MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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AT HIS TABLE

“This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” … Anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. [1 Corinthians 11:25b, 27-28 (NLT)]

oregon grapeIn 2009, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America became full Communion partners. This agreement, while showing respect for each other’s differences, created a relationship based on a common confession of faith and a mutual recognition of Baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. That the partnership included a mutual recognition of ordained ministers of both denominations meant that a local Methodist church could hire a soon-to-be ordained Lutheran minister. Her ordination, done by the Lutheran bishop, was held in the Methodist church she would be serving. The only sticking point for the rite was the Lutheran Bishop’s insistence that actual wine be used for Communion. Methodists have a strong temperance tradition and this church uses only grape juice. The senior Methodist pastor managed to find an excellent compromise when he obtained a non-alcoholic wine that satisfied both Methodist and Lutheran sensibilities; the ordination went off without a hitch.

A week later, Lutheran and Methodist clergy from around the state attended an ecumenical service to celebrate their new partnership. After numerous speeches and prayers about Christian unity, the service culminated in Communion. There were, however, two cups of purple liquid on opposite sides of the sanctuary. The Methodists were instructed to go left to dip their wafers in grape juice while the Lutherans were directed to the right for the wine! Surely, with all of the great minds who’d put together the celebratory service of unanimity, a better solution (such as non-alcoholic wine) could have been found. Sadly, it wasn’t! The pastor who shared this story still shakes his head at the absurdity of it.

How silly are we? When we come to the Lord’s Table, we don’t come as individuals—as Bob, Mary, Marty, or Deb—nor do we come as Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, or Baptists. We come as brothers and sisters—members of Jesus’s family—members of the body of Christ. Communion is a sign of Christian unity and, in the early church, it was part of a communal dinner—a 1st century version of a potluck supper.

Potlucks, shared meals, covered dish dinners—whatever your church calls them—they’re pretty much the same across the denominations: at least one macaroni casserole, something made with gelatin, deviled eggs, and more desserts than vegetables. Meeting as friends and putting aside our differences, the commonality at a potluck is our love of food! That same sort of unity should happen whenever we eat at the Lord’s Table where the commonality is our love of Jesus.

Transubstantiation, divine mystery, consubstantiation, receptionism, or memorialism; wine or juice; wafers, crackers, or Wonder Bread; intinction, common cup, individual cups, or sealed cups with juice and wafer; taken separately or together, in the pews or at the altar rail—the Bible is rather silent on the “correct” way to take Communion. There really are only two commands: do this in remembrance of Him and examine ourselves before we partake of His meal. He is the Bread of Life; let us always welcome others to His table and celebrate our unity in Christ.

They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. [Acts 2:46-47 (NLT)]

When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body. [Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)]

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DIFFERENT LISTS

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah. [Matthew 1:16 (NLT)]

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry. Jesus was known as the son of Joseph. Joseph was the son of Heli. [Luke 3:23 (NLT)]

nativity

Writing about the genealogy of Jesus, as I did yesterday, posed a bit of a conundrum. While both Luke and Matthew establish that Jesus is of the house of David, meaning He fulfills the Messianic prophecies, their lists don’t match. It’s not just that Matthew begins with Abraham, goes forward, mentions women, and skips a few generations while Luke starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam. Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’s ancestry to David’s son Solomon but Luke’s traces it to David’s son Nathan. They are, however, in agreement in acknowledging the virgin birth; neither genealogy states that Joseph was Jesus’s blood father. Matthew simply calls him Mary’s husband and Luke says that people thought Joseph to be the father of Jesus.

Nevertheless, when genealogy and all those “begats” seem so important in Scripture, what explanation is there for such discrepancies? Most biblical scholars theorize that we are given two different but accurate lines of ancestors. Some say Matthew gives Jesus’s official (paternal) one through his legal father Joseph and Luke gives us His actual (maternal) one through his mother Mary. After all, Joseph was Jesus’s father in name only. While giving a mother’s lineage was unusual, so was a virgin birth! Since there was no Greek word for “son-in-law,” they suggest Joseph was the “son” of Heli through his marriage to Mary who was Heli’s daughter. That both Joseph and Mary could trace their lineage to David is not so unusual; apparently, it was customary (but not required) to marry within your tribe. Since there is no mention of Mary having brothers, she could inherit from her father if she married within her tribe. Some scholars propose this was the case and that Joseph became Heli’s heir by virtue of his marriage to Mary and, therefore, he actually had two genealogies.

On the other hand, I read several articles positing that Luke’s genealogy actually is that of Joseph and Matthew’s is Mary’s! Some scholars believe “the husband of Mary” is a mistranslation of the word aner and should read that a man named Joseph was “the father of Mary.” Giving support to this argument is that, along with mentioning Mary, Matthew also mentions four other women while, in his genealogy, Luke never even mentions her.

