The Baptism of Jesus

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After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

It must have been a remarkable scene. John had been preaching, teaching and baptizing all day, stopping only briefly to snack on locusts and wild honey. To the others in the crowd, Jesus just looked like another Galilean, waiting for his turn. John recognized that Jesus was the one for whom he was preparing the way. And when Jesus came up from the water and the heavens opened, the crowd knew it too. When Jesus came to earth, he opened up the opportunity for us to become sons and daughters of the most high God (Rom 8:16-17). The words the Father speaks about Jesus, he also speaks about you: “This is my beloved son,” “This is my beloved daughter.” Say those words out loud. Then imagine God looking into your eyes and speaking those words.

Going Deeper

Read John 1:26-34.

John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” a title with many layers of meaning.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is identified with the victorious Lamb who vanquishes evil: They will fight with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and king of kings, and those with him are called, chosen, and faithful. (Rev 17:14)

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Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover lamb, sacrificed to save Israel: Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and procure lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover victims. Then take a bunch of hyssop, and dipping it in the blood that is in the basin, apply some of this blood to the lintel and the two doorposts. And none of you shall go outdoors until morning. For when the Lord goes by to strike down the Eguptians, seeing the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you down. (Ex 12:21-23)

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Isaiah spoke of Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the suffering servant: Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth… By making his life as a reparation offering, he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days, and the Lord’s will shall be accomplished through him. (Isaiah 53:7,10)

Although much of the context has been lost or at least diluted over the ages, at the time, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God was enough to cause two of John’s disciples to leave his side and follow Jesus.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.

The next time you pray or hear these prayers at church, think about Jesus, the Passover lamb who saves his people, the suffering servant who is like a lamb led to slaughter, and the victorious apocalyptic Lamb.

 

Today marks the end of the Christmas season. Thank you for giving me the privilege of joining you on your journey through Advent and Christmas this year. I hope you have been blessed by what you’ve seen and heard.

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Feast of the Epiphany

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On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11

Consider the gifts offered by the magi. What gift will you give to Jesus this Christmas season?

Going Deeper

Read Matthew 2:9-12.

While gifts of diapers, baby clothes, and a donkey-compatible car seat may seem more practical, I’m sure the valuable gifts brought by the magi came in handy as the young family traveled to and settled in Egypt. Far beyond their monetary value, though, the gifts of the magi had great symbolic meaning.

Gold is a symbol of royalty. The gift of gold pointed to Jesus’ kingship.

Frankincense was used in prayer and worship. Frankincense was given in recognition of Jesus’ divinity and his priestly role as mediator between us and the Father.

Myrrh was an oil used in embalming. The gift of myrrh foreshadowed Jesus’ death.

If Jesus were born today in the United States, instead of two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, the gifts may have been a little different. Perhaps the wise men would have brought Jesus a presidential seal made of solid gold, a kneeler, and a headstone.

During the last week of Advent, I invited you to consider which of the titles for Jesus most resonated with you. (Flip back to Dec. 20 to refresh your memory.) What gifts would you choose to symbolize the names for Jesus that mean the most to you?

Here are some of the things I might give Jesus:

 

Epiphany Reflection: Looking for Jesus

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Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Matthew 2:1b-2

Is there something in your life right now that is pulling you away from Jesus? What can you do to take a step away from that thing and toward Jesus?

Going Deeper

Read Matthew 2:1-8.

I remember one year during college, when my roommates and I were decorating our apartment for Christmas. I set up my nativity set in the living room. One of my roommates noticed that Baby Jesus was missing. I explained that Advent was a time of waiting and preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In order to stay true to the spirit of Advent, I would wait until Christmas Eve to put Jesus in the manger. I also revealed to my roommate that I had hidden the infant Jesus figurine somewhere in the room. She proceeded to search all over the room, trying to find Jesus. My heart ached, because I wanted so badly to help her find Jesus—not just the figurine, but Jesus, my best friend—but I didn’t think I could. I felt like she needed to find Jesus without my help, so that her faith would truly be hers, and not just a faith borrowed from someone else.

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During Advent 2015 I set up my nativity set in a different place than usual. When Christmas Eve arrived, I couldn’t remember where I had put the baby Jesus figurine. As I was searching for Jesus, my mind went back to that experience in my college apartment. I thought about the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, 2015. The hectic schedule that seems unavoidable during December had pulled me away from my normal routine of prayer. It seemed that my difficulty finding the infant Jesus figurine reflected the distance that had come between Jesus and me, because I wasn’t spending time with him.

The good news is that, in real life, Jesus doesn’t hide from us. He pursues us. If we are distant from him, it is because we have moved away. Because he is always pursuing us, we don’t have to search for Jesus. To find him, all we have to do is turn around.

I challenge you to spend ten minutes with Jesus today. Find a quiet place without distractions. (If your home is not a quiet place, try your car. If your garage is not a quiet place, drive a few blocks away.) Imagine yourself resting in the arms of Jesus. You don’t have to say or do anything. Just rest in his unconditional love.

Christmas Reflection: Jesus, King of the Gentiles

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So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.

Ephesians 2:19

Jesus came to call all people, regardless of culture or background, to become children of God. Make it a point today to reach out, with respect and love, to someone whose background or opinions differ from yours.

Going Deeper

Read Psalms 2:7-8, Acts 13:32-33, and Ephesians 2:17-22.

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When Jesus arrived on earth, the Jewish people were watching for a savior. They were eager for someone to rescue them from the oppressive Roman rule. They never imagined that the messiah would come to save not only the Jewish people, but the people of all nations, including the Romans. Some of the first visitors to the Holy Family after Jesus’ birth were the three magi, Gentiles from a country far from Bethlehem. This was one of the first clues that Jesus’ ministry and reach were going to be much wider than people expected.

