Scripture: Psalm 148

Poor Judgment

We humans are often poor judges of what is significant.

When I look back over my life, my own track record is pretty abysmal. An example: my choice of which college to attend.

Once I narrowed down college choices to three, I visited each. Ultimately, I chose to attend the one with crab grass. Seriously. That was what did it for me. The school I visited previously was so clean-cut it felt artificial. I didn’t fit there. But I fit with crab grass.

It’s a pretty poor logical leap, I’ll readily admit. And a rather flippant sort attitude toward a decision that ultimately shepherded me through theological crisis, introduced me to my spouse and some of my best friends, and had a significant impact in setting me along my current life path.

Another example: I chose to attend seminary as a stalling technique. Seriously, again, yes. I wanted to go to “real” grad school—you know, to work on a Ph.D.—but I had trouble narrowing my field down to the acceptable categories. So I avoided making the decision for three more years by attending seminary.

Again, a fairly petty process of decision-making for a commitment that resulted in more shaping of my worldview than probably any other I have made. This decision set me up for my travels in the Middle East, it forced me to find real-world application for my academic interests, and (perhaps most to the point) it was my official training for the job I now have…… Because of stalling.

On the other side of the coin, there have been countless decisions I thought were going to be life-changing yet are barely noticeable in hindsight. Purchasing decisions tend to fall into this category. So do conversations I’m too afraid to have.

It’s quite humbling, really. If it’s a decision that greatly impacted my life, I probably did not regard it with much significance at the time. If it’s a decision I thought would be immensely significant, it probably didn’t make much difference at all.

Jesus’ Birth

The story of Jesus’ birth illustrates that this pattern is larger than just me. All the people who should have recognized its significance completely missed the point.

All those religious people who knew the bible inside and out……

All those academics who debated the finer—and sometimes trifling—points of theology……

All those priests who serviced the temple and carried out the rituals of the faith……

All of them had all the pieces right in front of them, but they never put them together. It was the most significant event in human history, but it went right over their heads.

Those with Eyes to See

But not everyone missed it. You know who does tend to recognize what is really significant in the world? What really changes things?

Creation. Creation senses things and begins adjusting to shifts and pressures that we haven’t even started to notice.

Outsiders. Those on the margins of the world and culture are more susceptible to shifts that would make them victims, and so they tend to be more in tune with what these things mean.

Those in power. Those wielding the power of this world tend to have keener insight than most when it comes to what threatens that power.

Creation…… Outsiders…… Those in power…… These happen to be the elements in the psalm that recognize the significance of Yahweh God. And if we read closely, these are also the elements in the story of Jesus’ birth that recognize the significance there, too.

1. Creation

Many of the same elements of creation that praise God in Psalm 148 proclaim God’s praise in the birth of Christ as well. In the Luke 2 account, the heavens become filled with “the shining light of God’s glory” (Luke 2:9 VOICE). An angel and then even a “heavenly host” appear proclaiming God’s praise (just like v.2 of the psalm). And let’s not forget the feeding trough in which the baby Jesus is laid; while the bible doesn’t name the specific animals that were nearby, it isn’t too much a stretch to imagine the cattle of the psalm “lowing” near the baby Jesus, as we sing in the carol “Away in a Manger.”

Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the Magi see a peculiar star—something in creation that is out-of-the-ordinary—and follow it to Judea.

The “heavens,” “the heights above,” “the angels,” the “heavenly hosts,” the “sun and moon,” the “shining stars,” the “highest heavens,” the “waters above the skies,” and even the “cattle” have certainly added their voices in recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth.

2. Outsiders

But the psalm also suggests another group that tends to recognize the true significance of things: outsiders. The psalm makes reference to women, the elderly, and children praising God (v.12)—the very people with the least power in the ancient world. They define “outsiders” in the sense that they are powerless.

