Joyful Innovation

As we entered into a new year and new decade this month we invited our members to join us around breakfast tables for worship. We filled our dining room with all ages of folks with good appetites. We even granted permission for attendees to wear pajamas if the celebrations welcoming the new year wore us down too much to put on our usual Sunday best! Quite a few of the kids, our youth pastor and wife welcomed the opportunity to come to church in footed, flannel pajamas. We had some church-y words in our bulletins that day: Ceilidh and Charism. Our communion service had a different name attached to it. I had to rely on google translate to know how to translate this odd word that dares to end with the odd combination of a D and an H: Ceilidh. It is pronounced Kay-Lee and this unique celebration of the sacrament comes from the Iona Community in Scotland. The word is gaelic and, by itself, it means a social visit. It may include dancing and playing Gaelic folk music in a social venue.


So we began the new year, 2020, with a joyful celebration of communion. It seems fitting to choose joy for a new year rather than fear or pessimism or some other negative emotion. It’s also appropriate because the main players in the Matthean drama for that Sunday are a few wise guys who are described as being overjoyed when their long journey leads them to the Christ Child!

Star-Jim Denison

The passage from Matthew 2 introduces us to the magi or wisemen who are called by God to leave their homes, follow a star and seek the gift that God has for them. They obey at great cost to themselves. They sacrifice their time, energy and maybe even social standing for this harebrained pilgrimage that they undertake. I can’t imagine that their families or community thought they were wise when they described why they were going to leave home for an indefinite period of time. Something about a star and an infant king? Honestly! They obey God’s prompting but have the courage to disobey human authority. After worshiping Jesus and presenting His astounded parents with costly gifts fit for a king, they do not return to King Herod as instructed. Rather they return home JOYFUL by another way.

The lectionary combines the Matthew 2 passage with Isaiah 60. In this Old Testament reading, the prophet assures the Israelites that God is going to gather them from the distant corners of the earth to which they have been scattered as a vanquished people. Families will be reunited and allowed to return home. Other nations will recognize that they are a blessed people and will bring valuable treasure to honor their God. Verse 5 describes a whole different mood for these former slaves: “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.”

The news was too good for them to believe! It would seem impossible that God had the power to liberate us if we’d been oppressed for half a century. In Isaiah 51:12, God challenges the exiles, asking them why they don’t trust in God’s sovereignty: “I, I am he who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die, a human being who fades like grass?” Do you hear the emphasis at the beginning to assure the downcast people that they are in good hands? “I, I am he…” Nine chapters later there is fulfillment of that reassurance when the prophet speaks words that we hear often in Advent: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Things are about to change as God redeems a captive and despondent people!


Dayton Castleman is an artist who lives in Bentonville, Arkansas with his family. As an artist, he was asked to help with the designing of the local arts district. There was a 60-foot unused antenna pole in that area so he was asked to do something creative with it. He turned it into an arrow. At the top of the pole he attached three half feathers which makes the art hub look like an arrow has identified it as the bull’s eye for prospective shoppers: This is the place to be. A Christian, he chose the lashing of the arrow that holds the three feathers in place to reflect the colors talked about in the Book of Daniel: Clay, copper, bronze, silver and gold. The setting for Daniel is the same as it was for Isaiah: the Babylonian Exile. God speaks through Daniel, affirming that earthly kingdoms will come and go but God’s realm will last forever. The promise was fulfilled when the Jews were allowed to return home and begin their lives as a free nation in their own land. Castleman didn’t largely publicized his choice of materials that represent the prophecy of Daniel. But somehow transforming a useless, rusted pole into an arrow that mixes a theology of restoration with a fledgling artist’s district seems very fitting.

I’m not sure that we’re comfortable wrestling with our understanding of God’s involvement in our bungled human lives. The Church that has withstood 2000 years of governments and despots has become known as the Church of the ready-made definition. Our love for predictability has led us to settle on certain pat answers and get stuck there. But the story of the magi reminds us that following Christ takes us out of our comfort zone—way out, as their journey illustrates. Are we willing to ask hard questions about our understanding of how Christ is at work in our present generation? Can we humble ourselves by asking God and others for help? Or are we quite sure that we have all the answers we need? Have we learned from experience that God will use us when we are candid about our own places of vulnerability? Or do we keep our masks firmly in place, even in church? Being real with each other encourages authentic dialogue that is nearly impossible to find in our culture these days. One of the questions we invited folks to discuss that Sunday morning was how they feel when we take risks in our order of worship? How does it feel to worship around breakfast tables with children in PJs? Do we celebrate that we can make bold changes in the way we worship or does it push our panic button? In the fall I asked our parishioners to complete this sentence: Blessed or wise is the congregation who…. One of the answers I heard from a speaker at the Vital Worship Grants colloquium was, “Blessed are the flexibles for they shall not be bent out of shape.” Are we flexible enough to be able to worship in new ways or does it make us feel bent out of shape?

