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Chasing Down a Haunting Question

Specifically, “Are Nazis really on the rise again, here in America? And if so, what can people do to work against the trend?”

And another haunting question, perhaps seemingly unrelated at first: “Does the current worldwide refugee crisis — and our response to it — contain echoes of World War II that we ignore at our own spiritual peril?”

How does one begin to answer questions like this without falling into a quagmire of pop-culture politics, without being lost in the noise of morally bankrupt mantras of the major political parties and media pundits?

My instincts say: Seek out original sources contemporary to WWII.

A few months ago as I was mulling over these thoughts I discovered a book on my shelves I didn’t even know I owned: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

I’d never heard of the book, or of Speer, even though both were on the best-seller lists in the 1960’s. For those who are as in the dark as I was, Speer was an architect hired by Adolf Hitler to design many of the government buildings and civic projects that were built during the early (mostly pre-war) years of the Nazi regime.  When WWII got under way Hitler promoted Speer to Minister of Armaments, where he had responsibility to manufacture everything Germany needed for the war. Speer was also one of Hitler’s closest personal associates — personally overwhelmed by Hitler’s personal charisma and yet professionally with a mind sharp enough to navigate the bizarre political waters that were the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  When it became clear Germany was not going to win the war, and that Hitler was determined to take Germany down with him in his suicidal mania, the scales fell from Speer’s eyes, but it was essentially too late. Speer was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg and spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, where he wrote these memoirs.

What better source to give insight into what the Nazis were really like behind the scenes, and to draw any parallels to 21st century life?

The book surprised me on many levels; probably the biggest surprise being how brilliant and engaging Speer’s mind was. Could a man like this really have been a cold-blooded Nazi? I discovered many people before me have asked the same question.

Speer’s text shed a great deal of light on both my questions. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to give serious thought to our current political climate.

On the first question, “are the Nazis on the rise again?” — I discovered quite a few parallels between German politics of the 1930s and American politics of the 21st century.  The parallels seem to be just about evenly split between the two major parties at this point, but in the long run I’m not sure it makes much difference: a general atmosphere of prejudice, bullying, and scapegoating combined with unrelenting group-think never bodes well for a nation.

But as I read further in Speer’s book I began to doubt him a little: even in this tell-all book it felt like he wasn’t quite telling all. A quick Google search led me to another book called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by award-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny.

Mrs. Sereny spent 12 years combing through Speer’s documents, interviewing Speer himself and his family, co-workers and contemporaries. Her work is amazingly deep and rich, both historically and psychologically, not an easy read, but very worth the effort. She fills in the missing pieces and more, and I recommend it to anyone who reads Speer’s book, as a balance — it gives a far more complete picture, both of the man himself and of the inner workings of the Nazi party. What emerges from her pages is a portrait of a deeply and tragically flawed human being, about whom there is yet much to admire.

As to my second question: is there a connection between the refugee crisis of today and the millions of displaced persons during WWII?

To my great joy I discovered today: Speer’s daughter, Hilde Schramm, who has suffered much because of the things her father has done, considers this question a no-brainer.

She has hosted Syrian refugees in her own home.

 

PS – I would love to hear from others who have read one or both of these books. They’ve left quite an impression….

 

 

 

 

 

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Watching children grow up is an amazing thing, isn’t it?  How quickly they grow and how quickly they learn!  When we look at babies we dream about what they might become when they grow up: will she be the one who finds a cure for cancer? Will he be the first man to walk on Mars?  And as kids get older and we get to know who they are, and what their interests are, we may find out we have a budding pianist on our hands rather than an astronaut, and that’s OK too. For us as adults it’s exciting watching kids in the process of becoming.

But for the kid it may not always feel like an adventure.  Life can be tough, and there are growing pains, and setbacks, and moments of uncertainty. And then there’s the teenage years!  I think a lot of times if kids could put it into words they’d say to us, “don’t give up on me, I’m not quite grown up yet.”

And I think even we grownups feel like that sometimes.  I remember an old bumper sticker that read “please be patient, God’s not finished with me yet.” Even at the age of 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 or 90(!) we are still learning and still becoming, so it’s important to have patience: with one another and with ourselves.

Our scripture readings for today speak to this feeling and this experience.  In our psalm for the day, King David ends the psalm by saying to God “do not forsake the work of thy hands.” And that’s where I’ve taken our sermon title for today: Lord, Don’t Let Go Of What Your Hands Have Made.

King David prayed this psalm to express three things:

  • Passionate thanks to God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. This psalm hints at answered prayers. David doesn’t say specifically which prayers, but it’s clear God has said “yes” to David’s requests. David says, “on the day I called you answered me” – and David calls on all the kings and great ones of the earth to bow down and worship the one true God.
  • David wants to describe God (as best he can in words) and to say why God is so great. David talks about the glory of the Lord; about how the greatest glory of God is that no matter how high and exalted the Lord is, God still sees and cares about us, who are so small by comparison. There’s a hint here of Psalm 8: “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them…?” (Ps 8:3-4a) This leads to David’s third point, which is:
  • “You O Lord are with me.” God reaches out to us and delivers us from our troubles and our enemies. And so David sings out: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased the strength of my soul.” But then, having said this, David ends the psalm by saying “do not forsake the work of thy hands”.

I think it’s part of being human, to worry about being God-forsaken. In fact we all fear being abandoned, or losing the ones we love.  Whenever we form close relationships – marriages, children, friendships, partnerships – we fear the loss of those we love.  As adults we sort of turn our minds off to the possibility most of the time, but then something comes along and reminds us – in the words of the songwriter Sting – “how fragile we are, how fragile we are”.  And at times like this – or at other times of trouble – we fear that God might abandon us and we pray, “don’t let go of what your hands have made.”

God is both far above us and as close to us as the air we breathe.  It’s true God’s hands made the universe and all that’s in it. Hebrews 1:10 says “you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.”  In Isaiah 48:13 God says: “Surely My hand founded the earth, and My right hand spread out the heavens.”  But then Isaiah also says: “O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.” (Isa. 64:8)

So if we should find ourselves afraid that God might abandon us, or if that thought ever crosses our minds, first off, we’re not alone.  In Psalm 27 the psalmist says: “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” In Psalm 71 the psalmist says: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.” (Those of us who reach a certain age can relate to this.) The prophet Jeremiah cries out: “we are called by your name; do not forsake us!” (Jer 14:9)

And God knows we need reassuring sometimes. Moses says in Deuteronomy: “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:8)  And the book of Hebrews tells us: “he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”” (Heb 13:5)

If it helps at all, we can bring to mind all the people God has not forsaken.  God did not forsake David, even after the episode with Bathsheba.  God did not forsake the Pharisee Nicodemus, even though he snuck out to meet Jesus at night so the other Pharisees wouldn’t see what he was up to. Jesus did not forsake Peter, who, on the night of his arrest, denied that he knew Jesus three times.  God did not forsake Paul, even though he had believers arrested and thrown in prison.  God did not forsake even Billy Graham, who was once turned down for membership in a church youth group because he was “too worldly”. So if we ever feel like we’ve done something so awful God might forsake us, we’re in good company.

And if we worry about God leaving us behind, it doesn’t mean we lack faith. It just means we need to bring our thoughts and feelings to God. As the old saying goes: “courage is fear that has said its prayers”.  And so in our Psalm, David, rejoicing in thanksgiving for prayers answered, still says, “Lord don’t give up on me. Don’t let me go.”

