It’s two days before the Passover and Jesus is at the house of Simon the Leper when a woman enters and anoints his head with costly oil. Some scold the woman, for the oil could have been sold for a significant sum of money and that money could have been used to help the poor. But Jesus defends her and notes that whenever and wherever the Good News is shared, her act of kindness will be told in remembrance of her. Indeed, if we attend church at Easter time, we have heard that story countless times. But how many of us think about that story as the catalyst for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus?
There’s an economy to Mark’s story-telling that we need to pay attention to. In Mark 14:1, the Chief priests are looking for a way to arrest and kill Jesus. In 14:3 we have the anointing of Jesus at Simon’s house and the ensuing conflict over the appropriateness of it, and immediately following verse 14:10 reads “ Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the Chief Priests in order to betray him to them.”
Something about that encounter at Simon’s house was so offensive to Judas that he turned on his master, teacher and Lord. Jesus’ defense of the woman’s wasteful largesse, somehow revealed Jesus as someone so different than who Judas thought he was or wanted him to be, that he became willing to hand Jesus over to the people who wanted to kill him.
History has not been kind to Judas. We Christians seem to have a vested interest in casting Judas as the personification of evil, or alternately, the pre-ordained fall guy who has to betray Jesus to fulfill the prophecies. Implicit in those caricatures of Judas is the notion that WE never would have done such a thing. But in the Mark account, Judas seems less like the personification of evil and more like a man blinded by his own righteousness. If there’s a shred of truth in that statement, it should hit very close to home for many of us. It should disturb us. After all, we are good Christians and many of us have worked hard over long periods of time to hone our ethical sensibilities, built our reputations as upright followers of Jesus, and avoided even the appearance of evil. The idea that our desire for righteousness might somehow keep us from following, serving, loving and worshiping Christ, to the point of becoming an enemy of Christ—that should both scare and convict us. It should make us think.
God, we are your imperfect followers. Help us to grow ever more into your likeness, to love as you loved us, to follow you even when it is costly. Help us to see and discern when our desire for righteousness leads us to do things that are more Judas-like than Christ-like. In the Spirit of our risen Lord. Amen.
In the church, we often turn to our hymns to think about who God is and how we should live. That’s exactly what Paul does in the second chapter of Philippians – he quotes a preexisting Aramaic hymn in his letter.
This passage is a beautiful connection between a discourse on the nature of Christ and how we should act as followers of Christ. In this epistle, Paul is writing to the church at Philippi. One of the issues he addresses in this letter is a petty and self-serving conflict within the church. Instead of simply telling the church that they need to shape up, Paul points to Jesus as the model of how they should live and relate to others.
Even though Jesus is “in the form of God,” he does not use that as an excuse to exploit his power, and acts with humility and self-sacrificing love. This is manifest in the incarnation – Jesus is willing to live with us despite our failings and mortality – and Jesus’ death on the cross. Because of Jesus’ humility, he is exalted by God. Jesus demonstrates an upside-down kingdom – one in which “the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16). In this kingdom, humility – not coercion – results in exultation and rejoicing in heaven. Jesus inverts our expectations by confronting the powers of sin and death not with more violence but by submitting even to death.
Paul suggests that since even Jesus – the Son of God – emptied himself so radically, we should also live with one another in love and humility, not acting selfishly, even “having the same love” as Jesus and considering others’ needs and interests before our own. As followers of Jesus, we must be transformed according to the nature of Christ.
The Psalmist bemoans the lowliness and reproachful nature of mankind. “My strength fails and my bones waste away; I am repulsive and an object of scorn and dread for others; I am forgotten, a broken vessel; my life is spent with grief; I hear the slander and whispering of many, as they scheme to take away my life.” Wow, this sounds like the ultimate in glass half-empty pessimism! How awful are these words, and how can there be any hope, with these kinds of thoughts?
I’m reminded of reading with my granddaughter about Lowly Worm. Life can be and IS the pits at times for the poor little guy, and of course for us. We all experience depths of struggle, pain, ill health, untimely death of loved ones, etc., at different points in life. It is our reality – and even unfairly more for some of us than others – where, oh where is God in our anguish?