But the psalmist goes further than that. In the Hebrew Bible (the same as our Old Testament), the writers refer to non-Israelite rulers using the words of v.11 of the psalm: “kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth.” Non-Israelite rulers would of course be people who don’t know Yahweh-God. In the psalm, this trope anticipates a time when all people know and follow God’s direction and justice—much akin to the prophetic visions of Isaiah 2 and other places. The leaders and nations referenced in the psalm are outsiders, and it is outsiders who are precisely the ones who first recognize the significance of Jesus’ birth.

In Luke, it is famously a rag-tag band of shepherds who first receive the birth announcement, and subsequently follow their curiosity and hearts to our infant Savior. For Matthew, foreign, pagan Magi—astrologers rather than kings—travel from afar. Tragically, they are more in tune with what God is doing than God’s own people. They realize it’s significance.

3. The Powerful

There is (then) a third group of people (overlapping somewhat with the previous group) that recognize the significance of what God is doing: those in power. “Kings,” “princes,” and “judges” are ones who ordered the ancient world. They wield the power, control the money, and have absolute authority. That means, of course, that they are the ones with the most to lose when the Son of God—the Messiah—comes onto the scene and turns the world upside down.

Matthew’s story illustrates this for us most clearly. When King Herod began to hear rumors of what the Magi expected to find, he grew concerned—he knew immediately that Jesus’ birth had significant repercussions for his ability to hold onto his power and authority. So he tries to manipulate the Magi into betraying the newborn Messiah; and, when he realizes his trap failed, he slaughters countless infants and toddlers in an effort to protect his power.

Faithful people may have missed the significance of that newborn baby, but those in power knew just how dangerous this Jesus was to them; they did not miss the significance of his unassuming birth.


While I’m not arguing this psalm is prophetic in any way, I find it a remarkably appropriate description and response to the birth of Jesus.

In the advent of Christ,

“the name of the Lord” is praised;
God “alone is exalted”;
and God’s “splendor [shone] above the earth and the heavens” (v.13).

In the birth of Jesus,

God “has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart” (v.14).

In its own way, Psalm 148 guides us into recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth for ourselves and all of creation. Just as faithful people have seen for thousands of years, this ancient prayer and songbook of God’s people guides us (this morning) into relationship, celebration, and awareness.

And so, in recognition of the significance of the appearing of our Savior, let us join our voices with this Psalmist of old. Let us “Praise the Lord.”


Love Deep Inside

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

I Will Light Candles this Christmas, by Howard Thurman

I will light Candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25 & Luke 2:1-7


Love of Food

In my family, we enjoy food. And maybe because of that, we’ve developed our own sort of language to talk about our food experiences. Just the other day, after a delicious Thai curry, I remarked that my “happy tummy” was making it hard to think of what to prepare for supper. Our cooking involves family recipes with secret ingredients in recipes we prepare. And honestly, as cliché as it sounds, I think you can taste the love that goes into food.

When I eat good food—especially good for you good food—I feel a warmth and a contentedness that is hard to describe. It’s almost like there’s a love deep inside me that just glows through my whole body.

My father would hate hearing me say this, by the way. One of his pet peeves was when we’d say “I love this!” referring to food. “We love people, not food,” he’d counter.

And I know he’s right. But I continue to contend that food remains an effective means of communicating love. It’s been the center of showing hospitality since…well……the Beginning.

Hospitality & Bethlehem

What does all this have to do with our scripture? With the Christmas story?

Well…… hospitality—and hence food—does have a lot to do with the story. So many people are traveling for this census—a disruption that the biblical story shows takes years before people settle back into whatever “normal life” would be.

Mary and Joseph—famously—find no room in what the King James translation called an “inn,” and so they end up laying their baby Jesus in a manger. In truth, the word here translated “inn” would be better translated “guest room” or something of the like. It is, in fact, the same word used of the “upper room” that Jesus and his disciples used for their final Passover celebration together, and in which Jesus washed their feet. That there was no room for them in the guest room meant there were other (perhaps less distant) relatives staying in the space as well, so Mary and her family had to crash elsewhere around the home.

