The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Two weeks ago we discussed our call to stand up, to hold our heads high for the Day of the Lord, our hearts focused on plugging in and being ready, rather than on giving up and checking out. Last week we took that message a step further. When we are plugged in and prepared we are able to step out into the world announce the kingdom, calling sinners to a renewed and joyful life. Plugged in people have God’s true joy, a joy that doesn’t leave us.

The faithful, truly plugged in and ready for the Lord’s return, filled with joy, have a unique gift. It is the gift of hope bringing awareness.

Awareness is a unique gift. It is a gift that implies knowledge and insight giving us hope. Look at the awareness and hope evident in today’s readings and Gospel.

Zephaniah was a prophet living in very dark times. Most of his message was dark. People had closed their hearts and minds to an awareness of God. They unplugged, and lived in unjust and abusive times. They pursued what they thought would buy them happiness. Zephaniah spoke of devastation and death, Divine judgment on the “day of the Lord.” Yet, in his plugged-in-ness, Zephaniah stayed aware – This is not the real end. He acclaims with great hope: Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult, the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.

Similarly, St. Paul reminds us that our awareness leads to the same joy and that joy provides us with steadfast hope. He says: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all.

John went out with joy and hope. Because of that, he did amazing things. He provided sinners with a taste of that hope and joy, the removal of anxiety, freedom from desolation in promise of the Messiah Who was on the horizon.

The promise of Jesus is on the horizon. Set aside anxiety. See the peace and hope that is ours, not just on Sunday, or in Advent, or in the coming of Christmas, but everyday, every moment. Let us stay hopefully aware, on top of Jesus’ closeness. He is near!

Getting out of
the fire.

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

As I was listening to the radio the other day, the song: ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ by Billy Joel came on. Throughout the song he provides a retrospective on the past seventy-eight years. That story is retold in the hearing of names and events that range from Nazis to modern terrorism. He explains that the bad (mostly) has been with us since the world began. The song sets a somewhat hopeless perspective on the state of the world. We didn’t start the fire, but it was always like this. It will still be like this after we are gone. We tried to fight against it, but lost because nothing will change. The flood of people and events leaves the singer crying out – I can’t take it anymore.

As we walk through our readings we get the same sort of narrative. Wisdom foretells the way the Son of God would be treated in the fire of evil. Let’s attack Him, He is obnoxious, He shows the world our horrible truth, our hypocrisy. Let’s deliver Him to His enemies. Let them mock and torture Him. Mockingly they say – Let’s see what He will do. Let’s see if God defends Him. The writer of Wisdom was not making this up out of whole cloth. He knew what people, particularly powerful people, were like – the hypocrisy, arrogance – the fire of evil they burned with.

Similarly James was pointing out how the people of earliest Church – his was probably the first letter written – were already at each other’s throats. They had the evil fires of jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder, foul practice, wars, conflicts, and covetousness. They had already lost sight of Jesus.

Jesus is explaining what will happen to Him in the fire of worldly evil as He and His disciples walk along. They paid no attention; they were fighting over which one of them was the best, the greatest, the most important. They were in the midst of the fire of evil ambition.

Jesus puts out the fire of evil this way. He places a child, a symbol of innocence in their midst. He wraps the child in His arms – the perfect absence of evil. He says that we have the answer, the antidote to the fire of evil. Receive and live in Jesus – free and out of the fire.

Time for
hope.

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end,

Today’s message from scripture is one of hope. This hope is expressed in three different ways.

The first expression from Isaiah is taken from the second set of Chapters. Chapters 1 to 39 of Isaiah were written before the exile, Isaiah saw the cause of the wars and tragedies that led to the Babylonian exile including faithlessness and overall social injustice. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the exile.

Today’s reading, from Chapter 40 is the start of this second set of Chapters. It involves the commissioning of prophets. God is instructing them on the message they are to bring. Literally, speak tenderly to Jerusalem means they are to speak “tenderly” to the heart, the seat of reasoning of each person. It has nothing to do with the city of Jerusalem proper because the city is a long way off and is in ruins.

