December 25, 2011

Unto Us a Child is Born

Merry Christmas. We have reached the high point of our Advent journey together!

During this six-week blog-study we’ve been unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

Luke tells us “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

Handel’s Messiah shouts the news triumphantly, even though the real birth was barely noticed. “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” The words are from Isaiah 9:6. The scene has been a favorite of artists, like this 17th century rendition by Abraham Bloemaert.

Luke says that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” For Joseph, (In Mary, My Love) the visit of the shepherds had the effect of reaffirming for him that he was, in fact, living into his call-into God’s plan for his life:

“Why did you choose me, a humble carpenter of Nazareth, to be father of this child? What can I give him? Messiah should be clothed in purple and live in a palace.” I whispered my nagging question into the silence.
Eventually I drifted to sleep no closer to an answer than any time in the past nine months. Voices roused me. For a moment I was disoriented. Then I remembered the stable, the birth, and the visit of the shepherds. They were back, joyfully celebrating and praising God. Somewhere a skin of the local wine had been obtained.
“To the father!” The tall shepherd, a little unsteadily, raised the skin to his lips and then offered it to me.
The rest gathered around me with more congratulations as I took a drink.
“God truly is wonderful!”
“Messiah is announced to shepherds!”
“Always it is to the humble and lowly that God reveals His works,” Jediah announced.
He was not drunk except with peace and joy.
“What did you say?” I stared at the man in amazement.
“It is not the proud or mighty who see the Hand of God. We who are poor and humble are the ones who know God.”…
Mary called me from my reverie. Hastily I entered the cave. My wife sat on the bed of blankets and straw Elam and I had prepared the night before. The baby slept in the food trough carved in the cave wall. More straw and blankets made a cozy nest. With her hair loose around her shoulders, Mary looked more like a child than a woman who had recently given birth.
“Yes, my love, did we awaken you?”
A warm smile softened the young face even more. Then she looked serious. Mary leaned over the infant and kissed his cheek, gathering the little body into her arms.
“Your aunt is only the first to doubt that Jeshua is Messiah. You and I and Jediah have the words of angels to reassure us. But, he is so ordinary, just as Rachel said.”
When the woman looked up, I saw disappointment and even doubt in her eyes. Tears brimmed and threatened to spill over. Dropping to my knees beside my wife, I gathered her reverently and gently into my arms. My lips touched the baby’s forehead. I held my family in silence trying to find an answer. Jediah’s words came back to me.
“I think the old shepherd was right,” I faltered, trying to explain my insight. “The God of our Fathers reveals himself in unexpected ways. Yahweh uses the ordinary to show his power and glory. Jediah mentioned Gideon, David, Moses and Joseph as examples of ordinary men used by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This stable is perhaps the most fitting place of all for Messiah to be born, among the people where God has always sought to dwell.”
“Yes, my husband. It is in the commonplace that God is present.” Confidence was back in Mary’s voice and she smiled up at me. “Stars and sand were signs of the promises to Abraham. Esther was not born to be a queen, yet she was raised up and saved her people. This child is indeed the Son of the Most High. The shepherds were sent to affirm that to us so we would not doubt.”
“Truly God has blessed us,” I agreed.
I held my wife and child as the darkness outside the stable lightened into day. When the baby stirred and whimpered, Mary roused from her doze to offer her breast. I rose to say my morning prayers from the entrance of the cave. My heart was full of praise.
“God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, blessed are you, awesome and mighty are your deeds. In the common is found the holy. In the ordinary is your hand, Creator of the Universe. Praise to you, O God.”

God offers hope and encouragement when we need it, often it is only after we allow God to be God. Our ministry will have ups and downs, we only need to trust that God is present through it all.

May your Christmas Day and Christmas season be blessed. May your ministry and call be affirmed as you celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a manger in Bethlehem.

Next week we’ll take one final look at the Nativity story and living into our call from God.

December 18, 2011

Discouragement Happens

During this six-week blog-study we’re be unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

The first week of Advent we saw Mary accepting the call of God on her life. Then we met Joseph. His acceptance of his call to be Mary’s husband seems small, but was vitally important. Last time we explored how essential it is to have friends who offer support to our call and ministry like Mary and Elizabeth did for each other.

Mary and Joseph settled into their life as a married couple expecting a baby. Their plans for a normal life were shattered by the Roman demand for a census. In just 5 verses Luke tells us of the upheaval of their lives. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” (Luke 2:1-5)

Joseph and Mary surely expected the Child to be born in Nazareth where they lived. Those who have heard the Christmas story, know otherwise. The Roman demand for a census meant that despite being close to her delivery time, Mary had to travel with Joseph to the City of David-Bethlehem. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 6-7)

We have probably all felt that sense of discouragement when we were sure we were following God’s call, but things aren’t working out as we expected. Like Jeremiah we heard God’s voice loud and clear saying, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations” and the next thing we know, we are in a mud pit. Jeremiah warned the king and people that they would die by sword and famine. This made the leaders fearful and angry. “So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire.” (Jeremiah 38:6) He was stuck there, literally, until the king relented and had him pulled out.

Discouragement met Joseph, not in the form of a muddy pit, but in a cave at Bethlehem. This is how it happens in Mary, My Love. He and Mary arrive and cannot find a place to stay even with his aunt.