In an odd sort of way, our reading from Luke today points in the same direction.  In this story we see Jesus teaching on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (which is the same as Gennesaret – the lake has many names).  The Sea of Galilee almost looks like it’s in a valley, below the mountains that surround it, so it was not unusual in Jesus’ day for people to use the shoreline as a natural amphitheater.  Jesus could stand, essentially with his back to the lake and his feet in the water, and a crowd of 4000-5000 people could sit on the hillside and hear him perfectly. So one day when he was doing this, there were so many people and the crowd was pressing in so tight, Jesus finally climbed into one of the fishing boats nearby and pushed out away from the shore. And from there Jesus sat down and finished teaching his lessons for the day.

View from the Sea of Galilee

When Jesus was finished speaking (and I wish somebody had written down what he said! But in the eyes of Luke, the gospel writer, what happened next was more important for us to know.) When the lesson was done, Jesus turned to Simon the fisherman and said, “head out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked all night and caught nothing; but at your word I will let down the nets.”  And so they did – and the nets began to break with all the fish: they caught so many fish they had to call for the second boat on the shore, and their fishing partners James and John, to come help bring in the haul. And even with two boats there were so many fish the boats nearly sank.

Boat on the Sea of Galilee

Seeing this, Simon fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinful man.”  If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us would say the same thing; because Jesus is too holy for us, just by being who he is.  And it doesn’t matter what our background is. Construction worker or fisherman or office worker, poor or wealthy, high school diploma or advanced degree. We are all sinful people.

The reason God did not forsake Simon Peter, or Paul, or Nicodemus, or Billy Graham, is that when they came to understand their sins, they were horrified and turned away from them. And that ‘turning away’ is called repentance. That’s what the words means: to turn and go in a different direction. For anyone who has the courage and the honesty to say to God “I’m a sinful person” the answer Jesus gives is always: “Don’t be afraid.” And to Peter he adds: “From now on you will be catching people.” The number of fish Peter caught that day was nothing compared to the number of people who have come to know Jesus through Peter’s ministry.

We are all the work of God’s hands.  Peter, who said “I’m a sinful man,” was never forsaken; the people who came to God because of Peter’s ministry were never forsaken; and you and I – who have inherited this faith from the generations before us (who were never forsaken) will never be forsaken ourselves. God will never let go of what God’s hands have made: not because of who we are, or how good we are, but because of who God is and how good God is.  God sent his son Jesus to pay the price for our sins, and for those who believe and receive Him, God will never let us go. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie, Hill Top, and Fair Oaks, 2/10/19

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Scripture Readings:

Psalm 138:1-8  A Psalm of David.

I give thee thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;

before the gods I sing thy praise;

2 I bow down toward thy holy temple

and give thanks to thy name

for thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness;

for thou hast exalted above everything thy name and thy word.

3 On the day I called, thou didst answer me,

my strength of soul thou didst increase.

4 All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O LORD,

for they have heard the words of thy mouth;

5 and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD,

for great is the glory of the LORD.

6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly;

but the haughty he knows from afar.

7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life;

thou dost stretch out thy hand against the wrath of my enemies,

and thy right hand delivers me.

8 The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me;

thy steadfast love, O LORD, endures for ever.

Do not forsake the work of thy hands.

Luke 5:1-11   Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,  2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  3 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.  4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  7 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.  8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  9 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.

 

God’s Gold Standard

A long time ago when I was much younger than I am now, the church I attended had a very eloquent preacher.  He had such a way with words, it wasn’t unusual for his sermons to move people to tears.  So when I Corinthians 13 came around in the lectionary (which it does every few years) I couldn’t wait to hear what he would have to say. I mean, one of the most beautiful passages in all the Bible combined with one of the most moving preachers would make for an incredible sermon, right?

But that morning he combined the lesson with John 14:15 in which Jesus says: “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and his sermon centered on love being defined as obedience to God.  The point’s well taken but I have to say I was disappointed.

I’m not going to do that today! But having said that, I Corinthians 13 is not what it may appear to be on the surface.  It has been read so often at weddings – and there’s nothing wrong with that; this passage makes a wonderful foundation for a marriage – but the love between a couple getting married is not what Paul had in mind when he wrote this.

So I’ve called our sermon today “God’s Gold Standard.”

Gold Bars – 999.9% pure.
God’s love – 1000% pure.

This looks back to a time, even further back, when our currency was backed up by gold.  That is, if you took a dollar bill to a bank you could (theoretically at least) get a dollar’s worth of gold in return. So our paper money actually represented gold. It was a way of measuring the worth of something, the value, by comparing it to something that never changed.

Antique $20 Gold Certificate

And I take this as a parallel to Paul’s great chapter on love.  People use the word ‘love’ in all kinds of ways; so many ways the word often loses its meaning. But what Paul gives us here, on a spiritual level, is God’s gold standard. Something by which every word and every action is given value; something against which we can compare and measure the worth of things that are said and things that are done.

In fact what Paul describes here isn’t human love at all.  I Corinthians 13 – as well as our reading from Jeremiah – talks about God’s love.  And in times like these, it’s a good thing to hear God’s message of love for us.  God’s love gives us a foundation we can build our lives on. God’s love gives us confidence when we feel uncertain. God’s love gives us something to trust when things around us look untrustworthy.  In times like these, when people are afraid, and it seems like violence and hatred are all around us, we need to be surrounded and comforted by God’s heart of love.

And all three of these passages today assure us of God’s love for us.

Looking first at our psalm: the psalmist cries out: “Lord – deliver me, rescue me, be my refuge.”  He says, “rescue me from the hand of the wicked, from the unjust and from the cruel.”  Have we ever felt that way? Have we ever felt surrounded by people who don’t know (or don’t care) what’s fair or what’s right? The lack of compassion in public speech these days, combined with constant bad news from TV and online, can sometimes leave us feeling a bit shell-shocked. “Lord, rescue us…” – isn’t that our prayer for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for our communities, for our nation, for the world?

“Thy kingdom come, O Lord” is a heartfelt prayer; God has answered it and will answer it again. And so the psalmist reflects:

“You O Lord are my hope… on you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”

And our reading from Jeremiah echoes the same thought. God says to Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”

In this passage God is calling Jeremiah into a lifetime of service: in which Jeremiah will be bringing God’s word to the people of Israel during that terrible time in their history when the nation was decaying from the inside, leading to the people’s exile to Babylon. But right here at the beginning of his story, Jeremiah doesn’t see all that yet. What he sees is that he’s young and inexperienced in speaking and unsure of himself, and he answers God: “But Lord! I don’t know what to say, I’m just a boy.”

I wonder: Do any of us ever look around and say “but I’m just one person” or “I’m just a housewife” or “I’m just a senior citizen” or “I’m just a kid”? Do our churches ever say “but we only have 30 or 40 people” or “but we’re just a poor little church”?

God said to Jeremiah:

“Don’t say, ‘I’m just a boy’; you will go to whom I send you, and you will speak what I command you. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD…” (Jeremiah1:7-8)

Would God say to us: “Don’t say ‘I’m just one person’”? or “Don’t say ‘We’re just a small church’”?  Does God want to say to us, “Follow My lead, and don’t be afraid, for I am with you”?

