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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jesus Got Ticked Off (Mark 9 and Matthew 23)


John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him.  No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me.  Whoever isn’t against us is for us.  I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.”

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake.”

 

[Jesus said,] “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven.  You don’t enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so.”

How terrible it will be for you, legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You travel over sea and land to make one convert.  But when they’ve been converted, they become twice the child of hell you are.”

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!  You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.  You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters.  You blind guides!  You filter out an ant but swallow a camel.

“How terrible if will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs.  They look beautiful on the outside.  But inside they are full of dead bones and all kinds of filth.  In the same way, you look righteous to people.  But inside you are full of pretense and rebellion.

 

There’s at least one in every crowd.  Whether in a classroom, the workplace, the ball field, the PTA, or even a church, there’s always a few people who are a little more impressed with themselves than they probably should be.  It’s the person with the knowledge that they are a little bit smarter, better, more-skilled or qualified, or holier than everyone else, and it is their self-appointed mission in life to share this knowledge, lest anyone be unaware of their proper place in the social rankings.

 

You’d think at some point they’d get tired of tootin’ their own horn, but folks who are full of hot air can do an awful lot of horn tootin.’  Personally, I find it to be both tiresome and annoying.  Apparently, so did Jesus.  You might even say it’s the kind of thing that got Jesus ticked off.

 

Today’s message is part of a series called “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”  We are looking at episodes in his life that often get missed in the ways we think about, and discuss, and understand Jesus.

 

Friends, the goal of this series is to help all of us get to know Jesus a little better, even if what we find out makes us a little uncomfortable or challenges what we think we know about him.  Last week, we learned this surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus could party.  That is perhaps surprising because so many Christians are just so serious all the time, you’d never guess that they follow a guy who graciously invites us to a joyful, endless party, and is himself the life of the party.  But, surprise surprise - Jesus could party, and he invites us to celebrate with him.

 

Today, we learn this surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus got ticked off.  This one’s a lot easier to believe, because Christians get ticked off all the time!  The surprising twist, however, is that the things many Christians get all twisted up about aren’t really the things Jesus got worked up over.  We see that in today’s Scripture readings from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

 

In Mark chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples come to Jesus with a complaint about someone from outside their group who was doing good and powerful work in Jesus’ name.  They are essentially tattling on this outsider, “He’s not one of us, Jesus!  Make him stop!”

 

We get the clear message, however, that all this finger-pointing won’t earn points with Jesus.  They needn’t be so concerned with what someone else is or isn’t doing; rather, they should give some attention to their own behavior.  In fact, Jesus tells the disciples to lay off, because their eagerness to bring judgment on this outsider is a particular danger to their own well-being.

 

Think of this way.  Are you supposed to point at people?  Why?  When I was a little kid, I thought the Pointer Sisters were going to be in big trouble if their mother ever found out what they were up to.  Just for a minute, point at the person next to you, and notice what your hand is doing.  You’ve heard the saying that whenever you point your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointed right back toward yourself.  Our mothers rightly trained us not to point - not only is it rude, but pointing out the shortcomings of others serves only to incriminate ourselves, and according to Jesus, places us in a precarious position.

 

In particular, we are warned against creating difficulty in the faith journey of “little ones.”  This can refer to children, but it can also refer to people who are new to the faith, exploring the faith, even outside the faith.  Jesus gets ticked off when we get so wrapped up in what others are doing and pointing out their shortcomings.  He got ticked off at his disciples for doing it, and then in Matthew chapter 23, he really lets the Pharisees and legal experts have it for taking it even further.

 

Jesus finds them busy judging and condemning like it was their job, which it sorta was, and he really let them have it!  What Jesus says to them is probably the most condemning thing he said to anyone.  When we read those words, you could just feel the indignation in Jesus’ voice.  I’m not going to go into detail on what Jesus said to them - you’ve already heard it, you’ve already gotten the tone and meaning and intensity of Jesus’ feeling on this matter.  He very pointedly tells them that both they and their faith are nothing more than a sham, the equivalent of religious smoke and mirrors, that they may look fine and wonderful and upstanding and virtuous on the outside, but on the inside, they are empty at best, and disgustingly filthy at worst.

