Author Archives: Suzanne Nicholson

In Peace: An Advent Benediction by Suzanne Nicholson

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who was King and is King and will forever be King
Was born not to a family of nobles and princes,
But to a family who couldn’t even place their child in a proper crib;
a manger would have to do.

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who would be both the high priest and the perfect sacrifice for sins
Was born to parents who couldn’t even afford to give the full sacrifice, but only the offering of the poor:
a pair of doves.

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who will reign over all the kingdoms of the world
As a baby was hunted by the despotic ruler of an oppressive government.

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who perfectly embodied the fullness of God in human form
Experienced the human temptations of hunger, power, celebrity, and self-determination.

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who healed the blind and made the lame to walk and raised the dead
Bore our scars, experienced our woundedness, and tasted death.

Go in peace,
Remembering that the Christ who triumphed over the spiritual powers of darkness
Knows the darkness of a cold tomb.

Go in peace,
Knowing that the child born into poverty, uncertainty, oppression, temptation, woundedness and mortality
Is Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the True Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, Our Redeemer, Christ the Resurrected One, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Great I AM, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel—
God with us.

Go in peace.

Strength in Ephesians: The Body, the Armor, the Power by Suzanne Nicholson

If you’ve been part of a marching band, you know how intricate the planning is for halftime. I spent the last 16 years in Ohio, where it’s impossible not to hear regularly about Ohio State University. Renowned for its sports teams, OSU is also known for its marching band and its creative halftime shows. One halftime show particularly caught my eye: a tribute to Michael Jackson, in which the band took his shape and proceeded to moonwalk across the field. It was amazing! In a marching band, one individual part may look like random steps, but when put together with all the other parts, the band works together to create an amazing picture. And as the apostle Paul finishes his letter to the Ephesians, he acts like a marching band director choreographing the halftime show. He gives instructions to the Church so that it can faithfully stand as a beacon of peace and righteousness. Today, we’re looking at three things that are necessary to remain standing after all is said and done: The body. The armor. The power.

Let’s read from Ephesians 6:10-20 (CEB):

“Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.”

Before we get into specifics, let’s look at the overall context of Paul’s letter: Paul writes this to remind the Ephesians of their identity in Christ, their unity as the body of believers—regardless of ethnic or other differences—and to encourage them to live in a way that honors God. The content of the book is split in half: the first three chapters explore the blessings of our life in Christ and how we have been saved by grace through faith; the last three chapters describe how we live as a result of our new life in Christ. After all, when something amazing happens in your life, you live differently.

Before jumping to Ephesians 6, let’s recognize an important aspect of this letter. We often read letters like this, hear the author say “you,” and assume it refers to me as an individual. While it’s true that as an individual believer, I need to follow Scripture, this is not Paul’s primary emphasis. Most of the time, Paul uses the plural form of “you” (“all y’all,” as we say in Kentucky) to address the Ephesians. In other words, these are commands for the church as a whole. God is calling the church to work together and help one another to live faithfully as believers.

As we venture into 6:10, Paul begins to wrap up. He urges the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord’s great strength. This is not a new theme in the book. Paul goes full circle—in 1:19, Paul told the Ephesians that he prays they may know “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” This is an important reminder—especially for the discussion about evil powers that comes next. We do not rely on our own strength.

Having the correct source of power is incredibly important: If you have a fancy sports car, you’re going to use the best gasoline available. You can’t just pour water in the tank.  And if we’re going to have strength for the battle ahead, we have to rely on the right source of power: God’s power, not our own. Paul is emphatic about this: he repeats the idea of strength three times in a single verse: literally, “strengthen yourselves in the power of his strength.” We need God’s power, not our own, because the battle ahead is a difficult one.

In verses 11-12, Paul calls believers to put on the armor of God, because it is the only way to withstand the evil day. He makes it very clear that we are not simply battling everyday circumstances and temptations; rather, powerful forces exist that in the world that make every effort to derail our walk with God.Paul describes them as rulers, authorities (not government authorities!), cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. There is a spiritual realm populated by hostile forces that are in opposition to the work of God. Paul’s point here is not to catalog the various kinds of demonic forces. Rather, he emphasizes the spiritual component to the struggles we face.

Yet Paul notes that these spiritual powers are in “the heavenly places.” The Ephesians who have read this letter will recall:

  • 1:3: We have been blessed in Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
  • 1:20-21: Christ sits at the right hand of God in the heavenly places “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
  • 2:6: We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
  • 3:10: The plan of the mystery of God has been revealed so that through the Church the wisdom of God will be made known to the authorities in the heavenly places.

Paul is urging us to be prepared to fight these forces but not to be afraid. Everything Paul has written to this point in the letter reminds us that Christ’s power is far greater than their power, and we who believe are seated with Christ, far above these lesser powers! Our transformed lives and unity in the body of Christ serve as testimonies to these spiritual beings, that God already has won the victory through Christ.

After digressing to point out who we are fighting (and the ultimate defeat of these spiritual forces), in verses 13-17 Paul returns to call the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God. Traditionally, these next few verses are read as a call to the individual believer to put on the armor of God, but Paul already told us earlier in the letter who is the body that wears the armor: “And [God] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

This armor is effective when the whole body takes it up—there is a communal sense. We are not meant to be solitary individuals bearing the armor of God; rather, we are meant to help one another to bear the armor. Like the OSU marching band, in which individuals walk a path laid out for them and together make a unified whole, we who believe work together to provide a unified vision of the life in Christ.

What is this armor? Paul uses military imagery to illustrate preparing for battle, and yet the armor described is used mostly for defense. It is the devil who wages war on us, and our job is to stand our ground, stand firm, and remain standing. We’ve had a lot of hurricanes this season, and I’m always amazed at the weather reporters who stand out in the middle of the storm: they have a job to do and they find a way to stand firm in 70 mile an hour winds.

That’s our job as believers: we don’t go out looking for the battle; we know it will come to us. But New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln reminds us: “The decisive victory has already been won by God in Christ, and the task of believers is not to win but to stand, that is, to preserve and maintain what has been won.”

