Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

God’s People, part 229: Pilate

Read John 18:28-40; 19:1-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!’”  (Matthew 27:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Pontius_Pilate_BustPart 229: Pilate. For a man central in the capital punishment of Jesus of Nazareth, there isn’t a whole lot known about Pontius Pilate. As far as is known he was a part of the well-established Pontii family, who were originally of the plebeian class. Plebs were the general population of free Roman Citizens and were not a part of the ruling Patrician class. Thus, Pilate’s family genealogy was of humble origins during the Roman Republic; however, the Pontii family flourished in the Roman Empire, and the family eventually attained the consulship, which was, at the time of the Empire, a symbolic representative of Rome’s heritage.

Pilate, himself, was appointed as prefect of Jerusalem in 26 C.E. Nothing is really known of him prior to that date. A prefect was a military officer who was appointed by the Emperor as a governor of a less important province of the Empire. At the time, Judaea was a province that was an annex (or extension) of the province of Syria. They typical term length for prefect was 1-3 years, Pilate stayed in his position until 36 C.E., a whopping ten years.

The only primary historical sources we have to rely on in regard to Pontius Pilate are the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, the Alexandrian-Jewish Philosopher and Historian Philo, and the New Testament Gospel accounts. Both Josephus and Philo describe Pilate as a brutal prefect and details some events that are seemingly left out of the Gospel accounts. This has led some scholars to argue that the New Testament Gospel writers were trying to sterilize and soften Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death in order to (A) not upset the Romans too much by the writings or (B) to lay more of the blame on the Jewish groups that were kicking Christian Jews out of the synagogues.

With that said, not all scholars subscribe to that theory and a close reading of the Gospels actually lead one to dismiss it altogether. First, the Gospel’s main focus with Pilate is on his part in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. Aside from that, they don’t really mention him at all because, until he comes face-to-face with the Roman Prefect, there is no real reason to talk about him. Second, a close reading of the Gospels uncovers Jesus talking about a time when Pilate was particularly brutal in his dealings with the Galileans (people from Jesus’ home region):

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
(Luke 13:1-3, NRSV)

It is clear that the Gospel writers were not trying to soften who Pilate was and, in my humble opinion, we get a fuller account of the man by reading both the Gospels and the works of Josephus and Philo. These works, when considered together, show a man who was both cunning and cruel. He was a politician who understood the need for diplomacy; however, he was also a military leader who knew how to crush any hint of a rebellion with a swift and brutal blow. The fact that he remained in his post for 10 years (9 to 7 years more than the average prefect) is an indication that he was able to balance cruelty with diplomacy.

In fact, Jesus’ trial is a good example of just how he did that. When Jesus was brought to him, he asked him questions and then found him to be “innocent of the charges.” Why? Because blasphemy against the Jewish God was not a concern of the Roman Empire. When his accusers claimed that he was a Galilean claiming to be king, he sent him to Herod who was Tetrarch (aka regional ruler) of Galilee. When Jesus was sent back to him, he then questioned him on charges of treason against Rome.

The end stunt of washing his hands clean of the blood was not a display that he considered Jesus innocent or that he even cared what happened to this Jewish rabble-rouser. Pilate would have seen Jesus as a threat, no doubt; however, it allowed him to pass the blame away from Rome and onto local Jewish officials. Why? So that he could avoid an uprising against Rome, of course.

Pilate wasn’t stupid and he knew that if he ordered the death of a Jewish Messiah figure during the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, he’d potentially have a riot on his hands. What’s more, he couldn’t just let Jesus walk out alive either. So, he played some political theater. In the end, though, Pilate brutally put an end, or so he thought, to the Jesus movement.

What’s important for us to realize is that God’s people today, like the people in Jesus’ time, often look to the government as their savior and, in doing so, they sell out their true Savior in the process. Jesus was handed over to Pilate, not because the Jewish religious leaders liked Pilate, but because Jesus challenged the status quo and Pilate was the expedient way to avoid Jesus leading people further away from the authority of the religious establishment.

