It's what you read when you don't have to That will determine who you are when you can't help it. - Oscar Wilde, 19th century author (Note: while Wilde is celebrated today as an icon of the LGBT movement, since he was put in prison for homosexual acts, the end of his story is unfortunately not widely known--his long journey of faith that ended in repentance and conversion shortly before his death.)
For this week's new hymn, I used one of the classics of the old English caroling tradition: the tune of "I Saw Three Ships" (with just some minor changes to the timing structure). I've written a carol that celebrates the roles of the Trinity in the nativity story. The Trinity Carol Give praise unto the King of kings, For he has done a wondrous thing: When we could not be where he was, He came and made himself God-with-us! (Chorus:) Praise, praise shall ever be Unto the blessed Trinity; Yes, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One! Our Father, by his holy will, Because he loved us sinners still, Had planned a way to save, so he Sent forth his Son to be God-with-us. (Chorus) The Son, who was one nature with The Godhead in eternal bliss, Took up our nature just the same, To walk our ways and be God-with-us. (Chorus) The Spirit, in a mystery, Did Christ the Holy One conceive, And from our sister Mary's womb Came forth the child who was God-with-us. (Chorus) (Optional: repeat verse 1)
[To the disciples:] “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” - Acts 1:8
[To Peter:] “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. - John 21:17-19
Peter in the New Testament
- Peter appears in the book of Acts as the clear and undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church. However, by Acts 8, Peter is working in an itinerant capacity, preaching across Judea and Samaria, and by Acts 15, it is clear that James (the brother of Jesus) is now the leader of the Jerusalem church. The book of Acts doesn’t give a clear indication of why Peter gave up his initial role as leader of the mother church, aside from a few hints that the level of persecution in Jerusalem may have made it unsafe for him to stay. But the New Testament, along with other early sources, provides another answer: Peter and the other disciples apparently thought of themselves more as “missionaries” than as fixed-location “pastors.” (Indeed, the word “apostle” means “sent-out one.”) According to tradition, the apostles held a meeting in which they divided up amongst themselves the nations of the world as mission fields.
- Peter visited several areas within Palestine—going first to Samaria (Acts 8:14), where he confronted Simon Magus, the sorcerer; then to seaside Judean towns (Acts 9:32-43); and then to Caesarea (Acts 10). Paul also attests that he saw Peter in Antioch of Syria (Galatians 2:11-14), and Paul further describes Peter as “the apostle to the Jews” (2:8), meaning that Peter’s missionary field was in Judea and among the many Jewish communities scattered around the Roman world. Peter may also have visited Corinth, in Greece (1 Cor. 1:12), and the northern and interior parts of modern Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1). The end of 1 Peter also suggests that Peter did indeed go to Rome.
Peter's Journeys According to Other Early Traditions
- Some early traditions hold that not only did Peter visit Antioch, he actually became the head of the new church there and served for about seven years. The Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the four greatest of the early churches, consistently claimed that Peter had been its founding apostle. The same traditions also record that Peter left his family living in Antioch during his subsequent journeys. There are still clans in the area of Antioch today that claim to be his descendants.
- There is decent evidence that Peter did in fact travel to Rome, worked there for a few years, and faced his martyrdom there. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian (reliable early Christian writers) attest to this fact. It was probably from Rome that Peter wrote his letters and allowed Mark to arrange his memories into the Gospel of Mark. Some legends say that Peter once again had to confront Simon Magus, who had earlier emigrated to Rome and was now leading some of the Christians away by his demonically-powered sorceries. Then, in the year 64, a great fire broke out in Rome, and Nero pinned the blame on the Christians. It was in this persecution that Peter probably died. The story goes that he had been urged by the Roman church to flee the city, and as he was leaving, he saw a vision of Christ bearing the cross down the highway back toward Rome. “Where are you going, Lord?” he asked him. Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Peter understood this vision as a command for him to return and face his own cross, so he went back and was arrested. When the Romans were ready to crucify him on Vatican hill, Peter asked to be crucified head-downwards, feeling unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. He died there and was buried, and according to tradition, his tomb lies under St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The church of Rome claims Peter and Paul as its apostolic co-founders.
Peter’s Speech to Encourage the Church in Rome (as told in the apocryphal Acts of Peter): “[Christ] is in the Father and the Father in him; in him also is the fullness of majesty, who has shown us all his benefits….He suffered and bore reproaches for us, he died and rose for us. He also defended and strengthened me through his greatness when I sinned; he will also comfort you, so that you may love him….This Jesus you have, brethren: the door, the light, the way, the bread, the water, the life, the resurrection…the grace, the faith, the word: he is everything, and there is none greater than he; to him be praise in all eternity. Amen.”
- Mark, assumed here to be the same as “John Mark” in the New Testament, was the close associate of Barnabas, Paul, and Peter. Early tradition had him as one of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10, and as the young man who fled from Jesus’ arrest in Mark 14:51-52. It was at his family home that the great events of Pentecost took place. He became a helper with Barnabas and Paul on their early missionary journeys, but left the mission partway through, which led to the breakup of Barnabas and Paul as missionary partners (Paul was later reconciled to Mark). Later on, Mark became an assistant to Peter, and used his memories of Jesus to compose his Gospel. Finally, Mark traveled alone to Alexandria, Egypt, and there he organized the Church of Alexandria and served as its first bishop. He was martyred in the year 68, when an angry mob of pagans dragged him to death behind a chariot.