Yet we won’t always face a hurricane. Scripture refers to the “schemes” of the devil. Sometimes attacks are powerful because they are subtle, taking us by surprise. Rather than a hurricane, we face a creeping mist that slowly blinds us, leaving us groping in the fog. Whether we face an onslaught of terrible life circumstances or creeping doubt, we have to be prepared to stand firm.

The first two pieces of armor that help us to stand firm are the belt of truth and the breastplate of justice (also translated righteousness). In terms of Roman armor, which is what Paul’s readers would picture, the belt is likely a reference to the leather aprons worn under the armor. This allowed freedom of movement while protecting the thighs. The metal breastplate protects a soldier’s vital organs, such as heart and lungs. When Paul refers to the belt of truth, “truth” has the sense of faithfulness and loyalty to God, and the breastplate of justice (or righteousness) has the nuance of doing what is just or right. We may think of being righteous, but the terminology refers to an action!

Paul does not pull this imagery out of thin air; these pieces of armor are mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. In one case, a messianic figure brings righteousness and faithfulness to those who suffer, particularly the poor (Isa. 11:4-5). In another case, God is offended at the lack of justice in the land, so God himself brings righteousness and justice to the people (Isa 59:15-17). Paul uses this imagery to describe how the church, the body of Christ (you and me!) must wear that same armor in order to fight its battles. The warrior God is a God who cares about righteousness in the land—justice for the poor and oppressed. When we wear God’s armor, we are to demonstrate God’s justice and righteousness.

Paul already said this in a different way in Ephesians 4:24 when he called them, “to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Here in our worship space we see the phrase “holiness to the Lord” displayed prominently. It reminds us that we are called to be people set apart for the Lord; we imitate Christ and offer every aspect of our lives to the Lord. We seek holiness in our own lives, and we work in the midst of culture to transform the injustices that we witness around us.

Connected to this righteousness is the imagery of shoes that prepare one to proclaim the Gospel of peace. Paul already wrote about the Gospel that brings peace, declaring in 2:14-16 that Christ is our peace, who destroyed the wall of hostility—the ethnic rivalry—between Jew and Gentile, making all believers one in Christ. And Isaiah connects righteousness with peace in 32:17:

“And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.”

When Christians are faithful to God, when we live rightly—in a way that brings about justice to the community—this brings peace. It is common to hear protestors chanting, “No justice, no peace.” This was not an idea created in the 1960s; these protestors cite a biblical theme. It is only when justice pervades the land that peace will exist among us. We must work for justice for those who have been wronged—whether demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, providing aid to the poor in our community who have been overlooked, arguing for the rights of those with disabilities, or protecting others in society.

Next, Paul calls believers to take up the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Roman shields measured about 4’ x 2-1/2’ and were made from wood covered in leather. Paul identifies the shield for Christians as faith. When we trust the message of the Gospel, when we believe that Christ died for our sins, when we know that the Holy Spirit is transforming our lives, then these beliefs extinguish the lies of the devil, when he tries to tell us we’re not worthy, we’re irredeemable, we can never change.

But there’s more to this imagery than standing firm in our faith! Roman soldiers worked together in formation. They brought their shields together in battle so that they could protect one another from literal flaming arrows. This testudo formation (“tortoise” in Latin) created a shield wall—soldiers in the front line held their shields forward; those in the middle held the shields overhead, and those on the sides protected from the sides. Soldiers were far better protected when they worked together.

This underscores the “all y’all” language. Paul encourages us to work together as the body of Christ. It’s the body of Christ together that wears the armor. John Wesley proclaimed that he knew no holiness but social holiness—by which he meant that the body of Christ works together to strengthen each other.

We cannot stand alone in this battle to keep our faith alive and vital. If you help me to strengthen my faith, and I help you to strengthen your faith, then together we are better prepared to withstand the flaming arrows of the devil. We need each other. We are stronger when we are unified.

But our armor is not yet complete. Paul keeps telling us we need the whole armor of God, and armor is incomplete without a helmet and a sword. For the believer, this is the helmet of salvation. Protection comes from knowing that Christ has already won the battle on our behalf. The only offensive weapon for the soldier is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. The term for sword refers to a short sword (about two feet long) that soldiers used for combat in close quarters, where fighting was particularly brutal. The Spirit is the power that makes the sword effective. The “word of God” refers to the gospel message of Christ, laid out for us in Scripture. This sword makes sense as a weapon: when the devil attacks, scheming and lying, the believer’s best counterattack is claiming the truths of the Gospel found in Scripture. Paul gives plenty of these throughout Ephesians:

  • God chose us in Christ (1:4)!
  • God destined us to become adopted as his children (1:5)!
  • We have redemption through the blood of Christ (1:7)!
  • God loves us (2:4)!
  • God saved us (2:5)!
  • God created us for good works (2:10)!
  • God has reconciled us to one another (2:16)!
  • We have access to the Father through the Spirit (2:18)!
  • We are being built into a dwelling place for God (2:22)!

And that’s just the first two chapters. We need to be immersed in the truth of the love of God so that we can stand firm. But Paul is not done yet. Although his armor language ends with the sword of the Spirit, he urges believers to cover the battle in prayer. He started with the command to be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might. But how do we find strength in the Lord? We connect to God, submitting ourselves to God’s will, through prayer.

Paul refers to the kind of prayer in which we talk to God and listen to God throughout the day. The way that we keep alert in battle is to be in prayer regularly. This is how we stand firm in the power of God’s mighty strength.

Just like our armor must be worn together, our prayers are offered for each other. Paul begins his letter by praying for the Ephesians, and he ends by asking the Ephesians to pray for all the saints, including Paul himself, who is under arrest for preaching the Gospel. The body that wears God’s armor finds its strength only when it is connected to God whose mighty strength has made the victory possible.

Paul concludes by urging the Ephesians to stand strong. He gives us three keys to remain standing: The body. The armor. The power.

Without the body working together to strengthen each other, gaps in the armor appear; flaming arrows slip through, wreaking havoc. This Christian walk was never meant to be solitary. We encourage each other, building each other up. When you join a church, you learn from small children, middle-aged parents, and elderly saints. You get to speak into their lives and encourage their walk with Christ. Becoming part of committed discipleship groups helps us grow in the faith. John Wesley’s vision of banded discipleship groups recognizes the importance of the body strengthening each other.

