Category Archives: Biblical Reflection

2000 Years Ago…and Today

Readings: Psalm 21; Isaiah 41:14-20; Romans 15:14-21

I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” [NRSV}

We are now in the middle of Advent.  Advent is the season of “coming.”  The birth of Jesus 2000 years ago, and the coming of Christ today. 

It is easy to celebrate the past…a colorful tree, inspiring music, the Hallelujah Chorus, a symbolic creche, table full of food, uplifting worship, family hugs and loving gifts.  But we run the risk of losing some of this wonderful feeling when we start to take the tree down after Christmas.

The coming of Christ today is celebrating the past, but it is also embracing a lifestyle.  Paul, writing to the church in Rome, characterizes that lifestyle in Christ well:

    Life full of goodness

              To be a minister of Jesus Christ   (to care and to love)

                               To proclaim the good news

    That through us, others might “see” and “understand” the love of Christ.

My barber is a young man with a warm, caring, gentle faith.  Through many haircuts I have learned that he is deeply involved in his church.  I do not know his church.  He has also learned that I am a retired minister who has recently moved to Plymouth.  He has shared with me that he was married a couple of years ago, he is building the business, there have been some rough times, and most recently:

“My life would be an absolute mess if it were not for Jesus.”

In a recent visit he asked me how I was doing. I thanked him for asking and simply said…”there have been some bumps in the road.”  He simply responded, “May I pray for you?” I told him I very much appreciated his caring.

We  talked about other things…sports, weather, whatever, and the haircut soon ended.  When I stepped out of the chair, he put his hands on my shoulders and said a brief, thoughtful prayer.  Don’t remember the words, but do remember his gentle caring.  I was very moved.  The Spirit of Christ had come and was very present through him.

Advent is the birth, the coming of this life style.

Offered by Bill Lutz, pastor, teacher, walking home to Bethlehem.

[Two Rowhouses (2018-2019), Colin Fredrickson, artist]

The Modest Messiah

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ 

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. [Matthew 3:1-6, NRSV]

What do Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II have to do with John the Baptist? A lot, but only perhaps if you’re watching “The Crown,” season 3. 

In one of the earliest conflicts of the new season, we flash back to the abdication of King Edward VIII, upsetting the established line of succession and throwing the monarchy into a royal tizzy. Elizabeth’s father ascends the throne as George VI which makes ten year-old Elizabeth the heir apparent. She goes from third in line (long shot) to heir presumptive. It would seem a thrilling destiny for a child, except little Elizabeth doesn’t want it. She shies from a lifetime role of service from which there is no escape, no term limit. To the rescue rides her little sister. The idea of being queen sends Margaret into rapture. She is outgoing, voluble, personable. At six years old she can already see her image on every coin and pound note in the realm!

When the little queen manqué boldly approaches the King’s private secretary and proposes the sisterly switch, she is met with a withering reproach. The nation’s sovereign, he thunders, is not chosen on the basis of personality and charm, good looks, quick wits and a winning way with people. It falls to the one chosen, ready or not.

Jesus’ cousin John is a messianic Margaret. He is a bold innovator—taking an obscure Jewish water rite for gentile converts and fashioning a dramatic, public, in-the-river baptism for all Israel. He is a fiery orator, a shock prophet who rails against the power elite.  He even dresses the part, wearing a camel hair get-up that marks him as an extreme ascetic. Disciples flock to him. Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region of the Jordan” (3:5) went out to hear him preach and be drawn spellbound into the river. He was a monster celebrity.

In short, John was a messianic kind of guy. Plenty of people hailed him as such, so much so that John had to forcefully deny it (John 1:19-29). His role in the story of Jesus is to command the stage so forcefully that he seems to be The One. His character is the backdrop, the foil against which Jesus appears—by comparison—small, weak, ineffective. The let-down is critical: God knows we will always go for the John, the Margaret. Against that attractive figure we are forced to see in Jesus a new, puzzling kind of power and authority, one who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42). Milk-toast, anyone? John saw it and seriously wondered if this was the one whose coming he predicted. “I baptize you with water,” he had shouted, “but he—he will baptize you with fire!” How could John have known that flame the messiah would bring would be the fire of love?

The power of Advent lies in this John-Jesus tension. Slowly, in advance of the Nativity, we must have our minds re-wired, our expectations reversed. Every year we must confront our persistent Margaret mentality, our hunger for a “powerful” leader: if the world is going to be put to rights we need someone with some flair and fire, someone people will listen to, someone who’s not afraid to knock a few heads together and punish the offenders. That self-confrontation, which usually happens in quiet reflection, is all the opening Christ really needs. Then he appears in all his messianic beauty, his only glory the light of his welcoming countenance, his only power the force of his love.

Offered by David Anderson, author, priest, walking home to Jerusalem.

[Two Rowhouses, 2018-2019, by Colin Fredrickson]

Voices Crying Out

Readings: Ps.72:1-7, 18-19; Isaiah 40:1-11; John 1:19-28

“Comfort, oh comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of – forgiven! She’s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.”