 

Caveat here: not exactly the best strategy if you’re trying to win friends and influence people.  Jesus spoke this bare truth to powerful people, and you can imagine they didn’t particularly care for his tone.  If you speak truth to power, there will be consequences.  Eventually, it got Jesus killed.

 

The temptation that is constantly before the people of faith is to quickly point at others, to point out what “they” have done, what “they” are getting away with, how “they” are ruining things.  We all grow strangely quiet when our attention shifts to passages like the ones we’ve read today, where Jesus is harsh toward those who are harsh, where he condemns those who condemn, where he pronounces judgment against all those who judge. Jesus invites us to consider more closely what is being done with our own hands and feet, our own thoughts, our own words, our own deeds.

 

Many times, like the disciples, like the Pharisees, like the legal experts, we are quick to harshly judge all that is “out there,” when we would all be better served by a closer examination of what’s “in here.”  It’s as though Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about others - they are not the problem.  Rather, look to yourselves.  How are you getting in the way of the gospel?  How are you a stumbling block?  How are you placing barriers on the path between God and the very people he loves?”

 

With such a clear warning from Jesus about judging or excluding or causing a little one to stumble, I would rather err on the side of grace than judgment, of inclusion rather than exclusion.  I will have to give an account for my life one day, as will you, and I’d rather be accused of being too gracious and loving rather than too judgmental and exclusionary.  Jesus is clear here: it would be better to get thrown into a lake with a stone around my neck than to exclude or separate someone else from God’s presence.

 

Jesus reminds us that there is more than enough sin within each of us to deal with, so why should we be so concerned with the sins of everyone else?  There is enough rebellion and disobedience and separation within me to keep me and God busy for a lifetime, so why get caught up in what I perceive to be the shortcomings of others?

 

I am well aware that the world in which we live is a far cry from what God intends it to be.  It’s tempting to focus on those we consider to be the evil-doers and try to make them shape up and fly right.  But at the end of the day, none of us can make anyone else do anything.  Focusing on and trying to fix the sins of others isn’t going to get any of us anywhere.  So instead, start in the place where you can make the biggest difference: yourself.

 

There’s a line in the Gospel song, Put Your Hand in the Hand, that says, “Take a look at yourself and you can see others differently / by putting your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.”

 

Friends, if you want the world to be a more Godly place, then start with you.  Each of us is responsible for the behavior of only one person - know who that is?  If you are concerned with all that is wrong “out there,” the best thing you can do is pay attention to everything “in here.”

 

Sometimes, we need the help of someone else to see ourselves clearly; sometimes our own self-perceptions can get in the way.  Personally, I’m grateful for the person who loves me enough to let me know I’ve got a boogie hanging out of my nose, or my fly is down, or I’ve got toilet paper stuck to my shoe and doesn’t just let me go through the day like that.

 

Other people can help us see things in ourselves that we might have otherwise missed or ignored.  I am grateful for those people in my life who both know me well enough and love me enough to point out the places I have made a mistake and need to correct it.

 

But - and this is important - what gives them the right to say something is the fact that I know they love me.  It presumes an already-existing relationship that is based on mutual trust and care.  I can hear it when I know that the person cares about me and has my best interest at heart, as well as a concern for what is best for the entire body of Christ.

 

Yes, it is important to speak the truth, but let us not forget that the people of God are called to speak the truth in love.  The right to speak the truth in love is an earned trust, sown in the soil of a life-giving relationship.

 

Where the disciples got it wrong, where the Pharisees got it wrong, where we continue to get it wrong if we’re not careful, is to make rules without relationships, to insist on guidelines without grace, to enforce laws without love.  Doing so places huge burdens on people and causes them to stumble, and it would be better for us to have a 40-pound stone tied around our neck and take a long walk off a short pier than to be caught up in something like that.

