For All People

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “For All People” Luke 2:8-20

Zuph was crying again. The poor boy.  His silent mouth was slack and open. Every so often, he would draw a deep shuddering breath.  His eyes brimmed with tears which spilled down his cheeks and fell onto his tunic.  Zupf had been with me for a year.  His father had been forced to sell him to Ari the tax collector to cover his debt.

I remember the day Zupf arrived.  His father and mother, putting on a brave face, had brought him to my camp. His father tried to comfort him, “Zupf it’s only for six years at the most.  Sooner if there is a time of Jubilee.” 

But there was no Jubilee in Israel in those days, not since the Romans had arrived forty years ago.  They had put an end to our petty skirmishes and infighting, but they had done so with an iron fist.  Now we were home to Caesar’s legions, and we paid a pretty tax to house, clothe, and feed the very people who occupied us.  God forbid that you couldn’t afford the tax.  You could end up like Zupf.  Just yesterday news had arrived from his father.  Zupf’s mother had died in childbirth.  The boy was bereft. He hadn’t spoken a word, but these tears, they came and went, like a great tide of grief rising to overflow.

I stirred the campfire and placed a hand of comfort on Zupf’s shoulder.  My movement woke the young dog that Zupf snuggled in his lap.  Zupf was training him with my two dogs to work the sheep, but the pup’s best work was done right here, at the campfire at night, offering solace to the boy.  The young dog’s tail thumped, and he raised his head to lick the tears from Zupf’s cheeks.

“Come now, Zupf,” I tried to comfort him.  “Perhaps Ari the tax collector will let you go home to visit your father for a day or two.  The dogs and Dodo and I can watch the flocks.”  But Zupf continued to weep.  Who could blame him?

At the sound of his name, our fellow shepherd Dodo stirred.  He was an ancient Nabatean, one of the desert people. As a youth, he had worked with camels, accompanying the great caravans that crossed the Eastern Desert and the Sinai Wilderness.  But camels are a young man’s work. A whiff of age or weakness and the camels will not honor your voice, feigning deafness and indifference to the touch and words that once called them to work. Rather than beat the beasts, Dodo had left them. Ari the tax collector had found him in Jericho and hired him to tend sheep and goats with us. Dodo spoke little, and when he did, in the tradition of the Nabati, he spoke mostly in verse, bits of poetry rolling from his tongue at the strangest of times, like a cool wind in the desert.

In response to my suggestion that Ari the tax collector might let Zupf visit his father, Dodo shook his head and said, “Tsssst, Gad. Do not fill the boy with false hope.”

“To look for kind favors from misers

is like fertilizing date palms during harvest

or like boiling hoes to produce broth,

milking billy goats instead of camel’s udders —

who ever heard of milk from testicles?”

I laughed out loud and Zupf looked a little brighter.

I was no debt slave nor a Nabatean poet. Indeed, my family has tended flocks on these hills from before the days of David. It takes great skill to do the job well. The spring grass soon withers and fades. Only those who have spent their lives on this land know where grass lingers or where water springs from the bedrock. Only those who are born to it know the wisdom of gathering the flocks at night and sheltering in caves.  A small fire at the mouth of the grotto, a circle of sleeping shepherds, and our sheepdogs keep the four-legged and two-legged predators at bay. Sometimes there is danger. A thief once knifed me in the back while I slept, but his blade glanced off my ribs and my dog fought him off, chasing him into the darkness.

My father named me Gad, which means lucky. On that night, I lived up to my name.  But there is little honor in being a shepherd in these troubled times.  We once tended our own flocks, but since the Roman’s arrived, the rich get richer and the poor, well, you know what happens to the poor. My grandfather was the last of our line to own his animals, a fine collection of sheep and goats, rich with milk and fleece and meat.  Now, I see the ancestors of those fine beasts, all in the massive flock of Ari the tax collector. Ari tells me I am lucky to have a job and his patronage.  He wags his finger at me, “Unclean shepherds like you, Gad, where would you be without me? Who would have you?”

It was then that I noticed the disquiet of the animals.  My dogs were up.  Panting, they paced back and forth across the entrance to the grotto, whining and drooling.  The flock, too, sensed some strangeness in the night. First one, then another, and then every beast was bleating and baaahing and filling the cave with a storm of noise. Zupf stopped crying. Dodo shifted and cast a suspicious eye at the night sky, murmuring,

“When spirits in the darkness walk,

the heart of the beast kneels.”

