Weapons of War

Wednesday Second Week of Ordinary Time

Readings

David slew Goliath; Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Could there be a more jarring juxtaposition of passages?

These are both great texts from Scripture. They are stories most of us know. But what do they have in common? On the surface, not much. But that’s because we focus on the withered hand and not the Pharisees.

Warfare. That is the unifying theme. It’s blatant in the passage from First Samuel. Spears and swords, shields and slings. Taunts, attacks, and death. But it is there in the Gospel as well.

Jesus walked into an ambush in this particular synagogue. The Pharisees are lying in wait to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, if he will act contrary to their interpretation of the Law, so that they might accuse him.

Just as David walked out onto the frontlines before Goliath, Jesus calls the man with the withered hand up to the front of the synagogue. Just as David answered Goliath’s taunts with his steadfast faith in God, so Jesus stands firm and questions the Pharisees.

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

David is offended at Goliath’s blasphemy and taunting. Jesus is grieved at the hardness of hearts.

Silence. Movement. The clash is imminent.

A stone flies. Jesus speaks, “Stretch out your hand.”

The giant falls. The man is restored.

The Philistines break in fear and run. The Pharisees break in anger and plot to put Jesus to death. This is only the third chapter of Mark, yet they have already decided Jesus must die. It takes until chapter 14 for their plot to come to fruition.

Because we know Jesus triumphed, it is easy to forget the struggle. But we need to understand his struggle so we can understand our own.

We have an enemy. He seeks our destruction just as surely as Goliath wanted to slaughter David. But the Lord, our rock, trains our hands for battle, our fingers for war.

It seems odd that the Psalmist chose to focus solely on our hands. Certainly in war arms and legs are important as well? Perhaps he was being unintentionally prophetic. We clasp our hands in prayer. We work the beads with our fingers. These are the weapons of our warfare. Prayer, confession, contemplation.

We do not casually arrive at the conviction to stand before a giant with a stick and a sling. Jesus had spent years in silent preparation. We know of his 40 days in the wilds, but of what went before, the Gospels are mostly silent.

David did not come against his enemy in his own strength. He declared, “I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” Without him we can do nothing. (John 15:5). Our only strength is in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May we abandon ourselves to God for his glory.

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Follow Him

4 January

Readings

I can imagine John a bit frustrated as he stands with two of his disciples when Jesus walks buy. His entire ministry had been pointing to Christ’s coming. Now, Jesus had come and had been baptized, proclaimed, and heralded from heaven. Yet John still has disciples following him.

“Behold the Lamb of God.” Nudge, nudge. There he is, guys. He’s the one, not me. Go follow him.

Now they follow after Jesus.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and you will see.”

Andrew soon afterward goes to his brother Peter. “We have found the Messiah.”

How did Andrew know this? On the testimony of John. As John’s disciple, Andrew believed what his teacher said. He believed him enough to leave John in order to follow the teacher he pointed to.

That is a significant act for both student and teacher. For the teacher, it means having the self-awareness and humility to know, “I have taken you as far as I can; now you must be entrusted to another.”

For the student, it means leaving the familiar and beginning again with a new teacher. While it may be a progression of subject matter, there will be different styles of instruction, different idiosyncrasies, different expectations to adapt to.

But sometimes it is worth it. Your teacher recommends someone who you have heard of, who the really good students all study with. It is a compliment to be thought worthy of studying with such a teacher.

This seems to be the case with Andrew. He goes to his brother Simon. “We have found the Messiah.” He’s taking disciples. This is a great chance!

Simon and Andrew return. Jesus looks at this newcomer.

“You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Peter.” Jesus not only knows who this new follower is, he proclaims that he will be transformed by his time with the master. His given name meant listening; some sources say it can also mean little hyena. His new name was to be rock.

Andrew and Peter became early disciples of the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God revealed to destroy the works of the Devil. These two men had made a serious choice. Exactly how the Messiah’s coming would play out, they couldn’t know for sure, but at the least they expected there to be clashes with the Romans.

Nothing has changed with following Christ. It is still a serious commitment. It may cost us our family, our country, our very lives. To stand with Jesus is to stand against the powers and principalities of this age. To follow Jesus is to thumb our noses at the devil and walk out on him, with all the danger that leaving an abusive, manipulative relationship entails. We will be pursued.

But we, unlike Andrew and Simon at this early encounter, know the rest of the story. Upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Satan can’t hold us if we are following Christ.

The Lamb of God

3 January

Readings

The Lamb of God

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For as well-known as this metaphor is, it is surprising that today’s passage in John is the only mention of it in the Gospels.

