Retaliation, Enemy Love, and Perfection

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Congratulations! We have made it to the end…of chapter 5. We are working slowly through the Sermon on the Mount, our canon within the canon, the largest collection of Jesus’s continuous teaching. Today we come to the final two of Jesus’s six antitheses, which I argued last week are really not antitheses at all. I said last week that Jesus is actually taking these laws and getting to their roots. He is trying to show us the purpose of these teachings.

Today I want to break these eleven verses down to three different points: the law of retaliation, the love of your enemies, and the perfection of the disciples. Let’s start with the law of retaliation.

Three times in the Bible we find the law of retaliation, or if you want to sound fancy, it is the lex talionis in Latin. The lex talionis was and still is considered a major step forward in ethics. By Genesis 4, just a few generations after Adam and Eve, we find this in verses 23-24: “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’”

Alright, you have to love a guy who refers to himself in the third person. Kevin loves that. Lamech is bragging to his wives, or maybe trying to intimidate them (which is always an awesome way to behave in any relationship), and he tells them that he has killed a man because the man hurt him. And if someone does him wrong, Lamech is to be avenged seventy-seven times. If someone steals a dollar form Lamech, he is going to steal seventy-seven from them. If someone kills his donkey, Lamech is going to kill seventy-seven of their donkeys. Yeah, then they’ll learn!

So when the lex talionis is first introduced in Exodus 21, this was a huge step forward (the lex talionis can also be found in other traditions). An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, limits the retaliation that a person can take for personal injury. You cannot take a person’s life if they scratch you.

Now Jesus comes along, and again, he isn’t teaching the opposite of an eye for an eye. He isn’t teaching that everything goes. No, he takes this teaching further by offering three real-life examples. He says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

But wait, it sounds like Jesus is telling people to just let everyone else walk all over you. Let them push you around. Do nothing. It sounds like that to us today because we are a bit removed from this culture. Whenever I come to this teaching, it is always helpful to turn back to the work of theologian Walter Wink. This is not original from me, and if you have been around for a few years, you may have heard this explained before. Let’s look at these individually.

First, Jesus is very specific with this cheek thing, isn’t he? Does it matter that he says “right cheek?” I think so. Remember that about 90% of the people of the world are right handed. So if you are a person living in Jesus’s day, or any day, really, and you are among the 90% of people who are right handed, what hand are you going to use to slap someone? You want to get a good slap, so you use your right hand. (Just an aside, has anyone seen the slap competitions? Just brutal.) Jesus specifically says, “If someone slap you on your right check…” If a right-handed person slaps you on the right cheek, it is going to be a backhanded slap.

A backhanded slap, especially in Jesus’s day, was reserved for a superior who was slapping his servant. An open-handed slap, or a close-fisted punch, were used between equals. To turn the other cheek isn’t simply a matter of inviting the person to slap you again. It is a way of saying, “I’m not going to hit you back. I’m not going to retaliate. But if you are going to hit me, you will hit me as an equal.”

Do you remember the two words that I said describe the purpose of these antitheses? I said these boil down to an issue of human dignity. Turning the other cheek rather than striking someone back recognizes the human dignity in the other person, while forcing them to recognize the human dignity within you.

On to the next hypothetical situation: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” The names of the garments is a little unclear. Some translations say cloak and tunic, but we don’t really wear cloaks and tunics today, so our modern translations often say something a little more contemporary. But in Jesus’s day, it was common for people to wear some type of robe over their undergarments. They didn’t have different changes of clothes for every day. They wore what they owned.

So Jesus tells these people that if someone tries to take their outer garment they should also give them their underwear. And if you give someone your outer garment and your underwear, what’s left? Just your birthday suit.

I’m going to guess that most of us would be pretty embarrassed to be walking around downtown Staunton. Everyone has those dreams about going to school in your underwear or naked for a reason. That’s embarrassing. That’s shameful. But remember, Jesus is presenting this in a different culture.

Remember the story of Noah after the flood. Noah makes some questionable decisions and passes out naked, drunk on the wine of his vineyard. One of Noah’s sons, Ham, finds him naked, and goes and tells his other adult brothers. His brothers hold a blanket on their shoulders, walk backwards so they don’t see him, and cover up their naked father. When Noah wakes up, he curses, not Ham, but Ham’s son. And Noah blesses the offspring of the boys who covered him up.

What a weird story. But the reason I tell it is because I want you to notice who is shamed. It isn’t the person who was seen naked. It was the person who saw this older, distinguished man in all of his nakedness. So when Jesus tells his hearers to give not only their outer garment, but their underwear as well, they would be shaming the person who was taking their clothing.

Some in our congregation watched the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” This movie shows the work of the women’s peace movement in Liberia, and focuses on the life of Nobel laurelite Leymah Gbowee. I won’t go into all of the details, but the male representatives were supposed to be meeting to discuss various issues of violence in Liberia. But the men would meet for a few minutes, not really talk about what they were supposed to be doing, and then go get an early lunch. For weeks, the women met outside and prayed. They wanted to see action, they wanted laws to be passed, and agreements to be made. They wanted their sons to not be killed in the streets and battle fields. But them men kept leaving early and not accomplishing anything.

So what did the women do? Leymah Gbowee decides to stand in the hallway and begin taking off her clothes. Now in our culture, that might bring the men out of the conference hall. But in Liberia, it is shameful to see a mother naked. Those men weren’t going to leave until she put her clothes back on. And she wasn’t going to do that until they started working on a peace agreement.

In Jesus’s day, like modern Liberia, there was a lot more exposed when a person was left without proper clothing. Injustice was exposed.

Okay, last one. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” This is a little less clear than some of the others, but I’ll offer you an interpretation that I find helpful. We all know that the Jewish people didn’t like having the Roman soldiers in their city. Jerusalem was occupied by another nation, and the people were forced to do things they did not want to do. One of those things was help carry burdensome items. We find an example of this in Jesus’s crucifixion narrative when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’s cross when Jesus couldn’t carry it himself. Another example is the Roman soldier’s gear.

One source says that the average Roman soldiers gear would have weighed about 66 pounds. That’s not terrible, but how far would you want to carry that? The Romans had a law that a solider could force a civilian to carry their packs for one mile, and no more. This helped the solider stay fresh, and ready for battle, or further travel.

Of course no Jewish civilian wanted to carry their enemies’ backpack for them. And if you carry it one mile, you still have to travel back to where you were before, making a 2-mile round trip. So if you were a blacksmith, working your job, a soldier could pull you away from your work, and force you to carry their things for one mile, then you would walk back before you got back to your paid job. Of course, you could refuse to carry the pack. But you would be flogged.

Jesus says, if someone forces you to carry their pack one mile, volunteer to carry it another. There are two main interpretations of this. One says that it would expose the injustice of the system. The solider wasn’t allowed to make you carry the pack more than one mile. They would be trying to stop you from going the extra mile because they might get in trouble. But I think the more-likely interpretation is to show the soldier that you would be happy to help. You would be happy to carry that 66 pound backpack two miles and then walk back two miles to do whatever you were doing before. Of course it is an inconvenience, but we would do it for one another.

Even for our enemies.

Remember, if these antitheses do come right down to human dignity, Jesus seems to be reminding his hearers that even these Roman soldiers occupying their homes, forcing them to carry heavy bags, are human beings. And they deserve love, respect, and dignity as well.

That leads us right into the next point on enemy love. Jesus says in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Who can tell me where in the Bible it says to hate your enemy? Yeah, that one’s not in the Old Testament, but it must have been an oral teaching. He continues “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

I remember seeing a t-shirt that said, “Love your enemies, it messes with their heads.” That’s cute, but it misses the point entirely. If you are loving your enemies just to mess with them, are you really loving them?

No, we love our enemies for the same reason we carry the pack of the soldier two miles: they are people created in the image of God, people who deserve respect and dignity. And as many people have pointed out, when Jesus said, “love your enemies” in the first century, most people would have had the Roman solider in mind.

Now notice, if you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Jesus has reserved a special designation for you. You will be called children of your Father in heaven. This reminds me of one of the beatitudes, the one that we skipped over a few weeks ago. Jesus says in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

It is the peacemakers, those who love their enemies, those that pray for their persecutors, who are called children of God. Yes, everyone is created in the image of God, and yes, everyone inherently has dignity because of this. But only the peacemaking, enemy-loving, praying people are called God’s children. Only they are called God’s children, because, as we see in Jesus, God is a peacemaking, enemy-loving, praying “person.”

This is exactly what Jesus did when he hung there on the cross. He forgave his killers, asked God for their mercy. He literally turned the other cheek when he was struck. He told Peter to put away the sword. So if all of my arguments here about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek aren’t convincing to you based on the human dignity within each person, then maybe you will be convinced that this matters because Jesus didn’t just preach this, he practiced it. Jesus practiced what he preached. And in John 14, Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will do as he did, live as he lived.

Which brings us to the final point: perfection. Verse 48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

No pressure. Just be perfect, you know, like God.

That seems like an impossibly high bar. I can think of saintly people, Great Aunt Betty, someone like that. Great Aunt Betty probably taught Sunday school, volunteered with the PTA, and donated food for the bake sale. Great Aunt Betty worked two jobs, and still watched you for free. You never heard her swear, never saw her mistreat another person or animal, and she never had a bad word to say about anyone. And even Great Aunt Betty wasn’t perfect.

We spoke a bit last week about Jesus using hyperbole, overstating his point for emphasis. That’s one explanation for what’s going on here, but I think it is really a translation issue. The Greek word translated as “perfect” is telos. And telos can indeed be translated as perfect. But it can also mean an end or goal. The telos is the ideal, this is what we strive for.

There seems to be a little bit of a wordplay going on here. Strive for perfection, stretch to reach the goal. This is consistent with what Jesus has been saying throughout these antitheses. This was never about doing away with these laws or teaching. It was about bringing the to their intended purpose, their intended goal. Their telos. Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was progress, but it wasn’t the end goal. The end goal was justice and righteousness. The end goal was for everyone to recognize the image of God in one another. Even their enemies.

When Jesus says to be perfect, he is doing more than just telling them to exceed the righteousness of Great Aunt Betty. He is calling them all to the goal.

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Roundup Ethics

Matthew 5:21-37


21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.


27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.


31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Well that was a lot to take in for one morning. Let’s just go ahead and hit them all: murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. As I typed that last one I giggled a bit; the song “One of these things is not like the other…” went through my head.

These verses, which follow the format “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…,” are often called the six antitheses of Jesus. There is a thesis, a statement like “You shall not murder.” Then there is an antithesis, “but I say unto you…” We are going to cover the first four antitheses today, or at least attempt to cover four today. We could easily designate a Sunday to each of the six antitheses, but I’ll limit it to two Sundays, or else we will be working through the Sermon on the Mount until Christmas. So today we just get an overview, and I’ll try to explain what is going on here. We will try to understand the genre of rhetoric used by Jesus. And when we better understand how to read the antitheses, we can apply that method to all six. That way we really don’t need to address each one individually at a deep level.

First things first, even though these are often called the antitheses, they aren’t all antitheses. I would say they take the thesis deeper, further, or to their intended purpose. If you look at the passage just before these so-called antitheses, Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Either Jesus is a liar, or something else is going on here. I’m going with the second option. Jesus isn’t teaching against something, he is taking to its intended purpose.

Take the first set of teachings. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Jesus doesn’t make an argument that murder is now okay. What he does is attempt to show the root of murder, which is anger. Now I don’t think that Jesus is so naïve as to think that we will never get angry at another person. Jesus gets angry sometimes throughout the New Testament. I don’t he was smiling and whistling a tune as he overturned the money changers’ tables and chased out the animals. His point seems to be that we need to control our anger, make amends with people, and move on. He also doesn’t say you need to be BFF’s with those whom you have anger. But don’t wish bad things upon them, and surely don’t cause bad things to happen to them.

