CANDLEMAS

Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel! [Luke 2:29-32 (NLT)]

You may have celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (or Purification of Mary) at church yesterday. Also known as Candlemas, this day commemorates an incident found in Luke 2 when, forty days after the birth of Jesus, three important events occurred: the ceremonial purification of Mary, Joseph and Mary’s dedication of their firstborn son to God, and Jesus’ first entrance into the Temple. It was then that Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus as the Messiah for whom they’d patiently waited. The association of candles with this event in Jesus’ life is understandable; upon seeing Jesus, Simeon declared him to be the light that would reveal God to the nations. Traditionally, a candle-lit procession preceded the Mass and all of the candles that would be used in the church that year were blessed. Candlemas night, people would place lit candles in their windows.

Although seven major festivals were ordained by God in the Old Testament, none were ordained in the New and nothing in Scripture requires the observance of any of our traditional Christian holy days. Although the liturgical year is not God-ordained, it does follow major events in the life of Jesus as told in the Gospels. Christ’s resurrection was observed in the second century and His birth may have been celebrated as early as AD 336. As for Candlemas, a sermon about the importance of this date goes back to AD 312 and the earliest rites to AD 381! Initially, a small celebration, Candlemas became one of the twelve major feast days throughout Europe after prayer and fasting stopped a plague in Constantinople in AD 541.

Because God never ordained the celebration of any of the events in Jesus’ life, some Christians, in strict obedience to the command to neither add nor subtract from God’s Word, do not observe any of the usual Christian holy days such as Christmas or Easter. Others object to their celebration because so many of them have pagan roots or are associated with superstition. For example, coming half-way between the winter solstice and spring equinox, Candlemas coincided with the Gaelic festival of Imbolc and people believed that the weather this day predicted the climate for the rest of the winter (an early Groundhog Day).

Most evangelical Protestants do not observe Candlemas while most Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox churches do. Should Christians observe Candlemas, days like Christmas or Easter, or seasons like Advent, Epiphany or Lent? As long as we don’t add superstitions or non-Scripture based significance to them, there seems no harm in remembering the day Jesus was born, the Magi’s visit, His forty days in the wilderness, the resurrection or the day the Jesus visited the Temple and was recognized as the light of the world. May this day serve as a reminder of the darkness that existed on earth until Jesus brought His light into it. Let His light shine within each one of us!

Our bright shining candles are a sign of divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. [Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (AD 638)]

I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. [John 12:46 (NLT)]

Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. [Philippians 2:14b (NLT)]

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POINTING

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’” [John 1:29-30 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkA red-shouldered hawk soared through the sky, swooped down, and settled in a tree just a few feet from us. After getting a photo, I walked back to a man we’d passed earlier on the boardwalk. His tripod and huge lens told me he was hoping to get some good shots and I let him know a Kodak moment was waiting on the side trail. He followed me back and my husband pointed out the impressive bird perched above him.

Later, we came upon one of the sanctuary’s naturalists who admitted she’d been waiting for someone to come along so she could point out a limpkin. With its dark brown body and white speckles, the bird blended into the underbrush and we never would have seen him without her direction. Then, opening a small jar of pond water she’d collected, she pointed out two dragonfly nymphs swimming around. Walking on, my husband pointed out an anhinga high in the trees and I returned the favor when I spotted a black-crowned night heron across the lake. Seeing the naturalist coming toward us, I waited so I could show her the easily missed bird.

When people come to the bird sanctuary, they come to see the swamp’s flora and fauna. But, if they don’t know where to look, it’s easy to miss the things that make the walk worthwhile. The naturalists often leave signs indicating points of interest and, when the ghost orchid is blooming, they leave a scope focused on the rare flower. Bird lovers share their findings on various bird websites and last week, after such a posting, dozens of birders turned up hoping to catch a glimpse a Hammond’s flycatcher.

