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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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We have three Scripture readings for today, one from II Samuel, one from the Gospel of John, and one from Revelation.

II Samuel 23:1-7: Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.  The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’  Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.”

John 18:33-38  Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

Revelation 1:4-8  John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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Today is the last Sunday of “Ordinary Time” – that is, the last Sunday before all the holidays begin. Next Sunday we begin Advent, followed very quickly by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – and by that time Spring will be here and we’ll be back out in our gardens again!

This Sunday is also Christ the King Sunday – or “The Feast of Christ the King,” which means it’s a day to celebrate.  ‘Christ the King’ is one of the newest holidays on our church calendar. Most other holidays, like Christmas or Pentecost, have been around almost as long as the church has been around. But the Feast of Christ the King is not even 100 years old.

So I was curious as to why this holiday was created.  Turns out it was created in the Catholic church and then quickly spread through all the major Protestant denominations. And whenever all the churches agree on something, that gets my attention!

This is the back story: the Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  In 1925, Europe was still picking up the pieces after World War I: it was a difficult time.  And in reaction to those difficulties, there was a steep rise in two things: secularism and nationalism.  And the combination of these two trends led to an increasing number of dictatorships, including Stalin in Russia (who came to power in 1922), Mussolini in Italy (also 1922), Hitler in Germany (who came to power in 1933 but was a rising star in the 20s), Franco in Spain (1936, also rising through the 20s).

Pope Pius “hoped to combat the growing influence of absolute dictators…” so he created the Feast of Christ the King as “as a reminder…”  that “Jesus is king and there is no other.” (source: http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/the-celebration-of-christ-the-king-sunday/  )

Christ the King

I think these are important words for our own time as well, and indeed every time – because throughout human history there have been people who have claimed the kind of power and loyalty that only God has a right to.  Not that secular powers are a bad thing; Scripture says they are given to us by God for our benefit.  But when secular powers forget that they answer to God, it is the duty of Christians to remind them.

Pope Pius is not the only theologian who has stressed the importance of recognizing Jesus as King. In more recent years, British theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively about the subject of Jesus as King.  In fact Wright has gone so far as to say the church’s message of salvation has had the wrong emphasis for many years.  To fill in the back-story: some churches have taught a person is saved by being baptized and joining the church; some churches have taught that a person is saved by doing good things, by living a good life; some churches have taught that a person is saved only by God’s choice, by predestination; some churches that have taught a person is saved by having a conversion experience, by being ‘born again’.

N.T. Wright says that putting the emphasis on ‘getting saved’ is missing the point of what Jesus taught in the gospels.  This may sound shocking at first, but Wright is not saying that heaven is unimportant.  What Wright is saying, is that the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is and was about the kingdom of God.  Over and over Jesus says to people “the kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.”  In other words: God’s reign is within arm’s reach, so turn your hearts and your minds, and turn your actions, in God’s direction.

So is Wright right?  As it says in the Bible, whenever we hear a new teaching we should measure it against what we read in Scriptures.  And in this case, one of the ways we can do that is to count how many times Jesus talks about various subjects.  It’s fairly safe to assume the more often Jesus talks about something, the greater importance or greater emphasis it has.

So with that in mind, I went and counted the number of times Jesus spoke certain words in the gospels. (Results will vary a little depending on which version you use. And computers help with this kind of thing.)  The word I found most frequently used in connection with Jesus is the word “answered” – as in, someone asked him a question and Jesus “answered saying” (whatever he said). And I find this encouraging, because it means we can ask questions too, in confidence that Jesus will answer.

The second most common word – and the first most common Jesus spoke about – is ‘kingdom’.  Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more often than he uses the words love, faith, and peace, combined. Jesus certainly taught about love, faith and peace! But Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom’ more often. In fact Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more than five times more often than he uses the word ‘saved’ and more than ten times more often than he uses the word ‘repent’.

So I think N.T. Wright is onto something. We may need to shift our emphasis from getting people ‘saved’ to welcoming people into the Kingdom.

