March 24, 2019
In Luke’s gospel this morning, we hear about a tragic national event in the life of Israel during Jesus’ time. It was a headline event discussed by everyone within the nation of Israel. Actually there are two events - one appears to be an accidental collapse of a structure at a building site that killed 18 people and the other was a military operation against civilians ordered by Pontius Pilate. That event seems to be politically if not religiously motivated.
We begin hearing about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. This must refer to folks who were offering sacrifices at the temple and were slaughtered during that time. It is apparent from this text that Pilate ruled in a ruthless manner, andperhaps angered by something that occurred in Galilee, decided to make an example of a group of Galilean Jews who were visiting the capitol of Jerusalem. He ordered his soldiers to go into the temple in the middle of the day, while there was tens of thousands of people worshipping there, and execute these innocent men. The next story is about 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – whether they were workers or simply bystanders we don’t know nor do we know any other details of either of these stories. We only know that one has to do with human evil and the other has to do with natural evil. The question that is asked though is: Does Jesus think that their fate meant that they were worse sinners than the others in Jerusalem? In other words, did they deserve to die. Were they judged and found wanting and punished? Jesus says No. And I would have to think that if we could ask him the same question about the many disasters in our time – the thousands of people affected by Cyclone Idai which hit Beira, Mozambique with the full force of its fury on Thursday 14 March when almost 90% of the City was extensively damaged by winds and torrential flooding rain and over 1000 sq km was covered in flood waters destroying whole villages, crops and livestock; or
the hate-filled Terror attack targeting two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch where At least 50 people were killed and 50 wounded, Thirty-four patients are still receiving treatment at Christchurch Hospital, “Twelve remain in intensive care and one girl was transferred to a children’s hospital,” or the crash of the Boeing 737 in Bishofter Ethiopia on March 10in which all 157 passengers and crew were killed - his answer would be the same. There is nodirect correlation between suffering and sin. The point being that we are all sinners in need of repentance. The other point being that the God we believe in does not pass judgment on people and inflict punishment on them like that. We will all be judged at the end but in the meantime, we hopefully will recognize the need for us to repent for our sins. And that kind of leads into the second half of the gospel – the parable of the fig tree.
Jesus told a parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’” That makes sense, doesn’t it? What good is a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Notice that it had been three years that the owner had the fig tree growing in his vineyard and yet it yielded nothing. Three years is the length of time that it takes a fig tree to become an established, fruit-bearing tree. That it was not bearing at this point seemed highly unlikely that it would ever bear fruit. So the owner of the vineyard was making a practical business-like decision. The tree’s taking up room. It’s using fertile soil in which another tree might prosper. “Cut it down!” he says. But the man who cared for the vineyard tries to intervene. “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Obviously the man who cared for the vineyard saw possibilities in the tree that the owner of the tree could not. The owner could see only a tree that wasn’t pulling its weight. But the man who looked after the tree was more familiar with it and believed the tree deserved another chance. Cultivating and fertilizing the tree is a symbol of God’s mercy. Thank God for second chances
The late humorist Lewis Grizzard once said that thinking about God’s final judgment over our lives scared the “you-know-what” out of him. One day he received a questionnaire in the mail titled “Heaven: Are You Eligible?”
Grizzard said he took the test and scored “too close to call.” (6) I suspect that all of us might score “too close to call.” Thank God for second chances. But a second chance implies that we are not living our lives at the highest level and we need to do something about it. That’s called repentance, We have so much to learn about God and God’s presence in our lives!
