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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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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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Today is the Sixth Day of Christmas, and I hope everybody is still celebrating!  One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is we don’t have to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the same schedule as the rest of the world. We know the greatest Christmas gift is the one God gave us in sending Jesus as a baby into our world.  And we know it’s not just for one day but for all days.

So in December we celebrate Advent – as a time of holy waiting – not just waiting for the baby to be born, but looking forward to the day when Jesus will return as king. And King Jesus is our focus for today – specifically, the Boy King.

But before I go there, I wanted to catch us up on some things we might otherwise miss. In the time between Advent and Lent, our New Testament readings usually focus on the life of Jesus: what he did, how he taught, his time with the disciples. But in the tradition of the church from earliest times, Christmas is celebrated for 12 days. The Twelve Days of Christmas is not just a Christmas carol!

Inside those 12 days are smaller feast days.  For example: December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen, when we remember the apostle Stephen who was the first martyr in the book of Acts.  You might remember him from the Christmas carol:

“Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen…”

‘The Feast of Stephen’ is the day after Christmas.  December 27th is the feast day of St. John the apostle.  And then on December 28th we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember the children who were murdered by King Herod. You recall the story:

“…wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star… and have come to worship him.”  (Matt 2:1-2)

And Herod was terrified by the news a future king had been born that he didn’t know about, so he ordered the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. And so on the 28th we remember these children who are considered to be the first martyrs for the Christian faith.

And then we have the Feast of the Epiphany, on 12th Day of Christmas, also known as “Twelfth Night” (for you Shakespeare fans), which we will celebrate next Sunday.  Epiphany recalls the arrival of the Wise Men –  which doesn’t make sense to celebrate a week after Holy Innocents, but that’s how things have been on the church calendar for hundreds of years, so there we are.

All these things serve as a reminder that the peace and the wonder of the first Christmas night didn’t last long. Back then, even as today, the world hardly takes a break from all its bad news, not even for the arrival of a royal child.  But this child who was born, was born to be a king. And the rulers of this earth feel threatened already, in spite of the fact Jesus is only a few days old.

There are other things that would have happened in the first 12 days of Jesus’ life, but just one more I should mention. On the eighth day of Christmas, Jesus would have been circumcised – the rite of initiation into the Jewish faith. It is also the day on which he would have been named, and blessings would have been said over him and over his parents.

So the Feast of Christmas goes on for 12 days. And here we are on Day Six. (Do you have enough cookies for another six days?)

But in our scripture reading for today, Jesus is already 12 years old – which, as you can see, skips over quite a bit. So I wanted to fill in what we would have missed otherwise, because the feast days of Christmas, and the naming of Jesus, aren’t mentioned at any other time of year, and I don’t want to short-change them.

But moving on now to our Boy King.  When Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel he preached – the good news – was always this: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” Not “believe in me and be saved” – although that may be true, that’s not what Jesus preached. Jesus’ words were always: “the kingdom of God is near; change course and believe good news.”

Seeing that we’re still in Christmas season, I wanted to turn first to the words of His kingdom that are found in our Christmas carols, because our carols have a lot to say about this boy king.  From the distant past until today, and all around the world, people sing about Jesus being born to be king.

  • From the 16th century: “What child is this? This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”
  • Charles Wesley wrote in the 18th century: “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus… born a child and yet a king…”

And other hymn-writers have written:

  • “Hark! the herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king
  • “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king
  • “O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God our King, and peace to all on earth!” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)

And from 200 years ago exactly, this Christmas:

  • “Silent Night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing “Alleluia” to our King

The writers of the carols understood: Christmas is when we welcome a king. And not just any king. The good news we celebrate at Christmas – that Jesus is King – is the best news ever! Why? Because it means the powers of this earth will not have the last word. Heads of corporations, political leaders, boards of institutions, heads of state, news outlets, media personalities, celebrities, instigators of wars, organized crime bosses, criminals and people who live by violence, all the causes of pain and darkness in this world – none of them will have the final word.

As Isaiah says, all of these things are nothing but “fuel for the fire.” Why? “Because to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

One day every knee will bow and acknowledge Jesus as king; but before all this can happen, the baby Jesus needs time to grow up. Even though Jesus is the Son of God, and indeed is God in the flesh, he wasn’t born knowing everything. Jesus was born a baby, and he had to learn, just as we all learn, things like how to feed himself and how to brush his hair; and how to help out around the house, and how to help his father Joseph in the carpenter’s shop.

And he had to learn the scriptures. Jesus was not born knowing everything about what God wanted him to do. He had to learn it. And in our scripture reading for today that’s what’s happening.  So let’s take a look at this reading from Luke.

