God’s Voice in ‘Sheer Fine Silence’

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I Kings 19:1-5, 9b-18

Elijah Flees to Horeb

     1Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

     3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

 The Lord Appears to Elijah

     And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

     10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

     11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

     Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

     Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

     14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

     15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

It’s pretty rare for us to base a daily Reflection on a story from the First Book of Kings, but this is a story that seems to me to be one of the most interesting and instructive stories in the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, the passage we’re reflecting on today is actually part of the listed reading for Sunday, but I’ve adjusted the schedule so we can think about it together today. It’s a story about events that happened almost 3,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, but it challenges some common assumptions among people of faith about God’s actions in the world.

Let’s start with a little background:

Elijah was a prophet God sent to Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab’s queen was Jezebel, who was a foreigner and a militant worshiper of the false god Baal. Because of her influence, Ahab had allowed the worship of Baal to spread throughout the land. Finally Elijah had challenged the priests of Baal to a public contest in which each side called on their god to send down fire and consume a sacrifice. The priests of Baal failed, of course, because there is no Baal. But God promptly sent down fire when Elijah called on him, so the people rose up and purged the country of the priests of Baal.

In our reading for today, Jezebel is enraged by these events, and swears to have Elijah killed. He flees into the desert, where he displays the classic symptoms of depression – lethargy, hopelessness, sleeping excessively. Just at the moment when he thought the forces of the true God were victorious in the land, the head of evil had raised itself, and Elijah had found himself on the run. So it was probably reasonable for him to be depressed.

But as he lays struggling with this depressive state, God sends angels to provide for him. They bring him bread and water. (And the Hebrew text describes a better-than-usual quality of bread. We might consider it ‘artisanal bread.’) Strengthened by the food and water, Elijah continues through the desert until he comes to the mountain of God.

At the sacred mountain, which is sometimes called Horeb and other times called Sinai, God puts on a demonstration before Elijah’s eyes. First a violent wind powerful enough to shatter rock. Then an earthquake. Then fire from the sky. But after those mind-boggling events, there is silence. Our NIV Bible says, “a gentle whisper.” Older versions of the Bible said, “a still, small voice.” But the Hebrew literally means “a shear, fine silence.” And it is in the silence that Elijah experiences the presence of God in a new and profound way – that’s why he covers his face and walks to the mouth of the cave.

And in the silence after the mighty events, God tells Elijah to go back to work – to anoint a new king for Israel and a new prophet to train as his successor. And God assures Elijah that even when the forces of evil seem to have the upper hand, God will preserve some of the faithful to carry on the true faith.

So here are the things I think this ancient story is meant to tell us:

First of all, that we’re mistaken to think that it is in fire and storm and earthquake that God typically works in the world. Sadly, we’ve adopted the practice of classifying those things as “Acts of God.” (Interestingly, that’s one of only two places God is still acknowledged in our current legal system.) But in this passage, God seems to be saying that his voice is really heard in the silence after the storms.

Did God send a hurricane to lash the Caribbean and Florida last week? Are storms like that expressions of God’s anger at the people who live in their path? I think not. But the people of faith who send help, the churches that reach out to help their neighbors – that, I think, is the sound of God’s quiet voice after the storm, speaking a word of comfort and encouragement to those who have suffered.

The second thing I think this story wants to tell us is that even in those times when it seems that the forces of evil are winning, God has not abandoned the project of establishing his kingdom. God has made a promise to preserve a remnant of the faithful even in the darkest hours.

To me, this seems like one of the greatest stories of comfort and encouragement in all of the Old Testament.

Let’s pray. Lord, help us not to be shaken when spectacular events take place, and guard us against the mistake of believing that you send storms and earthquakes as punishment upon those who suffer. Help us to listen for your word of hope in the silence afterward, and empower us to be messengers of that word of hope as we serve the suffering in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and may you encounter God in worship Sunday!
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 51 and 65; I Kings 18:20-40; Philippians 3:1-16; and Matthew 3:1-12.)

 

The Power and Danger of Speech

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James 3:1-12

Taming the Tongue

     1Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

     3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

     7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

     9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Today, for the second day in a row, we’re thinking about a reading from the Letter of James. And in this passage, James deals with a topic that’s absolutely critical to the life of faith – the ability to communicate verbally with others.

This is probably a subject that’s recognized as more important today than it was when James wrote these words. Clearly, he recognized that speech could represent both a great blessing to humanity – and also a great curse on it. But contemporary research in fields like the neurosciences and social psychology is showing that speech is critical to the way our minds are formed and shaped. So in ways that James would never have suspected, we are what we are because of the power of speech.

