John the Baptizer was an intriguing character in history. He came along clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. He asked Jewish people to do what would have been considered religiously inappropriate for them to do. He called for them to be baptized, but baptism was looked upon as being for Gentiles not for Jews. Gentiles were, by definition, “unclean,” and needed to be circumcised and washed by baptism if they wished to become Jewish. For Jewish persons, to be baptized was tantamount to saying that their birthright as children of Abraham was not enough. Such an action as baptism bordered on being scandalous. Nevertheless, so many Jewish people flocked to the Jordan River to be baptized by John that the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that King Herod was alarmed by the size of the crowds and feared that John’s movement might turn into a political revolution.
Apparently, though, John’s message struck a chord in people’s hearts. They recognized that simply being born Jewish was not enough for them to feel a closeness with God or to enable them to walk consistently in God’s ways. Therefore, they came to be baptized “confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).
Confession: Frederick Buechner expresses beautifully the essence of confession: “To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.” People were seeking a better bridge to God, so they came to John confessing their sins.
It is confession that brings liberation to our lives. What is referred to as The Big Book in Alcoholics Anonymous describes the prison of hidden sins: “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputation, but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it. The inconsistency is made worse by the things he does on his sprees. Coming to his senses, he is revolted at certain episodes he vaguely remembers. These memories are a nightmare. He trembles to think someone might have observed him. As fast as he can, he pushes these memories far inside himself. He hopes they will never see the light of day. He is under constant fear and tension—that makes for more drinking.”
In contrast, Step 5 of the Twelve Steps offers liberation: “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Confession is the bridge that leads to freedom.
Repentance: Mark tells us that John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Repentance has to do with turning around. It is the recognition that I have been going in the wrong direction and that I need to turn around and go in the other direction.
Brian Weatherdon points out, “Wabush, a town in a remote portion of Labrador, Canada, was completely isolated for some time. But recently a road was cut through the wilderness to reach it. Wabush now has one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out. If someone would travel the unpaved road for six to eight hours to get into Wabush, there is only way he or she could leave—by turning around. Each of us, by birth, arrives in a town called Sin. As in Wabush, there is only one way out—a road built by God himself. But in order to take that road, one must first turn around. That complete about-face is what the Bible calls repentance, and without it, there’s no way out of town.”
Baptism with the Holy Spirit: When we recognize that we are failing to find in life a feeling of closeness with God or an ability to walk consistently in his ways, it is time for us to turn around and go in a new direction. It is time for us to stop trusting in our birthright, and it is time to stop depending on our own efforts. It is time for us to begin living a life that depends on the power of God’s Spirit flowing into us and through us.
John told his audience that one would be coming after him who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). That’s what we need, and that’s the good news that John brought to people when he appeared on the scene, preparing the way for Jesus.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word advent as the beginning of an event or as the invention of something new or as the arrival of a person. Mark begins his gospel by announcing, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….” In essence, Mark is telling us that his record of Jesus’ life is about an advent—it is the beginning of an event, the invention of something new, the arrival of a person.
The beginning of an event: The great event reported by Mark in his gospel is our salvation. Later in his gospel, Mark will record Jesus telling us that he came in order “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). When Christian missionaries were translating the New Testament into the Huaorani language, they could not find a word for reconciled. But one day a translator was traveling through the Ecuadorian jungle with some Huaorani villagers, and they came to a narrow and deep ravine. The missionary thought they could go no further, but the Huaorani took out their machetes and cut down a large tree, causing it to fall across the ravine as a bridge which enabled them to cross safely. The translator, listening to the Huaorani discovered that they had a word for “tree across the ravine.” That word communicated effectively the meaning of what Christ did in reconciling us to God. The great event reported by Mark is that God came into our world in Jesus to lay down his life as the “tree across the ravine!”
The invention of something new: The “something new” that was invented/created/established by the arrival of Jesus is our adoption as God’s children. At the conclusion of his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “It is a change that goes off in a totally different direction—a change from being creatures of God to being sons [and daughters] of God…. It is not something arising out of the natural process of events but something coming into nature from outside” (p. 185).