Today, that might be the couch in the living room. But in the first century, it was the first floor of the house. This would be the only level with a dirt floor. It is where the cooking would be done, and yes—if the family had livestock (as this one clearly did)—it would be where the animals were brought inside, were it too cold for them to remain outside.

I know, all this completely destroys our cinematic imaginings of what Jesus’ birth looked like. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow.

Movin’ On Up! (or Down)

Anyway, some years later, Jesus will tell a story of a feast (you can find it in Luke 14). In his day, where you sat at the table indicated how honored you were as a guest. He warned not to presume that we get the honored spot, because someone might come to the party that was more important than you: How humiliating it would be to be asked to make room for someone else like that!

Instead, Jesus suggested that we choose for ourselves a seat below that which we think we deserve. That way, the host will move us up to a more important seat: How amazing that would feel!


I wonder if Jesus ever thought of his birth when he told that story.

Here were the parents of the Messiah—who was himself about to be born into the world—yet they were relegated to the least-honored accommodations of the home. They were moved down—down the list of importance and (quite literally) downstairs.

But if only the hosts had known, would they not have given up their own room to make space for the parents (and the birth) of the Savior of the World?

Love Deep Inside

Love, it seems, was hidden deep inside. It appeared where no one was looking. It received no honor or privilege. It did not enter the world with power and might. Even the hospitality it was given was the barest minimum.

But these things did not hamper love. Love was birthed into the world anyway. Without pomp and circumstance. Without power and privilege. Without even a decent bed, apparently.


All these years later, I’m not sure much has changed. Where love appears in the world, it often emerges where no one was looking. Without honor or privilege. Without power and authority. It just subtly, subversively emerges and changes us forever.

I don’t know about you, but there have been plenty of times in my life when I failed to offer hospitality to love.

Situations of injustice in which I was too embarrassed to stand up.

People in need of kindness that I was too busy to offer.

Opportunities I missed because I was too focused on myself.

If only I’d known.

If only we’d known.

You see, I don’t think we’re really that different than the “innkeeper”-relative in these stories. We are so busy about the things of this world…… We are so invested in systems of honor and privilege that rely on the things we can see with our eyes…… We are so rooted in our own lives that it’s hard to see the new thing that God is doing—it’s hard to see the love deep inside all those things that are outside what is “normal” for us.

Entertaining Angels

In Hebrews 13, the writer warns us to “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (vv.1-2 ESV).

This instruction builds strongly on the Old Testament tradition where this precise thing happens over and over—God’s emissary (God’s angel) is initially mistaken for just another person, but ultimately exposes their purpose and message.

In the birth story of Jesus, this “entertaining angels” thing is precisely what happens. The parents of the Messiah—and the Messiah himself—are unrecognized and do not receive much in the way of hospitality. Love remains unrecognized, buried deep inside, at least for the moment.

The Way of Jesus

These stories—and this season—should be a reminder to followers of Jesus that we are to be hospitable to one another……and to strangers. Now more than ever our culture seems to be shaped by a fear-focused rhetoric that rejects notions of hospitality, kindness, and welcome. The more different someone is than you, the more we are being taught to fear them.

Yet that path……is not the one we are to follow—if we are truly followers of Jesus. The Way of Jesus is one

that welcomes the stranger,
that shelters the alien,
that feeds the hungry,
that gives drink to the thirsty,
that extends forgiveness to the sinner,
that works toward healing for the sick and wounded,
that proclaims liberty to all who are enslaved,
that brings light to those in darkness.

The Way of Jesus begins and ends with the hospitality he and his parents never received in that little town of Bethlehem.

And the reason is: that such hospitality and welcome is the only way to connect with the love deep inside that God is trying to grow in and for each person.

