Re-post: Questions for Mary, the Mother of Our Lord

Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: she is miraculously to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship, are all recorded with few words (Luke 1:26-56).

But, when the news broke, were responses in family and community as completely serene as the account would suggest?

After all, how could such an announcement fail to land with jarring impact first on her parents, then on Joseph, to whom she was pledged to be married, and then on the town of Nazareth where she lived?

Here are some questions Luke, the physician, does not answer.

How did Mary’s mother find out about her virgin daughter’s angel-announced pregnancy? Did Mary tell her? If so, what was her immediate response? Imagine the response today if a teenaged girl should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” Would she just say, “Fine,” and go on emptying the dishwasher? And how did her father take the news?

Then there’s Joseph, the man she’s pledged to marry. How did he find out? Matthew tells us that, so far as Joseph was concerned, Mary “was found to be with child. . . .” Did her parents tell Joseph? Or did Mary?

We know that, however he got the news, at first he was downright upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.

Was Mary in anguish during that time over what his decision would be? An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to settle him down. He then took Mary into his home though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born. (Matt. 1:18-25).

Then I’m curious especially about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem.

The distance from Nazareth to Hebron could have been 80 miles or more. How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked, as all poor people did back then.

Going straight south, she would have to travel through the hostile territory of Samaria. If not, to avoid this course she may have crossed the Jordan south of Lake Galilee and traveled along the eastern side to another crossing near the Jericho. From there, there would be a long upward climb to Jerusalem, perhaps for 15 miles, and then still a good stretch of travel further south to reach Hebron.

So, did her father go with her? Or was she sent in a caravan of travelers? And, where did she stay overnight on the three- or four-day trip? There were no Holiday Inns.

Then, after three months with Elizabeth, she returned to her home town, Nazareth. How did the community respond? Her pregnancy would then be in its second trimester. So, when her mother sent her to the well for water and she carried the vessel on her head, did her peers snicker behind their hands as she passed by? If so, how did Mary deal with such scorn?

I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says (Luke in 1:3) his research had been thorough. Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live. If so, he would have had the details firsthand.

Then, why does he leave such information out? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s writing a chapter in the story of redemption. He’s reporting on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of The Almighty in bringing into the world a Messiah. Joy is the dominant note.

Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophecies to her that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission (Luke 2:35).

So, what does all this say about Mary? There’s no trace in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped, or even treated as in any way unique from the rest of humanity. She is simply a deeply devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure, and is selected by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. She is immediately willing to carry that burden.

We can’t answer the many questions Luke’s story makes us want to ask. But, during Advent, Mary, the virgin, should be held up as a model for purity and openness to God’s will for service to Him. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:39 NLT).


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When Life Seems About to Crumble – Psalm 11

Crumbling houseYou’ve spent half a lifetime making the house you live in your castle. Then one day you see a crack in the family room ceiling, or suddenly three days before Thanksgiving the oven quits on you. You experience distress but you recover because you know these are problems that can be fixed and life will go on.

But on another day you come home to discover the main floor of your house slants at a frightening angle, doors hang limp on their hinges, and the basement is filling with water from broken pipes. The whole foundation of the house has shifted.

The psalmist, David, knew that life brings lesser and greater crises. On the one hand, setbacks come to all and they may be annoying, costly to fix, even distressing, but in due course all will be well.

But, there are situations that rumble like an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of life. One’s name may be maligned at great personal cost, integrity may be questioned, employment threatened, a friendship shattered and one sees no way to safe footing. Life seems suddenly beyond repair, and headed toward collapse.

The psalmist, David, had the latter experiences that shook his foundations. He was made a fugitive in the wilderness for long periods by King Saul’s murderous rages. His son, Absalom, nearly succeeded in wresting the kingdom from his rule and driving him away as an outcast. This to David was a shock of near tectonic proportions

In such crises, David could have thrown up his hands in despair, saying, “I quit.” In fact, in Psalm 11 some timid counselor appears to have offered that very solution: “When the foundations are being destroyed,” the counselor suggests, “what can the righteous do?” It’s the counsel of hopelessness; there’s no out.