To stand strong, we need (say it with me!) the body, the armor, and the power. Without the armor of truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit-empowered Gospel message, we are susceptible to the lies of the devil, who tells us we’re not loved, we have no value, we have no future. When we live faithfully in God’s truth, when we trust the love of Christ and devote our lives to him, we find that God’s armor holds fast. In wearing God’s armor, we pursue justice in an unjust world, we love and care for the humanity that God fought so hard to save, and we bring light to dark places.

To stand strong, we need the body, the armor, and the power. Without the power of God’s mighty strength, none of us will be able to stand in the evil day. It’s that simple. None of this happens on our own. Regular prayer, individually and together as the body of Christ, connects us to God, whose power is more than enough for the battle we face. Together as the body of Christ, we must seek God’s power to transform the world. To withstand the evil day and to remain standing, we need the body, the armor, and the power. This is Paul’s call to the Ephesians, and it’s God’s call to us today.

Answers in the Darkness: A Prayer by Suzanne Nicholson

Lord, all my life I have taken refuge in you.
When I was young, faith was simple.
I prayed, and you answered.

But then I experienced prayer
where your answers were so different.

And the world became more nuanced.
I came to understand that you answer all prayers
just not in the way I had wished.

So how do I pray for healing
when I know you can heal all
but only choose to heal some?
Or, perhaps: only choose to heal some in the ways that I wish.
Sometimes healing comes in another form.

You, my God, are a God of oblique angles.
You lead us in a direction
and we have expectations that way.
But direction is not destination.
Sometimes you desire the journey
and not the destination.
Lessons learned
and then you take us on another path.

Where is the prayer of faith
when I do not know if today’s lesson
is the journey
or the destination.

And so you teach me:
Certainty has become my idol.
Expectations met.
That looks like faith to me:
I ask, knowing that you can.

But will you?

Now I see
that faith lies not in the “answered” prayer
but the knowledge that you are there.
In the darkness.
Waiting for me.
Your presence is the answer.

Oh, God of oblique angles,
help me not to worship at the altar of certainty.
May I bow low before your gentle touch
your caring embrace
your protective


Checking Your Blind Spots: Preaching in the Gaps by Suzanne Nicholson

I recently started the long overdue chore of cleaning my home office, including organizing old sermon files. As I sifted through these folders, I discovered certain patterns in my preaching. Despite writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Paul, I much prefer preaching from the Gospels. I discovered that I visit Matthew and Luke far more frequently than Mark or John. I surprised myself by the number of times I had preached from Isaiah and the Psalms, with fewer than expected sermons coming from the Old Testament narratives.

Preachers do tend to have favorite passages and topics for preaching and teaching. If you don’t preach from the Revised Common Lectionary each week, it can be easy to fall into predictable patterns that limit your congregation’s exposure to the full range of God’s Word. We all have blind spots, and it’s worth asking where we might be missing the opportunity to address a pressing need. Not only do we have personal blind spots, but we often have cultural blind spots as well. I’ve compiled a list below of sermon topics that churches sorely need to hear today. (Admittedly, these come from an American cultural context; those in other cultures may have vastly different needs.) Perhaps you’ve preached on these recently; if not, I encourage you to consider their merit:

