A Dinner Party Like None Before or Since

Jesus and his twelve disciples were guests in the home of sisters Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus. Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised to life from his tomb, was at the table.

The home was in Bethany, a village on the far side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem. The meal was being served six days before Passover, the main Jewish observance of the year. Crowds of worshipers would flood Jerusalem, and the city was already stirring in expectation.

The posture of the guests at table would not fit our style today — they “reclined” on low-lying couches, resting on their left elbows and receiving and eating with their right hands.

Into this picture came Mary, sister to Lazarus. She carried a pint of very special ointment imported from India, and worth nearly a year’s wages. Before the guests realized what was happening, she had broken its seal and poured its contents lavishly on Jesus’ feet.

She then used her hair to wipe up the excess, unintentionally perfuming herself in the process and filling the room with a pleasing fragrance.

One person at the table erupted in indignation. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It was Judas. On the surface this sounded like compassion, but John, the apostle who preserved the story for us, knew at the moment of his explosion what the real issue with Judas was.

Judas, one of the twelve, was a thief. He had been the treasurer for Jesus and his twelve companions and on occasion had filched money from that bag. Greed was eating into his soul.

Jesus came to Mary’s defense. “Leave her alone,” he said. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
What an unexpected twist!

They must all have wondered, “My burial?” After all, he was a young man, about 33, and in full health. Though he had tried to forewarn his disciples, dropping the hint more than once, none of them at table with him was thinking in terms of funerals and burials.

But that’s what makes this dinner memorable. Jesus knew what was ahead for him and although he must have entered fully into the social exchanges at the table, his mind at the same time must have been playing on what was in his immediate future.

He knew that he was marked for a cruel death, and an ordeal of unspeakable forsakenness. He knew also that this death would make him the world’s sin-bearer.

It appears that Mary’s perceptions were deeper than those of all others at the table, however vague even hers may have been. Perhaps sensing that the time for such displays of love and respect was coming to an end, her womanly intuition and her deep love for the teacher prompted her to seize the moment to pour out her devotion in this extravagant way.

Jesus halted the clamor by saying, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” This seemed to be an acknowledgment that her insight was accurate. She had perceived correctly the trouble ahead.
When Matthew and Mark tell a similar story they add these words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

To Jesus, Mary made a gesture of extravagant devotion at a time when the world was set to reject their redeemer, and his own followers were likely to forsake him. Her devotion must have spoken light assurance to his lonely soul.

Jesus said to those at table with him, “She has done what she could.” And, “She has done a beautiful thing.” The beauty was in a follower’s devoted and open-handed love.

This account is one to treasure and ponder. It gives us occasion to measure our own love for the Lord Christ at Easter time.

(If you wish to meditate further on this story during this pre-Easter season, here are the references: John 12:1-8; Mark 14:1-9; Matthew 26:6-13.)

Image info: *Kicki* (via flickr.com)

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How Do Christians Put the Trials and Troubles of Human Existence into Proper Perspective?

I have been thinking about this question this week. By the age of 93, I think I have learned what we do not do:

  1. We don’t pretend that trials and tribulations don’t exist.
  2. We don’t treat them stoically (though there are times that just “hanging on” is part of the answer).
  3. We don’t blame them on others.
  4. We don’t surrender to self-pity.
  5. We don’t ask “why me?”

So then, what do we do? The Apostle Paul was the expert in facing the harsh experiences that come in the active life of faith:

As may be seen in 2 Corinthians 11, he was three times beaten with rods; once pelted with stones; three times shipwrecked. He spent a night and a day clinging to the wreckage of a ship in the open sea. He faced danger from rivers; bandits; hostile fellow Jews who considered his “blasphemy” worthy of his death; false believers; and on and on.

It is hard to think of any man who endured so many hardships, and all in a time without modern resources and comforts.

For St. Paul, one of our most important human ancestors in the faith, what was his formula for staying on top?

In his own words, here it is: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

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The Faith of a Beautiful Young Woman

Leonardo da Vinci – Annunciazione – Google Art Project

As I reviewed last week, the angel Gabriel told the aged Zechariah that his wife would bear him a son in spite of her lifelong infertility and advanced age, and that this son would be a delight to them and would do wondrous things (Luke 1:13-17).

