“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
So begins Robert Frost’s infamous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” We’ve all been there—at that crossroads where we’ve had to make a choice. As I tell the children in today’s message (using the example of a board game), “sometimes there are splits in the road, where you have to pick which way to go, and just as in real life, what happens to you depends on the choice you make.”
We see the truth of this in the life of Jesus. Though only the Gospel of Luke speaks specifically of Jesus “setting his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), all of the gospels recount his journey there. It was the path Jesus chose to take, not simply to a city, but to his death. And despite Jesus’ attempt to prepare his disciples for what is to come in today’s scripture passage from Mark 8:27-38, they simply do not understand. Imagine then, what they thought when he announced, “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). A cross? What’s this talk about a cross? We read it differently because we stand on the other side of it. We know what happened on The Cross—that Jesus, being both fully divine and fully human, denied himself and chose to suffer and die, not for anything that he had done, but for us—God’s wayward children—to show us God’s love, to offer us God’s mercy and grace free for the taking if we simply believe.
Whether we choose to accept this gift, however, is our choice to make. Will we chose to believe and to follow Him with our lives—denying ourselves by giving up living life our way, on our terms, in exchange for the way of Jesus—a way of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace always extending to others? I tell the children it is the most important choice they will ever make, and it is—from an eternal perspective it is the one that, as Frost would say, makes “all the difference.” May it be so—may our salvation be secure as we declare Jesus Christ to be our Savior and Lord but may our discipleship—our decision to follow—be a lifelong endeavor as we chose God’s way over our own each and every day.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent—a time when we prepare for Easter by turning our hearts towards God. The scripture passage for today’s children’s message as well as for today’s devotional (Using your first Activity Egg!) is the story of Noah. It may seem like an odd choice for a lectionary text on the first Sunday of Lent, but in truth it provides a hint about what is coming during this season.
To explain, in The Jesus Storybook Bible (one of my favorite Bible story books for children), Noah’s story is entitled “A New Beginning.” The book explains that during the time of Noah “…many people filled the earth. Everyone everywhere had forgotten about God and were only doing bad things all the time. God’s heart was filled with pain when he saw what had happened to the world he loved. Everywhere was disease and death and destruction—all the things God hates most.” It then goes on to tell about how God found favor with Noah, about the building of the Ark and the coming of the animals, and about the rain and flood. But it is the way story ends—the focus verses for today’s lectionary reading—that most captures my attention:
“The first thing God did [after everything was over] was make another promise. ‘I won’t ever destroy the world again.’ And like a warrior who puts away his bow and arrow at the end of a great battle, God said, ‘See, I have hung up my bow in the clouds.’ And there, in the clouds—just where the storm meets the sun—was a beautiful bow made of light. It was a new beginning in God’s world. It wasn’t long before everything went wrong again but God wasn’t surprised, he knew this would happen. That’s why, before the beginning of time, he had another plan—a better plan. A plan not to destroy the world, but to rescue it—a plan to one day send his own Son, the Rescuer. God’s strong anger against hate and sadness and death would come down once more—but not on his people, or his world. No, God’s war bow was not pointing down at his people. It was pointing up, into the heart of Heaven.”
Instead of destroying the world to get rid of sin, God in Jesus will forgive sin from the cross. As I tell the children in the message, “The good news for today is that God keeps his promises—not just the rainbow promise that shines on dark, rainy days—but more importantly, the promise of forgiveness and a new beginning for us when we choose to believe in and follow Jesus.
In my thoughts posted in last week’s email related to the February 7th Children’s Message and Resources, I spoke about the importance of “making a quiet space” literally and figuratively to just be with God. When I wrote those words, I did not know exactly what God might lead me to focus on in this week’s message on Jesus’ Transfiguration found in Mark 9:2-9. Looking back at children’s messages I wrote in previous years on the event, I realized that I often spoke to the children about all of the different emotions/feelings present within the passage—exhaustion, surprise, fear, confusion, etc. Reflecting upon the current state of affairs in relation to the pandemic and political climate, I believed such a message still fit, but this year the words that continued to call to me were these three: “Listen to Jesus!” Punctuated by an exclamation point, it seems this phrase is not a mere suggestion, but rather, an imperative. God knows our exhaustion, our confusion, our fear and sadness, our every emotion, God is aware of the brokenness of our world, and God’s answer to it all—the essential instruction of vital importance—remains. “Listen to Jesus!”