Let’s start with this: A good case could probably be made that our ability to communicate is one of the most important ways that we human beings display the image of God.

We might not think of it that way, because the first thing that goes through most people’s minds when you talk about the “image and likeness” of God is our visual appearance. But that’s apparently a mistake, because as Jesus says, “God is spirit,” so there’s no way for us to have a clue about what God “looks like.” In spite of the way God has been represented in the arts – like on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – there’s no reason to think that God has a physical form like ours – that’s probably a case of us tending to ‘make God in our own image.’ It’s highly unlikely that’s what it means that we’re made in the image of God. Any references in the Bible to God having arms or feet or whatever are just poetic metaphors.

It seems much more likely that we actually display the image of God through our unique capabilities – that set of abilities that are collectively referred to as “human consciousness.” Those capabilities include the ability to remember and learn from the past, the capacity to form relationships with others, the sense of right and wrong, and the ability to plan and control our actions. Probably also the ability to form judgments about what other people are thinking and feeling, and to empathize with them. These all seem to be parallels between human consciousness and the way God reveals himself in scripture – and so, all ways that we display the image of God.

And one vital capacity that ties all these things together is the capacity for communication through language – the power of speech that James is talking about here.

When it’s used carefully and responsibly, speech can express incredible beauty. It can weave bonds of affection and loyalty between people that last a lifetime. Thoughtful speech can be a powerful medication for healing, or an instrument for expressing the subtle music of the unique relationship between two particular people. Mindfully chosen words can allow us to navigate our way through the moral complexities of situations we have never encountered or even thought were possible. It can help us formulate our thoughts as we “think out loud” about the challenges of everyday life. And, of course, it can express the joyful gratitude believers feel for the God who has given us our very lives and our new lives in Jesus and who provides for us day by day.

But when it’s used carelessly or maliciously, human speech is the most malevolent force on earth. The neurosciences tell us that harshly belittling a child causes actual physical changes in that child’s brain – injuries that may never heal. Hitler did not have to put a gun to the heads of most German people to unleash the horrors of the Holocaust – he used the power of speech with sinister genius to manipulate their fears and incite them to “the final solution.”

And the sad truth is that all too often in our day-to-day living, we sinfully use our power of speech, this incredible gift from God, to tear others down, to exercise power over them, or to make ourselves feel better about ourselves by diminishing others.

I firmly believe that learning to be more thoughtful in what we say is the one single thing we followers of Jesus could do that would have the greatest impact on the unity of the church – and maybe of the world. Imagine how different the world would be if when the sun rose tomorrow, the two billion people who claim the name of Jesus no longer spoke harshly to anyone, even to those who hate us. Imagine how different our public life would be. Imagine how different our political discourse would be if those of us who claim the name of Jesus refused to participate in the name-calling and bitter, irresponsible partisan rhetoric that have become the norm among us.

Earlier in this letter, James advised his readers to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” If all of those who claim to be followers of Jesus could internalize that teaching – could listen twice as much and speak half as much – and to speak with loving care each time we opened our mouths, it might just turn out to be the greatest step ever in bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, move us to speak more carefully, more gently, and more lovingly, so that each word we say becomes one that could have fallen from the lips of our Master, who spoke with love even to those who crucified him. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134; I Kings 9:24 – 10:13; and Mark 15:1-11.)

Failing Jesus when He Needed Them Most

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Mark 14:27-42

Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial

27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:
 “‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.     29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

 30 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.

Gethsemane

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

This reading listed for today has been divided by the editors of the NIV Bible into two separate sections. But it seems to me that the two parts of the reading really belong together, because they tell us about how the disciples insisted that they would stick with Jesus through thick and thin, but then failed him in his time of greatest need. (The scholars tell us that Peter seems to have been the spokesman for the other disciples, so when he insists that he’ll stand by Jesus, we’re meant to see the others as nodding behind him.)

In the first part of the reading, Jesus quotes from the prophet Zechariah to make the point that when he is killed, the disciples will scatter. (And you might remember that the gospels say that’s exactly what did happen.) But Jesus also says that after he rises from the dead, he will “go ahead of them into Galilee” – so he understood that his resurrection would draw the disciples back together again. (And of course, that’s exactly what did happen, too.)

So in the reading, when Peter insists that he will never abandon him, Jesus responds by saying that Peter will deny him on that very night. And since Peter seems to be portrayed as the spokesman for the others, the point of the story probably isn’t that  Peter was any more guilty than the others of failing Jesus in his hour of trial, but rather that Peter was the one who was most vocal about insisting on his loyalty.

