Charles Spurgeon once commented, “When I went to school, we drew such things as houses, horses and trees, and we used to write the word house under the picture of the house, and the word horse under the picture of the horse. Otherwise, some persons might have mistaken the house for a horse.” Then he suggested that some Christians need to wear a label around their neck or we might never guess they are Christians.
When people look at me—at the way I live and the way I treat others—can they tell that I am a Christian? Or would I need a label to let people know?
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked, “Only he who believes is obedient; only he who is obedient believes.” In other words, only those who genuinely trust Christ do what he calls us to do, and only those who do what Christ calls us to do truly trust him.
James 1:22 challenges us, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Actually, the inference of the Greek verb here (in the present middle imperative voice) does not assume that it is an accomplished act—that we always do what God calls us to do—but that we are consistently growing in that direction. The verse literally implies, “But keep on becoming doers of the word….”
A true Christian is not the person who has succeeded in obeying God at all times but one who is growing in obedience and faithfulness. The question to ask ourselves is: Am I growing in becoming a doer of the word or do I come to God merely for the blessings I can get from him?
James draws a contrast between those who merely hear the word of God and those who do the word of God. He compares those who only hear the word to the kind of person who looks in a mirror then forgets what he or she looks like. What strikes me in this comparison is not merely the short attention span of the one who looks in the mirror but, most significantly, the direction of the person’s attention. One who only hears the word and doesn’t do the word is focused on oneself. The person who does what Christ calls us to do is focused on God’s will and on the good of one’s neighbor.
I love Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s perspective on this: “Obedience is to look outside ourselves for our purpose, values and decisions. This essential stance of life admits that God knows better than we do how to guide our steps. And it is the only way to truly live, for he is life itself.” (How People Grow, p. 283)
The one who only hears the word and doesn’t do the word of God continues to live by their own purposes, values and directions, never admitting that God knows better. Only the one who believes obeys; only the one who obeys truly believes.
True Christians—those who do not need labels hung around their necks—find their focus directed upward and outward.
Mark Labberton stresses, “The heart of God’s call is this: that we receive and live the love of God for us and for the world. This is the meaning of the two great commandments, that we are made to love the Lord our God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves. The Bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular, reveals what such a life looks like. Our call is loving communion with God and God’s world….
“Who are we? We are God’s chosen people, members of a community set apart for God’s purposes….
“Why are we here? We are here to love God and to love our neighbor.” (Called, p. 14-16)
No wonder James concludes his call to us to keep on becoming doers of the word, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself undefiled by the world.”
When the Senate reconvened on January 6, following the militant takeover of the U.S. Capitol, the Chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, opened the session by praying, “Lord of our lives and sovereign of our beloved nation, we deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy. These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue….”
Indeed, there is power toward life or toward death in the human tongue—in politics and in all realms of human relations. What happened on January 6 reveals to us again that we, as human beings have the tendency to be quick to anger, to be hasty to speak, and to be begrudging about listening to one another.
James 1:19, however, tells us to turn that around. The verse tells us, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Be quick to listen: Sue Westfall remarks, “Listening communicates powerfully that you take the other seriously, that they are valued, that you appreciate them, and that you care.”
Rachel Naomi Remen stresses, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
William Stringfellow comments, “Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening is a primitive act of love in which a person gives himself or herself to another’s word, making himself or herself accessible and vulnerable to that word.”
Be slow to speak: Sue Westfall writes, “‘Toxic’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ for 2018. Toxic: Imbued with poison. Given the climate of our national discourse, this is no surprise. Meanwhile, on the other hand, The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that words like ‘love,’ ‘kindness,’ and ‘patience,’ are being used less frequently in American life. The juxtaposition is stark. Words matter…. Words wound and they heal. They obfuscate and enlighten. They degrade and they uplift.”
Audrey Marlene observes, “Words that are badly chosen can slaughter your passion, lower your sense of worth, and sabotage your level of enthusiasm. This can retard your progress and produce anemic results.”
