Luke 5:1-11 – Generous

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they did, they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. So, they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So, they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him. (NIV)

One of the most fundamental characteristics of God is generosity. God’s benevolent nature defines the divine stance toward humanity. This may not seem overly remarkable with only cursory thoughts about God. Yet, when the infinite holiness of God intersects with the prideful arrogance of sinful people, gracious generosity is the unpredictable and amazing result.

Many people on planet earth have been raised with a god who is aloof and curmudgeonly. Such a god gets easily angry and zaps people with lightning or some natural disaster. It is no wonder so many persons have fled from belief in God. Can we, however, entertain the notion that the Creator God of the universe is quite the opposite? In Jesus, we have on display the basic disposition of the Divine.

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

On one occasion, Peter (a guy who could raise the ire of most gods) was going about his business fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Having not yet encountered Jesus but stopping to listen to his words, Peter ended up having this stranger literally get in the boat with him, uninvited. There was something remarkably different and compelling about Jesus since Peter did not immediately toss him out. Such a calm, confident, and gracious nature – nothing like Peter had expected. So, here is this plan fisherman face-to-face with the Christ of God. 

Jesus told Peter to put the boat out and cast the nets. Peter, an experienced fisherman and knowledgeable about the water, knew for certain that he would not catch anything. But, out of deference to Jesus, he did so, anyway. The result was such a large catch of fish that the nets nearly broke from the weight.

Peter’s response is instructive. He fell at the feet of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  Peter came up against his own small faith. He rightly discerned that he did not deserve such generosity from Jesus, an overflowing abundance given to him despite his unbelief. In the face of such grace, in the vortex of an incredible mercy, having seen the generosity of God directed squarely at him, Peter left it all behind to follow Jesus.

So, here we have the nature and character of God before us. No cranky deity. No exasperated God ready to raise a storm and toss the boat over with Peter in it. No, Jesus, the Son of God, does not operate that way. There is no strong-arming people into faith. God’s tactics steer clear of manipulation through guilt, or mind-twisting others through shaming them. 

Instead, God is beautifully and simply present with people – showing grace and generosity in places where one would least expect to find it. When confronted with such love, what would you do?

Early in my life, I viewed God as some eternally bored deity who would occasionally get out his divine BB gun and shoot people in the rear, just for something to do. God, in my understanding, cared nothing for the real lived experiences of people on earth. But much like Peter of old, Jesus showed up unannounced in my life. And what I found was like Peter – a kind, benevolent Being who showered such generous love on me that my heart was immediately captured. I have never looked back since.

We intuitively know down in our gut, in our bones, when genuine Love is among us because it immediately connects with the deepest needs of our lives. No evangelist must convince us with offering free gold crosses or promised blessings. None of that matters when love incarnate is present, when the great God of all is among us. Peace, hope, and faith are the results of divine presence. They cannot be conjured or ginned up through excessive asceticism or extreme discipline. Love is a gift. Love is a person. And it is given generously and graciously from the One whose very nature is charitable and hospitable.

Gracious God, you sent your Son to me even though I was neither looking for him nor expecting anything from him. Thank you for breaking-in to my life so that I could break-out for you with glory, honor, and praise.  Amen

John 1:1-14 – Christmas Day

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
    God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
    in readiness for God from day one.

Everything was created through him;
    nothing—not one thing!—
    came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.

There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.

The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
    not blood-begotten,
    not flesh-begotten,
    not sex-begotten.

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish. (MSG)

Merry Christmas! Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward humanity! Today we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation – the unfathomable miracle of God becoming human – all for us and for our salvation.

The beginning of the Apostle John’s Gospel is an astounding passage of Scripture. These are verses to slowly and worshipfully read through because it is a theologically rich, lovingly beautiful, and missionally sensitive piece of Holy Scripture. 

The high and holy God has chosen to come and reveal true divinity to us in the person of Jesus. We know God through Christ. We learn what God is like through Jesus. God graciously condescended to us, bent down to communicate in ways we can understand and discern, through the Lord Jesus. 

The God which Christians worship and serve is an over-the-top gracious and generous God. This is a God who has gone to incredible lengths in restoring lost humanity. Since God has bridged the great chasm between heaven and earth, we have hope, joy, peace, and faith. With God in the neighborhood, divine love becomes our motivation to reach out in compassionate service. People matter to God. We matter so much that God cared enough to be born.

This Tiny Baby by Madeleine L’Engle

Whoever is the baby?

Nothing but a little lamb

who says God is and that I am.

Who is this tiny baby?

Just an infant, meek and mild,

just a feeble, mortal child.

Who is this tiny baby?

The Lord strong and mighty

even the Lord mighty in battle.

The king of glory is coming,

who is the Lord of Hosts.

This is the tiny baby!

All I Want for Christmas Is Faith

Annunciation to Mary by Salvador Dali, 1965

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)

Most of life is lived in the mundane, even in a time of pandemic. For the most part our everyday lives involve going about our business and dealing with the daily grind. That is because we are common ordinary people. So, we can especially relate to Mary because she is quite plain. 

