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Superpowers

February 3rd 2013, Pastor Galen

I Corinthians 13:1-13

Super Powers

If you could have any superpower you wanted, what would it be?

A friend of mine says he wishes that he had the ability to reach behind his back and pull out a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies whenever he wanted. How many of you would like to have that gift?

Here in our passage today, the author lists some amazing powers, or gifts, that are kind of like superhero powers. Here are a couple of the powers that Paul talks about:

  • The ability to speak any language in the world
  • The ability to tell the future
  • The ability to make a mountain move just by commanding it to move.

Those would be some pretty cool superpowers, wouldn’t they?

I would love that first one — wouldn’t that be amazing to be able to speak Spanish, Chinese, Russia, French, German, and Greek and all the other languages in the world?

Or, what if you could always know what’s going to happen before it happens? (Actually, I’m not sure if I would really want that one or not… I kind of like surprises).

Or, what about the ability to make things move by just commanding them to move? This would absolutely be the superhero gift I would choose. Yesterday my daughters and I spent most of the morning folding and putting away laundry. Imagine if we had just been able to say, “laundry, be folded and put away!” That would have been great.

But Paul tells us that having all of the greatest powers in the world would be worthless without one very important thing: Love.

You see, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, or how many wonderful things you do to help other people on a regular basis, if the things you do are not motivated by love, if it’s not motivated by love it’s pointless. In fact, any sort of power without love can be a very dangerous thing.

Corinth

The reason Paul was writing this to the people in Corinth is because some of the Corinthians thought that their special gifts or abilities were better than others. The Corinthians didn’t necessarily have superpowers, but God has given each one of us gifts that we can use to help others and to bless the church.

For example, some of the Corinthians were good at teaching. Some of them were preachers and evangelists. Others of them were good at leadership or administration, and still others seemed to have the gifts of healing (see 1 Cor. 12:28-30).

The problem is that some of the people in Corinth thought that their gifts were better or more important than other people’s gifts. Perhaps the teachers thought they were more valuable than those who did the administrative work. Or the leaders thought they were more significant than the people who did collected the tithes and offerings.

And you know what? I don’t think that the Corinthians were the only people who ever thought that way. The reality is that all of us probably value the things that we’re good at, and we might have a tendency to look down on people who aren’t gifted in the same way.

If you have the gift of hospitality and you are really good at making people feel welcome and at home, it’s probably really frustrating to go to someone’s house who isn’t very hospitable. If you’re a really gifted teacher, it can be very frustrating to be taught by  someone who is not a good teacher.

But what Paul told the Corinthians in the previous chapter is that every member of the Church has a unique gift and a valuable role to play in the church. Every spiritual gift is equally important. The preacher is not more important or significant than the Sunday School teacher. The pianist is not more important than the greeters or the ushers. We all have a vital role to play in the Church, and we all need each other.

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals

And now here in this beautiful and poetic chapter, Paul takes it a step further to say that it doesn’t matter what we’re good at, or how much we’ve sacrificed our time or energy or resources to help other people, if what we do is not motivated by love, it’s worthless.

Paul uses the analogy of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Both of those instruments can be really beautiful when played at the just the right moment in an orchestral suite. But they can both be really irritating and annoying when played all the time.

In the same way, doing wonderful things for others for any other reason other than love can be quite aggravating.

You’ve probably all met someone who does nice things for other people but for the wrong reasons. They want others to be indebted to them. They go around keeping a mental list of everyone who owes them favors. At first they seem servant-hearted, but when you scratch the surface you find that down deep they’re really self-centered.

Or maybe you know someone who is always doing nice things for their bosses or teachers or those in authority, with the hopes of climbing the corporate ladder or getting ahead of everyone else. They’ll step on whoever they need to in order to make it to the top. They grow in power, but not in love.

Paul says that you can do all the wonderful things in the world. You can even give all of your possessions away or give everything you own for a particular cause, but if don’t have love, then it’s worthless.

Love is What We Need

Love is a powerful force. And it’s a necessary force. It’s a force that is severely lacking in the world today. It’s a force that our world desperately needs.

As I look around at our world today, we have plenty of gifted and talented people. We have plenty of powerful people. But we don’t need more people who are only concerned with getting ahead, or who are interested in building up favors from other people.

