I appreciate this portrayal of Christ’s Nativity by Gari Melchers, a 19th-century American artist who captures a rare moment in the life of the holy family.
Before bug-eyed shepherds burst through the door to gawk at the mangered infant, before Magi from the East come kneeling in homage to present their costly gifts to the tiny Christ, before a nervous King Herod dispatches hardened thugs on a murderous rampage to commit deicide in Bethlehem, there’s a quiet moment of peace and stillness.
Mary is exhausted from her labors of love. Joseph is contemplating the mysteries of all that has happened and all that lies ahead. Before them both is the baby who will change everything, not even aware of his own sacred identity and the heavenly glory that was his just nine months ago. It’s the “dawn of redeeming grace” and a moment for all to breathe. Indeed, it’s the calm before the gospel storm.
I also appreciate that the scene takes place in a house, which is likely where the incarnation happened (see my article, “Why Lies He in Such Mean Estate?”), though that’s not an issue to quibble about. Jesus came, and that’s all that matters.
Karl Whiteman has said, “I love the fun and excitement of Christmas, but I cherish the quiet moments to stop and gaze at the baby.” Amen. May all of us find moments to reflect on this profoundest of all miracles in such a busy time of year.
Tomorrow I’ll post my own Christmas reflection for 2021, called, “Here’s Your Sign.” After that, our own church services and family celebrations will be set in motion. In the midst of it all, I’ll be looking for true peace from the Prince of Peace. How about you?
Lord Jesus, help us meet with you in the midst of all our Christmas activities, preparations, and festivities. Without you, there is no Christmas. With you, everything changes. Amen.
Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he did. John 11:44 says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” This well-known story is primarily a revelation of who Jesus is. In the Gospel that bears his name, John calls Jesus the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and many other titles conveying his divinity. It’s all about him. But is there anything in this story for us mortals—before our own resurrection at the end of the age? Indeed, there is.
The dead in Israel would be wrapped in long strips of cloth. The strips were placed in such a way as to bind the limbs and keep them straight. Even the head was wrapped to keep the mouth closed. Such a tight encasement would have made it hard for a living person to walk, let alone a dead person whose consciousness had just been restored.
Given these constraints, how did Lazarus even stand up when Jesus ordered him to? How did he make it over to the entrance of the tomb for all to see? Nothing but the power of God can explain such a miracle.
But could not the Savior who had just set a man free from the grip of death also set him free from the garments of death? If the restoration of life was no problem, could the removal of linens be a challenge? Obviously not. So, why the command? Apparently, Jesus delights in letting his followers participate in a miracle.
“Take me to the tomb!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he find it himself?)
“Take away the stone!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
“Take off the linens!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
Jesus could have done all those things himself, but once again he allows his followers to participate in a miracle. It seems to be his pattern—and his Father’s. In the Old Testament, creation is supernaturally spoken into existence by God, but human beings have to take care of it. Manna is supernaturally rained down from heaven by God, but the Israelites have to go out and collect it. The Promised Land is supernaturally given by God, but the covenant people have to go in and take possession of it.
Like Father, like Son: Jairus’ daughter is supernaturally raised to life, but the family has to feed her. The bread and fish are supernaturally multiplied, but the disciples have to distribute the food and pick up the leftovers. Eternal salvation is supernaturally accomplished on Calvary, but believers have to proclaim it for the world to hear the good news and respond in faith. Jesus acts like his Father in every respect.
The God of the Bible never needs our help, but he often allows himself to be “helped.” Remember the Palm Sunday donkey? “The Lord has need of it,” says Jesus (Luke 19:31). That’s an odd thing to say if you’re the Son of God.
What kind of a Savior admits to having a need? What kind of an all-powerful God is this? One who is meek. One who is kind. One who invites his people to join him in his work of restoration. It’s the same humble God we meet in the manger. And again in the upper room washing dirty feet. The beauty of Jesus’ meekness here in John 11 is that the people who wrapped Lazarus in sorrow now get to unwrap him in joy! Jesus made him alive, but they get to set him free!
