Solid Rock Kids' Advent: Joy

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Series: Advent: Wonders of His Love

Lesson: Joy: The Weary World Rejoices

Song: Joy to the World

Summary: When Jesus was born, the angel appeared to shepherds to share the good news with them. The angel told them where they could find Jesus, and they went to visit him, rejoicing and praising God for sending Jesus to be with us. The angel told the shepherds that God loves us so much that he sent his Son to earth to be our Savior. What are some ways that you see God’s love for you in your everyday life?

Activity: Shepherd ornament

Memory Verse:“The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!”

Luke 2:20

Scripture: Luke 2:8-20 

8-12 There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

13-14 At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

15-18 As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

19-20 Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!

Advent Lifts and Levels

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Our prayer during this Christmas season is that it would be the most meaningful one that Solid Rock has ever had as a church community. Experiencing the fullness of this season involves slowing down long enough to attend to both the despair and the joy of the story of God’s coming in the flesh.

Waiting during Advent reminds us that darkness envelopes the season before the light penetrates it, but the morning does dawn. Fear and hope coexist, but hope eventually holds sway.

In a piece called “Advent Begins with Trouble,” Edwin Searcy calls Advent “the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.”

This characterization of Advent parallels the scriptural witness. According to Searcy, the practice of “telling the truth about the trouble” that precedes Christ’s coming involves attending to “the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a saviour.” 

One such “odd text” is found in Psalm 137. Here the psalmist gives voice to the deep ache of homesickness brought about by the Babylonian exile. In response to taunting from Babylonian captors to “sing us one of the songs of Zion,” the psalmist laments, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Then, in a particularly grisly passage, the psalmist pronounces a benediction upon those who commit acts of violence against Israel’s oppressors.

There, into the midst of Israel’s decades-long exile from Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah announces the word of the Lord:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
    double for all her sins.

What follows is an announcement that a highway will be constructed in the wilderness upon which God will travel to visit his people and deliver them from their despair. Isaiah’s oracle reverberates in the ears of God’s people, so much so that hundreds of years later, John the Baptist picks up the same prophecy to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Here are Isaiah’s words that John later echoes in Luke 3:

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Instead of the accompanying “Comfort, comfort” that we hear in Isaiah, John the Baptist follows up Isaiah’s words by addressing his audience as both a “brood of vipers” and as fruitless trees that need to be cleared away and tossed into the fire.

What’s striking (and perhaps easy to miss) about John the Baptist’s use of Isaiah in the gospel of Luke is that John the Baptist conscripts Isaiah’s poetic oracle in service of a point that is completely the opposite of the one Isaiah originally makes. Whereas Isaiah writes to comfort an audience who has experienced the depths of despair in exile from their homeland, John the Baptist re-purposes Isaiah’s words to admonish those who have apparently become too comfortable with their perceived standing before God based solely on the fact that they were born into a certain family. 

How can the same word from God be spoken both to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Ben Witherington III posits an answer in his book Isaiah Old and New:

“Precisely because of their figurative and metaphorical character, [poetic prophecies] are intentionally multivalent, or at least can function in various ways depending on the receptivity, or lack thereof, of the audience.”

The prophetic word given to Isaiah is indeed “multivalent” in that it applies to audiences as varied as those in the darkness of exile and those who are blinded by their own self-righteousness.

Like the prophetic word that bears witness to his coming, Christ himself—the Word of God—visits those who are desperate for relief and those who have not yet realized the extent of their need. The light will dawn, but in order for it to be visible, the valleys that keep us isolated from one another will need to be lifted up, and the mountains that obscure our need for a savior must be leveled.

If, as Searcy suggests, Advent is the deep blue of the morning before the dawn, what shade of darkness characterizes our current situations? Are we, like Isaiah’s audience, in need of comfort, deliverance, and restored relationships? Or, like John’s audience, are we in need of having our assumptions leveled to make way for the one who is to come?

When the light hits our situation, as we commit ourselves to believing it will, what joy might this Christmas season make visible to us that we were previously unable to see? When the Word is delivered, will we be open to receiving him?