I held my breath as she muttered to herself. “All the regular inns are full. The home of Isaac bar Ephraim is taken. Miriam, wife of Zedekiah, has filled her home as has Simon bar Dan.”
“What of Uziah or Nahum?”
The old man’s suggestions were met with negative movements of the woman’s head. She squinted and gazed around the courtyard seeking a solution. My guide continued to offer names. Each was met with a shake of the head. Finally she turned back at a small cry from Mary.
Reaching a decision, she nodded, “It might serve. At least it will be private and quiet and dry.”
Torn between irritation at our talkative guide, who still suggested fellow villagers as hosts, and concern for my wife’s condition, I was less than polite.
“Yes, where is it?”
Rachel responded with a vague gesture toward the rocks at the back of the house, “It is the cave against the hill. We use it to shelter the ewes in the early spring when they are lambing. I am sure Perez has cleaned it…”
“A stable!” I interrupted angrily.
Mary placed a hand on my shoulder. “I am sure it will be fine.”
Her words ended with a sharp intake of air as another pain grabbed my wife.
“It is settled then. Elam!” Turning quickly for such a large woman, she called for her son. The lad scampered over.
“This is your cousin…”
“Joseph bar Jacob.” I supplied my name through clenched teeth.
Further delay was unnecessary. I wanted to get Mary settled somewhere and find a midwife. My heart pounded with fear. A brief nod from Rachel acknowledged my name.
“Take them to the lambing cave. Get fresh straw for a bed and bring water and fodder.”
Orders complete, the woman turned to go. Feeling churlish, I held out my hand to stop my aunt.
“Wait. Thank you for your help.”
“Yes, yes, let it never be said that Rachel, wife of Perez bar Mattat turned away a kinsman or woman,” she added, glancing at Mary.
“Where can I find a midwife?”
Another gasp from my wife warned me that time was short.
“I will send for her and come myself as soon as I can.”
With that assurance, I had to be satisfied. Moving away, my aunt reminded me of the ship in full sail I saw once in Tyre. She strode across the courtyard dropping orders right and left. …
Elam led the way through the many animals. Camels grudgingly moved aside when the boy shouted at them. A couple of donkeys barely shifted as they eyed the new arrival walking past. Chickens scattered with great clucking and a cow decided to follow us. We went past the house and up a small incline, then back down. The path led to a round opening in the rock. With the ease of familiarity, the boy located a lamp and struck a flint. The small flame flared and settled into a steady glow.
“This way,” Elam gestured and led us into the cave.
Mary leaned heavily on me and walked slowly. I had to bend to enter. Once inside I was pleasantly surprised. A decent sized room was hollowed out of the rock. Several mangers were chipped out of the walls. Low wooden partitions divided the space into separate pens. …
“Help me up. I must prepare the swaddling clothes myself.”
A gasp shortened her planning. Gently I pushed her back down.
“Tell me what to do. You, um…, rest.”
I was embarrassed by the situation. Men should not attend a woman in childbirth, but I had no choice. I had seen animals born and even helped Balaam into the world when he was too slow. The memory of the wet, spindly, weak-kneed donkey foal was not much comfort now even when the animal looked my way with big brown eyes.
“Blankets and the swaddling clothes are in the bag.”
Glad for something to do, I unpacked the faithful little beast. I tossed the saddle into the corner, followed by my tools. I carried Mary’s bundle to her side. When I unrolled it, she showed me which items were needed. Every time the contractions came, she grabbed my arm with surprising strength. The woman scanned the cave obviously looking for something. Anxiously I bent over my bride.
“What is it? What do you need, my love?”
I thought she flushed in the lamplight, before she met my eyes.
“When the baby comes, I will need something to balance against since we have no birthing stool.”
My confusion must have shown in my face.
“I cannot give birth lying down,” she explained patiently. “A woman squats to deliver a child.”
“I will hold you,” I declared, sure it was something I could handle.
She shook her head with a forced smile, “Joseph, my dearest husband, you will have to receive the baby.”
Another, longer contraction interrupted our conversation.
I said hopefully, “Surely Rachel or the midwife will arrive before then.”
“I think the child will be born very soon,” my wife panted. She closed her eyes and steadied her breathing.
Silently I called out to God. “Why are you doing this? The Son of God, Messiah, should not be born in a stable with only a man to assist. Send help,” I pleaded. “Mary deserves better than this!”

Joseph turns to God in doubt and despair because nothing is working out as he expected. When we are discouraged, we focus on the negatives. We forget that God is in charge. In Romans 8:37, Paul reminds us “in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Like this “Knots Prayer” says we must then ask God to “untie the knots” and the ‘nots’ so we can see that God is at work.

When our ministry plans don’t fall into place, God has something infinitely better planned. However, it’s not easy to look beyond what seems like a wall in front of us to find the window. In the Sound of Music, Maria has to reevaluate her call to ministry. Mother Superior tells her “when God closes a door He opens a window” and reminds her that she must “climb every mountain…until you find your dream.” Our call is the dream God has for us. Mary and Elizabeth believed the angels’ messages and embraced their Call. I more often feel like Joseph when God moves me to ministry-hoping I am doing the right thing and going in the right direction. Joseph struggled with his part in the plan of God-his call, esp. when it didn't fit his preconceived ideas of the 'proper order' of things, like the birth of a baby.

Have you ever felt discouragement, disappointment or disillusionment when your plans for the ministry don’t fall into place? How did you cope? Did you give up or regroup?

Lord, help me look to you when I am discouraged or feel that I'm not following your call. You make us conquerors and provide windows of opportunity. Let me look for your guidance each day. AMEN.

Next week we will look at how Joseph (and Mary) were affirmed in their faith, even though (or perhaps because) the Child was born in a manger.

December 11, 2011

Bearers of the Promise

During this six-week blog-study we’ll be unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

The first week of Advent we saw Mary accepting the call of God on her life. Call is where our woundedness meets God’s love and where we offer ourselves to move the Kingdom of God forward. Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband, had to struggle with whether he could or would accept the call on his life. It involved accepting and claiming a child not his own and giving up his own plans for his life. Often God’s call is like that. God challenges us to move beyond ourselves and outside our comfort zone.

We cannot live into our call alone. God made us to be social. From the beginning, God said “It is not good that the man should be alone…” (Genesis 12:18) Mary knew that she needed the affirmation of someone who could understand her experience. Gabriel had told her “Your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son; and this is now the sixth month with her who was called barren.” Despite the distance and danger of travel, Mary “arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.” This is a journey of 60 or 70 miles, as the crow flies, and longer on winding mountain roads. It probably took the young girl over a week to arrive in Hebron (the traditional home of Zechariah and Elizabeth).

The trip was worth the effort though. Both Mary and Elizabeth realized that they were truly servants of the Lord and burst into praise. Elizabeth tells Mary, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:45) She could have said the same thing about herself since she, too, had accepted God’s call on her life and the gift of a son in her old age and barrenness.

Friends in faith can affirm our call and help us with support and encouragement. The song “You Raise Me Up”* written by Brendan Graham in 2002 says “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up: To more than I can be.” That is what a friend in the Lord can do.

We hear that “Mary remained with [Elizabeth] for about three months and then returned to her home.” During that time the two women probably shared many joys as each prepared to bear a child who bore the promise of God. When Mary returned to Nazareth she news of her visit with Joseph (from my book Mary, My Love):

“Why? I would think she would want to share her news.” I frowned, confused by the older woman’s actions.
“I wondered that, too. Elizabeth said, ‘They would have stolen away my secret joy.’ When she finally did venture to the market after five months, the comments were full of amazement.”
“I am sure they were.”
I could well imagine the stir that Elizabeth’s pregnancy and Zechariah’s muteness caused in the small town.
Mary smiled, “When I arrived, Elizabeth was so glad to see me. I think the whispers and speculation were tiring her out.”
My mind turned to the gossip around the well in Nazareth. I drew my wife closer wishing to protect her from the inevitable comments that would start again now that she was back. Mary understood my silence.
“Joseph, we cannot stop the mouths of the neighbors. You and I know the truth. That will be enough.”
“My love, I wish I could spare you. If they knew that you carry Messiah…”
The vehemence in my tone made the girl open her eyes wide with surprise.
“God will make the truth known,” she assured me, “just like God did for Elizabeth, when I arrived.”
“Tell me.”
Mary snuggled close and continued her story. Her face glowed with serenity.
“Elizabeth started across the room to greet me. Then she stopped suddenly and put a hand on her belly. She said, ‘Blessed are you. Who am I that the mother of the Savior comes to me?’ It was a final piece of proof that this baby is of God.”
A sigh of contentment slipped out as my wife smoothed her gown over the tiny rounding of her figure.
“My cousin told me, ‘When I heard your voice my baby leaped with joy.’ God confirmed my child through Elizabeth’s baby.”
I laid my rough hand over the girl’s small fingers. “Yes, and your presence affirmed her child also.”
“You do understand! Our joy was so great that we sang together, praising God for raising up salvation for the people.” Mary began to sing softly. She slipped from my lap to pirouette around the shop as she repeated the joyous chant, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
I marveled at the radiance of my wife and smiled, “Surely just so did Sarah and Rebecca proclaim their joy when they conceived. This child is the fulfillment of their longings and the longings of all Israel.”
“Yes, my husband, our son is the One promised from the beginning.”