Zechariah returned to his home when he had completed his temple duties in Jerusalem, and in time he learned that Elizabeth was expecting a child just as the angel had foretold.

Then, in Elizabeth’s sixth month, Gabriel appeared again, this time to Elizabeth’s relative, a young woman named Mary who lived in Nazareth, a small town 85 miles to the north. Luke (1:26-56) tells us she was already formally committed to be married.

The angel’s address to Mary was clear and forthright: Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you. But his words frightened and perplexed her. After all, angels don’t often visit in visible form and this unusual appearance would at first be troubling.

Gabriel calmed her fears. Don’t be afraid, Mary, he said.

He went on: God is pleased with you. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. The angel declared both the child’s sex and name before a conception had even taken place. The information was being delivered directly from God.

Gabriel continued: Your child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. Amazing!

Mary would know the facts of life. Hence her perplexity: How can this be? she asked. What the angel foretold would be contrary to nature as she understood it. Virgins did not have babies; babies were born to mothers and fathers. Gabriel responded: The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

Mary’s response was wholehearted. Without hesitation, she answered: I am the Lord’s servant. May your words to me be fulfilled. With that, Gabriel vanished.

Some who consider this account are left asking: Is a virgin birth possible? Therefore, some believers struggle with doubt over this part of the Advent account.

Here are two thoughts to encourage faith.

First, the language used describes not the natural but the supernatural. Gabriel’s message is not from those who know only the sciences, but from God the Most High. The Most High is above all — Transcendent, Unlimited, Unrivaled — and he is thus able to do whatever is in accordance with his purposes.

Further to this thought, consider that Mary was told that the conception of this baby was to be a divine enablement radically beyond the natural. Moreover, when the angel said, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, he was using the language of creation (Genesis 1:2b). If God could create the universe with supernatural power at the beginning by the utterance of his word, why could he not work the wonder of a virgin birth?

Second, our personal faith is also encouraged by looking back on the creeds of Christendom. They appear to be unwavering on this matter. Consider the ecumenical version of the Apostle’s Creed. The middle section makes ten affirmations about Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Here are the first two: he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

When we utter that creed’s declaration from the heart we join with millions of believers across the centuries and in many parts of the world. We believe! And while we worship Jesus the Christ as our Lord we honor the maiden who willingly, and at great initial cost to her reputation, became God’s servant in his plan to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn.
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say —
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
(from a Basque Christmas Carol)

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A Protestant Equivalent to Lent (2018)

Lent is a season for self-denial and meditation, observed primarily in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

This year, Lent is from February 14 to March 29 and it ends Saturday after Good Friday. We’re now about half way through the season.

Those who observe Lent set apart the 40 days before Easter Sunday, but this does not include Sundays because they are days to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection year-around!

Many today who observe Lent might deprive themselves of something from a list they think important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

This time of self-denial calls believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, charity, or special services of worship to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and miraculous resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. It was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.”

This kind of denial is saying no to the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be appealing to all serious Christians.

During Lent the self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of self-examination, repentance prayer, and meditation. Consider the call of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2.

Meditation does not mean setting the mind loose to wander; it is “focused reflection” and it takes serious effort.

The three special times of the day for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before settling for sleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) special times of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

Christian meditation can include four stages: (1) the careful and deliberate reading of a brief Scripture passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) a conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

Disciplined pondering can be made a time for taking stock of the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on one’s relationships, praying for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose for pondering the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life and resurrection (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Meditation is indeed a Christian discipline and when it engages our souls it creates focus and insight, and often repentance and joy.

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Let’s Give Thanks for Life’s Imperishables

On Monday of this week, October 9, Canadians will slow their pace to count their blessings and offer thanks. Whether or not you reside in Canada, please join in!

In Canadian gatherings, words of thanksgiving will flow — for food in abundance, family, safety, health, the beauty of nature, and many other things. The list must be long for we are greatly blessed.