woman doing yoga on rock
Photo by Oluremi Adebayo on

“Charism” was perhaps another new word for our people on the first Sunday in January. We offered the definition in the bulletin: a gift, a treasure, an extraordinary power given by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church. We each have charisms that enhance our worship. If anyone holds back their talents, even out of modesty, our community life is diminished. Sharing them out of a love for Christ brings healing to others in the congregation. Is there a specific time in worship when you felt God’s healing presence. Is there a moment when you were made over? Who or what was responsible for that? Is there a prayer you offer as you enter the sanctuary for worship, a prayer for the Spirit to move in you and in the congregation? Or do you slide in with your teeth barely brushed and an assumption that others need to do the work of leading worship? Does your week feel different if you are not in worship, if you aren’t able to use your charisms for the good of the body? Do you miss being on the receiving end of other people’s gifts? Are you flexible enough to be able to worship in new ways, taking out-moded forms and giving them a contemporary message? Or do innovations “bend you out of shape?”

plate of sliced breads
Photo by Elviss Railijs Bitāns on

Thomas Ellsworth submitted a story for Reader’s Digest that reads this way: “My husband, an American Coast Guard pilot, served in England. Everyone who drove through the base’s gates was required to hold an official ID card up to the windshield for inspection by the guards, who never seemed to be particularly vigilant. So my husband’s squadron started flashing different forms of ID, such as a driver’s license, just to see what they could get away with. The winner: the guy who breezed past waving a piece of toast.” (Off Base, 9/11)

As we entered a new year, what ID card are you flashing as you go into your workplace? What charism is listed on your ID card as you enter into worship? With what joy and sense of fun do you move into 2020, having full confidence that God will lead you home, even if it’s by a route you would not have chosen? What neglected areas of your life can be re-fashioned to point others to the work of Christ deep within? Is there baggage you need to check at the door that hampers your vision of God? Is there guilt that has derailed your travels for far too long? Is it the gods of consumerism and patriotism that need to be discarded? Are you focused on social climbing or continuing construction on the Kingdom of Self that pre-occupy your thoughts? Are you asking God to humble you so that you find your way home?

Human governments and powers will come and go but the Church of Jesus Christ stands firm. Do you carry an ID on your heart for that community? We are called, like the magi, to be willing to travel long distances at great cost to ourselves to follow in the way that Christ sets before us. The great news is that, as we make our way together, we will be overjoyed and may even break into Ceilidh dancing and song! This could be a pretty awesome decade!


Singing for Justice

With the impeachment trial underway and Democratic candidates vying for the top office in the country, we are surrounded daily with reminders of politicians living out their oaths in a number of different ways. At the recent debate for the surviving candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, we saw refused handshakes and heard allegations of lying. Sadly, those campaigning for office have become known more for their mudslinging than for staking courageous claims on important issues. It makes me think of Pilate’s question to Jesus when He was being interrogated through the night of His arrest. At one point Pilate seems to throw up his hands and ask a question either from the gut or in disgust: “What is truth?” It would seem that discerning truth from fake news in political circles has a much longer history than we might have imagined!

MLK day

In Isaiah 42: 1-9 a description is given of a leader who is identified as the “suffering servant.” His platform of tenderly caring for the least of these is as unusual then as it would be now. Imagine any one of those on the platform last Tuesday night talking about protecting a dimly burning wick from being blown out or a bent reed from breaking in the wind. Political commentators would have a field day with anyone who spoke with such wimpy analogies! Through Isaiah, God calls us to the work of reconciliation and justice. Does this sort of campaign talk get a person elected now? I doubt it. That’s the kind of talk we want to hear from our mothers, coaches or teachers. But when it comes to national security, we value lines being drawn in the sand and tough talks between world leaders. As a country we are divided in what we are looking for from our elected officials.