 

We are called to something better.  We are called to be imitators of the God in whose image we are all created (Ephesians 5).  God was demonstrating care for each of us before we were even born, and every rule is born out of relationship, and every guideline is based in grace, and every law is rooted in love.  The relationship piece is really, really important, and it’s the first piece for God, it should be the first piece for us, as well.  The covenant with Abraham came long before the 10 Commandments.  The loving, nurturing, grace-filled relationship always comes first.

 

It’s easy to stand around and make pronouncements and point fingers at people without ever engaging them on a personal, human, relational level.  It is both infinitely harder yet abundantly more faithful to do the long and hard work of getting to know someone and demonstrating that we love them.  Until we’ve done that work, our words will be as hollow whitewashed tombs.

 

No one will care what we think until they have reason to think that we care.

 

What got Jesus ticked off were those who presumed to speak on behalf of God, yet were devoid of God’s love in what they said.  For rules without relationship, guidelines without grace, and laws without love, are empty.

 

When we resist the temptation to point fingers, and instead open our hands and our hearts to each other, that’s something Jesus can get on board with.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jesus Could Party (John 2:1-11)

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration.  When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.”
Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?  My time hasn’t come yet.”
His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim.  Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did.  The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine.  He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first.  They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely.  You kept the good wine until now.”  This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee.  He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  A first impression tends to be a lasting impression.  But, what if your first impression is a false or incomplete impression?  It happens a lot, and I’ve noticed the impressions people have in their minds about Jesus, in particular, are sometimes very incomplete or just plain inaccurate.
 
Today we begin a new series of messages called “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”  The Jesus that is often shared in churches is sort of weak, sterile, benign, and well . . . boring!  Then we wonder why more people aren’t excited to get to know him better!
 
In this series, we’re going to look at a few episodes in Jesus’ life that paint a much more robust, interesting, dynamic, and fascinating picture.  Jesus was anything but boring!  Sometimes, the more you get to know someone, you realize you didn’t know them as well as you thought you did.  That’s what I hope will happen for you in these messages.  Whether you’ve known Jesus for a long time, are just getting to know him, or aren’t even sure that you want to get to know him, I promise you’ll walk away from this series with a different picture of him in your head than you’ve ever had before.
 
Today we start the series with this surprising thing they never told you about Jesus: Jesus could party.
 
“Party” is not the first descriptor that comes to mind for Christians
Jesus could party.  What makes this surprising is that, so many Christians are just so serious all the time.  I mean c’mon, Christians are the ones who brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials - we’ve got a reputation for not exactly being the most fun-loving people on the planet!  I have a friend who says, “A Christian is someone who lives their life in fear that somewhere in the world, someone is having fun.”
 
Or, perhaps you’d prefer this quote from John Wesley, founder of Methodism, who said, “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion.”
 
Ashley and I once stayed at a bed-and-breakfast and came into the dining room as some of the other guests were just finishing up.  Without any prompting on our part, the first thing they told us was that they were Christians and which church they belonged to, and then engaged us in a conversation that let us know that they were very hateful, angry, racist, homophobic, sour people.  We listened uncomfortably and when they left, I just looked at Ashley and said, “Wow.  They hate EVERYBODY!  Good thing they told us they were Christians, ‘cause I’d have never figured it out on my own!”
 
The Jesus they know probably isn’t very much fun, and he certainly doesn’t like to party.  Friends, if you’re a Christian, and you’re walking around with a permanent scowl on your face, it might be time to get re-acquainted with Jesus!  (“I’m a Christian - Peace be with you!”  “I’m full of the love of God and neighbor; can’t you tell?”)  As we’ve heard already in today’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus loves to party.
 
In John chapter 2, Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are among the invited guests at a wedding feast.  Unlike our weddings that are typically an afternoon and evening, Jewish weddings at the time of Jesus were a total blow-out - think My Big Fat Greek Wedding and make the party last for a week.  It was three days into the party when the unthinkable happened: they ran out of wine.
 
