Fifth Sunday of Lent: The Gospel Passage – Jesus Christ = Resurrection and Life

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” (John 11:1-2)

Some gospels say she was the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Other says she was a different Mary. A not so socially acceptable Mary. It would interesting to know if it was one and the same Mary – the Mary who was socially acceptable, who sat at Jesus’s feet, and who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. But I digress – the focus is on Lazarus.

“So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (Verse 3)

In the time of Jesus, any illness had the potential for being serious as medicine then did not follow the same regime as it does now. On with the story.

“But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Verses 4 – 16)

I want to insert briefly that Thomas meant die with Jesus, assuming that the Jews in Judea would be successful in killing Jesus.

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (Verses 17 – 22)

Martha had faith in Jesus, and knowledge of who Jesus was (and is still). It was not then that Martha needed to be told and reminded of God’s glory and Jesus being part of that glory. Or at least not very much.

“Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.” (Verses 23 – 29)

I have in the past wondered what it was about Lazarus that made him worthy of being resurrected. But as I ponder on this passage, I am starting to think it was not Lazarus per se but when it Jesus’ ministry that Lazarus became ill and died. Lazarus was not the only person that Jesus brought back to life. Nor was Jesus the only one who brought back from the dead. Elijah did also. But it was at this point in Jesus’ ministry that connection between Jesus being Lord over life and death was made. Let us read further in this story.

“Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” (Verses 30 – 33)

I have to ask, and I would have to ask the writer of the gospel of John – why the difference? Martha says if Jesus would have been there Lazarus would not have died, assuming that Jesus would have healed him. But Mary says the same thing, and Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The biblical commentators reflect two causes; being by the total scene of mourning OR being indignant at the false mourning and weeping that the Jews accompanying Mary were doing. There was such a profession as being professional weepers and mourners to give sound and numbers at funerals. The writer of the gospel John might have made note of such as these, and having Jesus react to them. Or, Jesus upon seeing the woman who wept for him, wept on her behalf. Let us continue the story.

“He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (Verses 34 – 37)

Criticism and cynicism noted by the writer of the gospel of John, and Jesus reacts.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.” Verse 38)

I can see where the two interpretations to Jesus’ grief and disturbance came from. I should not forget that many times the writers of the gospel were also acute observers of the society of the time.

“Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (Verses 39 – 45)

Power over life and death. It is hard not to believe when you see such dramatic proof. But while some did believe, there were others who were angered (or perhaps more accurately, frightened) at the display/report of such power. The verses that follow this passage tell of the reaction of Jewish/Temple authorities and their fear. And the story of Jesus’ ministry moves one step closer to its conclusion.

These events of Jesus’ life are remembered and set down to explain what was to come. While each of the gospels might differ somewhat, they form a cohesive story of what Jesus did. And with these stories in hand, generation after generation has had to decide whether they believe or not.

While we are in the season of Lent, we are also in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary – the year of coming to new faith. In the early Christian church, the season of Lent and Easter was a preparatory time of coming to faith. May you use this time to ponder on your own faith, perhaps coming to new understandings. I pray that you faith in grounded in the strong foundation of who Jesus Christ was, and is to you. And the place of our Lord God in your life. Selah!

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Annunciation of the Lord: Gospel and alternate Psalms Passage – How Mary played a part to bring the Light to fruition

[I’m going to tread down a divergent path for this passage, so be warned.]

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26 – 27)

Have you asked or heard about how your mother and father met? My parents met as a high school they both attended. My husband’s parents just got to know each other living in a small town, or at least I assume that is the story. My husband and I met at college. My grandfather say my grandmother traveling on a street car and liked her looks enough that he followed the street car. For every child, there is a story about how his/her parents met – regardless of whether it is a pleasant story of not.

In the Jewish tradition that Jesus grew up in, most marriages were arranged. So Joseph and Mary may have been matched up by their families instead of meeting at the market square or by the town’s water well. Jesus’ mother and his “other” Father – that’s a different story.

“And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Verses 28 – 33)

Now Mary and the Lord God knew each other. She had to in order to “have found favor with God.” While women did not serve in the Temple or Synagogue, and they had a special place in the Lord God’s house of worship, it was not uncommon for a woman to be devote in worship of God. Jesus and his disciples knew of women who were devote, as did Paul. So Mary must have been such a woman of devotion. But nothing in any woman’s experience of worship of God would point to this type of service to God. Mary did not question that she was called into service to God but wonder how this would come about according to her understanding of fertility and child birth.

“Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Verses 34 to 35)

I used to think that it was a great burden to place on a young girl to be singled out by God and be made subject to the type of criticism and disfavor that she must have borne in her community. I have revised my thinking on that. But still, it must have made an interesting story to young Jesus when/if he asked about how his parents met or how babies are born or any of the other questions young children might ask. Questions that are universal and timeless amongst young humanity.

