Monday, January 25, 2010

Jesus and Genesis: The Blest Rest

A sermon preached on January 24, 2010:
Scripture Readings:
Genesis 2:1-3
John 5:1-19

An old man retired, and he didn’t know how to do it, and he began to get on his wife’s nerves. One morning she asked him, “What are you going to do today?” And he said, “Nothing!” And she said, “You did that yesterday.” And he said, “Yeah, but I’m not finished.”

I think it is important for us to understand what it means to rest; to truly rest. I don’t think I understand it very well.

I know how to be lazy, I know how to procrastinate royally, I know how to avoid doing what I am afraid to do, but none of that has anything to do with rest. In fact, those things (laziness, procrastination, and fear) all destroy true rest.

I want to understand the blessing and beauty of rest; and the most important thing to understand about rest is that it is a gift from God. But we can also never understand God as the giver of blessed and beautiful rest unless we understand that the giver of rest is also the giver of work. God is the giver of blessed and beautiful work.

Jesus says that he is a worker, and that his Father is a worker. The gospel of John really shows us that the Trinity is a worker: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all working on great things all the time.

The spiritual authorities of Jesus’ time had made the Sabbath day for resting into a day that was, in many ways, hard, and confining, and mean-spirited. When Jesus healed the invalid on the Sabbath, he said it was because that was the kind of work that needed to be done on the day that celebrated rest. “My Father is always at his work, to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17) I believe Jesus was saying that, for him and his Father, healing was the perfect kind of work for a day of rest.

It is also Jesus’ way of saying that he and his Father never rest; but this is true only if rest is not the opposite of work. I believe that rest is not the opposite of work. Rest is the holiest work of all.

Rest is the highest form of work but, as C.S. Lewis says, “The highest does not stand without the lowest.” The highest work does not stand without the lowest work.

I believe that Jesus was saying that he and his Father were bringing the blessing and beauty of rest to the invalid when they did their work of healing. In some holy way rest is holy work.

Genesis shows us the time of creation from way that God sees time. One of the things that Christians in earlier days learned from this was to say that the universe we live in is not a seven days’ creation, but a six days’ creation; the creation of time and place.

And then they would add that the six days’ creation, where we do our daily living, is not complete without the seventh day, which is not a day like other days. The seventh day is the day of grace, the day of rest, the everlasting day.

We can see this in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first chapter, at the start of the universe, we are told that “the earth was formless and empty” (without form and void) (Genesis 1:2)

The six days show God changing what was formless and empty by giving it form and fullness. The first three days show God giving the universe organization and structure. The second set of three days shows God filling the universe with things that move, and work, and have jobs to do; and with things that live, and move, and breathe, and breed.

In the six days’ creation, God gives structure to time, and energy, and matter. Then he puts time, and energy, and matter to use; in suns, and stars, and globes of rock spinning in space; and planetary habitats for things like birds and fish and creatures like us who are made in God’s image. That is the six days’ creation: the creation of time, and form, and fullness, where we all live.

But there is a seventh day that has no borders of time. There are no sunsets or sunrises on that day; such as there are on other days.

That is the timeless day; of grace, and rest, and healing, and completion, and blessing, and holiness. It is not a day at all. It is eternity. And God wants to include eternity in the equation of our daily lives.

The first thing the Bible shows us about God is that God is a worker, and he sees that his work is good. His work is holy. (Genesis 1:10, 18, 21, 25, 31)

In the six days’ creation God did the kind of work that we can understand. Most of our work involves time, and place, and energy, and stuff. In this way we do work like God’s work; and we often see that it is good. A set of books that balance, a healthy herd, an engine that hums (even at a roar), those amber waves of grain, a song that is sung, bread baking, a quilt that brings oohs and ahhs (from those who know the work that goes into a quilt), a garden bearing its fruit and flowers, a flight well flown, some music or a game well played, a paper turned in on time, a house that is cleaner and more orderly than mine: this is all good work. This is creation work, and it is very good.

This is the work of time, and form, and fullness. It is the work that we can understand. In fact it is holy.

God knows this work is holy. Even a child knows it. Maybe not a teenager (I’m sorry). But a young child knows it. A young child will push a vacuum cleaner, and pound nails with a hammer, because their parents do it. A child will want to put wheels under something and try to make it go. A child will want to paint the house, and rake the leaves. A child knows that work is holy, that work is awesome, in the real sense of the word.

God works; and we are made in the image of God. God the Son, and God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit work; and they all work together, and they all work on the same things.

They all do what they see each other doing. Jesus said, “Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” (John 5:19)

And so there is a partnership within the mystery of the Trinity. And we are made in that image, to be God’s partners.

Partnership is worked into us as part of our creation. We work because we are partners with God. God the Son gives us power to be the children of God, in his image. (John 1:12) In our own work we give structure to our time, and energy, and the stuff of our lives. We give our world form and fullness through our work.