The place is Jerusalem. The holiday is Passover. Held in the spring, Passover is the greatest of the Jewish holidays, when Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt is remembered and celebrated.  The holiday is called Passover because it remembers the day when the people of Israel painted the blood of a lamb over their doors and the angel of death passed over their houses. The blood of the lamb kept them safe from death.

Little do the people in Jerusalem know, THE lamb of God is with them this year: a 12-year-old boy king disguised as the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, who is in the Temple learning what it means to be the Lamb of God.

Of course Mary and Joseph had no idea that any of this was going on, either in terms of the questions Jesus had saved up to ask the religious leaders, or in terms of his staying behind in Jerusalem.  At the end of the Passover, which lasted a week, Mary and Joseph just assumed Jesus was with their caravan: the large group of relatives and neighbors who had traveled together from Nazareth to Jerusalem. But on the return trip, after traveling for a day, they began to realize Jesus wasn’t anywhere among them!  And so Mary and Joseph turned around and walked back to Jerusalem – literally uphill the whole way (no joke!)  The hill up to Jerusalem, even today, is a half-hour’s drive on switchbacks, snaking up the hill. I can’t imagine walking it.  And then, once they were there, they searched for Jesus for three days.

The Bible says they were “in great anxiety”.  I think that’s an understatement; and I think only a parent could understand the kind of desperate panic Mary and Joseph were feeling. Afraid Jesus might be injured, afraid he might have been kidnapped, afraid… of the worst.  They looked everywhere: in the restaurants, in the hotels, in the places where poor people go and where lost people tend to turn up.  They were not expecting to find him in the last place they finally looked: in the temple, hob-nobbing with the intellectual elite. But there Jesus was, holding his own and more, with the greatest religious teachers of his day: asking questions they respected, and offering answers that amazed them.  Actually the Greek word for ‘amazed’ means ‘amazed beyond comprehension’ – in other words, he blew their minds.

Jesus was 12 years old at this point.  Eighteen years later he would be back in the temple, this time not only with amazing questions but teaching in the power of the Holy Spirit.  I wonder if any of the religious leaders remembered him.  Because 12-year-old Jesus must have been unforgettable.  I wonder how many of them said, “Hey I know you! You’re Mary and Joe’s kid. Good to see you again.”  We know that some – not many but some – of the religious leaders of his day believed in Jesus and welcomed his teaching. Nicodemus, for example, believed in him.

But I find it interesting the difference in the general reaction, between age 12 and age 30.  Jesus at age 12, they were ‘amazed beyond comprehension’ and were pleased to hear him and to listen to him; but Jesus at age 30 they were ‘amazed and threatened’ and wanted to kill him. What is it that makes the difference?

Even in our own time I think the young Jesus, the child Jesus, is seen as less threatening than the adult teacher.  But the fact is there’s no difference; Jesus is and always has been the Son of God, no matter what his age.  And so it is that when his parents ask him “how could you do this to us?” he answers with a truth that I think they only partially understood at the time: “I had to be in my Father’s house.” There was nowhere else he could learn about who he really was.

But for now, for the time being, Jesus’ first priority is to calm his parents’ fears, and to return home with them, a loyal and obedient son. His time for public ministry will come soon enough. For now, his job is to keep on growing up, and helping his parents in any way he can.  But his mother Mary will never forget any of these things; she stores up every word and every memory in her heart, like hidden treasure, until the day when the apostle Luke comes to visit, asking her to share what she remembers so that he can write down the story.

And so Jesus grew up, quietly, growing in wisdom, and being loved by God and people alike. He grew up in secret, away from the halls of power and away from the intrigues of organized religion. In John 7:4, when Jesus was first starting his ministry, some of the people who didn’t believe in him tell him to go to Jerusalem and preach, because they say, “no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret.” (John 7:4)  But the fact is, God often works in secret.  God’s plans are hatched in the right place, at the right time, and not before.  The boy king will remain hidden from public eye for another 18 years.

I usually like to wrap up a sermon with something we can take away and put into practice.  But today, on this sixth day of Christmas, we’re still in the middle of a feast; we’re still celebrating the birth our king.  So I think probably the most appropriate thing would be simply to express our thanks our God, and our Lord Jesus, who gave up heaven to do all this for us.

We can praise God with our own words, giving thanks for our families and friends, for our church, for a new year, and above all for Jesus our King.  Or we can praise God in the words of scripture:

“Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him… sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!  Young men and women alike, old and young together… praise the name of the LORD, for… he has raised up a horn (that is, a King) for his people… praise the Lord!” (Ps 148, excerpts) AMEN.