But, these are the perishables of life. In recent weeks, shocking devastation by hurricanes, terror attacks, and a profoundly evil massacre have snatched life’s most precious relationships and possessions away from great numbers of people in the United States and Canada.

While we pray for the thousands directly impacted and in deep grief, and for others recovering from grievous injury, I suggest especially for the rest of us this Thanksgiving that we remember in particular three blessings that are imperishable.

First, the Bible.

Twenty eight hundred years ago, before our Bible existed as we have it today, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “The grass withers, the flower fades but the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). This was a prophecy spoken in antiquity, fulfilled in history, and true to this day.

The Bible is not merely a great book; it is a unique book, a book that has remained strong and communicative against all critics. It has been a bestseller from the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century to the present.

It is really a library of Spirit-inspired truth — estimated to be the work of 40 authors written across a span of 1500 years. Yet its many voices and varied styles are bound together by a central theme – God’s redemption of his fallen world. We give thanks.

Second, the Cross.

The cross of Christ too is one of history’s imperishables.

Whether it is symbolized on top of the golden dome of historic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, or displayed in rustic fashion on the face of the pulpit of a wayside church in rural Manitoba, the symbol of the cross appears wherever Christ is proclaimed.

All this is no accident. As the late John R. W. Stott wrote, “Jesus’ death was central to his mission,” and that substitutionary death on a cruel Roman cross provides the way for us to be saved from death and punishment. All four gospels lead through the cross to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection and in turn to the assurance that believers will live eternally too.

Stott also wrote: “The cross sets forth three truths: first our sins must be extremely horrible; second, God’s grace must be wonderful beyond comprehension; third, salvation must be a free gift.” For the cross we give thanks.

Third, our hope.

When we talk about the Christian hope we mean more than our exclamation that “we hope” it won’t rain tomorrow. The Christian’s hope is called the anchor of the soul to keep us steady even in stormy times (Hebrews 6:19).

It was this hope that kept the Apostle Paul confident and joyful when he wrote to the church in Philippi, even though his letter came to them from a jail in Rome.

If he were allowed to live after his trial, he wrote, that would open to him further ministry; if he should be executed, and his earthly life taken from him, he would depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-26). Either possibility was ground for rejoicing.

Life as we live it in this world cannot be lived to the fullest until we have the assurance that there is life beyond the grave and for Christians it is life with Christ. We give thanks for this Christian hope.

The Holy Scriptures; the Sacred Cross; the anchor of a Hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). What a trio of imperishable gifts! Let us not neglect to give hearty thanks this week for perishable blessings but even more for the imperishable ones!

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Re-post: Glimpsing the Heart of Peter

Simon Peter is a major figure among the personalities of the New Testament. He was one of the first to be introduced to Jesus, and later one of the original twelve chosen and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. He is the first named in each of the three lists of apostles given in the Gospels.

Moreover, on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached the first sermon properly called a Christian sermon — centering on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And he’s the primary figure in the first 12 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It was Peter who carried the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Beyond all this, his two letters written to Christians suffering from persecution are included in the New Testament.

Yet, his performance was on occasion less than stellar. With Our Lord’s crucifixion hours away, at one point Simon Peter declared his never-dying loyalty to his Master and only a short time later, now in a hostile environment, he denied that he knew him. From this lapse, however, he recovered in a burst of penitential tears.

But in that same general period of time there’s another moment in his life when, in spite of his dismal failure, Peter’s responses show the depth of his heart’s commitment to Jesus.

It’s Thursday. The Lord and the twelve have arrived at a borrowed room to celebrate the Passover Feast together. For the customary washing of the feet before the meal, a bowl and towel are there, but no servant appears. Jesus assigns himself the task. However, he comes on his knees to Simon Peter and the big fisherman says in surprise, “YOU wash MY feet? To him that would be unthinkable. Jesus was his leader and leaders don’t do such menial tasks.

Jesus responded: “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” The pronouncement must have rung in Peter’s ears, and his reply shows the depth of his heart’s commitment to his Master: “Not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.”

It was as though he cried out, “Being severed from you would be like death. The most important thing in my life is to belong to you.”