The middle of the second century Marcion of Sinope set out to assemble a suitable collection of holy writings that depicted God in the light he preferred. He completely ruled out the God of the Old Testament as a tyrant and totally separate entity from the more forgiving God of the New Testament. He only liked the social justice message found in Luke’s Gospel. The only letters he accepted as worthwhile spiritual reading were those of the Apostle Paul. It may have been the first compilation of books that eventually became part of the Bible. But his rejection of all the other writings that had nurtured generations of Jews and a century of early Christians was labeled as heresy. The temptation to rewrite history and only include the parts that validate our personal lives is not new. We certainly do that when we tell tales of family folklore. We talk about Aunt Mable’s meltdown at the Christmas party in the slant of our choosing! History books have ignored stories of people and movements and misrepresented others. Marcion’s evaluation of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t accurate. The God we meet in the Old Testament isn’t simply a God of wrath. We meet the Suffering Servant through Isaiah and begin to understand that this prophet is very much a precursor to the Messiah we so love from the New Testament—Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

In this beautiful passage from Isaiah 42 a song is sung about a new kind of leader. This servant will tend to the needs of those who feel unworthy. God is sending someone who will help a defeated nation of Jews reclaim faith in the powerful God they had abandoned. The good news for a people overtaken by the Babylonian superpower was that a new political reality was on the horizon. It would bring new leadership to usher in an age of mercy and compassion. This was a song of encouragement that could sing a despondent people into reclaiming their faith heritage.

Rodriguez documentary

Amidst the mudslinging and Ukrainian crises, there’s Oscar buzz as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces their selection for motion picture awards. Seven years ago an unknown story was recognized as the Best Foreign Feature Film, a documentary entitled, Searching for Sugarman. It told the story of a 70’s rock icon whose name was Sixto Rodgriguez. The sixth child of hardworking Mexican immigrants (hence the first name of Sixto!), he was raised in Detroit where Mexicans supplied the labor force for many of the Michigan industries. They were marginalized and mistreated but worked hard to raise their families. Rodriguez, as he became known, was given a guitar as a young teen and his talent became quickly evident. He played in bars around the Motor City, often timidly facing away from the crowd as he sang songs crying out for justice. It was in one of these dark bars that he was discovered by talent agents who thought that his musical skill surpassed that of a new singer named Bob Dylan. He produced an album that his agent, Harry Balk, thought would take off. Interviewed for the documentary 40 years later, Balk estimated that only six of Rodriguez’s albums sold in the U.S.: six! It was decreed a flop and the rock/folk singer slipped easily into oblivion.

Until…..Until two men from South Africa set out to locate him! What no one in our country knew, including Rodriguez or his agent, is that a bootlegged copy of his album, Cold Fact, made it into South Africa when the birth pangs of the anti-apartheid movement were being felt. His music decried the abuse of authority of the 60’s and echoed his own experiences of being discounted because of his ethnicity. It spoke to a younger generation of South Africans who worked to topple the apartheid government. Rodriguez’s music that was rejected in his own country became the unofficial soundtrack to youth protests halfway across the world. Despite his popularity in Africa, no one could locate the reclusive artist. The assumption was that he was dead, with rumors that he had shot himself on stage. Another story was that he had doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire while performing, dying in front of a packed audience. But a couple of men began to search for him, finding clues in his music that pointed to Detroit of the 1960’s and 70’s. They found a quiet man living in the same home in a run-down area of Detroit which he heated with a wood-burning home. His whole life he had followed the example of his hard-working parents, laboring in a career of demolition and construction work. He learned from these unexpected visitors that his songs had fueled a revolution 8500 miles away!


When Swedish Film Director, Malik Bendjelloul, learned of the story, the work on his documentary, Searching for Sugarman, began. The hardest task initially was winning over the trust of Rodriguez who had no desire to be in front of the camera. Filmed with the harsh scenes of a forgotten city, Detroit is the colorless backdrop to the story of a reticent singer. When he learned that he was legendary in South Africa, he finally agreed to fly there with one of his daughters to share his music. He was 70 years old, beginning to lose his sight and walking with difficulty. They expected to be greeted by small crowds in intimate venues. Instead he sang before sold-out arenas every night with tens of thousands of screaming fans. They couldn’t believe that the political poet they assumed was dead was standing before them, singing the songs that won them their freedom. When asked in the documentary, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know you were a superstar?” he said he didn’t know how to respond to that. His agent filed a lawsuit to determine who benefited financially from the royalties for millions of records that were sold in South Africa without Rodriguez’ knowledge or permission. Rodriguez himself said he doesn’t lose sleep over someone else cashing in on his talent. He doesn’t regret that he could have had a different lifestyle if the money had come his way. With the release of the award-winning documentary in 2012, his story became known. Since then he has sold his 45-year old records and performed all over the world. Much of the money he has made with his new-found fame has been given to family and friends. He has never seen any of the money earned from his music in South Africa but he insists he lives with no regrets. His happiness stems from the fact that his musical self-expression was prophetic to other people who drew strength from his words and ultimately helped to topple a racist regime. One commentator spoke of the magical quality that poets like Rodriguez possess: “He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain and transformed it into something beautiful.”