Just as Mary’s pregnancy was distinct and set apart from other women in her community, so too was the birth of Jesus. It is good to remember this when we think of Jesus. From the first moment of his conception is was different and set apart. Yet he grew and matured as any other child and young man. It is good to remember this as we journey through Lent. That Jesus’ life story is close to ours, but yet different. That we may live a life like any other, yet as followers of the Lord God and Jesus Christ we are set apart. And that all followers of the Divine are part of a unique family starting with Mary, and with Joseph.

“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” (Verses 36 – 38)

“Let it be.” One of the many reasons I admire Mary is that she trusted in the Lord God so completely that she was obedient. Even when things looked unfathomable, she trusted. I try to that too. And I look to the same God that she did. Through that connection she is my spiritual sister.

I do not know if Mary would have read the psalms or been familiar with them. I would like to think that she was. Because it seems to me, in many ways, Mary’s life lives out the psalms. To her is credited the Magnificat. And the alternate psalms passage for this day sounds a lot like what Mary might have felt.

You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalms 40:5 – 8)

Mary, however, did not say much out loud. Many times the scriptures tells us she pondered things in her heart. I would like to think in her older/later years she talked and told the people around her about what God had done for her and how the Lord had accepted her service. Indeed, how would we know so many things about Mary if she had not spoken to someone?

“I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” (Verses 9 – 10)

The Day of Annunciation is at it’s foundation Mary’s story. Yes, it is the story of how/why Jesus is the Son of God. But it is Mary’s story; of how faith brought forth greater faith. And it can be our story too. We may not be called to bring forth an infant Jesus, but we can carry the news of our Lord God and Jesus Christ. That too is part of the journey of Lent.

May you, gentle reader, ponder in your heart and then tell the “glad news of deliverance”! Selah!

First Sunday of Lent: The Gospel Passage – Lenten temptations and journey

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” (Matthew 4:1 – 2)

I was curious, so I looked up Jesus and the concept of fasting for 40 days and nights. As with most Google searches, a lot of information (both helpful and unhelpful) was there. I would not put it past the writer of Matthew to access the 40 days as symbolic rather than chronological. But that is not my point, nor I think is it the point of the writer of Matthew. The point is, beloved reader, Jesus’ physical body was in need of nourishment. His spirit/Spirit however . . .

“The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Verses 3 – 4)

People have all kinds of relationships to food. And all kinds of relationships to God. Tending to each carefully is part of living an authentic Christian life. There were other points in Jesus’ life and ministry where food, and drink, play important roles. But we are not done reading this passage, and neither was the tempter.

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
(Verses 5 – 7)

I would to look up how that is said in other translations. But I suspect it would be presented with the same sort of wording. But it makes me think about all the people in human history who have dared to do something daring. Or, those who through no fault of their own have been put in precarious situations.

But on the other hand, why shouldn’t we? It is not as if God is going to “fail” the test. There is though, free will that has corresponding consequences. It is best then to travel with God and not act contrary to one’s own fallible human limits.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (Verses 8 – 11)

There are limits then to what Jesus was willing to put with. Target human body frailty, and most humans will rise above their baser desires. Target human sense of safety and security, and most people will stay within sensible limits. But target human awareness of God’s authority, and that might be the breaking point. Jesus did not break.

“Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Verse 11)

I am very glad for verse 11. When we have been tempted and tortured by the tempter and the devil, and have resisted with all our might and strength, it is good to know that our needs will be ministered to. May you carry out your Lenten journey strong in the Lord God and assured of the Divine’s tender attention and mercies. Selah!

First Sunday of Lent: The Psalms Passage – The “Joy” of Lent

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”  (Psalm 32:1 – 2)

It is not quite usual for there to be “happy” and “joy” in Lent. We usually think of it as dour and sober time in the church year. I think we might be mistaken if that is our only impression of Lent. The time of Lent travels along the same time lines as Jesus’ ministry. And Jesus’s disciples did not know their teacher then/Lord later as someone who was somber and restrained. I am not sure if any biblical commentator has looked at Jesus’ life for times of levity and humor, and joy. But I am sure it would be there!

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Verses 3 – 5)

The Lord does not want us to be in misery and pain. That is contrary to the purpose and reason that Christ came. Jesus said his burden is light and his yoke is easy. That is not the invitation of a humorless Messiah.

“Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah” (Verses 6 – 7)

I am not sure about the “humor” level or function of the psalmist though. However, the human life has joy and happiness in it. Humanity would not have survived and advance if there was not. And I think humor has an important place in ministry, as does joy and happiness. We do Christianity a disservice if there is not.

“I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” (Verses 8 – 11)

Yes, beloved reader, shout for and in joy! Selah!

Ash Wednesday: The Gospel Passage – Entering Lent properly

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:1 – 2)

I can’t imagine, literally tooting a horn when you give to the poor or to charity. I often donate things that I no longer need to a thrift shop that sells them to finance the community outreach that they do. I do not even “toot my horn” to call the thrift shop staff much-less announce to others that I am doing it!

