The Costly Gift

meaningful-advent

December 23

Read Mark 12:35—13:13

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all…For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)

I learned as a little boy the difference between a casual gift and a costly gift. I was playing in the shallows of the beach in the stifling heat of a Florida Summer. My family was on our vacation with a sizable leg of our trek in the minivan through the Southern states still ahead of us.  The waves were breaking atypically close to the shoreline, and I was typically unconcerned about them. An unusually strong wave (or so it seemed to me) swept me under without any warning. One moment I was breathing the warm air under the radiant warmth of the Florida sun; the next moment, which seemed like one of the longest I have experienced, I felt like a sock at the bottom of the washing machine. I tumbled around I know not how many times; my eyes burned from the saltwater as I strained wide-eyed to discern which way was up; my lungs felt about to burst. Just then, a hand grasped my shoulder and pulled me up out of the breaking surf. My father had apparently seen me go under and quickly came to the rescue. In his haste, however, he lost his glasses in the waves. The rescue was a gift; the loss of the glasses made it a costly one. My father spent the rest of the vacation—day and night—in an old pair of prescription sunglasses. He looked great; he just couldn’t see very well, especially at night.

Those glasses are a small loss in retrospect, but they weighed heavily on my mind at the time. I scoured the shoreline up until the moment we left that beach in hopes catching a glint of reflected sunlight wash up in the sand. Being the recipient of a costly gift causes one to feel an oddly heavy combination of sheepishness and obligation, guilt and gratitude. I would have all too gladly found those glasses and made a return on the gift, in order to rid myself of the feeling. I think the feeling comes from recognizing the pain of sacrifice in the giver of a costly gift and knowing that pain is on your account.

A costly gift cuts into the substance of the giver (in every sense of the word ‘substance’—being, wealth, and the stuff we are made of). Christianity is bravely built on the recognition of the high moral worth of the costly gift. Indeed, Christmas is a celebration of a Costly Gift.

In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus and his disciples sit watching the worshipers at the Temple make their contributions to the treasury. Many rich people, we are told, give large sums of money but always in amounts that they can spare–casual gifts, we might say. Eventually, Jesus sees a poor widow drop in two copper coins—the smallest coins available. Jesus calls his disciples over to witness what Jesus considers an act of extravagant generosity. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” According to Jesus’ calculations, she has given “more.” She has given a costly gift to her Lord God, a gift that cuts deeply into her meager livelihood. I can’t help but imagine her, despite her grinding poverty, as a joyous person, because (and few know this) only joyous people are so generous.

The widow gave all she had to live on. In this she has a beautiful kinship with our Lord. He took on flesh and blood precisely so that he could give his life. This costly gift culminates on Good Friday, but at Christmastide we celebrate the first stage of that costly giving, when in the incarnation and birth he took on the flesh that would be killed and the blood that would be shed. What was it that Paul said? “For you know the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

This Christmas amidst all the good and proper joys of gift-giving and gift-unwrapping, of feasting and singing, let us remember the Costly Gift of Jesus Christ, our incarnate Lord. Let us remember Him who lost not glasses but His Life, not so that we feel sheepish and guilty, but profoundly and life-changingly grateful. I promise that this won’t dampen your joy and your Christmas spirit. If anything, it will deepen them.

Merry Christmas!

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What is Love?

meaningful-advent

December 22

Read Mark 12:13-34

 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:29-30)

We hear talk about something called ‘love’ almost unceasingly.  Apparently, people know what they mean by this word. ‘Love’ means something along the lines of: “affirming and accepting another for who they truly are.” Howard Jones, who undoubtedly knows something about all this, says, “Love is letting each other be who we are without fear of censure.” When we care for, cherish and affirm another person, without demanding that they be just like us, then we are loving them. When we receive this kind of attention, we are being loved. ‘Love’ is what will make our world a better place, our society more just and our lives more meaningful and enjoyable. ‘Love’ is set in binary opposition to ‘hate’ and ‘judgment’, which have the reverse affect on the world, society and our lives. ‘Jesus’ obviously was for ‘love,’ we are told. ‘Love’ wins.

I am not sure that I disagree with the definition and assertions above. I could probably affirm that ‘love’, if consistently applied, would make our society a more just, or at least more tolerable, one. But I am afraid that that ‘love’ is just a bit too abstract for me. Moreover, I am quite sure that Jesus meant something different, more concrete and more demanding, when he spoke of ‘love’. For Jesus, ‘love’ is only comprehensible in light of the One God who has staked his claim on our life and the life of every human being. Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God.

