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Pie-in-the-Sky?

17 He 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. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 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.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.  (Luke 6:17-26 NRSV)

We need a lot of perspective on this text.  A whole lot.

To begin with, we need to know where Jesus came down “from.”  He came down from a mountain where he had spent the night in prayer with God.  The following morning he called his disciples and chose the inner circle of apostles.  Apostles would be the “sent ones.”  Thus begins some 100 verses of teachings for these sent ones and anyone else interested enough to listen.

He came down with his disciples and apostles to a level place.  A place on the same level of those he served.  A place where Emmanuel could demonstrate the truth of “God with Us.”  He came down to this level place to find people from far and wide who were waiting to be taught and to be healed.

Jesus reverses the expectations.  First he heals.  How we can we hear what he has to say if we’re in pain or suffering?  How can we take in the Spirit’s words when unclean spirits are in the way?  First he heals.  Then he teaches.

He looked up at his disciples.  And now, God’s eyes are on them.  God’s eyes will remain on them.  The disciples (now apostles) will be seen by God.

The next expectation is the message itself.  Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich.  Blessed are the hungry, woe to the full.  Blessed are the weeping, woe to the laughing.  Blessed are the hated, woe to the well spoken of.

I’ve known no hunger in my life.  I have known periods of not being able to pay the bills, but not real poverty.  I’ve wept and I’ve laughed.  There’s a list of people who I don’t particular like and I wouldn’t be surprised if some outright hated me.

I wonder if many of you are nodding your heads.  So are we blessed?  Or are we facing woes? 

Jesus tells us to rejoice and leap for joy because your reward is great in heaven.  So, if you’re poor and needy and weeping, etc., hang in there.  Heaven is coming.  Some day you’ll be in a better place. 

That can’t be right.  That can’t be what Jesus means.  And here’s why.  Nowhere in scripture does it say that we’re NOT involved with God.  We are intricately involved with God and God with us.  We’re reminded over and over again that the poor are always with us; that wealth of any kind is treacherous and will be our undoing if we aren’t extremely careful; that we can’t serve two masters and survive.

Scripture reminds repeatedly to give alms; to open our hands to the poor and needy; not to allow anyone to go to bed hungry; that when we turn our backs on those in need of any kind, shame on us!

If Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted, then he can rejoice: I’m truly afflicted. 

Jewish and Christian tradition refuse to see the poor and hungry as cursed.  Nor are they considered impure.  Think about the homeless guy you encountered.  Did you cross the street to the other side?  How about the woman panhandling at the traffic light?  Did you avert your eyes?

Jesus announced in his hometown that his mission statement was to “bring good news to the poor…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 favor.” (Luke 4:18-19b NRSV)

Every action, every step, every prayer, every healing ties back to this mission statement he borrowed from Isaiah.  In his blessings and woes, he’s raising the poor and hungry and weeping and hated to his level.  He’s raising them up and he’s pointing us in their direction. 

And he’s saying to the rich and full and laughing and well spoken of, “Shame on you if you’re not doing anything about this!”

Sometimes we cross the road to avoid the homeless or we avert our eyes from the woman at the stop light.  But, dear reader, I also trust that you write checks often to help others help these very folks.  I know that you keep them in prayer, even as you cross the street and avert your eyes.  And there are times when you approach with a smile, a prayer and some money to help them.  And perhaps you even notice in that split second occurrence the sense of God’s grace touching both of you.

Jeremiah says it best.  “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.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV)

I have a picture of a tree that has stood on the edge of a lake for more than 50 years.  It stands about ten feet above the beach with half of its roots bared.  Even so, they are entwined with each other and have dug into the sandy shore.  This tree has withstood high water and drought, wind, extremes of temperatures, even kids climbing its branches. 

That tree reminds me of Jeremiah’s encouragement to trust God.  When we trust God, our roots grow deep and our bank accounts become secondary; we entwine our roots with those who also trust God and we work together for the God’s kingdom.  Most of all, we are able to find joy even in our weeping.

When Jesus lifted his gaze to his disciples he began to teach them that the world is upside down and inside out when compared to the kingdom of God.  So, when you feel hated or excluded or hungry, know that God sees it and blesses it.  God knows all about it.  Lean into God.  Trust.