We need more people who are loving. Genuinely loving. And not just any type of love, but a Christ-like love that doesn’t discriminate or differentiate. A love that loves across boundaries, a love that doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. A love that flows out of the love that God has for us. A love that overflows from Christ’s sacrificial love, expressed on the cross for us.

How do we gain this type of love? What do we need to do in order to become the type of people who love like this?

Pursue Love

Interestingly enough, Paul doesn’t provide us with a how-to manual in this passage. He doesn’t give us the 5 or 10 steps to becoming a loving person.

Instead, he tells us what love looks like:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Paul wants us to be able to recognize love when we see it. Love is already around us, and if we have Jesus living in us, then love is already inside us.

But if we want to grow in love, we need to know what real love actually looks like. We need to be able to know it when we see it. And we need to open ourselves up to receive more of God’s love, so that it can flow out of us to those around us.

In the very next passage — 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul tells the Corinthians to “Pursue love…” Each of us have the ability to love others. It’s inside us! But we need to work at it. We need to chase after it. We need to grow in it.

There are a lot of gifts and talents that we could pursue. We can and should pursue the things we’re gifted in. If you have the gift of teaching by all means use it, and seek to grow in it! If you’re gifted in administration, or hospitality, use those gifts, and strive to get even better at them!

But above all, let’s seek to grow in love. Let’s pursue it. Let’s strive after it. Let’s recognize that all of our wonderful gifts and talents are worthless without out. Let’s open ourselves up to receive more of God’s love, and let’s let it exude out of us to everyone we come into contact with. Let’s get to know Jesus more intimately so we can truly know what love looks like, and so that we can grow in our love for God and for others.

Because in the end (according to Paul), Love is the only thing that will last. Love is the ultimate super power.

Empty Jars

January 27th 2019, Pastor Galen

John 2:1-11

A Sober Situation

Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding reception, and the wine has run out.

A 1st Century Palestinian wedding reception with no wine is like a crab feast with no crabs, a birthday party without a birthday cake, or a 4th of July Party without fireworks.

In other words, this is a catastrophe!

But in order for us to understand just how devastating this situation is, it’s helpful if we understand a little bit about 1st century Palestinian Jewish life and wedding celebrations.

 

Small towns like Cana had relatively small populations. Cana probably had at most 1,000 people, and so a wedding like this did not come along every day.

Life was rather difficult for first-century Palestinian Jews living as an oppressed minority under Roman occupation with very few rights. For example, in other biblical accounts, we learn that a Roman soldier could come by and force a first-century Jewish man to carry his armor for a mile.

Most people lived day-to-day, paycheck to paycheck, with no savings, sick leave, or retirement plans. Many men were day laborers — they often spent their days waiting out in the town square for hours at a time, waiting for some wealthy landowner to come and hire them to work in their fields for the day.

 

And so, weddings in those days were a wonderful distraction from the toilsome reality of life. And by the way, wedding celebrations did not just last one day – they lasted for seven whole days! And the whole town was invited.

An essential element of celebration in first-century Palestinian Jewish culture was wine. The wine was rather watered down — it did not have nearly the same alcoholic content that wine does today. But it was nevertheless a critical element in the celebration of a wedding feast.

 

And so, running out of wine somewhere in the middle of a much-anticipated 7-day wedding festival where the whole town was invited was probably the worst nightmare for the hosts of this wedding feast. Not only would this situation cause the festival to come to a grinding halt, but this would cast tremendous shame and embarrassment on the couple who just got married, and indeed their whole family.

 

Jesus – Do Something!

 

We might find it interesting that Jesus and his disciples are attending this 7-day wedding festival when there were so many other important things Jesus could be doing. We can imagine him healing people, or teaching. But attending a wedding feast? But we see in the Gospels that Jesus was always present with the people. Jesus did not separate himself off in some ivory palace or lock himself away in a religious library. Jesus is always with the people, and so when it’s time for a celebration, that’s where Jesus is.

It’s Jesus’s mother who makes him aware that the wine has run out. And in response, Jesus says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). This word “woman” is not as disrespectful as it might sound to us. It’s a formal word, and somewhat distant – but it’s probably more the equivalent of saying “mother,” rather than “Mom.”