Many years ago Harold Kushner’s wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. Its message was simple: when bad things happen to you, God is not punishing you because you deserve it. God is on your side, not on the side of the illness or the injury. In 1996 he wrote “How Good Do We Have to Be”. Its message was simple: We have misunderstood the story of Adam and Eve. We have read it as a story of disobedience and divine punishment, and learned to believe in a God who would punish us severely if we ever did anything wrong. Kushner goes on to suggest that the story of the Garden of Eden is not an account of people being punished for having made one mistake, losing Paradise because they were not perfect. It is the story of the first human beings graduating, evolving to the immensely complicated world of being human and knowing that there are such things as good and evil. They enter a world where they will inevitably make many mistakes, not because they are weak of bad but because the choices they confront will be such difficult ones. This is not a story of the Fall of Man but of the emergence of humankind. To say that we are destined to lose God’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is to reject a God of infinite love and mercy, a God of forgiveness and compassion. In a later book “Nine Essential Things I have Learned About Life” Kushner nicely sums up our God of second chances. He writes: The God I believe in, the God I pray to, the God I turn to when I am at the point of losing faith in myself, is not a God who says, “I gave you one chance and you blew it, How can I ever trust you again?” The God I believe in says to me, “I have given you an incomparably valuable gift, the ability to know the difference between good and bad, between things that should be done and things that should not be done, the freedom no other creature has to use willpower to override temptation. And when you find that too hard to do, when you stumble and fall, when you are led astray by the pleasure of the moment rather than long-term good, I will be there to pick you up, clean you off, and give you a fresh start, because I am a God of forgiveness, a God of second chances. Then when you are able to forgive yourself and to forgive people around you for not being perfect, I will recognize you as My child.
On Friday, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the semi-truck driver involved in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in april of 2018 that killed 16 people and injured 13 others was been sentenced to eight years in prison for each count of causing death, and five years for each count of bodily harm. The sentences are to be served concurrently. The sentencing laid bare the unrelenting pain of family members who lost loved ones in the sudden tragedy. There were heartbreaking accounts of grief and anger, and calls for the maximum prison time possible. Sidhu apologized to his victims and assumed full responsibility for the accident. The father of one of the victims is not satisfied with the sentence, the mother of another said that she could never forgive. But there were glimmers of compassion, as some including widow Christina Haugan pledged forgiveness and peace
Bad things happen and will continue to happen in this world. As the psalmist says, the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike. I think we need to have a sense of the presence of God in our lives and a need for repentance for our sins and keep that in our hearts on a daily basis. Forgiveness is often such a difficult thing for us but we give thanks for a God who does not wreak havoc and horrible punishment on us sinners but for a God who is compassionate and merciful and can forgive us our trespasses. Amen.
March 10, 2019
David Bersoff teaches Social Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and has a particular interest in why supposedly "good" people do bad things. He wrote an article exploring the kind of rationalizations used to justify such common trespasses as pilfering offices supplies or quietly pocketing a cashier's overpayment. People are more likely to give in to temptation when they can remain passive, the study finds, and when they feel no one is being harmed. Bersoff had University students take part in what they were led to believe was a product test. The participants were then overpaid $2.00 for their efforts. The first group was told a big foreign company was sponsoring the test. The subjects were paid by an impersonal cashier. In that group, 80 percent kept the extra money. The next group were told the test was being run by a graduate student and being paid for out of his own funds. "Now the victim has a face. It's harder to deny harm," said Bersoff. Half of that group accepted the undeserved money. In the next scenario, the cashier counted out the money on her desk, then asked, "Is that right?" The question made it necessary to tell a lie to get the undeserved $2.00. Forty percent did. In the final scenario, subjects were told a graduate student was paying for the test, and the cashier asked if the payment was right. So there was a victim to hurt and a lie required. Still 20 percent took the extra $2.00. Bersoff said in all cases, it was the same $2.00, but one complication and then two made it harder and harder to "find in your mind a way to justify this." He went on, "I don't believe people are bad, but certain situations play on their weakness and lead them to do bad things. I think that is the whole nature of temptation."