Now every hair on my head rose like palm fronds before the scirocco.  The stars swirled and danced in the darkness of the heavens.  A low vibration thrummed against my ears and shook dust loose from the roof of the grotto. My dogs stopped and dropped with their bellies to the ground and heads up, alert, as if listening to a silent command.

Then we saw it, beyond the pale of the fire’s light, a radiant figure drew near. His robes flashed with brilliance.  His face was so dazzling that I could only look in small glimpses from the corner of my eyes. He smiled at us with a genuine warmth, as if the company of shepherds was the most desirable thing in the world.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

All at once, the swirling stars stood fixed. The heavens surged with a heavenly host, bright beings rejoicing together, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Whether it lasted a moment or an eternity, I cannot say. Perhaps we had slipped beyond time and into the eternal realm.  Abruptly, the celebration stopped, and there we were, three poor shepherds around a dying fire. Zupf’s eyes had gone wide with wonder. My dogs stood expectant at the grotto’s mouth. The sheep and goats settled, chewing and shifting in the dark.

It was Dodo who broke the silence.  He creaked to his feet, drew his camel’s hair mantle around his shoulders, and leaned upon his staff.

“I seek the bright promise.

The heavens speak

good news for all people.

Am I not a man?”

We did something that I have never done in all my shepherding life.  We left my dogs to guard the flock alone, regardless of the consequences that Ari the tax collector might exact if he knew we had deserted our posts.  Then, Dodo limping along with his staff, Zupf trailing his young dog, and I made haste to Bethlehem. 

There in the grotto behind the inn, where they stable the beasts, we found things exactly as the angel had promised: a wondrous child, swaddled in linen and tucked into a stone feeding trough. Even the beasts knelt in quiet reverence of the babe.  We told our story and watched in adoration until the first hint of dawn softly touched the eastern horizon.

We returned to our flocks, each wrapped in a world of silent thought. Zupf’s mood had lightened. He tossed a stick for his dog, the two youngsters playing across the fields with a quiet joy that I had never seen in the year since Zupf had come to me.  I weighed the musing of my heart.  How could it be that God would bring such good news to us, the biggest nobodies in all of Israel? I looked out as the first rays of the sun rose about the rim of the earth and brightened the dusty hills.  Perhaps God’s thoughts were not like human thoughts.  I straightened my back. Maybe there was still honor in shepherding. Maybe, in the eyes of Yahweh, I truly was lucky. I laughed out loud at the thought, joy cascading within me like the waterfall at ein Gedi.

Dodo the Nabatean stopped and raised his hands to greet the new day.

“Like the camel

scenting water

in the desert waste,

I fall headlong

into the arms

of God.”

Author’s note: This story was inspired by the murals of the Shepherds’ Field Chapel in Bethlehem, the tradition of nabati poetry, and a rogue camel at the Bedouin race track. The first poem is a traditional one by the nabati poet Hmidan al-Shwe’n. The others are original.


Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Luke 2:8-20” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 25, 2015. Accessed online at

C. Clifton Black. “Commentary on Luke 2:8-20” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 25, 2017. Accessed online at

Alia Yunis. “Preserving Arabia’s Bedouin Poetry” in Aramco World, May/June 2021. Accessed online at

Luke 2:8-20

8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

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God Is with Us

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” – Matthew 1:23

The first time I saw Mary, she was a still a girl, walking with a water jar perfectly balanced on top of her head.  She walked with grace and purpose, as if an inner light guided her steps.  Our eyes met, and I felt an instant sense of recognition, as if we knew one another in some deep and ancient way.  My heart was beating like the wings of a hummingbird, and my mouth felt strange and dry.  “What are you looking at, Joseph?”  my mother called.  “Oh, mother,” I answered, a little dazed, “I think I just saw my wife.”  My sisters laughed and began to tease, “Joseph is in love!  Joseph wants a wife!”  But my mother didn’t laugh.  She looked at me thoughtfully, as if measuring the weight of my words.  She shaded her eyes against the early morning light and looked at Mary, her small, slight figure made strangely tall by the water jug.

I was not much more than a boy at the time, but already I had strong hands and broad shoulders from working with my father.  We were carpenters.  You name it; we made it – benches, tables, doors, yokes, plows, troughs, even a rudder for your boat.  We were known for our honesty and skill.  No one was rich in Galilee in those days, except maybe the tax collectors.  Half of all we earned went to fill the coffers of the Roman Empire.  Sometimes late at night, I would hear my mother whispering her worries – how would they pay their taxes, put food on the table, and afford a bride price so that I could someday marry?  My father Jacob was a righteous man.  He said, “If God could provide a ram when Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, then God will certainly provide for us.  God is with us!”

