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The Hound of Heaven

January 14, 2019

This isn’t my time.  Don’t push me.” (John 2:4, The Message).

The “Hound of Heaven” is a poem written by Francis Thompson, first published in 1887 in a Catholic literary magazine called Merry England.  The poem begins with the narrative of a pursuit: “I fled Him down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him . . . “  The poem describes Thompson’s flight from God and God’s plan for his life.  He finally surrenders to God’s love and to his plan.

Many Biblical heroes fled from the plan that God had for them—notably Jonah and Moses—and were pursued by the “hound of heaven.” They either couldn’t be bothered or felt that they weren’t up to the task.  In Moses’ case, he thought he was ill-equipped to do the kind of public ministry that God was pushing him toward.  But God doesn’t make mistakes.  And when he gives you a gift, he expects you to use it, not squander it.

Even Jesus needed a push to get off the dime.  He was reluctant to use his gifts.  When his mother suggested that he do something about the empty wine glasses at the wedding, he first protested: “This isn’t my time.  Don’t push me.” (John 2:4, The Message).[1]  But then he thought better of it, and performed the first miracle of his ministry.

God often uses people in unexpected places.  Because next Sunday is Sanctity of Life Sunday,[2] the example that came to mind involved a 19 year-old college student grappling with an unintended pregnancy.  She was told at a local women’s clinic that she had her whole life ahead of her, and that they could make “it go away.” Feeling trapped, and presented with no other choices, she had an abortion.  Still haunted by it two years later, she happened upon a post-abortion support group, and was overwhelmed by the love she received from the members of the group.  The group was one of the non-judgmental, caring outreach programs facilitated by Claris Health.  That young woman began volunteering with Claris, and has been the CEO of Claris for the last 16 years.  God used a woman who had an abortion to care for and nurture other young women in crisis pregnancy situations in a caring and non-judgmental way.  Talitha Phillips describes it as her “calling.”  Regardless of the choice made by a woman in a crisis pregnancy, Talitha and her amazing team use their gifts to counsel and care for these women as she was cared for many years earlier after her own abortion.

Paul explains that it is the Holy Spirit who doles out spiritual gifts: “God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful. . . (1 Corinthians 12: 4-11, The Message). The gifts given by the Spirit include counseling, understanding, healing, and many others.  It is the Spirit who decides who gets what.

Has the hound of heaven pursued you?  Have you been given a gift that you put on the shelf because you felt you didn’t have the time, energy, or ability to pursue it?  Has the hound of heaven pursued you for weeks, months, or years to begin a ministry or perform a service for which you are uniquely gifted?  Do you have a passion for the lost and the least?  Do you want to help people who are confused, exhausted, hurt, needy, ill, anxious, hungry, or lonely?  Do you love to work with children?  Look around to see where you can be of service.  Like Talitha, you may have been gifted by the Holy Spirit with skills that are needed by a ministry or organization, or you may be moved to begin your own endeavor.

After you have identified a ministry or service, ask yourself another question: is it something from which you will not personally benefit financially or otherwise? These are a few questions to ask before you begin any endeavor, to ensure that it is where God is leading you, and not your ego or personal ambition spurring your undertaking.  If the action to be taken is truly of God, then you will be blessed by your obedience: “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.  You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours” (Psalm 128).

You may have to give up some activities that you enjoy in order to pursue the ministry or service, but the blessings you will receive by using your God-given gifts will far outweigh anything lost.  Stop running, and give God’s way a try.  Let the hound of heaven catch you and lead you to a place where your gifts can be put to good use.

Prayer:  Father, guide our thoughts and steps as we seek to do your will.  Send your Spirit to open our eyes to the needs of others around us, and open our hearts so that we are willing to use the gifts you have given us to teach, heal, counsel, care for, and love others. Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Second Sunday after Epiphany are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 128; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11.

[2]See Life Matters, https://dianereagan.com/2018/01/15/life-matters-2/

Leave the Old Country Behind

January 7, 2019

That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Romans 6:3-4, The Message)

Like me, you may have grandparents or great-grandparents who came from “the old country.”  In my case, the “old country” was Poland, and all four of my grandparents came to the United States around the beginning of the twentieth century.  Some, if not all of them, arrived in this country through the Port of Baltimore.  Most of the people who came from the old country around that time were anxious to be done with their country of origin.  They were ready to move on.  Our relatives rarely spoke of the old country.