Interesting. Temptation is all around us, isn't it? No doubt that is why every year, on this first Sunday in Lent, this unique period in the church year during which we are called to a rigorous self-examination, the church reads again the story of Christ's temptation in the wilderness.Our story from Luke this morning is the classic New Testament account of temptation (the Old Testament classic being the serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden). As the lesson has it, Jesus is "led by the Spirit" into the wilderness where he encounters the devil. Jesus had been fasting and was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Jesus knows that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Do we think in those terms? Most of us do not. We tend to pounce on a resource and exploit it. We turn every stone into bread. We turn every kingdom into an emerging market. We worship our asset value, and when the DOW plunges from its pinnacle, we cry, “Remember your promise to us Lord…. Right! But, where was our recognition of God’s claim on God’s earth? Or our use of it? Where was the humility in the presence of the gifts of God? Where was the sharing and the generosity appropriate to God’s love for all? Wait! I thought that if I confess with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead, I could exploit my environment at will.
I wonder how Jesus would have coped with the 21st century? After all, there can’t be too much to tempt you if you’re walking about in a first century wilderness. Whereas life today is very much more complex, with surely many more opportunities for temptation and subsequent sin. So I wonder what Jesus’ temptations would have looked like today? For instance, we’re constantly subjected to a bewildering display of delights. Over and over we are told that it is our right to enjoy our fair share. Through newspapers, glossy magazines, posters and television, advertisers imply we can have anything we want. And if we can’t afford it, there’s always the chance of winning the lottery. But Jesus said. “It is written that human beings shall not live by material riches alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Well, let’s try the Holy City, the pinnacle of the temple. What a relief it is that we can escape from the world, if only for a short time each week, to the peace and calm of the church, a holy place, a place to meet with God. Surely, if we attend church every Sunday and put a reasonably generous donation on the plate each week, everything will go well with us. God himself will look after us. We’ll live long and happy lives. All our problems will be little ones. We and ours will be fit and healthy and happy. Because we’ll be doing exactly what God requires of us.
But Jesus said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God, for the Lord your God has never been an insurance policy. He has guaranteed to see you through all troubles, even the worst that can happen to you. But he has never guaranteed you won’t have troubles, just like anyone else in this life. He sends the sun and the rain on all human beings, on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ So let’s go to a high mountain, and view all the kingdoms of the world. Perhaps we can do this through a look at 21st century temptations in the world of business. The constant temptation to work all hours, to concentrate all your energies on getting to the top, to throw your whole self into work, lock, stock and barrel. Because that’s the place that really matters. It’s a tough, competitive world out there, so you must pour yourself into your work into making good. Only the best will do in this life. You mustn’t let any other considerations stand in your way. Put the family on the back burner, just until you make it. After all, you’ll be doing it all for them. Think of all the good you could do if you were earning a really decent salary. And you’d probably be able to increase the profitability of the company so it could expand and employ even more people, so you’d be helping everyone. Just think of the importance of power in modern life. But Jesus said,: “Begone, Satan! For it is written: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
Luke tells us, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” Notice that Luke doesn’t say that the devil quit tempting Jesus. He says that the devil made a strategic retreat--to tempt him at a more opportune time--for example, in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was tempted to forsake his mission. There are practices that once were frowned upon that are now readily accepted even by most church people.We snickered when the actress in the Broadway musical Oklahoma sang, “I'm just a girl who can't say no . . .” We smirked with Mae West when she sighed seductively, “To err is human, but it feels divine.” However, in a day in which one out of two new marriages will end in divorce, when a record number of children will grow up in broken homes, when white collar crime is counted in the billions, when young lives are being drained and often destroyed by drugs and alcohol, when untold millions live in emptiness and despair, guilt and brokenness, it is time we dealt with the power of the tempter in our lives. For you see, most of us can handle the big crises in life. It is the little foxes that eat the vines, as Solomon noted thousands of years ago (Song of Solomon 2:15).
There was once an Englishman who startled the world by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Amazingly he escaped serious harm. However, he did suffer a serious injury several years later. He slipped on a banana peel. No damage from going over Niagara Falls, but a serious injury from a simple banana peel. That is the way the tempter works. It is the little things that so often trip us up. And left to our own resources, the tempter does have the power to destroy us.
