One Heart

04.11.21

Following the arrival of the Holy Spirit, when thousands came to personal acceptance of Jesus Christ, a personal acceptance that came from a personal encounter, these new Christians, who did not even have the label of ‘Christian’ yet, began to figure out how to be what they were led to be in the midst of millions of people who didn’t want them to be anything different that what everyone else was already being. They they were in uncharted territory.

This was a group from all over the known world, a group of different races, different religious understandings, different cultures, different religious practices, different social and economic standing, and different religious personal experiences. This was a group that would have never landed in the same place, in the same anything if it were not for the same savior and for the same sacrifice.

In this same place they were out of place; a group that did not belong together yet they could not help but be together, a group of misfits who fit perfectly together, a group that was lost but would lead a world through their story of being found.  This was the beginning of the church, this was our beginning.

This group was of one heart and one soul, none of them claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. They were dedicated to learning by listening to the apostles testimony about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

This was the tie that bound them together -Jesus, Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected, Jesus ascended, Jesus. 

It was the Holy Spirit that empowered them, the glue that held them together, the GPS that guided them, the hunger and thirst that grew them – this was the Holy Spirit.

This story in Acts, a story of the original New Testament church, is their story, it is how they, sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully,  figured out what it meant for them to be church.  This is their story, it is not our story, it is not our guide – the story of the New Testament Church is just that – it is Their Story.  A story of depending on Jesus and doing it alongside of others on the same journey. It is a story of finding their way together while still on their own personal journey.  It is a story of learning how to be of one heart and of one soul, even when everything about your experience is yours alone. It is a story of a journey that gives us inspiration in our journey alone together.

To understand the lesson from this passage, we have to understand the primary point that is being present – the people were of one heart and one soul.  It is not a lesson to be of one heart and one soul, but a lesson of what can happen with a group of people who, individually are of one heart and one soul.  What happened in the new testament church could only happen because of this heart and soul commonality. Understand, their story is not a story of things for us to do in the year 2021, it is not a rule book about how to govern and guide the institution of the church, it   revealed what happened with this first group that happened because that did have the same heart and soul, the author is celebrating the connectedness where there is the existence of one heart and one soul.  Note, and please grasp this note, the New Testament Church is not our How To Guide, it is a Here Is What Made Their Powerful Experience Possible.  It simply means that when we are in unity due to our heart and soul, not our agenda, our politics, our social or economic status – it is then that we can have enough respect for each other that disagreements are fine, our goal is not to eliminate disagreement, it is then that we learn to appreciate and prosper in our diversity. It is then that the Holy Spirit is freed to work among us – it is then that we begin to see Our Story. Having the same heart and same soul is our private journey our private story, however, when put together with others, and their different and distinct stories, God can do anything through us.

The New Testament Church had the story that it did because it was a group of people who shared one commonality, they each had the same heart and the same soul.  They did not connect together for any other reason that that.  They did not acquire that once were together but it was the factor that allowed them to thrive under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So, we begin with these individuals who would later be given the label of ‘Christian’ who are learning how to be what will be come known as the ‘Church’, figuring out how to be Church alongside of each other and apart from each other.  For this first Church of first Christians, they had one heart and soul, none of them claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. They were individually dedicated to learning by listening to the apostles testimony about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

The foundation was their individual distinct stories that led to their same heart and soul. Grasp this, the Church is a different people with different stories, all with the same heart and same soul. [The church is ] A community of God’s created human beings, often who have little or nothing in common except for different personal holy moments that have led to having the same heart and souls as the others we are in community, in church, with.

After Mary had proclaimed that Jesus was alive, the disciples were still hesitant to completely believe.  In fact, in the gospel of Matthew reprimands this group of men who fail to believe and receive the story of this woman. Christ did appear in the midst of the disciples, affirming the message of Mary and proving his risen humanity by showing them his scars and inviting them to fully understanding his humanness by the nail prints on his hands and feet.  Thomas was not at this gathering, and being told about this, he said that he too would believe when he saw, and even touched the scars, but until then he would not be able to believe.

We give Thomas a hard time for voicing his disbelief. We judge him in the same way we often hear the stories of everyone from a perspective of our own skepticism and arrogance.  We want to be given the space but we seldom want to give others grace. 

Here is a truth – scripture and scripture stories (and all stories for that matter) are not a one dimensional, they are multi dimensional.  This is why we never finish learning and why we never are done with these stories. God calls us to pick them up and turn them around, to look at them from every direction.  With each new look we see something new, with each new perspective we are offered a new enlightened understanding of the truth. Every time we open up and turn it around, scripture reveals more truth and clarifies the things we are mistaken or fuzzy on.  

When Jesus later appears to Thomas and offers to show him the scars, inviting him to even touch the hands and feet, Jesus is meeting Thomas exactly where he is ready to be met.  Thomas sees and no longer needs to touch, he know believes. Jesus’ statement that follows is not a reprimand to Thomas because he had to see,  it is actually Jesus taking advantage of a powerful teaching moment to preparing Thomas, and the other disciples, for the next stage of their stories. They would be sharing with individuals who could not see Jesus resurrected, they would not have the opportunity to touch the nail prints. What if Jesus was telling them that they would not be able to have Jesus as their show and tell but, instead, their own live were going to be the visual, they very existence was going to be their proof. Our story is our proof.

We know one thing for sure, before Jesus 2nd appearance, Thomas was still in fellowship with the other disciples and they still considered him to be a part of their fellowship.  In the same way that Jesus made sure to include Peter when he sent Mary to proclaim, ‘Jesus is alive.’

Why is this important? Because Thomas was still of the same heart and soul as these men, as well as Mary who had already seen Jesus.  The group had not made Thomas an outcast because he did not believe the same as them at this moment.  They trusted God’s work in Thomas, they trusted his story, just like they were trusting God’s work in each other and themselves. Unity is not because of full agreement, nor does it require unanimity of thought.  Unity is what happens in a group where each participant in that group brings a same heart and a same mind to the environment and connectedness of the group. 

The church is one in Jesus and his mission to save the world, the church is about unity of heart and soul. Notice that the word MIND is not used, this sameness is different than that.  We do not have to use the same vocabulary, the same actions, the same politics, the same anything – however, we are all committed to truth, and we are accountable to seek and search for this truth at all times and in all things.  What brings us together is not those things that are seen, it is inside, it is our connection to God which enables our connection to each other.

The first church had many intense disagreements in all areas of life, the book of Acts is full of those arguments some even between the apostles, but, they had agreement in the one thing that mattered, a same heart and a same soul. 

The greatest unity is found in the greatest diversity.  When our unity is in the midst of our diversity, the things that we commonly connect with, our preferences, our achievements, our season of life, the color of our skin, the sameness of our backgrounds, and many other factors that change with time – those things cannot divide us. Unity happens when we are connected by our heart and soul, when we are all tied into the same life pumping through us, when we are all clinging to the same hope that permits us to respect instead of hate. When we have this type of unity, politicians, religious leaders, and any one else with an agenda, are unable to divide us through sound bites and subtle insinuations.

The apostle Paul depicts our faith story, our journey, our salvation, as being ‘grafted in’ to our root, to God.  Our Bible Project looked at this last Tuesday night, we talked about the art of grafting.  I grew up seeing aluminum foil wrapped wrapped around the branches of hard shell pecan tree outside my grandmother’s back door. Honestly, I don’t remember this aluminum foil ever not being there.  As I got older and began to ask questions I learned that my grandmother was not very fond of hard shell pecans however she loved paper shell pecans. So, whenever possible, she would take a branch from a paper shell pecan tree and graft it in to the hard shell pecan tree.  This resulted in branches on the tree that actually produced paper shell rather than hard shell.  These new branches remained what they were created to be yet they were all tied into the heart of the tree that provided life, and the branch held onto the tree with a grasp on the soul of the tree.  

Our sin has caused us to be removed from our life source, from the soul and heart beat of the tree, we have died in this process and Jesus call is to graft us all back into the treeThat was the purpose of the cross, which came from the tree.  As these branches with different stories and different pasts choose to be grafted in through the redeeming work of Jesus, they, we, are once again tied into the heart and the soul of the tree.  We do not cease to be the branch we were made to be but, we are now connected, each with our own story, our own mind, connected to God’s heart and God’s soul – now we have life.

This is the church, a tree with limbs grafted in all over it.  While the limbs may look different and may even act different, they are all dependent on the same roots and same life source.  We are all on the tree together yet we are all on the tree separate.

This is how we are separate yet together, this is how our faith is personal yet public, this is how we have different stories but still have the same story, this is why we are always accepting yet holding everything accountable to truth, the truth of God, a truth we are constantly seeking and searching for.  This is why Jesus said we must search, seek, discern, and never permit any one human to control and dictate to us. This is why there is only unity when there is diversity.

Eugene Petersen, author of the Message paraphrase of the Bible, is often asked ‘How do I find the right church for you?’  His response was interesting.  He said, and I paraphrase – ‘Find a church that is not so big that you can disappear, don’t find a place you can be anonymous. Also, don’t find a church that makes you feel good or important, or one that is in tune with your emotions and practices, that shares you current tastes.  Make a commitment to stay there for 6 months or even a year, however long it takes. Stay there until you are finally able to see that these people, this group, this church, has the same heart and the same mind as you do.  Be open to it along the way. They may be strange and different than you, and they may be aggravating and frustrating beyond belief, but they have the same heart and soul.  Connect in a way that is it going to painful to leave’

Heart and Soul are our individual journey, seeing the power of Heart and Soul is only possible when diverse hearts and soul believers connect together.

This is church.

My God, Your God/My Father, Your Father

Message – My God/Your God 04.04.21

Possibly two of the most holy moments that any human can experience is to watch a human life come into this world and to witness a human life leave this world.  The birth of a child is exciting but also such an exhausting moment that we miss the holiness.  Then at death, we can be  so consumed by the misery and grief that we fail to notice the holiness of the moment.  However, they are both still holy, holy does not evaporate when we miss it, it just wraps its arms around us and carries us through the exhaustion and grief.

I have come to the conclusion that we seldom grasp  these holy moment for ourself because we are exhausted, we are miserable, we are relieved, we are overwhelmed, we are fearful, we are jubilant, we are distracted – none of these are necessarily bad things, it is just our reality. I have begun intentionally noticing holy in these moments, as I have attended funerals of the parents of old friends, or in the occasions when I am conducting the memorial and being invited into the holiness as I meet with the family or accompany them to see body of the loved one just minutes before the service. I have begun to recognize the holy in the comments made at their first time to see the body since preparation, dressing, and make up.  ‘He looks so peaceful,’or, ‘She loved this dress, she really looks good in it, definitely her colors.’  I think years ago these just seemed to be hollow words meant to hide the pain of the loss, now however, I have begun to recognize the genuine place the words come from.  I get to watch as the have these holy moments, moments when they get to see this loved one as they remembered, the face that they see when they tell their stories, the face they will always keep in their heart.  It is a holy moment, it is an unprecedented moment when holiness carries them through.

After Jesus was confirmed to be dead, his body was taken down from the cross and carried to a tomb donated by a religious leader named Joseph.   There had been a group of female followers watching the crucifixion of Jesus along with John the disciple, they all witnessed the holy and painful moment from a safe distance. A smaller subset of that group stealthily followed the body to the grave and witnessed the stone rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb.  Then an even small subset journeyed to the grave as early as possible after the Sabbath. Among this group was Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most faithful followers and possibly one of Jesus most dedicated devotees. Jesus had delivered Mary from seven demons who had taken up residence within her. She followed not just because she felt she had a debt, she also was a true seeker of truth.  Mary sought understanding in all the words and actions of Jesus. Mary have see the power of Jesus, she had seen the compassion and mercy of Jesus, and she had personally experience his deliverance and rescue in her own life.

Mary didn’t go to the tomb expecting to see Jesus, Mary went to the tomb because that was what needed to be done. She didn’t go seeking another Holy moment. It was so early that the sun was not yet fully above the horizon, identification as a Jesus follower was dangerous, and then there was the issue of the huge stone.  Nobody had any expectations except for the expectations they put on themselves.  All the women wanted to do was give Jesus’ body a proper and respectful anointing and burial preparation. This moment was holy as soon as she made her first step to the cemetery, as she journeyed to do what you do for a body recently buried, especially what you do for a friend that has been hurriedly  laid in the grave. Even though this was a practical and rational, action, it was a holy action, an action of respect, she went to the do the most holy, The entire endeavor was to be done without any acclaim, it was not about them. God’s holiness carried Mary and the others through their fear to the tomb which was opened, and inside as they took the steps to see Jesus. Her journey, her intended common purpose, her diligent and faithful act of respect were holy, to her though, it was just what needed to be done. But, once there, she saw Jesus, he was there, in human form, not dead but alive, a human form that she grabbed ahold of and embraced for as long as possible.  Jesus peeled her hands from his neck and arm, he told her that there was much to be done, she surely shook her head in agreement, she wiped away her tears of joy and waited for Jesus to speak. 

