Reading the Magnificat From Scratch

I’m going to ask you to do something difficult. It will only be for a moment. I want you to imagine that you don’t know who Jesus is, that you’ve never heard the Christmas story, and that you don’t know anything about (as comic book and superhero fans would say) his origin story. It’s the year 2022, and you’ve lived your life as you’ve lived it, all things as they are; nothing else has changed; the world is as it is, except that you know nothing about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angel, shepherd, wise men, Bethlehem, King Herod, or all the stuff that comes after it. You are you; your life is as it is, we are who we are, and you’ve never been exposed in one way or another to the material in this book. Specifically, in this hypothetical, to the information in the 1st and 2nd chapters of the 2nd book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke. Why Luke? This is where we find a complete account of Jesus’ birth that is etched in our brains, though most of the versions of the Christmas story (as told in pageants and the like) end up being a mishmash of Matthew and Luke. As much as possible, I want you to imagine you’ve never heard this story or are about to listen to parts of it for the first time. You have no idea who “God” is, what the incarnation means, what role Mary plays, that she is engaged, the trouble she might be in, who Joseph is, or how it all turns out. As much as possible, we are all blank slates. Let us begin.  

I’m going to read you some words now. Remember, you’re a blank slate; you don’t know who said these, the context, history, or background, at least not yet. All we have are the words themselves to go on. Listen to them deeply. Allow them to sink in as if you’ve never heard them before. How do they strike you? Are they comforting and soothing? Or are they jarring and disconcerting? When you listen to them, do you feel like the speaker is speaking for you, with you, or to you? Think about each of these questions as I read:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Indeed, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

What is your first impression of having never heard those words? Are they religious or political words? Perhaps they are both. Who speaks this way? Where would one expect to find such eloquence about the unequal distribution of power, wealth, and hunger? Given our nation’s current situation and biases, what would you determine to be the political persuasion of the person who made such a strong statement? If you turned on the television, didn’t know the network, and heard a voice (either male or female) emphasizing these words, “lowliness,” “servant,” “scattered,” “proud,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones,” “filled the hungry,” and sent the rich away empty,” would you think them to be conservative or liberal? Would you think you’d heard a democrat or a republican? Would you believe yourself to be listening to someone you considered a Christian or a godless secularist? Would you think someone had changed your channel from Fox News to MSNBC?

I know the answer. I know the answer because we live in a polarized world, and even the Bible can’t get a fair hearing in 2022. I know the answer because I listen to church conversations, radio, and television call-in programs, and stand in line at Bojangles. Ideas like the ones I’ve just read to you are regularly dismissed as evil, treasonous, dangerous, deadly, and un-American. Except for being evil, at points throughout history, Mary’s Magnificat has been regarded as all those things. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, speaks dangerous, world-up-ending words. Words that, if you didn’t know better, many people would swear were written by critical race theorists, Marxists, or socialists in sheep’s clothing. When we understand these words originate from the Bible, most of us back off, ignore them, or treat them as a young girl’s poetic aspirations for a better world. Then we move on. We ignore her. This is the wrong way to read the Magnificat. This is a manifesto. We read what God is doing in the present (through Mary) and will continue to do through Jesus.

People have been killed for reciting those words because repressive governments have feared what might happen if ordinary people, poor people, and the marginalized realize God is on their side. What happens when we know that in the days and weeks leading up to the birth of Christ, Jesus’ mother starts talking like a prophetically inspired socialist instead of an enraged parent bent on banning books? How does this change impact how we see the quaint nativity scenes and Mary’s son, who grows up to eat with prostitutes, and tax collectors and probably (given his mother’s bent on scattering the proud people who seem to have religion all figured out) would have eaten with drag queens too? It should make us rethink how we read everything that comes after Christmas and how to see the world through Christian eyes and less partisan lenses. If being a Christian makes you sound like a socialist, that’s the world’s fault. That’s your problem. Mary got there long before Karl Marx. I’m just following her and her son.

–Richard Bryant

The Unmistakable Message of John the Baptizer

A Sermon/Homily on Matthew 3:1-12

John leads to Jesus in much the same way Yoda leads to Darth Vader. (Go with me on this analogy. Jesus is not Darth Vader.)

Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi like his father but he can’t get there unless he goes through both Yoda and Darth Vader. Yoda is a rite of passage that points him to the one person he must confront to be truly considered a Jedi in his own right, Darth Vader (who also happens to be his father). But you get my point, all roads to your own light saber lead through Yoda.