We are all tempted by material possessions. We are all tempted to use God as an insurance policy which demands nothing from us but the assurance of everything from God. We are all tempted by power and authority which allows us to influence others and make them do what we want. Temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. After seeing his temptations for the shallow things they really were, Jesus went into a lonely place to pray, to be alone with God for a while. Because he realized only God could satisfy his hunger, could fill that aching void within. And then, filled with God’s power and God’s strength, Jesus was ready to start his ministry.
So perhaps this Lent we need to find a place to be where we can be alone with God and pray and invite God to satisfy our hunger and longings. Then filled with God’s power and God’s strength, we will be ready to carry on the ministry that Jesus started. Amen
February 18, 2019
Jesus died penniless. Roman soldiers cast lots to divide among themselves Jesus' only possessions--the clothes on his back. And he had looked at his disciples and said, blessed are you who are poor. Jesus died hungry. There is no record that Jesus had anything to eat the day of his death . He died on the cross Friday at sunset with an empty stomach. And he had looked at his disciples and said, blessed are you who hunger now. Jesus died weeping. After his last supper Jesus headed for the Garden and there in that Olive Grove we call Gethsemane he prayed and he wept. And he had looked at his disciples and said blessed are you who weep. Jesus died hated. Caiaphas, the greatest religious authority in Israel called him a blasphemer. The crowds wanted a murderer freed before they would see Jesus pardoned. And his disciples deserted him. He had looked at his disciples and said blessed are you when men hate you on account of me.
The Beatitudes are familiar to us. We have heard them many times. I recently read an interesting article about them: entitled “The Lesson.”“Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain, and gathering these around him, he taught them saying:
“ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are they who thirst for justice. Blessed are you when you suffer. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven. Remember what I am telling you.’
“Then Simon Peter said, ‘Do you have to write this down?’
“And Andrew said, ‘Are we supposed to know this?’
“And James said, ‘Will we have a test on it?’
“And Phillip said, ‘What if we don’t know it?’
“And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
“And Matthew said, ‘When do we get out of here?’
“And Judas said, ‘What does this have to do with real life?’
“And the other disciples likewise.
“And Jesus wept.”
This is the more popular version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew and serves as the preface to the Sermon on the Mount. There are nine Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, which we just heard, there are only four Beatitudes and they serve as the preface to what is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain called such because scripture says "he came down from the mountain and stood on the a level place." Not only does Luke have less than half the Beatitudes that Matthew has, Luke's Beatitudes are much more demanding. Matthew says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Luke says, "Blessed are the poor." Matthew says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Luke says, "Blessed are those who are hungry now." Matthew lists the nine Beatitudes, then stops and goes on to something else. Luke lists the four Beatitudes, then he continues with four "Woes," or curses. "Woe to you who are rich." "Woe to you who are full now." "Woe to you who laugh now."
It is here in the sixth chapter of Luke that Jesus begins to teach. He outlines what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live as a Christian in this kind of a world. Up to this point, through the first five chapters, he really hasn't taught anything. In fact, up to now, he has hardly said anything. It has all been action, very little dialogue. He has healed the sick and he has sparred verbally with the Pharisees. He has called the disciples, and he has attracted crowds that are getting larger every time he performs a miracle. They are now following him around from place to place. Crowds will always gravitate toward the sensational.\ In Matthew Jesus goes up the mountain and takes the disciples with him. He instructs them on the mountain. In Luke he brings them down to the plain, to the crowds, to where the people are. The text says "there were people there who had diseases," and "he healed them all." Jesus has been doing that from the very beginning of his ministry. That is why the crowds are there. That is why they follow him around. He comes down to where the people are and he heals the crowd. In the New Testament there is the crowd, and there are the disciples. The crowd Jesus heals. He doesn't ask anything of them. Out of compassion he sees their sicknesses and he heals them. Then they go away. They have no names. They are the suffering in this world. He touches them, and heals them. But disciples he doesn't heal. Nor does he particularly express any compassion toward them. Nor are comfortable words uttered to them. There is nothing in the gospels about the disciples becoming a support group. Jesus heals the crowds, he challenges the disciples into service.