  • Wealth: American consumer culture constantly tells people they aren’t good enough until they have the fastest car, the most stylish clothes, or the latest cell phone. From toothpaste to hair gel to laundry detergent, Americans are told they need more and better products. But Scripture regularly critiques the love of money and the misuse of wealth. Luke, in both his gospel and Acts, is particularly well-known for critiquing wealth. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), for example, is only found in Luke’s gospel, and it offers a stinging rebuke of the self-centered rich man who even in death thinks that the impoverished Lazarus should do his bidding (“…send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”). American Christians, especially, need to be reminded regularly that our priorities must be focused on a life of other-centered service, not self-centered gain.
  • Suffering/ the way of the cross: This closely related topic reminds disciples that the path of Christ was the way of suffering (e.g., Mk. 8:34-38). The Gospel message is offensive to many, and we should be realistic about the hardships involved in proclaiming God’s truth. In prosperous countries like the U.S., where creature comforts are advertised non-stop, it can be difficult to develop a willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ.
  • Conflict management/ speaking the truth in love: Very few people are good at conflict management. It’s easier to gossip about someone who wronged you (especially online!) than to have a conversation with that person to try to repair a broken relationship. But Matt. 18:15-17 prescribes a pattern for approaching others to right a wrong. It’s one thing to preach on the topic, but how many of us actually practice this?
  • Forgiveness: The road to reconciliation must involve forgiveness. But this can be a tricky concept. On the one hand, we are called to forgive repeatedly: 70 times seven in Matt 18:21-22. But that passage follows the teaching about confronting someone who has sinned against you. Forgiveness does not mean allowing yourself to be a doormat for someone to repeatedly abuse you. Our congregations need to hear sermons about repentance, forgiveness, and healthy boundaries.
  • Domestic violence: Statistics suggest that 1 in 3 women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner during their lifetime.[1] This means that many couples in your church are dealing with this issue. Abusers sometimes twist Scripture to coerce their victims to forgive the violence and “bear the cross of Christ.” Pastors would do well to instruct the men in their congregations that a husband is called to love his wife as he loves himself, just as Christ laid down his life for the church (see Eph. 5:25-33; note that “submit to one another” in v. 21 is the theme for the entire section).
  • Theology of human sexuality: Although lately many memes, articles, and comments have been posted on social media regarding the debate over sexuality and gender identity, perhaps the reason some denominations are having such strenuous debate is because so few churches teach about healthy sexuality. God forbid that the only teachings about sex our church members receive are the lurid and deviant portrayals in modern media! Gen. 2:15-25, Song of Songs, 1 Cor. 7, and Eph. 5:21-33 provide good starting points for discussion.
  • Spiritual disciplines: In his sermon on “Means of Grace,” John Wesley described reading the Bible, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper as key ways in which we receive the grace of God and become more fully formed in our faith. Consider the ways in which your church encourages these behaviors, both in public and in private. Is prayer a routine box to be checked on the Sunday liturgy list? Or does it provide an invitation to develop a deeper relationship with Christ?
  • Sabbath keeping: I confess I struggle with practicing what I preach in this area. Although Jesus corrected an overly rigid observance of the Sabbath when he declared that “Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27), he never said not to observe the Sabbath. Rather, he allowed compassionate care of others (see also Matt. 12:1-14 and Lk. 13:10-17). Nonetheless, the design of observing a holy day once a week derives from the creation narrative (Gen. 2:2-3). God modeled rest for a creation that needs rest. We should not feel guilty when we say “no” to working non-stop.   
  • Holiness: God’s salvation from sin is a salvation to holiness. We are called to imitate Christ in every area of our lives (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:1, Rom. 6:1-14, Rom. 8:29). For Wesleyans, sanctifying grace is a key component of relationship with Christ. We have the hope of transformation because the Holy Spirit lives in us. If the Spirit lives in us, then our actions must look different from the world (Gal 5:13-26). 
  • Racial reconciliation: Jesus made it very clear that ethnocentric marginalization of minorities does not belong in the kingdom of God. When he preached the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), his choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story demonstrated to Jews that your neighbor is anyone who is in need – or anyone who offers assistance – regardless of racial or cultural differences. After all, eternity with God will celebrate believers from all nations (Rev. 7:9-10). Let’s prepare for eternity by worshiping with each other now!
  • Gender equality: In so many ways, Jesus gave women status in a world that did not recognize women’s worth. He allowed Mary to sit at his feet and learn (Lk. 10:38-42), he allowed women to travel with him (Lk. 8:1-3), and women were the first to preach about his resurrection (Lk 24:1-12). Paul had many female co-workers in Christ, and he referred to Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1-2) and Junia as an apostle (Rom. 16:7). How often have you preached about the faithful women of the Gospel? Which women in your church have you lifted up to positions of leadership?
  • Persecution of churches overseas: As conversation in the public square becomes more vitriolic, sometimes Christians experience increased bullying for their faith. But many churches overseas daily face the prospect of dying for their faith. We should regularly be in prayer for churches in Nigeria, China, Sri Lanka, and other areas of the world who are experiencing trouble (James 5:13-16). American churches should consider how to use their wealth to aid tormented congregations and fellowships. Our brothers and sisters need our help.
  • Lament: Too often Christians feel like they have to have it all together and need to be happy in order to be a good Christian. Unfortunately, much of pop Christian culture reinforces this notion with upbeat songs and sales of Blessed! coffee cups and t-shirts. But even the great King David cried out to God on a regular basis, proclaiming how awful life felt at times (e.g., Psalms 12, 13, 22, 86). God can handle these powerful emotions. And we can’t come to a place of peace unless we deal with the tragedies of this broken world.
  • Preaching through a book of Scripture: Recent surveys suggest that many Christians in the U.S. do not know basic facts about the content of the Bible; for example, only half of American Christians can name the four gospels.[2] Clearly, we need to offer better teaching to our congregations about the scriptural narrative. A sermon series that preaches through a book of the Bible not only helps believers know the content better, but also models the importance of studying Scripture in depth.

What other blind spots would you add to this list? What does your congregation desperately need to hear in order to have a fuller picture of life in Christ as a body of believers?

[1] The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010.


Which Story Will You Tell? by Suzanne Nicholson

Sometimes you just know that life will never be the same. When you fall deeply in love. When your parent dies. When you land your dream job. When you hold your newborn for the first time.

Other events, however, are more ambiguous. Will the neighbors who just moved in next door be a blessing or a bane? Will a new Congress actually accomplish anything? Will the college degree you just received be worth the tuition you paid for it? The answer may vary depending on whom you ask.

 The same is true in the resurrection narrative. In Matthew’s version, various witnesses have to decide what to do with the empty tomb. On the one hand, the women who arrive looking for a corpse discover that everything has been turned upside-down. The big, burly Roman soldiers who are guarding the tomb look like corpses themselves. Despite their normal valor and brutality, these men are completely unprepared for the shaking ground, blinding supernatural power, and vacated tomb. Like the ground they walk across, the soldiers shake uncontrollably until their fear overcomes them and they faint dead away.

The women, however, demonstrate the greater courage as they speak with the angel who already comprehends their motives: “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.” Those simple words cut through their grief and fear, and the women recall that Jesus had predicted this. And now they realize that Jesus had not been speaking in a parable! The blazing angel further astonishes the women by commanding them to proclaim to the disciples that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee.

The women now have a decision to make. They are unlikely to be believed—after all, most rabbis did not consider the words of women to be reliable enough to use as testimony in court. And everyone had seen the brutality and completeness of Jesus’s death. Who would believe their tale? Is it worth the ridicule?

They have a decision to make.

So, too, do the soldiers. Although they did not register the words that the angel spoke while they were passed out from fear, the guards remember the earthquake, the lightning-like appearance of the angel, and the angel’s incredible power to single-handedly roll back the enormous stone that had sealed the tomb.

And the guards know the tomb is empty. That’s a huge problem. The soldiers don’t know how to explain it, but they are desperate to keep Pilate from finding out they failed in their guard duties. Otherwise, the next cross they see might be their own. They run into the city and tell the chief priests everything they experienced.

And now the chief priests have a decision to make. They had heard the amazing stories of Jesus’s miracles during his lifetime—and some of them had been in the crowd to witness these signs. The priests also know the Scriptures that promise a messiah will come to set the world right. But everything that Jesus did upset their power and teaching and the status quo in general. The priests had been sure that the devil was using Jesus to manipulate the Jewish people. But now the chief priests hear the soldiers’ report of earthquakes and angels and an empty tomb. Could it be true? They discover that change is too hard for them. Overturning all of their theological assumptions and relinquishing their power is simply too costly. Instead, the priests and the elders decide to pay a great deal of money to the guards to spread the story that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the soldiers were asleep. The religious leaders—the moral example for the people—devise a lie to make sure that nothing changes.

