Tag Archives: Hymns

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.

Jeff Rudy ~ Jesus Weeps, Our Tears to See

Among the sources I consult in sermon preparation, two I investigate for nearly every sermon are The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which compiles writings from the fathers and mothers of the first few centuries of the Church, and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible. I’m considering adding a third – The Poetical Writings of (John and) Charles Wesley. It’s not that I go by the “three points and a poem” philosophy of sermon-writing, but often I do find times that there are meaningful lyrics from a hymn (sometimes well-known, sometimes more obscure) that speak to the point I aim to convey in a message.

When it came to the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary cycle, with the Gospel lesson that tells the story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus bringing him back to life (John 11:1-45), I found myself drawn toward the way Jesus engaged the grieving community and expressed grief himself. It is more than a mere fascination with the theological questions that arise from the statement that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It is that grief has been hitting rather close to home and it feels as though the community I pastor has endured more than its fair share of untimely deaths. Because it is part of the time-tested liturgy of death and resurrection, I have said multiple times recently, “Jesus said, ‘I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.” Words that come directly from this Gospel lesson. But the liturgy also says, “We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.” When I read and when I hear, “Jesus wept,” I see that Jesus comes together in grief with us, and acknowledges our human loss. As John Donne said, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”

Poetry speaks in ways that prose cannot, especially in times of grief. So I did some searching to see if Charles Wesley ever mused specifically on this passage, particularly about Jesus weeping. I knew that he occasionally used the phrase “vale of tears” in hymns. In one of my favorites of Charles’ meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation as revealed in his Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, he speaks to the empathetic nature of the Incarnation:

Glory be to God on high, And peace on earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky, And shows Himself our Friend!
God the’ invisible appears, God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears, And Jesus is His name.

I dug around some more and found one in a collection of hymns written for families. These hymns, like the psalms, come from or speak to different experiences – some quite specific, others more general – and they express a wide variety of feelings toward God, ranging from thanksgiving and adoration to supplication to bitter grief. The hymn I came upon that had a reference to Jesus weeping was under the heading of “For a Child in the Small-Pox.” In the midst of what would have been an agonizing time for the parents as they prayed through tears that God might bring healing to their child, Charles offered lyrics that help us to embrace this sort of grief and to not hold back in pouring out our hearts to God:

…Human tears may freely flow
Authorised by tears Divine,
Till Thine awful will we know,
Comprehend Thy whole design;
Jesus wept! and so may we:
Jesus, suffering all Thy will,
Felt the soft infirmity;
Feels His creatures sorrows still

Father of our patient Lord,
Strengthen us with Him to grieve.
Prostrate to receive Thy word,
All Thy counsel to receive:
Though we would the cup decline,
Govern’d by Thy will alone,
Ours we struggle to resign:
Thine, and only Thine, be done.

Life and death are in Thine hand:
In Thine hand our child we see
Waiting on Thy benign command,
Less beloved by us than Thee.
Need we then his life request?
Jesus understands our fears,
Reads a mother’s panting breast,
Knows the meaning of her tears.

Jesus blends them with His own,
Mindful of His suffering days:
Father, hear Thy pleading Son,
Son of Man for us He prays:
What for us He asks, bestow:
Ours He makes His own request:
Send us life or death; we know,
Life, or death from Thee is best.

There’s the internal struggle of agonizing desire for the child to be made well versus the feared need for resignation that it might not turn out the way the parents want. There is wonderment and humility expressed in the admission that this child is loved even more by God than by the parents themselves (“Less beloved by us than Thee”). But it all centers on the sympathy and empathy of the Incarnation – of Jesus’ familiarity with our fears, our hopes, and yes, our tears.

And then I dug just a bit deeper and looked in the collection for what I see as Charles’ version of the Explanatory Notes – only in hymnic, or poetic, form: Hymns on the Four Gospels. And here he pictured it so beautifully in what I would call “a hopeful grief.”

And now, if you’ll allow me to step onto a soapbox, I think that’s Paul’s point when he told the Thessalonians to “not grieve as those who have no hope.” He wasn’t telling them not to grieve at all. Some must think that he did because I see those poems on the back of funeral announcements sometime that just make me want to scream – something like “Don’t cry for me, for now I’m free…” It’s sentimentalized in the popular notion that humans become angels when we die (not a biblical concept). It’s conveyed in the statement that, “it was just their time” or, “they’re not really there/that’s just a shell/that body isn’t her (or him).”

To rebut this, I am reminded of the wisdom of a boy, who when told that the body in the casket isn’t where his grandfather was, said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my grandfather? Those hands cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his love. Everything I have ever known of my grandfather was through this body.” To tell someone not to cry, however well-intended it might be, is to deny them the dignity that even Jesus embraced – “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep” or “Jesus burst into tears.”

However voluntary or involuntary it might have been, we see that Jesus grieved. And here’s the irony – he grieved with the likely knowledge (or at least confidence) in what was about to happen – Lazarus made alive again. Why, then, does Jesus cry? To grieve with us – as Charles Wesley surmised – to see our tears: that death is real. And yet, hope lives. That’s the paradox. Our hope begins, mysteriously, in the tears of a weeping Lord. A grief that hopes. Here is Charles’ take. (If you want to sing this, it fits well with several well-known tunes quite nicely, including: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Hymn of Promise to name a few.)

Jesus weeps, our tears to see! Feels the soft infirmity;
Feels, whene’er a friend we mourn, From our bleeding bosom torn:
Let him still in spirit groan, Make our every grief his own,
Till we all triumphant rise, Called to meet him in the skies.


Matt Sigler ~ Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

This meditation on a classic Advent hymn by Dr. Matt Sigler comes from our festive archives. Enjoy.

Last week, while most of us were still engorged on leftovers from Thanksgiving, the church began a new year with the season of Advent. Many congregations marked the season by lighting of the first candle in the Advent wreath and, perhaps, with a few other changes in the liturgy. Some sang Advent hymns, though many immediately began with songs about the Nativity. Yet Advent is primarily about looking through the baby in the manger to see Christ the King coming on the clouds in glory. The problem for Methodists is that, for decades, we did not have a single hymn in the Methodist hymnal that explicitly referenced the Lord’s physical return.

Nolan Harmon, a Methodist bishop who served on several hymnal committees, recalls the debate that ensued in the 1930 hymnal commission about Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Lo! He Comes with Clouds, Descending.” In spite of Harmon’s argument that “the New Testament does teach that the Lord will come again—as does the Creed” the hymn was voted out.[1] Speaking against the hymn, one committee member argued that the final verse, which in the original version ends “Jah, Jehovah, Everlasting God come down,” was “the invocation of an old Hebrew God, and doesn’t belong with us.”[2] Reflecting the predominance of liberal theology of the day, the committee also struck out other references to the second coming of Christ. Another Wesley hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” was included in the hymnal, but with the traditional closing line “Jesus the judge shall come” omitted.[3] So for nearly thirty years, Methodists had zero hymns in their hymnal that spoke of the sure and certain return of Christ.

