The Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.

I’m sure that some of you have seen the Facebook “10 Year Challenge” over the last couple of days. But for those of you who have not, there are a few different iterations of the challenge. Essentially, there is a meme challenging people to post their first-ever Facebook profile picture beside your most recent picture to see how well you have aged over the last decade or so. Of course, there is a conspiracy theory going around that says Facebook wants you to do this so that they can gather more data on their users. They already have your age and ethnicity, now they can refine their algorithms to assess your health, whether it is declining quickly or steadily, and sell that information to the insurance, pharmaceutical, and health care industries.

I think it is more likely that someone who has aged well thought it would be fun to show off their timeless nature to their friends. But I could be wrong.

What I think would be more interesting would be to go back to your first written Facebook post and see how much you have changed over the last decade. I decided to scroll through my timeline this week to get a feel of how I might be different now than I was in 2006 when I made my first post. My first post, from November 15, 2006 “out at a party”. No punctuation or capitalization. And I checked the timestamp. I posted that at 10:45 am; it was a Wednesday. Why was I out at a party on a Wednesday at 10:45 in the morning? And why did I step aside from that party to find a computer with an internet connection to post such an important bit of information, because remember that we didn’t have smart phones then.

While I have no idea what was going on that day, I did find it interesting to scroll through my posts to see how I’ve changed. Not my looks, but my thoughts and ideas. Over the years I’ve posted about school, I’ve posted a lot about church. And for a period, I posted a lot of political stuff. I was kind of confrontational, aggressive, and cocky. I got into a few online debates along the way.

I was a bit of a jerk.

My more recent posts include pictures of my family, the snowy rolling hills of Virginia, and uplifting stories meant to showcase the best of humanity. I can still be a bit edgy, but I’ve come to realize that social media isn’t the best place to be that guy. Those are conversations best had face-to-face with people you know. Preferably over coffee or a shared meal.

I’ve changed over the last decade, not just in appearance, but in theology and politics as well. I’m going to guess that you have as well, and that’s okay. If you are exactly the same person you were ten years ago that means one of two things: either you were perfect ten years ago, or you haven’t improved in that span of time.

While I’ve surely takes some steps backward, I feel as if I have made significant strides in relating to people who see the world differently than I do. This includes people in this church, people across the conference and denomination, and people of other religious persuasions. These conversations are helpful, meaningful, and I would argue, biblical. We are the body of Christ, and when we cut off parts of the body, the entire body suffers.

Our scripture for this morning is a part of a larger section from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. When we read scripture, it is always important to look at the context. We can’t just lift a verse or two out of an entire chapter and assume we understand what it means. If we go to the beginning of chapter 12, we find Paul talking about spiritual gifts. In verse 7, Paul says that everyone has a gift from the Spirit, gifts for the greater good of the world. Your gift isn’t for you to keep for yourself, but to make the world more like God intends for it to be. There are gifts of wisdom, healing, discernment, interpretation, and speaking in tongues.

The point Paul is making is that everyone has gifts. But Paul also realizes that not everyone’s gifts are valued the same in their society, just as they aren’t in our day an age. This sets the stage for our passage for the morning where Paul uses the metaphor of the body to describe the church. There seems to be some competition among the body parts in this metaphor. Feet are wishing that they were hands, the eyes are saying that there’s something between them and it smells, and the ears seem to be ready to defect from the body altogether and start their own entity all because they aren’t eyes.

Paul is intentionally trying to be silly because body parts don’t get jealous or territorial. They just do what they were created to do. In verses 25-26, he explains how bodies parts really work: “…there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

This metaphor is a reference to those spiritual gifts that Paul mentions earlier. He gets it, we see the gifting of others and get jealous. We wish we could sing like this person, preach like that person, memorize scripture like another, whatever it might be. But what you bring to the body is important, and without you and your gifts, the body would suffer.

Paul ends this section by naming some positions in the church. Apostles, prophets, teachers. He names some gifts and notes that not everyone will serve in the positions, not everyone will have these gifts. The chapter ends with these words: “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”

What is the most excellent way? Paul spends the entire next chapter telling us. He says that none of these gifts matter, not one bit, if we don’t have love. The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is in response to quarrelling among the members of the church about who has the best gifts and who gets to serve in the most respected roles. Paul says, If I prophesy, if I have knowledge, if I speak in tongues, if I have faith to move mountains, none of it matters if I do not have love for my brothers and sisters.

I sure hope this isn’t the first time you are hearing this: Your gifts matter just as much as the next guy’s. Don’t look at the foot beside you and think that you are better or worse than them or more important to the church. We need you, and we need them. Without either of you, we would be less.

But I think that this passage was meant for more than just a local congregation. I think it was meant for the broader church. I intentionally skipped over the first few verses, but I want to come back to them now. Verses 12-13 say, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

Paul isn’t just talking about this little Gentile church in Corinth, which was made up of former pagans. He is talking about the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, the Gentiles in Ephesus, the former slaves in Galatia. Each one brings a different gift to the conversation, each one serves a different role in the body of Christ. The world may value these gifts differently, but in the Kingdom of God, each one is needed, and to want to do without one would cause the entire body to suffer.