Likewise, the next amendment from Jesus (I’m trying to not call them antitheses) says in verse 27, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Jesus doesn’t follow this up by saying that adultery is now okay. So again, this in not an antithesis, but a killing at the root. He continues, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Like the murder/anger combination, we see Jesus getting to the root of adultery. If there is no lust, there will be no adultery.

I think of it like weeds. We all have weeds. Weeds in the flowerbed, weeds in the lawn, weeds in the garden. I think of all of the crabgrass growing up in my yard each spring. I get out my trusty lawnmower with its Briggs and Stratton motor and 22” deck when that crabgrass starts to grow and I cut it right off. That takes care of the crabgrass for the season, right!

No, if I cut off the crabgrass, it just grows right back. If I want to get rid of crabgrass, I need to take care of it at its roots. If it is in my garden, I pull it up, roots and all. If it is in my driveway or flowerbed, I spray it with Roundup. Roundup kills to the roots!

I think that is what Jesus is trying to do with these six antitheses. We can try to take care of the unwanted stuff, the crabgrass, but cutting it off. But it will probably just grow back again. If we really want to take care of things, we need to get to the root of the problem.

I may need to do some more thinking about this, but it seems as if each of these teachings goes beyond the law. There are rules in place for a reason. We can make rules about not killing and we can make rules about not committing adultery. And I think those are really good rules. If anyone wants to argue against those rules, please let me know. I can spend more time on those rules. But it seems to me that with each of these teachings, there’s something else going on below the surface. I think Jesus is calling us from a rules based-society to a loved-based society. A world where we make our decisions based not simply on the laws or rules. Not simply based on whether or not we can get away with something. Jesus is calling us to put the wellbeing of others first. And we do that by recognizing each person’s value as beings created in God’s own image. Love for others needs to be the root of our ethics, not these other things.

Notice that when Jesus talks about not being angry with someone, he goes so far as to say not to call someone a fool. Does anyone here remember Mark Chesnutt’s song “Blame it on Texas?” There is a line in there where Chesnutt sings, “Call me a fool.” My brother and I used to oblige Mr. Chesnutt when we heard that song and call him a fool. And occasionally, we would call each other “raca.” No, not really. But we did call one another “fool,” and probably a lot worse than that.

Am I alone? Raca is an Aramaic term of contempt. This is like a “yo momma” joke. Which, on a side note, I recently had to explain to my children this week why they shouldn’t tell “yo momma” jokes to one another. I think Jesus is saying don’t get angry with others, don’t even call them names, because this is a person made in God’s image. This is a person for whom Jesus died. This person is perhaps your literal blood brother or sister, perhaps your brother or sister in Christ, or perhaps just another person like you. And because of your shared humanity we treat one another with dignity and respect.

Same thing goes with not committing adultery and not lusting. Your spouse is someone who deserves dignity and respect. Not because of something that they have done, but because they too are human beings. And that woman, or dude, who you just looked at with lust. They are not a piece of meat. They are not just there for your visual or imaginative pleasure. They are people. That woman is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. She might be someone else’s wife. She might be someone’s mother.

The root of murder is anger. The root of adultery is lust. We need to take care of those roots so the root of love can flourish.

I think we can apply this to all of these teachings, but it maybe isn’t as clear cut. The Mennonite Church has historically been against swearing oaths. I remember having to speak in court one time, and I was still pretty young, and still really trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian. Okay, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian. But more so back then. I knew that a good Mennonite did not swear an oath, so when the court officer (bailiff?) asked that familiar question, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” I panicked. I said, “Um, okay.”

And they let me continue anyway.

Many Christians choose instead to “affirm.” That’s fine…but it is the same thing. The point seems to be that we are called to be the kind of people who others know are always being honest.

When I was younger, like in 1st grade, I had a tendency to make up stories. My dad, who wanted to encourage me to be creative, used to tell me that it was okay to make up stories, as long as I told people that it was just a story when I was done. He was trying to form me into the kind of person that others knew to be trustworthy.

To this day, I catch myself using a phrase without thinking about it. When I want to make a point I say, “I ain’t gonna lie to you…” Someone may ask me, “Kevin, how do you feel about UVA’s chances to repeat this year?” and I respond, “I ain’t gonna lie to you…”

Why do I feel like it is necessary to begin my response by saying, “I ain’t gonna lie to you”? As if under normal circumstances, had I not said that, I would totally lie to your face.

When Jesus says to not swear an oath, I don’t think he is being legalistic about whether or not you say the words “I swear,” or “I affirm.” I am convinced that this is about being the kind of people who don’t need to say I swear or I affirm. If you or I say that something happened, it should be, to the best of our recollection, the way something really happened.

Again, I think this also comes down to treating others with dignity. To lie to someone or intentionally mislead them is to disrespect them. I don’t like to be lied to, and I assume you don’t as well.

Be the kind of person who doesn’t need to swear an oath. Yes, there will be times when you need to swear an oath. You may have to swear an oath in a court of law. You may have to swear to follow the terms of agreement to use a certain website. The reason these organizations require us to swear an oath is because not everyone is trustworthy. In that kind of world, be the kind of person who others can trust. Rather than saying oaths, kill the dishonesty at the root.

Okay, I skipped one. We didn’t address divorce. But look at the time…

No, in all seriousness, who here hasn’t been affected by divorce? We have divorced people in our congregation. We have people whose parents or children, aunts or uncles have gone through divorce. I’m walking with several friends right now who are going through divorce. Divorce is hard. And I could use another “h” word there, and some people would be offended by that, and others would simply agree.

I don’t think God wants us to have to experience divorce. God loves us, and I believe that God wants what is best for us. Now don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying that God only wants us to be happy. And I think God wants us to stay married. So if sin is missing God’s mark of perfection, absolutely, divorce is a sin. God doesn’t want us to get divorced. This goes right back to the first of these teachings. We should be trying to reconcile whenever possible. But even in Jesus’s teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount, we find that there are times when reconciliation is not possible in a marriage. Again, I don’t think this is God’s will, but God does permit divorce.

But here’s the thing we also need to keep in mind. Our understanding of marriage today is vastly different than in Jesus’s day. For a man in Jesus’s day to divorce his wife meant that she would be left without income, without support. She wouldn’t have many opportunities for work, and would likely have to rely upon the generosity of others. And in Jesus’s day, only a man could seek a divorce. So if he found something about his wife that he didn’t like, he could divorce her, and essentially condemn her to a life of begging.

What Jesus is forbidding is divorce on the grounds of getting bored with someone. Jesus is forbidding divorce on the grounds of bad cooking, bad habits, or bad manners. You could not condemn someone to a life of poverty because you no longer liked them or wanted to be around them.

Remember my original suggestion that all of these teachings come back to the idea of human dignity. Divorce in Jesus’s day became a way to cast aside another person because you didn’t like something about them. No, Jesus says, that’s not how we treat one another. So Jesus gets right down to the root of it, and says that except in extreme cases, divorce is not okay.

How has this changed today? I think the same principles exist today. The marriage covenant is not something to be entered into carelessly. Jesus said not to swear an oath, but really a marriage is the swearing of an oath. So if you do swear this oath, take it seriously. Take it seriously because this is a human being, created in the image of God. And we cannot simply toss them aside if we get bored.

All of that is really heavy. And sometimes the heavy stuff is important. But that doesn’t mean we need to end with the heavy. We will end with a challenge. The challenge I’m seeing is the challenge of interpretation. How do we read this text?

On one hand, I want to say that we need to read this very carefully and very seriously. But we simply cannot read it all very literally. And I know this actually makes things more difficult!

For instance, as I look around the room, I notice that most people here have two eyeballs. For all of you with two eyeballs, do you follow Jesus and take everything he says literally? If you say yes, I’m going to call you a liar. Jesus says in verse 29, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” I saw a funny picture of a person who was said to have taken Jesus literally. It was a picture of a pirate with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.

Nobody, or at least very few (looking at you, Origen), take Jesus literally here. He is using hyperbole, he is overstating himself to make a point. This is like me saying, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Or “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this moment!” Children are pros when it comes to using hyperbole. “We never get to do what I want!” “Johnny’s parents always let him.” “You’re the worst parents ever!”

You get the idea.

I don’t think Jesus really wanted people to undergo self-mutilation to avoid lusting. I also don’t think that he is saying that if you call someone a fool you will be destined for eternal conscious punishment.

So is Jesus using hyperbole when he speaks about divorce and telling oaths? Perhaps. And is he using hyperbole in the text that we will read next week about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies? Perhaps. But even if he is using hyperbole, that doesn’t take away from the point. In fact, it is meant to emphasize the point. And the point is that each and every person is created in the image of God. Each and every person is born with dignity that cannot be stripped away. So we not only don’t murder people, we try to reconcile with our enemies. Not only do we not commit adultery, we don’t look at other people like a piece of meat or an object of sexual desire. We don’t discard a person or a marriage or a covenant just because we get tired of them. And we don’t lie to people.

The antitheses of Jesus, which perhaps aren’t antitheses at all, are meant to take care of these issues by getting to the root of the problem. We can’t just take care of what we see. No, like spraying Roundup on a weed, we need to take care of the problem at its roots. Only then can love flourish and grow.

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Preserver and Guide

Matthew 5:13-16

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

We are in week three of our sermon series from Matthew 5, 6, and 7, a section of scripture commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is the longest, continuous teaching of Jesus found anywhere in the Bible, and it has been absolutely essential for our understanding of who Jesus is and how we are called to live as his followers. And today we will make it all the way…to verse 16. I warned you that we were going to go slow. And next week, we will even go backwards a bit.

Just a little recap from the last two weeks. So far we have covered verses 1-12, a passage commonly referred to as “the Beatitudes.” The Beatitudes are counterintuitive. It is the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted who are blessed. Not “will be” blessed, but already are blessed. This isn’t about waiting until some time in the future when God sets things right. Jesus isn’t saying that we just need to endure this junk now and then in the future God will bless us. No, when you are poor in spirit, when you are humbled or humiliated, when you are persecuted, God is on your side.

So Jesus is not addressing the elite of the society. He is talking to the average person, people who have been knocked around, and at times, kicked to the curb. And he continues to address them in the present tense when he says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.”

Not, “You will be…,” but “You are.” These people who have never been picked first for the team, never won a popularity contest, never been voted homecoming king or queen. These people are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and they are salt of the earth and light of the world now.

Now here’s the thing about being salt of the earth and light of the world. We really don’t know what that means. Think about it like this. In Matthew 13 Jesus tells his listeners a story we sometimes call the Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells this story about a farmer who goes out and scatters his seed on different kinds of soil: rocky soil, thorny, soil, compacted soil, and good soil. Some of it grew, others of it didn’t. End of story.

But then the people asked Jesus about his parables. They are like, “Great story. What does it mean?” So what does Jesus do? He explains the Parable of the Sower. This represents that. That is a metaphor for this.

Do you know what Jesus doesn’t do with today’s passage? He doesn’t explain it. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But you’re going to have to figure that one out on your own.

I’m not going to pretend to have the definitive answer to what Jesus meant. What I can do is walk through some interpretations of this passage and offer my two cents. And I recently came across a new interpretation (new to me, anyway), which I will look at shortly.

Have you ever heard someone’s language or disposition described as salty? Maybe someone speaks a little crudely, or they drop a lot of four-letter words (like love?). This wasn’t what Jesus was talking about. When someone is said to use “salty language,” this is a reference to life on the ocean. Someone who cusses like a sailor might be charged with using salty language. This is the kind of language used by sailors on the great salt oceans. Again, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.