Not that any of us is being given Jeremiah’s job! But we have been commissioned by God to speak, both as individuals and as a church, to share God’s message with those around us, “to build and to plan” as God says to Jeremiah.

And as we follow God’s lead, God’s love will our support, our guide, our defense, and our comfort.

In Jeremiah, we see God’s love in the words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” These words are for us as much as they are for Jeremiah. God formed you and me to be in this world, at this time and in this place.  God has a plan and a purpose for us. And so we can pray with the psalmist, “In you O Lord I take refuge, let me never be put to shame.”

The question then becomes what should we do? What actions does God want us to take? And I think God has made us a variety of people and a variety of churches for a reason, so the answer will be unique to each of us. But before I bring us back to God’s Gold Standard, one side note: when we look at all the disputes and disagreements in the world today, I think for people of goodwill, so many issues seem to come down to having to make a choice between doing righteousness or doing justice: that is, choosing what’s right or choosing what’s compassionate.

I submit for your consideration that God is both perfectly righteous and perfectly just. In God, righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin. As human beings we struggle with that because we’re not perfect. But God is perfect, and in God, what is right and what is loving is the same thing: oftentimes in ways that surprise us.

And this is what I Corinthians 13 is all about.  Even in the opening words: “if I speak in tongues of mortals and angels but have not love… if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not love… if I have all faith, even to move mountains, but have not love I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, even my own life, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The kind of love Paul is talking about here is not romantic love. In fact, what Paul is talking about here is a spiritual gift. I Corinthians 13 is in the middle of three chapters of teaching on spiritual gifts.  So what he’s talking about is something that comes from God.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul begins this teaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit by listing a number of them: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment… he goes on at some length talking about how, while nobody has all these gifts, all of them are needed in the church; and how the Church is like the Body of Christ.  So, as Paul puts it, “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’ nor the head to the feet ‘I have no need of you’.”  And Paul ends chapter 12 by saying “strive for the greater gifts; and I will show you a still more excellent way” – and then he launches into I Corinthians 13.  And then in chapter 14, Paul shows how all these wide variety of gifts come together, in love, in the church to build up God’s people and to build up our communities.

So I Corinthians 13 is talking about love as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is not the same thing as affection or compassion or kindness or tenderness or any of those things, although it may include them. This kind of love isn’t even a choice, although it may include choices.  God’s love is God’s nature. God loves because if God ever stopped loving, God would stop being God.

Therefore God’s love does not depend on us.  It doesn’t matter what we do, or where we’ve been or what we’ve said. Yes, these things do matter, but they don’t change God’s love.  We as mere mortals don’t have the power to change God’s love. Nothing we can do can stop God’s love.  And those of us who have given our lives to Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit – we receive, as one of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, a bit of God’s unstoppable love in us.

And Paul then goes on to say, “this is what it looks like”.  This is what God’s gold standard of love looks like in action.  Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious – that is, it doesn’t desire to have what others have or to be in someone else’s shoes.  Love is not boastful – it doesn’t brag.  Love is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not easily bothered or easily offended. Love does not rejoice in what’s wrong but rejoices in truth (which assumes there is such a thing as truth – that’s something we as Christians believe in, because God is truth.)  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never gives up or fades away.

Human beings can’t love like this.  We can try.  We can take this list of Paul’s and make it our goal and work on it every day, and while the effort would be worthy it’s doomed to fail unless God is in it. Because we can’t love like this without God.

This is kind of love God has for us.  God is patient with us. God is kind to us. God doesn’t want what we have. God doesn’t brag on himself (although I do think Spring is God showing off a little bit.) God is never arrogant or rude to us. God only insists on God’s way when it’s what’s right for us: like a loving parent who sets limits for a child for the child’s own good.  God is not easily offended. God rejoices in what’s right and what’s true.  And Jesus on the cross bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, and endured all things, for us.  God’s love never fails.

So wherever we are today, in joy or in sorrow, in busyness or at rest, in hope or in discouragement, God loves us like this.

This is God’s gold standard: the measure against which all things are measured, the value by which all things are valued.

And God calls us to carry God’s Spirit in ourselves so we can share this love with a world that desperately needs it.

So today: take with you the assurance and the confidence of God’s love. “And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” AMEN.

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Jeremiah 1:4-10   Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,  5 “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.”  6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  7 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.  8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”  9 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.”

Psalm 71:1-6   In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.

2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;

incline your ear to me and save me.

3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,

for you are my rock and my fortress.

4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,

from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.

5 For you, O Lord, are my hope,

my trust, O LORD, from my youth.

6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth;

it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.

My praise is continually of you.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/3/19

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In our gospel reading for this morning, people are beginning to talk about this new preacher by the name of Jesus. A couple of months ago he was a total unknown and he was out in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. But now… he’s back! And he is “filled with the power of the Spirit” and his preaching has people talking.

Luke tells us that as Jesus travels and teaches “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country”.  From Capernaum, to Tiberias and Galilee, to all the region of northern Israel, the word is spreading. And this in a world without text messages or Instagram or even telephones.  People were doing what my old pastor used to call “gossiping the gospel”.  They were talking about it at the grocery store and at the gym and at the pub and over the backyard fence. And everybody was saying how wonderful this new teacher was.

But fame is a fickle thing. Back then (just like today) there were (and are) people who, when they look at Jesus, see only a celebrity. They’re not seeing the Son of God, they’re just seeing a human being who happens to be famous; and every time a person is up on a pedestal there will be other people who feel a need to tear down the pedestal. Jesus will run into people like this throughout his life.

But celebrity is not what Jesus’ life is about. Jesus didn’t come to earth to be famous and start a fan club that would last for 2000 years. In fact there were many times when Jesus performed miracles and then told people “don’t tell anyone”.  There were many times when Jesus avoided the crowds, so he be alone with God or spend some time with his disciples.  Jesus was aware that, in doing what God wanted him to do – proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom – he would become known. But being famous for fame’s sake was never Jesus’ goal.

So in Luke’s gospel, on this particular Sabbath, after preaching for a month or two in towns in synagogues in the north of Israel, Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been raised.  And, as he usually did, he went to the synagogue in order to teach there.

Having a guest preacher was relatively common in those days, and Jesus had a good reputation as a preacher, so it’s not surprising that Jesus would be asked to read the scriptures and share a word. He was handed the scroll of Isaiah: Jesus didn’t choose it, but I don’t doubt God had a hand in the choice that was made.  The reading Jesus chose was in Isaiah chapter 61. It would have taken some time to unroll the scroll to that point, and we can imagine the anticipation building.  At last Jesus finds the place he’s looking for, and he begins to read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

We, as people hearing these words 2000 years after they were spoken, by definition will understand these words differently from the people back then.  I think to our ears what this opening line says is that Jesus has the Holy Spirit inside him for the purpose of bringing good news to the poor; and that therefore by definition those of us who have the Spirit inside us are also called to bring good news to the poor.

This is a perfectly valid interpretation as far as it goes; but from the viewpoint of 2000 years ago there’s much, much more in Isaiah’s words.  The word anointed in Hebrew is transliterated Messiah, which in Greek is Christ. So Isaiah’s words are about the coming Messiah. And in ancient Israel, anointing was a way of proclaiming a future king. You’ll remember in the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel, and after him, David. In both cases Samuel poured oil over their heads as a sign of anointing. In Jesus’ case, the “oil” is spiritual; Jesus has been anointed with the Holy Spirit. But the implication is the same: Jesus’ anointing proclaims a future king.

