Finding Courage on the Day of the Holy Innocents

Matthew 2:13-18

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take his family to Egypt.  Then, when Joseph wakes up, he gathers his family and obeys the command.  Just like that.  No questions or protests.  How does a man find that sort of courage?

Dreams can be very convincing, particularly when they involve loved ones.  If I had a dream about my family being murdered if we stayed in town, I would probably consider an unscheduled family trip.  What’s there to lose aside from vacation time, hotel costs, and frequent angry looks from my wife?  Still, I would pause long enough to question myself.  And even if I went ahead and obeyed the dream, I would curse both myself and God pretty frequently throughout the trip.  That’s what doubters do.

The nativity story describes time and time again a level of faith that few people possess.  Mary is visited by an angel and she obeys.  Mary tells Joseph that she is bearing God’s child, and he believes her.  The wise men study the stars, discern a message, and they travel to Bethlehem.  Now, Joseph has a dream and obeys.  Imagine all of the daring risks people would take if they possessed that level of faith.  The truth is I pause and question myself whenever I have to choose which shirt to wear in the morning.

Doubt is a symptom of fear.  We can reflect on the many logical reasons for Joseph to doubt his dream–(reason number one: a long journey to Egypt could threaten his infant son’s health)–but the difference between Joseph and most other people is rooted in how he addresses his fears.

Of course such a journey can be dangerous.  In fact, there isn’t even a guarantee that Herod’s troops won’t catch up with the family before they make it to Egypt.  Despite the many dangers, Joseph and his family find the courage to make the journey anyway.  They have courage because of their belief that God will not abandon them.

For most of the world, we are approaching the beginning of a new year.  Hopefully it will be an enjoyable one, but there will certainly be challenges because every year comes with challenges.  I pray that we all can establish a closer relationship with our creator so that we gain the kind of faith that Joseph has in today’s passage.  God is always with us: this fact does not magically wipe away all stress and pain, but believing it can give us the courage to face the challenges ahead.

Matthew 2:13-18

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,

  wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

  she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Love One Another

1 John 4:7-16  *

This blessed Christmas morning reminds me of the search for that purest love in Christ. That sense of perspective is so easy for me to lose in the chaos of the malls and gift lists and menu arrangements for family dinners. I always find myself scrambling at the end of the Advent season because I felt no time to prepare ahead at the end of a frenzied semester. But then, on this Christmas morning, I find myself calmed with a cup of coffee and my precious cat Sassy purring in my lap.

It might sound silly, but I wish human love could be a little more like that of cats. They don’t care about physical appearance or weight or race or wealth. All they know is how they are treated by their humans. It’s not the diamond collars or being served in a crystal dish that makes them purr. It’s a warm lap and your presence after being gone for a long day. It’s the simple boxes to jump in and out of and perhaps a little catnit treat or mouse toy once in a while that gets a joyful reaction. What better shape we humans would be in if we didn’t care about the diamond collars and the crystal dishes and didn’t care about the weight or race or appearance of others but just focused on curling up in a warm, welcoming lap.

Christ came into the world in the most humble way so that we might love God and others in the deepest perfection. I pray I don’t lose focus of what really matters. Merry Christmas.


 *  7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Christmas and Belief

John 20:24-29

I remember reaching a certain age when it became wildly unpopular to believe in Santa Claus.  At school, my friends enjoyed asking me if I still believed in that holiday legend, and I was fully aware that to say yes would give them permission to torment me for the entire year.  The exact date this happened escapes me now–today I suspect children stop believing in Santa Claus before they are five years old, the poor things–but I remember the pain I felt when I had to say to the other kids at school, “Of course I don’t believe in Santa Claus.  I’m not a baby.”

Even some of my closest friends did not know that I was a good liar.  I could look straight at a person’s eyes and tell a lie as if it was the gospel truth.  The truth on that terrible day was I did still believe in Santa Claus.

Now, I didn’t exactly buy the notion that he carried around presents for every child on earth; by that point I could discern my parents had to plan out a budget, and I was well aware of their discussions about what sorts of gifts they were going to buy for various relatives.  Still, even though I understood who really bought and wrapped the presents, I believed that Santa Claus was real.

Part of my reasoning was rooted in stubbornness; it is common, after all, for children to refuse to accept that their childhood would eventually end.  I did not want to grow up.

Something else happened within my mind during that time of my life, however.  I remember feeling excited about a new concept that never occurred to me before: even though people could not see him, the loving spirit of Saint Nicholas could still exist.

People go through a lot of trouble to buy gifts for their loved ones.  Then, they devote time to wrap those gifts in colorful paper.  This fact is not as exciting as a toy factory in the North Pole or flying reindeer, but the love behind all of the gift-giving is.  A wonderful force drives people to express their love for one another, and my young mind somehow grasped the notion that such a force was the real Santa Claus.

None of the kids in my school seemed to have a problem believing that love was real, so I was shocked to see them doubting the existence of Father Christmas.