Now I should mention – in order to balance this a little bit – that the rest of the New Testament (apart from the gospels), that is, the teaching of the apostles, is weighted somewhat differently. In these books the most common words are Love, Faith, Hope, Peace, and Righteousness, in that order.  These words describe what God’s kingdom is like.  In other words, the apostles were teaching us about life in God’s kingdom, and what it means to grow into that reality.  So Jesus announces the Kingdom, and we who follow him are called to teach the kingdom and to model what it’s like to live in the kingdom.

So with this kingdom emphasis in mind, let’s take a look at what our scripture readings for today tell us about the Kingdom.

In our reading from II Samuel, the Holy Spirit gives David an oracle. And the words David speaks apply both to himself and to Jesus.  David begins by saying “The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me.”  These same words are echoed in the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, which Jesus quotes in the synagogue in Nazareth.  Isaiah is describing what the king of God’s choosing will do, and he writes:

“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; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads these words and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

David’s oracle continues saying: “the king rules over the people in justice” and “his coming is like the light of morning”.  In the book of Revelation Jesus says: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16) So again we see a parallel between David and Jesus.

David says God’s covenant with him is everlasting; and God says to Jesus in Hebrews 5:6 “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” So the two of them share God’s promise of eternity.

Throughout scripture, Jesus is called the “Son of David” – and so all these things that David says, while they’re true of himself, are also true of Jesus.  Jesus is king, both by being descended from David, and by God’s anointing.

Moving on to our reading from John: here we see Jesus, the King of the universe, standing before Pilate, accused of being a king!

Of course back in Roman days, a person who claimed to be a king would have been guilty of treason, because there was only one king and he lived in Rome. So when the high priests and the religious authorities arrested Jesus and dragged him off to see Pilate, they knew exactly what to accuse him of to get a death sentence.

For whatever reason, Pilate chooses to question Jesus privately rather than in open court. Pilate comes straight to the point of the accusation by asking: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

We might think that the direct and honest answer would be ‘yes’, but Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he asks, “Is this your own question, or were you told this by someone else?”

Jesus is not dodging the question here; he already knows what the outcome of this trial is going to be. But Jesus is doing a couple of things (probably more than a couple, but I’ll look at two for now). First, he is putting a stop to the triangulation.  In psychology, triangulation is (quoting Wikipedia) “a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, but instead uses a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.”  Triangulation is an unhealthy way to communicate.  So if Pilate is talking to Jesus about what the priests said, and Jesus is talking to Pilate about what other people said about him, they’ve got a triangle going.  And Jesus puts a stop to this right away by asking Pilate whether these words are his or someone else’s.

The second thing Jesus is doing is opening the door to direct and honest communication – so that Pilate can know who Jesus is, and has the opportunity to trust Jesus if he chooses to.

Pilate agrees to get rid of the triangle. He answers: “I’m not a Jew am I? Your own nation and chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate’s answer is honest but it’s not very polite. First off it smacks of anti-Semitism.  Pilate looks down his nose at the chief priests and he also looks down his nose at Jesus. As far as he’s concerned they’re all alike.  On the other hand, Pilate doesn’t like being manipulated.  And as he looks at Jesus, he knows he’s not looking at a rebel. He knows the chief priests are setting Jesus up, and he wants to know why.  “What have you done?”

And this question opens the door for Jesus to present Pilate with the truth, and to give Pilate the opportunity that Jesus gives every person: to accept the truth or to reject it. So Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were,” Jesus basically says, ‘as a king I would have an army and servants and they would be fighting for me. But as things stand, my kingdom does not come from this world and therefore I am no threat to you.’

Pilate answers, “So you ARE a king?”  Pilate is still only interested in whether or not Jesus is guilty of treason; he has no interest in the finer points of what Jesus is saying. So Jesus answers, “You say that I’m a king.” (pointing out the word ‘king’ is now Pilate’s, not his accusers’) And Jesus continues: “For this I was born… and came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus is now very gently questioning Pilate and saying, “I’m speaking the truth – will you hear it?”

And Pilate looks Truth in the face and says “What is truth?”

And he walks away.

Pilate wasn’t missing Jesus’ point, he just doesn’t care. He rejects the truth, and he rejects Jesus as king.

