This is our new cat Cleopatra. She came to us a few weeks ago. Cleo joins our other cats: Jane, Louisa, and Socrates. Our rescue dog Jazz fills out our human-animal family.
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This is our new cat Cleopatra. She came to us a few weeks ago. Cleo joins our other cats: Jane, Louisa, and Socrates. Our rescue dog Jazz fills out our human-animal family.
It’s been three months since the Awful Week. Still here. I’ve been reading Luther a lot, getting reacquainted with the gospel of Christ. I’m reading John’s Gospel a lot too. There is a sweetness, a comfort, in John’s portrait of Jesus that I had not noticed before. It is food for the soul, rich and nourishing. I’ve been feeding on Paul’s letters too quite a bit. And I keep using the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, a collection of old Anabaptist prayers — there is something in the language in these prayers that speaks to the heart, to my heart. I write them out to put them in my phone and have them readily available. Here is another, this one a prayer to Christ.
O most gracious and compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, rich in love. Most gentle, humble, patient Lord. What a beautiful example of a holy life, rich in virtue, you have provided for us. Now we are to follow in your footsteps.
You are an unspotted mirror of all virtue, a perfect example of salvation, a faultless standard of faithfulness, a sure plumb line of righteousness. How absolutely my sinful life contrasts with your holy life.
Although I am to live in you as a new creature, I am living rather in the old creation, in Adam, instead of in you, my dear Lord Jesus Christ. I ought to live according to the Spirit, but sadly, I am living according to the flesh, and I know that scripture says, If you live according to the flesh, you will die.
O you compassionate, patient, long-suffering Lord, forgive me my sins, cover up my defects, overlook my misdeeds, and close your holy, tender eyes to my impurity. Cast me not away from your presence. Do not expel me from your house as one who is impure and a leper. From my heart remove all pride, which is the devil’s weed. Plant in me your humility as the root and foundation of virtue. Root out every bit of vengeance, and grant me your great gentleness. O you highest jewel of all virtue, beautify my heart with pure faith, with fervent love, with living hope, with holy devotion, with childlike awe.
O my sole refuge, my love, and my hope, my honor, my jewel, your life has been nothing but love, gentleness, and humility.
Therefore, allow your noble life to be in me too. May your virtuous life also be my life. Let me be one spirit, one body, and one soul with you, that I may live in you, and you in me. May you live in me, and not I in myself. Grant that I might so acknowledge and love you, that I may walk just as you have walked.
If you are my light, then shine in me. If you are my life, then live in me. If you are my jewel, then adorn me with beauty. If you are my joy, then rejoice in me. If I am your dwelling place, then take full possession of me. May I totally be your instrument, that my body, my soul, and my spirit may be holy.
You, Eternal Way, lead me. You, Eternal Truth, teach me. You, Eternal Life, revive me. Keep me from being the instrument of an evil spirit, that through me and in me, he does not exercise and carry out his evil, his lies, arrogance, greed, wrath, and filthiness. For such is the image of Satan, from which you want to save me, O beautiful, perfect image of God.
Instead, each day renew my body, spirit, and soul after your image, until I am perfect. Let me die to the world that I may live unto you. Let me rise with you that I may ascend heavenward with you. Let me be crucified with you, that I may come to you and enter into your glory. Amen.
Another from the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, with a few alterations.
Just as I, O heavenly Father, have committed myself to calling upon your holy name, so also look upon me with the eyes of your mercy. Incline your ears, open your generous hands, and give me a cleansed and obedient heart, that I may lift it up to you, O God in heaven.
There at your right hand I have my Redeemer and Savior, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. For my justification he ascended into heaven, where I cannot yet follow him bodily as I inhabit this dwelling. But he has comforted me and given me the firm promise that what I ask of you in his name, you will grant and give.
I acknowledge my powerlessness and nothingness. So I come before you, dear Father, and pray that you will give me a steadfast and firm confidence in my heart, so I may be able to hear, examine, and comprehend your truth. May you keep me firm and immovable, as you have promised through your Son.