I loved the Sabbath day best.  On Fridays, as sundown neared, my father would look up and say, “Shabbat shalom!  The peace of the Sabbath be with you, my son!”  We would put aside our work, bathe, anoint our heads with a few drops of precious oil, wrap ourselves in our tallits, and pray.  Then, after dinner, we would listen as father told wonderful stories of God’s saving work for our people – leading them out of slavery in Egypt, delivering them from the Philistines by the hand of our forefather David, and bringing them home from exile in Babylon.  Always, he finished the evening with the words, “Children, never forget – God is with us!”

As time passed, I worked hard and grew strong.  Always, I kept my eyes open for Mary, and sometimes I saw her, returning from the cistern or buying in the market.  I tried my very best to hide my interest, but always the beating of my heart like a hammer on a workbench sent a flush to my cheeks.  Soon my sisters would notice and the teasing would begin anew: “Joseph is in love!  Joseph wants a wife!”  Then one day, as my father and I were walking home, we passed our street and continued walking to a different part of Nazareth.  Thinking of my mother’s fresh bread, hot from the oven, ready for our supper, I said, “But Abba, where are you going?  Mother will wonder what is keeping us.”  My father gave me a knowing look, “Joseph, I think we should stop and visit with Joachim and Anna on the way home. What do you think?”  All the blood drained from my face.  Joachim and Anna were Mary’s parents.  We were going to Mary’s house!  I must have looked like I was ready to run away because my father linked his arm through mine and said, “Yes, Joseph!  I think a little visit would be quite nice.”

Mary’s house was at the very edge of Nazareth.  Her parents had a small olive grove, and in the middle of their grove stood an ancient press carved out of bedrock where the ripe fruit was rendered into precious oil.  My father strode into their yard and called out, “Brother Joachim, Sister Anna, shalom!”  The door opened, and Anna shooed a number of small children out into the yard, all curious eyes and smiling faces.  They seemed to be expecting us.  The table was set, and the wonderful aromas of baking bread, goat stew, and garlic filled the house.  There with her mother was Mary.  I noticed how grown up she had gotten, taller than her mother now, with her beautiful long hair covered like a grown woman.

We took seats at the table with Joachim while Anna and Mary buzzed about, bringing savory dishes for us to taste.  I wanted to say shalom, but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out, except a funny little noise like the mewling of a kitten.  Thank goodness that everyone ignored me.  I closed my mouth and pretended to be very interested in what Joachim and my father had to say.  On and on, they talked, about weather, olives, fishing, and taxes.  Anna and Mary disappeared into the yard when a loud squawking suggested that the children were up to no good with the chickens. 

As we were preparing to leave, my father said to Joachim, “Your oldest girl, what is her name?”  “Ah!”  Joachim smiled, “Mary!  The apple of my eye!  Strong, beautiful, kind, righteous, hardworking!  Such a treasure!”  “Mary,” my father said thoughtfully, “She must be getting old enough to think about a husband.”  At this, I immediately felt sweat pouring down my sides and collecting in a large puddle on the bench.  “Yes, a husband!” Joachim answered, as if he had never thought of this before.  “But where is one to find a husband worthy of my Mary in all of Nazareth?”  I began to feel dizzy, and my hammering heart threatened to explode right out of my chest.  I could tell that Joachim’s attention had shifted to me, so I looked at the floor and held my breath.  “Yes,” my father said in that same thoughtful tone, “Where indeed?  Perhaps the Lord will provide.  God is with us!  Well, Joachim, we must be on our way.”  We stood up and the men embraced.  I blushed as I heard Joachim whisper to my father, “He doesn’t talk much, does he?” and my father whispered back, “No, but he is like Mary, strong and well made, kind, righteous, and hardworking.”  As we walked back down the lane away from Mary’s house, my father casually asked, “Joseph, don’t you think Mary would make a fine wife?”  Suddenly I found my tongue, “Yes, Father, the very best!”

A week later, we went back to Mary’s house with my whole family.  The rabbi and two witnesses came along.  My father brought more money than I had ever seen.  How he had saved it from the tax collectors, I will never know.  He paid the bride price for Mary, the rabbi blessed our betrothal, and the witnesses said, “Amen!”  It was official now – I would be Mary’s husband and she would be my wife.  I don’t know who was more frightened, Mary or me.  Joachim poured wine for us, and my father raised a glass, saying, “L’ Chaim! God is with us!”  Out in the yard, I could hear my sisters singing with Mary’s sisters, “Joseph is in love!  Joseph has a wife!”  In a year’s time, we would celebrate our marriage.  For now, Mary would stay in her parent’s house and continue to learn and grow, while my father and I would prepare a place for her in our house, adding a room to our home. That night, by the light of the oil lamp, I began to work on a special project, a wedding gift for Mary, a cradle where we would rock our first child.