The prophet Isaiah is the political poet who sings a song of justice to the defeated Israelites. The servant who brings promise of demolition of enemies and restoration of their freedom does not fit the mold of a valiant conqueror. John Hayes, in a commentary on this text, writes, “The establishment of justice is to be carried out, not with violence or the use of overriding strength, but through humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance. This contrasts with what is depicted of the ideal king elsewhere.”

Just as we value bold expressions of strength from our leaders, the Jews did not recognize that their plight could be rectified by a gentle, unassuming servant. But this is the identity that Jesus claimed 500 years later. When asked to read from the scriptures in His home synagogue of Nazareth, He chose a Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah. He declared that the prophecy had been fulfilled that very day in Him. In an uproar over this heretical claim, His own community tried to throw Him over a cliff. His campaign for election in the local polls did not go over well so He left, never to go home again!

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah was called to help other nations, not just the Jews. When Abraham was chosen by God to be the Father of a nation, he was told that he was blessed to be a blessing. The songs of the Israelites helped form their identity as the chosen people of God, descendants of Abraham. They were shaped to be of service to the world, not to conquer others. They were to bring release to prisoners and freedom to those held captive. Through their song they were to praise God and bring hope to others. Steve Prince, the MSU-educated artist whose works have been exhibited worldwide, states that even a dirge has two distinct parts to it. The first addresses the sadness and melancholy a people feel for their losses. But a critical second part is the joyful resolution to those troubles by a God who turns our mourning into dancing! As followers of Jesus we know that our identity stretches beyond this lost world and assures us that our home is in a Promised Land that is not controlled or limited by earthly rulers. It’s only in openly processing our losses in the setting of the Church that we can get to the second part of joy in a dirge. Rather than seeking revenge and wasting our lives on regret over how we’ve been wronged,  Isaiah invites us to sing a song of God’s powerful presence that flies in the face of business-as-usual. It recognizes the victory that comes from claiming our identity in Christ.

MLK servant

A more contemporary example of that Suffering Servant is the one whose legacy we celebrate today: Martin Luther King, Jr. A little girl wrote a letter to God with a complaint and a suggestion: “Dear God, please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now. Ginny.” But today is MLK, Jr. Day! His birthday fits nicely in Epiphany when we celebrate how God moves among us in our human history. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, King became a political poet whose words ignited a revolution to free his people from racist captivity. The Civil Rights movement named the evil of discrimination but also claimed joy in the expectation that God was with them in their struggle for equal rights. The movement emerged from the Church and Rev. Dr. King preached a message of release for the prisoners. Isaiah’s writing assured King and assures us that God will use a servant people whose power comes from complete dependence upon God. The vision Isaiah paints in his song is so bold that it necessitates a supernatural power that supersedes our human effort. When we unite our voices to express our anguish over a broken world we find hope that cannot be found on our own. Our hymns have the power to sing a transformative movement into being, surprising the world with its force. We can’t claim it. We don’t control it. The God of Jesus Christ enlists the help of a servant people and together we find joy in changing our world!