But Jesus is going to be a different kind of king.  Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants… It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28) 

So the people back then would have heard a message about the Messiah, about a coming king; and they would also have heard that this message is good news for the poor. And they would have understood that when God speaks about the poor, God is speaking of many kinds of poverty. ‘The poor’ may be people who don’t have a lot of money; ‘the poor’ may be people who are unable to work and are forced to rely on the generosity of others. Poverty may include intellectual poverty, emotional poverty, spiritual poverty, the poverty of ill health, a poverty of power; a lack of anything; any of the kinds of poverty people may suffer from. God includes all of these when Jesus says “he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”.

And there’s one more thing the people listening to Jesus would have heard that day.  The people in synagogue that morning knew the passage Jesus was reading. They knew it well. When Jesus got up and said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” it would have been like someone today getting up and saying “I Have a Dream…”.  You wouldn’t have to hear the rest of the speech, because we all know it. We feel it in our bones. “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land…”  That’s all we need to hear to catch Martin Luther King’s vision of equality and whole-ness in our relationships across racial lines.

In the same way, Jesus didn’t need to read the whole passage. In fact he doesn’t. He reads a sentence here and a sentence there, just enough to get everyone’s attention fixed on him.  They know exactly what he’s talking about. This is God’s promise, through Isaiah, that a king would come and restore the fortunes of Israel. A king who will put Herod and Pilate and all the Romans in their places and would take the throne as to the heir of King David.  So Jesus read a few verses, and then rolled up the scroll and sat down, and said:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

But there was a problem.  In the verses immediately following the passage in Luke we heard this morning, we find that this Jesus is the Messiah people have been expecting. They start to say to each other: “Is this not Joseph’s son? Are not his brothers and sisters with us?” And they say to Jesus: “we heard you’ve been healing people in other cities. Do here in your hometown what you’ve done in other places.”

And Jesus answers: “truly no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.”  And then he reminds them that in the days of the prophet Elijah there were many widows in Israel but Elijah was sent only to a widow in Sidon – a Gentile; and in the days of the prophet Elisha there were many lepers, but the only one who was cured was a Syrian – another Gentile. Jesus is implying that the Messiah’s purpose is bigger and broader and wider than they imagine: big enough to include even the Gentiles!  And the people in the synagogue are enraged.  They chase Jesus out of town, and take him to a cliff to throw him off; but he walks away, and continues his ministry in Capernaum, unable to minister in his hometown because of their lack of faith.

The story makes me wonder in what ways we today might be mistaking Jesus’ plans and purpose: how we might have a vision of God’s plan that, while it’s accurate as far as it goes, is too small, or too narrow, to hold what God has in mind?

But wherever we are, God doesn’t leave us there.  The scripture Jesus read that morning was well-known to his listeners, but it’s not quite as familiar or as evocative to us. So let’s take a moment to look at what Jesus didn’t say.

Jesus left off with the words “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”

The second half of that sentence reads “…and the day of vengeance of our God.”

God’s vengeance in this passage is not quite what we imagine.  God is not vindictive the way humans can be. Rather this is statement that God’s justice and deliverance are about to come to pass.  And as one theologian has put it: “what is deliverance for the righteous, will be condemnation for the wicked.”

God’s message continues:

“to comfort all who mourn” – to give those who mourn “a garland [of flowers] instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Isaiah spoke these words to the people of Israel years after they had returned from exile in Babylon. They’d been back in the Promised Land for decades but life was still difficult. The crops weren’t doing well, and the rebuilding of the temple had stalled out, and the people were beginning to rebel again, and the promised kingdom seemed… nearly impossible. So God gave Isaiah these words to comfort and encourage the people that their hardships were not forgotten and that God was still with them.

We also, like Israel, live in a time when years and years have gone by since Jesus walked this earth, and life is difficult, and too many people go to bed hungry, and the building up of spiritual community (especially in the church) seems to have stalled out, and the promised kingdom of God seems… so very far away.

To the people of ancient Israel, as well as to us, Isaiah says: God will bring comfort to those who mourn. God will bind up the brokenhearted. God will bring justice. God’s people will be called “oaks of righteousness”, “the planting of the Lord.” Why? “To display his glory.”

And then: God’s people will “build up the ancient ruins… raise up the former devastations… repair the ruined cities…”

Every time I drive through towns like Aliquippa, or Braddock, or Tarentum (as I did yesterday) or any of our old mill towns that are still waiting for economic recovery after all these years, this verse comes to mind. God’s people will repair the ruined cities, the “devastations of many generations” as Isaiah puts it – rebuilding to God’s glory. That’s one of our callings.

So the comfort Jesus speaks of is for God’s people, as we need it (and we do need it). But it’s not just for us.  God’s people – both then and now – are to be a light to the nations. We are blessed to be a blessing; we are restored to assist in the restoration.  As people who have been saved – by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – our role is to be a channel from God to the hurting, oppressed, and hopeless people of the world.

One thing we have that the ancient Israelites did not have is the gift of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit wasn’t given to God’s people until after Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and the Spirit of the Lord is upon us also, to continue Jesus’ work, as God leads, and as we are gifted.

God’s call on our life may lead us into working to bind up the broken-hearted, to set captives free, to comfort those who mourn, to rebuild what has been neglected or destroyed – any of these things, in any number of ways.  Justice is God’s glory, and righteousness brings honor to God.  We are, in our own way, a bit of God’s light in the world: each of us as individuals, and all of us together.  However the Lord has called us, and however the Lord has gifted us, let our light so shine before the world that others give glory to our Father in heaven. AMEN.

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Scriptures for the Day:

Luke 4:14-21  Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

[The rest of the story: Luke 4:22-30   22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'”  24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.]

The original Isaiah passage Jesus quotedIsaiah 61:1-4  The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;  3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.  4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/27/19

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Sunday January 20 – “Wedding Day at Cana” – Online Church

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 62:1-5  For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him,
“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

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Kids’ Sermon

Whenever people get together for a meal, Jesus is with us too. This is one of the reasons we say grace before meals.

Jesus also cares when we get together for parties to celebrate things like birthdays or weddings.

But what would happen if you went to a birthday party and they ran out of cake?

Today’s Bible reading talks about something like that: Jesus went to a wedding and they ran out of wine. Do you know what Jesus did?

He took some jars of water and turned the water into wine so everybody had enough to drink and more. And it was not just any wine, it was the best wine ever!

This story tells us (1) Jesus cares about what we do every day; (2) Jesus brings good things into our lives, and (3) Jesus has the power to work miracles.

Pray: Thank you Jesus that you care about our lives and that you have the power to bring us good things even before we ask. Thank you for being who you are! AMEN.

KIDS!!!  Click here to download and print a coloring page that tells the story of the Wedding at Cana:

https://cdn.ministry-to-children.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/water-into-wine-1.pdf

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Sermon: “Wedding Day at Cana”

Not too long ago my husband and I received a “save the date” postcard in the mail.  We knew it was coming: it was from my husband’s son and his bride-to-be. But even so it brought a smile and brightened our day. A wedding!

And of course the next thought is always “what can we do?” My husband teamed up with the bride’s parents to make arrangements for the rehearsal dinner (he rented their winery for it) – and me, being the musician in the family, I recommended some music and hired the best organist in town.