At our last church council meeting I shared that I had recently concluded my 9-year-term as a member of the Conference Council. Someone asked something along the lines of whether or not it had been a good experience. On one hand it has been an opportunity for me to get to know some of the people scattered across our conference, which stretches from D.C. to Tennessee and North Carolina. Or, another way it has been put, we stretch from academia to Appalachia. That’s really quite amazing, but it also comes with its challenges. I have seen churches leave our denomination and/or our conference, and been a part of those conversations of process and procedure. As our district chair, my name will forever be attached to the motion to release two churches from our conference, two churches from our district, our county. We’ve lost churches on the conservative side and churches on the progressive side. I’ll be honest, it makes meetings a lot easier without some people there and some congregations represented. And I believe that the body of Christ is weaker because of it. We no longer have to even engage those voices.

Glen Guyton, the Executive Director of our denomination put it well when he recently wrote, “With the rise of congregations joining conferences based on political or ideological affinity rather than geographic proximity, we may be losing a key strength in our denomination, regional diversity. Our middle adjudicatory could move from small diverse bodies that have to deal with differences on the micro level to ideological monoliths steeped in identity politics. Our denomination will suffer if issues of diversity aren’t first lived out in the local context. If we can’t struggle and forebear regionally with those in close proximity to us, we will never be able to do so at the national level.”

Though it is not exactly what Paul was discussing in 1 Corinthians 12, I think this is a modern example of what he was saying. When we split, separate, and no longer interact with one another, we lose diversity and the ability to talk to people who hold different perspectives.

I think this is why over the last few years I have really tried to engage other denominations in conversation. Rather than stereotyping certain groups, which is the easy way out, I find it helpful to ask members of a group what they really believe. I’ve had some great conversations with Methodist and Catholic friends, and I’ve been reading a lot of Catholic authors on human rights issues. I also find it helpful to read things that stand in opposition to things that I believe. I think it strengthens my understanding of my own belief and keeps me from misunderstanding another’s beliefs.

Does this mean we always agree at the end of a conversation? Absolutely not! But if I really believe what Paul says, that the greatest spiritual gift is love, then I’m going to try to love my brothers and sisters who are in different churches, conferences, and denominations.

You may have seen the meme that made its rounds earlier this year where two men stand on either side of a number painted on the ground. One man says, “It’s a six!” while the other says, “It’s a nine!” The caption under the picture then reads, “Just because you are right, does not mean that I am wrong. You just haven’t seen life from my side.”

There are times when that is absolutely true. If we grew up in a different place, or were raised by different parents, or went to school in a different location, we would probably see the world differently. But this week I saw a follow-up meme with the text of the original crossed out. The caption then reads, “But one of those people is wrong, someone painted a six or a nine, they need to back up and orient themselves, see if there are any other numbers to align with. Maybe there’s a driveway or a building to face, or they can ask someone who actually knows. People having an uninformed opinion about something they don’t understand and proclaiming their opinion as being equally valid as facts is what is ruining the world. No one wants to do any research, they just want to be right.”

I’m not saying that everyone is right and that anything goes. I’m saying that we all grow when we maintain relationships and conversations. We don’t have to be best friends, and we don’t even have to worship together. But the body of Christ is weaker when the foot decides to leave rest of the body.

Next week we are taking an additional offering for a Spanish-speaking church plant in our community. The plan is for this church to be a part of our district; our conference is divided into conferences based on geographical location. Our district is essentially the Mennonite churches of Augusta County. But there was a suggestion made that this new church plant could join with other Spanish-speaking churches to from a Latino District, or something like that.

I hope that the church planters are able to connect with other Spanish-speaking churches, but I don’t want to see them form their own district. I think we are stronger together, in spite of our differences. We can learn from one another, support one another, and grow together.

The body of Christ has hands and feet, eyes, ears, and noses. The church has progressives, conservatives, Latinos, and Europeans. We have people who work to bring social change, we have people who work to bring the Gospel. We have missionaries, we have teachers, we have healthcare workers. And no, we don’t have to all be best friends. But we do all have to love one another.

As I looked back through my 12+ years of Facebook posts, I think that I still agree with most of the things that I said over the years. I just don’t agree with how I said them. We are the body of Christ, and one part is not more important than another. When one suffers, we all suffer. But when one thrives, we all thrive.

May we thrive together, for the Kingdom of God.

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(Ana)baptism

Luke 3:15-22

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Did you know that Jesus was baptized? It seems a little strange to think of it, but there it is in the Gospels, staring right at us. Some Gospels even tell us that it was strange for John the Baptist, who said that Jesus should be baptizing him instead of he, John, baptizing Jesus. Or maybe it isn’t that strange to you. Perhaps it makes perfect sense.

I believe that whether or not this passage seems strange to you comes down to your understanding of baptism, what it means and what is accomplished in the act. What I want to do today is to walk through this text, highlight some interesting facts, and then look at a couple of ways to understand baptism. I want to look at what we as Anabaptist/Mennonites do teach and what we do teach. Because I believe that when you understand baptism from an Anabaptist perspective, the baptism of Jesus makes perfect sense, because Jesus isn’t looking to be forgiven. He is making a declaration about his commitment to the Kingdom of God.