The text says when he finished healing the crowds, he turned to 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 exclude you, and defame you, on account of the Son of man." He is addressing his disciples. He is not talking to the crowd now. He has come down to the plain, to the real world where the people are, and demonstrates what God's will is for the whole world. In the Kingdom of God there will be no more disease, no more pain, no more sorrow. Life will be whole. Life will be the way God created it to be. Someday life will be the way it is supposed to be. What you have just seen, he tells the disciples, is the way it will be when the Kingdom comes. But in the meantime, it is not that way. In the meantime I have come to identify with the poor, the hungry, and with those whose lives are filled with pain and with sorrow." I have come to stand with them, and to let them know that they are God's children.
This is where Christianity is to work, he tells them. This is where you are supposed to be, where people are. Not on a mountain top.
It is always tempting to make Christianity that way, to picture Jesus as a "guru," a wise man, and his teachings as inspirational thoughts, and Christianity as just another one of the philosophies about life, giving us inspiring ideals. The situations of injustice in this life will be reversed in the next life, which is exactly what we are seeing in Luke's Beatitudes. That is why he adds the Woes, so there will be a dramatic contrast between those who are blessed now, and those who will be blessed later - In God's time. In the meantime, Christians are to identify with the poor. You can't be a Christian and store up wealth for the future, and ignore those people who have nothing in the present. You can't dine sumptuously everyday, and not be concerned about those who are hungry. You can't laugh and have a good time, and not care that there are people in this world, especially children, who have never smiled. In the meantime, we as Christians are somehow tied to the poor. We can't escape that. There is no doubt what it meant for the twelve disciples. They left everything and followed him.
In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, he says that the earliest church, which was, according to Luke, the church in its purest form, had no possessions. They sold all their possessions. Luke wrote that they sold their houses and put all the money in a common treasury so there would be nobody without. But he also says that they met in each other's houses. Now you can't do both of those things. You can't sell your house and meet in it, too. Later Luke will record that there were wealthy people, people of substance and status in this life, who were among the faithful, who followed Jesus around and provided the support for the band of disciples and financing for the movement. So there is evidence that some lived according to the literal teaching of Jesus to have no possessions. Then, later, poverty was adopted as a spiritual discipline. That is the model of the monastic movement. But there is a third way Christians have responded to this Beatitude. They have become advocates for the poor. They use the wealth and power and influence that God has given them in this life to make sure that the poor are not forgotten. They see to it that the poor who are motivated to improve their lives, to be independent, and become a part of the community, and not ostracized from it, can do so. The poor tend to be forgotten, nameless people, even today. We are much more fascinated with the life-styles of the rich and famous. But Jesus doesn't forget them. He called them blessed. Then he turned to the hungry and those who weep. He called them blessed as well. In the coming kingdom those who are hungry will be filled, he said, and those who weep will be filled with laughter. His words gave hope to people who felt there was nothing at all to look forward to.
When you sit down to count your blessings, what do you count? The car you drive, houses you own, the health you enjoy, the employment you embrace. There are plenty of preachers around who will tell you that God’s blessings are health, wealth, and prosperity. If you give enough out of your poverty they will gladly enjoy the bliss. But Jesus said, “Woe!” I’m not sure exactly what woe means, but here I think it means, stop, step back, pause, take another look, and evaluate. Jesus says if your mission in life is to make money, enjoy it while you can, for what you see is all you get. There is nothing else to live for. We are still learning the lesson. Jesus reverses the standard of value around which his kingdom is built. His love is radical, embracing everyone. The kingdom of God is not a place, but a condition. And the world will be a better place not just because we have heard the beatitudes but because we have lived them.