To put Mary’s life in our contemporary vernacular, at the time of this encounter with the angel, she is of junior high age but has never attended school. She wears mostly clothes from Goodwill, and occasionally can get some from Wal-Mart. She cannot read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We do not know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people cannot point to on a map. 

One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty.” Mary stands there in her ratty old flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  a mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; a messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; a holy angelic light which beams in a simple candlelit bedroom; an awesome power encountering complete vulnerability.

Annunciation by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga (1886-1946)

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed. She is in way over her head. That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She is like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be “greatly troubled.”  She was disturbed and shaking in her hand-me-down slippers. The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God. In other words, Mary was literally “graced” by God. The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality, but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus. And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was well beyond anything she could have expected.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not even remotely on her radar. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was. After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up. Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl. Maybe his Google map sent Gabriel on a wild goose chase. Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  Nothing about any of this made any sense.

But the angel let Mary know that God specializes in the impossible. English translators chose to phrase the original rendering of Gabriel’s words as “for nothing is impossible with God.” I rather prefer the more literal translation which is “for there is nothing outside of God’s power.” To me, that is beautiful. There is nowhere we can go, no place on earth, no situation whatsoever that is beyond God’s ability and reach to affect divine power.

We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer: She really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power. If the story were to end there it would be a great story. But to me the most astonishing part of the narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message and submitted herself completely to God’s will. I think we would completely understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this. We would totally “get it” if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her. We could relate if Mary just dismissed the angel’s presence, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, as if Gabriel were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, Mary not only believed; she also humbly submitted herself to what was happening. And this is what I believe we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village but stepping up to the calling she received. We, too, have received a calling in our lives. We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Our response today can be the same as Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” The Church is pregnant with possibilities because of the Holy Spirit. We know the end of Mary’s story. She gave birth to Jesus. She raised him in her plain ordinary way. She watched him grow up. She saw him embark on his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God has become near. Mary did not always understand what Jesus said or what he was doing. And she experienced every mother’s nightmare in seeing her beloved son killed in a terribly gruesome manner right in front of her eyes. 

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit was with the birth of Jesus, so the Spirit was with Jesus at his resurrection from the dead. Jesus lived an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way. Furthermore, today Jesus invites us to do the same. Because Christ accomplished his mission of saving people from their sins and establishing a kingdom that will never end, he has given us the same Holy Spirit to follow him forever and call other people to follow him, too. 

To trust and obey is God’s only way to live into the life of Jesus. The Christian life may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. It is rather simple, just like Mary. Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing. “I am the Lord’s servant” is our confession, as well. Along with Mary we declare, “May it be to me as you have said.”

Luke 17:11-19 – Give Thanks

Ten Lepers Healed by American artist Brian Kershisnik

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (NIV)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits thanks – yet from only one. Perhaps this is because they stood at a distance. After all, it is connection which causes gratitude to arise within us. So, maybe we ought to consider what the nature of our connections are, especially on this Thanksgiving Day. 

Food, football, and family have become the annual trifecta of the American Thanksgiving Day. I confess that I liberally indulge in all three. I am not here to bash on the fact that Thanksgiving has become almost a day of secular worship around an unholy trinity. That is because I believe underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative that we know why we are celebrating the day: To give thanks for our abundant blessings. It seems even those who do not readily acknowledge the Divine intuitively know there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves which makes all good things occur.

Celebrations are a spiritual activity. God invented parties. When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16).  The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings. Gratitude was commanded, expected, and was an important dimension of Old Testament worship:

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2, NRSV)

Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple. The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever. (Psalm 100:4-5, CEV)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1, NLT)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer thanksgiving. A Samaritan, considered by many of the time as the lowliest of the low, a “half-breed,” was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with intense gratitude.  While the other nine went about their lives free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus. 

Indeed, sometimes we must be reminded to give thanks and show gratitude for the ways God has provided for us. It is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate for us what genuine thanksgiving looks like.

The people of God are to always remember what they possess in Christ:

So, live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. (Colossians 2:6-7, CEB)

Never stop praying. Be ready for anything by praying and being thankful. (Colossians 4:2, ERV)

Everything God made is good, and nothing should be refused if it is accepted with thanks. (1 Timothy 4:4, NCV)

God and giving thanks are to go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Since God created everything, and since Jesus has brought healing to us through the cross, every juicy morsel of goodness we have is to be received with the full cognizance that God is behind it all.

Our lives need to be punctuated with times of celebration, praise, giving thanks, and even (virtual) blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. Conversely, a joyous and raucous group of healed believers chatting incessantly with thanksgiving of God’s goodness are winsome and peculiar (in a good way and not in the strange way of your weird uncle who wants the turkey neck to gnaw on).

It seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because they have been forgiven; know the presence of God; are provided for; are confident in the fact they are protected; and, experience the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Yes, eat to your heart’s content and have a belly full of cornbread stuffing. But remember to give thanks – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation.  Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape you and I. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise, worship, and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness can change the world.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.