Why The Cross?

Scripture Focus: Matthew 2.13
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 

Galatians 4.4-5
4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Romans 5.7
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

Reflection: Why The Cross?
By John Tillman

If salvation merely needed the blood of the sinless one, then any death would do. Herod’s soldiers could have killed two-year-old Jesus. He could have leaped from the top of the Temple as he was tempted by Satan. His friends and neighbors could have thrown him off of a cliff. He could have been stoned. He could have been beaten with clubs or killed with the sword.

Why the cross?

Inside and outside Christianity, people express discomfort with the cross. “Isn’t it gross?” “Isn’t it violent?”

Ancient people agreed. Perhaps the first historical depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is the Alexamenos graffito, dated to about 200 AD. It scoffs, “Alexamenos worships his god,” under the image of a donkey-headed crucified man. 

I saw a set of memes recently from a former Christian who is now a skeptic/atheist. The AI-generated images showed life if Rome used guillotines rather than crosses. In a beautiful cathedral, a guillotine hung in shafts of stained glass-colored light during a wedding. Monks carried a flower-bedecked guillotine through festival streets. Elaborate guillotines decorated headstones and crypts in a peaceful graveyard.

Why is the cross worthy of architectural enshrinement in our places of worship? Why is it worthy of remembrance in festivals, jewelry, and decor? Why is it worthy of being a symbol of reverent hope on headstones? Why obsess over a gruesome instrument of torture?

In his sovereignty, out of all places, all times, and all means, Jesus chose the cross to bring the greatest good out of the greatest evil. (Romans 5.6; Galatians 4.4-5

Jesus did many good things before the cross. Healing. Teaching. Serving. Jesus did many good things after the cross. The harrowing of Hell. The resurrection. The ascension. The coming of the Holy Spirit. But on the cross is where he accomplished the ultimate good he came for. 

Every good thing before the cross pointed to it. Every good thing after the cross is evidence of the power broken on it.

On the cross, God was in Christ, reconciling us to himself (2 Corinthians 5.18-19), accomplishing all that scripture promised. Sin dead. Death defeated. Satan vanquished. 

The cross is worthy because of the work Jesus did on it: “It is finished.” (John 19.30) So, we are not ashamed of the gospel revealed on the cross. Let us continue to remind ourselves of it, center our teaching on it, and reverence it in every appropriate way.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? — Psalm 22.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Song of Songs 5 (Listen 2:43)
Matthew 2 (Listen 3:18)

This Weekend’s Readings
Song of Songs 6 (Listen 1:48Matthew 3 (Listen 2:17)
Song of Songs 7 (Listen 1:55Matthew 4 (Listen 3:09)

Read more about The Moon and the Cross
He is about to die on their behalf. The one who hung the moon will hang on a cross.

Read more about The Prayer From the Cross
Jesus knew that most of his audience would recognize the quote and understand that he was referencing the entire psalm.

Good Things Coming True

Scripture Focus: Matthew 2.4-5, 15, 17, 23
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written

15 And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet

17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled

23 So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets

Reflection: Good Things Coming True
By John Tillman

A narrator’s voice often influences how we perceive a story. The TV series, Arrested Development, featured a narrator who inserted his own opinion about what was happening. He often pointed out contradictions or lies by the main characters. In one scene, Gob (pronounced Job) is lying about having slept with someone.

     Gob: I did and it was disgusting.

     Narrator: They didn’t. But it would have been.

The narrator’s voice often inserts itself into Matthew’s Gospel, but Matthew isn’t pointing out bad things or lies. He’s telling us when good things come true.

The word “fulfill” occurs more in Matthew’s Gospel than in any other Gospel. Fifteen times, Matthew either says a prophecy has been fulfilled or records Jesus saying something must happen to fulfill the prophets.

Each Gospel author has a focus. Mark focused on Jesus being powerful, yet a servant. Matthew focuses on Jesus as the prophesied king, the Son of David, the Messiah, or Christ. He highlights prophecies concerning the messianic kingship of Jesus.

Many religions prophesy the future. This includes the non-spiritual religions of science, politics, and economics. With forecasts, polling data, and analysis, these prognosticators make promises too. But how do we uncover the truth? What prophecies can we trust?