Leaving the old country behind is a theme of the Scripture texts for next Sunday,[1]  when we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, and our own baptisms.  Luke records “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3: 21-22).  The Holy Spirit in this passage descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. As Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, we also received the Holy Spirit at our baptism and became God’s adopted sons and daughters.

In the early church, full immersion was the common form of baptism.  The lowering of the person into the water symbolized the burial of the person’s sins. Coming out of the water symbolized resurrection—a new life with Christ, with the old left behind.  That is what Paul is referencing when he wrote, “That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!. . . When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.” (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11, The Message).  We leave our old selves, the old country, behind in baptism and start a new life in our new country—a place of grace where Christ is our leader.

As baptized Christians, when we left the old country we learned to speak a new language–the language of love.  Our sins were nailed to the cross with Jesus.  The message of the cross is to forget the language of sin and start speaking the language of love.  Our job as baptized Christians is to live a life of active love.  As Paul says, “our old self was crucified with him [Jesus]” (Romans 6: 6).   We left the old country and we’re not going back.   In the Nicene Creed we “acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  While we will continue to sin throughout our lives, we do not do so with intention.  Sin is a by-product of being a human being.  But our conscious goal and fervent prayer as citizens of our new country is to follow Jesus’ example, and to live as “little Christs.”  We throw off the chains of guilt and move toward the light of Christ.  Guilt is to the soul what pain is to the body—it tells us that something is wrong.  Remember what the Holy Spirit did at your baptism, and leave the old country behind.  Welcome to the new country of grace.

 Prayer:   Father, help us remember that you filled us with your light at our baptism and that your Spirit is with us every moment of our lives.  Open us to the guidance and comfort of your Spirit as we struggle with the challenges we face in our everyday lives.  Help us to walk as children of light knowing that by Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins were left at the cross.  Thank you for welcoming us into the new country of grace.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Baptism of our Lord are Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Romans 6: 1-11; Luke 3: 15-22.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

December 31, 2018

And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60: 6b)

May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” (Psalm 72: 10b-11)

Next Sunday is January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas, also known as Epiphany–a Christian feast day.  It is the day when Western Christians remember the tribute paid by the Magi to the Christ Child.  My grandmother considered herself lucky to have been born on January 6th.  Tertullian, an influential second century church father, argued that the Magi’s visit fulfilled the promises of Solomon and Isaiah: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” (Psalm 72: 10b-11); “And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60: 6b).[1]

January 6thalso marks the end of the Christmas season. In Christopher Hitchens’ essay against the public celebration of Christmas (“Christopher Hitchens on Forced Merriment and the True Spirit of Christmas”[2]published posthumously by the Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2011), the likable curmudgeon raised several objections to yuletide customs and festivities.  But the four premises of Hitchens’ arguments–that the celebration of Christmas is a fraud on believers, holds non-believers captive, results in “compulsory love,” and is unconstitutional in the public square–do not stand up to scrutiny.

  1.   Is Christmas a Fraud?  Hitchens’ first assault on the season is an attempt to stir up people of faith to think that they have been duped into believing that the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of the “Dear Leader,” when, according to him, Christmas is a tribute to crass materialism and is an affront to people of faith.  He cites three reasons in support of this proposition: (1) The celebration of Christmas was banned by the Puritans, probably because it encouraged carousing; (2) The timing of Christmas is faulty because the year and month of Jesus’ birth are uncertain; and (3) Christmas celebrations may have pagan underpinnings.

These arguments miss the reason that believers celebrate Christmas: that God sent the gift of his Son to live on earth for a time to reveal himself to us and to take upon himself the burden of our sins.  This is cause to celebrate!  The calendar month or year of Jesus’ birth, or whether some choose not to celebrate is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant that some of the season’s customs have pagan origins.  Jesus taught his followers to reach out to people wherever they are.  Paul, for one, opened dialogues with non-believers on common ground.  For example,in reaching out to the Athenians, he mentioned the altar with the inscription “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23), tying it into his message.  Missionaries and preachers over the centuries have incorporated secular and pagan symbolism to reach non-believers, using it as a bridge to the Gospel.