It’s a little like that at Advent/Christmas. We can’t get to Jesus, at Bethlehem, without going to meet and spend time with the wild man Yoda of the Jordan River, John the Baptizer. When you encounter John, you’ll also encounter your Father (e.g. “this is my son, I’m pleased with him, listen to him…)

There are several roads to Jesus at Advent/Christmas.

They all begin in Galilee (the North/Nazareth) and lead to Bethlehem (in the South).

You can’t get to Jesus without going through this encounter first and then seeing Jesus:

Gabriel delivered the message

Jesus’ mother, Mary (an unwed, teenage mother)

Joseph (Jesus’ stepdad, a man doing the right thing)

Mary’s family, specifically Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother)

Shepherds outside Bethlehem

And ultimately:

John the Baptist

You must go through all these people, at some point, in one way or another, to get to Jesus.

Not like obstacles on a quest, but people whose purpose is to help you stay on course.

They play a crucial role in the essential story.

Unless we meet them, hear them, and understand them, when we finally meet Jesus, it’s not the most complete, total, joyous experience it is intended to be.

We may not even make it to Jesus on our own. When we meet these people, they keep us on the right path toward Jesus; they say, “No, you need to go that way; he’s just down there.” Will we listen?

John is the main guy pointing the way to Christ. He is a sign and a symbol. He points to something else and gives directions.

He unmistakably grabs your attention. (e.g., Beethoven’s 5th four opening notes. You know him anywhere.)

When you hear John and John’s message, it can be only John.

He takes the themes and ideas of the ancient prophets, particularly someone like Isaiah, and weaves and into something new and unforgettable. It holds you. Pay attention to what John is saying. Don’t read along with the old scriptures, this is something new. He’s not your grandfather’s prophet. If you want someone to do it “the way we’ve always done it before” John is not your guy.

However, he does have this in common with his prophetic ancestors: he’s not afraid of poking the bear and being controversial.

He purposely offends the religious professionals who trek to the Jordan River to hear him preach.

Self-righteous holy rollers who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.

John attracted people from all parts of society; rich, poor, dirty, clean, women, and men.

What connected them was that the traditional religious establishment rejected them.

You can’t look away from John. You are familiar with his message, but it sounds completely new. You wonder, is it this guy? No, he says, someone else is coming.   

(He wants you to pay complete attention to him.)

So, to review: To get to Jesus, we go through John (and others). John’s message is unique and definable.

Specifically, what’s his message? Repentance. John is all about repentance.

Repentance isn’t just saying sorry or a fancy word for a New Year’s resolution (e.g., a new habit.)

Repentance is a systemic life change. John is talking about altering the entire direction of your life, fully turning from one way or path, and going down a new approach.

Stop what you’re doing, change your behavior, and then start something else in the opposite direction: this is the essence of repentance. Sure, many small factors might lead to such a significant change, but that’s not what John meant.

John asked people to change the totality of their lives and then announce that change before the whole community through an act of ritual purification, what we call Baptism.  

Repentance is not supposed to be easy. It is a living, ongoing, organic process. If we step back and look at the world and think about repentance, it’s overwhelming to consider our collective and corporate sins. So much so that it’s easy to stop and utter a few flowery religious cliches about addressing “global poverty,” “climate justice,” “and racism” and think we’ve done our part to repent for our collective sins. We’ve done nothing at all. That’s the “Brood of Vipers” style religion John is railing against.

If we’re doing it right, repentance should begin with serious self-reflection. “If I’m going this new way, I can no longer be this way or carry these things with me that tie me to this old direction. I need to get certain things off my chest and undo anything that keeps me from turning.”

What do I want to repent of this week (and beyond)?

  1. Some things we need to repent of are personal. Who have we hurt, offended, or wronged? Is there something we need to make right in our personal lives to set us on a course to intersect with Jesus at Bethlehem today, tomorrow, and Christmas eve? Suppose we don’t repent of these minor (or even significant) personal issues. Are we going to be off course, like Magi (didn’t they miss him by nine miles or so?), with gifts intended to be given to the Christ child but constantly wandering around in circles and off course? Kind of like Smoky Bear, only you know what you need to repent from. I can’t tell you what to repent for.
  2. Sometimes, we need to repent of collective sins. Churches and church communities need to repent. We needed to be pointed back toward Jesus. Can you imagine a swimming pool or a river wide enough to fit all of us? Yes, that’s a funny image, but institutions also need to repent. What do we need to repent from? You tell me. I’ve got a few ideas. Nobody’s perfect. We can always be better neighbors and more loving to each other as Christians and our community.
  3. Once we repent, we want to stay repented. That’s the real challenge. You’ve changed course now. What do you have to do to immediately not go back off course? Repentance is not the uttering of “magic words” and expecting our lives to change without work or effort.
  4. Adjust your declination (Magnetic north and true north). If you’re backpacking, that could put you off anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile off course. Adjust for being on the right spiritual path so you don’t start going further and further off course.
  5. Orient your map.
  6. Find a bearing, take a bearing, and move toward your new destination.
  7. Regularly check your bearings along the way. Make sure you’re still on the right path toward repentance.
  8. Repentance is about checking your bearings and being aware of your surroundings.