In the mystery Knives Out, the detective Benoit Blanc describes the process of uncovering the truth using an analogy of watching the arc of a thrown ball. Once you understand the ball’s arc, finding where it will land is a simple matter of mathematics.

Matthew wants us to understand the arc of the previously fulfilled promises pertaining to Jesus to build trust. By looking at the path of past promises, we can trust the trajectory of Christ’s promises today. Every promise God has made will land—will be made “yes” in Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 1.20)

If God, over millennia, can order the occurrence of events so that Jesus is born in the proper place, the proper clan, sojourn in Egypt, return to live in the correct obscure village, and fulfill the minutiae of other messianic prophecies, surely he is worthy of us trusting to him our tomorrow?

Jesus is not only called “Faithful and True,” he has proved to be so. Like Matthew, as we serve Jesus, we may need to explain to others the fulfillment of yesterday’s promises so that they can join us in trusting the promises of salvation. Good things are coming true.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seek, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. — Psalm 126.6-7

Today’s Readings
Genesis 41 (Listen 7:30
Matthew 2 (Listen 3:18)

Read more about Previsualizations of Promises
One day we will be ultimately freed and the world we are meant to live in will be rebuilt. This will be the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises.

Read more about False Promises and Threats
Lord, we are besieged with false promises and threats…pacification instead of peace and retribution instead of righteousness.

Doubt and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 6:22
22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.

Matthew 2:19-20
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Reflection: Doubt and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

The eye of God was watching over the Israelites as they were threatened by local enemies. But I bet they were scared, anxious, and nervous. The older generation, the ones who wept at the sight of the temple foundation, carried the burdens of trauma. They remembered being forcibly taken from their land. They watched their cities be razed to the ground. The Babylonians attempted to remove their cultural identity.

The king who granted permission for them to rebuild was not the same king they appealed to now. They probably worried about how he would react. Would he honor the decision of a former king? Would he retaliate by creating a new, restrictive law? Would he ignore them?

God’s people had been through the valley of the shadow of death. They became prisoners of war when the Babylonians destroyed Judah. A foreign king terrorized their lives. Could they trust another king to be different?

Trauma sets a person on edge. It is easy to become hypervigilant and skeptical. Worst-case scenarios run through the mind. What might happen?

When Jesus was born, Herod pursued the newborn king with tyrannical fury. He didn’t hesitate to kill other children to get to Jesus. Mary and Joseph carried the weight of that moment. It was a time of anxiety and fear. What will God do?

Their relocation to Egypt was not permanent. God removed the threat through natural causes. Herod died. In a dream, God sent a messenger to tell them it was safe to go home.

Sometimes God works in miraculous ways. For the Israelites who were rebuilding the temple, the answer to their appeal to Darius was better than anyone expected. Permission to rebuild was confirmed but also expanded. God inclined the heart of Darius to fully fund the costs of construction and grant protection from any further interference. A feast of joy ensued.

God works through his creation. Sometimes the answer is time and waiting for change. God works through miracles. Sometimes the answer is a baby born of a virgin or a foreign king financing the construction of a temple he would never use.

Joy, at times, feels out of reach. We worry; we fear; we doubt. How can this all work out? Isn’t he supposed to be watching over us? The joy of Advent is wrestling with our questions and waiting for God to answer.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your Name forever and ever. — Psalm 145.1

Today’s Readings

Ezra 6 (Listen 4:24
Revelation 5 (Listen 2:39)

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Read more about One Worth Rejoicing In — Joy of Advent
The Lord is coming, who is our source of victory and joy. We are waiting for him and he is searching for us.

Peril and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 5:5
5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.

Matthew 2:10-12
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Reflection: Peril and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

The foundations of the temple were laid, and a mix of joy and grief resided over the people. As soon as they set out to do the work of God, they were met with resistance. Enemies of Judah and Benjamin bribed officials to frustrate their plans (Ezra 4.4-5). They accused the Israelites of dishonoring King Artaxerxes (Ezra 4.14). The work was stalled. But God would not be hindered.

Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets, called the people to return to their work. Despite the support from the prophets, they were met with more resistance. A local governor questioned their right to rebuild. Eager to bring punishment, he took names. But the eye of their God was watching over them.