I’m not sure when I began to wonder if something was wrong.  One day I saw Mary’s mother in the market with her younger children.  When I called out, “Anna, shalom!” she nodded and hurried off.  The neighbors began to whisper, and when I approached, they would fall silent.  I no longer saw my strong and graceful Mary returning from the cistern, a water jar perfectly balanced on her head.  Then one night Joachim knocked at our door.  He looked tired and worried.  “Jacob, come walk with me,” he waved to my father, and the two men strolled off into the warm night air.

The next morning, I noticed that my father had the same tired and worried look that I had seen on Joachim’s face.  It was a Friday, and all day long he was quiet, as if deep in thought.  As the evening drew near, for the first time in my life, I was the first to say, “Shabbat shalom!  The peace of the Sabbath be with you, father!”  “Ah, Joseph,” he smiled back, “It is good to remember the Sabbath day.  God is with us.”  We went home to bathe and pray and eat.  After dinner, my father told stories, strange stories of our ancestors: Abraham and Sarah blessed with a baby in their old age; Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into giving her the child she deserved; Ruth, the Moabite, who came to Israel a poor widow, only to become the great-grandmother of a king.  One by one, the children fell asleep, and then my mother went in to bed, and only my father and I were left, seated in silence in the flickering lamplight.

My eyes were heavy with sleep when my father said, “Joseph, Mary is with child.”  At once I was wide awake, trying to make sense of what I had heard.  He continued with great seriousness, “You know, Joseph, in places like Jerusalem, they may not honor the old ways and wait for the wedding day, but we are not like that here.  You have brought shame upon this family and upon your bride.”  My mind was reeling, trying to understand.  “Mary is with child?”  I asked.  My father raised his eyebrows and opened his hands in a little gesture, as if to say, “What did you expect?”  “But father,” I blurted out, “we didn’t, it’s impossible, no!”  My father only shook his head, “Yes, Joseph.  It is true.”  His shoulders slumped, and with a long sigh he buried his face in his rough hands.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t think.  It felt as if the walls of the house were closing in around me.  I jumped up, sending my chair over backwards, and ran out into the streets of Nazareth.

For hours I walked, trying to puzzle it out.  My father thought that I had been with Mary, and we had conceived a child, but I knew otherwise.  That meant that Mary had been with someone else.  But who?  And how?  And why?  It made no sense.  Mary, so strong and kind and righteous, would never dishonor her family or our betrothal.  Would she?  Perhaps I had been wrong about her, blinded by love.  Perhaps she was laughing at me.  She didn’t want to marry me at all, and this was the only way she could get out of it.  What should I do?  Righteousness required that I tell the truth and release Mary from our engagement.  Then she would be free to marry the father of her child.  But what if he was a dishonorable man and rejected her?  Then she would have to depend upon the good will of her family to support her.  I knew of women who had been turned out by their families, who were forced to earn their keep on the streets as prostitutes.  I had even heard stories of angry husbands who, when confronted with their wives’ adultery, demanded that they be stoned.  I thought of my beloved Mary publicly shamed, or selling herself for a living with a baby on her hip, or broken, bleeding, and dying upon the ground, and my heart broke.  I began to weep, shaking my fist at the night sky, lamenting the loss of our future together and the end of my dreams for a happy home with my wonderful bride.

When I got back to the house, my father had gone to bed.  I sat at the table and stared at the oil lamp.  My eyes became heavy, and I nodded.  Before I knew it, my head was on the table, sound asleep.  “Joseph!”  Was I dreaming?  “Joseph!”  I heard a voice.  “Joseph!”  I looked around, and there was an angel, a messenger from God, fiery and bright!  I hid my face in fear.  “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.’”  Suddenly, I was wide-awake.  I looked around the room, now empty and quiet.  I tried to think.  I had heard of angels appearing to my forefathers, to Jacob and to Joshua and to Isaiah.  Was this truly an angel appearing to me?  Could a virgin conceive?  Would God choose Mary and me to raise a holy child, a child to become the great salvation of our people?