 

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Psalm 148:1-14  Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!  2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!  3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!  4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

 5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.  6 He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.  7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,  8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!  9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!  10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!  11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

 12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!  13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.  14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

Luke 2:41-52  Now every year (Jesus’) parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.  43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.  44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.  45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.  46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  50 But they did not understand what he said to them.  51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/30/18

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Well, looks like we made it!  Shopping’s all done (I hope). Travel is mostly completed. The busyness of the holiday season is pretty much past, and now we can breathe.

Tomorrow is Christmas, of course: a day when the whole world stops for a moment. A day when the only people working are the people whose jobs are essential for health and safety, and we give thanks for them.  For most of us though, it will be a day spent relaxing, in the company of family and/or friends, eating good food, exchanging gifts, and just enjoying being God’s children.

If you were to go downtown tonight after the service, you would find the city quiet: quiet to the point of spooky.  What we experience, as Christmas Eve afternoon deepens into night, is probably the closest we Gentiles ever come to experiencing a Jewish Sabbath: a day when all work stops, and all shopping stops, and at home we’ve set out the best dishes and the most wonderful foods, and we bless each other and especially bless our children. Imagine what it would be like to have a little miniature Christmas once a week!  That’s Sabbath.

Someday I’m going to develop that thought into a full-fledged sermon, but not today, because tonight is Christmas Eve – a special night even by Sabbath standards.

Tonight I’d like to talk about two scripture passages: Luke chapter 2 and Matthew chapter 2.

Matthew 2:6 reads:

‘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.’”

Shepherds and kings.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  The shepherds in the fields, and the “three kings” or wise men from the east; and the baby who was born to be our Good Shepherd and the King of kings.

The Christmas story as told by Luke is a beautiful story, but I think there’s a temptation to give it a Hollywood treatment in our imaginations, if you know what I mean.  When we hear the story we imagine it almost as if it’s being directed by Stephen Spielberg with a soundtrack by John Williams. We picture a simpler time, and a peaceful night long ago, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by angels in the sky and people of good will in the village.

But I’m not sure it actually happened that way. We sing about ‘silent night’ but the night was hardly silent with a newborn around, as anyone who has ever worked in a maternity ward can tell you. There were no angels singing in the sky; according to Luke there was only one angel who spoke with the shepherds, and he was on the ground. And the group of angels who showed up later, saying “glory to God in the highest” would have looked more like an army than a choir. And they also had feet on ground.

And there’s another difference. We live in a society today where the story of Jesus’ birth is known to everyone. Even people and countries that aren’t Christian have heard of Bethlehem.  But on that night 2000 years ago, the vast majority of the world had no clue that God had just taken up residence here. People wouldn’t begin to know that for another 30 years.

Except for the shepherds.

So what did the shepherds actually see and hear, and what does that message means to us, here, tonight?

Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus with the words: “In that region…” And of course the region Luke is talking about is the area surrounding Bethlehem.  It’s an area that is hilly and rocky and would have been quite dark at night.  To give us sort of a mental picture of what this might have looked like, I’d like you to imagine being on McArdle Roadway.  (For those of you who don’t live around Pittsburgh, this is the road that connects Grandview Ave to the Liberty Bridge and travels precipitously along the face of Mt. Washington.)  OK, so imagine that road, at night, with no trees and no street-lights: rocky, hilly, and dark. Above and behind us, where Mt. Washington would be, that’s where Bethlehem is.  And off in the distance, where Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning would be – that’s Jerusalem, about an hour’s walk away. And of course down at the bottom of the hill, there would be no city, just more rocks and hills and wild animals between us and Jerusalem.  Most likely the shepherds would have had a campfire going, both for warmth and for light.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields…” and they actually did live in the fields.  The shepherds didn’t work an eight-hour shift and then go home. They were home. They probably had houses somewhere, but they basically lived outdoors with the sheep. They ate with the sheep, and slept near the sheep, and after a while they began to smell like sheep.  For this reason shepherds were generally not accepted in polite society – which makes them an unusual choice to be God’s messengers.

So there they were on this dark rocky hillside, surrounded by sheep, when all of a sudden an angel shows up.  Luke writes: “an angel of the Lord stood before them…”  Luke does not say ‘an angel flew in’.  Artists in medieval times painted wings on angels to help communicate the idea that angels are God’s messengers, and perhaps also that they travel quickly – which this particular angel seems to do. He just basically appears, startling the shepherds.