When someone says, “They are real salt of the earth people,” what do they mean. Usually it is a reference to hard-working, reliable people. They may not be rich or famous, but they are dependable. These are people who are valuable in any society. One reason people believe Jesus called the people the salt of the earth is because he was saying that they matter. They are valuable.

In the 1st century, it was common for a Roman soldier to receive a portion of their payment for their service in salt. I imagine the job interview, when they get to the point where they are talking about compensation for serving. “You get two weeks off, paid vacation. We offer health care, a 401k, oh, and salt.” Yep, you get salt.

The Latin word for salt is “sal,” and it is the route of our English word “salary.” So if a soldier wasn’t particularly good at his job, if he was falling asleep on the job or daydreaming when he was supposed to be guarding something, you might say that he wasn’t worth his salt.

Historians debate just how much salt was actually used as payment to soldiers, but what is clear and undebatable is that salt has been very valuable throughout history. We need some salt in our diets. Granted, most Americans get too much salt, but it is necessary. We also like salt as a flavor. I’m not a salt guy. I’d take sugar over salt any day. I really don’t add salt to my food; I’m more of a hot sauce kind of guy. But when those home-grown tomatoes get ripe, I’m right there with you, salting those red slices of deliciousness.

Salt was and is valuable as a seasoning. Salt has a unique taste to it. You may be trying a new dish and someone takes a bite and says something like, “Mmmm, what is that? Cardamom? Do I taste some oregano?” But nobody ever says, “Is that salt I taste?” No, we know from a young age what salt is.

One way of interpreting Jesus’s statement on being salt of the earth is to say that his followers are to be that unique taste that you recognize every time you take a bite. Imagine a world where every time someone forgave someone else people would be like, “Ope, must be a Christian!” Or when the poor are fed and clothed, when the outcasts are loved, and the widows and orphans are cared for, imagine people walking around with their detective hats on, saying, “It looks like someone has been taking Jesus’s teachings seriously around here.” There is something to this idea that Jesus might be telling his followers to bring a distinct flavor to the world around them. A flavor that is instantly recognized, just as salt is, but recognized as an attribute of Jesus himself.

But salt is more than just a way to add flavor. Salt is a preservative. Those of us living today have probably enjoyed the convenience of freezers and refrigerators our entire lives. Freezers and refrigerators keep our food fresher longer by slowing the growth of microorganisms, that tend to thrive in warmer temperatures. But before refrigeration technology came along, and before people had ice boxes, salt was used to preserve things like meat and vegetables.

How many people like Virginia country ham? I remember seeing country ham hanging at a grocery store for the first time. It was just in a bag on an end display. No refrigeration at all. If you have had country ham, you know very well that one flavor dominates your palate: salt. You don’t need to refrigerate country ham because it has been cured with salt.

The salt draws the moisture out of the cells of the microorganisms that cause meat to spoil, effectively killing the microorganisms. Salt can also be used to affect the pH and salinity of food, like when you make sauerkraut or pickles.

You can see why salt was very valuable in the first century. Not only was it tasty, if you didn’t want to eat an entire lamb in a day or so, salt helped you preserve the food for later. Keep the idea of salt as a preservative in the back of your mind, and we will come back to it shortly. First, we need to look at the light.

You are the light of the world. Most people know the benefit of light. Without light, we cannot see. One of the darkest places I’ve ever been was in Grand Caverns when they turn off the lights. You are a mile underground, they hit the switch, and you cannot see your own hand in front of your face.

We don’t experience absolute darkness in the city. Even a few miles out of town, the sky gets a lot darker, but the lights of the town affect the darkness of the sky at night. My wife remembers the sky over Nebraska growing up where the nearest neighbor might be miles away. There, miles and miles away from a city, the stars would pop out of the dark sky. Stars that can’t be seen in our community because of the lights around us were visible with the naked eye in Nebraska.

Jesus tells the people that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Even though the light of a city in the first century would have only come from candles and torches, it was visible against the darkness of the night sky for miles and miles. Imagine being a traveler, coming from a distant land. You are tired, you are hungry, you are thirsty. You don’t know how much further you can go. But then you see it. At first it is just a little dot on the horizon. As you approach that dot, it grows bigger, and the light gets stronger. That city on the hill is drawing you in. It is your guiding light (which was both a soap opera and a Mumford and Sons song).

This is where the “new to me” interpretation comes in. It would seem as if Jesus is giving an assignment to the people, a new role. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. You are both the preserver and the guide.

Jesus was doing something new. He was just starting his earthly ministry at this point, and he came proclaiming the kingdom of God. He came questioning those in authority. He overthrew the money changers’ tables. Jesus in many ways changed the established religion of the people.

But if you read the very next couple of lines in Matthew 5:17-19, you find things like, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

So Jesus is starting a new thing, but he isn’t doing away with the old. And anyone who sets aside any of these laws is called least in the kingdom of heaven. Granted, they are still in the kingdom of heaven, which isn’t bad. But they are in last place. Which reminds me of a joke my sister-in-law used to like to tell while she was in medical school. Do you know what they call the person who graduates in last place in medical school? Doctor.

Anyway, no jot or tittle shall pass away from the law. But we keep going on in chapter five, and we find what are called the antitheses of Jesus. These six antitheses start off with “You have heard that it was said…, but I say unto you…”

It sounds like Jesus is leading us to something new. It sounds like he is changing the law! Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, that’s in the Torah! Just as Jesus says the law shall not change, he goes and changes it!

Or does he? My argument is that Jesus does exactly what he claims to do: he brings the law to fulfillment. This was the goal of the law all along, and Jesus is fulfilling the goal. And we will get into that in the weeks to come.

But for now, Jesus is telling his listeners that they are the preserver and the guide. They are given the power and the responsibility to preserve the Torah. Not necessarily to follow every commandment to the letter. But to preserve the teaching and the intent of the law. Not only that, the people are to be the guide into the future. The people are to be the ones who bring the new message to the world.

I think Jesus may even tell a couple of jokes in this passage. He talks about salt losing its saltiness, and hiding a candle under a basket.

We will sometimes go to Costco and purchase a big tub of something because it is cheaper that way. A five-gallon bucket of mustard for only $12! That’s a bargain! The problem is that these foods do eventually go bad. Now how many of you have ever bought salt in bulk? Yeah, it is good for a month or two, maybe a year, then you have to throw it out because it loses its saltiness.

No, table salt, good old sodium chloride, is a very stable compound. It does not lose its saltiness.

Now imagine a wicker basket from Jesus’s day. It would be made of dried reeds and twigs and such. And it would have a relatively open weave. The only source of light Jesus would have had would have been a flame, like a candle. If you put a candle under a sealed container, like a jar, it will burn out. But if you put it under an opened-weaved basket, it is going to burn that sucker down.

I think there is some cheeky humor going on here. Jesus is telling the people that they are called to be the preserver of the old, old story. But there is also a reassuring reminder that this is an ongoing story, which will endure. But there is also this idea that Jesus is beginning something new. Jesus, the true light of the world, the light reflected by all of his followers, cannot be snuffed out or hidden. Try to cover it with a basket, and it will only burn brighter.

Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.

Jesus gives great responsibility to these down-and-out followers of his. To the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, Jesus says, “You are the preservers of the story, and the guides to our shared future.”

Blessings, as you continue to be salt and light.

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Counterintuitive Christianity

Matthew 5:1-12 New International Version (NIV)

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Help me out with a few phrases. If you really love someone, you have to… (let them go). In relationships, opposites…(attract). Great. Now, for those who drive in icy conditions, when you skid, you are supposed to steer into the skid. A common drug for people with ADHD is Ritalin, which is a stimulant.

All of these examples are counterintuitive. They go against our initial impulses; they go against our nature. If you love someone, you want to hold them close and never let them go. You want to slow down someone who is hyperactive so they can focus. Here, kid. Have another Red Bull. No! And if you really want to receive God’s blessings, you need to have it all together.

But we find just the opposite in the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus offers us these counterintuitive teachings on who is blessed in a passage known as the beatitudes, which is a name we get from the Latin word for blessed.

We will be taking the next few weeks to walk through the Sermon on the Mount. I spoke last week on this exact passage, and we will circle back to it in a few weeks when I have a friend here to give some more of the cultural and historical aspects of this teaching. For those who weren’t here last week, there may be a few things that I move over quickly this morning because I covered them already, so I would encourage you to go back listen to or read that sermon to get that background information. I’m going to jump over “blessed are those who mourn,” and we will come back to “blessed are the peacemakers” in a few weeks. What I really want to focus in on today are the two weird ones. The confusing phrases, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “blessed are the meek.”

Before we get there, I want to start with a rhetorical question. How would you feel if I told you I have some really good news for you today? God loves you. God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t make God love you more, and you can’t make God love you less. God loves you unconditionally. And if that is the first time you have ever heard that message, I’m sorry. The church has failed you. But please know now that you are loved.

Now what if I kept going with that. God loves you unconditionally, but if you really want God to bless you, you need to stop smoking and drinking. You really shouldn’t dance, either. God loves you, but God will bless you if you would stay off “those” websites. God would bless you if you would just vote in the right way, or if you would just figure out that women and men were created to have different jobs and roles in this world. God will bless you if you give this much money to the church. God will bless you if you spend this much time in prayer or reading your Bible.

That’s the message we often hear in the church. God will bless you, if you get your stuff together. This has been the message of religious people throughout time, not just in the modern Christian church. Get it together, then God will bless you.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in ethics. I believe we should all be making changes in how we live and moving toward the example of Jesus. What I’m trying to point out is that we too often tell people that they must change, and then God will bless them. But that’s not how Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, is it? He starts off with this counterintuitive statement: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Last week we discussed what it means to be blessed. Yes, the Bible talks about financial blessings, health and wellness blessings, but physical stuff isn’t the only way to understand what it means to be blessed. That seems obvious when we read the beatitudes. There is a lot of suffering going on here. Blessed are the persecuted? Blessed are the insulted? As I mentioned last week, I think it is better to think of blessings as God being on your side. God is in your corner. God has your back.

So what does this mean, practically? There is a lot of debate about what it means to be poor in spirit. And if you read Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Luke just has “blessed are the poor,” with no reference to the spirit. We know what it means to be poor. That means you don’t have any money. Which is itself a counterintuitive statement. In our 21st-century world, we tend to think of monetary riches when we think of blessings. But I think the blessing of the poor in spirit is even more counterintuitive.

We’ve probably all been in worship settings where the energy level was high. The music is inspiring, the people are swaying to the beat, yelling “amen” as they wave their hands. You get that feeling of adrenaline pumping through your veins. And people might call that a “spirit-filled” worship experience. If felt as if God was right there with you, right beside you. If felt like God was real.

That’s spirit-filled, or spirit-led worship. But Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” This suggests the spirit is lacking. It feels as if God is absent.

A few years back, there was an entertainer known as Elvis. I don’t need to tell you about Elvis, even my children know about Elvis, the king of rock and roll. If you watch old footage of Elvis you will notice the crowds all whipped up into a frenzy. Mostly, you notice the young women all whipped up into a frenzy. The quivering lips, the shaking hips. You don’t have to be an Elvis fan to know that he was a great showman.

There are stories of Elvis performing at concerts and the members of the audience refusing to leave when the show was over. They kept cheering, yelling for an encore for hours, thinking they might be able to convince the king to come back out and sing another song or two. Other times, when there were other acts to follow Elvis, the people would continue to yell and scream, making it difficult for the second act to come out and play. So it became common for Elvis to complete his last song, sneak out a side door, get in a limousine, and drive away. And when he would do that, an announcer would come on the P.A. system and say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

I think those who are poor in spirit are the ones who feel as if God has left the building. Maybe at one time you felt something. Maybe there was excitement and energy at one point in your life. Maybe you were cheering for an encore. But now it feels as if someone has just announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, God has left the building.” Or even worse, maybe you are questioning if God was ever there.