‘“Go and tell the disciples, and tell Peter,” Remembering Peter was huge, after his recent blatant and repeated rejection of Jesus, Peter could have easily been dismissed, but Jesus made a point to make sure everyone knew he was still included, he made an obvious notice that God was still Peter’s Father and he was still  Peter’s God. 

This was the first lesson about resurrection.  Resurrection heals and erases the scars of the pain and the hurt of rejection.  It was forgotten, Jesus had released it in death, there was no trace of it in the heart of the resurrected Jesus. 

“Go and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Jesus said.

Mary began to shiver, a tingling, she surely recognized that Jesus was back on his path, the green light his back was now to the cross and even to the empty grave, now he was continuing on his journey to save the world.  Jesus didn’t need to talk about cross, he didn’t need to explain the theological significance of his resurrection, he just needed back on his path. He didn’t need to say any of that because he knew Mary’s holy moment was going to be communicated to his disciples and followers clear and concise, and strangely, Mary did not need to ask any questions because seeing Jesus was the answer to all her questions. 

As she ripped into the room where the disciples were hiding, she could hardly wait for the door to even close. “I’ve seen him! I’ve seen him! I’ve seen the Lord, I’ve seen Jesus!”

The eyes of the disciples revealed everything, some were opened as wide as could be, some were all wrinkled together, their words expressed a myriad of perspectives.

“She has already been to the tomb? Is it wise to go to the tomb, isn’t it risky?”

“This has all been too much for her, she is being hysterical.”

Still others looked at each other with a hint of hope, “Is it possible? Wouldn’t he have told us this would happen? Wait a minute, did he tell us this would happen?”

May was bent over with her hands supporting her on her knees, she was catching her breath, shaking her head up and down, her actions were affirming this was real, she had seen the resurrected Jesus! 

“Are you sure it was him,?’ One of the disciples surely asked.

The room was abuzz with the chattering of the men gathered before Mary.  As she caught her breath, she said, “Oh, and he told me to tell you that he is ascending to God.” 

Here is the second lesson of the resurrection. A proclamation of seeing is always going to trump the message sent, even the message comes from Jesus.  All she could think to say was to testify that she had seen him, she had seen Jesus. Mary, without  even thinking about it, without any regard to the cultural expectations and restrictions on female, blurted out, “and, YES, it was him, don’t you think I, of all people, would recognize Jesus?!”

Jesus knew that she would proclaim everything in this manner, Jesus understood human nature. Months before, had told the Samaritan woman to “Go, call your husband, and come back.” But she too arrived back in the city and just proclaimed, “Come and see a man who told me everything! This man I have seen.”  Then, after all the city ran out to see Jesus, they proclaimed, “It is no longer because of what she said that we believe, for we have now seen for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” It was a holy moment that could have been missed but it was not because they had now seen.

Seeing and experiencing, changes everything, even in the most mundane of times and activities.  It is in our daily actions, taking the boring steps on our path, that we walk in holy moments.  Moments that change our life, moments that can be a part of Jesus’ path to save the world. Moment where our eyes are open, moments when we see the hand of God.

The cross and the empty grave were now behind Mary and the other followers. Death and Resurrection had been essential detours but now the victory was complete.  The followers were now living in the holy – in the midst of the most unholy.  It was a natural time of fear and chaos, but Jesus was now inviting them all to join him in the pool of peace. There was a lot ahead but it was holy, it didn’t actually seem to be holy and  peaceful, but still Mary could not help but burst into the room yelling “I’ve seen him, he is alive!”

Then there is a third lesson in the resurrection, – Jesus had scars.

This is a most intriguing aspect of Jesus in his resurrected state. This body was no longer the same body that hung on the cross, the body that had been suffocated by the pull of gravity, no  longer did his heart fail to beat nor did his lungs refuse to take a breath.  Now, Jesus embodied what he was meant to be, only now he was in a body that was impervious to the pains inflicted by an unholy world, now in a body that would never again feel the tug of death.  Now his body was perfect, however, he still had the nail prints in this hands and feet, he still bore the scar on his side from the sword that had pierced him.  

Giving Thomas a moment of holiness, Jesus held out his hands for Thomas to see and touch, Jesus carried the scars for the world to know, to know and understand Holy, that he is Holy, that this is God.  See, these scars were not just an earthly manifestation of what he had done, they were eternal scars marking the pivotal moment on the cross and the proof of the moment at the tomb. Scars to carry to be seen by those who were now freed from their own disobedience, cleansing  us of our rejection because we had chosen him, the scars continue to be a invitation to all peoples, to a world to whom were rescued by the same God, the same  Father.

Scars that call us all to recognize and to call upon the God who created all, who loves all, who reaches out to all, who desperately desires to save all. The God who bears our scars. 

Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.

I Corinthians 15:20-22

This is Easter, this day, this life, this moment is Holy. May we all recognize this truth today, may we all remember this holiness this week, may we all chose to live in this peace forever. May we also remember the message of the scars engraved into Jesus’ skin, scars that forever remind us of the why, the pain, the release, and the full burden of the cross. 

Today we stand looking up at an empty cross today, we stand outside the empty tomb, today we run with Mary who is exhausted but canot with to tell and proclaim, we stand with Jesus, we experience the holy Jesus, the sacrificial lamb who death could not hold.  Today we stand on hope because of that which will never need to be experienced again. Today is holy, this is Holy, this is our Holy moment.

Let us pray

No Defense

03.28.21 Palm Sunday

Have you ever asked someone how they were doing and find their response ‘I’m Fine’ hard to beloved.  Whether it is due to the tone of their voice or the look on their face, it is response that is not very convincing.  You want more, you want more words to help you navigate the assumptions made from their non verbal signals.

There are some responses, or explanations that only need a word or a handful of words and you know exactly what is meant.  Sometimes a very short sentence can communicate much more than a very wordy sentence.

An example, As we see the words ‘Jesus wept’, we are given a powerful moment with God’s experience of our experience of grief, as well as an evidence that Jesus, who sits next to God, understands the impact  of our humanness.

As we see Jesus on the cross and hear his voice the three simple words ‘It is finished’ we are hit in the face with his determination to travel his path all the way through the cross. 

And then, earlier in Mark, there is the narration ‘He intended to pass them by’

For us to understand the significance of Jesus silence before his accusers we must go back to Jesus voice in the midst of human struggle. Back to the midpoint in the ministry of Jesus. Early in the evening after Jesus fed 5,000 plus people and now he was closing out the day by permitting personal moments with those in attendance.  An exhausted Jesus looked over at this disciples.  This had to be an exhausted group of men, this journey following Jesus had been challenging especially today. Jesus had told them to feed the crowds, it was an absurd request. The men were tired and as Jesus saw this he insisted they get in the boat and head ahead of him, he assured them he would be fine as he pushed their boat into the deeper waters. Jesus then went back to the crowds and eventually found  a quiet spot and began to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 

But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  

Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Mark 6:47-52

Such an odd statement, ‘he intended to pass by them’ or ‘he wished to walk on by them.’ 

When Jesus saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. he wished, to pass them by.

Mark 6:48

He intended to pass them by? What stopped him? 

When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Jesus plan, or his preference, had been to walk on past them, not a word or even a wave. He stopped because they were afraid, they were struggling, they didn’t see any hope. They had just seen Jesus perform this miracle yet now, with the winds growing stronger, they quickly forgot God.  So Jesus got into the boat with the frightened disciples who had forgotten the power of God.

See Jesus was on a path, his calling, on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to the cross, on the way to saving the world.  Saving the world was his mission not calming the disciples, nor had it been the healings or feeding, or any of the other diversions. But, Jesus could not just walk by the hurting people anymore than he could walk on by his struggling disciples.  So he stopped, just like he would continue to stop whenever there was a need.  That is what he did, that is what God does, he goes off the path to bring us peace, he climbs into the boat with us.  Jesus detours off the path for us,  he hears our cries. 

Salvation of the world was Jesus’ calling, his mission, but, climbing into boats was Jesus’ character it had been carved out of compassion and mercy and powered by love.

I feel confident that I can say that we have all been in the scary boat at least sometime this past year.  Many times Jesus has claimed in the boat with us. Sometimes he even sends us to climb in a boat with mercy and compassion. 

When stepped off the path, he did not explain, he just helped, he calmed, he brought peace.  That was what he does, there was no explanation needed, there were no expectations, no defense, no conditions, no reprimands, he just did what he knew needed to be done, and then, he resumed towards his calling, he returned to his path.

The apostle Paul explains this challenging challenge to us, 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of  a slave, being born in human likeness. 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

Philippians 21-8

A determination that is willing to go through to do what God has called you to do – that was the determination of Jesus. That is the same mind of Christ, the same way of thinking, that we are called to.  A determination to follow God’s path all the while keeping our eyes open for essential detours, opportunities to reveal the same compassion and mercy displayed by Jesus.  It is only then, that Christians can heed God’s first call – to save the world. 

So let’s return to Holy Week.

Instead of focusing on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on this Palm Sunday, we are going to go right up to the cross.  We will travel with the compassionate and merciful Jesus on his determined path, right up to the cross.

The cross was not Jesus’ destination, however, his path led through the cross, though the empty grave, through the seat waiting next to the Father, and to his calling to save the world.  The cross was an essential part of his path.

We come to the trials of Jesus following his arrest, the lies, the deceit, the holes in the contradictory statements, and the near silence of Jesus the accused.  Mark’s gospel does not detail the scrambling between Pilate and Herod, it just gives us the tone and environment of what took place, and most importantly, we see what determination looks like.

Just before his arrest, Jesus had prayed in agony in the garden of Gethsemane, he had questioned God asking if there was any other way his path could go, did it have to go through the arrest, the trials, the public humiliation, the grief piled on his loved ones, the pain and misery…..was there any other way? Jesus knew the answer, he had been a part of the decision making before the beginning of our history, he knew what had to take place, he knew, but, he was also human, with the human emotions of fear and dread, he also knew, and he knew the victorious outcome, but still, he asked ‘is there any other way to get there?’

In the midst of all of this, there was already isolation, which had already begun, even his disciples were unable to help him navigate this human experience.  He knew the isolation would be complete as even God would have to forsake him.  The weight of the sin of the world on the shoulder of one man was not a journey that could be shared, isolation and rejection were expected but not looked forward to.

As Jesus walked from the garden, Satan grabbed the opportune moment.  Satan attempted to use Jesus’ humaness against him for 30 years – now, Satan had the most opportune opportune moment, if this didn’t work, Satan had no chance of any ultimate victory. Satan manipulated and cajoled humans, the guards appeared at the entrance to the garden.  They were there to arrest Jesus in this opportune moment. As Jesus saw  the guards he responded,

‘“What is this, coming after me with swords and clubs as if I were a dangerous criminal? Day after day I’ve been sitting in the Temple teaching, and you never so much as lifted a hand against me. What you in fact have done is confirm the prophetic writings.” All the disciples bailed on him.’

Mark 14:48-50 (the Message)

It had begun, Jesus was alone, he had been deserted.

The religious leaders quickly put together a trial of Jesus.  They coached witnesses, and brought them before the leaders as they approached their  formal judgement.  Finally, the chief priest said,

‘The Chief Priest stood up and asked Jesus, “What do you have to say to the accusation?” Jesus was silent. He said nothing. The Chief Priest tried again, this time asking, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”’

Mark 14:60-61 (the Message)

The chief priest was foaming at the mouth, Jesus remained calm which made the priest even more incensed.  Jesus didn’t look angry, scared or defensive, he had just sat there. The red faced priest glared at Jesus waiting for an answer, the other leaders and priests moved to the edge of their seats, then Jesus look directly into the eyes of the chief priest and began to speak, 

“Yes, I am, and you’ll see it yourself: The Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One, Arriving on the clouds of heaven.”

Mark 14:62 (the Message)

In their furor, the religious leaders, now a raging mob, took Jesus to the one who had the power to finish this ‘Jesus Problem’ off.  They took him to the ruler Pilot who could send Jesus to his death.  

In a room filled with the religious leaders, priests, and witnesses, Pilate asked Jesus,

“So You are the King of the Jews?” 

Jesus responded, “It is as you say.”

Mark 15:2 (NASB)

As the hate filled crowded room became even more hostile, Pilate  attempted to bring reason and rationale into the inquiry,

“Do You offer nothing in answer? See how many charges they are bringing against You!”

