We Want to see Jesus

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These infamous words were uttered by Jim Lovell as a catastrophic explosion jeopardized the lives and mission of the crew of Apollo 13. The “large bang” they reported resulted in a mind-blowing example of ingenuity and innovation as the ground and space crews worked together to create a carbon dioxide filter and then operate and return their spacecraft with very little electrical power. Several agonizing days later, they miraculously splashed down safely as a captivated America watched and prayed.

Today’s passage harkens back to an earlier time of danger, when Jesus’ time on earth was drawing to its inevitable end. Greeks had come to see what all the fuss was about, and they approached Philip to ask to see Jesus. Like the Apollo mission, this passage begins with excited onlookers and high optimism:

John 12 (Common English Bible)

20 Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

But rather than revel in the potential evangelism of the moment, Jesus begins to forecast what will be a downward trajectory that will define all of them in ways no one could suspect at the onset:

23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.

This “large bang” concerned a wheat grain falling to its death in order to bring forth life. Surely Jesus is projecting his own death on the cross in order to bring the resurrection to the people. The downward spiral continues with words about hating life in this world and losing life if it is loved too much.

But the tone changes when Jesus invited the listeners to follow him. Even if the path sloped down, Jesus promised to be with them and stated that the Father will honor all who follow Jesus.

Yet as he embarks on this path, his own heart is troubled. Listen to his prayer in this difficult time:

27 “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Jesus’ prayer was one of assured obedience. He knew that the way he had to go would involve pain and hardship, yet his willingness to accomplish it is summed up with “Father, glorify your name!” In saying this, Jesus reminded us that in order to be glorified, i.e., “lifted up,” he would have to fall down hard first.

And God confirms it:

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

2The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.”

30 Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours.31 Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. 32 When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (33 He said this to show how he was going to die.)

His prayer is answered right in front of the crowd, and he explained what will happen next.

34 The crowd responded, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Human One must be lifted up? Who is this Human One?”

35 Jesus replied, “The light is with you for only a little while. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness don’t know where they are going.36 As long as you have the light, believe in the light so that you might become people whose lives are determined by the light.” After Jesus said these things, he went away and hid from them.

Are you on a downward trajectory right now? Do you believe that God can glorify your journey? Are you following Jesus even in this darkness? Ask God to lift you up.

Jesus is the light in your situation. If you stay on the path of obedience, he surely will lift you up and return you to solid ground. There is NO problem that he can’t overcome!

Thanks be to God.

Splashdown by Michelle Robertson

Laid in a Manger

Luke’s description of what happened on that first Christmas is by far the sweetest rendition of the Nativity that you could ever read. Perhaps that is grounded in our many, many Christmas Eve services, where we heard it read aloud. Perhaps it was read to us in our homes by our grandmothers in the King James translation. There is a good chance that when you read it, the voice of a very serious little boy named Linus will speak in your memories of childhood Christmases gone by. (By the way, an article in The Smithsonian Magazine reveals that two of the co-creators of ”A Charlie Brown Christmas” balked at the inclusion of Scripture in the show, but Charles Schulz insisted that it remain.)

So let us read Luke 2 again, as the days until Christmas now number in single digits:

Luke 2 (New Revised Standard Version)

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We will continue this passage in our last devotional before Christmas, but let us pause at the manger and ponder this. It is such a simple story, one that begins with a country’s routine taxation system and ends in glory. No wonder people were amazed. Who would have thought that the long-awaited Messiah would be born of unmarried parents in such ignominy? How could the world have envisioned its Savior being laid in a dirty manger used for feeding barnyard animals? This story is surprising at every turn. And the unfortunate location of Jesus’ birth raises the same question for us every year: is there room in your inn for the Christ Child? Is there room in your heart, room in your expectations, room in your bank account, and room in your compassion for an refugee infant born so far from home?

And so before we get to the awestruck shepherds and the glories of the heavenly host, let us renew our passion for making room for everything and everyone that Jesus came to save. Where is God calling you to shine his light in somebody’s darkness? Make room.

Beach Tree by Michelle Robertson

Rescue Me

As you look at this picture, you will instantly notice that something has gone very wrong. A shrimp trawler named Bald Eagle II, traveling north from our neighboring town in Wanchese, lost its engines a week ago and drifted onto the shoals of this sandbar that we live on. The tide carried it right to the water’s edge, where it remained stuck on our beach for days.

