Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Blessed are the Peacemakers” Matthew 5:9

It’s one of Jesus’s most essential teachings. Many of us know it by heart.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But if we were to ask the man or woman on the street what a “peacemaker” is, we might be surprised at the variety of answers we get and the diverging opinions about the things that make for peace.

Young people today, especially DC comic fans, will tell you that “Peacemaker” is a super hero, well maybe a little more like an anti-hero.  This “Peacemaker” grew up in a dysfunctional family with a violent, unloving father. Peacemaker made an oath to keep the peace, regardless of the means or how many people he must kill to achieve that peace. He acts as a vigilante, leaving a destructive trail of death and mayhem in his wake.  He’s popular enough to merit his own tv series, where he is played with tongue-in-cheek humor by former pro wrestler John Cena. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

Looming larger in the imagination of older Americans is the Colt single action revolver, dubbed the Peacemaker, standard Army issue between 1873 and 1892.  This Peacemaker has been popular with ranchers, lawmen, and outlaws alike, an iconic symbol of the Wild West.  It was carried by Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Buffalo Bill Cody. General George S. Patton wore a leather gun belt that carried his Peacemaker throughout the second World War; Patton’s Peacemaker had ivory grips and was engraved with his initials and an eagle.  This is not what Jesus was talking about.

If super heroes and handguns don’t make you think peacemaker, beer might.  The Peacemaker Brewing Company in Canandaigua is known for their tasty and innovative craft beers. You can drop by the Peacemaker Brewery on Monday nights and sample the 1000-Yard-Stare Scottish Ale while you play Euchre.  Or, try Thursday night trivia with a Peacemaker Moon Perfume India Pale Ale.  January is stout month, so we have a few more days to sample the Peacemaker Ginger and Molasses Stout. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

It’s not surprising that people in Jesus’s day also had conflicting notions about peacemakers.  In the first century, the denizens of the Roman Empire saw themselves as makers of peace.  They boasted that the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – had brought stability and prosperity to their world. The Roman peace was achieved through violence. Caesar’s legions sailed and marched across the Mediterranean world to defeat local powers, depose their kings, and install their own hand-picked leaders, like King Herod and Pontius Pilate.  The Peace of Rome was costly. Troops were garrisoned in the countries they occupied, and an imperial tax was levied to cover the costs of that occupation. Challengers to the Pax Romana were met with brutality, including crucifixion.  This is not what Jesus was talking about.

Jesus’s understanding of peace was grounded in the Hebrew word for peace: shalom. Shalom has great depth of meaning, including wholeness, completeness, soundness or safety of body, health, prosperity, quiet, tranquility, contentment, friendship in relationship, non-violence, and the absence of war.  Shalom is peace that comes from God and is found when we are in right relationship with God and neighbor.  You might even say that shalom abounds when we generously and selflessly love (agape) God and neighbor.

In Jesus’s understanding, the work of shalom/peacemaking is active and ongoing.  Jesus could have said “Blessed are those who are peaceful” or “Blessed are those who have peace.” Instead, Jesus’s blessing is more nearly but less eloquently translated: “Blessed are the peace-doers.”  We are blessed when we are actively seeking and working for the wholeness, health, well-being, and non-violence of our world.

God is a peacemaker. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul described what God achieved through the cross, saying, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus, and through Jesus to reconcile everything to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). To heal the alienation that existed between humanity and God, God chose in self-giving love to become flesh and face head on the sin of our world.  The peace of God met the Pax Romana on the cross.  Instead of sin and death prevailing, God worked a miracle of life. Jesus rose and lives, always reaching out to us with love and forgiveness, so that we can in turn reach out to one another with love and forgiveness. As children of God, we are called to be busy with our Father’s work.  We are called to pursue God’s peacemaking.

When we choose to be makers of peace and live as children of God, we begin to move and think and act in ways that bring wholeness, safety, good will, and non-violence to our lives and the lives of those around us.  In a world where partisan politics have us drawing dividing lines, the work of peace demands that we stay in relationship with others, even when we disagree with them.  In a world that can often be bigoted and intolerant of diversity, we honor and respect others, regardless of skin color, gender identity, religion, nation, or physical ability. In a world where gossip, trash talk, and insults abound, peacemakers guard their tongues.  Those who follow Jesus in paths of peace refuse to return evil for evil; we turn the other cheek to those who do us harm and even violence.  These are the things that make for peace. This is what Jesus is talking about.