They don’t have any wine
When we host a party at our house, we always say it’s better to have too much and have some left over than to run out, right?  Rest assured, if you come to a party at our house, there will be plenty of food, plenty of music, plenty of room, plenty to drink.  It has happened that we’ve run low on ice or napkins or something, which is a little embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world.
 
That’s us, but in the time and place of Jesus, running out of wine isn’t just a social faux pas, it’s a disaster, because wine is a sign of God’s abundance, joy, gladness, and hospitality.  In the Old Testament, wine symbolizes the presence of God (Joel 3:17-18, Isaiah 25:6).  And so, when they run short on wine, they run short on God’s presence and blessing, abundance and joy.  The wine has run out before the wedding is over, and it’s a catastrophe.
 
Jesus’ mother is the one to bring Jesus into the situation.  These are the first words she speaks in John’s Gospel, “They don’t have any wine” (v. 3), she says, alerting Jesus to a problem and implying that he can do something to fix it.  She knew that running out of wine signaled a deep problem, pointing to a scarcity of the presence and blessing of God, which meant this was a job for Jesus.
 
Mary cannot stand by and allow their marriage celebration to have a lasting shame as its memory.  “They don’t have any wine - their wedding will be remembered because the wine ran out, everyone will be talking that the blessing of God ran out, and what should be this great feast and celebration will be remembered as the day when God’s presence was scarce, and there wasn’t enough joy and gladness to go around.  They don’t have any wine, Jesus.  There’s a problem.  Something is wrong.  Do something about it, Jesus!”
 
What does that have to do with me?
Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” (v. 4)  That sounds kinda rude, but Jesus is probably really just calling her “Ma’am” and the cultural translation sounds harsher to our ears than it really was.  If he really was being rude, the next verse would say, “And then Jesus woke up in the hospital.” - you don’t get away with sassing your Mom, even if you’re Jesus!  Yet the story is still rich with humor. When Mary says they don’t have any wine, you can almost see Jesus swirl the last of the wine in his glass and say, “How is that my problem?  They should have hired a better wedding planner!”
 
Mary pretends she doesn’t hear him as she calls together a staff meeting of the entire catering company and says “You all do whatever my boy Jesus tells you to (v. 5).  Depending on how Jesus responds, this party is either over, or it’s just getting started.
 
If Jesus were boring, when the wine ran out, boring Jesus would have said, “Great!  Now that the wine is gone, turn out the lights because this party is over!  And it’s about time!  So now, the party’s over, and good riddance!  Now we can all go home and get down to serious business.”
 
Jesus kept the party going
That might have been the response from boring Jesus.  Yet, the evidence clearly shows, if you believe the Bible, anyway, that Jesus was more interested in keeping the party going than in killing everyone’s buzz.  “Nearby, there were six stone jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons” (v. 6).  Jesus had them fill the jars up to the brim, and then draw some out and take it to the headwaiter.  The water in the jars had turned into wine, good wine, in fact.
 
Most people put out the good stuff first, and then once everybody is feeling good and can’t tell the difference, switch to the cheap stuff.  At this point in the party, you would have expected Jesus to make some Boone’s Farm or Two-Buck Chuck.  But, no, Jesus turned the water into some top-shelf hooch and gave it away.  He saved the hosts from embarrassment and provided abundantly for all.
 
How abundantly?  Well, run the numbers.  I spent a summer in college making wine, and we sold it in 6-gallon batches.  One batch would make, on average, 27 standard bottles of wine, accounting for some settling of sediment within each 6-gallon batch.  And so, if there were six stone jars full of 30 gallons of water that Jesus turned into wine, that’s the equivalent of 810 bottles of wine.  However you add it up, that’s a lot of wine - a lot of blessing, a lot of God’s presence, a lot of joy, a lot of gladness.
 
