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.
DECEMBER 3, 2018
Jeremiah is known to many students of the Bible as “the weeping prophet.” Often he was the purveyor of bad news which he proclaimed because he was a prophet of God and because the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the laws of the covenant, forsaking God by building high altars to Baal. Consequently Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. He also prophesied that the nation of Israel would be faced with famine, be plundered and taken captive by foreigners who would exile them to a foreign land. That was not a popular message, as you might imagine. Jeremiah was persecuted for his prophecies. People don’t like to hear that their nation is under judgment by God. They didn’t like to hear it then. We don’t like to hear it now. But Jeremiah spoke the truth, no matter how distasteful and everything he prophesied came true. The nation fell; the population was dispersed; the people were in despair. However, just when everything looked totally bleak and hopeless, God gave Jeremiah a new message and he finally gets to tell his people good news. All is not lost. The exiles will come home. God is faithful to His promises. God will “make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line . . .” This was exciting news for the people.
For Christians, this is, of course, a prophecy of Jesus - he who “will do what is just and right in the land . . .” and by whose life and death Israel and Judah and all the peoples of the earth will be saved. This is the very heart of the Gospel message. “‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah . No matter how dark the night, no matter how harsh the critics, no matter how violent the enemy, God will not forsake us.” That is the first thing Jeremiah reminds the people of Israel. God will always fulfill His promises.\ Jeremiah tells them: “a righteous Branch [will] sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Savior.” Jeremiah undoubtedly believed in a messiah who would unite a divided nation and restore it to its former glory. He could not foresee that God had a much grander plan in mind. He could not foresee the manger in Bethlehem. He could not foresee the coming of one who would rise above nationalistic dreams and be the Savior not only of Judah but of the entire world. He could not know that this Savior would come not as a conqueror but as one who would allow himself to be crucified on a cruel cross. He could not know that the Messiah would be a humble carpenter from Nazareth whose name would one day be held in reverence by people of every race and nation.
That was then but today, we still live in a very confusing and, it seems at times, broken world, a world where there is suffering, pain, and sorrow, a world where competing religions threaten to undo our ability to live together in peace.
Welcome to this First Sunday of Advent. Luke’s Gospel that we just heard, is also somewhat unsettling. But you have to realize that Advent is not a sub-category of Christmas. It is a time and a season unto itself. Before that miracle and joy of Christmas, according to our liturgical calendar, comes four weeks of somber, sober, waiting and the brutally honest acknowledgment that the world is dark, our lives are dark, and the shadows we have created obscure God’s light. Just when we’re ready for a bit of good news, the scripture forces us to hear bad news. The readings for the First Sunday in Advent are always about the second coming. Not the first coming when Jesus embraces us with an infant’s charm, but the second coming when the cosmic Christ assaults us with cataclysmic change. “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken . .
For the listeners of Luke’s original words, these predictions spoke to the very heart of their existence — a time when Jerusalem had been destroyed, when the cruelty of Roman rule was suffocating the fledgling Christian community, and when staying faithful to God demanded courage amidst the seeming absence of God. The problem is that these dire predictions of the imminent second coming did not happen as was told. That does not mean that the crisis or the promise embedded in these predictions will not come true. The central meaning of Advent is that God has a plan. God is present in the midst of apparent chaos. And no matter how deep our darkness, no matter how cataclysmic our crisis, God will continue to hold onto us — both with affection and with accountability. So where are these places the scripture speaks about, today — the places where the sun seems darkest, the places where all hell is breaking loose? You know the headlines as well as I do. After thousands of Iraqi and American lives were destroyed, Iraq is again doing a death dance inside a tinder box of suspicion and hatred. Generations continue to disappear in the violent and arid deserts of Africa. Millions of people continue to die from the devastation of AIDS — and most of the new victims are innocent women and children — twelve million children have been orphaned by AIDS in South Africa alone. Refugees are struggling all over the world to find a safe place – a haven from the darkness that has invaded their lives. There is a rise here in the number of people having to use the food bank. In many of your lives, there may be personal crises —. On this New Year’s Day of the Christian year, we are being called to recognize a world in crisis. We are called to acknowledge that we are not in control of the rhythms of life that can either make us hate God or cling to God as the only source of comfort and strength. So where does all that leave us?
Well the suggestion is made to give up control and then take control. The best way to manage a crisis is to let God be God — intuitively trusting that everything depends on God — a God who tosses stars of life and death into our lap. Letting God be God also means to claim the God inside each of our souls. We must keep on working, keep on dreaming, keep on hoping, and keep on loving — just keep on keeping on — living as if everything depends on us. This is the paradox and the power and the promise of Advent. We are to watch as if everything depends on God. And then as we live between the beginning and the end of God’s saving grace, we are to work as if everything depends on us. There isan image of Advent that is firmly stuck in my mind. The time was the early 1990s. The place was Sarajevo — the gutted, bombed out epicenter of the Balkan War — when ethnic violence had destroyed beauty and buildings and any sense of human community. One day, a man put on his tuxedo, picked up his cello and a chair, and went and sat at the central intersection of town — in the cross fire of hatred and brokenness and devastation — and there he played his cello for hours — defying all reason, embracing all hope — proclaiming through his melancholy melody that darkness and death never have the final word. Luke’s gospel is written to give the church reassurance that though Jerusalem has been destroyed, God is still in charge. Other worldly powers will fall. Then the Son of Man will come, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdoms of our Lord; and God's will, will be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Isn’t that what we pray for every day. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." It's going to happen. That's what Luke says. "So when these things take place, stand up and lift of your heads, for your redemption is drawing near." That is our call to be faithful. While we wait for Christ’s return, we are his body in the world, called to do his work. The church has been serving the world in Christ’s name for two thousand years. Now is not the time to let up. Be prepared for Christ’s coming - if he should come today, - if he should tarry another thousand years or more. We simply do not know what tomorrow may bring. Nothing is more unpredictable than the future. If there is one lesson from history, it is that.] Who could have predicted the wars that ravaged our planet in the twentieth century? Who could have predicted the scourge of terrorism in our own time? Economists cannot even predict with certainty what our dollar will be worth next year. . We worry about global warming – or some of us do. We don’t know what the future may bring. We may be here another million years. On the other hand, today may be our last day on earth. Jesus tells us to trust God and to wait. Don’t worry about what tomorrow may bring. At the same time prepare yourself emotionally, mentally, spiritually for whatever may come. It is certainly the time to take stock of our lives to see if we are prepared for an unknowable future. Live each moment as if it were your last moment. The good that you would do, do now. The love that you would give, give now. The commitment you would make, make now. And let it be so!! Amen