Our heroic Coast Guard performed a dramatic rescue of the four crew members, pulling them from the dangerous boat one by one, by helicopter. Four men were saved. Then came the arduous task of having to carefully remove over 6500 gallons of fuel and an additional 1000 gallons of a watery oil mixture.

Think for a moment of the difficulty of saving this boat. Look at how it sits on the sand. Now think about how difficult it was to save humanity. The prophets remind us that people had fallen into sin and darkness beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden. This darkness overcame the world, and we needed a miracle to save us.

Today’s lectionary passage is a pre-Christmas reminder of why Jesus came to save us. In this Psalm, God is portrayed as both the Shepherd of Israel and the One whose face shines “so that we may be saved.” It is a good prayer for us as we slowly approach the birth of Christ and recall once again why he came. Christ was born to rescue us … because we could not rescue ourselves.

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

This is a psalm of Asaph which is thought to be written after the separation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judea. The references here make it clear that the psalmist is asking God to save Israel, and so it is believed to have been written prior to the Assyrian take over in 721BC.

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

When God’s face shines, darkness and despair are obliterated. When Jesus came, he was described as the ”Light of the World,” dispelling darkness forever.

O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.

Asaph knows that the apostasy and sin of the people have brought about their predicament. He senses God’s anger in what is about to happen, as Israel will fall into the hands of the enemy.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

I am happy to report that the story of the Bald Eagle II has a much better ending. A small tug boat was dispatched, and it was able to move the trawler at high tide, taking it out to sea to a safe harbor where it can be repaired. Don’t you just love a happy ending?

You can have a happy ending, too. God is waiting for you to be fed up enough with your own darkness to cry out for rescue. Are you stuck in bad habits, inappropriate choices, or just plain out of hope? Call out for Jesus to come and rescue you. Your savior is on the way.

Rescue Me by Jennifer Thompson

Dark Caves

Several decades ago I worked as a Resident Advisor in a dormitory at my alma mater. It was a wonderful job that actually prepared me for being a pastor. Resident Advisors were required to do an impressive amount of training that focused on peer counseling, active listening, leadership skills, personnel management, and personal skills development. The training was intended to make us better at assisting the students who were in our care.

All of the RAs in my all-female dorm were teamed with RAs in an all-male dorm under the supervision of a graduate student who was our Coordinator. One year the residence hall leadership decided it would be good to send us to a nearby camp on the weekend prior to the opening of school for some team-building. We hiked, cooked, discussed, listened, and it was all going swimmingly well…right up to the point when they announced that our final activity would be spelunking.

Having grown up eleven miles from Philadelphia in a thriving suburb, this girl didn’t know what spelunking was. But the area in central Pennsylvania where my university is located is well-known for its vast mountains, hills, valleys, and caves. Yes, we were going to explore a deep underground cave together.

This was when I learned for the first time in my young adult life that I have a pretty significant case of claustrophobia. It was not a good time to learn that.

It was in the final passage to the last underground chamber when the darkness overcame me and I froze. Inching along on my belly in a cold passage (where the space was so tight I could not lift my head up without the Pom Pom of my knit cap touching the ceiling) was my undoing. Fortunately, the only person behind me was the coordinator, and she knew what to do. The two of us backed up until we were in a space large enough to sit up and trade places. Then she passed me to catch up to the others and complete the trek. I sat in the darkness alone and had to wait for them to come back out before we could all make our way up to the surface.

I probably wasn’t alone in the ink for more than 5 minutes, and I could hear them exploring the final chamber. But the isolation and fear that I felt seemed to last more than 5 days.

1 John 1:1 (Common English Bible)

1 We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete.

The message: God is light

This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.” 

Sometimes on Sundays after worship, someone will ask me where I learned how to pray. I am sure it was in that cave as a frightened nineteen-year old. I had enough “church“ in me to know that I needed the light to come right away to take away the darkness. Jesus sat beside me in the cold and comforted me until it was time to climb back up toward the light.

If we claim, “We have fellowship with him,” and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully. But if we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. 