Luke makes one thing abundantly clear from the very beginning of our text for this morning: John is not the Messiah. Oh yes, he is a prophet. He speaks like a prophet, calling people to repentance and speaking of the events that are to come. But he is not the Messiah. While John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

One thing that we miss in our English translations is that the Greek word for spirit is the same word used for breath or wind; it is pneuma. And John’s hearers would have been familiar with the practice that he refers to next, winnowing wheat. John says of the Messiah in verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Winnowing is a method of separating the kernel of the wheat, which is used for making flour, from the chaff, the husks, and the stalk. I saw an interesting video of threshing wheat online this week, where the wheat was beaten with a club and then dropped in front of a fan. The fan blew away the chaff and the heavier kernels fell into a bucket. You can also see this on a larger scale at the Frontier Culture Museum, where they have a threshing machine, but they will also do it by hand. They open the doors on both sides of the barn so they get a good cross wind and throw the wheat into the air with a pitchfork. The wind and gravity separate the parts of the wheat. The kernels fall to the floor, and it is collected for flour. The stalks of wheat catch on the threshold of the barn, and it will be used for animal bedding. But the chaff, the little pieces of fiber that are between the kernels, they blow out the door. They are not useful and you don’t want them in your barn because they are also very flammable. It isn’t uncommon to hear about grain elevators catching on fire. I may have caught a corn dryer on fire once in my younger age as well. This chaff is not desirable, needed, or even safe.

John doesn’t explain this reference, so we are left to argue about it. Some will say that this is about the final judgment. Others say that it is about our sanctification, or our becoming more like Jesus. I tend to lean toward the second interpretation, not because I don’t believe in a final judgment. I do, and it is clear in passage like Matthew 25, the separation of the sheep and the goats. But with this particular metaphor, there are parts of one item which are separated from each other. When these individual parts are separated out, the useless and undesirable part is burned off. There isn’t separation of the good wheat and the bad wheat. It is separation of the desirable part of the wheat from the undesirable part of the wheat. It is like the refiner’s fire spoken of by the prophet Malachi, purifying the people.

Make no mistake, this isn’t an easy or comfortable process. Ask anyone who has ever tried to overcome addiction. This is what John says Jesus will do, burn up the junk and leave the good stuff.

Then, after a little side note about John’s arrest, we find Jesus himself coming to be baptized. But why does Jesus come for baptism? Scripture teaches us that Jesus was without sin. Yet scripture like Acts 2:38 and other passages seem to suggest that baptism has to do with the forgiveness of sin. “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’”

Is the purpose of baptism the forgiveness of sins? If so, why was Jesus baptized?

Some of you may be familiar with the 1990’s movie about the early Anabaptists called “The Radicals.” It is available to rent through Amazon Prime for about $2.00, or you can buy your own DVD for $5, and well worth your money and time. But be aware, there is another movie by the same name that documents the lives of surfers and snowboarders as they work for environmental protection, which may be a good movie, I simply can’t say.

“The Radicals” is the story of the early Anabaptists told through the perspective of Michael Sattler. Sattler was a priest who converted to Anabaptism and later went on to write the first Anabaptist Confession of Faith. The movie shows Sattler, soon after his conversion, in an Anabaptist worship gathering. Sattler still has his head shaved like a monk and is wearing the simple robes of his monastic order. Following the service, the pastor gives an invitation for people to come and be baptized, and a woman approaches with a sick infant in her arms. She informs the pastor that she doesn’t want to be baptized, but for her child, who is dying, to receive the sacrament. The pastor refuses, explaining that they only baptize believers there.

The woman sees Sattler and runs to him, asking him to baptize the baby since he is obviously a member of the clergy. When Sattler refuses, the woman looks at both men and tells them that they have both just condemned her baby to hell.

One of the reasons that some traditions practice infant baptism is because they believe it removes sin. And no, babies have not committed any sin, but the belief that has been taught for years is that infant baptism is necessary to remove the stain of Original Sin, the sin inherited from Adam. St. Augustine even said that without Original Sin there would be no need for infant baptism.

There is no official teaching in the Catholic Church on the eternal destiny of infants who die before receiving baptism, but it is traditionally taught that they remain forever in limbo, a middle ground between heaven and hell that differs from purgatory. So when Michael Sattler refused to baptize the baby in “The Radicals,” the mother understood this as an eternal condemnation of her innocent child.

The Anabaptists of the 16th century, and 21st century, have a different understanding of baptism. If Sattler believed the eternal destination of the baby relied upon his baptizing the infant, he probably would have done it. And if Jesus thought baptism was how sins were forgiven, he had no reason to be baptized. Furthermore, recall that on the cross, one of the sinners on either side of Jesus asked him to remember him when Jesus entered his kingdom. How did Jesus respond? “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” Luke 23:43b. We have no reason to believe that thief had been baptized. And to paraphrase Paul from Galatians 2, if baptism is the necessary for forgiveness, then Christ died for nothing.

