Sunday, May 24th
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
–I Thessalonians 5:1-11
One of the things I have found myself doing during these days of isolation is planning out my trips with a bit more care. Whether I’m headed to the grocery store, the gas station, or the neighborhood mailbox, I try to anticipate where I’m going, what my route will be, and what I need to take with me. That certainly rings true with our travel guide for these next few days, the Apostle Paul. Paul was a brilliant strategist. His journeys were not spontaneous events, but thought-out and prayed-for experiences. Like Alexander the Great’s desire to conquer the whole world, Paul had intentions of winning the entire world for Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a military strategist to observe the method in Paul’s travels. He intentionally went to the largest, most cosmopolitan, most traveled places in his world. He felt that if he could create strongholds for the Gospel in those places, then the fires of faith would naturally spread along the major highways and by-ways of the world.
The port city of Thessalonica was one of these prosperous urban areas. Located on a gulf in the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, it was on a major trade route connecting Greece and southeastern Europe. Paul traveled there and began preaching and teaching, first to the Jews in the synagogue, but then to the Gentiles. It was among the Gentiles that Paul had his best results. People came to Christ, and the fellowship was great, so great that it frightened the Jews and authorities. Thus, Paul had to make an earlier-than-planned exit, going on to Athens and then to Corinth. It was in Corinth that he wrote his letters to the church at Thessalonica, which, by the way were the very first of his correspondence to churches. If you read this first letter in entirety, you will find it to be pastoral and personal. How Paul remembered the Thessalonians; how he loved them! The first three chapters are evidence of that. In the following two chapters we see the more pastoral side of Paul, teaching in a very careful way matters of great consequence. His point in today’s Scripture passage deals with the future. And as Eugene Peterson reminds us, the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present. Paul is attempting here to re-invigorate this church with hope of a future in Jesus Christ that will permeate the present with expectant living.
When I was a Baylor student, one of my jobs was that of being the reference librarian for the Waco-McLennan Library on evenings and Saturdays. It was a great job, because I learned so much about the library in general and the reference area in particular. I mean, I would field all sorts of questions . . . from sports questions to scientific questions, to political questions, to historical questions . . . all kinds of questions. It made things lively, to say the least. One intriguing aspect about my work was that for the nearly three years I was there, a man would come in every morning and stay until the library closed at night, charting the book of Revelation and its close cousins, Ezekiel and Daniel. He would work diligently, head bowed, pencil furiously pushing numbers and dates. Occasionally he would come over and tell me about his work, about how he was getting close to plotting the end of time. I was always amazed. I mean, I appreciated the fervor of his obsession, but I also thought, “What a waste.” He spent all of his time in that library, quite literally, with charts and numbers, while the world raced by him. I’ve wondered whether in these days he’s still there, getting even more persistent with all of the talk about the end-times.
Evidently there were a lot of people in the church at Thessalonica who were obsessed with the idea of the second coming, originating perhaps from Paul’s teaching, which also espoused the imminent return of Jesus. However, the Thessalonians’ concerns with this belief began to verge on hysteria, so much so, that Paul wrote his letter to assuage their fears and focus their callings.
His choice of the phrase, “like a thief in the night,” has become legendary. What a strange way of attempting to comfort anxieties about the possibility of Jesus’ impending return. I mean, envisioning Jesus as a thief? The New Testament gives all kinds of metaphors about Jesus — the Living Word, the Light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the Son of Man — all good descriptions, sure enough. But how about this one… a thief in the night? Paul Minear, the wonderful New Testament scholar, reminds us that the New Testament writers “did not hesitate to speak of Christ as a robber.” You can check it out for yourselves in Matthew 24, Luke 12, Mark 13, Luke 29, II Peter 3, not to mention Revelation. Scripture seems quite comfortable in the use of this simile, “Our Lord comes as a thief in the night.”
Now, I’ve heard a lot of preachers use this phrase to startle people, to try to, quite literally, scare the hell out of people. Their line of questioning usually goes something like this: “How are you going to feel if Jesus comes and you are in a bar or on a dance floor or in a movie or playing golf or mahjong?” Garrison Keillor, in his self-deprecating humorous way, remembers his formative years in the little Plymouth Brethren Church his family attended: “The basic question in my mind, then and now, is what does God want me to do? I think about it every day. Or I try not to think about it and thus think even harder about it.”
