Sunday, December 24, 2023

"Magnify" - A reflection on Mary, mother of Jesus

There seems a common theme in the Bible that whenever God really wants to break into human affairs with something really, truly new, God goes to women to do it.

Not every time, of course. Women do not figure prominently in Moses’ story, for example. True, his mother successfully protected Moses from Pharaoh’s soldiers, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him, and Moses’ sister arranged for their mother to be hired by Pharaoh’s daughter – all important roles, but narratively not front and center. 

Even so, the history of the Jews was replete with instances of God’s advent coming through women. Consider Sarah, long-suffering wife of the original patriarch, Abraham. She reached the end of her ninth decade childless. God had long before given Abraham the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, but Abraham, the old coot, gave up on Sarah when she was a mere seventy-five and sired a son by a slave girl, Hagar. 

God didn’t let Abraham get away with that. When Sarah was ninety, she gave birth to Isaac, the only son Abraham and Sarah would have. Isaac carried forth God’s covenant promise. Isaac married Rebekah, and they also were childless until their old age, when they conceived twins, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob would be renamed by God as Israel. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Luke's Gospel relates that Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph, was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her that she had been selected by God to bear the Son of God into human birth. Joseph was not consulted about this but later learned the truth, that as Gabriel had told Mary, she would be with child by the Holy Spirit. 

After Mary became pregnant, she went to her relative. Elizabeth, and upon greeting her, burst into a canticle of praise that has endured through time as Mary's Magnificat.  

For centuries Christians have remarked on how much Mary’s Magnificat resembles Hannah’s song of praise, related in First Samuel. Hannah was married to Elkanah, a Levite and a priest. For many years Hannah was childless. Hannah spent her years in tears and bitter disappointment. Finally Hannah reached the end of her rope. She prayed near the temple, in her day a rough building of wood, for Hannah lived a long time before King David, who built the first grand Temple. 

Hannah prayed, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life... ."

The prophet Eli happened to be sitting in a chair nearby and saw her utter the words but did not hear her voice. He thought she was drunk and told her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."

Like Zechariah (Elizabeth's husband), like Joseph, like Abraham, Eli just didn’t get it. Hannah explained what she was doing, and then Eli gave her his blessing. 

Hannah did give birth to a son, Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli so he would be brought up exclusively in the service of the Lord, as Hannah had promised. Samuel led the people against the Philistines, selected Saul as the first king of Israel and anointed David as Saul’s successor. Pretty important guy in the history of the Jews!

From the beginning, the Jews and Christians have understood that God’s will is worked out in history, and that means through the lives and deeds of men and women. Only rarely do acts of nature figure in the working of God’s will. It is what people do that counts, and when God wants to bring something new in human society, he brings forth a baby. And that means God turns to women.

The ancient Jews were just as aware as we how babies are made, but the Jews always credited new births as gifts from God. God’s promise to Abraham pervaded their understanding of what new birth meant. They understood that all new births were accomplished because of the providence of God. The repeating theme of remarkable births "suggests that the people of God come into existence and are sustained in their existence [only] by the grace of God,” not by their own efforts (Marcus Borg). 

There is another facet of the Bible’s remarkable births that is central. It was summed up in what Martin Luther said. The greatest miracle of Mary’s story was not that she conceived, but that she believed. It is her faith which is a model for us. First and foremost, Advent is about faith, to be open-hearted and open minded enough to be like Mary in accepting the gift of grace in God’s own son. 

Among other titles, Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace. I was out Christmas shopping the other day and it struck me that it seems odd that the time of celebration of the Advent of the Prince of Peace is perhaps the most frenzied, harried, un-peaceful times of the year. I started watching other shoppers and noticed that no one was smiling. They were shopping with all the grim determination of soldiers moving toward the battle line. 


Peace has multiple definitions. Jesus said, "Peace I give to you." In this day we certainly pray for the absence of war that is peace. But there can be, and should be, spiritual peace, a wellness of soul even during times of conflict or simple frenzy. One of the most important ways we can find that kind of peace is to do what Jesus taught, to live for a greater cause than ourselves. 

I have a thought experiment for you. Try to imagine next Christmas. Not this Christmas because it’s so close. Think about Christmas 2024. Now imagine that everything you love about Christmas will be just like you want it to be, except for one thing. You are not going to give any presents to anyone. You won’t be sick and so unable to do so. You just won’t give presents. You’ll still go to your family’s big Christmas gathering and everyone will give each other presents, including giving to you. But you will give nothing to others. All you will do is receive gifts from them.

