Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019

Winter beauty

Winter Beauty, Church of the Transfiguration, St. Catharines

Prayer. Community. Mission.

Henri Nouwen noted that in Luke—unlike in Matthew—Jesus starts with prayer before selecting his 12 disciples. Then, with his disciples, he reaches out to minister. “Jesus spent the night in solitude with God. In the morning, he gathered his apostles around him and formed community. In the afternoon, with his apostles, he went out and preached the Word and healed the sick.” (A Spirituality of Living) It would seem that for Luke, discipleship begins with solitude and personal renewal that informs the formation of community from which flows ministry and mission.

Nouwen’s concern was that we often start the other way around. “So often in ministry, I have wanted to do it by myself. If it didn’t work, I went to others and said, “Please!” searching for a community to help me. If that didn’t work, maybe I’d start praying.”

The movement from prayer to community to mission is cyclical of course, the reflection on the missional activity being constantly brought back into prayer and community. But Nouwen’s point shouldn’t be lost. The starting point of our life of faith, as a follower of Jesus, must be a relationship with God through prayer and solitude. But getting stuck in prayer—or community for that matter—is also ultimately unfaithful. Which part of this holy trio—prayer, community, mission—are you naturally drawn toward? Which—as a disciple, a follower of Christ—needs more attention?

Nouwen felt that Luke 6 offers guidance for how we approach mission and ministry in the world. He, like St. Ignatius, felt that Jesus was warning not to become trapped by “inordinate attachments.”   Inordinate attachments are worldly illusions of success and happiness, such as our need to be liked, need to succeed, need to control…. Ultimately, they ensnare us in a false sense of security and faith in our own efforts.

Read carefully each one of Jesus’ statements in his Sermon on the Plain. Which one catches your attention? Which one challenges you most? Bring this to prayer and solitude with God.

LUKE 6:17-26 Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

JEREMIAH 17:5-10 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings. 

PSALM 1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgement comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019

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Rose Window, St. Thomas’ St. Catharines

Who’s calling? God or the jumbled mess of my interior aspirations?

A life of faith involves discerning and then aligning to the likeness and image of Christ. For me, that process has been nothing short of an adventure involving mirages, missteps and a few miracles. Is that you God or am I just having a particular day!

All our readings for this Sunday touch on the topic of call and listening for God’s guidance. “All will praise you, when they have heard the words of your mouth.… The Lord will make good his purpose for me.” Psalm 138 What do these readings tell us about the spiritual call and our response?

  1. The call shows that God values us—God deems us worthy—which seems to come as a surprise to most. Simon Peter, Isaiah and Paul all struggled with the gap they perceived between their capabilities and God’s confidence in them. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a … sinner, persecutor, foul speaker,” etc. Some questions to take to prayer are: What am I reluctant to see in myself that I sense you see in me, O God? What barriers keep me from my calling? Are these barriers truly insurmountable?
  2. The call is an invitation. In other words, God does not initiate a hostile takeover but respects free will. As a result, this requires an openness to God and a willingness to be in relationship in order for the call to be heard. A question to reflect on: Whose voice do you hear most in prayer: yours or God’s? If you heard/sensed God speaking into your life, would you recognize it from your own murky (and sometimes maniacal) motivations?
  3. The call seems totally bananas! Can you imagine what Simon Peter felt after a futile night of fishing and half a morning of cleaning nets when he is asked by this new rabbi to once more cast into the water?! Preposterous! Crazy! But oddly compelling. Jesus response? “Be not afraid….” A question for prayer: What new and strange thing or way of being are you sensing is next for you?
  4. The call does not promise to be a bed of roses. Responding to God’s call can be the most exciting, fulfilling, life-invigorating experience you could ever imagine. But it will inevitably involve a ton of hard work, adversity, countless sacrifices and sometimes even a healthy dollop of suffering. Not for the faint of heart. But for you, dear sojourner, there is no life like it! A reflective question: How do I stay strong and faithful when the call gets tough? Who or what are the angels of mercy God is sending my way?

LUKE 5:1-11 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

ISAIAH 6:1-8 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

PSALM 138I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name, because of your love and faithfulness; For you have glorified your name and your word above all things. When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me. All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, when they have heard the words of your mouth. They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord. Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; he perceives the haughty from afar. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe, you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me. The Lord will make good his purpose for me; O Lord, your love endures for ever; do not abandon the works of your hands.