Robert Fulghum adds, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”
Since our words have such power to encourage or to cripple the soul of another, we do well to approach our speaking to another slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully.
Be slow to anger: It is important to recognize that we are not told to avoid anger entirely, but to be “slow to anger.” There is a vital place for anger in our lives. We should get angry at injustice, at the mistreatment of others, at hypocrisy, and at tragedies and evils in the world. The Hebrew Scriptures describe God’s anger 375 times. Like God, we should get angry at sin, but we should also be slow and careful to anger, for anger that is out of control is dangerous to others and to us. Dr. Redford B. Williams of Duke University Medical Center states, “Individuals who harbor hostility and anger toward others are five times more likely to die from heart disease.”
The story is told of Sinbad and his sailors. When they landed on a tropical island, they saw coconuts in the trees that would quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger. The problem was that the coconuts were too high in the trees for the sailors to reach. It so happened that along with the coconuts in the trees were a bunch of chattering monkeys. Sinbad’s men picked up sticks and stones from the beach and began to throw them at the monkeys. The monkeys became so enraged that they began to seize the coconuts and hurl them down on the sailors. This was just what Sinbad and his men wanted. They had gotten the monkeys so angry that the monkeys gathered and delivered their food for them. The moral of the story is that when we are quick to anger, we usually play right into the hands of our enemy (the devil).
I confess that I have had a lifelong struggle with temptation. By this point in my life, I recognize that I will never get over it. I will never reach a point at which I will be free of every temptation. The best I can hope for is to endure temptation without giving in—which is actually what Scripture calls us to do. James 1:12 states, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
One of the major problems with temptation is that it leads us astray from where we should be.
In Huelvo, on the southern coast of Spain, is buried the body of Major William Martin, a British officer who played an important role in the Allied success in World War II—without his knowledge. After the Allies invaded North Africa, the next logical step was to invade Sicily. The problem was that the German army was planning for such an attack. The Allies needed to outfox the Germans. This is where Major William Martin comes in. Major Martin actually died of pneumonia in the foggy dampness of England without ever engaging in battle. But the Germans didn’t know that. One dark night, an Allied submarine surfaced off the coast of Spain just long enough to put Martin’s body out to sea in a rubber raft with an oar. In his pocket were placed “secret documents” indicating that the Allied forces would strike next in Greece and Sardinia. When Martin’s body washed ashore, German intelligence operatives assumed he had crashed at sea. They passed the secret documents through Axis hands all the way to Hitler’s headquarters. While Allied forces moved toward Sicily, thousands and thousands of German troops moved to Greece and Sardinia where the battle was not.
That’s what temptation does to us. But instead of needing a dead British officer, temptation simply plays on the desires that are already in us. Temptation intensifies those desires and distorts them until we become obsessed with them. Then we end up being led astray. James 1:14-15 offers this explanation: “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”
The Greek word deleazomenos, translated here as “enticed,” is an old fishing term. It had to do with baiting a hook so as to catch a fish. In the same way one would attach a juicy worm to a hook or tie a colorful fly to a hook, Satan holds out to us something that looks appealing. But like a fishing hook hidden in a piece of chocolate cake, when we bite into that chocolate cake we get hooked. Satan’s desire is to ensnare us in what will keep up away from God, and will keep us away from spiritual growth, and will keep us away from doing anything meaningful with our lives, and will keep us away from the peace God intends for our souls.
No wonder James stresses, “Blessed in anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
The 13th century Persian poet Rumi observed, “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.” Erich Fromm adds, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” No wonder the God who knows us intimately and who loves us deeply repeatedly calls us away from greed and calls us to generosity.
In the opening chapter of his Biblical letter, James shares two significant reasons why we should practice generosity rather than greed.
In verses 9-11, James writes, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
What I hear James telling me here is that wealth is merely an illusion of stability. It’s what we imagine will provide us with a foundation we can stand on. But in reality, it is better to be lifted up by the God who is lasting than by wealth which is fleeting. What wealth fills our souls with evaporates, but what God fills our souls with brings lasting hope and contentment.