It was the same way for Neil & me when we got married: the minute we shared the news, everyone’s reaction was “A Wedding!!” and we had offers from friends and relatives to do the flowers, and the cake, and the music, and you name it.  Those of you here today who are married or who have been married can relate to this.  Next to having a baby, there’s nothing that inspires joy and generosity like a wedding.

As we look at the story of the wedding in Cana, it was the same back then.  The apostle John tells us “the mother of Jesus was there” – as in already there, before all the guests arrived, helping get things ready.  Most likely Mary was a friend of the groom’s family – a close enough friend to be doing her part, helping out with the arrangements, and even giving orders to the servants (as we see in verse five).  And the family was likely fairly well-to-do, because they could afford a number of servants.

So Mary was there, along with the extended wedding party.  Her husband Joseph was not there; and though we don’t know for certain, most people believe Joseph had passed by this point, because he is not mentioned again in scripture.  Jesus was also invited to the wedding, and it’s likely the bride and groom were people Jesus had grown up with.  And John tells us Jesus’ disciples were also invited.  This being early on in Jesus’ ministry, he probably hadn’t called all twelve disciples at this point – but we do know at least four were there: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel, who Jesus called back in chapter one.

The location of the wedding was very beautiful: Cana is in the mountains, northeast of Nazareth, and due west of the Sea of Galilee:

On the map we can see Cana is not far from Nazareth; and is due west from Tiberias, one of the largest ports on the Sea of Galilee, as well as being one of the most gorgeous spots on earth. 

This is the city of Cana today. Even now it’s a place of natural beauty. (When movies show Jesus and the disciples walking across deserts all the time, don’t believe it…)

Today there’s a church standing on the spot where they believe this wedding in Cana was held. The church of course was not there back then, but it stands as a memorial today.

So you can see this is a very green and fruitful area – a perfect spot for a ‘location wedding’ except in this case there was no need to travel… the couple was born and raised there!

The flavor of the culture in this region is very Mediterranean.  As Americans when we think ‘Mediterranean’ we usually think Italian or Greek, but the culture is similar in Israel. And so you would have seen at this wedding banquet things like feta cheese, olives, fresh fruits like pomegranates, pita bread dipped in olive oil… and of course, wine; lots of wine: probably made locally from grapes that were grown locally.

So the story John tells in our reading today, as one commentator says, this is the story of “Jesus the Joy-Bringer”. And I think that’s spot-on. So here’s how John describes what happened:

“On the third day” –  by this, John probably means the third day since the calling of the first disciples – “there was a wedding in Cana,” and Jesus was invited.

An important side-note: the word “called” (as in ‘Jesus calling the disciples’) and the word “invite” (‘as in Jesus was invited to the wedding’) – are the exact same word in the Greek.  So when we say that Jesus calls someone – calls us to follow, calls us to Himself – it’s an invitation. Like an invitation to a wedding, it’s something we don’t want to miss out on. It’s something we want to ‘save the date’ for, to rearrange our schedules for, because it’s an invitation that comes with a promise of great joy.

So this wedding at Cana was great celebration, and it was going wonderfully… until… Mary notices the servants whispering among themselves, and she goes to see what’s up, and they tell her “we’ve just served the last of the wine”.

Running out of wine at a wedding is never a good thing, but back in those days there wasn’t a whole lot else to drink! They didn’t have an open bar with a selection of beers and soft drinks like we do today.  They might have had some kind of fruit juice around, or some kind of warm milk, or possibly some water, but that would have been about it. And none of these things would have been appropriate to serve at a wedding banquet.

So Mary turns to Jesus and says: “they have no wine.”  I notice that Mary doesn’t embellish the story in any way. She doesn’t say “they’ve run out of wine” – which would place blame on someone.  She doesn’t go into full-blown drama mode: “OMG!! There’s no more wine!! This is going to be such an embarrassment to the family!! What are we gonna do?!?”  And she doesn’t make any suggestions as to what Jesus should do. She just states the facts.  I sometimes think our prayers might be more effective if we took this approach with Jesus.  Rather than trying to work up all kinds of emotion or flowery words, or trying to convince God that what we want is in His best interests, just say what’s on our minds. Say what’s happening. In this case Mary says only five words: “they’ve run out of wine.” And she leaves it in his hands.

And Jesus answers: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

These words sound rude to our ears, especially Jesus calling his mother ‘woman’!  But there’s no way to translate into American what Jesus actually said. Back then, the word ‘woman’ was actually a term of honor.  In those days it was used for royalty or for people of distinction. British English has a little bit of a parallel in the word “m’lady” – something a butler might say to the lady of the house. So Jesus is not sassing his mother.

But the second thing Jesus says is a bit more rough: “what concern is that to you and me?”  And this question has no direct translation into English.  The line could be translated something like: “what concern is that of yours and mine?” or “what do you and I have in common?” or “we are standing on totally different ground” – there are many ways this could be heard!  And then he makes the mysterious comment “my time has not yet come.”

Jesus’ response is puzzling: to us, and probably to Mary too.  There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether, when Jesus said, “my time has not yet come” – he was talking about his death, or about his glorification, or about the coming of his kingdom. One thing is for certain: it was not yet time for Jesus to be revealed as the Messiah. Not quite yet.  So does Jesus say these things as a way of gently preparing his mother for things to come? Possibly… but we just don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that Mary responds by saying to the servants: “Whatever he tells you, do it.” Which is probably the best advice anyone can give anybody: if and when Jesus says something to you, whatever he tells you, do it!

So the servants do what Jesus says. And Jesus tells them: take these empty water jars, and fill them with water, and then draw some of it out and bring it to the headwaiter. And while the servants are doing this… somewhere in the process of following Jesus’ instructions… the water turns into wine. This is Jesus’ first miracle, but he doesn’t make a big deal of it. The servants take the water – now become wine – to the headwaiter, who remarks to the groom that “most people serve the good wine first and leave the less-good wine for when the guests are drunk, but you have saved the best wine until now!” – which gives us our old saying about ‘saving the best for last’ – and it must have left the groom totally puzzled and not having a clue what the headwaiter was talking about.

So the servants apparently didn’t tell the headwaiter where the wine had come from, which was the kind thing to not do. If they had said “hey! We’ve just seen a miracle!” it would have distracted from the wedding celebration, and it would have disgraced the family.  There’s a time for everything, and now was not the time.  John knew this also, so he didn’t share the story until a long time after the wedding was over.  And then John adds this comment: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs… and so revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

In our own lives, throughout our lives, God’s goodness to us is like the goodness of this wedding.  God gives us good things, like the food the guests were eating and the wine the guests were drinking. And some of us may begin to think that what we have in this life: knowledge, or health, or education, or power, or money, or talents, or any of the good things God has given us – that this is as good as it gets.

But these things will be all but forgotten when God’s GOOD wine comes out!  Eternal life – life with Jesus in God’s kingdom – will be so rich and so good, we’ll find ourselves saying, like the headwaiter said, “Lord, you’ve saved the best for last!”

It reminds me of the joke about the rich man who figured out a way to ‘take it with him’ when he died.  Towards the end of his life he sold all he had and bought gold bullion – in bricks – and packed them into his coffin so he could take them to heaven. And when he got there St. Peter asked him, “why did you pack all these paving stones?” Because the man had forgotten: in heaven the streets are paved with gold!