Sometimes we see chaos and crisis, and we see the tremendous needs of people in the world, and we roll up our sleeves to do that work, or else we support the work that others do, to restore the form and the fullness of human life to those people in need. We want to do for others, to the best of our ability, what Jesus did for the invalid. And we often see that this is good.

All of a sudden I have gotten to the other kind of work: the seventh day kind of work. This is the highest kind of work, and it is the hardest to understand. It is the work of rest. It is the work of enjoying the blessing and beauty of rest; or the work of bringing that rest to others.

We must know that the work of bringing rest to others is the work of Jesus, and he makes us partners in that work in the world. Bringing rest to others is what Jesus has done for us in the gospel (in the good news), so that we may rest in him, so that something everlasting begins in our lives now. The birth and life of Jesus, and his cross and resurrection are the work of rest and eternity given to us in our world of time.

There is a verse in the Book of Psalms that says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This is the heart of the message that Jesus gave the invalid in his healing. His very ability to pick up his mat and carry it on the Sabbath (when, ordinarily, he shouldn’t be carrying anything at all) must have brought the man the kind of rest that comes from plunging into a great wonder. The command for him to carry his mat was Jesus’ command for him to stop his old life of sorrowing, and worrying, and envying others, and to enjoy his new life and strength. The sad thing is that it wasn’t long before the authorities scared him, and took away his joy, and made a tattle-tale out of him.

The Genesis word for rest, the kind of rest that God enjoyed, simply means “stop”. Stop! Stop!

The number seven in the Bible (as in the seven days) represents perfection and completion. Six is the number of imperfection. Six is the number of incompleteness. The six days’ creation means that the world in which we keep track of time (and organize, and fill with things and activities) is incomplete unless we know how to stop and enjoy the life God gives us. Stop!

Even though the day for stopping exists outside of time, God blessed that day. God made the day for stopping holy. If we are going to be partners with God, in the holiness of work, we have to know that work is not holy or blessed unless we know how to stop. God wants us to learn how to stop in time, so that we can have a taste of something everlasting.

To bless something and to see the holiness of a person or a thing, or a time, or a place, or a relationship, or the very holiness of creation, you must be able to stop. You have to let it be what it is, and simply enjoy it.

You can never fully bless and make holy your husband, or your wife, or your family, or your home, or your work, or even your playtime, unless you know how to stop and enjoy it. The greatest gift you can give to those you love is the gift of stopping, for their sake, and simply enjoying them. It is the greatest gift you can give to those who love you; to stop for them.

There is something timeless and eternal in that stopping. That is the real value in life. If you can stop, what you receive and what you give, in that stopping and resting, can never be taken away from you, because there is something eternal in it. It is blessed and holy.

Creation is God’s gift to himself. He knows how to enjoy it. In the six days’ creation, where we live, God never seems to stop. In the seventh day, the day outside of time, even God is at rest. Our ability to work as God’s partners in creation is God’s gift to us, and we often don’t know how to enjoy it, unless we let God teach us how to stop. “Be still, and know that I am God.”

God wants a family of people who can gather together, as we are now, as brothers and sisters, to stop and be still with him.
I’m going to stop now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jesus and Genesis: His Creation

Scripture Readings:
Genesis 1:1-2:3
John 1:1-18 (RSV)

An astronomer was giving a public lecture and he announced, “I have swept the universe with my telescope, and I find no God.” A musician stood up and objected. “That statement is just as unreasonable as it is for me to say that I have taken my piano apart, and examined every piece with a microscope, and I have found no music.”

The Bible shows us the music. The Bible shows us God in the universe.
The first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, is a book of beginnings and foundations. It shows us the spiritual principles and the spiritual foundations of the universe, and of this planet in which we live. The first chapter of the Gospel of John does the same.

John shows us Christ in the universe; Christ in the very beginning. John shows us that Christ is not a late comer. Christ and his cross are not an afterthought.
John tells us that we can see the fullness of God in Christ. Christ makes God known. (John 1:18)

Christ is God. And John tells us that we can only see the universe and this planet of which we are a part if we see Jesus for who he is, because, “All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:3-4) This means that, in his light, we see his life: his nature and his character. And in his light we see how that life is reflected in what he has made; how creation functions in the light of his nature. We see how to live as his children in his creation.

We can only understand the universe in the light of Jesus. The part of the universe we know best is the part we call the earth, and the earth (for all its wonder and beauty) is full of stuff that frightens us or angers us. The world often outrages our sense of what is good. If God is love (1 John 4:8) then the part of the universe we know best is very much alienated from God. It often acts as if it were the very enemy of God and what God stands for.