This is the mission of the church—to help set at liberty those who are in bondage and living under the sentence of death. But it’s also a mission that applies to believers, too—those who have been resurrected by Jesus in the new birth but still may not be completely free. Can you relate?
All of us come into the kingdom of God with some sort of hang-up—a habit, an attitude, an addiction, a trauma, a psychological struggle, or some sort of besetting sin. Oh, we’re trusting Christ for salvation all right—and we’re spiritually alive in him—but we’re still not completely free. We’re wrapped up tight in a collection of character flaws and spiritual deficiencies. Theologians call it “remaining corruption.” And some of that corruption seems to remain for a long time. But it’s not who we really are anymore (cf. Rom 7:17, 20).
Our fellow disciples are commissioned to help unwrap us from that which still binds us, even as they themselves are being unwrapped. That’s why, according to the New Testament, we do this for each other in a relationship of radical grace and non-judgmental accountability. We’re all in the same battered boat, so capsizing other people’s ships is rank hypocrisy.
Sometimes the unbinding process is messy and complicated (“But, Lord . . . by this time there is a bad odor,” v. 39). Sometimes it’s glorious and exhilarating (“Many . . . put their faith in him,” v. 45). Either way, when we join Christ in his work of restoration, we get to see the love-power of God in action—up close and in person.
We get to see Lazarus face to face, and we get to unwrap a miracle.
Thank you, Father, for your amazing love-power that can do all things. Send forth your Word again in our day to heal, forgive, restore, and provide. Open my eyes to the opportunities around me where I can participate in your divine work of restoration and be a conduit of your grace. Help me to be gentle and meek like Jesus, using my gifts, abilities, and resources to serve others and advance your kingdom. Use me as you see fit to help set others free from their bondage. And help me, Lord, to allow my fellow disciples to gently pull off my own grave clothes, too. Amen.
Image Credits: Jesus of Nazareth ITC; lightoftheworldgarden.com.
It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
So trust in him. Lean into him. Wait on him.
Whether you’re coming or going.
Thank you, Lord, for the hope of newness that can be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thank you that his gospel is the remedy for regret. Help me to live wisely as I step into the future with you, knowing that you are already there, eager to lead and sustain me by your grace. Amen.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
Thank you, Lord, for the hope and newness that come from walking with you in every season of life. May my journey over the year ahead be filled with an unwavering confidence that comes from knowing you’re unchangeable, unshakable, and unstoppable in all that you seek to do in this world. Surprise me with unexpected delights, peace, and grace as our adventure unfolds. Amen.
Like many other people, I have a morning routine that includes coffee. Two cups at least. And most of the time, I drink Eight O’clock Dark Italian Roast with one cream and one Splenda. (Take my man card if you must, but that’s how I like it.) I drink other kinds from time to time, but the darker roasts and Columbian roasts are my favorites.
Often when I have my first cup, I think about and pray for the person who gave me the mug I’m using that morning. I have quite a collection, and as I drag myself to the place where I do my devotions, I pray God’s blessings over that person.
One of my all-time favorites is a light blue ceramic mug featuring a bleary-eyed Mickey Mouse on the front, and a printed message on the back, which says, “Some mornings are ROUGH!”
Mickey is right. Some mornings are rough, but coffee makes them tolerable. In any event, I treasure this mug because my son got it for me during his first-ever Christmas away from home. He was in college, and he did an internship at Disney World one year during the holiday break. That was emotionally challenging for us—not to have our son home for Christmas.
We got to Skype with him that year, and for that we were grateful, but it wasn’t the same as having him here with us. (One cannot hug pixels on an iPad.) When he returned from Florida, the Mickey mug was one of the gifts he gave me for Christmas. So, it’s special to me because it’s connected to a precious memory—an expression of a son’s love for his father.
Unfortunately, the handle broke off a few years ago. No one knows exactly how or why it happened, and it was quite upsetting when it did. “Not the Mickey mug!” I still have it today, and it looks like this:
My special mug without its handle. It’s now defective—less than what it had been when I first received it. But I still treasure it. It’s still special to me and always will be. The mug is broken but loved.