Those who would make peace learn to live into the prayer of Francis of Assisi,

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

In a world where the name “Peacemaker” is more often associated with super heroes, hand guns, and beer than it is with God’s work of wholeness, healing, and non-violence, it is up to us as children of God to follow Jesus in ways of peace.  It starts with those everyday choices we make in relating to our beloved ones, co-workers, and neighbors.  

Those paths of peace continue in our efforts as a national church through Presbyterian Peacemaking. The program works in communities across the United States and around the world to promote the things that make for peace.  Today we are partnering with the IndyTenPoint Coalition in the city of Indianapolis to address record-breaking violence and homicide. One young man made a tearful confession about growing up in places like Indy, “I was living in a community that was so violent, it was forcing me to do things I didn’t want to do but felt like I had to do.”  The IndyTenPoint program serves as a support system, providing presence in the community, mentoring, job training, avenues to employment, and school help for kids on the street who may be more likely to get involved in drug trafficking and gangs, which put them on a pathway to prison.  In the neighborhoods where IndyTenPoint has boots on the ground, the reduction in the level of shootings, stabbings, and homicides has been a shocking 100%. This is what Jesus was talking.

Presbyterian Peacemaking is also at work globally to promote non-violence, healing, and wholeness.  In Greece, we have partnered with Lesvos Solidarity, which assists Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis interned at the Pikpa Camp refugee camp. Luciano Kovacs, the PCUSA area coordinator, says, “Lesvos Solidarity is a living example of how we can show love to the stranger and promote dignity among those who flee war and poverty. Helping those who leave war-infested areas is a peacemaking act.”  Lesvos Solidarity helps with practical things: finding asylum, permanent housing, and employment.  Even more, at their Mosaik Support Center, they focus on the sort of things that make for wholeness and meaning for life in a new land, like language classes, educational activities for children, computer classes, guitar lessons, yoga classes, literature workshops, human rights workshops, poetry nights, cinema screenings, and two choirs. These are the things that make for peace. This is what Jesus was talking about.

When we go forth as peace-doers, we get blessed, even as we are a blessing.  Our relationships with family and friends are strengthened, our communities are safer, vulnerable people find encouragement and support.  When we go forth as peace-doers, this world begins to look and feel a lot less like the Pax Romana and a lot more like the Peace of Christ.  Peacemakers working together forge a Beloved Community, that earthly Kingdom that God would have us build.  Let us go forth to make peace.

Resources:

Jillian Engelhardt. “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 29, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Amy G. Oden. “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 2, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Eric Barretto. “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 2, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

This sermon drew on my research from the 2013 study series that I led on The Beatitudes.

Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/peacemaking/


Matthew 5:9

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”


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“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Poem for a Tuesday — Ross Gay “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me
so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.

in The American Poetry Review, vol. 42, no. 3.

Poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay is all about joy. His four books of poetry include Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays – The Book of Delights – was a New York Times bestseller. His current work Inciting Joy is a Publisher’s Weekly best book of 2022. Editor John Freeman says Ross’s work, “throws off so much light, I’ve often wondered if it was powered by a superior energy source.” Ross Gay teaches at Indiana University, where he gives out lots of “A” grades and invites students to wonder with him.

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My Beloved

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “My Beloved” Matthew 3:13-17

Researchers have found that the most important thing we can do to have healthy, happy, caring children is to love them.  Brain scans conducted over time at Washington University in St. Louis indicate that children with loving and supportive parents experience greater growth in the hippocampus.  That’s the region deep within the brain that is essential for memory, learning, and handling stress, all crucial factors in creating adaptive, resourceful human beings. 

Parental love is also critical for the development of self-esteem. Richard Filson and Mary Zielinski conducted landmark research in the 1980s at the University of Albany.  They learned that the most significant factor in a child’s development of healthy self-esteem is parental love and support.  Regardless of the child’s ability or aptitude, encouragement, attention, and constancy of love equipped children with a sense of competence and resilience.

Love is good for the health of our children.  Researchers at UCLA have found that children who experience low levels of love and affection, especially those who are abused, are at significant health risk, not only throughout childhood but also later in life.  Children who feel at-risk and little loved are exposed to toxic levels of stress that can affect every system in the body. Adults who emerge from an unloving nest are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness.

Dr. Barbara Frederickson of UNC Chapel Hill has determined that the experience of a loving childhood makes us better people.  Love enhances the social awareness of our children and their feelings of connection to others.  Well-loved children are more likely to have healthy relationships and feelings of oneness with others.  Children who have early loving relationships with their parents grow up to be more compassionate adults, better able to share love, empathy, and caring with those around them.