Thunder in the desert! “Prepare for God’s Arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks. Then God’s bright glory will shine and everyone will see it. Yes. Just as God has said.” [Is. 40:1-5, The Message]

Isaiah 40
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.(KJV)

Remembering Pearl Harbor…
 
Voices crying out denotes fear, even tragedy. Having spent time in the U.S. Navy and remembering standing watch on my ship looking over at the USS Arizona memorial for hours, I come to this infamous day with sorrowful emotions. It is hard to conceive of all of the voices crying out during the attack on that Sunday morning in 1941. 
Probably most have had the experience of seemingly crying out in some wilderness—nobody paying attention. Well that’s not what Second Isaiah is expressing here. I misunderstood this for years because the phrase is often used to denote the futility of our efforts to be heard.
Instead of fear or futility good things are coming. The Exile is nearly over. The debt is paid. . Listen up! Pay attention! Get ready to see the glory of the LORD! God’s word “is always fulfilled” (TANAKH). Shout it from the roof tops”here is your God!”(v. 9).
[Eugene Peterson uses the phrase “thunder in the desert!” in his interpretation in The Message.  No one around is not hearing THAT.]
When a contingent of Jews approach John the Baptizer in today’s gospel reading to determine who he is, John tells them who by quoting this verse from Isaiah, personalizing it:”I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness–Get ready—your God is coming!” 
 
Dear God, Make us ready. Amen.
Offered by Bill Albritton, teacher, veteran, traveler walking home to Bethlehem.
[Rowhouse, by Colin Fredrickson]

Listen, Speak, Move

Readings: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Isaiah 30:19-26; Acts 13:16-25

When I recently opened my Bible to reflect on these readings, I noticed that, in the past, I had made several annotations.  I had personalized some phrases because they spoke directly to me. I will share these notes, paraphrases, and my current understanding of them.  Where I use my name, I invite you to insert your own.

Listen, Ann.  Here I am reminded that I need to listen to God in prayer but also listen to others who may have an important word for me, just as the people of Antioch listened to Paul and Mary listened to the angel. (Acts 13:16)

‘I will be gracious to you, Ann, when you cry out. As soon as I hear you, I will answer you. I will give you the bread that you need, Ann, and the water for which you thirst.’ (Isaiah 30:19-20).  God expects a dialogue with me, a relationship.  As well as listening, I must speak my needs and desires.  I must trust that God will give me what I need perhaps not what I want.  I know I am free to debate with God if I need to!  Again, Mary is one model for this.

‘I have found Ann, a woman after my own heart; she will carry out my every wish.’ (Acts 13:22).

Wow.  This idea is humbling and can sometimes feel like a burden.  These words seem less burdensome when paired with the words of (Isaiah 31:21) – ‘A voice shall sound behind you, Ann: This is the way, walk in it.‘  I must move forward with confidence that God will move with me as God has always walked with me in the past, seen or unseen. 

Listen, speak, move.  The cycle continues. 

Come, Lord Jesus. In this Advent season, help me to listen to the words You speak directly to me in scripture and through others; help me speak to You in an ongoing relationship; help me to follow Your lead in my life, to say yes as Mary did.  I desire to hear your challenging words. I also desire to hear and believe Your words of gratitude and affection for me.

Offered by Ann Fowler, spiritual director, leader, walking home to Bethlehem.

[Rowhouse, (2018-2019), Colin Fredrickson, artist]

Praying for the Powerful

Readings: Psalm 72:1-6, 18-19; Isaiah 4:2-6; Acts 1:12-17, 21-26

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for all people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. [Psalm 72:1-6, 18-19, NRSV]

Every Sunday at Christ Church Parish, prayers are said for those who govern – the current president, congressional representatives, local board members, etc. Some people do not like this part of the liturgy, especially if they don’t support the politicians currently filling those positions. They feel that praying for someone is a show of approval – a pat on the back dressed up for church.

Every Sunday,  I offer those in power to God in prayer. This isn’t a sign of my approval, but a recognition of the difficulties power brings to those who wield it. Political power changes people, and rarely for the better. It takes a strong will, an open mind, and a loving spirit to use power for the benefit of the poor, especially when they are the ones least able to offer anything tangible in return.

God bless them and keep them. May wisdom guide them and compassion fill them. When they are tempted to abuse their power, may God bring them safely home. Amen.

May I remember that I might not do any better if I were in their shoes…

Guide me, Lord, walking home to Bethlehem.

[Rowhouse, 2018-2019, by Colin Fredrickson]

Swept Away

Readings: Psalm 124; Isaiah 54:1-10; Matthew 24:23-35

If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side – let Israel now say-

if it had not been for the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;

then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 

Psalm 124, NRSV

Anger, whether our own or directed at us, can knock us off our feet with its strength and sheer breadth. It is a torrential emotion, making enemies of those who release it and those who find themselves standing downstream from it. Left unchecked, it floods our lives with destruction. In its wake, we often feel like we only have two choices: drown or send our own tidal wave of anger back. Either way, the result is devastating.