Mark 14: 4 (NASB)

Jesus, from this point forward was silent.  He did not need to talk, he did not need to defend himself, it was unnecessary, he had accepted his fate when he walked into the waters of John’s baptism, he had affirmed it in the garden. This was all part of this path, it was all part of the isolation, it was all essential to his purpose.  He did not need to take a detour just to prove that they were wrong, it would not advance Jesus on his path, nor would it be an opportunity for compassion and mercy.  So, from this point forward, he would offer no defense, he would give no argument, now it was time for love not words. 

In this opportune moment, Satan used screaming voices, lies, hatred, and deceit, Jesus, in this same opportune moment, used love, mercy, compassion, grace, and strangely, silence, and even hope.

That is what an opportune moment, a moment of opportunity.  We can chose to make that detour a opportunity to add to hate, or we can use that detour to let God shine through us.

Jesus at this moment chose to shine. He chose to sacrifice himself, beginning with what others thought of him, his reputation, his sacrifice was not limited to the cross.  HIs sacrifice involved his entirety.  At this point, as he chose to remain silent and give not defense, he had stepped fully into sacrifice.

I think that the good and the great are only separated by the willingness to sacrifice. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Jesus was now on the same path he had been since his baptism, he was now just steps from the cross, it was now just steps through the cross.

Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the week of Passover, the Holy Week, Mary took not he scandalous act of anointing of Jesus with her most valuable possession, a container of expensive perfume.  Those present aghast and critical, they were not silent, they spoke, they criticized, the judged, they condemned.  In this instance, Jesus did speak, he did offer a defense, not of himself but of Mary,

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Mark 14:9

Later, as Jesus drew his final breath and gave up his spirit, a centurion, who had been a part of the execution, now standing there where had stood all day watching and witnessing the sacrificial act of Jesus.

‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing Jesus and witnessed his final moments and the manner in which Jesus breathed his last breath, this centurion said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”’

Mark 15:34, 37-39

Centuries before Isaiah had voiced our call,

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”

Isaiah 50:4-10

This is our calling. This is a Holy Week.

Becoming Famous

‘Jesus’ fame began to spread’

Actually,  we see that ‘At once Jesus’ fame began to spread.’ In fact, the greek words used by the writer are ‘euthys’ (U-uh-theme-ik), meaning ‘immediately,’ and, ‘pantachou’ (pont – uh – khugh) meaning everywhere. So, if I am to be so bold, an even more accurate transliteration is ‘Immediately, Jesus’ fame began to spread, everywhere!’ Exclamation point is mine.

This took place after Jesus said after exiting the wilderness, ‘That is enough!’ This Exclamation point is mine as well. Jesus had been in the wilderness for an extended period of time time in prayer as well as head to head temptation, he had been brow to brow with the source of evil, and then as he stepped out of the wilderness, he was nose to nose with the impact of that evil on humanity.  This was not something new, God’s son had been living on the earth, and in the flesh, for 30 years.  This however, was a stark reminder of a reality he was already fully aware of.  It was a moment when definitely, it was time, time for him to officially step out and step into his role of deliverer. 

Now, to understand the significance of this moment, we look back to another deliverer who also, after experiencing life fully, this prophet stepped into his role of deliverer. We look at Moses. Part of Moses’ experience had already involved stepping into his calling.  Moses had appeared before God and stepped into his calling ‘to’ be the agent of deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery.  And, he had also already experienced God’s affirmation as he found himself worshipping  God alongside of those he had delivered as God had promised.  Now, as we see in Deuteronomy 18 he was to step into not just a title or a job, this step would land him into life long purpose, it would never be over, it would go with him to birth.

We have a friend who, up until a couple of years ago, had held an international position with the US government.  It was a position that required an incredibly high security clearance.  When she decided it was time to exit from that job, that position, that role, she found that it was much more difficult than just handing in a letter of resignation.  While she may have walked away from the work of that job, it was a much more involved process of exiting the essence of who she was, and who she is, due to that clearance.  Getting rid of that security clearance became an issue, even after leaving the job, it bound her to where she could live, with whom she could associate, and with where she could work.  She found that she was not alone, others had experienced the same weight restraining them from moving on.  Many have to hire lawyers who focused just on helping people rid themself of this designation.

Such was the weight of what Moses, and Jesus, were to step into.  It was a ‘for life’ thing, it would never end.

For Moses it began at Mount Sinai as the people proclaimed that they did not want to talk directly to God, nor did they want God to talk directly to them.  God rolled Moses into the role of being the ‘go between’.  Moses would speak from and to God. This was a role that would never change, it was a role that held the highest security and accountability designation, it was a role that would never go away. He was now the prophet to a people who would not talk to God as well as being a prophet for a God who still needed to communicate with that people.

So, as Jesus stepped out of the wilderness, he faced the same pivotal moment in his life that Moses faced when he descended from Mount Sinai.  Jesus had said yes to God’s perspective as he had stepped into the waters of John the Baptizer’s baptism, now he was stepping into the life long position of prophet, of deliverer, of the sacrifice for a people whom God So Loved.

‘Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They, the religious leaders and others present, were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one that held authority, and not like the scribes. As Jesus was teaching and interacting in the synagogue on that Sabbath day, a man with an unclean spirit, 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.” Jesus rebuked the man, saying to the demon, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the demon, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Everyone was amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, the demons, and they obey him.” Immediately, Jesus’ fame began to spread, everywhere!’

Mark 1:21-28

So, let’s recap this first official public appearance. Jesus entered the holiest building in the community of Capernaum, on the holiest day of the week, and there found himself nose to nose with a demon. In the synagogue Jesus had captured the attention of the religious leaders for the confident and knowledgable manner in which he taught and carried himself. He had also caught the attention of the demon who left the man whom he had possessed, in turn, news of what happed on that Sabbath day, in that insignificant community, traveled throughout the community and across the countryside. Jesus was instantly famous a good thing, and a troublesome thing.

He now had Gravitas. An ancient Roman virtues that denoted “seriousness”. Gravitas means to carry an influential weight, to walk with an identifiable dignity, to effortlessly present an air of importance wile acting with restraint and moral rigor. It also come with a heavy responsibility and commitment to the calling.

Jesus, now on this first official public appearance, was noticed and acclaimed. Jesus, the one who noticed everyone – began this public ministry by serendipitously being noticed by everyone.

Being famous is a multifaceted beast.  It can be good, for some, it provides attention that brings in work and money to be used for good, however, it can also be equally beneficial for someone who is doing works of selfishness. 

Think about the current work of our government and health experts as they attempt to gain trust in their expertise of preventing the spread of Covid as well as the acceptability of the vaccines.  They have had to overcome conspiracies and lies, the more fame they have achieved, the more they have been able to counter the lies and convince people to take the vaccine, however, the fame has also made them all bigger targets from those who are determined to stop them.

I find Jesus’ introduction to fame a very interesting moment.  He went to a holy building, on a holy day, he read from and taught holy truth, and in the midst of that, he encountered evil.  It was all behind the closed doors of the synagogue but the news and impact of it all burst out of a building, grew beyond that 24 hour period, it held a truth that had existed since before time; Jesus again confronted evil nose to nose. Jesus calling was to proclaim and act out of truth, it is not easy to rise above, and lead people to live above the lies and deceit of the world.

Before Jesus exited the wilderness, scripture tells us that Satan left Jesus until another opportune moment – this was one of those moments – it was far less showy than the wilderness experience, it was probably easily missed by many witnesses. On this opportune times’ – Satan attempt to turn Jesus away from God, am unseen Satan altered his strategy.  This, was not a temptation for Jesus to act out of, but this was to plant a seed that would grow a beast that had proven successful to Satan throughout history.

Fame – power, recognition, public affirmation and acceptance, a sense of worth, an enticing acclaim, a following; a potential to be loved, to be a force for good however, it could also be a force for an ultimate destruction.

We could probably make a very long list right now if we were to try to account for all the famous people who have found fame to be destructive in their lives.  Our list would include movie, television, and stage stars, it would include politicians, authors, speakers, and the powerful, it would include those that are famous through their own efforts just to be famous, there would be those who would be famous through their infamy, and there would be a bunch of preachers and other religious leaders.

But fame can also be good, it can spread the news, it can call an entire city such as Ninevah to repentance, everyone in the city and beyond, in just a day’s time.  Jesus was now becoming famous, people had heard and were now paying attention, they would listen to the good news and respond.  He now had Gravitas!

The powerful thing in this moment on the Sabbath was that the demon wasn’t even using deceit or lies, he told truth, he accurately proclaimed who Jesus was as he said, ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!’

However, Jesus response was revealing, he spoke directly to the demon saying, ‘Be silent!”.  Jesus responded to this being who was accurately proclaiming the truth about Jesus by telling him to ‘shut up’.  Before he even ordered the demon to leave this man he first tells him to quit talking.

This was actually the hidden seed that was meant to provide the same result as Satan’s 3rd temptation in the wilderness had attempted, the temptation of fame and worship. I think rather lazily, Satan took Jesus to the top of a mountain and offered him the power over everything Jesus could see. That had been an effort to change Jesus perspective immediately, it was a failed attempt to quickly eliminate this ‘Jesus problem’ but it didn’t work, Jesus recognized what was going on as he recounted God’s truth in his resistance.  Now, Satan was taking a much more subtle route, he was attempting to plant a seed – he was subtly giving Jesus quick fame so Jesus could effectively communicate the good news with a greater efficacy.  It could have seemed to be a win-win. However, Jesus noticed what was going on. just as he was on that mountain in the wilderness.

‘Be Silent!’  It was a forceful order we will hear him say often as he heals and delivers countless people over the course of his ministry.  ‘Do not tell anyone’ he says after a healing, ‘Go and sin no more’ he orders after a deliverance. This was a full on example that our lives are not lived just to get to a destination, but they are to live to lives in a manner which is remembered and honored at the destination.  A calling to run the race of life so that our focus throughout the race is honorable and honoring.

As the apostle Paul later exclaimed to the believers in the city of Corinth focusing on the race they were running. He implored them to always focus on truth in their own choices, actions, and circumstances –  but to also recognize what is seen along the way – to remember in the race that others are running as well. ‘If an action is not a sin, but those around me are stuck in a former religiosity and think the action is, then don’t do the action,’ Paul tells the believers, ‘Make a sacrifice for others! It will help them get to the destination.’

The  Vendée Globe, a nonstop, round-the-world 24,000 miles single person sailing race which begins in France one every four years. This year, 22 days into the race, Kevin Escoffier’s boat was overwhelmed by a 15-foot wave, his boat was folded in half, and he was adrift in his rapidly sinking boat nearly a thousand miles off the tip of South Africa. It only took seconds for his 60  foot boat to fill with seawater. He managed to get out a ‘Mayday’ text, before all of his communications and cries for help were cut off.  He understandably went from focusing on a race to grasping for survival. After a brutal 16 hours of waiting, competitor Jean Le Cam turned up.  Le Cam, in his less advanced boat as surprising race officials by his third place position, Le Cam detoured from the race, and his position, and was later joined by other competitors who sacrificed their competitive positions to help a Escoffier who recounted his first interaction with Le Cam at the rescue, ‘We hugged each other and I said, I have spoiled your race. You were doing so well.’ Le Cam’s response later was ‘It’s part of the job of a sailor to go to the aid of another. Above and beyond — it’s human nature to go to people in need and help them. It’s part of life, physically or psychologically, to help another human. I am just part of that.’  Later the racers that detoured the race sacrificing their spots for the rescue were awarded a time allowance.

‘It’s part of the job, to go to the aid of another. It’s human nature to go to people in need and help them.  It’s part of life, physically or psychologically, to help another human.  I am just a part of that.’

‘I am just a part of that.’  What a proclamation, what a realization!

That was Jesus’ calling, ‘to be a part of a humanity, teaching that very principal through his life.  ‘To help another human being.’  It is a calling of mercy, compassion, and sacrifice.  It was the manner in which Jesus lived, it was the reason he eschewed the fame, it was the purpose of his encounters and relationships.  It was what he did, it was his part.

As I have performed funerals, and as I have visited the terminally ill, the one thing that loved ones have had in common is their unstoppable pursuit to make sure the ill or passed loved one is known, that the fame in their inner circles of this person is recognized.  Through tears and laughter, stories are told and the impact is proclaimed.  There is a human need to ‘not be silent’ but to proclaim the impact that this person had on them personally. It is not because of distant stories of others but of personal things that had meant so much.  I will always remember those stories because the impact on those people is always so pronounce.  One such occasion occurred outside after I had met with a family, a very quiet and demure inlaw, approached me as I opened my car door to make sure that I heard her story. It was a story of acceptance and inclusion for this young lady, an acceptance and inclusion that could have easily and justifiably been denied due to the scandalous reason for her entrance into the family. Whereas she could have easily been rejected by this person, instead, she was welcomed, loved, and instantly a part of this family.  For this individual, the passed family member would always be the most famous person in her life – not because of how many knew her but because she had known this individual that could have been unnoticed.