And when the angel comes, with him comes the glory of the Lord.  Luke says, “The glory of the Lord shone round around them…” I’ve sometimes pictured this in my mind (again, Hollywood) like a scene in an action movie, where there’s a bad guy on the ground at night being chased by a helicopter with a searchlight, and the searchlight finally finds the bad guy…

I don’t think there was a search-light from heaven. Luke would have had trouble describing something like that, and Luke is not at a loss for words.  He says: “the glory of the Lord shone around them”, that is, around the shepherds and the angel. Not just around the angel. I think maybe it was a light also shining between them and among them as Luke says, filling the space where they were standing.  God’s glory, among them.

Maybe for a moment, in that glory, they saw each other through God’s eyes.  C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” But we don’t usually see each other that way.

If this is what happened, as the glory shone around the shepherds, fear would have been a natural reaction – not fear of punishment but the fear that comes from suddenly realizing they haven’t been perceiving reality as it really is.  And now suddenly they do, and life will never be the same.

The angel greets them with the words “Fear not! I bring you good news of great joy. Today, this very night, in the city of David, a savior has been born to you. The Messiah is here!”

MangerScene2

And of course the word ‘messiah’ means ‘anointed one’, so in other words this newborn is going to be a king.  In the city of the great king David, an heir of David, a future king has arrived.  The angel says: “you’ll know him when you see him – he’ll be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was an army of angels praising God and saying  “Glory to God most high, and on earth peace to people with whom he is pleased.”

Have you ever wondered what those angel voices might have sounded like?  One thing is for sure: they were not native English speakers, or native Hebrew speakers for that matter. They would have spoken with the accent of heaven (which of course would be a British accent) (just kidding). I have a feeling their voices would have sounded like, or would have felt like… the sound of ancient times… of our eternal home.

One thing’s for sure: the angels’ words felt like truth in the hearts of the shepherds. There was no room for doubt. The Messiah, the King, had come to earth. Tonight.  The Son of David in the City of David.

And then the angels disappeared. The glory of God faded; the night fell quiet; and it was just the shepherds and sheep once more on that hillside.  Nothing had changed… but everything had changed. And the shepherds looked at each other and said, “Let us go now and see this thing that has happened…” You know what, I bet it was more like “hey, I’ll race you to Bethlehem!” Luke says: “they went with haste…” – they were moving quickly!

And they found Mary and Joseph, and the newborn king, Jesus, lying in the manger, just like the angel had said. And they told Mary and Joseph – and everybody else who was there – all the things the angel said. And by morning the whole town would have heard about it (even without Twitter.)

So what does it all mean to us, today?  People have been filling libraries with the answer to that question for 2000 years. But I think above all, one message comes through clearly: the shepherds witnessed, and we are witnesses to, the birth of a king. And not just any king: the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

A few months ago I joined a group of amateur singers gathered on the North Side to start rehearsing for Messiah. And on a warm September evening, our director asked us to pull out the Hallelujah Chorus for the first time as a group.

I know everybody here, even if you’ve never listened to Messiah, you know the song (singing) “Hallelujah!” You all have heard this.  But there’s a part in the piece where the words “Hallelujah” start jumping between the voices in the choir, like neighbors gossiping over the back fence. “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” – which, as we were singing it, quickly turned into a hot mess.  And the director looked at us and shouted “Why???” and the men came in: (singing) “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” Oh yeah. Hallelujah!

That’s what tonight is all about! The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. It’s a truth so phenomenal, so amazing, that it can really only begin to be expressed in poetry or in music because mere words are not enough.

King David wrote of this moment in Psalm 45:

“Your throne, O God, endures forever… Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God… has anointed you with the oil of gladness…
your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” (Ps 45:6-8 edited)

Why do we sing ‘Hallelujah’? Because Jesus reigns.

From year to year, from century to century, from one nation to another around the world, songwriters have sung this message:

  • From the 9th century: “O come thou root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all peoples on thy mercy call.”
  • From the 16th century: “What child is this? This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”
  • Charles Wesley wrote in the 18th century: “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus… born a child and yet a king…”

And tonight we sing the carols:

  • “Hark! the herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king
  • “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king
  • “O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God our king, and peace to all on earth!” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)

And from literally 200 years ago this night:

  • “Silent Night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing “Alleluia” to our king

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel he preached – the good news – was always this: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” Not “believe in me and be saved” – although that may be true, that’s not what Jesus preached. Jesus’ words were always: “the kingdom of God is near, change course and believe good news.”