David rebuked such a hand-wringing solution outright.
He declares his stand in the first words of the psalm: “In the Lord I take refuge.” Everything following flows from that. So the rebuke he delivers to this cringing counselor is clear:

How then can you say to me:
Flee like a bird to your mountain,
For look, the wicked bend their bows;
They set their arrows against the strings
To shoot from the shadows
At the upright in heart.”

In brief, David replies: Shame on you! Yet his own answer to the question, “What can the righteous do?” is not spoken with bravado or bombast. Instead, you will see from the psalm that David has a more humble, faith-based answer. First, he says,

God is in his holy temple;
the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4).

In other words, God reigns! In this world one’s foundations may seem to be shaken but the house built on faith will not collapse because God is sovereign over all.

He goes on:

He observes the sons of men;
he examines the righteous
but the wicked and those who love violence
his soul hates” (Psalm 11:5).

In other words, God sees to the finest detail what’s really going on when one of his own is under evil attack; he is on the side of the righteous even though he may not give instant deliverance. The implication? Move up close to him. Hold on.

Then comes David’s summary assurance:

For the Lord is righteous,
he loves justice;
upright men (and women) will see his face” (Psalm 11:6).

In the case of the believer today whose foundations are being shaken, this promise may not be satisfied immediately. Think of the pastors in Vietnam who are held in prison for their faith, or of believers driven from their demolished homes in Iraq.

Yet in all of these scenarios, God’s promise will be fulfilled for people of faith. Whether sooner or later God’s faithfulness will be revealed.

In the closing words of the psalm the believer is promised “to see God’s face.” This means in Hebrew thought that the true believer will have intimate communion with God and will sense his approval and his ultimate protection, even as for a time the foundations continue to shudder and rumble.

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Jesus’ Teachings After a Controversial Sabbath Miracle

"Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda", Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

“Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda”, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

Last week I wrote about Jesus’ healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath. Remarkably, his critics were enraged because in doing so he had broken one of the many rabbinic laws about Sabbath!

In Jesus’ response to his critics, three times he introduced what he had to say with the words, “I tell you the truth” (NIV). This introductory declaration occurs 25 times in John’s account of the Gospel so we must treat it as very important.

But first a brief aside about the words themselves: While the New International Version translates the original language as, “I tell you the truth,” the King James Version says “Verily, verily I say unto thee…”, a more literal and compelling rendering.

The Greek word for “verily” is “amen”, a word found throughout the Scriptures. It means, “It shall truly and certainly be.” Thus, this word launches our Lord’s sentence with vigor and conviction. In addition, repeating the word, verily, verily, is one way to increase the word’s force. It is like his saying “I really, really, mean this!” Or “I speak this with certainty”.

The miraculous healing of the man crippled for 38 years should arrest his critics to hear the claims Jesus is about to make. In his first “Verily, verily” statement, he asserts of himself: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21).

With these words he makes it clear that he and God, the Father, are one in being. The rage of his detractors was greatly inflamed by the claim that Jesus made himself equal with God (John 5:16-23). He also made it clear that the Father his critics professed to worship was compassionate on every day — and so was he.

His second declaration was an even more amazing claim. “I tell you the truth, (verily, verily) whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned: he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). He is claiming not only the power to heal, but also to grant eternal life and the forgiveness of sins.

Our Lord’s third claim growing out of the conflict over his Sabbath healing of the man crippled for 38 years seems stronger yet: “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live” (John 5:25). This promise is to those who are willing to hear without resistance when the Father calls.

In his healing of the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda Jesus again had performed a miracle that validates his origin and his divine power. Into the intense and sometimes hostile discussion that follows he weaves these certainties: Only I can give eternal life; the Father raises the dead and gives them life, and so do I; a day has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live.