Jesus knew the gain of fame but also knew the price of fame, therefore he watched it and did not permit him to forget the why of his race rather than the destination of his race.

What are you doing with your fame? The fame of your presence among those God has blessed you with.  Are you seeing this as ‘your part’ to help them along in the race? Are you sacrificing what you can do, and have a right to do, in order to assist them to the destination?  What is your part in your moment of celebrity?

Hardly Heart, Hardy Heart

It is interesting, and amazing, the manner in which Jesus steps into our prejudices and hatred to paint a picture for us of God’s mercy, his compassion, and his love. How he takes us in our imperfect place and walks us toward light and away from our darkness. Jesus takes those things we attempt to hide as secular, or sinful, and instead uses them to define his holiness.  He reaches into the dark places of our hearts and pulls out those things that keep us from following him with a genuine and a full gait. Whether it is him being seen in the bright light of the day speaking to an individual doubly maligned for her gender and her hated cultural identification, or as he notices an invisible woman bent over dismissed woman in the temple, or even as he publicly dined at the home of a despised tax collector, Jesus never permitted human divisions to hide his love, to stop his mercy, or to limit the scope of his compassion. That was exactly what Jesus genuinely presented in the flesh because that is exactly what God is. It is what God desires that we strive to be.

we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect, we are striving to forge a union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division. Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time. Then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade. The hill we climb if only we dare.

Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb

I was struck by the poem, especially the reference to the scripture, a phrase found in three different places in the Old Testament, everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.’ A passage used almost 50 times in the writings of President George Washington.  In one of those OT passages, the prophet Micah speaks to a people who have have rejected God but have not been rejected by God.  A people who have laid aside their heart for God and exchanged it for a heart that can hardly listen or follow God.  A people who are destined to be bullied and buried under their own ruble and taken into slavery by those who have pronounced judgement against them.  A people who God is promising an ultimate rescue, and refuge, and safety from those who seek to destroy them, a time of mercy, acceptance, shelter, and peace for all who have weathered the same fate of suffering discrimination, prejudice, and destruction.  A people hated by others but always loved by God. A people who God leads back to a hardy heart able to fully follow Him.

It is not surprising that George Washington would be drawn to this biblical phrase.  Our imperfect founding fathers, while personally struggling with it, were  at least in theory, supporters of this concept – as evidenced in their writing of the  the Declaration of Independence,

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ 

Declaration of Independence

They, as we are today, were plagued with the question, ‘is our calling to protect our unalienable rights, or is our calling to promote the unalienable rights of all peoples?’  It is a difficult balance, one that we still struggle with today.  Ironically, this was the calling which prompted Jesus to send out his disciples in Mark 6.

This brings us to another prophet, a prophet who was a big supporter of Micah’s vine and fig tree proclamations – until he wasn’t. The prophet Jonah, a prophet for whom God also provided a vine, or a plant, to give refuge. This refuge, for Jonah, was a place to pout, a place to withdraw from those he hated, those for whom he had decided deserved no mercy or compassion.  Jonah was a prophet, used by God, to call people back to God.  And Jonah was an effective prophet, and he did it well, until God instructed him to go to a people who he could not stomach, a people who Jonah had already condemned, a people for whom he held no hope and even less concern. God told Jonah to go east but Jonah went west.  God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, but Jonah headed to Tarshish. The folks at Tarshish were tolerable, the people at Ninevah were beyond reprehensible. There was hope for God’s message at Tarshish, there was no hope for the people at Ninevah.  They were a waste of time, they were a waste of Jonah’s time. To be honest, Jonah didn’t want them to have the option of hope, such were the feelings of this ‘man of God.’

The crazy thing is that Jonah was incredibly successful even in his rebellion.  All the crew of the ship he attempted to flee on ended up praising the one true God because of his Jonah’s life witness.  Jonah, however, ended up in the belly of a big fish who was traveling east, and soon Jonah was in Ninevah, exactly where God had called him to go originally. So Jonah begins resentfully communicating the message from God. He half hearted proclaimed ‘Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!’ Ninevah, a city of such size that would take Jonah three days to walk the distance, so he began that first day. It was the worst sermon ever, it didn’t even mention God.  His posture communicated a complete indifference towards the people, if not a full on disgust.  Jonah began that first day acting as a ‘mistreated’ adolescent who has been asked to take out the trash by an ‘unreasonable’ parent.  Shoulders shrugged, head looking down, ambivalence in his voice, and a heart that was hardly present. Not only did he not care, he actually hoped no one would listen.  But they did listen, by the end of the first day they had heard, the entire city, they had not just heard but they had taken the message to heart. Logistically this means that Jonah covered a three day journey dismissively telling God’s message as he had to run though the city, or, that the people were so impacted that the word spread fast, accomplishing a three day endeavor in a day’s time. The people responded immediately, the impact was so intense and blatant that the King even joined in, his heart was genuine in its hardy acceptance. The people and their leaders had all responded to God’s message – lives had been changed, hearts had been turned, a miracle beyond miracles had happened, and God’s prophet had totally missed it. With shoulders shrugged, head down, and feet furiously shuffling to get out of the city, Jonah found his vine, a plant that had grown up just to shield him from the heat of the day.  A plant to give him shelter.  It was the place where he retreated to pout and complain.

‘This is why I wanted to go west,’ Jonah complained to God.  ‘I knew that you are merciful and full of compassion and that you would do just this, that you would forgive these horrible, horrible, people. You said you would destroy them but now you are giving them mercy.  You let this horrid group of humans change  your mind and move your heart!’

This experience of Jonah reveals to us that it is impossible to be whole hearted on board with God’s plan if you are not first fully trusting God’s love and his timing.  

If you are unable to be a conduit of God’s love then you are unable to see the miracle of God’s mercy and compassion. The tragic thing is that Jonah was the avenue for one of the greatest miracles of God. An entire people grabbed ahold of a revolutionary movement in just the limited time it took for the sun to rise and set – the lowliest of society to the heights of royalty and ultimately to the King had turned to God. It was a huge miracle and a huge act of God’s transforming power, a miracle that Jonah was invited to witness, instead, Jonah pouted because these people did not deserve God’s mercy, but he did. His hatred and prejudice got in the way.

By the time that Jesus walks out of the wilderness he had seen and experienced it all.  He had experienced human connection, rejection, adoption, and affection.  He had been a part of family, a part of religion, a part of the oppressed, a part of the people.  He had been recognized by God and head on attacked by Satan.  He had resisted, accepted, rejected, embraced, loved, and even left – all difficult and often painful actions. He had been in the midst of holy and at the door of hell; he had stepped into the waters that said ‘yes’ to the Father and had stepped back from the edge of the steeple saying ‘no’ to self; he had been tempted by evil and had instead stuck with truth. As he walked out of the wilderness, reality hit, immediately he was confronted with the oppression of a political system which was compounded by the collusion with a religious system.  The stage was set, it was time for Jesus to step out of the shadows and onto stage center.

Up to this point, Mark has acquainted us with Jesus just through the actions of  Jesus, ‘he stepped into the water,’ ‘he stepped into the wilderness’, ‘He came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.’ But now we hear the words and witness of Jesus as he says, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  It was a statement of undeniable definitiveness said with a confidence and authority that could not be silenced. Quite frankly, we could spend the rest of our time just deconstructing each of these words and phrases, for they all add to this frank proclamation from Jesus.  Instead, we will look at two:

‘The time if fulfilled.’  

A statement of ‘it is time’ 

or an even more frank message that ‘it’s time,’ probably said  with an exclamation point.  

However, it can also be interpreted as ‘that’s enough’, as in a parent deciding that the dinner table conversation has gone too far, too out of control, that it is time to reel it in.  Jesus has not only spent 3 decades in the flesh, seeing the human experience from the inside, he has also seen the unseen, the evil that permeates under the surface, and then he saw the attack on ‘right’ as he learns that John the baptizer has been arrested.  “That is enough’ he yells, it is time to turn this around, to look back to the holy God, it is time for change! This was not a passive moment for Jesus, nor was it a delicate entrance into the public eye, it was a bold, it was unapologetic, it was time.

Repent.’ This was covered in our insight portion of our Take  5 this week but it warrants voicing it again.  Jesus, and John the Baptizer, both spoke of this essential act of repentance.  It was the symbolic waters of John’s baptism and it is the purpose of what Jesus is about to start doing.  Typically, the  word that the Israelites would have expected to be used to say ‘Repent’ would be the hebrew word ‘Teshuvah’ – which means what we still automatically think of when we hear the challenge to ‘repent’ – a focus on our actions, our sin, our disobedience.  We expect the listeners to hear this call as to point out their transgressions against God and their  transgressions against each other.  However, Jesus, and John, both use a different Hebrew word, their choice is the word, ‘metanoia’ which is much bigger and further reaching than just talking about the sin of an individual.  In using the word ‘metanoia’ both of these men are calling the people to not only turn from their evil ways but to instead let God change their heart, to change their inner being, to have an entirely new perspective on life.  This is a call not just to the individual but also a call to be a community of change, a force for good.

Jesus was calling a people to change, bigger than just a personal recognition of one’s own sin but to the way we see life, others, and God. This was the beginning of moving a people forward, forward from an externally monitored law, forward to truth written on our hearts.

As Jesus began to build this community he started by looking for those that were looking for this change of perspective, a change of heart.  They probably could not define their quest in this manner but it was surely the reason they had been unable to find it up to this point.  The tradition was that a rabbi would select disciples from those who had found the rabbi, however, Jesus went looking for those who were unknowingly looking for him.

Jesus walked among men who were in the midst of life.  Individuals who were living life in their own community, working in their reality. They were the beginning of this new community Jesus was forming.  Jesus called first to Simon and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John.  All four men dropped what held them to that place and turned to follow Jesus. They willingly left jobs and family, those left behind knew these men had been looking for. They had been searching and keeping their ears and eyes open, ready to follow, they had been whole hearted in their search and now they were following with  hardy hearts, ready to see, ready to be used by God.

This is what it comes down to, 

A hardy heart.   

A heart that is ready and ‘robust; capable of enduring difficult conditions.’ It is an adjective that is often used to describe a plant that is able to withstand the cold of winter or the heat of summer.  This year we planted some pansies around our house.  Pansies are not anywhere near pansies, they are hardy, the extreme cold and the elements of winter only seem to strengthen their resolve to survive and look beautiful. These delicate flowers have a strong, hardy, constitution.  There is nothing holding them back, they seem to have an inner determination to succeed.  They are the definition of Hardy. In the same way a Hardy Heart is one that is determined in the search and resolved in the finding.  Jesus was looking for followers who had Hardy Hearts, hearts that would have the resolve to survive rejection, grief, doubt, devastation, and even exhilaration.  Hearts that were ready to take on a new perspective, hearts that were resolved to support the new person that God was creating, hearts determined to be community with other Hardy Hearts through the thick and the thin.  

A vivd example of this occurred this past Wednesday a a good portion of Americans watched the inauguration sensing the hope they had not felt for 4 years, there was another portions of Americans who, at the same time, had broken hearts, they were now hopeless after 4 years of feeling hopeful.  Both of these groups of people’s state of hope was based on a person, a politician, a political agenda, an external change – a change which can change again in 4 years.  The hope and the hopelessness of that day were legitimate reactions, however, they were also a lesson for us all – our hope is not in a human being, not in a philosophy, not in an agenda, not in an institution, not in anything earthly, our hope is in God, it is in God alone. It is the singular determining factor of a hardy heart, it is an assurance of a lasting and persevering hope.  

Viktor E. Frankl who survived 4 WWII Nazi concentration camps while losing his parents, brother, and his pregnant wife, wrote in his classic Man’s Search for  Meaning that while in the camps he was struck by

‘the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ After liberation Frankl went on to study what made some survive for a future outside the camp and others who were never able to regain any sense of hope even after liberation.  He came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a future hope, something to look forward which is only possible when we are able to fill the ‘existential vacuum’ in our lives with that which cannot be destroyed by the actions of evil men. He concluded that there is a necessity within all humans for ‘meaning’.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

This is what the Psalmist is alluding to in chapter 62. 

‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah. Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.’

Psalm 62:5-12

Jonah allowed his those things external to cause him to forget the source of his hope, he allowed his heart to fail. The disciples waited and searched for the source of their hope – they did not miss their hope when it called out to them, they followed with hardy hearts. Our hope is our meaning, it is our purpose, it is our deliverer, it is our God.