The Bible, itself, clearly tells us this. The Bible tells us that the prevailing ways of this world are dark, and they are unable to comprehend the light that reaches out to bring life to the world. The world seems driven to overcome the light wherever it finds it.

But the Bible also tells us that it is the very nature of Jesus to give himself up for the forgiveness, and the healing, and the peace, and the transformation of wrong in the world; starting with humans, starting with us. Jesus is the Word that was in the beginning; the word that spoke the universe into being and began it all when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3)

Jesus is the light that gives us life because the voice that said, “Let there be light,” essentially said, “Let there be a cross. Let me give myself and die for the sins of the world.” Jesus is the living word that says “let there be light” and “let there be a cross”. We cannot understand a world so full of wrong unless we know that it was made by a God whose nature it is to make things right by his own sacrifice, his own suffering, and his own death.

The word “word” in Greek means a message. It means “meaning”. The universe is encoded with a message and with meaning, but the message and meaning only reveal the God we can see in Jesus, who lived, and died, and rose from the dead for us.

The reason for this is because, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” The one who was going to die for the sins of the world left his mark on the world from the moment he first made it. We can only understand the universe in terms of redemption; in terms of the cross; in terms of someone who lays down his life to set others free. (Matthew 20:28)

In a real sense we live in a universe that only works when there is someone who does something for others. This is the music. This is the message. This is the most basic of the principles and foundations of the universe. This is the light that gives life to men, and women, and children, and to the whole world. This is the light that shines in the darkness. This is the work that God does in Christ, who is God.

John says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” The Gospel of John teaches us a lot about the oneness of God the Father and God the Son. John is saying that all things were made through Jesus and with Jesus, in a partnership between Jesus the Son and his Father.

The Spirit is there, too, only John doesn’t explain that. He knows that Genesis has told us enough.

The point he makes is that they were all there before there were days to count; and before time itself. They were all one. They were all God.

There is a kind of partnership built into the universe; built into the world of which we are a part. It is not just the human race that is part of this partnership. “All things were made through him.” All created things show the nature of the partnership of the Trinity.

The world we live in works best when we live as partners and not as lords of creation. The Bible teaches us that the human race was designed to subdue the earth and rule it, but we can only understand our role as rulers of the creation if we understand the role of Jesus as lord of the creation.

How does Jesus subdue us? How does he rule us? He does this in love. He does this in taking care of us. His rule as the lord of creation works by the same principle we see in his incarnation; his becoming a human in his own creation. He rules through his nature as a servant, as a mediator of grace. Jesus rules through the same patterns we see in his life, and in his willingness to offer himself sacrificially on behalf of his own creation.

When he made us in his image it means that he shares his work of creation with us. It also means that he shares his method of working with us. This is one of the foundations and principles of the universe, and things don’t work right unless we work his way.

But this isn’t just what we were created for. It is what we have been saved and set free for, by Christ.

When we were created, our having been made in God’s image was our authority to be partners with God in his creation. Since things have gone wrong we have to know the Lord as our Savior, as the one who has laid down his life for us so that he could give his life to us.

John tells us that when we receive him, when we let him bring his light into our darkness, and his fullness into our emptiness, and his strength into our weakness, then we become children of God. When Jesus makes us children of God, it comes in the form of a power, or an authority. Jesus makes his Father our Father and we become part of the family work again; the work of being a partner and a care-giver in the work of doing something redemptive for others.

This is our calling as the family of God together, as the church. This is our calling, among ourselves. Jesus will say, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

But this is also the face we show to the world. The world is God’s creation. The world is the scene of God’s redemptive love on the cross. The world is also the scene of our creating and redeeming work, as children of God, as partners of God. Our family, our community, our nation, our world are all the setting for our work.
A friend of mine was telling me about the marriages in his family: his own marriage, his brother’s marriage, his sister’s marriage. He said, ‘We have all had to learn to make our marriages work in our own way. We have all had to ask, “What do I have to do to make this work?”’

This is our job as Christians, if we are sincere about being children of God. We look at our family, at our church, at our livelihood, at our community, at our world, and we ask: “What do I have to do to make this work?” The need to answer this question is built into us by our creation and by our salvation. The need to answer this question is one of the principles and foundations of the universe.

It has to be remembered that we are God’s partners in his creation and his redeeming love. We are God’s partners, but we are not God. We do not experience God’s power except as grace and truth coming to us from beyond ourselves. Grace is God’s beauty and mercy. Truth is God’s reality and God’s reliability. This is what he wants us to experience and share with the world.

John tells us that, “The word became flesh (became one of us), and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) He still promises to dwell in us. “Dwell in me.” “Abide in me, and I in you.” (John 15:4)

Life seems designed to remind us of our neediness, but knowing Christ is like being given an inner fullness that you could never hold onto, on your own. “And from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.” (John1:16) When we meet Jesus in our Genesis (when we know what it means to be created through him) this is what we find.