The fact that Jesus is King is the best news ever! Why? Because it means the powers of this earth will not have the last word.  Heads of corporations, political leaders, boards of institutions, heads of state, news outlets, media personalities, celebrities… instigators of wars, organized crime bosses, criminals and people who live by violence… all the causes of pain and darkness in this world… none of these will have the final word.

As Isaiah says, all of these things are nothing but “fuel for the fire.” Why? “Because to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  One day every knee will bow and acknowledge Jesus as king.

Each one of us, tonight, is invited by King Jesus to be citizens of his kingdom, citizens of heaven.  And how much better is His kingdom than the one we live in now? Is there anywhere else you’d rather be? Is there anything keeping you from leaving behind the rulers of this dark world and following the king of light and love?  Knowing this baby, and following this king, is the greatest joy on earth or heaven.

“Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King.”

AMEN.

MangerScene

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Scripture Passages:

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.

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 15  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, and Carnegie United Methodist Church, 12/24/18

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Luke 2:8-20   In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Today is the last Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve, so it’s almost-Christmas… but not quite.  The skit we saw a moment ago (thank you Dave) talks about Advent ideas, but the scripture reading Barb read is a lesson we usually hear on Christmas Eve.  So today we’re sort of on the cusp between the two.

I’m going to talk about the reading from Luke tomorrow night, but this morning I’d like to focus on The Dilemma of Joy.  The authors of our Advent series The Christmas Dilemma have been observing some of the dilemmas that likely cropped up in the lives of the people who were there when it all happened.  And today we focus on the dilemmas in the experience of the shepherds on that first Christmas.

The shepherds, like all good Jewish people back then, were looking for the coming of the Messiah. They’d been watching and waiting for a long time – probably 2000 years or more since Abraham first received the promise.  In fact, after so long, many people had given up watching. But there were still some who were keeping the faith, and the shepherds were among them.

Actually we have that in common with them.  We also are waiting, this time for the return of the Messiah. Jesus promised He would be back, this time not as a baby but in glory as a king. It’s been almost 2000 years we’ve been waiting, and many people have given up watching. But God’s word is true; and we will talk more about that tomorrow night when the Christ Child arrives.

But for today, it’s still Advent, and we’re still waiting.

Luke writes that the angel told the shepherds about “good news of great joy” – joy so great it might sound almost too good to be true. And that’s the first dilemma.  The shepherds, when they heard the message, might have felt like the message was for everybody else but not for them. They might have felt unworthy of being visited by an angel.

Generally speaking people back in those days looked down their noses at shepherds. Shepherds spent a lot of time with sheep, and as a result shepherds tended to be kind of dirty and smelly. Shepherds were on the fringes of society. They might have thought to themselves: “God does business with Pharisees, who lead clean lives; or with priests who are always in the temple sacrificing to God. After all, isn’t that who God speaks through?  The good people, the religious people? Why would God speak through people nobody wants to be around?”

But the angel was quite clear: the “good news of great joy” was to be for ALL people. Shepherds included. And on this night, especially for shepherds, as God begins to turn the world’s values upside down.

I imagine it probably brought God great joy to share this news with the shepherds. Shepherds have always been close to God’s heart.  King David was a shepherd before he became king. In the Old Testament, Abraham was a shepherd, and Jacob was a shepherd, and Moses was a shepherd before he rescued the people from Egypt; and the prophet Amos was a shepherd.  Many times in Scripture, God refers to God’s people as “my sheep”.  And in the New Testament Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” because he takes care of God’s people and saves us from our enemies.

And so it is the news of Jesus’ birth is announced first to shepherds.  As the Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…” (I Cor 1:29)

On the night Jesus was born, the shepherds were taking care of sheep, just like they did every day. They were out living in the fields among the sheep; and scripture does mean living in the fields, not working eight-hour shifts and then going home. They took care of the sheep 24/7 – just like God takes care of us 24/7.

And so one night when they were out in the field doing what shepherds do, all of a sudden there was an angel. And as the old KJV says, “They were sore afraid”.  Or in modern language, they were beside themselves with fear.

Now we don’t know what angels look like, but we do know from scripture that fear tends to be a person’s first reaction to meeting an angel. In various passages of scripture, some people shake, some people fall to their knees, some people faint, most people find themselves speechless – literally unable to talk.  And even though we don’t know what angels look like, one thing is for sure: they are not cute. I’m thinking now of those sweet little statues of angels I see in gift shops sometimes. My first reaction is always “that is not an angel! That little thing would never scare anybody.”

There is something about angels that terrifies people. Maybe it’s because angels are foreigners, not in the sense of being from another country but in the sense of being from another world, another plane of existence. Maybe it’s because angels are powerful; the book of Daniel describes angels as warriors.  Maybe it’s because angels reflect the holiness and righteousness of God at a level of purity we never see here on earth. I don’t know for sure. But I do know people who meet an angel are scared.