Two Worlds

Steve Prince is a New Orleans native who received his degree in art from Michigan State University. His preferred medium is printmaking and drawing. He uses the stark distinction between black and white to depict images of struggle that often conclude with celebration. His works have been displayed across the globe. But the beginning to his career started at a very young age and with some controversy. His family had a World Book Encyclopedia set. In browsing through it he saw a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. He was so taken by it that he carefully tore that page out of the thick volume. He was punished by his aghast parents who had invested in this costly set. But Prince clung to that page because it called out to him as a defining part of his identity. He knew in that moment that he wanted to paint like this master! Somehow it set him on a course of becoming an artist who mixes his faith with our world.
There are moments when our journey is rerouted and our destiny emerges clearly before us. Baptism is one such moment. When we invite Christ to be Sovereign over all our days, or when our parents choose the Christian faith for us, that commitment supersedes all other defining elements of our lives. God celebrates our desire to walk with Jesus and we learn that the Holy Spirit is available to us always. Epiphany is a fitting season in the church year for baptisms because this is when we focus on how God breaks into our history. We hear of it in the scripture passages that follow Christmas. Our reading from John is one in a string of Sundays in which the Church celebrates God made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth. It is John’s Gospel that begins with the affirmation that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In other words, God broke into our earthly world in the human form and our devotion to Jesus now claims us.
A distinct feature of John’s Gospel is his ability to help us get to know different individuals at a deep level. When we read John 1: 29-42 we hear of the converging of two worlds in several different ways. First, we meet two men, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. They are linked to each other but have very different job descriptions. Second, we discover that Jesus has two very different identifying features. In the section about His baptism, He is identified as both the Son of God and the Lamb of God. How can He be both the Messiah and the sacrificial lamb for our sin? Finally, we witness two different living settings in Jesus’ world: the quiet countryside of Galilee where Jesus was raised and did much of his ministry. We are also brought into the chaos of Jerusalem where the Jewish elite and Roman authorities dominated the scene.

One of the key narratives to the season of Epiphany is Jesus’ baptism. It was the launching pad for His ministry, full immersion into His sacrifice for the world. John’s version of the story is quite different from that of the synoptic gospel writers: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s more of a first person testimony by John the Baptist who speaks about what he witnessed. There is a four-day succession of events described as the prologue or first eighteen verses conclude. The first day describes how the religious leaders from Jerusalem hiked out to the wilderness where John was baptizing to question his identity and authority.  John gave the Jews of Jerusalem an alternative expression of the faith that would have threatened the leaders. I’m not sure how contented they were with his answers but they left after confronting him. We stand in awe of John’s courage as he paves the way for Jesus to arrive.

On the second day Jesus comes to be baptized by John. We learn about this marking point through John’s retrospective. The Holy Spirit is given to Jesus and John identifies Him as the Son of God.

On the third day Jesus walks by John who is with some of his followers. John points to Jesus and calls Him “the Lamb of God.” At the Passover celebration every year the Jews sacrifice a lamb that becomes the centerpiece to their Seder meal. There could be no greater gap between two identifying titles. How can the Son of God also be a sacrificial lamb? By calling attention to Jesus, some of John’s disciples transfer their allegiance to Jesus and follow Him. John was doing his job. We would do well to ask ourselves how we call attention to Jesus so that others see God at work in our world and personal lives.
On the fourth day described in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the newly-baptized Jesus travels back to the area of Galilee with some of His new recruits. There, on the shores of the lake He knew so well, Jesus called men to be His disciples. When He invites them, there is something about Him that draws them in. He asks them what they are looking for. When they ask Him where He is staying He issues an invitation that will represent His entire ministry: Come and see. Not only do they go with Jesus to see where He is living. They stay with Him. It must have been a compelling conversation! As the image of Da Vinci’s artwork summoned something deep in Steve Prince’s soul, Jesus’ outreach to ordinary men from His rural home setting led to their devotion. In fact, Jesus renamed Peter. It wasn’t cute nicknames Jesus gave. Simon became Peter, meaning rock. Jesus would count heavily on him during His lifetime and in the establishment of the Church after His resurrection. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I would take too kindly to someone trying to give me a new label, no matter how appealing. Clearly being with Jesus was transformational for a dozen men whose testimony would ultimately change our world.

So what do we know about this Jesus into whose way of life several of our newest church members were baptized on Sunday? He was referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus’ day scholars believe somewhere between 200-400 people called Nazareth home. It was a backwoods town that garnered no respect from outsiders. The region it was located in was Galilee which was viewed as home to rednecks. People would have known each other well, sharing resources to ease hardships. Just like the days when Mrs. Miller would discipline your son, Johnny, for misbehaving in her home, there would be no secrets in a small town like Nazareth. My senior year in high school my family moved to Misawa, Japan. My father had been stationed at the Air Force Academy for four years before that, where I attended the first years of high school in the mountains of Colorado. I would have been part of a graduating class of more than 300 students if we had stayed there. But instead, in this remote air base halfway across the world, I graduated with a class of 23 people! We knew each other well. We knew what bugged us about certain people and we had learned to accept people for who they were. 23 seemed like an impossibly small number for a graduating class. But Jesus came from an even smaller setting. That’s why the folks from His hometown couldn’t believe that Mary and Joseph’s son became so well known as a traveling evangelist. Things like that didn’t happen to folks from Nazareth!

