prayer for the first Sunday after Christmas

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

marking the time in which we live

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

It all depends on what is meant by “the present crisis” (verse 26). Gordon Fee in his excellent 1 Corinthians commentary sides with something like the lot for all of us in this present age before Jesus returns (my words). It is not something “impending” (NRSV), that is, something to come. But present, a present crisis, or distress.

But it does indeed seem strange that these gifts of God inherent within our humanity in the created order, should be taken with a kind of grain of salt, or not necessarily received as they otherwise would, since “this world in its present form is passing away.”

The point is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, with a view to his return, the new creation is breaking in, and the old is passing. It is likely a matter of already/not yet theological thought, in that our salvation is present (along with the salvation of the world), but not yet completed. So that in the meantime, we live as those not rooted in the present, but in the future. Our lot is cast there, so that we don’t live like those whose lot is fully cast here (consider the book of Ecclesiastes).

Does this mean that we live escapist lives now, simply wanting to avoid this present evil age (Galatians 1:4)? Not at all! We live fully in the present, as those who are looking to God’s promise for the future to break in now, at this time, and someday to be complete when Jesus returns. And this is to be realized through the power of the gospel, and through the church, in the present. Something happening now, but its consequences only fully realized later.

Paul’s words here are to encourage a devotion to the Lord which singleness can bring, in one’s focus and time. But it includes those who are married as well, that their focus too should be singular. But in context, definitely not neglectful of their marital duties to their spouse, or the upbringing of their children.

These are words of encouragement to me today. I need to see everything in light of the present distress that all Christians live in during this present life. So that my sights are set on God’s will, and following Christ, rather than on the myriads of things people have their minds and hearts set on in this world. Not that those things don’t have their place. For example it is good to live and eat healthy, and for us as Christians, primarily out of devotion to Christ, but for our own good as well. But this is not a priority of first importance. For example, if God called a man or woman to a mission for the gospel that potentially put them in harm’s way, they might do well to go it alone, without a family, and the added concern that would cause. And their first priority would not be their own safety, but faithfulness to the mission. Not that safety wouldn’t matter, it just wouldn’t be first priority overall.

Another important word for us from God’s word. For us to pray over and grapple with, as we seek to live lives for the good of others, and for God’s glory now, in and through Jesus.

radical reliance on God

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

I like the NRSV rendering, “and do not rely on your own insight.” We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, or at least I’ll speak for myself. I read scripture daily, but I also go over it slowly. I find especially at certain parts, that I do well to slow down, sometimes back up then slow down, and ponder all of it in its parts, which hopefully will help me understand it better as a whole.

For me the first thought here, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” is particularly striking, and actually challenging, unfortunately, given my own propensity to depend on information gathering and reason. Not that those shouldn’t be in the mix, but in the end we’re to either trust in God, or rely on our own insight. One or the other.

I like The Message‘s rendering of this passage:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.

It’s important to consider each part, but it’s a mistake to isolate it from the whole. We’re to consider each part carefully with reference to the whole. And what I find is nothing short of a radical dependence on God, which does not imagine that anything short of that is satisfactory in and of itself. So that when we’re confronted with something in which we know we’re in need of special wisdom, wisdom from God, we can proceed on this track, that of radically relying on him.

Of course this doesn’t at all mean that we ditch science, or human knowledge, along with rationality. Those in their place can be part of the equation, in their proper place, indeed gifts from God. But we don’t do well to put our confidence in the gifts, but rather, in the Giver. Our confidence in the end has to be in the God who gave us those things, or the ability to come up with the working knowledge we humans come up with. But we know that we’re limited even in that God-given sphere, and in the end that we not only do well to, but actually need to put our trust completely in God, and quit trying to figure everything out and arrive to a satisfactory place ourselves.

This will require prayer, being in the word, more prayer, certainly regular participation in church, prayer, being in the word, more prayer, and more participation in church. And time, with the waiting on God that goes with that.

God is at work in ways we probably are not capable of fully understanding and appreciating. We need to work at trusting in him. God will give us the insight and help we need if we commit ourselves to radical dependence on him. Which means we are willing to wait and take our hands off the process. Waiting for his peace to keep us on his path for us in and through Jesus.

the need for civil discourse

Does not wisdom call out?
    Does not understanding raise her voice?

….Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
    I open my lips to speak what is right.

