FACING THE MUSIC (Philemon)

Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:18 (NLT)]

swamp milkweedPhilemon was a wealthy member and leader of the church in Colossae and Onesimus was his slave. Apparently after stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away and ended up in Rome. After finding his way to the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time, Onesimus became a Christian. The one page book of Philemon is simply a personal letter to the runaway slave’s owner pleading the man’s case.

Although Onesimus had become a new man in Christ, both he and Paul knew that, before the runaway slave could begin his new life as a Christian, he had to finish his old one with Philemon. As a fugitive slave, he’d always be looking over his shoulder wondering if and when he might be caught. He wouldn’t even be at liberty to openly share his new faith or be active in the church for fear that Philemon would learn of his whereabouts. Paul sent the remorseful slave back to Philemon with a letter asking his forgiveness and offering to make any financial restitution necessary.

I can’t help but think of steps eight and nine in many twelve step programs. Step eight is to make a list of the people who have been harmed and be willing to make amends and step nine is to make direct amends wherever possible, except when doing so would harm them or others. Making amends is a delicate process; sometimes it can be done directly, such as repaying a debt or making a repair. Sometimes, however, direct amends are impossible; neither lost lives nor stolen innocence can ever be returned. Moreover, there are times direct amends are unwise—some secrets are meant to be kept and one’s conscience should never be cleared at the expense of others. When direct amends can’t be made, then indirect amends are. Nevertheless, in all cases, part of making amends is facing the consequences for our behavior. The consequences facing Onesimus were serious: a thieving runaway slave could have been killed. Nevertheless, trusting in God (and Paul’s letter), Onesimus returned to Philemon to “face the music” and make amends. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy choice for him.

Onesimus’ story reminds me of news stories I’ve seen over the years of individuals who failed to resolve their past before starting new lives. Perhaps they arrived here illegally, evaded arrest, jumped bail, escaped jail, or remarried without benefit of divorce and managed to go undiscovered for many years. In some cases, they became productive citizens and may have married and had families. Then, through a routine traffic stop, a picture posted on line, or a chance meeting, their lives come tumbling down around them. Their past is discovered and they end up deported, in legal difficulties, or even in prison.

Unfinished business can plague us all; not living in the past doesn’t mean ignoring it. When we don’t deal with yesterday’s unresolved issues, the past can end up defining us. Without returning to Philemon, in spite of his new found faith, Onesimus would always be a runaway slave. We’re not runaway slaves but could we be slaves to the past? Are there problems we have escaped but not really resolved? Are there any loose ends that need tying up or amends to be made? Are there people we need to face or issues that need to be sorted out before we can truly be free of yesterday? We will continue to be troubled by the past until we face it; only then will we be able to live our new lives as free men and women.

Make peace with your past so it doesn’t screw up the present. [From “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett]

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

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THE CROWN OF MARTYRDOM

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. [1 Corinthians 13:3 (MSG)]

yellow-crowned night heronWe all know drama queens (and kings) who don the crown of martyrdom. On occasion, we even may have worn that crown ourselves. Along with the crown, we put on a robe of selfishness and self-righteousness. Dressed for the part, we see outer circumstance only in the light of how they negatively affect our lives (ignoring how they may be affecting those around us). Rather than asking, “What can I learn from this?” we protest, “I don’t deserve this!” as if anyone else does! Forgetting that God only wants our best and there is purpose in our pain, we find our troubles the perfect excuse for resentment, complaints, bitterness, and an all-out pity party.

If anyone had the right to play the martyr; it was Jesus. He was born in a stable and slept in a feed trough! His parents couldn’t afford a proper offering at the purification ceremony and his family had to flee to Egypt for several years. Once they arrived in Nazareth, there probably were whispers among the neighbors. “That’s Jesus; he’s not really Joseph’s son, you know! That shameful Mary was already pregnant.” Jesus knew He was a king, but He didn’t live like royalty; instead, he lived and worked as an ordinary man. Rather than riding in a chariot, he walked the dusty roads. There was no bed in a palace for this Prince of Peace; he rested wherever he could lay his head. People pursued Him wanting miracles but forgot to thank Him for his healing. Angry crowds reviled Him and the religious leaders of His own town wanted to toss Him down a hill! He gave and taught, healed, blessed and loved, fully knowing where it would all end—on a cross at Calvary. He knew He would be martyred, yet he never complained; He never once said, “Pity me!” Brutally beaten and humiliated, Jesus wore his crown of thorns without complaint. Then, instead of being angry about His torture on the cross, He lovingly asked God’s forgiveness for those who were killing Him.