The Second Advent

In contrast to our current hymnal, which has an entire section devoted to the “Return and Reign of the Lord,” the 1932 hymnal contains a fairly ambiguous section entitled, “The Everliving Christ.” Similarly, Advent and Nativity were conflated into one section in the hymnal. In practice, this is often the case today. People are quite comfortable with the meek and mild baby in the manger; but to speak of a returning King with fire in His eyes and a sword in His hand, who comes to judge the living and the dead and to set all things right, is less popular. Add to this a cultural context that continues to extend the “Christmas” season for commercial reasons, and the Church finds it nearly impossible to speak of the second Advent of Christ in the weeks leading to Christmas. In our silence have we capitulated to the dominant culture?

Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending

What was considered passé by the 1930 hymnal commission and by many today is the great hope for those of us who hold to classic Christianity. So, while we can and should sing of Christ’s return throughout the year, Advent presents a key opportunity to declare with clarity this crucial doctrine in our faith. And as Wesleyans we have a gem in Charles’ hymn, “Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending.” Here is a quick look at the hymn:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain!
Thousand, thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of his train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears, on earth to reign!

In this first stanza, Wesley is clear that Christ will physically return in glory. The imagery of thousands upon thousands of saints following in procession is particularly evocative.

Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty,
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

All will see the glorified Christ, as this lyrical paraphrase of Revelation 1:7 proclaims. It will be a time of judgment for those who have rejected Him.

The dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture,
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

For the redeemed, however, this occasion is one of unfathomable joy. The wounds that Christ still bears in His glorified body will be the inspiration for “endless exultation.”

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
High on Thine eternal throne!
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own,
O come quickly, o come quickly,
Everlasting God, come down.

Having spent the first three verses depicting the scene of Christ’s return, the final verse centers on the basic cry of the Church which is amplified during Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

A Contemporary Expression?

The standard hymn tune for “Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending,” “Helmsley,” works nicely with the text. Some congregations, however, may find the tune difficult to sing. I have found that the hymn tune “St. Thomas (Webbe)” also works well. In fact, I have used a modern arrangement of “St. Thomas” (with bass, drums, keys, and guitar) while inserting the chorus of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” in between the stanzas of “Lo! He Comes…” The point is that tune and style need not limit congregations in reclaiming this incredible hymn.


If corporate worship should connect-the-dots—or tell the story of what God has done, and will do, for us in Christ—then worship is woefully incomplete when we fail to proclaim that Christ will come again. As Wesleyans we have in our lyrical heritage one of the best hymns on this topic in “Lo! He Comes with Clouds, Descending.” Consider this an appeal, then, to reclaim this hymn for the church during this season of Advent. My hope is that what was once lost in the Methodist church for thirty years will become a standard song in the future.


[1] Nolan B. Harmon, “Creating Official Methodist Hymnals,” Methodist History  16 (July 1978): 239.

[2] Ibid.

[3] (Hymn #171, The Methodist Hymnal 1932)

Maxie Dunnam ~ When All the World Was Cursed


It is difficult these days to reflect on anything of great importance, with the most unusual presidential election in our nation’s history a few weeks away.

Following one of the Presidential debates, one of our staff worship leaders included with his Facebook post a picture of a partial page of a hymnbook. The title of the hymn was When All The World Was Cursed. My friend did it as a kind of spoof. I confess, it was more than a spoof for me because I have gone through days lately when I have wondered, is our nation cursed?

I immediately reached for my United Methodist Hymnal. Though there are a number of hymns there that we never sing in our congregation, I couldn’t imagine that I had missed one with a title like that. I was more than casually interested; I was chaffing with curiosity. What would be the content of such a hymn? What would it sound like? In what liturgical season might it be sung? Would the worship leader have to introduce it with some explanation?

I called my friend and asked, “Where is that hymn?” He brought me a copy of it, from a Lutheran hymnal, intrigued that I was so interested. He seemed pleased that I connected it with the debate and the state of our nation. When All the World Was Cursed. The first stanza explains the title and gives the theme of the hymn.

When all the world was cursed

By Moses’ condemnation,

Saint John the Baptist came

With words of consolation.

With true forerunner’s zeal

The Greater One he named,

And Him as yet unknown,

As Savior he proclaimed.

Johann G. Olearius, 1677

Tr. Paul E. Kretzmann, 1940

I don’t know what I was expecting in the words of the hymn, but I had not thought of John the Baptist. I do know that the title of the hymn was intriguing because of the frustration and confusion, the often near-despair I am feeling during what seems such darkness in the corporate life of our nation. Add to that the crisis in our United Methodist Church, and the darkness feels more ominous.

To not give room for hopelessness and despair, I’m focusing my reflection and praying in two primary directions: First, on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.when-all-the-world-was-cursed

The reality that most impacts the church here in America is the degree to which our nation has gone in severing the Christian faith from public life — the utter confusion about the meaning of church-state separation. Secular materialism has become the state religion and our public schools, particularly our colleges and universities, are the evangelistic centers for the propagation of this un-faith religious life. The Church is no longer the value setter, the moral and ethical arbiter to which leaders and shapers of culture turn for guidance and validation. In fact, the Church has lost her once-privileged position in Western society and is being pushed to the margins of society.

In this social reality, what is our challenge? Can we be imaginative enough, and Kingdom-oriented enough, to grasp the loss of preferential treatment as an advantage? Let’s use the setting to learn how to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world, to train us as “resident aliens.”

Instead of desperately trying to elbow our way up to the tables of power, let’s give our attention to becoming faithful adherents to God’s sovereignty, knowing that more often than not Kingdom ideals are in conflict with the world in which the Kingdom is set. Let’s believe, and make the case with our life and witness, that putting the right person in the Oval Office is not the answer. Let’s concentrate on being an alternative voice to the madness around us

by not consuming the world’s goods without regard for the world’s poor;

by protecting the unborn and also seeing that they are cared for after birth;

by doing justice and loving mercy;

by refusing to accept and accommodate the prevailing patterns of sexual promiscuity, serial marriage and divorce, or accept definitions of marriage other than the life long covenant of a man and a woman,

by not allowing children’s zip codes to determine the care they receive or, especially, the educational possibilities available to them.

Though we know the Kingdom of God cannot be established before the King comes, let’s spend our lives, all that we are, living as though the Kingdom had come; thus we will approximate in this present world what is going to be established here “as it is in heaven.”

As Richard Foster puts it, “Since, in Christ, we have been reborn into the new reality of the Kingdom of God, we can become ambassadors of peace in the midst of a violent world, models of civility and grace in the midst of a competitive society, conveyors of faith and hope in the midst of a cynical culture, and the embodiment of agape love to all peoples in the midst of an adversarial society.” (A pastoral Letter From Richard Foster, Renovare, November 1999 issue)

This kind of living and witnessing requires that we ground everything we do in the awareness that we live in an apostolic situation where Christian experience, Christian memory, and a Christian vocabulary are not a part of our culture. We must recognize that, for the most part, there is no connecting point in language or symbol between the Church and secular culture. We are not a long way from the setting of the primitive Church of the New Testament and a couple of centuries following. Ours is a neo-pagan culture, and “new barbarians” are a big part of the population of our Western world.

But not only to neo-pagan culture in the U.S. and the West, must our witness, evangelism and mission be shaped; they must also be shaped in the awareness that ours is a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious setting.