The Mennonite Church and our Anabaptist forbearers have always rejected the idea that there is anything salvific in baptism. So what do Mennonites believe baptism is? I want to read you a couple of sentences from the most recent Mennonite Confession of Faith and lift out a few words to further unpack. “We believe that baptism of believers with water is a sign of their cleansing from sin. Baptism is also a pledge before the church of their covenant with God to walk in the way of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The first thing that jumps out of that quotation is the word “believers.” The Mennonite Church practices believer’s baptism. There is no magical age when we believe a person can receive baptism. I usually aim for double digits in age, those early tween-teen years. It is necessary for a person to be able to articulate and understand faith in Jesus and a desire to be a disciple. A five-year-old can say the words, but I’m not sure that they really understand what they are saying. And the age isn’t the same for all people. Some kids seem to understand at an earlier age, while for others they don’t get it until they are adults. I was in my early twenties when I was baptized, and I’ve baptized people well into their 70’s.

The next word I believe to be helpful is “sign.” While we don’t really believe that the water takes away a person’s sins, it is a symbol of God’s forgiveness, washing us clean. Signs are helpful to us, but they are also there for others to see.

Baptism is one of those weird things that we Christians do that those outside of the church may not understand. That is why baptisms are usually done in public places, like in a lake, stream, or open worship service. One of the most meaningful baptisms I ever took part in was two years ago at Todd Lake, where we waded out in that murky water, dunked some friends under the water, and then took communion on the beach. There weren’t other people at the lake that day, but the idea is that this isn’t something that we are trying to hide. This is a public proclamation of our faith in Jesus Christ. This is our statement to the world that we are a part of God’s kingdom.

I’ve never been asked to do a baptism in a private home, in a bathtub, or swimming pool. I’d have to really think about the individual’s situation before committing to something like that. If someone was dying and couldn’t leave the hospital, I’d probably do a private baptism in that situation. But baptism is a sign meant for the watching world to see and hear us proclaim that we belong to Jesus and his kingdom.

I like to compare baptism to marriage. I loved Sonya on July 18, 2003 and I loved her on July 20, 2003. Our love didn’t change when we said “I do” on the 19th. But we made a public statement of our love and our intention to be together for the rest of our lives. God doesn’t love us any more before or after our baptism. You aren’t any more forgiven the day after your baptism than the day before. The difference is the public declaration, the sign for the watching world, that says I am a child of God.

The final word I want to look at is pledge. This word probably makes you think of the household cleaner, or maybe the Pledge of Allegiance. The second one is close, because this is a pledge of allegiance to the kingdom of God. The Confession of Faith says that baptism is a “pledge before the church of their covenant.”

The language isn’t entirely clear, though. To whom is the “their” referring? Is it the covenant of the person being baptized, or the covenant of the entire church? This is one of those situations where I like the ambiguity, because I believe the answer is, “yes.” Baptism is about the covenant between God and the Church universal, and in the Mennonite Church, baptism is a method for recognizing a person’s place in the Church as a member. This pledge is to God, his kingdom, and to the Church to work together for the greater good. To work together for the sake of the Gospel.

We live in such an individualized world. We order our hamburgers how we want them, watch our own movies on our personal electronic devices, called iPads and iPhones. We worry about being individuals and self-made men and women. But our baptism is communal. Our baptism is a pledge, our initiation into something bigger than ourselves. It is our pledge of allegiance to the Kingdom of God. In this kingdom we seek to end hunger and poverty, warfare and violence. Love is our guiding principle. We love our families, our spouses, our children, and we love our enemies. That is why this passage begins with the imagery of the winnowing fork and the threshing of wheat. In this community of believers known as the kingdom of God, we seek to help one another burn that chaff off. All the things that are unnecessary and dangerous to the Kingdom of God need to be removed. It isn’t comfortable; it isn’t pleasant. But we work together with one another and the Holy Spirit to be formed in the image of Christ.

But there is one more aspect of baptism that we cannot skip over. It doesn’t get attention in our Confession of Faith, and that is a sad thing. Verse 22 says, “And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

Baptism is a reminder of our beloved-ness.

We know little about Jesus’s first 30 years. He made some trips to the Temple, his parents forgot him there once, and that’s about it. Even as a 12-year-old he seems to know that he is the Messiah, referring to God as his Father. But I am pretty sure he questioned his calling, his relationship to God, and his beloved-ness. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus experienced all we have experienced, so I’m sure he had his doubts. What human wouldn’t? But when Jesus takes that step of faith into the Jordan River, he is affirmed. God says, “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”

We in the Mennonite Church do an excellent job of emphasizing the communal aspect of baptism, but never forget that baptism is an affirmation of your beloved-ness and your status as a son or daughter of God.

And no, this doesn’t mean that you weren’t loved or that you weren’t a son or daughter of God before your baptism. Again, it is like our love before or after the exchanging of our wedding vows. God doesn’t love us any more and God doesn’t love us any less on either side of our baptism. But baptism is a celebration, surrounded by our family and friends, of our sonship and daughter-ship, our status as beloved children of God. And it is a reminder to those who gather around us that they too are beloved children of God.