I remembered the ancient stories of God’s saving work for Israel.  I remembered God’s faithfulness.  My father always said, “God is with us,” but until that moment, I don’t think I truly knew what he meant.  God is always at work in the lives of faithful people, seeking their wholeness and redemption.  Now God was asking me to be a part of God’s great plan, to create a safe place, a holy family, where a Messiah could grow.  In that moment, I knew what I must do.  I put out the lamp and went to bed, slipping into a troubled sleep where I dreamt of royal stars rising in the east and astrologer kings crossing desert sands with rare gifts.

When I awoke the next morning, my father was already up, wrapped in his tallit, praying the ancient prayers.  I took out my tallit, touched it to my lips, and we prayed together.  When we finished, I turned to my father and said, “Abba, it’s time that I brought my bride home.  I think I can have Mary’s cradle ready just in time to welcome a son.”  My father smiled.  “Ah, Joseph, I see you are indeed a righteous man.  It will be good to welcome your wife into our home.”  He gripped me in a big bear hug that squeezed the air right out of my lungs.  “So,” he said as we prepared to break our fast, “You think it’s going to be a boy, do you?  Have you given any thought to the name Emmanuel?  God is with us!”

This story is from my upcoming book Testament.

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December Moon

Poem for a Tuesday — “December Moon” by May Sarton

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
Where the wild creatures ranged
While the moon rose and shone.

Why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright,
What worlds of play we’ll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.

in Good Poems, New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 306.

Born in Belgium, May Sarton emigrated with her family to the United States as a small child at the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, a science historian, taught at Harvard. Sarton returned to Europe as a young adult and traveled in literary circles, meeting Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Julian and Juliette Huxley. Her extensive body of work, which included poetry, novels, journals, and essays, was controversial for the time, exploring themes of feminism and sexuality. Linda Barrett Osborne, critic for the Washington Post Book World, once noted that “in whatever May Sarton writes one can hear the human heart pulsing just below the surface.”

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Not What You Expected

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Not What You Expected” Matthew 11:2-12

On a high bluff rising 3,500 feet above the surrounding desert, sixteen miles southeast of where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, stood the hilltop fortress of Machaerus.  In the year 40BC, Herod the Great saw the strategic importance of the site.  From Machaerus, eastern invaders from Arabia could be easily spotted and signal fires ignited to warn fortifications to the west at Masada, Herodion, and Jerusalem.  Herod built a lavish palace and fortified compound atop the bluff.  A walled garden, elaborate Roman baths, ornate living quarters, two dining rooms, and carefully tiled mosaic floors were surrounded by massive stone walls with watch towers that soared ninety feet above the ramparts. Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder described the stronghold as the most strongly fortified place in all of Judea, a statement supported by its name.  Machaerus means “the sword” or “the edge of the knife.”

John the Baptist came to Machaerus as a prisoner. His prophecy of the coming Messiah and his criticism of the bigamy of the king’s wife had made him powerful enemies.  At Machaerus, John was likely held captive in an empty cistern, an enormous underground vault cut from the bedrock and lined with plaster.  Dark and windowless, the cistern would have been a miserable place to live in isolation.  There John brooded on his thoughts and prophesied to the echoing walls.  We know from scripture that the king feared John and the queen hated him.  When Oscar Wilde wrote the libretto for the Opera Salome, he imagined the king peering into the dungeon, both fascinated and horrified by the prophet imprisoned within.

By the time John sent word to Jesus in our reading from Matthew’s gospel, the prophet had been imprisoned for two years.  It was clear to John that, unless the king were overthrown, he would never walk out of Machaerus alive.  Back when Jesus had come to him at the River Jordan, John was convicted that the Messiah had finally come.  So certain was he that he refused at first to baptize Jesus, declining the honor on the basis that he was unworthy of the task (Matt. 3).  But two years in Machaerus can change a man, begin to break him, and rattle his faith.  Where was the fire and brimstone that John had imagined the Messiah would bring?  Where was the conquering army that the Messiah would lead?  Would the Messiah allow John, who had prepared the way of the Lord, to die in prison?

John the Baptist was not alone in his anticipation of a different kind of Messiah.  Some sects of first century Judaism, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in a Messiah at all.  The Essenes at Qumran, on the other hand, believed there would be two Messiahs: one a military leader and the other a sage and teacher of the law. Most who looked for the Messiah agreed that the “coming one” would be a king like David.  This warrior king would unite the Israelites, put an end to the foreign occupation, and usher in an era of peace, independence, and prosperity.