That meth addict

That drunk

That Islamic radical you see on TV

That peaceful Muslim that lives across town

That immigrant you doubt has papers

That poor person you think is abusing the system

That coworker you can’t stand

That aunt you hope doesn’t show up at your holiday party

That church member who always grates you the wrong way

These are people that God loves. These are people God is trying to plant seeds of love deep inside. These are the “those who are sick” that Jesus says are “in need of healing” in Mark 2:17. These are the people that should be left with that warm, good-food feeling of love when we pass by their presence—because they (of all people) need reminded that the gospel of Jesus is indeed good news.

As Howard Thurman has reminded us of our identity in Christ this morning, so let us commit:

I will light Candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

May it be so. Amen.

Joy that Is Shared

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

Winter’s Cloak, by Joyce Rupp

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10


You wouldn’t know it with the weather we’re having, but is winter. Or at least: it will officially be winter on Thursday, when the winter solstice takes place. It is that day of the year with the least amount of daylight.

For months—ever since the summer solstice—the days have been getting shorter and shorter, the light that shines on us has been more and more brief. The winter solstice is the day when—like the lamp of the Lord in 1Samuel 3:3—the light has not yet gone out, but it feels for all the world like it’s about to happen. My friends in the northern latitudes describe a darkness in winter that feels like the very sun has burned out.

For us though, the winter solstice is usually a time of beginnings: it is the start of something more than the lengthening of days. It tends to be the beginning of our true winter—when temperatures begin to dip and winter’s winds chafe our skin.

Winter’s Cloak

In her poem Winter’s Cloak, poet Joyce Rupp talks about being in a place of embracing winter’s darkness. She likens it to a womb that she is not yet ready to leave. It is easy to envision the author: swaddled in quilts, pen and paper in hand, the only light from a roaring fireplace.

There is a strange comfort in such places in our lives—times when we are bundled against the elements, safe and warm and snuggled. Times when we discover the joy of simply being:

the joy of warmth
the joy of being alive
the joy of feeling safe
the joy of being at peace with oneself and life
perhaps even the joy of togetherness with loved ones

In such moments of resting with oneself (and perhaps with God), we resist anything that breaks the magic of the moment:

that noise from the kid’s room
the clock’s reminder of the late hour
our own body’s inclination to sleep
or (if we’re persistent) maybe even the light of morning

The revelation we experience in these times and places—that we are well, or loved, or going to be ok, or whatever—like Rupp we too fear it will be stolen and we blinded if the moment is not allowed to tarry.

But winter does not remain forever. We must—in fact—carry the revelations of the night into the bright light of day. And this is (I believe) what Isaiah tries to do in our scripture lesson.


He comes to us from a place of quiet and peace and warmth and love and closeness to God and joy. Isaiah has been gestating in the womb of God’s love, and has captured a revelation that he fears losing. It is, in fact, a picture of the place he has been; and so Isaiah endeavors to swaddle us in the canvas of this portrait of what God is bringing about.

Facing the light of day, Isaiah aims to share the joy he has experienced.

He describes dried and empty places—finally watered and filled with life and beauty

He sees the weak being strengthened, and the hurt opened to God for healing and wholeness

He envisions God coming to the aid of the the ones who have been taken advantage of, saving them and delivering punishment to their oppressors

He anticipates the blind able to see

The deaf able to hear

Abundant resources

Protection from harm

A safe path through the world—a path that is easy to follow……all the way to God

Isaiah envisions a picture where joy is shared liberally, and that joy chases away all sorrow and grief.

Man, these Advent texts are just chock full of pictures of a world I want to live in. And thanks be to God, it’s a world that God is committed to bringing about. Because this isn’t really Isaiah’s vision; it is God’s vision. Like the joy that permeates this portrait, God has chosen to share a glimpse of God’s own vision with Isaiah—a glimpse that Isaiah in turn shares with us.

Joy that Is Shared

It’s this sharing dimension that I want you to think about today—and hopefully this week.