Today’s scripture passage from Mark 1:29-39 illustrates in three short vignettes one of the most important doctrines about the nature of Jesus—the hypostatic union (that is, the combination of both divine and human natures in the single person of Christ). To explain, verses 29-31 open the story with Jesus’ visit at the home of Simon and Andrew after a morning at the synagogue. The restrictions of Sabbath observance necessitated their having a quiet day, but Simon’s mother-in-law was ill and Jesus was moved to cure her. Little wonder that by sundown (the end of the Sabbath) we find in the second set of verses (32-34) “the whole city” bringing their sick to Jesus—encamping by the door seeking their own miracle. As God incarnate, Jesus had the power and authority to heal the sick and he did so—meeting the needs of people in body, spirit, and mind—probably late into the night.
Yet, lest we forget, the last section (vs. 35-39) of the story reminds us that Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully human as we find that in addition to healing, casting out demons, and preaching, one of Jesus’ regular habits was slipping off alone to find a quiet place to pray—in this case, in the early morning before it was even light. That’s because in addition to accepting the limits of humanity such as a need to eat, sleep, and rest, Jesus recognized there was another aspect of his personhood that needed to be fed—he needed time to pray and gain perspective. As I tell the children in today’s message, “even Jesus needed times to get away….even he needed an alone time to be with and talk to and listen to God.” Jesus did not neglect this part of himself, and in doing so taught his disciples a lesson: if they were looking for Jesus, they could probably find him somewhere praying.
Yet, Jesus’ example is also instructive to us. Today’s Gospel portrays a very busy day in the life of Jesus. Personally, I find my life is busy these days too—but in a different way than usual. People aren’t coming over, and I’m not traveling about, running from one place to another as much, but when everybody is working from home, there’s a different type of busyness—that can really feel, as I tell the children, “too much!” (I imagine you and your children probably have felt this way at some point during the pandemic, too.) What is comforting to me is realizing not only that even Jesus likely had these feelings—times when life was “too much”—but also, he set the example in how we too can overcome them: making a quiet space (literally and figuratively) to just be with God.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Lord, help me be more like Jesus—still my body and my mind in your presence that I may better know You and hear and follow Your voice.
In the time of Jesus, words were important. Without modern media and in a culture where literacy was at a premium, the spoken word was the only sure means of communication. Words could command, they could instruct, they could heal. The spoken word revealed one’s inner power, one’s character.
The people who heard Jesus teach and saw him heal in today’s Gospel story from Mark 1:21-28 were said to have been astonished and amazed by the authority of his teaching. So compelling were Jesus’ words and actions that the news about him could not be contained; it spread quickly throughout all of Galilee. Over two thousand years later, the news about Jesus continues to spread as we participate in sharing the Good News of Jesus with others in our words and in our deeds. May our lives be a testament of the power and authority of God at work.
Today’s Bible story from Mark 1:14-20 describes Jesus calling a group of fishermen—Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John—to follow him. It’s a story found in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) with some variation, but two important commonalities. The first is the idea that these fishermen would no longer work to catch fish, but instead “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17, Luke 5:10), while the second (and the point I focused on in today’s message) is that these men left “everything”—their jobs and their families—behind and followed “immediately,” “at once,” “without delay.” Reflecting on this passage, I wonder sometimes whether I would have responded as Simon, Andrew, James, and John did. Would I have really just walked away “immediately?” It was risky business giving up a livelihood. And what about their families? The way Matthew and Mark tell the story, it sounds like James and John simply walked away from their father Zebedee—leaving him behind in the boat. Could I have possibly done the same?
We don’t know what went through these first disciples’ heads, why exactly they responded in the way they did. I imagine that as they spent time with Jesus there may have been days when they wondered if they made the best choice—especially when they saw him arrested, beaten, tried, crucified, and buried. But was it worth it? The fact that we know the story of Jesus, the fact that we can read about it in our Bibles today, proves that it was.