As guilt-inducing and unsophisticated as those questions are, they are not bad questions, not really. But if those negatively-framed questions turn you off and tune you out, let me ask the question in a different way . . . “If Christ should actually appear during your lifetime, where would you like to be?” “What would you like to be doing?” When Paul wrote that phrase, he wasn’t trying to frighten the Thessalonians. He wasn’t trying to scare the hell out of them; rather, he was trying to encourage the heaven in them. You see, Paul’s theology had shifted dramatically from laws and orders and scare-tactics to love and grace. His words were simply encouragement to do what they knew to be Christ’s calling. The letter, after all, seems to have been intended to be pastoral in nature. And the importance here for Paul was not so much knowing the time of Jesus’ return as it was understanding Christ’s purpose for our lives. With his hymn in I Corinthians 13 being the touchstone of Pauline theology, this letter could be a pastor’s reminder that we were created by love for love. Therefore, the idea of Jesus’ coming, for those who really follow, won’t be scary at all. It will be great joy.
John Killinger, the great teacher of preachers, once told about having to walk past a cemetery each evening on the way to his girlfriend’s house, the girl who became his wife. He said it was scary on the way over, thinking about all those spooky things that take place around a graveyard. But he said, strangely enough, on the way home, when it was the darkest, he was not thinking about the cemetery; he was remembering his sweetheart. You see, love changes the world, quite literally. Today the words of Paul remind us that whatever the future may hold, our lives have a purpose in God’s love, and that is meant to be good news. In this time when our world seems to be coming apart, these words are to remind us of an ultimate reality.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Sitting beside my mother as a child in our church in Odessa, Texas, I remember hearing an old Fanny Crosby hymn, “Will Jesus Find us Watching?” If you were raised in the church, you may have memories of sermons, lessons, and hymns related to the idea of the “end-times” or the “second coming.” What part do those play in your spiritual life today?
How do you feel about Eugene Peterson’s idea mentioned above that the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present? In prayer, seek an awareness of God’s creative, unfolding vision for our world. Are there ways in which you seek God’s guidance in your personal, daily choices, decisions and interactions with others?
How may we, even in this time apart, follow Paul’s admonition to encourage one another and build up each other?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Al Staggs’ “Reunion”
We will all arrive there someday.
We are ever moving closer
to that gathering of precious souls
whose lives left an indelible mark
upon our own lives and souls.
Our minds can no more imagine
the life to come than we could
imagine being born into this world.
Just as there was no intention
or effort on our part to be born,
we shall emerge in a new fashion
through no effort of our own.
We are much more than flesh and bone,
for these are merely the manifestations
of something far, far greater than
what is now visible to the human eye.
We are also spirit, just as those
whose bodies we laid to rest are spirit.
We will, we must all meet again
For that longed-for reunion
in another realm, another time.
The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Friday, May 22nd
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility.” During this time when we’re all grappling with our new reality, we dwell in possibility, listening intently to daily news broadcasts about possible breakthroughs for a fast-tracked virus vaccine. More than 100 research teams around the world are taking aim at the virus from multiple angles with innovative technologies. We breathlessly await hopeful results from these dedicated scientists, and with each report of a possible breakthrough, the desperate longings in our hearts become audible, “Could it be true?”
The question brings to mind words penned by theologian Karl Barth years ago, “People come to church on Easter and wonder, ‘Is it true?'” The seventh, and last, sign of John’s Gospel is this author’s attempt to answer that question. As we contemplate the meaning of this sign, we understand that the resurrection cannot be proven historically. It is a matter of faith. Fred Craddock reminds us that “we don’t have verifiable evidence about what happened inside the sealed tomb, the specific datum about what took place. What we have is what occurred in the lives of those who encountered the resurrected Christ and how their lives took on new life.” For me, the crowning consideration has always been how the disciples were transformed from a frightened group, huddled in fear of the Jewish authorities, into fearless ambassadors striding off into the world to share the message of Christ. Many of them were to face persecution, finding crosses of their own, dying in the arena… Their conviction never wavered. Something transformative had happened!
In looking at John’s account, we find that he framed it around two main stories of individual experiences with the risen Christ — Mary Magdalene’s and Thomas’ — with the other disciples interwoven throughout.
As for Mary, it is quite unique to find that a woman of that day and time is given a primary role in such an important saga. According to John she is the first to discover that the tomb’s stone has been rolled away, the first to tell the disciples, the only person privileged to converse with the angels, and the first to encounter the risen Jesus. Knowing the status of women in the first century, the fact that the author (or later transcribers) did not change her role to that of a man is for many scholars an aspect of increased credibility.
For many of us, Thomas is the person to whom we can relate, in spite of the fact that he’s been saddled with the “doubting” moniker for centuries. He is understandably baffled by the idea of resurrection and prefers to ascertain the truth for himself. There’s no record in the scripture that he actually touched Jesus’ hand or side. However, once he made his decision, he was totally committed. Jesus’ following words to Thomas and to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have believed,” have some history in the Jewish community. One of the rabbis in a midrash (a commentary on the Hebrew scripture) stated “The proselyte is dearer to God than all of those Israelites who were at Sinai. For if those people had not witnessed thunder, flames, lightning, the quaking mountain and the trumpet blasts, they would not have accepted the rule of God. Yet the proselyte who has seen none of these things comes and gives himself to God and accepts the rule of God. Is there anyone who is dearer than this man?” We do not know exactly what happened to Thomas in the following years, but there is an apocryphal book, The Acts of Thomas, which contends that the disciples divided up the world, giving Thomas the assignment of taking the message to India. Today there are actually thousands of churches in India which bear his name, and Christians there believe that Thomas visited there in A.D. 52 to baptize their ancestors.