Where it came to kings, Pilate chooses Caesar over Christ. As it turned out, just two or three years later, Pilate was recalled to Rome to answer charges of harsh treatment of the Jews.  Shortly after that he committed suicide, and rumor has it he was ordered to do so by the Emperor Caligula. (What a choice between kings – Jesus or Caligula! Pilate chose poorly.)

Pilate did speak one truth: when Jesus was crucified, as was the tradition in Rome, he wrote the charge – that is, the reason he was being crucified – on a piece of wood, attached to the cross above his head.  Pilate wrote “The King of the Jews”.  Pilate meant this to be insulting, and the high priests were definitely insulted.  They asked him to change it to “this man said I am the king of the Jews”.  But Pilate answered, “what I have written, I have written” – and in his cruelty, he spoke the truth.

The king we worship today, and the king we proclaim to the world, is a king who, for our sakes, was tortured and killed on a cross.

And this brings us to our reading from Revelation, which picks up the theme and transforms it into a song of praise. The apostle John writes: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

I could write a whole other sermon on what it means for us to be Jesus’ kingdom, and for us to be God’s priests.  This is our future! Priests, serving under our great high priest.

But for today I just want to close with John’s vision of our king. John writes: “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…  ‘I Am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is coming, the Almighty.”

John tells us two things: (1) Jesus will return. This is a message given to a church that was under pressure from all sides. These words are as good an encouragement for us today as they were for believers back then; and (2) John is saying: God is God, and God is in charge.

So this is our King. And our king says “I come quickly.”  And so we celebrate today, Jesus, our King, to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/25/18

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[Scripture reading is at end of post] This Sunday we continue our sermon series in I & II Samuel.  So far in the series we’ve seen the birth and childhood of the prophet Samuel; we’ve seen the people of Israel rebel against God by asking for a king; we’ve seen the disastrous first kingship of King Saul; and last time I was here saw David begin to take the throne as the Ark of the Covenant returned to Israel.

Today’s reading takes place a number of years later. At this point, the long and steady decline of the house of Saul is over. Things are getting better for Israel; David has put down any challenges to the throne and has established the nation in peace. In fact the writer of II Samuel doesn’t even call David by name in the first few verses: he says “the king did this” and “the king did that” – emphasizing the strength of David’s throne.

By this time David had also married many wives and fathered a number of children, and he had built a magnificent palace in Jerusalem: a palace made of stone and lined with cedar, with magnificent views of the countryside around him. The place was big enough to hold the wives and their kids plus servants and advisors and officers – it was almost like a small city.

King David

So as King David – handsome, mighty man of arms, loved by all his people – looked out over all that he owned, and all his kingdom, he was deeply and profoundly thankful to God for all that God had given him. Unlike many before him and after him who have risen to power or wealth or fame, David takes credit for none of this, and he takes none of it for granted. He doesn’t say to himself “look at all I’ve done” – he says “look how great God is that he’s done all this for me!”

So as David looks around, he notices that his house is more magnificent than God’s house. In fact God doesn’t have a house at all; his sanctuary is in a tent. And that doesn’t sit right with David – that David might appear to be greater in the eyes of people than God.

So he says to his friend, Nathan the prophet, “Look, I’m living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God is in a tent.” And Nathan answers, “Do all that you have in mind; God is with you.”

But that night the word of God came to Nathan and said otherwise.  And God gave Nathan this message: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?”

The obvious answer to this question is ‘no’.  But I think it’s important to ask ‘why?’ What God is thinking and feeling at this point? Is God saying David doesn’t need to prove God is bigger? Is God disappointed or angry at the suggestion?

I don’t think so. The book of Chronicles tells us that God said ‘no’ to David in part because David was a man of war, and God wanted a man of rest and of peace to build his temple. (I Chron 22:8-10)  God is also looking into the future for a king who will be a prince of peace and will bring God’s people into a Sabbath rest.