Pilate was a Roman who was known for his brutality and his sharp diplomatic wit. He represented the Roman Government, not God’s will. The same is true about our political leaders today, they represent the current government and national interests, not Jesus Christ who is the true and ONLY Savior of the world. Will we place our faith and hope in the government, selling out Christ in the process, or will we place our faith, hope and loyalty in Jesus Christ, at all costs? The choice is ours.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Who is your master? Jesus Christ taught us that we cannot serve two; therefore, we must choose only one.

PRAYER
Lord, you are my master, my Lord, my Savior, and my friend. Guide me away from looking toward anyone else for what can only come from you. Amen.

God’s People, part 228: Caiaphas

Read John 18:12-14, 19-24

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.’”  (John 11:49-50, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Ossuary_of_the_high_priest_Joseph_Caiaphas_P1180839
Jospeh Ben Caiaphas’s Ossuary

Part 228: Caiaphas. It is easy for us to read the Gospels and to see the people who opposed Jesus as being the “bad guys” and as not being “God’s People.” With that said, that is a trap we really ought to not fall into. The people who were the religious leaders, for instance, were not “evil” people who were looking to destroy Jesus of Nazareth for completely malicious reasons.

The reality is that the times in which Jesus lived in were as complex and confusing as our own times. The religious leadership, just like the rest of Judaea, was living under the reality of Roman occupation and oppression. The Temple, and Caiaphas as the High Priest, is the greatest example of that complexity.

The primary sources we have on Caiaphas are the New Testament and the writings of the first century Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus. Caiaphas’ full name was actually Joseph ben Caiaphas (meaning Joseph son of Caiaphas). So, properly speaking, Joseph was his name and Caiaphas was his father’s name. Beyond his name, we can gather a lot from Jospehus that creates an even broader picture when considered along with the New Testament account.

Here’s a basic summary of who Caiaphas was and what made him tick. First, he was in a line of High Priests who were connected to the Sadducee party. He was not directly in the line, but only through marriage to the High Priest Annas. The Sadducees were mostly the Jewish elite and of prominent wealth, and so Joseph ben Caiaphas married into an extremely wealthy and powerful family.

Joseph ben Caiaphas came to be High Priest during a very turbulent time in Jewish history. His father-in-law had been High Priest, but was deposed after the death of the Emperor Augustus. Still, Annas continued to have quite an amount of sway and power despite his being deposed. He was succeeded by his son Eleazar. Eleazar was succeeded by someone outside of the line of Annas, by the name of Simon ben Camithus, who was so unpopular that he only served a year. Simon was succeeded by Caiaphas.

The role of the High Priest was both spiritual role and a political role. The High Priest was the head officiant at the Temple and was the leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a council that weighed in on Jewish Law. With that said, High Priests were appointed by the Roman governor. At the time of Caiaphas’ ascent to the position, Valerius Gratus was the governor; therefore, Valerius Gratus was the governor.

What this means is that Caiaphas must have built a strong and good relationship, probably with the help of his father-in-law, with Gratus. As such, he was appointed and remained in the position at the pleasure of the governor and was in that position for a very long time. When Pontius Pilate became the governor, he chose to leave Caiaphas right where he was as High Priest. This shows that the Romans trusted Caiaphas to be politically good for them in that position.

Of course, being in good with the Romans made the High Priests subject to fierce criticism from different Jewish sects. The Essenes left Jerusalem and lived in the wilderness because of the disgust they had toward what they saw as the corruption of the Temple. The violent political Jewish party called the Zealots, were enraged by the Roman hands appointing Jewish leaders and priests, and they were constantly threatening the Jewish religious hierarchy and Roman rule.

These were very tense times that Jesus came onto the scene during. This Nazarene not only challenged the Pharisees and their understanding of the Torah, but he also overturned the tables in the Temple and called himself the Son of God and the Messiah. Caiaphas’ position depended on his being able to deal with any threat to Jewish order and Roman peace. To Caiaphas, this Jesus was a real threat who could inspire a rebellion. If that happened, many Jews would be slaughtered, he would lose his position as High Priest, and possibly even his own life. He could not let that happen.