There are many divisions in our world, just like there were in the time of Jesus. There are “proud deplorables” and “nasty women” who still stand “with her.” One group of people holds “Black lives matter” signs, while another holds “Blue lives matter” signs. And those who state “All lives matter” are accused of opposing one or the other of the two groups.

No matter how hard we try to be accepting and inclusive, it can be difficult to imagine that the mercy of God is available to everyone.

When you see on the news the story of a man who beat his wife or a woman who shook her baby, do you hope they “get what they deserve,” or do you hope they experience the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus?

Picture Jesus, approaching a member of ISIS who had beheaded innocent people, and saying “I’m going to have dinner at your house today.”

Imagine running into Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein while you are walking the golden streets of heaven.

You’ve been working in God’s fields since dawn. How will you feel, at the end of the day, when the Boston Marathon bomber, who joined the work crew just before sunset, gets the same pay as you?

 

None of us can be good enough to earn the mercy of God. God extends his mercy as a free gift to all people. In fact, Jesus himself said “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matt 9:13c).

Who is most difficult for you to love and forgive? Perhaps it’s one of the groups or people mentioned above. Or maybe it’s a family member you just can’t get along with, or a coworker who constantly rubs you the wrong way. Pray for that person.  Pray that they would come to know God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to forgive. Try to imagine you and that person “being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (from Eph 2:22).

Christmas Reflection: John the Baptist calls us to repentance–and to action.

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The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

Luke 3:2b,3,10

Make the words of the people your prayer today: “What then should I do?” Watch and listen for God to answer your question.

Going Deeper

Read Luke 3:2-18.

John the Baptist called all people to repentance, to ask forgiveness and turn away from sin. But John didn’t just want people to say they were sorry and then go back to life as usual. John called them—and calls us—to orient our lives toward God. We are challenged to make changes—sometimes radical ones—to our lifestyle to get our priorities in line with God’s. John had specific instructions to the people who came to him:

John challenged those with two tunics to share with those who have none. Do you have more than you need? Maybe it’s clothes, space in your home, food, time, or money. How is God calling you to share your abundance?

John directed tax collectors to collect only what was prescribed. Have you ever been pressured at work to fudge things a little for the benefit of the company? Do you believe that God meant it when he commanded us not to lie? What will you do the next time someone encourages you exaggerate or tell a little white lie?

To the soldiers, John said, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages”  (Luke 3:14). Hopefully you haven’t been doing a lot of outright extortion this week. But maybe you’ve been toying with lesser forms of extortion. Do you know how to push the buttons of the people around you—and use that knowledge to get what you want?

That last directive is a good reminder to us all—how many of us haven’t, at one time or another, complained about our paychecks?

Imagine you are traveling across the desert to see the prophet, John, whom you’ve heard so much about.

  • With whom are you traveling? Maybe your kids and your spouse? Other moms, dads, or grandparents? People you work with? People in your small group at church?
  • When it is finally your turn to see John the Baptist, what will he say to the group of people you came with?
  • Ask the prophet, “What then should I do?” How will he answer you?

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Christmas Reflection: Praise God!

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He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.

Luke 1:63-64

Take a moment to praise God for the life he’s given you–for the blessings and the challenges, for the things that make sense and the things that don’t.

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Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:63-80.

Zechariah had been mute since his encounter with the angel Gabriel more than nine months before. What did he do first when he regained his voice? He praised God.

What is the first thought in your head when you wake up in the morning? When you get in the car? When you get out of a long meeting? When you leave work? When you lie down in bed at night? When you feel angry or grateful or frustrated or content? How would your life be different if your first thought was a prayer of praise?

I challenge you to begin every day of the next week praising God. Pick a favorite song or prayer of praise. Write down the words and post them in a place where you will see them first thing in the morning—maybe on your bedside table or in your bathroom. Try to make those words of praise the first thing you say (or sing) each morning.

Here are a few ideas:

Songs

Prayers

Christmas Reflection: Going Against the Grain

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When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”

Luke 1:59-60.

Think of a time when you chose to do the unexpected. What were the results?

Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:39-45, 56-60.

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John was the only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Everyone in their community assumed they would follow tradition and name their first-born son after his father. Their neighbors couldn’t imagine why Zechariah and Elizabeth would choose the name John, a name that wasn’t even in the family. Despite their neighbors’ objections, the new parents were determined to follow the angel’s instructions and named their son John.

The name John means “Yahweh has shown favor.” John’s name was selected not to show the world to which earthly family he belonged, but rather to point to his role in salvation history.

There are many examples of people going against cultural norms, often with very positive results. A fun example can be found in the Joe Diffie song, “John Deere Green.” In it, Billy Bob paints his message of love on the local water tower using the color ‘John Deere green.’ The song explains: “The whole town said the fool should have used red, but it looked good to Charlene in John Deere green.” I’m guessing things probably turned out pretty good for Billy Bob.

Other examples are profound in their simplicity—like Pope Francis traveling around Washington DC in a small Fiat instead of a fancy limousine.

I chose to ignore cultural norms when I accepted a weekend option position at work. Most people try to do everything they can to avoid working weekends. All the good stuff happens on weekends—if you’re working, you’re going to miss it. And here I was, committing to working Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with only a few weekends off each year. While I did miss some events, and I had to work a little harder to plan time to hang out with friends, the whole experience was an amazing blessing. I was able to spend time with my sister while she was in treatment for breast cancer. I took classes and got my doctorate degree. But perhaps most significant, it felt like my life was in balance (a three-day week and a four-day weekend helped a lot in this regard!).

Think about the things that are part of your routine because our society expects it or our culture demands it. Are you being called to make a change in one of these routines? What would happen if you did?

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