Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (February 1, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy reminds us that, while we may feel it is a dangerous thing to hear directly from God, we still maintain a responsibility for whomever it it is that we DO listen to. Are we hearing the right voices? When we hear, are we seeking to be obedient? And — for preachers and proclaimers — are we rightly saying what it is that God has given us to say? God’s word is great — speaking and hearing it bears great responsibility.

Psalm 111 gives us many “every day” reasons to praise and thank God. Making space for the reverence of God is a wise beginning for any life.

The Apostle Paul is often criticized for being “picky” in the directions he gives to the congregations that he writes. To be fair, especially here in this section of Corinthians, he is responding directly to questions that have been asked. At issue is meat sacrificed to idols — i.e., “false gods” that don’t really exist. Is it okay for a Christian, who doesn’t believe in such “false gods,” to go ahead and pick up some nice veal down at the discount idol-food store and take it home to the family? Paul says, in effect, “Yeah — you can do that and be clear as far as your own conscience is concerned — but just be aware that somebody else (like maybe your own children, or a good friend) might not have the same attitude about it. Don’t do anything that is going to damage them just because you can.”

The passage from Mark for today has the crowds also having to determine the truth/validity of the words they are hearing from Jesus; this man is speaking “new teaching.” It sounds amazing, but is it “true” for us? We can never give up asking this question. Again, both speaker and hearer bear some responsibility in delivering God’s message.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in the Synagogue. His teaching was met by astonishment, “They were astounded,” is how Mark put it. Their surprise was not so much at what he taught, but at the authority with which he taught it. “For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes taught like translators, like interpreters. Instead of saying “This is what God says,” the scribes said, “This is what God means and this is how you should respond!”

Each of our lessons deals with issues of a community of faith trying to live faithfully in a world that is full of evil influences.  And to live faithfully, a community needs a leader, a “voice of authority,’ to help them navigate through a dangerous world.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is presented to us as Moses’ farewell sermon to the Israelites before they cross over Jordan into the “promised land.” It deals with two issues.

Firstly, since God is not allowing Moses to go into the promised land people are wondering, “Who will tell us about God when Moses is with us no more?” Moses shares with them the promise that God will provide a prophet. “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people.”

Secondly, in words about not listening to false prophets, and about false prophets dying; the text calls the Israelites to separate themselves from the surrounding culture. These words seem very harsh to modern ears. It is important to note that the Israelites were going among the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice. The concern was about giving in to the spirit of the age.

I Corinthians warnings about “food offered to idols” is another cultural mystery for us in the 21st century. It seems to have nothing to do with us. But, we recognize that just as Christians in first century Corinth lived in a culture that had values very different from those of  Christianity, so do we. On a variety of issues we in the church stand at cross purposes with the world in which we live, And because, the only alternative to separating from the culture, like the Amish, is to live as participants in our culture, we look for a “word from the Lord, ” to help us steer a Christian course, as individuals and as a community.  Just as Paul attempts to steer a Christian course in an alien culture, we must look to scripture, tradition and the wisdom of the community to work together to find our way.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark draws these concerns about the world and about authoritative teaching together. We’ve already talked about how the people were astonished that Jesus taught with authority. The text goes on to show Jesus acting with authority to confront evil, even in the household of faith. (I am fascinated by the line, “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” I’m just wondering; was he a first time visitor, or was he on the church council?)

Too often in the church, we identify the evil as out there and the good as in here. The great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian Alexander Solzhenitzen said something to the effect that, “the line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.”

Jesus comes to remove the unclean spirits from all of us, to attack that line that goes down the middle of our hearts. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we often wish the holy would leave us alone to live lives of selfishness, materialism and devotion to the pleasures of the flesh. But, as the demons in our story recognized; Jesus, the Living Word of God, has come to us on a mission of destruction, with an agenda of anarchy. The Word comes to tear down the walls of separation that keep us apart. The Word comes to break the chains that keep us in bondage to badness. The Word comes to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and from loving one another. Yes, the Living Word which is the Christ comes to destroy, but he destroys in order to rebuild, reconstruct, recreate, remake us in the image of Christ.

Amen and amen.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 25, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Jonah gives the most direct revival sermon ever preached — it’s just one sentence long. And it worked! Lots to think about here, including the timing of God’s action in the world, God’s prerogative to change God’s mind, and our willingness (or lack therof) to go along with God. When God decides a thing, are we “free” to run in a different direction or to disagree with God if we wish?