51xqoswixpl-_sx406_bo1204203200_A few years ago it became clear to me that the world was changing when Jerry and I were driving with some friends through the wild, beautiful desert of New Mexico. We came to Abiquiu, the home of artist Georgia O’Keefe. On a rise just outside the city, there is a beautiful mosque and a large Muslim school. We stopped and had coffee in an art gallery restaurant,  owned and operated by Muslims.

The lesson? The competing religions of the world are not in faraway countries; they are in the cities of America. Being the church, we must take note of this new reality, not giving into fear and prejudice, but becoming more confident of who we are and the integrity and power of our witness.

I’m focusing my reflection and praying on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.

I’m also claiming that the signs of the time, the mess our nation is in, and the crisis of our United Methodist Church is a “perfect storm” that calls for  revival. In history, awakening and revival have come most often in times of deep, recognized need. Also, God has often used unlikely, and certainly unholy forces to accomplish his will.

Isaiah witnesses to this (Isaiah 7:1-25), expressing it in a way quaint to our modern ears. “In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River – with the king of Assyria – the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.”

Another translation simply renders it, “In that day the Lord will shave with a borrowed razor.” What is being said in the text is that God is going to use the pagan king, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. It’s a memorable way of expressing the fact that God uses what he will and acts how he will to achieve his purpose. God is sovereign King of the universe – in control – and his eternal purpose is going to be accomplished, and he uses all sorts of persons and events and circumstances to accomplish his will. He shaves with a borrowed razor.

He also calls us to prayer as a condition for his renewing, reviving intervention. In my teaching about prayer I often ask the question, What if there are some things God either cannot or will not do until and unless people pray? My reflection to make a response to the question is that the Bible makes clear and histories confirm that God’s promises to act in history and in our personal lives are often connected with conditions that we are to meet. The classic example of that in the Old Testament is God’s word: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray”… that’s the condition. If we meet that condition, God says, “Then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.” The classic example in the New Testament is the promise of Jesus: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”… that’s the condition. Then Jesus says, “you may ask what you will and I will grant it.”

In my devotional reading a while ago, I came across a passage from Isaiah that latched onto my mind and heart like a steel-trap: I have posted watchmen on your walls, 0 Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call upon the Lord, give yourselves no rest, give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem.” (Isa. 62: 6-7) What a challenge to do-it-yourself people. Most of us are far more comfortable out in the trenches than we are in the prayer closet. It is far easier for most of us to work, to busy ourselves in church work, to think we can take no rest from our labor. But that’s not what Isaiah is saying. He is not calling us to never rest from our active work, our much doing, our busy involvements. His word is a call to take no rest from prayer…no rest from calling on the Lord.

I believe this is our first call as Christians: Pray, pray, pray; then when you have prayed, pray.

Are you tired and weary, sort of dull in your discipleship? Pray.

What about the joy of your salvation? Has that joy faded? Pray.

What about your spiritual power? You see power working in other persons but you feel powerless…you wonder what the problem is. Pray.

Do you long for a greater power of the Holy Spirit? Are you convinced you can’t go on without that power? Pray.

Do you believe that prayer is the great means for receiving a spiritual awakening? I press you. Are you praying for a quickening in your own life? How much time do you spend in an average week praying for the church, the nation? For awakening and revival?

Could it be that what is missing is that we don’t spend enough time on our knees? Lord help us!

When all the world was cursed! So we feel. But, think, reflect, have conversation, make the best decision you can and vote. But know: the healing of the nation, awakening and revival is not dependent upon whoever becomes our president. The Psalmist was direct in warning us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”(Ps. 127:1)

There is an old admonition, which urges us to pray as though everything depended on Christ, and to work as though everything depended on us. Not a bad formula for effective discipleship, but I know few people who keep the balance. And I know few congregations that are confident enough to “wait on the Lord,” to free themselves from activity and action long enough to discern the direction in which the Lord may want to take them.

The truth is, friends, most of us believe it all depends on us. We are type-A people, even when it comes to faith, confident in ourselves, our skills, our resources. How tempting it is for us to approach spiritual matters the same way that we approach our jobs, our businesses, our families; like Avis, we just try harder: work more, spend ourselves, use our energy, and we can get the job done. But the truth is, in Kingdom terms, we are not getting the job done.

When all the world was cursed. The time is now. We must embrace the presence of Christ in a way we’ve not done before and allow the Holy Spirit, through prayer, to permeate every fiber of our being and be the guiding empowerment of all we seek to do. Change happens, renewal and revival come not because we have designed it, or wanted it, or worked for it, but because God in his infinite grace and unfettered mercy, in his own time and according to his design, brings new life to persons, to congregations, to denominations, to movements, and ministries. “Unless the Lord build the house, the workman labors in vain.” In Africa, 20,000 people pray to receive Christ every day. China continues to explode with new Christians, some suggest 32,000 daily. In Iran, more Muslims have come to know Christ since 1980 than in the previous 1,000 years. It can happen here.

Remember what the hymn is all about…John the Baptist proclaiming the promised coming of Jesus when all the world was cursed. Let’s pray for awakening and revival. The last stanza of the hymn is at the heart of our praying:

Oh, grant Thou Lord of Love,                                                     

That we receive, rejoicing,                                                           

The word proclaimed by John,                                                                   

Our true repentance voicing;

That gladly we may walk                                                                        

Upon our Savior’s way                                                                                        

Until we live with Him                                                                            

In His eternal day.


Harley Scalf ~ Easter Living: Fear of Missing Out

It was a heartfelt sentiment: “In honor of the dessert we never got to share.” Those words were penned by Dr J. Ellsworth Kalas in a book he gave to my wife Jessica and me. Due to flight delays and an already-busy schedule, we had to forego our plans and get straight to business. There was little to no time left for such things as ice cream, hot fudge, and toppings. It pains me to even write such a sentence.

I hate that we didn’t get to enjoy that dessert.

Scripture tells us that there is “a time to hate.” I think, perhaps, that word is used far too often in our polarized world. One party hates the other, or at least their policies. We hate this type of food. We hate that type of music. I wish we wouldn’t say such things. Language of any sort has the potential to lose its significance when it is overused.

Such is the case with words like hate, sin, depravity, repentance, grace, and even Easter and Resurrection. To be sure, the words do still have a great deal of meaning and significance behind them. The entire Christian faith hangs on these words and how we deal with them.

Consider certain hymns: my, how the early church did sing them with such enthusiasm! Our instructions were clear, at least from John Wesley’s perspective: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”

I think we follow those instructions, at least in the beginning. All too quickly though, the tune becomes familiar, the melody rote, and the words hollow.

Consider the words by another Wesley, John’s brother Charles:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Read those words again. What significance is held there! The sin and depravity in which we find ourselves bound is not casually removed – it’s completely cast off, the chains are on the dungeon floor, not on our wrists or around our ankles!

Here we are barely more than a week after Easter. The extra worship services are complete. The celebration is over…or is it?

The word hate is far too overused. However, I do hate that I missed that dessert with Dr. Kalas. I hate even more that sometimes we miss the significance of Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus. It’s not just language, it’s more than words: it’s life-altering, it’s history-making!

When flights get changed and meetings get shifted, we are forced to adjust our schedules accordingly…so over the past few months, having been to the cross, visited the empty tomb, and celebrated the Resurrection, let us now live in awareness of the sin for which we will never be crucified.

I’d hate for you to miss Resurrection living.