Does the idea appeal? Would you want to spend a Christmas like that? Even a three-year-old wants to give presents at Christmas. It is not the getting that gives joy and satisfaction at Christmas, it is the giving. That’s why we so often have a hard time answering others’ question of what we want for Christmas, and so insistently ask it of others. In our hearts, we know that what we want to get is always much less important than what we need to give. 

At Christmastime, and no other, does our culture widespread focus on giving. That’s a good thing. The joy and peace of Christmas is found in giving. But Christ’s promise is that we may find peace in all times and all circumstances if we give not just our things to others, but our very selves to the One who is ultimate. 

So if Christmas is to be a time of wellness of soul, our giving must be of more than our stuff. The first gift was Emmanuel, "God With Us." And the first Christmas gifts were not the gold, frankincense or myrrh the three magi brought. It was the devotion of the shepherds who brought no presents neatly wrapped. They brought and gave only their hearts and praise. 

What shall you give for Christmas? Yes, give things to one another, but most of all give your love as well. To our Lord, give not only your love but also your life. And you shall have peace, and your soul shall magnify the Lord and your spirit shall rejoice in God your Savior.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

What is the meaning of Christmas?

During the last week of September, Cathy and I were shopping in a Lowes where we saw that the store was already putting up Christmas displays. (Thankfully, as a society we have apparently have moved beyond calling them, “holiday displays.)

I don’t think I have ever seen Christmas displays go up so early. But as we all know, the Christmas season is the major revenue season for almost every business. With the economy as it is, I suppose that businesses want the shopping season the begin as early as possible.

Have you ever wanted to get a “jump” on Christmas? Do you remember being a child and thinking that Christmas Day would just never get here?

December 25 was identified as Jesus's birthday very early by a Carthaginian scholar named Tertullian. His reasons for that date carry no weight today, based as they were on Jewish legendary traditions that important martyrs died on the same day of the same month that they were conceived. Since the Gospel of John dated Jesus's crucifixion on March 25, ergo, his conception was the same day, hence his birth was nine months later on Dec. 25. This dating was, by the way, 75 tears before the Romans started celebrating Saturnalia or any other pagan holiday near the date. 

Even so, Christmas Day as we think of it was not much celebrated by the early church. Easter was (and remains) the foremost Christian holy day. And despite Tertullian's calculations, Jesus was almost certainly not born in December since shepherds would not have been in the fields with their flocks in that month. (The Eastern Church and the Coptics celebrate Christmas on different days than we do.)

The most important thing about Christmas is not when it is, but what it is and what it means.

Christmas means “Immanuel,” God With Us. This is a name ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. When we affirm our faith that the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger was God in the flesh, then we easily see why Jesus is truly God With Us. This is Good News, indeed!

And yet we should not rush too quickly, like the shepherds, to the manger. For while the Gospel is Good News, it is good only because of the bad news that preceded it.

Jesus came to deliver us from our bondage to sin and death. That’s Good News! But the bad news is that we needed saving to begin with. Unless we confront the gravity of the human condition into which we are born we do not grasp the life ring God casts to us in the person and work of Christ.

That is why, in the traditional Bible passages for the weeks leading to Christmas Day, getting ready for Christmas is not the point. The point of the season is to prepare for the coming of Christ, the Son of God, not to get ready for a religious holiday. The passages of Advent present the imminent presence of God in the flesh as both awful (that is, “awe-full,” not bad) and wonderful.

"For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," promised the Scriptures, and the glory of God can hardly be beheld impassively. One either runs to embrace the Lord or runs from him. Neutrality is not even possible.
 
So the passages for Advent typically include reminders that, absent God’s gracing presence, we mortals are lost in our sins. We are reminded that, “Christ has come, Christ will come again.” And his next advent will not be so innocently or unthreateningly accomplished.

Yet Advent also shows that by being born the baby in the manger God was not going on the offensive against us. He joins us as our ally. In fact, God’s kingly, overwhelming power is found there literally to be defenseless, so much so that Joseph and Mary had to flee the town to save Jesus’ life.

