Posts Tagged ‘sermon sapling’
Over the last few months, these words have come as a whisper to me in quiet moments of prayer and harried hours. They have been a summons and an invitation, a demand and a relief.
I recognized their source in scripture immediately, from the traditional Ash Wednesday reading in the book of Joel:
Return to me with all your heart… blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
After busy and exciting 150th anniversary year, culminating in a climactic Foundations capital campaign in the Epiphany season, our church has been changing, acting, growing, giving, sacrificing, leading, learning, doing, working and serving God at an almost frenetic pace. It’s time to call a fast.
Not because we’ve lost our way, or been pursuing the wrong things, or because we have lapsed into sin and indulgence. Not because God demands that we deprive ourselves in order to prove our love to God. It’s time to call a fast because we have been faithful, and we are tired. We have followed the vision God put before us, and we have experienced great things and amazing transformation. It’s time to call a fast so that we remember our success is not due to our own efforts, but to God’s grace. We know that there is more work to be done, more sacrifices to be made, more change and growth to undertake. But it’s time to remember that we are God’s, that this church is God’s, and that it’s not all about us. It’s time to call a fast.
Fasting traditionally refers to going without food. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from sunup to sundown on Yom Kippur. Many Christians “give up” something for Lent—usually an indulgence, like chocolate or beer or sweets or fast food. But fasting does not need to be limited to food. I have several friends this year who are fasting from Facebook, and a church member who shared via Facebook that she is fasting from elevators.
This kind of a fast has its place—it is a nice reminder of the holiness of Lent, it can correct bad habits and indulgences, it is a daily practice of giving something up for God. But I think the fast we need, the fast my heart yearns for, is deeper and more significant than putting down a favorite luxury only to pick it up again after Easter. I am hungry for God. I am lonely for the luxury of spending time with the Holy One. Ignoring my craving for chocolate will not satisfy my craving for connection with God. Making more room in the waistline of my clothes will not necessarily make more room in my life for God.
Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I need grace and mercy. I need to slow my own anger, and return my love to abundant proportions. I have not relented from punishing myself and others. I have not shown grace to them or to myself. It is time to fast from busyness, from judgment, from complaining, from worry, from harried hours, from control. It is time to spend time with the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
Fasting is making room for God. We say “no” to the things that bind us to ourselves and this world, so that we can make room to say “yes” to God. It’s time to call a fast.
Watch this beautiful, moving version of the story of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. Think about the ways Jesus says “no.” (Hint: It’s not just to the Tempter). Notice the ways Jesus says “yes” as well—the way time alone with God is joy as well as struggle.
“For my thirtieth birthday,” it begins, “I gave myself some time away from it all.” Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. “And now,” he says at the end, “I’m back.”
My friends, for the coming 40 days of Lent, I’m joining the prophet Joel in calling a fast. I want time in the wilderness with Jesus. Will you join me? Will you wrestle with saying “no” to a stronger, more competent and productive you, in order to make room for the strength of God to carry you? Will you slow down, let go, give up, forego in order that you might be blessed by the birds, moved by the moon, enamored of the spring flowers? Will you show your weakness, let go of your busyness, give up some control, that you might come to know the ministrations of angels? “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Come, let us enter the fast together.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16
Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.
Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.
When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?
But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.
This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)
And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.
I went back to the scripture reading to try again. I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.
What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.
Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.
When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.
God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Highlighted Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
I have always been fascinated by the construction of cathedrals. In the Middle Ages, when the cardinals of Europe were competing with one another to build the most magnificent edifice, craftsmen and laborers used the simplest of tools to build these spectacular buildings. Construction provided employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, most of which would never live to see the fulfillment of their labors. Cathedrals took centuries to build, and the life expectancy of most workers was less than 50 years. The laborers and masons and glasscutters spent their whole lives, from an apprenticeship in their preteens until their old age, working on the project, in the hopes that their great-great grandchildren might someday worship there.
While we may build our church buildings today in a mere year or two, the process of building Christ’s church is still something that happens across centuries and generations. As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, the foundation has been laid in Jesus Christ. Paul, himself only one “degree” removed from Jesus and the disciples, builds upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Each subsequent generation is tasked with continuing to build the church, to spread the good news. Like the cathedral builders of old, we inherit a project that has already been started, and we will not live to see its completion. However, if we do not continue the work that was started by those who came before us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not know a place to discover the grace of Jesus Christ.