That response was not entirely new. Earlier when Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave him as some of his other followers were doing, Peter blurted out with the same depth of feeling, “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His love and connections were real!

Jesus’ words to Peter have two levels of meaning. At the material level they have to do with the washing of the feet as a social propriety. At the spiritual level they have to do with what really connects one with Jesus – called “the washing of regeneration.” It stands for an inner cleansing, the washing away of our sins, the cleansing of the soul by the blood of Christ.

To return to the account of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus adds a word about the ongoing life of true discipleship, saying, “if you’ve had a bath, you need only to wash your feet.” It’s as though he reminds them that that very day they bathed for the day and that need not be repeated. But after walking the dusty, soiled streets their feet may need attention.

Elsewhere the same John writes, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He writes this to believers.

We can never forget Brother Peter. Tradition says that he spent his closing days in the city of Rome where he was crucified under the emperor, Nero. When it came time to die, some believe, he asked that he be placed on his cross upside down because he was unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord.

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Re-post: Change Your Tapes

Photo credit: CoreForce (via flickr.com)Scripture verse: May the foot of the proud never come against me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away (Ps 36:11).

We’ve all done it. We hear a song that touches us so we order the tape. Or we hear a sermon that moves us and we say, I have to hear that again, so we ask for the tape. Then we play these tapes over and over.

Some counselors have put this image to good use. Here’s a believer who is often down on herself, or who sees the world through dark glasses, or repeatedly scolds herself for past bad choices — though forgiven. The counselor may say, “You’ve got to turn those tapes off in your head; start playing some new ones.”

This advice fits Psalm 36. David is vexed by the traits of the wicked person — he’s egotistical, has no reverence for God, his words are evil and deceitful, his sins are intentional — he even plots wrongdoing in the middle of the night. It’s a disheartening picture.

But the Psalmist turns immediately to another set of tapes. He calls to mind who God is — he’s loving, faithful, righteous, just. In fact, His love is “covenant love,” love that just won’t quit. That’s a tape that we should listen to again and again if the evil around us makes us glum.

The Psalmist ends with a simple prayer: “Continue your love to those who know you. . .” This prayer turns him to the right source for help, and he plays new tapes.

Thought: If we have power to choose the physical tapes we play, we have power to choose the mental tapes also.

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Antidote to Anxiety

8786185166_31e2f2f978_mWhen W. H. Auden published his Age of Anxiety in 1948, the title caught wide attention in western society. The Second World War was over but there was a massive cleanup to follow, and many war wounds would never fully heal.

At the same time, the continuing influence of the industrial revolution was making life more and more impersonal and relationships increasingly fragile.

But if those times were marked by an undercurrent of anxiety, what shall we call our prevailing state of mind now?

War machines in the skies, on the ground and in the water have become thunderously destructive. We live in a world where children are no longer safe. There are recurring predictions that the economy will collapse. And worse, even in a land at peace terrorism threatens our well being in every city of the western world? A terrorist may live next door.

The trouble with anxiety is that we often don’t know we have it. Or it has us. Our fears lack a personal focus so we can’t very well fight back. We just carry our anxieties quietly, but at a cost.

Is there an antidote to anxiety for our times?

Here’s Simon Peter’s word to believers scattered from their homes, probably by persecution, and in peril of settling to live under a cloud of anxiety: “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 RSV).

The most important element in our struggle with the terror of our times is the view we have of God. If he doesn’t exist then we’re on our own through all of life’s perils. If he’s only “the man upstairs” then our situation isn’t much better for he may not know what goes on downstairs. Or if he knows he may not be able to do much about it.

But if he’s the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and everywhere present, then our issues are different. We know from both Jesus’ message and his life during his stay on earth what God is really like. He is as a Father to us.

That doesn’t mean he’ll protect us from every cold blast or sweeping storm. He knows that struggle builds muscle of body and mind. But if we live in faith he’ll never let perils and fears go beyond what we can take, and in our most troubling times he will stand in the shadows “keeping watch above his own.”

When our two boys were teenagers delivering papers I left them to deliver papers on bicycles or on foot because I believed the effort required would make them stronger and more self-reliant.