We are not meant to be solitary beings, but to live in community. We are supposed to share our joys and sorrows and fears. We support one another when we are in need of support and encouragement. Mary & Elizabeth affirmed each other’s child as a gift from God. God gives us friends who ‘sit awhile’ and who ‘raise me up.’ God acts through our friends who support us.

Have you ever been supported by those who believe in you because they are your friends or because they are fellow servants of God in a similar ministry? Who do you look to when you need affirmation? Conversely-who have you lifted up and helped with their burden?

As the song says, “When troubles come and my heart burdened be; then, I am still and wait here in the silence, until you come and sit awhile with me.” Then “I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up: To more than I can be.” Look to your community of friends when the call to ministry seems to be too difficult or dim. They will give you the courage to go on-to be 'more than I can be'.

PRAYER: God of Mary and Elizabeth, you call us to be in community with one another. Help me to seek out those who support me so that I can follow your call with joy and eagerness. Let me be willing to be vulnerable to them and to you as I become “more than I can be.” AMEN

Next week we'll see that following the Call of God isn't always smooth sailing.

*You Raise Me up
When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be.

There is no life - no life without its hunger;
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
But when you come and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be

December 4, 2011

Dear Joseph

During this six-week blog-study we’ll be unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

Last week we saw how Mary responded with joyful acceptance to God’s call to be mother of Messiah. Her reply, “let it be according to your word” changed not only her life but those around her. Identifying our call is only the first step. We have to act on it. Mary had to tell her parents and her betrothed husband, Joseph of the angel’s visit. The Bible says nothing about her parent’s response and very little about Joseph’s shock.

As Mary’s betrothed husband, Joseph would have had the right to have her stoned for adultery, or he could have divorced her. Matthew 1:19-20 tells us he decided, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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.’”
In Mary, My Love, Joseph has a much more human response.

Unable to work, I threw on my outer garment and stormed from the building, nearly trampling Benoni. He backed away from my rage without even a question. Blindly I headed for the hills beyond Nazareth. If anyone greeted me, I did not hear. Mary’s words repeated their terrible litany in my head.
“Bear a son…God man…I do not lie.”
Faster and faster I walked, until I was running up the mountainside. The same grove of trees that saw my decision to wed Mary received me. Like a mad man I smashed my hands against one trunk and then another until my rage was spent. In despair I fell to my knees.
“God, why do you mock me? I believed you gave me Mary’s love. Now she admits that she carries a child which is not mine!” Renewed anger set me to pacing. Suspicion fueled the fire. “Joachim was eager to accept my offer. Did he know that his daughter was no virgin, even then? Was I the dupe all along?”
Worn out from the day’s passion, I sank to my knees. The Name of the Most High was all I could say. Over and over I repeated the word.
Eventually, I resolved to divorce Mary and send her away to preserve her life. Exhausted, I leaned against a tree trunk and closed my eyes. I must have dozed. The dream, when it came, held me tightly even after I awakened. As Mary said, the angel was a figure of light without real form. Even in my sleep, I felt my heartbeat quickening.
“Joseph, do not be afraid. You may take Mary as your wife. The child is conceived by the Spirit of God. She will bear a son. You will name him Jeshua. For just as his name means ‘God saves’, so this child will save all people.”
Then the messenger from God was gone. The peace that enveloped me left me comforted. Gradually, I opened my eyes to stare at the surrounding trees. The grove was in darkness but my soul was in light. Moonlight filtered through the sparse early spring leaves to illuminate the trunks and the ground. Slowly I sat up, reassured and unafraid. God had stolen my beloved but I would not lose her.

Joseph, in the night-long struggle with God and his conscience comes to accept his own call-his own place in the unfolding drama. He accepted the child as his own, knowing that there would be whispers and gossip. Joseph’s feelings of betrayal by Mary were put aside out of love and for the healing of both his anger and the sins of the world.

In the Disney movie Hercules, the hero sings “I Will Go the Distance”*. By embracing God’s call, this is exactly what Joseph agreed to do. He would have agreed with Hercules who says, Down an unknown road, to embrace my fate Though that road may wander, it will lead me to you And a thousand years, would be worth the wait It might take a lifetime, but somehow I'll see it through. And I won't look back, I can go the distance And I'll stay on track, no, I won't accept defeat It's an uphill slope, but I won't lose hope Till I go the distance, and my journey is complete”

Unlike Hercules, Joseph knew his call was to follow God’s will, not the desire for a ‘hero’s welcome’. He did not know how his resolve would be tested in the coming years. When we step out in faith to follow God’s call, we don’t know where that road will lead us. However, we can know that when we stay in God’s will, “I know ev'ry mile, will be worth my while When I go the distance, I'll be right where I belong.”

As Mary learned, it can be hard to tell others of our call, our vision to make a difference in the world. Sometimes we are met with resistance, anger, disbelief, even rejection or condemnation. It takes courage to hold fast to the call of God.

Sometimes the challenge to accepting the call can come from within. It can be easy to look at the ministry and success (by worldly standards) of other’s work and response to their call. We can say, ‘my little bit doesn’t matter.’ I am reminded of a story Max Lucado tells of visiting a woman who carved Bible shapes from wood then decoupaged a Bible verse on each plaque. Her call was to make these plaques which offered encouragement to those who got them. She might have sat at home and done nothing, esp. if she compared her wood carvings to someone like Lucado’s fame. Yet, she did not. Joseph is often overlooked because he ‘just’ married Mary. However, his response to God’s call changed his expectations of his life dramatically.

Many heroes and heroines in the Bible met with resistance, both internal and external, when they stepped out in faith. Sometimes it is their own doubts that prevent them from acting. In the Book of Esther, she hesitates to approach the King when the Jews are threatened with death. Mordecai reminds her, “If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Joseph did not believe Mary at first. He had to struggle with his conscience and with God’s demands before “he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) His ‘yes’ to God was a tiny pebble in the sea, but without it, the story would have been very different. Can your ‘yes’ to God make a difference? Indeed it can!

Have you ever shared your dream or call to ministry with someone and been met with skepticism or worse? How did you react?
Are you resisting responding to God’s call because you think it’s ‘not big enough’?

