Mary, (how) did you know?

In this era of fake news, how do you know what’s true?

We each have our preferred news outlets. We customize the news feeds on our phones. We cancel sources (and friends) who tell us things we don’t want to hear.

We say something is true “if it works for you.”

Of all the news that’s ever been delivered in all of history, the news Mary received from the angel Gabriel has to be among the hardest to believe.

“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. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”  (Luke 1:31-33)

If we received an email or a text like this, we’d block the sender.

But Mary didn’t get to pick and choose her source. And I doubt she considered whether this news was going to “work for her.”

What Mary did was to thoughtfully process what the angel had told her. English translations say she “wondered” or “pondered.” In the end, she told the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

The Christian faith cannot just be true “if it works for you.”

The Christian faith only works if it’s true.

Mary considered the source…an angel.

Mary considered the message in light of what she knew about God.

Mary chose to believe.

And that’s how she knew what the angel told her was true.

We had to celebrate

With the rise in cases of Covid-19, health officials have been warning us not to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

I’m thankful for leaders who work to protect us, I pray for them. But I wonder. What is the cost of minimizing the risk to our physical health?

What about our mental and spiritual health?

Luke 15 tells how the tax collectors and sinners “gathered around” Jesus. Seeing this, the Pharisees (which means “separatist”) muttered against him. In response, Jesus told three parables in which something was lost, a sheep, a coin, and a son. After each was found, there was, you guessed it, a celebration.

When the shepherd found his lost sheep and the woman found her lost coin, no explanation was needed. Everyone knew why they had to celebrate. “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” Jesus said.

But when his younger son was found, the father had to explain his joy to the older son. “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

When Jesus brings someone home, it’s a cause for cosmic joy.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day didn’t understand. Most people today don’t understand either.

Jesus described our ultimate future as a great banquet where he is the host. When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we get a taste of the joy in our ultimate future. And when believers gather for Thanksgiving, we get a taste of that joy as well.

When we gather to celebrate, there’s a health risk.

When we fail to gather to celebrate, there’s a soul risk.

Sometimes you have to celebrate.

When Dad paid the bills

When I was growing up in the 60’s, my Dad and I used to talk a lot about money. Actually, he would talk, and I would listen.

Dad was a pharmacist, and he and his two partners ran the corner drug store near our home. It was a classic old place with a marble soda fountain. The store provided for a decent living for the three men and their families, the delivery man and his family, and several clerks. 

But Dad always discouraged me from following in his footsteps. “Be a CPA”, he’d say. “They make $30,000.”

I don’t know how much Dad made, but it was a lot less than that. Back then, $30,000 seemed like a lot. Adjusted for inflation, it would be about $225,000 today.

Once a month, Dad would sit at his desk and pay the bills. I tried to avoid him on those days, because paying the bills always put him in a bad mood. He especially disliked paying for car repairs. “Never buy your first car,” he would say.

We had older cars that were frequently in the shop. We lived in an older house. I didn’t dress as nicely as some kids at school.

But I don’t recall any of that being a problem.

We had everything we needed and more.

We were content, except maybe for Dad when he paid the bills.

Then I grew up and starting paying the bills.

And no matter how much I got paid, and how many times I got promoted, it never felt like it was enough.

There is a reason Jesus talked more about money than anything else.

Jesus didn’t need money. He was God and didn’t need anything. Yet Jesus talked more about money that he talked about hell, and he talked about hell a lot.

Jesus knew there would always be someone who made more than us.

Jesus knew that the more we make, the more we consume. Luxuries become necessities. The more we make, the less content we are.

Jesus knew this happens to everyone, so we don’t realize it’s happening to us.

Are you giving away so much that it affects your lifestyle?

Are there things you can’t do, places you can’t go, things you can’t buy because you’re so generous? Unless the answer is “yes,” Jesus might not be first in your life.

You’ll never have enough, never be content, until he is.

Divided

The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a study which said that four out of ten registered voters do not have a single close friend who supports the candidate of the other political party. The results were almost identical for Democrats and Republicans. We’re not only divided by our political beliefs; we’re divided in our relationships too.

Thankfully, this is not the biggest problem in the church I serve. We are a city-center church with diverse political beliefs.

When politicians call for “unity,” what they usually mean is that they want you to drop your beliefs and adopt theirs. Is it really unity if I must change my beliefs to be your friend?

So how do you learn to get along?

There must be something greater that you agree on that binds you together.

Interestingly, Jesus talked about division all the time. In Luke 12:51-53 he said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

When Jesus walked the earth, he claimed to be God incarnate. He didn’t leave us the option of just being our moral example. How can someone be our moral example while claiming to be God, unless he really is God?  