The importance of personal experience to belief was emphasized in a piece by the master teacher and preacher, Tom Long. He tells of driving across town one day and pushing the scan button hoping for a traffic report, when the radio paused on a Christian radio show. Long couldn’t resist listening. The host was taking calls, and a woman named Barbara called in. And Barbara was saying she had problems. A lot of problems: work, stress in her marriage, conflict with her teenage children, experiencing depression. As she unfolded her problems, the host interrupted her. “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you’re not, you’ll never solve these problems. Are you a believer?” “Uhh. I don’t know.” “Now Barbara if you were, you would know it. You either are or you’re not. Now Barbara, are you?” “I’d like to be… I think. I guess I’m just more of an agnostic at this point.” Well, Long says you could almost see the host come to the edge of his seat to seize that moment, “Now Barbara, there’s a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you. And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. Now if I send you this, will you become a believer?” After a few rounds of badgering, “If I send you this, will you become a believer?” Barbara said, “Yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me. Yeah.” Long continues, “Now it may sound strange coming from a Christian pulpit, where we proclaim the risen Christ, but I’m sort of sorry to hear Barbara gave up so quickly. I hope she’ll become a believer. And I believe that the Christian faith changes lives. But does that happen from proof? Does it happen from a case file? All we can really ‘prove’ is that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Friday, that his body was not in the tomb on Sunday, and that nobody – nobody – was expecting a resurrection. Everybody’s immediate conclusion was that somebody, for whatever reason, had moved the body elsewhere. When they are told what happened, they respond as we would. They don’t believe it. They think he’s still dead. They stay cowering. They refuse to believe without seeing it and experiencing it. They wonder, ‘Could it have been a grave-robber? Some sort of staged stunt? Could it have been Rome’s final sucker punch? One more act of cruel revenge?’ But no one seemed to wonder, ‘Could he have actually come back like he said he would?’ Those are the facts. In no case, do any of the gospel writers tell us what happened behind that stone. It’s as if it happens outside of our sight and our knowing, left amidst the mystery of God. So it’s not proof that causes any of them to believe. It’s not a fact that changes their lives. It’s an encounter.”
Perhaps the meaning of this seventh sign is further helped by a beautiful, well-known account of an encounter a medical student once had with Dr. Benjamin Alexander, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. This student brazenly approached him, saying, “I have opened every organ of the body, I have dissected a human cadaver completely, and I have not found any sign of a soul there at all. So how do religious people say that human beings have a soul and that God exists?” Dr. Alexander smiled and said, “Let me ask you something, young man. When you opened up the brain, did you find an idea there?” The young man, being caught a little off guard, said, “No, no. I can’t say I did.” Dr. Alexander smiled and said, “I see. That’s very interesting, isn’t it?” Then he said, “Well let me ask you this, young man. When you opened up the human heart, did you find love there?” “Well, of course not. How could I?” Alexander continued, “Well that’s interesting. And about the eye, when you opened up the human eye did you find vision in there somewhere?” The medical student shook his head. The good doctor then looked at him and said, “I know you believe in ideas, for there’s no way to deny them. And I know you believe in love and in vision too, because there’s no way to deny them either. So what we must conclude, I guess, is that some things are real that cannot be touched nor proven.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Do you ever wonder how you might have responded if you had been among Jesus’ followers in those days? If you were a character in today’s scripture, which part would you play?
The brilliant Blaise Pascal said it so well, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” What are the things that you know by heart?
Jesus sent his disciples, and us, on mission. Wendell Berry has an eloquent descriptive phrase: “practicing resurrection.” If faith is better understood in the doing rather than the preaching, what is it that you feel called to do?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Wordsworth’s “A Psalm of Life”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Sunday, May 17th
Then Jesus came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
One of the impressive things I’ve observed during this unprecedented time of crisis is the response of the National Guard, which has sent nearly 47,000 of its members to communities in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. In New York, for instance, in response to the growing epidemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order for the National Guard to retrieve unused ventilators and medical supplies from hospitals and health-care facilities, re-locating them to the areas of greatest need. Without delay, and with efficiency, the National Guard accepted their assignment and performed it, heading off an even greater catastrophe. Around the country the Guard has quietly assisted at testing sites, distributed food and medical supplies, set up shelters, trained responders in PPE use, and even worked on proactive wildfire prevention in anticipation of the coming wildfire season. It is stirring to see these men and women taking their assignments and doing them in ways that are admirable and effective. Today’s story spotlights the discipline of such an official.