But God is pleased at the request. And then God explains to David (through Nathan) how God sees things from His point of view. God says:

“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt… I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved… did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel… saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”” (II Samuel 7:6-7)

Again the obvious answer is ‘no’ God has never asked for a house.  God has chosen, deliberately, to live in something that is in the midst of the people and that moves with the people. And God is still this way today.  God may gather us into buildings for worship but God does not live in buildings. The entire universe is not big enough to contain God! Instead, God chooses to put God’s Spirit in God’s people.  God moves in us and with us, all the time, because that’s how God chooses to be with us.

So getting back to God’s message to David – at this point, the tables begin to turn. Rather than receiving a gift from David, God is going to give gifts to David – beginning with reassuring David that God sees David as his son – a man after God’s own heart.  Then God mentions three things he has done for David in the past, and three things God will do for David in the future.

The three things in David’s past are: (1) God took David from keeping sheep, and made him king over Israel; (2) God has been with David wherever David went (and David traveled quite a bit before he became king), and (3) God has kept David safe and has cut off his enemies on every side.

The three things God is about to do for David are: (1) God is going to give David a great name. Think about how true that is: How many people who lived 3000 years ago do we still talk about today? David was famous not only in his own time but in our time as well.  If you travel to Jerusalem today, you will see statues of David and places where David used to visit still preserved after 3000 years. The memory of David is still very much alive… and his name is far greater than any of his contemporaries, or most of the people who lived within 1000 years on either side of him.

(2) The second thing God promises to do for David is to appoint a place for his people Israel where they will be safe and no longer be harassed by evil-doers. And David, having been a shepherd, who is now in charge of shepherding the people, would have understood this as a great blessing. It’s what every shepherd wants for the ones he cares for.

And (3) third, God says to David, “the Lord will build you a house”.  This third promise has a double-meaning. The first meaning is that David’s son, Solomon, will follow him on the throne, and then his son and then his son: that God will establish David’s dynasty.  Solomon will also be the one to build God’s temple. He will be a man of peace and great wisdom, and David and Solomon together will draw up the plans and gather the materials, so that when David passes, Solomon will be able to build the temple.  God says to David, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me.”

But the second meaning comes in where God says, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”  This promise does not come true in David’s dynasty.  There will come a time when the kingdom of Israel will be divided, and first the north and then the south will fall; and the line of kings descended from David will end. But David’s descendants will not die out. They will continue, quietly, unnoticed… until the Messiah appears.  Jesus will be known as the “Son of David” because he will be born into the family of David. And his kingdom will never end.

When Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees and Sadducees, he questioned them back by asking:

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “The son of David.”

He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls [the Messiah] Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer [Jesus] a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.  (Matthew 22:42-46)

This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith: that Jesus, David’s son, is also David’s Lord.

And David knew it.  David was the one who wrote the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) And David was the one who wrote the words “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:13)

In the power of the Holy Spirit, David saw the Messiah coming – not quite clearly, always somewhat out of reach, but David understood that God was speaking of more than just a flesh-and-blood kingdom; that God was speaking of an eternal kingdom.  The establishing of David’s kingdom, forever, could mean no one but Jesus.

God also warns David that if and when his sons, his descendants, rebel against God, God will discipline them; but God will never forsake the house of David the way God abandoned the house of Saul. And God promises he will never take his love away from David’s descendants, ever.

This whole reading today, this whole scene, is a beautiful illustration of how God’s grace works. Grace is unmerited favor – gifts from God, and a future from God, that we don’t deserve and could never earn. David doesn’t earn God’s favor by doing things for him: that’s how the pagan gods worked: “Do me a favor and I’ll do you a favor.”

In God’s kingdom no favors are necessary. They’re not asked for or even wanted.  Instead, when God makes us his own, God not only adopts us as heirs of David (because we are heirs of Jesus) but also promises to give us still more!  Through Jesus, God is building a spiritual house, the body of all believers.

David’s response to God’s message, and to God’s generosity, is, “Who am I, O Lord, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” And he ends his prayer by saying, “Your word has given me all these things and your word is true. May it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever, for you O Lord God have spoken…”

Or to put in another way, in the words of Jesus’ mother Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me according to your word.”