February 3, 2019
In the church, most of us tend to think of Epiphany simply as a season on the church calendar, sometimes as a season we don't understand too well. We may recall that we are celebrating the revealing of Christ to the Gentile world, via the Wise Men, but not much more. But here on this 4th Sunday after epiphany, we see Jesus stripping the superficial away from life and from religion and offering new birth, a whole new set of values, a change which often times unfortunately folks are unwilling to make.
So hear the story again! The village of Nazareth was in a buzz. Everyone was so excited because they heard that Jesus was coming home. He had been serving in Capernaum for a period of time teaching, preaching, healing, and performing great miracles and enjoying immense popularity with the people. Crowds were following him everywhere and now the "home boy" was coming home. There was great excitement. Everyone went to hear the "home boy" who had made good. The synagogue was packed. The biggest crowd in years. Jesus stood to read the Word of God. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recover sight for the blind, release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus then handed the scroll to the attendant. The Bible says that the eyes of everyone were fastened upon him as he said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The people spoke well of him. They all were amazed at his gracious words and they said to each other, "Is this not Joseph's son?" You can just see two "good ole" boys sitting on the back pew; and the one punches the other and says, "I always knew that boy would do good. I tell you what, I could see it in him even as a young child." "Yeah, he used to come by my shop and I would give him a word or two of advice. I always knew he was destined for great things. In fact, I remember when I used to teach him in synagogue school. We're mighty proud of him."
As Jesus continued his lesson, he said, "Doubtless you will quote this Proverb to me, 'Physician, heal yourself.'” And then you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” AND then, he reminded them of their scriptures. He told them about the days of Elijah when there were many, many widows but Elijah went only to the widow Zarephath in Gentile territory. He reminded them that in the days of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel but God only healed Naaman the Syrian, a Gentile. After speaking those words, Luke says that the people were furious, filled with rage. The same two "good ole" boys sitting on the back pew are saying, "Who is this? Who does he think he is? Why is he saying all of this about us? What a shame upon this synagogue and the people of this town. Who does he think he is?" "Well, you remember the circumstances under which he was born...." And with that, the whole congregation reached out to try and kill Jesus. One moment he is the grandest thing in the world since sliced bread and the next moment they're ready to kill him. What happened? How could someone be so favored one moment and in such disfavor the next? What did Jesus do to make his hometown want to kill him? Well, what Jesus was telling them was, “I am going beyond Israel. I am going to reach out to the Gentiles," and with that one statement, he destroyed their notion of privilege. In speaking to them, he tore down all of their officially sanctioned walls and barriers of hatred. "We're God's special people so that gives to us special privileges and it also gives to us the ability to exclude anyone who is not one of us." Jesus destroyed that and they responded in anger.
Can we understand a little of how they felt? They were God's chosen people. They had been persecuted all of their lives because they maintained God's Word and kept up the Jewish customs. They built the temples and tried to live as God would have them live because they were God's people. They had taken a stand and were persecuted for it. It is true that when you are a persecuted people you have to develop a sense of pride merely to survive. But the real danger is when that pride becomes exclusive. It's hard for persecuted people to hear that others will be included in the same grace that they will know and feel they have deserved. We have to remember that God loves everybody. If we get to the point of excluding anyone, we will exclude, first of all, ourselves, because the Bible says that Jesus could not do any great work in Nazareth because of their unbelief. They would not accept the fact that he was going beyond them to the Gentiles, and because they could not accept the nature of his ministry, they could not receive his blessings nor his miracles. By excluding the Gentiles, Nazareth excluded itself.
They already knew the Bible taught that the Word of God was for everyone. It was not the exclusive property of the Jews. They already knew that the Bible said that Abraham would not only bless his people but through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. They already knew that Exodus 19 said that God had chosen the Jews to be a nation of missionaries. They had already heard the story of Elijah and Elisha. They had already heard the story of Amos when he said that God had not only delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bond- age but delivered the Syrians and Philistines as well. God had been working with a lot of different people, not just the Jews. They knew all of that because their Bible said so. But it was difficult for them to hear those words.