These ringing statements are claims of truth about the shared life of God the Father and his Son, Jesus our Lord: about his compassion to us all, his eagerness to give the gift of eternal life, and the assurance that there is life after death. On those subjects only Jesus can say with certainty: “I tell you the truth.” And only we who respond in humble, contrite faith can receive these great statements of truth for our eternal benefit.

Image credit: The National Gallery

What Christians Should Learn from the Parable of a Dishonest Manager

549277847_2fac10d7bf_mA parable is a story out of the natural world to teach something about the spiritual world, on the assumption that what is true in the one is true in the other.

Jesus told a parable about a rich man’s estate manager who was trusted to manage all his business affairs. The arrangement went well until someone reported to the rich man that his manager was being wasteful with resources entrusted to him.

He was not accused of pilfering or stealing large sums. He was simply accused of being careless and indulgent with resources he did not own but was employed to manage wisely.

With that, the rich man confronted his manager, ordering him to bring his financial records up to date in short order and then consider himself discharged of his duties.

The manager was shocked. He had expected the position was his for life. Suddenly it is snatched away on short notice. In panic he reviews his options: He knows he’s not strong enough to dig ditches, and it would be beneath his dignity to be found begging on a street corner.

Accordingly, he devises a clever solution. He will use the few fleeting days left in his job dishonestly to create situations that will provide for his needs when his employment abruptly ends.

So, he called in persons who had debts to his master. He asked the first how much he owed. The answer was 800 gallons of olive oil. Hurriedly he had the debtor rewrite the bill making it 400.

He instructed the next debtor to take his bill for 1000 bushels of wheat and rewrite it for 800. On and on his scheme went until all debtors had had their bills reduced.

This shrewd manager knew that the favors he had bestowed on them would evoke generosity when they found him dismissed and unemployed. He would thus be well cared for in his post-job life.

So, how did the wealthy owner respond when he learned of the manager’s shrewd dealings? While recognizing the fellow’s dishonesty, he nevertheless commended his shrewdness (probably with some reluctance) in providing for a comfortable future for himself when his employment ended.

By this plan, when the manager became unemployed he would not be destitute. Friends would be there to greet him and offer him support with thanksgiving.

We note again that a parable is a story out of the natural world to teach something about the spiritual world, on the assumption that what is true in the one is true in the other.

With that we come to Jesus’ application of the story:

First, he says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8).

This is a lament. Too few members of the Lord’s kingdom deal with the fact they are stewards of all materials in their care and the stewardship will come to an end all too soon.

That is, whatever they have of worldly wealth is a trust. God is the owner of all. Moreover, their season of trust will be brief at its longest. But — and here is the lament — they are not as shrewd in managing this wealth for heavenly results as the dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable for favors in this life.

The capstone of the parable is clear. Jesus exhorts: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

One can’t miss the point: if we are faithful stewards of worldly wealth in this life and direct it to spiritual ends, we will be greeted in heaven by some who will profess that it was our faithful use of the resources entrusted to us in spiritual ways that accounted for their presence there to greet us.

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Jesus is Mistrusted by His Family – A Powerful Lesson

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A fourth century synagogue in Capernaum

The Gospel according to Mark reports that even though Jesus’ miracles were genuine and the crowds heard him speak truth with authority there were those whose eyes, while listening, registered complete disbelief and even scorn.

On occasion it was the Pharisees. They listened and then tried to tie his words into contradictory knots. Even the chief priests, the assumed spiritual leaders of Israel, attempted to trip him up when he spoke words of truth. Measures of mistrust seemed unavoidable around him.

As calm and restrained as Jesus must have appeared, living under a cloud of undeserved disbelief must have cut him deeply. Especially so when it came from those nearest and dearest. What happens to any human when those as close as family discredit words spoken in truth?

