Posts Tagged ‘Pope Benedict XVI’

Advent Devotional Day 30: “Hope for Dark Moments”

December 30, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Daniel 3:8-30; Luke 1:38

When we read in Daniel 3 about God’s miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often think of it as God’s sparing these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God made the three friends endure the worst part of the furnace.

Allow me to explain: First, they had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

By all means, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them. They knew that God had the power to do so. But this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict XVI, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[1]

Notice the last sentence: Ratzinger implies that God uses Mary’s suffering—this struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

Think of times in your life when God intervened to save you from something that your feared. Did the experience help you in any way? Did you learn something from it? Can you see how God was working through that experience to “mature your inner closeness to God”?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 30: Hope for Dark Moments

December 30, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Daniel 3:8-30; Luke 1:38

glory_cover_finalWhen we read in Daniel 3 about God’s miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often think of it as God sparing these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God made the three friends endure the worst part of the furnace.

Allow me to explain: First, they had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

By all means, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them; they knew that God had the power to do so; but this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict XVI, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[†]

Notice the last sentence: Ratzinger implies that God wants Mary to suffer in this way—to struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

Think of times in your life when God intervened to save you from something that your feared. Did the experience help you in any way? Did you learn something from it? Can you see how God was working through that experience to “mature your inner closeness to God”?

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 24: Those with Whom God Is Pleased

December 24, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 2:13-14

glory_cover_finalWhen we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it often sounds better in the classic King James translation:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

The shepherds weren’t “terrified” (NIV) or “filled with great fear,” they were  “sore afraid.” Outside of this scripture, I’ve never used “sore” as an adverb. But in the Christmas story it just sounds right.

Of course, our preference for one translation over another often comes down to style or nostalgia. But the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”

peanutschristmas
This translation makes it seem as if the angels are pronouncing God’s favor toward everyone without condition. Granted, in a culture that values “inclusion” above all other values, this idea fits nicely. Bible scholars now believe that this isn’t what the angels meant.

Modern translations, they say, have it right: “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (ESV).

Among those with whom he is pleased? If that’s the case, we better find out who these people are with whom God is pleased—and why!

Theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as the former Pope Benedict XVI, provides this helpful answer:

Now, with regard to this question the New Testament itself provides an aid to understanding. In the account of Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased…” (3:22). The man “with whom he is pleased” is Jesus. And the reason for this is that Jesus lives completely oriented toward the Father, focused upon him and in communion of will with him. So men “with whom he is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son—those who are conformed to Christ.[†]

Here’s the good news: If we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, God is “well pleased” with us, not because of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for us. As Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:9, he no longer has a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

Do you agree with the following statement: “God is well-pleased with me, not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for me”? Why or why not? Do you believe that any part of salvation depends on your “earning” it?

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 75.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 8: Gifts of the Magi

December 8, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:11

glory_cover_finalIn his book about the birth of Jesus, Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict XVI, describes the theological meaning of the gifts that the magi give Jesus:

In the Church’s tradition—with certain variations—the three gifts have been thought to represent three aspects of the mystery of Christ: the gold points to Jesus’ kingship, the incense to his divine sonship, the myrrh to the mystery of his Passion.[1]

In other words, these gifts symbolize that Jesus is king, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus would die for our sins in order to reconcile us to God. But the myrrh also reminds us of Easter. Ratzinger continues:

The myrrh actually appears in Saint John’s Gospel after the death of Jesus: John tells us that Nicodemus had prepared myrrh, among other ointments, for the anointing of Jesus’ body (cf. Jn 19:39). Through the myrrh, then, the mystery of the Cross is once again associated with Jesus’ kingship and mysteriously proclaimed in the worship offered by the wise men. Anointing is an attempt to resist death, which only becomes definitive with decomposition. By the time the women came to the tomb to anoint the boy on Easter morning—a task that could not be carried out on the evening of the crucifixion because of the approaching feast-day—Jesus had already risen. He no longer needed myrrh as a protection against death, because God’s life itself had overcome death.[2]

Reflect on each of the magi’s gifts. How do you show Jesus that he is king of your life? If Jesus is truly God, what does his life and death teach us about God and his love?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 107.

2. Ibid.

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 22: Christmas Is about Forgiveness

December 21, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:21; Matthew 9:1-8

In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict XVII, reflects on the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Save the people from their sins? This wasn’t Israel’s expectation for the Messiah at all! Surely the angel’s message must have been disappointing to many people. Ratzinger writes:

The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.[1]

I’m glad he said this! As a preacher, I worry that we twenty-first-century Americans, like first-century Jews, don’t feel especially oppressed by our sins. Meanwhile, I’m the wet blanket, reminding people that they are, indeed, sinners. In fact, our sinfulness is the main problem that God needed to solve by sending his Son.

While I worry sometimes that this message isn’t popular, it’s the only message I’ve got!

Jesus_of_Nazareth_The_Infancy_NarrativesBenedict goes on to relate this understanding of salvation to the four men in the gospels who lower a paralyzed friend through the roof of a crowded home in order for Jesus to heal him. They expect, of course, physical healing. Instead, Jesus pronounces his sins forgiven and seems happy to leave it at that.

Forgiveness of their friend’s sins was the last thing they were concerned about. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, they thought, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words. The sick man and those around him, on the other hand, were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man’s real need.

On the contrary, Benedict writes, Jesus is doing precisely what the angel told Joseph he would do. Jesus goes on to heal the man physically, but only as a demonstration of his authority to forgive sins. “[T]he priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained.”[2]

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.[3]

Have you received the healing that comes from the forgiveness of your sins? Have there been times in your life when you prayed for the physical healing of someone, only to find that God gave them a spiritual healing instead?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.