Solid Rock Kids' Advent: Peace

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Series: Advent: Wonders of His Love

Lesson: Peace: Fear Not

Song: Magnificat

Summary: God’s rescue plan was to send his son, Jesus, to be with us. His plan involved a young girl named Mary. God sent an angel to announce to Mary that she would become pregnant and give birth to Jesus. Even though this news was surprising, Mary chose to trust God. Her response showed faithfulness to God and serves as an example to us.

Activity: Clothes pin angel ornament

Memory Verse:“You will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Luke 1:31

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 

ICB 26-27 During Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to a
virgin who lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee. She was engaged to marry a man
named Joseph from the family of David. Her name was Mary. 28 The angel came to her
and said, “Greetings! The Lord has blessed you and is with you.”
29 But Mary was very confused by what the angel said. Mary wondered, “What does
this mean?”

30 The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, because God is pleased with you.
31 Listen! You will become pregnant. You will give birth to a son, and you will name
him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and people will call him the Son of the Most High. The
Lord God will give him the throne of King David, his ancestor. 33 He will rule over the
people of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen? I am a virgin!”

35 The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the
Most High will cover you. The baby will be holy. He will be called the Son of God.
36 Now listen! Elizabeth, your relative, is very old. But she is also pregnant with a son.
Everyone thought she could not have a baby, but she has been pregnant for six
months. 37 God can do everything!”

38 Mary said, “I am the servant girl of the Lord. Let this happen to me as you say!” Then
the angel went away.

Solid Rock Kids' Advent: Hope

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We’re inviting families to join together in celebrating Advent in the coming weeks. Solid Rock Kids will create Christmas ornaments, sing songs, and learn memory verses as we explore hope, peace, joy, and love. Each week, we’ll provide a brief overview of the kids’ lesson and activities. We encourage families to take time to talk about and reflect upon these stories, songs, and scriptures at home throughout the week.

Series: Advent: Wonders of His Love

Lesson: Hope: God with us

Song: O Come O Come Emmanuel (Rain for Roots)

Summary: God provided hope for his people by speaking to them through the prophets. Hundreds of years before Jesus was even born, God used the prophet Isaiah to comfort His people and tell them about Jesus, their Savior.

Activity: Scroll ornament with memory verse

Memory Verse: “For a child has been born—for us! The gift of a son—for us! (MSG)

Scripture: Isaiah 9 (MSG)

For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us! 
He’ll take over the running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
Strong God,
Eternal Father,
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.
He’ll rule from the historic David throne
over that promised kingdom.
He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing
and keep it going
With fair dealing and right living,
beginning now and lasting always.
The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
will do all this

Baptism

I was baptized as an elementary school-aged child. I seem to remember expressing an interest in being baptized not long before the scheduled baptism service, which was held on a Sunday night.

My most vivid memory from the service is not the act of being immersed, as though time slowed down and I reached some deep mystical communion with the divine. What I do recall vividly is standing waist-deep in the tepid water before the Sunday-night faithful who stared at me like so many proud family members.

I haven't worshiped in that church for years. Since that time, I've moved a couple of times, married, and had a son. It did not occur to me that night that I had been baptized into a local congregation of Christians, (to say nothing of being baptized into a centuries-old Church),  but that experience and those familial relationships have buoyed me up in ways that I could not have anticipated.

Having grown up in church, my story doesn't include much in the way of a dramatic conversion. In the absence of such an experience, the night of my baptism stands out to me as increasingly significant as I get older. Through baptism, I responded to the invitation to participate in the Christian life alongside those whose journeys involved remarkably visible salvation experiences. I could draw strength from the redemption stories that shaped that local community: stories of triumph over addictions that I never had to face; restored family relationships, the brokenness of which I had never known; supernatural comfort offered in the midst of some unspeakable hardship.

I don't claim to have grasped as a child the richness of community life that baptism signaled my entry into.

If I couldn't fully grasp the significance of the joy of new life that my baptism was meant to proclaim, I had even less of an idea that baptism was also an invitation to partake in sufferings that I may have easily avoided were I not part of this community with these people. 

I am still learning that baptism--having been baptized--involves an interchange of joy and sorrow. Through baptism into a community of Christians, joy previously inaccessible is now available to me, but I'm learning that the same is true of the sufferings of others that I may have otherwise failed to attend to. When the disciples ask if Jesus will grant them the ability to sit at his right and left in his glory, he responds by asking if they are able to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized. "We are able," they reply, and alongside them I am the overeager ten-year-old nodding my head, entering the water before I could possibly know what baptism might mean.

