March 5, 2019- Shrove Tuesday, Extravagance and Love – John 12:1-8

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Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”  He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-8 (ESV)

Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras (literally: Fat Tuesday.)  Being the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, in liturgical traditions, (especially Roman Catholicism) Shrove Tuesday is traditionally a day to eat up all of one’s sumptuous food and to live it up before embarking on the somber, penitent, fasting season of Lent.  Of course, the Mardi Gras tradition is also one of theoretically getting all one’s sinning out of one’s system so one can be “shriven” or forgiven all their sins.  Of course, we all need to remember our baptisms and confess our sins daily.  We may be God’s saints, but as long as we are in these bodies on this earth, we are also sinners in need of God’s grace.

Jesus was sinless, so He had no sins to get out of His system before the Passover- or at any other time. The only sin problem Jesus ever had is when He took on the sins of the world- so that He could defeat the curse of death, cover us in His blood, and forgive our sins.

He was treated to a dinner with His disciples and friends. Mary saw the opportunity to be extravagant in her care for Jesus while He was with them.  Before He had to embark on His lonely journey through Passion Week, taking on the burden of our sins, and ultimately dying for us on the cross, He was cared for and richly anointed.  She had no idea what lie ahead of Jesus in the following days, but she responded to Him out of love.  Mary did not realize that she was preparing Jesus for the journey ahead of Him and she was anointing Jesus for His burial.

Yes, there are times for prudence and frugality. There is always a need to care for those less fortunate than we are. It can be said in this text that Judas had an ulterior motive for pointing that out. Charity does not always come from a heart with pure motives. There are also times in our lives in which we should celebrate and be extravagant with each other.  We do not know how long we will have our loved ones with us.

Traditionally Lent is a time of penitence and sacrifice. It is not just a time to give up bad habits or to get rid of unnecessary things.  It is a time to contemplate the life and Passion of Jesus.  It is a time to consider taking up good habits such as regular Bible study, giving, or serving others.  As we enter the season of Lent- whether we participate in Fat Tuesday traditions or not- perhaps we could make time to appreciate our loved ones, while they are with us, and we with them.  We do not know where this life’s journey may take us.

 

January 4, 2019 The Light of the World, He Brings a Sword, Depart in Peace

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Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. Isaiah 60:1-4 (ESV)

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And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law,  he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said:

 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him.  And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Luke 2:22-35 (ESV)

Isaiah. Luke. Simeon and Anna.  The Bible is filled with the accounts of those who point us to Jesus.  Isaiah is given the revelation- the glorious vision of Jesus – seven hundred years before His incarnation. Isaiah sees the glory of the Lord and the Light of the world revealed.  Simeon and Anna were blessed with seeing Jesus in the flesh, as a baby brought to be named and brought in to the community of faith.

It’s good news that those of us who are living in this dark world have the Light of the World here with us.

Jesus Himself was named and set apart for God, one with God the Father always and beyond time. He was made incarnate by the Holy Spirit within the Virgin Mary, fully God and fully man, but He was still named and circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic covenant. Jesus had to fulfill the Law in our place.  We are born dead in trespasses and sins, and we cannot save ourselves. (Ephesians 2:1-10)

In our Baptism we are named and claimed as God’s people. We are brought into the life of Christ.  We share in His suffering and His death as well as His resurrection.

Jesus did not come to bring us happy feelies and Care Bears and flowers. He comes into this world bearing a sword, (Matthew 10:34-39) which inevitably brings upheaval and conflict in its wake.  Some of the most bitter and lethal conflicts in this world have been fought against the spreading of the Gospel, between those who have been brought to faith in Christ and those who would oppose Him. Jesus’ coming and the renewal and life that He brings have always been challenged by the world.

Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul too. Her baby boy would grow to be a man who would be crucified to placate our petulant sinners’ demand for blood at the hand of Pontius Pilate, and left to die in cruel ignominy. She will lament at the foot of the Cross as her Savior and ours gives His life and His blood is poured out for her salvation as well as ours.