Come and See

When God told Noah to build a boat, to board a boat, and to wait out the flood in the boat, we see no expression of doubt or skepticism on Noah’s part, he just obeys, we hear no questions, nor do we hear of any argument.  His faith was affirmed and verified as events of destruction & deliverance occurred, and then, God’s promise was proven when Noah saw an olive branch in the mouth of the bird.

When God told Abraham to pack up and ‘get out’, we don’t hear Abraham asking for some sort of verification – instead we see God providing affirmation through the words, ‘I will show you.’

When Moses asked God for some form of proof that this actually was God speaking to him, God said, ‘When you come back here with the rescued Hebrews, after you have done as I’ve instructed, then you will see.’

When the widow at Zarephath experienced the death of her son as well as the death of her faith, Elijah carried the revived son down the stairs and said, ‘See, your son is alive.’

When John the baptizer pointed his own followers to Jesus, John explains the direction by saying ‘I’m telling you, I saw the Spirit land on Jesus, seriously,  I’m just telling you what I saw.’

When those followers of John the baptizer asked Jesus ‘where are you staying?’ Jesus simply said, “come and see.’

When Jesus found Philip and then Philip found Nathaniel and Nathaniel expressed his doubts at the possibility that someone as significant as the Messiah could come out of such an insignificant place as Nazareth, Philip simply challenged him to, ‘come and see.’

When Nathaniel quickly believed after Jesus said, “I saw you.’ Jesus expressed surprise, saying, ‘you believe because I said I saw you?, WOW, just wait for everything else you are going to see!’

And he saw! Along with the other disciples, Nathaniel saw Jesus turn water into wine, not just wine, but really, really, good wine. He saw Jesus unapologetically  and confidently confront the powerful religious establishment with authority and confidence, he saw important religious leaders as well as important political officials come and see and believe.  Nathaniel saw Jesus intentionally see a Samaritan woman, who responded by running back to her community and proclaiming ‘come see what I just saw! Come see the one who saw me!’ Nathaniel saw Jesus engage crowds of thousands with his words and presence and then, when Jesus saw that the crowd was hungry, he miraculously feed them with nothing but a food pantry filled with compassion. Oh, Nathaniel, and the others, saw, they saw that which they never expected to see, they saw that which they would not have believed could be seen, they saw that which they never even imagined was even there to be seen, they saw that which sometimes had to leave them wondering, ‘Did I really see that?’

Come and see. It is an odd order of an effective affirmation strategy. Think about it – to believe what God is saying, you have to commit enough to follow.  Seeing is the only way to to believe and believing enough to follow is the only way to see. It is a promise that called for a purposeful commitment, and a commitment that requires a surrender, and a surrender that requires 100 percent from the beginning even before you actually see.

I have always found God’s pattern of providing affirmation a bit suspect. He gives the instructions, sometimes just a smidgen of the instructions & sometimes a lot of instructions, and then, to provide some form of affirmation or proof, he says, ‘you will believe when it is over and you have successfully completed what I have told you to do – then, you will believe because you will see.’

Imagine that I tell you to walk across a rope that I have managed to stretch across the grand canyon. You would quickly inform me that I am crazy.  As I attempt to convince you that you are able to do this, you would finally ask for some proof that you can do this and that I can be trusted – being a doubting human is very helpful in instances such as this.

Imagine your response if I would attempt to assure you by naively saying, ‘you will know that you can do this after you see that you have done it.’ – You would think me a delusional lunatic. You would laugh and walk away at my guarantee that you will believe after you made it across. My offer of proof on the other side will do little to convince you to step up on the rope.  The challenge to ‘go and see’ will have no persuasive pull on your deciding whether or not to ‘trust and obey’.

This, however, is the proof that God gives, it is the affirmation we need, because, it is actually the only way to see, it is the only way to believe.  The call of God is not just a challenge we decide to give a chance. The call of God is an offer to be a part of what God is doing, it is an invitation to join God on your own path.  Our participation is the key element to our success in following. Belief does not precede our accepting the call to ‘come and see’ nor does following develop the belief that enables us to ‘come and see.’ These are 2 mutually independent factors that are, at the same time, mutually dependent on each other.

You see, the one undeniable factor in my challenge, given at the edge of the Grand Canyon, is that I am not God and you have not been seeking me.  It is not me that the Holy Spirit has led you to, it is not God calling you to a task that can only be done by faith – no matter how convincing, how charismatic, how articulate, how bombastic I may be – I lack one thing – I am not God.  I am not the one you have been searching for, I am not the destination to which your path leads, I am not God.

For a 600 year old Noah, there was nothing absurd in God’s extremely intricate boat building plans, there was nothing crazy about the collection of animals, there was not even a justified rational question asked like, ‘what is a flood?’  Noah had already been following God as best as he could, he had been seeking the God that was not even on the radar of any other human on earth, including his family.  His entire life had been about knowing the God that no one else cared to know.

Abraham was called by God to ‘get out’ of his father’s house, to get off of his family lands and to go to a place that God would show him, he would get out and head in the direction of a place that he had not ever seen. No one else received such a call, even those who eventually joined Abraham did not receive such a promise to see.  But like Noah, Abraham had also been seeking God his entire life, as he watched his dad build idols to the false Gods, however, Abraham knew that there was a real God out there.  The very God he had been seeking and searching.

Moses, who had lived a textbook life of dysfunction, who had left the family that had adopted and raised him to join the biological family who had set him afloat in a mighty river, returning to a people who were quick to see his flaws and to question his dubious past. And flawed he was, as his flaws would continue to be seen even after he packed up to get out while refocusing on his path to see the place that God was promising to show him.

The widow at Zarephath hesitantly sacrificed all that she had, seeing nothing but death for her and her son in her choice to follow God, still she did follow, and she did see, and then, she saw more.

John the baptizer said yes to God’s ‘come and see’ challenge, in return his followers left him, leaving him unprotected and vulnerable prey to a the brutal queen, and in the earthly end, he literally lost his head.

And then there was Nathaniel, who in accepting the ‘come and see’ challenge, became a part of the 120 person crowd of Jesus followers who, with each step in following, would see, they would see God in human form, they would see God revealing how to do this earth thing, they would see God’s compassion and mercy flow unhindered, they would effortlessly wait to feel the wind of the Holy Spirit, they would see thousands join their ranks, they would see because they had each, individually, accepted the call to follow, the call to ‘come and see.’ In doing so, the seeking that proceeded their calls came to a fruition, they saw and their lives were never the same.

A young male child named Samuel, from birth, had heard the stories from his mother, stories of begging God for the son that would be Samuel, crying before God for the honor of seeing God provide, stories that told of heartache, ridicule, pain, isolation, condescension, and even rejection, yet these same stories included this all encompassing factor of seeking and searching for God, of trusting that God was present even though there was no viable proof that he even existed, of a life committed to coming to God, a life convinced that she would see the hand of God.  And she did see, and her son Samuel saw, the call to ‘come and see’ was an assumed reality due to the lifetime of hearing, trusting, and eventually seeing as had been testified through the life of Hannah his mother. And so, when, as a young boy, he came to live in the temple to fulfill the promise made by his mother, he laid in his bed and heard his name called out. At this point he only knew OF God, thanks to the seen example of his mother, still his experience had only been third person, his mother had followed, his mother had seen, his mother knew God – Samuel did not, but he had witnessed someone who had indeed seen.  So when he heard God’s voice he began to seek and search, he began to ask questions of Eli the priest, questions like, ‘was it your voice I heard?’ Eventually his quest led him to ask God directly, ‘What?’ And to respond, ‘Here I am.’  Samuel then heard God’s ‘come and see’ call, a call that would lead him to step out on a rope across a canyon much larger and a call much more absurd than he could ever image, but he stepped out, because he knew this was God. Yes, he was too young to be living in the temple, yes he may have been too young to ask God, ‘what do you want?’ Yes, he was definitely too young to be given a calling that would scare even the most secure and confident adult, yes, it was outrageous, he should have been outside the temple kicking a soccer ball, or annoyingly running around and through the people gathered outside.  But he was not in the places that made sense, he was there, in the temple, a young boy, thrust onto the path to be the instrument of God, a path of appointing Kings even before there were any Kings in the promised land, a path of confronting the powerful and foretelling of God’s coming judgement.  He was called to ‘come and see’ and saw he did.

Understanding God’s bizarre motivational plan of providing affirmation after we have endured the path, after we have followed the unknown, after we have said ‘yes’ to his call to ‘come and see’ – understanding is difficult if not excruciating. To understand this we must accept 2 foundational truths about God, about us, and about the path of ‘coming and seeing.’

First, we must constantly remind ourself of our disconnect with the concept of time and timelessness.  We live in realm where we are governed by time.  The element of time, which was created specifically for us humans, conforms us to life on earth, it adjusts us to our reality.  It is the element of time that informs us when to eat, when to sleep, when to give up and when to forge on. For us, time restricts, for God time provides.  We never have enough time, time always goes too slow or too fast – but for God, in the midst of his timelessness, there is always exactly enough time to provide the space we need, the essential space to give us closure on what is past and to prepare us for what is next.  We allow time be an impediment, but, God uses our time to grow and strengthen us.  It only makes sense in the universe of enough time that time itself is a primary factor in our development as humans and as followers.  God uses time to let us see what we could not otherwise see – we see because God has allowed us to see, we trust because time has given us the experience of trust. While we view waiting as a waste of perfectly good time, God sees it as a productive opportunity of faith growth and personal epiphany as we recognize the value of the the process through which we better understand God and our self.

Think about this one additional element of time…For God every time is the first time, every time is unique and different than anytime before.  The first creation, the first flood, the first people, the first Savior, the first church, the first return.  All of these are guaranteed by the success of the first time.  So, it makes sense that this is how God would make the guarantee to us. Every time is ether proof that God is God or that God is not God.

The second factor we must remember is that we are fearfully, lovingly, intricately, and thoughtfully made.  We were woven and knitted together, we were created by the creator with life in his creation on his mind. The reality of God’s creation was heavy on his mind during the engineering process.  God loves us more than our paths, more than our destinations, more than our successes, even more than our obedience.  He created us so that our paths, and even our destinations, would strengthen and develop us.  He has formed us out of his love, not out of his need, he loved us even while we were sinners having already provided the sacrifice permitting us to know God.  

It is an interesting allegorical visual through which the Psalmist describes our own creation.  Through the art of weaving and knitting, our own formation is described in a way we can understand from all perspectives. Over the days of lockdown this past year, there have been many projects begun inside the quarantined walls across the country.  My sister Beth took up making Banana and Sourdough bread, both of which benefitted us all.  In our house there were frightening organization projects that sprung up in areas we had no idea needed organizing.  We almost constantly had a tray of Chocolate Chip cookies on the stove top and then there were the projects including yarn and thread – knitting, crocheting, needlepointing, all took on a life of their own throughout the house.  Had you taken the risk of entering our home during this time you would have found yourself automatically picking up small pieces of yarn and thread throughout the house. What began as a spool of thread or a wad of yarn, was transformed into a picture of birds, a scarf, or even a cap. This yarn and thread, which was not very strong by itself, when woven together took on a purpose and a strength that was unexpected.  The truly amazing thing about these elements however, was the ability for them to be darned back together should there be a break or gap.

Blogger LAURA TRIMBLE  writes of mending her child’s favorite pair of soccer shorts, a pair of shorts worn thread bare by the constant wear and tear of a three year old boy who wants to wear nothing else but these shorts every day.

‘For ten dollars and free two-day shipping, I could replace my son’s shorts. Or at the cost of two days’ worth of spare time, I can show my son he is loved so much that whatever he loves becomes worthy of my attention, too. God could have just replaced us and all of His world at far less of a cost than the cost of redemption. But He would rather have us, broken bits and all, with the marks of mending all over us, to show that it was worth any cost to Him not to throw us away. And that story makes us beautiful. I wouldn’t be mending these shorts otherwise.’

Laura Trimble

We can confidently step out to God’s invitation to ‘come and see’ not because we want to keep him happy and pleased, but instead, we can say yes because we know of his love for us, the love of the everlasting father.  We can sincerely agree to an invitation to ‘come and see’ even though our humanity screams that we must instead, see and then follow, that we cannot come until we first see.  Knowing the riches of God’s love, as seen in his creation, and in us his created, we are reminded and assured that God calls us to follow because in following we will see – oh, we will see and we will know!

God still calls us to ‘come and see’, what is your response his call?

Underwater

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had, for centuries, failed to listen to God, a people who had turned from God, a people who had continued to listen to voices that did not belong to God. In doing all of this, in passively rejecting God, they had hardened themselves to the very voice of God. They genuinely began to believe the lies and deceit they had surrendered to, and in the process they had sold their passions to the false promises of political and religious agendas – agendas that were hostile to God’s creation and the humans God had created.  Compassion and mercy were eagerly traded for promises of economic gain, national security, personal homogenous comfort, and a reality that was never real at all but instead a selfish fantasy. 