But Caiaphas also could not just bring Jesus up on charges of blasphemy, for those charges would not concern Pontius Pilate in the slightest; rather, Caiaphas had to prove that Jesus was not only a threat to the religious order, but also to Roman rule. Caiaphas had no authority to kill Jesus, only the Romans could do that, so the only way to remove this threat was to make the case that Jesus was not just a blasphemer, but a traitor against Rome. Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God (a title reserved for the Roman Emperor: divi filius) and the messiah (or anointed King of Israel in the line of David) gave Caiaphas a strong case to present to Pilate.

Caiaphas did what he did for many reasons. He did it to maintain power, authority, and status. He also did it to maintain peace and keep many people from being slaughtered (John 11:49-50). He did it out of fear, but he also did it out of his sacred duty to be the shepherd of his people. He did it for political motivations and ambitions, but he no doubt believed he was doing what was the right thing to do.

The challenge for us is to realize that even though we are God’s people, we can still make decisions and carry out actions that are very, very wrong. Our pride and our need to maintain the status quo can lead us to actually turn our backs on the God we love and claim to follow. Caiaphas is not alone in doing that. He was was complex man, but we are all complex people. The challenge for us is to look at ourselves through the mirror of Scripture and be cautious in our own motivations in how we act and behave.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The way of sinners is paved with smooth stones, but at its end is the pit of Hades.” – Ben Sira of Jerusalem” (Sirach 21:10, NRSVA).

PRAYER
Lord, help me to be a person who looks past my own complexity to you, your grace, and your Word for guidance. Amen.

God’s People, part 227: Malchus

Read John 18:1-11

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“But Jesus said, ‘No more of this.’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.”  (Luke 22:51, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

MalchusPart 227: Malchus. Like many of more minor characters in the Bible, Malchus is just a blip on the radar compared to some of the major personalities that are focused on. He does not have the stature of Peter, or James, or John, or Peter. He is seen sympathetically for a mere moment; however, most regard him with the contempt that they hold for the people he was associated with. After all, Malchus was with the soldiers and temple guard who were seeking to arrest Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane.

In fact, one could argue that the moment of sympathy shown to Malchus drives home how egregious that these people who came to arrest Jesus truly are. One would think that any group of people with consciences would have let Jesus go after what happened when Malchus met Jesus; yet, such thoughts also betray an ignorance of how the military, particularly in the ancient world, worked.

First it is important to realize who Malchus was. Some films portray him as some sort of commander of the Temple Guard; however, according to the Scripture, he was not a commander or an officer at all. The only instance of the name Malchus in the Bible is in John 18:10. With that said, Mark, Matthew and Luke all mention that one of the disciples drew his sword in order to prevent Jesus from being arrested and cut off the ear of the high priests slave. In the Synoptic Gospels the slave was unnamed; however, in the Gospel of John, the slave was named as Malchus and the disciple who cut his ear off was named as Peter.

Named or not, it is clear that Malchus was in no position to command the guards who came to arrest Jesus. Quite the contrary, Malchus was a slave who happened to be brought along for the journey. When the men reached Jesus and were ready to arrest him, Peter (or one of the other disciples) drew their sword and struck the slave and cut off his ear. The slave was not the one who was responsible for the arrest, obviously; however, he was the one who suffered the consequences.

As soon as Malchus was struck, Jesus scolded Peter and told him to put away his sword. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus told him (Matthew 26:52). And then, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus touched the slave and healed his ear.

What is truly important to note about this is that Malchus was a slave who had no choice but to be there. He had no stake in Jesus’ arrest or in anything for that matter. Malchus was there because his master brought him there and there was nothing he could do about that. Still, because he was there, he ended up losing his ear. He did not ask to be there, nor did he probably want to be; however, there he was and, as a result, he lost his ear.