In regard to Psalm 62, what is it that we really hold onto and where do we place our trust? Whether I am one of the “low estate” or the “high” and mighty — is it God (and God alone) that I trust and listen for?

Our idea of time, and particularly the timing of God, is awfully short-sighted. Paul’s words to the Corinthians sound long-ago and faraway to us; we might well be tempted to say that Paul got it wrong when he told those folks “the time is short.” But, was he? Has not the world, in the form that we know it, pretty much passed away since the days of our childhood? How much has the world changed since the time of Jesus and Paul? What does our faith in the “unchanging” God have to say in the midst of an “everchanging” world? Again, what do we “hold on to” for support and hope?

Mark reports Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom has come near.” The image is of a pregnant woman who is preparing to give birth — the time is HERE, people! When a child is coming, there is very little you can do to stop it. Just as there is very little that can be done to hurry it up, either. As the old saying goes, “Timing is everything.” In the things of God’s kingdom, nothing could be more true. God’s timing, though; not ours. How do we continue to wait and discern God’s timing in our own lives? What does it mean for us to “leave our nets” and follow Christ today?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The world was rocked a few weeks ago by the terrorist attacks in Paris.  We witnessed forty world leaders and throngs of ordinary people walking arm-in-arm to signal solidarity and protest against monstrous evil.  In the streets and on selfie twitters and on Facebook and any other way they could, people loudly proclaimed, “We are Charlie!”  Even the magazine Charlie Hebdo, did it with on the cover with their usual satirical twist, showing Muhammad holding the Charlie sign – under a headline that said “All is forgiven.”  There were marches across Europe and heightened tensions everywhere, softened only by the fact that one of the French policemen killed was a Muslim.

For most of the 21st Century, the west has lived in fear of Islamist fanaticism.  We have fought a long war, calling it a “War on Terror.”  In the last year of so our fear and distrust has become even more focused on the group known to many as ISIS, the Islamist State, a very scary army that is attempting to create a new country from parts of Iraq and Syria. Their basic technique is sheer brutality and intimidation.  They have been particularly rough on the Christians, many of whom trace their roots back almost two thousand years in the area.

Now suppose, in the midst of all this, a voice you were sure was the voice of God were to come to you and say to you, “Get up, go to ISIS, that great state and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Would you not be likely to be like Jonah and take off in the opposite direction?  Jonah’s escape plan reminds me a little bit of that old Steve Martin/John Candy movie, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”  I don’t care how, just get me far away from here.  Alas, there is no way to run from God.  As the saying is, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  And God is there with you.

Once Jonah learns that lesson and emerges from the belly of the beast, God comes to him a second time and says, “Okay, are you ready to go where I tell you?”  And Jonah goes, reluctantly, unhappily, unenthusiastically, but he goes. He goes to Nineveh and preaches judgment saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  Notice, there’s not a wisp of hope in that statement, not a hint of grace, not a whisper of forgiveness.  It is as harsh and cold and final as Jonah could make it.

Can you imagine going into the heart of ISIS country and standing on a street corner and shouting out that message?  I’m sure, you’re sure, we’re all sure, that such a preacher would either be shot or beheaded in a matter of minutes.

And yet this is what God asked Jonah to do and what Jonah, eventually, did.  And the radical surprise is that it worked.  The Ninevites repented, said they were sorry; and God repented, changed his mind about destroying them. Aah – what a Hallmark moment, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Jonah’s not happy.  Jonah’s really angry actually.  Jonah is still thinking about all the people the Ninevites killed over the years, all the lives they destroyed, all the damage they did.  This can’t be right!  This can’t be the way this ends!  It’s not fair, it’s just not fair. And Jonah’s right – it’s not fair.  But it is the way God operates – a fact for which we should all be glad; very, very glad indeed.

Jonah is one of those stories in the Bible that is very, very true without being particularly factual.  It is like a Hollywood movie, “based on a true story.”  There was a man named Jonah, you can find him in 2 Kings 14:25.  One small mention, but he appears to have been a very nationalistic prophet, a real “God and Country,” sort of guy.  And the Assyrians had been a very powerful and feared nation headquartered in the city of Nineveh about a 100 years before our text was written.

The author took these slim facts to spin a story that aimed at getting the people of Israel to broaden their understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy.  If God can love and forgive the people of Nineveh, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  If God can love and forgive the people of ISIS, God can love and forgive anybody – including us.  And if God can love and forgive anybody, so can we.