But why does Jesus respond this way? And what does Jesus mean by the statement that his “hour has not yet come”?

Well, in other places in the Gospel of John, the “hour” refers to the time when Jesus is lifted up on the cross. It’s the time when Jesus is glorified, when he reveals himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God. So it seems that Jesus is saying that if he were to do what his mother wants him to do, it could set off the chain reaction that would eventually lead to his death on the cross.

I’m really not sure what Mary had in mind when she approached Jesus. Perhaps she just wanted Jesus to go to the store to buy more wine. Or perhaps Mary wanted Jesus to do some sort of flashy miracle here — something that would show all of these townspeople who Jesus really is. You see, Mary has known since before Jesus was born who Jesus really is – she knows that he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And she’s had to hold on to that secret all of these years. So maybe Mary wants Jesus to do something showy and impressive here, to get everyone’s attention and show them who he is and why he’s come. Maybe Jesus could make it so that everyone’s cup would automatically refill with wine every time they drank from it, or cause it to rain wine down from out of the sky.

But Jesus tells his mother that his hour has not yet come.

But then Mary does something very interesting. She turns to the servants and says “do whatever He tells you to do.”  Mary seems to understand that Jesus is not going to do what she wants him to do, but she has confidence that he is going to do something.

And sure enough, Jesus does indeed act, but in a way that is quite shocking.

Empty Ceremonial Jars

There’s a very remarkable little detail regarding this miracle that’s really rather scandalous when you stop to think about it. I want us to consider for a moment the containers that Jesus used to turn the water into wine. Now there were probably plenty of empty wineskins laying around, and Jesus could have used some of those. Or if necessary he could have miraculously caused wine jugs to appear out of nowhere.

But instead, Jesus turns and sees six massive stone water jars sitting off to the side – the types of stone water jars that were usually used for the Jewish rites of purification. And he sees that these vessels are empty.

You see, the Jewish people had all sorts of religious ritual requirements. They had to wash their hands thoroughly before eating and before going into the temple and before engaging in all sorts of religious rituals. It wasn’t just about being free from germs – it was symbolic of being cleansed from sin, and the leaders taught the people that it was necessary to do all of these purification rituals in order to be accepted by God.

The fact that these six huge stone water jars were sitting there empty means that at one time the family who is hosting this wedding feast had been a very religious family who had done all the right religious rituals. They probably went to the synagogue every week, said all the prayers, offered all the sacrifices they were supposed to offer.

But the fact that these huge stone water jars seem to be sitting there empty indicates that they weren’t being used anymore.

Maybe the family didn’t see the point in doing all the rituals and so they just stopped doing them. Or maybe in the midst of all the wedding preparations they were just too busy to keep up with all the religious rituals they were supposed to do.

And so these massive ritual purification jars are just sitting there in the corner gathering dust, empty, purposeless, a reminder of the bygone days when religions played a more central role in their life.

The Best Wine

Jesus sees these empty stone purification jars, and he tells the servants to fill them with water, and to draw some of the water out. And somehow, miraculously, the water becomes wine! And not just any wine, but the best wine ever! And a LOT of wine. Each vessel held somewhere between 20 and 30 gallons of water, so that means that Jesus made somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine!

In doing this, Jesus saved the wedding festival from coming to a grinding halt, and he saved the hosts and the newly married couple from tremendous shame and embarrassment.

But Jesus also did this miracle to show his disciples and those closest to him something about who he was and what he came to do. Most of the wedding guests, and even the host of the wedding festival, probably did not even know that this miracle had taken place. But his followers and his family who were there with him saw Jesus use empty, no-longer-used religious vessels, and fill them with something that brought joy. And this is a beautiful picture of who Jesus is and what he came to do.

New Wine for You

Jesus didn’t come to institute rigorous religious requirements, nor did he come to do away with all of the old religious systems altogether. He came to take what was old and make it new again. He came to bring fresh vision and purpose to what had become empty and meaningless. He came to bring abundant life and joy.

And I believe that Jesus wants to do the same for you – and for our church.