This message of hope is so important to us. It provides perspective on the City and Kingdom of God. The City and Kingdom of God has absolutely nothing to do with any earthly city. It is not Jerusalem or Rome, it is not any one place. What people fight over or call their capital is of no import or consequence. How silly will believers in cities seem in the eternal kingdom.

The City of God – the new and eternal Jerusalem, will come from God – not from the earth. That City and Kingdom starts with the state of our hearts and minds, and how we point to Him in Whom our hope is focused.

Our hearts, minds, and hopes are to go to the high places – to rise up. We, like Isaiah and John, are to proclaim the Good News. We are to do so without fear, saying: Here is God. That is a powerful and hope filled message for the world. The reward for those who proclaim that message is exactly this: God will feed us. God will gather us into His arms. He will carry us and will lead us with care.

The second expression of hope is set forth by Peter. It is so helpful to us every day, but with particular import during this penitential season. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some regard “delay,” but He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

This is such an important hope – that we have assurance of God’s patience with us. Are we ready? Perhaps not; we can all do better. We can proclaim God’s kingdom better and more often. We can point to God more often in our actions and with voices that correspond to our actions. Here is God. This is what He is like. Come meet Him and find true hope. We must also bring to mind that this hope comes with a warning – Don’t wait forever.

Finally, we have the hope expressed in the Gospel. God made a promise and He was fulfilling it. The Messiah was about to appear. John pointed to immanent hope. Like John, we are to point, but to hope now present.

It is time to hope. It is not just hope because of the past; because Jesus came and spent 33 years on earth. Rather, it is time to hope because we live is the aftermath of that salvation, promises fulfilled, and eagerly approaching the great eschatological moment, when Jesus returns, when we are gathered in, where our hearts and minds will overflow with joy, and where hope is completely fulfilled.

A reason for
hope.

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.

Today, we hear St. Peter advising the members of the early Church to bear up under persecution. But that isn’t the starting point. He isn’t recommending that we sit around, awaiting persecution, before we show the strength of our faith. He recommends that our starting point is always to offer hope to every and anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope.

Always being ready to offer hope is our calling as Christians. The world is so full of hopelessness, loss, and the seemingly unfillable gap between where we are and where we want to be.

Our call is to show that the gap isn’t the end, you get there and fall into nothingness. Rather, we must tell the world that one never has to face that chasm anymore – for Jesus Christ, risen and alive – has filled it. He has bridged the gap. He is our hope and our gift – to offer in gentleness and reverence, with clear conscience.

People around us must deal with the hopelessness that we used to face – part and parcel of the sinful human condition. As followers of Christ we have already recognized that hopelessness has been overcome. The depth of death is no more. Darkness has been crushed and light is ours. We have taken hold of the Savior and His tools that overcome hopelessness. We can point every and anyone we meet to Him and use His tools to share the promise of true hope.

According to a recent Pew Forum study, there is persecution of Christians in 131 of the 193 countries in the world. That’s almost 70%. The people Peter wrote to were similarly being slandered and threatened. Their witness to Christ’s hope made them the constant targets of those who served the empire and hailed nation as lord. They had a choice. Leave hope behind and again face the gap, the deep pit of despair, or stand firm in the Holy Spirit, the promises of Jesus Christ they held.

Peter reminds us that to this very day, regardless of the world’s resistance, irrespective of persecution, the promise of Jesus Christ is hope-filled. Jesus’ execution by the world was not the end. It was the beginning of hope.

From a merely human point of view, death is the end, the gap cannot be filled, and the chasm cannot be crossed. But thanks be to God, death is ended, the bridge is in place, and we can take the hand of every and anyone and offer them a reason for hope.

What’s
next.

Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

This week and next bring to an end the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. With these weeks we begin our expectation of the end times and Jesus’ return as our Lord and King. Today’s questions from the Sadducees get to the question of what happens after death and the essential truths of God’s kingdom.