Baptism is this strange reminder that we all have chaff in our lives that needs to be burned off and that we are God’s beloved children. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need that reminder.

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Tributes and Tyrants

Matthew 2:1-12

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.

Happy Epiphany Sunday! I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently where we noted that while society seems to be celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier each year, when December 26 comes around, the holiday cheer is often packed away with the ornaments and decorations. Throughout much of history, Christmas wasn’t a day, but a season lasting from December 25-January 5. Rather than one day of Christmas, there was a 12-day celebration of Christmas. Presents were exchanged each day and common meals were shared. This practice is the reason behind one of our modern Christmas carols, “Jingle Bells.” No, “The Twelve Days of Christmas!”

Then, on the 12th day after Christmas, we celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany is the celebration of the first recorded interaction between God Incarnate and the Gentiles, Jesus and the Magi. Epiphany literally means “a revelation;” we hear people use this word when some idea finally comes to them or makes sense. It is when the lightbulb goes on and you say, “Now it makes sense. I’ve had an epiphany!”

On that first Epiphany, God was revealed to the Gentile Magi, the Wise Men, and they bowed down before him, and worshipped him.

What I want to do today is look at this well-known story, maybe debunk a few of the things you thought you knew about these Magi, and focus on one of the many things we can take from this passage. That point is, don’t be a tyrant.

After that introduction, you may be wondering how we know that the Magi showed up twelve days after Christmas. The truth is that they probably didn’t. The reason we celebrate Twelve Days of Christmas is because in 1582 the church went from using the Julian Calendar, which was based on the lunar cycle, to the Gregorian Calendar, which is based on 30, 31, and 28-day months, and adds a 29th day of the second month every four years. Which makes me wonder how bad the Julian Calendar really was. According to the Julian Calendar, Christmas fell on what we know as January 6. On the Gregorian Calendar, Christmas is celebrated on December 25. This change was orchestrated by Pope Greggory XIII, and not all Protestants wanted to change. So some Christians celebrated Christmas on the 25th, others on the 6th or 7th. I assume some peacemaker probably came along and said, “Let’s just celebrate Christmas the entire twelve days.”

To this day, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and many traditions observe “Old Christmas.” This all comes back to the calendar change and whether or not these groups saw the Pope as having the authority to make such a change.

So when did the Magi arrive? Maybe as much as two years after Jesus was born, which is why King Herod will later command that all boys ages two and under be killed. However, I don’t think that it was two years after the birth of Jesus until the Wise Men arrived, because Joseph probably needed to get back home to Nazareth after a few months to care for his business and to build a home for his new family. The star could have appeared before Jesus was actually born, and the Wise Men may have arrived on what we call January 6. We simply cannot know. Furthermore, I love a good nativity scene, and no nativity scene is complete without Wise Men! But Mary and Joseph were probably not living in the stable when the Wise Men arrived. Verse 11 says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary…” They had probably moved from the stable to a relative’s house, but they were still in Bethlehem.

So we don’t know when they arrived. We don’t know how many there were, though we assume there were three because they brought three gifts. I’d be the one who showed up and as everyone else gave their present, I’d be like, “Gifts? Nobody said anything about gifts. Is it too late to put my name on the card?”

There is no reason to believe that they were kings. That tradition comes from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” And we don’t even know if they were all men. The fact that they stop for directions suggests otherwise.

What we do know is that these were Persian (probably) men who studied the stars to determine the future. They were likely a part of a religion called Zoroastrianism, which still exists today. In fact, I recently heard that Freddie Mercury’s family practiced Zoroastrianism and he had a Zoroastrian funeral.

The reason this matters is because it is the outsiders who seem to get it, while throughout his life, those closest to Jesus seem to miss who he is. Matthew is the only one to include the story of the Magi in his gospel, and Matthew’s gospel is written to a Gentile population. It is like he is saying, “Look! Gentiles, outsiders like you, have come, met, and worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ! Come and pay tribute to your savior.”

When I look at this story, I see two different approaches to Jesus. I find King Herod, a Jewish man, and the Magi, Gentiles, reacting in vastly different ways to the news that the one born king of the Jews was now among them.

The Magi, rich, powerful, perhaps even kings their selves, travel from afar to give gifts to Jesus. The bring him gifts because it was common to give something to a king as a way of recognizing their authority and power. In 1 Kings chapter 10, we read that the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Solomon. Verse 2, says, “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.”

Some commentators mention that the “spices” the queen gave to Solomon may have included things like frankincense and myrrh.

We are never told that the Magi see Jesus as a threat to their power or status. They never try to flex their muscle or intimidate Jesus or his family. Never do we get a hint of jealousy.

Then we have Herod. Herod was Jewish, but his ancestors were converts to Judaism, which means he didn’t have royal blood. He was placed as king by the Roman Senate. Herod couldn’t trace his genealogy back to David. Therefore all of the prophesies from the Hebrew scriptures about the messiah and about how God would cause a descendant of David to sit upon the throne forever didn’t apply to him.

