Sunday, January 29, 2023

Simeon and Anna: Waiting on God's Salvation

Luke's Gospel tells us about Simeon and Anna, two people who met Mary and Joseph at the Temple when they brought Jesus there as an infant. Luke notes pieces of their conversation -- presumably passed along to others by Mary. While the pieces of conversation are worth noting, so are the actions: they waited. They waited and waited. They kept coming back. People only wait -- and keep waiting -- when they expect something. They trusted God. They trusted when the wait seemed endlessly long. They trusted that if God made a covenant, then God kept his covenant. If God promised something, then it would come in its time. They expected God to keep his word, so they waited. 

In comparison, our age's cynicism seems like bitter despair masquerading as realism. Our age's irreverence consists, in the main, of mocking hostility toward reverence -- toward virtues of respect, hope, and faith. Our age is full of "virtue signals" but not of virtue. 

Simeon tells us what he expected, what he considered fulfilled when he saw Jesus: A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel. Simeon had hope and faith even before he had seen. May our day be capable of hope and faith again. 


Sunday, January 22, 2023

"Remission" of sins: layers of meaning, layers of hope

Languages are multi-layered things, and a translator's job is not a simple one. Sometimes we come across  other shades of meaning when we study how a word is used. I've long found it interesting that the Bible talks about the "remission" of sins. These days our English word remission is often a specialty-word for early success in cancer treatment. But that use was repurposed from older uses. In the New Testament, here are a few familiar verses that all contain the same Greek word, most commonly rendered into English as remission
For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28)

John baptized in the wilderness, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4)

To give his people knowledge of salvation by the remission of their sins. (Luke 1:77)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to announce good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bound. (Luke 4:18)
Going through all the uses in the New Testament, all the uses of that Greek word (aphesis) are typically rendered into English as remission or forgiveness except in Luke 4:18, where the English is typically given along the lines of deliverance, liberty, or freedom

It lends me hope that some of those shades of meaning, too, were meant about our sins: deliverance, liberty, and freedom. Forgiveness for them is a treasured promise; freedom from them even more so. Even if the final freedom is still to come, it will be cause for celebration. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Fighting Temptation: Where we find our strength

Every year we remember Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. This year, I have spotted some things I had missed before. First, Luke's account for reference; then some notes: 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. He ate nothing in those days. Afterward, when they were completed, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’”

The devil, leading him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The devil said to him, “I will give you all this authority, and their glory, for it has been delivered to me; and I give it to whomever I want. If you therefore will worship before me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “Get behind me Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.’”

He led him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you;’

11 and,

‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answering, said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

13 When the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until another time.  (Luke 4:1-13)


Jesus was fasting. The devil came at a time of weakness. He watches and waits for us to be isolated from help, weakened in our resolve, in need or in distress. If he roams like a lion looking for those to devour, he looks for a moment when we are vulnerable. We can expect him. 

The first temptation is a temptation of human flesh.
Satan tempted Jesus to strengthen himself in the face of his human weakness: hunger.
Jesus deflected the temptation with the Word of God, and had strength enough. 
When we can resist the temptations of the flesh it is good, but we can expect more temptations to come. 

The second temptation is a temptation of human spirit. 
Satan tempted Jesus to gain authority and splendor in a corrupt way: by bowing to Satan. 
Jesus deflected the temptation again with the Word of God, and had authority enough to deny the prince of this world. It is a hopeful thought what kind of power we have through the Word of God, that we can deny the dark prince of this world. In the face of temptation, we can stand our ground. It must bother the evil one that there are people walking this world who do not answer to him, who hold fast against him. Enjoy that for a moment, take satisfaction that by knowing the Word of God, we can thwart the plans that evil has against us: and give glory to God. God's word continues to be our strength.
When we can resist the temptations of the human spirit it is good, but the devil is not quite done trying. 

The third temptation is a specifically religious temptation. 
Satan tempted Jesus to act rashly to prove his faith in his Father: here Satan used Scripture against him. Satan turned God's word, our strength, into a trap. Jesus deflected the temptation again with the Word of God: that Word is enough, understood rightly. And there is no need to worry that the Scriptures are too much for us to know and find the right word: Jesus fended off the evil one from a single book (Deuteronomy). When the adversary uses Scripture too, we must know more than the words: we must know God. When we set our course to honor God, the devil flees. 

The devil does return in our times of weakness. We know where to find our strength. 

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Fear not: there's a reason to take heart

An often-used phrase in the Bible is "Fear not!" On various occasions it is spoken by God or by one of his messengers. Reading the Nativity accounts in the Gospel of Luke, I see "Fear not" used several times. It is never used as a raw command; there is always a reason given assure the hearer and to renew confidence. 

As Luke records the events surrounding Jesus' birth, he records three times when the angels announcement begins, "Fear not": 
  • To Zechariah: "Fear not, Zechariah: for your prayer has been heard." (Luke 1:13)
    The angel continues to announce that he and his wife will have a son, John. 

  • To Mary: "Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God." (Luke 1:30)
    The angel continues to announce that she will have a son. 

  • To the shepherds: "Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be for all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Today I am thinking mainly of Zechariah's encounter with the angel. 

Zechariah's news would be near and dear to anyone who has offered prayers and waited on the Lord: "Your prayer has been heard." When Zechariah heard the angel's message -- of which I've only included the very start -- Zechariah's answer was in the same neighborhood as "Took you long enough" or "Aren't you a little late, considering our ages?" It is easy to feel frustrated or even cynical when a prayer's answer is delayed, and seems to have been ignored or denied. Still, regardless of outward appearances, God had heard, had loved him, had listened to him -- and even considered it right to grant the request. Why had God waited to fulfill Zechariah's prayer? Was He waiting for Mary to grow up so that John and Jesus would be close in age? Was He waiting for the years of the prophet Daniel to be fulfilled? Was He waiting for Zechariah's priestly division to take its turn at the Temple, so that Zechariah could learn of God's gift as Zechariah offered the incense? We do not know the answer, and this side of heaven we have no way to know the answer. But looking back, it is easier to give God the benefit of the doubt that the timing was right, despite how hopeless things must have looked to Zechariah during the long years he may have waited. That's a thing I would do well to remember when I consider unanswered prayers. It may be that the timing matters for reasons I cannot yet see. 


Sunday, January 01, 2023

Best of the Blogroll 2022

I like to welcome the New Year on this blog by a grateful recognition of the posts from the prior year which most enlightened, edified, or uplifted me, from my blog friends and neighbors. Here are the best-loved posts of 2022: 

My heartfelt gratitude to all the Christian bloggers who bring much-needed kindness, understanding, wisdom, and mercy to the online community. Here's to 2023! 


Sunday, December 25, 2022

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent: What does God look forward to?

While he (Joseph) considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

This week we read what happened when Joseph learned of Mary's pregnancy. We know of Joseph's thoughts from Matthew, and of Mary's from Luke. Here we also see the Lord's thoughts through the voice of the angel: the point of all this is to save God's people from their sins. 

When I hear about saving "his people from their sins", the plural makes it easy for me to think of someone else's sins. That's human nature -- or self-preservation, if you'd rather. If we acknowledge our own faults at all, it is still easy to believe they are caused by someone else's faults. (Say what you will about Genesis 3:12's historicity, it has realism about peoples' reactions.) But what if the problem isn't your sins *or* my sins. What if it's both, and our tendency to blame each other, and the whole web of sinfulness that undermines all our human interactions? What if it's everything that keeps the world tense and fearful, hostile and distrustful? 

God's plan is to save us from all that. And whether I'm ready to acknowledge it or not, I need it deeply. 

Lord, come quickly in our day!