So then we get to the second part of today’s reading, which seems like it’s almost intended as an illustration of what Jesus said in the first part.

In that second part, Jesus goes to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. And he takes Peter, James and John with him for moral support. Now, that in itself is pretty interesting to think about, isn’t it? These three guys are the core group of his disciples, but Jesus has just foretold that one of them would deny him that very night. So Jesus goes into the hours of his passion knowing full well that those closest to him would fail him.

nd here at this moment of great fear and anguish, as he’s wrestling with dread at what is about to unfold, these three trusted disciples keep dozing off! It’s hard to imagine how Jesus must have felt at seeing this – his closest disciples falling asleep exactly when he needed them most. He seems angry, but psychologists tell us that anger is a “secondary emotion” – it comes out of fear or frustration or disappointment or some other negative emotion. And in this case, for Jesus to find his closest disciples sleeping while he’s praying in such agony – wouldn’t that be almost as offensive as being betrayed and denied?

Having said that, it seems to me there are three important things to reflect on in today’s reading:

First, the disciples no doubt wanted to stand by Jesus, but the truth is that they were just too weak – physically, morally and spiritually. It was only after the resurrection – when they encountered the risen Jesus – it was only that encounter that transformed them into people with the strength to be genuinely useful to the kingdom. There’s a lesson there for us, don’t you think? If we try to be “good Christians” by our own efforts, we’re also bound to fail Jesus. We’re just too weak. It’s only by consistently encountering the risen Jesus – in prayer and study and worship and service – that we can be transformed into disciples who can play a part in bringing about the kingdom of God.

The second important thing about this story is that Jesus’ suffering in the garden makes it plain that the human side of Jesus really did suffer the way any of us would have in that situation. People sometimes think that Jesus knew everything would be OK in three days, so he just ‘toughed it out’ until then. But this passage, and his willingness to pray that ‘the cup be taken from him,’ make it plain that his passion was just as hideous to him as it would have been to any of us. I’m filled with dread when I go to the dentist. Being lashed within an inch of my life and then nailed to a cross is almost unimaginable to me – and so is the love it took to do that for us.

Finally, this passage really reinforces the historical credibility of the account. It’s understood that the Gospel of Mark is the collected remembrances of Peter, so it comes from the very top leadership of the early church. If the early Christian leaders had just invented the story of Jesus to support their new religion, they never would have told the story this way. No one would dream of inviting people to join a movement by telling them that the top leader of the movement had abandoned their master when he needed them most.

No one would tell a story that way – unless, of course, that happened to be true.

Let’s pray. Lord, protect us from thinking that by our own strength or courage or righteousness we can become the kind of disciples you want. Instead, move our hearts to want to encounter you daily and be transformed by your teachings and the work of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have a great weekend! Worship God joyfully on Sunday!
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 20 and 88; I Kings 5:1 – 6:7; and Acts 28:1-16.)

 

Thinking about the Poor Widow’s Offering

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Mark 12:41-44

 The Widow’s Offering

     41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

     43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This story is pretty well known – a poor widow gives a tiny offering while rich people give “large amounts.” And Jesus praises the offering of the widow. A quick reading gives us the “surface meaning” of the passage, which is that God is pleased even with the small offerings of the poor. And especially with offerings that are sacrificial in nature – offerings that represent a real hardship for the giver.

But it seems to me there’s more to the story than that — including some other things that are easy to miss unless you look closely.

First of all, I think we’re meant to notice that in the passage, Jesus actually sits down to watch people giving their offerings. It’s not that he just ‘happened by’ and noticed what was happening. The way the story is told, Jesus deliberately sits down to watch these offerings – and it’s during the last week of his earthly ministry, so presumably Jesus wasn’t wasting his time with idle pursuits that week. It seems like everything he was doing was deliberate and with a purpose. There’s a special kind of resonance to the things Jesus did and said during those last few days. All those things seem to be intended as a kind of wrapping-up of the most important teachings of his time on earth.

So this story should eliminate any doubt we might have about whether the way we use our money matters to God. Scholars who study both the Old and the New Testaments say the scriptures consistently make the point that what we do with our material resources is regarded by God as an important indicator of our spiritual health.

And I can’t help noticing that in this story, Jesus doesn’t criticize the rich who give the large amounts. There’s another story in which Jesus criticizes wealthy people who loudly announce their giving, but that’s not what this passage is about.

As we said a minute ago, it seems that what distinguishes the poor widow’s offering is its sacrificial nature. As far as we know, maybe the rich people gave sacrificially, too. We don’t know. What we do know is that this lady gave all she had. She gave, as the saying goes, until it hurt. And for that act of sacrificial devotion, Jesus honors her humble offering.