But of course God indeed is always there, a lifter and supporter of Lowly Worm. The underdog’s hero! How can we not overcome, and how can we not believe? God is the creator, the author and shaper of our very lives. Hosanna in the highest, yes, dancing cherubs and dancing/prancing Lowly Worm with the jaunty hat and smile! Our LORD is in our worm-mobile with us! ZOOM!!!
I adjusted my hat to shield my face from the hot Costa Rican sun and wiped my brow with a clean patch of forearm. My gloved hands gripped the shovel handle again. Lunge downward, lift.
The blade had barely scalped the tough grass from the heavy clay soil. The next spadeful was dumped into the five-gallon bucket waiting to be filled and then carried to the construction site next door. The dirt would be pounded into the floor of the structure, preparing it for a layer of concrete. The hours dragged on as my mission trip teammates and I continued to dig.
Finally, the word we longed to hear was flung from the kitchen. “Comida!” We abandoned the tools, tugged off our rubber boots so as not to track mud inside, wriggled our feet into shoes and formed a line behind the food counter. Our weariness was dissolving as we anticipated the Eating, the Sitting, the Resting.
Whether we are physically, emotionally or spiritually weary, sustaining words give hope and relief. The mission trip was two summers ago. More recently, during a time of despondency, I needed prayer from a trusted friend. “You never have to be ashamed of your weaknesses,” she reminded me. I was weary from trying to appear strong, when she was graciously allowing me to fall apart. When we think we are disgraced, the God of rest graces us with help. Once strengthened in that humble place of need, we can go forth proclaiming, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
We had the privilege of gathering with the Costa Rican church in their new, not-quite-finished building the night before we left them. The worship we offered to God there on plastic chairs with dirt beneath our feet was well worth our labor of service.
Lord Jesus, thank you for coming to Earth as the word made flesh. My needy life is nourished as I hear your word through Holy Scripture and when you speak through your servants. Open my ears to the Holy Spirit today, and teach me how to speak encouragement to any who are longing for a word of comfort and hope.
Palm Sunday is approaching. The day the Messiah triumphantly rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the day the masses waved palm branches to usher him in, the day the city rejoiced at his coming. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” they cried. The last time such infectious rejoicing was recorded was when the angels heralded Jesus’s birth. “Glory to God in the highest!” It was the beginning of something new. And indeed, this was something very new.
One of the first things Jesus did when he arrived in Jerusalem was to overturn the tables in the temple, to refocus the people on the true meaning of worship: an earnest communion with God that transcends circumstances. Jesus could count with his fingers the number of days until his crucifixion, the ultimate expression of love and worship, and he saw a deep need for the people to re-center themselves on God.
A monumental shift was imminent; an unprecedented transformation was about to completely redefine how God would relate to God’s people. God, Jesus, our high priest-king in the order of Melchizedek would lay himself down on the altar instead of our sacrifices. This single act upended the entire Jewish religious system: no more sacrifices, no more high priests, no more mediation between humans and God. Jesus knew exactly what his death and resurrection would entail, and he recognized that if the people weren’t truly communing with God, they wouldn’t have a clue of what had just happened.
Life is unpredictable, and it’s easy for me to forget that in my everyday routine. Not if, but when the next big change broadsides me, will I suddenly realize I’ve drifted from the Center, or will my worship anchor me to the sovereign God?
It’s hard to imagine spring in the midst of winter. When sub-zero temperatures hold the landscape in a frigid grip, and snow falls again and again—often driven by fierce winds—the promise of spring seems remote and unreal. Yet the grains that are buried deep beneath the snow need this dormant time, this death, in order to sprout and reproduce themselves many times over in the warmth of spring.
Jesus uses the metaphor of grain to capture the promise and victory of the resurrection. He was troubled about what must happen to him first. Yet he was obedient, knowing “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour,” and knowing his death and resurrection would glorify God and draw all people to himself. Because of Jesus, we too have victory over sin and death. Thanks be to God!
Dear Jesus, I praise you for giving me life. Help me die to my self-centeredness and understand more fully the mystery of your life within me. As with the wonder of seeds in springtime, help me lose my life to find it and so bear much fruit for your kingdom. Amen
In the bulb there is a flower
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree.
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody.
There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity.