Holy God, help me to ‘go the distance’ you require of me. I want to respond to your call on my life with joy, but sometimes I am fearful and doubt that I hear you correctly. Inspire me with your love to share that love with the world. AMEN

Next week we'll see what happens to Elizabeth and how she and Mary encourage one another.
*I Can Go the Distance (from Disney's Hercules)

I have often dreamed, of a far off place
Where a hero's welcome, would be waiting for me
Where the crowds will cheer, when they see my face
And a voice keeps saying, this is where I'm meant to be

I'll be there someday, I can go the distance
I will find my way, if I can be strong
I know ev'ry mile, will be worth my while
When I go the distance, I'll be right where I belong

Down an unknown road, to embrace my fate
Though that road may wander, it will lead me to you
And a thousand years, would be worth the wait
It might take a lifetime, but somehow I'll see it through

And I won't look back, I can go the distance
And I'll stay on track, no, I won't accept defeat
It's an uphill slope, but I won't lose hope
Till I go the distance, and my journey is complete

But to look beyond the glory is the hardest part
For a hero's strength is measured by his heart

Like a shooting star, I will go the distance
I will search the world, I will face it's harms
I don't care how far, i can go the distance
Till I find my hero's welcome, waiting in your arms

November 27, 2011

The Angel Gabriel was Sent

During this six-week blog-study we’ll be unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. We’ll consider how we accept God’s call to ministry. Exploring the people most closely impacted by the birth of Christ and their response to God’s call will offer insights into our own ministry and deepen your Advent adventure this year. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

What is the ‘call’ of God? How do we hear it? My definition is that Call is when my woundedness (and we are all wounded in some way) meets God’s healing and I feel the need to share that healing with others so that God is glorified. Call is our response to the wrongs or wounds in our lives. You might think of big organizations like MADD or AA that came from one person’s search for healing and answers to the wounds in their lives. Answering God’s call doesn’t have to be big and grand, though. My first book It is I, Joseph was born of the healing of my wounds of betrayal and I saw that in writing I could share God’s love.

The group Celtic Woman has a song titled, “The Call” that says, when we open our arms and accept the call, “you will find the answer…to the call”. The call of God is the answer to our wounded hearts which respond to the whisper of God. (*words at the end of the blog or watch them.

Sometimes we hear the call in the innocent response of a child to need or wrong in the world, too. It could be like the little girl who got an idea to do a read-a-thon to raise money for an orphanage. Today we meet Mary of Nazareth, a young girl, who heard her call through the voice of an angel. The first ‘character’ we meet in the drama is the angel Gabriel who was “sent by God…to a virgin…[whose] name was Mary.” Most scholars agree that Mary was likely a young teen at the time, probably no more than 14. Men, however, did not usually marry until they were older and established in their work so Joseph was probably several years older. Some traditions say he was a widower. In my book, he is not an aged gray-beard, but is several years older than his betrothed bride. He does love her though as we see in this scene from Mary, My Love soon after the betrothal when Mary stops at the carpenter shop.

Bravely, I laid my rough hand over hers where it rested on the wood. She did not pull away and I was thrilled. Her other hand traced the whorls in the wood.

“It has a lovely grain.”

“I chose this piece especially for that design.”

Mary seemed oblivious to my pleasure at her presence. I swallowed convulsively when the soft hand under mine turned over and small fingers twined with mine. When she looked up her dark eyes were serious.

“Joseph, I am a lucky girl. I will try to make you a good wife,” she promised.

“I know you will.”

The hoarseness in my voice came from the lump of emotion that threatened to choke me. Suddenly not trusting myself, I stepped back from the loving look in Mary’s eyes. My hands shook with longing. The young woman tilted her head as if confused. Something in my demeanor reassured her and a tender smile appeared.

“You will make a good husband. God brought us together.”

Before I could move, my betrothed bridged the distance between us. Stretching up she placed a soft kiss on my cheek and hurried out.

“I will come back tomorrow,” she called over her shoulder.

Jacob found me energetically sanding the tabletop.

“A year is a long time,” he noted.

I pretended to be engrossed in creating a satin smooth finish. A friendly hand rested on my shoulder.

“Mary is a jewel worth waiting for. Like me you have waited for the one woman who trapped your heart. A pleasant torment it is, too.”

I heard the amusement in my father’s tone and turned abruptly to face him.

“A year is too long,” I said, my voice ragged.

“Keep busy,” he counseled. “Time will pass more quickly.” (From Mary, My Love, (c) Cynthia Davis 2010)

By our standards a teenage girl is not a likely or logical choice to be the mother of the promised Messiah. We would think that someone mature in their religious life or from a royal or priestly family or rich, etc. would be a better choice than a young girl from a relatively small town far from the Holy City of Jerusalem. God doesn’t measure our worth in such ways, though.

Consider some of the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Moses, an exile and murderer, was sent back to the country he fled from. Ruth was a foreigner, as was Rahab, yet both are important links in the lineage of King David and of Jesus. Few of the prophets were rich or famous or priestly, yet their words were recorded rather than those of kings and priests. David was the youngest son of Jesse, yet he was anointed as king.

The prophet/priest Samuel makes the mistake of judging by appearances when he comes to Jesse’s home to anoint a successor for King Saul. “He looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” (I Samuel 16:6-7)

God sends Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth of Galilee. We don’t know what she was doing, when “he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” Mary does not seem to be astonished at the appearance of the angel. Instead she wonders what he means by his greeting! His next words are even more astounding. “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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:28-33)

Stop for a minute and try to remember yourself at 13 or 14. How would you have responded to an angelic visitor? Perhaps it is not so surprising that God chose a young girl. Children often are more open to the holy things around them. They see the beauty in a dandelion and the joy of a rainstorm. Young people are more open to believing that angels can appear and offer astonishing opportunities.

Mary does question her visitor who explains, “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. 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.” (Luke 1:35-38)

The young girl is open to the call of God, who seems to challenge her with something unbelievable. Her response is joy and self-giving. Like Isaiah (6:8) she responds “Here I am, send me.” She was willing to open her heart and respond to the call of God to be mother of Messiah. She teaches us that when we “Open your arms You will find the answer When you answer to the Call.”

Mary responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She is willing to embrace all that God has for her even though she does not really comprehend how much that will change her life. As the Celtic Woman song says, sometimes the call is your “wounded heart calling” or it can be “in desire or in the love we fear.” Often “when we have no dance to dance…or… voice to sing then the call is calling strong.” Finding the call of God will make you whole.

What is your brokenness that you can offer to God? What inspires you? What is your passion? What is your gift? What whisper do you hear?

Next week we will see how Joseph hears and responds to the call of God.

Lord, I offer to you my brokenness. Take it and redeem it with your call. Only in answering and living into your will, your call on my life can I be fully whole and fully human and fully yours. Amen.

*Sometimes in this life we hear
Calling from somewhere
Sometimes it is loud and clear
Sometimes it's so softly there
Sometimes it is in the sea
Sometimes in the sky
Sometimes it's in you and me
Sometimes it's a cry

Open your heart I am calling you
Right from the very start
Your wounded heart was calling, too
Open your arms You will find the answer
When you answer to the Call

Sometimes it is in desire
Or in the love we fear
When the call is calling us
'Till the fear will disappear

When we have no dance to dance
The call is in the song
When we have no voice to sing
Then the call is calling strong
Open your heart I am calling you

Right from the very start Your wounded heart was calling, too
Open your arms You will find the answer
When you answer to the Call (The Call, Celtic Woman)

November 20, 2011

At Last to Rome

In last week’s post we met Hermanus, warden and centurion in charge of Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea and on the journey to Rome. He has been telling his wife, Portia, of the events leading to his return to Rome. (Acts 27-28) Today he concludes with the story of the journey to Rome.

Portia, I have to tell you I wasn’t sure that we would ever make it back to Rome. The seas were against us, it seemed. Paul was in my charge, but we were all under the command of Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Cohort. We set sail from Caesarea, planning to sail along the coast of Asia, but the winds kept us to the east of Cyprus. Finally we came to Myra. It is a town on the coast of Asia in the district of Lycia. It faces the western sea 100 miles from the island of Rhodes.