But that’s the counterintuitive part of the beatitudes. When it feels like God is absent, Jesus tells us that God is with you. Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” God is at your side, and God is on your side.

You hear well-meaning people say things like, “If you feel distant from God, it is because you pushed him away.” I think that is silly, as if we could push the maker of heaven and earth away. Silly humans, thinking we have such power. The beatitudes are a promise that even those who have done everything possible that stands in contradiction to who God is, God is with you. God is on your side. God is your biggest cheerleader. Jesus showed that in who he spent his time with in the Gospels. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was God in human form. And God in human form spent his time with the prostitutes and the sinners. He spent his time with the tax collectors and society’s rejects. If being blessed means that God is with you and for you and on your side, well that’s exactly what we see in the incarnate God, aka Jesus Christ.

I don’t know if we have any prostitutes out there today, but we have plenty of sinners. (Please, don’t point.) We are all sinners. And for those of you who have never felt distance from God, that’s great. But for me, and I’m going to guess most of us, there are times when it feels as if God has left the building. The good news is that God is with you. Jesus proclaimed it when he said, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus lived it when he spent his time with the prostitutes and sinners.

This would be a good time to remind everyone that the beatitudes are not a “how to” book. This isn’t 9 steps to discovering God’s blessings. Some of these teachings are things we should strive for. We should try to be merciful, righteous, and peacemakers. I even think we should try to be meek, after we figure out what that means. But I’m not encouraging you to become poor in spirit in order to enjoy God’s blessings. These counterintuitive teachings of Jesus are a proclamation. This is how things are. When you are poor in spirit, God is not absent. God is on your side. We could say that all of the beatitudes are descriptive, and only some of them are prescriptive.

Even when we don’t feel God’s presence, Jesus tells us that is precisely when God is for us; God is on your side.

But what are we to do with verse 5, where Jesus says, “blessed are the meek”? Meek doesn’t even sound like an English word to me. It sounds like Beaker from the Muppets talking. (by the way, check out Beaker’s “Ode to Joy.”

The Greek word here is praoos. It has the connotation of being gentle and kind. A sheep is praoos. Jesus is described as being praoos. The Common English Version offers another word in verse 5; the CEV translates praoos as humble.

As the old country song says, “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble/When you’re perfect in every way./I can’t wait to look in the mirror./Cause I get better looking each day.”

I think that is kind of the point. The humble realize that they aren’t perfect in every way. Sometimes I’m afraid to look in the mirror because I get grayer and older each day.

To be humble doesn’t mean to think poorly of yourself. Those of us in the church often like to remind one another to love our neighbor. Well Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. That implies that you don’t hate yourself. Loving your neighbor as yourself means you treat others the way you want to be treated. It means you show the kind of love for your neighbor as you would like them to show you.

When I think of humility, I think of Paul’s words in Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Well, how much ‘ought’ I think of myself? This isn’t a total disregard for yourself. You aren’t supposed to think of yourself as trash, worthless, lowest of the low. But you also aren’t supposed to think of yourself as better than others.

Sometimes the best examples of something are found in their inverse. I’m not a real political person, and when I do talk about politics, it is usually to critique both sides. Case in point: Last week was the annual State of the Union Address. When President Trump came out to make his speech, he approached the front desk, and handed a copy of his speech to Mike Pence and another to Nancy Pelosi. Video shows Pelosi extending her hand to shake Trump’s hand, and him turning away. Then, after the speech, other videos show Pelosi ripping up her copy of the speech.

I don’t identify as either a Republican or Democrat, but this is embarrassing for everyone. Where is the humility? I don’t know exactly what “meek” is, but I know that isn’t it. Humility means not putting yourself before others. It means loving your neighbor and yourself.

New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight takes this in a little different direction. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight says, “The ‘meek’ are those who suffer and who have been humbled…” According to McKnight, the meek are not meek by their own choice. It was not a decision that they made, or a position they would desire. They have been humbled. Someone else brought them down a few notches. Someone else showed them up. Someone else has embarrassed them in public.

Now we are getting real. I’m of the opinion that most people in the world already suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Regardless of what front people may put on, we are always comparing ourselves to others, and often, we fail to measure up.

So when someone else bests you, when you get dunked on, or out performed. When you get passed up for a promotion. When you get left off the roster, or the guest list. When you are embarrassed. When someone else brings you down a few notches…

God is on your side.

The poor in spirit and the meek, by these definitions, aren’t in a position to envy. At least not by most standards. But notice, there is an accompanying promise to those who don’t have it together, and those who get brought down a few pegs. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The poor in spirit get the kingdom of heaven, the meek get the earth. I’m not sure what else there is. When you don’t have it all together, when society knocks you down, don’t fret. Heaven and earth are yours. Heaven and earth are yours, because God is with you, God is for you. God is on your side.

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Canon within the Canon

Matthew 5:1-12

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.

He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Ladies and gentlemen, every three years the lectionary cycles through the Gospel of Matthew, which means every three years I have the opportunity to do something kind of strange. For the next few weeks I’m going to be preaching from someone else’s sermon. My central text today, and for the next few weeks, will be from Jesus’s longest recorded sermon, a sermon that he gave from a mountain. That is why we call it the Sermon on the Mount.

I know, creative, isn’t it.

The lectionary moves quickly through the Sermon on the Mount, but I’m going to do my own thing and take a little more time with this text. Lent starts in a few weeks, so I may just extend into Lent or pick back up with this text after Easter. I just can’t skim these verses found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 because this sermon from Jesus has been foundational for the Mennonite Church ever since the first Anabaptists started meeting in caves and private homes in the 16th century.

Today is going to be a learning sermon, a thinking sermon. So I hope you got enough sleep last night and brought your number two pencils. What I want to do today is look at why this passage has been so influential in our church tradition. Then, I want to spend some time looking at what these first 12 verses of Matthew 5, which we call the Beatitudes, mean. And if we have enough time, I’ll look at the first beatitude or two.

Why has the Sermon on the Mount been so important for the Mennonite Church? The easy answer is because this is the longest, continuous teaching we find from Jesus in the entire Bible. And historically, we Mennonites have believed that Jesus is not simply someone to believe in. We are to follow Jesus as modern-day disciples. This means following Jesus’s example and his teaching. And since the Sermon on the Mount is the most complete teaching of Jesus we have, we consider it our canon within the canon.

Let me explain that phrase. That was canon with one internal “n.” The three-n cannon is the kind that they used in battles long ago. The Greek word, κανών, literally means a reed which was often used to measure things. Think of a ruler or a yard stick. You’ll find examples of measuring reeds in the Bible in places like Ezekiel 40:2-3, and Revelation 11:1, where John is told to measure the temple of God in heaven.

A canon, with one internal n, simply means a measuring stick.

In 382 at the Council of Rome, the church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, met together to decide which books to include in the Bible. You’ve probably heard of books like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. These were not included, while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with the others, were. This process formed the biblical canon, or to say it differently, these books were canonized. They were believed by the church to be authoritative, they were the canon, they were the stories of God working through history by which all others stories were to be measured.

When I say that the Sermon on the Mount has historically been the canon within the canon for the Mennonite Church, I mean that these three chapters are the measuring stick by which we measure the rest of the Bible. When two passages of scripture seem to disagree, we go to the words of Jesus for clarity. Or if Jesus says something that seems to contradict an Old Testament passage, we go with Jesus.

Every Christian has a canon within the canon, even if they don’t want to admit it. Some will say, “Oh, I follow the entire Bible.” I respect that. I respect the desire to follow the entire Bible. But the jerk within me wants to ask, “When did you perform your last sacrifice?” or “When was the last time you stoned a person caught in adultery?”

If I were to ask someone those questions, they would probably tell me that the death and resurrection of Jesus ended the sacrificial system. They might tell me the story of the woman caught in adultery where Jesus invited the one without sin to cast the first stone, and everyone walked away. In both cases, they are taking a teaching or an example from Jesus’s life to interpret an Old Testament teaching.

That is what I mean by a canon within a canon. I’m not saying that the rest of the Bible isn’t inspired. I am saying that Jesus is our ultimate canon, our ultimate measuring stick. Therefore, as the largest collection of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount has been our canon within the canon.

Another reason to look at the Sermon on the Mount as a canon within the canon is the way it begins. I mentioned earlier upon what topographical feature this sermon took place. We are told that Jesus went up the mountain. Does it matter that Jesus preached from a mountain? Maybe, maybe not. Another Hebrew man climbed a mountain and came back down with some teachings from God as well. Remember that Moses went up Mt. Sinai and there he received the Torah from God. And the Torah has served as the Law for the Hebrew people now for over 3,000 years. When Matthew writes that Jesus climbed the mountain, would his original hearers have connected Moses receiving the word of God with Jesus receiving these words from God? Is Matthew telling us that Jesus is the new Moses? I don’t know, but it is an interesting thought.

Let’s actually look at these verses a bit. We call the first 12 verses of Matthew 5 “The Beatitudes.” The word beatitude is simply an anglicized version of the Latin word for blessed. We call them the beatitudes because these verses begin with a repeating phrase: “blessed are the…” That’s weird language, I know. Some modern translations try to make it a little clearer. The Message says, “you are blessed when…” That cleans up the language a bit, but it is still awkward. What is a blessing? I know people who really love the Common English Version, which translates these words as “happy are people who…” I really don’t like that, especially verse 4, “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.” So which is it? Am I happy, or will I be made glad? It sounds like I’m mourning now, which is the opposite of happy.

I prefer to use the old, confusing language of “blessed.” And if you really want to sound churchy, you make that into two syllables: bless-ed.

But I want to offer a warning here. The beatitudes aren’t a self-help program. This isn’t “9 Steps to Experience God’s Blessings.” This isn’t Jesus saying, “Be poor in spirit, then you’ll be blessed,” or “Mourn, and then God will pour out his blessings on you!” This isn’t how to achieve blessings. This is a statement of where God stands in the middle of all of this.

Though he has fallen out of favor a bit among Christians in the last few years, former pastor, Rob Bell, gave what is perhaps my favorite explanation of what it means to be blessed in these beatitudes. Bell says that the beatitudes teach us where God is in the midst of your suffering, in the midst of being poor in spirit. Bell says, “God is on your side.”

You see, this is exactly the opposite of what is expected. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever heard the words of Jesus before. The world consistently says that God is on the side of the powerful and the rich. We see domination of another country as God’s blessing. We see the Ferrari in the garage and perfect health as a sign of God’s divine favor; God has blessed that person. And maybe that is true. Maybe God did bless the person with a Ferrari, I don’t know. But what we do know is that isn’t the only place we find God.

When you are poor in spirit, when you don’t know if God is even real, when you are struggling to make sense of the world. When you choose to believe in spite of your unbelief, guess what. God is there. God is with you. God is on your side. God doesn’t say, “This person is having their doubts, so I’m outta here!” No, God moves closer.

That is why the beatitudes are so counterintuitive. The position of those mentioned in the beatitudes aren’t what we usually think of when we think about being blessed or being close to God. But when you are in a dark place, when you feel like you cannot go on. When you, too, are poor in spirit, Jesus steps in and says, “You are blessed.”

That’s not to say that you have all of the joys that material things can give you. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is telling the people that God is closer than they even know.