Light and truth illuminate their surroundings without prejudice. Beauty is made evident when the light shines on it, but so is ugliness.  When everything is brought into the light, we cannot hide.

Jesus brings us into His light- exposing the good, the bad, and the ugly. As we are given the gift of repentance, we confess our sin and shame as we are exposed to His light. He forgives us. He gives us a heart of flesh that desires God instead of a hard heart of stone.  He makes us reflect His goodness and light and takes away the sin and death that are our inheritance from the Fall. He saves us from death and the grave.

Jesus does not promise us an easy or a painless life on this earth, but He does promise us eternal life beyond this world. He does walk with us as we are promised in the beautifully comforting words of the 23rd Psalm. He carries us because we are challenged with many trials we simply cannot bear.  He gives us His peace.  We can pray the nunc dimittis, and go forward in God’s peace along with Simeon:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

 

 

December 4, 2018 By Faith, Jesus was Born of Mary-Matthew 1:18-25

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Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) (which means, God with us).

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)

We share a common ground with Mary. Like her, we are saints.  Like her, we are sinners.  Like her, we have our life and being and our salvation in Jesus, our Savior. Mary is indeed blessed among women, because God chose her for a very special as well as a very daunting mission.  She is not immaculate, nor is she the co-redemptrix with God. She is a human being like us.  She is a human being through whom God worked.

By faith she received the gift of Jesus as not only her Savior, but also her firstborn son. By faith, Jesus, became fully human, as well as fully God. He shares His humanity with us.  The only difference is that Jesus alone of all humans is free from the curse of sin.

We learn from Scripture that we, like Mary and all of the saints who have gone before us, are saved by faith- not by what we do or even by who we are, but by faith in God.

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of countless generations. Mary acknowledges in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that in Christ the promise of Abraham is fulfilled.

God has a history of working in and through His people. He even chose to do His greatest work- the bodily incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus- through human flesh.

We have to wonder about the faith of Joseph as well. Certainly he may have faced accusations from the family or the community that either Mary or both of them had engaged in immoral behavior. It’s understandable that it would take an angel of God to convince him of what in every other situation would be a biological impossibility- a virgin carrying a child.  God made a way for him to believe, and worked in him the faith necessary for him to trust God and trust that Mary’s child was indeed the Son of God.

In Christ we are given the gift of faith. We are given the gift of God’s faith at work in and through the saints, like Mary, whose faith in Jesus was her righteousness.

God provided the lamb for Abraham, and God provides the Lamb for us. In Jesus we have God-with-us. We cannot come to faith in and of our own reason or power. God works great and wonderful gifts in and through the faith He gives us.

December 26, 2017- He Brings a Sword- Matthew 10:34, 37-39, Acts 7:57-60, Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:16-18

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(Jesus said:) “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34, 37-39 (NIV)

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:57-60 (NIV)

Ironically, the Prince of Peace did not come to live among us to bring us flowers and kittens and warm fuzzies, as much as we may have wish He did. He brought a sword. He meant business.

Sometimes being a Jesus follower can seem to be a bit of a buzz kill. We just celebrated the wonder of Christmas and the awe of being in the presence of the Babe in the manger. However, Jesus came here among us not only to redeem us from sin, but also to reveal the truth and to show us how God meant for us to live.  He came here not only to heal the sick and comfort the broken hearted, but also to upset the money changers’ tables, and to challenge the hypocrisy and corruption of the status quo. For those in power, Jesus was a threat to their power, and so were Jesus’ followers. Ultimately, for Jesus to redeem us from our sins, He had to sacrifice Himself and die.