Kenneth Tollefson describes an adoption ceremony in a Tlingit village some time ago, when a former slave was adopted by the chief: “At a prominent community meeting, the chief presented the female slave dressed in new clothes. Two large copper shields, symbols of wealth, were rubbed over her body to remove the stigma of slavery. The shields were then thrown into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, her former status was buried and forgotten. Any mention of it carried a large fine. She had been adopted into the chief’s family.”
Because of Christ’s arrival, something wonderfully new has been created: We have been adopted as God’s beloved children!
The arrival of a person: The person who arrived was nothing less than God-in-human-skin! The miracle of this reality should never be missed. John Shea expresses it beautifully in a piece of prose:
She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them in slow solemnity,
Convinced every word was revelation.
She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter sandwiches to eat,
And they went a long way from home without getting lost.
The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an as (hee-hee),
But the Three Rich Men found them because a star lited the roof.
Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?”
Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars.
“The baby was God!”
And she jumped in the air, whirled round, dove into the sofa,
And buried her head under the cushion,
Which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation!
According to Mark, this fabulous beginning does not start on Christmas day but many centuries earlier. The arrival of Jesus is something God had been preparing and announcing throughout the history of his dealings with the descendants of Abraham and Moses. So Mark opens his report of the good news of Jesus by quoting the prophet Malachi (“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”) and the prophet Isaiah (“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”). God had been looking ahead to the arrival of Jesus for so many earthly decades, and he could not keep his excitement contained. It splashed out repeatedly through the words of God’s prophets.
Psalm 92 begins: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.”
There is something about looking around at the works of God’s hands—the beauty of nature—that fills our soul with joy. Gratitude swells up within us as our hearts thrill over the majesty of what we see and feel.
Rachel Carson observes, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
John Muir remarks, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
When our souls respond with gratitude to nature’s beauty, something amazing takes place within us. Joseph Addison states, “There is no more pleasing exercise of the mind than gratitude. It is accompanied with such an inward satisfaction that the duty is sufficiently rewarded by the performance.”
I find it fascinating that Psalm 92 begins with praise to God for the works of his hands—the beauty of nature—but in the closing verses, when the psalm looks around for beauty, what captures the psalmists eye is not mountains or waterfalls or flowers or wildlife but the beauty of human goodness: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
As there is incredible beauty in the wonders of nature, there is also incredible beauty in human goodness. As it is good for our hearts to delight in the beauty of nature and to express gratitude for it, so it is good for our hearts to delight in the beauty of human kindness and to express gratitude for it.
Kristi Nelson, the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living suggests, “Grateful living asks us to connect with those things that matter most deeply to us, and to recognize these commitments as an integral part of our ongoing effort to make life better for all.” Perhaps this is why Psalm 92 moves from an expression of joy over the beauty of nature to a call to us to live righteously—because “grateful living asks us to connect with those things that matter most.”
Kristi Nelson goes on to recommend these responses to gratitude:
- Grateful for democracy? Uphold it.
- Grateful for diversity? Protect it.
- Grateful for our Earth? Care for it.
- Grateful for freedom? Defend it.
- Grateful for love? Spread it.
- Grateful for justice? Fortify it.
- Grateful to community? Nurture it.
- Grateful for peace? Live it.
Psalm 91 flows out of the troubles, fears and uncertainties of life. It anticipates further problems on the horizon. Yet the psalm keeps turning our attention from the problems to the comfort of God’s provisions. The psalm cries out for a “shelter” and for a “refuge” to protect us amidst the storms of life. It speaks a “fortress” for us amidst the difficulties that accost us.
The psalm begins with a reference to living “in the shelter of the Most High” and of abiding “in the shadow of the Almighty.” The Hebrew word translated as “shelter” is sathar; it refers to a “cove” or a “secret hideaway.” When gale force winds blow across the sea, we long for the protective shelter of a cove. When enemies throw their spears at us, we long for the protection of a secret hideaway.