John the Baptist was surrounded by a crowd of people who’d come to be baptized and hear him preach. Can you imagine what it was like when John saw Jesus and, pointing to the Lord, identified Him as the Lamb of God? Did all the heads turn and look? John’s job was to prepare the way and point the people to Jesus, the promised Messiah, and he did his job well.

While I’m happy to point out hawks, herons, swamp lilies, alligators and scarlet hibiscus to visitors at the bird sanctuary, I have another more important job that is shared with every Christian. Just as John pointed to the living Christ, we are to point to the risen Christ! But, I’m not sure pointing is enough. Had we just pointed in the hawk’s direction, the photographer might have ignored us and, if the naturalist had merely pointed toward the limpkin, we wouldn’t have seen it. It was only when she told us what to look for and described his location that we saw the bird. It seemed like her jar was filled only with murky swamp water until she showed us the nymphs and explained what they were.

When people come to the bird sanctuary, just knowing there are wood storks, herons, painted buntings, and old growth cypress isn’t the same as being shown those things. With our words, we can point people to Scripture, the church, and Jesus. Better than that, however, is showing people how the words of Scripture apply, what the church means, and how Jesus’ followers live a life of peace, joy, patience, forgiveness, love, compassion and service. It is by living the way we say we believe, by loving and serving, by praying both for and with someone, by seeking and interacting with the lost, by sharing our stories, and by listening to theirs that we truly show people the Lamb of God.

Birders are so enthusiastic that they share their sightings with everyone. Are we that enthusiastic about Christ? Like John, are we witnesses to His light? Do we show the Way?

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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TRADING PLACES

My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. [Romans 9:2-3 (NLT)]

little blue heron (juvenile) - great blue heronBereft that the people of Israel had rejected Jesus, Paul’s words are some of the saddest ones found in the epistles. I can see the tears in his eyes and hear the anguish in his voice as he dictated them to Tertius, his scribe. Young’s Literal Translation translates Paul’s words as having “great grief and unceasing pain in my heart.” Although he knows that nothing could cut him off from Christ, Paul says he’d be willing to sacrifice himself for his people if it were possible. That’s not just his life he’s offering; the word he used was anathema, meaning he was willing give up his salvation. If it would save the people of Israel, he would be delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction: to spend an eternity in Hell!

While Paul probably was the greatest of Christian evangelists, we mustn’t forget that first and foremost, he was a Jew. A Pharisee who’d studied under the best teachers, he was from the tribe of Benjamin. Describing himself as “a real Hebrew if there ever was one,” all of his family and friends were Jews. He was one of God’s chosen people to whom the Messiah had been promised. Although Jesus came to the Jews first, Paul wondered how so many of God’s chosen could reject Him. Paul’s message throughout Romans was salvation by grace through faith. It must have broken his heart that the majority of his Jewish brothers and sisters would miss out on that salvation because they didn’t have faith.

Paul’s willingness to sacrifice salvation for his people shows what a burden their unbelief was on him. A similar burden is borne by many Christians when their loved ones aren’t Christ followers. Like many others, I have adult family members who don’t believe and their unbelief breaks my heart as much as the Jews’ unbelief broke Paul’s. Many of my friends have shared their grief that, in the life to come, they will not be reunited with their unbelieving family members. Like Paul, we would sacrifice our salvation if it would ensure theirs. That, however, is not how salvation works. Although Jesus suffered, died and took our punishment upon Himself, we cannot take theirs. Only Jesus can save them!

It’s been asked, “How do you convince a person they’re in danger of being burned when they’re floating on a raft in the ocean?” I really don’t know! As parents and grandparents, we don’t want to lose our children or grands in this life or the next. Knowing that we are not in control, we must accept and respect their choices. In the end, only God can convince them of the truth of the Gospel! Nevertheless, we continue to love (and listen) to them, model Christ in our behavior, bear the Fruit of the Spirit, and pray continually and expectantly for them. Let us trust that God has a plan for our children. The good news is that, no matter what our loved ones have said or done in the past, they are only one step away from Jesus! Until then, let us pray!