We as Jesus’ followers share in His suffering and sacrifice as well. He has a mission and a purpose for each of us that He has determined in advance for us to accomplish. Our missions in this life will sometimes be joyful and sometimes heart wrenching and tragic.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)

This is part of the good news of God-with-us, as difficult as it can be at times. God has created us to be where we are needed, to be the instruments through which His kingdom is built and maintained and grown. The young man named Saul from the Acts 7 passage, who stood by watching as Stephen the martyr gave his life defending his faith in Jesus, was to become the apostle Paul.  Saul thought he was doing God a favor by getting rid of Jesus followers- only to be set straight on the Damascus road, redeemed by divine intervention, and made into one of the most influential Jesus followers of all. God has ways of naming, claiming and redeeming His own, not to mention, at times, a very catty sense of humor.  As the prophet Jonah found out, if God asks you to do something- it was what He made you for, and you will end up doing it.  It’s far more pleasant to do God’s work the easy way and not have to find out about the hard way, but we humans are stubborn.

Our faith in Jesus may make us unpopular or controversial. We may upset the status quo.  We may cause conflict and strife even within our own families, for standing for what is right.  Even today in some places, standing for Jesus can lead to persecution- including starvation, imprisonment and even execution.

It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-18 (NRSV)

We are all called in some way to give of ourselves for the sake of the kingdom of God- some in living lives of generosity and sacrifice, and some even to give their lives, like the martyr Stephen.

The wonder of the manger and the tender heart of Mary are part of the same story of our redemption as Jesus’ sorrow of the garden, His bitter crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection. As we look into that makeshift cradle, we are also looking at the cross- and we are drawn into the story we were created to participate in.

 

December 5, 2017 – Keep Awake! – Mark 13:24-37

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(Jesus said:) “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Advent is a time of waiting and watching and anticipation. The Christmas story is so tender and sweet, with Joseph and Mary on a donkey, making their way to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. We all love to sing carols like “Silent Night” that picture the baby Jesus in a manger. But verses such as this passage from Mark 13 and others like it (such as Matthew 24) when Jesus spoke of His return used to turn my blood to ice.  Jesus isn’t portrayed as a sweet baby or even as a nice guy in this passage.  He is coming back with an attitude.

Yes we should savor Advent and take the time to get away from the holiday hoo-hah to reflect on what God With Us really means. We should rejoice with Elizabeth and delight in Mary’s song of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  We should look at the manger with wonder and awe.  We do know that Jesus will return at some point in human history, and it will be a dramatic return. The thought of His return can seem rather frightening, especially when taken in the context of popular movies and books that are loosely based on apocalyptic passages of the Bible.  However, we need to take apocalyptic passages as part of the whole counsel of Scripture and not turn them into a bang them up action movie.  There is a great deal of exaggeration and metaphor in apocalyptic literature which is meant to drive the message home.

What if Jesus returns in the midst of the chaos? What if He comes back right into the middle of destruction, death and human suffering?  Where will we be in that drama when He arrives? Are we going to be on the “good guy” side? Will He catch us “being good?”

Rather than looking at Jesus’ return as some kind blazing inferno action flick, why not see and anticipate Him as He really is: a deliverer, the one who will end suffering, death, destruction, and agony? He is the One we cry out to when we are suffering, when we are in despair, when there is no hope left.  We reach out to Him from the chaos and uncertainty that characterize our lives.

We can look forward and watch and wait and anticipate that day, knowing that He will find His people who He has named and claimed waiting for Him and already bringing about His kingdom here on earth.

It has been said that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew today were the end of days, he said he would plant a tree.

God asks us to do the planting and the tending. The harvest is up to Him.  Not every good thing we do will bear fruit that we will see, but it is all known to God.  We wait and watch and hope and work and pray, not in fear, but with excitement and joy.  Be awake.  We don’t want to miss this!

 

 

 

 

September 14, 2017 – Snakes, Sin and the Son of Man, John 3:13-17, Numbers 21:7-9

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No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:13-17 (NRSV)

 

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21:7-9 (NRSV)

Humanity has a fascination with snakes. In some traditions snakes are seen as sacred, in others they are reviled as evil. The serpent is even portrayed as a catalyst to the Fall in the Genesis narrative, though it was Eve’s decision to allow the serpent to succeed in tempting her, and Adam’s decision to follow suit.  The cause of the Fall always comes back to humanity, and our attraction to sin.