The social and scientific evidence is clear, children thrive on love.  They need our attention and praise.  They need our encouragement and kindness.  They need our willingness to engage, teach, and support. Our capacity to love our children makes a huge difference in every aspect of their lives.  When you consider the implications, our nurture and care have a powerful impact not only upon the child, but also upon our world.

In our gospel lesson today, we hear the voice of God, calling from the heavens as Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism.  God sounds a lot like a good parent, doing all those things that it has taken researchers 2,000 years, countless hours of observation, and plenty of brain scans to figure out.  God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved. I take delight in him.” 

That theophany is a holy affirmation that Jesus belongs to God—God’s child, specially loved, a source of joy, deserving of praise.  As Jesus was baptized in the muddy Jordan, he hadn’t even begun his ministry.  Not one sermon had been preached.  Not one miracle had been worked—no lepers or paralytics healed, no demons cast out or blind eyes opened.  Jesus had not changed the water into wine, walked on water, stilled the storm, or multiplied the loaves and fish.  All that ministry and mission would lie ahead of him. 

Truly, in the eyes of the first century world, Jesus hadn’t done a darned thing to deserve God’s love.  On the banks of the Jordan stood a poor pious carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee.  But apparently Jesus didn’t have to do anything to earn God’s love.  God’s limitless and overflowing love was simply there in abundance, sailing down from the heavens, calling over the waters.  I like to think that as Jesus basked in that holy love, he found that he was filled with love, and he longed for his neighbors to also know their belovedness.

If, as all four gospels suggest, Jesus’ baptism is the point of departure from which his ministry would spring, then the most important faith lesson that we can ever learn is that we are loved.  Yet we live in a world where many of us are estranged from the belovedness that all the researchers say we need to thrive, grow, and be whole.

We may come from families where our parents were too stressed out, worn out, or down and out to share the sort of open and abundant love that researchers believe we need as children.  In our experience, love may be conditional, dependent upon the neatness of our room, the grades on our report card, or how well we perform on the athletic field.  Our love and trust may have been ill-used by a hyper-critical parent, or a significant other who has broken our heart, or a best friend who betrayed our confidence.  We may feel little love from our peers in a society where the measure of our worth isn’t determined by how God sees us, but by the size of our paycheck, the car we drive, or the title we bear.  Sometimes, we feel unloved because we haven’t been very loving ourselves, and we can’t imagine that others would still love us.  We’ve hurt others, sinned, or rejected God’s love for us. 

Life and personal experience wear us down, leaving us alienated and estranged, forgetful that we are beloved.  We fail to understand that God’s love is always there for us.  In our baptisms, God whispers to each of us, “You are my beloved child.  I take delight in you.”

The love of God that surrounded Jesus at his baptism was the great and driving force of his ministry. Jesus was all about love. He taught his friends to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  On the night of his arrest, Jesus instructed his disciples that they must love one another as he had loved them.  Jesus reached out to the world, his every act a miracle of love.  He dared to love those who were little loved: the sinner, the outcast, the Samaritan, the Roman slave, the uppity women.  You might even say that Jesus poured himself out in love, God’s holy love shining through him to heal and redeem our broken world.  Truly, the beloved son gave his life, so that we might know that God loves us enough to die for us. God’s love is always there for us in abundance, sailing down from the heavens, calling over the waters of our own baptisms, living and breathing in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

If we page ahead to the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear the risen Lord giving a final great commandment to his friends, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The theologians and masters of church doctrine like to debate what Jesus really meant with his imperative for Christians to go out there and baptize.  They teach that in baptism we are cleansed of our sins, grafted into the body of Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Those are good things to know.

But as your local theologian on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I believe it could be a whole lot simpler. 

I like to think that the Lord’s great commandment to go forth and baptize was all about love. In this world where too many people know too little love, Jesus wanted folks to know the immeasurable love of God that he experienced as he stood in the waters of the River Jordan and heard that holy voice, claiming, affirming, and loving him.  Jesus longed for the world to know God’s love, for the world to know his love. If they followed his great commission, then the disciples could be a little like spiritual parents, going forth to make that much-needed holy love known to a world hungry for it. The Lord envisioned baptism, like an unstoppable tide of love, sweeping over our world, from 1st century Palestine, across the Roman Empire, and down through the centuries to this day. 

On this baptism of the Lord Sunday, allow me to act in loco parentis.  May we hear the holy words that we all need to have healthy brains and bodies, sound self-esteem, and caring relationships.  This is God’s promise for you, “You are my beloved child. I take delight in you.”