This is what gives us power to be children of God, “who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12) This is part of the music, because it comes from God. And since we are made through Jesus, it is a part of us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fellowship vs Partnership

Preached: 1-10-2010
(Originally from 1-10-1993)

Scripture Reading - Philippians 1:3-11

A newly wed husband had always loved camping (he knew all about woodcraft and survival), and his wife had never been camping in her life. He couldn’t get her to go camping for their honeymoon, but he did for their next vacation. After their first day in camp, he took her for a day’s hike and he got them completely lost.

He tried to find their direction from the moss on the trees, but that didn’t work; and from the sun, but it was too cloudy. His wife began to panic, until they spotted a cabin in the distance. The husband carefully studied the cabin through his binoculars and then he turned around and led the way straight back to camp.

When they got there the wife said, “That was terrific honey, how did you know which way to go when you were so lost?” He said, “Simple, in this part of the country all TV satellite dishes point south.”

Paul, with all his experience of the Lord’s love and his desire to love and serve the Lord by loving others, is like an antenna focused on Christ. He points us the right direction; maybe not back to where we came from, but to where our real home is.
Paul tells his friends in Philippi that he is praying for them. He tells them how he prays that, “your love may abound more and more, in knowledge and depth of insight.” (Philippians 1:9) And something about the way he describes this prayer and his love for these friends of his tells us where he wants us to go.

There is a certain way of “abounding in love” which Paul is able to express in such a wonderful way; but even more he is able to live it out in such a way that he became a gift to others, and he was able to teach his friends how to be the same kind of gift.

This is a love that we have to pray ourselves into, or have others pray into us, because it is pretty far beyond us. I mean, as much as we may want to love others, do we really want to have insight into them? Don’t we really want them to understand us, first? And so Paul is teaching us about the kind of love that we pretend that we want, until we really experience love as a pure and undeserved gift.

Part of Paul’s gift of love was to see other people as his partners. And Paul also saw his purpose in life as being a partner for them.

First of all Paul, felt this partnership with other people who knew the love of Jesus. They were just like brothers and sisters to him. He would never be able to disconnect from them, or walk away from them. He would always have to want what was good for them, because they were his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Before we go on, though, we have to say that Paul saw his purpose in life as sharing the good news of the love of Jesus with people who had no concept of that love at all. He could never have done what he called “defending and confirming the gospel,” which means defending and confirming the love of God for us in Jesus, unless he was living proof of that gospel in action. People who had no notion of the love of God in Christ would have to see the value of it from their contact with Paul.

In the church, we have the word “fellowship” which we might think of as a kind of togetherness, but fellowship is just an old King James English word for “partnership”. There are so many churchy things we do that must seem odd to others. We think these churchy things give us the blessing of fellowship in the form of togetherness. The truth is that the things we do together are meant to train us to be partners; to think, and pray, and work together.

Fellowship is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with the word. But fellowship is not nearly enough. Paul wanted his people to become partners. And this was not just his idea. He had learned this from knowing Jesus. He had experienced “the affection of Christ”.

Partnership in Christ is all about necessity. You can have fellowship when you like each other. But you only have partnership when you need each other.

Sometimes, when I get frustrated, I like to think that I just don’t need what is frustrating me. In fact, I sometimes get tempted to think that I don’t need anything. The truth is that whenever I think that I don’t need anything or anyone, I am definitely being stupid.

There are a bunch of churchy things we call fellowship, and some people don’t do them because they don’t enjoy them, and they also don’t do them because they don’t know that they need them. And those of us who are used to doing these churchy things don’t even think about why we are doing them.

We call worship fellowship. But worship is not fellowship. It is partnership because in worship we are called to come as we truly are into the presence of God as he truly is, and we can never truly know ourselves or know God without knowing ourselves and God in the light of others. Knowing ourselves and God in the light of our partnership with others is the test of truth. It is true that we can never truly know God or ourselves without the work of the Holy Spirit within us, but we also cannot do it without the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit working on us through other people’s lives.

All the cozy, churchy things we do that form our fellowship with each other are actually supposed to be the construction sites where we learn about our partnership with others. The reason why things like Bible studies, and potlucks, and choir practice when we have a choir, and elders-and-trustees-and-committees, and visiting people in the hospital and nursing homes, and the Lord’s Supper are all examples of what we call fellowship is because they are only doorways or windows that we enter in order to become partners in each others lives, and partners in the Lord’s life.
When Paul tells his friends that they all, “share in God’s grace with him,” (1:7) he is actually using that Greek “partnership” word again. We need to be partners in grace and partners in the gospel before we can be good partners in each other’s lives.