Interestingly enough, God sends a plague of snakes to the Israelites as they are wandering in the desert and disobeying Him. In all three of these narratives, (Genesis, Numbers and John) the snakes are symbolic of our sins. Like with the snakes, the consequences of our sins will come around to bite us and bring us death. It’s not so much God’s decision to punish us, but in disobeying Him and going around the boundaries He has set for us, we bring the consequences upon ourselves.

Mary serpent

In Catholic iconography, there is a popular rendering of Mary, Jesus’ mother, standing on a serpent. The imagery here suggests that at Jesus’ conception the serpent (our sin) was trampled and defeated.  The implication is that in God choosing her to be being Jesus’ earthly mother, through her, God gave us the means to reverse the long-ago (bad) decision of Eve in the garden.

It is interesting that John makes the comparison of Jesus crucified on the Cross with the bronze serpent Moses held up. When those who were bitten by snakes looked up to Moses’ bronze serpent God healed them.  If we look up to Jesus, hung from a tree and weighed down with all our sin, we find healing, life and salvation.

Hopefully we all have memorized that iconic verse, John 3:16- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

He loved the world enough to put the burden of the whole world’s sin and failure on His shoulders.

How do we respond to the love of God in Christ, poured out on us in His Blood that flowed from the Cross?

August 15, 2017 – Mistake or Magnificat? Luke 1:46-55

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And Mary (Jesus’ mother) said,

“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.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  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, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”               Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

Those of us who know the story of Jesus’ conception aren’t terribly surprised by Mary’s song of praise and thanks for the impending birth of Jesus that we know as the Magnificat.  She was blessed like no other woman has been blessed- she was chosen to be the earthly mother of God-in-the-flesh.  None of us can claim that our own children are the very Son of God.  Any of us would be deeply awed and humbled by such an honor- or would we?  In the real world, Mary’s situation was not an easy one.

Mary faced some very real possible consequences connected to her unwed pregnancy. She could very well have been stoned to death had she been accused of adultery. (Leviticus 20:10) Had it not been for an angel of God coming to Joseph to tell him that Mary’s child was of God and not from a forbidden liaison, (Matthew 1:1-18) he would have quietly ended their betrothal.  A woman so shamed did not have good opportunities for marriage, and in that day, a woman’s survival depended on being able to marry well. Yet God made a way, so Mary would not have to go through this experience alone.  Even so, Mary, and especially Joseph, would have to have endured snickers and aspersions among friends and family, and no doubt there were “mathematicians” in the community who would be very aware that the timing of Jesus’ birth wasn’t quite consistent with the timing of his parents’ wedding.

Today unplanned or unwed pregnancy isn’t as culturally unacceptable as it was in Biblical times, but women still face hardship in many instances when pregnancy happens at a difficult time or under difficult circumstances. While there is much to be said for the protective boundaries God gives us for our behavior, we all are prone to venture outside of those boundaries. (It’s called sin, folks… and we all sin in one way or another.)  We all make mistakes, and mistakes in this realm of human behavior are very common.  How we react to the consequences of our actions can decide if an unplanned child is a mistake, or a cause to break into praise like Mary does in the Magnificat. God can take our tragedies and mistakes and turn them into blessings and joy, if we surrender ourselves and our situations to Him.

How are we supposed to know who that child may become, or what gifts he or she has to contribute to the world?

Sometimes in a troubled pregnancy situation, the mother or child has health issues. Sometimes the father of the child wants nothing to do with either the mother or the child.  Other times women who choose life for their unborn children face opposition from the child’s father, or even from their own parents. Unplanned pregnancy almost always brings economic and social burdens, even when mother and child are in good health.  Bringing a child into the world is a major life upheaval under the best of circumstances, let alone with a backdrop of hardship or abandonment.

In difficult situations- whether we contributed to them, or we came into them through no fault or planning of our own- can we still praise and magnify the Lord, and trust that He will make a way?

Sometimes situations that appear to be hardships or burdens- or even tragedies- are blessings in disguise, ways in which God comes to us with healing, divine provision, redemption and new life.

May our souls also magnify the Lord.