Saturday, December 14, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Give me a deeper trust, that I may lose myself to find myself in You, the ground of my rest, the spring of my being. Give me a deeper knowledge of Yourself as Savior, Master, Lord, and King. Give me deeper power in private prayer, more sweetness in Your Word, more steadfast grip on its truth. Give me deeper holiness in speech, thought, action, and let me seek no virtue apart from You. Amen.

- a prayer of the Puritan movement

Friday, December 13, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Let Freedom's Bells Resound

My new hymn for this week seeks to fill a gap in our English hymnography. We have wonderful Christmas hymns relating to most parts and themes of the nativity story: the shepherds, the wise men, the birth in the stable, etc. However, there's at least one major omission: we have no hymns that really seek to capture Matthew's clear emphasis on Jesus' birth as a recapitulation of the Exodus events (highlighting the parallels between Herod's reaction and Pharaoh's, the fact that Jesus' family goes down into Egypt and comes back up, and so on). So this hymn follows that Matthean nativity theme, glorifying Christ as our new deliverer, sent to set us free. The tune is that of "Come, Christians, Join to Sing." Verses 2 and 3 below speak specifically about the events that Matthew uses to point out the parallels, but if worship leaders prefer a more general treatment (or don't want to sing about "Herod's wicked sword"), it would be perfectly fine to sing only verses 1, 4, and 5.

Let Freedom's Bells Resound

Let freedom's bells resound
     Alleluia, amen!
Hope in the dark we've found
     Alleluia, amen!
Jesus was born for us
Leading our exodus
In him we place our trust
     Alleluia, amen!

Like Moses, was our King
     Alleluia, amen!
Born in the midst of pain
     Alleluia, amen!
By grace our infant Lord
Escaped the wrath outpoured
Of Herod's wicked sword
     Alleluia, amen!

Then through the wilderness
     Alleluia, amen!
Mary and Joseph went
     Alleluia, amen!
With Jesus, they retraced
Israel's ancient way
From slavery into grace
     Alleluia, amen!

God heard his people's cry
     Alleluia, amen!
Leaving us not to die
     Alleluia, amen!
He made a way for us
From manger to the cross
Christ has delivered us
     Alleluia, amen!

Praise our Redeemer come
     Alleluia, amen!
Jesus, the Holy One
     Alleluia, amen!
We, from sin's slavery
Now live in liberty
Praise him who set us free
     Alleluia, amen!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Heroes of the Faith: The Maccabees

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about [those]…whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.      - Hebrews 11:32-40

Basic Information

- The Maccabees (2nd century BC) were a faithful Jewish family before the time of Christ who raised a successful revolt against a pagan Greco-Syrian emperor who had tried to eradicate the worship of the God of Israel. Their name comes from the nickname of one of their first leaders, Judas “Maccabeus” (which means “the Hammerer”). They eradicated Greek paganism from Israel, restored the worship of God in the Temple, and ultimately achieved full political independence for Israel until the time of Rome’s ascent to power.

- The story of the Maccabees is found in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Old Testament Apocrypha, which is included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, but not in Protestant ones. Protestants do not consider these books to be inspired Scripture, but great Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin praised them as being recommended reading for all Christians.


175-171 BC – Antiochus IV (“Epiphanes,” i.e., “God made manifest”) becomes the ruler of the Seleucid Empire based in Syria, one of the many successor-states to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East. Israel is at this time under Seleucid rule, and quite a few Jews want to abandon certain aspects of the Jewish Law and instead adopt the popular Greek cultural fashions flooding through their region. The high priests in Jerusalem begin to appeal to Antiochus for more power, arranging bribes, tributes from the Temple treasury, and even assassinations of one another. Many other Jews, disgusted by all this, begin to resist.

170-168 BC
– Antiochus Epiphanes attempts an invasion of Egypt, but is rebuffed by Roman military intervention. Embarrassed, he takes it out on Jerusalem on his way back home, slaughtering many civilians and defiling the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He then decides that he is going to outlaw the Jewish religion—he forbids circumcision and reading biblical books, and forces many Jews to eat unclean foods.