On a trip to the Holy Lands several years ago we started out in Jesus’ home territory of Galilee. It was lush with flowers and pomegranate trees. People would have walked long distances up and down hills with little villages nestled in valleys and along the lakeshore. The Sea of Galilee provided the main livelihood for much of the population. Fishing was an important industry and the lake drew people to it because of its beauty. It’s about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide at its widest point. Nazareth wasn’t on the lake but was set on a hill that gave a grand vista of the lake and offered its cooling breezes. Giving the job description to the disciples as “fishers of people” made complete sense given where they were all from. It was a Jewish community in Nazareth. They were a settled people who would have looked upon a stranger with some suspicion. This makes the broad embrace of so many different people in Jesus’ ministry all the more amazing. The fact that Jesus left home and traveled such distances was highly unusual.
We know from the gospel writers that Jesus made two or three trips to Jerusalem during His ministry, ultimately being crucified there. I want you to understand how foreign of a setting that would have felt to Him and His disciples. They were accustomed to the quiet and open beauty of the countryside. The distance between Galilee and Jerusalem was about 80 miles as the crow flies. But many Jews, because they despised the Samaritan people, would travel significantly out of their way to avoid Samaria that was in the direct path between these two areas. As we traveled in an air-conditioned bus through open country on the way to Jerusalem, we saw shepherds with their flocks. We noticed how many caves are carved into the sides of the hills. Not unlike an approach to Chicago or LA, as we approached the holy city of Jerusalem things changed quickly. The land was clogged with people and buildings. We were on the Temple Mount on one of the Jewish holy days and some 50,000 pilgrims were estimated to be there that day. There was unabashed pushing and shoving in the crowd. There were beautiful sacred buildings and pools where people sought spiritual cleansing. We parked along the road and walked back a distance to wade in the Jordan River along whose shores people had set up tents for the holiday weekend. Children splashed in its shallow waters. In the walled city of Jerusalem there was a hustle and bustle of people and merchants calling out to prospective customers. We stood in a packed crowd for more than an hour, inching our way toward the site believed to be the burial place of Jesus. I’m not normally claustrophobic but this mob scene was intimidating! Personal space in the old city was non-existent and patience wore thin as too many people traveled the same paths each day. While there is excitement in a big city, I imagine Jesus and His disciples felt very much out of their element there. No doubt they were ready to go home after a brief visit.
So as we look in on this baptism from John’s gospel, we recognize that it’s our story. That was certainly evident with the baptism of three children in our worship on Sunday. But it’s always a part of our story. Like the page of the encyclopedia that the fledgling artist carried with him into adulthood, these vows transform us. They call out to us. Jesus lived between two worlds with grace, knowing that His home was with God and not limited to a particular location. Just as the disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus, we shape our daily activities around Him. Imitating John the Baptist, we point others to Jesus through the ways that we pursue holiness each day. When people ask us what keeps us anchored, encouraged, optimistic in tough times, we invite them to “Come and see.” Walking with us, they meet Christ and shift their allegiance from the gods of our culture to faith in Him. In following Him, we will be led away from our favorite security blankets to meet people and experience places that will change us. Church becomes the place where we form friendships that are lasting and deep. We work together to raise our children in the faith. We share how we have experienced the presence of Jesus among us. We grow in our generosity together, showing folks in the neighborhood and across the world that we love and serve Jesus.

Each day we awaken to colliding worlds that call out to us. As believers baptized into faith in Jesus of Nazareth, we are shown how God can enable us to build bridges between the two. This is good news for the American soldiers who shipped out to the Middle East in the past weeks. God is near. It’s reassurance for the U.S. firefighters who flew across the world to Australia to fight fires and bring relief to weary rescue workers there. God is near. It’s a lifesaving support to FEMA and other aid workers who are heading to Puerto Rico to assist them in rebuilding after yet another devastating natural disaster. God is near. It’s the anchor for those of us meeting the needs of our neighbors in the Cedar Springs Mobile Home Estates through City Impact. God is near. It’s our hope as we wade through struggles on a personal, family and national level. It is in the presence of our powerful God that we find our home and not in some geographical spot. Our responsibility and greatest desire is to tell others about Jesus with His invitation, “Come and see.” Together we will figure out how to put worlds together with the promise that God is near.