Joy is hard to have alone. We certainly experience joy individually, but unless we share it with others, does it remain anything but “gladness”? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the bible usually pairs the word “joy” with a group of people: “they shout for joy”; “joy comes to them“; “they are filled with joy”; and so on.

What if joy is really only joy when it is shared?

What if the joy we feel expands exponentially when we bring others into it?

What if having joy that is shared is actually how we bring God’s incredible vision of the future into the present?

Advent is for dreamers, for sure.

So while the darkness of winter settles over us, while we swaddle ourselves on our quiet couches and are warmed with cocoa and wassail, let’s dream God’s dream together.

And when morning breaks and a new day dawns, let us share the joy of our friendship with Christ with one another. Let us share the Light of Christ that shines in the darkest places, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1).

Hope Moving Forward

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12

The Little Words

I’ve often observed that it’s the little words that make the biggest difference—or at least it’s the little words on which we put so much emphasis.

An example: a local pastor approached me a number of months back. He had been working to learn more Greek to improve his study and ministry, and (knowing my training in biblical languages) he asked me to clarify something for him.

He was studying in Galatians 2 and came across v.16, which the English Standard Version translates as: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” That final expression (“faith in Jesus Christ”) was causing him considerable grief. He had a lot of theological commitment wrapped up in this idea of being justified when we believe IN Jesus.

But as he looked to the Greek for the first time, he realized the Greek could be translated in a variety of ways: faith in Jesus, faith of Jesus, faith through Jesus, faith on account of Jesus, and so on. There are twenty different ways this exact construction might interpreted (according the grammars), though context clearly excludes many of them from consideration. My point is that he discovered he had been putting a lot of emphasis on “little words” that were not the solid foundation he previously believed them to be.

Some humility is always required as we approach the scriptures.


Hope is one of those things that we couple with (and interpret through) the little words around it.

We hope for something

We hope in someone

We hope with one another

Maybe we hope against or despite evidence to the contrary

We hope regarding a particular area of our life

We hope about the future

And so on.

Each construction means something a little different; each is directed differently or variously grounded.

Hoping in someone is quite different than hoping about the future, for instance.

But in each and every case, hope involves a future dimension. No matter who sparks our hope, where we place our hope, to whom we direct our hope, or any other concern, hope always expresses a vision of the future that we want to come into being. Hope moves us forward.

John the Baptist

The ministry of John the Baptist is deeply characterized by hope. His call to repentance is grounded in his hope for the immanently coming Kingdom of God. His entire life is rooted in his identity as one preparing for a future in which the Messiah—the Christ—will appear.

And despite his uncouth appearance and his rough mannerisms, people absolutely flocked to him.

They came because his hopeful vision of the future was truly good news for an earthy people who were often marginalized by the power players of their world, and who saw their government working against their interests and convictions.

Yet for the very same reasons that his audience grew, John brought ire on his own head. Those in power would rather see the world burn than give up a single sliver of that power. It has always been that way. And John—prophet that he is—is utterly consumed with God’s anger at those who profit by disadvantaging others and blaspheming the divine image in each human being.

A day of reckoning is coming—John proclaims:

a day when presumptive and self-indulgent piety will be exposed,

a day when those who “cut down” others will themselves be “cut down,”

a day when a just judge will replace the unjust judges of this world,

a day when all the useless “chaff” that the self-righteous surround themselves with will turn out to be fuel for the fire that will consume them.

This is the vision of the future that drives John’s hope. And—I dare say—this is precisely the hope that was so encouraging to so many in the first century.

John’s Hope, Today

In so, so many ways, there’s not much that’s changed.

I think that in our own little community—insignificant though it may seem in the global sphere—this exact same vision of hope can be equally encouraging—equally “attractive“—to the many in our midst who are downtrodden, disadvantaged, discriminated against, and despairing.

This advent season—with John the Baptist—we too proclaim the coming of “one who is more powerful than are we”…… one “whose sandals we are not worthy to carry.”