Let’s see, 810 bottles of good wine at say, $30 apiece, in our day, would easily have been worth almost $25,000.

That’s a pretty nice wedding gift from Jesus.  Can you hear how that would have gone over with his disciples?  Peter says, “I bought them a toaster.”  John says, “I got them a panini press.  I know they didn’t register for one, but I have one and I just love it and thought they could use one, too!  Hey, Jesus, what did you get them?  What?  C’mon, Jesus!  I thought we agreed on a $50 limit!”

The thing is, though, there are no limits when it comes to God’s goodness.  God’s blessings are abundant as new wine, and life in God’s presence is as joyful as the wedding guests who found their provisions re-stocked and kept the party going.
 
A sign of the kingdom
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called signs, meaning they point to a reality beyond themselves.  And so, we don’t pay primary attention to the miracles themselves, as cool as they are, but we look for the greater meaning and message they represent.
 
This is Jesus’ first miracle; don’t miss the significance of that!  It wasn’t a healing, or an exorcism.  He didn’t preach a sermon or teach a Bible study.  Jesus’ first miracle didn’t take place in a Sunday School class or a leadership session, and it certainly didn’t happen in a meeting of the trustees or finance committee.  No, the first miracle from Jesus was at a party, and the thing he did kept the wine flowing and the party going.
 
This first sign of Jesus, of turning water into wine and kicking a good party into high gear to make it a better party, tells us something about the kingdom of God.  When Jesus turns water into wine, he is saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like - a place of abundance and blessing, of generosity and gratitude, of gladness and joy and an overall good time, where there is never a last-call and the party never stops.”
 
I want to be clear here, too - this isn’t a party that cheapens the experience of life.  God’s party isn’t about getting drunk, it’s not like a frat party or a free-for-all or underage drinking binge or other place where people are drinking for the sake of getting drunk and that’s it.  God’s party is one in which we experience life and experience it abundantly.  So inebriation or deadening of the senses or otherwise cheapening life, whether our own or someone else’s, isn’t the point.  Jesus isn't looking for any "Whooooo-girls."  Rather, when we celebrate and party with Jesus, it’s about enjoying the many splendid and wonderful gifts of God in the company of friends.
 
It’s an image that pre-dates Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t the first one to liken God’s kingdom to a party.  The prophet Isaiah said, “On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined” (Isaiah 25:6).
 
A feast.  Rich food.  Well-aged choice wines.  Sounds pretty good, right?
 
Jesus will pick up this theme in other places, comparing heaven to a wedding feast and a great banquet, where there is an abundance of good food and fine drink.
 
In the Bible’s final book, Revelation, this theme of a party is picked up again.  “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).  Jesus, the Lamb of God, after evil and death are finally defeated once and for all, throws a never-ending feast, and invites and blesses everyone.
 
Really, with all the evidence, are we all that surprised to discover that Jesus could party?  His first miracle was at a party, and it kept the party going - this is what the kingdom of God is like.
 
Sounds great, unless you’re one of those sour Christians who, unfortunately, aren’t going to enjoy heaven very much.  The kingdom of God sounds like heaven if you want to party with God; it sounds like hell if you prefer sour grapes.  Heaven and hell might very well be the same place - and it’s up to each of us as to whether God’s party will be the source of our greatest joy or our greatest torment.
 
A good party is a sign of the kingdom of God--a good party is a foretaste of heaven.  We are invited to a party where we can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  It’s a party where grace tastes like fine wine when you’re expecting the cheap stuff, it tastes like plenty to go around when you thought everything had run out.  It’s a party where scarcity is turned into abundance, where even sour grapes are turned into fine wine.

You are invited - we are all invited - to the party.  The kingdom of God is near.  Party on!
 