Protective Instincts

Each spring my siblings and I converge on the shores of Lake Michigan to open up our family cottage. One sister sends out a list of potential projects and we decide on those that seem most pressing. So we arrive with an itinerary of tasks and bring the necessary supplies with us so that we can make the most of our three days together. We are continually amazed at how much more needs to be done even though we have been doing home improvements for years. But, as any homeowner knows, things fall apart. Depreciation hits the minute you drive the car off the lot. So a cottage that sits empty in the woods all winter has its share of challenges, many of which stem from woodland creatures who seem to know when we’ve closed up shop for another season. They seem to find their way in through the tiniest spaces because dry accommodations await them.

selective focus photography of brown mouse
Photo by Alexas Fotos on

A few years ago our project was to clean out the sizable shed that my father built as a workshop. The best way to tackle something like that is to vomit everything out of it and assess what is still serviceable. Then only those things go back in. We were amazed at how much stuff had been gnawed apart by hungry creatures trying to fill their bellies in the cold of winter. When an electric cord didn’t provide nourishment, they moved on to the rider mower engine and then the work gloves and so on and so forth. My sister was in the barn and lifted a tarp off a table saw. Looking up at her with terrified eyes was a mother mouse with four tiny pink babies. They were the size of jelly bellies and attached to her chest. Frozen in a momentary stare-down, Mama Mouse snapped out of it and ran, leaving a string of squirming newborns behind. Michelle was horrified—and sad to have disrupted such a beautiful scene of nature living safely in our barn. But, as she stood there looking at the babies, she saw the mother mouse coming back from wherever she had fled. She was coming back for her babies! Michelle stood back a bit, a looming figure trying to give off friendly vibes—if that was even possible! Whether it was the peaceful intentions my sister sought to communicate or the mother’s refusal to leave without her babies, she returned to the top of the table saw surface. One by one, she took those babies in her mouth and carried them off to safety. She looked up at this gigantic human being each time she came back then continued her relocation project. Michelle filmed it for the rest of us to watch and we all ooh-ed and aahh-ed over the protective instincts of a simple barn mouse. It seems like the tender parenting instincts we possess as human beings can be witnessed throughout creation from the lowliest to the most impressive of species.

We move on quickly from the birth narrative after Christmas. In Matthew 2 we read about the visit of the magi to the Christ child. In verses 13-23 we witness how God’s commands evoke human action. There are three commands (two by the angel of the Lord and one by Herod). There are three actions and three scripture prophecies fulfilled. Matthew’s Christmas story, we quickly realize, does not depict a silent night, holy night. Devout followers of God are pawns in a political arena where tyrants order killings and families flee in the dark of night. If we think we suffer from insomnia today, with our worries preventing us from dropping off to sleep, the ordinary citizen of the Roman Empire had much to fear with an unstable ruler who didn’t hesitate to order a murder. And no one questioned the actions of  King Herod!

slaughter of the innocents

Herod the Great is the despot identified in Matthew 2. He was given this title because of the many work projects he accomplished that advanced the progress of his empire. Roads made travel smooth and unified the kingdom so that folks could move more freely from their hometowns to other places. Of course, the work was accomplished on the backs of slaves and anyone who went against Herod’s orders was killed. Early on he had to fight for several years to take control of his kingdom. The result is that he never felt secure. He built fortresses all over Israel where he could hide out with the protection of his own squadron of soldiers. On our trip to the Holy Lands we ran into Herod the Great’s projects continually. What he built was impressive and lasting! His home life was less admirable. He ordered the death of one of his wives and one of his sons when they were perceived as a threat.  Before he died he commanded that, upon his death, political prisoners be killed. This would ensure that there would be mourning across the land when he died even if it wasn’t for him!