Today I call the wonderful force that drives all love God, but the terminology is just a facade to appease my adult world.  To my private self, that unseen force is still Santa Claus, an old and loving spirit who fills all of us with limitless peace and happiness.  Young children have no trouble believing in what cannot be seen, and Jesus calls us to have that same level of belief.

John 20:24-29

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Seeking Confirmation

* Luke 7:19-23

John the Baptist seeks confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One. He works through the Disciples to ask. When they approach Jesus to ask on behalf of John, they are reminded of the miracles they have just witnessed themselves. They have just seen the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and a whole list of extraordinary miracles. Christ tells the Disciples to go back and report those miracles to John. I don’t sense that Jesus is impatient or rebuking them for their need for confirmation. Instead, he is reiterating what they have seen. And in many ways, I can relate to this situation. The Disciples have seen these miracles themselves. They could have told John what they had seen. But I know if it had been me in that scenario, I would have wanted Christ’s assurance again.

Part of my human nature is that I want everything spelled out and confirmed before I can trust myself. It’s real easy for me to ask a question again on someone else’s behalf when really it’s just myself I don’t trust. I like to think Jesus understands that vulnerability—that need for assurance again. That is why he reminds them again of the miracles they have seen. Perhaps listing the miracles again helps the reality sink in for the Disciples. There is a point though where we have to relax into trusting what we see and experience as authentic. Then we have to process those realities.

My beloved husband and I married ten years ago today. Before our marriage, I could have sent students a million times to his office to ask if he was sure I was the one he wanted to marry despite everything I had already seen in him. There was a point where I had to trust what we had experienced together. And on the morning of our wedding, there was no doubt in my mind. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Christ, and I would be bold to add blessed am I in my beautiful marriage.


* 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’20When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’21Jesus* had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.22And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

When the Truth Meets Selfish Goals

*Matthew 21:23-27

Sometimes it is difficult to discern what is the truth and what is false.  The best examples of this dilemma involve miracles.  Someone is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer with only months to live, and then, seemingly overnight, there is no trace of the cancer.  The patient claims to have seen a heavenly spirit in a dream and believes he has been healed by God.  Is this a miracle?

Scientists apply a heavy dose of skepticism to such experiences, and I think it is healthy to question what cannot be explained.  The many scientific discoveries that have improved our lives would not have been possible without humankind’s ability to refrain from blind belief.  Our advancements would never have occurred without careful measurements, without hard data.  A person’s claim to have seen a spirit or an angel through a dream is very, very soft evidence.  I frequently dream at night, and I would never put the same level of trust in my dreams that scientists put in their measurements.

There is one weakness to scientific measurements, however: human beings interpret the data.  This is a weakness because humans are sometimes tempted to use hard facts for their personal agendas.

Today’s passage does not appear to involve science, but I argue that the priests and elders try to use the hard facts of their religion to suit their needs.  They are not concerned about getting to the truth behind Jesus or His ministry.  They also do not care at about what is good their people or what might hurt them.  Instead, their motivation is completely selfish.  They are worried about how they will appear to the surrounding crowd; the search for spiritual truth is not at all on their minds.

The central mission for all human beings is to search out the truth–specifically, the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about all life.  Good priests and religious leaders (and we can also include scientists) should encourage this search, but the men in today’s Gospel passage appear to ignore this responsibility.

When we search for truth, we live, and Jesus encourages all to embrace life.

*Matthew 21:23-27

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Praising John the Baptist

Matthew 11:7-15

Jesus Praises John the Baptist

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?8What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.9What then did you go out to see? A prophet?* Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,* and the violent take it by force.13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came;14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.15Let anyone with ears* listen!


Jesus begins to speak about John by asking what others were prepared to see in the wilderness. Did they go to look at reeds blowing in the wind? Did they go expecting to see someone dressed in soft robes? Christ reminds them that you have to look in palaces for those wearing soft robes. No, they are reminded, they went to see a profit. And John the Baptist is no ordinary profit. We are told that among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.

John was no mild man who wore soft clothing. He had a fierce voice and lived in the desert and wore a shirt of camel’s hair. We are told he ate locusts and wild honey. He was not what people would call refined and well-dressed and well groomed. I know perhaps I can take a lesson from this point. John the Baptist believed desperately in his mission. He focused passionately on his task of turning people towards Christ. There is much to be admired in that kind of fierce, focused determination in one’s calling.

I suspect if I had seen John the Baptist in person, I would have wondered about this wild man with such urgency in his message. Perhaps I would have even been a little nervous and kept my distance in caution. And that guard could be a barrier to a tremendous opportunity. I would how many incredible people I have missed out on knowing because they are not what I would expect in a profit. This passage is a powerful reminder that I need to rethink what I expect in meeting profits. I need to remember this passage in meeting people in my experiences who are not what most people would consider well groomed and well dressed and soft spoken. They too might have something urgent to teach me.

Should We Ask Questions?

Luke 5:17-26

17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18Just then some men came, carrying a paralysed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. 20When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ 21Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ 22When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”?24But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralysed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ 25Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’

The Gospels tend to be hard on anyone who doubts the nature of Jesus.  Healings are performed before their eyes, yet they still do not believe.  How dare they refuse to believe!  How much proof does a person need?