All the things we enjoy in this life, as wonderful as they are, and as much as we give thanks for them, they’re just children’s toys compared to the joys we will know with Jesus in God’s kingdom.  God IS saving the very best for last, and Jesus IS our joy-bringer.

So how does this all apply to us today?  For an answer to this question I’d like to look at our passage from Isaiah.  This reading also talks about a wedding.  But in this case the bride in the story has been through some tough times. She has been in exile; she has lost touch with the one who loves her; her enemies have called her ‘desolate’ and ‘forsaken’.  And her groom, who loves her, says to her: “I will not rest until your vindication shines like the sun.”

For ancient Israel, Isaiah’s words spoke of returning home, a promise that the people living in exile would be returned to their own land.  For us today, this also speaks of going home, because this world is not our home. As the old hymn says, “we’re just a-passin’ through.”  For those of us who have known pain and difficulties in our lives, who have been falsely accused, or called ‘useless’ or ‘helpless’ or any of the other cruel things people say to each other, the one who loves us, and sets things right, is coming.

The groom in this wedding story is God Himself, in all three persons of the Trinity – who saves His people, who delights in us, who marries us, and who, in doing so, gives us a new name and a new calling.

What this will look like in eternity is a mystery to us now. The world that is coming will be as different from this world as… well, think of what a cocoon looks like to a butterfly. And then once the cocoon is gone, what the open sky would look like by comparison.  It’s that different.  But this much we know: in the world to come, God says each one of us will shine like the sun, with glory and with royal beauty; no longer in pain, but rejoicing.

Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world” and this is what he’s talking about.  In us, in God’s people, God the Father is creating a bride worthy of his Son.  And God will give us the glory fitting such a bride and will “make us a royal diadem” in the Father’s hand.

So what does all this talk of marriage and eternity mean for us today?  First and foremost, there is hope. No matter how dark the world gets or how messed-up things get, there is a light. Our lives, here and now, may be touched by illness, addiction, fear, pain, poverty, depression, unemployment, any number of things.  Whatever the darkness in our lives is, it will not last – it cannot last, because the Son of God is close at hand.  God says: “lift up your eyes, your salvation draws near.”

Secondly, Jesus is our “bringer of joy.”  Just as he brought joy to the wedding at Cana; just as God brought joy to the refugees returning to Israel; Jesus will bring us joy beyond the ability of words to describe.

And if all this sounds far off, as Paul says in the book of Acts: “he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:27-38) God will make the promise into reality.

So for today, and for the days to come: Hold on to the promise: hold on to hope. AMEN.

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Posted 1/20/19, a snow day for the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches. Stay safe and stay warm!

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Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Every year about this time, we talk about baptism, and we renew our baptismal vows, and we look forward to baptizing children and grandchildren into the family of God.

But do you ever wonder how the practice of baptism got started? I mean, who was it who first said, “Hey! I know! Let’s dunk all the converts in water!” (That’s how they baptized back in the day – putting a person’s whole body in the water.)

Baptism as we understand it was not practiced in the Jewish religion; and Christianity being rooted in Judaism, it’s unusual for us as Christians to have traditions that didn’t start somewhere in the Old Testament.  But the Old Testament doesn’t talk about baptism.

The Jewish faith had ritual cleansing, which involved getting in water, but that was more like taking a bath than being baptized, and it wasn’t something everybody had to do.  Ritual cleansing might be done, for example, by priests before they served in the temple, or by people who had taken vows of service to God.

There were also times that the law of Moses instructed people to wash – and when we look at these times with modern eyes, what we usually see is God telling the Israelites to do what’s healthy.  For example, the law of Moses says to wash after you handle a dead body, or after you’ve touched blood.  With our knowledge of modern medicine we know this just makes plain sense.

But this isn’t baptism as Christians understand it.  For Christians baptism is, among other things, the rite of initiation into the church.  But for the Jews, the rite of initiation into the Jewish faith was circumcision.

So where did baptism come from?  It seems that John the Baptist, when he began his ministry, took a familiar act – ritual cleansing – and used it to teach something new.  Where before, washing in water was something to make a person “ritually clean,” John adds the spiritual dimension of repentance, a washing away of sin. And more than that, John’s baptism was to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah.  John said, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming is more powerful than I… and He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John also says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand… to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John uses the imagery of wheat being threshed, being processed, which separates the kernel of wheat from the casing it comes in. It’s kind of like shelling a peanut: the object is to keep what’s inside and get rid of what’s outside.  And John says: this is what God is about to do with God’s people.  God is about to stir things up, and when God does, the faithful will be separated from the unfaithful.  And God’s people will be separated from the husk of sin that we come wrapped up in. So John says, “repent…” that is: come, confess your sins, and be baptized. Because these husks of sin are about to be removed and tossed into the fire.

jesus baptism

That’s John’s message.  And people came to John the Baptist in the wilderness, by the hundreds, by the thousands, confessing their sins out loud and being baptized in the Jordan River.

But even the baptism of John is not exactly Christian baptism.  It points people in Jesus’ direction, but it doesn’t take the believer the whole way.  There’s more to Christian baptism than just repentance.  Christian baptism includes repentance; but there’s more to it.  The apostle Paul talks about this in the book of Acts where we are introduced to a man named Apollos.  Scripture says about Apollos:

“…he was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, [but he only knew] the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24-25)

So when Paul meets some of the people who had been converted by Apollos, Paul asks:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…” (Acts 19:2-6)

So the difference between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of Jesus is the presence of the Trinity, and particularly the Holy Spirit.  John’s baptism was for repentance only; Jesus’ baptism has to do with new life, which includes the Holy Spirit.

So today we remember the day Jesus was baptized, which is an example of this new kind of baptism.  When Jesus was baptized, the whole Trinity was present.  We hear God the Father saying “this is my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17) And we see the Holy Spirit “descend on him in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:22)  So all three members of the Trinity are present.

We could do an entire sermon on what it means to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, but for now I’ll just say this: baptism is a sacrament, in other words, an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. And Christian baptism is a sign, not only of being cleansed from our sins, but of the spiritual reality that we now belong to God; we are citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s family and as such God gives us spiritual gifts with which to serve both God and others.

There’s a second meaning to Christian baptism that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans chapter 6. Paul says:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5)

I think this might make more sense to us if we still baptized people by immersion, that is, by putting the whole person into water: because in immersion, the person doing the baptizing lowers the baptizee into the water and then lifts them back out, and the picture is one of being buried and then being raised again.  I’m not saying we should actually do this, but it’s a good image to keep in mind when thinking about the meaning of baptism. Because it’s a deep and meaningful truth: in baptism, we identify with Jesus’ death, so that we can be raised to new life in Jesus: “united with him in his resurrection”.  And just as the person being baptized can’t baptize themselves (it requires trust that the minister won’t drop you!) in the same way our forgiveness and resurrection is entirely dependent on God. Like the person being baptized, our job is to trust.

That’s what Christian baptism is all about.

And then we have on top of that 2000 years of church history, which has added some more meanings to baptism – which have sparked a number of debates, none of which I’m going to get into today.

