Expectations Fulfilled

Donald R. Elly, M.Div.

Luke described John the Baptist as a prophet arousing excitement and created expectations by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.”  John’s baptism communicated forgiveness of sin. It offered membership in a community that looked forward to a Messiah who would serve God restoring the world to its original purpose of reflecting justice, compassion and living in peace.  

A result of John’s preaching and baptism was that many questioned if John  was the Messiah. Luke telling of the Baptism of Jesus by John makes clear that though John fulfilled God’s expectations of clearing the path for the Messiah, John is very direct, “I baptize you with water; but the one who is more powerful than I is coming…(and he) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water as a symbol of change can be traced all the way to the Jewish miqveh (cleansing bath) used to wash  before worship to come into God’s presence with  clean hands and pure hearts.

Baptism in Jesus’ name that developed in the earliest Christian communities was and continues to be for those following Jesus a commitment to live together as a community guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit that is formed to share God’s gift of love not just to the rich, but to those who had been judged unworthy and outside God’s care.  God also had expectations for Jesus that were only able to be met because John the Baptist had prepared the way.  

Reading and reflecting on Luke’s portrayal of  God’s expectations for John and Jesus and how they fit together, I was struck with how passionate and intense John is and yet he was surprisingly humble as he said, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  God, as popular as John was with the people, fulfilled your expectations dramatically in his humility that made it possible for Jesus to succeed.  

Prayer: God, humility is not a word that comes to mind when  John strides on the stage of history to prepare the way for Jesus.  Make us as passionate and humble so your expectations of  us can be fulfilled. Amen.

January 13, 2019; Cycle C; The Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17 *Luke 3:15-22                    



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Love Let Loose (to Light the World)

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

Megan McKenna, outstanding storyteller and interpreter of scripture, caught my attention when she summarized the meaning of Epiphany in these words. “Advent (light far off), Christmas (light that interrupts and explodes into night’s darkest hour) and Epiphany (light let loose in the world)” 1.  This description ties this span of sacred days together while identifying their unique focus.

Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance “of Emmanuel (God with us) for the whole world.  The temptation of Christmas with its emphasis on eating, gift giving and family gatherings pulls us away from the fact that Jesus was born to Mary, a teenage peasant woman, by the Holy Spirit in the poverty of a stable. Epiphany is like the public announcement of a birth that has taken place and lets the world know the joy and hopes that are now real.   This gift of God is not just for Israel. It is cosmic and for the whole universe. 

In Matthew’s narrative Jesus is not an infant, but a child visited at home by wise ones from the East who followed a star, God’s GPS to where mother and child are.  Jesus’ humble surroundings in Bethlehem stand in stark relief to King Herod residing in Jerusalem.   For Matthew Jesus is the true King of Israel, a fact laid genealogically in tracing his lineage back to David and this is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. This gift of God in the flesh is a threat to all the authorities–civil, political or religious—that often become god claiming our loyalty.

Matthew’s  choice is made clear in the story.  In Jesus God’s love is let loose in the world, and life’s deepest meaning is not imperial power but humble service. We may not have gold, frankincense or myrrh, but what God most desires is  our love let loose in the world to bear witness to God’s love, justice, compassion and peace.

1 Megan McKenna. Advent, Christmas & Epiphany: Stories & Reflections and the Sunday Readings, Orbis (1998) pgs. 218-222. 

January 6, 2019; Cycle C; The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Eph.3:1-12; *Matthew 2:1-12      



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Looking for Jesus

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

“Looking for Jesus” is how  the Message describes the search of Mary and Joseph, the parents who have lost track of their son Jesus. They had traveled to Jerusalem. Now, we could judge Mary and Joseph for this failure, and some do. Today our Department of Human services might charge them with “neglect” or “child endangerment”. Rather than judging them, I want us to ponder the truth that they had no idea what they were looking for.  What do I mean?  

Could it be that as parents like us, they were looking for a twelve year old and thinking of him in those terms, were not ready for Jesus to grow up in faith?  They  may have thought that playing with his friends on the way home from the Temple festival, Jesus may have lost track of time  as a twelve year might do.