I try to imagine myself in the crowd witnessing the miracles.  If I were to witness the healing in today’s reading with my modern eyes, I am almost certain that I would have doubts.  We see all sorts of amazing things in today’s world, especially with the realistic special effects used for motion pictures and popular theme parks.  Humans possess the technology to fabricate all sorts of “miracles,” and it is sometimes very difficult to discern whether we are watching reality or another Hollywood creation.  My modern mind would have every reason to question a miracle.

So I do not judge the doubters with the same harshness as the Gospel narrators appear to.  The world is full of liars, and it is wise to question events that seem improbable.

I know it is not popular among most branches of Christianity to question biblical miracles or even miracles that appear to occur today.  I think there is a big difference between questioning with a reasonable mind and questioning with predetermined answers, however.  This is the problem that I have with the scribes and Pharisees who question Jesus.  They do not question whether or not the healing of the paralyzed man is real, and they do not weigh the good advantages of Jesus’s theology against those of their own religious views.  They approach the scene with one clear goal: to catch Him breaking a law.  They anticipate finding an infraction, some legal misstep that they can use to declare that the prophet is wrong and they are right.

What we need today is the strength to ask good questions, questions that help us uncover the truth.  The goal should be to understand the mysteries of life, not to win cheap points by proving someone wrong.  If God loves all of us, then we shouldn’t look at our spirituality as a place of winners and losers–all people can win if they accept each other’s neverending search for truth.

Building Foundations

Matthew 7:21-27

Concerning Self-Deception

21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Hearers and Doers

24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

In today’s reading, we are called to pay attention to our foundation. Christ gives us the image of homes built on sand and homes build on rock. When the floods come, of course the home built on sand is going to fall. The home build on rock will withstand the storm. This metaphor relates to our personal foundations. The college environment in which I work is filled with messages regarding academic foundations for students—the manner in which initial classes provide material foundation for the advanced classes. Everything in coursework progresses from that basic foundation.

Our spiritual lives operate on that concept of foundation as well. We build our spiritual foundations through our actions. If there are no deeds that reflect what we say is our spiritual life, then our lives are as those homes build on sand; there is no support beyond the surface that will endure. Our actions must provide that strong foundation of rock to support what we say we believe. We are reminded that those who hear the words of Christ are called to act. Our actions will reflect our true foundation material.

I believe this call to action to reflect our foundation in no way implies that we are called to be perfect in our actions. We are human, and perfection is impossible. But it does call us to reflect on how our actions connect with what we hear and say we believe. To follow through with those actions is to know Christ. As a teacher, of course I don’t expect perfection from my students. I do look for effort and guide students towards improvement. My goal is to help them build ever stronger foundations as I work on strengthening my own foundations.

Ministry Requires Commitment

Matthew 4:18-22

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

When God calls you to do something important, something that can help a large number of people, the choice can be clear and at the same time painful.

Today’s Gospel passage gives little indication of the sacrifice these fishermen make when they decide to leave everything and follow Jesus.  We do not see Peter (who at this point goes by the name Simon), Andrew, James, and John shed any tears over the fact that they are leaving their profession and their families.  James and John “immediately” leave their father to follow the Son of God, and it’s hard to imagine that the father is happy about this sudden abandonment.  There is not at least a brief farewell?  Won’t they miss their father a little when they go off on this new adventure?

Another detail left out of the passage is that the fishermen all have the option to not follow Jesus.  Many people choose not to follow their individual calls to service, and I do not blame them.  It can be a painful experience to leave all that you know for a task that is unlikely to yield tangible benefits.  No financial advisor would encourage what amounts to reckless fiscal planning, and I certainly do not feel comfortable advising my fellow Christians to abandon all that they have for God.  Sometimes a person will experience an intense epiphany, however, and such moments can yield irrational actions.  Afterall, if no one answers God’s calling, much of the good works in this world would never get done.  My heart feels for both the rational people who choose the safety of their homes and the irrational people who choose to abandon everything and follow Jesus.

What seems to cause harm is when someone tries to live both paths.  If you decide to not leave home and family, then you should not try to join a mission that requires leaving home and family.

I see this mistake every semester at the community college.  Many students sign up for classes but refuse to devote enough time to their studies outside of class.  I am not referring to lazy students–there are always students who choose recreation over work.  No, these students know how to work; their problem lies in an unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifice at home.

“I can’t work on this paper because I have to go to my uncle’s birthday party.”

The birthday party lasts all weekend?

“Well, no.  But after the party I have to help my cousin move into his new apartment.  Plus I have to work.”

Getting a college degree is a calling, and it can result in a lot of good for the world as well as the student, but it also requires the sacrifice of family time.  A dedicated college student can’t go to every relative’s birthday party or help every cousin move.  If you choose to answer a call to service, you have to make the commitment.  The apostles choose to work with Jesus full-time, and there is no part-time option for that sort of calling.