I heard someone ask a rhetorical question about the beatitudes the other day. They imagined Jesus giving this sermon in a modern worship session, in a church where people often yell, “Amen!” in the middle of the message to affirm what the pastor had just said. They wondered at what time the people would stop saying “amen.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit? No, blessed are those who are firm in their faith! Blessed are those who mourn? No! blessed are those who celebrate that their loved one is now in heaven. Blessed are the meek? The merciful? Absolutely not. This is Cobra Kai, Show No Mercy! Sweep the leg, Johnny!

Imma gonna bet most people didn’t make it through the beatitudes, let alone the entire sermon.

I want to look at one of these beatitudes yet this morning, and we will look at some more next week. The second beatitude is universal. It affects the rich and the poor, the young and the old. Your race or gender does not matter, nor does your political affiliation. We all know what it means to mourn. Verse 4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

There was a great tragedy last Sunday when a helicopter carrying nine people, including former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, crashed, killing all the passengers. They were heading to Gigi’s basketball game, and some of the other passengers were her teammates and their parents.

Kobe Bryant was not without his shortcomings, and it has been interesting to hear how the world has reacted to his death. But one of the things that really sticks with me is that Kobe and Gigi attended the 7:00 am service at their church and received communion the morning of the accident. The father of daughters, Kobe was a champion of women’s sports, a businessman, and a husband. I was never a huge Kobe fan, but this one hurt.

Maybe it was because Kobe was about my age. Maybe it was because he seemed to turn his life around after his legal and ethical problems. I don’t know why this one has been so hard for me, but I know that I’m not alone. Seeing gigantic men, like Shaq, tearing up is a reminder that this was more than just the loss of an athlete. This was a universal loss. Young and old, rich and poor, black, white, yellow, brown, we all mourn the loss of our fellow human beings, especially those who had so much living yet to do.

My question always comes back to, “Where was God in all this?” I refuse to see this as the punishment for sin. The God I serve isn’t the kind of God who takes the lives of young girls for some capricious reason. And unfortunately, Jesus never promises that we won’t have to experience pain. I haven’t heard any good reasons for why this happened, and I don’t expect to hear any anytime soon. What I do know is that Jesus does promise that in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our mourning, God is with us. God is on our side.

We saw that God was on the side of those who mourned when sworn enemies, teams that had to face Kobe in games and championships, put together video tributes to him, wore his number, or took ceremonial 8 and 24-second violations, the numbers that Kobe wore in his playing days. We saw God on the side of those who mourn when the UConn Huskies, Gigi’s favorite college basketball team, honored a 13-year-old girl who had never set a foot on their basketball floor as “forever a Husky.”

We saw that God was on the side of those who mourned when thousands showed up to a college baseball game this week at a stadium that only seated 500, because it wasn’t just the famous people who passed away.

The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t always go the way we expect it. I think that is, in part, because the world isn’t the way it should be. While the world bases their assessment of who is blessed on material wealth and social status, Jesus reminds us that if you really want to find God, you will be with those who are suffering. Because God is with those who mourn. God is on their side.

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Permission to Fail

Matthew 4:12-23 New International Version (NIV)

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,/the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,/Galilee of the Gentiles—/16 the people living in darkness/have seen a great light;/on those living in the land of the shadow of death/a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

I really hope that nobody here has ever been told that they are a total failure. But I bet most if not all of us know what it feels like to fail. We know what it feels like to not measure up. We see the beautiful models on our magazine covers and feel inadequate. Young girls starve themselves to try to look like the people that they see on the cover of Glamour or Us Weekly. Social media is terrible for our confidence. We watch videos on YouTube where people hit trick shots, nail ollies on their skateboards, and flip bottles with precision. We don’t see all of the time they spent practicing and failing, but we see the refined final product. Our friends only post pictures of their clean homes and children getting along on Facebook and Instagram. All of this contributes to our feelings of inadequacy.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the church can be a place where we don’t feel like we measure up. This super Christian over here has most of the New Testament memorized. This family sits quietly through the entire service. Someone hit their shin on a Reese hitch and didn’t even swear. It is easy to feel like we don’t measure up to the Christians around us. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes reading the Bible makes me feel worse. Abraham left his home and family behind to go to a strange land. Paul gave up power and prestige to become a poor missionary. And the disciples, well they dropped everything that they had and followed Jesus, following him to their own death! I can’t measure up to that!

Far too often we read a sanitized version of the Bible. We read the successes of people like the disciples and forget about all of their failures. It is kind of like the people who only post their successes and the victories online. We can easily miss the failures of these people who do eventually end up doing amazing things.

Today I want to look at the story of Jesus calling his first disciples to show you what you already know: nobody’s perfect, we all fail, and we all require a certain measure of grace. Today, I want to give you permission, permission to fail. Let’s start with today’s text and I’ll give you what I am calling the sanitized version first, and then we will mess with it a bit.

Just before our text for this morning we find a story that we have been working through for the past few weeks, the baptism of Jesus. Then, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus heads straight from the waters of the Jordan River to the wilderness, where he is tempted while he fasts for 40 days. We will come back to that text in a month or so when we arrive at Lent. When Jesus gets back from the wilderness, he hears that John has been arrested, so Jesus goes somewhere else, perhaps for his own safety. He goes to Galilee, a fishing town with a big lake.

Our text tells us that as Jesus is walking around the Sea of Galilee, he sees two brothers out fishing. These fishermen had names. Verse 18 tells us they were “Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.” Remember that, it will be important for my argument shortly. So Jesus sees Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew. Then in verse 19-20 we read, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”

First of all, I like that our modern translations use the gender-inclusive language of “fish for people,” but it just doesn’t fit the song as well. Second, how long did it take Simon called Peter and Andrew to decide to follow Jesus? They went “at once,” or “immediately.”

We find a very similar story in verses 21-22, “Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

How long did it take James and John to follow Jesus? Did they think about it for a while? Nope, Matthew tells us that they dropped their nets, jumped off the boat, and followed Jesus immediately.

I’ve heard sermons, and maybe preached a few myself, that emphasized the decision these men made to leave everything behind and follow Jesus instantly. These sermons often criticize people for overthinking things or being too comfortable with their way of life to not give it all up immediately and follow Jesus. Some will even emphasize that these men did not know Jesus. No, like Abraham following the call of God, they put their faith in something unknown. These sermons usually go something like, Oh, you have a job, a mortgage, and a family? Well if Jesus calls you to go to Africa, you must drop everything, like the disciples dropped their nets, and follow Jesus! Don’t over think it, just go!

I find this more than a little unlikely. We don’t know much about these disciples’ families, but we know that Peter was married. We also find later in the Gospels that Peter’s mother-in-law was still living, and he seemed to have some responsibility in caring for her. James and John worked for their father. It would have been common in the first century for children to learn a job from their father, and then when they were old enough, take over that and help support their parents. To just drop everything and follow Jesus sounds exciting, but it also breaks one of the Ten Commandments. How honoring is it to your father and mother to leave them without support or income?

No, let’s move away from this sanitized version of the calling of the disciples because it makes me feel inadequate and inferior. And it probably isn’t true.

We have no reason to believe that this was Jesus’s first interaction with these men. In fact, I think if we read through the other Gospels, we could make an argument that Jesus had been building a relationship with them for some time. For instance, last week’s text from John tells the calling of two disciples quite differently. Last week we read that Simon and an unnamed disciple of John the Baptist followed him home, spent some time with him, and came away excited because they saw something beautiful. And when Andrew went back to get his brother, Simon, Jesus gave him a new nickname: Peter.

But if we look at our text for this morning, Simon is already called Peter. I think it is possible that he is already called Peter because Jesus gave him that nickname in a previous encounter.

Here’s the options: either John and Matthew are telling the same story in a very different way, or they are talking about two different events. I think it is more realistic to think that these potential disciples met Jesus, spent some time getting to know him, spent some time talking with their families about the possibility of following Jesus, and then dropped their nets to follow Jesus.

My reason for pushing back on the way this story is usually told is because I don’t want you to feel like a failure or like less of a Christian if you haven’t jumped at every opportunity to serve. Don’t take the sanitized, Facebook/Instagram version of this story as the norm. Big decisions require thought. As Jesus says elsewhere, you aren’t going to start building a tower unless you first consider whether or not you have the resources to finish it.

This doesn’t mean that you put it off indefinitely. I’m simply saying don’t measure yourself against a false perception of someone else, whether that be in riding a skateboard or in following Jesus.

This was the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. What if we jump ahead to the end? We find the disciples making all sorts of mistakes. Peter cuts off a soldier’s ear, which Jesus has to fix. All the disciples scatter when Jesus is arrested, running and hiding for their lives. Peter lies, denying that he even knows Jesus. After the resurrection, Thomas doubts what he has been told.

Then, in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, we find an interesting story. After Jesus had spent three years teaching the disciples how to live, teach, and heal, we find the disciples back out fishing. Jesus had a major job for these men, to share his message throughout the world! But when Jesus was gone, they want back to their old lives.

So how does John’s Gospel end? With grace. Specifically, grace for Peter. The ear-cutting, deny-even-knowing-Jesus Peter. Jesus invites Peter to feed his sheep, to continue the ministry that Jesus had begun.

Here’s my point: we need grace. And I’m not just talking about grace from God. I’m thankful for God’s grace; we all need it. But we also need grace for ourselves. And never forget, the heroes in the Bible were far from perfect. You’ve probably seen lists like this before: Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Joseph was abused, Moses had a stuttering problem, Gideon was afraid, Rahab was a prostitute, David was an adulterer (not to mention a murderer), Elijah was suicidal, Jonah ran from God, Job went bankrupt, John the Baptist ate bugs, Andrew lived in the shadow of his big brother, Peter denied Christ, All the disciples fell asleep while praying (and ran away when Jesus really needed them.), Martha worried about everything, Mary Magdalene was demon-possessed, Zaccheus was too small, Timothy had tummy issues, Paul was a Christian-killer, Oh…and Lazarus was dead.

There’s something that I want to tell you. Are you listening? Lean in real close. If you are trying to be a disciple of Jesus, if you are trying to follow his teaching and his example, You, Will, Fail.

You will fail. There is only one person who has ever been able to live like Jesus. That person was Jesus. Not you. Not me. Jesus.

Think about it. Jesus asks us to do some absolutely ridiculous things. Forgive those who hurt you. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. That’s not easy. Even something as simple as treating someone how you want to be treated is hard stuff!

You will fail.

You will fail, and that’s okay. In fact, if you never fail, that would be a problem. Think of this logically. The Bible repeatedly tells us that nobody is perfect, that nobody is without failure. Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Romans 3:10 are good reminders. Ecclesiastes says, “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”

But all of these Biblical examples, it is the heroes of the faith who help me the most. These are people who we remember through their nicknames, like “A man after God’s own heart,” “Father Abraham,” and “The Rock upon whom the Church was built.” They weren’t perfect. They were sinners, they were failures. The reason we remember them is because they kept trying.

And if we aren’t going to be perfect and we are called to try to follow Jesus’s perfect example, God must expect us to fail. The only way to never fail is to never try.

Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

I thought about ending this sermon telling the stories of several famous people who failed repeatedly, only to find success after many attempts. I thought of J.K. Rowling, whose first book about a young man named Harry Potter was rejected by 12 major publishing companies before being picked up by small Bloomsbury Publishing, who originally published 1,000 copies. Rowling has now sold over 400 million copies of her books, in an era when people don’t even read.

I thought about Colonel Sanders, who bounced around from one odd job to the next his entire life, until he found a way to pressure fry chicken, and decided to start a franchise we know today as Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders was 62 when the first KFC opened.

Did you know that Henry Ford went bankrupt twice before he hit it big with his Model T? Or that Samuel L. Jackson didn’t have a major role in a movie until he was 45?