Maybe there was a time when you read your Bible regularly, but now it’s just laying there gathering dust. Maybe you used to pray every day, but it seemed like your prayers just weren’t being answered, or maybe you just got busy and so you just stopped doing it. Maybe you used to find a lot of joy in doing good things for others, but it seems like they don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them, so you’re tempted to give up.

I believe that Jesus wants to fill those places in your life that are empty with new wine. I believe that Jesus wants to reignite the passion that you once had for God. I believe that God wants to do something new and fresh in your life. Jesus may not always do exactly what you want him to do, but he will always give you what you need if you ask. The Bible says that God is a Father who wants to give us good gifts (Matt. 7:11), and Jesus said that our Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13).

New Wine for Our Church

I also believe that God wants to bring a new sense of life and joy to our church, to give us fresh vision and purpose.

One of the things that struck me when I first came to this church is all of the different ways that this congregation is serving the community. From hosting the food pantry and running a thrift store, to putting on monthly family fun nights and a weekly Sunday morning children’s ministry, this congregation is doing a lot of things to reach and serve the community.

But it also strikes me that there are a lot of places here in our church building that are only used once a week, or even less frequently. I get the sense that there was a time when every nook and cranny of this building was filled with people, and I would love to see that happen once again! And I’ve seen a lot of items around the church that used to be used frequently, but now they’re gathering dust because we don’t have enough people or volunteers to make use of them. I’m praying that God would bring more people to join us in our mission, and that we would once again be able to make use of all of the resources that we have here in our church.

Just like those empty ritual purification jars, Jesus wants to fill us with fresh new wine. Let us offer ourselves up as willing vessels, and let us allow God to do something amazing and miraculous in us!

 

Beloved

January 20th 2019, Pastor Galen

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Is This the One?

I want to invite us to picture this scene laid out for us in the Gospel of Luke. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, gathered together around a river bank, where a lone figure calls out to them to repent, to turn away from the wrong things they’ve been doing, and turn back to God.

The man calling out to the crowds to repent is dressed in camel’s hide, his hair is disheveled, he has a wild look in his eyes. But he speaks with the authority of the prophets of old.

The people have been longing for a word from God for so many years. They’ve wondered if God has forgotten about them, they wonder if God even cares. And now this man, crazy as he may seem, delivers a word with power and authority from God.

And so the people begin to wonder among themselves, could he be the one? Could this be the one that they’ve been waiting for, the promised Messiah, the anointed one, the one who would lead them to freedom? Could he be the one that they’ve been looking for and longing for?

Long gone at this point are any memories of the angels who proclaimed the newborn king, the shepherds and the wise men who came to give baby Jesus honor and Glory.

For some, the birth of the little child of whom angels proclaimed glad tidings may have seemed like a blip on the screen. Perhaps the announcement had been a mistake? The baby Jesus lived a childhood of relative obscurity. As Jesus grew into adolescence he seemed to do little that was noteworthy or spectacular.

But here, here standing in the midst of the Jordan River was someone who stood apart from the crowd. This man, who invited them to receive God’s forgiveness. This man who spoke with such authority. John the Baptizer. Perhaps he was the one?

Someone Even Greater Was In Their Midst

But John the Baptizer is the first to admit that he is not the one, but in fact, Someone much greater than John is coming. John tells that while he can baptize them with water, the One who is to come will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. In fact, John says that he is not even worthy to untie the shoelaces of the One who is to come.

If John did not even consider himself worthy of doing such a lowly task that was normally done by the lowliest of servants, then the Messiah, the Anointed One, is indeed much more powerful than he.

Little do the people know that the Promised One is actually among them, that he had been there all along. The Messiah had lived among them, he had grown up with them. He had gone to school and the synagogue with them. He had interacted with them in the marketplace. He knew very well the situation that they were in. He knew what they were going through. He had been there all along.

And now John the Baptist had come to prepare their hearts for Jesus the Messiah, so that they would be able to see and recognize Jesus for who he was — when the time was right.

The Baptism of Jesus

And then, just like that, there he was. Standing in line with everyone else, waiting to be baptized in the waters of the river Jordan. Humble and unassuming, gentle and meek, he plunged into the muddy waters of the Jordan river.