And the soldiers—the protectors of civil order— decide to bury the truth. They take their bribe and the promise of protection from Pilate’s wrath, and they toe the party line. They protect the power of a broken world.

But the women—the ones with little influence, the ones who are least likely to be believed—they run from the empty tomb with great joy. It is only as they are obedient to the angel’s command that Jesus himself appears to them. They worship him, grabbing hold of his feet, the scars reassuring the women that they are not hallucinating. Jesus repeats the angel’s command; the risen Lord himself tells the women to proclaim his truth to the other disciples. Clearly, their testimony is effective, for the disciples go to Galilee and see Jesus there, where they are commissioned to carry on his work.

And so the story continues. As we experience the power of the risen Christ in our own lives, we too must decide what to do with his story. Do we fear that others will not believe us? Do we worry that our whole lives will be turned upside-down? Are we afraid that the authorities of this world will condemn our testimony? Will we have to change our theological assumptions or the power we wield?

The story of the risen Christ confronts our basic expectations about life and death, power and weakness, tragedy and triumph. Yet experiencing the power of the empty tomb is not enough: the soldiers saw, but they were not transformed. We must choose daily whether we will cling to the lies of a broken world or obediently run down the path where the power of Christ meets us, transforms us, and sends us out to spread the good news. 

Which story will we tell today?

Suzanne Nicholson ~ Suffering through Thanksgiving

This is the time of year when advertisements inundate us with images of happy families gloriously celebrating the holidays. Women in velvet dresses clink champagne glasses with men in suits and plaid bowties. Their beautifully decorated homes overflow with relatives who eat turkey and all the fixings from holly-themed china plates. You can almost smell the cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the air.

Thankfulness comes easily under those circumstances. It is effortless to live in the moment, to seize the day, when all is sparkly and beautiful. But when the current moment is rife with injustice, living in the moment is nothing short of cruel. A loved one murdered, and the killer avoids prison. A child trafficked for sex, with no one to protect her. A pension fund plundered, leaving retirees penniless.

How does one rejoice in the midst of injustice?

Scripture is full of stories of injustice. After Joseph saved Egypt from famine and brought his family under the protection of Pharaoh, time passed. The new pharaoh failed to remember that a Hebrew had saved the land; instead, he suspected the Hebrews of planning sedition (Exod. 1:8-10). The Egyptians enslaved those who had saved them.

Job’s only flaw was being so faithful to God that Satan took notice (Job 1:9-11). In the testing that followed, Job lost his business, his family, and his health. Despite his faithfulness, disaster ensued.

Sometimes even justified suffering seemed to come through unjust means. God punished Israel and Judah for their great sinfulness by means of the exile. But the prophet Habakkuk questioned how God could use the wicked Babylonians to discipline the people of God. He cried out to God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you are unable to look at disaster. Why would you look at the treacherous or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous?” (Hab. 1:13).

Habakkuk’s outburst reflects common themes in the lament psalms. Psalm 22, which Jesus began to recite on the cross, starts with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:1-2).

Even after the resurrection of Jesus, unjust suffering continues. In 2 Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul recounts the numerous times he has been flogged, beaten with rods, pelted with stones, shipwrecked, and subjected to other horrors as a result of preaching the Gospel.

These injustices point to the “already/not-yet tension” in the New Testament. Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom by dealing with sin and defeating death. The fullness of the Kingdom, however, has not yet been realized. The Holy Spirit is at work in believers, transforming our lives and empowering us to be salt and light in a dark, decaying world. But until Christ returns to complete the process he started, we will continue to experience injustice in this life.

But the truth of Christ’s impending return is what keeps faithful men and women going. When we take a long view of history, our current injustices take on a different meaning. We look back at what Christ accomplished on the cross—a fact of history that can never be changed or reversed—and we understand that sin and death have met their match. We look forward to the fullness of the Kingdom and recognize that greater blessings are yet to come.

This is why Paul can write to the Philippians—while chained to a Roman guard!—that we should rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4). Earlier in the letter he told the church that he focuses on what lies ahead, pressing onward to win the goal of the prize for which God has called him (3:13-14). Paul’s reality is centered not on his chains, but on the promise of eternal life with God.

This does not mean that Paul somehow ignores his present pain or pretends it did not happen. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 he tells us that he had a thorn in his flesh that tormented him. Scholars have speculated on what this thorn might have been, based on hints in his letters—an eye problem? Arthritis? Some other physical deformity? Paul prayed three times for this thorn to be removed, and each time he was told no. Paul—who had healed the sick and raised the dead—was not given the power to heal himself. In Paul’s case, he needed to learn that God’s grace was sufficient to carry him through all weakness. His response: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). Paul defines his present and future by the power of God. In the current moment of pain, Paul takes a long view of history and rejoices in the ultimate victory of the God who overcomes.

This perspective is woven through the biblical narrative. The Hebrews experiencing years of slavery in Egypt cried out to God, who called Moses to deliver them. Job’s health and business were restored, and he was blessed with more sons and daughters. God promised Habakkuk that he would bring justice to the wicked Babylonians. And Psalm 22 reassures us that Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross is not the last word: the lament psalm remembers God’s past faithfulness and proclaims that God will triumph and all nations will praise him.

For those who are suffering injustice, the biblical narrative brings reassurance that God is at work in this world. While restoration may occur here and now, some injustices cannot be adequately addressed in this lifetime. For those who suffer in this way, Scripture proclaims that their story does not end here. Rejoice! The God of justice is coming.

Suzanne Nicholson ~ Leaders in the Bible (Who Happen to Be Women)

Note from the Editor: This week at Wesleyan Accent, as we scan, with grief, ongoing news from seeker-sensitive Protestant megachurches and Roman Catholic dioceses, we are reaching into our treasure trove of archives to reexamine different aspects of leadership. Our contributors over the years have written thoughtful, challenging reflections on leadership from a variety of perspectives. 

