Have you ever heard about “the Ring of Fire”? When an earthquake hits the countries around the Pacific Ocean, we can often see the reporters on news channels mention this term. The “Ring of Fire” is the name of the geological area that follows the 25,000-mile perimeter of the Pacific Ocean.
It is in this area that 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions take place. Yes, this area is truly on fire. Believe it or not, last week, only in a week, there were five earthquakes and one volcanic eruption in that area. Scary…isn’t it?
Because of this danger, the countries along with the Ring of Fire have developed a special engineering to construct safer buildings that can survive from large-magnitude earthquakes. Although it would be impossible to build perfectly protected buildings against earthquakes, some countries found ways of building even almost earthquake-proof skyscrapers. How? We may think…they make a structure so solid and firmly fixed that can resist any impact, any shock waves. But the answer is no. The astonishing secret of this engineering is quite the opposite.
After many simulations and experiments, engineers have found, a structure with a solid base that is firmly fixed on the ground collapses rather easily as it resists shock waves from an earthquake. It doesn’t really matter how strong a structure is; the type of structure eventually falls down when hit by an earthquake large enough. But actually, the structure that can survive earthquakes is the one designed to actively absorb shock waves—not resist them. This type of structure has an adaptable base rather than a fixed foundation, so that it can effectively take the waves in and disperse the impact fast. So, for the recently constructed skyscrapers in the Ring of Fire area, this key feature is not an option but a must-have.
I think this secret of earthquake-proof engineering tells us something about our faith today as we continue to reflect on the theme of our Lenten meditation, “Embracing the Uncertain.” Last Sunday we learned that uncertainty is an irremovable component and irrevocable condition embedded in our lives. So true…we live our lives in the ring of uncertainty. There, challenges and hardships come to us just as unpredictable as earthquakes, and sometimes seriously affect us just as devastating as volcanic eruptions. They shake our certain ground and ruin our hopes and dreams. Then, the question is, “how can we live our lives with this uncertainty as people of faith?” “Can we have earthquake-proof faith in the ring of uncertainty?”
In today’s Gospel story, Peter’s certain faith breaks down. Jesus begins to teach Peter, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). What a bummer! Jesus is going to die. Shock waves hit Peter so hard. Immediately, Peter takes Jesus aside and even rebukes him. We can easily see where Peter’s impulsive resistance comes from. For Peter, Jesus has been his only hope. He left everything behind to follow him. From Jesus, he witnessed the great new kingdom in the making. It looked so concrete and sure to his eyes. And Jesus was the one who could give him the solid future. But this certain faith of Peter is now shattered into pieces by this tragic news from Jesus. And it is not easy for him to give up all his certain ground and take in the uncertain possibility, although he believes that Jesus is going to do what God asks him to do. Peter’s faith that looked so solid and firmly fixed on the ground collapses as it resists shock waves from uncertainty.
So Jesus admonishes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Then, he speaks to the crowds and other disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Here, Jesus gives Peter and all of us a precious two-part lesson on faith. Jesus tells us first, faith and following Jesus begin with denying ourselves, denying ourselves who always seek to get our lives fixed on a ground that looks certain and sure from our human perspectives. This ground may be the ground of power, possession, fame, honor, money, and so on. However, the more we get fixed on those seemingly solid grounds, the easier our structure of faith gets collapsed by earthquakes and shock waves in our lives. So Jesus asks us to deny them, set our minds and hearts on the divine ground—not on a human ground.
