake, what task they are focused on, in desperate need to accomplish before they can put their list down and go to sleep. I enjoy the warm glow of the illuminating light of man-made lanterns, the pleasant conversations, the warm drinks, the stretching a day as long as possible on this starry night.

Perhaps I am not alone in attempting to draw the most out of life. God knows of this temptation, and for this reason he gives us the 149th Psalm. The Psalmist addresses people like us, who are stuck on things of this world, and asks us to take a moment and see something else, something greater. “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights…Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars…Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.  And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.”

As we hear these words, we cannot help but go back to this café terrace. We once gazed down at the night people, but now we are drawn to gaze upon the piercing stars. These stars cannot help but give praise to the creator. This praise was the purpose of their creation. This praise is the purpose for our creation. Unfortunately, this is not something that is to be found in our daily lists or nighttime episodes of rushing. One day, these lists and accomplishments will all pass, just like the café in the painting will pass away, but the words and the will of the Lord will never pass away.

Tonight, look up at the sky, remember the words of the Psalmist, recall what truly matters each day, and “Praise the Lord from the heavens”, the same Lord who conquered death that we could live an eternal life of praise for him!

Baptism of Our Lord, Romans 6:1-11

January 19, 2012

Historical Description:   Winslow Homer (1836-1910), born in Boston, began his career by illustrating popular periodicals, including Harper’s Weekly.  His early experience sent him to cover the Civil War in 1862.  After the war, he spent ten months in France where the Realism movement inspired him to capture rural subjects.  Homer’s last significant influence came from his time spent in a small English fishing village on the North Sea coast.  There the rugged, dramatic climate evoked an almost equal admiration for human bravery and innovation.

In The Life Line, Homer captures a coast guardsman rescuing an unconscious woman with the help of a breeches buoy.  He highlights realism, heroics, and human ingenuity.  In the original sketch of this oil painting, Homer does not conceal the identity of the coast guardsman.  He adds the scarf in the final rendition in order to emphasize, not only the victim, but also what he considers the true hero—the breeches buoy life line.

Devotional Reflection:  Survivors of near-death experiences often recall seeing their entire lives flash before their eyes.  Their lives are changed forever in an instant.  Death’s cold, dark reality has a way of reshaping the perspective of all who tarry too close.

Winslow Homer grants us a glimpse into what surely seems a near-death experience.  The woman appears unconscious, though her situation may be even more dire.  She may be approaching death’s door; knocking just as incessantly as the waves crashing around her.  She may already have passed death’s threshold.  If so, only a timely rescue can bring her back.  But no matter the extent of her peril, hope looms large in the faceless man who has secured her in his arms.  Risking death himself to save her, we look on in hopeful anticipation that cold, dark death will not claim them this day.

In our text from Romans 6, Paul describes an experience with death.  In fact, he describes the experience of all who have passed through the treacherous waters of Baptism.  Of course when we look at the Baptismal font with its still, calm waters it fills none of us with fear or trepidation.  But it could.  It should.  It should because, as Paul asserts, those waters are where we knocked on death’s door.  “All of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (v. 3).  We crossed over.  We went under.  In those waters we drowned and experienced death with Christ.  As each person is brought to the baptismal waters, we can catch a glimpse of a moment—the moment—when death rages around them.  Death takes them.

We don’t know how the woman in Homer’s painting arrived in her predicament, dangling limply over the whitecaps, swinging aggressively between death and the hope of life.  I suppose she may have slipped and fallen overboard the ship.  She may have been lured into the waters by a friend’s tempting dare and lost herself under the weight of the waves.  Whatever the reason, accidental or incited, she is now limp and cold, lifeless and weak.

Paul reminds us of the reason for our predicament.  We all share in the slip of the first man and woman.  Adam and Eve’s plunge into darkness brought the promise of death.  We can’t avoid it—the waters loom too large and the depths are far too deep.  We may try to swim for a while but to no avail.  We can’t breathe.  Our eyes sting with tears.  Our muscles fatigue.  Light and life seem only a distant memory.  In the end, we sink into death’s dark pit.