Today, we are once again journeying with that beloved disciple named John. John, as we have already discovered, is a remarkable guide — a writer who uses his pen in much the same manner that an artist uses a paint brush. In fact, the Gospel of John reminds me of an impressionist painting, such as a Monet. I mean, the first time you come in contact with John’s work you are drawn to it and feel a relationship to it. And with each subsequent visit your appreciation grows. The closer you get, you become enamored with the man’s genius . . . of how precise each stroke is in itself and how they all come together to glorify the whole. I think this was John’s method in painting a portrait of Jesus.
As you will remember, John fashions his Gospel around seven signs, seven first-hand experiences that for him illustrate the fact that Jesus is Lord. Today’s sign, the second of these seven, deals with a miracle of healing. However, the miracle takes place in such a non-spectacular sort of way that we almost miss it. And because of that, I am intrigued that John would call this miracle a sign.
John places this story in Cana. In fact, he is quite explicit about that, mentioning it twice, reminding us that it is the locale of Jesus’ first sign, the turning of water into wine at the wedding. The person who comes to Jesus is a member of Herod’s court, differing from Matthew and Luke’s stories where he is described as a centurion. Some have speculated that he was none other than Chuza, Herod’s chief steward. And his request, in John’s Gospel is not for a slave, but for his own son. Furthermore, John’s rendition of this experience is interesting in the fact that, while he calls this a sign, he provides such an uncharacteristic lack of detail (…and John is usually big on detail!). It would seem that John felt that the story was already well-known. Thus, it would prove helpful, I think, to re-read Matthew (8:5-13) or Luke’s Gospel (7:1-10) in addition to reading our Scripture Lesson for the day. I suggest that in order that we might get a fuller flavor of what it was that was so important for John.
As we get ready to hear John, let me note a couple of things to help in our listening. First of all, there is an unmistakable similarity in form to the first sign . . . Jesus is asked for a miracle; he seems to say no; and then he performs the miracle, but in a way that draws little public attention to himself. And like the first sign, Jesus’ response to the request seems so abrupt, almost rude. “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” That does seem cold, but it would help us to know that the “you” used here is plural. Jesus isn’t addressing the man who comes in need; he is addressing those who had begun to follow him because of his miracles. Also noteworthy is that word which is vintage Johannine, “believe.” This word is a microcosm of his entire Gospel, because there is more here than meets the eye. Belief as recorded in John’s Gospel is not just an intellectual assent, it is a matter of personal trust.
Jesus’ first two signs, as related by John, are interesting in the fact that they are “quiet” miracles. Both were moments that some people notice, but for the most part they were overlooked. And I guess that is what makes me stop and think. Why was it that Jesus offered grace in such a quiet, unnoticed way? Wouldn’t more people have been drawn to the Kingdom with just a little more exposure? If Jesus had been running a campaign, he could have gotten more votes by just being a bit more public. But maybe that understanding is integral to the sign itself. As author N.T. Wright says, “The Word has become flesh. But supposing people admire the flesh so much that they forget about the Word?” Jesus is intent on making a distinction between that which honors God and that which honors himself.
Phil Donahue once saw that distinction made in a very tangible way. In his autobiography, he tells about a time when he was sent on assignment by CBS News to cover a mine disaster that had occurred in western Kentucky. It was late at night. Snow was on the ground, and the rescue team was working feverishly in the mine. Up above, worried relatives and friends waited for some word about their loved ones. And then, ironically enough, someone began to sing. It was an old country preacher and his song was, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” His deep, bass voice bellowed, “What a friend we have in Jesus all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” It was amazing. A hush came over the crowd, and people pulled together and bowed their heads. Donahue said that it was such a moving experience that it gave him goose bumps. Quickly, he got his camera to shoot the scene. But it was cold, so cold that he couldn’t get his camera to work. And before you knew it, the preacher was finished with his song and prayer. Undaunted, Phil went over and asked the elderly man if he would repeat his song for him. He told him that he was a television reporter and that he represented 260 stations across America. He told the old preacher that several million people would be able to see and hear him pray and sing, and that it would be a wonderful chance for him and the Gospel. But to Donahue’s utter surprise, the old man said no. “No?” Donahue exclaimed, “What do you mean, no?” The old preacher said, “I’ve already prayed and it wouldn’t be right to repeat it.” “But look, you misunderstand,” Donahue countered, “I’m from CBS News and all of America is watching, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to let people see what a special community this is.” But the old preacher wouldn’t budge, and Donahue never got his piece. Nevertheless, it was such a moving experience for Donahue that he relates it in his autobiography, saying, “The guy wouldn’t show biz for Jesus. He wouldn’t sell his soul for TV, not even for CBS!” Donahue said that in that simple man, in his faith-filled act, he saw a freedom and a depth and a goodness like never before.