The work of God can be dangerous. It can be unpopular. Motives can be questioned. Efforts can be confounded.

When the Magi came to visit Jesus, they were filled with the joy of his advent. Joy brimmed over. Overjoyed, they were face to face with God. They worshiped Jesus and offered their gifts. But the eye of God was watching over them. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod, enraged with power and jealousy, soon called for the murder of every infant boy in Bethlehem.

But the eye of God was watching over them. Another warning was given and Joseph and Mary fled with infant Jesus to Egypt.

The Magi could have returned to Herod and faced his interrogation. Mary and Joseph could have stayed in Bethlehem and faced the executioner. The Israelites were face to face with authorities who wanted to stop the temple rebuilding and didn’t hesitate to take names.

The road to worshiping God can be dangerous. Being faithful to God’s call is like following a path with hills and valleys and perils. Our brothers and sisters around the world face greater threats than some of us will ever know. All because they seek to worship God.

The joy of Advent is knowing the eye of God watches over us. Jesus, our God made flesh, looked upon the Magi that night. The same God who had watched over the Israelites in Jerusalem. The same God who sent a messenger to warn Joseph. The same God who sees you now.

As we reflect upon Advent this year, consider how he watches over us. “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121.8).

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you, and so will my soul, which you have redeemed. — Psalm 71.23

Today’s Readings
Ezra 5 (Listen 3:02
Revelation 4 (Listen 2:09)

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Read more about The Exodus and The Return
The testimony of Ezra tells us that kings come and go, but it is the Lord who is our only hope and protector.

Grief and Joy — Joy of Advent

Scripture Focus: Ezra 3:11b-13
11b And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Matthew 2:16-18
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

From John: Advent has parallels in many parts of scripture. We look forward this week to Erin’s reflections comparing the return of the exiles in Ezra to the truths of Christ’s coming at Christmas and to his second Advent which we also look forward to at this time of year.

Reflection: Grief and Joy — Joy of Advent
By Erin Newton

What if Christmas is not the greatest time of the year? What if there is nothing merry?

The holidays are marked by stress, depression, and anxiety. For Christians, it is a perplexing mix: joy for Jesus’ birth and the painful reality that December 25 does not end all sorrow.

As we read through Ezra, the Israelites return to the Promised Land. Exile was over. The temple, however, was in ruins. God’s dwelling place was a pile of rubbish.

The people set out to rebuild the temple, albeit in a more humble and meager size. When the foundations were laid, the response was mixed. The younger crowds rejoiced with praise and jubilation. The older crowds wept with grief.

For these older travelers, the journey has been traumatic and painful. In decades gone by, they had filled their hearts with dreams of a happy future. Solomon’s Temple, the first temple now in ruins, was majestic and praiseworthy. But all those dreams were cut down. Their lives had become beacons of pain and loss.

Yes, this new temple was worth celebrating but even this happy moment was a reminder of their grief.

Advent, too, holds both pain and joy.  Like those who would come to a pile of rubbish to worship God, the Magi visited the incarnate deity in a humble home. It was a time of celebrating and worshiping the newborn king.

Words of praise and joy were likely heard that night when the Magi came to visit. This new foundation had been laid. Not just a place to meet with God. But now it would be God with us!

Mary would cherish the honor and privilege of raising Jesus and caring for his mortal body. But other mothers would weep. Although Jesus had come, the world was still pierced with darkness. Herod’s pride would cause the death of innocent children and the grief of their parents.

We know that the season of Advent is a time to rejoice. We try to be happy. Holidays sometimes include a newly empty seat at the table. Sometimes the phone is silent because of severed relationships. Sometimes the financial burden of the holidays makes for a meager and sparse Christmas.

Advent is not the time to put away your grief. The joy of Advent has space for pain and sorrow. May we let the sound of joy and grief collide into one voice to our God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. — Psalm 118.24

Today’s Readings
Ezra 4 (Listen 4:27
Revelation 3 (Listen 3:53)

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Read more about It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Carols of Advent Peace
Sears suffered from illness, depression, and an eventual breakdown…In the aftermath of his personal struggles, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”