But in that pit, Paul proclaims the presence of Jesus.  Not faceless.  Not shrouded in anonymity. Jesus is there.  He secures us in His arms—our hope looms.  “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him” (v.8).  We rise from the depths and return to life.  We breathe freely and richly in the hope of the resurrection of all who die with Christ.

An experience with death has a way of reshaping perspectives—shifting priorities.  Whatever led to the young woman’s fall, I cannot imagine she will be quick to do it again.  Her view of life and death and the dangers they contain will affect her every step.  She will be wary to let herself fall again.  So too with those who have passed from death to life in the Savior’s arms, rescued and claimed by God’s Son Himself.  “The one who has died has been set free from sin” (v. 7).  We know the place where sin leads us.  We’ve ventured through those hostile waters.  Thanks be to God Jesus was there.  Thanks be to God Jesus continues to carry us into life everlasting.

Epiphany 6, Mark 1:40-45

January 19, 2012

Historical Description:   Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), a Dutchman born in Leiden, painted prolifically during the Dutch Golden Age.  He studied under the principal painter in Amsterdam, Pieter Lastman, who exposed him to the styles of naturalism, drama, and extreme tenebrism.  He first gained fame for his depictions of Biblical and historical scenes, but later received recognition by his prolific portrait painting. Rembrandt fell into financial ruin late in life.

Rembrandt began painting landscapes in the late 1630s, but incorporated dramatic themes instead of contemplative, tranquil settings.  Landscape paintings like Landscape with a Coach received less attention compared to Rembrandt’s evocative Biblical scenes, but capture a similar dynamic atmosphere.

Devotional Reflection:  When I first looked at Rembrandt’s painting Landscape with a Coach, the light drew my eyes to the city below.  I longed to venture down the shadowed hill from whence my view is cast and break forth into the beaming city streets, surely bursting with life.    My feet are set in a desolate place where clouds hover, shadows lengthen, travelers trudge along the path, and the grass scarcely recalls its shade of green. Out of the shadow, into the light.  That is where my eyes are drawn—down to the city of light.  But yet I remain standing in the dark with only a flicker of hope in my heart.

The leper in Mark’s account stands at the outskirts of a village in Galilee. He is outcast, sitting by himself, dejected, away from life itself.  An onlooker to what he may once have taken for granted but now has only a flicker of hope to return.  One who dwells in the shadow.  Alone.

But then comes Jesus.  I can picture the light far down the path moving along with Him as He comes up the hill.  Can it really be?  The Light enters into the darkness.  Hope begins to flicker within the leper’s breast—he runs to Jesus and calls out, “If You will, You can make me clean!”  And He does.  He reaches into the shadow and the leper is never the same.  But neither is Jesus.

You see, Rembrandt’s painting is a glimpse of both a before and an after.  First it offers the perspective of the leper whom society has cast out into the darkness.  Jesus heals him and now he can reenter the city of light.  But then our text records what happened to Jesus.  The man, though told not to tell anyone, could obviously not keep such a transformation to himself.  He tells everyone!  Consequently, “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places….”  There you see Him, outcast, sitting by Himself, dejected, away from life itself.  One who dwells in the shadow.  Alone.

This is what happens when the Kingdom of Light breaks into the darkness.  The deaf hear, the blind see, the lepers are made clean.  The downcast are lifted up, the guilty are cleared, the lost are found.  The wounded are made whole.  The shamed receive dignity.  The slaves are set free.

But because He brings forth this light, Jesus finds Himself atop a hill cloaked in shadow, nailed to a cross.  His eyes are drawn down to the city below.  Dark clouds press in.  Even the grass scarcely recalls its shade of green.  His Light, His Life, goes out.

But the darkness did not overcome Him.  Instead the clouds peel away with the rising sun.  Christ’s resurrection proved that death’s power is but a shadow that will fully fade away when He returns in glory.  The Kingdom of Light, starting as a small flicker, continues to grow and break into the darkness of the world.  Wherever you stand, no matter how gloomy your view or how small your hope’s light, Christ approaches you and promises an exchange.  He’ll take your darkness.  He’ll give you a new life.  He’ll bring you into the City of Light.