  1.  Holiday Captives?  

We are exposed to expressions of religious beliefs other than our own throughout the year, because we live in a country where many faiths are tolerated.  I am not Jewish, but the menorah in our Village Green (along with the Christmas tree) is as much a symbol of freedom as it is of the faith it represents.  I am grateful to live in a country where holiday music and symbols are permitted on private property, and to an extent, on public property.  No one in this country can seriously contend that it would be preferable to live in a country where the expression of all religious belief (except the state religion) is banned.  David Keyes opined that if “Jesus had been born in Saudi Arabia today, he’d likely be imprisoned, flogged or beheaded” (“Merry Christmas from Saudi Arabia,” WSJ, 12/29/11).

  1. “Compulsory Love?”

“Compulsory love” is an oxymoron.  There is nothing compulsory about love, which springs naturally from an overflowing heart.  A gift given in the true spirit of Christmas, in gratitude for the love of God, family and friends, is never mandatory.   Whether the custom of giving to the less fortunate and exchanging gifts with family and friends during the holidays originated from pagan customs or from the example of the Magi is not relevant to the meaning ascribed to it today.  How can anyone begrudge all of the good accomplished by folks wishing to give to others during the holidays, or the joy of giving a gift to a loved one? Hitchens ignores the joyous eagerness of the repentant Scrooge to give generously.  Open, generous giving, which for believers follows the example of God’s love for us in sending his Son as a wonderful gift to us, is the very heart of Christmas.

  1. Public Religious Displays: Unconstitutional?

The notion that religious symbols are always unconstitutional when displayed on public property is simply not accurate.  While the “Christmas Wars” rage, and cases have been decided on both sides of this issue, the bottom line is that religious symbols are permitted in a variety of contexts on public property.  Appellate cases have upheld the display of nativity scenes and menorahs, particularly when displayed with other secular symbols of the season, such as Santa Claus and reindeer.  Even the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California held that the City of San Diego did not violate the Establishment Clause in allowing a private group to erect a Biblical display during each holiday season in Balboa Park (Kreisner v. City of San Diego(9thCir.1993 ) 1 F.3d 775).  The Ninth Circuit denied the request to re-hear the case.  Likewise, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case.[3]

May we carry the true spirit of Christmas with us in the coming months and give generously to others from all of the blessings we have received.

Prayer:  Father, as you led the Magi by the light of the star to Jesus over two thousand years ago, lead us in this new year to Jesus, so that we too may praise, worship, and be guided by him, the true light of the world.  Help us to remember the words of St. Paul who taught us “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for Epiphany Sunday are Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

[2]http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204791104577110880355067656.html

[3]This case is still good law.

What Now?

December 24, 2018

“All his commands are dependable. They last for all time; they were given in truth and righteousness. . . He set his people free and made an eternal covenant with them . .  . The way to become wise is to honor the Lord; he gives sound judgment to all who obey his commands.” (Excerpts Psalm 111: 7-10)

We are at the end of another year.  It has been a year of challenges and joys.  As we reflect on the past year, and look ahead to 2019, we ask ourselves what the coming year will bring.  Years ago, Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcy wrote a book entitled How Now Shall We Live?   The title is derived from Ezekiel 33:10: “How should we then live?” It is a question that we continue to face today.  How shall we approach 2019?  What now?

The Bible gives us answers to the question “How should we then live?” Next Sunday’s texts teach us that living our lives according to God’s precepts is the way to bring meaning to the challenges and chaos of our lives.[1]

The psalmist reminds us that God’s commands are dependable and that they cross all boundaries of time and space.  He praises God for keeping his promises by being kind, merciful, faithful and just: “The Lord does not let us forget his wonderful actions; he is kind and merciful . . . In all he does he is faithful and just; all his commands are dependable. They last for all time; they were given in truth and righteousness. He set his people free and made an eternal covenant with them . . . The way to become wise is to honor the Lord; he gives sound judgment to all who obey his commands” (Excerpts Psalm 111:4, 7-10).