167 BC – Antiochus Epiphanes has his agents go into the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrifice a pig to Zeus on its altar. (Many Jews see this as the “abomination of desolation” foretold by Daniel.) The Temple is renamed in honor of Olympian Zeus, and Seleucid soldiers are sent throughout Israel to force every Jew in the country to make a public sacrifice to the Greek gods. This was the last straw. Out in the countryside was a family of small-town Jewish priests, led by their aged father, Mattathias. When soldiers tried to force him to sacrifice to Zeus, he refused. And when one of his Jewish neighbors went forward and ate a piece of pig-flesh from the sacrifice, Mattathias killed him on the spot. Facing arrest, Mattathias and his five sons fled into the wilderness and raised a ragtag guerrilla army to resist Antiochus and to force all Hellenized Jews (that is, Jews who had gone over to Greek customs) back to observance of the Jewish Law.

166-165 BC – Mattathias dies, and leadership of the group passes to his oldest son, Judas “Maccabeus.” Antiochus dispatches his chief general, Lysias, to deal with the revolt, but Judas, with only 3000 men, wins a series of astonishing victories over the much larger Seleucid army. Judas is able to force a settlement in which Antiochus agrees to revoke his anti-Jewish laws.

164 BC – Judas and his men capture Jerusalem out of the hands of Hellenized Jews, and they rededicate the Temple to the Lord. (This act is remembered and celebrated every year during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.) Meanwhile, Antiochus Epiphanes dies.

163-161 BC – Judas and his men successfully push back a few more attempts by Antiochus’ successors to re-establish their control of Israel, and they continue to drive out or forcibly convert the Hellenized Jews. Eventually, in a final battle against the Seleucids, Judas dies.

160-134 BC – The other sons of Mattathias continue to lead the Israelites—first Jonathan (160-143 BC), who brings some peace to their relations with the Seleucid Empire, and then Simon (143-134 BC), who in his first year of command wins full political independence for Israel. His successors, the Hasmoneans, would lead Israel as kings and high priests for the next eighty years.


Mattathias: “So observe, from generation to generation, that none of those who put their trust in God will lack strength…My children, be courageous and grow strong in the Law, for by it you will gain honor.” (1 Macc. 2:61, 64) 

Judas: “In the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven.” (3:18-19)

Jewish martyrs: “Even if for the present I could avoid the punishment of mortals [by worshiping Greek gods], yet whether I live or die I will not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Macc. 6:26-28)

“You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” (2 Macc. 7:9)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Evangeliad (13:1-7)

Section 13:1-7 (corresponding to Matt. 10:16-22)

Like innocent lambs I'm sending you out,
Out where the wolves are hunting about;
Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves:
Walk in the kindness and courage of love.

Be watchful, be wary as you go forth,
For you will be seized and dragged before court,
'Mid councils, synagogues, governors, kings,
They'll flog you, press you about many things--

It's all for my sake, for me and my name,
That you bear testimony in such a way;
Before them, before all nations you'll stand,
And in that moment you must understand:

You should not be anxious, don't be afraid,
Don't worry about the things you should say;
The words you should speak will be given to you,
As the Spirit of God bears witness through you.

Hold fast in such times; even when brothers
Over to death betray one another.
A father his son, and a son his father
Will each to the grave give over the other.

Yes, though you are hated for my name's sake,
Take heart through it all. Make no mistake:
The one who endures to the end will be saved;
When in persecution, you'll have my grace.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Photo of the Week

(A view of the St Croix River, and my home area of eastern Maine on the far bank)

"Why tremble, foolish soul? Why hesitate?
However faint the knock, it will be heard."
I knocked, and swiftly came the answering word,
Which bade me enter to my own estate.
I found myself in a familiar place;
And there my broken soul began to mend;
I knew the smile of every long-lost face [...]
[And] the welcome of a King who was my friend.

- from "Vita Nuova," by Maurice Baring

Monday, December 09, 2019

Quote of the Week

"[God's] essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent... Wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory."

- John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant Reformer

Sunday, December 08, 2019

A New Volume of the Evangeliad is Now Available

I'm happy to announce that the latest installment of my ongoing poetry project, The Evangeliad, is now available for purchase. This volume represents the third year of my work to render the story and contents of the Gospels into poetic form. Click this link to go to the page for the book, or click here for more information about this project.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Heavenly Father, if I should suffer need, and go unclothed, and be in poverty, make my heart prize Your love, know it, be constrained by it, though I be denied all blessings. It is Your mercy to afflict and try me with wants, for by these trials I see my sins, and desire severance from them. Let me willingly accept misery, sorrows, temptations, if I can thereby feel sin as the greatest evil, and be delivered from it with gratitude to You, acknowledging this as the highest testimony of Your love. Amen.