But one morning very early they came to our room before we were awake to tell us it was pouring down rain outside. I let them take the car for their task. Both decisions were fatherly. Some struggle was good for them. It would make men of them. But there was a time for a father to step in also. Our God knows when to step in.

Whenever our anxieties build up we should ask ourselves: Am I living as though I have to keep the whole universe on its course? Our first need in coping with anxiety is to realize this world is still God’s world and to renew a genuine faith in him. When Jesus said to his immediate followers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” he was addressing them — and us too.

This brings us to the main verb in Saint Peter’s assurance to the scattered ones. It occurs only one other time in the New Testament.

During his passion, when the disciples brought a colt to Jesus, before he mounted they threw their coats on the animal. Peter tells us that is what we are to do with our anxieties. We are to cast them on God. Then, unburdened we are to live in the confidence of his love.


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Re-post: It’s Holy Week — Who Cares?

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12). What a searching question to ask ourselves during Holy Week!

I visualize the Book of Lamentations as written by the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, after Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

I picture him as sitting on Olivet overlooking the ruins – the temple is smashed and burned, the walls of the city lie strewn along the steep embankment of the Kidron Valley, and almost all human life in the city has ceased. It’s the picture of desolation.

At some point he must have noticed that travelers who passed the ruins went about their business as though nothing had happened and he sobs out, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

There’s a place for that lament in our lives too. Sunday, March 28, for Christians is Palm Sunday and the beginning of what we call Holy week ending with Resurrection Sunday on April 4. To us today, Jerusalem is the city where, six centuries after Jeremiah, Our Lord was arrested, falsely accused, flogged unjustly and then put to death on a cross by the Roman authorities.

May we never forget that his death bore a two-fold testimony to the world. First, it bore witness to the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It was the sins of the world that put Jesus there –- greed, lust, selfishness, deception, pride — sins we all know about by shameful personal experience.

But, against all that darkness, the cross bore witness to the immeasurable greatness of God’s love for sinners — “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). John the Baptist dubbed Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

It is fitting for us to hear Jeremiah’s question in a personal way: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” That is, when we see the devastation of sin portrayed in the cross and at the same time the redeeming love of God, how much does it matter?

Here are references to key happenings during the original Holy Week. You may wish to use them for your daily meditations:

SUNDAY. This was the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheered on by the mistaken notion of the throngs that he would use his great powers as a national king to drive out the Roman occupation. (Matt. 21:1-11; Lk. 19: 28-44)

MONDAY. Jesus curses the fig tree. It was a shocking “acted parable” of judgment against the nation that had failed its divine assignment. (Matt. 21:18,19)

TUESDAY. The Olivet discourse upon his return from Jerusalem to Bethany (Lk. 21:5-36)

WEDNESDAY. It is thought by some to be a day of silence. But his enemies were not silent. The ruling Sanhedrin plots to kill him. (Matt. 26:3-5; Lk 22:1-2)

THURSDAY. Preparations for his observance of the Passover meal and at the same time his instituting of communion in connection with the Last Supper (Matt. 26:20-35; Lk 22:14-30).

FRIDAY. This is the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. He is betrayed and arrested (John 18:2-12); tried before Annas (John 18:13-24); before Caiaphas (John 18:19-24); before the full Sanhedrin (Lk 22:66-71); before Pilate and Herod (Lk 23:1-25) He was on his cross from 9 A.M. To 3 P.M. (Jn 19:16-37); then hastily buried (Matt.26:57-61)

SATURDAY. The Jewish sabbath, a day of silence.

SUNDAY. Resurrection appearances (Matt. 28:1-20). The day of astonishment, joy, and the rebirth of hope. To prepare us properly for the Day of Resurrection we need the whole week for Bible reading, meditation and prayer.

Holy Week is the week in which Our Lord was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, forsaken temporarily by his nearest followers, flogged by the Roman authorities and eventually nailed to a Roman cross on which he felt forsaken by the Father because a holy God cannot countenance sin.

When the Apostle Paul reflected on the event he wanted to fellowship Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10). May we be saved from any nonchalance this Holy Week and rather deepen in our identification with Christ in his life, death, burial and resurrection.

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