Promise and trust


Watching for the Morning of February 25, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday is another step towards Jerusalem and our celebration of the events that happened there in an upper room, at Gethsemane, in the home of the High Priest and before Pilate. Our season walks towards a hill outside the walls called Golgotha, and to a nearby tomb and a vision of angels.

The covenant with Abram opens our readings on Sunday. He is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. The promise is spoken and they receive new names. Abram is changed to Abraham, understood to mean “father of a multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess” – not in the sense that my stepfather called my little sister “princess”; she is to be the royal mother of a great nation.

We know the story. Sarah is barren and beyond childbearing. Yet they receive again a promise. They are even given the name they shall call their child to be: “Isaac” from the word to laugh. Maybe because Abraham laughed. Maybe because Sarah laughed. Maybe because, at his birth, they laughed with joy. A future is given to them. A promise sustains them.

Paul will talk of this promise in Romans. Abraham was reckoned as righteous because he trusted the promise. It is Paul’s argument that righteousness comes from such faith not works of the law.

Trust in God sustains the poet in our psalm. This is the psalm Jesus will recite from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  We do not read the lament section this Sunday, however, only the concluding song of trust.

Promise and trust. And so Jesus begins to teach his followers about the cross that awaits him and the cross we must take up to follow him. The cross is the ultimate tool of imperial power. But Jesus brings another empire, a greater kingdom, a truer reign – a reign of life. Shall we trust it?

How can we not?

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the first sermon in the series, “A great and terrifying promise.”

The Prayer for February 25, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
whose promise to Abraham was sure;
grant us courage to follow where you lead
and to take up the cross for the sake of your Gospel;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 25, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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Image: By Ben Skála, Benfoto (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


The promised blessing

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner - Study for Jesus and Nicodemus.jpg

Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For all the boots

File:Boots, Boots, To Go Up and Down in Africa- the Salvage and Repair of Army Boots, Somerset, England, 1943 D13198.jpg

Isaiah 9:2-7

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

I saw a news item last year about people making jewelry out of the shell casings left behind from the Vietnam war. That’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but it is on the same track.

My nephew wants to be a marine. I respect him. I respect him a great deal. I think I understand why such a life appeals to him. He wants to be a guardian of the peace. But I can’t shake the shadows of war. It’s been haunting me since the nightly news showed images and gave body counts each evening from Vietnam. It haunts me since reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It haunts me since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It haunts me since seeing footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It haunts me since my father’s war stories stopped being adventure stories. It was an adventure for him as a young man. It was a long ways from shoveling sugar beets on a Colorado farm. It involved the thrill of flying when you navigated by following roads rather than computer readouts. But I recognize that my father ttold it as an adventure story because that helps hide the reality of the friends he lost and the bombs he dropped.

We spend more than 1.6 billion dollars a day in this country for war and the preparations for war. We call it defense, because that, too, hides some of the horror. We unfurl giant flags in patriotic displays at football games and cheer our soldiers when they come home to greet unsuspecting family because that, too, hides some of the horror. We honor their service, rightly, but old soldiers and authors and moviemakers keep reminding us that the underbelly of such adventure is blood and grief. And so we watch Aleppo and the Russians drooping bombs on hospitals and children covered in dust and blood pulled from the wreckage. A city that was great a thousand years before Abraham left Haran appears now as rubble.

When we read Isaiah on Christmas Eve it is pure promise, sweet and familiar, shadowed not by weeping mothers but Christmas trees and candlelight. But the words were first spoken to weeping mothers.

The music of Haydn rings in our ears as we hear these words. But this is not a noble aspiration for a sane and safe world; it is a promise. A promise that one shall come in whom is perfect peace. Peace will not come by bombing the heck out of our enemies, but by kneeling before the holy infant, by kneeling in allegiance to the one who is not only the child of Bethlehem but the teacher from Nazareth who chose not to call on the heavenly armies, but stretched wide his arms upon the cross.

I don’t know how we get there, given the warring heart of humanity. But that is why the promise stands forth with such power.

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

Image: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The God who promises

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Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

5“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

We are a people who live by a promise. It means our faces are fundamentally turned towards the future, for a promise, by nature, is about what I will do not what I have done.

The genesis of human religious practices is the desire to maintain the world: to be sure that the sun comes back after the winter solstice, to be sure the rains come in the spring, to validate and sustain the values and structures of the past – to keep things the same. Kings and priests go together.

Prophets, on the other hand, are about the present and future. What God is doing, what God will do, where the people should go – where they must go lest tragedy overtake them. And, when ruin comes, the prophets speak of grace to come, God’s promise of new beginnings.

We are a people who live by a promise. We are not a people upholding conventional morality; we are a people speaking a new morality: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

We are not a people defending the monarchy’s divine right; we proclaim a new kingdom, the reign of God.