After God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in 1446 B.C., God told Moses to tell the people to dedicate their first-born males to him as a reminder of his deliverance of them from their Egyptian oppressors.  Thus began the ancient practice of bringing the first-born male to be dedicated or consecrated in the temple as a mark of belief in God: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Dedicate all the first-born males to me, for every first-born male Israelite and every first-born male animal belongs to me” (Exodus 13: 1-2, Good News Translation).

The Israelites obeyed God’s command to dedicate their first-born sons through the centuries.  In accordance with this tradition, Jesus was brought to the temple to be dedicated to God: “When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord), ‘Every firstborn males is to be consecrated to the Lord’. . .”  (Luke 2:22-23).

We continue to obey God’s command to dedicate our children to God through the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of baptism.  It is the Holy Spirit who does the work; through baptism we are consecrated to God the Father in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We grow in the faith during our lives, carrying the mark of our baptism on our hearts and souls. As we grow in faith, we seek to obey God’s commandment to love others. Loving others is the outward expression of our faith. Paul emphasized the importance of love: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity”  Colossians 3:12-14.

Don’t be concerned about what you will wear to various holiday festivities; if you “put on love,” you will be the best-dressed person wherever you go. When your countenance reflects love, you are transformed from a caterpillar to a butterfly—from a frog to a prince, from Cinderella to a princess.  Love is the most attractive force in the world. People are attracted to loving people.

God’s commandment to love others has been in existence since the time of Moses: “But you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” Leviticus 19: 18.  Jesus also emphasized that loving others is only second in importance to loving God: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’”

What now?  How shall you live in 2019?  Why not commit to following God’s commandment to love others as you love yourself?  Love is the mark of a Christian.  The Holy Spirit, working within us, enables us to love others.  Love is the binding agent between us and other people. It is the agent that brings us together in unity.

Is the mark of the Christian stamped on your words and on your actions?  Make a commitment to “put on love” in 2019.  It is something that you can wear every day and still look fresh and new every day that you wear it. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience . . . And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity”  (Colossians 3:12,14.)  You will wear it well.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Exodus 13:1-3, 11-15; Psalm 111; Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2:22-40.

Love

December 17, 2018

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

God’s love for us as expressed in the person of Jesus Christ is the heart of Christmas.  Human love is not like God’s love. Human love depends on character that moves people up a ladder to become a “good person.”  But Jesus reminded us that no one is good but God (Mark 10:18).  God’s love, on the other hand, is not hierarchical.  It requires an emptying of self, a surrender of self.  It lays low the proud. God’s love is the way of the manger.  God’s love is agape love—the Greek term for the highest form of love: God’s unconditional love.  God’s love for us does not depend on our “goodness.”  God offers his love freely to all.

Robert Cleaver (“R.C.”) Chapman (1803-1902) was referred to by the people of his day as an “apostle of love.”   He gave up a prosperous London law practice to become the minister of a small church in Southern England, which had been through three pastors in 18 months.  He would remain at the same church for the next 60 years.  His love for others brought about reconciliation in countless situations, and was the impetus for his missionary journeys to Spain and Ireland where he brought the Word of God to many from whom it had been hidden.  He is relatively unknown today because he burned his sermons and other papers toward the end of his life, to avoid being elevated to “celebrity preacher” status, which was a temptation for many preachers of the day.  Yet he was legendary in 19th century England for his great love of others—for his patience, hospitality, kindness, gracious ways, and for his ability to resolve conflicts. Charles Spurgeon called him “the saintliest man I ever knew.”  His love came from God—it was an agape love that resulted from his surrender to God. He gave up his wealth and all that it entailed to minister to the lost and the least.[1]

Next Sunday’s Scripture texts show us that God’s plan for salvation was in place long before Jesus was born.[2]  The Nicene Creed teaches us that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Son of God who existed “before all worlds.”  The Old Testament is replete with evidence of the preincarnate Jesus. It was God’s plan all along to send Jesus to live among us—because he “so loved the world”  (John 3:16). God revealed to the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5: 2).  Micah went on to predict that Jesus “will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, . . . And he will be our peace” (Excerpts, Micah 5: 4,5).  The birth of the one predicted by Micah would be the long-awaited Messiah, also anticipated by the psalmist: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock . . . come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80: 1-3).