We too cast a vision of the coming of one who knows the difference between what is good and what is bad, one who is not afraid to call chaff “chaff” and wheat “wheat.”

We too are driven forward by hope as we envision a longed-for reckoning to be had—when people and motivations and policies and purposes are exposed for what they are—for the violence that is at their core.

We too realize that what is good news for the downtrodden and heartbroken is going to be very bad news for those who have built their wealth, their power, and their “kingdoms” through injustice, fear, and dehumanization.


This. Is. Advent.

This is when we look around and say: “No! This is not the way the world should be. This is not the way my life should be.”

Advent is when we recapture God’s vision of the future—a vision that is to drive our prayer and our activity and our ministry and our proclamations for the whole rest of the year.

Advent is when we remember that we are redeemed by Christ—but not yet fully transformed.

Advent is we remember that Christ is returning—but not yet. Not even if we spark global war and annihilate ourselves in the process. (Are we so vain and so self-important that we think we can force God’s hand on eternal things? What has happened to us?)


This is Advent. This is when we remember that the good news of Jesus Christ is not about destruction, annihilation, or even victory as we think of it. The good news is about God’s love and justice permeating every facet of creation—something that is, in fact, good news!

……at least for the downtrodden. The sick. The alone. The brokenhearted. The drunk. The abused. The addict. The victimized. The sinner.

How quickly we have forgotten that the Christ entered the world amid humble beginnings:

a pregnant, unwed mother……

ethnically targeted by the government and police……

unmoored from the support structures of home……

soon to become a refugee because of a governmental policy that resulted in the deaths of countless infants……

Have any years passed at all?


Given the circumstances of his birth, is it any wonder that Jesus showed a particular affinity with those on the margins? Those most vulnerable to governmental policies? Those facing discrimination and violence on account of biology? Those who are sick and poor?

We forget Mark 2:17, where Jesus says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The reason we are so uncomfortable with such things is not because of ambiguity in the biblical text. It is because we don’t identify with the people Jesus identifies with. It’s because we won’t acknowledge that we are sick sinners. It’s because: instead of seeing the Good News as hopeful, we see it threatening our way of life and worldview.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 ESV).

You see, if you look at those who teach that the Good News of Jesus involves things like violence and death and genocide and despair, I think you’ll notice something similar. The people who teach that these things are somehow “good news” are people—like the Pharisees Jesus encounters—who have the most to lose when God asserts divine justice on the world. They are the ones with the darkest secrets they will do anything to keep hidden.

It’s such shame: in the loving hope for repentance, the Holy Spirit has revealed what things will be like for them when Jesus returns, but their complete and utter inability to acknowledge their own sin while focusing solely on that of others means they think these awful visions are for other people.

In the end, the bible is clear that God is working toward what theologian Stanley Hauerwas called “The peaceable kingdom.” If there’s a theme verse for this vision of God’s, it’s probably Isaiah 2:4:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4 ESV)

In the world in which I find myself today, that vision sparks a hope that moves forward in God’s mission of love and life, of healing and hope, and of Good News.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ is coming again.

An Elegy for the Dead

Today–for whatever reason (who knows why these things are so?)–I am keenly aware of those I have buried. It’s a number of greater magnitude than I often realize, until I try to recite their names or pray through my list (yes, I keep a list and pray through it).

They are a host who follow me–and precede me–and remain with me everywhere I go. I see them in the visage and mannerisms of strangers. I feel them when my story overlaps their own–as my experiences are written on top of their grand family tales, invoking a mystifying sort of deja vu. Their memory calls forth a kind of melancholy gladness.

Grieving them has changed me–has bound our spirits together in a peculiar kind of unity unlike any other.

You are loved, dear friends–my sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. You are loved.

Peace Within

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

Scripture: Ephesians 5:1-2, 8-11, 13-14

Reflection Questions:

In what ways do you need to wake up?