In entering into the Jordan river, Jesus walked in the footsteps of the Israelites who crossed the Jordan river to get to the promised land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

In plunging beneath the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus followed the patter of Naaman, the Aramean commander who bathed in the Jordan river to be cleansed of his leprosy.

And of course in submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus identified with the crowds of Jewish people who accepted John’s invitation to prepare their hearts for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

But when Jesus came up out of the water, something different, something unique happened. Something that hadn’t happened when everyone else was baptized.

When Jesus was baptized and was praying, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).

Was this for the benefit of Jesus, or John the Baptist, or the people present? Did anyone else even see this happen?

We don’t actually know, but it’s interesting to note here that each member of the Trinity played an active role in Jesus’s baptism, acting in complete unity in this one scene. God the Father’s voice calls out from heaven, affirming Jesus as the Beloved Son. Jesus identifying with the people. The Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. The Trinity, the 3-in-1, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, acting in complete unity.

And So It Begins

And this is in many ways a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus’s baptism marks the start of his public ministry. Up until this point Jesus had lived among the people in relative obscurity. But now the time was right for everyone to know who Jesus was and what He had come to do. The time was ripe for the promises to be fulfilled.

After his baptism, Jesus began his public ministry of doing miracles, and healing people, of showing forth God’s love, of proclaiming God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, of reconciling us to God and filling us with the Holy Spirit.

God Is Love

But it’s also interesting to note that these words that were spoken over Jesus, this affirmation by God the Father that Jesus is the Beloved Son, with whom the Father is well pleased, takes place even before Jesus had done any miracles, before he had done anything spectacular.

In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Anglican Pastor Tish Harrison Warren says,

It’s remarkable that when the Father declares at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus hasn’t yet done much of anything that many would find impressive. He hasn’t yet healed anyone or resisted Satan in the wilderness. He hasn’t yet been crucified or resurrected. It would make more sense if the Father’s proud announcement came after something grand and glorious — the triumphant moment after feeding a multitude or the big reveal after Lazarus is raised…

Jesus didn’t have to do those things in order to gain God’s love or approval. Jesus did those things out of a strong sense of his identity as God’s Beloved Son.

Tish Harrison Warren goes on to say that,

Jesus is eternally beloved by the Father. His every activity unfurls from his identity as the Beloved. He loved others, healed others, preached, taught, rebuked, and redeemed not in order to gain the Father’s approval, but out of his rooted certainty in the Father’s love.

And it’s the same for us. There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love. Although we are not the Messiah or God’s only Begotten Son, we are beloved children of God. And God loves us not because of the amazing things that we’ve done for God, but simply because God is love. Love is in God’s nature, it’s what God does.

Even before we recognized God’s work in our lives, God loved us. Even before we asked for God’s forgiveness, even before we turned our hearts to God, God was there, working in our lives, calling us, inviting us, loving us.

We don’t need to do anything spectacular to earn God’s favor, we just need to open ourselves up to receive God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

Remember Your Baptism

Reflecting on Jesus’s baptism might bring to mind our own baptisms. Some of you might have been old enough to remember when you were baptized, while others perhaps remember when you confirmed or affirmed your baptismal vows.

For us, baptism marks the beginning, not the end, of our spiritual journey. Just as Jesus was baptized at the start of his ministry, even before he had done anything spectacular or miraculous, baptism marks the beginning of our lifelong journey of faith.

“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit” (Baptismal Covenant IV).

This morning I want to invite us to “remember our baptism and be thankful.”

As we remember our baptism, let us remember that we too are loved by God, not because of anything wonderful or special that we’ve done, but simply began God has chosen to love us and call us.

Epiphany

January 6th 2019, Pastor Galen, Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

 

Today is Epiphany Sunday, the day that we celebrate the pronouncement of the Good News to the Gentiles, as represented by the story of the Magi, or Wise Men, who came to worship the baby Jesus.  The Bible doesn’t provide a lot of details about the background of these Magi, but there is a tradition going back over 1500 years that one of the Magi was named Balthazar.

Since we don’t have much background information to go on, I’d like to do something a little different this morning — I’d like to invite us to use our creative imagination to enter into the story of Balthazar, and to consider together how and why Balthazar and the other Magi were prompted to come and worship the baby Jesus. I hope that you will indulge me for the next few minutes as I attempt to fill in some of the gaps, and to imaginatively retell the story of Balthazar and the other Magi.