Jesus could have been angry at his arrest and cursed everyone there, but he did not do that. Instead, Jesus recognized that his arrest was imminent and that those who arrested him had to follow orders. There was no other way. For the soldiers to ignore arresting him would have resulted in their deaths along with the others who perished. Thus, for them, following orders was “life or death”.

The challenge for us is to question where we are in all of this. Would we be the type to go against the grain and stick up for someone we don’t even know, or would we assume that it is best for us to follow suit with what we know? Would we defend the weak among us, or would we conveniently see them as a part of the larger group and associate them in such ways?

The truth is that God can and often does work through people who we least expect it. For Peter, God worked through a slave named Malchus to remind him that Christ’s message was not just for those in line with Christ’s message, but for all people drawn to him. How is God working in the lives of the insignificant around you to remind you that Christ is for ALL people, and not just for some? Reflect on this and remember that Christ came not just for us, but for all who accept him as the the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6, NLT).

PRAYER
Lord, help me to love and accept all. Whenever I miss that opportunity, lead me back onto the path. Amen.

God’s People, part 226: Greeks

Read John 12:20-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus replied, ‘Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem’” (John 4:21, NLT).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

GreekFamilyPart 226, Greeks: Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who claimed some pretty astonishing things about himself, things that would have sent up all sorts of red flags for the Jewish establishment. He claimed that he was Lord of the Sabbath, that what one ate did not defile a person, that one could do work on the Sabbath, that he was God’s son, that he was the Son of Man, that he was the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, the light of the world, the life-giving water, the vine, resurrection and the life, and the great I AM. Such claims would have been scandalous and would have set Jesus at odds with the Jewish religious and political leaders of his time.

His association with Gentiles would also have been frowned upon by the Pharisees, who were a group whose name literally meant separatist. The Pharisees believed that strict adherence to the Torah and separation from all Gentile cultures was the way to faithfully follow God. Gentile cultures worshiped a plethora of other gods and, as had happened so many other times in Jewish history, they had the tendency to lure the Jews into idolatry.

Jesus life is actually bookended by relations with the Gentile culture. A child who was no more than two years of age, he was visited by Zoroastrian astrologers from the East we know as the Wise Men. At the end of his life, he was sought out and approached by a group of Greeks. Both the Greeks and the Zoroastrians were Gentiles as they were both non-Jews.

But those weren’t the only relations with Gentiles. He healed a Roman centurion’s son, he healed a Syro-Phoenician woman from bleeding, and even conversed with and taught a Samaritan woman. This willingness to engage with a culture at odds with Judaism would not have sat well with his critics.

Yet, throughout his life and ministry, Jesus engaged with Gentiles and, according to John, it was one of the final things he did before his arrest. When the Greeks requested to meet with Jesus, he saw that as a sign that the time of his suffering and death had come. His ministry had mostly been to the Jews, but now his name was known to even these Greeks (who may have been from the Decapolis, ten cities in northern Israel, Jordan and Syria). This was as sign that his message of salvation and the imminent coming of God’s kingdom was about to go from being exclusively Jewish to a global message that included Gentiles as well.

That is why Jesus responded to their request in this way, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives” (John 12:23-24, NLT). Jesus was foretelling the impact his death and resurrection would have on the spreading of the Gospel to all the world.

Jesus went on to proclaim that “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 12:26, NLT). Jesus was not just including a specific group of people as God’s people, but was opening the doors to ANYONE and EVERYONE who followed him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life! What good news, right? That means you, that means me, that means anyone who loves and follows Jesus our Lord. The challenge for us is to be a part of spreading that GOOD NEWS to anyone who will open their ears and their hearts to that profound message of hope!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The carnal nature of man is that he places his tribe above others, but the only basis for the power and unity of the church is that there is no Jew or Gentile.” – Yemi Osinbajo

PRAYER
Lord, help me to serve Christ in all that I do so that I may be a part of spreading the Good News of God’s coming Kingdom. Amen.