Baptism isn't an invitation to joy without the sorrow precisely because it's not an invitation to life without other people. Baptism is a recognition of our need for one another and our participation with those who have gone before us and who experience joy and sorrow alongside us. 

I attempted to wrestle some of these reflections into a poem using a form called the pantoum, which repeats certain lines from preceding stanzas in a structured sequence. What appeals to me about this form is that it creates the impression that the poem's speaking voice, or persona, will have to reckon with how the pieces fit together while the words have already started issuing forth. "We are able," the persona seems to say, not yet knowing what such a commitment might mean.

I've returned to this poem regularly for years, perhaps appropriately, to dismantle and rework it, aware that there are answers about the where the poem is headed lodged in its previous lines, even though those answers remain hidden at the time they're first articulated. Whatever fresh alterations it might undergo in the future, its first line will always be repeated in the end. Befitting a poem about a centuries-old sacrament, its form dictates that if it is to carry on at all, it must draw upon previously uttered lines. 

Having been baptized when we were just ten, 
how could we understand the depth of it? 
Words like solidarity, sacrament-- 
will the meaning come with years, bit by bit? 

How could we understand the depth of it? 
Even the devout are not always certain. 
Will the meaning come with the years, bit by bit,  
if they ask daily for re-immersion? 

Even the devout are not always certain, 
perhaps, concerning an eternal crown, 
if they ask daily for re-immersion,
that in this realm, to live is to drown. 

Perhaps, concerning an eternal crown, 
our childhood mind can better discern 
that in this realm, to live is to drown 
before the devout could possibly learn. 

Our childhood mind can better discern 
words like solidarity, sacrament
before the devout could possibly learn, 
having been baptized when we were just ten. 

Caution to the Wind

The Church has entered into the Season after Pentecost, the season in which the Pentecostal in me wants to pretend I am always present to. In reality, I am often far from an awareness of the ways that God's Spirit is at work. Instead, I am consumed by my own doing and undoing, running here and there, rarely stopping to welcome the Spirit I claim to possess.

In a poem that has always left me feeling unsettled at my lack of self-awareness, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes,

You mustn't worry, God. They say mine 
to all patient, unprotesting things.
They're like the wind that gusts through branches
and says my tree

They scarcely notice
how everything their hand reaches for
burns bright: they couldn't hold
even its outmost edge and not be singed. 

The first time I read this poem, I was enchanted by its first line. The poem's persona addresses God as though God were sitting off in some corner, stewing over some perceived affront.

This opening address, if it is to be read as a prayer, seems a million miles away from more familiar, solemn approaches to prayer and jolts me out of any sense of presumption. I'm used to something resembling, "Father God, Creator of heaven and earth," but this address sounds closer to a word of comfort offered to a distraught child.

Disoriented, I continue reading only to realize that the "they" the poet speaks of in the first line might well be a reference to me, the poem's reader. As it turns out, God is patient and unprotesting. I am flailing and inconsolable. Rather than being in control, as the persona's tone might fool me into thinking, I am gusting here and there, claiming to possess what I cannot grasp and, to make matters worse, believing myself.

As though equally oblivious, the persona persists in attempting to console God. The tone near the poem's conclusion doesn't seem to have changed from that of the first line:

God, don't lose your equanimity.
Even he who loves you and discerns your face
in darkness, when he trembles like a light
flickering beneath your breath--does not possess you.
And if at night someone takes hold of you
so fiercely that you must appear in his prayer:
You are the guest
who goes away again.

Perhaps it's the fact that we're fresh off of Pentecost Sunday, but I can't help but notice the poem's allusion to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. At its most faithful on this day and in this season, the Church trembles like a light, flickering beneath God's breath. We cry aloud in some once-unknown language as though drunk, declaring God's praise.

And yet, if we are to remain faithful, we must stop short of uttering, in any language, the word "mine!" Whatever else this poem does, it prompts us to slow down, to lay aside presumption, to listen to a word of caution: Possessed even by the Holiest of Spirits, we do not yet possess the Spirit. (Could we even hope to hold the outmost edge and not be singed?)