Luke in describing Jesus’ response to his panicked parents illustrates the risk parents face when faith becomes real for children.  Luke by contrasting the understanding of Mary and Joseph with that of Jesus asserts that Jesus is responding to the call of God, as his father and is no longer a little boy.  

When did you first become aware that God has a purpose for your life that may be different than what your parents wish for you?   Is this sense of purpose something you have struggled with and something that took time to mature?  Who helped you become aware of your call?  

In the book of 1st Samuel we learn that this call can come at any time. Samuel was able to respond because he had the direction and guidance of Eli, the Priest, whose own sons ironically have no vision of God or God’s values despite their father’s role as Priest in the temple. Mary and Joseph’s struggle is the tension all parents feel as their children seek to follow God as creator. Mary confronts Jesus, yet once again cherishes all that happens and is said in her heart.  

Jesus claims God as his father yet follows God’s Commandment to honor parents. In this New Year give God thanks for your parents and their encouragement to grow in faith  even as they struggled  with the challenge your growth in faith presented to them. 

December 30th, 2018; Cycle C; 1st Sunday after Christmas

1st Samuel 3: 1-10; Psalm 148; Col. 3: 12-17; Luke 2:41-52 


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A  Christmas Reflection   “Making Christmas  Meaning-full”

Don Elly, M.Div.

I was talking to a woman I met who shared that she was headed home for Christmas with family after the recent death of her husband from cancer.   As the story of his illness and death was shared it was clear that she was still in deep grief.  Married for ten years, it was a second marriage for both.  She quickly shared what was troubling her the most.  “What do I do with reality that for me Christmas seems empty?  Because of his death I am wrestling with meaningless?”  

Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic Priest, who comforted so many in times of grief came to mind for me. He once wrote, Death and the loss of a loved one is a universal experience and yet uniquely intensely personal.”   We visited about how the holiday had been a source of joy in the past but now felt like something  that required more energy than she had at the moment.  

First, her experience though painful is normal.  Second, with death, like any other life experience, we have a choice.  How to respond to her dilemma?  I listened and as we got ready to part I almost said automatically, “Merry Christmas!”  I did not, the Holy Spirit was at work. I wished her a meaning-full Christmas. It felt right because she has a choice. Acknowledge her loss, then how does she with her family honor the death of her husband?  We discussed a few ideas and got ready to leave.  She came back and thanked me for caring, listening and for those words of challenge.  

Third, and this is my closing observation. Victor Frankel, a concentration camp survivor, commented that those who survived were people who found meaning in their suffering.  They chose to share, to give support and this strengthened them.  It is a way God helps us redeem suffering as we reach out to others in pain our suffering has purpose.  So I want to wish you a MEANING-FULL CHRISTMAS as you find ways to honor deceased loved ones and in your giving you are gifted with a way to cope with loss. 

*This is an edited version of my reflection shared at the Blue Christmas  Service held at West Des Moines United Methodist Church on December 17, 2018


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Leaping for Joy

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

“For as soon  as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”   …And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,…”    What is described here is joy that bubbles out of the relationship of Elizabeth and Mary.  Both anticipate bearing children, who are gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

As Luke describes them they are not just cousins, but each is called by God to unique roles in salvation for all the World.  One is to prepare the way for the other who is God in human form, “the Word made flesh” to quote John’s Gospel.   Though there were those who saw them as competitors, there was no confusion between them.  

This gift, the work of the Holy Spirit, ought to cause us to leap for Joy.   Imagine what Christmas would be like if we could take the faith of John and the obedience of  Jesus and blend them together to make the Gospel of peace  a reality?   What are some other blessings in this passage that if applied by us could make this Christmas an occasion of jumping with joy?  

Luke is the Gospel that highlights women and their pivotal role as instruments as prophets and proclaimers.  Elizabeth takes on the role of prophet by identifying for us the role Mary is to play  in the drama of Jesus birth. She, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaims what Mary has not yet told her and what is not yet visible to the eye: Mary is pregnant.  The relationship of these two women, one old and the other very young demonstrate what blessing has the power to do.  

If we are to become blessings this Christmas, Elizabeth is an excellent model.  Her words, welcome and gift of sanctuary all point to the redemptive power of God at work for all the world.1   Leaping for joy is what God might do if this Christmas we were to become blessing like Elizabeth and Mary.  Wow! That is gift that can transform a world.  