1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 27, 2019

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Chancel wood carving, Christ Church Cathedral, Hamilton

Instead of “The Word of the Lord,” imagine a new curate today proclaiming: “I am the Word of the Lord.” I can assure you the good people in the congregation would not be long setting that new minister straight. “Shocking gall!” would be the response, rather than the expected: “Thanks be to God.”

But our imagined curate’s response must have been what it sounded like to the clergy and lay leaders of Jesus’ home synagogue. Remember he was standing before the people who formed him. They knew the stories of his family and they knew him from childhood. “Isn’t he Mary’s son!” “Doesn’t he have a brother, James?!” They had taught him the ways of the faith through the words of the law and the prophets. But how did these sacred words get so turned around?

Our churches and homes, our schools and communities, are all places of formation. Young and old alike are given the opportunity to learn, integrate, change and grow. But when people change it alters our patterns and sense of security. We like the idea of change, but rarely does it come without some pain.

In the past few months I have been watching people profoundly change as they experience spiritual growth. People well into their eighties are sensing God in new ways they couldn’t have imagined. I wonder what forces will work on them in their parishes to support or quell that fire? Will their communities welcome their new found enthusiasm, their new ways, their yearning for more? It is easy to destroy fragile growth—a careless comment, gentle teasing, or just simply ignoring. Individuals can change, but their communities are far less resilient. What will our communities do when our people start to proclaim God’s Good News which to many may sound like bad news?

Are you spiritually growing? Do you feel free to talk about this growth with your family, friends, in your church? Is your growth welcomed in your church community? How does this growth and deeper relationship with God change how you see the church and your role within it?

On my heart this day I come before God and ask for insight in how to help prepare the soil for the growth that is coming.

LUKE 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2019

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St. Andrew’s Grimsby

I sense tension. She simply pointed out that there was no wine. But I bet he heard: “It’s time you got off your duff and did something!” Parental nudging towards maturity is a delicate and tricky business that requires sensitive pacing and a thick skin. In our Corinthians reading Paul talks about spiritual gifts—those talents, skills and abilities given by God and activated by the Holy Spirit for service to the world. As a parent, other than providing a secure and loving home, our greatest mandate is to see and encourage the blossoming of our children’s gifts and abilities. But I know I am constantly asking myself if I am pushing too hard or not hard enough. Am I imposing my own unprocessed past and are my motivations as pure as I hope? Discerning gifts in those we love really does require the discipline of self-reflection since, in truth, we stand to either benefit or be adversely affected by the manifestation of those gifts. Jesus as miracle worker or carpenter was bound to directly affect Mary’s future plans.

Paul tells us that everyone has been given spiritual gifts, that all gifts are given by God and that no one gift is better or more valuable than another. Do we believe this? I know my spiritual journey has involved coming to the realization that there are some gifts that are simply out of my reach and no matter how much I may yearn for something different, I need to accept who I am, which includes both my gifts and my limitations. To do otherwise just ends up hurting too much.

And in some way, it is all about seeing abundance, isn’t it—whether in the gifts we or our children or other loved ones have been given. As our psalmist poetically says: “Your love reaches the heavens.” At Cana it wasn’t just a bottle of wine. It was 180 gallons of great wine! If you want to know when you are living into and through your particular spiritual gifts, then look for signs of abundance—a love and passion that goes beyond imagining. What brings forth joy, celebration, fecundity and capaciousness, for you? Follow that and you will find self; follow that and you will find God, too.

There are layers upon layers to our motivations. Many I know or sense and many remain deeply hidden. In the quiet of my time with God this week I will ask for divine loving insight. What do I truly and deeply want and yearn for? What are my spiritual gifts and the spiritual gifts of my loved ones? Help me, God, see and bring forth those gift in myself and others. What do I not want, or are not ready, to see?

JOHN 2:1-11 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 

1 CORINTHIANS 12:1-11 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 

Baptism of Lord, January 13, 2019

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Baptism of the Lord, St. Barnabas, by Paul Gosen

Have you ever had a spiritual experience, that is, heard a voice or sensed a presence that could not be explained physically? Surveys indicate that most of us have had some sort of spiritual encounter but that we are reluctant to speak about it with others. Who wants to be thought of as crazy or have something so precious scoffed at?