This is why Jesus called himself a divider. Most people can’t accept that Jesus is Lord.

But for some, it’s the greater something that we agree on.

And it binds us together.

Systemic nobility

It’s been worse than this, you know.

The divisions among us have been worse. A lot, lot worse.

This week, Jana and I spent a day touring the battlefield at Gettysburg. It’s something everyone should do.

It puts today’s “fighting” in perspective.

Every American should walk up Little Round Top and reflect on the heroism of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the volunteers of the 20th Maine Regiment.

On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain was ordered to defend the position “at all hazards.” If the Confederate Army overran them, the left flank of the Union line would collapse, the battle would be lost, and the American experiment would be over.

Wave after wave of infantry from the 15th Alabama Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Oates, attacked, leaving both sides exhausted and out of ammunition. Chamberlain ordered “bayonets,” and his men charged down the hill. The stunned Confederates retreated. The 20th Maine had prevailed.

On Little Round Top we lingered to take in the sweeping view of the battlefield. By sheer chance, we met historian Steven Gunlock, dressed in the uniform of a Union general. Gunlock has devoted his life to keeping the memory of the soldiers alive. For two hours we listened, often wiping tears, as Gunlock told one moving story of heroism and sacrifice after another. Gunlock showed us a rifle and cannon used in the battle and explained the terrible damage they did to the human body. In three days at Gettysburg, there were 50,000 casualties. He said nearly every soldier who fought at Gettysburg was a volunteer. What would move a young man to leave home to face such horror?

The battle for Little Round Top was made famous by the book The Killer Angels and later by the movie Gettysburg. But as Gunlock pointed out, there were thousands of other moments of heroism and sacrifice during those three days in July 1863. Over and over, the fate of the nation hung in the balance.

Today, some question the founding of America. They say the date wasn’t really 1776, but rather 1619, the year slaves were brought to North America. They say that racism is systemic.

Racism is a sin. We are all fallen. But we are also image bearers of God.

Thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ, sin doesn’t get the last word.

Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. He said that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

On the way home from Gettysburg, Jana and I stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial. It tells the story of September 11, 2001, and of the sacrifice of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93. Everyone should also go there.

Heroism and nobility are systemic too.

Set your face

One of the challenges of talking to people about generosity is that no one thinks they’re stingy. They think other people are stingy, but not them. One of the reasons is that there is so much wealth all around us, almost no one ever feels like they’ve arrived.

Some folks think that generosity is only about money, which they give in place of their time.

Some folks think that because they volunteer, they don’t need to give financially.

Some are generous with their time and money, but guard their hearts. They don’t invest emotionally in anyone.

Luke says that the time had come for Jesus to be taken up to heaven, and so he set out “resolutely” for Jerusalem. Most translations say Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Have you ever “set your face” to do something?

It’s going to be excruciatingly hard, but you know you’ve got to do it, so you’re not in the mood for small talk. This was that kind of moment for Jesus, except that what Jesus had to do was die on the cross for all of humankind.

Luke says that immediately people started coming up to Jesus to say they wanted to follow him. To one after the other, Jesus responded in seemingly strange ways.

“Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead.”

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Translation: Following me will require all of you. It will mean giving up your comfortable life, your family, and your accomplishments.

It’s hard to live generously in all of life, but that’s what Jesus was calling those potential followers to do.

The only way to do it is to appreciate what Jesus had “set his face” to do.

Hidden in plain sight

A friend of ours tells the story of taking violin lessons as a child. Her grandfather had purchased a violin second hand during the depression so her mother could take lessons. Both our friend and her mother had carried that violin back and forth to school for years.  

Our friend’s mother died. Years later, our friend remembered the violin and went looking for it. She found it under a bed, hidden away with other things. She tried to get it appraised by Antiques Road Show, but they recommended she take it to someone else. Eventually, she found a dealer who knew what it was. He told her he could only offer her $100,000. It was all he could pull together, but that wouldn’t be fair to her.

But it had been an honor for him just to play it.

No, it wasn’t a long-lost Stradivarius. It was a Guarneri. 

Giuseppe Guarneri was an 18th century contemporary of Antonio Stradivari. Only about 150 of Guarneri’s violins are known to exist, far fewer than the number of Stradivari’s.

Our friend said she had considered the violin a family heirloom, but she had no idea that the instrument under the bed was worth millions.

If you came across a Guarneri in a flea market, you’d stop at nothing to buy it, wouldn’t you?

This is what Jesus offers us. He told a parable of a farmer who discovered a treasure hidden in a field. “In his joy, he went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

In his joy.