Who can hold you, God? For you are yours,
no possessor's hand disturbs you:
just as the not yet fully ripened wine
turns sweeter and sweeter and is all its own.

An Ever-Expanding Miracle

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:23-24).

Consider the scene in the moments before the man possessed by the unclean spirit bursts into the synagogue. A crowd listens, transfixed, as Jesus teaches with a new and stirring authority. His teaching is not altogether new, yet it holds unparalleled sway.

Some listeners receive it with open hands, turning it over, astonished at its weight. Others, sensing a threat, transpose the words into a direct challenge to their place in the pecking order.

And it is here that the unclean spirit first enters, not in an animated rush or raucous disruption, but in a faint suggestion. Before the possessed man ever flings open the synagogue doors, the unclean spirit sneaks and skulks, flitting around in half-formulated thoughts

Upon entering the synagogue, the man possessed by the unclean spirit asks the question that has already entered the minds of some. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" he asks breathlessly. In an attempt to seize control of the moment with the force that only a mob can generate, the possessed man asks a second question on behalf of the crowd, framing himself as a victim alongside them: "Have you come to destroy us?"

As the question falls on the ears of those gathered, it mutates. The unclean spirit of distrust resides in each new form the question takes:

Have you come to destroy our status quo?
Have you come to destroy our established way of thinking?
Have you come to destroy what's familiar to us?

With the benefit of hindsight, readers of Mark's gospel can see the ultimate irony at work in this question, which is that it is the gathered crowd who will eventually destroy Jesus, and not the other way around. Mark makes this irony explicit later in the narrative when, following Jesus's miraculous healing of a man with a withered hand, "The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).

But the unclean spirit's accusatory question has a long history. It existed before the possessed man's hasty entrance, before the scribes' sneaking suspicion, before the law's inscription.

The unclean spirit of distrust reared its ugly head as the Israelites fled Pharaoh, whose pursuit prompted the people to ask Moses, their authoritative leader, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11)

Like the drug-resistant strain of some disease, the unclean spirit appeared again when Moses, God's mouthpiece, invited the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. The episode is recounted in Deuteronomy, where God's invitation to the people is met with a murmur, "Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us" (Deuteronomy 1:27).

The unclean spirit of distrust has a knack for surfacing at the moment of deliverance from bondage and wilderness wandering, so it is no surprise to see the same spirit here in the synagogue, holding a man captive, levying familiar accusations, and recruiting murmurers to join in asking the age-old question, "Have you come to destroy us?"

With these instances in mind, the unclean spirit's entrance onto the scene takes on a significance that transcends a mere interruption in the synagogue. In Mark's account, this episode is more than just an opportunity to demonstrate Jesus's authority over the scribes, or even over unclean spirits (although it does both of those things). 

Whatever else this episode might be, it is Jesus's definitive answer to the question asked in times past by God's people, and now by the unclean spirit. The question, "Have you come to destroy us" and its derivatives have always been rhetorical, asked for the purpose of making a not-so-subtle point about the suffering and victimhood of the asker. 

Jesus' expulsion of the demon is his definitive, decisive answer.  Has he come to destroy us? No, he has come to cast away the unclean spirit of distrust. The man previously in bondage can stay to experience freedom. The people fleeing in fear can leave aside their anxiety. Those who wander in the wilderness of complacency can wake up to the dawn of a new day.

In this act, Jesus is not only delivering the man from the unclean spirit, but also showing God's people in all times and places that he is the way out of bondage and into the Promised Land. At the beginning of this synagogue episode in Mark, the people are rightly astonished by the Jesus's authoritative teaching. After he casts out the unclean spirit, however, they are astonished at his authoritative action.

This early miracle from Mark's narrative is wider in scope than we might have imagined. It contains the grain of the good news of the kingdom that Jesus brings in teaching and in action. As it does so, Jesus's miracle both reaches backward and expands forever forward into the story of God's people to win their deliverance from the clutches of every kind of bondage.

A Word from Elsewhere

The season of Advent signals the beginning of the church year. We begin not with fanfare or flourish, but with silence and longing. In the moments before the dawn of Christmas, the darkness hangs thick like a curtain, obstructing our view of how, or even whether, God acts. 