My church is in the midst of the commitment phase of a capital campaign, with a planned giving period of three years. (I just have to share my glee—last Sunday was our Celebration of Commitment, and we surpassed our $350,000 goal by more than $50,000!) The theme of our campaign is “Foundations: Our Faith, Our Time, Our Future,” and we have been working with the image Paul presents in this passage. Our church was founded in 1860. The building we currently inhabit was built in 1915, and expanded in 1951. We have only one member left who was baptized in the old building prior to 1915. There are a few who were present in the 1951 expansion, but they were young people, not leaders of the church at the time. We are living in a building built by others who came before us. As we plan and imagine renovations for the future, we realize that we are not building for ourselves and our programs—we are building something for the next generation to inherit, a place for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to gather to worship and come to know Jesus Christ. We don’t know what their worship will look like, or what ministries they will launch, or how the Gospel will be made known in their generation—but we want to offer them something, an inheritance, a building where they might find shelter and connection to the holy.
In my church, we are dealing with a literal building right now—but, as it was for Paul, the building is a metaphor for what we really about, which is building the community of Christ, the Kingdom of God. How can we build God’s community, God’s message, our faithfulness so that those who come after us will continue to know the Gospel?
The question Paul’s image provokes is: how’s the building project going? Are you using the best materials available, with prayer and study? Are you dedicated to the work, or are you just throwing it together? Will your efforts to build the community of Christ stand up to the test of fire, or will it crumble under pressure? Who is being glorified by your efforts? Are you building to the glory of God and the spread of the gospel to future generations, or are you building memorials and statues to human heroes today?
One of my favorite quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me to always take the long view of all our efforts at building, whether we are constructing a church, community or ministry:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
Or, as Paul puts it, “all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Highlighted passage: Micah 6:1-8
(My church is in the heart of a major capital campaign right now, so that experience definitely colors my reflections on this week’s text. So did my reading of Amy Oden’s commentary at workingpreacher.org, which offered helpful context information and many ideas that influenced this writing.)
Usually, we see the famous words of Micah 6:8 as a program for our living. Faithfulness to God is doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. However, when paired with the earlier verses about making an offering, I realized that this scripture is not just a guide to living, it is a guide to giving. And more than just a guide, it is a description of the process I am seeing right now in my life and the lives of so many others in our church during this capital campaign. It’s a process of struggling with what God requires of you.
The anthem “Offertory” by John Ness Beck portrays this tension and resolution in music. Our choir will be singing the anthem on Sunday immediately preceding my sermon, but you can catch it on Youtube here:
These verses in Micah are a back-and-forth, conflicted conversation between God and the people.
God summons all of creation to bear witness to the argument, even to arbitrate between the sides. The mountains, the hills, the very foundations of the earth—God calls down all of creation to judge in this argument with humanity.
You would anticipate that, after God has summoned these arbiters, God would launch a polemic against humanity and all our misdeeds, naming our sins and condemning us for our unrighteousness. After all, that’s what any good lawyer would do. But God is not a lawyer.
God is a mother. God does not yell at the people, condemn them, or recite the case against the people. God applies guilt to the people: “After all I’ve done to you, you treat me like this? What have I done to you, except love you, care for you, protect you? Who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt? Who provided leadership for you in Moses, Miriam and Aaron? Who delivered you into the promised land? What did I do to deserve this? After I’ve done all this for you and more, you still disobey me?”
Like any good child in this classic argument, the people reply, “What do you want from me? Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. What kind of offering, what kind of sacrifice could ever repay you for everything you have done? Why do you hold it over my head like that? Do you want me to give you thousands of rams? 10,000 rivers of oil? Should I sacrifice my firstborn child for you, my own blood? Would that make you happy? What will be good enough to get out of this debt I owe you? What?”
Do you all recognize this fight? Have you had it with your parents, your children?
What does your mother answer, when you reach that point in the argument? What does she want from you? She does not want to be paid back for all that she has given and sacrificed for you, for the work of bringing you into this world and raising you and keeping you safe. That is not what she wants at all, is it?