Epiphany 2, John 1:43-51

January 7, 2012

Historical Description:  Matthew Rosebrock, a graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (MDiv) is a visual artist and theologian pursuing graduate study in Theology and Visual Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary under William Dyrness.  He has a wonderful blog entitled “Eyes of Faith” where he offers visual art and theological reflections for the lectionary readings.  We are appreciative that in the midst of his own work he was able to offer this contribution to this site.

Devotional Reflection:  This text is one of those moments early in John’s Gospel account where Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is being foregrounded for the hearers of this text. Indeed, these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31). As Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ knowledge of his presence under the fig tree, Jesus redirects him beyond this foreknowledge to a much greater substance for faith. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This last verse of our pericope is the focus of this drawing. Jesus’ words immediately remind us of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-31 where he saw a ladder (or staircase) coming down from heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. He comes to name this place Bethel, which means, “house of God.” It was a place where heaven touches earth, where God presence is among His people. Therefore, when Jesus now speaks of the Son of Man being this ladder or staircase, he is equating himself with the place where heaven and earth meet. However, as the story of salvation unfolds, it will not happen in a way that anyone expected. It will happen when he is lifted up, not on a great royal throne, but on a cross (cf. 3:13-15).

This drawing is meant to bring these two images Jacob’s ladder and Jesus’ cross together by way of perspective. So as to show the heavens being opened up, the Son of God on the cross seen from below is the locus where heaven and earth meet. Only by given eyes to see by His Word, can we see this moment on the cross as the place where God comes to visit his people and offer to them life and salvation. It is not the way that the world or Nathanael would have expected, but it is the only way to the Father. An unexpected result of this drawing was the imposing way in which the cross takes over the scene. In this way, there is no room for a way to the Father except by way of the Son and His cross. In this way, an important caveat can be made: A disembodied escape into heaven and fantastical thoughts of foreknowledge run the risk of missing the point of this reading. So we are directed once again to see that Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet, the Word made flesh.

Proper 7, Mark 4:35-41

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:

Throughout history sculpture has provided the means to create incredibly lifelike, three-dimensional images that can exemplify a scriptural passage.  Some of these sculptures are famous, situated in the best-known galleries in the world.  Others are less well known, but perhaps more influential because of their anonymity and surprising grace.  If you go to the Memorial Park Cemetery in Gainesville GA, you might not expect to see statuary.  Instead, you may be visiting a grave.  There, among the graves, however, are surprising statues, depicting scenes from the life of Christ.  Not hidden in a museum, Christ is here among us in the world.  One such statue depicts Jesus calming the storm.  This piece was created of carrara marble by Italian sculptor Almo Lavinigo, who produced many more pieces for the cemetery grounds.  While the pond might be still, its visitors are not.  Often they come tossed and turned by the suffering of grief.  Yet, there in the midst of their suffering is Christ calming the storm.  Although not located in one of the great museums of the world, this sculpture no doubt brings calm to the hundreds of people who come visit each year.

Devotional Reflection:

And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” Mark 4:41 (ESV)

The backdrop to the above verse was a terrifying one.  The disciples were attempting to keep their boat from taking on water and being pushed over by wind all the while Jesus was sleeping on a cushion.  Most everyone knows what happens next: the disciples wake Jesus up, He stills the wind and sea, chastises the disciples and then . . . the disciples were filled with great fear.  This passage seems a bit odd at first glance and the above verse may often be overlooked.  After all, there is a lot of “fear” mentioned as the disciples try to keep their boat afloat during the storm, which is understandable.  What might be less understandable is that the disciples were “filled with great fear” AFTER the storm had died down.   They were afraid of this man standing in the boat with them whom they now realized was God.   It is one thing to fear a deadly storm, it is quite another thing altogether to fear the One who mastered that deadly storm.