2. Ibid., 44.

3. Ibid.

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 20: The Scandal of the Virgin Birth

December 19, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: 1 John 5:14-15

In his recent book on the first Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the former Pope Benedict calls the virgin birth and resurrection a “scandal to the modern spirit”:

God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[1]

Do you believe that God has the power to operate in our physical world—rather than merely the spiritual realm? If so, do your prayers for others or yourself reflect this belief?

1. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.

“The path that leads through many dark moments”

December 2, 2015

Jesus_of_Nazareth_The_Infancy_NarrativesI made the point in my sermon on Sunday that, for whatever reason, God wanted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to endure the worst part of the fiery furnace—which, perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t the furnace itself. As I explained, the worst part was, first, wrestling with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipating the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

Can you imagine?

Yes, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them; they knew that God had the power to do so; but this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. the former Pope Benedict XVII, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[1]

Notice the last sentence: Benedict implies that God wants Mary to suffer in this way—to struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

God knows what he’s doing. If only we could remember that when we’re going through our dark moments!

1. Pope Benedict XVII, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

Video-based “Peace with God” gospel tract

March 12, 2015

I like what the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has done with its old “Peace with God” gospel tract. At last night’s confirmation class for our youth, I showed this video, which comes from part of its presentation. For whatever it’s worth, I’m far more theologically sophisticated than I was when I was 14, but the classic “bridge” analogy still holds.

As Pope Benedict XVI said a few years ago,

if [humanity’s] first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.

I’m relieved to say that my preaching over the past few years reflects this priority.

We need God’s forgiveness before all else

November 27, 2013

I know everyone’s going gaga over the new pope, and why not? But his unfashionable predecessor won me over last year with his excellent Christmas-themed book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Since I’m preaching on Matthew 1:18-25, I revisited Benedict’s words about this passage.

Benedict reflects on the angel’s words, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus”—which means “YHWH is salvation”—”for he will save his people from their sins.” Given common Jewish expectations for the Messiah, Benedict said, the angel’s words must have seemed both “too little and too much.” Too much because only God can forgive sins (or is the angel implying that the Messiah is also God?) and too little because “there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.”[1]

Like a good evangelical Christian, Benedict argues that Jesus’ mission must place a priority on forgiveness of sins before anything else. He uses the story of the paralytic’s being lowered through the roof (Matthew 9:2-8 and parallels) to make the point. Surely many of the onlookers were disappointed when Jesus announced that the man’s sins were forgiven, while doing nothing to address what the crowd—not to mention the paralytic’s four friends—perceived to be his “real” need: physical healing.

To this, Benedict writes:

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.[2]

I watched Billy Graham’s farewell message on his 95th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Given the anticipation of the event—this will be his last message to the public, his son Franklin said, so be sure to listen up!—I wonder if any TV viewers were disappointed. After all the build-up, Graham didn’t say anything he hadn’t been saying for 70 years or so! Graham’s message was exactly the same as it has always been: man can be saved from his sins through faith in Jesus Christ. So place your faith in him right now and be saved.

Of course there’s more to the gospel, and more to being a Christian, than that. But you have to start there. That’s the most important thing.

My district superintendent, the Rev. Richard Winn, said in a homily to our church’s charge conference that we Methodists don’t talk much about “being saved” anymore, and how that’s a bad thing.

I agree. God forgive me for not being more faithful with that message in the past!

1. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 43.

2. Ibid., 44.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

May 27, 2013

Despite my ecumenical good will, I often feel like an outsider looking in when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Just when I started to warm up to Benedict XVI, he goes and retires. Now we have this new guy, and who knows what to make of him? Last week, in a homily, he said something that even the most liberal United Methodist bishop wouldn’t say—O.K., that’s probably not true, but still… He said the following:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

While I’m gratified to know that Francis believes that “not just Catholics” have been redeemed, I worry that he sees no distinction between—I don’t know—a deeply committed Protestant and an atheist! Oh well…

The larger issue is the apparent universalism implied by this statement. He simply can’t believe what his words seem to say and rise to the first rank of the Catholic Church. So he must mean something else. Understandably, his words have caused some embarrassment among Catholics like apologist Scott Hahn, who thought he had left all that squishy liberal Protestant squeamishness about judgment and hell behind when he swam the Tiber, as they say. (Since this source is secondhand, it’s possible Hahn didn’t write what was attributed to him. Let’s assume he did.)

Hahn says that the pope meant to say, first, that Christ’s atoning death was effectual for everyone who will receive it through faith: “Christ didn’t die to save only Catholics/Christians, but everybody (even atheists).”

This is actually what I assume Francis meant, too. As an Arminian who strongly disagrees with the “L” (limited atonement) of the Calvinist TULIP, I obviously agree.

But Hahn’s third point puts the most generous spin possible on the pope’s words: “Since all are redeemed by Christ—potentially, at least—we should be looking for ways to build bridges with them in order to actualize that redemptive potential, by showing them that whatever truth and goodness they embrace comes from—and leads to—Christ.”

Potentially, at least”? “Redemptive potential”? Where do you see “potential” in the pope’s plain words? It’s hard to reconcile Hahn’s interpretation with this strangely emphatic paragraph. I realize a spoken homily doesn’t include exclamation points, but notice where they occur in the Vatican transcript above. It’s clear the pope is saying that everyone (“Everyone!”) has already been redeemed (past tense). And it’s because they’ve already been redeemed that they possess the power to do good—just like any Catholic.

Other Catholic defenders (at least in comments sections of blogs I read) have said that the pope is using redemption in a very technical sense as distinguished from salvation—to be redeemed isn’t the same thing as to be saved or justified or whatever. I know a thing or two about Christian theology; I’ve never heard of this distinction before. But, again, I’m Protestant. I’m an outsider looking in. The Bible makes no such distinction.