Precisely when we do not see him, he announces his presence with a word from elsewhere. At Christmas, we not only hear this word, but somehow also touch, taste, and swallow it as is offered to us. Awakened and sustained by this word, we are also made aware that it has been given us to speak. 

Theologian N.T. Wright likens the unfolding narrative of redemptive history begun in scripture and taken up by the church to a Shakespeare play with a missing fifth act. Wright sets up the analogy this way:

"Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves." (The New Testament and the People of God, 140, emphasis in original).

This analogy beckons us to consider what our role might be in the unfolding drama. It infuses our seasons of waiting, once full of despair or boredom, with a sense of anticipation: Where is the story headed? When is our cue? What will we say and do when our moment comes? What words should we rehearse in the meantime?

I like to imagine how gospel texts from the third week of Advent might provide clues about how others have answered these questions:

We wait in the wings as Mary takes the stage with a song. The lights come up. Her lips move. A familiar tune.

The sound originates from somewhere behind or beyond the stage. This is Hannah's song!

The melody swells, pregnant with new meaning sung as a duet. Timeliness and timelessness harmonize. Transfixing.

With the song’s final note echoing, in storms John the Baptist, shoving us aside absent-mindedly as he takes the stage followed by an agitated crowd. Is this entrance or interruption?

A voice comes from the crowd, barely discernible above the clamor: “Who are you?” it asks. John turns on his heel to address the audience. The spotlight settles on him. This must be his soliloquy.

A pause. The silence lengthens. Has he forgotten his lines?

John is frozen. Surely not with fright. But what, then? Concentration? 

We hear a whisper beside us in the darkness. “I am the voice of one,” the voice rasps.

Onstage, John opens his mouth. He’s as likely to breathe fire as to respond to the question.

Again, we hear the eager voice of the figure beside us. “I am the voice of one,” the figure repeats, all but tumbling onto the stage.

John leans forward, as if bracing himself against a stiff wind, which carries the words from offstage.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John says.

Relieved, we await our cue. 

 

Leaving the Tent

“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

As opening lines go, this one is among my favorites. It’s memorable and slightly unsettling, like George Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” with the charming, folksy quality of the opening line in Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window, which begins, “Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree.”

Yahweh’s visit to Abraham occurs right on the heels of the establishment of the covenant of circumcision. Yahweh summons Abraham from his home and sets him and his promised offspring apart from all the other nations of the earth.

In light of Abraham's chosenness and special status, Yahweh’s visit in the guise of the three strangers could be a test: Will Abraham welcome the strangers, or will he send them on their way? Will he use the recently established covenant as a trump card, or as an invitation to those outside to receive blessing?

If this is indeed a test, Abraham passes with flying colors. Twice Abraham runs, first to greet the strangers, then to retrieve a calf and have a meal prepared. Considering Abraham’s age, along with the great lengths to which he goes to provide hospitality to the visitors in the sweltering heat, one might conclude that Abraham has an instinctual bent toward welcoming strangers.

Perhaps Abraham’s motivation to leave the tent to welcome the visitors comes from his own experience as a stranger. Here he is, approaching the seated visitors, the call of Yahweh echoing in his ear as he strains under the weight of the water basin, eyes scanning from stranger to stranger.
Go from your country. Go from your kindred. Go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Seen from this perspective, the test is not only whether Abraham, having been set apart, will welcome others, but also whether he will allow his own experience of being a stranger to shape his response to these visitors.

As a stranger himself, Abraham is well equipped to welcome the one who needs welcoming. Knowing the experience of being the one being welcomed, with all of its attendant vulnerability, sharpens his eye to see those in need of being welcomed.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria hints at this idea with his interpretation of the passage:

 “‘Under the tree of Mamre,’ the text says. Mamre in our language is translated ‘vision’ or ‘sharpness of sight.’ Do you see what kind of place it is where the Lord can have a meal? Abraham's vision and sharpness of sight pleased the Lord. For he was pure in heart so that he could see God. In such a place, therefore, and in such a heart the Lord can have a meal” (Homilies on Genesis 4.3).