But that’s a false choice, isn’t it? There is a third way. When we remember that the one who made heaven and earth holds us fast, we remember that no flood of anger can sweep us out of God’s loving embrace. Our spirits are safe. We don’t have to be overwhelmed, and we don’t have to send our own flash flood of anger to inflict damage on those who would hurt us. We can stop the flood of destruction simply by standing fast.

Even better: we can have compassion for the ones who destroy their own inner lives just as surely as they attempt to destroy us. By the grace of God, we may even be able to retaliate with peace and love instead of hurt and anger. It may take some time and patience to withhold our anger, but isn’t the possibility of stopping the raging waters worth the effort?

Lord, hold me fast as I walk home to Bethlehem. Amen.

[Rowhouse by Colin Fredrickson]

The Break

Readings: Psalm 124; Genesis 9:1-17; Hebrews 11:32-40

If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side – let Israel now say-

if it had not been for the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive,

when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away,

the torrent would have gone over us;

then over us would have gone the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 124, NRSV

[Reposted from 2016.]

Art offered by Riley Anderson, artist, walking home to Bethlehem.

[Rowhouse, by Colin Fredrickson]

Truth in Two Lines

Readings: Psalm 124; Genesis 8:1-19; Romans 6:1-11

If the Lord had not been on our side, *

let Israel now say;

If the Lord had not been on our side, *

when enemies rose up against us;

Then would they have swallowed us up alive *

in their fierce anger toward us;

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *

and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters *

have gone right over us.

Blessed be the Lord! *

he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *

the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, *

the maker of heaven and earth. [Psalm 124, NRSV]

Those of you who love the office of Compline as I do will recognize verse 8 of Psalm 124 in the opening versicle and response;

Officiant: Our help is in the Name of the Lord;

People: The maker of heaven and earth.

It’s all right there, isn’t it? In the liturgy designed by John Calvin for use in his churches at Strasburg and Geneva, the services began with this versicle and response. Calvin chose it because he understood that in these two brief lines, the truth about the gathered community is summed up perhaps better than any one sentence could possibly do. (1)

The Psalm itself is broken into three parts: a recollection of God’s faithful deliverance in the past, the praise of the people for that deliverance, and a corporate declaration of trust. There is only one way a Psalm like this gets written, and that is as a reflection of a journey with God over time, lots of time. And that is the beauty of it for us. Through the toils and tests of our lives and the life of our community we see only a speck, an infinitesimal sample of what the Almighty knows and has seen. Yet we can close our eyes at the end of a long day, before we go off to the unknown world of sleep and in that moment claim words of truth that only an eternal perspective can fully grasp. It’s all right there, isn’t it? The content of our faith and our lives is right there in these simple words of trust. May they be your guiding light during this beautiful, dark season of Advent.

(1 James L. Mays, InterpretationPsalms, John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1994, p. 397)

Offered by Dave Fredrickson, spiritual director and pastor, walking home to Bethlehem.

[Rowhouse, 2018-2019, by Colin Fredrickson]

Walk in the Light

Daily Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judged between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:1-5, NRSV

The Lord’s house may crown the highest mountain in holy light, but the hills that surround it are real – lesser realities and smaller aspirations that diminish and darken human existence. That just may be the point. Isaiah’s vision of peace among peoples isn’t a dream of perfection standing alone: it’s reached by people walking toward God’s house from the imperfect, hilly places in which all of humanity lives.

Darkness and light suffuse the path we walk. Our feet take us through shadowy hills on the way to the high place where all we see before us is God’s light. We won’t get there unless we leave the hills behind, walking in trust when the shadows darken our way and rejoicing in every glimpse of light that draws us on.

Take heart; we don’t walk alone along an unknown path. We are walking home together, beloved children of God, on the road Isaiah and so many others walked long ago.

Guide my feet, O God, on the long road home to Bethlehem. Amen.

[Rowhouse, by Colin Fredrickson]

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God…

Readings: Psalm 122; Genesis 6:11-22; Matthew 24:1-22

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.  [Psalm 122:1-2, 6-9, NRSV]

Jerusalem hasn’t been a city of peace for much of its history. Even now, it sees more than its share of violence – some of it religiously motivated. It is a sacred city to all the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each of these faiths is a close relative of the others, but followers of those faiths have attacked one another in the name of the God they all share.

This psalm gets me to wondering: what would happen if everyone whose faith claimed Jerusalem wished each other well? What would the world be like if, for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, we sought the good for all of Abraham’s children?

Can we have enough trust in God to bless Jerusalem’s children of other faiths? Can we say to everyone, peace be within your walls?Human frailty may prevent us from offering such a radical blessing on our own behalf, but perhaps, just perhaps, for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, we might find the strength to attempt it.

Lord Jesus, come to my home. Amen.

[Rowhouse by Colin Fredrickson]