Where do you need light in your life?

Wake Up!!

In what ways do you need to wake up?

I won’t presume to know how you answer that question. I trust that the Spirit of God will show you what you need to see—that God will convict you, as we often speak of it.

Instead, here are some things I hear:

I need to wake up to the fact that other people have very different experiences of life than I do.

I need to wake up to how my choices hurt others.

I need to wake up to how I am the only real obstacle to achieving some things I want to achieve.

I need to wake up to how there is more violence and pain in this world—and in the lives of those immediately around me—than I am aware of.

I need to wake up to how my silence on some things is often misconstrued as taking a side.

The more I prayerfully reflect—the more I meditate on these things—the more aware I am of how much I slumber through this life and how desperately I need the resurrection power of God that calls me to “rise from the dead.”

Wake Up to Our Identity: Beloved Children of God

The apostle Paul suggests some answers for us too—answers that are just as relevant now as they were nearly 2000 years ago.

It just shows you that people are people, and the Spirit continues to speak and work in our midst.

In our scripture reading, Paul challenges the Ephesians to wake up to the reality that they “are children that God dearly loves” (v.1).

The times I have been more deeply “woke” to the fact that “God dearly loves” me have been among the most humbling and overwhelming experiences of my life. They are the memories I return to again and again—especially when passing through a dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross describes those shadow experiences of faith.

As Christians, the awareness that God dearly loves us is a deep well of peace within us that we can return to again and again—no matter where we are or what the circumstances. As a pastor who listens to a lot of stories of “coming to faith” or “accepting Jesus into my life,” I’ve observed quite a few consistent pieces. More than anything else, it seems the greatest single factor that drives the strongest lives of faith is the experience of a intense awareness of God’s deep love.

Not a road-to-Damascus type of conversion at youth camp.

Not a coming down the aisle on the 25th verse of “I Surrender All” at a revival.

But a genuine an undeniable experience of knowing “Jesus loves me.”
Of course, I don’t belittle these other experiences. But it seems that unless they are coupled with the deep impression in your being that comes with truly experiencing God’s love, they are wells that eventually dry up.


Now coupled with this challenge of Paul to wake up to the reality that we deeply loved by God is that we are in fact God’s “children” (v.1).

There are a lot of images in the NT for the work that Jesus does for us—in the incarnation, in the life he leads, in his suffering and death, and in his being raised to new life again. But one of them—to oversimplify it and use language from my childhood—is that Jesus pulls a switcheroo with us. He takes our place and we take his. Now, when we’re talking about this, we usually focus on how Jesus—in taking our place—takes on the punishment that is due to us for our sins. But as the NT tells it in Romans 8 and other places, when Jesus steps into our place we are able to step into Jesus‘ place. Whereas previously, the sin in our lives separated us from God, and Jesus’ “son-ship” united him with God; in the Cross Jesus steps into our place of separation (“Why have you forsaken me?” in Mark 15:34) and we step into a place of “son-ship” or “daughter-ship” in union with God. We are “adopted as children” who can now call God “Abba”-daddy (Rom 8:15). We are “children of God” and “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17 ESV).

Or as 2Corinthians 5:21 puts it: “For our sake he made him [that is, Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV).

Imagine what the world would look like if every professing Christian was willing to claim their heritage as children of God who are dearly loved……

Of course, as the NT makes clear, this is no name-it-and-claim-it path of self-empowerment. Nor does it suggest a Joe Cocker-esque path of self-fulfillment where God’s “love

lift[s] us up where we belong
Where the eagles cry
On a mountain high…

Far from the world below
Up where the clear winds blow

No, we are saved for God’s purposes. We are given life to advance God’s Kingdom. Everything in our power and under our influence is a temporary gift entrusted to us to be used to advance God’s cause of love and justice in the world. As the book of 1John reminds us:

 “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1John 3:10 ESV).