So the first thing the angel says to shepherds is “Fear not!”  Some Bible translations say “don’t be afraid” but in the original Greek it’s more of a command. “Don’t. Fear.”  And somehow the angel saying it makes it happen. Knees stop shaking. Heartbeats return to normal. Conversation becomes possible.

So this is another Christmas dilemma: in a story focused on joy, fear is first emotion experienced. And that’s often still true today. We live in a world where fear is so common it’s almost normal. People fear so many things: We fear darkness. We fear violence. We fear the unknown. We fear the ‘other’. We’re afraid for our children. We’re afraid for our society. We’re afraid for our country. We’re afraid of the future. We’re afraid of poverty. We’re afraid of sickness. We’re afraid of finding ourselves powerless. We’re afraid of what’s happening around us in the world. We’re afraid the bad guys are winning.

The good news the angel came to share is that the Messiah, the Son of God, has been born. When Jesus begins his ministry, the religious leaders will complain that he’s turning the world upside down, but the truth is he’s turning an upside-down world back to the way it should be: right-side up!  And it feels strange to people to be right-side up when they’re used to being upside-down.

2000 years later we’re still waiting for this process to finish. The world is still upside-down in many ways, and many people think this is normal. And people are still afraid.  But the angel’s message is for those of us waiting for Jesus’ return, as much as it was for the shepherds: “Fear not. For behold I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”

One of the strategies of evil is to flood people with fear.  God, on the other hand, wants to fill us with joy. Jesus says in John chapter 10, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.”

If we belong to Jesus, no one can steal our souls. No one can rob us of our destiny. But some might try to steal our joy. And if that’s the case, can we name what is it that’s stealing out joy? A cutting remark from a friend? A pile of overdue bills? Someone who betrayed our trust? A delay in something hoped for? A dream that’s been lost?

Whatever it is, we have a Saviour who came to bring us joy – and that’s for all of us. No exceptions. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done. Even those of us who may feel like we don’t deserve it.  God’s message of joy is for all people. Not because of who we are but because of who God is.

And if Christmas joy still feels like it’s escaping us… I suggest doing something out of the ordinary, something small but unexpected, that God would enjoy. Here’s an example: I have a friend, someone I met through cat rescue. She lives out in the next county, and she was on the receiving end of a Christmas surprise this past week.  A total stranger got in touch with her and said “your work helping stray cats in the community had come to the attention of some people who would like to give you something. May I meet with you?” And my friend posted to Facebook saying “is this for real? Should I trust this person? I don’t know who she is, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”  And we all encouraged her to meet with the woman, but do it safely – don’t give out personal information, all the things we do to be safe these days.

So she did.  Turns out there’s an anonymous group of people out in the next county who collect up loose change in jars all year long, and then at Christmas they vote amongst themselves and choose local people who are doing good things in the community and they give them a jar full of loose change. The names of the givers will never be known; they get a friend to make the deliveries.

The jar my friend received held over $100 in coins. And I can tell you, there are some very happy cats out in that county right now. And one cat-care person who’s had a little bit of faith in humanity restored.

Bringing a little joy to someone doesn’t need to be even that involved. But the more we share the joy of Jesus’ arrival, the more we will experience it.

So back to our shepherds.  There’s one more dilemma to look at, and that is: what does a shepherd do on the day after?  The next night, after Jesus was born, would have been a normal night. And the night after that, and the night after that. There would be sheep to feed and families to care for, just like there always had been. And people would still look down their noses at shepherds.

As time passed, did doubts creep in? Probably. The shepherds would talk about that night again and again, remembering what they saw and what they heard, and saying to each other ‘it really wasn’t just our imaginations… it really did happen’.  And they’d probably say to each other: ‘well that little baby king… it’s going to be twenty years before he grows up.’  And so the shepherds would tell their children: this is what we saw. This is what we heard. Don’t forget it. In case we don’t live long enough to see that baby grow up, watch for him. We know he’s out here. Keep an eye out for him.

I wonder, thirty years later, how many of those children of the shepherds recognized Jesus when he started teaching in Jerusalem? I wonder how many of the shepherds were still alive and said, “there he is! That’s him! He’s the one in the manger!”