When you study business, you learn that, of all the different ways to organize a business (like setting up a corporation or a sole proprietorship), the most unstable of all forms of business is the partnership. A business partnership depends 100% on the part each partner plays, and each partner is completely responsible for the other partners.

The church is a partnership. It is both a surprisingly tough and a surprisingly sensitive thing. One person, one hasty word, one lapse of memory of an absent minded pastor or member, one forgiving gesture, one pat on the back, one good word, can change everything.

So we need to be partners in the grace of Christ in order to have the ability to do the right things, and in order to have the ability to forgive when the right things are lacking. Each one of us, as partners in the gospel, needs to let that gospel live in us.

The gospel is about mercy, compassion, forgiveness, patience, strength from God, and a new life. A little girl once asked a pastor, “Who is this amazing Grace we’re always singing about?” I think being a Christian means growing up in the school of grace where grace teaches us, every day, to be gracious.

We need this gift because our partnership is such a sensitive thing, and yet it is surprisingly tough, because we are partners in Christ and anything started by Christ has got to be a tough and scrappy thing. It has got to be impossible (or almost impossible) to stamp out, because “He who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (1:6)

Another part of the gift that Paul points us to is the gift of praying for the growth of others. “This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more.” (1:9)

What do you do when someone else is doing something wrong? What do you do when someone is somehow deficient somewhere? Well, of course, you help them; as Paul promised to do for his friends when he was set free. And you pray for those people. You pray for those people to abound. You pray for them to be helped. You pray for them to grow more loving, and faithful, and committed, and hopeful, and wise.
This is part of being partners in Christ. When you are partners in Christ, you always keep on praying for good things for your partners.

That’s what Paul means when he writes, “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ.” The Greek language, in which Paul wrote, had a funny way of referring to affection; something very picturesque. Affection is a word that refers to the intestines, the liver, the lungs, and the heart. “The affection of Christ” is literally “the intestines of Christ”.

I imagine that this odd way of describing affection came about because someone you care deeply about can tie everything inside you into knots, or make your heart flutter, or cause you to hyperventilate.

I imagine that when Paul wrote “I long for you all with the affection of Christ,” he felt something like what mothers and fathers feel when their kids are playing on the football field, or on the basketball or volleyball court, or playing in school plays, or playing a band solo, or lined up in a spelling bee. You must want to cheer and take an antacid at the same time.

Parents feel all kinds of pride, fear, and desire because parents are their children’s partners, and they are always praying for good things for them. This is what the Lord wants us to do for each other all the time.

We see in Paul the gift of assurance about others; the gift of confidence in others. This doesn’t mean seeing others through rose-colored glasses. If you did that how could you possibly see clearly enough to pray for them or help them? That’s why Paul wanted them to be able to love “with knowledge and depth of insight.”

Paul wrote, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” I think that here Paul has the hope and the realization that our worries, and frustrations, and fears for others will resolve themselves and drop away when we see each other in the full light of Christ, and see Christ face to face.

Growing up as partners in Christ, growing up in Christ, can be fun and wonderful, and it’s a lot of trial and error too, and it’s probably a good thing we don’t fully realize just how important every day of our lives is in making us what God intends us to be. The important thing is that your life is a good thing started by God, to which God wants to bring meaning and peace; and because of Christ, you have a different kind of life that is started by the Lord. You have a new life that is always new every morning (if you are willing to believe it).
We need to hear God’s voice telling us this.

I am thinking about the song “Amazing Grace” and the last verse that says, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” We will always be growing forever, and so we are all just beginning on the road to being the people that God is planning us to be, but Paul says that we can have confidence that God will get us there.
We don’t understand our own potential unless we put God at the center of it. And we also don’t know what to make of others (our own family, our neighbors and friends, and our fellow members) unless we trust God about them. We need to never forget to long for them with the affection of Christ; which means trusting that Christ loves them the way Christ loves you (if you really believe that Christ loves you).

So you serve them any way the Lord allows you to serve them. And you speak to them with any word the Lord gives you to speak to them. And you put them in the Lord’s hands, and you know you can trust the Lord to take care of them and nurture his meaning for their lives just as he cares for you (if you know that he cares for you). This is spiritual partnership.

The same word that gives us the idea of partnership, and sharing in grace and fellowship, also gives us the translation of the word “communion”; as in communion with the body and blood of Christ.

When we are partners we make an investment of our lives in each other, and we can do this because Christ has invested his life in us. He spent his life to the last drop for us, and now he really lives in us. When we share in the communion together, we are saying that we love him for doing this and that we want to be his partners, and partners with each other forever.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Expectant Believers: An Exchange of Treasures

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

They say that life is not about arriving, but about enjoying the journey. I am not sure what to think of that saying. Around Christmas time I usually make a journey, and I am very interested in arriving.