That’s how you’ll end up in the place where Jesus is waiting for you to arrive.

If we listen to cousin John and follow his path and instructions, this is how we’ll get to Jesus.

John is our unmistakable compass. He grabs your attention. You know you are listening to John. No one else sounds like John He’ll give us our bearings. He tells us how to repent. What we repent of, the thing we change, that’s up to us. You make that call. The hard work is up to us and will lead us to Jesus. Will we listen? Will we change?

Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Putting On Your Loudest Christmas Sweater – A Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:

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God’s Love for Humanity

1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:

GOD IN THE DISTANCE.

GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.

GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.

GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.

We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.

The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.

2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.

If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.

3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)

Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct.  If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).

Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.

–Richard Bryant

Advent, Proust, and the Search for Lost Time

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Advent is a season of preparation, but it is also about time. We live in what Samuel Beckett called “the Proustian equation…that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation-Time.”** Time is at the heart of the Advent argument. There is not enough of it to go around. What time exists is perpetually eroded by commercialism, secularism, and commitments that pull people away from the church. Instead of preparing for the unexpected and jarring arrival of an infant who redefines the meaning of time itself, we, like Proust, go searching for lost time. We find none.

Where has the time gone? We’ve given it away and done so freely. The world isn’t taking it away. It’s always easier to blame others but we are our greatest foe. We set our schedules and make priorities. The competition between the sacred and the secular is something we create and impose on ourselves. There is only one time, one moment, and it is this season of preparation. Advent remains, in perpetual time, waiting for us to return and to prepare our hearts for this all-important moment in human history.  If we step outside this moment, Advent isn’t diminished, the church isn’t devalued, and Christmas hasn’t lost its meaning. No, we’re allowing sacred time to be determined solely in a chronological, linear fashion. We cannot talk about eternity, the cosmos, and the incarnation in this way. God is beyond time. Advent is about going off the clock and saying no to a world that measures reality in winners, losers, minutes, seconds, hours, and days. Do you want a more meaningful Advent and Christmas? Change how you think about your time.

–Richard Bryant

**Samuel Becket, Proust, Grove Press, 1957.

According to God’s Good Purpose (A Covid/Lectionary Reflection) Romans 8

Romans 8:28 is a verse we know exceptionally well. We quote it, share it, and read it in special services. It’s seen a great deal of use during this time of the pandemic. Here’s what it says, “We know that God works all things together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” People take and give hope with those words from Paul. However, as we look at this single verse and how it might apply to our lives (and the lives of others), I’d like to break it down to see if it’s the best scripture for a moment like this, a time of death, dying, and ventilators.

To apply this to our lives and mine the full extent of hope Paul is trying to present, we’ve got to do one thing: we have to assume no longer that everyone knows what we mean. Words like “good,” “all things,” and “God” are not the sole property of major league Christianity. When we talk about this verse, we need to realize there are other ways to understand what Paul might mean. People beyond the church have their ideas about God, God’s goodness, and morality.In some places, Paul’s Greek is a little open-ended. So it’s good for us to listen to other ways this thing might go.

Let’s go back to that first clause, everything from “we to God.” What does that half say? What is Paul trying to tell us? “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.”

At first, whether you are a believer, it sounds like God works things out (whatever those things are) just for those who love God. So it only works out if you love God? I see things working out for immoral people who don’t love God, and I witness honorable non Christians of various identities suffering horrible fates. Does God only help those who love God? Neither sounds right.

Paul, is this a pep talk or sound theology? I think it’s both. We have to read this as Paul wrote it; to be understood by the entire world. In a time before the church and denominations as we would come to know them in the post-reformation era, Paul’s first audience was Jewish converts, gentiles, and other Romans. Each brought their ideas about God, goodness, and what it meant to live in 1st-century chaos.

Paul wasn’t talking to one narrow group of believers with a limited view of God. No! He was speaking to everyone. God’s idea of resolution may not be our first plan, but God’s purpose of love is a two-way street. Why do I say this? I read Romans 8:37.   I come away convinced that God is on humanity’s side, with a fierce, unbreakable, bond of love that plays no favorites.