“I want you to love me, listen to me, walk with me, and do the right thing.” That’s what your mother would say, right? Well, that’s what God says. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God. Love me. Listen to me. Walk with me. And do the right thing.
I think many of us, when we start to think about our giving to God through the church, start to have this same argument with God. We look around us at the mountains and the hills, the foundations of the earth, and we realize that everything, including our life, belongs to God. When we spend time contemplating God’s goodness to us, we realize all the ways God has loved, protected, nurtured, and delivered us. When we hear the call to give, when we hear God, in turn, making demands on us, we start to think that God wants us to pay it all back somehow. We get anxious and overwhelmed, because we know that if we had to pay it back, it would take everything. We get all worked up and agitated about our ability to match God’s sacrifice with our own. What do you want from me, God? What could possibly be good enough to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me? Do you want me to give up everything? Do you want me to sacrifice every indulgence, every happiness, out of guilt for what I owe you? What do you require from me, God?
But God does not want to be repaid for God’s sacrifice, any more than our mothers do. But, for the people in Micah and for us today, God wants to place a demand on our life, a call for us to give and sacrifice in return.
“I have told you already what is good. What do I require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” When it comes to our giving, God does not want us to hurt ourselves, to unduly suffer, to beat ourselves up and prostrate ourselves in abject poverty. God wants what our mothers want—our true love and obedience, dedication and respect. God wants us to listen, and do the right thing. To do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
God does not ask if our gift is sacrificial enough, if it is painful enough—God simply asks if it is just, if it is fair enough. Is our gift a fair measure, an equal sacrifice? God does not ask if our gift is large enough, God asks if our gift is made in the right spirit. Do we love kindness and generosity, or do we loathe it? God does not ask if our gift is faithful enough. God only asks if our gift puts us closer to walking humbly with our Savior. What is God asking, requiring of you? To do justice–that your money and resources, which all belong to God anyway, are properly used and aligned with the justice of God’s purposes. To love kindness—that you have learned not just to do acts of kindness and generosity, but to love and welcome the opportunity to be generous and kind. And to walk humbly with your God—to walk the path of love and obedience, so that your footsteps match up with God’s path.
Because God knows what our mothers know—that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God will not only make us good, compassionate, loving people—it will bring our souls to peace and even joy.
Highlighted Passage: Matthew 4:12-23
Put down your nets—you’re after the wrong fish.
When Jesus approached those would-be disciples on the shores of the Galilee, they were doing what they had done every day, probably since they were young boys—climb into boats, row out into the Sea of Galilee, cast out nets to catch fish, haul in the nets, sort the catch, cast the nets out again, haul in again, sort again. All day long. At the end of the day, they rowed back to shore, and mended the nets for the next day’s work. Cast, haul, sort, row, mend. One day after another, one net after another.
Until the day Jesus arrives. “Repent,” was his message. Turn around. You’re going the wrong direction with your life. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The glory of heaven is right here all around you, next to you, and you are busy with nets. Casting, hauling, sorting, mending—you’re so focused on the nets that you’re missing the presence of heaven in your midst. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Put down the nets—you’re after the wrong fish. Come with me, and I’ll show you the kingdom of heaven. Come with me, and I’ll teach you what you really should be fishing for. Then you can show others.
I think we have a lot in common with these fisherfolk—Peter, Andrew, James, John. They had ordinary, familiar names. We all know our fair share of Peters, Johns, Jameses and Andrews. They work ordinary working people, just like us. Every day, they went out to catch fish. Some of the fish went home to feed their families, the rest to the market, sold to pay taxes and rent and buy clothing and medicine and anything else their families needed. The next day, the same thing. Work – eat – sleep –work – eat – sleep – work – eat – sleep.
How many of us live that kind of a life? We work hard every day, at the computer, on the assembly line, answering the phone, solving problems, building with our hands, tending to needs, managing papers. That work gives us the money we need to provide for our family—and so we spend it, to feed our families, pay taxes, pay the mortgage, buy clothing, medicine and anything else our family needs. Unlike those fisherfolk, most of us are blessed enough to have some left to buy televisions and computers, music and movies, trips to the mall and evenings out. But our lives are on the same cycle. Work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep. “Repent,” says Jesus. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if you don’t put down those nets, stop the cycle, get beyond working/eating/sleeping/consuming, you’re going to miss it.