Resources:

Karyn Wiseman. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 12, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Warren Carter. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 8, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Stephanie Crowder. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 12, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jim Dryden. “Mom’s Love Good for Child’s Brain” in The Source, Washington University in St. Louis. Jan. 30, 2012. Accessed online at https://source.wustl.edu.

Ronald B. Filson and Mary Zielinski. “Children’s Self-Esteem and Parental Support” in the Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 51, no. 3. August 1989, pp. 727-735. Accessed online at www.jstor.org.

Enrique Rivero. “Lack of Parental Warmth, Abuse in Childhood Linked to Multiple Health Risks in Adulthood” in UCLA Newsroom, Sept. 30, 2013. Accessed online at https://newsroomucla.edu.

Maryam Abdullah. “With Kids, Love Is in the Little Things” in Greater Good Magazine: Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life. June 18, 2019. Accessed online at greatergood.berkeley.edu.


Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


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New Year, New Verse, New You?

Sabbath Day Thoughts

On this New Year’s Day, I invite us to celebrate the birth of Christ and ponder his calling for our lives with some of my favorite poems of this season.

Susan Elizabeth Howe is a poet, playwright, and editor. Her poems have a keen attention to ordinary details that hint toward sacred truths.  Her favorite themes explore women’s lives and the natural world through the lens of faith.  Susan says, “Imagination . . . can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.” This poem was inspired by the promise found in a fortune cookie, “Your luck is about to change.”

“Your Luck Is About to Change”                                                       Susan Elizabeth Howe

(A fortune cookie)

Ominous inscrutable Chinese news

to get just before Christmas,

considering my reasonable health,

marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,

career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.

Not bad, considering what can go wrong:

the bony finger of Uncle Sam

might point out my husband,

my own national guard,

and set him in Afghanistan;

my boss could take a personal interest;

the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.

Still, as the old year tips into the new,

I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking

his legs in the air. I won’t give in

to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,

or even the neighbors’ Nativity.

Their four-year-old has arranged

his whole legion of dinosaurs

so they, too, worship the child,

joining the cow and sheep. Or else,

ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat

ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,

then savor the newborn babe.

In Poetry, December 2002, p. 153.


Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. As you read, “Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York,” attend to his use of the word “almost” and consider what Hughes might be saying.

“Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York”                            Langston Hughes

The Christmas trees are almost all sold
And the ones that are left go cheap
The children almost all over town
Have almost gone to sleep.

The skyscraper lights on Christmas Eve
Have almost all gone out
There’s very little traffic
Almost no one about.

Our town’s almost as quiet
As Bethlehem must have been
Before a sudden angel chorus
Sang PEACE ON EARTH
GOOD WILL TO MEN!

Our old Statue of Liberty
Looks down almost with a smile
As the Island of Manhattan
Awaits the morning of the Child.

In Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Press, 1994.


Ann Weems was a gifted and prolific Presbyterian poet with seven books and collections of poems written for use in worship. Ann was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and was married to a Presbyterian minister.  She served as an elder with her local church.  Ann believed that writing was “a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer in which one can imagine what might be and in the writing help it become true.” She was sometimes referred to as the Presbyterian Poet Laureate.

“Boxed”                                                                                              Ann Weems

I must admit to a certain guilt

about stuffing the Holy Family into a box

in the aftermath of Christmas.

It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,

each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)

from a year’s imprisonment

boxed in the dark of our basement.

Out they come, one by one,

struggling through the straw,

last year’s tinsel still clinging to their robes.

Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place again

in the light of another Christmas.

The Child is first

because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box.

Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges,

apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down

to avoid the crush of the lid.

His mother, dressed eternally in blue,

still gazes adoringly,

in spite of the fact that

her features are somewhat smudged.

Joseph has stood for eleven months,

holding valiantly what’s left of his staff,

broken twenty Christmases ago

by a child who hugged a little too tightly.

The Wise Ones still travel,

though not quite so elegantly,

the standing camel having lost its back leg

and the sitting camel having lost one ear.

However, gifts intact they are ready to move.

The shepherds, walking or kneeling,

sometimes confused with Joseph

(who wears the same dull brown),

tumble forth, followed by three sheep

in very bad repair.

There they are again,

not a grand set surely,

but one the children (and now the grandchildren)

can touch and move about to reenact that silent night.

When the others return,

we will wind the music box on the back of the stable

and light the Advent candles

and go once more to Bethlehem.

