Enduring the Death of Winter

It’s snowing again this morning.  March in southwestern Pennsylvania; it was three times warmer in February!  I wonder if the poor flowers that sprouted early will survive?  Those bulbs beneath the frozen ground eventually bring us the first glimpse of spring.  It is almost here.  I can’t wait!!!  The Gospel does the same this week.

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus."  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.  The Father will honor whoever serves me.

"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?  'Father, save me from this hour'?  But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name."  Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it and will glorify it again."  The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, "An angel has spoken to him."  Jesus answered and said,  "This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.  Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself."  He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.  John 12:20-33

in the midst of the Passover Feast Jesus’ presence has created a buzz. The Greeks from afar want to see Him. The disciples have their expectations of Jesus’ role but His words continue to puzzle them.  Jesus, on the other hand, clearly understands His purpose.  Jesus provides an unsolicited explanation of the meaning of life and death.  Death must come in order for new life to spring forth. 

Our winters are the same.  All flowers wilt and eventually die in the fall.  Green turns to brown and the snow buries everything in winter white.  And yet hope lies beneath the surface.  The disciples surely struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus' prediction.  Death?  Jesus demonstrated what it meant to live through death.  We are called to do the same.  We must be willing to die to self so that we can live in Him.  This is the harsh reality of the Christian life.  But the beautiful fruit that results is worth enduring, just like our winter!  

What Does God Look Like?

I recently read a book about God and the human brain.  In the book, researchers asked people what they thought God looked like.  The question produced a lengthy pause in most adults.  This was significant to the neuroscientist because it meant that a great deal of neurological activity was taking place as different parts of the brain attempted to put into words a concept that defies the parameters of language for many people.  In this week's Gospel, we hear about someone who surely wrestled with a description of what God looked like.

Jesus said to Nicodemus:  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.  John 3:14-21

Nicodemus receives multiple images for God in his conversation with Jesus.  The first is of the Son of Man, then he hears of God as a loving Father.  Next, Jesus describes God as light coming into the world.   What a profound experience this must have been for Nicodemus.  What must his brain have been experiencing as Jesus' descriptions challenged his previous images of God?   

When you read this Gospel what does God look like to you?  I imagine two images.  One is of Jesus suffering unbearably on the cross.  That image comes in a variety of forms as I recollect everything from various crucifixes and paintings I've seen to the brutally graphic depiction of the crucifixion in the movie The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson.  The second image I imagine is more vague.  In fact, I struggle to even explore it because I can't fathom its depth.  As a father, my brain can't even begin to grasp what God the Father saw as life ebbed away from the body of His beloved Son. 

What does God look like?  I can't think of a better answer than, "God so loved the world..." 

God's Timing

DISCLAIMER:  I want to be completely transparent here.  This is not just "a crummy commercial!"  In fact, I had to have my editor approve this particular message before, during and after writing it.  Timing is everything right?  For the last four years I have been writing a book entitled, Our Journey With God.  No, I am not announcing its completion but I do want to share with you what is about to happen.  The time has arrived for me to take the Our Journey With God message public.  Read through this week's Gospel and you'll catch the drift of what I'm saying.  

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.  He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:  "This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel."  Mark 1:12-15

These few short verses mark a pivotal point in Jesus' life as well as John the Baptist's.  St. Mark treats Jesus' time in the desert rather briefly.  This is especially interesting compared to the story of Jesus' three temptations by Satan in Luke and Matthew.  The point is that after His baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus is immediately led into the desert by the Spirit for a time of preparation before beginning His public ministry.  After that comes Jesus' proclamation:  "This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel."

For me, Our Journey With God is kind of like my proclamation of the Gospel.  It has been an amazing journey up to this point but when I was asked to lead a Lenten parish mission it felt like God was saying to me "It is time, Joe."  For four consecutive evenings, I will share the Our Journey With God message as Maria leads worship with songs we've chosen to enhance the message.  The message, in a nutshell, is that "This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel." 

This message is as true today as it was 2000 years ago.  And if people think it's a crummy commercial, so be it.  I'm delivering the Gospel message He has given to me!  Will you?!?

Click the link below if you'd like to see the actual print "commercial" we've prepared for the

Our Journey With God Parish Mission.