I recently spoke with a young woman who was thinking about leaving the Christian university she was attending. She was on fire for God and wanted to preach the gospel, but had been told that she couldn’t preach because she was a woman. Although the university where I teach affirms women in all areas of ministry, it’s striking to me how many Christian universities and denominations still maintain a culture of hierarchy. Even though The United Methodist Church has been ordaining women for 60 years (and John Wesley himself licensed Sarah Crosby to preach as far back as 1761), many of the people sitting in our congregations come from different denominations, and some may never have heard a female preacher or seen a woman in a key leadership role. It’s important to help our congregations remember the long history of faithful women who have preached the gospel.For that reason, I offer the following list of just a few of the influential female leaders in biblical literature.

The Daughters of Zelophehad (Num 26:33; 27:1-11; 36:1-12; Josh 17:3-6). Although this story provides one of the more obscure testimonies in Scripture, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah left their mark on the people of Israel. When their father died without a son, the family inheritance was endangered, since women did not have inheritance rights in ancient Hebrew culture. These women boldly appeared before Moses and the leaders of Israel and asked to keep their father’s inheritance. God decreed that “the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying,” and thus they were responsible for changing inheritance laws in Israel. They saw an injustice and boldly stepped forward to correct it.

Deborah (Judg 4:4-5:31). Both a prophet and a judge — which in this time period meant a charismatic ruler and military leader — Deborah regularly arbitrated disputes among the Israelites. Her role as a leader in Israel is stated as a matter of fact before the story even takes us into the battle that she leads with Barak to defeat the army of the Canaanites. The mighty Barak knows that it will be a difficult battle to face Sisera and his armed chariots, so he refuses to go unless the woman of God comes with him, assuring him that God goes into battle for the Israelites.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42). Jesus’s conversation with this woman is the longest dialogue recorded in the Gospels. She picks a theological fight with Jesus about Samaritan and Jewish understandings of the Messiah, but ultimately she recognizes who Jesus is. She then preaches to her whole village that Messiah has arrived — and they believe.

Rahab (Josh 2:1-24; 6:17-25; Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). This crafty, fearless, resourceful woman is willing to betray her own people because she knows that the Israelite God “is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Josh 2:11). She hides the Israelite spies and as a result, saves her family from destruction. Despite her unsavory profession, she is commended on three separate occasions in the NT as a paradigm of faith.

Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). Paul calls Phoebe a deacon, the same term he uses for himself and others (including Apollos and Epaphras) who preach and teach in the church. She was a wealthy benefactor who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. As a leader in the church, affirmed by Paul, she had the authority to speak on Paul’s behalf to answer any questions the Romans had in response to his letter.

Priscilla/Prisca (Acts 18:2-3, 18-19, 24-26; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). She and her husband, Aquila, served churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. The two were tentmakers like Paul, and so they worked together on their trade and in the church. Paul calls them coworkers with him in the gospel. Priscilla likely had a higher status in the church than her husband, since her name is listed first more often than her husband’s. They knew the gospel well — so well, in fact, that when the intelligent and persuasive Apollos came to Corinth with an excellent but limited understanding of the gospel, Priscilla and Aquila “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26).

Ruth (Ruth; Matt 1:5). This foreigner provides a shining example of God’s loving-kindness. After her Judean husband dies, Ruth leaves her home in Moab and travels back to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, despite the prospects of poverty and insecurity that lay ahead of her. Ruth pledges loyalty to Naomi and her God. She works hard gleaning in the field to provide for herself and Naomi (potentially dangerous work, since she has no male protector), and boldly approaches Boaz with a marriage proposal. He also models integrity and loyalty, addressing the proper customs so that he can redeem this unusual family. Each of the key characters in this story (Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz) place the interests of the other ahead of their own, and thus they model Christ-like faith centuries before their descendant, Jesus, enters the scene.

Since Scripture presents so many shining examples of female leadership, I will continue this list in my next post. Even then, I won’t be able to include all of the stories. The bravery, chutzpah, faithfulness, love, and kindness of these women remind us that leadership in the kingdom of God comes in many forms, if only we have eyes to see.


Reprinted with permission from

Suzanne Nicholson ~ Preach What You Practice: The Importance of Expository Preaching

It has become cliché to tell people to practice what they preach—that is, to live according to their words. But increasingly we may need to think about preaching what we practice.

In most activities we practice, a structure must be followed, even when creativity is involved. For example, the best cooks can add a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that to any recipe in order to add their own creative flair. But certain parts of the recipe simply cannot be changed without destroying the recipe itself. When making chocolate chip cookies, you have to mix all the ingredients before putting dough balls into the oven. If you only mixed chocolate chips, flour, and butter and put the mix in the oven, you would have an awful mess when you cracked the eggs and stirred in the sugar after the dough came out!

Yet how often do preachers jump around from topic to topic or scripture to scripture without seeking to understand the main passage itself? Preachers must take care not to crack the eggs after the dough has come out of the oven.

The power of the Gospel message derives from connecting people with God’s story. This entails explaining what the passage meant in its original setting so that we can better understand how to translate it into today’s culture.

It can be tempting for preachers to focus on quick principles for self-help instead of explaining the ways in which God has been faithful to God’s people throughout the generations.

Here are just a few of the ways that pastors sometimes stray from the power of God’s story when preaching:

1) Reading Scripture only to identify a topic within the passage, then preaching entirely on that topic without interpreting the passage itself. This teaches the congregation that the Word doesn’t really matter—it only serves as an introduction for what the preacher really wants to talk about. We wouldn’t follow this practice in other areas of our lives, but somehow this has become acceptable in sermons. For example, it would be insensitive to ask your friend to tell you all about their recent vacation to Florida, only for you to dominate the conversation by describing your own trip to France. When we engage in conversation with others, we must pay attention to the details of their lives and care about their perspective. The same is true with Scripture. We need to preach what we practice.

2) Skipping from passage to passage to prove a point. When this happens, the message never becomes grounded in the Word itself, but only in the preacher’s external vantage point. Prooftexting is like skipping stones across a pond: you cover a great distance but never really go very deep. In order to make sense of Scripture, a preacher needs to stay focused on the passage and remain faithful to the direction of the text. When we play a sport, for example, we have to follow the rules while making strategic choices. A baseball player might decide to bunt, hit a single to advance the runner, or swing for the fence. (There is creativity in the game, just like in preaching.) But if the player initially ran to third base, then to first and then to second before heading to home plate, no run would be scored – not to mention the fans would be confused and upset. Jumping around from passage to passage entails a similar chaos. We need to preach what we practice.