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In today’s passage, the writer of Hebrews reflects upon Jesus’ ‘days of flesh’ – his embodiment as human, capable of pain, capable of sorrow. Jesus chose to identify fully with humanity.
Some years ago, I lived in an urban neighborhood that was beset by skunks every spring. For the most part, they were not too much of a nuisance – one learned to steer clear of them, and hoped that outdoor pets would do the same. However, one year we discovered a family taking up residence underneath our backyard deck. City animal control came and set no-kill traps in order to capture and release the critters elsewhere.
One day after work I noticed a baby skunk had been trapped in the cage. The distressed mama skunk worriedly paced around the cage. Meanwhile, the rest of the litter came from beneath the deck to go to the mama skunk, which meant that she had to keep tending to them as well, sending them back to safety under the house. As a mama myself, I imagined the panic these creatures must have felt. I was struck by the mama skunk’s determination to not leave any of her babies, no matter the cost. Some may believe the so-called “lower” animals only operate by instinct, and are not capable of “human” emotions, like love and fear.
It is a wonder that our God has chosen to enter into our human experience – love, fear, pain, sorrow – all of it. Through Jesus, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe knows intimately all that we can know. And loves us through it.
Here we have two very useful “morning after” Psalms. Take these with a glass of water and some Advil. Maybe some tears and a nap.
David’s raw, painful words are so human. David, beloved of God, knew what it was like to screw up. Royally. To be honest, I used to detest David for his stupidity, for the way he treated Bathsheba and had her husband killed. I couldn’t believe that he could still be so precious to God. I thought he should have been banished, out of the public eye and especially out of God’s favor.
I think I’m beginning to understand why he and these words are so precious to God. These Psalms are what real relationship is all about. God wants us – more of us – all of the time. No matter what we do. God wants us to come back ‘prodigal son’ style and we will be welcomed with open arms. God wants us to cry out, to utter these words, or our own version of them, because that means we are in relationship. For many of us, when we make a mistake, we have the opposite approach: to run away. To cover up like Adam and Eve in the garden, to hightail it in the opposite direction like Jonah did. But in these Psalms, David is running straight into God’s arms. Over, and over again.
And God’s response? Love. Over, and over again.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
so that I may not sin against you.
Today’s passage has always been a high point of the Old Testament for me, presaging in many ways the good news delivered by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Like me, have you ever wondered what it will take for humanity to “cease its warring madness” rather than descend into yet another conflict? To live in harmony and partnership with the rest of the Creation rather than at odds with and exploiting our fellow creatures? For your own life to be marked by contentment, joy and righteousness rather than anxiety and what-ifs? If so, then this passage is for you!
As with Jesus’ reassurances in the Beatitudes, Jeremiah’s striking prophecy here assures us that the Lord is already in the process of bringing holistic righteousness to all of the earth – a new time is coming! This time, unlike that marked by the brokenness that we all know too well, will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. That knowledge will be written on our very heart, and on all of our hearts. The time of teaching and training, chastising and molding each other will be over. All of us, “from the least to the greatest,” will simply live in God’s righteousness and grace as fish live in water. Faithful living will no longer be a struggle, no longer something that we succeed in accomplishing only sometimes. We will finally be complete humans, ready to live in God’s image and as faithful spouses to the One whose own power and grace makes it possible. Thanks be to God!
Have you ever saved a phone message from a special person because you want to listen to it again in the future? Do you have any handwritten notes from close friend that you keep in special box or folder? Have you sought out a speaker for a personal conversation after hearing an inspiring seminar? What symbols, photos, objects or icons do you keep within sight at your desk because they represent a special experience or person?In each of these cases there is a message that is a treasure with great meaning for you. The message resonates with the core of your being. You don’t want to let it go. You want to be reminded of a relationship that moves your heart and mind. A well-spoken word from a close friend is cherished.
God through Christ offers these kinds of messages to us. The messages are powerful and loving, but they are not static. They call us to move into new frames of being. The scriptures for this week tell us that change is afoot. Something new is emerging for those who seek. So, how do we get to the new? The following actions named in the texts are all part of bringing about inner transformation.
Let Christ’s actions mold and shape the core of our being. May the message of God’s love and grace be engraved in our hearts. The one who is gentle in spirit will renew us from the inside out and form an amazing upside down newness.