When We Don’t Understand

Sometimes we are confronted with circumstances we do not understand, but have to live with or accept them on faith.

Mary and Joseph had that experience when they lost track of Jesus’ whereabouts as they were returning to Nazareth from Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.  Jesus, who was twelve years old, stayed behind in Jerusalem while Joseph and Mary thought he was in their company with other relatives.

They returned to Jerusalem, frantically looking for Jesus for three days.  They finally found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  When Mary asked, “Son, why have you treated us like this,” noting that they had been searching for him, Jesus responded, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Luke reports, “They did not understand what he was saying to them.” (Luke 2:41-52)

We might ask why they didn’t understand what the boy Jesus was saying to them.  Both Mary and Joseph were told by angels that what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit, and Mary was told that the child would be called the Son of God.  Elizabeth asked, “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  The Shepherds told them that angels had said the child would be the Messiah.  They saw the Magi worship their baby and give him gifts.  They saw Simeon take the child in his arms and declare that he had now seen the salvation of the Lord.

Perhaps it was because it had been twelve years since all of these things had happened and Jesus had just become another normal young Jewish boy growing up in their midst.   

Last June I booked a cruise for my wife and me that would have begun this week.  Since our daughter Emily is disabled, one of our other daughters who live in North Carolina agreed to leave her family for two weeks and come to assist with Emily while we were gone.  After booking the cruise, I started to get an uneasy feeling about it.

About a month later, a couple of things happened that added to my uneasiness.  The cruise line changed our flight arrangements and advised that certain tours that we selected were no longer available.  I began to pray, asking the Lord whether we should continue with our plans.  I didn’t understand why I had these negative feelings, but after further prayer and discernment, I decided to cancel the cruise.

Last week the father-in-law of our daughter who was going to look after Emily died.  His burial is today.   Furthermore, her husband who was going to look after their children while our daughter was looking after Emily has to leave tomorrow for a business trip to London.  We might have been able to manage all of this, but it would have been very difficult for our daughter and her family.  It would have also created considerable anxiety for them and us.

My wife and I believe that the Holy Spirit was prompting me not to proceed with our planned cruise.  I didn’t understand the reasons, but I acted on the prompting, and my daughter, her husband and their family were able to celebrate the life of his father without an obligation to us hanging over their heads.  As an added bonus, I was able to fly to Colorado and attend the funeral of my son-in-law’s father – a man cherished and loved by his family and friends.

A New Year’s Hope

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

We have just celebrated God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus, one of the greatest acts of humility and love in all of history.

Yet in the world around us one year comes to a close and a new one begins full of conflict and strife, much like they have for centuries.  Wars continue in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.  Incidents of terror and mass shootings take place in our own country and abroad.  The church is rocked with a sexual abuse scandal.  Identity politics and political agendas are tearing apart the very fabric of our nation’s traditions and moral values.

The first chapter of John’s Gospel offers both a realistic context for what we have just celebrated and a hope that can carry us through the new year.  We will not read about it in the news media.  Speaking of Jesus, John says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.”  Not a single governmental or spiritual leader in Israel took note of Jesus’ birth.  Only a few lowly shepherds were his herald.  In fact Israel’s king actually wanted to kill Jesus, not unlike some authoritarian regimes in our day.

“He came unto his own, but his own did not receive him.”  Even before Jesus was born, he was rejected by the innkeeper who had no room for him.  As Jesus later revealed his presence and identity, the religious leaders of his day also rejected him and even sought his death.

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

This is our hope for the coming year!  When we open the door of our heart to Jesus and invite him in, he says, “Remain in me and I will remain in you.”  “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 15: 4; John 14:6, 23)

When we let Jesus and the Father make their home in us, we experience the world around us with a different perspective.  An inner peace is possible even though there is a lack of peace externally.  Jesus says:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” (John 14:27)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (Mt. 11:28-29)

“In the world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

A blessed New Year to all!