- a prayer of the Puritan movement

Friday, December 06, 2019

Hymn of the Week: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (adapted & expanded)

One of the most common Christmas carols (at least in the American tradition) is E. H. Sears' old hymn, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." Nevertheless, it's a hymn that I don't tend to make much use of in my church--while it doesn't necessarily say anything wrong, it's in the odd position of being a Christmas carol that makes no reference to Jesus at all. This may be, at least in part, because Sears was a Unitarian, and thus came from a tradition that questioned the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. To rectify this, I've added a few verses and adapted a couple others so that the song clearly states what we believe about Jesus and his central role in the Christmas story. (Other writers have done this before, at least in a small way--for instance, if your hymnal has a final verse which includes the line "when the new heav'n and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King," you're looking at a later emendation of Sears' original text.) For my version, I've kept Sears' first verse unchanged, added verses 2-4 of my own, and amended Sears' work in verses 5 and 6. (The traditional lines will appear in regular font below; mine in italics). Naturally, six verses are a bit too much for easy congregational singing, but I'll leave it to worship leaders to choose which ones to use.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

And on that night in Bethlehem, the Prince of Peace was born,
The Maker of unnumbered stars awoke to Judah's morn.
The Infinite was rendered small, Almighty born a babe;
In great humility he came to bring peace and to save.

The angels' song proclaimed his birth, Desire of Ages come!
Messiah-king of David's line, the long-sought Holy One,
Fulfillment of the prophets' call and of the royal crown,
With tidings of our God-with-us the angel-song comes down.

"Let glory be to God on high!" they sang upon that night,
For God himself has come to earth to set all things at right.
As fully God and fully man, he bears the weight of sin,
And he forgives us by his grace, and welcomes sinners in.

And we, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Find rest within Christ's endless grace, and peace beneath his yoke.
Look toward the cross and empty grave, the vict'ry of our King!
Then rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

And now the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
When with the reign of Christ our Lord shall come the time foretold:
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Heroes of the Faith

(Links to all available episodes will appear at the bottom of this post)

For the next year or so, I'm going to be using my Thursday slot to upload one of my favorite collections of my church-based sermon work to my blog: my long-running series of meditations/lectures on the lives and legacies of some of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith. I don't have much crossover between my weekly church/sermon content and my content here on this blog, but this is one section of that corpus of work that I've wanted to make more widely accessible for some time. Among my core group of parishioners at my church, this series is by far the most popular of anything I've done. 

Each week I'll post a set of notes and quotes that accompanies a downloadable podcast of that particular talk: please note that the audio content (that is, the sermon podcast) is really the best and most helpful part of the resource. While the accompanying notes will be valuable in some small way, you'll get the most information and enjoyment out of these posts by listening to the audio, either right on your computer or downloaded to a playback device like an MP3 player or smartphone. Links to all available talks will be listed here at the bottom of this post, so this page will function as a "table of contents" as we proceed with the series.

These talks give the stories of some of the most influential "heroes of the faith" in the Christian tradition. I'll be posting them in roughly chronological order (beginning next week with the Maccabees, from the 16os BC), but some of these sermons were recorded earlier than others, and the quality may vary somewhat between them. We'll begin with a short introduction to the series, recorded back in 2011. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Evangeliad (12:48-55)

Section 12:48-55 (Mt. 10:9-15Mark 6:8-11Luke 9:3-5)

Take no coins, no gold, no silver with you,
Naught but your tunic and sandals for shoes.
The laborer worthy is of his food,
And you walk in trust of God's providence good.

And when you come to a town on your way,
Seek someone worthy with whom you might stay;
Then stay in their home, stay till you leave,
While giving the house your blessing of peace.

If worthy, your peace will rest on that home;
If not, it returns to you as you go.
And if no one welcomes nor your word receives,
Then shake the dust off your feet as you leave.

That dust bears witness that they listened not
To your declaration of the reign of God.
When Judgment Day dawns, that town will fare worse
Than the land of Gomorrah and Sodom's curse.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Photo of the Week

My soul, thy great Creator praise;
When cloth'd in His celestial rays
He in full majesty appears,
And, like a robe, His glory wears.

How good Thy works! How great Thy skill!
And every land Thy riches fill:
Thy wisdom round the world we see,
This spacious earth is full of Thee.

Thy works, the wonders of Thy might,
Are honor'd with Thine own delight:
How awesome are Thy glorious ways!
Thou art majestic in Thy praise!

- adapted from Isaac Watt's hymnographic rendering of Psalm 104

Monday, December 02, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Let every day, therefore, be a day of humility. Bear graciously with all the weakness and infirmities of your fellow creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind."

- William Law, 18th-century British clergyman and writer