But there is one thing that church tradition has added that I do want to mention: Baptism has become the rite of initiation not only into the body of believers, but also into the church as an organization. When you are baptized here in this church, you become a member of this church.  And for that reason, baptism is done publicly, in the context of a worship service.  When someone is baptized here, that person makes a statement of faith and takes vows (or if it’s a baby being baptized, someone takes the vows on the baby’s behalf). And the congregation also takes vows to support and encourage the baptized person in their walk with God.

So baptism is not meant to be a private thing.  And I mention this because as a pastor people sometimes ask me, “would you baptize my baby? But I don’t want to involve the whole church, I just want to do it privately.”  And I have to explain to them that that’s not what baptism means. Baptism is, among other things, a ceremony of initiation into the church, in order to be supported by the church.  So you can’t really do baptism without the church…

…except in cases of emergency, or other circumstances in which the person being baptized can’t physically get to church.  People in hospital, for example, or the disabled, or people in the armed services who are away from home.  For these people there are special provisions so that no one misses out on being baptized.

But there’s no such thing as “getting a baby done” in the Christian faith. In fact, in the early years of Christianity it was only adults who were baptized.  When Jesus ministered, and when he baptized, a person would hear Jesus’ teachings; they would believe and put their trust in Jesus; and they would (1) declare their faith, and (2) be baptized.  And Jesus taught his disciples to do the same.

Over time, when churches began to meet in people’s homes, the entire household (including children) would be baptized; but it was generations later before infant baptism became the norm.

And I point this out for two reasons:

  • Baptism goes hand-in-hand with faith. As Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Baptism is never done in a vacuum.
  • Infant baptism does not guarantee a person will always be a Christian. It is our way of saying “this is our intention for this child – this is our hope”. But when the baby grows up they can make their own choices.

The Methodist General Board of Discipleship put it this way recently:

“Within the Methodist tradition… John Wesley… taught that in baptism a child is cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. He said that while baptism was neither essential to, nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in human lives.

“On the other hand, although Wesley affirmed the regenerating grace of infant baptism, he also insisted upon the necessity of adult conversion (emphasis mine)… [because] Without personal decision and commitment to Christ, the baptismal gift is rendered ineffective.”

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that baptism alone is not enough for salvation. An adult must also believe, and be willing to say so.

The example people typically give for this (although I think it’s overkill) is Adolf Hitler – who was baptized as a child, but who turned away from the faith as an adult.  Is baptism alone enough to save Hitler’s soul? Some theologians would say ‘yes’ but that’s not what Wesley taught, and that’s not what Methodists believe. In fact that’s not what most Protestants believe.  We believe baptism is a beginning; it’s a promise that needs to be grown into and lived into, otherwise the promise dies on the vine.

So we are baptized, just as people were baptized in Jesus’ day, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. We come, repenting of our sins, but more than that, we come saying we want Jesus to be our King, and we want to be citizens of God’s kingdom. We come offering ourselves in service to our Lord. We come, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was the first of us to be baptized. Jesus identified with us in every way, doing what he himself didn’t need to do (that is, repent and be baptized) in order to lead us where God wants us to go.

So as we come forward today to remember our baptism, we do so, declaring our faith in Jesus to save us both now and in the hour of our death. We declare ourselves as belonging to Jesus, and we rededicate our lives to living as God teaches through scripture.  And we pray for a renewing of the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to do God’s work in the world in the power of God rather than in our own strength.

If we were baptized as babies, this day is almost like a renewal of wedding vows. We’re not getting ‘saved again’ any more than a person would be getting married again; but we are saying, after all these years, if we had it to do again, we would do the same thing, because Jesus is so worth it.

And for those of us who were baptized as adults, it’s a similar thing. More recent in memory, but every bit as much worth it.

In a moment you’ll be invited to come forward and touch the waters of baptism, and remember the vows you made (or that someone else made on your behalf). If you wish, I have some anointing oil here and I can anoint you with a blessing as well.

And if there’s anyone here today who has not been baptized, or who isn’t sure if you’ve been baptized, and you would like to be, or you’d like to be sure, please come forward also and let me jot down your name to give to Pastor Matt to let him know either to plan on a baptism, or do some research. And touch the water of baptism in anticipation of the future.

May this day be for each of you a blessing, and a time of recommitment, and a time of sharing love and fellowship with our Lord.  AMEN.

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Scripture Readings for the Day:

“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.  2 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.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–  7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”” (Isaiah 43:1-7)

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As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  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 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.”

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; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/13/19

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The Visit of the Wise Men

Well yesterday was the 12th Day of Christmas, so Christmas is now officially over, although personally I think as long as we still have Christmas cookies and lights on the tree, the holiday continues!

But today is first day of Epiphany: the season in which the Messiah is revealed to the world. And today we hear the story of the Wise Men. It’s a very familiar story, and one that is, and always has been, a part of the Christmas story.

And yet… we’re not in Christmas any more. And neither is Jesus’ family.  We don’t know exactly when the Wise Men showed up but it wasn’t on the same night as the shepherds; in fact Jesus may have been a few months old or even a year old or more when he met the Wise Men.

As we turn to look at this scripture passage I’d like to draw attention to three things: Fulfillment, Fear, and Fealty.  More specifically: fulfillment of prophecy; fear, motivating King Herod; and fealty, or worship, on the part of the Wise Men.  These three things will give us a scaffolding on which the story can take shape.

We can gather from what Matthew has written that Mary and Joseph didn’t go back to Nazareth when the census was over.  After all the head-counting and tax-paying was done, and all the descendants of David had gone back to their homes, Jesus’ family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Scripture doesn’t say why or how long. But they moved into a house, which Matthew mentions in verse 11, and this is where the Wise Men found them.  So by the time the Wise Men arrive, the manger was a thing of the past… and I imagine it was quickly becoming a thing of family legend: “hey, do you remember the night when Mary went into labor and there was no place for us to stay? Man what a night that was!”

So who were these wise guys anyway and why did they come?  The Greek word for Wise Men is Magi – it’s the word we get magic from, but they weren’t necessarily magicians.  They may have been. They may also have been Zoroastrian priests; they were certainly expert astrologers and possibly astronomers; many were interpreters of dreams; and they were men who had received the best of educations and who had mastered both secular and religious teachings. The Wise Men were probably from Persia or somewhere near there: close to what would be modern-day Iraq. And in ancient times Persia was one of the great cultures, as great as Greece or Rome, and somewhat predating them. We in the west tend to forget this: we have so much influence from the Greek and Latin cultures; but the Persian empire was responsible for many of the discoveries in fields like math and science that we still use today.

So these Wise Men from the east: educated, ruling class, wealthy, the peak of their society, looked at a star (or possibly a configuration of heavenly bodies – I’m not going to get into the various scientific theories of what the star might actually have been) – but they looked at the star and saw something stunningly unusual. And they watched, night after night, as this star made its way across the heavens, and then appeared to stop over Israel. And they interpreted this as indicating the birth of a king in the land beneath which the star rested.

How the wise men arrived at a king’s birth from watching a star, we don’t know. It’s possible that these men, being Persians, had access to the records of the prophet Daniel, who had served in the Persian courts hundreds of years before.  It’s possible they may have been known about the Jewish prophecies of a Messiah King, and were watching for a sign. It’s possible Daniel might have brought with him the books of Moses, or at the very least Moses’ teachings, which would have included prophecies like the words of Balaam:

“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17)

The Wise Men might not have understood who the Messiah was meant to be – but even the Jewish people had some misconceptions about what the Messiah would do when he came. But the Wise Men were certain enough of their calculations and their interpretations of prophecy to travel nearly 700 miles to see this king.