Waiting isn’t easy. And while we wait our joy can sometimes grow dim. That’s one of the great dilemmas of Christmas. But the joy of that Bethlehem night is in the hearing, and in the telling, and in the seeing. There was joy in the voices of the angels who brought the news; there was joy for the shepherds who shared the angels’ words with Mary and Joseph and the people of Bethlehem; there was joy between Mary and Joseph that night, as God’s promise came true. And there was joy as the shepherds told their children: ‘watch for him… watch for him’.

Our joy also will be multiplied in the telling. Telling our children, telling our grandchildren, telling our neighbors: the Messiah, the king, has entered our world! The savior has come, and is coming again. Watch for him… watch for him. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 12/23/18

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Luke 1:26-38   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Welcome to the second week of Advent, and also to Week Two of our series called The Christmas Dilemma.  When you think about it, there are a lot of things in the Christmas story that might raise questions, or at least raise eyebrows, and each week during Advent we are looking at one part of the Christmas story that might challenge our faith a little.

Today we look at the story of Mary, in a sermon called “The Dilemma of Saying Yes”.  As we look at Mary’s life and her choices we will see that saying ‘yes’ to God does not always lead to an uncomplicated life.

But before I talk about Mary I want to broaden the topic for a moment and include the events of this past week, in a sidebar that I call ‘the dilemma of saying ‘yes’ to service’.  This past week our nation laid to rest former President George H.W. Bush.  Looking at his life, we can easily see how saying ‘yes’ to serving others can be a costly thing. Bush postponed college in order to serve in WWII, he survived being shot down, and he served for many years quietly behind the scenes before being elected to office.

After being elected president, the thing I remember most about his presidency (and yes I am old enough to remember…) was the almost constant negativity from his critics. And over the years I have found in general, no matter where one stands politically or how one serves, one of the dilemmas of saying ‘yes’ to service is that so many other people seem to want to say ‘no’.

But for those of us who watched the funeral on TV, the faith foundation of President Bush’s life could not have been more clear or more winsome. The whole day pointed to God and to Jesus, to the word of God and the faithfulness of God, toward those who say ‘yes’  to service.  And I couldn’t talk about the ‘dilemma of saying ‘yes’’ without mentioning that.

So taking a look at Mary’s life and the dilemma of saying ‘yes’…

It has been said that saying ‘yes’ to God involves “finding out where God is at work and joining in.” For a young woman named Mary, though, she didn’t have to look very hard to find where God was at work. God sent an angel to her to fill her in on the plans, and to invite her to take part in the greatest event of history. God invited Mary to give her life in service to her family, her country, and to the whole world, to each one of us – because without her we wouldn’t be here today.

After meeting the angel, Mary would be faced with a situation full of challenges. The beginning of her Christmas Dilemma is found in the passage from Luke which we just heard a little bit ago. In this passage the angel Gabriel tells Mary that God has chosen her to bring about the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. The hope was that someday a king would come, a Messiah, and reclaim the throne of King David and re-establish God’s kingdom.  And Gabriel’s message was: “Mary – you’re it!”

But God’s plans presented some difficulties for Mary. How could a betrothed virgin become pregnant without being with a man? Mary quickly saw that she needed more information (at the very least). So she asked Gabriel, and he explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child would be called the ‘Son of God’. And he confirmed this by saying Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who had been barren all her life, was six months pregnant.

Mary took this all in, and replied, “behold, I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” And with the angel’s words now becoming reality, the first Christmas would be only nine months away.

But Mary soon found that saying “Yes” to God did not necessarily mean a carefree life with no worries or problems. On the contrary, saying “Yes” to God sometimes meant being misunderstood, having one’s character called into question, and having life take unexpected twists and turns.

As I look back over my own life and the lives of my family and friends, this is still very true today.  I remember one friend back in the 80s who was particularly good at evangelism, who was admired by some people for his ability to communicate God’s word, and hated by others for the same reason. I have never, ever heard anyone say about this person, “Oh he’s OK”. People either love him or hate him. In the New Testament people’s reactions to the apostle Paul were similar: some people mistook Paul for a god, while other people threw him in jail. When we are God’s people, our reputations are no longer entirely up to us.

I also remember a friend in high school, who, when God got a hold of her life, took off for the mission field, overseas. When I was a teenager I wasn’t as fond of travel as I am now, so I spent a good part of the next few years praying God would not send me to Africa! (Of course, nowadays I would love to go to Africa… but you get my meaning.) I think all of us have had moments in our lives when we realized being part of God’s plans might mean that some people weren’t going to like us, and/or what we had in mind for our future might not be what God has in mind. There’s a cost to being a follower of Jesus, and that’s part of the dilemma of saying ‘yes’.