A few years later, Stephen, who is believed to be the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’s example when, as the rocks rained down on him, he used his last few breaths to pray for his slayers’ forgiveness. Jesus and Stephen were real martyrs and no anguish we endure will equal theirs. Yet, rather than the crown of martyrdom, they wore the crown of love and forgiveness!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. … Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. [James 1:1,12 (MSG)]

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FAITH AND OBEDIENCE

Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock. [Isaiah 12:4 (NLT)]

wild geraniumAbraham and Sarah waited twenty-five years for their promised son, Isaac, but then God demands that Abraham sacrifice his long-awaited child as a burnt offering. Abraham takes Isaac off to the mountain and to what he believes is his son’s death. Abraham’s knife is drawn and he’s ready to kill Isaac when God intervenes. After an angel tells him not to lay a hand on his son, Abraham looks up to see a ram caught in the brush. With God’s blessing, he sacrifices it in place of Isaac.

This story is troubling and we wonder at God’s purpose in making such a horrifying demand and then retracting it. Does God play cruel pranks on people? While it certainly shows that God will not tolerate the sacrifice of children, that seems a thoughtless and brutal way to make such a point. The torment that Abraham must have suffered thinking he had to kill his own son is unimaginable. This story, however, is not about sacrifice and cruelty; it is about obedience and faith. It is about the fact that God demands our absolute obedience and our complete and unwavering faith.

Abraham truly didn’t know what was going to happen on the mountain, but he did as he was told. He had an unquestioning faith in God, a God who knows and does what is best. If Abraham had known that God wouldn’t allow Isaac’s death, he would simply have been obedient to God as he prepared the altar and placed the wood on it. But, when Abraham tied his son’s hands, laid him on the altar and brought the knife blade to his throat, he didn’t know that God would intervene; that was both obedience and faith!

If the widow had dropped her last two coins into the collection box knowing she’d get two more the following week, if Mary had known for sure that Joseph wouldn’t abandon her, if Daniel had been sure the lion’s mouths would remain closed, or if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had known they wouldn’t be incinerated in the furnace, they would simply have been obedient to God when they submitted to His will. Instead, like Abraham, they showed faith even though they didn’t know how their stories would finish. They didn’t ignore the difficult circumstances; they simply knew that God is bigger than any circumstance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It‘s merely obedience when we can see all the way to the end of the stairs. Faith doesn’t know the outcome; faith is obedience even when we don’t know where the staircase leads or how long and steep it is.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. [Saint Augustine]

Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. [James 2:21-23 (NLT)]

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A MATTER OF CHOICE

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

great blue heronYesterday, when writing about the angel’s visit to Mary, I came upon some articles by women who take offense at the story of Jesus’s conception. Interpreting Mary’s response as involuntary, they picture the Annunciation of our Lord as some weird sort of a supernatural rape. This is inconsistent both with Scripture and God as we know Him. The angel didn’t say, “Surprise, you’re pregnant!” and leave. Read the words as reported by Luke; Gabriel told Mary what would happen, not what had already occurred. It was only after Mary asked how the angel’s words would be fulfilled and she accepted God’s invitation to motherhood that the angel departed.

The God we know from Scripture is one of choice: it was He who gave us free will. Although God pursues, seeks and invites us, it remains our choice to accept or reject Him. Jesus called the people to follow Him but not everyone who heard His invitation did. When the people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave, that’s exactly what He did. When Jesus told the parables about banquets to which the invited guests refused to come, the host accepted their refusals and simply invited others to the feast. God gave us free will and He will not violate this gift. No one, not even the virgin Mary, is ever forced to partake of God’s grace.

Although some would have us think that Mary was powerless in Gabriel’s presence, she was the one with the power. It was Mary who would decide whether or not to accept God’s call. Writer Mark Ballenger refers to God as a “sovereign gentleman,” and, like a true gentleman, He waited for Mary’s verbal consent before the Holy Spirit came upon her!

When feminists object to Mary saying she was the Lord’s servant, they are confusing being servile (mindlessly doing what is ordered) with consciously choosing to serve. There is nothing demeaning or weak about being a servant. Jesus was God and yet he called himself a servant and laid aside his majesty to selflessly serve mankind and die on the cross.

Mary was far more than an incubator for God. We honor her not because she had the womb in which Jesus grew; we honor her because she freely chose to be a faithful and obedient servant to God. God could not have carried out His plan of salvation without Mary’s consent and cooperation. Let us remember that God cannot continue to carry out the plans for His Kingdom without ours. Like Mary, we are called to be God’s servants. Whether or not we accept His invitation, is entirely up to us.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. [John 12:25-26 (NLT)]

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MARCH 25 – HAPPY NEW YEAR

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

spiderwortIf we were living in England between 1155 and 1752, today would be New Year’s Day! Although the historical year would have begun January 1, March 25 was the day the civil or legal year began. Since England and its colonies used the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) they celebrated the spring equinox on March 25. Starting a new year in the dead of winter seemed counter-intuitive and the first day of spring, the season of new growth, seemed more logical and the perfect day to start a new year. The Julian calendar, however, had miscalculations (including the spring equinox) and was replaced in 1752 by the Gregorian one (named after Pope Gregory); that, however, is another story.