Mark Trotter ~ Night Moves

The hymn we have just sung, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” is based on the Old Testament lesson read for us this morning. It was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley was a prolific writer of hymns. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns. He put the great affirmations of our Christian belief, and particularly those that John Wesley felt were important, and put them into hymns. Other Christian traditions recite their faith with a creed. The Methodists have always sung their faith with hymns, Wesley’s hymns.

Isaac Watts, perhaps the greatest hymn writer ever, was a contemporary of Charles Wesley. He said that this was Wesley’s finest hymn. It was also John Wesley’s favorite. There is a wonderful story associated with this hymn. Two weeks after Charles Wesley died, John was preaching in London. In his sermon he read out the first line of this hymn. When he came to the phrase, “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee,” he thought of his brother, Charles, who had gone before him to the other shore, and was now in heaven. He stopped, and put his hands over his face, and wept. The whole congregation wept with him as they remembered Charles, the great hymn writer of the Methodist movement. This hymn is one of his best.

It is a wonderful hymn, and it is Wesley’s words that I want us to look at this morning. He tells in this hymn the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the stranger at the River Jabbok. Last week we looked at the story of “Jacob’s Ladder,” as it is called, the dream that Jacob had at Bethel, where God gave him the blessing that he had struggled so hard to achieve all of his life. In order to get that blessing Jacob deceived his twin brother, Esau, and lied to his father, Isaac. We saw also in that story that his name “Jacob” means “the striver,” and how all of his life he had struggled and was driven from the moment of his birth. In fact, even before his birth, the story of Jacob says, when he was in the womb, he and his twin brother, Esau, struggled and competed, fought to be number one. When they were born, Jacob was holding on to Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob, “The Striver.”

As this text begins he has everything he has ever wanted and more. Which is the pattern with “Jacobs,” they often succeed in this life, and sometimes spectacularly. Just as often, they will lose it all, and then get it back again.

We wish the story were written differently because Jacob is not the most admirable character. His character is not the most exemplary. We wish these biblical stories were written in a way to say that that kind of behavior does not prosper. But the Bible is honest, always honest, always realistic about our human life. The fact about life is that “Jacobs” generally get what they want, and they will use any means available to get it. They don’t always break the law, but they will stretch it, push it as far as they can.

Jacob’s main offense was against his brother Esau. He tricked him. But Esau was a fool, and a fool and his birthright are soon parted. Jacob knew what Esau’s weakness was. “Jacobs” go after that, manipulate it, use it in order to get their own gain. And it worked. But Esau is now angry. He swears revenge against his brother Jacob. Jacob flees.

The first night of his flight, you remember, he has that wonderful dream at Bethel, where God blesses him and says, “I will be with you wherever you go…and I will not leave you until I have done for you what I have promised.” With that blessing he goes to Padan-Aram, to his mother’s ancestral home. There he continues to prosper.

We are not looking at that story this year in the cycle, but it is the third story in the cycle. It’s a wonderful story where Jacob meets his equal, his future father-in-law, a man named Laban, who is as devious and has as questionable a character as Jacob does. The story of Jacob and Laban is sort of the Olympic Games of dirty tricks. They are both world-class tricksters. Jacob wins that contest, too.

Jacob leaves Padan-Aram a wealthy man with two wives, Leah and Rachel, who are Laban’s daughters. He has eleven children as he leaves (he will have one more son), and heads for home. He leaves with most of Laban’s cattle and sheep, and his servants as well, all of which he has won from his father-in-law.

He is on his way home now to be reconciled with Esau, his brother. He has experienced what so many people experience who are tremendously successful. I notice this about them. They have the talent, cleverness, skill, energy and determination to compete and win in any area of life. They end up with all of the rewards of that striving, and, indeed, fit the image of success in our culture.

But after they have gained everything, they begin to think about all that they have lost, especially the relationships they have sacrificed in order to gain material reward. At a certain point in their lives, usually middle age, but if they are tremendously successful, it comes earlier than that, after they have gained the whole world, they long for a relationship, usually with one person, more than anything else. Reconciliation, that is what they want, with that person from whom they are estranged: a sibling, a parent, or a former spouse, or a friend, someone they haven’t spoken to for years.

Jacob is like that as our text begins this morning. He is going home to get the one thing that he lost and now wants more than anything else, reconciliation with his brother.

The caravan carrying all of his possessions, and his family, comes to the River Jabbok. On the far side of the river is Esau’s land. He sends scouts ahead as peace envoys, to meet Esau and to ask Esau if Jacob can come into his land. When the scouts return, they tell Jacob that Esau is heading for the river with four hundred troops. Jacob divides his family and his possessions into groups, and sends them in different directions so that if Esau attacks, some will survive. Then he sends his cattle and his sheep with some servants across the river to meet Esau once again, to offer him peace offerings.

Now Jacob is all alone, at the River Jabbok. “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.”

Perhaps he remembered that night, a long time ago, at the beginning of his exile, when he saw the ladder to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending, and God speaking to him, reassuring him, and blessing him. He longed now to have that same experience again. He wanted from God a sign, a blessing, an assurance, that everything is going to be okay, that the charmed life he has lived up to this time is going to continue, and God will be with him and bless all that he has done. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” That is what he wants, that peace.

Instead, out of the darkness, a stranger jumps him, throws him to the ground. These two bodies struggle in the darkness against each other. All night long they wrestle. The strength of the stranger is terrible. Jacob, the mightiest, the cleverest of men, is having difficulty holding his own. Who is this stranger who has come to him out of the night?

Just before dawn, Jacob starts to win. At least it seems that way. He holds the stranger in a grip. The stranger holds to him. The stranger then strikes him in the hip, dislocates his hip. From that Jacob will limp the rest of his life. The stranger says, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” Jacob says, “Bless me, and I will let you go.”

Now we know what Jacob knows, that this stranger he is wrestling is God. He is wrestling with God. It may be a stranger, it may be a man, it may be an angel, we don’t know. But Jacob knows who it really is. Jacob is at last wrestling with God, holding on now in desperation, crying to God, “Bless me. Give me a blessing.”

The stranger says, “What is your name?” “My name is Jacob.”

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and mortals, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asks the stranger, “What is your name?” He would not answer, for to know somebody’s name is to know all there is to know about him, and God remains a mystery. We do not know all about God. So Jacob does not learn anymore about God from this encounter than he knew before. Nothing has changed, except Jacob. Jacob has changed. Jacob is no longer Jacob, “the striver.” He is now “Israel,” the one who has striven with God, and is changed.

This is an incredible story. It is one of the richest stories in the Bible, and one of the richest stories in the treasury of human literature. For Jews, Jacob is the father of the race. His new name, “Israel,” is their name. His sons, he has twelve sons, will be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, so this is the story of the origin of the Jewish people. All Jews are sons and daughters of Jacob. This is Israel’s story.

But it is also our story. This is every man’s and every woman’s story. You can see yourself in this story. These stories are called “archetypes,” where you can see yourself in the story, and where you can read the story to learn about yourself.

When I came back to this story of Jacob wrestling the stranger at the River Jabbok, I saw something that I had never noticed before. That is, Jacob is like Prometheus, in the Greek myth. Prometheus stole the fire from heaven and brought it down to human beings so that we could be like gods.