God’s People, part 225: Born Blind

Read John 9:1-41

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  (John 1:1, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

004-jesus-blind-man-phariseesPart 225: Born Blind. It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to figure out that the Gospel of John is remarkably different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three, called the Synoptic Gospels, follow the same chronology, style and patterns as the other. Many of the parables, miracles and events in Jesus’ life can be found, if not word for word, in similar form to the other Synoptic Gospels.

John, on the other hand, does not follow the same chronology, patterns or style. Instead, it presents the account of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection in prose and theological discourse. Most of Jesus’ teachings are a discourse on his own identity as the Word of God made flesh, the Light of the World, the sacrificial Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Great I AM who existed before Abraham, etc.

What’s more, it is important to distinguish the “signs” we have in John, from the miracles we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke. John presents the miraculous deeds as a way of pointing to Jesus’ divine identity. Thus, they are signs that point the way to the Word of God, who was in the beginning with God, and was God (John 1:1-5). Thus, this account of the healing of the man who was born blind was a sign that pointed to who Jesus was. When understood this way, it makes perfect sense as to Jesus response to his disciples when they asked if the man’s blindness was due to his own sin or the sin of his parents. “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him. We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work. But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-5, NLT).

But this account also does something out. Like Matthew 25:31-46, the account of the man born blind separates the true believers out of God’s people from those who merely claim to believe. This sign points not just to ONE way; rather, it points in two directions. The first direction is the one who realizes her/his need for God and believes in and submits to God’s self-revelation. The other direction points to the one who claims to be a believer and to have sight of who God is; however, in reality, they are the ones who are SPIRITUALLY BLIND due to their sin. Thus, Jesus is the Light of the World, shining light in the darkness for those who can see, all the while revealing who are truly blind and cannot see the light.

This is not judgmental, but observational. The one’s who cannot see are given a change to soften their hearts and open their eyes. So, there is no room to judge such people and those who do find themselves out in the darkness as well. In the parable, Jesus points out the flaws of the Pharisees not to judge them, but in the hope that they would soften their hearts and turn from their blindness.

This should challenge us to reflect on multiple fronts. First, are we the ones who think we can see but are really blind? Or are we the ones who were once blind but now can see? Also, if Jesus is the Light of the World who brought us out of our blindness, what is our response to that. Does it mirror that of the blind man’s in this account. Do we stand before a dark, cruel and cynical world and point to the Light that has come to save it from the darkness? Are we, like the man born blind, willing to do this, regardless of the cost? Or are we like his parents who, out of fear, choose to keep quiet for fear that we too might suffer the consequences? Let us all pray that we might be like the man born blind and witness to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I am unjust, but I can strive for justice. My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness. I, the unloving, say life should be lovely. I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.” – Vachel Lindsay

PRAYER
Lord, in my blindness give me sight. In my sight, prevent me from falling into blindness. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: Reading the Signs

bflw-devotional-800x490Writing the Life-Giving Water devotionals is not only an important ministry, but is a deeply rewarding spiritual discipline for me as well. With that said, observing Sabbath (aka rest) is an important spiritual discipline as well. So here is a LOOK BACK to a devotion I wrote in the past. Read it, reflect on it, be challenged by it. Who knows how God will speak to you through it and how it will bear relevance in your life today? May the Holy Spirit guide you as you read the suggested Scripture and subsequent devotion.

A LOOK BACK: Blessed With a Flat Tire

bflw-devotional-800x490Writing the Life-Giving Water devotionals is not only an important ministry, but is a deeply rewarding spiritual discipline for me as well. With that said, observing Sabbath (aka rest) is an important spiritual discipline as well. So here is a LOOK BACK to a devotion I wrote in the past. Read it, reflect on it, be challenged by it. Who knows how God will speak to you through it and how it will bear relevance in your life today? May the Holy Spirit guide you as you read the suggested Scripture and subsequent devotion.