What if God is calling us?  What if God is calling us to do something we don’t want to do?  What if God is calling us to extend not only God’s mercy but our mercy, not only God’s love but our love, not only God’s forgiveness but our forgiveness, to people we don’t like, people we don’t believe deserve love and forgiveness and mercy?

Here we sit, minding our own business, mending our own nets, being nice and good to those who are nice and good to us, busy about the business creating a friendly, family church – when suddenly we hear this voice saying,  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”

How shall we respond?  Will we repent?  Will we change our minds about what’s important and alter the direction of our lives to follow more closely God’s call?  Will we leave whatever boats and nets represent in our lives and follow after the one who calls us?  Will we go to “Nineveh” and preach God’s love?

Amen and amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (January 18, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Samuel, we have the “call” story of the young boy who would become Israel’s priest, prophet, and prelude to a king. The visual and aural clues are important; the lamp of God is dimmed, as is the eyesight of the old priest, Eli. However, neither has gone out yet. Also, the young boy, Samuel, has trouble understanding the voice that keeps haunting him. The old priest is a bit muddled, as well, but finally figures out what’s going on (“the third time’s a charm?”) We may have our own spiritual perception dulled — for any number of reasons — but this episode reminds us that God doesn’t give up, doesn’t leave, and will always keep working until the message is received, one way or the other.

Psalm 139, of which we have a portion for today’s reading, speaks of the thorough ways in which God “knows” each of us. Sometimes, we say that a person “knows us better than we know ourselves.” Well, that most certainly may be true when thinking of God’s view of our innermost being. While at first, this might seem a frightening prospect, it is ultimately more “good news.” God’s intimate knowledge of us is the basis for the never-give-up presence of God with us. We can’t ever mess up enough to drive God away; we can be completely honest in our thoughts, feelings, and even our prayers to God. God already knows it all, anyway!

Paul writes to the Corinthians of the deep bond that is formed when our lives are united with Christ. Using some very tangible physical illustrations, he answers questions for new Christians about what is “allowed” and what is “beneficial.” Don’t get too sidetracked by the sex language; the larger issue is the stunning idea that we have all been “bought with a price” by the very life of Christ. We certainly don’t want to cheapen that relationship by committing to anyone or anything lesser.

John‘s gospel features another “call” story — this time illustrating that Jesus is often the one in search of us; notice that he “found” Philip. Not an accidental stumble-upon kind of finding, but a purposeful effort, most likely. Similarly, Philip mimics the action of Christ and “finds” his buddy, Nathanael. Philip’s friend is a classic skeptic — he’s pretty sure this stuff about Jesus being the Messiah is a load of hooey, but Philip nevertheless invites him to come and see. There is an awful lot of power in both the personal invitation to friends and acquaintances, and the individual experience of the Holy at work in the midst of the community.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the part of the world where I grew up, the southern Appalachian mountains, a minister is expected to have a “call story,” the more “Damascus Road” dramatic the better. When I started seminary I did not have such a story and was therefore a bit of a disappointment to many of my more pious neighbors and relatives.  So I made one up.  Instead of my usual lame, “Well, I’ve just always felt like it’s what God wants me to do,” I started saying, “I was in the tobacco field on a hot and humid day in late July.  There had been a thunderstorm in the early afternoon so I had red mud up to my knees and there was steam coming off the tobacco leaves. I was hot, wet, and muddy when I looked across the creek to the paved road and saw a Ford Fairlane drive by with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on.  The man inside was wearing a white shirt and a thin black tie.  He has patting the steering wheel and singing along to whatever music was on the radio.  I looked up at the sky and said to God, ‘Yes Lord.  I can do that. I will do that.  I will become a preacher.’ ”

I don’t think anyone ever believed me but they did quit asking.

In today’s Gospel lesson we have two overlapping call stories.  First we read that Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me.”  Then we see that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found him who Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”  Now, occasionally when you find something you just stumble upon it by accident, but most of the time we use the word to indicate locating something you want after a considerable amount of searching.  Which indicates Jesus was looking for Philip, Philip was looking for Nathanael, and Philip and the others were looking for the Messiah.

I remember some years ago when a major American denomination had an evangelism campaign with the theme “I found it!”  Many people, myself included, stood outside that campaign and somewhat snidely and archly said, “Oh, we don’t find God, God finds us.”  Well from the evidence of this text, we were all half-right at least. When we find God it is because God has been looking for us all along.