Finding a Cure

Flu shots begin months before the season hits in hopes of keeping things under control.  In spite of this, we find ourselves in the midst of one of the worst flu seasons on record.   We take all kinds of additional precautions to stay healthy.  I found this to be an interesting parallel to this week's Gospel.        

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean."  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."  The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.  Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.  He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."  The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.  Mark 1:40-45

Lepers were complete outcasts in Jesus' time.  In the Book of Leviticus we hear, "He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp." Much of Leviticus is oriented towards living in ways that allowed for people to stay healthy.  In biblical times separation was the only truly effective way to control an infectious disease.  People would go out of their way to avoid the lepers who were required to announce themselves as unclean.  That is why Jesus touching the leper was so astonishing.  It appeared that Jesus was throwing caution to the wind. 

The leper sought out Jesus.  The leper's enthusiasm for his healing created a frenzy that forced Jesus to remain separated from the towns in which He wanted to minister.  Think about the irony of that.  People needed to come to Jesus instead of Him coming to them.  The same is true today.  People need the spiritual healing that Jesus brings but if we don't present Him as the "cure" how are they going to find Him? 

In knowing Jesus, we have what the world needs! The question is, are we enthusiastically pronouncing it to others? 

On Purpose!

"I didn't do it on purpose!"  There were lots of times when our young children would quickly explain their role in how something "got" broken.  They wanted us to know their intent wasn't to break something.  In this Gospel we clearly see Jesus' intent and purpose.  

On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.  Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever.  They immediately told him about her.  He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.  Then the fever left her and she waited on them.  When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.  The whole town was gathered at the door.  He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.  Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, "Everyone is looking for you."  He told them, "Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.  For this purpose have I come."  So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.  Mark 1:29-39

As word spreads of Jesus' healing miracle, He is mobbed.  The whole town showed up!  Imagine Jesus finishing dinner and instead of relaxing, He heals many who were ill and possessed.  Then St. Mark tells of Jesus' next act.  "He left for the nearby village."  Jesus was clear that, it was "on purpose" that He had to travel throughout Galilee.   His message was and is meant to travel.

We must deliver the message of Jesus to "the nearby villages."  On purpose!  When we do our part then Jesus can fix what is broken in our world!      

Who Inspires You?

The Winter Olympics are almost here and I'm excited.  While I love the competition I especially look forward to getting to know the athletes and their life's journey to the Olympics.  I just read an article about Maame Biney, a 17 year-old American speed skater who is expected to do great things in PyeongChang, South Korea.  She was asked about how her life has been different since she qualified for the Olympic team.  Her response, that her new-found fame has been overwhelming, made me think about this week's Gospel.

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.  The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"  Jesus rebuked him and said, "Quiet! Come out of him!"  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.  All were amazed and asked one another, "What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."  His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.  Mark 1:21-28

It is important to recognize that the conversation in this passage is between Jesus and the unclean spirit.  It is the voice of the spirit that speaks to Jesus acknowledging who He is, "the Holy One of God."  Those that observed Jesus driving out the demon immediately change their impression of who He is.  As the story continues Jesus' fame spreads and the crowds surely follow. 

The question we need to ask is, why did they seek out Jesus?  There surely was a level of fascination that accompanied Jesus' "performance".  What draws us to Jesus?  Is it what He has done for us? Or is it our hope that He will do something astonishing for others we love?  What should we be focusing on?  

To me the draw of the Olympics is getting to know the people who perform sometimes astonishing athletic feats.  I love the response that Maame Biney had to the question of being a role-model.  "I don't think of myself as a role model because I'm 17 years old and still a kid.  But that's amazing, and I hope to inspire everyone to go for it."  Maame knows who she is.  Jesus did too.  Knowing 'the Holy One of God' is what should inspire us all.  "Go for it!"

Can You Hear Me Now?

It amazes me how many different ways that God speaks to me. (When I'm paying attention!)  From the morning's sunrise to the song on the radio to the smile from my beautiful wife Maria, I try to hear God as often as possible.  As the sun rose this morning, HIs message came to me through a book I am reading on discipleship.  Not only was this book speaking of Jesus' calling of His disciples (This week's Gospel) but it also referred to another book I read years ago.  So what is God saying?  

