Who’s
first?

but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior

The Christmas season is a time for recognizing firsts. As we browse through the scriptures, we encounter those who did things for the first time. It is, however, a little difficult to decide who did what first.

Did John the Baptist proclaim Jesus first? Not really. The Shepherds we honor today did that. They heard about Jesus and told of Him first. They made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child.

Was John the Baptist the first to be killed because of his proclamation of the truth? On December 26th, the Church honors St. Stephen, called the proto-martyr – the first martyr for the faith. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. But on December 28th the Church honors the Holy Innocents, the children and infants killed by Herod after the Magi’s visit. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region. They were first.

People have an affinity for firsts. We like winners – and these martyrs and evangelists were indeed the first winners. But do we realize that we are all winners? Like the Humble Shepherds, Jesus’ birth heralds the fact that we have been made winners, and are in first place.

In writing to Titus, Paul lays down the way winners, people in first place, are to live. He says that winners are different from non-winners because they lead different lives. Paul shows us that the change wrought in Jesus coming – the appearance of God’s kindness and love – gave us the possibility of changing – becoming victorious. It is not that we have done anything to bring about this change. Rather, it is a change gifted to us by Jesus’ appearance.

Those first visitors encountered this opportunity. Poor and outcast humble shepherds encountered Theophany. They saw the glory of God and heard the message. They were changed to winners, not just by the encounter, but because they acted on it.

Paul walks us through a formula he frequently uses, comparing before and after. In verse 3 he says how things once were – we were total losers: foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another. Now we are winners because, He saved us.

Because we are made winners, people in first place, we are called to boldly and richly live the life laid out for us by the One who gives the first victory.

Why take
it?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

A question some of us face as we serve the Lord is, ‘Why should I take it?’

I started taking it in my youth. I was in church every day, so I heard today’s gospel and God’s word along this theme over and over. It may not have made much of an impression on me except for the fact that I was that odd kid. You know, the kind other kids either do not like or cannot relate to. Today, we call those kids victims of bullying. In my day, there was no label. You just suffered. By my teenage years the world finally found a label for me – nerd. Nerd – a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills.

Why was I odd – I had no dad. My father died when I was four. Forget father-son events. I had no one to teach me boy things – sports and such, and I was uncoordinated anyway – I’m sure you’ve noticed. I lived in a house full of women, so I got them. I learned to cook and clean – what a nerd.

Beyond that, I liked being with adults. Most of my relatives were significantly older – so I learned how to talk to them and relate with them. On the other hand, I never really learned how to relate with my peers.

Oh, and I loved church. While many saw it as an obligation, I just loved being there. I found Jesus’ parables to be the best stories ever – I got them. And best of all, Jesus said that if I lose my life, if I am persecuted for His sake, I will have everlasting life, eternal joy. So, I learned to take it. I didn’t fight back or resist. I had reason to take it. Ironically, for all my love of the church, I still had to take attempts at abuse from my pastor. Even in God’s house I couldn’t be safe.

Somewhere in my school career, that all came together. I learned the term: unconditional love. God loves each of us totally. We cannot earn it, pay for it, give anything for it. He just loves us. Cooking, cleaning, uncoordinated, nerd – He loves me. That’s why. I must serve the Lord and take it for His love.

As I became successful I lost my innocence. I learned to fight back, to stand my ground. As that happened I grew further and further from the Church and serving God. That’s the consequence, isn’t it? If we stop living sacrificial lives, if we want to gain and win, we lose.

Thankfully, God’s love will not let us be. Like Jeremiah, we cannot resist serving Him. Our thirst for God’s unconditional love is greater than any person, persecution, or challenge. Why should I take it? Why should I serve? For greater love, for life!

Conviction from
the other side.

“Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

This Lent we are focusing on the theme of God’s conviction. Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit would come to convict the world – clearly declaring our guilt.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s conviction, we have a choice. We can acknowledge and accept our guilt and flee to Jesus. We can declare our faith in him, admit our sin and conviction, and make Him the Lord of our life. In doing that, all sin is forgiven and we have access to the rich treasury of grace and mercy won for us by Jesus.

On the other hand, we can ignore or self-excuse our conviction. We can bury it, and try to fill our lives with the kinds of noise that shuts out the work of the Holy Spirit. When we do that we grow deaf to God’s call. We condemn ourselves to the coldness of outsider status.

For those who accept God’s conviction, who put their faith in the Lord, something amazing happens. They move from the conviction of guilt to a conviction in righteousness. This is what happened 120 years ago.

In 1897, a group of church goers moved from the hopelessness of external faith to the deep conviction born of a declaration of faith in Jesus alone. Today we celebrate and recognize that day.

The Christian conviction they experienced, their acceptance of the Lord over “going along” transformed their hearts. They moved from an outward conformity – casual agreement and compliance with their Church’s religious rules – to a deep conviction in what God promised them.