Because you’ve just had a glimpse of the world as it really is.  And it pales in comparison with God’s intent.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Unworthy. Inadequate. Called anyway.

Once while Jesus[a] 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 signaled 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; 10 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.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.  (Luke 5:1-11 NRSV)

When Jesus reveals God’s glory, he doesn’t mess around.

Sitting in the boat, finishing up a teaching session with the crowds, he turns to Peter.  He and his friends have had a long night without much to show for it.  They’re cleaning their nets and getting ready to go home and get some sleep.

How often did that occur?  How often were they successful with their catch?  I’m told that 70% of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs.  The stress, the uncertainty of the economy, the low wages, job insecurity.  When the day ends, they’re content to go home.  They don’t want to throw their nets in.  They’re tired and worn out.

Jesus has other plans.  Even though Peter believes Jesus’ request is in vain, he complies, anyway.  Perhaps he sensed something about this man and he couldn’t say no.

The fish is so bountiful that Peter has to call in help to complete the catch.

Finally, the last of the fish are hauled into the boats.  The men look around them: fish up to their knees!  Peter falls to those knees in awe and wonder and amazement.  “Go away from me, Lord!  I’m a sinful man!”  He now understands that he’s in the presence of the holy and divine.

Others have felt that presence.  Isaiah, when he entered the temple filled with God’s presence and all he could see was the hem of God’s robe.  Moses approached a burning bush and received the order to take off his sandals, for he was standing on holy ground.

We can often tell when we’re in the presence of the divine.  God’s grace and blessings come unexpectedly.  They surprise us.  They unsettle us.  We feel unworthy.

On his knees (or as close to it as he can get surrounded by all those fish) Peter expresses his awe by confessing his sinful condition.  Martin Luther was heard to say that those who see their need of grace are in the best position to find it.  Confession truly is good for the soul.

Jesus reassures all of them.  “Fear not.”  And then he issues the call.  “From now on you will be catching people.”

God is at work.  There are new horizons to explore; new boundaries to push through; walls to break down.

The neighborhood was in a bad part of town.  Poverty and crime lived side by side.  What caused some of the residents to begin growing vegetables is unknown to me.  They couldn’t use their back yards, though.  There was too much shade.  So they planted in the front yards.

Before long, neighbors who had once barely talked to each other were gathering in yards comparing notes on their gardens.  How do you get so many tomatoes on your bushes?  You might try planting that bush closer to the shade for better production.

A few fish jumped into their nets.

Soon they were able to eat the fruit of their labors.  That led to a predicament.  What to do with the table scraps and peelings.  They began composting.  They decided on one compost pile which everyone could use for spring planting.  Some more fish jumped into their nets.

Ten years later Commonwealth Urban Farms has nets bursting with fish.  They are able to sell the compost.  Customers purchase produce in February with the guarantee of 25 weeks of produce provided to them free of charge.  A green house and a hoop house have been built.

Community has become united rather than divided.  The neighborhood is safe.  Land once abandoned to burned out homes and blight have been revitalized.

The fishing nets are full to bursting.

What have you seen in your corner of the kingdom?  What gives you hope?  Where are the nets filling up with fish?

Sometimes it’s hard to see.  Growth can be slow.  Other times growth is killed by the spirit of unkind competition.  Discouragement rears its ugly head.

God’s call is an amazing occurrence.  Yet, we often come face to face with our limitations.  And we give up.

But God in Christ calls us.  And when we follow, we enter places we never dreamed we’d go.  We experience the indescribable.  We hurt.  We feel joy.  Eventually, we learn to look for the unpredictable and we shy away from routine.

I have known greater joy in serving God than at any other time in my life.  I’ve known the heartache of disappointment when my nets were empty.  I’ve known the joy of bursting nets.  I wouldn’t give any of it up for anything.

In this world where everyone we meet has a broken heart, it’s good to be able to see the fish in the nets.  It may be as simple as seeing someone offer help to a homeless person or as complex and huge as an organization building a homeless shelter.

Whatever it is, know that God is at work.  And each time you experience it, remove your sandals for you truly are on holy ground.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Who? Me!?!

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”  (Jeremiah 1:4-10 NRSV)

It was a lovely warm evening; typical of Southern California.  My family and I were at church attending the pot luck supper.  While I waited for the serving line to begin, I slipped out the door and wandered towards the sanctuary.  Surprisingly, the doors were unlocked.  I entered quietly and reverently.