There are many seasons of life that come at us with the threat of darkness. Losing a child, losing a home, losing a job, losing a marriage…any loss is a dark place to be. But when we turn our faces heavenward and seek out the Light of the World, eventually our eyes will adjust to the dawn of redemption and hope.

So keep climbing, my friends. Set your face toward the light of the Son. God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.

And There is No Darkness in Him by Cheryl Smith

Stone-Blind

Super Bowl 2021 was its usual combination of pretty boring football, a controversial halftime show, outstanding commercials, and a great excuse to eat a lot of snacks, albeit in the safety of our homes rather than at parties. In the spirit of full confession, I am that person who watches it every year to see the entertainment pieces that keep getting interrupted by a game. This year was no different.

One thing that captured my attention was the Light Gloves worn by the dancers in the halftime show. Now THAT was notice-worthy. They made really cool moves with them, and the choreography was designed to highlight the gloves and the patterns of light that they made. This was a good thing, since the headpieces that were worn should have been left in the players’ lockers.

Man, I would love a pair of Light Gloves! On the Outer Banks, we don’t have a lot of light at night. There is no ambient city light, and street lights are few and far between. The blessing of this is that we can clearly see the stars. The curse is that we can’t see where the door lock is when we come home at night.

Paul encourages us to think about the light-vs.-dark dynamic in a new way in his second letter to the Corinthians. He creates a word chain about darkness: obscure looking—going the wrong way—refusing to give the message serious attention—eyeing the fashionable god of darkness:

2 Corinthians 4 (The Message)

3-4 If our Message is obscure to anyone, it’s not because we’re holding back in any way. No, it’s because these other people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness.

Then he creates a contrasting word chain about the light: dayspring brightness—message that shines with Christ—best picture of God:

They think he can give them what they want, and that they won’t have to bother believing a Truth they can’t see. They’re stone-blind to the dayspring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get.

The invitation to all believers today is to go out into the darkness of your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, and indeed the world, and be a messenger or an errand runner for the Message.

5-6 Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

Where is God calling you to be a light-bearer for him? Where are you meant to shine some light into someone’s darkness and bring them into the beauty of the Son?

Light up the darkness! When we all do as we’ve been instructed, our lives will fill up with his light, all bright and beautiful.

Pull on your Light Gloves and go.

Wolf Moon by Michelle Robertson

Having an Epiphany

(This was originally published in January 2020. It is a good reminder as we approach Epiphany Sunday that God is always shining a light on some aspect of our lives that needs illuminating. Where is he shining his light into your darkness? Follow THAT star. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!)

Ever have an epiphany? Like a really, really good one? I recall having an epiphany once about a toxic relationship I was in. For the longest time I had been blinded to the reality of it, following along and taking the negativity toward me as “personality-driven.” Every time something was said that made me wince, I wrote it off to the other person’s stress/having a bad day/quirky humor/maybe I heard it wrong. But I was hearing it right, and when the epiphany finally came that this relationship was causing me harm, I had to begin the painful process of extricating myself from the friendship.

An epiphany happens when we finally see the light. The word harkens back to the time in scripture when people literally saw the light: a star hanging over Bethlehem that lit the way to the manger and thus lit the way to the salvation of the world.

Matthew 2 (New King James Version)

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

The star led them to Jesus, but an epiphany warned them to stay away from Herod. An Epiphany epiphany.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning appearance or manifestation. We celebrate the day of Epiphany on January 6th as the final day of the twelve days of Christmas. Many people keep their decorations and lights up until this day to commemorate the Light of the World being made manifest on earth.

In all senses of the word, epiphanies are about the breaking of darkness by the sudden intrusion of light-power. That is what happens every time God appears. Yet in the sense that God is always there, perhaps it is more accurate to say that it happens every time we finally are ready to see the light.

The irony of the Epiphany is that the pagan astrologers saw what the religious scholars refused to see. Trapped in their ritual, expectation, scripture memorization, and endless arguments about doctrine, they missed the entire event, while the star-gazers got to see the Messiah.

Take a look around you. What is God trying to show you? Where is he shining a light on something in your life and yelling, “Pay attention to this!”

Epiphanies happen every day. God breaks into darkness every day. God sheds new light on bad situations every day.

Open your eyes, and behold.

The Hilton’s Epiphany star.