So this whole passage speaks to us of the coming of the Messiah: the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the King whose kingdom will never end.  In Jesus, as with David, God will cut off all enemies and give us peace. In Jesus, as with David, God’s people will have a home, free of trouble and harassment.

So for us here in the 21st century, just as God called David to be both his servant and his son, God calls each of us to be both his servants and his children.  And just as David didn’t earn any of this on his own, we also have received God’s grace, and we can say with David, “look how great God is, that God has done so much for us!” And just as God moved with the people of Israel in the tabernacle, God moves with us, in what the apostle Paul called “our earthly tents” through the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

God has promised us to be with us in this life, and has promised us a dwelling place (a house!) – a heavenly mansion in the kingdom to come.  So let us join with David in giving thanks and praise to God, and in saying “Lord, I am your servant; may it be to me according to your word.”  AMEN.

 

~~~~~~~~~ Reading for the Day~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”  But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

 

“Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.  And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” – II Samuel 7:1-16

 

[David’s reply – not in this week’s lectionary but necessary to complete the passage]: Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord GOD! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord GOD! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O LORD, became their God. And now, O LORD God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The LORD of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord GOD, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.” – II Samuel 7:18-29

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/22/18

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“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”  So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  2 Samuel 5:1-6, 9-10

David’s Palace – an artist’s rendering

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Today we continue our summer series in I & II Samuel. So far this summer we met the prophet Samuel as a boy, serving God in the midst of a corrupt temple leadership; we’ve seen Samuel as a mature man, whose own sons didn’t believe in or serve God the way their father did; and we’ve heard the people of Israel asking God for a king “like all the other nations” and God’s displeasure as God said to Samuel, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s me.”  We saw Samuel – at God’s direction – anoint Saul as king, and then (when Saul turned out to be a disappointment), Samuel annointed David. We saw young David confront the giant Goliath and lead Israel to victory over the Philistines.  And last week we heard David’s lament at the death of Saul and his son Jonathan.

Which brings us to this week, and “The Glory Years.”

What do these words bring to mind when someone says, ‘the glory years’?  For some of us it might take us back to the 1980s, when hair was big and big hair bands were bigger. For some of us it might be the 1960s, when the Beatles were the cat’s meow and just about every family could make ends meet on one person’s income. Or maybe the 1950s, back when everybody worshiped God on the weekend: our Jewish and Catholic friends on Saturday nights and everybody else on Sunday mornings, and the churches and the synagogues were packed because that’s just what you did.  Or maybe for some of us it was the 1940s, when World War II was finally over and our soldiers came home and there were parades and celebrations and reunions.

I was thinking this past week as we celebrated the 4th of July – talk about glory days!  242 years ago we Americans declared ourselves independent of Great Britain and made ourselves a new country. So would we say that 1776 was our ‘glory year’?

The reason I ask is because our scripture reading for today talks about the beginning of what Israel in Bible times would have called their ‘glory years’: those years when King David and his son King Solomon reigned over the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been waiting so long for this! From the time God set them free from slavery in Egypt to the time they set foot in the Promised Land, forty years had passed – just to get there. And once they were there, they had to deal with attacks from neighbors on the outside, and rebellions against God on the inside, and leaders like Joshua and Samson and Deborah and Gideon were led by God to deal with all these things. But it took almost 350 years from the time the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land until the time King David sat in peace on the throne of Israel and the people of God were safe in the Promised Land.  And this was only after their first king, King Saul, failed to live up to expectations and very nearly ruined the nation by fighting unnecessary wars.

But finally, finally, David was king.  Finally, 400 years after Egypt, Israel was at rest in the Promised Land, secure in David’s leadership. And David, this man who Samuel described as “a man after God’s own heart,” became the pattern by which we would recognize the Messiah, ‘the Son of David’.

It’s the beginning of Israel’s glory years.

Those glory years, sadly, would last only 80 years. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom would be divided, never to be completely united again in the course of human history.  Even if you count modern-day Israel – which was founded in 1948 – less than half the Jewish people in the world live there. So the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David have not yet been reunited completely, even 3000 years later.