After John had been arrested,  Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:  "This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel."

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.  He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.  They too were in a boat mending their nets.  Then he called them.  So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.  Mark 1:14-20

In his telling of Jesus' calling of His disciples, Mark's style comes through.  His Gospel version is fast-moving and action-packed.  Jesus calls and the disciples respond, leaving everything behind.  Before long the disciples were watching as Jesus heals a demoniac, Simon's mother-in-law and as Mark continues, "He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons..."  All of this happened before the end of Mark's first chapter.  

Sometimes we read these passages and wonder why things aren't moving more quickly on our journey with God.  I know I often hope God will heal and move mountains and bring peace...NOW!  But the reality is that we need to grow in our relationship with God, continually.  Jesus calls us all to follow Him.  That means that we must accept that being a disciple of Christ requires that we leave the world behind us.  As the the disciples did, we must spend time with Jesus getting to know Him better.  Through our relationship with Him we become a part of Jesus' time of fulfillment, bringing His Kingdom to the world.  Will you respond to His call today?

"Come after me..."  

What's In a Name?

I spoke to a friend today who just became a father for the first time.  After months of waiting the baby had arrived.  I immediately wanted to know what Rory's little girl's name was.  Madeline Noel, how beautiful!  Names are obviously important in this week's Gospel:  

John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, "Behold, the Lamb of God."  The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.  Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, "What are you looking for?"  They said to him, "Rabbi" — which translated means Teacher —, "where are you staying?"  He said to them, "Come, and you will see."  So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day.  It was about four in the afternoon.  Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.  He first found his own brother Simon and told him, "We have found the Messiah" — which is translated Christ —. Then he brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas" — which is translated Peter.  John 1:35-42

Jesus is referred to by no fewer than four names in this short passage (six if you count the definitions of two of them).  Names were critically important in biblical times.  Zechariah gave John (the Baptist) his name after hearing from the angel Gabriel.  John pronounced one of Jesus' names as "Lamb of God."   Andrew, knowing the significance of John's pronouncement immediately followed Jesus.  Next is Simon who hears the long awaited name, Messiah, from his brother Andrew.  When Simon meets the "Christ" he receives a new name, Peter.  

Parents choose their children's names with care, often giving names with great family meaning.  So what is really in a name?  Identity.  We are identified by our names.  In the case of Jesus, understanding His identity means we must understand the meaning of His many names.  We also learn of His purpose.  John's identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God speaks to why Jesus came.  He came to be God's final sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died for Rory and Madeline and for you and me.  So what's in a name?  When it comes to Jesus' name as the Lamb of God, He suffered and died so that our names could be written in the "Book of Life."


Gifts That Keep Giving

This morning Maria and I reflected on 1 Corinthians 12.  It sparked some interesting conversation about gifts.  In this passage Paul talks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which are meant for the whole church.  As I sat down to write, the connection between that passage and this week's Gospel became clear to me.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,  "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."  When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,  He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:  And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel."  Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."  After their audience with the king they set out.  And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, 
they departed for their country by another way.  Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the magi's visit to Jesus is well known for many reasons.  Among them are the gifts they bring to the newborn king.  Matthew's Gospel mentions three specific gifts each of which had important meaning in Jesus' time.  In a writing that dates back to 248 AD, the Church Father Origen explains the three gifts this way,  "gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God."  This acknowledgement of Jesus' true identity came from magi who had journeyed some distance to see this king, this man and most significantly, this God.  

 The Magi Journeying by James Tissot c.1890

The Magi Journeying by James Tissot c.1890

Now think about God's Christmas gift.  He gave the gift of His Son Jesus, king, man and God who made the journey from heaven to be with us.  And let us not forget the gift that Jesus promised to us, His Holy Spirit.  Because the Spirit is present with us each and every day we need not travel to be with God.  The magi offered their gifts to Jesus.  Jesus in turn offered Himself for you and me.  Now it is our turn to offer ourselves back to Him as a gift, a gift fit for a king!

I Can't Wait!