A LOOK BACK: Entertaining Angels

Read Hebrews 13:1-2

Entertaining AngelsMy family and I just got done watching a movie we watch annually during the Christmas season. If you haven’t guessed it by looking at the picture, the movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.  It is a movie about a man (George Bailey) who has given and given to people, putting others ahead of himself and his own dreams, only to have other people’s mistakes crash down around him. None of his dreams of success, traveling or any other ones are ever realized. Sure he has a nice family, a lovely wife and kids, and sure he has had moments of joy in helping those around him.  But deep down, there is a longing to have more, to be more, to finally have something he’s dreamed of come true.

But this is real life we are talking about, not some tinsel town fairy tale, and Capra means to give George a whopping double dose of reality. Instead of finding Bailey being rewarded for all of his kindness and generosity, instead of seeing him defeat the Scrooge like miser, Mr. Potter, and instead of seeing him amount to be more than a guy who nickels and dimes his way through life (literally), we find George facing fraud charges and prison time.  His uncle lost $8,000 and George is going to take the fall for it, just as he has his whole life.  It’s just not fair. So, this man, at wit’s end, finds himself at a bridge.  He’s contemplating suicide, when he runs into Clarence, who is an Angel 2nd class. After wishing he were never born, and Clarence granting him that wish, he comes to the realization how hellish life would be for the countless people George helped in those years of personal sacrifice that he has come to regret.  So, in the end he finds himself realizing what a wonderful life he has, and how happy he is to have his family.  In the end, the town of Bedford Falls comes together and donates the $8,000 to George to save him from prison.  This encounter with truth has changed his life forever.

Some might call this a happy ending. I have often heard people say how Hollywood always forces in a happy ending. But in this film, I don’t know that I would call it a happy ending. Sure, he realizes what means most to him and how valuable his life really is, and that is a happy ending in that sense.  But in terms of unrealistic Hollywood happy endings, this film does not have one.  George may have his life back, but with that “gift” comes the reality that following Christmas he will go back to nickling and diming for the Business and Loan.  The town members will go on in their poverty and need George’s help as much as they have always needed it.  And the most terrible of all the truths, Potter will continue on misering, trying to ruin George and that miserable Business and Loan that always stands in his way.

The real happiness of this film does not lie in unrealistic, sappy Hollywood endings.  The happiness lies in the fact that when we help others, when we put others first, when we value others’ lives as much as we value our own, we end up entertaining angels.  I am not one who espouses angel theology or gets enraptured by cute little cherubim. In fact, Clarence was borderline annoying to me in the film (I forgive him).  Rather, the angels are the people all around George…and in fact, George is an angel too. He helped countless people, some of them even strangers, and in the end they all end up helping him.  It is not so much that they help him financially because he has helped them all far more than they could probably ever repay.  But, rather, they helped him in being present in his darkest time.

It was in that dark time that George realized what angels they all were. It was when he thought no one knew him, when he felt the lack of everyone’s presence, that he realized that he had been entertaining angels his whole life.  It is in that moment that he realized that he had neglected to see those angels for who they were; he had neglected to appreciate them and value them.  Even in his selflessness he had been blinded by himself.  But because he had been entertaining angels, they appeared before him in his darkest hour, when he needed them most. That is the beauty of Christmas! That is the heart of Christmas: recognizing that we are not alone in this world. If we recognize that we too have been entertaining angels, we might look up and see them standing all around us.

Merry Christmas! May God bless you with the wisdom to recognize the angels in your life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Elliot

PRAYER
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Elliot

A LOOK BACK: The Magnifying Glass

Read Luke 1:46-55

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause.” (Job 5:8)

The Magnifying GlassSo, it is the day after Christmas Day and as the angels in the heavens said to the shepherds two millennia ago, “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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  But before we move out of the Christmas season and into the New Year, I would like to take a moment to reflect on a psalm spoken by Mary when she first learned she was pregnant with Jesus.