The story of the wise men who followed the star to Jesus is about a journey, and not very much about arriving. Sure they did arrive, but I think they hardly did more than stay the night.

The story of the wise men who followed the star to Jesus is also a story about gifts. Matthew gives us a list of those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are meaningful, significant gifts; royal and costly gifts: but that’s not what I want us to think about.

Their greatest gift was their journey. All their kingly gifts were probably not as costly to them as that journey they made; hundreds of miles or more, over deserts, and over the hostile borders between Rome and Persia.

Only the wise men gave such a gift: the gift of a dangerous, difficult journey. They gave their journey to honor Jesus, the King of the Kingdom of God. No one else gave Jesus such a gift, even though there was a whole city full of people in Jerusalem who knew what those wise men were looking for.

The journey of the wise men symbolized what the prophet Isaiah talked about; about, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:4 & 6) Their journey was the first installment of a gift that the world has yet to give.

When you make a long journey with gifts for loved ones at Christmas, it is your journey that is your greatest gift. Your journey is the biggest and most difficult statement of your love.

If your whole life is a journey, the same truths hold true. If we are all on a life-journey, then our journey is our greatest gift to this world in which we live. Our journey is our gift to those we love and to those who travel alongside us.

In the story of the wise men, the journey and the gifts are all bound up into one simple thing, and so are ours. Our journey and our gifts are really the same thing.
There are many gifts of the journey. Let’s think about just a few.

First, let’s look at two gifts that God gave the wise men through the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. These are also his gifts to us. They are the grace of God.

The first gift is shown by the star. This gift is as hard to understand as it is important to understand. As the wise men would have understood it; what brought Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, and what brought them through their long journey to Jesus, was a cosmic event; an event that involved the whole universe, all of heaven and earth. It is important for you to know that Jesus coming into history, and even your own coming to Jesus, is part of a cosmic event that involves all heaven and earth.

The star that Matthew tells us about is a mysterious thing. We can’t fully understand it.

One aspect of that star is that it seems to be part of an astronomical event. Ancient people called everything up in the sky stars.

What they thought about the stars is not simple to describe. The stars were stars. The planets were moving stars. The comets were moving stars. The seeming coming together of planets, so that they appeared to touch or join together in the sky, was also called a star. This was a star that came and went.

Now this coming together of stars is called a conjunction of the planets. There was, in the year 7 BC, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. In the philosophy of that time Jupiter stood for royalty, Saturn stood for Israel, and Pisces stood for the end of one age and the beginning of the next. So the conjunction meant that a king would be born in Israel who would bring the end of the age and the beginning of a new one.

A record of this conjunction has been found on a clay tablet in the ruins of an ancient observatory in Sippar, Babylonia, in what is now Iraq. This record shows that Jupiter and Saturn came together on May 29th, and October 3rd, and December 4th of the year 7 BC.

This is not a justification of astrology. This is to say that God put into motion a plan as big and as ancient as the universe in order to draw representatives from the nations to visit him when he became a human baby in Bethlehem. God intended to prove that he had a plan to draw all people to him, even if his own people ignored him. He did this, at the beginning of time, by arranging the galaxies, and the stars of the universe, and the courses of the planets in our solar system in such a way that, if there were people looking up for meaning in the stars, they would be able to see the sign of his coming written in the sky, and come to meet him.

There is a sense in which the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was built into the very shape of the universe, the shape of the cosmos. This means that the drawing of the wise men to Bethlehem was also built into the shape of the cosmos, so that they would see it and come to Jesus.

Our lives in Christ, the way we come to faith in him, the way we persevere and grow in Christ are somehow cosmic events. They are not fragile things. They do not hang by a thread. They may seem to. But they don’t. We hang by something stronger than the universe.

There is something stronger than ourselves that brings us to Christ, and holds us in Christ. This is a great mystery, but it is the very thing Paul talks about in the eighth chapter of Romans, where he writes: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
We are sometimes afraid of the gospel; of the good news of God. We are afraid to share with others what we have seen and what we know. This is because we think we are handling something dangerous and fragile. In our living and sharing our faith we are afraid to be less than perfect, even though we think we know a God of grace, whose grace makes us strong, and whose grace ought to make us unafraid.

But that is part of the lesson of our journey. The problem is that we may very well arrive at our destination before we have truly learned this lesson.

What God did in Bethlehem, what God did on the cross and in the empty tomb are woven into the cosmos of which we are a part. What God has woven into the cosmos gets woven into us. Our coming to God in Christ and our life in God in Christ are part of a strong, cosmic thing that God has done.

That is what the wise men were journeying to see. That is what we actually believe. It is what the Bible teaches us to believe.

The wise men set out, following the star, knowing this; but, in the end, they found something completely unexpected and surprising. This is the nature of a journey with God; to find something that you never expected or understood.