“Repent, and follow me.” Repent has a negative connotation of absolute depravity, similar to idea in 12-step groups about “hitting rock bottom” so that you can turn your life around. In reality, though, repentance does not require a rock-bottom moment, a 180-degree change-of-life. To repent is simply to feel regret at the direction of your life. It’s about breaking the cycle, correcting the course, deciding to make a change—whether it’s 180-degrees or 18. It’s about recognizing when you’ve been following the wrong pursuit, that your life is not headed in the right direction, that you are so busy casting, hauling, mending, sorting—so busy working, eating, consuming—that you have fallen into a life without wonder and purpose and beauty, lost the sense that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that we might glimpse it. Repent and follow me—put down the nets, you’re after the wrong fish.
Don’t we all, like those ordinary disciples, want more than working and consuming? That’s what Jesus offers. Follow me, and you’ll discover that heaven isn’t as far away as you think. It’s right here at hand. (For a great, fun explanation of how heaven is right at hand, check out the song “The Gospel Story” from Butterflyfish.) And if you stop following the cycle and start following me, you’ll have glimpse heaven around you all the time. You’ll start to see that God has more in mind for you than work and nets. You’ll stop fretting about the next day’s catch, the next day’s food, the next day’s mending. You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding, the confidence of God’s love and care for you, the light of hope in all things.
You and me together, says Jesus, we can show all those people trapped in their own nets of working, eating, consuming, together we can show them that there’s more for them, for all of us. There are people everywhere living in darkness, and we can show them the light—the light of heaven, all around them, beckoning them to live in love, to build peace and justice, to practice kindness and generosity. We can capture their hearts and together bring healing and good news to them all. Put down your nets, and follow me.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9
This passage in Isaiah conjures for me an iconic image from Disney’s The Lion King. Even if you’ve never seen it, you probably know this image. It’s a cliff, jutting out high up over the savannah, that the lions visit to look out over their entire kingdom. The movie features a young lion, Simba, from his birth to young adulthood, as he grows into his role as king of the jungle. At the Simba’s birth, the animals come from miles around to gather at the foot of the cliff, waiting to greet the new baby king. As they come, they are singing about “The Circle of Life.”
It’s an image of baptism, really–this lion cub is anointed, on the forehead, as a symbol of his importance, his mission, his place in the world. He is going to be king.
By our baptism, we are marked as Christians–and we are anointed by the community of Christ, given a place and a purpose and a mission in this life. We are children of God, loved by God. Our purpose is to serve God and help God’s work in the world. We are not kings, but we are just as important–our lives and what we do with them matters in God’s kingdom.
Later in the movie, Simba’s father takes him back to that same cliff to teach him about being King of the Jungle. He lays out for Simba the power and beauty and extent of their kingdom at sunrise, describing it as everything the light touches. He tells him of the honor and responsibility of being king, to serve and oversee and take on the burden of all the creatures in their realm. He also tells him that the reign of a king is like the rising and setting of the sun–it comes and it goes, one day rolls into another.
This is the scene I imagine happening in Isaiah.
In this scripture, I imagine God taking us by the hand, leading us to a bluff looking out across our community. God reminds us of our baptism–our place, our purpose, our mission. God points out to us that we have been given this land and all the creatures in it. We are blessed by the abundance, and we are responsible for making God known in this place. “I have made you a light to the nations,” God says to us. I need you, God says, to shine out in this place, to make my love known here, to build justice and mercy and healing. You are my servant in this place. I need you to be light in the darkness, friend to the lonely, food to the hungry, hope to those who despair, love to those who have none.
I also imagine our reaction to that. “Who, me? Us? We’re just a little church on a little corner. We’re just ordinary people, no special faith, no miraculous healing. Just working folk trying to do the right thing for our families and our communities. We’re not good enough, faithful enough, capable enough, wealthy enough to do this thing you ask of us.”
God responds with a reassurance, and a challenge.
The reassurance: “See, the former things have come to pass.”
In other words, God says, look at all the promises I made to you that have already come true.