The fact that any nation could survive for so long as a people without a country and a land to call their own tells us something about how secure God’s promises are in spite of what we see around us. And it teaches us something too about the nature of the Body of Christ, the church – because we too are a people without a land to call our own in this world, because our home is the promised land, the Kingdom of God.

So what we’re reading about today was the beginning of Israel’s glory years. Under King David the nation was united. They were united in worship of the one true and living God. They were free of idols, free of false gods. And there was peace (for the most part) and prosperity for all.  David built a palace, and made plans for the great temple of Jerusalem which his son Solomon would build. And it was glorious! And all of these things give us a foretaste of our own Promised Land.

But the funny thing about glory years is – from a human standpoint – people usually don’t know it when they’re in them.  Think about it. Take 1776 as an example. Yes, the surprise attack on the British at Washington’s Crossing went well.  But a year after that, in 1777, George Washington lost Philadelphia – the capital of our new country – to the British. And he stationed for the winter at Valley Forge – where the fledgling Continental Congress was unable to raise enough money for food or clothing for the army. The soldiers who practiced maneuvers there, hungry and leaving bloody footprints in the snow, never thought for a minute that they were living in any kind of glory years.

Or what if we look back to the 1950s and 1960s as our glory years – back when the economy was booming and the churches were full and dads worked and moms stayed home and raised the kids, and everything made sense and life was good. But if you were alive back then you would have been aware of the Vietnam War dragging on, with no end in sight… and all the mothers losing their sons while the protests on college campuses grew more violent. Racial prejudice was considered normal by many people back then, and when people tried to challenge it they got shot. In four short years we lost President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King… and those were the people whose names we knew. Many others died whose names we didn’t know. And don’t get me started on gender inequality back then!

Our scripture reading for today gives us hints that the people who lived during Israel’s glory years didn’t know it either. First off scripture says the tribes of Israel “came to David at Hebron”.  Why not Jerusalem? Because King Saul had his throne at Jerusalem. Saul had only been killed in battle just days before, and what was left of Saul’s family was trying to re-establish the throne in Jerusalem. So the leaders of Israel came to David at Hebron because that’s where David was: David was in exile, chased there by Saul.

But years before that, David had been a hero. He killed Goliath with just a slingshot and a few stones. And he led the armies of Israel to victory over the Philistines, so that the people sang “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” David served Saul so well, that Saul became jealous and tried to murder him. But the people never forgot what David did. And so now, with Saul and his son Jonathan dead, the people came to David and said, “look, for some time now, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel…” So lead us now, be our king now.

And David knows the prophet Samuel told him years before that this was his destiny. But he’s torn. David loved Saul in spite of everything. Saul was David’s king, and Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend, and David wants to show mercy to what’s left of Saul’s family. So David says ‘yes’, and the people of Israel anoint David king, but David stays at Hebron for another seven and a half years until he can take care of the things that are on his heart. He takes time to grieve the loss of Saul and Jonathan, and he writes the song:

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (II Sam 1:19)

‘Your glory O Israel’ – This lament stands at the very beginning of Israel’s glory years.  The glory years begin with a king with tears in his eyes.

And our glory years, also begin with a king – King Jesus – with tears in his eyes. Luke writes that in the middle of the Palm Sunday celebrations – while the crowds were shouting ‘hosanna!’ – Jesus was weeping. And he was saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:42)

Palm Sunday is the beginning of our glory days as Christians: a day when the cross was only days away, and the resurrection only a couple days after that. But no matter how you slice it, it seems ‘glory days’ never feel all that glorious when you’re in them.

So today if we look at the world around us, and our neighborhoods around us, and all the people who are hurting around us, and all the angry voices, it may not look like it or feel like it, but (like David) we are in the beginning – just the beginning – of the glory years. God has promised to redeem these years. And as Peter says in his first letter to the churches, “our faith… [which is] tested by fire—[will] result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7)

Our Promised Land still lies ahead.  Till then… praise God for the glory years.

AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/8/18

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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.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

John Wesley

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“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9

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Luther

500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17

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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.

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Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.

 

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