It was wise, in a way, to seek the new king in the Jewish capital, in Jerusalem. It was wise to consult King Herod. It was wise to expect that kings would sire kings. But this was not God’s way or God’s wisdom.

What the wise men discovered in Bethlehem was the lowliness and the humility of the majesty of God. This was completely unexpected. It was an absolute surprise. God expressed his power by making his home with the poor, and the weak, and the needy.
The majesty of Herod was gloriously unjust to the people he ruled, and they suffered for it. The majesty of God was different from the majesty of Herod, or even of the emperor in Rome. The majesty of God chose to live among those who experienced the injustice of the great powers of this world.

When we experience our greatest need, our greatest loss, our greatest weakness, we are experiencing the very reason why God came into this world. We are experiencing the very reason God comes to us.

When we see another person in need, in loss, in weakness, that is when we see our calling to go to them with the lowliness and the humbleness of God in our heart, to be with them and help them however we can. We simply go to them, and love them with the love of the God we see in Bethlehem. That is where God’s majesty and power want to be.

The baby of Bethlehem is where we see the face of God. This is the secret of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. God is the God of the manger, and the carpenter’s shop. God is the God of the cross. God is the God of a tomb that was occupied but is now empty.

This is the true nature of God. He approaches what he has made when it is broken; and he is willing to be broken in order to mend it. This is the power of God.
We start our journey wanting to be dazzled. We find out that something entirely different matters.

These are the gifts that God in Jesus gave to the wise men. They are part of the gospel, and they are God’s gifts to us as well. These gifts make us fit for our journey, and they guide us to our destination.
There are other gifts.

Herod was an example of a false gift; the example of a life that seeks to be in control and in the spotlight. The wise men were a contrast to Herod right from the start. To go on a journey, until fairly modern times, was definitely to risk being out of control. To journey was to be prepared for what might happen, and yet knowing that you could never really be prepared, and never really be in control. To journey truly is to surrender your sovereignty in life. This is one of the gifts the wise men show to us.

All good things begin this way. A good marriage begins this way. So does parenthood. Any calling to serve God begins this way. The life of a child of God begins and ends with the surrender of your sovereignty: the end of your control. It begins and ends with the preparation of the lowliness and the humility and the certainty of the unexpected; the certainty of surprise.

Only the wise men went to Bethlehem, even though all Jerusalem knew what they were up to. The priests and the scholars of the law represented those who were closest to God, yet they were too afraid to take the chance of angering King Herod. They were right to be afraid, but they should have been more afraid not to go with the wise men.

The wise men had the same right as anyone else to be afraid, but they had the passion to go on. One of the gifts of the journey is to not let fear conquer your passion: your passion for life, your passion for others, and your passion for God. John in his first letter says this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

The final gift of the wise men was that they were willing to make a journey to find something that they expected to find, but they were also willing to find the unexpected.

They knew they would be changed by their journey. They did not know how they would be changed. They did not know what they would learn. But they were willing to go. And that is the faith of all the people of God.

When Isaiah says, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” it means that it is God’s design for the whole world to join the journey that began when the Lord called Abraham to travel to a land that he would show him. (Genesis 12:1) Abraham is the prime example of what it means to be a person of faith; to travel to a place one can never know beforehand. This is the journey for every person of faith; including you and me.

As with the wise men, our journey to Jesus is a journey to something we do not fully understand as yet. But it is a journey to the dawn and to the light.

In a way, Jesus is like the star that shines the path. Only the fact is that Jesus is the way. Jesus, in his manger, and in his shop, and on his cross, and in his getting up out of the tomb is at work to build the mending and the setting to rights of the world.

Everything Jesus is, and everything he has done, is devoted to mending us and setting us right. This is the meaning of our journey, and this is what points the way to our destination. And this is a purpose we can share with everyone.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Expectant Believers: A Better Gift List


Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4; Matthew 1:18-25

There was a woman who finally gave up on her husband as a gift giver. Without fail, if he didn’t give her a household appliance, he would give her a power tool, or at least something that had an engine in it.

I’m not much better than that, as a gift giver. My problem, as a gift giver, is that I am always tempted to give the people I love gifts that I think they really should like, if only they knew better. I am tempted to give them gifts that are really for myself and not for them.

Joseph had a choice to make, as a gift giver. His gift was himself. That was given. The problem was for him to decide what kind of man, what kind of person, he would be for Mary, and for God. Would he really be a gift for Mary and for God, or would he prefer to be just a gift to himself?

Mary was pregnant, and Joseph had nothing to do with it. It must be said that Joseph didn’t really know Mary at all, even though they lived in the same small town. Except for within the home and the extended family, boys and girls/men and women had very little contact with each other. It was not allowed.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Now, by “man”, Matthew means that Joseph was probably at least sixteen years old. Men usually married between the ages of sixteen and twenty; just as girls like Mary were sometimes betrothed as early as the age of twelve, and usually before they were sixteen. So both Joseph and Mary were young. And here they were, trying to decide what kind of gift they were supposed to be to each other.