Herod was jealous, and Herod felt threatened. So what did he do? He lied to the Magi, saying, When you find the one born king of the Jews, let me know so I can go worship him, too! Matthew tells us a few verses later that he was not interested in worshipping Jesus, but instead was willing to go to great lengths to do away with this threat to his power, his empire, and his social status. We are told that Herod would kill every child in Bethlehem age two and under in an attempt to wipe out this perceived threat.

While the Magi paid tribute to Jesus, Herod acted like a tyrant.

I’ve never been tempted to commit genocide, but I think I understand how Herod was feeling. I know what it is like to feel threatened and to wish bad things upon other people. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not evil. I don’t wish for pain or suffering for others, I just don’t want them to be as successful, as well-liked, as attractive, or as smart as me. Far too often I spend time look for and pointing out the flaws of other people because, like Herod, I feel threatened by them. Let me share a few stories that you might be able to connect with.

When I visit other churches, one of the things that I find difficult is entering into a time of worship without being critical of the person who is preaching. I’m always picking them apart, from their theology to their presentation and style. And that’s a problem, but it is a part of my training in critical thinking. But the real issue is when I feel I need to say something to others, pointing out flaws of other preachers so that I look better.

Recently, one of my friends, a fellow pastor who will remain anonymous, was interviewed for a project that he is working on. And I’ll be honest with you, he is doing something that I’ve thought I could do and do well. But I’ve never had the courage to actually do it, and he is. One of our local newspapers picked up on this (I’m trying to be vague. Please forgive me.) and ran an article on the event, which he shared on Facebook.

This friend and I are pretty unalike in a number of ways and our theology differs greatly. And of course I think my theology is right and his is wrong, or at least my theology is better than his, you know, in my humble opinion.

At his last gathering, my friend held a discussion on the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a public forum with the opportunity for questions and answers, and it isn’t held in a church, but instead where people who might not be comfortable coming to church would feel more welcome. In the newspaper, the reporter quoted from my friend’s talk, writing, “He said that two different schools of thought exist about the Holy Spirit: the group that believes the Holy Spirit does not do anything in the modern era and the group that believes he does move, and when he does then his moving in the modern era trumps what the Bible says to do.”

My first thought was, “Oh, those are the only two schools of thought on the Holy Spirit? The Spirit either does nothing, or tells us to do things the Bible doesn’t say to do? That’s simplistic, that’s reductionistic! And oh, so subjective!”

I’ll admit, I had thoughts of attending one of these events solely to participate in the Question and Answer time to point out flaws like the false dichotomy in the newspaper quote. I had to catch myself, because sometimes I just need to stop thinking like a tyrant, an oppressor, or a bully. Even though I’m not looking to kill infants, am I looking to hurt someone because of my own jealousy or lack of self-confidence?

Here’s something that I have learned and am trying to implement in my own life. Call it a New Year’s resolution, if you will. I’ve realized that there are a couple of ways to make yourself look better. One: you can work hard to make yourself into a better, more Christ-like person. Or two: you can tear other people down to make yourself look better in comparison. One is a lot easier, and the other requires a significant amount more work. I want to be the person who puts in the extra work.

Think about it like this. The easiest way to look better is to hang out with ugly people. I may not be Brad Pitt, but at least I look better than this guy!

Hopefully nobody here chooses their friends based on how good looking they are. But I think that some form of this exists all around us.

I’m losing my hair, but at least I have more than that guy!

I may not be perfect, but at least I didn’t do what Fred did!

Did you hear about Jed and Ethel? I hear that they aren’t even sharing a room anymore?

You could try to improve your intellect through studying and reading, or you could just point out when someone else does something stupid, making a big deal about a stupid question they asked or a mistake they made.

We could educate people about political decisions and foreign relationships, or we could just mock the other political party and take the things they say and do out of context. I list these things not as hypothetical issues, but as real struggles in my own life.

I understand being competitive at sports. I understand that when you are interviewing for a job that usually only one person can get it. But when it comes to relationships, why do I get competitive to the point where I try to make others look bad in order to make myself look good? Do I really feel so threatened, or lack self-confidence to the point I just want to take others down with me? That’s what Herod did. That’s what tyrants do.

No, I want to encourage you to be a wise man or woman. I encourage you to pay tribute to others. To pay tribute means to show respect and offer congratulations to others. The Magi payed tribute to Jesus in a very clear way, bowing down before him, offering him gifts fit for a king. And we are called to pay tribute to Jesus and one another.

We pay tribute to Jesus when we bow and worship him, but we also pay tribute to Jesus when we show him the respect that he deserves. And a part of showing Jesus respect is following his teachings, teachings like loving your neighbor and your enemy. Teachings like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

He’s the point: when we show respect for others and treat them how we want to be treated, we are simultaneously showing respect for Jesus.

Don’t be a tyrant. I get it, I want to tear others down out of a perceived threat to my masculinity, to my power, to my intellect. But instead, pay tribute to Jesus by showing love and respect for all.