Prayer:  God  enable us to work together as John and Jesus and Elizabeth and Mary that the world may have cause to sing.  Amen.

1. Judith Jones, “Commentary on Luke1:39-45“; pgs 1-2 and Jan Richardson, “A Blessing called Sanctuary”, pgs 1-3 informed the insights shared about the mutuality of John,the Baptist, Jesus, Elizabeth and Mary. 

December 23rd, 2018; Cycle C; 4th Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7;

Hebrews 10:5-10; *Luke 1:39-45


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Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, has announced that God is doing something new that is unimaginable despite the political power of the Roman empire, who with the religious leaders of the Temple oppress the people.  John using the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah declares that God is using him to prepare the way of the Lord. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight… and all flesh shall see the salvation of the God.’

Luke’s evidence for this is to see how those who have been exploited by the powerthe crowds and those exploiting–soldiers and tax collectors —are hearing John’s call for change, being baptized asking, “What then should we do?”  It seems unimaginable then that God is using Mary (a teenage unwed mother), Zachariah, Elizabeth and Shepherds to turn the world upside down.   But this is what Luke describes as Good News that comes as the light in darkness.  

Now if we are honest, living as we do in age of immediate communication of every disaster and social media that feeds on the negative quickly highlighting every human failure, change seems unimaginable.  Luke whose Gospel highlights the acts of the powerless as a witness to God  at work is quite dramatic.  Could it be that the chief ways through which we can witness to God’s coming now and in the future is to live like it’s here, like we believe it coming, like we think it actually matters, writes David Lose.

1  Go back and read  Luke’s description of what those who are oppressed and oppressing are to do after baptism and repentance. Repentance is not just saying we believe God is acting in Jesus but trusting that because God is giving birth through Jesus to a new community, God will use ordinary people like you and me.  What would it look like if we went out from worship, prayer and our devotional time committed to being honest, kind, hardworking and trusting God is at work through us?   Lord, thank you for imagination!

1 David Lose, “Ordinary Saints”, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12.advent-3, pgs.1-3

December 16, 2018; Cycle C; Third Sunday of Advent

Zeph. 3:4-20; Isaiah 40:3-5; Phil. 4:4-9     *Luke 3:7-18





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Preparing the Way

Donald R. Elly, M. Div.

John the Baptist is, according to Luke’s author, a Prophet who is not only God’s spokesperson, but also the one who is  PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE LORD. In speaking up for the Lord John is following in the footsteps of the prophet he quotes, Isaiah.  Just as Isaiah  declared the captives of Babylon free to go back home to Israel; so John is declaring that God is preparing  the people to receive the gift of salvation in Jesus.  

What does it mean to prepare the way?   All over Des Moines area before the onset of winter the roads are being prepared (repaired).  Potholes are being filled.   Entire roadways are being torn up and repaved in order to make the roadways safe and keep people whole. For God’s infrastructure project to succeed, several things are required. And here is where John the Baptist moves beyond just speaking for God and makes clear the changes needed if we are to be those who help all humanity see God’s salvation.  

First, the people then, and we now, must show that they are changing their hearts and lives.  John’s Baptism is an act, similar to the ritual act of bathing before worship, that indicates a willingness to change the direction of our lives and turn toward the Lord—i.e. “Let the Lord lead.”  

Second we must want God to forgive our sins—straighten up that which is crooked and make smooth the rough places where we have been blazing our own path and departed from God’s way of salvation.   This message is  not a word delivered from the temple, but from the wilderness and deserts of our lives where we can easily miss the Lord’s way. We wander off the path that the Lord has already laid out and made clear from the very beginning of creation. Luke goes to great lengths to make clear that this message takes place in history and is greater than any of the other authorities we often listen  to as guides. 1 Are you prepared to let the Lord lead, to forgive and receive the gift God offers?

1 Justo L. Gonza; ez. Luke, pg 183 places John the Baptist Ministry in the context of 8 historical references that John made clear that John’s preaching happened between 28-29 CE. Read vs. 1-2.

December 9, 2018; Cycle C           2nd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40: 1-5; Luke 1:68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; * Luke 3: 1-6


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