Gracious God,
We confess that words like “party” and “celebration” are not the words that come first to our minds when we think of the life of faith.  Perhaps we would prefer a faith that is more rigid – more concerned with rules than relationships, more concerned with religion for its own sake than righteousness for your sake.  Forgive us for our lack of imagination.
We have often squashed your joy.  We have been quick to turn out the lights on the party rather than to allow your life-giving Spirit to flow into us and through us.  Free us from the burden of taking ourselves so seriously all the time.  Instill in us the gladness that rightly comes from knowing you.
For those whose faith has soured, whose spirits have become bitter, we ask for a freshness and a lightness to enter their lives again.  Turn their sour grapes into fine wine.
We thank you that there are no limits to your goodness.  Save us from being people who try to contain your presence within boundaries and borders where you have placed none.  Keep us from blocking your joy and presence from others, and when they look at our lives, may we give them an accurate and honest picture of your wonderful, matchless, limitless grace and love. 
We thank you for Jesus, who knew how to party, and invites us to a never-ending joyful celebration.  We accept his invitation gladly, and welcome the abundance of blessing that we share in his presence.  It is in his name that we pray.  Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

We Seek the King (Matthew 2:1-12)


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.  He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child.  When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother.  Falling to their knees, they honored him.  Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Today is Epiphany. Today is the 12th day of Christmas, you have until sundown to go and find 12 lords-a-leaping to give to your true love.  Epiphany concludes the Christmas season, the season of light, the season of celebrating God’s presence come to us in the person of Jesus.  During December, we focused on preparing for the coming of Jesus by opening ourselves up to his kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love.  Jesus has made himself known as a babe born in Bethlehem to the Hebrew people, and today, on Epiphany, Jesus makes himself known, by a star’s heavenly light, as a divine gift to all the peoples of the Earth.  He is the Light of the World born into all the dark places of our world and our lives.
That light reaches its brightest intensity today, on Epiphany.  Interestingly enough, the bright star in the sky tips us to the reality that the Gospel Jesus brings is not only for a select few, but is good news for all people.  May we pray.

After Jesus was born, wise men came from the east, even further east than Albemarle.  Wise men, magi, were studying the heavens, looking for a divine connection to God who had flung the stars into place like so many twinkling grains of sand.  And one night, they saw something strange.

These men knew the stars, the constellations, the heavenly bodies.  They knew their rhythmic dance across the night sky as well as you or I might know our ABCs, and one night, something so strange and spectacular appeared off in the distance that they knew it could only be a message from the Lord of heaven and earth, who was speaking to them with a bright and intense star they had never seen before.

They set out from their home in “the East,” we don’t know where exactly, but it was probably Persia, maybe Iran, or one of the something-stan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.) countries we seem to be so afraid of.  Now, in our nativity scenes, we usually put the three wise men right there on the other side of the manger from the shepherds, even though we all know better.  The star they saw appeared at Jesus’ birth; when King Herod is trying to figure out when this new “king of the Jews” was born, he asks the magi, in verse 7, when the star appeared to get an approximate age of the child.  The star appeared at his birth, and it likely took them about two years to get there.  They didn’t see baby Jesus, they saw toddler Jesus.  Instead of placing the wise men at the manger, we would do better to put them off at a distance, as far away as we can get them, really.

In truth, if we were going to be completely accurate here, we would get our nativity scene out during Advent, pop baby Jesus in there on Christmas Eve as we already do, take the whole thing down and put it away, and then about two years later, move Mary and Joseph into a starter home, get a toddler Jesus figure, and have the wise men finally show up there.

Given the logistical difficulty of doing that, we may want to adopt the practice I have seen in other churches, who place them on a windowsill on Christmas Eve and then move them closer to Jesus each week until he finally gets there on Epiphany to remind us that they journeyed a long way to meet Jesus, and it took them awhile to get there.  What good news for the spiritual pilgrims among us who are coming to Jesus from a great distance and taking their time in getting to him.

All along the way, the presence of God was the guide for the journey, shining in a bright and unexpected star.

There have been many theories advanced and debates had about what exactly the three magi saw in the sky.  In December and January, you can watch specials on PBS and Discovery Channel about what the wise men might have actually seen.  Maybe it was a comet.  It could have been a supernova.  Perhaps the stars and planets were aligned in such a way that they appeared to come together into some new mega-star.  In truth, what it actually was doesn’t matter, because what it said to the magi is far more important.