Why We Celebrate Christmas

thenativity%20600%20x%20300After hearing the Christmas story over and over, year after year, its true meaning and impact may fade against the backdrop of today’s culture.  Yet, if we think about it, God’s willingness to become one of us is the greatest acts of humility and love in all of human history.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” John 1:14

Here we have God, the Father, creator of all that exists, creator of the millions of galaxies and the billions of stars whose distance is measured in light years; this God who created the atom and the molecule whose size is measured in nanometers – that’s one billionth of a meter; this God who created the human person with a body, soul, and mind, became one of his created in order to free each of us from our sins and the world from its bondage to sin – to reconcile us to him and one another.

Father William Barry, in his book, A Friendship Like No Other, says, “God took humanity seriously enough to become one of us, and we do God no service if we downplay what God has done in becoming human.”

God in Jesus was a real human being, born of Mary in the humblest of circumstances in a cave or stable with animals nearby.  He had to be toilet trained, learn a language and be raised from childhood to an adult just as we all have been.   His family was forced into exile to Egypt to escape the sword of Herod. He evidently followed his earthly father, Joseph, in the trade of being a carpenter, for the people of Nazareth were later to ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3)

After assuming his public ministry, the leaders of his own religion handed him over to the Romans to die a horrible death.  God is no stranger to suffering.  God in Jesus knows what human life is like from the inside.  His desire for friendship, to dwell with us and in us knows no bounds.

A cobbler does not become a shoe, a cabinet maker does not become a cabinet, but God the Father and creator of all that exists became one of us.  Little wonder that history’s calendar is measured in terms of before and after this event.

“For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God.”       (St. Augustine)

Let us celebrate the birth of Jesus for what it is – the greatest act of humility and love in all of history.

Wheat and Chaff

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16, 17)

These are the words of John the Baptist describing Jesus who will come after him.  Like a lot of scripture, these words can have multiple interpretations.  As in the parable of the Last Judgment with its separation of the sheep and the goats, here we have the separation of the wheat and the chaff.  Both references point to a separation of the good and the bad, with the potential consequence of determining our eternal destination.

John’s reference to the wheat and chaff likely relate to our present condition since he is talking about what Jesus will do for us – he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  If we accept Jesus’ baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, he will separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives.  He will preserve the wheat and destroy the chaff.

Because of our fallen human nature, we all have chaff in our lives.  Jesus invites us to accept his winnowing fork — God’s grace — to separate and remove the chaff.  For most of us this is a life-long process. 

The chaff can represent the more obvious sins such as those that violate the Ten Commandments, or the more subtle forms, such as failures to love as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, or failures to reflect the Beatitudes in Mt. 5:1-12.

In our preparations to celebrate God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus, perhaps we could spend some of the same energy seeking Jesus’s help in removing the chaff from our lives, as we do in buying presents, decorating our houses and preparing the Christmas meal.  

Some questions I am asking myself this week:

  • Am I patient and kind with store clerks when shopping?
  • At holiday parties, do I listen more than I talk, or am I self-seeking, boastful and proud?
  • Do I keep my anger in check when I feel I am being slighted, willing to forgive and let go?
  • Am I willing to adjust my plans for the day when someone needs help?
  • Is my generosity to those in need whom I do not know equal to what I am willing to spend on those whom I do know?
  • Am I spending time with Jesus as well as with family and friends?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9: 6)

The Great Multiplier

Have you ever felt inadequate for a task you were facing? 

Certainly the disciples felt this way when Jesus told them to feed a crowd of five thousand who had gathered to hear him preach and heal those who needed healing.

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus told them, but they protested, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.” They complained about how much it would cost to feed so many.  Then Jesus instructed them to have the crowd sit down in groups of fifty.  He took the five loaves and two fish, gave thanks, broke them and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd.  Luke reports, “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” (Luke 9:10-17)

Jesus took what was insufficient and made it sufficient to serve his purposes.  He does the same thing with us.  He takes our resources and talents that are usually insufficient for the task of taking care of God’s creation and building his kingdom, and makes them sufficient. 

When my wife and I were first married in our early 20’s, I was silently apprehensive about whether I could be a good father when we had children.  I felt grossly inadequate for the task.  I had trouble imagining myself as a father doing all the things that would be necessary and appropriate to raise children in a Christian home.