What’s more, the test involves not just one, but three strangers. Many in the Christian tradition have seized upon this detail to suggest that the three travelers represent the three persons of the Trinity.

Take, for example, fifteenth century Russian painter Andrei Rublev. An icon he created portrays the scene in such a way that it is known interchangeably as “The Trinity” and “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The icon depicts the strangers as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, allowing the icon's viewer to behold the scene from the perspective of the humble host, standing at attention, perhaps even beckoned to abandon pretense and join in on the feast.

Long before the passage presented Christian interpreters with a conundrum about how to conceive of the identity of the three strangers, the visiting trio described therein presented Abraham with a logistical challenge. How could he, an elderly man who was likely beginning to tire, effectively welcome them by himself? Alone, Abraham may have been able to provide for a single guest, but three? Of all the compelling arguments that it is the triune God who visits Abraham, perhaps the most overlooked is the fact that they overwhelm Abraham’s ability to receive them on his own, confounding as their presence always is.

Abraham must recruit his wife, Sarah, along with an unnamed servant, to help prepare the meal, and so one invitation leads to another. Author Jean Vanier comments on the necessity of community for increasing the scope and depth of hospitality:

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”

Abraham’s decision to leave the tent is informative for contemporary Christian readers not only because of what he does in welcoming the strangers, but also for why and how he does it. Abraham leaves the tent not out of a sense of obligation to yet-unuttered command to love the stranger, and we’re given no indication that Abraham knows of the visitors’ divine identity. Nor does he leave the tent because it’s particularly convenient for him.

Instead, this one who had left home and family to pursue a promise offers a preemptive welcome to fellow travelers, enlisting others to join the welcoming committee. Among the first and most mysterious instances of foreshadowing of Trinity and the broken and shared bread of the Eucharist, this scene offers a corrective to self-reliance in the form of a reciprocal summons to the table.

But what does any attempt to put language to the mystery of this story do that isn’t already accomplished by a silent moment of meditation upon Rublev’s icon? After all theological parsing and piecing-together, there remains an opening line that enflames the imagination, the stranger outside the tent, awaiting our response.

 

Receiving Jesus

On the first Easter Sunday, two disciples of Jesus are walking on the road to Emmaus. We don’t know much about these traveling companions, except that one is named Cleopas, and he is discussing the events that had taken place in Jerusalem in the preceding days that led to the public execution of their teacher.

We might imagine, based on the fact that they are disciples traveling as a pair, that they were part of the 72 that Jesus sent out two-by-two to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God.

Among the instructions that Jesus gave to this group of 72 were the dual charges to eat whatever was set before them and to remain in the house of those who welcomed them in (Luke 10:7-8).  Aware of the vulnerable posture that his followers would assume should they heed these directives, Jesus tells them that he is sending them out as lambs among wolves.

If the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were indeed among those whom Jesus had sent out, they were accustomed to being completely beholden to the kindness of strangers. Whether these strangers extended hospitality or shut them out, the disciples were forced to trust people whom they had never met for their daily bread.

These two disciples know the harshness of needs unmet and have learned firsthand the value of hospitality. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, then, that when a stranger joins Cleopas and his companion on the road, they invite him to stay with them.

The surprising thing is what happens next. The stranger, now a guest, takes on the role of host, breaking the bread and handing it to the two disciples. He doesn’t have to say anything, but as he hands them the bread, their eyes are opened to see who the stranger has been all along.

Perhaps the companions, in a moment, are taken back to the hillside where Jesus had fed multitudes.

Or perhaps they see in the breaking of the bread a reenactment of the Passover meal, their memories set free to hear and imagine anew the words of the one whom they had risked everything to trust, “Eat what is set before you.”

With their memories newly attuned in light of the miracle of resurrection, Cleopas and his companion undoubtedly reconsidered what it meant, and would continue to mean, to receive him.

Here is the resurrected Jesus, offering himself in the broken bread to those whose high hopes had fallen flat.

Here he is, torn apart for the sake of those he had sent out as lambs among wolves.

Here he is, taken in by road-weary travelers as sustenance for the journey that they had considered abandoning.

Here he is, having vanished from sight, yet animating those he had joined on the road on the evening of the first Easter, and centuries hence, to go and bear witness to his presence.