For those in liturgical churches, today is also known as the Annunciation of our Lord and commemorates the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. This feast was celebrated as far back as the fourth or fifth century and its March date was set in the seventh century. For the English, celebrating Christ’s first presence as a human being on this day was another good reason for starting the year on March 25.

The story of Jesus didn’t begin in Bethlehem; it began in Nazareth nine months prior to that night. It was when Mary became pregnant that God became incarnate: a human being made of flesh and blood. Granted, He was but two cells fused together but that zygote had everything in it to become Jesus Christ. It divided again and again, the embryo grew, the cells began to differentiate, and the fetus developed everything needed to live outside His mother. Since sin-filled man was incapable of going to God, our perfect God came to us. That baby boy forming in Mary’s womb was the promised Messiah!

While Jesus’s incarnation is the core of our Christianity, it is difficult to understand and, for some people, impossible to believe. Nevertheless, the God who spoke the world into creation, created night and day, scattered the stars through the sky, filled the oceans with water, and populated the earth with living plants and animals could certainly manage to plant a fetus in a womb without going through the ordinary steps. When Mary assented to God’s will, Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Of course, since we really don’t know when Jesus’s birth took place, we don’t know the date of His conception. Nevertheless, having grown up in a liturgical church, I find a richness and strength in remembering and celebrating events in the life of Christ (even if the dates are wrong). While Advent is a beautiful season of anticipation both of Christ’s birth and his second coming, Luke’s gospel account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary seems more appropriate in this spring season of new beginnings than in winter, a time of dormancy. On what I hope to be a beautiful spring day for you, please take the time to read the account of this blessed miracle found in Luke 1:28-36. Remember to thank God for entering the world as man to save humanity.

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Then Jesus said to them [Cleophas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus], “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27 (NLT)]

giant swallowtailWhile cleaning out the bookshelves recently, I came across one of my children’s favorite books: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? A small drawing of Lowly Worm, an earthworm wearing a Tyrolean hat, red bow tie, and one shoe on the end of his tail, is hidden somewhere on every page of the book and I immediately started searching for him. I hope you don’t think it sacrilegious, but thinking of Lowly Worm, a character who silently makes his presence known throughout Scarry’s books, made me think of Jesus and how He’s quietly present in all of Scripture.

Unlike Lowly Worm, Jesus isn’t an imaginary character hiding on the pages of a children’s book; He’s the living breathing Messiah and we find evidence of Him throughout the Old Testament. Although most people’s lives are chronicled after they’re born, Jesus’s story began long before the night He appeared in Bethlehem. As part of our Triune God, He was there at the beginning of time. When Jesus told the religious scholars, “Before Abraham was, I am,” [John 8:58] He echoed God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am.” [Exodus 3:4]

While it’s not difficult to spot Lowly Worm on the pages of Scarry’s books, it’s harder to spot Jesus in the Old Testament, especially if we haven’t met Him in the New. Psalm 77, for example, tells of a God who makes the water afraid and who can make a path through the waters while Job mentions a God who can trample the seas. Both references sound a lot like Jesus walking on water and stilling the Sea of Galilee. Micah says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Isaiah states that a virgin would conceive Him. If we didn’t know about Jesus, however, we wouldn’t recognize Him in those words. Genesis and Numbers say He will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah and the star mentioned in the Numbers’ prophecy is probably what brought the Magi to Judah in search of Jesus. Jeremiah tells us that the Messiah will be from the lineage of David, Malachi that He will be preceded by a forerunner, Zechariah that the Messiah will appear riding a donkey and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, and Psalms that lots will be cast for His clothing, His hands and feet will be pierced, and His bones would not be broken. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can find Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the descriptions of God and in the more than 300 prophecies He fulfilled.

We also can spot Jesus in the Old Testament’s words that are repeated by Him in the New. In Deuteronomy, for example, we find Jesus’s replies to Satan long before His temptation in the wilderness. We find the two greatest commandments in all four gospels but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We catch glimpses of the Beatitudes’ words in books like Proverbs, with its promise that the lowly in spirit (humble) will obtain honor; Isaiah, with the promise to comfort those who mourn; and Psalms, with the promise that the one with clean hands and a pure heart will ascend the hill of the Lord. Jesus wasn’t just a great Torah scholar repeating someone else’s words. Those words were God-breathed and He was the original author!

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of the Old and New Testaments as two different unrelated books: pre-Jesus and post-Jesus. Jesus is present throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. But, like the pictures of Lowly Worm, sometimes we have to search for Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” [John 5:39-40,47 (ESV)]

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