Then, Jesus tells us also, faith and following Jesus require us to embrace uncertainty, to take up our own cross. Yes, things can get rough and uncertain for us if we decide to bear our cross and truly want to walk with Jesus down his narrow path. We may have to follow Jesus to the wilderness where we only see challenges and needs, where we inevitably confront our innermost doubts, fears, sins, and limits. We may have to follow Jesus to Calvary where we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of God’s mission just as Jesus did, where we are invited to lay down our own lives for others. It looks onerous and tough to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It looks like a way of losing our lives, risking our lives, and wasting our lives. However, the more we come to embrace uncertainty on our way of cross and take in its impact and waves, the higher our structure of faith can stand like the skyscrapers that survive from earthquakes.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this may be the secret of earthquake-proof faith. In our lives’ ring of uncertainty, let us not get fixed on seemingly certain grounds from our point of views. Rather, let us learn how to live with uncertainty, because it is through those uncertainties, the wilderness, Calvary, the “valley of the shadow,” that we see Jesus truly walking with us, holding us, reinforcing our structure of faith. So in this Season of Lent, let us try to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And faithfully walk with him on the way of dying to ourselves and living only for Christ. Amen.
Last year, people around me frequently asked, “Is South Korea okay?” “What’s going on there?” I was grateful for their well-meant worries about the nuclear threat from North Korea. But I couldn’t give them a certain answer, because everything was uncertain, and still is. Last year, my family in South Korea frequently asked, “Is your town safe?” “What’s going on there?” Whenever terrors and mass shootings happened, my parents asked the same question. And I gave them the same answer, “Everything’s fine. Don’t worry.” But looking at the shooting in Parkland, Florida last Wednesday and the copycat threats to the schools in our neighboring town, Nutley, last Friday, I’m not so sure that I can still give my parents the same answer. Not elsewhere but in Nutley, a teen allegedly said on Snapchat, “Round 2 of Florida tomorrow.” What’s going on here? It’s irritating to accept that there is no certain guarantee of our safety here. But it’s seriously infuriating to see that there is no certain movement among politicians to revise the gun law or to bring a certain solution to this chronic social issue. It looks like we are just hopelessly living on an uncertain ground in uncertain times.
None of us likes uncertainty. That’s for sure. But nothing in the world seems certain enough to save us from the shadow of uncertainty. Even full-coverage insurance plans can’t protect my family in South Korea from a nuclear attack. A great security system or a carefully outlined lockdown drill can’t fully ensure our safety against mass shootings. A well-paying job and a quality pension plan can’t keep us from sudden illness. A car with excellent safety features can’t fully prevent accidents. True, we are inevitably living with uncertainty that looks like an irremovable component embedded in our lives. If this is our irrevocable human condition, then, what can we do to bear with uncertainty? How can we live our lives with this uninvited companion as people of faith? In this season of Lent, let us take time to meditate on these questions carefully and honestly, so that we may understand our way of faith better.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, we see a person who keeps his faith through an uncertain journey. His name is Noah. When the great flood began and overturned all the proud foundations of human certainty, Noah faced his uncertain future amidst the flood. Even though Noah was on board of the ark with his family and with other creatures, the ark was not exactly sailing but more like floating around without a course or a clear destination. The Bible says, “the ark floated on the face of the waters” (Genesis 7:17). The flood continued for forty days, and Noah couldn’t find any piece of land for one hundred and fifty days. For all those days, what he saw was just like a scene from a disaster movie. So during the time, would Noah always remain faithful? Was his heart filled with hope and dreams for the future all the time? I don’t think so. At least, from time to time, he would have been doubtful and hopeless. He would have asked God about the purpose of all such things through his precarious voyage, which actually lasted more than ten months.
But eventually, the flood ceased and the water was dried. God asked Noah to come out of the ark. God blessed him to flourish and multiply on the earth and made with him a covenant. At this long-awaited moment, I think Noah would have finally realized God’s purpose through the flood. Looking back on his journey, Noah surely learned how to trust God and how to remain faithful while enduring uncertainty. And he came to understand that through the days of the great flood, God surely renewed the surface of the world, but more importantly, God renewed his faith, so that he could truly begin a new life on the new earth.
