The covid-19 wilderness…

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Luke 1:80 The child (John the Baptist) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. We’re told he was “in the wilderness” which has obvious connections to both Israel wandering for 40 years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land and Jesus who was tested for 40 days in the wilderness before starting his earthly ministry. In each case the wilderness season involved testing, deprivation, but also strengthening in body and spirit for what was to come.

In the last few days news has been breaking that covid-19 hospitalizations are at record levels in my home state of Texas and several other places around the U.S. and the world. This news is being accompanied by further easing of restrictions to economic activity. My older daughter Victoria is being called back to her part-time job since area restaurants and bars will be allowed to function at 75% starting Monday. I’ll admit I’m concerned. But I understand the impulse to get out of isolation.

Being mostly separated from friends and family this long has been hard on many of us. It feels like the wilderness. A relational wilderness. For many of us it’s also been an economic wilderness. Even a spiritual wilderness. Mostly I just want it to end. I want to get back to something closer to normal, though I expect it’s going to be a while yet. Ugh. But at the same time I wonder what we’re being prepared for. I’m reminded of the teaching on Romans 8:28

“28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Paul’s point is not a denial of hardships, but a reinterpretation of them. Somewhere in the middle of this mess there is a divinely inspired witness that glorifies God, that gives hope to people struggling, that offers light in the midst of a dark world. This morning I’m asking God to reveal my role in this witness and for grace to live it out. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Walking wounded…

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Psalm 74: 20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. 21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long. 23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually. 

Here the psalmist is lifting up a complaint to God – though it may not sound like it. Israel was in covenant with God, meaning they shared an identity together. The two became one beginning with Abraham. What belonged to God belonged to Israel and vice-versa.

An important dynamic of covenant between God and Israel was protection. As Israel worshipped God alone, God was expected to protect Israel from enemies who were not in relationship to God and who did not honor the commandments, the ordinances, the ways of God. Apparently this was not happening at the time of this psalm. The author is essentially saying, “What the heck God?!”

It’s a problem as old as God and people. There are times when God doesn’t seem to be holding up his end of the bargain. Injustice rules, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. God has a way of rectifying these situations in the long run, but in the short term it’s painful.

There’s a lot of pain right now for believers and unbelievers alike. Including me. I get that all things will be made right in the end, but some of us need relief right now. So what do you say God? We’re your people and we need a break. Most of the people I meet in person and otherwise are essentially walking wounded. We’re still showing up, but we’re drained on the inside, running on fumes. Give us grace to weather this storm. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Mary’s profound faith…

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Luke 1:46 And Mary said (after learning she would bear a son),
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

As you would expect of a teenaged girl, Mary was perplexed when an angel of the Lord told her she would bear a child despite her having never been with a man. However, though perplexed, she never expressed doubt that it was possible.

This is in contrast to several women in the biblical narrative who scoffed at the notion of giving birth after having been childless. Sara, Abraham’s wife, comes to mind as does Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who gave birth to John the Baptist. Reminds me of the words of Jesus in Matthew.

Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I love Mary’s simple faith that immediately receives the good news – even though it will make her life complicated in the short-term. Lord, give me the simple but powerful faith of Mary. Amen.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you…

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Luke 1:35 The angel said to (Mary), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Reading in the Moravian Daily Texts we have finished Mark and now begin Luke. Mark begins his gospel with the story of Jesus’ baptism, but Luke contains the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. In this verse I’m drawn to the phrase “will come upon you”. The Greek word here “ἐπέρχομαι” is also used in the book of Acts (also written by Luke):

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you (ἐπέρχομαι)…

We understand Acts 1:8 to have been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came like a violent wind filling the room where the disciples were meeting and tongues of fire rested upon each of them. It was an extraordinary event that no one could forget.

So here we have the angel telling Mary the Holy Spirit would come upon her – which obviously happened because Jesus was born to a virgin. Did Mary experience an amazing visitation from the Lord as was the case at Pentecost? Or was it something more subdued? If it was the former, why isn’t it mentioned? Did Mary not tell anyone? Did Luke not think it was fundamental to the gospel narrative and so left it out?