A scribe comes to Jesus to ask, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

It is vitally important to notice that when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment—that is, what we are morally required to do— Jesus’ response begins not with a commandment but a statement about what is, not with an imperative but an indicative. For Jesus the commandment to love can only be understood in light of the truth that there is one God; the Lord of Israel alone is God. This God is unwilling that we share our affections and allegiance with any other god; for he and he alone is God. Because he alone is God, he lays exclusive and exhaustive claim to every aspect of our lives. From this theological truth flows the command: Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

We can talk all day about ‘love’, but if our love-talk does not take place in the context of a deep awareness of the exclusive and exhaustive claim of God upon our lives, then we are not talking about what Jesus is talking about. We may say many profound and good and heart-warming things, but these thoughts won’t touch the reality Jesus speaks of when he says “love.”  It would be like me talking all day about the meaning of marital love without ever mentioning the concrete demand that my relationship with Joette (my wife) makes upon my affections.

For what Jesus means by “love” is not an abstract ‘love’. It is terribly concrete. It is not undemanding approbation, but a jealous and demanding kind of thing. God wants it all, Jesus tells us—the deepest affections of our hearts, the most exalted flights of our souls, the highest thoughts of our minds and the greatest strength of our wills. To change the metaphor: if our lives were a house, he wants to be enthroned in every room, not just the living room but the kitchen, the den and the bedroom too. When we start to let him have all this territory—well, that is love as Jesus understands it.

Jesus tacks on another commandment to the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” People who talk about ‘love’ a lot like to start here. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus begins with the love of God and he expects love of others to flow from that first, great love. After all, Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God. We can’t begin to love others, in the way Jesus means love, until we begin to yield ourselves to God.

Where does this leave us? Frankly, it leaves us in Advent for just a little while longer—the time of waiting and preparation, the time of preparing while we wait and waiting while we prepare. How do we prepare? Simply, by examining every feature and facet of our lives—what our hearts love, what our minds dwell on, what our wills choose, and what we do with our bodies—and asking ourselves where our allegiances stray from that first, great love of God. In identifying these, we then pray for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts from his boundless store (Romans 5:5).

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire!

****

Christological Addendum

My claim above is that we can’t talk about love Christianly without also talking about God. Anything else is, from Christian point of view, an abstraction. It occurs to me, however, that we still aren’t being concrete enough. Yes, it is true that we can’t talk about love without talking about God. This is straightforwardly Jesus’ point in the above passage. But we must move a step further in order to keep pace with the rest of the New Testament. St. Paul writes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Likewise, St. John tells us, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). What point am I making here? Quite simply, we can’t talk about love without talking about God, and we can’t talk about God without talking about Jesus. (We confess this latter point about the inseparability of God and Jesus every week in the Nicene Creed when we say that he is “of one Being with the Father.”) Love, as a Christian concept, is inseparable from God’s love for lost sinners in sending Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross. That is the very definition of love. Anything else is ‘love’–an abstraction. I would dare say, we are not going to make any progress in fulfilling the command to love God and neighbor until we fix our eyes on the love of the Crucified Lord and have our hard hearts melted by what we see there.

Born to Die

meaningful-advent

December 21

Read Mark 11:27—12:12

“They will respect my son.” (Mark 12:6)

It is at our own spiritual peril that we forget—amidst the haze of Christmas cheer and cozy warmth of vague “seasonal” sentimentality—that Christ was not born into this world so that God could discover “in the flesh” what nice people we are. He was born into a world full of people who had put themselves at odds with God. Or to put it less politely, God-with-us means, in the first place, God-among-his-enemies. Jesus Christ was born to die. His humble birth in Bethlehem was the first of many self-abnegations that culminated in his death on the cross at Calvary.

To a certain extent the story presented to us in the four Gospels is a story of rejection. What happens when we sinners finally get our hands on God? We kill him.

Jesus tells the harrowing parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12:1-12. An owner of a vineyard living abroad desires the fruit of his land, as is good and right. So, he sends a servant to collect. The tenants beat him and send him packing and empty-handed. He sends more servants; and the tenants either beat them to a pulp or kill them. Finally, he thinks to send his beloved son. Delighted, the tenants kill him in an effort to take over inheritance of the vineyard once and for all.

The meaning of the parable is clear enough to Jesus’ hearers. God had sent his prophets to Israel time and time again. Yet Israel had rejected God’s word. Finally, God sent his beloved Son. “Come, let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours,” said Israel. And in this rejection of God, Israel stands in for all of us human sinners. Jesus Christ was born to die.