John gives us an inkling of God’s love for us; John 3:16 is probably the best-known New Testament Bible verse.  The birth of God’s Son was the greatest expression of love ever: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

After the angel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she was greatly honored and filled with joy: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-50). Mary, in her humility, surrendered herself to God’s will, even though she had no idea of the challenges that would result from her surrender.  And so began her nine-month wait to meet this special child, and then years afterward coming to grips with the man he would become.  The common translation is that Mary “pondered” these things in her heart (Luke 2:19).  Yet the meaning of the Greek word is actually closer to “struggled.” Mary struggled with the information she had been given.  She struggled during her wait as we struggle while we await surgery, or sit next to the hospital bed of a loved one, or wait for test results, or for the healing of a relationship or of a body.  Like Mary, we struggle while we wait.

Yet, unlike Mary, we know what happened.  We know that the baby boy she bore would become her Savior as well as ours. We are waiting to celebrate the birth that changed history over 2,000 years ago. We know the outcome.  While the Jews expected a great conqueror to loose the chains of oppression from their various oppressors over the ages, we know that Jesus was born to set us free from the prison of our sins.

The author of Hebrews taught the first century Christians that God’s great love for his people, and Jesus’ willingness to die for us resulted in Jesus carrying out the Father’s plan: “Then he [Jesus} said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will,’  . . . And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10: 9-10). For God so loved the world . . .

Our hope was fulfilled in the resurrection of the One whose birth we celebrate.  This hope brings us the peace and joy we so long for when we surrender ourselves to God’s will as Mary did.  For there can be no hope without Jesus and the resurrection. There can be no peace without reconciliation with God. There can be no joy until the God-shaped hole in our hearts is filled with faith.  And there can be no agape love without surrendering our will to God’s will.

Jesus said: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).   Jesus was the flesh and blood embodiment of God’s love for us.  He explained that he would lay down his life for us, his friends. His was the example of perfect love—of surrender to God’s will.  His command for us to love each other is not a suggestion; it is a command. We are to express that love to those at home, at school, at work, at church, and elsewhere.

Surrender yourself to God’s will.  Love.  Pass it on.

Prayer:  Thank you, Jesus for coming to us and for fulfilling the centuries-old hope for the Messiah.  Thank you for suffering and bearing our sins to bring us your Spirit of peace and joy.  Thank you for the love and blessings that you pour out on us as we wait for healing in our bodies, souls, and relationships.  Thank you for being with us through all of the uncertainty of this life and for your assurance of our life with you when our time on earth is over. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]See Agape Leadership:  Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the Life of R.C. Chapman (1991) Peterson and Strauch, Lewis and Roth Publishers.

[2]The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday in Advent are Psalm 80; Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56.

Joy

December 10, 2018

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Luke 2:10

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Philippians 4: 4[1]

Think back on a time when you experienced an irrepressible, unvarnished joy that welled up from deep within you.  You couldn’t help but smile, laugh, jump up and down, cry with joy, dance, or express your joy in other ways.  However you expressed that joy, it was evident to anyone around you that you were filled with great happiness.

That is how it is for those who truly believe that God came to earth as a baby and was placed in a crib, only to be nailed to a cross 33 years later to save us from ourselves.  The joy we have in Christ does not mean that we are never sad.  The Christian’s joy is a deep, abiding joy that goes beyond current circumstances.  It is a stream that flows within our souls and refreshes and revives us despite the difficulties we face.  Joy is a fruit of the Spirit promised to all believers.

Absent clinical depression, the underlying joy of a true believer should be evident in his or her countenance.  I once heard a well-known theologian suggest that a joyless Christian is an oxymoron.  The angel announced to the shepherds: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).  Good news indeed!   It was the best news that anyone would ever hear! The hope, the belief that God came to mankind and dwells among us today should bring a smile to your face whenever you read or hear it.