Despite this relative obscurity in the Gospels, it is a powerful image because it draws on so much of Israel’s history. The lamb sacrificed during the Passover carried much symbolism with it, especially of protection and deliverance, as the lamb’s blood was smeared on the door frames of the Israelites’ dwellings as a signal to the angel sent to kill every firstborn in Egypt that these houses were to be spared.

The sacrifice of lambs was a central act in the Jewish temple, used for many different offerings. From purification after childbirth to purification after being healed from leprosy, lambs were the prescribed sacrificial animal.

Jesus also appears in Revelation as a Lamb who was slain. He is the only one found worthy to open the sealed scroll. He is worthy because he shed his own blood in love and obedience.

This is surely a significant portion of what it means to be the Lamb of God. It was not that Jesus came as a God-sized lamb to be a big enough sacrifice to purify all of humanity from their sins. Jesus was not lamb-zilla.

We must change our point of view and consider it through the lamb’s eyes. Lambs are fairly docile creatures by nature. They are easily led by shepherds and sheep dogs. They don’t have to be tamed like horses. They are trusting creatures, allowing themselves to be led to slaughter without fear or anxiety.

In the same way, we see Jesus as the Lamb of God. He was a lamb because he was gentle and meek. Indeed, he lived at least part of his life a bit like a lamb, without a home, wandering around the Judean country side.

Jesus is the Lamb of God because he allowed himself to be offered as a sacrifice for us out of love for the Father and love for us. He became a target for death, and by allowing himself to be swallowed by death, he destroyed its power.

This relates to today’s Epistle reading as well. John is discussing how we are children of God, how we know that those who act righteously are begotten by God. As we draw closer to the Lamb, we can’t help but come closer to each other. Two people walking toward the same spot, no matter where they begin, cannot help but become closer as they close on their objective.

So too with us, as we draw closer to the Lamb of God, we are drawn together by him and in him and for him. We become one with him and with each other in unity and holiness. May we continue to work for that day when we will all be one with the Lamb before the throne.

Quiet Anna

30 December

Readings

Anna is easy to just pass over. Simeon immediately precedes her and gives us the Nunc Dimittis which we recite every evening during Compline. But Anna, as far as we are concerned, is mute.

In today’s Gospel, we learn a bit about her lineage. She is of the tribe of Asher and her father was Phanuel, which means “face of God.”  She was widowed when still a young woman, being married only 7 years before her husband died. She spent the rest of her life in the temple, about 60 years by the time we meet her.

Joseph and Mary come to the temple to present their offering and while they are there, Anna comes forward at that very time and gives thanks to God.

That may be Anna’s lesson for us. If we zoom out and consider the temple, we see a busy place with people coming to offer sacrifices and pray. It was a gathering place, so those seeking disciples for their cause would be present to teach or debate. We know that merchants took the opportunity to sell their wares in the courts as well: animals for offerings and money exchange so the temple tax could be paid in the proper currency.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle of another day in the temple, a family comes with their firstborn for the offering. But this one is different. The very presence of God has just been carried into the temple by this Galilean couple. The actual body and blood of the Lord, the one who was to be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, is in the midst of the temple. And no one notices except Simeon and Anna.

How does Anna know?

Sixty years of prayer and fasting didn’t hurt anything.

We don’t know a word that Anna said, but we know that she acknowledged Christ. Her reward, at least in part, is a cameo in sacred scripture.

Simeon is pretty straightforward; he says words and we can try to understand them. Anna is a bit of a mystery; she just is. We have to observe and that takes time. We do not have any sound bites to quickly decide if we like her or not.

For me at least, the lesson of Anna today is to remind me to be humble and come to Scripture to learn. We cannot always learn in a hurry. Sometimes we must be willing to sit, listen, and ponder.

The hustle and bustle of the holidays is assumed, and most of us live with a certain amount of frenzy every day. We do well to run into a quiet Anna who doesn’t play our fast paced games. The way to learn from her is imitation. Fast and pray. Sit and ponder. Maybe for sixty years. When reading scripture, ask God, “What are you trying to tell me?” instead of asking myself, “What can I say about this?”

Anna, be patient with us, that we may learn your patience.

According to the Law

29 December

Readings

We see Mary and Joseph expressing their love of God, according to our first reading, by keeping his commandments. In Leviticus 12, we find instructions for women after childbirth. Since most people don’t read Leviticus often enough, I’ll quote the entire passage here:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

Leviticus 12:1-8

What does this tell us? It reveals that Jesus had already been circumcised on the eighth day and that the events in today’s Gospel reading happened 40 days after Jesus was born. There was no explicit requirement for this purification to take place at the temple. However, since Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, why not?