Here, Noah’s story gives us a quite different view on faith. We usually assume that faith is all about certainty and an absolute opposition to uncertainty. However, from Noah, we see that faith is not about eliminating uncertainty from our lives, which is impossible, but faith about seeking wisdom and courage to embrace uncertainty and make a way through it. Noah was not unconcerned about his situations. He was the one who witnessed the horrible tragedy happened on earth and experienced lurking dangers on the water. So his faith couldn’t be like a magic portion to provide him with a blind assurance. Rather, his faith in God worked in a way that it enabled him to live with the uncertainty and to persist with his journey to the point where God finally turns uncertainties into blessings and ambiguities into hopes.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in this unsteady time, how can we live our lives with uncertainty as people of faith? One thing is clear. We got to learn how to embrace uncertainty wisely and courageously as we navigate our lives with faith. For this, we shouldn’t be too much fearful and worried. Rather we need to be faithful and keep hopeful reminding ourselves that God intimately guides us all the time and leads us to find what we can do with faith. In today’s Gospel reading, as soon as Jesus was baptized, the Spirit led him to enter into the wilderness and go through the temptations. The same Spirit, who descended like a peaceful dove and rest lovely upon him with the divine assurance, now asks him to walk into an uncertain place. The Gospel describes, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Here, we need to remember that this same Spirit is with us now, and this same Spirit can also drive us out into the wilderness. However, we shouldn’t forget that the Spirit will always guide us, renew us, and encourage us to embrace uncertainty and walk our way of faith through the wilderness.
After the great flood, when God made a covenant with Noah, God gave him the sign of covenant. God showed him the rainbow of hope. In the Bible, God profoundly says to Noah, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant” (Genesis 9:13-15). Perhaps, God shows us the rainbow of hope in the clouds of uncertainty. Perhaps, we can find the promise of God only through the clouds, through our uncertainties, and through our wildernesses. I am confident that through it all, we will learn to trust in Jesus. We will learn to trust in God. Through it all, through it all, we will learn to depend upon God’s Word (from “Through It All”). As we walk by faith not by sight, may the Spirit of God be with us and empower us to embrace uncertainty and carry on our journey of faith with unending hope. Amen.
Believe it or not, the Season of Lent is just around the corner. It will start this coming Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday. Yes, Lent starts very early this year, so from today, we better prepare our hearts, our time, our surroundings, and ourselves for this meaningful season of repentance and renewal. For me, one of my preparations for the coming Lent is to get this robe dry-cleaned. Unfortunately, this robe is not a magical, stain-proof garment. It is just like any other cloth I have, so it should be cleaned regularly. So I dropped it off at my cleaner and picked it up last week. Today, I took it right from the cleaner’s hanger and guess what…I feel like it’s transfigured. Its bright white color has returned, and it is freshly ironed.
However, I know, and we all know that this robe will get dirty soon again. Some of you may have seen me before going (coming) to the other (our) church wearing this robe. Yes, I usually have no time to take it off and put it back on. So I just get on my car in it. Certainly, it makes my robe easily get dirty and wrinkled. Also, I step on it frequently. And when it’s rainy or snowy, it is quite hard for me to keep it clean. Just like any other cloth I have, this robe gets dirt on it, stains on it, wrinkles on it…its bright white color and freshly ironed fit will be disfigured soon. Then, what? It’s time for another cleaning.
Somehow, like my robe and like our cloth, our lives go through similar transitions. What I mean by transition is that in our lives, we experience the moments of transfiguration and of disfiguration. As Christians, we are transfigured by the grace of God and feel like we become better persons without the stains of sins and within the bright presence of the Holy Spirit, but at the same time, our vulnerable lives get easily disfigured in our dusty struggles and mundane strivings. We feel like nice and spotless one day, and we feel like dirty and unclean the other day. True, as a traditional Christian doctrine says, we are simultaneously the justified children of holy God and yet the sinners of the world (Martin Luther: simul justus et peccator). And our lives are filled with the moments of spiritual ups and downs through ceaseless transitions.