I loved this sanctuary.  The deep blues of the stained glass windows gave an aura of mystery.  As the sun began to set, the sanctuary darkened, but I wasn’t afraid.  I was only eight years old, and darkness usually scared me.  But not tonight.

I walked down the long center aisle and stopped about half way down.  I looked around and listened.  That’s when I felt it.  A presence.  Comforting, loving.

It would take several decades for me to remember that moment of God’s presence made known.  Deep down, though, I  must have remembered it because I was never far from a church home.  I strayed away at times, but never for long.  I always returned to find that presence.

This passage from Jeremiah speaks to me.  The word of the Lord didn’t come to me on that long ago night.  But, the presence spoke volumes.

Jeremiah says, “I’m only a boy.”

God says, “I will be with you.  I will send you.  I will deliver you.  I give you my words that you will speak.”

God’s “I’s” are firm.  Jeremiah’s only response is to go where God sends him.

It won’t be an easy ministry.  God is clear from the beginning that Jeremiah will pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow.  Later he’ll begin to build and to plant.  He’ll speak to the people of Judah; they won’t listen.  He’ll try over and over again, and come away wondering why they can’t understand what is in front of their eyes.

Four years ago I visited with people who wanted desperately for President Obama to be impeached.  They couldn’t understand why others couldn’t see what they thought was obvious.

These days I visit with other folks who want to see President Trump impeached.  They can’t understand how his followers can be so blind.

Truth is a strange word in our post-modern world.  We have alternative truth; truth that politicians spin to their own advantage; fake news; even truthiness.  Was that what it was like in Jeremiah’s day?  Was it difficult to see that Judah was headed to exile?  When you’re living in the midst of history, it’s hard to see the hand in front of your face.

For 40 years Jeremiah used words and creative actions to get God’s word to God’s people.  Eventually, Babylon conquered Judah and took the inhabitants into exile.

So, where’s the good news in all this?

Some people look on the world and see only decline.  Perhaps God is in their plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing.  If that’s the case, then God is also at work to buidt and to plant something better and more faithful.

In Cleveland, OK, Arlington Park provides good wholesome, entertainment for the local residents.  Bands play under the protection of a band stand; park benches and tables are available for picnics; flea markets and art shows are popular.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Once it was the sight of some decrepit buildings that housed the fire and police departments.  The City refurbished other space and each department moved into nicer accommodations.  Then the buildings were torn down to make way for the new park.

Plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing.  Sometimes we have to go through the painful and destructive in order for the new to be planted.  Such was the case for Jeremiah.  His ministry would see the fall of Judah.  He would then be able to send messages of hope to the exiles.

Later the exiles returned and began to build and plant.

A child born in Bethlehem would be born several centuries later.  He would preach and teach and heal and feed.  He would eventually endure a mock trial and be crucified.  But, God would have the final word in resurrection.

Fear not.  If we live in troubled times, know that God is with us.  God hasn’t given up on us.  God will do God’s work to bring about something better and more faithful.

Our job is to answer the call when God taps us on the shoulder.  Our job is to make our corner of the kingdom a better place for having been here.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Spiritual Regifting

12 1-3 What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives. This is complex and often misunderstood, but I want you to be informed and knowledgeable. Remember how you were when you didn’t know God, led from one phony god to another, never knowing what you were doing, just doing it because everybody else did it? It’s different in this life. God wants us to use our intelligence, to seek to understand as well as we can. For instance, by using your heads, you know perfectly well that the Spirit of God would never prompt anyone to say “Jesus be damned!” Nor would anyone be inclined to say “Jesus is Master!” without the insight of the Holy Spirit.

4-11 God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:

wise counsel

clear understanding

simple trust

healing the sick

miraculous acts

proclamation

distinguishing between spirits

tongues

interpretation of tongues.

All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.  (I Corinthians 12:1-11 The Message)

First Church, Corinth: Spiritually Gifted. Service Minded. Doers.

Also: Competitive. Easily Led Astray. Individualistic.

This fledgling congregation was birthed in the midst of a cosmopolitan city.  Poverty rates were high.  Probably 30% of the population were slaves.