What an apt metaphor for people made in the image of God. After all, how much more valuable is a person than a mug! We’re spiritually broken but still loved by God.
I won’t ever get rid of my Mickey mug, even though it’s defective. Likewise, God won’t get rid of us—even if we’re broken in some way. We’re the reason Christmas happened in the first place.
So, drink up. And thank God for his caffeinated grace.
Thank you, Lord, for your steadfast, committed love toward us, even though we’re flawed and fallen human beings. You don’t get rid of us even when we’re broken. Help me to be patient and gracious toward others who are likewise broken. Amen.
Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach.
Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired.
Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible.
His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse.
“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?”
And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”
Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves.
“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).
Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too.
Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.
An insightful student calls idolatry “a worship disorder.” It’s an apt description, I think, locating the source of the disease where it belongs—inside a person’s divided heart. That’s always the root of the problem. Moreover, the other gods are no gods at all, so they cannot love or bless the people who serve them. Why follow them? (That’s a head issue.) Yahweh, on the other hand, loves his people and blesses them abundantly. His prescription for their healing is to return to him and let him bind up their self-inflicted wounds, even as they seek to know him anew. God is eager to restore his people when they surrender their revolt against him. Both his hurting and his healing are means of his grace. Indeed, the pain of the former intensifies the joy of the latter.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces; now he will heal us. He has injured us; now he will bandage our wounds. In just a short time he will restore us, so that we may live in his presence. Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring.” Hosea 6:1-3
Thank you, Lord, for your healing grace, especially after a season of stumbles and straying from your ways. Grant me an undeviating spirit to walk with you again in humble and joyful submission for the remainder of my days. Amen.
“In a desert land [God] found [Israel], in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.” (Deut 32:10-11)
For twelve years I had been breathing to my left side while swimming freestyle in competitive races. Whether it was a sprint, middle distance, or long-distance event, I breathed on my left because that’s what I was used to. It was easy, natural, and comfortable. When I got to college, however, my new coach noticed a good deal of wasted motion in my stroke. He said it was slowing me down and had to be eliminated if I wanted to swim faster. The only way for that to happen, he said, was for me to start breathing on the other side. The right side.
I tried it, and I hated it. Breathing on my right was not easy, natural, or comofrtable, and I couldn’t get the hang of it. At practice, I would get disoriented, swim crooked, scrape the lane ropes, and swallow a whole lot of water over the span of three hours. I would go home sick every night. Swimming was no longer fun. In fact, it was sheer drudgery. I started despising my coach, and I wanted to quit. No scholarship was worth the pain brought on by that one alteration in my stroke.
But a funny thing happened after a few months of breathing to the right. Little by little my times kept dropping. I was getting faster. I was winning more races. I started having fun again. And I began to think, “Maybe my coach knows what he’s talking about.” As it turns out, he did. Eventually, I had to eat humble pie and recant my despisals.
I can’t say it ever felt completely natural for me to breathe to the right, but it worked. It just took some extra focus, energy, and perseverance during that initial period of change. Even today when I swim, I revert to left-side breathing when I get tired because it’s easier. It’s my default position, and it’s still comfortable for me. But if I want to hit top speed, I have to breathe on the right to make it happen.
So it is in life. Personal growth can hurt. Changing our ways can be uncomfortable. Surrendering our persoanl paradigms to embrace a new ones can be challenging. In my particular field—theological higher education—things are changing rapidly, and a lots of faculty members across the nation are having to learn new ways of teaching and facilitating learning. The same is true for the church at large—an instution known for changing at the speed of molasses. But nearly every industry has been forced to make significant changes lately, especially in light of globalization, the digital revolution, and now a worldwide pandemic. As many have discovered, changing is hard, but not changing is fatal.
The same dynamic can be true spiritually. Deuteronomy 32:11 tells us that God is “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young.” In other words, God can sometimes press changes on us in ways that make us uncomfortable. In the process, they can make him as unpopular as my swim coach was to me when he first made me breathe to the right. How so?