As I tell the children, “Jesus does not promise that following him will always be easy,” and indeed, there will be times in our lives where it will require more than we wish to give. It can be risky business. Is answering Jesus’ call on our lives worth it?
As one of the founding professors of my divinity school used to say, “Answer the call…It’s worth a life.”
Today we read of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John—the turning of the water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. When thinking of Jesus’ other miracles—the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, the raising of the dead, calming storms and walking on water—this one seems to be a strange one. Why is it included? As we may remember, John doesn’t refer to any of the “miracles’ in his gospel as such. Rather, he calls them “signs.” And as he writes in verse 11—the turning of the water into wine is “the first of the signs through which he [Jesus] revealed his glory.” The glory, as we read back in John 1, of the “one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) And as a result, the disciples believed
As you may have realized, over the past few weeks the scripture passages used on Sunday morning and at our Christmas Eve service have come from the first chapter (or two) of either Matthew, Luke, or John—telling us the “back story” about Jesus’ life. Matthew and Luke contain background information about Jesus’ earthly family and God’s intervention in their lives, and tell us not only the birth narrative, but also about the first people who encounter the babe—the shepherds and Simeon and Anna in Luke, and the Magi in Matthew. Similarly, John gives us the “back story” about who Jesus REALLY is—the Word of God made flesh.
Mark, however, is different. In his brusque, “just the facts, ma’am” fashion, he opens his Gospel with these words: “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”—and then jumps right into a (very) brief retelling of the first story we have of Jesus as an adult—his baptism.
As I tell the children, we shouldn’t be surprised to find differences in each of the Gospels. Each book was written by different people for different purposes. Taken together, though, their function is greater than what they accomplish alone—giving us a fuller, more complete picture not only of who Jesus is, but also of God’s great love for us—the promised Savior, the newborn King, the Word made flesh, is God’s own Son sent not to condemn the world, but sent so that the world (and we) might be saved through him! (John 3:16-17)
If you’re like me, you probably didn’t grow up observing the full 12 days of Christmas, much less Epiphany—the church holiday that will be celebrated on January 6th that marks the conclusion of the Christmas season. For many Christians, the magi’s visit to the baby Jesus (which Epiphany commemorates) is often lumped into our nativity scene instead of being marked as the separate, later event it likely was (scholars tells us Jesus was probably a toddler when the magi arrived). Yet, there is something to be said for making note of this day and what it celebrates—not only the Magi’s epiphany as they understand the meaning of the star and come to worship Jesus as a king, but also the larger epiphany revealed in the Gospel narrative (as today’s scripture text from John 1 attests)—the manifestation of God Incarnate in Jesus the Christ.
As the story of the Magi reminds us, we serve a God of revelation. The problem is that just as “it’s easy for Epiphany to get swallowed up in the return to work and school after the beginning of the new year,” the epiphanies of God among us are also often overlooked or easily missed “coming, as they often do, in the middle of our work week” when we’re too busy to even notice, much less “remember we’ve had one.”
The issue, I think, has to do with do with two things—attention and intention. That is, noticing the work of God around us—the new epiphanies God desires to lead us into—calls for us to not only pay attention, but also to be intentional about creating (as an article* I read this week noted) “practices that keep us grounded” in the epiphanies we experience so that “living in the afterglow” of each one becomes both a “habit” and a “choice that can be made even when the light of illumination has dimmed.” Though the author observes that “Benedictines do this when they choose to welcome every guest as Christ among them,” the truth is, we can too, when we commit to keeping the true Epiphany in view: God Incarnate not only come to be with us and to save us, but also to live within us and through us.
Today, we will be exploring together the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple. You can find this story in your Bible in Luke 2:22-40.
Feel free to download the resources that go along with today’s lesson. You will find questions for the adults to ask children, and questions for the children to ask adults! You will also find several family activities, a coloring page, some puzzles and activities by downloading today’s Children’s Ministry Resources.