Years ago I built a manger out of Maria's grandfather's barn wood.  This year we decided to leave it empty in anticipation of the arrival of the Christ child on Christmas.  In all honesty it has been hard to wait, especially as we see the nativities in our neighborhood filled with figurines looking in awe upon the baby Jesus.  Imagine the anticipation of the virgin Mary once she received her angelic visitor.      

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."  But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"  And the angel said to her in reply,  "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.  And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God."  Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.  Luke 1:26-38

Mary could not have anticipated the surprise visit she received from the angel Gabriel.  Her initial reaction was one of fear and Gabriel comforts her with words of affirmation and peace.  But things were just starting to get interesting.  After hearing that she will bear a son Mary learns that her child will be, "...great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

Hold on!  Those are some heavy duty expectations!!  For nine months Mary carried her baby knowing all of this.  For 30 years she waited and wondered.  For three days she mourned.  And then...the Son of the Most High rose from the dead and eventually rose to His throne to rule forever!!!  To say that Mary's wait was worth it is an obvious understatement but how did she endure the waiting?

We find out how in Mary's trusting response to the angel Gabriel, "May it be done to me according to your word."   Mary accepted her role as Jesus' mother unconditionally.  She did so not knowing what it all meant.  She simply trusted God, waiting for His Word to come to pass.

And I can't wait to put my manger figurines out in my front yard?!?  Mary models a graceful acceptance of God's will.  We too need to wait on His coming at Christmas and everything that comes everyday beyond.

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I AM...

Did you ever notice how often the phrase "I am" comes up in the Bible?  Do you know where it originates?  You have to go way back to Exodus where Moses asks God His name to understand its origin and significance.  In this week's Gospel John the Baptist distinctly says, "I am not" several times before saying "I am".  Read on to find out why.    

A man named John was sent from God.  He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.  

And this is the testimony of John.  When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, "Who are you?"  He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, "I am not the Christ."  So they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?"  And he said, "I am not."  "Are you the Prophet?"  He answered, "No."  So they said to him,  "Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you have to say for yourself?"  He said:  "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord,'" as Isaiah the prophet said."  Some Pharisees were also sent.  They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?"  John answered them, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."  This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.  John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist's presence caused a stir and the religious elite wanted to know who he was.  As they question him John first clarifies who he is not; the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet.  The Jewish people were always looking for their promised Messiah.  John eventually does say, "I am..." as the messenger who tells them that they aren't recognizing the one among them who is...I AM. 

Further along in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks to the Jewish leaders directly.  "...before Abraham came to be, I AM.”  His use of God's name first spoken to Moses at the burning bush was pure blasphemy to the Jewish leaders.  They never even spoke these words out of reverence to God and His Name, I AM.  For this man, Jesus, to not only speak God's Name but to also refer to himself as I AM caused a fury and they tried to stone Jesus.   

It is in the context of these two words that John the Baptist's announcement to the Jews was that I AM had already come.  The same is true today, but we pause to acknowledge a profound truth...

We need to celebrate that I AM came to us as a baby to die for our sins so that we might be with Him forever!

Our Broken Sidewalk

Our house is about 50 years old.  The sidewalk to the front door is made of flagstone that over the years has broken down.  Because this is the main walkway to our front door it gets a lot of use.  Each year I find myself needing to replace one or two of the two foot by three foot stones to ensure a safe path to the entrance of our home.  This week's Gospel speaks of a different kind of path.      

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:  Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.  A voice of one crying out in the desert:  "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths."  John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  He fed on locusts and wild honey.  And this is what he proclaimed:  "One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."   Mark 1:1-8

This narrative at the beginning of Mark's Gospel tells of the preparation of a path for Jesus' coming.  Let me give you a breakdown on what I think it means to you and me.

  1. John the Baptist was responsible for laying down the path to repentance that made a way for Jesus and His Spirit to enter the hearts of the Israelites.
  2. We are called to prepare our hearts at this time of year so that when Jesus arrives at Christmas we can receive Him and His Spirit.
  3. We need to hear John the Baptist's call to repentance and we need to live our lives accordingly so that others are also led to Jesus.

Oh, and as for our sidewalk... when I repair it next spring I will be reminded that this "way"into our home is a tangible example of how we are called to live.  Others should recognize the welcoming path we have laid that point to life with Jesus.