The meaning of the Promethean myth is that there is something in us that wants to be like God. There is something in us that will not be content with the limitations that are placed upon all human beings. There is something in us as human beings, in fact, that causes us to try to transcend these limitations.

The Olympics originated in ancient Greece, in the land of Prometheus. They were religious festivals, really, held in honor of the gods on Olympus. That is why they were called the Olympian games. In the contests the athletes strove for perfection. They tried to be the best that it is humanly possible to be. In fact, they even tried to transcend human limitations with athletic achievements.

That has always been the spirit of the Olympics. Even today, young people, some very young, fourteen year old girls, pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to achieve perfection in what they do. You notice they are scored against the standard of perfection. They are judged by whether or not they come up to a standard of perfection. It is just part of being human to strive for that excellence, to try and be as great as you can be.

You see the same thing in the story of Creation in Genesis. No sooner are Adam and Eve created as human beings than they start to be something more than human beings. It happened immediately. The same day as the Creation, they strive to be more than human beings, to transcend the limits that God has placed upon them. They try to be like God. God gives them the rules of the Garden of Eden. He says they can do anything they want, except eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for that property belongs to God alone.

So what do they do? Immediately they do what Prometheus did, only it’s an apple this time, and not fire. But it is the same thing. They tried to be like God. They were punished, like Prometheus. They were exiled from Paradise; Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus. Adam blames Eve, “She made me do it!” Eve blames the serpent, “He beguiled me!” But they are both to blame. It is both their fault.

But in another sense, it is not their fault. If seeking to be the greatest that we can be is part of what it means to be human, then we are going to try to reach as high as we can. In fact, that’s the part of human achievement that we celebrate. It is the way we raise our children. We tell our children, “You be whoever you want to be. You climb as high as you can.” That’s what it means to be a fully realized human being. To know that you have within you unlimited possibility. To be successful in life is to be a person who has striven to achieve all that is possible for them to be.

That is what Jacob did all his life. Then he came up against the limitation at the River Jabbok, and he wrestled with God. Like Prometheus, he was defying the gods. Like Adam and Eve, he was disobeying God. He tried to do that. Jacob tried to defeat God. Only Jacob’s story is different. Jacob loses. He finally accepts his humility, and asks for God’s blessing.

The meaning of the Jacob story is that our human limitation is not a condemnation. God has not created us to strive for the highest only to frustrate us. God has created us for relationship with him. We don’t have to storm heaven to get a blessing, all we have to do is confess who we are, and God will come to us.

The word for that moment in Christian piety is “surrender.” In this story we can see what surrender really means. It means confessing that the one thing that you cannot get by yourself is God’s grace. That surrender is not the end of your life. Jacob discovered that. It was the beginning of his new life. God did not destroy Jacob. God checked him, then checkmated him, and then held-on to Jacob until he could admit who he really was, and surrender. Surrender is not the end of life. Surrender to God is the way to begin your life.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a contemporary Greek writer, tells a story. A young man visited a monk on one of those islands on the Aegean Sea, those islands that come out of the ocean like a big rock.

The monks had built their cells on the face of the rock, lived there alone. A young man climbed up to the cell of the monk and asked, “Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?”

The monk answered, “Not anymore. I have grown old, and the devil has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.”

“With God?”, the man asked, “You wrestle with God? Do you hope to win?”

“No,” he said, “I hope to lose.”

Steve Beard ~ Take My Hand: The Gospel and the Blues

The first of several pivotal scenes in the film “Selma” occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”

Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:

“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scarred hands.

“Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.

As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues.

Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.

Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”

No one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.

“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.

Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.

After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.

In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.

Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”

“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”

“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.

It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation – somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.


Reprinted with permission.

Michelle Bauer ~ The Promise of Silence

See Luke 1:5-25; 57-79 here.

During Advent season you hear the Songs of Christmas from Simeon and Anna, Mary and the angels. Before those songs were sung, however, the people of God sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” They sang it and sang it, but did they really mean it? Or did they sing it like we tend to sing that song? – O Come, O Come Emmanuel and stand right over there where it is safe. We want him to come, but not close enough to disturb our comfortable existence. We want him to come like a Christmas card in the mail and not like the roaring lion he really is.

But let’s hear the Advent song Zechariah sang. Zechariah has been waiting and waiting but when Emmanuel finally comes he hesitates. As we read Zechariah’s story we will see how God uses the tool of silence to make Zechariah ready to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and really mean it.

I want you to take a moment to think about the last time you experienced silence. By silence I mean that you weren’t talking, no one around you was talking, the television was off, there was no music playing, you weren’t reading, playing a game on your phone or surfing the internet. I’m guessing for a lot of us those moments come few and far between. We live in a really noisy world and we have been trained to feel like we need background noise – even in places like elevators and the grocery store. So, when we do find ourselves in a rare moment of silence it can feel a little uncomfortable and we scramble to fill in the dead space.

A few months ago NPR aired a story about a group of scientists who were curious about the lengths people will go to in order to avoid silence. They put together a study in which people were invited to sit in a room alone without any phones, electronics or reading material. Before the scientists left the room they pointed out a button and told the test subjects that if they pressed it they would receive a pretty serious electrical shock. The scientists explained that they didn’t have to press the button. They just wanted them to know what it was. The researchers backed out of the room and, of course, watched what happened through a two-way mirror. As they suspected, the test subjects immediately became uncomfortable in the silence. But here’s the part that they hadn’t predicted: person after person, in fact a large majority of the people tested, chose to press the button and give themselves the electrical shock. They were so uncomfortable that they were willing to do anything to distract themselves from the silence.

The silence that sometimes makes us so uncomfortable is actually a tool God uses to teach and guide us to the next place on our journey.

The Waiting

You are going to like Zechariah. If you haven’t heard his story before, I’m glad, because many of us who have heard it have come away with a picture of Zechariah in the role of bad child. People tend to view him as the bad boy of Christmas – the one person who wasn’t willing to immediately get on board when the angel showed up with the game plan. But as we look more closely at Zechariah we begin to root for him. As the story starts, he is a good guy who is following God the best way he knows how.

God wanted to expand Zechariah’s spiritual world. He wants to do a new thing in Zechariah’s life and it scares him. It is scary, isn’t it, when we’ve got the old thing worked out? We know what’s expected and it’s comfortable. Sometimes we get a glimpse of what’s further ahead on the road and we get wistful thinking about it but then we come back to our safe place. But God is a merciful shepherd who calls to us to move. And then one day we begin to sense God gearing up to do something new. And it’s unsettling.

God entered into Zechariah’s comfortable state and started stirring. Zechariah’s world wasn’t perfect. But he had figured out how to survive in it and now he’s nervous about leaving it behind.

Luke is the only one of the four gospels to include this story about Zechariah. It’s interesting, because what happens to Zechariah is the event that gets Christmas rolling. Even before the angel appears to Mary, Zechariah’s story unfolds. This is the moment that breaks 400 years of silence as the people of God wait for the Messiah.

Right away we learn some things about Zechariah. He lived in the time of Herod. This is the Herod, the one who met with the wise men and killed every male child two and under in Bethlehem in a failed attempt to kill Jesus. Herod was a sociopath who had a pattern of killing anyone who might get in his way, including his father-in-law, a few of his wives and a couple of his own sons. Living in Israel under this man’s rule was scary.