I’ve experienced both – extraordinary engagement with the Holy Spirit and the more subdued version we read about here. Both are equally valid in my opinion. What’s important is not what it looks like, but that it happens. Have you experienced a visit from the Lord? Or perhaps from an angel? I’d love to read about it.

Come Holy Spirit. Come. Amen.

It’s time to listen…

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Mark 16:1 When the sabbath was over (two days after Jesus was crucified), Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

If you’ve been following along in Mark you know that, in this final section of the story, Jesus’ disciples are not exactly portrayed as a profile in courage. They swore to him they would never leave him or allow anything to happen to him – only to completely abandon him in his hour of need. Here the theme continues.

The women arrived to Jesus’ tomb prepared to anoint his body for burial, but he was not there. A “young man dressed in a white robe” (presumably an angel) told them “He has been raised.” The women were then instructed to tell Peter and the rest of the disciples what they had seen and heard. How did that go? “… they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. So – fear continued to be in control.

I get it. Who would believe them? As women they were not considered people of authority in the community so it didn’t make sense that Jesus would appear to them instead of to Peter or one the other leaders. In later verses we find out when the women finally did muster the courage to share the news, their suspicions were confirmed. No one believed them. Jesus would later chastise them all for their unbelief.

Our country is in a mess right now. I don’t think that’s really debatable. Most recently we had the horrible killing of an Africa-American man in police custody followed by many days of peaceful protests – and violent looting and destruction in dozens of cities. It’s not our finest hour as a nation.

Unfortunately the violence and looting has taken our attention away from the most important aspect of these painful events – that ANOTHER black man was killed unnecessarily by a white man in authority. It happens over and over again and it has to stop.

But here’s a painful truth for me today. People like me, for whom the status quo basically works (not perfectly, but mostly), are inclined to just want the unrest to stop. We think “ENOUGH”! But for many people for whom the status quo is NOT working, ending the disruption of protest and civil unrest is NOT okay because when that happens many will be inclined to stop listening. Yes, it’s true it can be hard to listen to someone who is screaming in your face, but more than ever I believe what they are saying matters. Deeply.

If people like me don’t take seriously what desperate people are saying right now, we are a lot like those who ignored what the women at the tomb had to say. We may not like the messengers. Or the method. Or even the message. But here’s what I DO know. As the people of God, the One who continually showed concern and love for people on the margins, how we respond in these days says a lot about who we really are.

Come Lord Jesus. Amen.

King Solomon – not his father’s son…

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Psalm 72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. 3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. 5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. 7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9 May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. 

This psalm is attributed to King Solomon who was King David’s son. I’m struck by how different is the tone of this psalm has compared to a typical Davidic psalm. David often cried out to God from a place of perceived desperation, even oppression from enemies. He was also effusive in praise of God. David was known as a man “after God’s own heart” which comes through in his psalms – very much a Myers-Briggs “feeler” if you’re familiar with those distinctions. Some might even say he was a bit of a drama queen.

Solomon is different, much more oriented to thinking. First he asks for wisdom to lead well, defending the vulnerable and intending to “crush the oppressor” (v.4). Then he asks that God give him “dominion from sea to sea”. It’s not a request for power simply for power’s sake, but so that God could rule through Solomon. V.11 explains,

“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”.

Again, Solomon saw his own kingdom as a reflection of God’s kingdom on earth. To submit to Solomon was to submit to God.

Jesus’ thoughts on the issue were very, very different from both David and Solomon as we read in the gospel of Matthew chapter 20:

“26… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What does it look like to lead as a servant according to Jesus’ words in this time and place? I’m asking myself this morning. Lord open our minds to understand your will for us all. Amen.

Abandoned. Completely.

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Mark 15:25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified (Jesus). 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Jesus’ abandonment was complete. First, God the Father abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane, refusing to reply when Jesus cried out to him. Then there was Judas who betrayed him. Then there was Peter and the other disciples who fled from him and denied knowing him after his arrest. Then the crowds in Jerusalem shouted, “Crucify him!”. Pilate handed him over the be crucified. The Roman soldiers beat him and mocked him. Once crucified everyone from the casual passerby, to the chief priests, to the criminals crucified on either side of him mocked him.