They lived in a society grounded in honor/shame.  If you behaved dishonorably, you dishonored your patron.  Behave properly and “mind your betters” kept you save from shame.

The Corinthian Church members had to make their way through this system of patronage and the worship of a variety of gods.  They couldn’t help bringing their culture into their church.

Paul reminds these fledgling congregants that they live in the world, but they are not of the world.  They’re behavior must be honorable to God.  By behaving in a dishonorable manner, they dishonor God.  For Christians, their patron took second seat.

There’s so much he has to teach them.  So much they have to learn about being honorable Christians.  In this particular part of the letter Paul turns to spiritual gifts. No one gift is better than another.  And remember that if God is their Patron, than we honor God when we worship Jesus and affirm that “Jesus is Lord.”

That’s a big deal.  Our every action and our very words tell others who we worship.  When we honor others and speak wisely, we honor God and we are saying, “Jesus is Lord.”  On the other hand, when we accept the world view of life and behave disrespectfully, we dishonor God and we’re saying in so many words, “Let Jesus be cursed!”

How do we affirm Jesus as Lord?  One way, is through “Spiritual Re-gifting.”  Re-gifting is both popular and infamous these days.  If we receive a gift that doesn’t suit our needs, we can push it to the back of the closet, give it away or wrap it up for someone else.  Many say that re-gifting shows a lack of respect to the original giver.  That when you fail to put the gift to use, you’re dishonoring yourself and the one who gifted you.

Each and every one of us are gifted.  The Holy Spirit gifts us in many different ways. Contrary to culture, these gifts are meant be given away!  If you’re a teacher, teach.  If you’re a healer, heal.  If you’re a giver, be generous.  Spiritual gifts aren’t meant to be held onto not used.

In John’s Gospel we read about Jesus’ first “sign.”  This sign occurred while he was attending a wedding in Cana with his mother.  Any wedding was the event of the season and the celebration lasted for days.  To run out of wine was to dishonor yourself and your guests.  It just couldn’t happen!

At this particular wedding, though, it did.  There was nothing the host could do.  He had nothing left in his storeroom to offer his guests.  Jesus’ mother encourages him to do something about it.  He orders the servants to fill up six stone water jars with water.  They did as they were told.  Then he told them to draw some of the water so that the wine steward could taste it.  They did.

Jesus blessed the host with the very best wine.  He expected the host to give the wine to his guests.

The wine steward was impressed beyond measure with the quality and quantity of this wine.  “You’ve saved the best for last!”  What the servants knew and the steward didn’t know, was that Jesus had produced wine from water.

Jesus made it happen.  The servants were entrusted to serve it.  They weren’t to keep it to themselves — they were to give it away.  A form of Spiritual Re-Gifting!

What gifts do you share for the common good?  What has God given you that you’ve re-gifted, perhaps multiple times?

I believe you’re doing it already.  And as  you come to realize what you’re doing, I trust that you’ll do more of it.

Spiritual re-gifting honors God, honors you and, most of all, honors the recipient.

One Spirit.  Many gifts.  Many ministries. Many Deeds.

Give it away and see what comes back.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


I’m Proud of You

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,<sup class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-NRSV-25033a" data-link="[a]”>[a] 16 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<sup class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-NRSV-25034b" data-link="[b]”>[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler,<sup class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-NRSV-25037c" data-link="[c]”>[c] who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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;<sup class="footnote" data-fn="#fen-NRSV-25040d" data-link="[d]”>[d] with you I am well pleased.”  (Luke 3:15-22 NRSV)

It was spring.  The snow of a long winter had finally melted.  It was time to get outside; time to clean up the yard and make those minor repairs to the house.  I was sixteen: awkward, shy.  Trying to figure out who I was.  Trying to figure out what I would do after high school.

I had spent the day helping my dad scrape and paint the window frames.  Then we decided, unbeknownst to my mother, that the white porch railing needed to be black.  We scraped and painted for several hours.

We were cleaning up our mess when my Dad turned to me and said, “I like you.”

“Thank you,” I responded, not quite knowing where that had come from.

“You know,” he continued.  “We love our children.  Sometimes they aren’t easy to like.  I like you.”

Wow.  I treasured those words in my heart.  I was likable.  Maybe I’d make it in this world after all.