We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows the established social order of Egypt to set slaves free. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows his own king and temple in the name of justice and care for the poor. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows death itself.

We are a people who live by a promise, whose eyes are toward the future. We do not forget the past. The past is our witness to this God of the future. The scriptures and practices and traditions of the past keep us pointed toward this God of promise. But the God we worship, the Lord we follow, is a God who leads us into the future.

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

And it is the courage to trust that promise that represents true ‘righteousness’ – true fidelity to God and others.


Photo: © Dietmar Rabich, [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, CC BY-SA 3.0 de ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It is his promise

File:Tractor Teamwork - - 545872.jpgSaturday

Isaiah 2:2-5

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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 any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Personally, I think this message in Isaiah is so priceless and profound it deserves to stand without comment; our comments can never be worthy of it. Yet here I am, wanting to be sure we are captured by this promise.

I don’t know if it’s true that Jerusalem is the most contested pieces of land in human history, but it will do as a symbol of our warring. We call it the city of peace, but peace has been difficult to find.

On the spot where the holy temple once stood now stands a holy mosque, and those who pray in the mosque are divided from those who pray at the base of the foundation stones. Nearby are holy churches – churches that also pray separately.

We will come here, says the prophet, to this holy embattled ground, to learn God’s way of peace. We will come here, to the place where the holy body of Jesus lay slain, to learn to beat swords into plowshares.

That nations will come, says the prophet, to this land where armies have marched for thousands of years – Assyria, Babylon, Medea, Persia, Egypt, Rome, the Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Germans, Great Britain. And how shall we describe the bloodletting since?

Tiglath-Pileser, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Pompey, Titus, Saladin – many have marched here. They shall come, says the prophet, not for conquest, but to learn the way of peace.

It is important to let the text say what it says – we will learn God’s ways. This will not be the triumph of one religious people over every other religious people; it will not be the triumph of one tradition over every other tradition or one law over every other law; it will be the “triumph” of God over our fallen humanity: our selfish humanity, our warring humanity, our “us against them” humanity, our divided-into-holy-camps humanity, our bent and broken image-of-God humanity.

We who were made in the image of the creative, life-giving presence at the heart of all existence have become creators of the tools of violence and death: club, knife, sword, catapult, bow, rifle, cannon, bomb, bigger bomb, nuclear bomb, hydrogen bomb, missile, RPG, drone. Ever more clever. Ever more deadly. And when big is not available to us, then suicide vests and swords for beheading and kids turning pressure cookers into death and maiming.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

Christians say that the nature of this God who will teach us his ways is revealed most profoundly in Jesus of Nazareth who did not take up the sword to protect himself. When one of Jesus’ followers drew his sword to protect Jesus (John says it was Peter), Jesus rebuked him saying, All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” When Peter offered to forgive seven times, Jesus made it seventy-seven times and, when he hung upon the cross, prayed for God to forgive his torturers.

When Jesus eats at the house of Zacchaeus, when he eats at the house of Simon the Pharisee, when he eats with his followers on the night he is snatched in the dark, when he welcomes women as disciples, when he forgives the lame man or heals the leper or defends the woman caught in adultery, when he speaks to the woman at the well as if she were a member of his own household or welcomes Matthew the tax collector – all these are part and parcel of the way of God who is teaching us the way of peace.

Most of us go to church to feel better. But God’s purpose there is to summon us to be better. Again and again we hear the stories. Again and again God speaks forgiveness. Again and again God gathers us to one table. By word and example God teaches, though we learn poorly.

God wants us to be better – not better, as in trying harder, but better as the doctor wants us to be better. God wants to recover in us our true humanity. God wants to straighten what is bent and heal what is wounded. God wants to cast out what is harmful and give birth to what is good. God wants us to live and breathe the way of peace, the way of mercy, the way of compassion, the way of truth, the way of life. God wants us to live and breathe his Spirit. God wants us to live and breathe his love.

And all this is not just God’s desire; it is his promise.


Image:Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The promise is enough


Luke 1:46-55

File:Gliwicki Klub Kolekcjonerów GKK - Matka Boska Lysiecka.jpg52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

It seems, at first glance, like an odd choice of tense for the verbs: he brought down, lifted up, filled, sent away – all simple past tenses. Technically, all God has done is announce what will happen. Mary will have a child who will be great, who will receive the throne of David, who will reign forever. God has announced the future and Mary sings of it as past event, as already accomplished. The promise is as good as the done deed. The future is given and received in the promise.

We don’t live that way. I can hear my mother repeating the aphorisms: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” But that is exactly what Mary has done. She has put all her eggs in the basket of this promise of God, and now she is counting the chickens. There is no waiting to see if God will come through, no hesitation whether God can accomplish what he purposes. The promise is enough for Mary to sing as if it is all present reality.