If we read Romans 8:28 any other way, God manages a litmus test to determine who is worthy of love, love is a vague get out jail free card, and our sufferings never reach the eschatological table where we await our seat.

Richard Bryant

Grounding Our Faith in the World Caused By This New Realty

  1. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Disease is disease.  It knows no ideology or strategy other than the mathematical reproduction of itself.
  2. Faith asks us to look beyond fault. That’s different from ignoring responsibility (personal or otherwise).  The spring breakers come to mind.
  3. We have narrow definitions of fellowship. Biblical discipleship probably included more social distancing that we like to admit.  Fellowship with God and with each other is two different things.  God is present in our absence.
  4. This is hard and may get much harder. At the present, for the most of us, the virus is an inconvenience. We need to be better at having schedules moved, life cancelled, and our world rearranged.  Are we being asked to live under pressure or live better quality lives that we might normally experience?  That’s a matter of perspective.
  5. Jokes about toilet paper scarcity are stupid.
  6. Things feel out of control.  We can’t control everything.  Stop.
  7. When, we need to be prepared for dealing with death at a distance. We’re used to bodies and death rituals. We may not have this in many cases.
  8. Life will outweigh death but the death see will be hard.
  9. Pray and talk.
  10. Listen and ponder.
  11. Take it seriously.   More seriously than schism, conferences, or anything related to the church.  There will be time for our personal chaos on down the road.  It’s life and death time.

Richard Bryant

Jesus, Social Distancing, and Health Care Mark 1:16-37

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a medical crisis in Galilee overwhelms Jesus. Everything seemed to happen at once. It was the beginning of his ministry. Imagine launching a company and all the new things that go along with opening a business. First, you have to hire staff. It can be challenging to develop job descriptions, ideas for how big the company needs to function, and then look at resumes, all before interviewing people. That’s before setting out to speak to a single person about the kingdom of God. Until this part of the plan takes hold, success depends on one person doing all the work. Every aspect of the ministry depends on Jesus and the driving force of his personality. Before he’s called the first disciple, he’s already exhausted. (We know this because he tells us.)

John baptized Jesus, and the pace of Jesus’ life and ministry went from 1st to fourth gear overnight. He saw the need for help and he called disciples to join his ministry team. Whatever thought, planning, and ideas Jesus put into calling the disciples (people like Peter, James, and John), it came down to one question: Will you follow me? Jesus can make the distinction between fishing for people and actual fishing. Still, it’s a question of following Jesus, as a rabbi (or teacher), to build a movement around the idea we now understand as the kingdom of God. That’s the question: will you follow me? The question is not: “will you discuss following me, will you consider supporting me, will you follow me for a couple of hours a week on Sunday morning, or will you follow me when you like the way the church is going? No, Jesus asks a simple question: will you follow me? Are we able to give Jesus an honest answer?

If not, why not? What’s stopping us from being honest with Jesus? Will you follow me? And that’s Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of our filters. Are we ready to follow Jesus?

Once Jesus gathers followers, people who said “yes” without context and explanation, they begin the work of the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing they do? Does Jesus start preaching a message of fire and brimstone? Do these first disciples warn others of the dangers of hell? No, they do none of these things. Remember, the pace hasn’t stopped.

First, the group goes to see and observe Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit. The man is possessed. Or, as we would say in our day in time, he’s mentally ill. Wouldn’t we say that an evil spirit possesses an addict?  We all would! Jesus’ exorcism, his first action in Mark’s gospel, is an exercise in mental health treatment. Jesus is caring for the man’s soul. The sad thing about this story is we are never encouraged to see this story about health care, mental health care, and human compassion. We hear “exorcism” and think scary movies. How about we believe in Jesus making a man’s life better and whole, which is what the Bible says occurs. Jesus, the healer, is a practical healer. Jesus begins his ministry by doing two things: preaching and health care. We see it here in Mark 1. Yes, this is still jam-packed Mark 1.

The pace has not let up. All these things are occurring one right after another. It is as if Jesus is working at a pace to meet the needs of a spiritual and public health crisis. Jesus keeps going, and the action is about to pick up to an even higher intensity.

After the story of the healing of the possessed man, Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Did you catch that? As soon as he’d healed the man, everybody wanted to come to seek medical care and be treated by Jesus. Jesus knew this would happen but it also goes the needs people had the sheer volume of people who would be coming to find Jesus in the coming hours.
How would he prepare to see them?