Is there power in such weakness? No, not in weakness per se. Jesus’ Godly power, or our own, is found neither in human weakness nor in strength, but in faithfulness. It is God who is strong, not we mortals. Compared to God’s strength, human weakness is inevitable but it is also inconsequential. God knows this, so he did not shrink from being born of woman, just as we are, nor from enduring the travails of human life in all its triumphs and disappointments, its joys and frustrations.

And at the end, death on a cross. But death could not hold Jesus because God is stronger than death.

Manger scenes became a popular artistic motif during the Renaissance. In almost all such paintings, the artists included the cross somewhere in the scenery. Sometimes it was on the horizon outside the manger. One artist, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), painted a cross on a shelf on the manger’s wall, such as many homes would have had (left, click image for larger view).

Let us take a cue from those theologically-trained artists. They knew the connection between the manger and Calvary. So did Jesus. As his last trip to Jerusalem loomed, knowing what it portended, Jesus told the disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27).

What is the meaning of Christmas? The meaning of Christmas is the cross.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Pearl Harbor Horror and Grace-Filled Reconciliation

Four months after the Japanese navy wreaked massive destruction and loss of life by bombing Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Doolittle led sixteen small bombers on the first bombing mission against Japan. The bombardier on the sixteenth plane was Jacob DeShazer. He released by plane's bombs on Nagoya and the plane flew on to China, where they were captured by the Japanese. They were tortured mercilessly. They contracted dysentery and beriberi because of the deplorable conditions under which they were confined. Three of the crew were executed in October.

The other five men suffered a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. One died. A year later the four survivors began to receive a slight improvement in their treatment. The Japanese gave them a single copy of the Bible, which DeShazer had never read. DeShazer waited six months to have his turn to read it. He read it cover to cover more than a dozen times. DeShazer credited his survival to accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ from that lone Bible.

In 1948, DeShazer was sent back to Japan to testify in war crimes trials of his captors. He stayed for thirty years, preaching the Gospel around Japan. He established a church in Nagoya, the city he had bombed. 

One man who learned of DeShazer’s witnessing was named Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida had converted to Christianity in 1949 and met DeShazer the next year. Fuchida became an evangelist, preaching in Japan and over much of the world. He lived a few years in the United States before retiring in Japan.

Do you recognize the name, Mitsuo Fuchida? On December 7, 1941, he had commanded the air armada that attacked Pearl Harbor. In 1952, after becoming an evangelist, he said in an interview, “Christianity has opened my eyes, and I hope through Christ to help young people of Japan” to learn to love their former enemy, America. Speaking in 1959 at Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, he said that after the war he had observed American missionaries in Tokyo feeding the starving and teaching the “ways of Christ.” Such forgiveness, he said, made him want to know more of the Christ “they professed to love.” One of his talks was called “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary – My Testimony.” 

Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer

Mitsuo Fuchida, who had bombed Pearl Harbor, died in 1976. The man who had bombed Nagoya, tortured POW Jacob DeShazer, conducted his funeral in Japan.

In October 1999, some American and Japanese veterans of the battle of Pearl Harbor went to Kyushu, where is the port from which the Japanese fleet had sailed to make the attack. The site is now a peace park. These men, once mortal enemies, gathered to plant cherry trees in honor of their reconciliation. Richard Fiske, who survived the sinking of USS West Virginia, said that as the trees grow, they hoped children would understand what the trees and the park represented, “because,” he said, “if we don’t tell our little ones, our future is none. We give ourselves to them. They carry the future.”

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we come before you as part of your global family, thankful for your generous love and abundant blessings. May we honor your holy name by living up to the inheritance of your salvation, as we bear the name of your son, Jesus Christ our savior, with passion for his work of reconciliation of all the world. 

May your vision of peace and justice be realized and enacted among nations finally at rest from war, among families at peace with each other, and hearts that find their rest in you. Lead us to that day when every tear is dried, every life is fulfilled and the law of love is written on our hearts.

We thank you, Lord, for the lives of all those whose sacrifices have made our freedom possible. We beg your grace for our country and your wisdom to guide each of our citizens. Let us not squander the freedom we have been given by those who died to preserve it. 

Remove from human beings the arrogance of power, our trust in anger, our reliance on weapons, and our love of violence. Chasten us with humility and strengthen our trust in you. Make us agents of your peace in all places. Amen.


Jesus is served

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