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:8b-10 NLT)]

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OBITUARY OR LEGACY?

Those who are righteous will be long remembered. … They share freely and give generously to those in need. Their good deeds will be remembered forever. [Psalm 112: 6,9 (NLT)]

Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper. [Billy Sunday]

giant swallowtailMore than thirty years ago, a friend confided that she wanted her obituary to be a good one. A few years ago, explaining that she wanted an updated photo in case it was needed for her obituary, she asked me to take her picture. Although she was in excellent health at the time, this woman clearly understood the fragility of life. Sadly, she died unexpectedly just a few days ago.

When considering a “legacy,” we usually think in monetary terms, but a legacy can be anything given by or received from an ancestor, predecessor, or the past. It’s the body of work we leave behind when we’re gone and, in actuality, my friend was far more concerned with leaving a legacy of service and love than with the words of her obituary! She wasn’t trying to impress others, pad her resume with good works, or serve her way into heaven. A woman of deep faith, she knew she was saved by grace not works. Nevertheless, she served the Lord she loved by loving and serving His people. Although she’d expressed concern about some of her denomination’s doctrine, she had no doubts about Jesus. The Holy Spirit was present in her life and she never missed an opportunity to be a blessing to others.

My friend was no saint—she was just another imperfect Christ follower struggling to make it through each day the best she could. Her life wasn’t easy and she had more than her share of heartbreak and disappointment. Nevertheless, as her obituary read, “She began and ended each day with the intent of making people smile and laugh. She accomplished that every day of her life. … In her wake, she left a trail of smiles, heartfelt laughter and love.”  Indeed, the world was a better place because of her and, as she had hoped, her obituary was filled with glowing words and the picture was a recent one. Her obituary’s words, however, will soon be forgotten. It is the humble way she served her neighbor and the seeds of faith, love, and joy she scattered wherever she went that will live on in the many lives she touched.

Our true legacy has nothing to do with wills, trusts, bank accounts or property titles; it begins with our relationship with God and ends with our relationship to His children. What we leave behind when we’re gone is determined by how we choose to live today! Do you want to be remembered with a long obituary or a legacy of love?

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. [Augustine]

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!” [Revelation 14:13 (NLT)]

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CHECK YOUR SOURCE

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

columbineBroken people were drawn to Jesus but Mary Magdalene was not as broken as many people think. Magdalene was not her last name; it simply means “from Magdala” and the Gospels’ writers added it to distinguish her from the many others Marys: Jesus’ mother, Martha’s sister, the wife of Clopas, and the mother of James and Joseph.

When we first meet Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, her name is linked both with women “who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” and those who “were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and the disciples.” Luke then elaborates that Jesus cast seven demons from her. Nowhere does he (or any other gospel writer) say anything about Mary’s immorality. In fact, since she was one of the women helping to financially support Jesus’s ministry, it appears that she was an upstanding, respectable and wealthy woman.

Whether it was because Luke’s first reference to Mary Magdalene follows the story of the nameless sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet or that Mary had been cured of seven demons but the idea developed through the centuries that she was immoral and probably a prostitute. Mental illness in 1st century Palestine was attributed to evil spirits and those demons probably were a mental illness of some kind. While we don’t know if her disorder was epilepsy, depression, paranoia, psychosis, or something else, Scripture gives us no reason to question her morals. We must never make the error of confusing mental illness with immorality.

It didn’t help Mary’s reputation when, in 1324, the Roman Catholic Church established a home for “the rescue and maintenance of fallen women” and called it the “Magdalen House.” Her reputation suffered further harm when, in 1591, Pope Gregory I gave a sermon associating her seven demons with the seven vices and then fused her with both the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany (both of whom washed Jesus’s feet). When monks and priests read Gregory’s sermons rather than Scripture, the erroneous story of Mary continued to be told.