Henrik Ibsen remarks, “Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.” We are foolish to try to find in money what can only be provided by God.
Morrie Schwartz shared with Mitch Albom, “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?’ 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 for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.” (Tuesdays with Morrie, p. 125)
Money provides no lasting value to our souls. Therefore, we do well when we take steps to free ourselves from the misleading illusion of money as our stability. The practice of generosity is the appropriate step for us to take.
In verses 17-18, James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
What I hear James telling me here is that generosity comes from above and keeps us in step with how God wants to grow his own likeness in us.
In his book Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson tells of his experience watching an adult swallow teach its young to fly: “One adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch—pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one. The third was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent was without sentiment. He pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the poor chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. The grip was released, and the inexperienced wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not—that it would fly—that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do.”
Then Peterson makes this application: “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth…. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start, the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait, the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”
Generosity comes from God. We do best when we keep in step with how God is growing his likeness in us.
Many years ago, the magazine of the defunct PACE Airlines, shared this story: “The scene is the campus of the University of Florida in the early 1960s. The football team is in practice session. They are running wind sprints for conditioning. One of the large linemen, Jack Katz, who played tackle, had proven himself to be the fastest lineman on the team. Katz walked up to coach Ray Graves and asked if he might run sprints with the faster backs. Permission was granted. For the next several days, Katz managed to finish last in every race with the backfield runners. Nobody was surprised. The coach asked if Katz wouldn’t rather be a winner with the linemen than a loser in the competition with the backs. Katz responded, ‘I’m not out here to outrun the linemen. I already know I can do that. I’m here to learn how to run faster; and if you’ve noticed, I’m losing by a little less every day.’”
Katz had his attention focused on more than just being the fastest lineman on the team. He set his focus on becoming the best football player he could be. Indeed, Katz became one of the heroes in Florida’s upset win against Alabama in 1963 and was voted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
If our goal in life is to be as comfortable as possible or to live a life that is perpetually happy, then we resent struggles that come our way. But if our goal in life is to become a better person—a person who is becoming more Christ-like and whose character is in keeping with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—then we look upon our struggles as opportunities for growth.
At least that is the outlook of James 1:2-4: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The struggles that come our way are not fun, but if the struggles can help us to become better people, it is worth it to us to embrace them.
Consider what adversities have done in the lives of others: Bury a person in the snows of Valley Forge, and you come up with a George Washington. Raise a person in poverty, with multitudes of setbacks throughout his life, and you get an Abraham Lincoln. Strike a person down with a paralytic disease, and you get a Franklin Roosevelt. Take away a person’s ability to see and to hear, and you get a Helen Keller. Raise a person in the cruelties of slavery, and you get a Washington Carver or a Harriet Tubman. Lock a person in a prison camp for sheltering Jewish neighbors during the Nazi regime, and you get a Corrie ten Boom. Lock a person in prison for 27 years for striving against apartheid, and you get a Nelson Mandela.
Adversities are never fun, but in the midst of adversities we gain strength and wisdom and fortitude which are needed for us to become the best that we can be.
Booker T. Washington sums it up well, “No one should be pitied because every day of his life he faces a hard, stubborn problem…. It is the one who has no problems to solve, no hardships to face, who is to be pitied….. He has nothing in his life which will strengthen and form his character, nothing to call out his latent powers and deepen and widen his hold on life.”
Rick Warren adds words of hope in the midst of our struggles: “God never wastes a hurt! In fact, your greatest ministry will most likely come out of your greatest hurt. Who could better minister to the parents of a Down syndrome child than another couple who have a child afflicted in the same way? Who could better help an alcoholic recover than someone who fought that demon and found freedom? Who could better comfort a wife whose husband has left her for an affair than a woman who went through that agony herself?…. If you really desire to be used by God, you must understand a powerful truth: The very experiences that you have resented or regretted most in life—the ones you’ve wanted to hide and forget—are the experiences God wants to use to help others.” (The Purpose Driven Life, p. 246-247)
Late one evening, a small voice penetrated the stillness of the night. It came from the bedroom across the hall. “Mommy, I’m scared!” the little girl cried out.