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Learning with Jesus

Luke 2:41-52 New International Version (NIV)

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

We were in Ohio from Tuesday evening until Friday morning, visiting with my family and celebrating Christmas. We always go into these trips with a list of things we would like to do and people we would like to see, but mostly we just sit around and eat Christmas cookies. Nothing wrong with that.

One thing that we did follow through on was going to a bakery in Kidron that I have long believed serves the world’s best cream sticks. I wanted to stop at Troyers, which is on one of the routes that we can take out of town as we head toward the interstate. I don’t usually drive that way because if you know anything about this area, you probably know that it has one of the highest Amish populations in the world. People drive from near and far to see the Amish, and you really need to be careful driving over the hills because you can come up on a buggy pretty quickly. The only thing more dangerous than running into an Amish buggy is running into some dude from the city standing in the middle of the road watching the Amish. But we went to Troyers, got our order, and got back into the car, driving along the Wayne/Holmes County boarder.

As we were driving, one of my children asked about the women working at donut shop. Paxton asked why the Amish women had an electric refrigerator in the store. This opens up the door for a conversation about all the different nuances of Anabaptism. I explained that they were not Amish, but conservative Mennonites. Conservative Mennonites use electricity and drive cars. And of course, this led to the question about the difference between conservative Mennonites and our particular group of Mennonites. I tried to explain the focus on simplicity and modesty, but Paxton said, “So they are like us, but cheap.”

This led to a discussion on the difference between frugality, simplicity, and just being plain-old cheap. The conservative Mennonites and Amish live simply. Daddy is just cheap. That’s why you got socks for Christmas.

Then we spent the rest of the trip counting buggies.

Not all questions are created equal. Paxton was asking questions about religion, and I was glad to answer them to the best of my ability. He wanted to know more, so he asked questions. There are also people who ask questions because they want to mock or make fun of religion. I’m less interested in those questions. Those are the questions like, “How could Jesus rise from the grave?” or “Do you really believe in a virgin birth?”

When questions are asked to gain a deeper understanding, we all grow. When questions are asked to mock, we are pushed apart. One of the fun things about Paxton asking questions on the way home last Friday was that I didn’t have all of the answers. So that means that I need to dig deeper, ask questions myself, and do some research. You’ve heard that there is no such thing as a stupid question, just stupid answers. That’s not exactly true. There are stupid questions. But if you don’t know something, ask, because there is a good chance that others don’t know as well. And it gives both the teacher and the student, the parent and the child, the mentor and the mentee, the opportunity to dig deeper and learn more.

We find very few stories in the Bible that tell about the time between Jesus’s birth and when he enters his ministry around the age of 30. One of the stories we do have is our text for today from Luke 2. Let’s walk through this text to see what we can learn and perhaps even more importantly, how we can learn from this text.

Verse 41 says, “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.” Having just returned from a trip, I can tell you that traveling with children is not easy. And in Matthew 13 and Mark 6, we find that Jesus had at least four half-brothers and two half-sisters. This means that Mary and Joseph may have been traveling with as many as seven children ages 12 and under. I don’t know how they ever agreed upon a radio station.

This tells us that Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. As we find out earlier in the chapter, Mary and Joseph kept the Jewish Law and observed the Jewish festivals. You don’t travel with children on a holiday unless you really feel like you need to be there! This trip is about 60 miles as the crow flies, and perhaps as much as twice that if you avoid certain lands.

The text says that they stayed for the entire festival, so that was close to a week, and that Jesus was twelve years old.

Then comes the part that always raises some concern. Verses 43b-44a, “The boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day.”

On one hand I want to say, “You traveled an entire day before you realized that the son of God, entrusted to your care, was not with you?” But my children have recently been enjoying the movie “Home Alone,” where eight-year-old Kevin McCallister is left home alone while the rest of his family flies to France. And then they leave him home alone again the next year in the sequel. So at least Joseph and Mary only forgot Jesus once.

In all seriousness, recall that Mary was about 12 when she received the news that she would give birth to Jesus. It was about this age when a Hebrew boy or girl was considered to be an adult in a number of ways. For instance, until the age of 13, the sins of a child were considered to be the sins of their parents. At 13, the sins were the child’s alone. At 13 a Hebrew was expected to keep the Torah and participate in the ritual fasts. And this is all evident in a more-modern practice in the Jewish faith call the Bar Mitzvah, or the Bat Mitzvah, where a Jewish boy or girl, respectfully, celebrates their passage from childhood to adulthood.

So in that community and at that time, Jesus was not seen as a child, but as a young adult.

And finally, verse 44 tells us that Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was in their group. It would have been common for large caravans of people in one region to travel together for festivals like the Passover. There is safety in numbers, and company for the journey. I can imagine that they saw Jesus with some cousins or neighbors from their group back in Jerusalem, and started their journey, not knowing he stayed behind. There were a couple times this past week when my children traveled somewhere with my brother and sister-in-law. We didn’t feel that it was necessary to check every five minutes to see if they were still with them.

One commentary also mentions that it was common for women and young children to travel at the front of a caravan, while the men and older boys traveled in the rear. With Jesus as that liminal age of 12, it could be that Mary assumed Jesus was back with Joseph, who assumed he was up with Mary. I can hear them both now as they make camp after the first day of traveling: “I thought you had him!”