And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away,

we’ll be more careful that the Peace and Goodwill 

are not also boxed for another year!

In Kneeling in Bethlehem. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1980, p. 87.


The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd is a retired Presbyterian minister, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  Shepherd has fifteen books of poetry and has published over 600 poems and articles in publications both sacred and secular. He has preached and lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, and other universities, colleges and seminaries. In 2000, while I was serving Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, Rev. Shepherd joined us for a special 3-hour-long Good Friday service that featured his poetry. As you read “Forest Snowfall” listen for his description of the Kingdom of God, which dwells within the world, there for us to see and serve, if only we have the courage.

“Forest Snowfall”                                                                               J. Barrie Shepherd

(Before sunrise)

It is as if the light that is to come
had taken on a flake-like form and substance
laid itself, in silhouette, along, against,
the windward part
of every naked trunk and branch.
The ground below lies cloaked,
each blade of grass or bracken
with its glistening garment,
so that, even at the darkest hour last night,
a luminescence shone as if reflected
from whatever burns within.

Might the bright, promised realm
lie here and now revealed,
its last impediment
my faltering fear to enter in?

In The Christian Century, Dec. 19, 2019. Accessed online at christiancentury.org.


Joyce Rupp is well-known for her work as a writer, international retreat leader, and conference speaker. She is the author of twenty-eight bestselling books on spirituality. A member of the religious order known as the Servites or Servants of Mary since the age of nineteen, Joyce received the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church in 2004.  She has played a significant role as a “midwife” for women’s spirituality. In 2007, I attended “Writing from the Soul,” a writer’s workshop with Joyce in Chicago.

“A Christmas Blessing” (responsive)                                                 Joyce Rupp

May there be harmony in all your relationships. May sharp words, envious thoughts, and hostile feelings be dissolved.

May you give and receive love generously. May this love echo in your heart like the joy of church bells on a clear December day.

May each person who comes into your life be greeted as another Christ. May the honor given the Babe of Bethlehem be that which you extend to every guest who enters your presence.

May the hope of this sacred season settle in your soul. May it be a foundation of courage for you when times of distress occupy your inner land.

May the wonder and awe that fills the eyes of children be awakened within you. May it lead you to renewed awareness and appreciation of whatever you too easily take for granted.

May the bonds of love for one another be strengthened as you gather around the table of festivity and nourishment.

May you daily open the gift of your life and be grateful for the hidden treasures it contains.

May the coming year be one of good health for you. May you have energy and vitality. May you care well for your body, mind, and spirit.

May you keep your eye on the Star within you and trust this Luminescent Presence to guide and direct you each day.

May you go often to the Bethlehem of your heart and visit the One who offers you peace. May you bring this peace into our world.

In Out of the Ordinary, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000, p. 36.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. He was the fourth of twelve children. His brilliant but mercurial father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a country clergyman, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and opium; his mother was the daughter of a vicar.  Plagued by poverty, Alfred never graduated from Cambridge University. Despite hardship, he persisted in his efforts as a poet. In 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Alfred Poet Laureate, a distinction that he held until his death in 1892. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. “Ring Out Wild Bells” expresses the fervent hope for a better year-to-come and our ability to shape the year with the choice for truth, right, and love.

“Ring Out, Wild Bells”                                                                       Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light;

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more,

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

In In Memoriam. London: Edward Moxson, 1850.

May we go forth into the New Year to “Ring in the love of truth and right, ring in the common love of good.”


Psalm 148

1 Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
    he issued a decree that will never pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
    old men and children.

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants,
    of Israel, the people close to his heart.

Praise the Lord.


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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.

Resources

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

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

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


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.

Resources:

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

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

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

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

Markus Milligan. “Machaerus–The Palace Fortress of King Herod” in Heritage Daily, Dec. 28, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.heritagedaily.com/2020/12/machaerus-the-palace-fortress-of-king-herod/136596

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist” in Bible History Daily, June 28, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/machaerus-beyond-the-beheading-of-john-the-baptist/

Saeb Rawashdeh. “Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations” in The Jordan Times, March 14, 2019. Accessed online at http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/lost-biblical-fortress-machaerus-restored-after-50-years-excavations

Pat McCarthy. “Machaerus” in See the Holy Land: Jordan. Accessed online at https://www.seetheholyland.net/machaerus/


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,

“Amen.”

Resources

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 https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/

National Geographic Society. “Assyrian Empire.” In National Geographic Resource Library, May 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://education.nationalgeographic.org/

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

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

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


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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Testimony

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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