When an eagle builds a nest, it uses not only twigs and sticks, but also rocks, pebbles, and thorns. Initially, these sharp objects are covered by down feathers from the mother eagle. But as her eaglets grow, she intentionally “stirs up” the nest, removing the feathery cushion and exposing the rocks and thorns. They baby birds don’t like it. They get jabbed and stabbed, but mama bird has a purpose. She’s intentionally making it too uncomfortable for her children to stay in the nest. Indeed, she’s getting them ready to launch.
Mama bird knows there’s so much more to life for her children than staying safe in a familiar nest all their days. There’s a world of soaring flight and adventure to enjoy outside. It’s the picture of a wise parent helping the young ones grow beyond their fears. It’s also the picture of God launching his people into new adventures that require a step of faith.
Might God be calling you to take step? To leave the nest? To soar to a new place of adventure with him? Maybe it’s a new job. A new ministry. A new social group. A new degree program. A new way of thinking. It might not be comfortable at first, but it’s part of his good and wise plan to launch us into flight.
We have to recognize that God is “stirring our nest” in love, not cruelty. He really is for us not against us, even in the midst of transition and change. Max Depree has said, “We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.” Change is indeed hard, and it comes with a certain degree of mystery. We wonder, “Where is this going to lead? How will it all turn out in the end?” But as Bob Goff says, “Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.” Well said.
Are you still jittery about taking a step? If so, take comfort in the rest of Deuteronomy 32:11. The eagle “spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.” In other words, God won’t drop us. He may stretch us in faith, but he’ll never abandon us. So, let’s get ready to soar with him. He’s got this. And he’s got us.
God of grace and God of glory, On thy people pour thy power; Crown the ancient church’s story; Bring its bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour, For the facing of this hour. – Harry Emerson Fosdick
It’s interesting to note that David’s name is mentioned in the New Testament, but Shimei’s is not.
Shimei? Who’s that?
Shimei was one of David’s severest critics and verbal tormentors (cf. 2 Samuel 16). He delighted in publicly cursing the man whom God had called and anointed to lead his people. On one occasion he even pelted the king and his men with stones.
Shimei was way out of line. Still, the critic had a point. David, of course, had failed miserably a few times, both in his leadership and in his moral life, so Shimei was partly right.
Dead right. (Isn’t it scary that we can sometimes be right in a wrong way?) Amazingly, David brushed him off and went to God for strength. It’s a good thing for Shimei that he did. When given the opportunity to kill the guy, David refused to execute him for his slander, abuse, and hostility.
He even forgave the rascal and granted him amnesty. Who does that?
A man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
A man who had deeply repented of his own sin (Psalm 51).
A man who himself had received of God’s free grace (Psalm 32).
A man who had a rock-solid faith in God and a hope-filled destiny (Psalm 3).
Maybe that’s why the Holy Spirit ensured that David would be the first and last human name in the New Testament (Matthew 1:1; Revelation 22:16). It’s a phenomenon seemingly rooted in more than just literary happenstance.
The Holy Spirit ensured that David would be the first and last human name in the New Testament.
Outside the names for deity, David’s name opens and closes the New Testament. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega—the A and the Z—but David is the B and the Y.
Indeed, the literary game Matthew plays with the number 14 in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) corresponds to the numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew (D=4 + V=6 + D=4). Matthew’s point is hard to miss: “I give you Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David.” Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7).
But how is it possible for David to receive such an honor given the various ways in which he had failed the Lord? We may not have any other answer to that question but that God is God. In his infinite wisdom, God chose to bookend the story of Jesus with reminders of a flawed leader for whom Christ also died. The very layout of the New Testament shows us that Jesus is truly “the friend of sinners” (cf. Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Jesus, the perfect king, lovingly and literarily envelops his people. That should give all of us hope.
Yes, David endured certain consequences for his sins (some inflicted by the likes of Shimei), but he never lost his kingship, he never lost his calling, he never lost his relationship with God, and he never lost his pen.