We also learn that Zechariah is a priest. In the Jewish religion, you didn’t wake up one morning and hear a calling to become a priest. If you were a man born into the priestly line, you automatically became a priest. That means Zechariah was raised in a house of priests, his dad, uncles, and brothers were all priests. He even married a woman, named Elizabeth, who was the daughter of a priest.

Starting in a few chapters, Jesus will have some really harsh things to say to the religious leaders of the time, including priests. But look at how verse six describes Zechariah and Elizabeth. They observe all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. That’s high praise. This involves more than just the 10 commandments. It would have included rules about how they ate and dressed and worshipped and worked – every aspect of their lives. And they kept them blamelessly. It also says they were upright in the sight of God. Jesus’ problem with the majority of the religious leaders was that they were content to be upright in their own eyes or in the eyes of other people. But Zechariah and Elizabeth faithfully lived their lives in a way that pleased God. They were the real deal.

The last thing we are told about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they have experienced a great sadness. They have been unable to have children. Verse seven describes them as “well along in years” – in other words, that door is now shut and they’ve been forced to give up the dream of ever having a child of their own.

If you are ever tempted to believe the prosperity gospel, I want you to remember Zechariah and Elizabeth; they have done everything right and yet they are not spared this great sadness.

Let’s see how Zechariah and Elizabeth get mixed up in the Advent story.

Because a new priest was born every hour, there may have been as many as 18,000 priests in Israel but there was only one temple. So the priests were divided into divisions and each division was assigned two weeks a year to serve at the temple. While they are on duty, the priests’ job was to offer sin sacrifices and teach – mostly quiet, behind the scenes tasks. Each day though a priest was chosen by lot to perform a special task – to burn the incense.

Burning the incense was a great honor made even more special because you were only allowed to perform this duty once in your whole life. After you had completed your turn your name was removed from the drawing. The priest who was chosen would take a hot coal from the altar in the temple’s outer courtyard where the sin sacrifice had been made and would carry it into a special room in the temple and use it to heat the incense. As it burned, the incense would rise up towards heaven and represent the people’s prayers for forgiveness. They were asking for God to accept the sacrifice that had been made. This task was done alone. Just the priest in a closed room in front of the altar.

Zechariah, by this point maybe as old as 80, has been serving as a priest for perhaps 60 years. He is finally chosen to be the one to burn the incense. He’s probably a bit stunned but doesn’t have time to fully process his emotions because he has to get to work. No time to update his Facebook status! He’ll just have to tell everyone later.

With great reverence and nervousness, Zechariah begins the ritual. If it had been me I would have been thinking, “Don’t drop the coal. Don’t drop the coal.” He gets into the temple.  Can’t you hear the angel thinking, Oh great, here we go again! If I could just give my messages without having to take time to calm everybody down first I could get a lot more done. “Okay Zechariah, head between your knees and take deep breaths…”

This angel’s message is a little different than the others though. The messages to Mary and the shepherds were announcements, but this angel came with a response to Zechariah’s personal request. The angel says, “your prayer has been heard.” What has Zechariah been praying about? He wants a child.

You might be thinking, if this is an advent story why isn’t the angel announcing Jesus’ birth? We will see that this baby being born is all tied up in the story of Jesus. Doesn’t this give a glimpse of our kind God, a God who in the process of launching a plan to save the whole world takes the time to answer someone’s deepest prayer? God could have given John to anyone. But he chose Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Now the angel is going to let Zechariah in on who John will be and how he will be connected to the coming Messiah. Wow! Zechariah is going to be John the Baptist’s dad! His child would grow up to lead a revival in Israel and baptize Jesus at the start of his public ministry. Jesus will say of John in Luke chapter seven, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” To be told of your child’s greatest accomplishments before they are even born would be a lot to take in. Remember, this started as a normal day for Zechariah. This is all coming pretty fast. But he has now composed himself enough to think of a few questions. Look at verse 18.

I love how he describes himself as “an old man” but refers to Elizabeth as “well along in years.” Spoken like a man who’s been married for a long time! “How can I be sure of this?” This sounds like a reasonable question. Zechariah has been comforting a sad wife for a lot of years. He would like to hear some specifics before he starts passing out the cigars.

Can’t you hear what Zechariah’s soul is really saying? “We are trying really hard to put this behind us. We’ve figured out how to live this existence and we are doing a good job. We are serving you. We are obeying you. What more do you want from us? We are finally comfortable here. Please just let us be.”

Have you ever had that conversation with God? “God, I can’t do any more. I can’t go any farther. I’m doing pretty well. I’ve come a lot farther than a lot of other people I know. I come to church. I attend a group. I’ve stopped drinking. This is far enough” We can envision the Promised Land that God wants to take us to. But the path there seems hard and long and scary. Maybe where I am is good enough?

The Silence

Let’s see what God thinks about this in verses 19 and 20: if Zechariah needs proof, he’s going to get proof. The angel begins by telling him his name – Gabriel. I can’t think of many times when an angel arrives on a scene and announces his name. Angels exist to make God famous, not themselves. But the name Gabriel would have been familiar to Zechariah from his story in the book of Daniel where he appears and interprets prophetic dreams. Hearing that name would have made Zechariah take notice.

If that’s not enough, Gabriel reminds Zechariah that he stands in the presence of God. Let that sink in a moment. While you sit here, angels are standing in the presence of God awaiting his command.

Finally Gabriel says “I’m trying to give you good news!” This is what you wanted!

Zechariah is having a really hard time letting go of the existence he has carved out for himself. He knows how to do life where he is. Letting go of what he knows for the unknown ahead is very hard.

But God is not content to let Zechariah stay in his current place. Gabriel delivers the prescription God has written to heal Zechariah of his disbelief – silence. You know, the thing we are willing to give ourselves an electrical shock to avoid. Nine months of silence.

We need to be careful here not to confuse teaching with discipline. God is not angry at Zechariah. Remember God considered Zechariah upright. If God wanted to punish Zechariah he could have easily done it. The pronouncement could have been “because you dared to question me, you will not receive the child.” God is much more concerned with healing and leading Zechariah than he is with punishing him. God is much more concerned with healing and leading you than he is with punishing you.

It’s easy to read the Bible sometimes and hear an angry, disappointed or irritated voice in your head. That might be the voice of a parent, a teacher, a coach or even your own condemning voice but it is not God’s voice. As you open his Word ask him to let you hear his voice. God is in the process of healing Zechariah and moving him to the next place he has prepared for him. So we need to hear his tone as kind and loving.

Why silence? Because it is when we are silent that God gets a chance to talk. We rush into God’s presence like a nervous person on a first date. We feel the need to fill up all the space with noise. Talking and talking, we unload our worries and requests. Give a quick thank you and excuse ourselves. We might feel better momentarily because we’ve gotten things off our chests. But we have not heard from God or learned anything.

When we refuse to be silent we are saying that we have nothing left to learn or that God has nothing left to say to us. We’ve heard it all. We know it all. Do we really believe that God has something he wants to say to us? Do you really believe that God has something he wants to say to you – something new and fresh? Not the thing he said 10 years ago or even last week. Something new today, even if it’s just that he loves you. If we do, then we need to be quiet.