Luke doesn’t spend much time on Jesus’ baptism.  Matthew gives a better description.  Luke mentions it almost in passing.  So, let’s look at it that way.  Let’s not look at the baptism of Jesus, but what happened after.

Jesus was praying.  After he was baptized, he prayed.  Was it immediately after or did he go to a secluded place to pray?

This moment in the baptismal waters were important.  He entered them not because he was sinful or had anything to repent.  He entered into the waters with you and me and the rest of the world.  He came out of the waters a man ready to begin his ministry.

While he was praying, the heavens opened.  The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.  And then we hear God’s voice, “I claim you as my own.  I’m proud of you.”

When was the last time someone has said those words to you?  “I’m proud of you.”

Was it recently in a conversation with a friend?  Or has it been so many years that you can’t remember?

I’m proud of you.

What’s there to be proud of?  I mean Jesus was worthy of being claimed.  He was the Son of God.  He wasn’t sinful.  Of course God was proud of him.  That’s the easy part.

But, what about us?  Oh, sure, we begin the day with good intentions.  We’ll smile more, notice people around us with greater interest, speak peace-filled words.  Then we get out of bed.

We make our way through our day judging others; arguing our point without listening to others; fighting and clawing our way to … what?

Perhaps you remember the day you were baptized.  Perhaps you were baptized as an infant.  Perhaps you haven’t been baptized, yet.  Remember it anyway.

Think about that baptismal font filled with water made holy by God.  Think about the water in that font as the Psalmist describes it.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.  (Psalm 29:3-4 NRSV)

God is Lord of the waters.  Lord of the waters in that baptismal font; Lord of the waters of creation.  God is over all and in all.  When you remember your baptism, you might think of fresh, clear water that can’t hurt you.  This Psalm reminds us that God isn’t a puddle of water; God is all powerful.  To choose baptism is to choose to enter into the dangerous water and give yourself fully and completely to God.

And while Jesus entered his baptismal waters, Herod was locking up John the Baptizer for speaking truth to evil power.

Your baptism isn’t sweet; it’s powerful.  In those waters you are marked with the invisible sign that you belong to God.  And God is proud of you.

Still not sure?  Let’s see what the prophet Isaiah has to say:

43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.  (Isaiah 43:1-2 NRSV)

Don’t fear.  Why?  Because God calls you by your name; you belong to God.  Don’t fear.  Why?  Because when you pass through the waters and the rivers overwhelm you (which they will) God is with you.  When the fires of hell are scorching your feet (and they will) God is with you.

Yes, we’re a pretty messed humanity.  We often get it wrong.  We misunderstand; we take our anger out on those who may not deserve it; we point fingers; we judge.  Don’t fear.

Don’t fear because God knew you before you were born.  God gifted you with spiritual gifts to share with others.  God is with you.  God knows you’re trying.  And God is proud of you.

So gaze into those dangerous baptismal waters.  Consider your life and how much it means to be God’s beloved child.

Then hear God’s voice: “I’m proud of you!”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Politics and Change

Matthew 2:1-12

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.  (The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)

Note:  I am grateful to the work of Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan who helped me flesh out this blog with their book “The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth.  (New York, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2007)

This is the conclusion of the Christmas story.  John the Baptist has been born and a few months later Jesus was born.  The angels  announced the birth of the Christ child.  Shepherds, the marginalized citizens, heard the announcement and paid homage.  Time has passed, Jesus is not yet two years old.  Wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem.

“We’re looking for the newborn king of the Jews”.  They couldn’t have done more damage if they’d dropped a bomb in the city center.

Why did Luke write about these scholars?  What purpose do they have in the Christmas story?

One response is that these are the gentiles who first recognized the Messiah.  Jesus came for all humanity, not just the Jews.

Another response points out the threat and the promise of this child.  In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings about the greatness of this honor to bear the savior.  “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” (Luke 1:49, 51 NRSV)

Later, when Mary and Joseph bring the baby to the temple for her purification, Simeon steps on the stage saying, “I can rest in peace.  I’ve seen my heart’s desire: the Messiah.”  The audience sighs with joy.  But, Simeon isn’t done, yet.  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34b-35 NRSV)

Yes, the story shares with us that Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles.  Yes, Jesus came to set things right and will stir things up.  Is that all?  Is this simply a nice conclusion to the Christmas story?