It seems to me that it means something that the woman is a widow, too. Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable people in that culture. So in those circumstances, her giving was an even greater act of faith. By giving all she had, the widow was expressing enormous confidence in God to provide for her needs.

One thing about this story always makes me a little nervous. It’s easy for those of us who are in comfortable circumstances to romanticize poverty – to think of poverty as somehow ‘ennobling.’ (Think of what fine and noble people Bob Cratchit’s family are in A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim is practically a saint.) And it’s a short step from romanticizing poverty to thinking that it’s actually some kind of blessing. And once you get there, it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s not important for us to do anything about it.

But I don’t think Jesus would want us to take this story as “getting us off the hook” in helping the poor. This story probably calls on us to give sacrificially, too – to give sacrificially to the relief of poverty. Maybe it’s even an ingenious story to guard against “compassion fatigue” on our part, since what we can give might seem like just a couple of pennies against the vast needs of the poor.

But there might even be another lesson to be drawn from this story. Sometimes in the teachings of Jesus, financial resources – money – is used to represent our spiritual gifts. Most of us feel like we’re not really that ‘gifted’ in terms of service to the kingdom of God. But this passage might also be intended to make the point that however modest we might think our spiritual gifts are, what matters is how willingly we offer them in God’s service. The quiet service of a humble person of faith might be received just as joyfully by God as the sermons of the most famous preachers or the solos of the most talented singers.

Ultimately, the real point Jesus might want us to take away from this story is that whatever we have, whether it’s time, talent or treasure, God receives it joyfully when we offer it sacrificially to the service of his kingdom.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the rich blessings you give us each day. Whatever those gifts might be, make us more and more willing to give them sacrificially and joyfully, knowing that you receive them as gifts of your loving children, and that you will always provide for our needs. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 139; II Samuel 19:24-43; and Acts 24:24-25:12.)

Leadership among Followers of Jesus

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Mark 10:35-45

The Request of James and John

     35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

     36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

     37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

     38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

     39 “We can,” they answered.

     Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

     41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s interesting that this passage always comes up in the lectionary in the middle of August, because that means it comes up shortly after the annual Global Leadership Summit, which is put on by the Willow Creek Association. The GLS is probably the finest leadership-training event put on by any Christian organization in the world. This year’s event drew something like 450,000 participants at satellite locations all over the country, including 81 prisons.

(Some of the largest prisons in the country have dozens of churches operating among the inmate populations, and I think two actually have branches of seminaries inside the walls.)

In the weeks following the Summit, the presentations are translated into foreign languages and sent to more than 90 countries around the world.

If you’ve never participated in a Global Leadership Summit, I highly recommend it. There’s a registration fee, but the two days of excellent speakers and related content are well worth it. Some of the speakers come from a specifically Christian perspective, but most are leadership experts from business, government, the military, the academic world, etc. I always come back with my perspectives on leadership in the church broadened and deepened.

Anyway, I say it’s interesting that this reading come up right after the Summit because it confronts us with the difference between the vision of leadership that arises out of our selfish human nature and the vision of leadership that Jesus taught his disciples. And of course, that’s the vision that’s supposed to be the model for those of us who claim to follow him today. The organizers of the GLS always stress that a central value for effective Christian leaders is humility, but today’s reading is about self-promotion, which is the other end of the spectrum.

In the story, James and John ask Jesus to grant them the places of honor when his kingdom comes to fulfillment. What they actually asked was to sit at his right and left hand ‘in his glory.’ Jesus’ first response to their request is sort of a warning to be careful what they asked for. He knew what they didn’t – that his ‘glorification’ would come on a cross. So being at his right and left hands might not seem like the honor they were imagining

The two brothers declare their willingness to share in whatever lay ahead of him. (And church tradition tells us that they were probably killed in much the same fashion as Jesus.)  But even so, Jesus says, the places of honor in the heavenly kingdom are part of a divine plan, not something to be handed out on request.

It probably comes as no surprise that when the rest of the disciples hear about the brothers’ request, they are “indignant.” So Jesus calls the whole group together to explain the difference between leadership that arises out of our worldly human nature and leadership inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit among his followers. Worldly leadership involves self-promotion, self-glorification, and ‘lording it over others’ – exercising power. But leadership among Jesus’ followers means being a servant to others, and as Jesus explains it, the greatest leaders in his movement are those who are best able to allow the Spirit to foster an attitude of servanthood in themselves.