We hear it with our heads and we know it to be true, but to hear it with our hearts, believe it, and do it, that is something quite different. The longest journey you will ever make will be the journey from your head to your heart. We've read the Bible over and over again and we know it in our heads, but to know it in our hearts is quite another thing entirely. We know that God cares and loves everybody and gives to us the ministry to love and care for everybody - the homeless, the poor, those with AIDS, but we say, "Don't make me touch one of them!" Jesus was trying to give to them a new version of reality. Jesus was trying to enter into their imagination and help them see a different world. Things did not have to be the way they were. Jesus was trying to help them see a new vision of how the world could be because that's the way behavior is changed. Behavior is changed through imagination. In order for an addict to be changed, they have to envision themselves as being clean. People who are unforgiven have to envision themselves as being forgiven. Those full of hatred have to envision themselves as being loving people to ever rid themselves of hate. Behavior is changed through imagination. It is changed through the acceptance of another vision of life. It is changed when we accept that God is making us into something that is new and different.
God wants to remake us in the Spirit of God with Christ living within us and holiness at the core of our being and neighborliness the practice of our everyday lives. We are a new people because God has made us new and there is something new in our heart because God's presence lives there. We relate to our brothers and sisters out of true neighborliness because he says we are to love our neighbor.
A good word must be spoken for those people who come to church week after week. The church is the only institution in our world which challenges us, again and again, to be better than we are. We come to a service on Sunday morning, hopefully aware that we aren’t all that we ought to be. God meant us to be more than this, and we must commit ourselves to that higher goal." Whatever the failings of the church and of church people, we are virtually unique in our willingness to put ourselves in a setting where we will be challenged and can start anew.
If we accept that challenge, the potential is almost unlimited. The people of Nazareth, unfortunately, rejected it. When the gracious revealing of Jesus became a painful revealing of themselves, they wanted to be done with the upstart carpenter. We're always need to be vigilant of the danger of following their example.
Gracious and ever loving God, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us that we may become beacons of truth and compassion in your world. Amen.
January 6, 2019
And so we come to Epiphany – the good and bad news of Epiphany. The good news is that because of the magi, it is made known to us that God incarnate came for all people not just the Jews. The bad news is that we now have a taste of the dark side of humanity in the person of a despotic king. Somehow King Herod having got wind that a baby had been born who would someday challenge his authority, threaten his way of life, shake up the status quo, got a little bent out of shape? Throughout history, kings have had sensitive noses for snooping out anyone who might challenge their authority at some future time. They have even murdered sons and daughters if those offspring gained too much influence over others. Well, Herod responded like people in positions of power all too frequently do. He was so concerned with the preservation of the status quo that he was even willing to slaughter innocent children to accomplish that goal. 2000 years later, not much has changed in that regard has it!. The Herods of our day still seek to maintain power by threatening to kill those who would openly oppose them, even it means killing millions of innocent children and adults. Frightened kings will not hesitate to pull the trigger or push the button. A few million innocent lives are of no consequence when it comes to protecting the glory of their empire. You would think that if those rulers of today who publicly claim to be concerned over the plight of the innocent children and adults of the world, would not continue to spend more on weapons of destruction to protect and preserve power than they are willing to spend on children to protect their lives? Why do you suppose those wise men, those astrologers, probably every bit as old as King Herod, responded as theydid, to the Christ-child? After all, they were rulers too, of a sort. In Middle Eastern cultures, they would have been admired and respected as religious leaders in their communities. So why were they willing to travel so great a distance at so high a cost, not to mention enduring the dangers of travel in those days, just to see a child?