I suggest there’s more.  I suggest that this is not a conclusion, but a sort of commencement.  Like a high school or college commencement, this is an ending that points away from itself to something more important.

Whether they realize it or not, these wise men are pointing to a new kingdom.  This kingdom is a singular and dangerous threat to the existing world.

The kingdom of the world is ruled by Caesar Augustus.  According to Borg and Crossan, he was called Son of God, Lord and savior of the world.  He was also considered the son of Apollo, the god of light.  Therefore, Caesar was considered the Light of the World.  He is worshiped as a god.  He is the savior the people believe they need; the conqueror who brings peace.

Caesar appoints his minions and Herod is one of them.  He is King of the Jews whose job it is to keep them in line.  He keeps his throne only by the grace of Caesar.  In truth he is an evil ruler who distorts the truth and even kills in order to hang on to that power.  Read ahead a few verses and we discover that he has all baby boys under two years of age living in and around Bethlehem slaughtered, in an attempt to kill this new King of the Jews.

The wise men point to the birth of a new kingdom led by the King of the Jews, the Light of the World, Lord, and Savior of the World.  Wait.  That’s Caesar’s role.  We can’t have two saviors, can we?

And now, this lovely, tender story points to a clash: the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God.

The magi don’t conclude the Christmas story, they point us forward.  And Luke’s gospel will continue to move us into the challenge of decision.  We live in Caesar’s world.  It’s easy to see and hard to understand.  It’s complicated.  There are no easy answers.  A move in one direction creates havoc somewhere else.  And sometimes we catch ourselves worshiping the wrong thing.

We also worship the Messiah while struggling to understand the Kingdom of God.  This is the kingdom that tells us that if our hearts are saddened to the point of breaking over injustice and poverty, we’re blessed.  That persecution brings blessing.  That the Law of Moses is important and must be studied; not for the purpose of legalism or a threat, but going deeply in order to find God at the heart of it.  And that God is like a father standing with his nose pressed up against the window pane, watching for his prodigal son to return and when he does, embarrasses everyone around him by running down the road to welcome him back.

This is the kingdom of God: upside down, backwards, inside out.  It’s a kingdom I want to understand more fully.

The kingdom of this world has a lot going for it.  I believe that God is at work in the world bringing in the kingdom.  We see it in moments of grace.  The kingdom of God is brought into the world every time a human being or a group of human beings stand up to the kingdom of Caesar and say, “We have a better way.”  That’s what Desmond Tutu did in South Africa.  It’s what you and I do on our best days when we stop a bully or assert justice.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Search for Jesus in 2019

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents[a] saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”[b] 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,[c] and in divine and human favor.  (Luke 2:41-52 NRSV)

For the past several weeks we’ve discussed the question, “What are you looking for in the new year?”

What does your list look like?

Perhaps you want to lose weight and get in shape; learn a new craft; study a new topic.  Most of us want to be a better person, whatever that means.

Perhaps we can look to the example Jesus set.  He “increased in wisdom and in years…” (verse 51.)  Jesus, the Son of God, had to grow up and learn.  He sat in the temple for three days listening and asking questions.  That his questions held depth doesn’t surprise us.  That he had much to learn serves as a reminder that this Son of the Most High was fully divine AND fully human.

We can do no less than to increase in wisdom.  Once again, I ask the question: What are you looking for in the new year?”

Our search can be found in prayer.  Perhaps you have already discerned your next steps.  Our search can also be found in scripture.  I discovered a worthy passage in Colossians this week.  “As God’s chosen ones, holy [set apart] and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12 NRSV)

Compassion means to walk alongside someone with the idea of being open to their plight.  We can always use kindness and meekness and patience in the world.  Are any of these speaking to you?

I have known toxic people and I think you have, as well.  It only takes one to create havoc in a group of friends.  Just one person with a poisonous tongue and a group will eventually fall apart unless they confront the toxicity.  It works the other way around, as well.  Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Black Lives Matter.  #Me Too.  These are movements that began with only a few people willing to stand up and say something important.

So, on this cold, cold Sunday with 2018 coming to a close and 2019 arriving fresh and new, what do you want?  What do you yearn for?

What will you do differently in your tiny corner of the kingdom?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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