Where would Jesus encounter them? Would there be enough beds and disciples to listen to their needs? The one thing he wouldn’t do is ignore them or minimize their concern. They were why he was here.
After quick consideration, it seemed the best place to go was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. I can only imagine what that phone call was like. “I’m coming home with my new Rabbi Jesus and a few other friends, and there might be crowds of sick strangers gathering at the door looking for medical care.” Her house in Capernaum isn’t huge, so I’m guessing this must have been the most significant thing happening in town.

Mark, as I’ve always said, has a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the other gospels. After the man’s healing, it was, “At once.” Now, as they are on the way to Peter’s mothers-in-law, it is “as soon as.” This sense of urgency is essential. There is a near exhausting pace for all the participants involved. Mark is doing his best to convey this.

Once they arrive at the house, it is like they are in the worse Corona ward. Mark says, “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Fevers and respiratory illnesses were all around him. Mark continues, “That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.”

All-day and night, Jesus worked to heal sick people in the most conventional way we understand medicine to this day. Given the pace, you that you realize things have been going in this chapter, how exhausted must you think he feels? Given what he’s seen and heard from his patients and neighbors, where must his mind be? I ask these questions because Mark gives us an answer. We don’t have to guess how Jesus might feel or burden ourselves with a faulty Christology.

Jesus needs a break. We might even say he’s opting for some social distancing, to recharge his body and mind. He can’t care for others if he can’t care for himself. After it all seems to be over (and we are still in Mark 1) look at what Jesus does, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus, in the midst of carrying for the sick, isolated himself. This bothered his disciple friends. Verse 36, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him (they wanted to keep Jesus on a leash). Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing: Jesus knows where he is. But even Jesus needs some space to pray. Jesus’ friends get so wrapped up in the chaos and anger. Jesus sees the need. Let’s look for the human need at the heart of the kingdom of God.

Richard Bryant

The Reason for the Season (New)

Once we acknowledge Jesus as the “reason for the season,” what comes next? Can we leave such an important piece of information unattended and expect it to explain itself? No, we cannot. To make a confessional statement about the incarnation and the identity of Jesus requires multiple next steps. Once we’ve declared, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” what do we do? What’s expected of someone who accepts “Jesus is the reason for the season”?

Firstly, we are on the hook for living like we believe the statement to be true. We made a truth claim, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (One of the most important truth claims in human history.) Do our lives reflect this reality? Are we on Christian autopilot, or are we living like Jesus frames our approach to gift-giving, encountering the poor, and helping the oppressed? In short, are we rejecting ideas antithetical to the infant’s reason for being?  It is easy to say a catchy phrase and get on with our lives?

Secondly, Jesus is not an abstract reason. Jesus is not a tool to be used in a culture war/war on Christmas argument. Jesus is the living breathing son of God, made flesh as the child of Joseph and Mary. Those who first came to Jesus were drawn to Bethlehem by scripture, relationships, angels, friends, and family. A quest for reasons didn’t lead the shepherds to Christ. They were driven by the idea of divine prophetic fulfillment, and a realization of God’s work for humanity was being accomplished in Bethlehem. To isolate Jesus as the single rhyming phrase “reason for the season” undercuts and devalues all God was hoping to achieve in and through the incarnation. If we’ll talk about Jesus as a cliche, who’s to say we won’t live like he’s one as well? I can imagine nothing worse than a cliched Jesus.

So who is Jesus? He is everything!  Jesus is more than a single reason representing the intricate beauty of God’s desire to be reconciled with humanity that was first unveiled in Bethlehem.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Word of Encouragement from Richard

Thanksgiving is a time when the word “gratitude” becomes spoken perhaps more than at any other time of year. We are asked to be grateful. Some families have traditions where they go around the table, and each member shares something for which they are thankful. Clergy persons like me encourage our flock to make gratitude a priority, not just on the fourth Thursday in November but all year round. Then someone flips the switch, and suddenly it’s Black Friday.

I remember studying Armenian in Yerevan, Armenia, during the summer of 1998. The noun for gratitude(երախտագիտություն) is one of the longest words in the Armenian language. Sure, there are 16 letters plus words here or there, but this was one we needed to know.

As language students, thousands of miles away from home, we were dependent on the hospitality of others for most of our basic needs. The ability to communicate our gratitude in word and deed was crucial to our experience. We needed to know how to say we were thankful and be understood. It was also important to show thanks in a manner that matched the length and psychological impact of such an important word. As we learned how to say “thank you,” we learned how to be “grateful” in another culture. Getting “thank you” right became as important as spelling and pronouncing “yerakhtagitut’ yun”.

Is there anything we need to learn or relearn about gratitude before we meet up with our family and friends next week?

–Richard Lowell Bryant