Mark reports an unusual case of this mistrust (Mark 3:20, 21; 6:31,32). Early in his ministry, Jesus entered a house to eat. But the news spread and soon a crowd had gathered to ask their questions and present their urgent needs. The intrusion was so great, it was impossible for him and his disciples to eat.

Meanwhile, from a distance his immediate family heard of the crowds and miracles and assumed he had lost his mind. They set out for Capernaum where Jesus was. Their urgent mission? They were going to “take charge of him”.

In Chapter 6 Mark tells us just who comprised that family. It was his mother Mary, and brothers James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, along with unnamed sisters. Assuming there are at least two sisters we can say Jesus is the eldest of at least seven. He is approximately 30 years of age so they are all younger.

Imagine this family — at least six siblings and a mother — coming onto the already crowded scene. In spite of his miracles and teachings they assume he is in some way deranged. We may excuse them for not understanding but why so mistrustful?

By this time Jesus has been affirmed by the mighty John the Baptist at his Baptism (Mark 1: 9), has received the witness of Heaven that he is the Father’s beloved Son (Mark 1:11), has begun to choose his disciples for extended mission (Mark 1:16 — 20), has been looked at with awe for casting out a demon in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21 – 28), and now he is in the midst of a houseful of people who are seeking his help.

Yet his own earthly family marches into this crowded setting full of mistrust. They wait outside and ask for him to come out. They pronounce to whomever will hear, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 1:21). Even his siblings didn’t believe the messianic claims they must have heard him make.

We are not told the end of this episode. Whether he went with them or not is unclear. We are not told how he responded on the spot. All we can be sure of, as the Hebrew letter tells us, is that ”he was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He did not sin in response to this unpleasant mistrust.

In fact, the moment gave him a wonderful opportunity to say to those who were sitting in a circle around him and who were disposed to hear: You say my mother and my brothers are asking for me? Then motioning to the circle that surrounded him he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

This is not a renunciation of his human family connections. He was surely a model of love and respect for the earthly family as he grew up (Luke 2:51, 52) and for his mother from his cross (John 19:25–27). But the family slight gave him opportunity to declare how closely connected believers will be in the kingdom he has come to establish.

Radical obedience to him connects us in profound ways not only to Him but also to one another — brothers and sisters in the faith.

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Book

2296855678_f348e0d954_zAmerican Thanksgiving Day is celebrated this week. Everywhere, let us pray that all expressions of thanksgiving, whether by reflection, conversation or prayers of gratitude, will prompt abundant thanks for “the most influential book ever published” — the Bible.

But if this book is “most influential” why in Protestant ranks on this continent do surveys routinely pinpoint so much biblical illiteracy, especially among the young even in the churches?

Potential reasons come to mind: the constant lure of electronic entertainment, engagement steeped in social media, on-demand TV and movies; the push for multiculturalism in the schools; and a decline in Bible-reading by the family.

Above all other causes, could it be that we have lost sight of what a treasure this most influential book is and how crucial its truth is to our joy in this life and our security in the life to come?

This “most influential book ever published” is rightly considered to be one book, but with a special feature: it has 66 clear divisions. It is really an anthology, a collection written by as many as 40 authors covering a span of 1500 years. Few of the authors knew one another and they wrote in different locations, often separated by time and distance.

Paul the Apostle wrote his letter to the church at Philippi from about 1000 miles away by sea, confined as he was in the Mamertine prison in Rome; Ezekiel wrote from beside the River Chebar in Babylon, 900 travel miles east of Jerusalem; the Apostle John wrote while confined on the Isle of Patmos 35 miles offshore from modern Turkey, then known as Asia Minor.

Yet all the writings had to do with the same God, Jehovah, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Precisely how all parts of the book were brought together is in some cases a mystery. For example, who gathered the 150 psalms in the psalter from many different periods and from diverse places, to form the hymnbook for the reconstructed temple? We can speculate the great scribe Ezra did, but that is only speculation.