The star shows how far God reaches to ensure that all people receive the good news of Christ’s birth.  Today, on Epiphany, a strange star shining in the sky announces the Gospel to foreigners, adherents to strange religion, people who have more faith in the heavenly beings than the Holy Bible.

They came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies.  As someone who is supposed to be a professional in ways that God works to proclaim the Gospel and bring people to faith, my sensibilities would prefer that they came looking for Jesus though a path that makes more sense to me.  I would love for the magi to connect with God as I do, through preaching, worship, or sacraments, I would prefer that they have an encounter with Jesus through a Bible study or prayer group, I would prefer that God’s presence was made real to them through a welcoming congregation or some vital mission project.

And yet, that’s not the story the Scriptures give us.  God used what they knew and what they believed to get their attention and reveal his presence to them.  God reaches those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently, follow it to a king, and not just any king, the King of Kings.

God didn’t bring the magi to Jesus down a path we would have likely recognized.  They didn’t even have to take a confirmation class, for goodness’ sake!  Despite our own preferences in the matter, the star in the sky and the magi who chased it until they found Jesus witness to the reality that when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel and bringing people to faith, it’s a bit frightening and a bit wonderful to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is ultimately more “mystery” than “formula,” and thanks be to God, God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.

When we see God acting in a way that is different from what we might have expected, we have a choice in how we respond.  We can respond with wonder and bask in the radiant light of an unexpected gift from God, or we can join Herod and his friends in responding out of a sense of fear and threat to the status quo.  Herod considered himself the king; he didn’t exactly greet the news of a new king with joy.  He didn’t rush out to the mall to buy a suitable gift.  He conspired with his friends - the self-appointed protectors of the status quo and who had much to lose from a shift in power - in order to exterminate the threat and kill the Christ-child.

Keep reading in the 2nd Chapter of Matthew, and you’ll find Herod slaughtering all the male children around Bethlehem under the age of two.  Why?  Because of fear. Herod reached out with fear and jealousy just far enough to violently protect his place and preserve his power.

How about us?  How will we respond?  We can join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace and move to protect and preserve what is ours.  Or, we can greet the surprising presence of God in unexpected places and among unlikely people with a sense of wonder and joy.  That choice is up to each of us.

Epiphany both proclaims and celebrates the inclusive reach of God’s embrace.  God’s presence has come to all who can see the stars in the heavens.  The bright star in the sky shows the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to announce the good news of his presence to all the world.  Likewise, the response of the magi shows us that faith is a journey that leads us through sometimes strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, yet the promise of God’s presence is both our guide and our reward for making the journey.

Today, we will gather at the Lord’s table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, a place where we know we will experience God’s presence again.  And here’s a secret - I don’t understand the holy mystery of God’s presence around this table any better than I understand God’s presence shining from a star.  What I do know, however, is this: the mysteries of God are not for us to understand; they are for us to experience.

The only requirement to come to the table today is a desire to experience God’s presence.  That’s it.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, where you’ve been, how you got here, or how long you’ve been here.  Whether you have come to faith in a way that is decent and respectable and recognizable to the person next to you, or if your path has been anything but conventional, you are welcome here.  You are welcome at the Lord’s table because 2000 years ago, a bright star brought some unlikely people to their knees before Jesus, and as unlikely as you or the person next to you may think you are, you are still not outside the inclusive reach of the King of Kings, and Jesus has set this table especially for you.

And for someone who is supposed to be a professional in this stuff, this path of experiencing God’s presence is much more familiar to me, but I still don’t understand it.  I don’t understand it any better than I understand how a star in the sky was a homing beacon leading the magi to Jesus.  But I do know that the presence of God is experienced here, and as we travel through strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, broken bread and poured out wine are both our guide and our reward for making the journey.