So this is the ruler who learns from the magi that there is a new king born whom they have traveled long distances to worship. When the magi do not return to Herod to tell him where the baby can be found, he is furious. No one disobeys him like that without some sort of retaliation. Since the magi are long gone, Herod commands that all baby boys under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem be killed so as to snuff out any future threat to his power. The quote from the Old Testament paints an eerie picture of wailing mothers who have their infants torn from their protective arms and murdered. So the Messiah’s birth prompts what is referred to as the “slaughter of the innocents”. Our world then and now is fallen, sinful, violent and wreaking with the consequences of sin. How swiftly we have traveled from costly gifts offered from worshiping dignitaries to mass graves for tiny children.

But this passage tells a story of God’s protection of the tiny Messiah from the jealous hatred of a dictator. Through dreams the angel of the Lord instructs father Joseph where to go so that the Savior of the world will survive. His sleep is interrupted the first time with the instruction to get out now before Herod orders the killing of the little boys. In the night, Joseph awakens Mary. They don’t question what they’ve heard or encountered in the dark. They run under the cover of night and make the long journey to Egypt where they live as refugees for the first years of Jesus’ life. After Herod died, the angel speaks to Joseph again in his sleep and tells him he may now return to their land, their family, their customs, food and faith. So they leave Egypt, where their ancestors had been enslaved for 400 years, and returned to Israel, the land promised to their people. But, even then, as they approach home, more instruction is needed. The politician in charge of their hometown is known for his brutality. In fact he was later removed from office by the Romans because he was so cruel. That says a lot because the Romans were known for the barbaric ways they kept their subjects in check! So the Holy Family settles in a remote town called Nazareth that is disrespected and overlooked. Here Jesus will be raised in a rural area that is believed to have had only 200 residents at that time. He would be safely off the grid and learn what it was like to live a simple life with a primary focus of faith and family. Alan Culpepper writes, “…there is a provident God over all who guides a devout and compassionate, dreaming and trusting father so that a child will be able to grow to become the Savior of his people and of generations to come.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, page 169) We understand how Jesus later speaks of the transience of his own life in Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

There is no serenity to be found in Matthew’s nativity scene. When baby Jesus enters our broken world, hell breaks loose. There is no comfort for the Bethlehem mothers of Jesus’ day. They were unable to protect their precious sons from armed soldiers carrying out orders. The gift of the Messiah is sent to people who are powerless over their own children’s lives. We recently learned the plight of the missing mother from Texas who disappeared with her two-week old daughter. After nine days of searching the woman’s body was found in the trunk of her good friend’s car. The baby was inside the house already being claimed as the friend’s own child. This friend had been in the delivery room with Heidi when little Margot was born. During the search for Heidi, her friend Magen acted concerned. But it appears that she hatched a plot to kidnap and kill Heidi so that she could claim the baby as her own. It’s hard to imagine that she thought this horrific plan would work. Just when we think we’ve heard it all, a story is broadcast that sets off the protective instincts of every parent who thinks they understand the threats they face in raising their children. We realize all over again that the world into which we have brought our children is sinful. In spite of our most heroic efforts we aren’t always able to protect them. From what well do we draw hope when danger seems to lurk around every corner? How can we say God is good when bad things happen to innocent people?

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A stark image of maniacal, egotistical rulers is painted in the little town of Bethlehem that appears to be anything but still in this story. The tiniest citizens of the Roman Empire are slaughtered because a leader feels threatened by word of a future king. Where is the hope in this story? It comes in the whispers of an angel who disturbs a young father’s sleep. This divine messenger urges him to get up NOW and get his wife and newborn son to safety. God gives us freedom to live as we please which can work against us when sin takes over. But God also protects the young Savior so that the world of Joseph and Mary could have hope for their future. God protected Jesus so that He could grow up and bring hope and healing into our broken communities. I wonder what threats we have escaped? I wonder when God has protected us and we didn’t know it? Can you think of a close call after which you murmured, “Thank you, Jesus”? As we look back on a year do we recognize bright spots when Christ walked alongside of us, guiding and protecting? Do these moments give us hope that we can carry with us into a new year of life?

Tyrants of the mighty Roman Empire were some of the original terrorists. Jesus’ birth story contains elements that have never been featured on a Christmas card. What we see in this story is the good news that nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel—“God with us.” When terrible things are happening around us our Christian faith instructs us to cling to the conviction that God is all-powerful, the ultimate shaper of our history. There may not be peace on earth but the promise in Matthew’s nativity scene is that God is here, in our broken world, never losing sight of us. Our protective instincts and those of every creature that moves on the face of the earth, stem from a loving Creator who protected the baby Jesus so that we would have a Savior. That’s hope to carry into our new year.