Paul isn’t suggesting that you be joyful—his words to the church at Philippi constitute a mandate: Rejoice!  If you are a believer, having a joyful spirit is the result of your assurance that God is there for you in this life, and that he will carry you into the next life where you will never have another concern or shed another tear. You either believe that God became a man or you don’t believe it.  Jesus left us with a lot of evidence that he was indeed, fully God and fully man—and that is the basis for our joy.  He loved us so much that he died for us and his Spirit lives in us today.

Paul was not living the high life when he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi about AD 61. After being arrested in Jerusalem in 57 AD, he initiated a legal proceeding by invoking his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid being tried in Jerusalem by the local religious authorities.  As legal proceedings have a tendency to do, his case dragged on for several years due to a series of unexpected events. For the first two years from AD 57 to AD 59, he was ensconced in a room in the palace at Caesarea.  After learning from Paul’s nephew that he had overheard a plot to kill Paul in Jerusalem, Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the religious authorities in Jerusalem and took him to the palace. He remained there in their protective custody for two years.  He was on his way to Rome for his hearing in AD 59, when he was shipwrecked and waylaid in Malta for several months.  He finally made it to Rome in AD 60, where he rented a house to await the hearing on his case, which was ultimately dismissed in AD 62, presumably for lack of evidence.  He received many visitors and wrote several letters during this first stay in Rome, including the letter to the church at Philippi.

Despite being arrested, narrowly escaping a murderous plot, being held for two years in protective custody, surviving a shipwreck and a poisonous snake bite, and waiting another two years for his case to be heard, Paul found reasons to rejoice, and so encourages us to live our lives joyfully.

The psalmist explains the basis for our joy: “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath . . . I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faith servants . . . Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Excerpts, Psalm 85:1, 8, 10).

The prophet Zephaniah echoes the psalmist:  “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm . . . The Lord our God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3: 14-16, 17).  God sent Jesus to bear the burden of our sins, so that when we repent, we are forgiven and promised a place with him in heaven.

Jesus explained that while John the Baptist was a great man, those that come after John have a broader spiritual heritage because of what Jesus accomplished: “’I tell you,’ Jesus added, ‘John is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John’” (Luke 7:28, Good News Translation).  We who have come after have a greater perspective of God’s plan for salvation. The generations following the resurrection came to understand that Jesus died for our sins, as promised by the prophets, and that is the basis for our underlying joyful spirit.

Life gives us many opportunities to be anxious, sad, apprehensive, and fearful –money problems, relationship problems, health problems, family problems, job problems—the list goes on.  But Paul tells us to rejoice always.  Our pastor suggested a few weeks ago that prayer is the bridge between worry and joy.  Joy is not the same thing as being happy. You are happy when good things happen.  Joy runs much deeper. If you are grounded in faith, and turn to the Lord in prayer, you will experience a quiet joy that transcends your personal circumstances at any given time. Even in the midst of difficult and painful circumstances, the believer maintains a joyful spirit, because he or she calls upon the Lord, and knows the outcome: whatever happens, you will ultimately spend eternity in a place of incomprehensible joy where you will never shed another tear or have another worry.

Prayer:  Father, we thank and praise you for sending Jesus to live among us—to teach and guide us—and then to die for our sins.  During this Advent season, we look forward to celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah—our Savior.  We thank you for the great joy we experience when we come into your presence now, and look forward to rejoicing with you in our forever home.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the third Sunday in Advent are Psalm 85; Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 7: 18-35.

Peace

December 3, 2018

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

He was a wealthy and well-respected Chicago lawyer and an elder in his church when his substantial real estate portfolio was decimated.  His son died of scarlet fever at a young age.  Two years later, all of his remaining children—4 daughters—drowned on a holiday cruise to England.  Only his wife survived.  By most standards, he should have been an angry, embittered man—shaking his fist at the God he worshipped.  But instead, when he sailed over the part of the Atlantic where the girls died, he penned these words:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,  when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

Who can do that?  Who could write “it is well with my soul” after losing most of his wealth and five young children? A believing Christian, that’s who. A Christian whose sure hope and belief is in Jesus Christ.  His name was Horatio Spafford.  He left the practice of law and devoted himself to full-time ministry—eventually moving to Jerusalem, where he spread the gospel until the end of his life on earth.