I have to admit I was glad to get on dry land for a time in Myra. The waves had been hard on my digestion. Julius found another ship for us. It was from Alexandria bound for Italy. We headed north and after too many days we arrived at Cnidus, only 100 miles up the coast from Myra. Then we sailed toward Crete fighting the wind all the way. Eventually, when I was sure all was lost, we rounded the tip of the island at Salmone and worked our way down the coast of Crete to Fair Havens. It seemed like a good place to stay. Even Paul urged that we go no further.

Later, I knew he was a prophet as well as a man of God. At the time I just wanted to stay on dry land. Paul told us, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”

You ask why we didn’t stay at Fair Havens. The ship’s captain and owner were convinced we would do better to head for Phoenix which had a safe winter harbor. It was only 25 or 30 miles they insisted. When a moderate wind from the south came up, we set out only to be struck by something the sailors called a northeaster with winds roaring across Crete. We were driven by the wind to a small island called Cauda, but we could not linger there because of the wind which drove us ahead of it into the open sea.

It was awful. The second day the sailors threw cargo into the sea and the next day they threw over the extra sails and ropes and other tackle. The storm was so violent that we could not see the sun during the day or the moon at night. I was sure we would all be drowned. My thoughts turned to you here in Rome.

Paul was the only one who seemed calm in the midst of the storm. After many days, he called us all together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” We all stared at him, a couple of the sailors grumbled and took a step toward the man. He ignored their threat and continued, “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”

I wanted to ask him how he could believe such things in the midst of the terrifying storm, but something about his calm demeanor kept me silent. It was only fourteen days after we set sail, although it seemed like a decade, when the sailors thought we were close to land. They took soundings for depth and discovered it was becoming more and more shallow. The men let out the anchors. We all waited for day. Some of the sailors thought they would escape in a small boat. Paul told me and Julius “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Immediately I cut the ropes and the boat fell into the sea. I watched it sink beneath the waves with a mixture of awe and fear.

Paul was not done encouraging us though. Before dawn he stood up with a loaf of bread. “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” We stared at him in amazement as he prayed and tore off a piece of the bread. For some reason his simple act of eating encouraged us all and we all took some food. Then we threw the last of the cargo of wheat into the sea to make the ship light enough to make it over the rocks.

Do not cling to me, Portia. You can see that I survived. It was fearsome, though. Even lightened, the ship struck a reef and broke into pieces. The soldiers were going to kill all the prisoners, but Julius and I prevented them, mostly because we did not want to harm Paul. “Swim for shore or grab a plank and paddle to shore,” Julius ordered. That is what we did.

A welcoming party of the natives built a fire on the shore so we could dry ourselves. We learned that we landed on Malta. The residents were amazed when a viper crawled out of the wood and bit Paul. We all waited for him to die, but nothing happened. I heard them murmuring that he must be a god come to visit.

We were treated grandly and welcomed by Publius, the island’s ruler. We stayed with him for three days. When Paul heard that Publius’ father was ill, he quietly went in and prayed over the old man. He was healed! Word spread across the island and everyone who was ill came to be cured. We remained on Malta for three months until it was safe to sail. The people of the island supplied all the provisions we needed.

The ship we boarded was also from Alexandria. After a stop at Syracuse on Sicily, we landed at Rhegium on the tip of Italy. A south wind took us to Puteoli. I was amazed when a group of men met us and asked to see Paul. “We are Believers in the Way,” they said. “Please allow Paul to visit and encourage us.”

I was interested to see what would happen when Paul met these strangers who professed to believe in the same Jesus Christ he preached. We stayed for a week before traveling overland the last 100 miles to Rome. New believers met us as we neared the city. Each new group seemed to inspire Paul with more and more courage. “The word of the Lord is alive and well, here!” I heard him tell his companion and physician Lucius.

How long will Paul be here in Rome? I don’t really know. He must wait on the Emperor’s pleasure, I suppose. You know he called together the Jewish leaders here already and tried to explain his faith to them. Some of them were interested, but you heard the loud and angry discussion. Perhaps Paul was right when he told them, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

What do I believe about this Paul and his God? I think that I have a lot to learn from him. His God has a power I have not seen anywhere else. I am blessed for having known him and I hope he will live with us for a long time.

Paul’s impact on Hermanus and others he met on his journey to Rome was led by the Holy Spirit. He encouraged the soldiers who kept him under guard and the sailors whose courage had failed in the face of the violent storm. Paul healed even the strangers who came to him on Malta. In turn he was encouraged by the belief of those Christians who met him on the road to Rome. We can do nothing alone, but in community with other Christians we are built up and build up one another’s faith.

The Book of Acts ends with Paul in prison where he “lived for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31)

Paul continued to preach and teach even in bondage. In his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, written before his imprisonment in Rome, Paul enumerates many of his trials, none of which make him forget his faith in God. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28) He is able to say “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Later he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

We have the promise of the same grace and faith no matter what our circumstances. Paul and the others in the book of Acts can provide inspiration by their actions in the face of all sorts of dangers.

Next week, Advent I, I'll start a new blog series about "Accepting God's Call" by looking at players in the Nativity drama.

November 13, 2011

Testimony from Prison

We are nearing the end of our journey through the Book of Acts. The early chapters helped us see the lives of the disciples after the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. Men who cowered in the upper room, fearful of arrest, now spoke boldly in the streets and in the Temple. Thousands were converted and believed the Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. This angered the Jewish leaders. Starting with Stephen, many were martyred. Rather than stopping the new ‘sect’ the persecution had the effect of spreading the word across the Roman Empire. Much of that missionary work was accomplished by Saul of Tarsus or Paul as he is better known. He was originally a rabid persecutor of the Believers, and even studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (right), but was converted himself by an appearance by the Risen Lord.

Over the past few weeks and months we have seen Paul attempt to convert the Jews in various cities of the Empire. Every time there is resistance and he then preaches to the Gentile community with dramatic results. After 3 missionary journeys from Asia Minor to Greece, Paul returns to Jerusalem where he is arrested. In order to save him from an assassination plot, the tribune Claudius Lysias sends him to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor in Caesarea. Here is what happens, as told by Hermanus, (fictitious) warden of the prison, to his wife Portia when he returned to Rome. (Acts 24-26)

Jews came to Caesarea after five to press charges against a Roman Jew sent to us by Claudius Lysias, tribune in Jerusalem. I have never seen a worse miscarriage of justice. The Jews brought with them Tertullus, a lawyer versed in the laws of Rome and Caesar. He was, I must say, quite an oily character. His first words were meant to sway Governor Felix to assent to the Jews’ demands.

What did he say, you ask? “Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness.”

It was not just his words. His endless bowing and nodding and smirking that made me think of a serpent. I wondered if he had already offered the governor a bribe in order to appear in the court. Then he went on to claim that Paul, my prisoner, who I have found to be a model of courtesy and politeness, was an agitator and ringleader of some obscure sect. All the other priests immediately started shouting that he profaned their temple, too. I could see that the governor was disturbed by the uproar they created. Tertullus saw it and quieted the Jews.