Proverbs 8:1,6

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of a special kind of wisdom that God wants to give. I take that in the sense of reverence and awe, and because of Jesus, not cowering fear. But there is also a general wisdom given to all humankind from God. So that when wisdom speaks, it can speak from just about any source. Maybe even from the devil, if you would backmask that.

And the funny thing is that all of that wisdom is a gift from God. So that we need to have ears to discern, but in the first place listen.

But a big part of wisdom is to see through the deceptive, foolish allure of sin, and to ferret out both deception and foolishness, that which isn’t wise. And let’s all face it, we all carry a mix of wisdom and foolishness. I’m not saying we’re out and out fools, although scripture says there are such people. Let God be the judge of who. But we can be downright foolish and obtuse. Just the realization of that can help us to be quiet and listen, and only offer humbly any thoughts which might be helpful, but otherwise to be still.

In this day and age, and surely not unlike any other, but maybe given all the media outlets and ability to publish one’s thoughts anonymously, we need like no other time to measure words, first our own words, and then the words of others. We need civil discourse, which means a commitment to listen well, ask questions, listen some more, and offer carefully, with openness to correction and refinement, whatever we might have to say.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t stand by some principles or truths, such as the need for justice for all, the end never justifies the means, etc., etc. And as Christians, we do so with an eye and heart ever ready to be a witness in life and in word to the good news in Jesus.

Love is to mark us in all we do. And what we’re to model in all of this. Love listens, makes its appeal, and accepts the outcome, including inevitable differences all of us will have.

Something needed today in our society which should always be what we in Jesus strive for in all of our interactions. In and through him.

trials as opportunities

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Who likes trials? No one. And for me they often come in the form of thoughts, but about real life situations. And so I try to ferret everything out as best I can. I try to pray according to Philippians 4:6-7, trying to practice all that verses 4-9 include. Certainly in an imperfect, broken way, but sincerely.

And by and by the Lord somehow gives me relief. And in one way or another, either a sense of growth, though that usually takes some time, not just over one episode. Though if I can handle it well enough, that is cause for encouragement. And another way is  through a new thought that comes my way, which itself may have nothing to do with the trial itself, but more with the kind of reaction I need to have regarding it.

At any rate, as hard as it’s going to be at the time, we need to develop the mindset and attitude that sees trials of whatever sort as opportunities. Just like the passage quoted above tells us.

Of course there are the places of deepest darkness through which we may need to pass which I’m not sure qualify for actual trials, but are more like life changers. I think of a person losing a loved one through an unexpected physical malady or accident. Maybe in some sense that might qualify as trials, but I hesitate to place it here, in what James is referring to. Perhaps what might fit into what James is saying, during such times, would be when we are faced with new problems which indeed are trials as the result of such happenings. But I hesitate to see even that in this category.  God is certainly at work in all things for our good, but that doesn’t mean at all that those things God is at work in are good themselves.  But we can be confident, whatever it is, that God will bring us through to the other side. And will be with us the whole way, throughout our lives in our brokenness and loss.

Trials as opportunities. May we more and more learn to see them that way with God’s help, as God’s word tells us to, in and through Jesus.

a hard earned faith

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4:9-13

In the culture of praying the prayer and asking Jesus into our hearts, once saved always saved, the idea of a hard earned faith seems mistaken at best. It is interesting, considering Jesus’s parable of the sower, that one can believe with joy, but fall away when the trials come (Luke 8:13). In contrast to the one who perseveres, and by so doing yields a significant crop (Luke 8:15).

Trusting in God by trusting in his word and the sea-change that brings is at the heart of this. It is not just a one time thing, and it is not so much incremental. We can see in Jesus’s parable of the sower, that the person who ends up falling away, initially receives the word with joy, and for all intents and purposes looks genuine, believing for a while (Luke 8:13). But when testing comes, which we see in the other gospel can involve “trouble or persecution because of the word, they quickly fall away” (Matthew 13:21; see also Mark 4:16-17).

Back to the Hebrews passage, some of this might not fit all that well into our doctrine or what we’ve been taught in church. I think especially of churches which have taught once saved, always saved, though it all depends on all those churches teach. The point is that we can neither take faith for granted, nor be careless concerning it, just because we made some commitment once upon a time. That faith has to survive through all the rough patches and troubles life throws our way.  And according to Hebrews, that takes effort on our part. It seems like an oxymoron, but we’re to make every effort to enter into that rest. And this is an issue of obedience, whether or not we will obey God.