We can also surmise that the Magi had not yet visited. How do we arrive at that? By the offering they make; no lamb is sacrificed. Joseph and Mary make the offering for those who cannot afford a lamb. Presumably, if they had already received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they would have sprung for the lamb.

We also see obedience and humility, two virtues that cannot exist in isolation from each other. Joseph and Mary are obedient to the Law. And they are humble in their obedience. They don’t claim any privilege or do anything showy because they happen to have the Messiah in their arms. Simeon calls attention to them and their son, but they do not.

Our lesson from all this? Loving God is most often demonstrated in the mundane, routine acts of our days and years, even for Joseph and Mary. They attended when they were to attend and they gave what they were to give. Humility and obedience.

Weeping in Ramah

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Readings

Persecution followed Christ, even as a young child. The holy days following Christmas drive that point home.

Joseph is the silent hero of the story in today’s Gospel. He has another angelic dream and responds with action. He well could have questioned, “Wait, I thought this child was supposed to deliver us, to save us. Why do we have to flee?” But he did not. He got up, took Mary and Jesus, and moved out. Simple faith in action. His silent witness is a high calling for us to imitate.

This passage also quietly testifies to Christ’s humanity. If the infant had performed some miracle to ward off those sent to destroy him, it would be hard to say that Jesus was fully man. Not only on account of the miracle, but also because that would have required the young child to have far more awareness than children do.

The early Church Fathers fought against heresies that held that Jesus was not fully man because the scriptural accounts show his humanity. Aside from his miraculous conception, he gestated for 9 months in the womb just like you and me. He was delivered just like you and me. He was nursed and raised like every other child. Christ fully entered into our humanity from the start.

But, God did protect him. He warned Joseph in a dream and left it at that. The angel did not take them to Egypt. The angel did not even accompany them, as far as we know. Joseph and Mary undertook a journey that was probably financed by the gifts of the magi.

So what about the dead children left in Bethlehem? We may be quick to cast blame upon God, but the blame is not his to bear. Herod, of his own free will, gave the order and his soldiers carried it out. Herod had ample reason and opportunity to be true to his word to the magi, but instead of going to worship the newborn king, he ordered the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem in a fit of maniacal rage.

Is this unjust? Absolutely, on Herod’s part. But what about God’s? On no account. What can man do to us as children of God? He can either administer due punishment for our offenses against man and God or he can add to our rewards in heaven. Peter exhorts us, saying, “For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval.” (I Peter 2:20)

It is plain that God foreknew, because the prophet foretold. But what lasting harm came to the infants? They were crowned as the first martyrs of Christ. They advanced to the throne of God to sing his praises. We become troubled because we focus too much on this life to the exclusion of the life to come. Let us keep eternity in mind, seeking our union with Christ in glory.

Recalling the Story

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Readings

In the Epistle reading for today, the Apostle recalls the opening of his Gospel. “What was from the beginning….” What was from the beginning? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The Word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, this is what John writes about as he goes on to say, “We have heard, we have seen, and touched.”

In other words, that whole “Immanuel, God with us” stuff that Isaiah foretold? It really happened. God was with us. We saw him, we heard him, we touched him. And now we proclaim it to you, so that you might have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Note that he did not say, “So that you may have fellowship with him,” but rather, “So that you may have fellowship with us.” The implication is that if we have fellowship with the Apostles, we will have fellowship with the Father and the Son. But it is only because of their testimony and their authority that we have that fellowship. If the Apostles had not also been witnesses, testifying about what they had heard and seen, none of us would know anything about Christ. If we lost John, we would lose a Gospel, three Epistles, and the Revelation. He is the largest author in the New Testament after Luke and Paul.

That is one of the lessons we can take from the Apostles and Evangelists: we also need to be witnesses. We need to hand on what has been entrusted to us and we need to testify to what God has done for us as individuals.

It is important for us to share our stories for two reasons. First, because it is encouraging for others to see how the Holy Spirit has worked on, in, and through people they can relate to. It is great to know that Moses parted the Red Sea and enabled Israel’s escape from Egypt. It is something else to hear how your friend managed a tough job with no other prospects, thanks to prayer and the support of others.

Second, it is good for us to share our story because in our sharing, we are reminded of God’s work in our own life. We see his guidance and provision for us. As we reflect on our life, we see how the seemingly random twists and turns are actually a road leading to a destination.

Sharing your faith journey, even if it is only with yourself, can renew your faith and give you strength to carry on. In marriage counseling, I usually ask the couple how they met. Ideally, it helps take them back to a happy time in their relationship and generates a little positive momentum for the session. Reviewing the ways God has led, wooed, and grown us can do much the same for our relationship with him.