O Lord, seal this truth in my heart. Yes, dear God, strengthen my confidence and enable me to fathom how deeply you love the human race, to which you are so inclined and willing to give every good gift. May I firmly trust your almighty power, for I know that you, O God, make no promises that you cannot abundantly fulfill. Since you desire my well-being even more than I do, grant me not to look upon my unworthiness, but only upon your kindness, goodness, truth, and unlimited power.
Because I ought to call upon you with confidence, O God, free my heart of vain and deadly thoughts and desires so that no unrighteousness will be found there. May I ask and desire only what is pleasing to you, to your praise, and for the salvation of my soul.
To that end, make my heart lowly and humble, so that my prayers do not come back to me empty, but that they may pierce through the clouds to you, O God. Grant me also a heart that willingly forgives my neighbor without nursing any desire for revenge.
I also ask you to give me a deep desire and inclination of heart, and a sweet and reverent nature to call upon you as my Father, O God, with childlike love. I address you in the name of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, whose power is strong and mighty. You love him so dearly that you cannot refuse what I pray in his name. He removes from me, O God, whatever is displeasing to you. He prepares life and grace for me. He is my intercessor and prays for me.
I therefore ask you in his name for the remission and pardon of my sins. Lord, forgive me my sins in the name of your dear Son, Jesus Christ.
You are my God and Creator, who has given me breath and life. So direct the ordering of my life for eternal salvation. For all my works, deeds, and undertakings are in your hands. O Lord, direct them according to your divine pleasure; I commit them into your almighty hand.
However, O God, like the earth without rain and dew, I too am unfruitful without your favor and grace, and must perish and dry up. Shower and moisten me with your heavenly dew, rain, and favor; prepare me to bear fruit. This I also ask, dear Father, in Jesus’ name.
You alone are wise. Not only do you live in the light, but you yourself are the eternal light. I am living here in this dark, blind world; so enlighten me, O God, with your divine wisdom, which is a co-worker of your throne. Send down your wisdom from your holy heaven and the throne of your glory, to be with me and work with me, so I may know what is pleasing to you. Without this gift, O God, I cannot please you. For this wisdom, Lord, I also ask in the name of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the riches of wisdom and knowledge.
Since I am now burdened with all kinds of anxieties, I pray to you with King David: Lord, show me your face, and I shall be made well, that I may look upon you and live (Psalm 80.3). For there rests my salvation and eternal life. All the saints and your elect possess and enjoy that goodness. Let me also enjoy and share in this, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son, who taught us to pray. Grant that I may speak in spirit and in truth as I say, “Our Father…”
As in Mount Sinai the thundering, lightening, the thick and dark cloud, the hill smoking and flaming, and all that terrible show did not rejoice nor quicken the children of Israel, but terrified and astonished them, and showed how unable they were, with all their [supposed] purity and holiness, to abide the presence of God speaking to them out of the cloud; even so the law, when it is in its true sense, does nothing else but reveal sin, engender wrath, accuse and terrify people, so that it brings them to the very brink of desperation. This is the proper use of the law, and here it has an end, and ought to go no further.
On the other hand, the Gospel is a light which lightens, quickens, comforts, and raises up fearful minds. For it shows that God for Christ’s sake is merciful to sinners, yes and to such as are most unworthy, if they believe that by his death they are delivered from the curse, that is to say, from sin and everlasting death; and that through his victory, the blessing is freely given to them, that is, grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness and everlasting life.
Thus, putting a difference between law and Gospel, we give to both their own proper use and office.
This is from John Dillenberger’s edition of Martin Luther’s writings. This particular passage is from his Commentary on Galatians, which he wrote in the early 1530s. He is taking his original ideas presented in the 1520 treatises and reworking them anew. In this passage, the spiritual movement from desperation to light reminded me of the story you hear from speakers at an AA meeting — their stories always move from desperation to light.
Our scripture today is called The Flight Into Egypt (Mt 2.13-23). After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family must flee to Egypt to escape King Herod.