Those are all great stories, but I want to close with a story that I told several years ago. It can be found in Philip Yancey’s book, Church, Why Bother? This story seemed very relevant to me as my children have been taking music lessons. Yancey tells the story of the great composer, Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky once composed a piece that included an extremely difficult violin part. The new piece was passed on to an orchestra to be presented in the coming months.

After weeks of practice, the first chair violinist came to Stravinsky and told him that he simply could not play what Stravinsky had composed. It was too difficult, even impossible for a professional violinist to play. Stravinsky replied, “I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.”

I think this is what following Jesus is meant to be as well. God knows we will fail, and at times we will fail gloriously. And to be honest, there is no guarantee that we will ever succeed. But God knows that, and that’s okay. You have permission to fail.

But then again, the only real failure is a failure to never try.

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Come and See

John 1:29-42 New International Version (NIV)

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

Our text for this morning picks up where we left off last week, but we are looking at John’s version instead of Matthew’s. Last week we looked at Jesus’s baptism and the declaration from the heavens, “This is my son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

Today we find a different declaration about Jesus. And this time, rather than coming from the heavens, this one comes from John the Baptist. In verse 29, John says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And just incase you didn’t get it the first time, John says it again in verse 36: “Look, the Lamb of God!” In Latin, it is Agnus Dei. And funny enough, if you switch the “g” and the “n,” we go from the Latin word for lamb to an English word for a breed of cow, angus.

Interestingly, this is the only place in the Bible that Jesus is called the lamb of God. There are other places where he is called a lamb, or where the metaphor of the lamb is used. But this exact phrase is nowhere to be found in the Torah or the Prophets, and you won’t find this exact phrase in the New Testament, either. This is specific to John. And we really don’t know why John chooses to call Jesus the lamb of God. But if we dig a little deeper, we can make some interesting assumptions and connections.

First of all, when John calls Jesus the lamb of God twice, he isn’t just repeating himself. He is making this announcement to two different groups. The first time I assume takes place while he is baptizing along the banks of the Jordan River. Verse 35 tells us that some time has passed, and John is there (wherever there is) with two of his disciples. So John isn’t just repeating himself to repeat himself. He is telling a different group, specifically his disciples, who Jesus is. He is the lamb.

Quite the nickname, am I right? They call me…the lamb. Which is even a worse nickname in Latin. They call me…Agnus.

Did he just say his name is Agnes? That’s a girl’s name. No, let’s explore this nickname a little more.

We are now at the end of football season. Last Monday Louisiana State University (LSU) defeated Clemson in the college football championship. The Super Bowl is in two weeks. Notice the nicknames and mascots of these teams. Both LSU and Clemson have the tiger as their mascot. In the NFL you find teams like the Lions, Eagles, and Bengals (also a Tiger). Especially in football, there is an attempt to find a mascot that is intimidating and ferocious. Often these nicknames are predatory animals intended to strike fear into the very souls of their opponents. Now how many professional football teams are named the lambs? You may be able to find one somewhere, but I think you get the point. Lambs aren’t intimidating, they are herbivores, and they share their wool to help keep us warm in the winter. I know, scary, right!

John doesn’t call Jesus the bull who has come to run over everyone and gore you with his horns. He isn’t the eagle who will claw you with his talons. He isn’t the lion who will devour you with his sharp teeth and claws. He is the lamb. Now yes, Jesus is called the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. But let’s look at verses 5-6a: “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne.”

The people are always looking for a lion, and they get a lamb. Lambs are gentle. Lambs are communal creatures, thriving in groups. And in the Old Testament temple system, it was the lamb who gave his life for the sake of the people. From the very beginning of his ministry here in the first chapter of John, it was clear that Jesus wasn’t going to be a leader like all the other leaders. While most leaders seek power and authority, looking to acquire wealth and servants, our leader comes in as a gentle servant. Interestingly, three years later, at the Passover festival, in a story we only find in John’s gospel, it is the lamb of God who washes the feet of his disciples.

Just to really hammer the point home one more time, the people are expecting a lion, and they get a lamb. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is turning the expectations of the people upside-down.

Let’s circle back to the second time John calls Jesus the Lamb of God. We are told that John is there with two of his disciples. One of them is Andrew, the other is not named. John had followers as well. But when John proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God, they start to follow him. Now I don’t know that they are following him in the sense that a disciple follows their leader at this point. But they are literally tailing him. They were spying on him, seeing where he went and what he did. I know, it’s a little creepy.

Jesus notices that he is being followed, turns around, and addresses the men directly: “What do you want?” he asks in verse 38. And he probably says in nicer than I would. Maybe more like, “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

I don’t understand their response. Maybe they were a little flustered. They were trying to assess whether or not this guy was the messiah, and they got a little tongue-tied. The remainder of verse 38 gives us their response: “They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’”

Maybe it’s just me, but if two strange dudes are following me around and then they ask where I’m staying, I’m not going to tell them. But Jesus is more trusting than I am. So he tells them to come and see, and we are told that they spend the day hanging out together.

Evidently, whatever they saw there made an impression on them. This makes we wonder, when they went to the place Jesus was staying, what did they see? Knowing the kind of person Jesus was and is, I assume that they saw tax collectors and sinners sitting together at the dining room table. I imagine that they saw people of various political persuasions, the Republicans and Democrats of their days, sitting around and learning together. Perhaps they saw enemies reconcile. People who had been hurt forgive. People who had not experienced love felt accepted.

Whatever these disciples saw when they spent the day with Jesus, they wanted more. Not only that, they wanted others to see it as well. After spending time with Jesus, Andrew, one of John the Baptist’s disciples, runs to find his brother, Simon, and tells him that they have found the messiah. They have found the one who was promised long ago. The one who would restore Israel, the one who would bring peace. So Simon follows Andrew to Jesus, and Jesus gives him a nickname. In verse 42 Jesus says, “‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).”

Petra is the Greek word for “rock.” As I’ve said before, long before Duane Johnson, Simon Peter had the privilege of being the original “The Rock.”

I’m amazed by this story. Jesus’s first disciples started following him because he invited them to come over and hang out, to spend some time with him. He didn’t argue with them over some abstract theology or debate politics. When these men approach Jesus and ask him some questions, he doesn’t give them some simple reply. He invites them to “come and see.”

I know that we have a bunch of hikers in our congregation. We live in the Shenandoah Valley, and I believe that all able-bodied people should be required to go on at least one hike at some point in their life.

A couple of months ago I was visiting with a couple in Washington, DC. They had some time and they were going to be heading our way. So they asked me what I would suggest doing while in the area. I had some restaurant suggestions. I told them about the Shakespeare center. But it was October, and the leaves were just reaching their peak. I told them they really needed to go on a hike or a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I described the view of the mountains, rolling as far as the eye could see. I described the color of the leaves, all decked out in their finest for the fall. I described the rivers that helped cut, shape, and form our valley over many, many years.

Help me out. What words would you use to describe the Shenandoah Valley in the fall? Beautiful? Colorful? Mesmerizing? That’s the thing, all of these words are correct, but they really don’t do it justice. If you want to understand the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley in the fall, there is only one thing you can do. You have to see it for yourself.

I tried to describe this beautiful land, but the best that I could do was to tell my friends, “Come, and you will see.” I could try to describe it for you, but I’ll fail. If you really want to know, come, and you will see.

I find it interesting that these are the exact words of Jesus as well. I want to point out that this is Jesus’s form of evangelism. Jesus didn’t stand on the street corner and yell at people to turn or burn. Yes, Jesus talks a lot about hell and punishment, but those conversations are always saved for the religious elite, like the Pharisees. He spoke to the average person in a much different way. Jesus didn’t try to scare people into following him. He didn’t shame people, he didn’t attempt to come off as better or superior than them. But if anyone could get away with thinking they were better than someone else, it would be Jesus!

Here in John’s gospel, Jesus’s efforts toward evangelism is simply to invite people to come and see. Come spend some time with me, come and hang out. Like the Shenandoah Valley in the fall, there is something too beautiful to simply describe with words. Yes, Jesus could try to explain what he was all about to Peter, Andrew, and the other disciple, but he doesn’t. He wants to show them.

Which makes me wonder, is there something about Jesus, something about the church, or something about Christianity in general that you believe is so beautiful that you would invite someone else to come and see it for their selves?

That’s the problem. I think that we have often made Christianity into something ugly.

I met someone I now call a friend a few years ago through a mutual friend. Let’s call them Jack and Diane. So here’s a little ditty about Jack and Diane. Jack introduced us and somehow ended up telling me that Diane attended a local church. Jack knew that I was a pastor, so he was trying to make a connection. But Diane said, “Oh, you’ve outed me as a church girl.” That’s when I turned to her and said, “Hi, let me introduce myself properly. I’m Reverend Kevin Gasser.”

Diane was joking, but there was something behind it. Has the church become something that we are embarrassed of? Sometimes I’m embarrassed by the church. Not this church, but the worldwide church. We’ve made the church into something ugly. We’ve at times made the church something we don’t want others to see.

Yet there are also still beautiful things about the church. And these are the things that rarely get media attention. I want to highlight one such story here.

It has been said that one of the reasons that the early church grew and spread as quickly as it did was because of the way the church cared for the weakest and most vulnerable among them: the widows, orphans, and foreigners. In that society, these people couldn’t work and therefore couldn’t provide for their selves or their families. So the church stepped in. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, they cared and provided for these people.

Jump ahead to today, and we know that there are still a lot of people who cannot provide for their selves. I’m not talking about lazy people who just don’t want to work. But people who are genuinely behind the 8 ball. For instance, did you know that 137 million Americans are struggling with medical debt? Medical debt is one of the most common reasons for people to declare bankruptcy or cash in their retirement funds. But what are you going to do? If you get sick, you need treatment, even if you cannot pay. And I’ve heard that of those struggling with medical debt, 75% have medical insurance. But for whatever reason, they couldn’t cover all of their bills.

Here is where the church comes in. A few weeks ago, right around Christmas, a large church in California made a decision to make a major purchase. This is a mega church with a budget that is far beyond my comprehension, and their giving was above what was needed in 2019. So what do you think this mega church spent their surplus money on last year? A new addition? Perhaps a coffee bar or book store on campus? No, they purchased the medical debt of their neighbors…and forgave it.

Christian Assembly Church mapped out the 28 neighborhoods surrounding their building and worked with a nonprofit to identify the medical debt in their community. There were 5,555 households that met their requirements. So on Christmas morning, these families, all 5,555 woke up to find their medical debt erased.

All 5.3 million dollars of it.

Now to be clear, the church bought the debt at a discounted rate, but it was still significant. They just paid it off, no strings attached.

When John’s disciples come to Jesus and begin asking questions, he doesn’t give them canned responses. He invites them to come see. And like the Shenandoah Valley in the fall, we can see some absolutely beautiful things in the church, and even more beauty in Jesus.

Things almost too beautiful to describe.

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More Than Water

Isaiah 42:1-9 New International Version (NIV)

1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

5 This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:

6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

8 “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being    I announce them to you.”


Matthew 3:13-17 New International Version (NIV)

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

For some reason this week I was thinking back to my high school years and my time in the Future Farmers of America, better known as the FFA. Being a part of the FFA gave you a few benefits, such as being able to drive a tractor to school one day a year, and taking part in the annual barbeque. People didn’t even mind buying our fundraisers, as the FFA was known to sell some of the best fruit in the area.

The first-year members of the FFA are given a title: they are called “greenhands.” I have no idea why they are called greenhands, but I assume it has something to do with getting into agricultural studies for the first time. They were still a bit green. In my school, there was an initiation for all the greenhands. There wasn’t hazing or anything like that. Well, maybe a little hazing, but all in good fun. And participating was entirely optional; you did it by your own choice. Upon entering the FFA, all greenhands were required to put one of their hands into a bowl of water colored with green food coloring. This caused a temporary, but very noticeable stain on the person’s hand.