But Nathanael’s response to Philip reminds us that the divine/human encounter is a very personal one – we cannot meet God by proxy, or by inheritance; it is always an individual and unique moment.  Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s discovery. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  What he means is something like this:  “This man is from the wrong part of the country, from the wrong social class, he has the wrong accent, he has no real education or training.  Seriously, why should I listen to him?”  Many people today question Christianity in much the same way, “Can anything good come out of the church?”  “It’s antiquated, behind the times, speaks the wrong language, it’s pre-scientific and irrational, it’s judgmental and full of hate, etc. etc.”

I’m sure Philip was tempted to argue with Nathaniel, was anxious to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ Messiahship – but he resisted the temptation and instead did exactly the right thing.  He invited him to “come and see,” for himself.  Somehow Philip realized that you do not argue someone into

a new religious understanding.  All one can do is help someone encounter Jesus.  The rest is up to the action of God in Christ.  Our calling is to be like Philip and invite others to “come and see” what God is doing in our lives and in our congregation, to “come and see” what a difference knowing Christ has made in our lives, individually and as a community, “come and see” how Christ could make a difference in their lives too.

Nathanael does come and see. Nathanael meets Jesus. Nathanael is convinced by his encounter that Jesus is the Christ.  Nathanael affirms his new-found faith, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”  Nathanael was found by Jesus and found both God and his own true self in the process.

I actually do have a call story, we all do.  My call story is about being raised by believing parents who took me to church when I was two weeks old and never quit taking me.  My call story is about Mrs. Gammons teaching Junior High boys Sunday school and putting up with our antics and misbehavior and somehow leading us to love Jesus and each other.  My call story is about going to a little mountain Presbyterian Church for evening services and hearing the retired missionary pastor tell stories about God was changing lives in Africa and Asia and thanking that maybe God could change my life too.  My call story is about being invited by many different folks to “come and see” what God in Christ was doing, is doing, and will continue to do in many different people and places.

What’s your call story?  And who do you know that needs to know that God is looking for them?  Who do you know that needs a little nudge, who needs you to invite them, saying, “Come and see.”  You are Philip – who is your Nathanael?

Amen and amen.

Baptism of the Lord for Year B (January 11, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

It’s all about the Voice here in Genesis. It is God’s voice that creates (or, brings forth) light — followed by all of the other elements of creation. Interesting, isn’t it, that with all of the hullabaloo raised by many voices about the opposition of science and religion that we have here near perfect agreement on the beginning moments of our world? Light is energy; nearly all cosmologists and physicists agree that the universe, as we know it, began in a burst of energy. I just really like it that my brain and my heart are able to come together here in a moment of saying, “God, you are so scientifically cool!”

Psalm 29 is one of the more “active” texts in the psalter. The word ascribe literally means “to write down” — if even in your thoughts — the nature of what you are trying to describe. It is encouragement to get specific when we talk about the reasons we worship God. The ensuing action phrases certainly contain a good deal of specificity.  “Lord, your voice thunders over the waters…it shakes the wilderness.” If you’ve ever experienced a thunderstorm outdoors– or even survived a tornado or a hurricane — you can sense the verve of this phrase, can’t you? How would you “ascribe” glory to God based on your own experience?

Acts 19 is an obvious companion text to today’s gospel reading. We see an example of the early church working out what it means to follow Jesus, particularly when it comes to the “profession of faith” that is baptism. Is this passage intended to give us a full scriptural formation of the doctrine of baptism? No. But it does illustrate for us the ongoing nature of our experience of living for Christ. If and when we are given a fuller understanding of living out our faith — well, perhaps it is best for us to press ahead, regardless of whatever past notions and preconceptions we may have had. It’s worth a thought.

Mark is the our “just the facts” gospel writer. His is the plainest and most straightforward of all the descriptions of the Jesus’ own baptism. He doesn’t offer a great deal of theological justification; he doesn’t give us any hint of the discussion between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom. It’s just Jesus, the water, and — again, as in Genesis — the voice of God. What are we to pay attention to here? Since we are claimed by God in baptism, just as Jesus was on this day, what does it mean for us to be the “children of God, the Beloved?” In what ways shall we live in order to be pleasing to God?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my Facebook friends posted an interesting New Year’s Resolution.  She said,

“Dear Facebook friends.  I have been spending too much time on social media so I will stop using Facebook on December 31, 2014 and resume next year on January 1, 2015. Thank you for understanding.”

