Strange Surprise

"Strange Surprise" by Malcolm Guite

None of this need have happened, all of this,
These unexpected gifts, this overflow
Of things we know, and things we'll never know,
None of this had to be, but here it is,
The here-and-now, in all its strange surprise;
A space to be ourselves in, and a grace
That spins us round and turns us to the source
Whence all these gifts and graces still arise.

And now the one through whom all this was made,
Whom we ignore, on whom we turn our back,
Whom we denied, insulted and betrayed,
Gathers and offers for us all we lack,
Voices on our behalf creation's praise,
And calls us to become the song he plays.


Ascension Day

The Ascension of the Lord


From the Presbyterian Mission Agency:

The seven weeks of the Easter season include the festival of the ascension of our Lord — Ascension Day. Throughout the earliest centuries of the church, every Sunday celebrated the unitive festival of the paschal mystery: the passion–death–resurrection–ascension of Christ, the giving of the Spirit, and Christ’s coming in glory at the end of time. Over the years, however, Christ’s redeeming work was gradually separated into individual feasts on specific days. For instance, by the late fourth century, the Lord’s ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we commemorated as two distinct aspects of Christ’s redeeming work. Ascension Day’s exaltation of Christ, however, still looks both back to Transfiguration and Easter and forward to Christ the King (or Reign of Christ).

In that John Calvin’s theology placed great importance on the ascended and regnant Christ, Ascension Day is in some ways the Presbyterian feast day. Christ is Lord of the world and head of the church, we proclaim. Christ’s ascension, therefore, concerns us not only with ecclesiastical matters but also with social and political ones. If Christ has ascended, then there are no other rulers — all others are merely pretenders. Christ reigns supreme.

With the raising of Christ to a position above all worldly powers, the earthly ministry of Christ begun at Christmas’s incarnation now concludes. The path of faithfulness obediently followed by Christ traveled through the suffering of the cross to the exaltation of the glory. From glory to suffering to glory again is the shape of Jesus’ ministry as well as ours. We too, are destined for the glory we share now in Christ only by faith. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).

A Prayer:

Most High God, we are witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ: written in the Law, promised by the prophets, sung by the psalmists; given in love for the world, risen from the dust of death, lifted up in heavenly glory. Let our lives proclaim Christ's life. Wrap us in your power and presence so that we may worship you always, continually blessing your name; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Image credit: Icon of the Ascension by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev (1360-1430)

Reflections on Maundy Thursday

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday.  What on earth does that mean?

On Maundy Thursday the church remembers the last evening Jesus shared with his disciples in an upper room before his arrest and crucifixion.  During this evening, Jesus washed his disciples' feet and shared his "last supper" with them.

  Image credit: Diane Herring

Maundy Thursday begins the Triduum, the three-day period from sunset on Thursday to sunset on Easter Sunday.  The name “Maundy Thursday” comes from the Latin mandatum novum, referring to the “new commandment” Jesus taught his disciples (John 13:34).*

At First Presbyterian Church, our worship service on Maundy Thursday is the primary midweek event during Holy Week.  As such, our service also draws attention to Good Friday and the suffering, death, and burial of our Lord.  The removal of the elements from the sanctuary represents the humiliation, nakedness, and abandonment of Jesus as he was arrested and crucified.  As we leave in silence, we contemplate the darkness of his death on the cross for us.

This is a sacred and a somber time.  Yet it is not a time without hope, for we gather as a people who know that out of the darkness of the tomb will shine the brilliant light of resurrection on Easter morning. 

It may be Thursday... but Sunday's coming.


P.S. - Take a look at the other resources for reflecting on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday:

“What Happened on the Cross?" - N.T. Wright responds

"Countdown to Calvary" - a new BBC series chronicling the last days of Jesus' life

A Blessed Lent


Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. If you didn’t grow up with Lent (and I know many of you didn’t, myself included), here’s a bit of background. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for “springtime.” It refers to the length of time before Easter, traditionally forty days, when the Church prepares to commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Just as Advent helps us prepare spiritually for Christmas, Lent helps us prepare spiritually for Holy Week and Easter.

You may be asking, Do I have to observe Lent? The first answer is, Of course not. But the second answer is, Why wouldn’t you? This season is a gift to us wherein we may pause and reflect on our lives in light of Jesus Christ. So, I encourage you to observe it this year. Typically folks use this time as a chance to give something up: certain foods, certain media, certain habits. In recent years it’s become popular to take something on: daily prayer, for instance, or journaling and letter-writing. Regardless, the goal isn’t self-promotion (pride) but self-effacement (humility). What will help you humble yourself over the next forty days, so that you can see Jesus more clearly? Whatever the answer is, do it.