I think John witnessed something like that in Cana. Sure enough, Jesus could have made a big thing about it, but he didn’t. He let the grace work for itself. And that was enough. And maybe that is part of the sign. You have to pay attention and notice it for yourself. This personal dimension is what makes it a sign. It seems that God is not into big promotions; God is into personal encounters!
Dr. David Livingstone understood that. As you know, he was one of the first missionaries to work in Africa. Shortly after he arrived there, he received a letter from a missionary society here in the States. The letter read, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know so that we can send others to you.” Livingstone sent back the following reply, “If you have persons who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them at all. I want persons who are strong and courageous and who will come if there is no road at all.”
The way of the Kingdom is not a way made clear by unbelievable miracles seen by all. No, the way to the Kingdom is found in ways that most people see and hear, but don’t pay attention to. The signs of God are not conspicuous, but they are not hidden either. They will, though, require our utmost attention and our unequivocal trust. If we could muster such faith, it would be a sign for the times, don’t you think?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: An Excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
Thursday, April 16
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
We began moving through this strange and uncertain time by exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As I mentioned, I think that rather than one sermon, this was a compilation of all of Jesus’ sermon themes, each one a possible sermon in and of itself. To get a real flavor of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, I propose that we continue by listening to the parables. These literary treasures are replete with Jesus’ brilliance as an orator – nuanced in wording, employing metaphor and double entendre, turning a phrase, inviting people in with a familiarity and inclusion that create a spiritual hospitality unmatched in homiletical literature. Because his parables illumine the Sermon on the Mount, I thought that they might serve as insightful guides to help us with our journey through this dark time we’re currently sharing. I am eager to travel with you.
Fred Craddock, the homiletical genius, wrote an amazing book about inductive preaching, challenging preachers to invite listeners into the texts to experience grace in a first-hand way. The book, Overhearing the Gospel, was the product of Craddock’s Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, and his primary point was that preaching should focus not on preacher, text, or sermon, but on the listener, and the listener’s hearing the gospel in a culture that thought it already knew its meaning. Dr. Craddock begins the book with a quote by Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard, “There is no lack of information in a Christian Land; something else is lacking, and this is a something which the one cannot directly communicate to the other.”
When I studied at Oxford, one professor, Dr. John Marsh, modeled out this method in his course on Christology. Dr. Marsh was a small, wiry man with a shock of white hair and intense blue eyes, and each day he would mesmerize us with a story from Jesus’ life or teaching, telling it in such a way that we could almost imagine being in Jesus’ presence. I asked him about his method one day, and he said, “I try to be true to the biblical text, but when I begin my study, I close my eyes and try to see the scene in which the text takes place, imagine the people, listen for the sounds, even sniff for the smells.” It is a powerful technique and I think one that Jesus uses brilliantly. We are invited into the Kingdom of Heaven through story. The decision to accept the invitation rests in our willingness to hear.
One of the problems in studying the parables can be understood by taking Craddock’s insightful verb in the book title, “overhearing,” and adding a dash between over and hearing, giving the verb a different meaning altogether. When we over-hear a parable, our familiarity with the basic story line leads us to feel that we already know what it means.
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon says, “Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what is meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it was, too. All those unforgettable stories we’re so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.’ Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.”
This smugness in thinking that the parables are easily heard and understood is certainly true in our day and time. After 2,000 years we have come to believe that we know everything about every parable. I think that flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus defended his teaching in parabolic fashion by saying to his disciples: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables . . .” However, it seems that even the direct approach didn’t work with his disciples, because on at least three different occasions he spoke of his impending death and resurrection, and still they were surprised when Easter took place.
The gift of a parable is that it keeps on giving. As we grow and mature, a beloved story of childhood hopefully becomes deeper in meaning. For instance, the parable we call “The Prodigal Son” shifts in focus from a rebellious child to a loving father. The prism-like quality of a parable emits different colors in different times and contexts.
That was certainly the case for C.S. Lewis. One night, as he was strolling the picturesque Addison’s Walk in Oxford with his friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, the conversation turned to myth and metaphor and how those two literary devices related to Christianity. At the time Lewis was an agnostic of sorts, and the pivotal moment came when Lewis declared that myths were lies, albeit “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien responded, “No, they are not,” and then he pressed Lewis on how Lewis could accept other myths as vehicles of truth but couldn’t accept the greatest myth, the resurrection, which is actually true. Lewis describes what happened in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves: “Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’ Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore, it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of what God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.” Lewis didn’t fall to his knees and confess Christ that evening, but two weeks later, Lewis told a friend he had once again become a Christian and that “my long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
Jesus told stories in hopes that people could get into the story themselves, and thus into the kingdom itself. It could be said, I think, that Jesus spoke in parables because he was a parable himself, a living metaphor of grace. With that noted, I invite you to join me as we try to get into the ultimate Parable . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- What are your favorite stories? Why do they appeal to you? What are they saying to you? Thank God for their authors and their meanings.