Then, through those transitions, where is my life, and your life, ultimately heading towards? The answer is clear. We are going toward the end, which is our death. This is so true. And death is nothing but the terminal disfiguration of life. As our cloth gets worn out and torn apart, life loses its charm and brightness altogether at the end.
In today’s Gospel story, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop in front of Peter, James and John, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3). Then, the Gospel brings Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets in the history of Israel, into the scene. They are talking with Jesus in the divine glory. And according to the Gospel of Luke, they are speaking of Jesus’ departure to Jerusalem and what he is going to accomplish there soon (Luke 9:29-31). Here, we can see that the transfiguration of Jesus is not just any given event but an event that leads to the final days of Jesus. In all the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this transfiguration story is commonly located right after Jesus teaches his disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection. Also commonly after the transfiguration, Jesus and the disciples embark on their journey to Jerusalem where Jesus is arrested and crucified.
A critical life transition is waiting for Jesus. The transfigured glorious Jesus is now taking his step on his way to be disfigured on the cross. And his dazzling white cloth is now going to be stained with blood, pierced and torn apart by the Roman soldiers who eventually take it off and cast lot for it. At the end of this radical transition, Jesus finally encounters his death on the cross. Jesus died just like any other humans. But his life becomes special as Jesus defeats the disfiguring power of death by his transfiguring power of resurrection. The story becomes our hope as he reveals us that disfiguration is not the final; death is not the final. The story becomes extraordinary as the resurrected Jesus shows us that there is a dimension of ultimate transfiguration in God even within our ordinary life transitions.
Our ordinary life transitions may lead us to disfiguration. As my robe and our cloth get dirty, it is just natural. Then isn’t this good news that we can be always transfigured by the power of Jesus’ resurrection? And isn’t this good news that we can always transform our lives walking with the transfigured and the resurrected Jesus, in hope of our own final transfiguration beyond our death?
In preparation of the coming Lent, one thing we can do is to look into our spiritual cloth. We may find it dirty. Lent is the time that we may realize it’s time for another cleaning. When our life looks like an unclean cloth in our laundry basket, it’s time for us to walk on the way of repentance and renewal. It is time for us to walk with Jesus through our life transitions. From this Transfiguration Sunday, let us prepare our journey with Jesus, our journey of transformation. To reach the glory of the resurrection, Jesus sets his path to Jerusalem and to the cross right from this Transfiguration. Following Jesus’ footsteps on the path, we will find our moments of transfiguration. As Paul expresses, we will “put on Christ” afresh. And we will see Jesus who clothes us with his grace, with his dazzling and radiant love.
Are you ready to follow him through the forty days of wilderness experience in this Season of Lent? Are you ready to renew your live and clean your spiritual cloth by walking the way of the cross, denouncing evil and sin, and keeping your daily adherence to Christ? Are you ready to take your life transitions into another dimension of divine glory? Now is the time to make a clear decision. May the power of transfiguring grace fill us and guide us as we go on our journey to be true disciples of God. Amen.
Let me ask you a question. Who would be the most difficult people to share the good news of Jesus with? A believer of other religions? An atheist? Or just secular people around us? My pastor friend says…it’s actually someone who knows him very well, like a friend or a sibling who grew up with him, because the person saw how bad he could be. Anyway, what I heard from many missionaries is that the most difficult people to reach out to are nomads. Why? Because nomads move all the time with their livestock and they don’t live as a large group. So if a missionary wants to evangelize them, he or she must follow their journey all the way, one family at a time. Can you imagine how tough it can be?
But the amazing thing is… in spite of such difficulties, there have been the dedicated missionaries actually traveling with the nomads to share God’s love with them. In Mongolia, a missionary (James Gilmour) followed their journeys for years and finally turned some of them to Jesus. And they built a church. But this church was very unusual. There was something very special about this church. Believe it or not, the church was constantly moving along with the nomads. How come? Have you ever heard about “yurt” or “ger” in Mongolia?