As a preacher, there are different things you could do with this story. You might compare this story with Luke’s gospel, where the Holy Family just goes back to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus. The two accounts are not consistent with one another, which raises questions about what really happened. Faith, history, and all that. It could be a good sermon, but not today.
Or a preacher might focus on Joseph, who is a model of fatherhood in this story. Care and protection — he does what a father should do. He also has a deep spirituality, with a sensitivity to divine leading. That would be a good sermon for Father’s Day.
But in the end, as a preacher, I must preach on what seizes me in this scripture. And what caught me was the image of the flight to Egypt itself. Jesus is born, a healthy baby. They have foreign visitors with expensive gifts. But just as Joseph is beginning to relax, he receives news of danger and threat. He must flee with them to another land. They must live for a time in a foreign land, where the language and the geography will be strange to them.
This reminds me of times in our life when something happens that changes everything, and we must flee to Egypt ourselves. Let me give an example.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor at Yale. One day, many years ago, he received a phone call.
Mr Wolterstorff? Yes…
You are father of Eric Wolterstorff? Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, I have hard news for you. Yes…
Your son Eric has been in a mountain climbing accident. Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, your son has died on the mountain. We need you to come immediately to Austria.
Nicholas Wolserstorff hung up the phone, and for three seconds he felt a sense of peace, with an image of giving his son to Someone. Then, after three seconds, he felt pain. Cold, burning pain.
In that moment, he had to flee to Egypt. He could no longer live a normal life in his homeland. He had to go to Egypt, the land of grief, where Rachel weeps for her children because they are no more.
This has been a hard year in our congregation. Many families are grieving. Many of you received hard news this year, news that changed everything for you. You lost something or someone precious to you. Now you are grieving, living in the land of Egypt, the land of grief.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The perennial question. I don’t have an answer, but I will share a way of looking at it that has helped me. It comes from a theologian named Gregory Boyd.
Some people, he says, see life as a blueprint. Everything that happens is a part of God’s blueprint for things. When a bad thing happens, we take comfort believing it’s all part of God’s master plan. This view is comforting, and disturbing. When a child dies of leukemia, is that part of God’s master plan? Who would want to believe in a God like that?
But Boyd offers another view. Not a blueprint, but a war. We are in the midst of a cosmic war, he says, a war we are only dimly aware of since it is spiritual as much as physical. The creation is in rebellion, at war with its Creator. The pain and suffering we see around us are casualties of this war. God can’t stop the war without stopping everything. But God, in Jesus, entered the war zone, first as a vulnerable baby, who grew up and experienced the pain, suffering, and heartache we know, and became a casualty himself, and overcame it, and is even now leading his people out into a new land where war will be no more, a new creation with peace, joy, and glory.
This way of looking at things has helped me. Not a blueprint but a war, where there are casualties. And refugees who are grieving.
If you are a refugee in Egypt, the land of grief, I’d say stay there for a while. Stay there as long as you need to. There are people around you who may not want you to stay there. They may want you to get over it and be happy. “Look at the pretty lights of Christmas,” they will say. But the pretty lights only deepen the ache of grief.
No, if you need to live in the land of Egypt, then stay there. I will even stamp your passport. I will live with you there. Eventually, you will come back to your native land, but you will return a different person. Once you have lived in Egypt, then Egypt lives in you. There is a capacity for compassion in you that is deeper than it was before. It is a strange thing, but usually it is those who have been broken who become agents of healing for others.
A few years ago there was a movie called Castaway, starring Tom Hanks as a package delivery executive. He is traveling on a plane carrying packages going around the world. The plane crashes in the ocean, and he and many packages wash up on the shore of an island. He is stranded on that island for four years. Eventually, he is rescued, and he tries to adjust to normal life again. But he can’t really go back. He has lost everything in his old life, including the woman he had been dating. Thinking he had died, she has married another man. He has one remaining package from the original trip that he never opened. The movie ends with him delivering it to a woman living on a ranch. The film hints and suggests that his new life will be with her.