From the grogginess of sleep, the mother called back, “Don’t be afraid, Honey. Mommy is right across the hall from you.”
After a brief pause, the little voice came back, “I’m still scared.”
“You don’t need to be afraid,” the mother replied. “God is with you.”
This time the pause was longer, but when she answered, there was still fear in the little girl’s voice. “I don’t care about God, Mommy. I want someone with skin on.”
God heard a similar cry from a scared and lonely planet, so God came into our world in Jesus Christ, as God-with-skin-on.
John 1:14 expresses it this way: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….”
The word used here to describe Jesus as living among us, eska’nosen, derives from the word ska’nos which means “tent.” Literally, John is telling us that Jesus set up his tent among us for a while.
This points our attention back to the “Tent of Meeting” in Exodus. When the Jewish people fled Egypt and wandered through the desert, they were anxious and afraid, so God called for a tent to be set up among them. The tent represented God’s home with the Israelites. During all their years of traveling through the desert, the tent was the visible evidence of God’s presence with them.
Still, there was a cry from our world for a God-with-skin-on, so God came in Jesus on Christmas day.
In doing so, God changed forever the dynamic between people and God. By becoming one of us, God understands us. By becoming one of us, we understand God.
God understands us: In the concluding chapter of his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey remarks, “The author of Hebrews reports that Jesus became a ‘sympathetic’ advocate for us. There is only one way to learn sympathy, as signified by the Greek roots of the word, syn pathos, ‘to feel or suffer with.’ Because of the Incarnation, God hears our prayers in a new way, having lived here and having prayed as a weak and vulnerable human being.”
Then Yancey adds, “As a doctor who works in hospice told me, ‘When my patients pray, they are talking to someone who has actually died—something that’s not true of any other adviser, counselor, or death expert.’” (p. 271)
We understand God: John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….” Exodus tells us that “glory” filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34) because God was there. John tells us that Jesus revealed the “glory” of God because in Jesus, God set up his tent among us.
In Hebrew, the word for glory was kabod, which comes from the word kabed, which means “to be heavy.” Glory had to do with how heavy something was. If you were mining and found a supply of gold nuggets, you would want to know their value. The way you would do that would be to weigh them. Glory had to do with the value of something, which was determined by their weight. But if you dug up a nugget that was a mix of gold and other minerals, you could not just weigh the entire nugget to determine its value. You would have to melt it down to separate the gold from other minerals. Kabod came to be understood as having to do with melting away the extra stuff to get down to the essential nature of the nugget. How much of the nugget is truly gold? What is its real value?
John tells us that in Jesus we see the essential nature of God. In Jesus we see what remains when all the extra stuff—the trappings of religion, culture, and tradition—is melted away.
What is it that we see in Jesus when all the trappings are melted away?
What stands out to me is love. In Jesus we see the purity of God’s love. We see one who was willing to learn sympathy by becoming one of us and by suffering with us. We see one whose love is unconditional, so he died for our sins. We see one whose love is invincible, so he rose from the dead for us. Jesus’ love is the glory of God—the essential nature of who God is.
In the introduction to his account of the life of Jesus, John tells us that Jesus came into our world for a specific reason. He tells us that Jesus came so that all who receive him, who believe in his name, can receive power “to become children of God.”
Is that just a sweet, little Christian saying? Or does it actually mean something to become a child of God? Is there any real difference between being a child of God and being a subject or a servant of God?
In his book Freedom from the Performance Trap, David Seamands stresses that a world of difference separates how a servant approaches and deals with life on a daily basis, and how a loved child does. Seamands writes, “The servant is accepted and appreciated on the basis of what he does, the child on the basis of who he is.