The lighthouse founded on a rock, Casts o'er the flood its radiant eye, Firm amidst ocean's heaviest shock, Serene beneath the stormiest sky. Light, peace, and safety dwell within, Abroad its sunbright beams display, Clear from the rocks and shoals of sin, Through life and death, the one good way.
- from a poem (in which the church is described as a lighthouse) by James Montgomery, the writer of the Christmas hymn "Angels from the Realms of Glory"
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.
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!
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
- 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)
"[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
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 Amazon.com page for the book, or click here for more information about this project.
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.
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.
(Links to all available episodes will appear at the bottom of this post)
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. 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 an MP3 player or smartphone. Should you want a PDF handout-style copy of the notes, I can provide those if you contact me via social media or the email contact listed at calaisbaptist.org.
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
"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
I'm taking a week off from my blog as I celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. While we might possibly exceed in festive cheer the family portrayed above, we likely cannot match them in dining attire or synchronized prayer-gestures. Posts will resume on Monday, Dec. 2.
We're studying Paul's travels in the book of Acts during our Sunday sermons, and this week's passage had me reflecting on the difficulties and trials of the great apostle's journey. So I decided to write a hymn that gives voice to some of Paul's reflections on those things: I've drawn the lyrics below from his statements in 2 Corinthians 1:6-9, 4:7-9, 4:17, and 12:7-10. I wanted a tune that struck a thoughtful tone of hope-in-lament, so I've borrowed the music from the classic hymn "Abide with Me." Your Strength is Perfect When in distress, when sufferings abound, When my endurance falters to the ground, When this life's comforts all abandon me, Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak. I am hard-pressed, perplexed, and stumbling down, Yet in all this, I know where hope is found: You guard my way, You won't abandon me; Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak. Vainly would I lean on my strength of will: I am too weak, this jar of clay too frail; Yet through its earthen cracks Your grace I see-- Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak. Lord, I would have You take my thorn away, Release me from the torment of its pain; Yet You give grace sufficient for my need: Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak. Now, for Christ's sake, I glory to be weak, For these my light and momentary griefs Are all outweighed by Your eternal peace; Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.
(Note: this piece was originally written as a devotional column for my town's local newspaper)
At our house, we have a “thanks jar” that we put on the dining room table at this time of year. Every now and then, after a meal or in the course of a day, we’ll write something we’re thankful for and slip it into the jar. The idea is that, when Thanksgiving comes, we’ll be able to open the jar and read through the many blessings that make up the fabric of our days. Of course, with three children in the house, you’re never quite sure what interesting little thanksgivings will pop up on those slips of paper. One of my sons wrote down that he’s thankful that his siblings have taught him how to climb the walls of our house all the way up to the ceiling. (Strangely, though, neither I nor my wife have included that particular development in our list of thanksgivings.) And my daughter, at five years old, who has probably never spent a full day without electricity in her life, and has only the vaguest idea of what it even is, nevertheless wrote down in giant, blockish letters that she is thankful for electricity. That’s one of the wonderful things about childlike gratitude, though. We adults too often become jaded by life, or familiar enough with the appropriate answers so that we can rattle off the standard list of things we ought to be thankful for—family, friends, food, etc.—without it making much of an impact on us. But kids have a marvelous capacity for wide-eyed wonder, for seeing this incredible world as the gift that it is. They are able to be grateful for the smallest things and the biggest things, all at the same time: for the toy in their hand or the meal set before them (as one son wrote down on his slip, for “glorious food!”), as well as being thankful for the entire universe. It’s not uncommon to find thanksgivings in our jar that relay gratitude for things like our sun, our galaxy, or all the people in the entire world. Indeed, this year there’s a note in there that doesn’t have any words at all on it, just a little drawing of the planet Earth. And always alongside their big-picture awe and wonder is their endless ability to be amazed at the smallest, most everyday things. On their birthdays, we ask our kids what the best part of the past year has been for them, and have often gotten answers like “cheese,” “bugs,” or “this cake!” It seems to me that this sort of awestruck delight, directed at everything God has given us, is exactly the sort of attitude we should emulate. The universe truly is big with wonder, and we fail to see it only because we have grown too dull in our senses, too caught up with the endless circuit of busyness to stop and drink it all in. We need, at least once in a while, to slow down and remember the truth behind the words of that old Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So as we move toward Thanksgiving this year, I would encourage you to take a few moments to stop and consider the overwhelming goodness of God, displayed around us on every side. The Bible declares that he is the giver of all good gifts, and that he loves to give good things to his children. So come to him in humble gratitude, and let him pour wonder, awe, and delight back into your soul.
O God, animate us to cheerfulness. May we have a joyful sense of our blessings, and maintain a perpetual contentedness under Thy allotments. Preserve us from despondency, from yielding to dejection. Teach us that no disappointment or calamity is intolerable and that nothing can hurt us if, with true loyalty of affection, we keep Thy commandments and take refuge in Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.