People can casually agree or conform with a lot of things and not be fully convinced of them or even believe any of them. People can go for many years living a lie, being deceived about what they believe and what they practice. It isn’t until they face the winds of affliction that the truth of their beliefs is tested. That is when they find out whether their house is built on the Rock or it was built on the sand.

The faithful of 1897 found Christian conviction built on salvation in Jesus. With that revelation, they faced the onslaught of the enemy, of persecution, trials, and affliction standing on the Rock. They found out that their old conformity could not carry them.

As they did, we must do. The Lord knows our choice. Our challenge is to examine ourselves to see whether we are in Lord. If we have accepted our conviction and live true conviction we, like they, like the Apostles, saints, martyrs, and heroes of the faith, will move mountains, change the world, bear much fruit, and be truly victorious.

What will stop
Jesus?

At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”

Thirty-six, what can we do with thirty-six? With thirty-six dollars we could hire an actuary, a Sports Agent, or a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator for an hour. We could hire a Physical Therapist for an hour’s treatment. We could buy a fairly good meal at a good restaurant. We could get three drinks at the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa. We could get a whole mess of stuff at our local dollar store. The point is that with thirty-six dollars we couldn’t do a lot. We would be limited. Thirty-six isn’t a lot.

What could Jesus accomplish with only a few? This is a powerful moment. Jesus cuts His first followers loose on the world. He sends them out. There are only seventy-two. Thirty-six pairs of disciples who go out to witness and proclaim the kingdom.

What was it about these thirty-six ordinary pairs of people? They’d listened to Jesus for a while. Not exactly like going to college or a long-term course of study. Jesus’ instructions aren’t even that detailed. So what would these thirty-six be able to do?

Jesus gave them an essential mission. Tell people who receive you: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ They went and they did it – then came back rejoicing. They were successful. They focused on one thing that Jesus asked and that was all that was needed. The word was spread. By this proclaiming people came to know about the kingdom. A kingdom they had part of by their faith.

We might now think, wow, with only thirty-six pairs of people so much seems to have been done. Unfortunately things did not get great immediately. Things went backwards. Once the Great Preacher and Teacher was arrested, tried, and killed many ran away. Was it fear or no earthly kingdom? We cannot say for sure, but in the end twelve counting Judas’ replacement and a handful of supporters were left in the upper room.

We know the story – they were filled by the Holy Spirit and preached the Kingdom to the ends of the earth. Yet they were only twelve. They were small, uneducated, and unpopular. They went out like lambs among wolves. Within days some would be arrested. One was already dead. But nothing stopped them. Nothing was more powerful than their faith. They were victorious because regardless of obstacles faith overcame. And their names are written in heaven.

Where is
victory?

Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training… With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.

Today’s readings and gospel offer an interesting juxtaposition pointing to victory.

In Wisdom we hear the words of the wicked. How can we test God’s Holy One? What tortures and trials can we put Him through to test Him? We want proof – proof is most important. We can almost hear God saying – when giving His commandments in Deuteronomy 6:16“You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

Wisdom points to the truth of Jesus. The wicked would test Him and finally would put Him to death. We could stop there thinking that this applies to Jesus alone, but that would make us separate from Jesus. Remember that Jesus underwent every trial, temptation, suffering that we face. He confronted death just as we will have to face death. The words of Wisdom apply to us too. The wicked of the world will fight us and will test us over and over. Our victory will come from the Jesus kind of proof we offer.

In the Gospel Jesus is walking along with His disciples. He’s explaining the things to come – the way He will be tortured and killed. He is certainly ready, willing, and able to give witness by carrying out His Father’s will. What witness do the disciples give? They don’t even hear Him. They refused to understand and did not even attempt to figure it out. Instead, they fought amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Imagine a son or daughter sitting through an hour long parental talk then looking up to say: ‘What did you say, and by the way, am I your favorite?’ Our victory comes from listening to, hearing and modeling Jesus.

Paul gives us a pathway forward. He shows us the way to victory. Live the wisdom that is from above – the wisdom of God made known to us in Jesus. Live lives that are pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, and full of mercy and good fruits. Be constant and sincere. Cultivate peace.

To have victory we have to make ourselves one in Jesus, to become real parts of His body. We must come to real regeneration in Him so that we can become more and more like Him. Unlike the disciples on the journey through Galilee we have to make ourselves “last of all and the servant of all.” From this new life in Him comes the witness we offer in the face of the world and whatever trials, temptations, and sufferings it attempts to foist upon us. From life in Him comes victory!

We are almost
there.

He said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Two hands reaching for each other. A couple in love. Children in the back seat of the car, wondering ‘are we there yet.’ An action movie where the hero rescues others at the very last second. These are all examples of reaching for achievement.

As we have seen over these weeks, Jesus has been approaching this dramatic last moment. He is completing His teaching on the great gift He gives us, His very body and blood, His soul to live within us forever. Jesus is the mountain climber approaching the summit. He is about to cross the goal line. What happened?