Jesus failed to meet the messianic expectations of John the Baptist, the Essenes, and pretty much everyone else.  In the response that Jesus shared with John’s messengers, Jesus described the actions that the Prophet Isaiah said would be the sign of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 29, 35, 61).  The ears of the deaf would be opened. The blind would see. Newfound mobility would come to the lame.  The mute would speak.  The brokenhearted would find comfort. And the poor would be blessed with good news.  Instead of insisting on his messianic identity, Jesus urged John to simply take a look at what he was doing.  In Jesus’s ministry, the long-promised work of the Messiah was already underway in compassionate acts of mercy, forgiveness, and love.  “Consider the evidence,” Jesus was saying to John, “And please don’t be offended that I am not what you expected.”

We don’t need to be imprisoned in a mountaintop fortress like John, to feel that we need a Messiah. New Testament scholar Ronald J. Allen teaches that John the Baptist’s query, “Are you the one who is to come?” is the most important question of this Advent season.  We all need a savior, but like our ancestors in the faith, our longings and expectations for “the one who is to come” may or may not be met by Jesus.

We want a Messiah who will ride in on a white horse and free us from the enmity and bitter division of our political landscape.  We want a Messiah who will take away our grief and put a “don’t worry, be happy” smile upon our faces.  We want a Messiah who will smite our enemies, reinforce our world view, and describe a God who is created in our own image. We want a Messiah who will fix our marriage for us, make our children behave, and give us a nice pay raise.  We want a Messiah who will save us in the way we want, when we want it to happen, and that had better be sooner than later. 

If the Messiah doesn’t give us what we want, we just may take offense.  We say, “He’s not the real deal. God wouldn’t work in that way. God wouldn’t love those people.  This so-called Messiah isn’t worth our prayers, our devotion, or our Sunday mornings.” The Messiah comes on his own terms, with compassion, healing, forgiveness, and love, but we would rather sit in the dark prison of our disappointed expectations. 

We don’t know what happened when John’s disciples made the long journey back from Galilee to Machaerus and shared what Jesus had to say. I suspect that they shared with John not only the words that Jesus had spoken, but also the signs and wonders that they saw unfolding in Jesus’s ministry.  They talked about the demon-possessed man in Capernaum who had found his right mind with Jesus’s help.  They described the beautiful healed skin of the leper whom Jesus had touched. They shared the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount and the exhortation to love God and neighbor. They shook their heads over the mystery of outsiders being welcomed, sinners forgiven, and fresh starts for hurting lives.  There was so much good news, even if it wasn’t the message that John wanted to hear.

I like to think that when John was executed not long afterward, he was at peace.  The gospels and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tell us that John was beheaded in the year 32, the year before Jesus would himself run afoul of Herod and Pilate and find himself in prison, facing execution.  God had confounded all John’s expectations, but this Jesus, this unorthodox Messiah, was a sign that God’s Kingdom and power were always at work in the midst of this hurting and broken world.  This unlikely Messiah and the improbable Kingdom would always grow within the kingdoms of the world, finding fresh expression wherever faithful people would follow the way of Jesus and commit to lives of mercy, compassion, and boundless love.  On this Advent Sunday when we light the candle of joy, I like to imagine that Jesus’s assurance brought John quiet joy amid the darkness of Machaerus. I like to imagine that we too can find joy in that assurance, regardless of the trials of our lives and our world.

In the year 66CE, Herod’s kingdom fell when Jewish rebels revolted and seized the fortress of Machaerus.  It took the Romans four years to put down the rebellion. In the year 70CE, they destroyed Jerusalem. Then, the Roman legion of Lucilius Bassus was assigned to exterminate the last rebel holdouts at Herodion, Massada, and Machaerus.  The Romans arrived at the Edge of the Knife in the year 72CE, set up camp, and began to build an immense earthen ramp to accommodate their siege engines and breach the stronghold’s walls.  When they saw the inevitability of their defeat, the rebels surrendered.  They were allowed to leave and disappeared into the trans-Jordan wilderness and the mists of history.  The Romans destroyed Machaerus, tearing down the impressive towers and stone walls, leaving behind only the dim outlines of its once mighty foundations. 

The kingdoms of man rise and fall: Herod, the rebels, the Romans. Yet the Kingdom of God persists whenever we surrender our false expectations and follow the Messiah with mercy, compassion, and boundless love.  Blessed are we when we do not take offense.


