Unassuming Greatness

‘After me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ — John the Baptist (Acts 13.25)

Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s parents, spent nearly their entire life without a child. The social scorn placed on families without children in the ancient Near East would have been felt more acutely by Elizabeth, but the nature of her husband’s vocation likely added to their pain.

As a priest, Zechariah would have surely cried out to God for a child. Each year a priest would be selected to enter the Holy of Holies—the place where God’s presence rested in Israel. Prior to the announcement of John’s birth, Zechariah had never been chosen. Unanswered prayers and a spiritual leader never invited into the holiest of places—on the outside it looked like Zechariah was the priest God didn’t listen to.

When it comes to prayer, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows,” says Timothy Keller. Zechariah’s prayers—which looked unanswered, or even ignored, for decades—were answered more fully than he knew to ask or imagine.

Their son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the long-expected Messiah. His prophecies, teachings, and baptisms called Israel to repentance, setting the stage for Christ. During his ministry John gathered and trained disciples of his own—a process that required years of dedicated service and sacrifice.

As Jesus’ ministry formed some of John’s disciples left him in order to follow the new Rabbi. Soon even the crowds that gathered around John began to follow Jesus instead. The prophet could have been jealous, or at least defeated, that those he had poured the most into were walking away. Instead he was honored and thankful.

You can contrast Zechariah and Elizabeth’s endurance, and John the Baptist’s faithfulness, with the arrogance and pride of the religious leaders in Acts 13. “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.”

Humility is stunning when you come in contact with it. We expect to see the covetousness and rage that came from the religious elite. Yet, a person whose life has come in contact with Christ has been overwhelmed by a grace that transcend circumstance. Like John, the glory of the Church is found when it follows Christ’s example of leading others to God through sacrifice.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 3 (Listen – 5:43)
Acts 13 (Listen – 7:36)

Prayer and Hope in Suffering


And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. — Acts 12.4
“I believe that God both can and will bring good out of evil,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison in 1943. It was in the first months of his incarceration, and he believed he would be free by Christmas that year.

Adjusting to life in his cell, which offered little natural light, was extraordinarily difficult. Bonhoeffer, like the disciples in Acts, drew deeply from his faith:
I believe God will give us all the power we need to resist in all time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely upon ourselves and not on him alone. A faith as strong as this should allay all our fears for the future.
Though Bonhoeffer would not taste freedom in this world again (he would later be transferred to a concentration camp and hanged), his words of lament, faith, and hope stretch through all his correspondence. Never more-so than his prayer from Christmas, 1943:
O God, early in the morning do I cry unto you. Help me to pray, and to think only of you.

In me there is darkness, but there is light in you. I am lonely, but you do not leave me. I am feeble in heart, but you do not leave me. I am restless, but there is peace with you. In me there is bitterness, but there is patience with you; your ways are beyond understanding, you know the way for me.

O Holy Spirit, grant me the faith that will protect me from despair: deliver me from the lusts of the flesh. Pour into my heart such love for thee and for men, that all hatred and bitterness may be blotted out. Grant me the hope that will deliver me from fear and timidity.

Chiefly do I remember all my loved ones, my fellow-prisoners, and all who in this house perform their hard service.

Lord have mercy. Restore me to liberty and enable me so to live now, that I may answer before you and before the world. Lord, whatever this day may bring, your Name be praised. Amen.
The accounts of those who suffered before us can foster resilience in our suffering today. May our prayers be enlivened by the glory of God. May our Spirits rest in the peace of Christ. May our suffering never eclipse our view of the glory and sufficiency of God.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 2 (Listen – 3:42)
Acts 12 (Listen – 3:49)

Courage to Suffer


“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” — Nehemiah (1.4)
We are too often left to suffer alone. Our culture is immensely individualistic and communal mourning stopped shortly after the first immigrants arrived in the new land. Our pride further complicates things—suffering is, by nature, inglorious—sharing our pain risks loss of relationship, status, or worse.

Suffering alone deepens isolation. We become disconnected from our community and distanced in our relationship with God—we struggle to feel the love of others, even if we have an intellectual grasp of its presence. In her TED Talk on vulnerability researcher Brene Brown says this:
There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.
Before you dismiss it as self-help tripe, the reason Brown discovered this was true has a deep meaning for people of faith. In looking at those who had a strong sense of love and belonging, Brown says:
What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to separate courage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language—it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning “heart”—and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.

These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.
Nehemiah weeping is reminiscent of David’s Psalms of Lament—there was a courage to confront the veracity of the pain. More than that, as we see in the Psalms, there was a progression: a cry out to God, followed by a request for his intervention, then a praise for his love.

We cannot forget that when Jesus was confronted with the pain of this world he wept. God incarnate, weeping at loss. When we hurt, God weeps with us. But he does not stop there. For it is only through his power we, like Lazarus, can be called out of the depths of our pain.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 1 (Listen – 2:06)
Acts 11 (Listen – 3:52)