Not every time we spend a moment in silence will the heavens open and God descend. But when we begin to intentionally build time into our routines for silence we will experience a greater sense of his presence. Sometimes we walk away from those moments knowing that we have heard from God. Other times we shrug our shoulders and wonder if anything happened. And then weeks later we see fruit appearing and we know it is a result of our time spent in silence.

God has written this same prescription of silence for all who follow him. The good news is that we don’t have to start with nine months of it, or even an hour. But we do need to plan for it. Silence doesn’t usually find us. We have to find it. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about where you might find some in your everyday life:

1. We all spend a lot of time in the car. Are there times when you can turn it into a quiet place?

2. Instead of a spoken prayer before a meal, spend a few moments in silence.

3. Perform a household chore in silence.

4. Take a walk or exercise in silence.

5. Don’t turn on the TV at bedtime. Fall asleep in silence.

6. Read a verse of Scripture or other devotional material and sit silently with it fresh on your mind.

7. Be honest about whether you are numbing yourself or being silent at the end of a stressful day.

Pick one thing on this list and try it this week. Next week add another or try a different one. Try not to get frustrated if heaven and earth don’t move every time you are silent. Silence and waiting go together. Zechariah had to wait nine months.

Here’s another thing to remember: God does not announce everything he is doing in us as he does it. He does not show up at the door with a punch list. “Today I’m going to give you more patience, dig out that root of bitterness and heal a memory.” That’s not how it works. When we are surrendered, he dives into our beings with his tool belt on and he heals and refreshes and creates new things in us. The evidence we see that he has been at work? The fruit of the Spirit. One day you won’t react the same way you would have before in a situation and you suddenly realize – God has been at work.

That’s what he was doing during the nine months that Zechariah sat silently. Zechariah finished his assignment at the temple and went home. The specifics of what happened in Zechariah’s soul are a mystery, perhaps even to Zechariah. But we do know that silence proved to be an effective tool.

By the time his baby is born, Zechariah has been re-born. God has done a new work in him.

The Song

Elizabeth has had the baby and their family and friends gather when he is eight days old for his circumcision. It’s a party! No one can believe that this has happened. Every baby is celebrated but it is clear that this baby is special.

Now this special baby needs a name. Of course the crowd gathered wants to name him after Zechariah. Isn’t this what Zechariah has been waiting for, a son who bears his name? But apparently Zechariah has communicated to Elizabeth exactly what the angel said because she knows his name is supposed to be John.

The crowd is confused and motions to Zechariah to jump in and agree with them. He asks for a tablet and with four words demonstrates the work God has accomplished in the silence – his name is John.

Zechariah has given up his right to pass on his name, his need to have control, and his desire to have his expectations met. This is not the fruit that punishment produces. Zechariah was not punished. He was given a gift – the gift of silence.

Zechariah’s last words in the temple are questioning and disbelieving. His first words recorded in verse 64 are of praise.

Now Zechariah is ready to sing his song of Christmas. He picks up his son and as he is praising God, he is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy.

The words to this beautiful song are printed below. As you read this song, would you underline the words that jump out at you? Sometimes God’s voice is just that soft. He can make a word or phrase come alive as you read. When that happens, don’t over think it, just underline it.

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come and has redeemed his people.

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),

salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-

to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath he swore to our father Abraham:

to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,

and to enable us to serve him without fear

in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Now, Zechariah looks down at the baby in his arms and sings the second verse of his song.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Zechariah got to sing a song of Christmas but he had to be silent first. I just want to skip the silence and get right to singing the song. And I want to sing the song that I wrote. A song that tells of the life and purpose I have envisioned for myself. Zechariah sang the song the Holy Spirit gave him in the new place that he was led to.

I want to give you an opportunity to experience a small taste of silence. This week will be noisy, won’t it? Will you let yourself be quiet for just a few moments and let God fill your heart with his peace?

Here are some ways you can use these minutes:

1. Take your copy of Zechariah’s song – the one that you underlined. Pick one of the words that stood out to you and ask God what he wants you to hear in that word. Then sit silently.

2. You may want to ask God, “where do you want to take me next?” Or you may be ready to say “I will go wherever you are leading.” Then wait in silence.

3. If you feel uncomfortable, tell God and ask him to show you why.

4. Or you may welcome the opportunity to enter into his presence and rest quietly.

God, I wonder if we avoid silence because we are afraid that you will not speak to us. We worry in our deepest places that you are not real. Do we avoid silence because we worry that you are angry with us? That if we give you a chance to speak it will be with angry words? Heal that in us so that we can sit at your feet and hear what you have to say to us. We want to trust you; take us to the place where we are able to trust enough to sit silently with you.

Matt Sigler ~ Reclaiming a Vision of the Communion of Saints in Worship

Confession: I’ve always had a bit of a morbid vein in my personality. Not like, Sylvia Plath morbid—I’ve just always been very aware of the passing of time and the fragility of life. As a Christian my hope is anchored in the sure and certain return of Christ, the final resurrection, and a God who is making all things new. While these truths have sustained me in my moments of deepest despair, I often wonder if my evangelical upbringing would have benefited from a more robust appreciation for the Communion of Saints as I wrestled in thinking about time, separation from those departed, and the hope that is ours in Christ. For certain, concerns about if we “pray to” or “with” the saints are worth consideration (I’m not going to try to tackle them in this post). What I do want to suggest is that we would do well to consider a richer understanding of the relationship between the Church triumphant (in heaven) and the Church militant (on earth) in our worship.

From very early on Christians buried their dead near their places of worship. Where others placed their dead outside of cities and avoided such sites, Christians often celebrated the anniversaries of the death of their martyrs with the Lord’s Supper. Oftentimes this celebration was held at the place where the martyr was buried. Soon, many churches included the bones of the martyrs within the church building. Since death was not the final word about our bodily existence, it didn’t need to be something fearful. Moreover, Christians understood that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord and there was no place where the Lord was more present than in the community gathered for worship. The understanding was that in Christ all—including the Church triumphant—are one. This is the belief conveyed in the lyrics of the hymn “For All the Saints”:

O blest communion,
Fellowship divine! We feebly struggle,
They in glory shine;
All are one in Thee,
For all are Thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Before we’re tempted to think this understanding of the Church triumphant and Church militant present in worship is something foreign to the Wesleyan tradition, consider this hymn written by Charles:

Come let us join our friends above
That have obtained the prize, 
And on the eagle-wings of love 
To joy celestial rise; 
Let all the saints terrestrial sing
With those to glory gone,
For all the servants of our King
In earth and heaven are one.

Charles Wesley makes clear that when the Church gathers for worship we on earth join our song “with those to glory gone” in praise to the Lamb on his throne.

Admittedly, this all seemed rather speculative and esoteric to me until I experienced the loss of beloved family members. While I grew up believing that angels somehow joined with us when we gathered for worship, I never considered that the “cloud of witnesses” might also be singing too. In fact, it’s actually the other way around: the Church on earth is invited to join in the eternal worship when we gather together. This has become for me one of the most marvelous visions of what it means to worship together.