It seems to me that for most of us, it really requires a sustained effort to get rid of the worldly, human-nature model of leadership. Those of us in positions of leadership – and that includes a lot of those who are actively involved in the church – we need to be constantly on guard against self-glorification, or against exercising the authority of our positions to get our own way. Sadly, church leaders can be just as guilty of ‘one-upmanship’ as others.

One way church leaders can guard against self-glorification is to make sure that they are leaders in service as well as in preaching and teaching and administration and so on. Pastors and other church leaders should have a hands-on role in feeding the hungry and fixing up houses for the poor and other service work of that kind. That’s important for two reasons: It provides leadership-by-example for other members of the church, and it also reminds us that leaders of the church are meant to be followers first – and followers of a guy who got down on the floor and washed the feet of others.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that by the power of your Holy Spirit, you will touch the hearts of all those who play leadership roles among your Son’s followers, and shape them as servants of all. We ask that you use them to display a form of leadership that makes Jesus known more and more among us. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 51 and 148; II Samuel 15:19-37; Acts 21:37-22:16; and Mark 10:46-52.)

The Casual Evil of the World’s Powers

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Mark 6:14-29

John the Baptist Beheaded

     14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

     15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”

     And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

     16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

     17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

     21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

     The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

     24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

     “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

     25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

     26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

It seems to me that we tend to assume that when people in the Bible do things, they do them for important and theological reasons. But when you really look closely at the stories in the Bible, a surprising number of them show people doing things for selfish, and even petty reasons. This story is an example – it’s a story of a powerful man indulging his girlfriend who had an axe to grind with someone who made her feel threatened.

This reading tells the story of the death of John the Baptist on the orders of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. It seems that Herod Antipas had stolen the wife of his brother. Herod wasn’t a Jew, so presumably he didn’t worry too much about obeying God’s laws about this kind of thing. But this adulterous behavior had drawn the public condemnation of John the Baptist, who was known to be pretty blunt in his criticism of the nation’s leaders. So Herod had John thrown in prison.

Herodias, the woman in the story, wanted John executed. But Mark reports that Herod “feared John,” because he understood him to be “a holy and righteous man.” And what’s more, although Herod found himself “greatly puzzled” by what John the Baptist had to say, he apparently found him fascinating and he “liked to listen to him.”

Which is really interesting, when you think about it. The Herods had a reputation for ruthlessness that bordered on bloodthirsty, but here we find Herod Antipas intrigued by a strange Jewish preacher who had actually denounced him in public. Instead of having John executed as his girlfriend wanted, Herod was keeping him alive and listening to him. Surprising behavior for someone like Herod. It probably speaks to the spiritual charisma that John had.

Eventually, though, Herodias got her way. Herod threw a birthday party for himself, and invited all of his friends and advisors. In the course of the evening, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the assembled party guests, and her dance impressed the men so much Herod offered her any reward she could name, even up to half his kingdom. (Apparently it was a pretty good dance.)

My assumption is that Herod and his friends must have been pretty drunk by this point. This is an absurdly extravagant gesture — offering a young girl any reward she wanted, even half his kingdom. Apparently Herod was feeling especially full of himself on the occasion, because as an appointed Roman official, he wasn’t really a king. So he had no kingdom to give away.

But in the story, the girl consults with her mother, and then demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod finds himself trapped. The birthday party must have fallen silent. Herod was faced with the choice of either murdering a holy man or being embarrassed in front of his friends and irritating his girlfriend. Tragically, but maybe not surprisingly, he chooses murder over embarrassment. And to preserve his own reputation as ‘Mister Big,’ Herod commits one of the most shameful crimes in all of the New Testament.

Of course, Herodias winds up with blood on her hands, too. And why? Because her resentment of John’s condemnation led to such cold-blooded hatred that she was willing to demand a murder to silence a voice that called her to account for her behavior. Some commentators portray Herodias as a victim in the story, but that seems pretty bogus. If she were just a helpless pawn in the story, the voice of John would have been a comfort and encouragement to her, not a cause for murderous hatred.

I guess from a certain perspective, we could see the death of John the Baptist as consistent with the rest of his ministry. John went before the Messiah when he came into the world, and he went before Jesus to his death at the hands of the powers of the world. Like Jesus himself, John stood in the face of the powerful and called them to account for their sins. Both were killed in part because those in power are usually perfectly willing to respond to the challenging word of God by killing the messenger.

It’s every bit as true today as it was in first-century Palestine: It takes a lot of courage to speak for God in the halls of power. But people of faith still name their children after John the Baptist, and Herod Antipas is a nobody on the trash-heap of history.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the bold witness of John the Baptist as he called the world to repentance and prepared the way for Jesus. We pray for your strength for those followers of your Son who stand in the face of power as John did, calling it to account for its sins and often suffering for their faithfulness. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 57 and 145; II Samuel 2:1-11; and Acts 15:36 – 16:5.)