The other thing about Joseph being a righteous man (or a righteous boy) is that being righteous meant doing the right thing. It meant, above all, obeying the commandments of God; following God’s rules. But doing right also meant doing what was right in the right way. Righteousness wasn’t defined only by the rules you followed, but by the kind of heart you showed was inside you, as you lived God’s way.

Since Mary was pregnant, and since pregnancy came about in a certain way, and since Joseph had nothing to do with this, the righteous thing, the right thing, for Joseph to do was for him to divorce Mary.

In their culture, engagement or betrothal could only be ended by death or divorce. That was the right thing to do; because such a pregnancy could only reasonably happen because of unfaithfulness, and there was nothing worse than unfaithfulness. And the result could be that Mary would be brought for judgment before the town elders and condemned to death by stoning.

But there was something much more involved in doing what was right. There was a line from the prophet Isaiah, saying that the Messiah, when he arrived, would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. Joseph knew that something in the heart was important if one were to be truly righteous; truly right in the way you lived in this world and related to the people around you. There was gentleness and kindness. And so Joseph thought the right thing to do was to divorce Mary quietly, and perhaps send her off to live with relatives, so that she would not be put in danger for what she must have done.

What kind of decision could Joseph make so that he could do what was right, and be the kind of man, the kind of person, that Mary needed him to be, and that God expected him to be?

But there was something even more serious that this. Mary claimed that this child within her was more miraculous than any other baby in the world. This baby was a miracle of the Holy Spirit. This baby was the work of God. This baby was the very real presence of God in this world of ours.

Even if Joseph believed this: who else would believe it? People would believe the worst and act accordingly.

In the Old Testament, the Lord told the prophet Isaiah this about what kind of Savior his people were to expect: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…” (Isaiah 42:3) This is what the Messiah would be like. This would be the essential nature, the core personality, of the king of the kingdom of God.

And this must have been the kind of Messiah that Joseph really hoped for. This must have been the kind of kingdom of God that Joseph really waited for. Because, this is what Joseph made himself to be for Mary. This was his gift to her and to God.

She was in danger of being stoned to death for something she had not done. If she was not killed, she would live a life of shame. She would never marry, because no good man would marry her. She and her child would always be followed by whispers, and gossip, and accusations, and insults, and mistreatment.

Mary and her child were in danger of being bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. In the village culture of Galilee they would be outsiders and outcasts all their lives.
Through an angel, God told Joseph not to be afraid to join them in their fate. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” (Matthew 1:20)

If Joseph listened to God, he would be joining Mary and the child in their shame. He would be claiming responsibility for this child: claiming this child as his own: and so Joseph would be advertising his personal irresponsibility for the rest of his life. That is what everyone would think, and they would treat him accordingly.

Whether or not Joseph was really afraid to take Mary home as his wife, and to take her shame upon himself, Joseph made the choice as if he were not afraid.
The result is that Joseph became a part of Mary’s world, and a part of the world of her child Jesus. He identified himself with her shame, and bore it himself, as long as he lived.

Don’t you think that this must be the greatest reason for treating Joseph as Jesus’ father? He really lay down his life for Mary and Jesus.

Our reading in Matthew tells us two things about Jesus. One is that Jesus fulfills a prophecy about God working through a child with the name Immanuel (which means God with us). (Matthew 1:23) The other thing is that Jesus’ name had a special meaning for him (even though it was a common name in his time and place). Jesus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves”. Matthew puts it this way, “for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

Joseph served his wife, served others, served his son, and served God by giving himself to them with all his heart. His deepest gift of himself to them was his willingness to simply be there with them, and just to be himself.

This is what God has done for us in Jesus. Whether he is in the manger, or in the carpenter shop, or on the cross, Jesus is “God with us”. He gives himself for us and this is our salvation. He gives us all that he is, just as he is, in himself.

And even though Mary had not sinned as everyone else thought, Joseph identified with her. Joseph acted as her forgiver, even when she had done nothing to forgive. In the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and on the cross; God in Christ identifies with our sins, and bears them for us. This is our salvation.

Christmas is about the gospel; about the God who is always with us and bears our sins in Jesus. Joseph is an invitation for us to bear the role of Jesus in this world.

In Joseph and in Jesus we are called to see the people and the situations that are the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks in this world. In Jesus and in Joseph, we are called to be there, to simply be present, and to do our humble quiet work for them, even when the world misunderstands us. The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Jesus where he feeds us with himself. His giving himself to us enables us to have the grace to give ourselves to others and to the world for his sake, and so that his will may be done.