What’s odd about all this – apart from the fact this is a group of Gentiles following a Jewish prophecy (which in itself is a fulfillment of prophecy) – what’s odd is, Herod’s son and the heir to the throne had already been born years before.  His name was Archelaus and he would inherit the throne while Jesus is still a small boy.

No wonder Herod was not thrilled when the Wise Men showed up asking about a baby king!  In fact ‘not thrilled’ would be an understatement. Matthew 22 verse 3 says: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”

All Jerusalem was frightened because they knew what Herod was like when he got upset.  Herod was duplicitous, vicious, and famous for not only killing his enemies but killing his friends, and even his family members. So when Herod was frightened, everybody was walking on eggshells.

As we look at Herod we should keep in mind that Herod the Great was not himself a believer in the Jewish faith. He was born Jewish, and he tried to come off as Jewish in front of the people, but he was essentially a puppet king of the Roman empire, and Rome was far more important to him than being Jewish. Herod’s job was to keep the peace and to make the Romans happy, and he did this by being really underhanded in his dealings and yet doing some really major public works projects that provided jobs for the people of Israel and glory for Rome.

BTW I got to see some of Herod’s projects when I was in Israel – some of them are still standing. The one that fascinated me most was the chariot-race-track, that looked like an ancient NASCAR track. It was by the sea, like Daytona, and would have given Daytona a run for its money.  The race track, and the city that surrounded it, next to a gorgeous harbor, is named Caesarea Maritima (that is, ‘Caesarea by the sea’) – the whole city and harbor being named Caesarea to curry favor with Herod’s master in Rome.

So Herod made some wise political maneuvers, but in moral terms he left a lot to be desired.  And he had no use for Israel’s Messiah, or for any prophecies about the Messiah, or for a Son of David who was planning to be a shepherd king who would rescue his people. Herod liked his job, and he intended to keep it and to pass it on to his son, not anybody else’s son, not even God’s son. And to be sure this baby didn’t get in the way, Herod ordered that all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem be put to death.

Strangely, even though Herod didn’t take the Jewish faith seriously, it seems he took the Wise Men seriously. Why was this? Was it because they were rich and relatively famous? Was it because Herod was superstitious (which isn’t unusual among fearful people)?  Did Herod take astrology more seriously than his own spiritual roots?  For Herod as a Jew, dabbling in the mystical arts was forbidden, because God wanted God’s people to seek God’s power and God’s advice – not things that might lead them astray into other religions, or into fearing what should not be feared.

And then we look at the Wise Men: and it’s remarkable to consider that God moved (literally) the heavens and the earth to communicate with these Gentile astrologers, in their own language, in their own way of understanding, and to bring them – by their own arts and sciences – into a knowledge of God’s kingdom and God’s truth. How great and deep and wide is God’s mercy and understanding!  If we ever wonder if God wants us to be part of his kingdom, we can call to mind the lengths God went to, to reach the Wise Men where they were.

So Herod heard the Wise Men’s message; and some Bible translations say he was “afraid” or “disturbed”.  The Greek word translates both “shaken” and “stirred”.  It describes something that shook Herod to the core of his being. And when the king is not happy, look out: and that’s as true today as it was back then.  When the leaders of nations are in fear, conflicts happen, and it’s always the little people who pay the price. There’s an old African proverb that says: “when elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.”  We could also say when elephants fear, the grass gets hurt.

So God warns the Wise Men to go home another way, and God warns Joseph to take his family and leave quietly for Egypt by night. And while Bethlehem pays the price for Herod’s fear, our Lord and his family experience what it is to be refugees. They will return to Israel a few years later, but finding Herod’s son Archelaus on the throne, at God’s leading they will head north to the town of Nazareth. And so the prophecy will come true that the Messiah would be from Nazareth.

So, so far, we’ve seen in our story the fulfillment of prophecy, and the results of a king’s fear.  The third thing to look for is fealty or worship.

As I was re-reading this story this week, one verse jumped out at me: Matthew 2:2 where the wise men say, “we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

The word homage in Greek is proskuneo, and it’s usually translated ‘worship’. But proskuneo is made up of two words in Greek: pros, to fall down before – it’s the word from which we get the word prostrate – and kuneo, to kiss.  So a literal translation would be to bow down and kiss someone’s feet.  The non-literal translation is simply to worship someone by falling face-down before them.

What caught my attention was this: these Wise Men, the most learned, intelligent, well-respected seers and teachers of their time, walked 700 miles for one reason: to fall face-down in front of a baby king. They said: “We have seen his star and have come to fall down at his feet.”

And the question came to my mind, for all of us (myself included): for whom, or for what, would we walk 700 miles?

700 miles is approximately the distance from Pittsburgh to the Jersey Shore and back again. Now I have driven 700 miles for something as silly as cheering on my favorite rock band.  But walk? I don’t think so.

What makes these wise men truly wise is they understand – with every fiber of their being – the need for heart-felt, personal, all-in worship. When they saw something they were convinced was true (and BTW the evidence they had for Jesus’ kingship was far less than we have today) they put their whole selves where their mouths were. And they knew the correct reaction to the events they witnessed was to fall at Jesus’ feet.

They are a sign to us, and to the whole world, that this Jewish Messiah is not just for Israel any more; that God was reaching out to – and welcoming – the foreigner and the stranger.  That the ones who once worshipped other gods were coming to Israel to worship the one true God.

At Jesus’ birth, God invited the shepherds: the poorest of the poor; and the wise men: the greatest of the great. And in between those two extremes, the rest of us are also invited: rich or poor, educated or not-so-educated, famous or obscure. All of us are invited to come and worship.

So what does it mean to worship?

Like the Wise Men, we are called to worship God with our whole being, with everything we’ve got, with all that we are and all that we have.  We should be willing, if not able, to walk 700 miles for the privilege of falling at Jesus’ feet. But since most of us aren’t called to do that, here are some things we might be called to do:

  1. Worship is closely tied to prayer, and one way to pray is to open our hearts and minds to God, for no other purpose than to enjoy God’s presence.
  2. Worship includes praising God, because when we catch a vision of God, even a glimpse, God’s awesomeness makes praise a necessity. We can’t help praising because God is so great.
  3. Giving thanks – for all we’ve been given: our lives, our talents, our families, our communities, our brothers and sisters in the faith.
  4. Turning away from doing wrong things, and making restitution where we need to.
  5. Giving of what we own to those who need it.
  6. Living what we believe in our daily lives, using the talents God has given us for the benefit of God’s people.
  7. And of course worship includes participation in the sacraments, especially communion, where we meet with God face to face.

So the story of the Wise Men blesses us with the fulfillment of many prophecies. The story of the wise men teaches us that fearfulness and leadership are a tragic combination. And finally the Wise Men show us the kind of fealty or worship our Lord Jesus is worthy of. By God’s grace may we learn to worship with full hearts and minds, with the Wise Men as our examples. [AMEN.]

Closing prayer used at Incarnation: And with this goal in mind, if we have a mind to, let’s make this prayer our own:

Lord Jesus, Let me be your servant, under your command,
I am no longer my own, but Thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed for thee, or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am Thine.
And this covenant which I make on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

(attrib. to John Wesley)

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Matthew 2:1-12  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 1/6/19

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