Embracing the full presence of the Church, triumphant and militant, in worship is much more than a coping mechanism. Neither is it some sci-fi fantasy (like Anakin Skywalker’s ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi) played out in our imagination. It actually is a concept that enriches our worship. If, indeed, Christian worship is the place where the Church triumphant and the Church militant meet; where we get a taste of the glorious hope that is ours in Christ; where we join in the song of heaven with all the saints, the martyrs, and the hosts of heaven, how should that perspective shape the way we worship when we gather together?


Featured image courtesy Robert Thomas on Unsplash.

Matt Sigler ~ Knowing What We Have: The Methodist Liturgical Heritage, Part III

I grew up in a family of Methodist pastors and music ministers. You can imagine that our family gatherings were often filled with conversations about various ongoings within the church. In 1989 I remember there being quite a bit of discussion about the new hymnal and the orders of worship provided in the book. While I didn’t fully understand the conversations—I was only ten years old at the time—it was clear to me that whatever was in the red hymnal was very different from what my family knew.

The 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and the companion 1992 Book of Worship marked the culmination of nearly 20 years of liturgical developments within American Methodism. Many Methodists were suspicious of the changes made in these new resources. They saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament as a step in the wrong direction for Methodist worship. In order to understand the influences behind the ’89 Hymnal and ’92 Book of Worship, it’s helpful to consider the shifts in Methodist worship in the twentieth century that preceded these resources.


The year 1905 marks a drastic change in Methodist worship practice. That year the northern and southern branches of the church published a joint hymnal that included, for the first time, an Order of Worship for the Sunday service. Nearly ten years earlier, the Methodist Episcopal Church had adopted a similar order of service at General Conference. Not only did both branches share a common Order of Worship—something that brought charges of “formalism” by many—but the hymnal included other changes. Bishop Nolan Harmon recalls:

the 1905 Hymnal came to be in full use with the systematic Responsive Readings…the saying of the Apostles Creed as a part of morning worship [and] with the Amen sung at the end of each hymn.

The 1905 Hymnal ushered in a period of aestheticism in Methodist worship that crescendoed into the 1930’s.

As Methodists became more respectable within society there was a growing stress on “enriching worship.” The prevalence of Methodist churches built in the Gothic style is a visual marker of this change. With the architectural shift came other changes. Liturgical scholar James White once remarked that when his home church in Vermont built a new Gothic building in the 1920’s, they also “resolved to discourage shouts of ‘amen’ during the sermon.”

The music used in Methodist worship was also influenced by this change. Increasingly the emphasis was on the “quality” of church music. A growing number of churches hired professional musicians. Choral responses sung by the choir often replaced the voice of the congregation. The 1935 Hymnal represents the high-water mark of growing musical sophistication among Methodists during this period.

Other streams within Methodism were not as entranced by the emphasis on “enriching” worship. They maintained that true Methodist worship was marked by evangelical zeal and freedom. Sung “amens,” processions, and the use of candles were all “pretty nothings carried out with an air of sacred mystery.”


Two World Wars and the emergence of the Cold War brought an end to the period of Aestheticism. The horrors of Nazi death camps and the Atomic bomb shattered the illusion that humankind was on a steady march toward progress. Neo-orthodoxy reminded the Church that original sin was real and could not be overcome simply with education and innovation. The Church, as James White put it, “needed something stronger than aestheticism and found it in historicism.”

Liturgically, mainline churches began returning to their roots in the rites of the Reformation—many (re)discovering creeds and confession. Methodists began examining Wesley’s Sunday Service and its connection to the Book of Common Prayer. Where for years American Methodists had altered the forms of worship inherited from Anglicanism, many of the liturgical resources of the 1950’s and 60’s sought to reclaim this part of their tradition. In 1965, for example, Methodists incorporated into the Book of Worship the penitential preface that Cranmer had added to the service of Morning Prayer in 1552.

Liturgical Renewal(s)

The 1965 Methodist Book of Worship went to press around the same time drastic changes began occurring elsewhere in Christian worship. Writing in 1972, James White—the principle author of what would become Word and Table I—defended why the Commission on Worship published a new communion service “for the second time in eight years.” He writes:

It is because the eight years between the 1964 and the 1972 General Conferences span some of the most rapid changes in Christian worship since the Reformation in the 1500s…The middle ages in Catholic worship lasted until December, 1963 when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated…

In contrast with previous changes to the Methodist communion service, which were primarily revisions within the Anglican pattern, White celebrated that Methodists had finally “broken the habit of simply revising within the Anglican-Methodist pattern and opted for one that reflects the breadth of modern Christianity and the depth of classical practice.”

While some saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament in worship as a deviation from true Methodist worship, White understood this breaking free from the classical Anglican/Methodist pattern to be in harmony with a Wesleyan liturgical piety. As Methodists walked through the periods of Aestheticism and Historicism in the first half of the twentieth century, many in the Roman Catholic Church had been (re)discovering early sources on worship. Among these was On the Apostolic Tradition, credited to Hippolytus. White argued that Wesley was a patristic scholar who, had he been aware of Apostolic Tradition, would have embraced its implications for worship practice. Throughout his life, White would maintain that the work he and others did in reforming Methodist liturgical praxis by incorporating aspects of Apostolic Tradition actually made Methodist worship “more Wesleyan, than Wesley’s [Sunday Service].” Of course, many Methodists saw the changes as “too Catholic” and felt that White and others had moved Methodists away from true Methodist worship.

Just as Methodists did not foresee the liturgical changes that would be brought about by the Second Vatican Council, those who crafted the resources that eventually found their way into the 1989 Hymnal did not anticipate the deep influence of what would become known as “contemporary worship.” The efforts at Methodist liturgical revision that culminated in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and 1992 Book of Worship were often disregarded by those seeking to make their worship services more “contemporary.” As “contemporary worship” became an increasingly viable option for Methodists, many completely rejected the hymnal or anything that appeared to be rooted in the past. While Methodist “contemporary” worship frequently infused life into dry services, it often looked just like the Baptist “contemporary” service down the street. In rejecting the historic forms of their worship, Methodists suffered from an identity crisis in their worship services.

Future Prospects

So let me return to my initial post where I suggested that in our effort to design services that are more faithful to the past, we must be careful not to “cut and paste” the content of our services. As Methodist congregations consider how to be faithful to their own liturgical heritage while being attuned to the particularities of their own context, it might be helpful to consider the following:

First, one must consider if speaking of form versus freedom in Methodist worship is to speak of a false dichotomy. Certainly this is a helpful way to understand the history of the various liturgical trends in Methodist history, yet when one speaks prescriptively about Methodist worship, one might be better served to speak of form and freedom as different sides of the same coin.

Second, and perhaps most important, Methodists need to know their own liturgical history. One wonders how many Methodists today are aware of John Wesley’s Sunday Service. How many understand the history and impact of the liturgical renewal of the second half of the twentieth century? White put it well when he suggested that to be ignorant of one’s own liturgical heritage is to be bound to the status quo.

Finally, knowing about one’s own liturgical heritage is only the starting point. The past must be embodied in the present if it is to have meaning. A distinct Methodist liturgical piety should transcend the various epochs of Methodist liturgical history. With some glaring deviations, Methodists have historically given equal value to the affections and intellect; Scripture and sacrament; and form and freedom in worship. These values, coupled with the rich textual tradition of The Sunday Service and the hymns of Charles Wesley, provide limitless possibilities for the future of Methodist worship.