In other words, we must wake up to the reality that we individually are not the only people God cares about. In 2Peter 3:9, we are reminded that the apparent “slowness” of Jesus’ return is rooted in God’s mercy and love; Peter tells us that the Lord is “not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s” (VOICE). God’s desire is that all who are created in God’s own image come to accept the way that God sees us: as children whom God deeply loves.

Wake up, sisters and brothers.

Wake Up to Our Past Darkness and Our Present Embodiment of Christ’s Light

There’s a second reality Paul challenges us to wake up to. In v.8, Paul invites us to wake up to our past darkness and our present embodiment of Christ’s light. He says:

“At one time you were in the dark, but now you are in the light because of what the Lord has done” (NIrV).

Just as before, there are two dimensions. The first is to wake up to our past darkness.

It amazes me how many people who profess Christ are so reluctant to call themselves sinners. Foundational to the Way of Christ is the recognition that we cannot save ourselves—that it is only by grace that we are saved and become better. That means: If Christ is who we profess, then our sin is what we will confess.

But we don’t want to.

We don’t want to acknowledge the brokenness in ourselves.

We don’t want to admit we struggle and fail with temptation each and every day.

We mistakenly believe that the only way we can be witnesses to Christ is if we present ourselves to others without fault.

We must wake up to the reality that we were once in the dark, and that the dark still has its shadowy fingers in our lives. We must acknowledge our sin—past and present—if anyone will ever see the light of Christ through our lives.

But this is the other dimension: Paul invites us to wake up to the fact that because of what Christ Jesus has done, it is possible for us to “be in the light,” as he says here.

That means that we don’t have to hide our darkness—we can expose it.

It means we don’t have to be slaves to our secret sins—they lose their power over us when laid bare.

It means that it is genuinely possible for the parts of us we fear to be chased away forever, like shadows fleeing as a room is illuminated.

But sadly, this is one of those times where what is meant as a promise is perceived as a threat. Paul promises that “everything the light shines on can be seen” (v.13); he promises this as a means of encouraging us and giving us hope. But we don’t want everything seen. We don’t want anyone to know our weaknesses. We don’t want anyone to know our darkest parts.

And the reason—if we’re going to be honest about it—is because we care more what others think about us than what God thinks about us.

And if that is the case, we will never find peace.

Where do you need light in your life?

This leads us to that second reflection question Sam offered to us this morning: Where do you need light in your life?

If “everything that the light shines on becomes a light” (v.13) then the way to experience more light in your life is to allow the light of Christ to shine more fully and deeply within and through you.

All that darkness spoken of in v.8 and in some of the verses we skipped over this morning—I am not so naive to believe that it is all gone. God is not so naive as to believe that it is all gone. But that’s why Paul is writing here: to remind the Ephesians of what should be but is not yet.


That’s Advent in a nutshell: a reminder of what should be but is not yet.

The world should proclaim God’s love to us, yet our whole notion of love is perverted by sexual objectification and abuses of power.

The world should support lives of joy, but untold numbers are drained of life by its systems.

The world should be a realm of infinite possibility, but many have their hopes crushed and die.

The world should be filled with peace but we still lack peace even within ourselves.

Advent is our time of remembering what should be—what will be—but what is not yet. Advent reminds us that there is work to be done within us and within our world if we are truly people following in the Way of Jesus.

Advent reminds us:

All our efforts at sharing the Good News are meaningless if what we share does not instill a sense of hope and life—if it is not, in fact, “good news.”

All our efforts at “growing as a Christian” are pointless if they are all self-centered expressions of personal piety instead of participation in God’s mission to lift up the downtrodden.

All our efforts at being a church are futile unless we truly embody Jesus in the world, living and loving and sharing and caring in the exact, selfless, servant-way that he demonstrated.

The only way to peace within us and within our world is to wake up, to face the “Son” of God, and to allow the light of the Dayspring of Immortal Gladness to permeate every part of our being.