So back to Luke’s gospel.  While all this is going on with Mary, six months earlier on the southern end of the country near Jerusalem, God sent the angel Gabriel to give another message to a man named Zechariah. Zechariah was serving as a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Gabriel was sent to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a son in her old age, and that his name would be John, and that he would prepare the way for the Messiah. But unlike Mary, Zechariah doubted. And doubt is another kind of dilemma.

But Zechariah being from Jerusalem, and Mary being from Nazareth, raises still another dilemma – at least in the eyes of the world. From a worldly point of view, it makes sense for God’s messenger to go to Jerusalem: Jerusalem was the center of power, and the center of religious faith, and the center of communication, for the whole nation of Israel.

But God sending a messenger to Nazareth – not so much. Nazareth was out in the sticks, off the beaten path. Nazareth was surrounded by Gentile lands, that is, by foreigners. And Nazareth had (and still has to this day) a reputation for being a rough place. As one of Jesus’ disciples once asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

So for God to do something great in Nazareth seems to pose a dilemma. But sometimes God chooses to do big things in the big places like Jerusalem, and sometimes God chooses to do big things in out-of-the-way places like Nazareth. As someone once said, “God can work out his plans through Wall Street or Wal-Mart.”

So Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” (Luke 1:27)  Betrothal, in biblical days, meant that the couple was legally married but hadn’t had the actual ceremony yet and hadn’t moved in together yet. But once the betrothal was agreed on, the marriage was legal in the eyes of government and in the eyes of God. So Mary was a teenager, betrothed to Joseph, but not yet fully married, when Gabriel came to visit.

Gabriel greeted Mary with the words: “Rejoice O favored one!” – which was a fairly formal greeting, and made her kind of scratch her head and ask herself “what’s he talking about?”

Gabriel was identifying Mary as the recipient of God’s grace.  There’s only one other place in Scripture where the exact same word is used: in Ephesians 1:6 where Paul talks about the “glorious grace” that is freely given to those found in Jesus Christ. The reason this is important is that Mary is favored and full of grace because God makes it so. And the same is true for all of us: favor and grace come as a gift from God. Neither Mary nor anyone else can earn it.

This grace of God helped to sustain Mary as she grew to understand what Gabriel’s words would mean – that God wanted to send His Son into the world through her. Such an honor was the hope and dream of every young Jewish woman.  But in becoming reality, it brought a dilemma. In the months ahead, it would be difficult to explain to people about the baby bump showing up before her wedding day.

Luke says Mary was “greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s greeting, and anything less would be surprising. Most people in scripture, when they meet angels, tend to faint dead away.  Mary managed to keep her wits about her.  Verse 29 says she “tried to discern” – she tried to understand – what was happening so that she could say “Yes” with her whole life. Mary gives us an example to follow when God invites us to join in the work God is doing.

Mary’s “yes” to God’s plan was not passively made or lightly made. As she continued to question and listen, she came to the conclusion the angel’s words were worth saying ‘Yes’ to.  “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” Luke 1:38

Mary consoles Eve

Mary was not paralyzed by fear. She moved past any doubts with a desire to know what was happening and what was being said. As we try to discern how God is at work around us or in us or through us, we also need not be paralyzed by fear or by a troubled heart.

Of course generally speaking God doesn’t communicate with us through angels these days.  So how can we understand God’s plans for our lives?  Five thoughts:

  • Find out what God already has said. God would never lead a person to do something that is contrary to what’s in the Bible, because the Bible is God’s word. While our personal situations may not be specifically addressed in scripture, the Bible does offer general principles and truths that can help guide us.
  • Pray and ask God to make things clear. God is never offended if we need to ask questions.
  • Seek counsel from trusted spiritual advisors.
  • Take a look at the circumstances of our situation. God often speaks to us through the circumstances around us. Look for doors that are opening rather than trying to force open doors that are closing.
  • Ask yourself: what do you want to do? David wrote in Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  If we delight in God above all else, the desires of our hearts will lead us in the right direction.

God created us to worship Him, to be in relationship with Him, to love Him, to talk with Him in prayer, and to enjoy Him forever. As God invites us to join in God’s plans, may we respond as Mary did.

Mary’s Christmas Dilemma was met with her enthusiastic YES!  She knew she would face criticism, and ridicule, and maybe worse. But she also knew: what God calls us to, God sees us through. Whatever dilemma she faced, she would not face it alone.

The beautiful truth of Christmas is that God is not only with Mary but is also with us – “God with us” – when walk through life in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we move forward toward Christmas, let’s respond to the dilemmas in our lives with a “YES” to God… and give God all the honor, glory, and worship each step of the way.  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/9/18

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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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