Balthazar was always fascinated by the stars, even from a young age. When he was little, he used to sneak out of his bedroom at night and climb up onto the flat roof of his house so that he could have an unhindered view of the night sky. Even before he was introduced to the concept of constellations, Balthazar noticed patterns and shapes and configurations of stars. He saw the outlines of animals, people, and a variety of living creatures, and even gave specific names to his favorite ones. He also noticed the way that the stars moved and shifted their positions in the sky as the seasons changed.

As an adolescent, Balthazar was hand selected along with numerous other youth to be taken to the King’s palace, where he received specialized training in science and mathematics, language, history, and literature.

There Balthazar was introduced to the more formal study of the stars — what we know today as the fields of astrology and astronomy. Balthazar’s fascination with the stars, combined with his amazing intellect and almost photographic memory made him a quick learner, and he soon rose to the top of his class. What was most striking was his almost uncanny ability to make associations between current events and the formations that he noticed in the stars. Often it seemed like he could even predict events before they even happened.

It was in this academic environment where Balthazar was first introduced to the writings of Daniel, one of the most famous Babylonian Magi, who had lived about 600 years before him. Daniel was an Israelite who had been brought to Babylon as a young man and educated in the language and literature of the Babylonians. Daniel quickly rose to prominence in Babylon because of his ability to interpret dreams and provide cosmic and supernatural explanations for the current events and realities of his day. Daniel had also made a number of predictions that had not yet come to pass, which became a source of much fascination for the young Balthazar. In particular, Daniel had predicted that there would be someone with the appearance of a man who would be given divine authority and power and who would be worshipped by all nations and peoples of every language (see Daniel 7:13-14).

Balthazar was captivated by this idea that there would be someone with the appearance of a person who was granted divine authority and who would be worshiped by people of every nation. He wondered who this person might be, and whether Daniel’s prophecy might finally be fulfilled in his lifetime.

Balthazar shared his musings with a few close friends in the academy, and they too became interested in this particular prophecy. Together they began to theorize about where and when this person would appear and how these events might unfold. They drew upon the various fields of study that they were engaged in, including literature and history, and yes, even their study of the stars. Balthazar and his friends searched far and wide in the various historical and literary documents available to them in the palace’s vast library, and eventually they stumbled upon a handful of other prophecies written by several contemporaries of Daniel – fellow Jewish prophets who also seemed to predict the coming of a divine being who would draw followers from people of every nation and language.

Balthazar and his friends began to watch the stars closely for any sign that this these events might be close to fulfillment, and they made a pact that if and when the stars aligned in such a way that made it clear that the promised one had come, that they would attempt to search for and seek out this person so that they could be among the first from among the nations to pay him homage.

Years went by, and Balthazar and his friends graduated from the academy. They were among the top of their class and so it wasn’t long before they were elevated to the positions of Magi in the kingdom, not too different from Daniel and his friends of old. As Magi, one of their roles was to monitor the sky closely for any important signs and to provide advice and counsel to the king accordingly. But even as they rose in prominence and importance in the kingdom, they never forgot the pact that they had made, and they continued to keep a lookout for any sign that the promised one had arrived.

And sure enough, their patience and steadfastness paid off. One day they noticed something different in the night sky, something that could only be explained by supernatural intervention. Something that indicated to them that the time had finally come, that the promised one who they had been waiting for must have finally arrived.

As scholars, they were cautiously overjoyed. They hoped beyond all hope that they were correct, that their careful calculations were indeed accurate. Yet they didn’t want their emotions to cloud their judgement, so they tried to hold back from celebrating until they actually received confirmation that their assessment of the heavenly omens was indeed correct. In order to do so, they had to follow through on their commitment to search for and find the promised one. They had to see him for themselves. They had to know for sure that he had arrived. And they had to worship him.

And so with the permission and blessing of the king, they set off on the journey of their lives. They didn’t know how or where it would end, they didn’t know how long they would be gone, but they knew that this was something that they had to do, not just for themselves, but for their people. And so they set off with not only provisions for their own journey, but also with gifts on behalf of their whole kingdom – gold, and frankincense, and myrrh — royal gifts for someone worthy of their utmost honor and devotion.

