At Christmas even the most Protestant among us can be drawn to the contemplation of Mary. It seems right to recall her humble courage, her receiving and carrying and giving birth, and her joy as she sang of the saving work of God.
Picture the old man with the baby in his arms. He stands chuckling with giddy joy, or perhaps he gazes with streaming tears on his cheeks, or is lost in transfixed wonder. He says that this is enough now, he is ready to die. He has seen salvation and he can depart in peace. But what has he seen, really?
Although Mark seems to find it right that Jesus of Nazareth should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, the three other evangelists appear concerned over the suggestion that Jesus was in some way a disciple of this other preacher.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Like a starter’s pistol, this brief first verse rings out and Mark’s narrative is off and running. We may take the chain of phrases in this verbless sentence simply as a title, the announcement of what follows—the title and then immediately the headlong story.
“Stir up your power O Lord, and come . . .” This traditional prayer for the First Sunday in Advent begins with urgent entreaty. There is no delay for caressing words of prayerful invocation; rude as a wakening alarm, we call for God to get moving. For now, it appears to be the sluggishness of God’s heart that is in question. It is God’s Spirit that first needs stirring to action.
As a child, I studied many different images of the Good Shepherd. I saw the official version every Sunday in the stained glass window above the altar at First Congregational Church in Tempe, Arizona. That shepherd was a tall, friendly-looking, 30-something man dressed in a full-length white robe. The image is probably the most familiar representation of the Good Shepherd. Yet the beautiful and peaceful image didn’t jibe with my own experience.
Deborah: Judge. Prophetess. Wife or “spirited woman,” depending on how you translate the Hebrew. Powerful woman who advised generals and led troops into battle. Creative woman who composed songs of victory. Wise woman who “sat.”
He had real grit, that Joshua. When his fellow spies felt like grasshoppers and the Canaanites looked like giants, Joshua and his friend Caleb urged the Hebrews to take them on even though their compatriots threatened to stone them for their advice.
I was in Cuba this summer on a mission trip, when our host pastor, Héctor Méndez, approached me, his face grave and drawn. “They have attacked a Presbyterian hospital and school in Pakistan,” he said, “and people have been killed.”
The atmosphere is not one of lively and amiable scholarly debate; it is hostile, and the intent is to discredit Jesus. Much is at stake—Jesus’ authority, his role and his identity. Tom Long has called this Jesus’ final exam, because it will be this test that ultimately dooms Jesus in the minds of the scholarly authorities.