The Roman historian of Jewish matters, Josephus, identified the Sadducees as being upper crust socially and economically. They had a great deal of political, social, and religious power. They believed that the soul was not immortal; that there was no afterlife, and that there were no rewards or penalties after death. They specifically rejected the resurrection of the dead.

It is ironic; the upper one percent denied any idea of hope or reward in the life to come. It sounds like something we might hear in this day and age. If you were the working poor, if you had nothing, you would receive nothing regardless of how faithful you might have been. Again, there is a distinct parallel to our present age. The rich Sadducees had no worries. They saw life as something they could enjoy to the fullest while the rest of the world suffered in despair.

Jesus came to set aside all such notions. He did not just attempt to set them aside. He destroyed this lack of hope with the authority and power of God.

If, like the Sadducees, our concern is about our power in this life and projecting that power into eternal life we fail to understand the purpose of the Kingdom of heaven. We fail to see essential hope that exists in God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is defined by life, not death. It transcends our senses and time. God’s kingdom – to which we are made heirs through Jesus – ends the base and immoral systems of domination and control that mar this life. God’s kingdom offers true rewards based on faith as well as our spiritual growth, loyalty of God’s way, and righteous living. God’s kingdom is limitless and eternal – our awaited home.

Hope does not regard today’s riches or defeats, power of lack thereof. As God’s children His rewards await us and we will enjoy them eternally. There will be many poor and lonely who will rule in God’s kingdom. The lordly and mighty men and women who ruled over institutions and nations and who, if they are lucky enough to even enter into the Kingdom of God, may get an apartment. This is what is next.

Jesus’
imperative.

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.”

We continue in our series of beautiful encounters with Jesus. Last week it was a parable meant to give people hope. Today, it is an actual encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus meant to exhibit Jesus’ missions’ imperative.

Jesus call to Zacchaeus, by definition, is in an imperative sentence. These are sentences that give instruction or that express a request or command. There are actually two imperatives in this sentence and we will get back to that.

First, let’s explore some of the finer details in this encounter.

Names matter in the Jewish world of the Bible. Each name, including Jesus’ Jewish name Yeshua carries with it particular meaning. A child was to grow into its name. Zacchaeus’ Hebrew name means the just one, righteous one, or pure one. How did someone with a name like that ever end up being a Chief Tax Collector – i.e., the chief sinner in Jericho?

The point is, it didn’t matter. Jesus sees what a person can become in Him, not what he or she was before His call. As bad as a person’s history might be, that is never a showstopper as to what a person can become in God’s Kingdom. In this encounter, Zacchaeus is the perfect name to dramatically illustrate God’s plan for him – that through Jesus he would become what he was meant to be. Jesus offers us the same.

This point is further illustrated in the fact that Zacchaeus could not help himself. He could not go to the Temple and offer sacrifice to be absolved of his many sins. Zacchaeus was seen as having willingly sold his soul to the Devil. He recruited others to also sell their souls. He was not only seen as responsible for his sins, but also for those of his fellow tax collectors. Because the rabbis declared that retribution was a prerequisite to being forgiven; by definition, Zacchaeus could not be forgiven. He had no way of repaying those he didn’t even know. Zacchaeus had no hope of ever getting right with God. We are sometimes convinced that we cannot get right with God. Yet Jesus comes to change that perspective.

The more we dig into context of this encounter, the more we marvel at how everything is there for a reason. Zacchaeus was a short person who climbed up into a sycamore tree. This Middle Eastern sycamore tree is very large, dense, and grows figs people cannot eat. These figs fall to the ground where the birds feed on them and leave their droppings in exchange. It was thus considered an “unclean” tree. Zacchaeus the unclean servant of evil climbed an unclean tree. He was complete in his uncleanness before the world. Yet Jesus calls him down using an imperative sentence.

“Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house.” This imperative is in two parts. One is to Zacchaeus himself – I have come to rescue you. I am rescuing you personally. I must do this. This is to show all people, every sinner who has lost hope, who has felt unredeemable, that I have come to rescue them personally.

Jesus Divine mandate is the relentless pursuit of the lost, the abandoned, and those who have lost hope. God’s “fullness of time” grace enters Zacchaeus’ life. The King of Glory has come to rescue yet another “lost sheep,” this one found in a sycamore tree!

For us, this encounter reveals the heart of the imperative the Father gave to Jesus; His mission and God’s purpose for the world. Now the time has come for all of us to walk out of our “no hope,” death row cell and become yet another “ex-con” mercifully ushered into the Kingdom of God.

Endless, joy filled,
hope.

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.”

This is one of those parables I refer to as the beautiful parables. They are a direct offer of hope. Today, and over the next two weeks Jesus offers His faithful special hope.

Hope is a verb; it is, as my high school teachers would say, an action word. It is something we engage in and do particularly as Christians. Hope is more than just desiring, longing, dreaming, or being optimistic. Hope is a confidence that what has been promised will in fact occur. It will happen. There is no might, or may, or maybe. As scripture tells us, it is yes and Amen. Jesus reminds us to let our confidence be known by our yes and no – really believing what we say is true because we are backed up by God Himself. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Assurance and conviction is that inward and outward steadfastness in what we know to be true.

Dr. David W. Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics writes that “Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.”

The plain opposite of hope is despair. More than despair alone, it is the false illusion and confidence in things that cannot be backed up.

Do we trust in government? There is surely no promise there. Maybe there are some ideals (originally founded upon scripture), but still no guarantee. Do we trust in our good works alone? So many are deceived in thinking that good works are enough – that they will somehow be remembered and acclaimed beyond the memory of the next couple of generations. They are deceived for they sill be forgotten. None of these things are backed up by an everlasting promise.

Christian history is filled with the witness and words of those who had to face apparent hopelessness. They were confronted by war, poverty, personal failure and dreams unfulfilled, sickness, and death. We sit here in God’s presence and wonder whether we can hope, whether we dare hope and have confidence. Jesus answer to us is: Yes!

Christians who get this know that when they are down they will be raised up. They know that when they sin they will be forgiven. They know that nothing here and now is more powerful than what God has promised us. They simply know it – not so that they become arrogant but so that the hope they have might be spread through their joy. The tax collector found that joy.

Endless, joy filled hope is what God has given us in Jesus. It is for those who see in these beautiful parables the truth of His promises.

Reflection for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

hope_bird

Is it ok,
to be different?

All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

St. Paul speaks of Abraham and the Prophets. They lived lives of faith – holding onto the promise of what was to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. Paul refers to these men and women as aliens and strangers on earth.

Alien, stranger, and foreigner all carry the same connotation: being outside of or distinct from a group; one who does not belong to the group; a person with an emphasized difference in allegiance or citizenship.

All those who held unto faith in the coming of the Christ were that: aliens, strangers, and foreigners. They did not long for the place they had come from – looking back with regret and loss – but rather they looked forward to what was to come. They desired a better homeland, a heavenly one.

Of course God blessed them for their faith. It may not even have been a blessing they saw – for some certainly suffered. Rather He blessed them with the promise of what was to come and how their names would be held in earthly and heavenly esteem for their part in bringing it all about. God promised to prepare a place for them in the kingdom where they would sit around Him in everlasting glory and joy. We saw this last week in celebrating the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus resplendent in glory.
How does this apply to us? It applies in that it is more than ok to be different. We can and should live as aliens, strangers, and foreigners even among those who are closest to us. We are to set ourselves apart in the carrying out of God’s will, in living the life Jesus asks us to live.

We have God’s promise like the prophets and patriarchs did, plus something even greater – knowledge of the promise fulfilled in Jesus’ coming. We have the Christ with us. He lives in our bodies – from hearts that love and welcome to hands that serve, minds that ponder, voices that sing, pray, and praise. Fitting in with the world is for those who place their faith and citizenship here. Be different – only in being different do we show our faith and allegiance to God and gain His promise.