Now, whether or not this is how the journey of the Magi was initiated I don’t know. Again, the Bible doesn’t provide us with many details regarding who these Magi were or how they knew about the coming of the Messiah other than that they had seen a star.  But the rest of their journey is laid out pretty precisely in Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit to baby Jesus. The Magi stopped first in Jerusalem, where they inquired to King Herod about the birth of the new king. King Herod was of course upset by the suggestion that a new king had been born who would replace him, but he managed to conceal his anger.

Herod called together his religious advisors, who were able to identify the location of the Messiah’s birth according to the ancient prophesies – Bethlehem, only six miles south of the capital city of Jerusalem. Herod directed the Magi to find the child and to report back to him once they had completed their mission, under the false pretenses that he too would like to worship this new king. The Magi did indeed find the Christ child. They worshipped him, and offered him and his family gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and so they returned home by another route in order not to alert King Herod to the precise location of the child.

Good News for the Magi

Now the truth is that we really don’t know how exactly how the Magi connected the dots to understand that the star they saw in the sky was related to the good news that the Jewish Messiah had been born.  We really don’t know how much the Magi knew about the Jewish faith and tradition to begin with.

But I find it fascinating to consider the possibility that the Magi had read the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel was an Israelite who had been taken captive by the Babylonians and had became a well-respected advisor to the king. In Daniel chapter 4 verse 9, King Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as the “chief of the magicians,” where we get the term Magi. And so I think it is extremely possible that Daniel’s prophesies were revered and preserved not only in the Jewish religious tradition, but in the Babylonian religious tradition as well, and I think it’s possible that these Magi would have had access to the writings of the prophet Daniel.

But above all of that, what I find most fascinating about all of this is that God would choose to reveal the good news of Jesus’s birth not only to Jewish shepherds abiding in the fields, like we saw in Luke chapter 2, but to Gentile magicians and astrologers from another nationality and culture altogether. God wanted the whole world to know and experience the joy of the Messiah’s birth. And not only did God reveal this good news to the Magi, but God did it in such a way that they could understand, in a way that was relatable and comprehensible to them. God made it so abundantly clear to them, that they were moved to go to such great lengths to actually come and worship the new king.

Good News for our World Today

And so what are the implications of this story for us today? Well, I believe that there are many people in our world today who are seeking truth and knowledge, and they’re searching in all manners of different places to try to understand the nature of the universe.

I think there’s a misconception that the majority of people in our society are not interested in faith or God. But although growing numbers of people are not actively involved in a church and would not consider themselves religious, many people do think a lot about the supernatural and divine. We don’t have to look very far to see that some of the most popular tv shows, books, and movies deal with the mystical, with life after death, with the divine, or with magic. And many people are fascinated with astrology and philosophy, with spirituality and with meditation. Even many people who don’t believe in God or attend church want to know if there is something else out there, they want to believe that there is a greater purpose and meaning to life. They want to live for something beyond themselves.

I work on a daily basis with college students, and being around young adults in the academic environment, I’m always struck by their insatiable desire to understand the way that the world works. So often they draw together the various things that they’re learning from their various academic disciplines, and they seek to apply that knowledge to try to understand the world that we live in and the nature of the universe.

Although these various methods may not be the most direct ways to experience and learn about God, I find it comforting to consider that God can reveal truth to people even through the most unexpected means and in the most unexpected ways. If God can use the stars to announce the good news of Jesus’s birth to Magi, then perhaps God can speak to people through science or philosophy or mathematics or even popular movies, books and tv shows today. And although I think that our culture’s obsession with the supernatural and mystical is so often misdirected, I do think that this reveals an openness to the divine that perhaps we as followers of Christ could leverage in our attempts to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those around us.

Good News for Us

This morning we, like the Magi of long ago, have seen and experienced the Good News that Jesus has been born, and we have come together to worship Him. In a few minutes we’re going to gather around the Lord’s table to break bread together and to share the cup, as we remember and reflect upon the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus paid so that we could know God. As we do so, I want to invite us to remember anew the beauty and the wonder of the reality that God became flesh to dwell among us, and the amazing fact that God desires people of every nation and background to know and experience this Good News.  May we, like the Magi, experience overwhelming joy at the remembrance of this good news, and may we too offer all that we have and all that we are in worship of our King!