Much more can be said — but for now I’ll leave you with the sage words of St. Ambrose of Milan. Let’s pray this together, and mean it:

O Lord, who has mercy upon all:
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of your Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore You,
a heart to delight in You,
to follow and enjoy You, for Christ's sake,

Image credit:  Agnolo Gaddi, “Crucifixion”

Do You Want to Get Well?

rem heal.jpg

Today we heard the story of Jesus healing an "invalid" at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18).  Jesus asks a probing question: "Do you want to get well?"  The man does, and Jesus heals him. 

One-fifth of all the material in the Gospels is concerned with Jesus' healing of some form of physical disease.  This has dramatic implications for our life today as Jesus' followers.  The Son of God came to save us and to heal us - in body and in soul, in this life or in the life to come.  

Take a look at these extra resources, especially the Wilson article I referenced in my sermon.

- Blake

We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that He has power but also wonderful foretastes of what He is going to do with that power. Jesus’s miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.
— Tim Keller, "The Reason for God"

Image credit: Rembrandt, “Christ Healing” 

Come and See

Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”
They said to Him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come and see.”
- John 1:38-39

Week 2 in John’s Gospel finds us making the turn from knowing about Jesus to following after Jesus. John the Baptist acts as our guide, helping us (and those first disciples) get their bearings for this new adventure. What will you do when he comes calling, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?

- Blake

We need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ. We must capture the spirit of the early church. Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel.” - Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love

"Those who aren't following Jesus aren't his followers. It's that simple. Followers follow, and those who don't follow aren't followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it." - Scot McKnight, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow

 John the Baptist and the “pointing hand” (Grunewald’s  Isenheim Altarpiece )

John the Baptist and the “pointing hand” (Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece)

The Light Has Come

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” - John 1:4

Today we started our new study of John. Here are a few of the things I mentioned. Hope you can join us in reading and praying along through this beautiful Fourth Gospel. 

 - Blake

“John flies like an eagle above the cloud of human weakness and looks upon the light of unchanging truth with the most lofty and firm eyes of the heart. And gazing on the very deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he is equal to the Father, he has striven in this Gospel to confide this above all...” - Thomas Aquinas


From Falling Up by Shel Silverstein, gettin’ all theological: 


“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (because sometimes hymns say it best):

And never, ever forget: 


Praise the Lord

Psalm 134 - the last of the songs of ascent - ends with a call to praise:

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
who minister by night in the house of the Lord.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
and praise the Lord.

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

This reminds us that we are made to praise God.  That our chief end (as the Westminster Catechism says) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!  Could there be a more fitting call for Christ the King Sunday?

Eugene Peterson says this:

Glorify.  Enjoy.  There are other things involved in Christian discipleship... But it is extremely important to know the one thing that overrides everything else.  The main thing is not work for the Lord; it is not suffering in the name of the Lord; it is not witnessing to the Lord; it is not teaching Sunday School for the Lord; it is not being responsible for the sake of the Lord in community; it is not keeping the Ten Commandments; not loving your neighbor; not observing the golden rule.  ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’  Or, in the vocabulary of Psalm 134, to bless God.
— A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 198

Hope in the Lord

Psalm 130 begins in the depths and ends with redemption.  This movement -- from lament to hope, sin to forgiveness, suffering to redemption -- is at the heart of the Gospel.  How do see this in your life?  What do you hope for in the Lord?

For added meaning to today's sermon, check out these resources:

Christina Rossetti, De Profundis (“Out of the Depths”)

Oh why is heaven built so far, 
Oh why is earth set so remote? 
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat. 

I would not care to reach the moon, 
One round monotonous of change; 
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range. 

I never watch the scatter'd fire
Of stars, or sun's far-trailing train, 
But all my heart is one desire, 
And all in vain: 

For I am bound with fleshly bands, 
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope; 
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, 
And catch at hope. 

John Donne, Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness

Since I am coming to that holy room, 
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore, 
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door, 
         And what I must do then, think here before. 

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery, 
      Per fretum febris, by these straits to die, 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west; 
         For, though their currents yield return to none, 
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, 
         So death doth touch the resurrection. 

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
         The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem? 
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar, 
         All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them, 
         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem. 

We think that Paradise and Calvary, 
         Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place; 
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me; 
         As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face, 
         May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace. 

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord; 
         By these his thorns, give me his other crown; 
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word, 
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own: 
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down." 

Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.