It’s hard to imagine how awful this must have been. Perhaps this experience is why Jesus later promised his disciples, “Remember I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28).

As of this morning, the violence and destruction continues across America. Demonic powers and forces of evil in the heavenly realm appear to have the upper hand. One could imagine that our God has abandoned us in our time of need, but we know that is not true. Scripture tells us that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.

Heavenly Father, bring peace to our land. Scatter the forces of evil wreaking havoc in the cities of our nation. Show your power, O God. Save us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Lesser of two evils…

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Mark 15:6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Pilate is stuck between a rock and a hard place. V.10 tells us he realized Jesus had not done anything to deserve death, but was a victim of jealousy by the chief priests. Justice would dictate Jesus be set free. But then there were the crowds who had been stirred up to demand Jesus’ death (v.11). And as often happens even today, expediency trumped justice. Pilate chose what he viewed as the lesser of two evils, sacrificing Jesus to keep the peace.

We’re in the middle of awful riots breaking out across the country in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. It’s so sad because what began as peaceful demonstrations crying out for justice for the Floyd family (which I completely support) have devolved into general hooliganism and destruction of property – property often belonging to the very members of the African-American community rioters claim to support. It’s a terrible irony.

I can imagine being a police chief or other civil official deciding how best to respond to the situation. On one hand there is the responsibility to restore order when some rioters appear to be bent on violence and destruction of property. On the other is the awareness that restoring calm may require the use of force, which could get ugly. The optics would be terrible and could inflame further violence. What to do?

I’m grateful I’m not one of those who has to make these kinds of decisions. However, as a Christian I am called to do battle in the heavenly realm through prayer. Make no mistake, the problems we’re seeing unfold have spiritual roots. It’s as the apostle Paul wrote 2,000 years ago in his letter to the church at Ephesus:

Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Heavenly Father it’s so difficult to watch awful events unfold and to feel powerless. But you have given all believers weapons of the Spirit with which we can pull down strongholds. Empower us to do battle in the heavenly realm, binding spirits of violence and death in Jesus’ name. By your mighty hand bring peace to our broken world. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

…he broke down and wept…

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Mark 14:66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Peter swore to Jesus he would always have Jesus’ back. Our passage today reveals Peter’s complete and utter failure to live up to that promise. The end of v.72 says it all. Peter “broke down and wept”.

Things are a mess. From the ongoing struggle with coronavirus, the continued rise in unemployment, and now the brutality of racial injustice – and the violence that has ensued. It’s like the world is coming apart at the seams.

And to be honest I have no words today. I feel like Peter. I know there is hope and things will get better, but right now I’m just experiencing a bit of despair, like I could break down and weep. And so I cry out to the Lord, “Come Lord Jesus”. Amen.

The cross… and new life

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Mark 14:53 They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. 54 Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. 55 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. 56 For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. 57 Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” 59 But even on this point their testimony did not agree. 60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 Jesus said,

“I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”

63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. 65 Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

V.55 tells us that the religious authorities were looking for testimony against Jesus but it wasn’t going well. They couldn’t find two people who told the same story so they were stuck. And what did Jesus do? He helped them out in v.62 by saying “I am” – which is essentially saying “I am the Son of God”.

If it were me I’d prefer to argue for my release than give them more ammo to use against me. But Jesus isn’t interested in being released, he’s interested in getting on with what he knows must happen. He knew by this time he would endure the cross, but that the Father would raise him up.

There is a pattern in the New Testament of dying and rising, of losing one’s life to gain one’s life. The last few months have offered a lot of loss. We’ve lost connecting with our friends and family as we’re used to. We’ve lost some freedom of movement. Some have lost jobs and even lost loved ones to Covid-19. The church has lost its ability to meet in person though some of that is starting to come back. It’s still not the same with masks and distance and other safety protocols.

So as I experience grief and loss like everyone else I’m also anticipating new life. God is in the process of making a new me. A new us. A new church. A new world. But first is the cross. Lord give us grace to embrace what we must so that we too might be raised up to new life. Amen.