Jesus Prays for Us

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John 17:20-26

Jesus Prays for All Believers

     20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

     24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

     25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

This passage from the Gospel of John, like the readings in several of our recent Reflections, comes from John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. It’s actually a part of the prayer Jesus prayed before the gathering broke up.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Last Supper in John. Many of the most important things Jesus said and did in that gospel happened during that gathering. Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of the disciples – and then he commanded them to do likewise. Jesus foretold his betrayal by one of them, and his impending death. Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit and that he would return to take the disciples to be where he was. And Jesus commanded them to love one another, so that their love for one another would be the identifying mark of his followers.

And after all those things happened, Jesus prayed. And think about what that means: We are given the privilege of listening in as God the Son spoke to God the Father through God the Holy Spirit. On this occasion, humankind was allowed to listen in on the internal dialogue – or maybe ‘trialogue’ – of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus began by praying that the passion and death he was about to undergo would bring glory to himself and to God and bring eternal life to his followers. Then he prayed for God’s continuing presence with those followers as he finished his earthly ministry and they were left on earth to take up that ministry on his behalf.

And then we come to this passage that is our gospel reading for today. Having prayed for his own mission and for the disciples gathered around him, Jesus turns his attention – and his prayers – to those who would come to believe in him through the witness and ministry of the first disciples. So when you think about it, Jesus was praying for us.

Isn’t that overwhelming – that the last act of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to pray for people like us? It seems to me there’s a human instinct to close your time with someone you care about by expressing the thought you most want them to carry away with them. That’s why it’s so common for people parting from loved ones to say, “I love you,” as they go their separate ways. So the fact that Jesus, who in the next 24 hours would be subjected to a horrible death, would be thinking about me and you in that moment – well, I definitely find that overwhelming. It strikes me as a staggering testimony to his love for us.

That also magnifies the importance of what Jesus actually prayed on that occasion, doesn’t it?

First of all, Jesus prayed that those of us who follow him might “be one.” He prayed that we would demonstrate the same unity that exists between the Father and himself. And Jesus says that the unity of the church will be essential to making the world believe in him.

That’s pretty challenging, don’t you think? Most of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus sort of give lip service to the idea of ‘Christian unity,’ but really only want to be ‘unified’ with those who agree with us about the important issues of the faith. But apparently, if we really want to make Jesus known to the world, we have to share his commitment to fostering unity with all of his disciples – including those who disagree with us and criticize us. Not always easy.

And Jesus also prays that those who follow him might be with him in the heavenly glory he’s going to when he leaves this world. Presumably that’s a prayer God would be ready and eager to grant. So those of us who give our hearts and our lives to following Jesus can do that in the hope and confidence that we will meet him in the heavenly kingdom when our service in this world is done.

If you ask me, this prayer that Jesus prayed on his last night on earth really is one of the most uplifting passages in all of the New Testament.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for thinking of us in your last hours on earth, even in the face of the great suffering that stood before you. By your Spirit, empower us to work tirelessly for the unity of all believers, and help us to cling to the hope of finding a place with you in your heavenly kingdom. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 4 and 4; Daniel 2:17-30; and I John 2:12-17)

 

Obeying Jesus by Imitating Him

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I John 1:8-2:11

1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

    2: 1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

     3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. The one who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in them. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

     7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

     9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates their brother [or sister] is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother [or sister] lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates their brother [or sister] is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

This reading comes from the First Letter of John, which is a letter that doesn’t get that much attention in the church of our time. In fact, there are three letters from John, and none of them really gets that much attention. The second and third letters are very short and written to people in very specific circumstances, which probably contributes to their relative obscurity.

But they clearly deserve some attention, because they are understood to have been written by the apostle John, the author of the Revelation and in some sense responsible for the Gospel of John. I put it that way because some scholars think the Gospel of John may have been compiled after John’s death by his disciples – from the things John had passed along to them from his time with Jesus.

The passage we’re going to be reflecting on today actually includes the last three verses of yesterday’s reading, because it seemed to me they all hang together as one logical section.

The first thing that should probably be said about this passage is that it casts some interesting light on the idea of sin as it’s presented in the writings of John. Especially in the Gospel of John, the text communicates the idea that there is really only one sin, which is the failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and accept him as your Savior. But this passage from John’s first letter paints a slightly different picture. It seems to say that there really are other sins, but that those who have embraced Jesus as their Lord and Savior are forgiven of those sins because Jesus intercedes for us.