3) Ignoring how the passage fits with the surrounding material. A single story about Jesus can be compelling and profound, but it is only one part of the larger story. If you’ve ever put together a 500-piece puzzle, for example, you might find that a single piece can contain a clear image. But we’re not supposed to be content with one piece of the puzzle. The image becomes all the more poignant and understandable when fit together with the surrounding pieces. The same is true with the Bible: characters and themes develop throughout each book, and the overall story develops from Genesis to Revelation. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, the angel’s pronouncement in the first chapter that the child born to Mary will be called Emmanuel—“God with us”—comes full circle at the end of the book. There the risen Christ promises the disciples, “I am with you always.” Matthew emphatically declares that the promises of God prophesied long ago have finally come true in Jesus. But we only recognize this key theme when we explore how the individual passage connects to Matthew’s overall story. If we don’t think a 500-piece puzzle is complete with just a few pieces, then why do we do this with Scripture? We need to preach what we practice.

4) Jumping straight to application. This often results in a highly individualistic interpretation, because the constraints of the passage never come into view. Preachers of health-and-wealth gospels make this error when they twist passages about God’s spiritual blessings into specific promises about financial wealth. It is important for preachers to investigate the author’s purpose and historical context in order to make appropriate application. For example, we would never use a wedding dress for a work outfit on a farm, because the material is simply too pristine and delicate for such a tough job. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. When we ignore the original context of Scripture, we do similar violence to the text. We need to preach what we practice.

5) Missing application. This is the opposite problem of the previous point. Occasionally a pastor spends so much time on the ancient context that church members never hear what this message means for believers today. We wouldn’t go to a job training seminar only to hear a history lesson about the company but not receive any actual training. We need to preach what we practice.

The Word of God is rich and powerful, God’s message of faithfulness and grace that compels believers to draw near to God. In other areas of our lives we practice common sense; we need to make sure we preach in the same way.

Suzanne Nicholson ~ Leaders in the Bible (Who Happen to Be Women) Part II

Read Dr. Nicholson’s “Leaders in the Bible (Who Happen to Be Women) Part I here. 

When we think of leaders in the Bible, names like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul jump easily to mind — and rightly so, for these men played key roles in the drama of Scripture. But one of the great lessons of Scripture — as people like David and Paul can attest — is that God delights in using unlikely heroes to further the gospel. Despite living in a culture of patriarchy, numerous women faithfully led others to a new understanding of God’s work in the world. In my last post, I mentioned the daughters of Zelophehad, Deborah, the Samaritan woman at the well, Rahab, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Ruth.  

Today’s list includes more women whose chutzpah, wisdom, and faithfulness rival that of their more well-known male counterparts.

Abigail (1 Sam 25): When David and his men were on the run from Saul, they asked a wealthy man named Nabal for food. They had treated his shepherds well and expected that Nabal would return the favor, but the ill-tempered Nabal refused to help. David and his men prepared to attack in vengeance. When Nabal’s wife, Abigal, learned of her husband’s treacherous lack of hospitality, she intervened by riding out to meet David and his troops with stores of bread, wine, figs, and other food. Abigail gave an impassioned speech in which she begged for forgiveness for her husband’s foolishness and prayed for blessings on David. He was so impressed that David granted her petition and spared the lives of the men in her household. Later when a hungover Nabal heard about these events “his heart died within him; he became like stone” and ten days later he died. After Nabal’s death, David married Abigail. Throughout the story, Nabal’s foolishness is contrasted with Abigail’s good sense and godliness. When David proclaimed that “the Lord has kept back his servant from evil,” he was referring to Abigail as an instrument of God for David’s protection. 

The Bleeding Woman (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:41-56): This ritually unclean woman with her constant flow of blood was desperate to find a cure. For twelve years she had suffered, and she grew impoverished while trying to purchase various cures. But when she heard that Jesus was in town, she bravely entered the crowds — despite her impurity — and reached out to touch Jesus. Her belief in his healing power was so strong that she trusted that a simple touch of his cloak would be enough to heal. Jesus called the woman “daughter” and proclaimed her great faith in front of the whole crowd. 

The Syro-Phoenician Woman (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30): This desperate mother would not take no for an answer. Although she was a Gentile approaching a Jewish teacher, she refused to let ethnicity stand as a barrier between her demon-possessed daughter and the one person who could bring about healing. Jesus put her off just long enough to allow the woman to make a cogent argument for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the blessings of God, and then through his healing actions affirmed her faith, wisdom, and tenacity. Who else in Scripture goes head-to-head theologically with Jesus and wins? 

Esther (Book of Esther): In contrast to Daniel, who resisted foreign culture in exile, Esther was forced to assimilate to her new culture. Subjected to beauty treatments and forced to sleep with a pagan king, the demure Esther followed the instructions of her uncle and waited until the crucial moment to approach her regal husband and make her request. In a culture that marginalized women and considered them powerless, Esther shrewdly used her beauty, wits, and patience to gain the king’s favor, save her people, and defeat her enemies. 

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Matt 1-2; 12:46-50; 13:53-58; Mark 3:21, 31-35; 6:3-4; Luke 1-2; 8:19-21; John 2:1-12; 6:42; 19:25-27; Acts 1:14; Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4): This thirteen-year-old girl took her life in her hands when she agreed to bear God’s son, since Joseph could have had her stoned to death for being an adulteress. After running for their lives when Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus, she and Joseph settled down to a relatively quiet existence. She watched her son grow up, and when he entered the preaching scene, her quiet life was shattered forever. Although she at first didn’t understand what he was doing and she had to bear the torture of seeing her son die a horrible death, Mary was among the earliest believers of the fledgling church. She led by choosing God’s design for her family — a design that flew in the face of her culture and her own expectations. 