The New Year has been a traditional time for making changes in our lives; for giving up old, bad habits or taking on new, good habits, or doing both at the same time – replacing a bad habit with a good one.  It is a secular “repentance ritual,” an attempt to change the direction of our lives through sheer willpower, and depending on the strength of our will, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) One of the questions in the early church was the question of the difference between “John’s baptism” and being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Both the story in Acts and the story of Jesus’ own baptism were written to help us understand this.

Because all Christian life is rooted in repentance, all Christian life is rooted in baptism.  In the weekly confession contained in the liturgy, we remind ourselves of three things; we have failed to be the people we want to be, God forgives us our failures, God sends us out to try again.  So far so good.  This is tied to “John’s baptism,” of repentance and forgiveness because in the confession we remind ourselves that we were forgiven at the cross and in our baptism.

But there is a problem, or rather a limitation, in John’s baptism.  Luther put it very well in the Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel . . .” As the Gospel lesson points out – even Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit, and after that time alone in the wilderness with the Devil, he spent the rest of his life surrounded by community, the disciples.

The early church quickly realized that spirit and community was necessary to the Christian life.  We cannot, as Luther said, do this by our own “reason and strength.”  The story from Acts, about Paul encountering the group in Ephesus who said that, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  (One of my teachers at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary claimed that there were Lutherans in Bible times.  When students protested that could not be so, he would smile and point to these people in Ephesus who had not heard of the Holy Spirit.)

Though some in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions point to verse six to claim that speaking in tongues and prophesying are proof that one has been baptized and is saved, most Christians do not see those things as either necessary or as the most important signs that one has received the Holy Spirit.  As Paul points out in his discussion of the gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “Faith, hope and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  This is not romantic love, or friendliness, this is charity – self-giving love of the other without any interest in either the other’s worthiness or what one will receive in return.

This is the greatest gift of the Spirit.  This is what “baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus,” gives.  I find verse seven, a little “throw-away line,”to be fascinating in this regard, “. . . altogether there were about twelve of them.” From the moment they were baptized, they lived in community, a community in which the Spirit led them in loving one another.

Now, when Jesus was baptized and the spirit came upon him, it not only gave him the gift of self-giving love, it also gave him a job, a ministry, a role to play in the world.  “You are my Son.”  Sometimes I hear that and envision a storefront sign in 19th century script “God and Son – Worlds Created and Redeemed.” In this moment Jesus was being commissioned to go forth in his Messiah/Savior role – to preach, teach, heal, confront, die for, and ultimately save the world.

In our baptism, we too are claimed by God and sent out into the world.  Many churches include in their baptismal formula something like these lines from the Lutheran tradition (LBW, p. 124) “(Name), child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Then a lit candle is given to the newly baptized and these words are spoken, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Our Baptism, like that of Jesus, is a calling into ministry in the world.  We have been invited to make a New Year’s Resolution today.  We are invited to remember and live out our baptism, to follow Jesus where Jesus went, to the cross and beyond, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with self-giving love for God and others.  We are invited to remember that we too are Children of God, beloved by God, well-pleasing to God, and sent out by God – to show the world the love and kindness of God.

Amen.

A Bonus Sermon for Epiphany (Year B — January 6, 2015)

By the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(Note: I preach with an outline that I distribute to the congregation; hence, the blanks indicated here by underline)

I’ve always heard the expression – which seems to apply a lot in my family – “better late than never!” Of course, there are also those folks we shudder to meet sometimes, and wish we could turn it around: “Better never than late!”

Our text for this morning is about some folks who often get included in the original celebration at the manger in Bethlehem, but who were, in fact, most likely not there at the same time as the shepherds or even the “we-assume-he-was-around-but-he’s-never-really-named” innkeeper.

Of course, I’m speaking of the “wise men” or the “three kings” – or, as the Greek text actually names them – “the magi.”

