Be Prepared

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30


As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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Higher

with you always

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Daniel 7:9-14, Hebrews 2:5-18, Matthew 28:16-20

Ascension readings:
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Ephesians 1:15-23


Today is Ascension Thursday, the feast when we celebrate the gospel accounts of the resurrected Christ’s ascent into heaven. Theologians understand this event in many ways, from a literal rising into heaven, to a symbolic reunion of Christ with the Creator God. Whatever our personal understanding, there is a common paradox: by departing from all of us, Christ is able to be with any of us.

In Matthew’s gospel, Christ shared these words with his disciples shortly before he departed: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” After the resurrection, Christ appeared to many people, yet his presence was still limited to those in his immediate vicinity. The idea of every follower building a personal relationship with Christ may have been inconceivable – when he was busy walking and talking with others, he was by definition not walking and talking with you. But the risen and ascended Christ? That is a transcendent and inexhaustible presence not limited by time or space. You and I and everyone else have equal access to him all the time.

If a transcendent Christ seems too abstract to relate to, remember that for a time he shared all our human experiences. The letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Feeling temptation? Don’t beat yourself up about it; so did Christ. Feeling angry? The gospels give us several examples of an angry Jesus. Feeling despair? On the cross Christ asked why God had forsaken him. Feeling afraid? In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood while asking if the cup he was to bear could be taken from him. Whatever terrible thing you feel, Jesus has felt it also. And – living in human form – he overcame. We don’t have to be superhuman to imitate Christ, but we do have to follow his teachings to be fully human in a way that transcends the flesh.

We are a resurrection people. We are an ascension people. We are Christ’s body on earth, and therefore can never be apart from him.

Comfort: Christ is with us to the end of the age.

Challenge: Meditate on the wonder of the Ascension.

Prayer: God of life and possibility, I will trust you to be with me at all times. Amen.

Discussion: What does the Ascension mean to you?

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The Cloud

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Genesis 23:1-20, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 6:60-71


Pauls’s letter to the Hebrews describes the faith of many heroes of the Old Testament, including Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. None of them were perfect, but by faith they did amazing things. They are examples and inspirations that endure. Paul describes them – and all the faithful departed – as a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us always.

Over the years the cloud has only grown larger.

From the 20th century alone we might add names of heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Edith Stein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or minds like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Still more are less well known, but influential in our lives. When we struggle we can look to their lives, works, and words for strength.

Yet during difficult times, many of us insist on toughing it out alone. We convince ourselves no one has experienced the pain, grief, loss, or doubt that we endure. We isolate ourselves because no one could possibly understand us, relate to our situation, or stand to be around us. The beauty of leaning on the cloud of witnesses is that they are beyond feeling burdened by us. And they have so much to teach us.

Feeling despair? Crack open The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross, and you’ll probably start to feel like an amateur. Not much of a reader? Listen to recordings of the Psalms – number 137 reveals anguish at its purest. We don’t seek out these works to wallow in misery like a jilted lover listening to break-up songs, but because they offer wisdom from others who have overcome similar trials. Otto von Bismarck wrote: “A fool learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” We can also learn from their triumphs.

Despite our occasional insistence to the contrary, we are never alone. Those witnesses who have gone before us, and those who stand beside us today, are a mortal manifestation of the strength and hope that come from faith. No matter where we are in life, we can plug into The Cloud.

Comfort: The entire history of God’s people is available to support you.

Challenge: Next time you feel compelled to isolate yourself because you think others wouldn’t understand, get in touch with someone to share your story.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the legacy of all who have come before me. Help me to be a worthy heir and addition to the great cloud of witnesses. Amen.

Discussion: In times of difficult, are you more likely to go it alone, or ask for assistance? What do you think that reveals about your attitude toward those who need help?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!