Stanley Saunders. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec.  11, 2022.  Accessed online at

Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 11, 2016.  Accessed online at

Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 15, 2013.  Accessed online at

James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2007.  Accessed online at

Markus Milligan. “Machaerus–The Palace Fortress of King Herod” in Heritage Daily, Dec. 28, 2020. Accessed online at

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist” in Bible History Daily, June 28, 2022. Accessed online at

Saeb Rawashdeh. “Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations” in The Jordan Times, March 14, 2019. Accessed online at

Pat McCarthy. “Machaerus” in See the Holy Land: Jordan. Accessed online at

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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The Promise of Peace

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Promise of Peace” Isaiah 11:1-9

On this second Sunday in Advent, we light the candle of peace.  Yet peace feels hard to come by this year. Tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula as Kim Jong Un escalates weapons testing and the South responds with further sanctions. In Ukraine, as troops recover territory once occupied by Russian invaders, they discover a trail of human rights abuses left behind.  All the while, the Russian missiles fall, destroying Ukraine’s power and energy infrastructure as winter approaches.

We long for peace within our nation.  We are wearied by the polarization that casts our political rivals as mortal enemies.  We are heartbroken by the continuing tide of gun violence.  611 mass shootings this year have wounded 3,179 people and taken 637 lives. We are frightened by the rise in hate.  Last month’s shooting in Colorado Springs is the most recent attack in growing violence against our LGBTQ neighbors.  Dark memories of the Holocaust stir amid a surge of antisemitic rhetoric by celebrities, athletes, and politicians.

We long for peace in our homes. Christmas reminds us of the wounds that every family bears.  Our thoughts brush up against our estranged kin, once a part of our holiday joy and now a painful memory of alienation.  As we put on a good show for the gathered clan, we may struggle in marriages grown strained and distant.  We’ll face long-held patterns of family dysfunction: our drunken uncle, the harshly critical parent, the debt-burdened shopaholic. 

We light the candle of peace this morning, longing for the peace of our world, our nation, and our homes.

In the 8th century BC, when Isaiah spoke God’s promise of a coming king and a transformed world, the Hebrew people were far from peace.  The Assyrian Empire was ascendant, marching out of the north like a swarm of locusts.  They excelled at war, having mastered the art of forging iron weapons that were far superior to the bronze-age armaments of their enemies. The armies of Assyria had engineering units to set up ladders and ramps, fill in moats, and dig tunnels to breach walled cities. They were among the first to build chariots, which provided greater mobility and protection on the battlefield.  One by one, the cities of the ancient near east fell to the advancing Assyrian tide.

On a national front, the Israelites knew little of peace. David may have united the twelve tribes of Israel, but within a few generations, the alliance had crumbled.  The Hebrew people had divided into two nations, the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south.  They were often at odds, allying with greater powers on the world stage to the detriment of one another. As the Assyrian army drew near, Judah refused the call to arms to help their northern brothers.  City by city, the Kingdom of Israel fell and its people were defeated and deported.

According to the Prophet Isaiah, peace was hard to find on the home front.  In oracle after oracle, the prophet denounced a people who “called evil good and good evil” (5:20). They worshipped false gods.  They loved graft and chased after bribes. They failed to defend the rights of the fatherless and refused to give justice to widows (1:23).

Over and against this backdrop of conflict and division, the Prophet Isaiah described the peace that would prevail when the Messiah came and the priorities of God’s Kingdom prevailed. According to Isaiah, on that glorious day the nation would be ruled with wisdom, understanding, and fear of the Lord. Righteousness would abound and justice would be served. In a wonderful act of rhetorical exaggeration, Isaiah cast the vision of a new Eden unfolding as the peaceable human kingdom overflowed to all creation.  Wolf and lamb, calf and lion, all would live in harmony.

Isaiah reminded the Hebrew people that God’s longing for our world is peace with justice and righteousness for all.  Isaiah held out the hope that when God’s people choose to live in accord with God’s will, they can flourish.  It’s a vision that must have sounded like music to the ears of Isaiah’s listeners.  It’s a bold picture of peaceful possibility that continues to speak to our imaginations, here and now. 

When the early church read the words of the Prophet Isaiah, they recognized Jesus in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah.  Jesus, with his deep wisdom and keen understanding of God’s law, Jesus with his deep piety and reverence, Jesus with his care for the sick and heart for the outsider, Jesus would embody those character traits of Isaiah’s coming king.  Jesus would embrace peace by welcoming strangers, sinners, and enemies. He would walk the path of non-violence, turning the other cheek to his accusers and praying for his executioners.  As those first Christians carried the Way of Jesus out into the Roman Empire, they knew that the peaceable kingdom persisted whenever wisdom and understanding, piety and love of the Lord were shared and embraced.