Now, however, God was telling the prophet that the people had suffered enough – enough to realize their horrible turns and the damage of of their choices. Now, the fullness of time had arrived, the people were ready to receive hope, ready to search for truth, ready to do the actual the work of comfort, willing to make the sacrifice needed for redemption.

If you really think about it you cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is an outrageous pattern, it is an absurd plan this plan of God. God, the one rejected by the people, in the end, is God, the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people.

Actually it is not really that odd, it should probably be one of the most understandable things of God. After all it is what a parent does, we as humans have the natural tendency, in this one area, to act with the same automatic sacrifice as the creator.  It is our gut instinct to chase after the wayward child, to make every sacrifice possible in order to ransom back the rebellious beloved, we shed tears, we empty our bank account, we beg, we borrow, we do and do until we can do no more.  Our critics, the ‘experts’ on the outside say ‘do no more’, ‘you’ve done enough’, ‘you are just enabling them’, ‘walk away’, ‘wash your hands and live your life.’  But a response of walking away is impossible to fully do, it is a response that is doomed to failure because it is not a natural response to our very real struggles with the mercy and compassion of the breath that God breathed into us at creation. A breath that we have long disregarded but still often we find ourself longing – longing for the freshness of that air, that sense of relief as we breath it in after holding it in while we find ourself under water. 

It makes sense that the one area we naturally act like God is the one area we personally can identify with the compassionate response of God. God has shown mercy, kindness, and love towards us, it is natural with God, it is automatic.  Even though we struggle receiving it, it is our natural response as well.

God looks at his own creation, and those he created, with the same passion we look at our created.  To walk away, to wash his hands, is no more natural to God than it is to us.  God lives with limitations just as we do, God is still restricted by the choice he gave to humans. Eventually, everything we do is restricted by the choice of the one we seek to rescue.

Isaiah explains this to a people who are finally ready to hear, who are finally ready to receive, 

‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint, he does not grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

Isaiah 40:28-31

It is then, when time is ready, when time is complete, when time is full, when we are ready to see and to hear and to receive, it is in that moment that God acts.  God defeats the Babylonians and sends the exiled home, God opens the heavens, he tears them apart, so that, at this perfect time, he can send a messenger to tell us,  ‘Look, there it is! There is the Hope that you are now ready to see! Look!! Grab ahold of it! It has been there all along but now the time is here! Now your eyes and your ears are open and ready to receive.’

God opens up the heavens, he lets us see the evil around us that we have somehow not seen, he startles us awake, he shakes us to the core – 

‘look you have not seen this before – let me wash away the very things that are causing your blindness, let me wipe your eyes clean, here step into and even under this water so I can lift you up clean!’

God opens the gates of Jerusalem, he permits the Persians to defeat the Babylonians, he lets the evil shatter the windows of our sacred buildings – all to wake us up, to pull us out of our complacency, to turn us back to him.  And then the messenger says, 

‘It is time, time to admit that your eyes have been closed, it is time to see truth and to turn back to God.’

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’

Isaiah 40:3

In the wilderness, why does it have to be in the wilderness? Why? The wilderness is messy and it takes time to get there….you can’t sit down, you can hear very well, there is no coffee, and some of the people that do to ‘wilderness’ things are not the people we need to be rubbing elbows with! 

And why does it have to be a ‘messenger’? Messengers like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptizer, and their ilk, their clothes are repulsive and their smell is even worse, their diet is ridiculous, and their message is intrusive and unfair. Really, for this we leave our buildings, for this we walk out of our city?

And yet, people went. They went out to the wilderness, they went out to the messenger, they went into the water, they went under.  It was filthy water before they ever stepped into it, and, after all the crowds descended into it – the water was a true health hazard.  Every possible filth from every possible filthy human being had been washed into the water, it was now just waiting to stick to the next victim.

Into this, Jesus stepped.  He didn’t just dip a toe, but he fully immersed himself, he was all in – feet, hands, face, hair, nothing was left dry, no part of his body was spared the disgusting impact of humanness and the human condition. 

And then, oh, and then, what happened revealed everything. It was a game changer, it was radical and it was revolutionary. The water liberally covered his body, it creeped onto every inch of his flesh.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, you are the Beloved;’ and God sighed just before saying, ‘with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:10-11

‘The heavens torn apart!’ God had broken through, God was set loose. Now, at the edges, there was God, now in the filth of humanity, God was there, now with us, God is here. God was no longer confined in a building, or by an institution, or a political party, or by a government,  God is here, God is there, God is present!

God was loosed.  Loosed. It was the first greek word we learned in seminary greek. loo’-o.  To deliver, to unbind, to free, to dissolve, to release.  It is a verb, is is an extreme action word, it is a ‘do’ or ‘doing’ word, it takes a deliberate effort, it takes action, it is not magical or automatic, it is not without expense or sacrifice, it comes with a steep cost. It takes something being torn apart, it takes a radical work that is beyond our human ability.  It takes stepping down into, and under, the filthy water of humanity and taking on that very filth.

And, here is the thing, when Jesus came out of the murky, filthy water,  the water was clean.  It surely still looked a mess, but now all the filth that had been floating around had now clung to Jesus. So now, those who stepped into the water after were stepping into water that could truly cleanse on all levels.  

To those of Jewish heritage, baptism held a very real, and needed purpose, to cleanse.  It was truly to clean off all that was unclean.  It was an early attempt to arrive at a level of hygienic safety removing all the contaminants that should inflict and harm. Now, this water, post Jesus, was truly able to serve in that fashion but now on a higher level. Now this water was able to remove away the contaminants of the soul.  Jesus took all of the filth on himself as he arose out of the water and would carry this filth with him to the cross.

This is why Priscilla and Aquila asked an enthusiastic believer named Apollos ‘which water were you baptized in?’ It is what Paul asked the believers ‘were you baptized in John’s water or in Jesus’ water?’ See the water made a difference – not the literal water, that water was much too shallow to hold all the filth it could not fully do the work of ultimate cleansing. It was just a water that got you ready for the true cleansing water, the water that would refine your focus so you can see. That water was much more than a physical element, it was forever.  ‘Was it the water where you left everything that would keep you from seeing Jesus, or was it the water that had been cleansed by Jesus?  It was important to differentiate – it was essential for Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos and for us to identify the water.

And we cannot miss the voice, may we never miss the voice, may we too come up out of the water and hear that voice.  A heavenly voice that has torn through and been loosed in our life. A voice that we can only hear when we go under and allow the cleansing water to wash away the gunk from our eyes and our ears, loosing us up see the presence and to hear the voice of God.  It is not a one time literal baptism but a continuous eternal Jesus water to which we can hear the ‘well pleased’ words of the Father, in which we can see the ‘step out’ guidance of the Spirit, to which we can recognize the ‘it is done’ promise from the Son. We are talking about the waters that have been created, cleansed, and offered to us by God. The waters which have ransomed and redeemed us, a work that we were, and are, unable to do for ourself.  Waters that have revealed the patience, love, mercy, compassion, hope, joy, and presence of God.

A little over a year ago I stood elbow to elbow with people who had come to understand that knowing their waters could mean life or death.  Folks that had been kidnapped and held ransomed just for the tint of their skin, their bodily features that identified their nationality, they were tortured, and threatened until they could identify someone who could ransom and redeem them, someone who had the right water.  Then, after they were loosed, after they were ransomed, they carried a ‘water identifier’. An often ten digit alphanumeric code that would say ‘they have been in the waters of deliverance, they are already freed’ to the next kidnappers who attempted to steal them away.

So we ask ourselves, which waters have I stepped into? What are the waters that I am permitting to pour over me? What are the waters that I am dependent on for my rescue? Out of which baptismal waters did I rise from?

We have just readily said goodbye to a year in which we have been confronted with the fact that there are things we, as humans, cannot change, things we can not control, things that are not only beyond our power but beyond the power of our institutions and the scope of our traditions.  We have faced the truth that we are not immune to everything, that we are not able to outrun the curse of our ancestors, that our status, wealth, power, and geography do not hold the arrogant place that we have thought was unshakeable.  We have been forced to see that we stand alongside all of humanity, not just those with whom we share a common belief, heritage, color, gender, philosophy, education, citizenship, or any other label. We do not have a baptismal privilege because the waters of our baptism were, or are, superior to the waters of others’ baptisms. We can now see the futility of waters of religious celebrities, of political parties, of worthy agendas and lofty philosophical aspirations.   Those waters are filthy, they only contain more filth that will stick to us.  Or, are our waters the waters that have been cleansed by and through the ultimate sacrifice? Are they waters that cleanse on the highest level, are they waters that give us back our sight, waters out which we can arise and hear. What waters were you baptized in?

We now stand at the start of a new year, just a couple of weeks in and we have already seen that, while there are things we cannot control, there are still things we can do, things we can search and seek, places we can stand, people for who we can stand, and things for which we can stand.   It is a year in which we, once again, have been invited to step down into, and under, the waters that will wash the gunk off our eyes and out of our ears, to let us see and hear what Jesus saw, what Jesus heard as he stepped out of the waters over 2000 years ago.

Waters that move us to authentic and genuine actions.  Actions that are out of that breath of God that leads us to act out of and with mercy and compassion.

This past Wednesday we all sat in shock as the sacred institutions of our democracy were breeched and defiled.  We saw many who had chosen to step down into the waters that only piled on hatred and filth, waters that could not cleanse, waters unable to give life, instead they were waters that multiplied the hate and chaos they were designed to multiply. For many, they came out dirtier and more hopeless than before.  There were those, those who didn’t really ever step into the waters but still, they felt the midst of the water as they stood near.  To those, those who did not leave with additional hatred but instead sensed that breath of God, for those they had to find that Comfort that God provided.

U.S. House Representative Andy Kim from New Jersey felt that need for the comfort.  In between the votes in the chamber after congress resumed the electoral process, Representative Kim had to get out into the building and view the destruction of what had taken place earlier.  It only took a few moments for his eyes to fill with tears while he surveyed the damage, he sought out a trash bag.  Soon, Kim was on his knees filling the large trash bag with cigarette butts and other refuse discarded by those who had unpatriotically trashed the sacred building.  For over an hour and a half Kim picked up these pieces of debris that powerfully said so much.  “I was cleaning up the Capitol because it was the right thing to do. That building deserves to be treated with respect, and it was desecrated,”,’ he replied when he was asked about it later.  Truth was, it was the only natural thing he could think to do as he sought God’s comfort in such a discomforting time.

As we stand at the start of this new year, this new opportunity, as yourself, into what waters are you being baptized?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

Too Strong

On Christmas Eve, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, three American soldiers on foot found themselves lost in the heavy snow of the Ardennes Forest. As they desperately attempted to locate the American lines, they came across a cabin in the woods. Hungry and desperate for help, they knocked on the door. A German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived there with her 12-year-old son Fritz, opened the door and was shocked to see three American soldiers. Recognizing that they were hardly older than boys and one was badly wounded, she invited them inside. The fact that they chose not to break into the cabin and threaten her for help made Elisabeth trust the American soldiers.   Elisabeth, communicating with the Americans in broken French, was cooking a chicken for the soldiers when there was another knock at the door. Opening the door, Elisabeth was shocked to find four German soldiers, one of whom was a corporal. They, also, were lost and hungry. When they asked for help, she replied that there were American soldiers inside, including a wounded one. After a long stare, the corporal replied that there will be no shooting on the Holy Night. Elisabeth collected the weapons of all the soldiers and left them outside and welcomed the German soldiers into the house. There was immense tension between the German and American soldiers, but the smell of roast chicken and potatoes kept a peace. One of the German soldiers tended the wounded American. After they ate their food, the soldiers went to sleep. The next day, the German corporal checked the map used by the Americans and told them the way to get back to their camp. He even gave them a compass. Elisabeth returned their weapons and both sets of soldiers went in opposite directions. 

The greatest hope is usually found in the places where the least hope is visible.

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your  welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me 

Jeremiah 29:11-14a

The greatest love never fades and is never taken away

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

Jeremiah 30:3b

These things were said to a people who were on the wrong end of 7 decades of misery and pain, over 70 years of exile and slavery ahead, now away from their promised land – which was now a land of very little observable promise to even  return to.  It was here, on the human time line at point zero, that the timeless God assured them that there was indeed hope and that they would eventually see and grasp it in time. I cannot over emphasize the importance of understanding our ‘stuckness’ in time as opposed to freedom in God’s timelessness. It was a hope designed to endure almost a century, because it would take the people almost a century to recognize it – it would take that long before the people would be ready to receive it. Jeremiah called the people to live in a timeless trust of God’s hope –  to return to living their lives, while on a higher level trusting in God’s hope that this life was not permanent. Timelessness enables us to trust God even when our humanness screams for us to focus on time. Hope waits, it waits for us, God does not hide it, because God does not hide, he waits until we are looking and then he lets us find it along with him.