As we discussed last week, our hope and belief that Jesus died for our sins and claimed victory over death is the basis for our faith.  Authentic faith results in a peace that Paul described as passing “all understanding”  (Philippians 4:7).  That was the peace that Spafford had.  He described an overwhelming flow of peace that “attendeth my way.” His soul was at peace in spite of the overwhelming waves of sorrow.   It was a peace that saturated his being.  He was so full of God’s living water—his love and grace– that he was able to withstand the fires that raged about him.  He had complete confidence that his children were in heaven with Jesus, and that he and his wife would be reunited with them one day. We sing  “O come, O come Emmanuel” during Advent.  Emmanuel means “God with us.” Spafford experienced God with him.  When we invite God into our lives, we take a huge step to achieving the peace that passes all understanding.

The problems that crop up in our everyday lives can become obstacles to a peaceful life.  The trials we endure often disrupt the peace in our lives.  In addition to the loss of cherished loved ones, other problems come between us and the tranquility we so yearn for—relationship conflicts, family feuds and other family problems, natural tragedies such as the fires and hurricanes that have recently ravaged our nation, job loss and disappointments, addictions of many kinds, and mental and physical health issues, to name a few.

But we will never have a completely problem or conflict-free life during our three score and ten or so years on earth.  Conflict is universal.  There has never been a time without problems or conflict since the world began. Trials and tribulations have always plagued humankind and will continue to do so.  The Bible, like any riveting book, is replete with tales of trials, disasters, and conflicts.  Luke describes one such clash when John the Baptist expressed his disapproval of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife: “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all:  He locked John up in prison” Luke 3:19-20).[1]  Of course, we know that Herodias’ hatred of John ran deep; she later tricked Herod into ordering his death.

Jesus gives us the peace of soul and mind that comes with being his follower: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  God imparts his peace to us and encourages us to pass it on to others.   What is a Christian to do in the midst of conflict?  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the crowd that peacemakers will be blessed: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”(Matthew 5:9).

But how do we accomplish that?  How do we go about achieving peace when we are beset by trials or are in the midst of highly charged disagreements?  How do we become a peacemaker?   Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean that you give in to every demand on you by another person.  It just means that you learn to resolve your differences amicably and encourage cooperation and understanding between warring factions.  It begins with listening to each other.

The Holy Spirit is there to help you resolve conflict—to be an instrument of peace.  The Prayer of St. Francis begins, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred let me sow love.  Where there is injury, pardon.” God does not demand peace at all costs, nor is peace the absence of conflict.  Peacemakers live in the world and are in the midst of conflict from time to time.  We are simply called to make efforts to reconcile  ourselves to others and to help others reconcile with each other and with God. The psalmist wrote: “Come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind! . . . He rules forever by his power, his eyes watch the nations—let not the rebellious rise up against him” (Excerpts, Psalm 66:5-7).  Be a peacemaker.

Paul reassured the church at Thessalonica that God who began a good work in them will carry it out: “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6).  When you join the family of God and strive to carry out his will for you to work for peace, he will help you through the tough days, hours, and months, when reconciliation seems to be a pipe dream.

This is the season of peace and goodwill.  Many people are suffering from personal losses of property or of loved ones. Many families and others will be in conflict during the holidays.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul encouraged us to do our best: “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  Paul understood that reconciliation is not always possible, but as a peacemaker, you are required to do your best to resolve differences.

Peacemaking is a divine activity; it requires the involvement of the Holy Spirit.   The Prince of Peace will lead you to a peace that passes all understanding in your own life, and will be with you as you help others through the challenges of their lives.

Prayer:  Father, saturate us with the assurance of your love and grace during this Advent season and beyond, so that we are able to fend off the many things that rob us of your peace—a peace that goes beyond our comprehension.  Send your Spirit to work through us as we seek to reconcile those in conflict around us and give us an extra measure of strength during this Advent season to help others in need.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Second Sunday in Advent are Psalm 66:1-2; Malachi 3:1-7; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3: 1-20.