And in the next sentence, John goes on to say that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This is a very important idea in the Christian faith: that by his death on the cross, Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins, and put us right with God again.

I suppose most of those who follow these Reflections would find these to be very familiar ideas.

But there are a couple of other thoughts in the passage that some people who call themselves Christians seem to forget or overlook. The first of these is that none of us is without sin, which seems to mean sin in the more conventional sense of the word. Because the point he seems to be making is that for those of us who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah and our Savior, we can be forgiven of the sins we will still commit.

But John also says that anyone who has really made a commitment to Jesus will be committed to obeying his commands, and to living in imitation of him. A person who claims to be a Christian but does not live a Christ-like life, John says, is just plain lying.

And as John expresses it in this passage, the main indicator of whether we are obeying Jesus and living in imitation of him is how we treat other people – whether we ‘love’ or ‘hate’ others. The New Testament meanings of these terms is probably a little different than the meanings we typically assign them when we hear them. ‘Love,’ in its New Testament sense, means to make a commitment to the needs and interests of others. And ‘hate’ in the New Testament, tends to mean something like refusing to do that. So John probably doesn’t have in mind here a choice between hugs and kisses or furious hostility, but rather the question of whether or not we show others the kind of sacrificial compassion and caring Jesus himself showed.

Now, just to loop back a bit, John assumes that all of us, even followers of Jesus, will sin and need forgiveness. So that seems to mean that we’ll sometimes fail to extend one another that Christ-like compassion and caring. But the mark of those who truly know Jesus will be a commitment to do better and better in demonstrating that kind of love to others – both in the community of faith and in the world at large.

So, as we said at the beginning, these letters from John really do seem to have some important lessons that are worthy of some thoughtful reflection from time to time.

Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, move us to live more and more in imitation of Jesus, so that we show to others the kind of servant-love he himself showed. And we thank you that when our love for others fails, we can trust in your forgiveness through him. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other listed readings for today are Psalms 116 and 146; Daniel 2:1-16; and John 17:12-19.)

On the Holistic Nourishment Jesus Provides

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John 6:35-51

     35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

     41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

     43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, the one who believes has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread, they will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

I’m honestly not sure why we start the year with these readings. In the passage, Jesus mentions coming down from heaven, which suggests a connection with the Christmas story, but most of the emphasis of the passage is on his statement “I am the bread of life,” which is repeated twice here. That obviously brings to mind our Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the words of institution for the sacrament – the words that are always said when we observe the sacrament – we quote Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” That’s an obvious connection to this reading.

But it seems to me that there’s more going on in this passage than just a reference to the sacrament.

Jesus calls himself “the bread of life.” Bread is commonly used as a symbol for all of our daily needs. Our understanding is that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking God to provide, not just bread or even food, but all our worldly needs. That’s why in one of the alternative versions of the Lord’s Prayer we sometimes use in worship, we say, “We ask that you would provide for our needs this day.”

But the scholars who study the ancient language that Jesus himself spoke – Aramaic – tell us that in that language, the word used for ‘bread’ had an even broader meaning. In ancient Aramaic, they tell us, ‘bread’ really did symbolize our material needs in general, but it also referred to the guidance and understanding we need if we’re going to thrive spiritually as well as physically. So in this passage for today, it seems that Jesus is declaring himself to be the source, not just of what we need physically, but also of what we need for a healthy and growing spiritual life.

And Jesus says that anyone who comes to him in search of a spiritual life of genuine power and meaning will find it. And what’s more, those who come to him searching for that spiritual power will share in his everlasting life. In fact, Jesus says, he has come into this world from heaven for exactly that purpose: to provide what we need to be sustained, not just for mortal life in this world, but also for an abundant and eternal life.

In this reading, the Jewish leaders who hear Jesus make this claim about himself are said to “grumble.” That’s because to them, claiming to be sent into the world from God was blasphemy. But of course, we know what they didn’t know – that Jesus was in fact not just a representative of God, but actually God in human form. That’s an idea they weren’t prepared to wrap their heads around. (In fact, it took the followers of Jesus something like three centuries to figure this out.) So Jesus just told them that he had “come down from heaven.” But even that was beyond their grasp.

And Jesus makes one other point in this passage that seems to me especially worthy of a moment’s reflection. Jesus contrasts himself to the manna the Hebrews ate in the desert on their way to the promised land. Both Jesus and the manna were, in the Aramaic sense, bread from God. But the manna was bread that only sustained the people physically. It kept them alive, but only physically and only temporarily. Jesus, on the other hand, had come to nourish and sustain people spiritually and emotionally as well as physically – and also eternally.