Unto Us A Child is Born

December 24th, 2018, Pastor Galen, Christmas Eve Service

Luke 2:8-14

For those of us who didn’t grow up around sheep, we might tend to think of sheep as these warm, cuddly, soft animals that are always clean and smell great. If we could, we’d just to just hold a nice cuddly little lamb in our arms. We imagine sheep grazing in picturesque landscapes, lush green fields, where the weather is always beautiful, the sun is always shining, and the nights, and clear and crisp, but not too cold.

At the same time, we romanticize what it must have been like to be a shepherd in Bible times. We imagine the shepherds with their white clean robes, lying there in the lush green grass, holding adorable little lambs, their hair always immaculately in place. Just a wonderful, peaceful existence, enjoying nature, rescuing little lost lambs, and living a life of solitude and rest.

And so we might wonder, why did the angels disturb these shepherd’s peaceful sleep to tell them that the Christ Child was born? And why did the angels specifically choose shepherds, of all people, to announce the glad tidings of Jesus’ birth?

The reality is, however, that sheep are not necessarily always perfectly clean. And the weather conditions around 1st Century Palestine were not always perfect. And shepherds were not able to always keep their robes clean and pristine, and their hair was not always immaculately in place.

Sheep herding was actually a rather dirty and smelly occupation. Not only were shepherds around smelly animals all day, but they probably weren’t able to take showers or wash their clothes very often. And shepherding was not for the faint of heart.

Living out in the fields meant that sheep herders had to endure harsh weather conditions. Shepherds did indeed often have to rescue little lost lambs — lambs who had fallen down jagged cliffs, or who been attacked by wolves or bears. In some ways we might think of 1st Century Palestinian shepherds kind of like the cowboys and cowgirls of the Old West, or like modern day farmers, without all of our modern technology and access to good sanitation and medical care.

The reality of shepherding in the time when Jesus was born was such that it really wasn’t possible for shepherds to live up to the religious ritual obligations of the day. Shepherds probably couldn’t take time away from their fields to go to the temple to offer sacrifices very often, even though, ironically, the shepherds near Bethlehem may have been raising the sheep that others would offer as sacrifices at the temple. Even if they were to go to the temple, they might have been turned away since they were considered unclean by society — not just physically unclean, but religiously unclean according to the very strict religious and cultural expectations of the day.

And so it was very significant and important that the angels specifically appeared to the shepherds that night. Because if they had appeared to the religious elite, or the politically powerful, or the inordinately wealthy, then shepherds back then, and perhaps we ourselves today, might have always wondered if Jesus had really come for us. But the angels said that Jesus’s birth was cause for great joy for all the people. And if that includes shepherds, then that includes anyone.

Still, the shepherds might have been concerned that if they went to visit the baby who had been born, that they might not be able to see him — that they might get turned away at the door. And so the angel offered them a sign, so that they could know that they would be welcome to see the baby Jesus. The sign was that they would find the baby Jesus lying in a manger.

Now, mangers were feeding troughs, typically filled with food for animals to eat, not really where we would imagine placing a newborn baby.

But many people of the day, and particularly shepherds, were quite poor. And thus they couldn’t afford a lot of furniture, and for shepherds it would have been incredibly impractical to haul a crib or bed out into the fields. So it wasn’t uncommon for shepherds to use one of the most readily available resources when putting their babies down to sleep — a feeding trough, or manger, filled with fresh clean hay.

And so the angel offered a sign to the shepherds to let them know that Jesus had truly come for everyone, including them. They would find Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger — just like how they cared for their own children. Jesus wasn’t born in a royal palace, or placed in some sort of golden cradle far removed from the realities of their own lives. Jesus, the Messiah, the Promised One, had truly come for them.

And friends, Jesus came for us as well! No matter what you’ve done, no matter why you think you might be unworthy, I’m here to tell us today, that “Unto Us A Child is Born!” The Savior has indeed been born for us all!