On the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah’s promise of the coming king and his peaceable kingdom remind us that the gap between the world that we have made for ourselves and the world that God would have us make can be bridged.  We can choose to live in accord with God’s promise of peace.  Indeed, when we live with faith and integrity as followers of Jesus, we invite God’s future into our present.  The peaceable kingdom awaits those who would serve it even now.

We can strive for the peace of our world.  We may not be able to bring Russia and Ukraine to the bargaining table, but we have worked for world peace all year long.  We have been seeking a path to bring an at-risk Afghan family from Kabul to America. We have provided much-needed care and support for vulnerable infants at the Crisis Care Nursery in Mzuzu. Through CROP Walk, we have sought to address the root causes of hunger around the globe with the programs of Church World Service.  This Christmas, we will bless our African neighbors with the gift of clean water as we receive a special offering for the Shallow Well program of Marion Medical Mission.  These are the things that make for world peace.

We can strive for the peace of our nation.  We may not be able to break the rancor and gridlock of Washington, but we can choose to make a personal difference for good.  We can refuse to call those whose opinions differ from ours “enemies.” Our dialog can be grounded in mutual respect, and we can keep the lines of communication open, even when we disagree.  We can practice non-violence and call on our elected officials to enact responsible gun legislation.  We can stand with vulnerable minorities and speak out against hateful speech that incites violence. These are the things that make for a more peaceful nation.

We can strive for the peace of our families.  This could be the year that we let bygones be bygones and reconcile with our estranged kin.  We can remember that God is at the heart of our marriage covenant and seek together to reclaim that holy center for our shared life.  We can meet those intractable family dysfunctions with love, openness, and a desire for change. Stop filling the glass of your drunken uncle.  Beg to differ with that hyper-critical parent.  Give your family shopaholic a copy of Bill McKibben’s book Hundred Dollar Holiday and encourage them to resist the relentless onslaught of commercials and catalogs that try to say Christmas is only Christmas if it comes from a store. These are the things that make for a more peaceful family.

This morning, we light the candle of peace and choose to live in accord with God’s promise of the peaceable kingdom.  Can you imagine it with me? 

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon us, with wisdom and understanding,

counsel and strength, knowledge and a healthy fear of the Lord.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Ukraine and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, North and South Korea, all will come to the table of peace. 

The hungry shall be filled, refugees will be welcomed, vulnerable babies will be blessed,

and clean water shall flow down in an unstoppable tide.

Ears will be opened. Truth will be spoken. Democrats will break bread with Republicans,

Libertarians will find common cause with Progressives, and the DC gridlock shall come to an end. 

We’ll beat our guns into ploughshares, trade our hate speech for songs of praise, and all God’s people will know safety and dignity.

There will be a balm in Gilead for the healing of our families. 

We’ll reach out with a willingness to forgive and be forgiven, and the hatchet of enmity will be forever buried. 

We’ll renew our vows and honor our children.  We’ll love more.  We’ll forgive often.  We’ll judge less.

The land will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the sea is filled with water,

and all will be well in these holy mountains,

and all God’s people will say,



Eli J. Finkel and Cynthia S. Wang. “The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism” Kellogg Insight, April 20, 2022. Accessed online at

National Geographic Society. “Assyrian Empire.” In National Geographic Resource Library, May 20, 2022. Accessed online at

Fred Gaiser. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 9, 2007. Accessed online at

Barbara Lundblad. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 8, 2013. Accessed online at

Michael Chan. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 4, 2016. Accessed online at

Isaiah 11:1-9

11A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

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Poem for a Tuesday — “Testimony” by Jane Flanders

This is how death

came to the old tree:

in a cold bolt, a single

thrust from a cloud,

in a tearing away of bark

and limbs, a piercing

of much that was necessary.

We had no choice then

but to cut it down–a pine

of great height, that knew much

about weather and small life.

It had been here longer

than any of us. And now

there is a hole in the sky.

In Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. P. 126.

Jane Flanders was a poet, musician, and gardener. A three-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, Flanders was the author of three volumes of poetry at the time of her death from cancer in 2001. Not long afterward, her husband Steve discovered more than 700 of her uncollected, unpublished poems, a number of which were subsequently published in three posthumous volumes. Reviewer Andrew Hudgins wrote that “Flanders constantly probes the commonplace, seeking what message it has to reveal about the infinite or to discover in what way a particular moment contains the eternal” (Hudson Review).

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