There is nothing in the Bible about Jesus’ appearance. We don’t know what he looked like, how tall he was, or anything else. He just blended in. But we do know that when people discovered who he was, they left everything to follow him.

Not out of obligation or compulsion.

Joy.

Weep with those who weep

Every now and then during my time in the Air Force, I would come home to find Jana upset. Sometimes it was because the boys had been fighting, sometimes it was because of bad news from back home. As often as not, there was something I had done or failed to do. Once in a while, Jana was upset because of the way someone on base had treated her. Then I was ready to swing into action. I was a colonel, and I could fix this.

But Jana rarely wanted anything fixed.

She just wanted me to listen.

Hopefully, I’ve gotten better at that, though I’m still not as good as I could be. But I have learned to cringe when I hear well-meaning people offer advice to hurting people on how to fix their problems.

At the heart of his great letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul gives a list of practical advice on living out the Gospel in the world. In Romans 12:15, Paul says “Weep with those who weep.” The Greek word can also be translated “mourn,” but the usual sense of the word is to bawl, to wail, to cry loudly. Sometimes, rather than trying to fix a situation, or appeal to facts (“See, it’s not so bad”) it’s best to just enter into the hurt of others.

In his book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, Pastor Mark Vroegop says that lament gives people the language to talk to God and one another about the pain and sorrow that hinder racial reconciliation. “When Christians from majority and minority cultures learn to grieve together, they reaffirm their common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Paul never said, “Fix those who need fixing.” Just “Weep with those who weep.”

Seeing Jesus

A few years ago, my older son had a small plaque made. Unbeknownst to me, one Sunday before the worship service he went up into the high pulpit of our church and fixed the plaque on the bottom of the lectern. When I sit down in the pulpit, the words are at eye level:

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

The words are from John 12:20. They were spoken by some Greeks who had come to the Jewish festival of the Passover to worship.

When the disciples relayed the message to Jesus, he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” By “hour” Jesus meant the time of his death.

Why would a visit by some religious seekers, outsiders, move Jesus to announce his death?

Because Jesus knew the religious insiders wanted to kill him.

The outsiders could see there was something special about Jesus. The insiders saw him as a threat.

The high pulpit in our church is one of the most beautiful pulpits anywhere. Our church is an architectural gem. But to outsiders, it can all look intimidating. It can look like it was built by and for religious insiders from generations ago. 

“Sir, we want to see Jesus” then is a reminder of the scandalous nature of the cross and the entire Christian faith.

When you think you deserve to be in, you’re out.

When you’re out, and you know you could never deserve to be in, you’re in.

Christians, most of all preachers, need to remember that Jesus put us here so that outsiders might see Jesus through us.

Sheep on one side, goats on the other

Our church recently signed on to an initiative of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA. As a “Matthew 25 Church,” we pledge to work on at least one of the following:

  • Building congregational vitality.
  • Dismantling structural racism.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty.

As a city-center church, we would have to try not to be involved in those things. In the center of the city, the hurts of the world press in on us.

Signing up to be a “Matthew 25 Church” is easy.

Or is it?

Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus’ picture of final judgment, and it follows page after page of blood-chilling warnings of judgment. Jesus said that one day, the “Son of Man will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” He will separate people, much like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

And what will separate the “sheep” from the “goats?”

Whether you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner. Three more times in quick succession Jesus repeats this list.

Few things in scripture are clearer than Jesus’ own criteria for judgment day.

When you understand that Jesus saved you at infinite cost to himself; when you understand that he bore in his body the judgment you deserved, you will gladly care for the “least” in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus said, “Eternal punishment” awaits those who don’t. Few things in scripture are clearer than that too.

In its desire to care for hurting people and sign up more “Matthew 25 Churches,” the PCUSA often forgets that God is a God of judgment too. We all tend to follow the teachings of Jesus we like, and ignore the ones we don’t. Denominations do it too.

This week, a young man came before Pittsburgh Presbytery to be approved for ordination. In his statement of faith, he said Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice provides forgiveness of sins and satisfies the wrath the God.” It’s true; Presbyterians have said this for 500 years. Yet the young man was lectured for being insensitive for using the word “wrath.” Some even voted against his ordination because of it.

Being a Matthew 25 church cannot just mean living out the parts of scripture that are socially acceptable or politically correct. Without judgment, without God’s righteous indignation against sin, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is worse than meaningless. It means that God isn’t loving, but arbitrary and cruel.  

Judgment and love are inseparable parts of God’s character.

A Matthew 25 church will care for the ones Jesus loves.

And, with his help, a Matthew 25 church will proclaim his truth. All of it.