“The servant starts the day anxious and worried, wondering if his work will really please his master. The child rests in the secure love of his family.
“The servant is accepted because of his workmanship, the son or daughter because of a relationship.
“The servant is accepted because of his productivity and performance. The child belongs because of his position as a person.
“At the end of the day, the servant has peace of mind only if he is sure he has proven his worth by his work. The next morning his anxiety begins again. The child can be secure all day, and know that tomorrow won’t change his status.
“When a servant fails, his whole position is at stake; he might lose his job. When a child fails, he will be grieved because he has hurt his parents, and he will be corrected and disciplined. But he is not afraid of being thrown out. His basic confidence is in belonging and being loved, and his performance does not change the stability of his position.” (p. 23)
The animated Disney movie Toy Story offers a glimpse of another difference that comes from being a child of God. Early in the movie, out of annoyance at the astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear, Woody, a toy cowboy, shouts at Buzz, “You’re not a space ranger! You’re an action figure—a child’s plaything.” Later, after failing to fly, Buzz realizes the truth of Woody’s statement. Grief-stricken and disillusioned, Buzz hangs his head in resignation and laments, “I’m just a stupid, little, insignificant toy.”
But Woody comforts his friend with a deeper truth. He draws Buzz’s attention to the love of the boy who has claimed them as his own. Woody tells Buzz, “You must not be thinking clearly. Look, over in that house, there’s a kid who thinks you’re the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger; it’s because you’re his.” As Buzz lifts his foot, he sees a label affixed to the bottom of his boot. In black permanent ink is the name of the boy he belongs to. Seeing on his foot the name of his owner, Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination.
When we become a child of God, God writes his name on us, marking us forever as his own. As soon as that happens our identity, our worth, and our future are made secure. There is no identity higher than being a child the Lord of all creation! There is no worth greater than being a child of the King of all kings. There is no future more certain than being a child of the God who is eternal and invincible.
As 1 John 3:1 declares, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
When you read through all the books of the Jewish Scriptures and come to the final two verses, you find that the last thing God said to his people was a promise: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
Since the writing of those verses in the book of Malachi around 430 B.C., Jewish people have been hoping for the arrival of Elijah to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Even today, when Jewish people celebrate Passover, they set an extra chair at their table, in hopes that Elijah will come and fill that seat. Every year, during the meal, someone will get up from the table, go to the door, and look to see if Elijah has come.
Just a few verses into his story of Jesus, John points our attention back to the promise of Malachi 4:5-6, that God would send his servant to prepare the way of the Lord. John writes, in John 1:6-9, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
How did John go about the task of preparing the way of the Lord? How did he go about the work of testifying to the light?
John fulfilled his assignment by doing two key things: He strove for what is good and just, and he pointed to Jesus.
In striving for what is good and just, John called people to repentance. He told people to turn away from their sinful ways. He told them to act with integrity and with compassion. He even told Herod Antipas to repent of his corrupt relationship with his brother’s wife.
In pointing people to Jesus, John spoke of Jesus as one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. And John stressed that he must decrease so that Jesus would increase.
John the Baptist had a unique role in history. He was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But John also sets a model for us to follow, for we, too, are given opportunities to point people to Jesus.
How are we to do it? It seems that we are to do what John did. We are to strive for what is good and just, and we are to point people’s attention to Jesus.
We live in a world where integrity is often lacking, where hypocrisy is frequent, where cruelty is too common, and where apathy often reigns. We live in a world where people long to find individuals who act with care and kindness and sincerity and trustworthiness. A life like that draws people to Jesus.
The story is told of a woman who was crossing a street at London station when an elderly man stopped her and said, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but I want to thank you.”
She looked up and asked, “Thank me?”
He replied, “Yes, Ma’am, I used to be a ticket collector, and whenever you went by, you always gave me a cheerful smile and a ‘Good morning.’ I knew that smile and kindness must come from inside somewhere. Then one morning I saw a little Bible in your hand, so I bought one too, and I found Jesus.”