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verse 4)

But neither do I feel that I have been “reward” by the Divine or anyone else. It is just something I do to help out. I can’t afford to give money away but I can find other ways to help. And I do. The reward, and the only reward I want, is that I know what I am doing makes a difference.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 5 – 6)

This is “my” verse – one of the verses I orient my life around. I have had many “prayer rooms”; some actual places/spaces and some that are just my own personal time to come to the Lord in prayer. I don’t “toot my horn” or make a public announcement. I just bring myself and my total attention to the Lord, and pray. And yes, I have been rewarded!

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 16 – 18)

Again, beyond my experience. I guess back in Jesus time the local “hypocrites” employed trumpet playing people to announce when and where they were giving alms, prayed at loud decibels in public places and walked around looking like death’s last stop when they were fasting. We as Christians are told to life our faith publicly, but that is NOT the way to do it!

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Verses 19 – 21)

As we enter the season of Lent, let us enter it properly; as Jesus instructed his disciples and followers to live their faith lives. Without embarrassment or shame, but also without fanfare and notoriety. The world will notice and know that you are different from others they know. It will become evident in so many ways. And that, beloved reader, will be enough. Selah!

Ash Wednesday: The Psalms Passage – Entering Lent

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)

Ash Wednesday. It is said in some traditions the ashes that are smudged on the forehead are from the burnt palms from the previous year. I like that continuity from year to year. Each Lent season we enter it with good intentions that when we are forgiven from our sins, we sill sin no more. But days and weeks pass, and sin creeps in, until Lent season is upon us again and we again need forgiveness.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Verses 2 – 3)

I also like the idea that the church body knows that it will inevitably sin, and retaining the memory of grace, hopes on it again. Jesus dying once for us was enough. But we need to repent and be forgiven again and again. This is one of the lessons that young believers learn. That the thrill of new belief gives way to the reality of trying to life a new life in an old world.

“Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Verses 4 – 5)

While it is true that the new believer most likely has turned away from a life not at all centered on God and Christ, human will alone is not enough to keep us sin free. Or, as we have been talking about in the past few days, free will allows us to make choices that are contrary to God’s leading and guidance.

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” (Verses 6 – 9)

New Christian, or old hand at the Christian life, each of us needs to be re-oriented towards God and Christ. Ash Wednesday is one of those days when we examine our selves, see ourselves as we are, seek to make amends, and hope in the grace and mercy that is to come. And opening ourselves like that, we invite God and Christ is – for the first time or again.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Verses 10 – 13)

It is a yearly rhythm; self examination, confession, and the hope for forgiveness. We sometimes create a journey where we move from self-examination to confession, and then “feign” not knowing what we will do – whether grace and mercy will be ours. In this way we re-discover anew the grace and mercy that God intends.

“Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Verses 14 – 17)

But the using of palms from the year before belies that idea. In its stead we recognize that human will and human frailty have tripped us up . . . again. There are many spiritual disciplines and practices that are carried out during Lent. Throughout history the church has espoused differing ways to take on “burdens” during Lent to remind us of Christ’s travail. We go without something or do something extra to mark the 40 days that are Lent. And there is good and benefit in that.

But we must also remember that grace and mercy are not to be rewards for the burdens we endure or the challenges we take up. As it is so often said, you must believe . . . simply, believe. This is the good news for the new Christian, and good news for those of us who have seen many Lenten seasons.

May you, beloved reader, enter into the season of Lent looking for the hope that is already in place. Selah!

Liturgy of the Passion: Psalms Passage – Awash in grief, but never alone

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.” (Psalms 31:9)

The psalmist does not say, or at least has not said yet what is causing this grief. If the psalmist is indeed King David, then it could have been written in a time when David was experiencing grief; and that was several times in his life. But we are not doing a study on King David. We are moving through our own season of Lent; you, beloved reader, may have a variety of things you are grieving, as do I. Also worthy of grief is our relative conditions of sin, and our need for confession, penance, and forgiveness. Does all of this rise to the level of wasting away? That is something each person must decide for themselves.

“For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.” (Verses 10 – 11)

Many years back I read a book that was formative in my life. It started out the statement, “Life is pain”; if those were not the exact words, it is a very close paraphrase. It was, for me, permission to realize and confess that life could be difficult and that there would be suffering. But that did not mean I was living incorrectly or unfaithfully, but the life is hard and there is suffering. We are not alone, however, because God and our Lord Christ journey with us.

“I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” (Verses 12 – 13)

If we do not or have not suffered as the psalmist has, or have not suffered as others around us have or do, that does not mean that God is not with us.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” (Verses 14-16)

Psalmist knew, or came to know, what we know or should come to know – that, God is with us no matter what. And what evil, suffering, or sin that we might encounter our Lord Christ will shine us and save us with steadfast love.