So maybe that’s why the mothers and fathers of the church picked this reading for today in the lectionary. It seems like an appropriate subject for our first reflection of the new year that stretches out before us. I say that because it invites us to open ourselves to receive more ‘nourishment’ from Jesus than we’ve settled for in the past. Jesus invites us to open ourselves to be nourished and empowered for a deeper spiritual life than we’ve ever experienced before – not to settle for a shallow and lukewarm experience of faith and a hope of heaven when we die, but rather to allow Jesus to provide us with a bread that can let us live with a joy and power we’ve never known before.

Let’s pray. Lord, in this new year, move in our hearts and awaken in us a hunger to experience your love more powerfully than ever before. And day by day, help us to open our lives to receive and be nourished by the bread of life he came into the world to bring us. Amen.

May you and those you love be happy, healthy and richly blessed in 2019 and always.

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 29 and 48; Genesis 12:1-7; and Hebrews 11:1-12.)

 

A Moment for the Other End of the Story

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Luke 22:39-53

Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives

     39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

     45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

Jesus Arrested

     47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

     49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

     51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

    52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

It seems like an oddity of the lectionary that this passage comes up as the listed gospel reading a week before Christmas every two years. Tomorrow, the readings switch to parts of the gospels that are decidedly more in keeping with what we expect for the season. But today, we’re left with this reading, which is sort of a downer, so to speak. Every two years, I’m tempted to skip this reading and go on to something that’s a little more ‘Christmasy.’ This reading about the betrayal and arrest of Jesus isn’t exactly a reading to fill you with ‘Christmas cheer.’

But I can’t quite bring myself to skip this reading altogether. I guess I can’t shake the feeling that we can’t fully appreciate God’s decision to come into the world in human form unless we’re willing to face without flinching the reality of what it cost him to do that.

Our celebrations of his birth as the baby Jesus are pretty warm and sentimental. We get together with family and friends we might not see much the rest of the year. We have cookies and parties, we put up cheerful decorations and give presents. We picture the baby Jesus all snugly wrapped up and sleeping peacefully in a stable full of friendly animals.

And to share the joy of the season, we take part in special programs to reach out to the poor and the marginalized. We pack shoeboxes for needy kids. We drop money in the Salvation Army kettles.

And that’s all good. Not a thing wrong with any of those activities.

But there’s something missing from the celebration of the Messiah’s birth unless we stop once in a while during this season to think about the fact this child in the manger was the God who created a universe so vast that our brains can’t even process its size or its age. This baby in the manger was God in human form. And he chose to appear as a vulnerable infant in a world where people betray their friends and teachers. A world where those who come preaching a message of peace and love may be seized and murdered by a mob if they get to be inconvenient to those in power.

I always suspect I’m speaking heresy when I say this, but in spite of the common belief that God is “all-knowing,” I can’t escape the feeling that until the moment described in this passage – waiting in the garden to be arrested – God really didn’t know what human fear is like. The only way to really know what the agony of mortal fear is like is to experience it first-hand. I’m not sure God really knew what it felt like to be betrayed until one of his disciples showed up at the garden leading a gang of thugs with clubs and swords. I’m not sure God fully understood the pain of being denied by a friend until the moment the cock crowed, when he looked up and saw a horrified look spreading across Peter’s face.

This passage makes it plain that when Jesus was walking forward into his passion and death, he wasn’t doing it lightly. He wasn’t doing it with a calm and relaxed attitude, content that it would all be over in three days. This passage makes it pretty clear that Jesus approached his passion with the same sickening fear any of us would experience in the same circumstances.

So I suppose it makes it even more meaningful to remember that as a demonstration of his love for us, he swallowed that sickening fear and went to meet his horrible death with a courage that’s just about impossible for the rest of us to imagine.

Being born into a cozy barn full of friendly animals doesn’t demonstrate that much love. The way we think of it, it almost become a cross between a petting zoo and a slumber party. But being born into a world of people who behave like savage predators – that’s a different story altogether. That is a real demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us.

I don’t think we really allow the true meaning of Christmas to confront us unless we stop at least once during this holiday season and remind ourselves of just what a sacrifice it was for God to leave the beauty and safety of heaven to come down into this dirty and violent world. Because it’s only when we stop and remind ourselves of that sacrifice that we confront the truth of what a staggering love for each of us the incarnation represents.

Let’s pray. Lord, in this season of joyous celebration, help us to keep in mind that our celebration comes at great cost to you. In the midst of the sentimental moments of Christmas, remind us that your love was demonstrated through a staggering sacrifice on your part. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 67 and 122; Isaiah 8:16 – 9:1; and II Peter 1:1-11.)