Listen to the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 147, 

It’s a good thing to sing praise to our God; praise is beautiful, praise is fitting. God’s the one who rebuilds Jerusalem, who regathers Israel’s scattered exiles. He heals the heartbroken and bandages their wounds. He counts the stars and assigns each a name. Our Lord is great, with limitless strength; we’ll never comprehend what he knows and does.  

God puts the fallen on their feet again and pushes the wicked into the ditch. Sing to God a thanksgiving hymn, play music on your instruments to God, Who fills the sky with clouds, preparing rain for the earth, Then turning the mountains green with grass, feeding both cattle and crows. He’s not impressed with horsepower; the size of  our muscles means little to him. 

Those who fear God get God’s attention; they can depend on his strength. Jerusalem, worship God! Zion, praise your God! He made your city secure, he blessed your children among you. He keeps the peace at your borders, he puts the best bread on your tables. He launches his promises earthward— how swift and sure they come!  

He spreads snow like a white fleece, he scatters frost like ashes, He broadcasts hail like birdseed— who can survive his winter? Then he gives the command and it all melts; he breathes on winter—suddenly it’s spring! He speaks the same way to Jacob, speaks words that work to Israel. He never did this to the other nations; they never heard such commands.
Psalm 147

It is when we connect that there is hope when no hope can be seen; when it dawns on us that just because we are hopeless does not mean hope is not there, when we are able to live and accept that unseen hope – because we have accepted and live in Jesus, hope itself, it is then that our praise is deep, it is then that our praise is sincere, it is then that are praise is truly about who God who is strong when our world seems to be much stronger than us.  It is then that we are praising the God who is strong for us when that which comes against us is too strong for us to overcome.

Faith engulfs us in Hope, recognizing and living in that Hope lands us at the home of peace, choosing that Peace over chaos and fear creates in us a Joy that is not overcome by the darkness, and wrapped around all of this, binding it together, is Love.

Let’s take a look back at the message of Jeremiah to a people who have now been conquered, exiled, and enslaved, after they had witnessed the completed destruction of their land, their city, and the temple, a destruction that honestly had begun with them as they disregarded how to care of the land. Now Jeremiah is telling them of hope that they would experience in 7 decades, and he addresses the elephant in the room, the fact that they are powerless, and their oppressors are powerful – too powerful, too strong for them to overcome.

We land at Jeremiah 31:11 where God wraps the ‘how can it be possible’ and ‘how will we see that strength?’ in a mere 15 words. 

‘For Yahweh has ransomed and redeemed Jacob from one who is too strong for him.’

15 words, in which we will pull out the 6 words that explain, affirm, and assure our faith and our hope. 

HAS – notice the tense of this word, it is something that has  already happened, it is not a ‘will’ happen, or even a more formal ‘shall’ happen, it is a ‘HAS’ happened.  God is assuring the people that necessary actions are already in motion, their rescue is already a reality – now it is up to them to grasp it – which will take 72 years. Remember, we are shackled by time while God is timeless – to us, 72 years is hopeless, to our timeless God it is just enough [time] to do the work of transformation that must be done.

RANSOMED AND REDEEMED – Two words that both appear as verbs in the midst of these 15 words.  Both are actions taken by God on our behalf.  Ransom is to pay a debt for the release of the person in bondage. It is an exchange of some kind involving something of equal or greater value.  Ransom is Deliverance.  Redeemed is to recover something that belongs to you.  To take back something that originally belonged to you.  Ransomed is deliverance that has already been secured, Redemption is a recovering and return of that which belongs to God.

JACOB – God says that he ‘has redeemed’ and that he ‘has ransomed’ Jacob.  Jacob, is the son of Abraham, who originally received the promise, Jacob, not only had the promise past to him but he also was the physical mechanism, he moved the promise from ‘a person’ to ‘a people’, meaning he had a lot of sons.  As we saw in Galatians last week, and in Ephesians this week, we, through Christ, as adopted sons of God, are a part of that ‘people’. Meaning, that Jeremiah spoke to the descendants of Jacob, their blood ancestor, our adopted ancestor, and, in using the person Jacob, he was addressing the descendants.  This people – ultimately including us – are ‘the Jacob’ that Jeremiah names. 

TOO STRONG – this is self explanatory but seldom self realized and accepted.  We humans can, and will, come against someone or something, that is too strong for us to overcome, to defeat.  There will always be a darkness that we are too weak to navigate.  The depiction of the man, Jacob, is replete with his weaknesses, as are his descendants, as are we.  That is the role of the Spirit, to ‘come along side’ of us, especially when we facing that which is too strong for us.  As God says that he will deal with that which is too strong for them, they are in a time when their oppressors, the Babylonians, are physically too strong for anyone or any nation.  However, at this point, seven decades before, God is raising up that which will be strong enough to confront the Babylonians – the Persians.  The Persians will be conquers of the Babylonians, and their King will be the strong power that allows them to return home.  God is our power when we are against that which is ‘too strong’.

Oddly, it was the German colonel who made the decision that it would be a night of peace, and a German single mother who chose to enforce that decision by removing the weapons from the equation.  It was a decision, made and enforced by those who represented a country and military that had committed the brutal genocide killing over 6 million Jews and almost a million ‘unacceptable’ people from groups such as Disabled, Romas, Homosexuals, and anyone who disagreed with Hitler.  The ironic thing in that house where enemies were sleeping was that the decision for peace was attributed it to being Christmas Eve – ‘The Holiest night of the year.’ It was an officer, who was part of the regime that was intentionally seeking to wipe out complete people groups that said the world ‘Holy’. The irony is outrageous, but it is also gives a glimmer of hope.  There, in that cabin with 9 people crammed in together, the majority who considered others in the cabin as extreme enemies – because of an attribute of God, HOLINESS, that one man said there will be peace.  On that night, somehow, truth broke through, on that night a German officer took the risk to recognize ‘Holy’. On that one night, at least one person remembered his path and the hope he had forgotten – this remembering led him to peace and peace is difficult to not share.  It was surely one of the many sparks that ended the war less than 9 months later.  That night, God rounded up all that he had done in the officer’s life since childhood and on that night, that perfect night, it came to fruition, in the fullness of time, the timeless God said ‘now’ and a man changed history at least for the 9 people in that cabin on Christmas Eve night.

What is our hope, what keeps us on the path and living according to the God who does not work on our time?  John explains it best,

Even before our beginning there was the Word, the Truth, the Son, there was Jesus.  He was with God and he was, in fact, God.  Jesus existed at our beginning with God. Everything that was created – God created it.  There was nothing that was created by any god other than The God.  He gave life to everything that was created, and his very existence brought light to everyone.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. Jesus came into the very world he had created but a world that did not recognize him.  He came to his own people but they actually rejected him.  But, those who believed were given the right to be, and refer to themselves as, children of God. Don’t be confused –  this was a hugely diverse group! Masters and Slaves, Jews and Gentiles, Men and Women, and every possible label you could imagine – of course God does not see those labels so it is not surprising that such diversity was drawn to Jesus. See, we were adopted by God, we are, therefore, children of God due to the fact that God put on flesh. God became a human and lived birth to death just like all humans.  Those around connected the dots that the life of Jesus was a reflection of God, they saw love that had no boundaries or end, and they saw God’s glory – they saw the Father’s sacrifice.

That is our hope.  A hope that has already been accomplish and completed.  We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.

That is our hope.  A hope that has already been accomplish and completed.  We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.

What the World Needs Now

This has been quite a year. This has been a year in which God has given us each an opportunity to recognize that the path set before us looks a little different, there are some curves and turns that we did not see before, and, with each new curve and turn, he is giving us the chance to say ‘yes’ to our transformation and ‘yes’ to our refinement. This has been a year when God has challenged us with the question – Does our love look like Jesus’ love?

Which brings us to today, on this day we light or fourth advent candle.  Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, today, Love.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote, 

There is nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can make that can be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see isn’t shown. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love, Love, Love Is All You Need. Love, Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.

Burt Bacharach wrote,

Lord, we don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb, there are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last ’til the end of time. Lord, we don’t need another meadow, there are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow, there are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen, Lord, if you want to know…What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some, oh, but just for every, every, everyone.

Rabbi Yehuda Lave wrote

“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva called this “the great principle of the Torah.” A moral society will succeed; an immoral or amoral one will fail. That is the key prophetic insight. G-d did not make the demand that people love one another. That was beyond their remit. Society requires justice, not love. Good people love God, family, friends and virtue.  “Beloved is man,” said Rabbi Akiva, “because he was created in God’s image.” Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. God made each of us in love. Therefore, if we seek to imitate God – “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” – we too must love humanity, and not in the abstract but in the concrete form of the neighbor and the stranger. The ethic of holiness is based on the The vision of creation-as-God’s-work-of-love. This vision sees all human beings – ourselves, our neighbor and the stranger – as in the image of God, and that is why we are to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.

Love is the spark and the fuel for the Holy events we observe in our remembrance of God’s gift of the Son to, and for, us.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.

In this, our initial introduction to Mary and Joseph, we see that God sent the messenger. God, meaning the full God, father, son, and spirit. They were all present, as they discerned that now was THE time, the plan that had been in place since before time began, before humans existed, before there was a need for a Messiah. The plan of redemption, of restoration, the plan that called for sacrifice and death, the plan with the purpose of life – life for all.  As father, son, and spirit stood there, were they crying, were they excited and hopeful, were they concerned, or were they stoic and determined? Did they grab ahold of Jesus and hold on to him with all their might, not wanting to let him go?  Did they have visions of the evil on earth running through their thoughts?  This shared angst of the three was compounded by the fact that Jesus was about to step out of heaven and onto his earthly path in the most vulnerable state possible – he would begin as a helpless infant. Now there was no plan B in case things got too difficult, there was not a quick getaway if it became too painful and intense, this was THE plan.  They were 100 percent confident with the plan, it was the perfect and, actually, the only plan to deliver all peoples.  However, as they stood there they were more than aware that this had never been done, God had ever ever endured through anything like this path… just how brutal would it be, how difficult would it be to watch?

The three surely experienced all of the emotions, all the concerns, all the tears, and all the rejoicing that redemption, restoration, and life would bring back to creation.

Jesus, just like us, would begin his path with faith – faith that he would arrive at the destination, faith that he would achieve the purpose, faith that he would, once again, sit with the Father.  But, still, this had never been done, God had never been subjected to this aspect of the human experience, especially not in such a vulnerable way – he would travel his path just like we travel our path.  He too would be enveloped by hope, the hope which step by step, would bring him to peace, as he chose to reside in that peace he would live in the joy which would hold him through temptation, rejection, grief, arrest, beatings, and even death.

One more element infinitely and ultimately identified their actions – Love.  God had this plan in place long before there was a need because God so loved his creation and his created. It was the factor that led the three to hold to each other on as long as possible, and it was love that led them to let go and send the willing Son to earth, to the world. It was love, ‘for God so loved the world that he…..’

Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, on our fourth Sunday of Advent we arrive at Love. Love binds all of these together.

Paul says to the church at Colossi, 

Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:14

 
What ‘things’ was Paul speaking of, what is bound together in perfect harmony by Love? To answer this, we must go back a couple of verses where Paul says.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:12-14

Love is the variable factor that makes following God’s path different than mapping our own path. 

Mary and Jesus are on two parallel yet unique paths.  Mary’s path is a path paved with pain, misery, it will be a life turned upside down and knee deep in Eve’s curse.  Jesus will experience his path with all the emotions and experiences of the human journey plus his will include a death unlike any death of a human.  Parallel paths, different steps, the same purpose – to rescue the world that God so loves.

Much can be learned from the response of Mary as details of her path begin to unfold. Mary was already on her path when the angel appeared to her, she had already stepped on it by faith, she had already begun to grow in the hope that engulfs the path, she was already gaining a sense of what peace is, and possibly, she was seeing a glimpse of the joy that comes with residing in peace. 

Each year we approach the nativity and birth story as our tradition, we tie it to the songs that are known, we get with family and friends, we over eat and exchange gifts. We fill it with sentiment, which is appropriate as that is what you do when celebrating a birth. Each year we put up the tree and switch our music to the Carpenters and Bing Crosby a little earlier that the previous year, we watch the same gooey Christmas shows we have watched for decades, we remember, we treasure, we enjoy.  It is the ‘most wonderful time of the year!’ We settle into our cherished honored and comfortable traditions as we reflect on and learn from this group of people who were stretched in a time when life went in a direction they never expected.