When we show genuine care for others we attract people to Jesus.
Madeleine L’Engle suggests, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Matthew and Luke begin their stories of the life of Jesus with pieces of the traditional Christmas story—the record of a baby born in Bethlehem. John probably knew the Christmas story better than anyone else, for when Jesus hung on the cross he assigned John the task of caring for his mother. According to the records that have been passed along, when John moved to Ephesus, Mary lived in his home. But John does not record her memories of Jesus’ birth.
It’s as if John looked at what happened in Bethlehem, stepped back, and asked, “Do you have any idea what really happened here? This is not just any baby who was born in Bethlehem. This is the Maker of the universe who has become a baby human!”
So John opens his gospel by describing Jesus as “the Word,” stressing that Jesus was with God from the beginning and was God, that all things came into being through him, and that he was the life and the light of the world.
John wants us to marvel over the magnitude of this miracle.
It was nothing less than the Creator of the universe who took up residence in an amniotic sac for nine months.
The Limitless God, who stretched out the stars in the galaxies, kicked against the walls of his mother’s womb.
The Omnipotent—the All-Powerful—had to receive nourishment through an umbilical cord.
The One who is Invincible became the delicate weaving together of flesh and bones, ligaments and muscles.
The One who is Spirit and Truth was given eyebrows and fingernails.
The Almighty God was pushed through the birth canal then wrapped in swaddling cloths.
The One for whom the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” had to nurse at Mary’s breast and be burped on Joseph’s shoulder.
The All-Knowing God would have to learn how to walk and how to say, “Abba.”
About this incredible paradox, Augustine wrote, “Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak, that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
Luci Shaw expresses this wonderful mystery in “Mary’s Song”:
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast keep warm
this small naked star fallen to my arms.
(Rest…you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies the body of God sweetly.
Quiet he lies whose vigor hurled a universe.
He sleeps whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so light it seems no breath at all)
once ruffled the dark deeps to sprout a world.
Charmed by doves’ voices, the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes—
who overflowed all skies, all years.
Older than eternity, now he is new.
Now native to earth as I am, nailed to my poor planet,
caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended I must see him torn.
Every year, in September or October, Jewish worshipers celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, to remember God’s care for them throughout the years that they wandered through the desert, on their journey from slavery in Egypt to their new life in the Promised Land. Scholars believe that Psalm 95 was written for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Indeed, the psalm concludes with a recollection from Israel’s time in the desert. But the focus of verses 8-11 is not on God’s good care of them but on the hardheartedness of those who doubted God and grumbled about Moses to the point that Moses feared that they would stone him to death. What is particularly interesting about the incident at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17) is that it takes place on the heels of the people walking through the Red Sea (Exodus 14 & 15), and the bitter water of Marah being cleansed (Exodus 15), and the provision of manna from heaven (Exodus 16).
Psalm 95 is a call to us to make a choice concerning how we respond to the challenges we face in life. It is a warning to us not to choose the way of hardheartedness and grumbling (as happened at Massah and Meribah). It is an invitation to us to choose the way of gratitude and trust (as we are encouraged to do in the first seven verses of Psalm 95).
Verses 1, 2, and 6 are filled with invitations to us: “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise…. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”
Such invitations to us to enter the practice of worship, trust, and gratitude ae invitations to us to step away from the misery of resentment and to step into God’s treasure house of joy and contentment.
Henri Nouwen explains, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy. Gratitude, however, goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.”
It is as though gratitude sets us free and invigorates our life. Robert Emmons points out, “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risks for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.”
Henry Jowett adds, “Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion. Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception. Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude. Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”
Perhaps a young girl named Debbie expressed it best. When asked by Art Linkletter, “What is salt?” she answered, “Salt is what spoils the potatoes when you leave it out.” We could say something similar about gratitude: “Gratitude is what spoils life when you leave it out.”