Now, can you imagine the scene of this?  An angel appears to this 14 year old girl and tells her that God is going to make her pregnant. Come again!?!?  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin'” (Luke 1:34)?  Can you picture the horror of the idea of this, in a time when women were considered property; in a time when women were stoned for “getting pregnant” outside of marriage?  Mary must have been truly frightened, yet she answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Following this, she praises the Lord with an original Psalm that comes from her heart.  She starts it off with the following statement, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Now if you are reading that statement carefully, it should cause you to pause and ponder. How can the soul of Mary, a mere peasant girl, magnify the soul of El Shaddai, or rather, God Almighty?  How can the soul of a lowly human being ever magnify God…shouldn’t it be the other way around. Shouldn’t it be that God magnifies Mary’s soul?

Yet, in Mary’s statement we see an inherent truth that perhaps sets her apart from most people.  Whereas, when we think of God, we are looking for something big, Mary saw something small. Where we are looking for a grandiose Zeus in the sky sitting on a golden throne, Mary saw a precious, vulnerable, and helpless baby.  To take it one step further, not only did Mary see God in her child, but she saw God in herself.  And it was in her qualities of humility, of meekness, of lowliness, of smallness, and of faithfulness that she saw God magnified.

We are so busy looking for something big, something out of this world, and something magical that we often miss the presence of God entirely. In the movie, Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee says, “Like a finger pointing to the moon…don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory.” Often times, we focus so hard on concentrating on miracles…looking here and there for them…that we miss the miracle itself.

Mary did not miss the miracle.  She knew the miracle was not just around her, but within her.  That she was born in a time when many babies died…Miracle.  That she was not stoned for being found with child outside of marriage…Miracle. That Joseph accepted a dream as reality and accepted Jesus as his son…Miracle.  That anyone would see God within them…including Mary…Miracle.

Rather than looking for Kings and kingly gifts, rather than looking for dazzling parlor tricks and illusions, let us recognize the true Miracle of Christmas…that God is not only with us, but revealed and magnified within us.  If your soul rejoices in God the way Mary’s did, how differently will you begin to live your life.  Make this your New Year’s resolution: See God within you and let your soul be a magnifying glass…not only in word but in deed. Let your soul say, as Mary’s did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.”  – Pearl Bailey

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see you within me, and help let my soul magnify you, O Lord God. I am your servant. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Christmas Story According to the Bible

1312298When the the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke sat down to record the birth story the Christ-Child, they saw a correlation between what the prophet Isaiah said and the birth of their Lord:

Isaiah 7:10-14

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Each Gospel writer saw the significance of Christ’s coming in different ways. For Mark, the first of the writers, Jesus’ birth was of no concern; rather, he started with Jesus’ baptism as the advent of the Christ. Matthew, on the other hand, did include the birth story of  Jesus who, for Matthew, was the KING of all kings, the new Moses, the One who came to teach and to fulfill the Law.

Matthew 1:18-2:1-23

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

For Luke, Jesus was not the KING of kings. After all, it was the kings who had been corrupted with power and greed. This Christ-child had to be more than just a KING of kings. Who did Jesus spend his time with? Who did Jesus do ministry with? Kings? Nope. Jesus’ ministry was with the poor, and when rich people came to Jesus…he advised them to sell all of their possessions, give the earnings to the poor and follow him! It was the kings of the world that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. It was the kings of the world, seeking to have power over their subjects that brought the KING to the town of his ancestor David. Jesus was a KING…indeed! He was the KING of the poor and the oppressed. He was the champion of all of those the world had shunned and turned away!

Luke 2:1-18

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. 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. 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 Savior, 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.

For the author of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ earthly birth and the details therein were unimportant. For this Jesus was indwelt by the very Word of God, the very Spark of all of Creation. Jesus preexisted his earthly form and preexisted all of Creation. For the author of John and his community, Jesus was so much more than a KING of kings, or than a KING of the poor. Jesus was KING and LORD of all Creation, who then took on flesh and made his dwelling place among us, full of grace and truth. Behold the true light of GOD as come into the world, and not even the darkness can snuff it out.

John 1:1-5, 14

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

May you have blessed and profoundly meaningful

Christmas!

All Scripture passages are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.