Today, we focus on Mary, the teen that did not consider herself prepared to take this journey – the truth was, her entire life had been on this path, a path that turned out to be saturated with a hope-filled, peace-empowered, joy-inducing, love-binding journey –  everything about her life had been a journey of readiness up to this point.

An angel appeared to Mary and proclaims to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ God was not a new figure on the Mary’s path.  She had been on this path since childhood, she had stepped on the path by faith long before she even knew what faith was, she had listened to the teachings, followed the prophets words, and, like others, she had kept watch for the coming deliverer, the Messiah.  She had sought truth and grabbed ahold of it every time she discerningly discovered it.  This experience of the angel, however, especially an angel calling her ‘favored one’ was new and a bit disturbing.  The words ‘Perplexed and Pondered’ describe the reactions of Mary at this messenger.

A more vivid translation of the greek word Perplexed is the word Agitated.  This was a fully acceptable response, an angel shows up, which was not a common event in Mary’s life, in fact this had never happened to Mary, nor had any of her friends or family.

We don’t know a lot about angels.  The visual presentation of the Seraphim given in the prophesy of Isaiah 6, presents beings that would be terrifying to the say the least.  Imagine having that appear to you in in moment of quiet with no one else around.


Perplexed, agitated, is the emotion that Mary experienced, it was unsettling and upsetting.  This was something that had not been a fixture in her faith and she  knew not to just accept without proper truth seeking. We saw in our readings a week ago God calling us to be open to his moving but to not be gullible. This was an earthquake moment for Mary, it was a challenge to the faith in which she had become comfortable. Mary had not experienced angels and messages that spoke of ‘favor’, nor had any of the priests, rabbis, or even prophets educated her on this, it was totally new, it was totally, in her reality, without precedent.  Unprecedented things such as this must be questioned, there has to be consideration, she had to seek truth here in the same way she had learned to search for truth all her life.  Earthquakes happen, we are tasked with making sure they are good and true.

Next, we see the presence of a Pondering that rose in Mary. Pondering are the manner we consider and contemplate. She traveled beyond the experience and probably continued to turn it all possible ways in her mind to fully process the event. To better understand this verb ‘ponder’ we consider another verb, which comes after the birth of Jesus – the word Treasure. As shepherds appeared at the stable, as Simeon and Anna, separately approached the newborn Jesus in the temple, and even two years later as the wise men appeared at the doorstep of Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem – Mary ‘treasured’ these moments in her heart.  Treasuring is different than pondering.  This treasuring response was much like a child’s baby book that a parent fills in the significant events in the life of the child.  These filled pages of the baby book then serve to remind in a sentimental way but also when affirmation is needed.  The purpose of pondering is to investigate and then accept or reject, the purpose of treasuring is to hold on to those affirmation moments for times when extra strength is necessary.

The angel informs Mary that she is going to have a child.  Mary was not half listening, No, she was processing as the experience progressed, she was paying full attention, she was fully present and in the moment.  Her response was very human, and again – very appropriate. She began to probe for answers – HOW? ‘How?’ She asked, ‘How is this possible? I am a virgin.’

We have forgotten the value of questions for understanding, even within the conceptual walls of the church.  Much like in the time of Mary, the religious institutions have become the beacons of knowledge that was held in a vault – questions were repugnant, even now. Instead of asking ‘How?’ Or ‘Why?’ We say nothing in fear of sounding stupid or repetitive.  Mary asked a question that needed to be asked, ‘HOW?’  The messenger gave her an answer that met her need for knowledge without overwhelming. The answer gave enough needed clarification to give her the affirmation she sought.

The messenger then initiated the treasuring system within Mary.  The relevance of Mary’s situation was connected to the surprise and impossible pregnancy of Elizabeth.  The two affirmed each other.   Then comes the moment when all of the path before meets all of the path ahead, the moment when she recognizes that, indeed, this is the hand of God and that God can do the impossible, even those things never before done.  God can fill in that gap that seems unfillable.  And Mary responds with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

So, we have an angel appear to Mary and proclaims ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  ‘Favored One’?  ‘Favored One.?! Favored one, meaning that God is about to turn Mary’s world upside down, that she is going to become a social disaster, she will be uprooted from home and family, from the familiarity that is her life, much of her life would be on the run – Favored one, to have all her plans thrown out the door and now facing this great unknown, unknown because it has never been done? This is favor?

The irony of Christmas is that it is all about us and not about us at all, that it is all about giving while being all about receiving, it is all about self and not about me, or you.  Christmas is not the beginning of God’s love but it is the place where we so powerfully see it.

Christmas is actually the most appropriate way to end the year 2020.  It has been a year of unusual messengers that have brought unexpected messages.  We have been faced with unprecedented times, events, inescapable challenges.  Our usual way of life, of family, of work, of play, of church, have all been altered.  We have been faced with the option of forcing the ways of our past, of yesterday, to retain our normal for the future, or, instead, to ponder the agitation we experience with these challenges and consider that fact that God has broken through and is refining our path in preparation for our future. It has been a time when we have been given the opportunity to Love God and Love all Others, or a time to return to primarily loving ourself.  For such a time as this, we celebrate the time of a young lady who was faced with a similar challenge, a similar time, a time of refinement, recognition, and of surrender.  It is also a time for us to recognize the transformation God has done in each of our lives, and in our church.  I could spend paragraphs speaking of the Christians in our nation that have insisted on demanding their rights instead of loving others, religious institutions that have chosen litigation when facing the new twists and turns on their path, twists and turns that are mechanism for God’s transformation in our life.

I believe it has been a time when you, individually and as the small group of believers that go by the name Grace Fellowship, have indeed recognized that this world desperately needs Love. You have accepted the calling to be the avenues of that Love.

Love IS what the world needs now.

Faith, Hope, Peace, Joy, Love

He Has

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had the luxury to not listen.  After all, it would probably not be them who would suffer when Babylon conquered Judah, when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, when the Israelites would be taken away from their homes into decades of slavery – no, it was not them, but, it would be their descendants.

Even though they would be able to escape the brunt of the pain and misery, they would not be able to escape the blame. For they had warning, they had decades of warnings.  Isaiah was one of those who made a full time job of warning the people who paid little attention to his message.  Isaiah warned them of the siege and the desolation, he warned them of their pain, he warned them of hopelessness and desperation.  He warned them, all the time, over and over. Sadly, even though the people thought they were avoiding the uncomfortable, annoying, and unpopular words of Isaiah, they were also missing the purpose and the hope of the coming events.  

The words that God gave to Isaiah to prepare the people so that they could then prepare their descendants, were not only words of doom, they were also words of survival, of life, of redemption, of restoration, they were words of hope.


So, as we arrive at Isaiah’s prophecy of the final section of the Israelites path, the path of restoration and hope – the people, who were not prepared for hope by their elders, were overwhelmed and devastated instead of the intended state of hopefulness. They saw the destruction of everything they defined as home, the saw the desolation of the land, the ruin of the temple, they saw the vulnerably of Jerusalem, they saw pain and misery, they saw a lot of work to be done and a lot of sacrifice to be made, they saw the surrounding nations that hated them as a people, they saw a necessity of their own unity where unity was nonexistent.  They needed hope.

It was in this time of time, a time of despair, that Isaiah calls out to God.

Oh, that you, God, would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence — As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil — To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! You did things we never expected, descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence. Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work.

Isaiah 64:1-7

Isaiah, was calling out God, begging him to break into their world, to make his presence known, to do what only God could do.  The ironic thing was that the people had just seen God act in this very manner.  God had previously placed them into an environment where they were given the time to recognize and remember God. Time is not a deterrent to God so waiting was not a problem.  During God’s wait on the people, God had revealed his patience for them to not only remember God, but to begin to function as his people, to begin to be A people.  In this foreign land in a foreign status, the people had been without a temple, a visible presence of God.  The religious practice of their past was no longer an option, they had been forced to figure it all out.  In traveling this unfamiliar path, they had begun to be reunited with God.  In the absence of the Temple they begun to practice their faith locally, in the midst of others.  Synagogues had become a thing, relating to God everywhere and all the time rose as their religious practice, looking for God everywhere became their norm – they remembered their hope, they experienced God’s peace, inside they had changed, a miracle had taken place, God had ripped open the heavens, God had broken into their existence and they, miraculously, welcomed him in.

The people had waited, they had remembered their hope, nations around had seen the work of the God of the Hebrews, a work and a God that was totally foreign to these enemies.

Sometimes, before we can trust God for the now, we have to remember God that was for the past.  Before we can grasp the fact that God will do as promised, that God will carry us through the unseen and the unknown, before we can stand peacefully on the hope on our path for the destination that is now in front of us, we have to remember that God has.  He has already proven his faithfulness, he has already shown how our path is not untrod, it is not a path out of his jurisdiction.  We can head forward knowing that God will because we are able to look back and see that He Has done, how He Has worked. 

Then, as we remember, we can return to the mission, to the promise from God. In this week, Isaiah sets up God’s call on the Israelites who had returned home. 

You will rebuild the old ruins, you will raise a new city out of the wreckage. You will start over on the ruined cities, you will take the rubble left behind and you will make it new.

Isaiah 61:4

This takes us to Mary, this teenager facing a dilemma that was unparalleled before and it remains unparalleled today.  While there are echoes in Mary’s path of the paths of others and elements familiar to the journey’s of others, but Mary faced a destination that none others every had nor ever will travel.  Mary was about to birth the Son of God, the eternal King, the Messiah.  There is no way for us to be truly empathetic or sympathetic. For Mary it was not only a path unknown, it was a path that would never be known to anyone but this young  girl.  

In Luke 1:46-55 we see how Mary deals with her path.  Mary’s path begins with faith, the place where all of our paths begin.  Mary, before we are ever introduced to her, has stepped on the path by faith, having no idea of the details, and definitely having no grasp of the enormity of the destination.  She was faithful, she had listened since childhood to the stories of how God Has done, how God has been faithful.  Her path, just like our paths, began with stepping on to the path with no guarantees except that God already Has.

Second, we know that the Hope engulfed Mary as she willingly took step after step on the path – that is what steps do.  We can look at the explanation from the angel to see that Mary was already a willing participant in this plan. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ Mary had a choice, just as all humans have been given a choice, so, for the angel to say this, the choice had been made.  Mary traveled in hope. 

Third, Then an ever increasing hope, step by step, brought Mary to peace by the time she reached her destination – that is how hope grows, step by step. She had grown up hearing the words of truth, she then heard from an angel, there was affirmation through her relative Elizabeth, she now stood, and stepped on her path with a confirmed hope and peace. 

This is the reason for peace, peace eliminates the power of chaos and fear, it restricts the control doubt can have over us – doubt will probably always be around when we live in a world with doubtful choices but peace allows us to confidently coexist. Peace however, allows doubt to be the catalyst for seeking and searching truth, but removes the power that doubt can hold over us.

This brings us to joy, possibly one of the most difficult words in the Bible. Joy is a word that has to be defined by its context, and often times, those differing contexts can cause the word to have differing meanings that can confuse and conflict. 

Author Ann Lamott said, ‘I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.’ 

Three Dog Night popularized the words of Hoyt Wayne Axton, singing ‘Joy to the world all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.’

Henry Van Dyke wrote, ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You, Op’ning to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!’ 

The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi said, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.’ 

But then James wrote, ‘whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,’

‘The Angel proclaimed ‘Don’t be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy for all people!’

And returning to our first writer, Ann Lamott, ‘Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.’

Joy is what happens when we take residence in Peace. A peace based on hope which stands strong on hope. A hope that takes us back to the reminders that God is faithful in the past, God is faithful in the present, God will be faithful in the future. Joy is what appears when we live in that peace. It was where Mary was living when she able to sing,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’

This Joy reminded her of the affirmation of her hope and peace, it is what gave her the capability to take up residence in God’s peace, that let her sing,

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise he made to our ancestors.

Joy is the catalyst of our actions, our attitudes, our emotions, our responses, our lives.  Residence always require intentional actions, allowing in, restricting entrance, critiquing every aspect of what we permit to impact us. Joy is what enables us to hear the audacious instruction and comforts to the believers at Thessalonica,  

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens.  This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master.  On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.  The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Christmas is about Joy.  This is the reason that Jesus was born a baby in the lowly manger,  it is the purpose behind the journey to Bethlehem.  The journey of Jesus, was our journey, it was a journey that involved inconvenient journeys, frightening seasons, beautiful moments, loving relationships, devastating set backs, loyal friends, loyal friends that sometimes are not so loyal. Joy is a constant journey of vulnerability that permits us to be dependent on a God who gives us the power to survive and thrive in a world where we often feel that we do not belong.

Christmas is faith, hope, peace, and joy path, and next week we will see how that path is bound together to take us to our final destination – forever.