While Shimei was out publicly slandering David because of his flaws, David was writing sacred Scripture. Keep that in mind next time you hear that your enemies are gloating over you because of your failures.
While Shimei was out publicly slandering David because of his flaws, David was writing sacred Scripture.
Just keep doing what God told you to do because his judgments are vastly different from man’s judgments.
God of all grace, thank you for your grace. Grant me the grace to receive your grace, and the grace to be a conduit of it to others. Amen.
Divine math is different from what we learned in school. That’s a comfort to those of us who sometimes find it hard to reconcile our checkbooks with our bank statement. But what if we totally drained our account one day and had nothing left to reconcile? What’s our net worth then? The answer might surprise us.
Mark records the story of a poor widow who put “two very small copper coins” into the temple treasury (Mark 12:42). Surprisingly, Jesus tells his disciples that she “put in more than all the others.” At first blush it’s an odd statement because all the other people that day had surely given larger amounts than she did. So how was it possible for her tiny gift of “two cents” to be larger than theirs?
Jesus said it was because they gave out of their wealth, but she put in all she had to live on. In God’s mind, the size of the sacrifice is more noteworthy than the size of the gift. In other words, the real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver. How much does it pinch our pocketbooks? How much does it interfere with our unnecessary splurges?
Others at the temple that day gave what they could spare. This poor widow spared nothing. And Jesus took note. But where would her next meal come from? How could she buy flour for bread, or oil for the household lamps? What about new clothes to replace her tattered garments? What about the broken plow in the field?
The real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver.
By offering all she had to live on, the widow was entrusting herself to God’s care. She was offering herself completely to the One she had come to the temple to worship in the first place. Indeed, for her, devotion to God and his work took priority over everything else.
Still, was it wise for the widow to empty her account? What happens now? Would God provide for her? Would she be able to eke out a living? Would her fellow Israelites—charged in the Torah with being attentive to her needs as a widow—forget about her?
Not to worry. God has a way of taking care of the generous. On one occasion in my younger days, I emptied out our checking account completely because a man told me he had a need. I was an easy touch and quite unaware that he was a professional extortionist. The man preyed on my commitment to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matt 5:42a).
So I did. I gave him everything I had.
At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do, but it made me nervous. How was I going to pay our bills? How was I going to feed my family? We had two young children at the time, and I was still in seminary. We had obligations all over the place. (With a few more years under my belt now, I would handle the extortionist a bit differently today.)
Shortly after I gave away all our money, a widow in our church (a widow!) came to me and said, “Tim, the Lord is impressing on my heart that I should pay off your student loan. I don’t know what the balance is, and I don’t really care. God has blessed me with resources at this stage in my life, and I just think he wants me to do this for you.”
I was deeply moved. The woman didn’t know I had just emptied my checking account to help somebody else. She was just walking her own journey of faith and trying to follow Christ.
As Providence would have it, the Lord intersected our paths. Amazingly, the balance on my student loan was just about double the amount in my checking account the day I emptied it. Double! God saw fit to take care of our family in a big way the very week I gave away all our money. We rejoiced and celebrated God’s goodness to us.
It’s a great story, but honestly, it’s an old one. It’s been a while since I’ve taken such a radical step of faith with my money like that. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s not really my money, is it?
I need to get back to those days when I acted like everything I have belongs to the Lord, because it does—a time when I was willing to fling myself into God’s arms like a toddler jumping from the top step of the living room stairs, knowing for sure daddy will catch him.
It’s time to be openhanded again and watch what God will do. Problem is, we always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.
We always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.
In the end, God has always wanted my two cents. He wants yours, too. The amazing thing is, we never have to say a word to give it.
Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God, Teach me true generosity. Teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give without counting the cost, To fight heedless of wounds, To labor without seeking rest, To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward Save the knowledge that I have done your will. Amen. – St. Ignatius of Loyola
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture.
To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.
Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.
All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”
The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.
Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:
• He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).
• He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).
• He will swallow up death forever (8a).
• He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).
• And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).
In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).
Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.