- These days of self-imposed isolation are grand opportunities to consider the stories of God that have been shared with us. What are your favorite “God-stories”? How do they compare or contrast with what you might describe as secular stories?
- How would you describe your own story? How might it be seen in relationship to God?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Excerpts from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”
To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
Easter Sunday, April 12th
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 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. 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.” 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.
I’m writing these words today in the dark. I say that partially because I tend to get up early to tackle my writing projects. However, this seems most appropriate for this devotion, because Easter begins in the dark, or so the Gospel writers tell us. Additionally, as I write today there are still so many questions about how our current crisis is going to end. There are promising hopes for a cure; there are also optimistic projections of the flattening of the curve model that health authorities have used to chart the process of the pandemic. This flattening might be signaling a recession in the number of cases of infected people. Yet, we remain uncertain. We’re in the dark.
That statement does seem to resonate with Easter. If we are honest with ourselves, there are so many confusing things about it. For starters, the resurrection accounts of the four gospels vary in detail. In one account there are several women who go to the tomb; in another there are two women; and in yet another, just Mary Magdalene. Some of the gospels report two angels at the tomb; others report one angel. And then there are other differences as to conversations, etc. How do we arrive at Easter when we are still in the dark about so much? Well, we begin, as all the gospel writers began, with the resurrection. They wrote because Jesus was risen from the dead. That’s what created this genre of literature called Gospel.
Today’s passage of Scripture is the shortest of the stories of the resurrection and ends rather abruptly… so much so, in fact, that it is surmised that some early writer took the Gospel and added a dozen more verses (9-20) so that Mark’s account would conclude in a manner more similar to the other Gospel accounts. I point this out, because I personally believe that the abrupt ending was intentional in the mind of Mark’s original author, and that the extra verses were from someone else. My reasoning is that: (a) the added verses are not found in any of the most ancient manuscripts; and (b) the language of the 9-20 section seems more cliché, unlike the lucid prose of the rest of the Gospel. So the question for this Easter story is “Why did Mark’s account end so suddenly?”
Let me share three vignettes in hopes of answering that question.
(1) Attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts one can’t help but discover that one of its celebrated graduates is Will Ferrell, that off-the-wall comedian. USC is proud of Mr. Ferrell, even to the extent of bestowing on him an honorary doctorate. Now, Ferrell is best known for his many comedic roles including Elf and Talladega Nights, among others. However, the screenplay that we studied when I was there was Stranger than Fiction, a serious piece in which Ferrell gives a thoughtful performance. The story is about an IRS accountant who discovers that his life is being directed by an author who is writing a novel. This accountant, who hears the author’s voice, learns that this author always kills off her main subject. Thus, the movie proceeds with the ominous portent of an approaching death. Ferrell’s character gets a copy of the manuscript and reads of his impending demise. The death scene is eloquently written, but the author has stopped, infected by the writer’s dreaded nemesis, writer’s block, unable to finish. Meanwhile, after reading her story, his story, and after much contemplation, Ferrell’s character connects with the author and encourages her to go ahead and finish, because it is wonderful. Ironically enough, the author is then inspired to finish by creating a unique ending, actually reminiscent of an Easter-type experience. Could it be that Easter is waiting to be completed by our own stories?
(2) Several years ago, one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion shows centered around a teenager by the name of Jimmy Beeler. It seems that Jimmy went to St. Paul one cold and wintry night to stand in line to buy tickets for a rock concert by a group named “Mammoth.” As he was standing in line his mother, Mavis, was fretting back home at Lake Woebegone. She had gone to bed but couldn’t sleep, because she was so worried about Jimmy, her youngest, standing out in the cold in St. Paul. Mavis picked up her favorite magazine, The Home and Hearth, which contained several interesting articles; but one article in particular, about the evils of rock music, sent chills up and down her spine. As she brooded over the article and her son’s life, Mavis’ emotional state took a nose-dive when she noted that one of the article’s examples was the rock group, Mammoth. The next morning Jimmy came home, looking tired and worn out, but also triumphantly clutching two tickets in his upraised hand. He grabbed a bite to eat and then went to collapse in his bed. Keillor ended the story with Mrs. Beeler hovering over her sleeping son and the tickets, those tickets that were so precious to him, wondering whether she ought to tear them up to protect him from the evils of rock music. Keillor left the story there, without disclosing what she decided. As he signed off with his customary, “And that’s the news in Lake Woebegone where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking, and all the children are above average,” you could hear the groans of the audience. A couple of weeks later Keillor reported that many people had written angry letters saying he had no right to leave a story unresolved like that and in so doing, leave them hanging.