For the next 24 hours or so, everyone at the school knew something was different about that person. For the upperclassmen who had been around a year or two, they recognized the greenhanded person to be a new member of the FFA. They had seen this before, so they instantly connected a person with a green hand as a new member of the FFA. The freshmen among us didn’t know what to make of these kids walking around with a strange skin disorder. So they asked questions. They asked each other what was going on. And when their fellow freshmen didn’t know, they would go to the person sporting the green hand and ask them. This offered an opportunity to share with others the right of passage and initiation into the FFA.

I was never very active in the FFA. My experiences ended with the local chapter, which was my high school. But there were additional levels, districts, state and national conventions. One’s experience with FFA could take them to places, such as Kansas City, Missouri and Louisville, Kentucky.

I thought of the FFA this week when I read our New Testament text for this morning. This is the story of the baptism of Jesus. I think of baptism as an initiation, kind of like the initiation a greenhand might experience when entering the FFA. Baptism isn’t meant to be hazing, but it is meant to be voluntary. It is also meant to be visible, an act done so others can see. And it brings us into a part of a larger body.

What I would like to do today is look at how our Anabaptist ancestors understood baptism as voluntary, what it means to be visible, and the community into which we are baptized, a community that proclaims and affirms our beloved nature.

Voluntary. This is one of the major differences between our Anabaptist ancestors and the established church of the 16th century. The state church of nations like Germany and Switzerland, where the Anabaptist tradition began, required that every baby born be baptized and registered. There are a number of theories about why this was required, but many claim that registering a child with the state was linked to taxing the child when they grew older. But the Anabaptists claimed that one needed to make the decision for their self to be baptized; it must be a voluntary decision. Baptism was to be a decision made by the person being baptized, not by the state mandating it, nor could it be the church or the parents’ decision.

There are stories in the history of Christianity where leaders marched their troops through rivers as a baptism, thinking this made them Christians and therefore prepared to battle in the name of God. Others have forced their enemies to undergo baptism or be executed. I don’t think this is what baptism is meant to be. We must choose baptism.

Visible. The early Anabaptists often performed their baptisms indoor, in part because it soon became illegal to be baptized again. But it was never done alone. I’ve done baptisms in a number of situations. I have baptized people right here in the church by having them kneel as we pour a few tablespoons of water over their heads. I’ve baptized people in outdoor services at lakes and ponds. Some churches have intricate baptismal founts and pools. I remember going to a large church once where the floor of the stage opened up like the gym floor in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” exposing a baptismal pool underneath.

Which way is right? None of the above! Jesus was baptized in a river, so we should be, too! No, we are never given specifics in the Bible for how to baptize. And we don’t know how baptisms were done in the Bible. Was Jesus completely immersed in the waters of the Jordan, or did he have water poured over his head while he kneeled there? We don’t know. And if it was really important, I think the writers of the Bible would have spelled out exactly how to perform this act.

So we in the Mennonite Church don’t sweat over things like whether or not someone needs to be immersed in water or if sprinkling is okay. Some churches require being dunked three times forward, others three times backwards. There may be symbolism in these acts. Matthew 28 says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I believe that it is just that; it is symbolic.

But if people want to be baptized in a certain way, I’m usually happy to accommodate. We can do baptisms right here, but some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with baptism involve going to a natural setting like a lake. We’ve done baptisms at Lake Todd and Sherando Lake. And we usually have a church picnic along with those events, which may be one of the reasons I enjoy them so much.

In each of these instances, our worship services are open to the public. Anyone is welcome to wander into our church during a baptismal service, and when we baptize outdoors, people are welcome to wander into our group, sing along, and welcome new members into the church.

This past summer my family spent a weekend at a state park right along a river. As my children were playing in the water, a Latino church group began gathering in a nearby gazebo. It was fun listening to their singing and guitar playing, even though I understood very little of it. Then they brought the service to the river, and began baptizing about a dozen people, right beside our children. I was a little worried Hadley might wander into the group and get baptized by accident, but was a great experience to witness the family of God growing in different cultures and languages. And they let me stand there and sing “sublime gracia” along with the rest of the church.

Baptism is meant to be a visible sign of a decision someone has made voluntarily. And it is a weird thing to do, especially in a public setting. I always feel strange signing and baptizing in public, but it’s okay to feel strange. It is like that greenhand initiation. Those who know what is going on will recognize this as a baptism service, whether they are Christians or not. You see people dunking one another in a river while they are wearing clothes and everyone else sings, you know it is a baptism service. But for those who don’t know what is going on, for those who have not experienced such a service before, this is a chance for them to ask questions and an opportunity for us to share why we do this strange thing.

Finally, I want to say that baptism is about entering something bigger, but also recognizing one’s preexisting status. I mentioned that when I was a member of the FFA, I didn’t do anything outside my own school. But my brother did. He participated in regional events and I believe he went to a state convention. A few of my neighbors were state officers, so they traveled to the state and even national gatherings.

This is a lot like the church, but on a smaller scale. For some people, the church will be their local chapter, the congregation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and for most people throughout history, that’s all they ever knew about the church. But our church is also a part of a conference headquartered in Harrisonburg, and stretches into Washington, DC, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia. At my last count, we have 67 churches or church plants right now in Virginia Mennonite Conference. Our denomination, Mennonite Church USA, is made up of 17 area conferences. And by being a part of MC USA, we are included in the Mennonite World Conference. Mennonite World Conference, as of last count, included 2.13 million members in 86 countries, with over 1/3 of all Mennonites living in Africa. Around 2/3 of all Mennonites today are in African, Latin American, or Asian countries! And we are only a small portion of the 2.18 billion Christians in the world today.

So while most of us will never have a personal connection with a member of a church in Sudan or Indonesia, know that you are a part of a world-wide organization connected through our shared belief. Baptism is your initiation into this hodge-podge group of men and women, red, brown, yellow, black, and white, speaking every language under the sun. But baptism is more than an initiation into this group. It is also a reminder that you and every other person in the world are a part of a preexisting group. A group of beloved people.

Our scripture for today tells the story of Jesus coming to John for baptism. John questions this because he feels that things should be switched. Jesus should be baptizing John. But after some convincing, John performs Jesus’s baptism. Then all heaven breaks loose! Verses 16-17 say, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”

Mark puts it slightly different in his gospel. In chapter 1, verses 10-11 we read, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

Notice that in Matthew’s version, the voice from haven is making a proclamation for all to hear. “This is my Son…” In Mark’s version, this isn’t as much a proclamation, but an affirmation. Mark’s version isn’t for all the rest to hear, but it is meant for Jesus. “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Now, the difficult question: when did Jesus become God’s son? When did God start loving Jesus? And when did God become well please in him?

There is a weird tradition in my wife’s family (just one J). I should also preface this by saying I have the strange ability to be offended by compliments. Like when someone tells me “Nice sermon today, pastor” after church, but doesn’t say that every week. In my mind I ask, “Does that mean that all the others are bad?” In my wife’s family, on your birthday, you get to eat off the red “You are special today!” plate. So my critical side says, “Does that mean that 364 days a year I’m not special?”

I never said it was easy living with me.

I think of the words spoken from heaven during Jesus’s baptism are kind of like this plate. God calls out from heaven and declares Jesus’s role as a beloved child of God. Was Jesus beloved before his baptism? Was he beloved after his baptism? And did he need to be baptized in order to be a beloved child of God?

The beloved nature of Jesus does not begin or end with his baptism, just as I am special on days that are not my birthday. The red plate is simply a way of marking that today is a day to recognize my specialness among my friends and family. And a part of baptism is acknowledging a person’s status as a beloved child of God.

You were beloved before you were baptized; you were beloved after you were baptized. You are beloved if you never have been baptized. You are beloved if you never plan to be baptized. Baptism doesn’t make you beloved, baptism is a celebration of your beloved nature.

And I emphasize the word “nature.” You have done nothing to become beloved, and you can do nothing to get God to stop loving you. As the Psalmist and others write, God knew you before he knit you together in your mother’s womb. Our God who is love, created you out of love, so that you can express God’s love to the world.

Baptism should be voluntary and visible. It is our way of joining the millions of other Christians around the world in proclaiming our beloved nature, and inviting others to recognize that they, too, are beloved.

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A Bunch of Wise Guys

Matthew 2:1-12 New International Version (NIV)

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Tomorrow is the day known as “Epiphany.” Epiphany means a manifestation or appearance. You may hear people say, “I’ve had an epiphany,” when they have a new or clear idea. Something just appeared in their mind.

When we talk about Epiphany in the church, we are talking about the arrival of Jesus and the celebration of Jesus’s birth by the three wise men. Today, being the closest Sunday to Epiphany, is called Epiphany Sunday.

Epiphany is one of those holidays that used to be really big in the church, and then kind of went away for a bit. But interest in Epiphany and other church rituals seems to be on the rise again in the US. It used to be that the church celebrated the days from Christmas to Epiphany in what was often called Christmastide. Christmastide is 12 days long, and was so important that they wrote songs about it, like “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Since today is the 11th day, you should expect your true love to give you 11 pipers piping at some point today. “The 12 Days of Christmas” dates back to 1780, and has existed in approximately the same form now since 1908.

But we aren’t here today to talk about some old song. No, we are going to talk about the wise men! Or, are they kings? Maybe magi, whatever that is.

Today we are going to try to better understand the story of the wise men, and I’ll keep calling them that, but I’ll also explain why we call them wise men, kings, and magi. I want to look at what we don’t know, what we do know, and what actually matters.

Let’s start with what we don’t know. First of all, the big one. How many wise men were there? We know that there were more than one, because they are referred to in the plural: we, they, etc. But other than being more than one, we have no idea how many wise men there were. I know, that messes with the song. The song clearly says, “We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts, we traverse afar.”

There could have been two wise men, there could have been twenty-two. The only reason we have to believe that there were three is because they brought three gifts. Matthew’s Gospel tells us what the three gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. As you may have heard, this is how we know that they were three wise men, and not three wise women. Three wise women would have shown up with fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and plenty of baby formula.

There are a number of theories about why the wise men brought these specific gifts. Gold is gold, and nobody is going to turn that stuff down. But frankincense and myrrh, I’m not even sure what that is. Frankincense is used as an incense, burned in religious ceremonies, and gives off a woodsy, fruity smell. It comes from the sap of trees found in some Middle Eastern countries, and others in the Horn of Africa, like Somalia and Ethiopia. And, as you can imagine, it was exactly what a baby wants as a gift to celebrate their birth.

Myrrh is also derived from tree sap, and can be burned as incense, but it was also used as an antiseptic. Myrrh was often used in salves, balms, and ointments. Even though the idea of bacteria wasn’t yet conceptualized, someone figured out that myrrh helped people heal after they had been wounded. Myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial in some cultures, and in John 19, we find that after Jesus’s death, Joseph of Arimathea and Nichodemus cover Jesus’s body with a mixture of aloe and myrrh before taking him to his grave.

Why the weird gifts? If you are asking this question, you are in good company. Many people have attempted to answer just that, and some of those answers are pretty good. Some have noted that these gifts recognize the complexity of Jesus’s life to come. Gold is a gift fit for a king; frankincense is burned in religious ceremonies to worship God; myrrh is used for the burial of an important person. These gifts seem to anticipate Jesus’s role as king, his divinity, and his atoning death.

That’s beautiful! But it is unlikely that this is why the wise men brought these specific gifts. Remember that the wise men had to stop and talk to Herod and his scholars to find out where Jesus would be born. I’ll give them credit, they got that far just by following a star, but I just don’t see any reason to believe that the wise men knew about Jesus’s divinity or that he would die on the cross. So again, that’s an interesting theory, but I find it unlikely.

