No April Fools’ Day Joke This Year

I have enjoyed posting fake news in this spot on this day of days. But this year? I can’t think of anything to write that is as strange and as wonderful as recent true events.

A silly comedian whose TV show depicts him becoming president of his country…becomes president of his country…and then a hero.

Church leaders across the denominational and theological spectrum publicly blow up in scandal after scandal, which makes us wonder how much time some other guys have before they are exposed, too….

One of my bêtes noires, Franklin Graham, continues to embarrass himself and his ministry by his salaries and sayings, but his Samaritan’s Purse organization continues to impress us all by its quick deployment of substantial aid in needy locales around the world.

The head of one of the largest churches in the world, the Russian Orthodox, emerges as a shameless promoter of his country’s president and policies in the face of widespread condemnation from his fellow believers. (Come to think of it, it’s not like we haven’t seen something like that closer to home…)

A pope takes the name of Francis and keeps calling his church to greater charity and frugality while refusing princely prerogatives of his office time after time.

And, yes, Will Smith smacks Chris Rock for real on prime-time TV.

I can’t compete with that.

Here are some previous years’s offerings (you can go back even further than 2013, if you like…):

Saint Joseph: An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

Today (March 19) is the feast day of St. Joseph, husband of Mary, father to Jesus. There isn’t much said about him in Scripture. What is said, however, shows us an ordinary man rising to extraordinary occasions.

Joseph was an artisan, a humble skilled trade (Matt. 13:55). He lived in a town so unpromising that it has been excoriated in insults ever since: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). But here’s what he did do.

He found out his young fiancée was pregnant by someone else, a horrible blow to his heart and pride. But instead of indulging his grief and shame by denouncing her, he decided to divorce her quietly to protect her from scandal that would ruin her life (Matt. 2).

He believed God’s angel when he was told that Mary was in fact impregnated by the power of God and would save his people—a message that contained, in fact, two unbelievable propositions: that Mary had supernaturally conceived and that this child would save his people . . . who had needed saving for centuries.

He went on believing ever after. He raised Jesus, with Mary, so that Jesus would actually come to believe the angelic, and preposterous, messages given to his parents. He raised Jesus so that Jesus could know even at twelve who his Father was (Luke 2:49) and could embark at thirty with confidence on his Israel-saving, world-changing mission.

Joseph believed (back when Jesus was a tiny boy) even when an angel told him to get up quickly, leave everything behind, and flee to Egypt ahead of Herod’s murderous soldiers—only to believe an angel a couple of years later when the “all clear” signal came to return (Matt. 2).

Otherwise, Joseph went about his business, making a home and raising a family with Mary, and passing from the scene before Jesus emerged onto the centre stage of his public ministry.

Today, then, is a festival of the ordinary person, a person whose virtue and faith, carved and pressed into shape by the Spirit of God over hours, days, and years is such that when something utterly extraordinary is extraordinarily asked of him, he responds with trustful obedience. This is a person who has attended to God and God’s Word so assiduously in the regularities of synagogue, workshop, and private life that when God’s Word comes to him so irregularly, he recognizes God’s voice and does exactly what he is told.

How many of us would respond to such extraordinary divine messages as Joseph did?

How many of us respond to the ordinary, daily Words of God that have already come to us, that keep coming to us, as Joseph did?

The Temptation of Christ—and His Subsequent Prayer

As the Lenten season has begun, we recall the Temptation of Jesus and his successful withstanding of the Devil’s worst. A few thoughts occur:

The Spirit directs Jesus, even impels him, out into the wilderness (a place of deprivation and discomfort, even danger and death) with the express purpose of subjecting him to temptation by the arch-tempter. The whole story is, one might say, counter-intuitive.

Félix Joseph Barrias

This episode, I think, sheds light on the correct way to read the strange passage in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It is rendered better nowadays—and in the light of this story—something like this: “Do not lead us into trial/test/temptation without delivering us from the Evil One.”

The petition is not, therefore, that God keeps bad times from us. The request instead is that God, when bad times come, will help us survive them, and even thrive through them.

The first chapter of the Epistle of James, along with parallels in Paul’s and Peter’s epistles, assumes that we will encounter temptations and trials and tests (usually the same word group in Greek). In fact, these painful times are apostolically understood to be part of the regimen of sanctification under the providence of God. As such, they are to be undergone with joy that is based on trust in God’s care and hope for a good outcome after this difficult discipline.

We are to expect to walk sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death—but not alone. We are to expect difficult times, but also to expect—to truly expect—that God will provide protection from failure and faithlessness, and instead will turn even the worst moments into blessings. This is Christian hope: not wishful thinking, but confident expectancy that God’s creative and re-creative power triumphs not only over, but through, all things.

As today’s tests try you, press you, pressure you, and prompt you to decide once more whether you truly trust God, and whether you do want to conform yourself, and be conformed, still more into the image of his Son, then don’t be surprised, let alone dismayed, that you will walk the path Jesus walked: into the wilderness at times, into the very teeth of the worst trials of your life, but not alone.

And only for good reason.