Spiritual experiences are those rare occurrences when we sense first-hand an immediate encounter with the mystery of God that goes beyond our material world. These experiences evoke profound feelings of love and meaning. Carl McColman, in his Big Book of Christian Mysticism, says that “mystical Christianity is less about attaining unity with God and more about creating the inner emptiness where you can offer God hospitality.”

I wonder if the story of Jesus’ baptism is one of just such a spiritual encounter? We are told that when he prayed, after being baptized, he physically felt the Holy Spirit descend on him, and he heard a voice speaking to him.

One way or another we are left wondering what we are to make of such encounters.

My advice…

  1. Privately cherish them, as they are special gifts that are fleeting and few. They can provide the spiritual journey with buoyancy and poignancy.
  2. Publicly share them, but only with a trusted few such as a spiritual director. They can be deeply meaningful, but you will likely need help discerning their significance. So be wise about who gets to speak into that meaning.
  3. Never proclaim them, especially when a community is in discernment. Offering a vision is one thing, declaring the direct voice of God is quite another. A humble and thoughtful thank-you to God for personal insight is a great response. It is interesting that Jesus did not immediately pivot from this mystical experience into his public teaching ministry but fled to the wilderness where he was tempted and tested.

How open are we to hearing that we are loved? What would it feel like to know you are God’s beloved? McColman says that we are called to be loved, to love, and to be love—and in that order. Is it possible to love other’s and God’s creation without first experiencing God’s love?

Today I will enter into the silence with centering prayer. My sacred words will be: I am beloved.

LUKE 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Epiphany, January 6, 2019

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A new year and new resolutions! Renewal and new life are at the heart of our Christian story, promised at our baptism. But can we really change? Time and time again, new resolutions turn into good intentions and before long we find ourselves where we were before, deeply mired in the ruts of an old familiar way.

A spiritual director of mine many years ago said that when, despite our best efforts, we repeatedly find ourselves in the same emotional or relational place, we should really pay attention. That moment of, “How did I get here again!” might just be our life trying to tell us something.

The wise men set out on a new journey. Maybe it all began with new resolutions for them too. Who knows? They encountered two kings: one of political and military might while the other was of just and loving hope. If they had chosen to return to Herod they would have likely found themselves back in the familiar warmth of the secure and controlling courts of the powerful. Instead, they took a different, riskier path that ultimately had tragic consequences for many Bethlehem families, and resulted in Mary, Joseph and the baby becoming refugees. Could this be another example of those ugly moments when tragedy, adversity, and suffering become unwitting instruments of change?

This year, will we choose the road of comfort and pleasure, a place where our ego and sense of security and self-sufficiency will flourish? Or will we find ourselves in a new place where we can look back on the journey and realize the freedom and peace we have gained? But be careful, when the terrain is new we sometimes fail to see its seductive familiarity rounding us back in a slow curve toward where we were.

What is at the heart of your New Year’s resolution? What do you really want to change? What do you really want to become? Where is God in the midst of this change and yearning? Who or what will help you notice when the terrain becomes familiar? Who or what will guide you along a new, less familiar way?

God’s love yearns for us to move closer.

MATTHEW 2:1–12 1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

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St. Andrew’s Church, Grimsby Ontario

200 children remain separated from their parents as a result of Trump’s intolerant and illogical immigration policy. 15,000 children and young people continue to languish in desert tents in remote places in the US. Hundreds of asylum seekers who come to Canada have to choose between placing their children in foster care or keeping them with them in a detention facility. All of this is unnecessary and could be managed better. All of this results in significant psychological trauma for children. And all of this because we are afraid.

Meanwhile Christians the world over, celebrate the story of a mother and a father cocooned in a manger, leaning in with single-minded love to protect and nurture a small child. The incarnation is all about vulnerability, potentiality and the sacramentality between the sacred and mundane.

This beautiful Christmas story brings me shame and it brings me hope.

My prayer today will include children who are with families but who feel alone. Children who are alone because they are separated from their families. Children who are protected and nurtured through their families. I will ask for forgiveness, courage and peace. May your families be places of peace, hope, joy and love.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

Luke 2:1-14 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Isaiah 9:2-7  The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.