Perhaps you have also heard about how the wise men gave Jesus’s family these gifts to finance their trip to Egypt. If you know this story, you know that King Herod was jealous of Jesus and wanted to do away with the competition. Herod attempted to have Jesus assassinated, but Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt until it was safe. But the wise men didn’t know that this was going to happen until after they gave Jesus his gifts. After they gave him the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were told in a dream to go back home by a different route. I don’t doubt that Mary and Joseph sold these items and lived off the income, but I don’t think that is why the wise men gave these specific gifts.

I think the wise men gave these gifts because they recognized Jesus as a king. They say in verse 2 of our text this morning: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When did the wise men arrive? January 6, twelve days after Jesus’s birth. I’m not sure why that tradition started, but we have no idea when the wise men arrived. If you read this story carefully, there is no mention of a stable or barn. Verse 11 says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

There may have been no room at the inn when Jesus was born, but they appear to have found a place to stay by the time the wise men arrive. And some scholars have claimed that Jesus may have been as old as two-years-old when the wise men arrive, because Herod has all male children two and under killed. We simply don’t know when they arrived.

Let’s look at one more thing we don’t know. What were the names of the wise men? According to tradition they were Melchior from Europe, Caspar from Arabia, and Balthazar from Africa. They are said to have travelled by horse, camel, and elephant, respectively. That’s what tradition says, be we have no idea what their names were.

Alright, what do we know? Let’s look at how we refer to these men. We often call them wise men or kings. The text doesn’t say that they were kings, but many throughout history have tried to make these folks fulfill Psalm 72:11, “All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him.” I would guess this is also why they are said to have come from Europe, Arabia, and Africa. This was the known world at the time. I don’t know if they were actually kings, but they were at least respected and wealthy men. Remember that they got a private audience with King Herod.

The King James Version calls them wise men. I believe that they were wise men because they traveled from some far-off places using nothing but a star and only missed their intended destination by about 5.5 miles. I’ve got GPS and both Apple and Google maps on my phone, and I still get lost.

The original Greek does not call them wise men or kings, but magos, which we anglicize a bit to call them magi. I appreciate that the NIV does not try to translate the word magi in Matthew chapter 2, and just leaves it as it is.

But what is a magi? The word is used five times in the New Testament, three in our text for this morning, and twice in the book of Acts. There are actually three times in Acts that appear to be talking about magi. Not the same magi that came to visit Jesus at his birth, but magi in general.

In Acts 8:9 we read about Simon the sorcerer who decided to follow Jesus. In Acts 19:19 we find the story of sorcerers who bring their scrolls to the city and burn them when they decide to follow Jesus. And in Acts 13 we read about Paul and Barnabas meeting Elymas, who opposes the work of these two apostles. We read in verses 8-10, “But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’”

Then Paul blinds Elymas, which is not something I encourage you to do. At least it was only temporary.

What we lose in our English translations is that these men also appear to be magos. The exact same word is used to describe Elymas as is used to describe the three wise men. They weren’t just wise men, and if they were kings, they weren’t just kings. They were people outside of the Jewish faith. Elsewhere the Bible might call them pagans, Gentiles, maybe even sinners. Leviticus 19:26 says, “Do not practice divination or sorcery.”

But notice this, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first people to come and recognize Jesus as king of the Jews and worship him, offering him gifts fit for a king, aren’t other Jews. No, in Matthew’s Gospel there is a clear division. While Herod, a Jew, was filled with jealousy and wanted to do away with the competition, it was those one the outside who got it first.

I think Matthew is doing at least two different things in this passage. One: As Matthew likes to do frequently throughout his Gospel, he is showing how Jesus fulfills the ancient prophesies of the Hebrew people. And two: As Matthew likes to do frequently throughout his Gospel, he is showing that it is those on the outside who get it first.

In my research for today I came across an interesting quote from the guys over at They write:

It is improbable and ridiculous that wise magicians from a foreign land would travel to Jerusalem only to learn of their destination from one who wants to kill the one they seek and then to bring this boy, born in some dusty backwater, gifts fit for a king. It is absurd.

SPOILER ALERT: it is only going to get more absurd from here (the poor will be blessed, the last will be first and the son of God will be nailed to a cross).

What do the wise men teach us? They teach us the absurdity of the Bible, they teach us the absurdity of the Gospel, and the teach us the absurdity of Jesus. Nobody would have guessed that a group of outsiders, pagans, would be the first to recognize Jesus as king. In a world where we see so much division among the religious people, in a world where people kill others just because of the religion that they are a part of, let us be like the wise men and not like Herod. Let us bow before the one born king of the Jews, let us be a part of this absurd story.

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Disruption in the Manger

Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

We were away last Sunday for a wedding in Indiana. Yes, you heard me correctly, we had a wedding on December 22, the fourth Sunday of Advent. That’s okay, it isn’t like this is the busy season for people in my line of work or anything like that.

It was Sonya’s last cousin, out of 17, who got married, so we weren’t going to miss that. And my family lives four hours away from that cousin, so we were able to spend Christmas Day with my family for the first time in years. We are glad we went, but we are also glad to sleep in our own beds for a few nights.

Last Sunday we worshipped at Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, and the youth pastor, Katie, shared a bit about her childhood experiences and the transition into adulthood. She said that growing up, her family always had multiple nativity sets around the house during Christmas. It wasn’t unusual to have four our five in the living room, dining room, even their bedrooms. We all know what to expect in a nativity scene. There is going to be a baby and his parents. They will be surrounded by the animals who live in the barn. There will be shepherds. There will be angels. And there will be wise men.

When she got married, Katie assumed that they would continue the tradition of having a beautiful nativity set out each year. But she should have known better. Her husband came from a family of rearrangers. She should have seen it coming when she first saw the train at her in-law’s home pulling the letters N-O-E-L, but rearranged to spell out the name Leon. She didn’t realize what she was in for until they were gifted a lovely nativity scene with clay figures and she began to decorate with it. The next day, she woke up to all of the figures gathered around a young shepherd and his sheep, while ignoring Mary and the baby. The next day, all the figures were gathered around a sheep who appears to be giving a speech from the back of a camel. The following days, additional characters showed up. A googly-eyed Santa, a penguin, and the wisest of wisemen, Master Yoda. Soon word got out that there was a party, and everyone showed up, and then had a parade. This seemed to be too much for Joseph, so the next day he was found taking a nap.

Does anyone feel that this is a little disrespectful? I mean, come on. This is the manger scene where Jesus was born! Okay, I feel it is a little disrespectful, but also kind of funny. My children even got in on the rearranging a bit when we came across a large nativity scene in Indiana and they decided that they could be a part of the celebration. I don’t want to be disrespectful. But I also see some good theology in moving around the pieces, rearranging what was expected, and even in joining with Mary and Joseph as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In this short reflection I want to show how Jesus is and always has been a master of disruption. And that’s just what some of us need.

First, I just want to remind you all that what we know as the nativity scene probably isn’t what Jesus experienced. The barn that Jesus was born in would have been attached to a family’s dwelling. Often people kept their livestock in what kind of resembles our basement. The shepherds and the wise men didn’t show up at the same time. Tradition tells us that the wise men came 12 days later, on the day we call Epiphany. That is why we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas. We will look more at Epiphany next week on…Epiphany Sunday! But notice, Luke doesn’t say anything about the wise men. They only show up in Matthew’s gospel. And Matthew doesn’t say anything about the shepherds. They didn’t show up at the same time.

But perhaps the most misleading thing about the nativity scene isn’t an image, but a song. It is possible that Jesus Christ, both fully human and fully God, did not cry when he was born. But I doubt it. And even if he did, this took place thousands of years before the spinal block or epidurals. I was present for the birth of both of my children, and it was not a silent night.

I think that the idea of disruption is a better fit for Christmas than silence. Just imagine you are Joseph. A young carpenter, building homes and now ready to begin building a family. You’ve made arrangements to marry a young woman named Mary. You’ve paid the dowry to her father. It was common in those days to get engaged and then for the man to begin building the house where they would start a family. Joseph is stacking rocks, mixing mortar, and growing excited about his new life.

But word got back to Joseph that his betrothed was pregnant. And it wasn’t his. The Jesus story is from the very beginning a story of disruption. Even after Joseph received a message from the angel, you have to think that raising the son of God is going to change a few of your plans. Joseph had something in mind, but along comes Jesus and changes everything.

Mary seems to know from the very beginning that the child in her womb would be a disruptor. After Mary hears the news about her son, she sings. Mary’s song, sometimes called the Magnificat, says:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Jesus was born to be a disruptor. So while I want to say that messing around with the nativity scene, putting Yoda or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle among the shepherds and the wise men, is a little distasteful, I also think it is quite appropriate. Because just when we thought we had it all figured out, and knew what to expect, something else enters the system. We’ve attempted to domesticate Jesus. We like the predictable Jesus. But that’s not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible is meant to disrupt.

I remember the first time I ever heard Shane Claiborne speak. It was about 16 years ago and I had no idea who this guy was. I was in my first year of seminary, and I went to chapel one day. As I walked up to the door, there was this tall hippie with dreadlocks, thick-rimmed glasses, and wearing clothes that looked like they were made from burlap bags. I found out later that he did in fact make all of his own clothes. An intelligent man with a southern drawl, Claiborne had been a student with Tony Campolo before becoming a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary. But partway through his studies, Claiborne withdrew from seminary, and went to live among the poor and homeless in Philadelphia. Stepping out of a world that was always looking out for itself, always chasing the next big sale or the almighty dollar, Claiborne loved the unlovable, lived in places most of us wouldn’t visit, and ate with people most of us wouldn’t give a second look on the street. He gave up comfort and perhaps money to spend time with society’s rejects. And he did it because this is what he saw Jesus doing in the Bible. Claiborne saw this as his ministry, and he has been doing it for 20 years.

I don’t remember much about what Claiborne said that day, but one story still sticks in my memory. He was speaking to a group one day, and after his presentation, a man came up to him and said, “When I found Jesus, he really straightened my life out.” Claiborne responded, “Really, because when I found Jesus, he really messed my life up!”

Claiborne has served with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He has authored dozens of articles and books, including the one with my favorite title, “What if Jesus Meant All That Stuff?” And in his book The Irresistible Revolution, Claiborne writes something very simple, but also quite profound: “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”

I find that profound, because I know that it is true. As we read in Isaiah 40, the words popularized in Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Every 12-step program that I know of includes saying that we are powerless against their addiction and we need God to help us through it. And we all know the old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I think we often focus on the “God comforts the disturbed” part. But we must not forget that God disturbs the comfortable as well.

I like the story of Shane Claiborne, but I also tell it with some hesitancy. I don’t think that we are all called to move out of our homes and go live among the poor in the streets of Philadelphia. I don’t want to romanticize this experience or anything of that nature. But of those sitting in our pews this Sunday, I’m wondering how comfortable we have gotten. How comfortable have we gotten with our own circle of friends? Maybe God is trying to disturb you a bit this year and get you to spend time with someone new. Or maybe you’ve become comfortable with your schedule, and you have been ignoring nudges to volunteer somewhere, to coach a kids’ basketball team or serve a meal at the Valley Mission.

I don’t know what everyone’s situation is, but what I do know is that from the very beginning, God has been comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable. And sometimes that’s the same person! Just when we get comfortable with our manger scenes the way we want them, God comes along and disturbs things. Maybe a little Yoda here, perhaps a T-rex there. It may feel a little disrespectful, but if it is God doing the disturbing, it would be worse to ignore that disruption in favor of the status quo.

And if you ever feel excluded, remember, there is always room for a few more characters at Jesus’s celebration.

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