That’s how a new life begins, with a hint, a suggestion, and a possibility.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned from the land of Egypt, and they made a new home in a place called Nazareth. So Jesus would become Jesus of Nazareth. They made a new life there.
Know that you will make a new life too. Even now there are hints and new possibilities bubbling inside of you. You will come back from Egypt and make a new life. It will take time, but it will happen.
All that is needed on your part are three things: trust, wait, and listen. Amen.
From the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians:
Praise and thanksgiving to you, almighty God and Father, for your protection and blessing, and for all the good which I have enjoyed this past day. I would gladly enter the inner sanctum of my heart to worship you in spirit and in truth. But it is still so full of impurity, for today I have been burdened with many scattered thoughts. Also, in my actions and life, I have not responded in the best way, for I am full of defects and mistakes; I am poor and miserable.
Although I am only dust and ashes, I still have dared to call upon your holy name. I pray and woefully implore you, O my God, forgive me all my transgressions and mistakes with which I have offended you. Cleanse my heart of all fleshly and worldly desires. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Illumine me with your light of grace. Thus may I come to know how my hidden mistakes look in the light of grace.
Truly soften my heart, making it the bearer of remorse and sorrow. Through your grace bring about true regret and repentance in my soul. Give me the true, living, and saving faith. Kindle the fire of your divine love in my soul, and let it glow and burn until my selfishness is completely consumed.
I also pray for all people, for all the poor and unknown sinners, for all my enemies and opponents, for all the sick, and for all the widows and the forsaken. You know the needs of each one, and may you aid each one who needs your help.
Now I lay my body down into the arms of your grace and mercy and commit myself, body and soul, into your hands. Protect me with your holy angels. Bless and shield me from all evil, whether I am asleep or awake. Teach me to reflect upon my nothingness, my dying, and my death. Finally receive my immortal soul into eternal joy and rest. This I pray, O almighty God and Father, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here is another morning prayer from the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, with pronouns changed to singular.
O Lord, merciful, gracious God, Father of eternal light and comfort, whose goodness and faithfulness is new each morning. To you I declare my praise, honor, and gratitude for the treasured light of day, for protecting me graciously during the night, and for granting me a gentle sleep and rest.
May I now once again arise in your grace and love, under your care and protection, and make use of the cherished light of day in a useful and joyous manner.
Above all, enlighten me with the eternal light, my Lord Jesus Christ, that he might shine in me with his grace and knowledge. Preserve in my heart the light of faith. Grant increase to this faith and strengthen it. Awaken your love in me, and confirm the hope. Grant me true humility that I may walk in the footsteps of my Lord Jesus Christ. In my every act allow your godly fear in me to be seen by others.
Dispel all spiritual darkness in me and blindness of heart. Today and every day, safeguard me against superstition and idolatry, against arrogance and blasphemy of your name, against despising your Word, against disobedience and loathsome anger, so that the sun might not set upon my anger this day.
Protect me from enmity, hate, and envy, from disorder and unrighteousness, from falsehood, lies, and damaging greed, and from every evil desire. Awaken in me a hunger and thirst for you and your righteousness. Teach me to act according to your pleasure, for you are my God.
May your good Spirit lead me onto a smooth path. I commit myself to you. Bless all my actions that they may bring honor to your name and be useful to my neighbor. Make me an instrument of your grace. Permit me to continue safely in my calling, and restrain all those who would obstruct my walk of life.
Safeguard me against slander and the liar’s murderous arrows. Accompany me at all times with your grace. Hold your hand above me constantly, whether I am walking or standing, awake or asleep. Safeguard me also against evil, painful sickness, and deadly epidemics. Bless all my nourishment, provide for me in all my human needs in accord with your will, and keep me from misusing your gifts.
Protect me from war, hunger, pestilence, and from an evil and premature death. Guard my soul, indeed, my going out and my coming in forevermore. Bestow upon me a blessed end. May I with longing and joy await the good day of the last judgment and the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May God the Father bless and keep me in Jesus Christ, and in his holy and good Spirit. Amen.