To be honest, there is a part of me that can appreciate people writing those kinds of letters . . . I’m a person who likes to have my stories wrapped up; I don’t like it when I am left dangling, with “to be continued.” But maybe that is the intent of Mark’s Gospel, that we are called to finish the story ourselves. Karl Barth, the renowned theologian, said “People come to church on Easter and wonder, ‘Is it true?'” It is our job to answer that question, not in words so much, but in deeds. Mark intends for us to complete the resurrection.
(3) A final example comes to mind in N.T. Wright’s beautiful book Simply Christian, where he creates an imaginary story of an accidental discovery of an unknown work by Mozart. A collector rummaging around in a dusty attic in a small Austrian town comes across a faded manuscript written for the piano. He can tell by just looking at it that it favors Mozart, so he takes it to a dealer. After numerous puzzled consultations, phone calls and examinations, the conclusion is that this truly is a previously unknown work by the great composer. However, the piece seems incomplete. There are long pauses where the piano seems to be simply marking time. Gradually it dawns on the musical experts – this was meant to be a duet. The blank spaces were to be played by an oboe, cello, violin, or another instrument. A further search of the attic reveals no additional sheets of music, and the discoverers must accept that the brilliance of it all cannot be experienced until someone fills in the blanks of accompaniment.
Easter is the same way. Mark has written a masterpiece, but it can’t be experienced unless we play our parts.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Read the scriptural text aloud in the manner of the lectio divina (divine reading) discipline, letting the words’ sounds guide you to meditative reflection. What image particularly stands out to you? Where would you find yourself if you been present in the story of the resurrection? Why?
- How do you share the significance of the resurrection in the way you live day by day? Listen for God’s illuminating voice to guide you.
- Where do we need to “practice resurrection”, continuing the story in our community? Let the Spirit direct you to ways to make this happen.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Jeni and Ray Cook Furr
8 That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. 9 All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. 10 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy.
Why shepherds? Jesus is the Messiah. The King of Kings. Shouldn’t the angels have appeared to kings? Lots of people listen to kings. Shepherds were poor, simple people. They didn’t spend much time with others because most of their time was in the fields watching their sheep. They didn’t take many baths so they were not allowed inside the Temple. So, does it really make sense for the angel and the heavenly choir to make such an important announcement to shepherds at night in a field?
Maybe Luke wants us to make the connection that Jesus is related to Israel’s greatest king—David. He was a shepherd when he was a boy. He was born in Bethlehem. The Prophets said the Messiah would be one of David’s offspring. Telling the shepherds first reminds us about these prophecies.
Maybe Luke is trying to tell us something else too. In Luke’s gospel, he says the kingdom of God is like a huge dinner banquet that includes all kinds of people — people who don’t dress like us, speak English, and even those who need a shower. Maybe going to the shepherds first was God’s way of announcing to all of us — don’t be scared. I have good news. Starting now, you have a place reserved at God’s dinner table. Come eat with us—just as you are. Now that’s some really good news.
By Mark Hart
Don’t people appreciate how busy I am? Good grief, I have these committee meetings to go to and chair, I have to get these reports in by the end of the month, we’re learning a new computer system at work that’s just eating our lunch. That’s just at work. Don’t get me started about what’s going on in my family… All of this family drama, sides being drawn down political and religious lines. I am so ready for this election cycle to be DONE. Sometimes I want to check out so that I can just catch my breath and …. oh, what’s this, wait a minute … a birth announcement? I didn’t even know she was pregnant … Wow, what a nice piece of news… This is kind of refreshing. Actually this is good news. A reminder for me that the world, my work life, even my family doesn’t necessarily revolve around me. Oh, yeah, there is something else going on that is completely other than me of which I am somehow connected. What a nice jolt to my self-absorbed perspective. This new life that has come into a world with such chaos, this world of such real violence and dislocation couldn’t come at a better time. I was just minding my own business and I’ve been surprised by such joy. Who will this child grow up to become? How will this child fulfill his/her own life that is so beyond my wildest imagination? I need this good news. Thank you, Birth Announcement!
One of my favorite quotes is from Andrew Greeley:
It seems to me that in the last analysis there are only two choices: Macbeth’s contention that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing and Pierre Teilhard’s “something is afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.” Either there is plan and purpose—and that plan and purpose can best be expressed by the words “life” and “love”—or we live in a cruel, arbitrary, and deceptive cosmos in which our lives are a brief transition between two oblivions. The data are inconclusive as to these two choices, at least if we look at the data from a rational, scientific standpoint… I opt for hope, not as an irrational choice in the face of facts, but as a leap of faith in the goodness I have experienced in my life.”