After everyone was quiet, our governor turned to the prisoner and gestured for him to make his response. I have to admit that the man was a good speaker. He too started by acknowledging that the governor has been in charge for many years.

His demeanor? There was not the least bit of fear. In fact, he addressed the governor as an equal. Paul said, “As you can find out, it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem.” He insisted he did nothing to disturb the peace of the city and would only admit one thing. It was a rather odd confession. He lifted his chin and announced, ‘According to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people.”

I saw the governor looked at Tertullus and the priests when Paul said that. My prisoner finished his defense by repeating that he was doing a rite of purification in the temple when arrested. At the end he offered a challenge, “Let these men here tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council.”

After that the governor adjourned the hearing, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” Paul was remanded to my custody but he had some freedom including visits from friends. Days passed and Lysias did not come. I wondered if the governor even sent for him. It was not unknown for men to be kept in prison until a nice sum of money was paid to the governor, even without a trial.

Once the governor and his wife Drucilla had me bring Paul to their chamber. I listened at the door while the man talked about the man Jesus who he claimed had been crucified, yet rose from the dead. A rather preposterous idea, I thought at the time. Some of the other things Paul said were interesting, though. He talked about justice for all people and self control. When he started to warn of coming judgment, the governor sent for me to take him back to the prison.

Once or twice more he had me bring Paul to him. I think he was hoping that the Jew would give him a bribe to be freed. I guess Paul was the only one in the country who did not understand that part of the governor’s justice. This went on for two years, until Antonius Felix was recalled to Rome. Pocius Festus was the new governor, appointed by Emperor Nero.

What was Governor Festus like? He was a diligent leader and he had much to do. Discontent was rampant throughout Palestine. In fact only three days after he arrived at Caesarea, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. I hear they tried to convince him to bring Paul to Jerusalem so they could ambush him on the way, but the governor was not fooled. He ordered them to come to Caesarea and plead their case again.

In fact the Jews returned to Caesarea with the governor and almost immediately Paul was summoned before the tribunal. It was a raucous scene with the Jews shouting wild accusations. I saw the governor frown, but I sensed he wanted to build a rapport with the temple leaders. Even though Paul stated, “I have in no way committed an offence against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor,” Governor Festus asked if he would go to Jerusalem to be tried.

Then Paul did something that shocked everyone present. “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal,” he said. “This is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.”

Of course after that, there was no further trial. The governor replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.”

I know he had his doubts about the conclusion of the hearing because when the Jewish tetrarch Agrippa came with his sister Bernice (left) to welcome the governor, he explained the case to them. The man called himself ‘king’, but in reality he had little power even in the province he governed. His grandfather, Herod the Great, had been a king, but after his death the power was stripped away by the emperor, so his sons and grandchildren only governed under the authorization of the Emperor.

Agrippa expressed an interest in hearing Paul, so it was arranged. The audience hall was filled with the cohort of Caesarea and with many of the prominent men of the city. Governor Festus did know how to impress his guests. He claimed that he had Paul brought in so he could determine what sort of explanation or charges to send to Rome since the man had appealed to the Emperor. I smiled to myself when the governor said, “it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”

Paul’s defense this time was much more detailed than before the Jewish priests. Most of his story I had heard before by listening to his discussions with the friends who visited him. I already knew he was a Pharisee, who are the lawyers of the Jews. I suppose that explains his ability to give a coherent and concise account of himself. He recounted how he had persecuted the followers of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. He explained, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”

Why did the Jews hate him so much if he was one of them? It was something I had wondered about, but as he spoke, I started to understand that he had split from their doctrine because of this Jesus who he claimed was the Messiah hoped for by the Jews.

He told of something that happened to him on the way to Damascus. It was an amazing story and I saw both Agrippa and Festus leaning forward as he recounted, “I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. I heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

It was a brave thing to say to a Roman governor and Jewish tetrarch. I held my breath to see what response they would have. Governor Festus leaned forward and shook his head, almost in pity. “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

Paul smiled sympathetically and replied with a slight bow. “‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

Agrippa pulled back as if to refute the claim. Then he leaned forward and asked softly, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

I was surprised when Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

That a man imprisoned for over two years could still be so confident and calm amazed me and everyone else in the room. In fact, as the governor and king were leaving I overheard them comment to each other, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.”

Since it was decided to send Paul to Rome, I was appointed to be his guard on the way. That is how I have come home to you, my dear wife. I will continue my story another time.

This fictitious centurion was impressed with Paul’s actions and testimony while in prison. Paul did not lose heart, but continued to confess Jesus Christ as Lord even before the authority of Palestine-the governor and king. We should ask ourselves, are people impressed by my actions and testimony of Christ’s action in our life? We may not be called before kings and rulers, but we are witnesses every day of the action of the Holy Spirit in our life. Jesus reminds us "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12)

Next week we will conclude our study of the Book of Acts and the action of the Holy Spirit in converting souls in the most unexpected situations.

November 10, 2011

Paul-citizen in chains

In our journey through the Book of Acts, and the life of Paul, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of Paul as a man of God. When we read just his letters to the churches, the Epistles, without an undergirding of Paul’s personal life and struggles, his challenges and his delights, we can think of him as a very stern and legalistic man. Taken out of their context as letters to places he had been and to people he knew, addressing issues important to their life and faith as part of the newly forming Christian church, some of Paul’s comments can sound narrow to our ears two millennia later. Understanding Paul, the man, can help us understand his writings, too, as encouragement and teaching to the people he loved in the cities he had visited.

Paul was even misunderstood by the Jewish people of his time. Over and over again, he preaches to the Jewish synagogue first, only to have them reject his radical message. Then he turns to the more receptive Gentile population. Even when he returns to Jerusalem, Paul is rejected by the leaders of the Jews. Rather than being discouraged, he uses his arrest as an opportunity to proclaim the Good News.

From the steps of the Temple, under arrest by the Roman tribune, Paul speaks. “Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you…I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today…” (Acts 22:1-20) Paul is indeed a man zealous for his God, both before and after his conversion. His fire of faith is worthy of emulation.

The crowd listens quietly, until Paul announces that Jesus sent him to the Gentiles. Then, “they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’ And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air.” (Acts 22:21-23)

The tribune has Paul brought into the barracks, (part of the Roman Fortress of Antonia, which overlooked the Temple grounds-see model at left) to be “examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.” As he has in the past when arrested by Roman authorities, Paul tells the centurion the he is a Roman citizen. The centurion “went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’ Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” (Acts 22:26-29)

The tribune is in a sticky place. He cannot question Paul by torture because Paul is a citizen. There is no record in Acts that he tried to find out from Paul directly why the Jews hated him. However, he wants to “find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews.” So, “the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.” (Acts 22:30)

Some of us, at this point, would have backed down and tried to appease the Jewish leaders. Not so with Paul. Rather than facing their charges directly, he “noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, [so] he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided…Then a great clamor arose…When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.” (Acts 23:6-10)

The Jews do not want to give up with their plan to get rid of this troublesome former Pharisee. In fact their rage seems rather excessive against Paul. It is very easy to become defensive and angry when our basis for faith is challenged. Paul's preaching of Christ risen and his preaching to the Gentiles were both a threat to the established religious order of the Jewish priests and leaders. Paul's claim that Jesus Christ was Messiah and risen from the dead and Son of God might seem to fulfill the greatest desire of the Jews. Instead, the leaders felt threatened. The prophet Malachi had warned, "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covanant in whom you delight...but who can stand when he appears?"