Do you think you are the first one to stand on this precipice? Your mothers and your fathers, your grandmothers and grandfathers—they have stood where you are now. I held them by the hand as they looked out over this gift and responsibility. They started this church. They built this building. They gave of themselves, their lives and their wealth, to make my light shine in this community. Like you, they believed they couldn’t do it. They thought they were not enough to accomplish what I asked of them. But I stood here, holding their hands, and promised them that together we could do it. And look out over this community—together we did. You are here today because my promises to them were true. I have kept my promises to them, and I will keep my promises to you.
And then comes the challenge: “New things I now declare. Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
I have a new work to do in this generation, says God. I still need you to be light in the darkness, hope in the face of despair. Let me tell you what new things I want to do—because I am going to need your help to do them. Just as the former things have come to pass, I will make this thing come to pass as well. But I need your help. Just as my promises came true through the service and sacrifice of previous generations, I want to make my promises come true in you, too.
The Circle of Life that we God-followers participate in is a circle of promise after promise. God’s promise is fulfilled in generation after generation. We stand on the former things that have come to pass, the promises that God has fulfilled through previous generations. God takes us by the hand and asks us to help make new promises come true in our generation, for the future. We stand on the precipice, our hand in God’s hand, a light to our community, trusting in the promises of God.
The question is, will you let God’s promise come true in you?
Again because this post didn’t happen until late in the week, this is closer to my final manuscript for the sermon than a sermon sapling. Hopefully all will be back on track next week.
Highlighted Passage: Matthew 2:1-12
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of the three wise men? I’m guessing that the top three, in no particular order, are the camels, the star, and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually right there in our minds when we think of the wise men.
The travelers from the east described in Matthew’s Gospel, be they wise men or magi or astrologers, are linked forever in our minds with the gifts they brought to the Christ child. We even assume that there are three of them simply because they had three gifts. “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” When we think of the wise men, we think about them bearing gifts. We imagine their journey’s purpose to deliver those gifts to baby Jesus, as a sign of his spiritual importance beyond simply the Jewish community of Palestine.
Last year, B was playing with our nativity, and I wrote about some of the games he played. One involved arranging and rearranging the various figures, announcing the lineup each time: “Sheep, shepherd, mouse, mouse, treasure guy, Mary, camel, treasure guy, horse, cow, Baby Jesus, treasure guy.” Another involved the baby Jesus shouting to those treasure guys, “Hey wise men! Come bring me my presents!” Even a two-year-old (at the time) knows that the wise men are all about the presents.
But what if, originally, they weren’t?
By originally, I don’t mean before 2000 years of tradition got hold of them. I don’t even mean before Matthew crafted the story and added his own layers of interpretation. I mean really, really originally—like before they even set out on their journey to follow the star.
I read the scripture this year, and I noticed something different. And it made me wonder about that “originally.” What if, originally, the wise men didn’t set out to bring him presents? What if, originally, they just came to pay homage, and the presents were a spontaneous gesture?
Look closely again at the scripture. Three times in this short passage from Matthew, we are told that the wise men come to Jesus to “pay him homage.” They tell King Herod they have traveled to “pay him homage.” King Herod responds asking for information so that he can “pay homage” too. Then, when they arrive, they “knelt down and paid him homage.” It was clearly what they came to do, the purpose of their journey and their visit.
Then comes the turn of phrase that caught my eye this time around. In the NRSV it says, “Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” I checked a bunch of other versions, and it’s pretty much the same. They came to pay him homage, and then they opened their treasure chests and started to offer him gifts. And they were their treasure chests that they opened–not gifts they had brought with them. So what if they originally just came to bow down and pay Christ homage, and the gifts they gave were not a part of the plan, but instead a generous response to their overwhelming encounter with him?
Before I took this theory too far, I wanted to check it out. After all, maybe “paying homage” somehow implied that presents were involved, that giving honor meant giving gifts. So I did a little research into the Greek. The word that is translated as “pay homage” is the Greek proskuneo, (Strong’s G4352). It is usually translated as paying homage, bowing down or prostrating oneself. It comes from two other Greek words: pros, meaning toward or in the direction of, and kuneo, which is a derivative of the noun “dog,” and means to kiss, like a dog licking a master’s hand. A bit strange, perhaps, but proskuneo, paying homage, seems to say a lot about dog-like devotion, and little or nothing about giving gifts.