It was not until 1969 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mary Magdalene was not the fallen woman who washed Jesus’ feet. Unfortunately, people seem to love a juicy story and Mary’s undeserved reputation still lingers. She continues to be portrayed as a repentant prostitute, the nameless woman caught in adultery, or even as Jesus’ lover or wife. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for any of those assumptions.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospels and is mentioned thirteen times. We are given no reason to think that she was anything other than a once ill woman who helped financially support Jesus and the disciples. In fact, when she’s mentioned with other women, her name usually comes first, implying that she was their respected leader. It is only when she is standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ family (His mother and aunt) that her name follows those of others. What we do know from Scripture is that, when others fled, Mary Magdalene was there. She was present at the Crucifixion, sat across from the tomb with the mother of James and Joseph as Christ’s body was laid in the sepulcher, was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, and was the first to preach the news of His resurrection.

While I wanted to restore a good woman’s reputation with this devotion, its main purpose is to caution us as to where we get our Biblical knowledge. While it’s tempting (and often easier) to get it second-hand—from sermons, devotions, commentaries, conversations, books, websites, movies and other media—those never should be our sole source of information. God’s word is our spiritual nourishment and, just as a vitamin pill is no substitute for eating real food, there is no substitute for reading Scripture first-hand. After all, to discern between opinion, fact, and fiction, we must know the truth and the gospel truth is found only in the Gospel!

Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s the Gospel. [Michael Jackson]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. [2 Timothy 2:15-16 (NLT)]

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WITH A SMALL “C”

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIt is said that John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) once dreamt of visiting the gates of Hell. Curious, he asked the gatekeeper how many in Hell were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. “We have many,” was the gatekeeper’s answer regarding each denomination. Nervously, Wesley then asked if there were any Methodists and was disheartened to learn there were plenty of them there, as well.

Dismayed, Wesley proceeded to the gates of Heaven. The preacher asked how many in Heaven were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. To each question, the gatekeeper replied, “Not a one.” After Wesley asked how many Methodists were there, his heart dropped at the gatekeeper’s reply of, “None!” Perplexed, the concerned preacher asked who was in Heaven. The angel at the gate replied, “The only ones here are those who love the Lord and the only name by which they are known is that of Christian!”

From that strange dream, John Wesley is said to have concluded that unity within the Christian church was essential for its mission. Nevertheless, acknowledging that there will be different points of view, he said, “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may.”

I thought of John Wesley’s dream when my husband told me how, as a boy, he refused to say the word “catholic” when reciting the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds. Not attending a Roman Catholic church, he didn’t know how he could say he believed in it! Of course, he didn’t understand that catholic (with a small c) has never meant a specific denomination.

Etymologically, “catholic” comes from two Greek words, kata or kath (meaning “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). When joined as katholikos, it means, “throughout the whole.” Meaning more than universal, “catholic” captures the dual sense of “throughout all time and in all places” while pointing to the essential unity or wholeness of Christ’s Church. When the creeds state, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” they aren’t referring to any branch of Christianity; they refer to the entirety of the whole Church, not just here and now, but everywhere in the past and future as well. First used in the early 2nd century, the adjective “catholic” didn’t mean a particular denomination; it simply described the universal scope of the Christian Church. It was not until the Reformation that the Roman church used “Catholic” (with a capital C) as a denominational title to distinguish itself from the Protestants.

To avoid confusion, many Protestant churches have replaced “catholic” with “Christian” when saying the creed. Nevertheless, the original word has a beautiful subtext because it refers to the wholeness of the entire church and the unity of all believers in the body of Christ, throughout all time and in all places. The “holy catholic church” simply refers to all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—people like the ones John Wesley found in heaven! Indeed, we won’t all think alike nor will we worship alike but we all can love alike!

Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. [Ignatius of Antioch]

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. [John 17:20-23 (NLT)]

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