Junia (Rom 16:7): Often overlooked, Junia is described (along with Andronicus) as “prominent among the apostles.” The two were relatives of Paul (although the word could simply mean they were fellow Jews) who believed in Christ before he did, and who had been in prison with him. Richard Bauckham makes a credible argument that Junia is the same person as Joanna, the wife of Chuza (Herod’s steward [Luke 8:3, 24:10]; Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels [Eerdmans, 2002], 109-202).) Since Junia was called an apostle, this would indicate that she had seen the risen Christ and had held a significant leadership position within the early church. 

Women at the Empty Tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18): Although the details vary, all four Gospels report that women were the first witnesses at the empty tomb and the first preachers of the risen Christ. In my favorite version, Matt 28:1-10, the big, tough Roman soldiers ironically fainted at the sight of the angel, while the weak women eagerly spoke to the angel and met the risen Christ before boldly reporting everything to the disciples. 

Scripture regularly testifies to the ways women provided leadership in God’s kingdom. We need to regularly preach these stories (and others) to remind our congregations that the most important qualification for leading God’s people is not a Y-chromosome, but a faithful heart. 


Reprinted with permission from 



Suzanne Nicholson ~ Let’s Not Pretend Our Vision is 20/20

I confess that I enjoy a good meme now and again. The snarky quips pasted over engaging photos often make me guffaw with their cynical wisdom. This past Christmas, however, I kept seeing memes that irked me, perhaps because they critiqued one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Mary Did You Know?” For the unfamiliar, here is one of the verses: 

Mary, did you know  

that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man? 

Mary, did you know  

that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand? 

Did you know 

that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? 

And when you kiss your little baby 

You’ve kissed the face of God. 

In response, the meme-makers have generated everything from “Of course she knew! Read Luke 1” to “Listen to the women! They told us they knew! Luke 1.” While I appreciate the Scripture reference, it’s pretty clear that Mary had no idea what she was getting herself into when she said yes to the angel Gabriel. Gabriel did give her a few juicy tidbits: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’” (Lk. 1:32-33). Not to mention, Joseph surely explained to Mary that the angel told him that Jesus would save the people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

But let’s keep in mind that ideas about the expected messiah were many and varied in those days. Sure, people understood that a descendant of David had been promised to restore the kingdom of David (2 Sam. 7:12-13). But how that restoration would take place was the object of speculation. For some, the messiah would be a warrior king, while others predicted a priest or teacher of righteousness would lead the people.  

They did not expect God himself to arrive on the scene in the form of an infant. After all, “son of God” was a term that could refer to human beings, angels, or even to Israel. Jews also did not expect God’s anointed one to suffer and die on a criminal’s cross at the hands of the Romans. (The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah were initially thought to refer to the nation of Israel, not a messianic figure.) 

Even though Gabriel told Mary about her miraculous baby, she had no idea that shepherds would show up on her doorstep, or prophets in the Temple would laud her child, or Magi would visit and present luxurious gifts. She certainly wasn’t expecting to flee to Egypt with her child to avoid the murderous intent of a paranoid king. 

Even the Gospels acknowledge that Mary and her other children misunderstood Jesus’ ministry. Mark 3:21 reports that they thought Jesus was out of his mind, and when they tried to see him (3:31), Jesus called his disciples his new family. Yet the sting of this rejection could not prepare Mary for the horrors of the cross or the miracle of the empty tomb. Mary, did you know? Of course, you didn’t. 

But how often do we assume we know the plans of God? Since hindsight is 20/20, Christians can too quickly jump to the conclusion that if we had been there, we would have seen these things coming. How many of us shake our heads at the inability of the disciples to understand the parables of Jesus or to remain faithful to him in his darkest hour? Yet I doubt we would have fared any better. The disciples had heard Jesus predict that he would rise from the dead on the third day, but even then they didn’t believe the women who both saw the empty tomb and spoke with angels (Lk. 24:11). Some of the disciples even doubted after they saw Jesus (Matt. 28:17). They literally could not believe their eyes. These people had the benefit of walking with Jesus daily for three years, sharing stories around the campfire at night, seeing miracles, and eating the blessed and broken bread passed to 5,000 people. But they still didn’t know what was in store for them after they rolled the stone in front of the tomb. 

If we consider many of the other leaders in the Bible, we will find that their calling was not everything they expected either. When God sent Samuel to anoint David as the next king of Israel, did David have any idea the difficult path that lay before him? Did he know that King Saul would try to kill him numerous times? Did he know that he would feign insanity in order to escape the Philistines (1 Sam. 21:10-15)? Did he know that he would marry several women, but his passions would lead to his downfall with Bathsheba? Did he know that his kingdom would be divided a few decades after his death? Did he know that it would take hundreds of years before one of his descendants came to free his people from their sins? 

When God called the apostle Paul into service, could Paul have imagined how many churches he would start? Did he know the extent to which he would suffer beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks (2 Cor. 11:23-33)? Did he know how many of the letters that he wrote would be copied and read for 2,000 years? Did he know that his words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would lead the likes of Augustine and Martin Luther and John Wesley to deeper faith and service?  

So when God calls us, what do we know? Our vision is never 20/20. The problem with assuming we know the details is that often reality differs significantly. Then it becomes easy to question our calling. This conundrum is nothing new. Even prophets and apostles, when they felt discouraged, needed to hear that God was still calling them to kingdom service. Elijah ran into the wilderness and thought he was the only one left who was loyal to God; in the stillness, God corrected him. There remained 7,000 who had not bent their knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:1-18). Even the seer had not seen this.  

Apostles, too, needed encouragement. When Paul was in Corinth and had been rejected by the Jews, the Lord told him in a vision not to be afraid and to continue to speak the Gospel; no one would harm him there (Acts 18:9-10). Yet at other times, the Holy Spirit’s message was not as comforting. When Paul headed to Jerusalem for the last time, he did not know what lay ahead “except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me” (Acts 20:22-23).  

Scripture demonstrates that both great hardship and great blessing accompany service to God. Occasionally the Holy Spirit does give us specific direction and confirmation (“Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul”—Acts 9:11). But most oftenwwill not know exactly how God will work out the calling that God has assigned us. The humility of not knowing leads us to deeper faithfulness as we cling to God along the path. 


Note from the Editor: The accompanying featured image is “Mother and Child” by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1900.