So Matthew’s word about “paying homage” does not seem to indicate that gifts were implied as part of that worship. And no one knows exactly what happened, or even if it happened, apart from Matthew’s account to us. I think that gives us the freedom to imagine it a little bit differently than we usually do, simply because there is no reason not to. So let’s think about this: what if the wise men weren’t originally treasure guys at all? What if they just came to worship, and they were so moved that they could not help but respond with generosity?
Hear Matthew’s words again:
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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.
What if the wise men were more like curious seekers than gift-bearers? Imagine them filled with glee at finding the place where the star had led. They just knew it was going to be an important king, a person who would forever change the world, and they wanted to be the first to see. When they got inside that humble abode and discovered nothing more than a babe in arms, they were humbled and moved. They did more than pay obligatory homage—they knelt down before him, bowed and bent their hearts, and worshipped. And they were transformed by the experience.
The glory of his presence contrasted with the poverty of his circumstances. The compelling power of the stars joined to the humility of a single human life. They had encountered the living Christ, and it was like nothing they had ever experienced before. They saw themselves and their whole lives in a new way. They wanted the glory of their treasures to uplift the poverty of his circumstances. They wanted to join their single human lives to the compelling power of the stars. They wanted to respond.
Imagine them stepping out of that stable, or hut, or small family home, filled with awe of the glory of God. They see their camels, their belongings, their treasures awaiting them—and they know that nothing they own matters any more. Their hearts are moved, and they unlock their treasure chests to give it all away.
- Out comes the gold they had brought, gold that paid for their travels, gold that was to be invested in goods to barter upon their return, gold that was supposed to secure them a safe passage home. Gold and all the things it would buy no longer mattered anymore. What mattered was doing anything they could to support the life of this child.
- Out comes the frankincense they had purchased along the way and planned to take home with them, an indulgent gift for family back home and a sign of the wealth of their houses. Proving their wealth to the neighbors seemed ridiculous, after seeing the king born in a stable. They knew that the greatest gift they could bring their families was the story of this young child, nothing that could be bought.
- Out comes the myrrh they had bought as funeral incense, so that when they and their families died, everyone would know their wealth. A strange gift for a baby, but the wise men knew they no longer needed an elaborate funeral to be remembered, that eternal life was not bought by the wealth of this world, but by sacrifices made toward the next one. Perhaps they even sensed, after their encounter with Herod and the warning dream, that this child’s death would be as important as his life.
Upon seeing Christ, they were overwhelmed with joy, and they opened their treasure chests, to present their wealth as a gift to the child.
Isn’t that what a true encounter with Christ is all about? Overwhelmed with the glory and generosity of our God, we bow down to worship, and we get up to give. Moved by the power and grace of Christ, we kneel down to worship, and we stand up to serve. We realize in the presence of the living God that the treasures that can be stored in chests, the gold and wealth we have accumulated and collected, belong in the service of God. The treasures of our time, the lives we have been given to live, are not for the pursuit of wealth or luxury or security or social standing—they also belong in the service of God. Even the treasures of our hearts, those things that cannot be held in boxes or explained in their power, yield to Christ’s will. A true homage sacrifices self to give to others.
Opening up our treasure chests is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But when we journey closer to Christ, like those wise men, we are transformed. We change from curious seekers and star followers into treasure guys, generous givers ready to offer all our treasures for the glory of God. And we join our single human lives to the compelling power of the stars.
I didn’t have the time to post a sermon sapling early in the week, so this is a copy of my final manuscript. However, I did not read from the manuscript in the pulpit, so the sermon as delivered can be found here.
B has been seeing the ads for a new Disney movie for weeks, broadcast during morning cartoons aimed at a preschool audience, and he had been begging us to see it. The movie is called Santa Paws, and the previews show an array of adorable scenes of talking dogs and singing children and Santa Claus. The only way to see the movie was to buy the DVD, and we were reluctant to spend the $20. But his grandparents visited this week, and, well, you know how that goes.