The Gospel is a story of rejection. But even more it is a story of what God in his incomprehensible mercy accomplishes through that rejection. When humanity said, “Let us take the inheritance,” God said, “Let them have it.” We kill God’s Son and God uses that murder to make us his sons and daughters. Through the cross of Christ God reconciles the world to himself. Through the cross God deals once and for all with those who had put themselves at odds with him. Jesus Christ was born to die for us and for our salvation. This is the inner meaning of Christmas: God took on flesh, but mortal flesh and eventually murdered flesh; and a more wondrous thing can scarcely be imagined.

Why?

Karl Barth tells us: “God condemned sin in the flesh, not in our own flesh but in that of Jesus Christ.” Thanks be to God.

A Humble Lord in a Mess of Allusions

meaningful-advent

December 20

Read Mark 11:1-26

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9)

In one of his reflections on Jesus’ royal yet humble entrance into Jerusalem, Tim Keller draws an illuminating parallel with Revelation 5:5-6: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” John is commanded to look for the lion, but when he turns to look, he sees not the lion but the lamb. In this eleventh chapter of Mark, we are told to behold our king. When we turn to look, however, we don’t see an imposing royal figure on a blooded mount trailed by a splendid retinue of soldiers. We see, as Romano Guardini has put it, a poorly dressed man on a donkey with a coat as a saddle—a humble Lord.

We might wonder at the appropriateness of these Palm Sunday reflections in late Advent as we sidle up closer by the minute to our Christmas festivities. Still, one ancient preacher, St. John Chrysostom, heard the deep resonance of Jesus’ royal yet humble entrance to Jerusalem and his divine yet lowly entrance into our world in his incarnation and birth that first Christmas. He preached in a sermon on the so-called Triumphant Entry: “Even when He was to be born He sought not a splendid house, nor a mother rich and distinguished, but a poor woman, and one that had a carpenter as her betrothed husband; and is born in a shed and laid in a manger.” Again—a humble Lord.

I think I hear yet another resonating echo of Palm Sunday in Christmastide. For at the Christ Mass we not only wonder at the way the Lord of glory at one time made his humble way into our world; we also wonder at the way he now makes his way into our hands and onto our lips in the humble forms of bread and wine. Is it not significant that in the Eucharistic liturgy we make the words of the crowds of Jerusalem our own as we cross ourselves? Blessed + is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Pope Benedict XVI, the theologian, said it well, “Just as the Lord entered the Holy City that day on a donkey, so too the Church saw him coming again and again in the humble form of bread and wine.” John Betjeman, the poet, said it better:

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

Yet again—a humble Lord.

May I highlight one final resonant note—one that is perhaps of the most personal interest to each of us? That the Lord of glory would humble himself to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, or our world in a manger, or our churches in bread and wine, is one thing. But what about our sin-sick, guilt-laden and shame-weary lives? Yes, here too—especially here!—he is willing to make his humble entrance. Even here—a humble Lord.

What Do You Want?

meaningful-advent

December 19

Read Mark 10:32-52

“What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John, whom Jesus tellingly has nicknamed the sons of thunder, come to Jesus with a request (a demand?) in the form of what must be one of the funniest lines in all of the scriptures: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” What they lack in subtlety and self-awareness they certainly make up for in boldness. [Speaking of ‘self-awareness’: when we are done chuckling at their all-too-human foibles, we might do well to remember the time(s) that we have boldly undertaken the task of telling God how to do his job.]

Jesus’ reply is both disarming and penetrating. He doesn’t respond how I would respond to my children, for instance, if they spoke to me this way. I will give you one chance to re-phrase what you just said to me! Rather, he says, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is not an innocuous question. It is the question that exposes the state of the human heart.

What do you want? What do you desire? What do you love to such an extent that you are willing to throw at it your time, your energy, your money, your anxiety, your self, to get it?

What you desire above all else, you love above all else. What you love above all else, you worship. What you worship—if it’s not God—will eat you alive, as David Foster Wallace points out and as Jesus knew centuries prior. Jesus is seeking, with this question, to expose idols of the human heart.

James and John utter fail to play their idolatries close to the chest: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” What do they want? Rather than pray as Jesus taught them, Thine is the power and the glory, they want glory and power for themselves. Idolatry.

What do you want? Power and glory, like James and John? Control? Comfort? Acceptance?

Where are you throwing your money, your time and your energy?

What do your anxieties tell you about what really matters to you?

The season of Advent is as good a season as any, I reckon, to work on rooting out the growth of idolatry in our hearts. This requires of course allowing Jesus’ question to penetrate our hearts—as painful as that may be. Even more painful, however, is putting the idol to death. And yes, Jesus unsentimentally and without flinching asks us to put it to death. He asks us to bring every idolatrous desire to the cross for execution. He asks us, moreover, to do this again and again, until at last, one day, that one great desire, the desire for the love of God, has totally and without remainder won our hearts. This present pain is all to a good purpose.