That’s why the statue at Memorial Park Cemetery is so fascinating.  The statue captures that moment in time AFTER Jesus stills the storm and the disciples are in the boat cowering in fear wondering, “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Like that first scriptural event, death surrounds everyone.  The corpses of people are buried for a ½ mile around in every direction.  I can only imagine burying your own grandparent, parent, spouse or child, seeing the casket lowered into the ground and having the cold realization seep in that you will never see your loved one again.   As the car drives away and the tears stain your face, the emptiness begins.  Your sense of being small and powerless in this world seems to cripple you.  As you turn the corner of the cemetery you see a small statue in the pond.  It is Jesus stilling the storm.  The pond does not move.  It just shimmers.  Every turbulence has been made quiet.  Every threat has been disarmed.  There is only peace.  The disciples cower in fear, not at their impending death, but at the greatness of the Peace Giver, Jesus, the One who mastered the storm.   And in that moment, I can imagine people being comforted, maybe even struck for the first time, by the realization that Jesus truly is master over all things even death itself.  The statue helps people see, and maybe even Christians experience for the first time, the power of this God-man Jesus Christ.  And who is He?  Nothing less than the One who has the power to still storms, heal the sick, and yes, even raise the dead.  Amen.

Ascension, Luke 24:44-53

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:  

Benvenuto Tisi, widely known as Garofolo, was instrumental in spreading the High Renaissance style to his town of Ferrara. This painting, “The Ascension of Christ,” bears elements of Garofolo’s Ferrarese School and the Raphaelesque style the school emulated. In particular, Garofolo’s depiction here of Christ’s Ascension is strikingly similar to Raphael’s depiction of the Transfiguration.

This painting comes from a nave chapel in the church of Santa Maria in Vado in Ferrara. It was sent to Rome when the Duchy of Ferrara was delegated to the domains of the papacy in 1598. The piece now resides in Rome at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art).

Devotional Reflection:  

This is a brilliant depiction of Christ’s Ascension for one reason: everybody is pointing in a different direction. If the images on the canvas were to come alive and we could hear what each character in this painting had to say, it might sound like: “Hey! Let’s go this way! There are people over there!” “No! Jesus said go to Jerusalem. Let’s go this way!” “Look, I see two angels! Wait a minute, are those angels yelling at us?” And, all the while, Jesus is ascending to heaven while pointing up saying, “Hey guys! Pay attention. I am going this way!”

This painting captures the confusion and fear that the disciples experienced with Christ’s Ascension. They frantically pointed in every direction, speculating what their next move should be. They pointed up to heaven, excitedly recounting the miraculous thing they just saw. They pointed to the left, wanting to tell everyone what they just saw. They pointed to the right, toward Jerusalem hopeful for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they pointed down their feet, fearfully and anxiously wondering where their sandals would take them as they live out their calling as witnesses.  

That question — now what? — has not only been asked by the disciples. There are countless times in our lives when we nervously point in every direction, fearfully and audibly wondering: now what?

We do not have to go very far back in the headlines to find an instance when a whole town was left fearfully and anxiously pointing in every direction. Not long ago, a tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri, leaving thousands of people frantically pointing in every direction. Before that it was a Tsunami in Japan. Before that it was an earthquake in Haiti. And, even closer to home, anxiety and fear are brought on by cancer, divorce, anger, debt; these events leave us nervously pointing up, down, left, and right, wondering what to do and where to turn.

At His Ascension, Christ was confirmed wholly and undeniably as the Lord of all Creation. He rules over all. Now Christ commands the earth to rotate and He commands the stars to streak across the nighttime sky. He commands the winds and the waves to blow and He commands them to cease. Christ commands the flowers to open their petals with the rising sun and He commands them to close up as the sky grows dim. Christ commands your heart to pump blood and He commands your lungs to take in oxygen. He commands my life and He commands your life.

We have doubts and fears. We have cancers and debts and tornados, dissension in the workplace and at home. More than that, we lay claim to the ascended and triumphant Lord of the entire universe.

Christ is in command of the wind and the waves of your life. When your mind is cluttered with ten thousand doubts and fears and questions — pause — and know that the Lord of the universe is in control. From His throne of majesty, from the pinnacle of God’s Kingdom, Christ lovingly rules the lives of His people!

We can as His baptized children cast our anxieties onto Him. We do not need to point frantically in every direction wondering which way to turn. We are God’s people and we do not need to do that. Rather, we are able to take a deep breath and calmly point heavenward and, joining with the disciples and all of God’s people, say “The Lord of the Universe Rules My Life!”