Come, Lord Jesus!
By Lance Mayes
The first two verses in Psalm 105 encourage us to give thanks and sing praises to God and let the whole world know the wonderful things God does.
Thanks, praise and Good News. We can do that!
It is easy for us to give thanks and praise to God when things are going well: the birth of a healthy baby, a good doctor’s report, getting a driver’s license, winning a game against your biggest rival. It is much more difficult when things are not going so well: a miscarriage, the cancer is back, failing the driver’s test, losing the big game.
It is good to stop and reflect when things are great and when things are bad. Make a list, write it down and thank God. In The 5 Minute Journal gratitude is defined as “the feeling that embodies the word ‘Thank you’. It is the unexpected reward of a kind deed that is magically produced by your brain. It is the cute, tingly feeling in your body that makes you smile at strangers.” Thank God for the day God has created for you. Thank God for every beat of your heart and breath you take. Thank God for the good and the bad (James 1:2-4).
Most of the time when we think about singing praises to God, we think of Sunday morning worship. It is good to be with other Christians and raise our voices in praise as one. It is good to listen to and enjoy a concert of praise and be spurred to join in their worship of God. It is also good to have private times of praise. You see a beautiful sunrise and speak a word of praise to God. You hear the story of your neighbor that their grandchild is getting the mental health help they need and you whisper a song of praise in your heart to God.
Sharing the Good News. Telling others about the wonderful things God is doing in your life and in the lives of others. What story is in your heart that is just waiting to get out? Please share! Tell your family and your friends. Tell your neighbors and coworkers. Tell your church community and your acquaintances. Write your story and post on a blog or on Facebook. Record your story on video for Youtube.* We all have so much we can tell about the wonderful things God does.
*We encourage you to record your story and we want to help. We can help you by posting on the Woodland Blog and/or in our print publications like our missions newsletter “Harvest Tree.” We can also record your story on video.
By Garrett Vickrey
It’s here. Christmas. Joy to the world! The Lord is Come!
What will we see now? We have been keeping watch for so long. Have our eyes grown red at the moment it is time to enjoy the fruits of their labor? Christ is come.
Watch. And see.
Franciscans and Eastern Orthodox Christians have always placed a greater emphasis on Christmas and the Incarnation of Christ than others. We have focused on Easter and the cross. But, these other Christian traditions remind us that the Incarnation was already the Redemption, because in Jesus’s birth God was already saying that it was good to be human, and God was on our side.
That is good news. That is gospel.
In the birth of Jesus we can know the truth of John 3:16. That God loves the world. So much that God has given us the greatest gift ― God’s life with us, for us, surrounding us. That’s a gift too good not to be shared. At Christmas we celebrate the unity of humanity with divinity. The earliest theologians stressed the incarnation not be seen as the descent of God to humanity, but the lifting up of humanity into the divine life. Be lifted today.
This gift lifts and invigorates every aspect of our life if we see through the incarnated lens of Christmas. The gift we celebrate this day uplifts every aspect of life, even the most humble or ordinary.
It’s a gift that makes us want to hold open doors for people a little longer. It makes us want to be a little kinder to strangers. That’s a gift that makes us want to be a little more truthful with our loved ones. It makes us want to be a little more generous with our time and money. All these gestures unfold the gift of this day and reflect its mercy. As Kathleen Norris says, “All that exists has the potential to reveal God’s truth and love.”
Keep watching. Keep waiting. In hope. In peace. In joy. Love. The gift is here. It is in us. It is around us. Do we see it? It is God. And it is good.
By Diana Bridges
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
In Isaiah 7:14, God gives embattled King Ahaz a sign of hope, whether he wants one or not. As followers of Jesus, we see in these words the foreshadowing of the Incarnation. These aren’t really words of hope to us because we live on this side of the good news that is the life of Jesus. That particular hope has been fulfilled. Our Advent hope is focused instead on the coming of God to us, our families, or our church in new, transforming ways, and also on the Second Advent.
When we’re experiencing a time of uncertainty or crisis, as the Israelites were in Isaiah’s day, we might have an acute need for words of hope. We might be constantly scanning Scripture or other resources, listening to sermons, or grasping for meaning in the events and conversations of our days for assurance that all will be well.
Our hope doesn’t rest in words, however, but in the one who utters them. Thomas Merton said, “We can either love God because we hope for something from Him, or we can hope in Him knowing that He loves us.” Our hope isn’t finally dependent on prayers being answered in a particular way or in circumstances that make life easier. Our Advent hope is deeply rooted in the God who loves us — always, completely, unconditionally — and has vowed never to leave us, even after the final promise has been fulfilled.
This Advent, may our hope be renewed in the One who loves us.