It’s basically a round tent covered with animal skin or felt. For centuries, nomads in Central Asia have used it as their dwelling place. It’s portable, easy to set up and take down. So guess what, the church that this missionary built was a yurt church, a ger church. This portable and movable church that can travel wherever the nomads go…how does it sound to you?
There is no nomadic church per se in American Church history, but we can find an example of church on the move from the 19th century. Yes, I’m talking about numerous Methodist circuit riders, the preachers on horsebacks, sharing the good news and teaching the Word of God. And here I’m also talking about faithful Christians who didn’t mind traveling far and wide to make any possible opportunities for their spiritual revival.
Many passionate Christians joined in tent meetings and Methodist society meetings for the purpose of living holier life in God. At that time, from anywhere, people gathered in the name of Jesus, a church emerged. The church could happen everywhere.
Then, how about now? Is the church still on the move? Are Christians still on the move to gather and worship? We all know that’s not the case anymore. Apparently, the church becomes less mobile and more resident. And church usually owns a building and property in a town. So now the word “church” even means a building structure. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that’s a problem. Time has changed. And the church has become more related to townspeople and rooted in its community through its steady local missions. It’s a natural change and also, a good thing. However, what I would like to point out today is… because of such material condition of the present church, we sometimes forget what the church truly is. We know that the church is about people, but sometimes as we see the church, we just see its image, its music and ambience, its building, its programs or childcare, its wealth. We say that the church is about following Jesus, but as we grow comfortable with what we do and where we are now, we do not actually move out and follow Jesus’ lead. So in this way, sometimes, we even make the church the place we would have it to be—not the place that it should be.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cures the sick, and casts out many demons in town. So what happens then? The Gospel tells us, “the whole city was gathered” around the house of Simon…the whole city! (Mark 1:33) What does it mean? It means, Jesus gains popularity and draws many people to him. This is a great material condition on which Jesus can embark on his ambitious enterprise. He may take that city and make headquarters of his new kingdom, build a great establishment with his followers, and grow his fame and power from there. It must be a great start. And it looks like the people in town want him to be there too. One morning, when Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray, the Gospel says, “Everyone is searching for [Jesus]” (1:37). But here Jesus’ makes a strange decision. He says, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (1:38). Then, rather than going back to that city, he travels throughout Galilee. Jesus is on the move. Why? Perhaps, he knows that the material condition may confine him and distract him from his mission and ministry. Perhaps, he wanted to teach his disciples that to build the kingdom of God, they don’t need anything, any fame or power, but the good news.
Today, many churches face great challenges in this secular and atheistic world. Christians talk about the season of crisis. That’s true. As Christians, we should be serious. And focus on what the church truly is and check ourselves whether we are too much attached to the non-essentials, the material conditions of the church. As John Wesley defines, “the church is the body of people united in the service of God.” Wherever people gather in God, wherever people put their communal effort in following Jesus, there emerges a church. Among nomads in Mongolia, in humble places where people worship God, anywhere around us, the church can happen. I know in the future, it may be hard to keep the church door open like today. But it will be still possible to be the church together. And it will be still possible to follow Jesus’ lead and the Spirit’s guidance.
Jesus is on the move and the Spirit blows where it chooses. So let us be on the move to spread the good news and be inspired by the Spirit to touch others’ hearts with God’s love. We may see no hope. We may say we cannot do it anymore. We may seem small compared to the great challenges and changes. However, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, even if we looks like insignificant grasshoppers, if God is with us, we shall renew our strength and mount up with wings like eagles! (And let me make sure, I’m not an Eagles fan). We all know, wherever Jesus goes, people experience the kingdom of God filled with grace, love, life, hope, joy, liberation, and healing. Jesus is on the move. So let us be also on our way with the good news to follow him. Wherever he leads us, let us go with faith. Amen.