It is often said that life is full of disappointments. It is hard to find fulfillment, acceptance, and victory, to reach our goals and end up a winner. We bet on the horse that doesn’t win. We put our eggs in the wrong basket. We weren’t at the dock when our ship came in.

All of the people hearing Jesus were at the dock (literally since they were in the seaside town of Capernaum). They were in the right place at the right time. The summit was in reach. Their team was about to win. Their hands were about to touch hand of God. And they walked away from Him.

They… were… almost… there… and they walked away both in body and soul. While a few stayed, even among those one had lost faith, Judas. This giver of God’s body and blood, of God’s soul, wasn’t what he wanted. He continued to live in his disappointments and that disappointment would later turn to anger and betrayal. Judas… was… almost… there… and lost his faith.

We are faced with the same challenge the crowd in Capernaum faced. Jesus offers us words that are Spirit and life. We continually have Him within our reach and can come to Him to receive His body and blood, His soul to live within us forever. We are almost there. Like Joshua before the people of Israel, we must declare whom we will serve – the gods of the times or the Lord.

We… are… almost… there… If we chose the Lord we have real life, true regeneration, purpose, fulfillment, acceptance, and victory. Let us grasp His hand and find in Him real life.

Reflection for Quinquagesima Sunday

15424

What are you living for?
For forever!

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

We are about to embark on our Lenten journey. In 4 days, we come to church to have ashes imposed on our foreheads in an act of desire – desire for repentance, change, and victory. These desires puts us on the side of Jesus so that we live in accordance with His way and in faith that His promised victory will be fulfilled for us.

Many people don’t get it. They might ask us why we take on ashes. What’s the point of our desire? Aren’t we generally good enough, victorious enough already?

If we are honest with ourselves and with them, we state a faith in Jesus and a victory beyond the here and now. We admit that Jesus is our life; that we have complete faith in Him and in His victory. We admit that the ashes symbolize our shortcomings in not living Jesus’ way of life. We state that we want to make our lives like His. Our ashes symbolize a fact and a desire – We want to fix our lives so we live as Jesus asked us to live. Then we will find eternal happiness and victory.

If we lived only by our own desires and practices our lives would be empty. We would always be chasing after perfection in what we want, but never find what we need. We know, in the end, that our ways, our desires, our wants and needs are ultimately unfulfilling. They offer no hope beyond today (and not that much).

By aligning ourselves with Jesus’ way, in striving to be steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord we conform our lives – we focus on living the right way. Living Jesus’ way brings us to eternal life which is God’s offer and promise of victory. Jesus’ victory helps us along the way and brings us to perfection even when we fall short. His love covers our failures giving victory.

In taking on ashes, in working through the season ahead, we implore God’s help to get back on track. We ask Him to help us in living for what is greater and more powerful than any temporary desire; better than anything the world can offer. We place our trust in His mercy that overcomes all weakness.

What can the world offer? The world offers more work, rules, temporary solutions, and a day’s wage. Are they enough? Where will they lead? Nowhere! With faith, and a re-commitment to Jesus we live for glory. All else will fade except happiness forever – our complete victory in Jesus.

Reflection for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I can’t do it anymore.
I have all you need to continue.

“This is enough, O LORD!”

Back at the castle, Jezebel heard how Elijah’s God had made hers look foolish. She also heard that her prophets were dead and that Israel had gone back to God. So she sent a little note to Elijah: “May the gods kill me if I don’t make you just as dead as my prophets!” She meant it. She had killed before. Elijah suddenly felt very alone. You can just imagine the people backing away from him. The wicked queen had sworn she would get him. Elijah needed a friend. He looked around, but it seemed like the only one standing with him was his personal servant. At such a frightening time in Elijah’s life, he needed reassurance, a reason to go on.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed for death.

Many of us have watched the Olympics. We have seen competitors break 34 world records and 67 Olympic record including 28 broken by Americans and 3 by Poles.

Manteo Mitchell of the United States 4×400-meter relay team was running when he felt the pop in his leg. He said, “It felt like somebody literally just snapped my leg in half”
The sprinter had half a lap to go in the first leg of the preliminaries and a choice to make: keep running or stop and lose the race. To him, it was never much of a choice.

He finished the lap and limped to the side to watch his team finish the race and qualify easily for the final. A few hours later, doctors confirmed what he suspected: He had run the last 200 meters with a broken leg.

We aren’t often confronted with the threat of being murdered, or having to finish a race with a broken leg, but Jesus knew that we would be confronted by all sorts of challenges, including the ones Jesus faced today, lack of faith, doubt, and murmuring. He knew that we all face the challenge of mortality.

Knowing all this, He gave us what we need to continue, to go on, and to have a hope that is more powerful than any challenge, even death.

Jesus is our strength. He is what we need to continue, the Bread that came down from heaven that gives eternal life. With Him and in Him there is nothing to fear, there is all we need to continue. With His strength we can not only finish the race, but finish winning!