Forty men told “the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul.Now then, you and the council must notify the tribune to bring him down to you, on the pretext that you want to make a more thorough examination of his case. And we are ready to do away with him before he arrives.’” Fortunately, “the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush…and told Paul.” Paul sends his nephew to the tribune who “took him by the hand, drew him aside privately, and asked, ‘What is it that you have to report to me?’ He answered, ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow…more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him. They have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they kill him’…the tribune dismissed the young man, ordering him, ‘Tell no one that you have informed me of this.’” (Acts 23:12-22)

The tribune (Claudius Lysias) sends Paul to Caesarea under the protection of “two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen...[to] take him safely to Felix the governor.” It would seem that the tribune is taking no chances on having an ‘incident’ involving a Roman citizen on his watch. Much better to send the problem to the governor who has more resources to deal with such difficulties!

The letter he sends to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor, puts a spin on the events that emphasizes the tribune’s part in a rescue of a Roman citizen. “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, but when I had learned that he was a Roman citizen, I came with the guard and rescued him…I found that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” Two days later, Paul and his escort arrive at Caesarea. “On reading the letter, he asked what province he belonged to, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.’ Then he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s headquarters.” (Acts 23:23-35)

It would seem that Paul’s vision of Jesus saying, “Take courage, for as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome” is coming true. (Acts 23:11) As a story-teller, I wonder what Paul’s thoughts were as he waited for ‘his accusers’ to come to Caesarea. We know he probably spent time writing to the churches he established. Based on his previous imprisonment experience, he probably gave very little thought to what he would actually say when it was time to give his defense. This defense was always the same-his testimony of God’s saving acts in Christ and his own conversion experience.

What more do we need to say when someone asks us about our faith??? With Malachi we can announce "the Lord has come" and like Paul share our experience of the Living Lord.  Sometimes that takes courage, esp. if we have to speak up against the established order of things. Learning of Paul's experiences and his steadfast faith should give us inspiration.

Next week we’ll see what happens when his accusers come to Caesarea.

October 30, 2011

Devotion and Emotion

Last week, through Pricilla’s eyes, we saw what happened during Paul’s 3rd missionary journey. Then he ‘set his eyes on Jerusalem’, wanting to be there by Pentecost. Remember Pentecost was a Jewish feast 50 days after Passover. As Christians, we remember Pentecost as the coming of the Holy Spirit. To the Jews it was a time for ingathering first fruits-the first crops of the year. With great devotion they remembered that God provided for them.

Paul had faced persecution and other trials in his travels around Asia Minor and Greece, but he remained a Jew at heart and desired to see the Holy City and the Temple and to worship there again. Paul wanted to express his love for God at the one place sacred to Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Have you ever been far from home for a long time? It is so good to be back in familiar places. Just thinking about going home can make us emotional.

On his way to Jerusalem, Paul visits believers in Tyre and Ptolemai and then Caesarea where they “went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him.” (Acts 21:1-9) All along the way, various people tell Paul he should not go to Jerusalem. At Caesarea, “a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He…took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’" (Acts 21:10-14)

Paul refused to be dissuaded from his journey to Jerusalem. He was convinced that he was following the Lord’s will. His devotion to Jesus led him to follow his heart and not be dissuaded by the predictions of disaster. At first, all is well. “The brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they praised God.” (Acts 21:17-20)

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem tell Paul of the rumors about him, “They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” A solution is proposed, “We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (Acts 21:21-24)

All went well until some “Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, ‘Fellow-Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.’” (Acts 21:27-28) Paul's devotion to the God of Israel is questioned.

A riot follows-something Paul is quite familiar with! “All the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them [and] arrested him…he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. When Paul came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers…Just as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, ‘May I say something to you?’ The tribune replied, ‘Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?’ Paul replied, ‘I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city.” (Acts 21:30-39) Notice that Paul's first claim is to be a Jew, then to mention his citizenship of Tarsus, a Roman town.

Paul is falsely accused; by arresting him the Roman tribune saves his life. At first, he thinks that Paul is an Egyptian assassin and is surprised when Paul speaks Greek and claims to be from Tarsus. This raises his status in the tribune’s eyes, so that he is receptive to Paul’s request to address the crowd.

Following God demands that we give our fullest. A friend recently quoted a line from a sermon she heard.  "Devotion without emotion is just commotion.” Some might look at Paul’s ministry and say that he caused a great deal of commotion. Wherever he went conflict and riots erupted. However, Paul was driven by the conviction that he was following the One Lord and God to whom he was devoted. No one could doubt his emotion while preaching and teaching. Serving God was his entire life focus.

Throughout his ministry, Paul never faltered when doing what he believed God was calling him to do. Before his conversion, Saul the Pharisee was convinced that he must persecute the believers. After his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul was equally enthusiastic about preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.
What happens when we try to express devotion-to God or to our spouse or child-without emotion? It falls flat doesn’t it? Only when we are fully engaged and aware of the emotion of love for God or spouse or child, can we really say ‘I love you’ and mean it. Otherwise it is just words. As Paul himself said in 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I…have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (Which is really another way of saying devotion without emotion is commotion.) What would happen in your relationship-with God, with family and friends, if you really meant it when you said “I love you”?

Because Paul believed in his ministry, he was not afraid to go to Jerusalem despite all those who told him he would be imprisoned there. Because he really loved God and wanted all to understand the Good News of Jesus Christ, he was not afraid to address the crowd that had just tried to kill him.

Paul tells the tribune, “I beg you, let me speak to the people.’ When he had given him permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language…” (Acts 21:40) Next week we will hear Paul’s defense and the result of it.

October 23, 2011

Priscilla and the church in Ephesus

Over the past several months we have been exploring the Books of Acts and how the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of Peter and James as well as the other disciples. We looked at the faith and martyrdom of Stephen (7/24) and the imprisonment and miraculous release of Peter. (8/28). The preaching of Philip to the eunuch (7/31) and Paul’s conversion (8/7) experience were both dramatic episodes where the Holy Spirit was clearly active. Over the past month, we’ve seen how the Spirit acted in Paul’s life on his first and second missionary journeys to Asia (Turkey), and Macedonia and Greece. Today we see what happened on his third journey as found in Acts 19-20. Most of the time on this journey was spent in Ephesus.

Ephesus was a major city in the Roman Empire. The second largest city in the Roman Empire, with nearly half a million people, it was located on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Ephesus was a center for magic and the site of the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). This distinction will come into play later in Paul’s visit to Ephesus. The city was established as capital of western Asia Minor by Augustus Caesar in 27BC. It was destroyed in 401AD, leaving only ruins of greatness. Paul remains in this metropolitan hub, preaching and working for two years. He had stopped briefly at Ephesus where he left Pricilla and Aquila saying, “I will return to you if God wills.” (Acts 18:21) Pricilla tells us what happened when he returned:

Paul, you ask me what I know of the man Paul. He is driven. I’ve never seen a man more intense and yet oddly humble. He does not tolerate foolishness, yet he is filled with a joy that you want to emulate. When Aquila and I first met him, he amazed us with his teaching of this Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead.