Over 2,000 years ago, they didn’t have Ancestry.com or 23andMe kits and we have neither Matthew nor Luke to explain. As a result, even the most knowledgeable biblical scholars merely can speculate about these two lists. As a layperson, I simply ask myself whether small inconsistencies or unanswered questions in the gospels make a difference to me. Whether one or both lists are accurate does not weigh heavily on my belief. Remembering the phrase that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” I don’t base my faith equally on the exactness of every word in the Bible but rather on the truth of the sum of its words and the importance of their message. I firmly believe that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies and was from David’s line; whether he did that through Nathan or Solomon really doesn’t matter. What matters is that “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” [Luke 19:10]

“For the time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. [Jeremiah 23:5 (NLT)]

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. [Luke 1:31-32 (NLT)]

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THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. [Luke 2:6-7 (NLT)]

red roseIn honor of that first Christmas, the one without decorations, piles of gaily wrapped presents or a feast, let’s try to keep it simple today and tomorrow. It’s not too late to change our plans and readjust our expectations. I’m sure Joseph and Mary didn’t plan on birthing in a stable, but their Christmas was a blessed one even though life didn’t go as they’d intended. Accept in advance that some things are certain to go wrong: guests won’t arrive on time, a gift will disappoint, food will burn, a drink will spill, toys will break, tears will be shed, directions will get thrown away, someone’s feelings will be hurt, and we’ll miss those who are absent. That’s as much a part of this holiday as church, carols, family, prayers, candy canes, laughter, a Christmas tree, and pine-scented candles.

We’re all anxious about Christmas. No one, however, was more anxious than Mary on that first Christmas. She had plenty of reasons to be apprehensive and nervous. She’d conceived miraculously, endured an eighty-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and was in labor in a strange place with no women nearby to reassure or help her. There were no prenatal classes, birthing coaches, monitors, epidurals, fancy birthing rooms, comfy pillows, soft music in the background, warmed blankets, or medical care. Without a doubt, with the sheep and cows as her midwives, she was a frightened young girl. Yet, somehow, through God’s grace, she managed quite well. She had the simplest and most meaningful Christmas celebration ever! Things may not have gone right but they went perfectly—just as God planned!

Thank you, Lord, for the salvation brought to us by a baby in a manger. Tonight, as we celebrate Christ’s birth, please replace our apprehension with anticipation, our anxiety with hope, our chaos with peace, and our stress with serenity. Let there be joy, not sorrow; generosity, not selfishness; and love, not rancor.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God, From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load. [“Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” (Friedrich Layritz)]

All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. [2 Luke 2:18 (NLT)]

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NICODEMUS

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NLT)]

impatiens flowerWhen we think of the Pharisees, we usually think of their hypocrisy and self-righteousness but they started out with good motives. Like us, they simply wanted to avoid sin. I have no doubt that some were well meaning, with high standards and pure motives. Since Jesus was teaching in the Temple, it was only right that these interpreters of the law would want to examine His teachings.

The Pharisee Nicodemus came to visit Jesus one night. Since Jesus seemed to spend his days surrounded by a crowd, the dark of night may have been the only time the Pharisee could meet one-on-one with the rabbi. On the other hand, perhaps he was afraid that others might see him talking to this teacher who challenged the behavior and beliefs of his sect. Nicodemus may have come as a seeker of truth or, possibly, as a spy who was hoping to catch Jesus in some sort of blasphemy. We don’t know his motives, only his questions, the most famous of which was, “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

When Jesus speaks of being born of water and the Spirit, this concept should not have been new to a scholar like Nicodemus. Jesus probably was referencing the above words found in Ezekiel 36 and the Pharisee should have been familiar with them. Yet, the man did not seem to understand that the Messiah would bring spiritual cleansing and a new heart—a new nature—to the people. I can imagine Jesus’s frustration as He rebuked the scholar for not recognizing that Scripture taught the necessity of a new birth by the Spirit. Their conversation ends with Jesus speaking of God’s light and people preferring darkness to light. Still not understanding, Nicodemus leaves in the darkness both of night and of spirit.

The next time we hear of Nicodemus, he’s in a meeting with the Sanhedrin. The Temple guards had been sent to arrest Jesus but, amazed at His teachings and unable to find any cause, they come back empty-handed. As the Pharisees condemn and curse the crowd following Jesus, Nicodemus speaks up: “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” [John 7:51] Could it be that Nicodemus reread the Messianic prophecies and was beginning to understand the meaning of Jesus’s words?

The last time we meet Nicodemus, he is with Joseph of Arimathea. A member of the Sanhedrin and Nicodemus’s friend, Joseph was probably a Pharisee; yet we read that he also was a secret disciple of Jesus. It was Joseph, not the disciples, who asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’s body and it was his tomb that became the brief resting place for Christ’s body. Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe with which he and Joseph prepared the Lord’s body for burial. No longer secret believers, it would seem that both Nicodemus and Joseph moved from the darkness into the light.

The Apostle John tells us that other Jewish leaders believed in Jesus but, fearing they’d be expelled from the synagogue, they kept silent. [12:42] Are we secret believers, keeping silent in the shadows or, like Nicodemus and Joseph, Peter and John, will we boldly proclaim our faith?

So they [the high council] called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” … Then they preached the word of God with boldness. [Acts 4:18-19,31b (NLT)]

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