What we need is God’s word to help us along the way, by correcting us. We need to be committed to being under that word, to hear it and abide by it (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Sounds rather stark and threatening. But that’s not because God is that way, but rather because we are so prone to wander and get lost. God is faithful, and we can depend on God’s word. God will help us see what we need to see to keep going. And to learn to live in the rest God provides for us in and through Jesus.

Mary’s song

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, most certainly has a political vision not only in line with the kingdom of God, but of and from, as well as in anticipation of that kingdom. In church tradition, it is not like that part has been ignored, but it seems to have been largely displaced in many circles as simply a religious ritual to help the worshiper. While there can indeed be value in that, the reality of what Mary is saying is evident in this song, reflecting her own scripture: the law, the psalms, and the prophets. We might say particularly the prophets, because they had to address the mess in Israel, as well sharing God’s promise for the world even through Israel, ultimately through Jesus.

The church through the gospel is the beginning of this kingdom under King Jesus, a kingdom in which needs are met through God’s provision given. It is a spiritual kingdom, but that doesn’t mean it’s not down to earth where people live, to help them in their material need. A thorough reading of the New Testament will plainly bear that out.

So Mary’s song is political. And remember, with Joseph, but probably especially she herself had a formative influence in the upbringing of Jesus. To think that this song is an aberration that was corrected along the way maybe even by her own Son, would be a failure to understand just how rooted in scripture that song is. And it would also fail to see how Jesus’s own ministry in his teaching, life, and acts were in harmony with it. In this same book, Luke 6 makes that evident. As well as throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

This song is political in part, because the gospel is also political in part. It is about all of creation in the new creation, including all of humankind’s interactions with others. It is not just about a lot of individuals being blessed. But a community for each other and for the world. Through the good news of this little Baby who would be the King in the tradition of shepherd. God’s grace and kingdom present in and through him.

the predicament of Mary and Joseph

Mary (Luke 1:26-38) especially, but also Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25) faced a predicament over Jesus’s miraculous conception as a full human in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. The church has called this the virgin birth. And it would have been as much a nose wrinkler and eye brow raiser then as it is today. No matter what Mary said, as noble a person as Joseph may have known her to be, Joseph was set to abide by the law of Moses, but to do so mercifully, avoiding the awful sentence of stoning, instead putting Mary away quietly and as privately as possible.

But then the angel appears to Joseph, and he finds out that something extraordinary has indeed happened. And that he is to be the step father of no less than the Son of God, the Messiah. How far along Joseph’s Christology was at this point, I don’t know, but we do know one thing for sure: Joseph was in a walk of faith over something he knew would be challenging in days to come, something he would have just as soon closed now. But with this new word from God, he did what for in all intent and purposes his wife, certainly his wife under the law already, what she had done. He obeyed God, even when in ordinary circumstances what he was doing made no sense, and even seemed to contradict his devotion to God.

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Matthew 1:24

Mary, of  course was in the same dilemma, only her trouble was heightened. She was to be the bearer of the child when she had yet to be joined to her husband for this to be possible. Of course this was all revealed to her at once by an angel, so that she had the full understanding of what was to happen right away, whereas Joseph did not have that advantage, but had to wrestle or work through it before an angel appeared to him.

Mary’s wonder along with her response are simply beautiful, and something for us to emulate, when we’re faced with God’s word, but would do something different if left to ourselves, something that may make all the sense in the world and seem right to us. It seems that Mary was not one who would come up with all sorts of objections and contrary thoughts. She was humble and open to whatever God would tell her, with a heart to serve the Lord in doing so, and considering what she faced, no matter what.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:38a

And so the ones to raise the Christ child would themselves faced something of the same trouble their son would face in the scandal of God becoming flesh and being the good news that all of us need. And we might face, in a different category for sure, but still just the same, testings of our own as to whether or not we’ll listen and obey God’s word, or not. And the results, while again not in terms of salvation for the world, will still have the same sort of impact on our own family, or friends.

Are we prepared to listen and hear God’s word to us, or not? What are we doing, so that might be the case? What practices have we adopted so that like Mary and Joseph, Christ might be known even in and through us?

May the Lord make this Christmas to be a time when Jesus is more fully made known, even in that manger, and beyond that through us as well. Through God’s word in and through Jesus.