So we gathered to watch Santa Paws together. What we wanted, what we expected, was a cute story about talking dogs and Christmas, about Santa’s love for a particular puppy, and a little bit of Christmas magic. What we got was a rather maudlin story about a family business going under, the death of a beloved grandfather, abused orphans locked in basements, a Santa with amnesia who ends up nearly dying in the ICU, and the talking dog dies not once, but twice in the movie. Of course, it is a kids’ movie, so everything turns out alright in the end. The dog saves Santa, Santa saves the dog, the family business turns a profit and the orphans find a warm and loving home. But 85% of the movie is one disaster after another in the lives of the characters—it just keeps getting worse and worse as the movie goes on. Poor B was fearful and tense and sad for 75 minutes of a 90 minute film. As the talking dog dies the first time, he turns to me and says, “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
That’s exactly my sentiment about the Gospel story this week. I made a commitment to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year schedule of readings for worship, that began the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t want to break that commitment on week 5, but “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
Just the night before last, we gathered in such beauty and sang carols and held candles. We celebrated the birth of a baby with angels and shepherds and glorias. Now, less than two days later, the lectionary confronts us with the slaughter of the innocents. Jesus and his family are refugees, running for their lives from an evil dictator set on murder. Instead of learning to coo and laugh and roll over and sit up, the Baby Jesus is running for his life to Egypt. We wanted adorable sheep and quiet donkeys, and we get soldiers and murderers and refugees.
“I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.” Yet one story follows another.
But those things always co-exist in Christmas stories. It’s not just Santa Paws. It’s a Wonderful Life is about a suicide attempt. A Charlie Brown Christmas is about a depressed kid who gets no Christmas cards or presents. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is about misfit toys and misfit elves and misfit reindeer rejected by the North Pole community, running away and lost in the snow. Even Frosty the Snowman lives under constant threat of death by melting.
I even considered trying to get away from this story by celebrating St. Stephen’s day, a major feast day and holiday in many Catholic countries, but then we’d just end up talking about St. Stephen, whose major claim to fame was that he was the first martyr, stoned to death for following Jesus Christ.
So the story of Christ’s beautiful birth stands side-by-side with the slaughter of the innocents. The baby Jesus is born homeless, and immediately they try to murder him. His family turns into refugees as they flee the angry King Herod. They leave everything behind, not returning from Bethlehem to Nazareth to fetch Joseph’s carpentry tools or introduce the baby to his grandparents or say goodbye to their families. This is part of the Christmas story, as much as the sweetly singing angels are a part of the Christmas story. As much as abused orphans and dying dogs are a part of Santa Paws.
We want to hold on to the beauty of the manger, the candlelight and the serenity of “Silent Night,” but the real world interrupts with its violence and messiness and struggles. Because Jesus didn’t come for Christmas beauty, Jesus came for the real world.
As much as we all enjoy the beauty of Christmas Eve, Jesus didn’t come to give us a glorious night of singing and prayer and praise. Jesus came to topple empires and threaten earthly kingdoms. It’s no wonder that his trouble with the authorities started at such an early age. He came to overturn the tables in the temple, to speak challenge to the Pharisees, to call people back to God. He came for tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. He came for orphans locked in basements and patients in the ICU, for those who are grieving and heartbroken and lost and afraid. He came to give hope to the poor and justice to the oppressed. Jesus came to die on the cross. And if you have come into this world to be so disruptive that they are going to try to kill you, you’d better expect it will start as soon as word gets out that you were born.
It may not be what we thought it would be like, but I suspect God knew all along that this is what it would be like. If God came to redeem sinners, to live in the real world with us, then that’s just where God had to go.
What does it mean for us? It means that we need not cling to Christmas memories as our only light and hope. Because God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, comes to live in the real world, not just in the perfect places. We need not fear the disruption of arrogant kings or violent forces or brokenness and imperfection or illness and sorrow, or even just the every doldrums of real world life. Because that is exactly the real world that Jesus came inhabit, and came to save.
We need not fear a return to the real world—because, even more than in the beauty and pageantry of Christmas Eve or the serenity of the nativity, the real world is where Jesus dwells. The real world is what Jesus came to save. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.
I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.
Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.
This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.
So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.
In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.
Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.
When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)
No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10
I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.
But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.
It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.
The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.
While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.
I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well. Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.
Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.