Verse 4 speaks of God covering us with his pinions, stressing that “under his wings you will find refuge.” About this metaphor, Linda Washington writes, “Bird feathers are an amazing example of God’s design. Feathers have a smooth part and a fluffy part. The smooth part of the feather has stiff barbs with tiny hooks that lock together like the prongs of a zipper. The fluffy part keeps a bird warm. Together both parts of the feather protect the bird from wind and rain. But many baby birds are covered in a fluffy down and their feathers haven’t fully developed. So a mother bird has to cover them in the nest with her own feathers to protect them from wind and rain.” When the storms of life come against us, we feel the need to be covered by the warm and protective wings of God.
Psalm 91 begins with an invitation and an encouragement to us to “live in the shelter of the Most High.” The verb used here is yashav; it means to “remain” or to “sit” or to “abide.” It does not imply a short visit to the “shelter of the Most High” but a taking up of our residence in God’s shelter. We are invited and encouraged to make our home in “the shelter of the Most High.”
What might it mean for us to live in—to make our home in—the shelter of the Most High?
When it is said that a person “lives off the land,” it means that the person has learned to live through what the land provides, to make a shelter for himself or herself through what the land provides, and to find one’s sustenance through gathering and hunting and growing.
The psalmist seems to have learned to live off this shelter, refuge and fortress that is God. I want to learn to do so as well. I want to learn how to find shelter—comfort, hope, protection, strength—in the presence of God and in God’s care. I want to find my sustenance in what I can hunt and gather of God’s wisdom, promises, encouragements and blessings. I want to learn how to sow faith and to reap God’s assurances, strength, hope and joy. I want to learn to live off the reality of God’s shelter as much as a resourceful person can live off the land.
From the very first chapter of the Bible, the message presented to us is that we were made in the likeness of God. To put it another way, what makes God tick also makes us tick.
What makes God tick is love—the continual and outflowing abundance of love! Therefore, we need to recognize that what truly makes us tick is nothing less than the generous outflowing of love. We find our deepest fulfillment in life when love is flowing generously out of us.
This is why Scripture frequently describes our giving (our financial stewardship) as a gift and as a joy rather than as a burden or a chore. We get the opportunity to give and to find joy and fulfillment in the giving.
In the closing paragraphs of his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul addresses the subject of financial stewardship.
In Philippians 4:17, he writes, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” Paul asserts that one of the wonderful things about giving to the support of others is that the giving enriches the life of the one who gives. Winston Churchill expressed it succinctly, “We make a living through what we get; we make a life through what we give.” On the other hand, selfish hoarding never leads to such contentment. Erich Fromm points out, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” Those who give generously reap blessings in their lives that are missed by those who cling to what they own.
In Philippians 4:18, Paul brings up a second benefit that comes from our giving: the joy we bring to God: “I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” Our giving is a gift that brings joy to the heart of God. Dr. Drew Gunnells remarks, “Love is something you do…. Love is active. If you love your wife, you act like it. If you love your family, you demonstrate it. If you love God, you show it. It’s as simple as that. When you boil stewardship down to one common thought, it is the thought of loving God and showing it. Augustine once said, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ How right he was because when you love God, you seek to please him. I don’t think you can evaluate all a person’s love for God just by measuring their stewardship; however, neither do I believe that you can love God without some evidence of that love in stewardship.”
Mildred E. McConnell contrasts loving stewardship with serving leftovers: “Leftovers are such a humble thing. We would not serve them to a guest. And yet we serve them to our Lord, who deserves the very best. We give to him leftover time, stray minutes here and there. Leftover cash we give to him, such few coins as we can spare.” May we give to God our love rather than our leftovers.
In Philippians 4:19, Paul shares a third benefit of giving: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” As we give, God supplies our needs. Despite what adherents of the Prosperity Gospel claim, this is not a magic formula that promises that God is compelled to supply back to us the wealth we give away. No! Christian stewardship involves sacrifice on our part. We make decisions to do without certain things in order to invest more fully in the things of God. But as we give, God promises to supply the deeper things we need.
I appreciate Morrie Schwartz’s perspective on this, as recorded by Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got? Guess what I got?’ You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute from tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness…. Neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.” It is God—not money—who supplies what our souls most deeply long for.