When you’re looking for wisdom and truth, it really doesn’t matter how far you have to go to find it. And it doesn’t matter if the source of wisdom and truth is a wrinkled old man who lives next door or a wrinkled baby boy who lives in a far-off country. We’re awfully fond of saying that children are our future and rightly so but we need to be aware that how we treat our children now will determine the destiny of our world. If we abuse them or neglect them, then the future is bleak Famed Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee once asked, “What is your ambition in life today? Is it to get rich? Is it to make a name for yourself? Is it even to do some wonderful thing for God? Listen to me, beloved. The highest desire that can possess any human heart is a longing to see God.” (4) That is the meaning of Epiphany which is the twelfth day after Christmas, and the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men to worship the one who was born to be King of the Jews. This wonderful story is one of the best known stories of our faith. As we heard in the OT reading, the prophet Isaiah anticipated the coming of those wise men hundreds of years before. He wrote, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon You. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . Herds of camels will cover your land . . . And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
Doesn’t the coming of light imply that the world was already in darkness? Isaiah first spoke these words to the people of Jerusalem during a tumultuous time for the nation. They were a captive people. Their homes and fields were ravaged and abandoned, laid desolate by the power of the Babylonian empire. But God who would not abandon His people forever, counseled Isaiah. God would act in their behalf. Darkness usually signifies all the things we most dread. Criminals are more likely to prefer the dark than the light. Fear is more prevalent. Ignorance is associated with darkness. No one wants to be kept “in the dark” unless they are doing evil. Darkness hides our misdeeds; light reveals our misdeeds in all their ugliness. King Herod lived in perpetual darkness. He was ruthless: murdering his wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and many others. His crowning cruelty of course was the murder of the infant boys in Bethlehem of Judea in a vain attempt to slaughter the newborn King of the Jews. The world was in darkness. Ignorance and evil were both ascendant, as they are even today. But darkness will never have the last word. That is the message of Epiphany. Light has come into our world. A student, asked to summarize all the gospel in a few words, responded like this: “In the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up.” That says it all. The world was in darkness, deep darkness, but Jesus showed up. Arise, your light has come.” What does that mean? Biblically it means that without Christ, the world is a dark and lonely place. It is a world of conflict and injustice. It is a world of ignorance and fear. But that is not the end of the story. If the darkness of this world is going to be pushed back any further, you and I will need to let our little lights shine. Christ is the light of the world, but we who are followers of Christ are called to reflect in our lives that we have been in his presence. We do that by continuing to shine the light of his love into our dark world.
Henry Van Dyke wrote one of the most famous fictional accounts of the coming of the magi to Bethlehem which he called The Story of the Other Wise Man. In this story Van Dyke speaks of a fourth wise man who searched for years for the Christ child, but was never able to catch up with the other three. This wise man had three jewels, a gift of great wealth which he intended to give to the newborn king. But in his journey to find the newborn king he came across people who had great needs. He could not pass them by without trying to help. He ended up using the three jewels he had intended to offer the Christ child to care for the needs of these persons he found in want. Artaban, this fourth magi searched for Jesus for the rest of his life, only to realize at the end of his life that he had both found him and worshipped him each time he gave himself and his gift to one who was in need. Through his compassion this fourth wise man pushed back some of the world’s darkness. But here’s what’s disturbing. There will come a time, says the Bible, when people will love the darkness more than the light. Is that time closer than we think? The task of that 4thwise man, is that not our task as well. We are to live in the presence of Christ so that with time we will be able to reflect his light through the service we give to others. A traveling man bought his wife a little souvenir a phosphorescent match box which was supposed to glow in the dark. However, when he turned out the light to demonstrate its use, there was not even the faintest glow. Disgustedly, he concluded that he had been cheated. The next day his wife examined the box more closely, and found an inscription in tiny letters, “If you want me to shine in the night, keep me in the sunlight through the day.” She did as directed; and that night after dinner it was a pleasant surprise for her husband when she turned out the light and the match box shone with a brilliant glow. (10) What was true of that match box is true of us. Any light we shine in this dark world is but reflected light. It is the light of Christ’s love. When we live in his presence and seek to show his love to our neighbors, then the darkness is pushed back.
This morning we are baptizing Parker Elizabeth Broom and welcoming her into the Christian community. If there is any hope for her and for the future of all our children, for the life of this planet, we need to keep Christ’s light shining in our lives, in our world —until the day comes when we all live in his love and eternal light.