For finally, on that Day we will say to him, “Lord, we want you to give us whatever we ask.” He will reply, “What do you want me to give you?” We will respond, “Just you, Lord.” He never has and never will turn down that request.

Come, Lord Jesus.

How to Foster Harmony

meaningful-advent

December 16

Read Mark 9:33-50

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   Mark 9:35

This is in some ways one of the saddest, yet funniest, scenes in Mark’s gospel in my opinion.  The disciples are following Jesus to Jerusalem, where He will die on a cross.  Jesus has been telling them that He did not come to build a Kingdom of worldly power, glory and wealth, but that, instead, He would die on the cross and that anyone who wants to be a part of His Kingdom needs to follow in that same manner of life.

So what were the disciples talking about on the road to the cross?  They were arguing “about who was the greatest.”  Talk about not getting it!

The force of Jesus’ teaching is pretty clear.  If you want worldly power, glory, and greatness, then Jesus isn’t for you.  Jesus shows us the way to true greatness through the cross.  The kind of greatness God wants for us, and even for Himself, is that greatness that comes through serving others.

Paul put it this way to the Philippians.  “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-7).  It is God’s nature to pour Himself out in love, and our attitude should be the same.  If that isn’t a wonderful lens through which to view the celebration of Christmas, I don’t know what is!

But let’s take this a bit further.  Do you see what happens when we seek glory for ourselves?  Or when we want to be served?  Or when we stand on our rights and what we deserve?  Arguing.  Strife.  Discord.

Service, though, leads to unity, harmony, peace, and healing.  Serving leads to beauty.

As a pastor, I know that many families do not enjoy holiday gatherings because they are marked by arguing, strife, and discord.  Maybe it isn’t your family, but your workplace.  Or your school.  Or your neighborhood.  We’ve all got a group like that.  When we take the attitude of serving – giving instead of getting – we foster unity, harmony, peace, and healing.

Something profound changes when look at our spouse and ask ourselves how we can serve them.  Or when we look at our children and ask what we can do to make them more like Jesus.  Or when we look at our neighborhood and ask how we can make it a better place to live.  Something profound happens when we look at our marriages, our families, our workplaces, our schools, and our neighborhoods as a place to serve in love.

Serve up some beauty in this holy season!  Foster unity, harmony, peace and healing as you give yourself to others.

You’ve got to slow down to listen

meaningful-advent

December 15

Read Mark 9:2-32

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”   Mark 9:7

If you’re following along in the story, you’ll know that Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah (Mark 8:29), then rebuked Jesus for claiming that the Messiah must die (8:32), and now he is standing on the Mount of Transfiguration saying something silly (9:5).  Personally, I find it encouraging that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we always have it all together.  Peter still doesn’t really get what Jesus is trying to tell him, so the Father gets Peter’s attention.  “Listen to him!”

“Listen!”  It doesn’t just mean to hear something, but to pay attention to it, to mark it, to recognize it as important.  So how can we listen to Jesus?

To begin with, to listen to Jesus is to listen as though our life depends upon it.  We listen to what we think matters.  To listen to Jesus is to come to Him in Scripture and prayer to hear what He has to say about anything and everything.  As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16).  If we want to know what the Lord has to say about most of the big topics of life, we need to pick up our Bibles and listen to what Jesus has to say.  One of the simplest things we can do to help hear Jesus’ voice in the Bible is to say a simple prayer before reading: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

But there is another aspect of listening that I think is important: noticing.  To listen to someone, you hear more than words.  You hear inflection, tone and different emphases.  You see expression and body language.  Listening is both paying attention to what is said and how it is said.  Listening and noticing are linked.

What I’m getting at is this: we don’t just listen to Jesus as we set aside time in study and prayer.  We are meant to listen to Jesus all the time, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing.

That kind of listening requires learning to pay attention to what Jesus is doing in our lives at any given moment.  He is always with us and active in our lives by the Holy Spirit.  Many of us, though, struggle with noticing how Jesus is with us and what He is doing.  Noticing doesn’t just happen.  It is a cultivated attitude.

Noticing happens when we slow down enough to look about and observe what is going on around us.  Noticing means that we leave enough space in our lives to not have to rush from one thing to another.  It is hard to notice things when you’re going ninety miles an hour.  But when we slow down and live in the awareness that Jesus is always with us and always at work in and about us, we will find that He is constantly speaking into our lives.

Slow down.  Notice.  Listen.