When I was first told I was going to be a father, I was also told we couldn’t announce it yet. In that first trimester there was a chance you might lose the baby. We needed to wait to tell family. We needed to wait before buying baby clothes. We needed to wait before creating a nursery. We needed to wait to be sure.

But for Mary there is no waiting. All that God has promised is celebrated as present reality. The announcement that this child is coming means that the world will change. The injustices of the world will be undone. The poor will be raised up and the powerful cast down. It is signed and sealed and delivered. It is a done deal.

Mary breaks all the rules. She lets go of the world as it is to grasp hold of the world as it shall be. She is counting her chickens. She is singing from joy. The promise is enough.


Image:By Grzegorzfl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am. Stop being afraid.


John 6:1-21

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, c. 1907.jpg19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.

I remember reading this as a young person and hearing it to say that “Jesus can do anything.” I saw in it a demonstration of power. I didn’t have the experience yet to recognize the true power of the imagery.

I didn’t know yet what it was to be cast adrift in the storms of life. I didn’t know yet what it was to be battling rough seas in the dark. I didn’t know true fear or chronic anxiety or what it was like to be in distress and wondering why Jesus is not with us.

All of this is in this story.

I didn’t yet know about the turbulent times in which Mark’s community lived – with brutal war and ideologies raging about them. I didn’t know that storms at sea were understood to be spiritual assaults rather than natural forces.  I didn’t understand what it means that these stories are stories about a community not individual faith. And, most of all, I didn’t yet know that the words we translate “It is I,” are deeply significant words that, translated literally, say “I am” and bespeak the name of God given to ancient Israel.

The message of the story isn’t that with enough faith we can walk on water. Nor is it that Jesus is a man of power (and can do anything for us if we believe firmly enough). The message is “I am. Stop being afraid.”

“I am.” Christ Jesus is the living presence of the eternal God who called forth the world from the chaos of the primordial sea. Christ Jesus is the living presence of the eternal God who called Abraham and Sarah to go forth on the promise of a new country. Christ Jesus is the living presence of the holy one who met Moses in the burning bush. Christ Jesus is the living presence of the mighty one who divided the waters of the Red Sea and delivered both Egypt and Israel from slavery. Christ Jesus is the living presence of the voice that spoke at Sinai commanding fidelity to God and one another and directing a people to live justice and compassion.

Though we are beset by storms, though we dwell in darkness, though Jesus seems absent, he is yet the living presence of the faithful one who does not abandon his people or the world he has made, but gathers all things to himself.

In the midst of life’s chaos, in the midst of life’s sorrows, in the face of life’s evils, God is yet God. Christ is yet Lord. The hidden one has shown his face. His faithfulness is sure. His promise abides. And with him we will reach the far shore.

He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.


Painting: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The power to heal


Numbers 21:4-9

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Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.


By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Child sacrifice, divination, and the God who speaks


Deuteronomy 18:9-20

File:Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic.jpg

Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic

15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

I decided to add the preceding verses, 9 -14, to the reading from Deuteronomy this coming Sunday. Moses is speaking to the people at the end of their long journey through the wilderness, as they are about to enter the land of the Canaanites. He warns them:

9When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. 14Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

It’s not the kind of thing we normally read in worship. A little too dark. A little too judgmental. It reminds us a little too much that these readings come from far away in time and culture.

But it’s important to be reminded.

Scholars debate whether the Canaanites actually practiced child sacrifice or whether this reference to passing through the fire refers to some ritual that does only that: a wave offering rather than an actual holocaust. My hunch is that these were real sacrifices – perhaps not routinely, but real nonetheless. Otherwise, why is Abraham on the mountain with his son and a knife? And why does Hiel of Bethel found the gates of Jericho on the sacrificed bodies of his sons Abiram and Segub?

Such a sacrifice is unthinkable to us – though we can cognitively understand the strange logic of giving to the gods your most precious possession to show them the depth of your devotion in hopes of gaining their favor.

But lest we think we are morally superior, we should consider how easily we also sacrifice our children. There are bodies of our young men being flown home from wars. There are children sacrificed to the sexual desires of their parents. There are children laying dead at the hands of a murder-suicide, children who crack under the pressure of success, children who wither while parents pursue wealth and power. We sacrifice our children on the altar of our parental happiness (You’ve heard it said about divorce: “the children will be happy if the parents are happy”. Really? We say that without blushing? Have you ever heard a child say that? We are not talking about violence in a home, mind you, or abuse, or such for which children would readily vote. And we’re not even talking about the painful, wrenching decision to divorce – just the way we rationalize it as a culture, as if happiness were the god we served.)