When our first daughter was born, much of that apprehension started to melt away.  My first stop upon leaving the hospital was to visit our church and thank God for her birth.  Five adult children and thirteen grandchildren later, I look back and see how God’s grace took my early inadequacies and made them adequate.   Surely there were mistakes, but he took my desires and love and those of my wife, and multiplied them to serve his purposes.   One of his purposes is to build and perpetuate his kingdom through family.

Jesus is the great multiplier.  From the very beginning he took a handful of uneducated fisherman, a despised tax collector and others, and transformed them by the power of his Holy Spirit to lead the most profound revolution the world has ever seen.  He has done the same thing with people throughout the history of his church – many of whom were initially leading sinful lives.

He is doing the same thing today with us.  He takes our inadequate prayer, desires and efforts, and multiplies their effect to enable us to bring his presence to the people and circumstances of our lives.

As we prepare to celebrate God becoming one of us in the person of the baby Jesus, let us remember that he takes us as we are, and by his grace and with our cooperation, multiplies us into what he wants us to be and enables to do what he wants us to do. 

Grateful Witness

When we experience a blessing from God, do we tell other people about it?

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus delivering a man named Legion of many demons.  Luke reports, “For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. Many times [the evil spirit] had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains.”  (Luke 8:26-39) Matthew reports that he was so violent that none could pass where he was.

After Jesus had delivered him of many demons, the man begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus said, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

Jesus calls us to be a witness to him and his action in our lives. (Acts 1:8)  The psalms and St. Paul encourage us to give thanksgiving in all circumstances. (Psalm 100:4; 1Th. 5:16)  So, how do we tell people what God has done for us without sounding prideful or boastful?

Jesus alluded to this question in his Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector wherein he warned the disciples about being self-righteous.  The Pharisee prayed about what he had done, thanking God that he was not “like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like the tax collector.”  He went on to say, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  Jesus then said, “But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Jesus declared that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified before God.  The Pharisee was not thanking God for what God had done in his life, but rather what he, the Pharisee had done – a self-described righteousness. 

As I write this week’s post, I am completing my 79th year and there is so much that “God has done for me” – loving parents who gave me a Christian heritage, a loving wife of 55 years, five children, four of whom are raising Christian families of their own, and a daughter with special needs who has taught us a lot about God’s ways.  God gave me the opportunity to engage in meaningful and rewarding work that hopefully served as a thread in advancing the fabric of his creation.  He has given me various opportunities of ministry to represent his Word and hopefully contribute to his kingdom.

But these are just some of the highlights.  There is so much more.  One of the greatest things God did was reach out to me at a time when my life might have gotten off track, and allowed me to experience his presence in a new and personal way.

He has done all of these things while I am still a sinner, often failing to live up to his message of love and selflessness.  But this is not unique to me.  He offers the blessings of himself to all who invite him into their lives.

So I offer thanks to God for all that he has done for me, not out of pride, but as a grateful witness to his grace, love and care.

Greater than John

John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one to come or should they expect another.  Jesus replies, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:22)

Then Jesus makes an astounding statement, “I tell you, among those born of women there is none greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

Jesus seems to be saying that until this time, John is the greatest prophet and man who ever lived.  Mark’s gospel confirms this when he reports that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.” 

Imagine the power of John’s words and actions to attract people to travel more than a day’s journey by foot to a remote desert location, making provision for food and sleeping, all to confess their sins and be baptized.  Surely the Holy Spirit had to be acting powerfully in him.  Yet, Jesus is saying that the people who are least in the kingdom of God are greater than John.

Do we realize how privileged we are as Christians to be in the kingdom of God, compared to the people who lived before God became one of us in the person of Jesus and inaugurated his kingdom on earth?

Last Sunday the Church celebrated Christ as king of God’s kingdom.  Next Sunday we will begin preparations to celebrate his human birth conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary – Emmanuel – God is with us.

Yes, God is with us through the person of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says:

  • “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)
  • “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
  • “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
  • “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

While we may accept the idea that we are “least in the kingdom of God,” it is much harder to believe that we are greater than John the Baptist.  Yet, that is what Jesus is saying because we are part of the kingdom of God, and God is with us in a way that he never was before. 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Co.5:17)