My husband, Aquila met him first. He was in the hide merchant’s booth in Corinth. Aquila was looking for hides and an assistant to make a large tent for a trader from Macedonia. Paul, too, knows the tentmaker trade and so my husband brought him to our home. We didn’t know very many people in Corinth since we had just arrived from Rome, so Aquila felt fortunate to meet another tentmaker who could assist with the job.

Whenever there were men in the synagogue, Paul was there, too, expounding on what he called the “Good News,” but most of them refused to listen. Aquila and I found him interesting and I even neglected my duties to sit in the doorway while Paul talked to my husband about Jesus. When he left Corinth, we went with him. I think Aquila was hoping we could eventually make our way back to Pontus where we were born. We stayed in Ephesus when Paul left for Caesarea and Syrian Antioch.

Paul promised to return to Ephesus when he left. I saw him looking at the immense and impressive Temple of Artemis with a mixture of sorrow and disgust. “They do not understand what to worship,” he sighed. It was not long before we received a message from the man saying he was leaving Antioch to journey overland to Ephesus, visiting cities he previously preached in.

“It doesn’t matter how often his message is rejected,” I mused to Aquila, “Paul continues to share his love of the Lord.”

“He knows God is with him,” my husband nodded. “I fear he will not find many converts here in Ephesus, though. The worship of the goddess is too strong.”

“There are some who know of Jesus,” I argued. “Remember Apollos taught some people.”

Aquila nodded. “There are some.”

When Paul arrived, he was enthusiastic. “The believers in Asia have not forgotten the Truth I left with them. I am glad I visited Lystra and Derbe on the way here. Tell me of your work.”

“We have not accomplished much,” Aquila confessed. “There was a Jew named Apollos of Alexandria, who came preaching Jesus and the baptism of John. He recently left for Achaia and Corinth after we explained to him the full Gospel that you taught us. He is very eloquent. There are some who listened to him, but they refuse to listen to me because I am just a tentmaker.”

Paul frowned. “Those who are called by God should never denigrate their gifts. You, too, can preach the Good News in your work.”

I sprang to my husband’s defense. “Aquila has been busy establishing a business here so that he can support us. I think that is important!”

“Pricilla, it is true a man must provide for his family. That is a noble calling, too. Some of us who have no family, can be fully focused on the work of God. I am not scolding Aquila for not preaching, but for not seeing his work as important. A man can preach God’s love in the way he does his business as well as with words.”

I was struck silent as I pondered the man’s explanation. I nodded. “Yes, I see that if a man is honest and serves God then his manner will be different than someone who does not care for God at all.”

Paul smiled. “Each of us has different gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ.”

“You must tell us more about that idea,” Aquila said. “Today I will introduce you to the leaders of the synagogue.”

“The Body of Christ,” I repeated the words over and over while watching the men walk up the street to the nearby synagogue. It was not far because we found lodging in the Jewish quarter of Ephesus.

For three months Paul preached to the Jews. There were a dozen who had learned of John’s baptism from Apollos who came to Paul. He gave them further instruction and when he laid his hands on them, I was amazed to hear them prophesy and speak in tongues. It was something I had never experienced before and it gave me chills.

“Sometimes the Spirit of God is expressed in such ways,” Paul explained later when I asked him. “It is not a gift for everyone and it is not any more special than the gift of teaching or giving or leadership.”

After three months, Paul became tired of the stubbornness of the Jews. Some Greek friends found him a place to teach. It was in one of the Greek schools. Paul used the space in the afternoon when the students of Tyrannus were gone. Many lingered to hear Paul, though, and were converted.

The people in Ephesus were amazed by some of the things Paul did. Even Aquila and I were. He had never shown such power in Corinth. Sick people were healed by the touch of his hand and more surprisingly by the touch of cloths he prayed over.

I had to laugh when I heard what happened to the sons of Sceva who tried to cast out an evil spirit by using Paul’s name. “Jesus I know and Pual I know, but who are you?” the spirit was reported to have said. Of course it wasn’t funny that the possessed man beat the priest's sons.

Paul shook his head when he heard the story. “I am amazed that people think they can harness the power of God. Healing does not come from me, but from God working through me. Good has come of this incident, though. Many people are interested in hearing about Jesus and will become believers.”

Not long afterward, Paul told us, “I want to return to Macedonia and Achaia to visit the churches there. I also want to go to Jerusalem. It has been a long time since I have seen the city of David.”

“You have taught us so much. Please stay for a little longer,” I begged.

He agreed and sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia instead. Soon, though, it became apparent that Paul would have to leave for his own safety. The silversmiths of Ephesus were incited by Demetrius to make false accusations against Paul and the rest of the Believers.

(Ephesus was center of the worship of Artemis (Roman Diana, goddess of the the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and young girls, bringing and relieving disease in women;). This picture is an artist’s rendition of what the temple and surrounding area might have looked like.)

We Believers had never said anything against the Temple and worship of Artemis, but Demetrius told everyone that would listen that Paul was ruining the silversmith’s business. “There is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the Temple of the great goddess Artemis may count for nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship!”

His words started a riot and if it hadn’t been for the clerk of Ephesus, the whole town would have erupted into disarray.”

Paul decided that he had to leave before Demetrius and others in the city caused more trouble. We watched him sail for Macedonia with heavy hearts. Just before Passover, we heard that he was on his way back to Asia. Then we heard he arrived at Troas after the Feast. When he landed in Miletus, he sent word for Aquila and the other leaders in Ephesus to meet him. I was relieved to see that Paul looked well and was delighted to learn that a physician had joined his followers. Sometimes he was troubled by terrible headaches and I had worried that there would be no one to give him herbs for the pain.

What he said at Miletus broke my heart. It was a lovely farewell speech, even though he warned us of troubles to come and told us that imprisonment was coming for him.

When we turned homeward from the dock at Miletus after praying with Paul, I knew I would never see him again. I repeated some of his final words. “I comment you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

In the Western world today we are not accustomed to dramatic actions by the Holy Spirit such as Paul performed. Healings, prophecy, or speaking in tongues are all listed as gifts of the Spirit, but, too often, we gloss over them as something that ‘used to happen.’ We tend to be suspicious of those who claim such powers, whether in the name of God or by themselves. God can and does still act when we allow God to work. Paul knew he was called by God to preach the Gospel. The manifestations of the Spirit he used as ways to show that God and Jesus were real and active in people’s lives.

He was also a great encourager of the churches he planted and visited them again and again when he could. His letters (the Epistles) are windows into the love and care he poured into the communities of worshippers across Asia and Greece.

We may not have all the gifts of the Spirit, but each of us has been gifted by the Spirit for the “building up of the Body.” We may not all be great church planters and missionaries, but we can be the hands, feet, face of Christ to those we meet. Ask God what you can do to further the Kingdom. He has given you the gifts you need.

Next week we will see what happens when Paul returns to Jerusalem. By the way, most Biblical scholars believe that the letters to the Corinthians were written while Paul was at Ephesus. If you read I Corinthians 16:10-20, Paul does mention Apollos, Timothy, Aquila and Pricilla!