  1. The magi were latecomers to the first Christmas celebration.
  • “Magi” is an old Persian (Iranian word,) members of an ancient religion that studied the stars and folk legends
  • They most likely were not “kings” and we don’t know if there were three (despite the song)
  • They may not even have been “men” for that matter – after all, they did stop and ask directions from Herod!
  • This story could have occurred as long as two years after the “manger scene” in Bethlehem; they note that they saw the “star” at its rising – which was some time in the past
  • There has been lots of interest and conjecture over what exactly the “star” was that was seen – some say a supernova, others a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, others think maybe a comet
  • Fascinating to me is the explanation that what they actually saw was an “angel” – a bright messenger from heaven who was calling them to come. We know that in Revelation, the angels – or messengers – of the seven churches are depicted as stars in the hands of Jesus. Hmmm…
  • Regardless of the answer, we know that these magi saw something unusual that had to do with a light in the sky, and according to the legends they had studied, they deduced that an important child had been born in Judea, the land of the Jews
  • Persians would have known quite a bit about Jewish belief systems, as their ancestors (the Babylonians) had captured Jerusalem and held the Jews in exile approximately 500 years earlier…
  • So, their curiosity led them on this “late” Christmas journey…and there is room for them in the story! (which interests me as much as anything)
  1. Truth from God can be found everywhere (and, evidently, anywhere.)
  • The magi are not Jewish, they are not Christian…though their history led them to a form of belief in “one god,” they did not necessarily fit the normal criteria for someone who would be likely to come to Christ
  • Who would expect these guys (or gals) from a “pagan” society to come such a great distance, at great cost, with expensive gifts…to worship a child?
  • Of course, the whole Christmas story has been about God doing the unexpected, hasn’t it?
  • Teenage virgin mother, unwitting and reluctant “step”-father, baby born in a barn on the backside of nowhere, first witnesses a bunch of smelly shepherds… you get the idea
  • So, now…add to the cast these mystical, magical philosopher/astronomers as among the first to see what God was up to
  • Makes you wonder just where God might be trying to send us messages of truth in our time, doesn’t it?

The real question is – if we were to hear the “truth” from God – what would we do with it? This story illustrates that…

  1. What you do next when you hear from God indicates what kind of faith you actually have.
  • Three sets of characters heard the “truth” about the baby born in Bethlehem; each of them had a different reaction.
  • The Jewish priests and scribes had all the right knowledge and information; they quoted Micah 5:2 to Herod as soon as he asked, “Where is this kid they’re talking about?” They knew that a Messiah was coming, and that there were rumors of some kind of birth “out there”
  • Herod had the message from the magi, and now confirmation from his own court experts…that was a pretty strong signal that something big was happening in the kingdom
  • And, of course, the magi themselves had the “star” and a story…and now got what they needed from their stopover in Jerusalem. (Interestingly, as soon as they decided to take the next step of their journey, the light of the “star” reappeared to them!)

So, what were the reactions of each of these characters?

  • The priests and scribes went right back to “business as usual” – nothing changed for them. Kind of an “oh, that’s interesting” response
  • Herod got worried; he was afraid that if there really was a new king coming, it was going to upset his personal apple cart pretty badly and could ultimately cost him his power, prestige, and his kingship. Better find a way to take care of that kid!
  • The magi – well, they followed the light that they had been given, and at the end of the trail – they worshiped.

Which of the three got it right?

We want to be pretty careful, I think, about coming to God’s house week after week, hearing the good news, and continually leaving with “business as usual” on our minds. God is constantly speaking to us – here and in the “unexpected” places of our lives – and is continually forming us, shaping and reshaping us, possibly even redirecting us in the choices we are making. We don’t want to ignore God!

Worrying about what following God’s will will cost us is not a good option, either; Herod did a pretty good job of placing himself on the throne of his life. He was willing to murder in order to keep things under his own control (he killed not only his own family members, but the terrible “Slaughter of the Innocents” depicted just a few verses later in Matthew’s story.) But, in the end…what happened? History tells us that Herod went insane and died after being exiled by the Roman emperor, Caligula.

It is the “outsiders,” the unlikely candidates in the story that give us the example of faith; they put feet to their prayers. They got up and went in the direction that God revealed to them. And they expressed their faith in real, practical terms.

Of course, that didn’t mean their way was easy…

  1. Following Christ may lead you on the “road less traveled.” 
  • The magi got a warning about going back the same way they came
  • Just in case these “wise men” weren’t wise enough to figure out that Herod was “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” – they dreamed about taking a different way to get back home
  • It might have been a harder journey; it may have taken them longer; it was probably more costly in time, effort, and expense
  • But, it was the right way to go
  • We may need to take some different paths in our own lives, once we have seen and heard the message of God for us
  • It may not always be the smooth, or popular way that we are called to walk
  • The path may get steep, the cost might be high; but God has promised to walk with us and guide us

Robert Frost didn’t write his famous poem for a spiritual purpose, as far as I know; but I like his words in “The Road Not Taken.”

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 *   *   *

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 *   *   *

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 *   *   *

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I took the one less traveled by…and that has made all the difference. A pretty good metaphor for our call to walk the way with Christ on this day, and every day that lies ahead of us in 2015 and beyond.

Amen? Amen.