Reflection for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Widow of Nain

Stop crying
…and see hope.

Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me; O LORD, be my helper. You changed my mourning into dancing; O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.

Remember learning the Act of Hope? It is one of those basic prayers we all learned as children perhaps from our parents or in catechism class: O my God, relying on Thy infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon for my sins, the help of Thy grace, and life everlasting through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer. Amen.

Today we see all of this in action. Elijah begs God for mercy upon the widow at Zarephath whose son has died.

Elijah had been a guest in her house for a long time. She and her son were dying of starvation when Elijah arrived, yet she gave him the last of what she had and from that point forward her barrel did not go empty – they were all able to eat for many days. After the famine is over her son got sick and died. After all she did she is pushed to the end of her rope and doubts.

Even though she had witnessed a miracle, and had been fed by the hand of the Lord, there is that moment of weakness and doubt. Yet God does not abandon her, He listens to Elijah’s pleading bringing her son back to life. Then she remembers her faith and the mercy of the Lord.

The lesson is that even though we lack consistent faith God does not forsake us. We always have the promise of hope.

St. Paul is recounting the fact that he had been a cruel jerk toward Christians. He tells the Galatians that at the height of his power and cruelty Jesus touched him, redeemed him, and trusted him with His message.

The lesson is that even though we sin and fall, even if we fall to the depths of depravity, God does not forsake us. He continually calls us back to His way and sends His grace to motivate us to change. We have the hope of forgiveness and redemption.

Two thousand years ago a funeral procession made its way toward the gates of Nain. The crowd was devastated: they had lost a son. His mom, a widow grieved. There was hopelessness. At the gates Jesus notices this grieving. He “was moved with pity for her,” and responded with compassion. He looked her in the eye, and says, “Do not weep.” God has “visited his people,” and was ready to save her and her son.

The lesson is that there is no hopelessness. We have tremendous hope because Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise. God continues to surprise us with His hope. Jesus returns to us every day with reason for hope.

Reflection for Low Sunday

Web

How long is the party?
At least 50 days.

He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.”

I have been seeing robins all around, heard a cardinal the other morning calling out for a mate. As I changed the parish sign yesterday to note that we are celebrating the 50 days of Easter I noticed the leaves of tulips peaking through the soil.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Resurrection and the renewal of life is all around us. A true blessing!

The Solemnity of the Resurrection can occur anytime between March 22nd and April 25th. Regardless of where it falls, whether it is more spring like or wintery outside, it always brings us a greater awareness of the newness of life we have in Christ. It would be truly sad if it was just a one-day reminder, but it is not!

Easter is the hope that comes after the 40-day long journey through Lent and our walk with Jesus through His suffering, death, and burial.

Easter is the message of the hope that reigns forever for every Christian who believes in Jesus, who sees in Him the hope of eternal life and the resurrection.

Easter is the 50 “24-hour periods” of hope that lead up to the presence of God’s Spirit in our world realized on Pentecost. This is the promise Jesus gave us. The promise that we are not alone, abandoned, without His support and His life flowing through us constantly. He remains alive in us as His followers and in the world, calling all to know, love, and serve Him and each other.

Easter is the unfading reality that amid the threats of nuclear attack, war, violence, poverty, hunger, greed, sickness, death, and every sort of evil we cannot be touched. We may suffer temporarily, but we will never lose. Our life is in Him who lives forever, and in His kingdom that is eternal.

Easter is each and every Sunday. Even in the midst of Lent, Sunday is a day of joy, a break in fasting, a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We worship God on the first day of the week – rather than the Sabbath – to remember Christ’s resurrection from the dead and celebrate God’s loving action to save the world.

Then celebrate, party every day. Hold on especially to the 50 days of Easter. Hold on to Easter hope that God is in our world, in our community, and in our life. Christ is alive. He is risen indeed – everyday!