The Old Testament (the first 39 books of the Bible) was assembled for the Jews as the canon (the measuring rod for authority) during the second century B.C. It was a library divinely inspired. It is known the extant letters the Apostle Paul had written to many churches were collected for their abiding worth from wherever they could be found about 90 A.D, almost a generation after his death.

Late in the fourth century, the books of the Bible as we have them today were recognized as authoritative for the church. However, it was not the church’s recognition that gave them authority. Their authority had been given by God and was acknowledged in this way by the church. The writings had been self-authenticating from the start.

Thus, St. Paul wrote to Timothy, his son in the Gospel: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

Also, St. Peter, wrote to believers who were suffering persecution for their faith: “Above all you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20, 21).

We give profound thanks for this Book!

Dear Heavenly Father: We are blessed that you should put this most precious book into our possession. Forgive us for treating it superficially. During this special season of thanksgiving may its influence be greatly increased in our lives, especially producing the fruit of holiness. And if in our troubled times it should become dangerous to honor it, give us the courage to do so bravely. Through Christ our Lord. Amen

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Urgent, Perplexing Words of Jesus

No entryThe mayor announces a picnic for all current and retired employees of the town. It’s a beautiful day; you know several of your friends are going to be there; there will be free food. You turn up at the entrance to the park. Why not? You may not have been on the payroll but you say to yourself, I’ve been a good citizen; I’ll just drop in.

From a distance you can see tables groaning with food of every kind. People you know are chatting under the trees, their children running about. Excitement is in the air.

The Mayor himself is greeting workers as they enter the park. But when your turn comes he looks at you blankly and says, “I don’t know you; never heard of you; there’s no place here for you.”

Imagine your shock. No matter how you try you can’t reverse his position. You assumed too much in hoping to be welcomed without proper credentials.

The consequences would be serious. But they would be immeasurably more serious for the persons in a story Jesus told about the entrance into the kingdom of heaven which only true believers will gain at the end of the age. (Matthew 7:21–23)

In the story some persons approach the entrance to the kingdom where the king himself stands; they expect to be welcomed. They believe they have every right to enter; they’ve been good people. But the king says, “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!”

But they stand and plead: “Did we not prophesy in your name?” They will insist they had preached real gospel sermons on his behalf.

Moreover, they will argue they had even cast out demons in his name, and anointed the sick and comforted the grieving. Casting out demons takes spiritual energy and courage.

Yet, according to Jesus’ story, even such daring labor, done in Jesus’ name, will not insure their entrance into the kingdom of heaven because something fundamental is lacking.

Jesus’ story is not for true believers who have a heartfelt love for the Lord, whose inward devotion to him, however gentle, is true blue. Their entrance is assured.

Rather, in these words Jesus makes his point: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” ( Matthew 7:21).

They had even done spectacular things in the open but they had not themselves been obedient to his will at the level of the heart. Their ‘service’ had likely been about some measure of personal gain — friendships, family approval, money, fame — more than about pleasing the Lord.

Heart-grounded obedience is the issue. To his true followers, those who obey him, Jesus promises welcome and a nurturing relationship with him: “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). As well, “I will receive you unto myself”.

What is lacking for these supplicants pleading for entrance is not merely a strong religious impulse. As Jesus’ story shows, they had lots of that. And they had an abundance of spirituality too. What they lacked was obedient hearts toward him that undergirded all their public professions.

It’s an urgent, perplexing word Jesus speaks through this story. To be turned aside from a community picnic would be bad enough. But to be denied entrance into the kingdom event of the ages because all our religiosity lacks the authentic note of heartfelt obedience to the gospel — that would be an irreversible disaster. That’s why our Lord tells the story so urgently.

And that is why the Scriptures repeatedly challenge us at this deepest level of our heart’s affections. In the word “Repent” they call us to a radical turnaround to correct our perilous journey. And that is why they invite us to a life of faith — a living faith in Jesus Christ.

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