So we survey the bombed out villages, the refugee camps, the abused and abandoned children, and we have no claim to moral indignation at the ancient practice.

But God who revealed his name as LORD does. It was Pharaoh’s murderous plot against the infant sons of Israel that started the crisis in Egypt that led ultimately to the death of Pharaoh’s own child – a child sacrificed on the altar of the right to keep slaves.

Our country paid dearly on that altar, too.

This matter of child sacrifice is in a passage about divination, about the ways in which we try to gain secret knowledge and power from the gods. It is leading to this promise that God will not leave Israel without a prophetic voice.

Moses’ attacks the myriad ways in which we want to read the tea leaves, to access hidden and divine information to know what the future will bring, to know what we can do to guarantee success or to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Farmer’s Almanac does the same thing reading the coats of wooly caterpillars – and we have that wonderful little ritual every February to see whether the sun is shining on a rodent in Punxsutawney. We joke about these ‘divinations’, but we know the drill. If I could know which lottery numbers to pick – as vainly promised by my fortune cookies – if I could know what tomorrow brings, then I would be king.

But God is king.

It is our desire to be king, our desire to control, to conquer, to rule, to grasp the fruit from the tree, to be as gods, that leads to the death of children.

God is king.

And God does not deal with us by omens and tea leaves. He speaks. He reveals. And we are meant to hear, to receive, to trust.

This is the sweetness in this promise of a prophet: God will not stop speaking to us. God will not leave us without knowledge of him or his will. He will continue, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, to reveal himself, to encounter us, to proclaim his grace and love, to call us to fidelity to God and neighbor, to summon us to lives that mirror his faithfulness and compassion.

God will speak. And in case we have trouble hearing, he makes his word visible in water and in bread and wine. For you. For the world. For the lifting away of every debt of shame and sin. For the granting of grace and life. For the birth from above, the breath of his Spirit. Moses may be gone, and Isaiah, Jeremiah and David – but their words remain and God still speaks to us through them. God will not leave us desolate. He will speak.

As Jesus kept saying, “Let the one who has ears to hear, listen.”


Photo: By Credits: Pierre Holtz / UNICEF CAR / at hdptcar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“Nothing will be impossible with God”


Luke 1

File:Paolo Veneziano (Italian (Venetian), active 1333 - 1358) - The Annunciation - Google Art Project.jpg

Paolo Veneziano, The Annunciation

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s interesting that Luke uses the future tense: “nothing will be impossible.” We are more accustomed to expressing such notions in the present, “with God all things are possible.” But here it’s in the future tense.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

When the angel speaks to Mary he is not making a statement about the omnipotence of God; he is making a statement about the surety of the promise. “None of the things God has promised will be impossible.”

The impossible thing isn’t that Mary would become pregnant. Wondrous births are routine for God. Sarah conceives when she is past the age of childbearing. According to Genesis, Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when Isaac is born. The birth of Samuel is wondrously given to Hannah when she is barren. Zechariah and Elizabeth are granted a child though she, too, is barren. This little thing of an unconsummated marriage is no great feat. The great feat is that this poor woman’s child would be “great”. The true wonder is that a peasant child would “be called the Son of the Most High,” a designation suggesting he will be second in rank and honor only to God. It is a title given to kings and emperors. The amazing work is that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” That throne has been vacant for 600 years. Judea is, at the time of Jesus’ birth, a client state of the Roman Empire; Herod’s kingship is given to him by Caesar. The virgin birth is small potatoes compared to the promise that this child “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

We get sidetracked by the small things. We either mock Christianity or treasure it because of the virgin birth rather than its claim that this child, crucified and risen, has ascended to the right hand of God and reigns there even now and shall reign forever over a world brought under the glorious and gentle governance of God.

This is why the message to Mary is in the future tense. Christ’s reign will not be impossible to God. It will become manifest in ways that may seem strange to us: starting with a peasant child whose birth is announced by angels to the unlikeliest of people. Shepherds as a class are unclean, without honor and regarded as thieves. This child will summon an odd collection of Galilean laborers as his posse, including a tax collector. He will wander homeless like a man either crazy or a prophet. He will eat with sinners. He will challenge the temple system and be crushed by the Jerusalem leaders. But God will vindicate him and set him at God’s right hand.

The promise will look empty; but “nothing will be impossible with God.”

That crazy little band will be filled with God’s Spirit and the reign of God in Christ will extend throughout the world: Lives will be healed. Hearts will be changed. Sinners will be gathered. Communities will be reconciled. The world will be reborn.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

This is not a statement of principle. It is a promise. Christ will reign and the gates of hell cannot stop it, the darkness cannot overcome it. Even our stony hearts will become living hearts, beating with compassion and justice.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”