All of that is to say that we shouldn’t be too hard on Mary and Joseph. They had other children to care for and Jesus was entering into adulthood.

But none of that seems to be the point of today’s passage. Notice that Luke is the only gospel that includes this story. And Luke was writing an orderly account for a Greek-speaking, Roman audience. Luke describes Jesus as a young scholar, his knowledge well beyond what his 12 years would suggest. By the end of their interaction, Jesus is teaching the teachers.

It has been suggested that Luke includes this because it echoes popular stories about the education of Caesar Augustus, who received an excellent education from his uncle, Julius, and even gave the eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral when he was only 12. Luke may have been saying to his Roman readers, “Yeah, you’ve got some great stories about Caesar. Look what Jesus did.”

But the thing that I find the most fascinating about this story probably wasn’t what Luke was going for, but through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it comes through anyway. I am drawn to how Jesus learns within a community of believers. Let’s review verses 46-47: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

It would have been common for people to sit around the temple courtyard and discuss various aspects of their faith. They may have been talking about the scriptures, the teachings of the holy men, or how to face the issues of their day as people of faith. Notice that Jesus is not said to know everything. In fact, the last verse of chapter 2 says that Jesus grew in both height and his wisdom. That means that like most other children, he needed to develop physically and mentally. Jesus is there in temples learning, not just teaching. Though he seems to be doing that as well. He is asking questions, digging deeper into the faith. Not asking questions with the intention of stumping the teachers, he saves that for the Pharisees later on. What Jesus is doing is asking questions that they may not have considered before.

Though this isn’t the main point of the text, we can see that Jesus participated in a multi-generation learning community. Jesus learned from the established teachers, and the established teachers learned from him. I think that this is so important precisely because of the questions the younger generations are asking, things that many of us didn’t even consider when we were twelve. Our experiences are different, so our questions will be different.

When Paxton started asking questions about the conservative Mennonites in the Kidron, OH area, he was asking questions that I never really had to consider because I just grew up with it. I grew up surrounded by conservative Anabaptism; I was probably just as likely to encounter a woman in a headcovering and capedress as I was a woman in blue jeans. I never thought to ask the difference between simplicity and just being cheap. But he has had different experiences than I have, and therefore he asks different questions than I ask. I don’t always know the answer, so I can choose to ignore his questions, or I can dig deeper into my own faith and my own understanding, searching for the language needed to articulate what I believe.

You may notice that when we have our children’s time at church that the kids like to ask questions, and they aren’t always on topic. My challenge to you and for myself as we enter into another calendar year is to not quiet the children or ignore their questions. May we be like the multi-generational learning community that invited a 12-year-old Nazarene boy into their community. We let the children speak in church, for we have much to learn from one another.

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Love Came Down at Christmas

Luke 1:39-45 New International Version (NIV)

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Happy 4th Sunday of Advent! For the last month we have been waiting, waiting for the Christ child, and waiting on his eventual return to set things right. We have focused on three different virtues so far: hope, peace, and joy. I gave definitions for these virtues and I gave examples of these virtues. But today our focus is on something a little less tangible. Our virtue for this morning is a little more abstract. Today we look at love.

Sure, we all know what love is. Yet trying to define love is not as easy as you might expect. I would say that love is something you experience, and something that you recognize. How do you define love? We’ll get to that shortly.

There is so much beauty in today’s passage that we simply cannot contain it all in one sermon. Before we get into our text it would be helpful to look at what came immediately before. In verses 26-38 we find the story of Mary hearing from the angel Gabriel that she will have a baby and he will rule from the throne of his ancestor, David. And upon hearing that, Mary says, “Great. I’m engaged to be married and I look forward to having children one day.”

No, Mary understands this news as something that is happening right now, not some day in the near or distant future. So she responds just as you would expect an unmarried teenager in her position to respond. She says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 34).

The angel doesn’t go into all of the details, which may have been helpful for us to better understand the nature of Jesus. Gabriel simply tells Mary that the child growing within her womb is from the Holy Spirit, and therefore will be called the Son of God. And when Mary gets the chance to speak again, she says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Mary shows maturity and understanding far beyond her age. And recall that she was probably only about 13-years-old at this time. Also recall that at this time and in this world, to be an unwed teenage mother would have meant that she was destined for a lifetime of exclusion. Family and friends would turn their backs on her because they probably weren’t going to believe that whole “It’s okay, it’s God’s son” excuse. Even though Mary knew she would be rejected, she still says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

In today’s passage we find Mary going to visit Elizabeth. The angel had told Mary that Elizabeth was also pregnant, even though she was beyond child-bearing age. But we are never told that Elizabeth knows about Mary’s situation. This interaction leaves me with a number of questions. Why did Mary go to stay with Elizabeth for three months? Was she not welcome in her parents’ home? And what was that walk to Elizabeth’s house like? Long and fearful, or short and joyful? I would assume she went to Elizabeth because the angel said she had a miraculous conception as well. Perhaps she saw Elizabeth as the one who would be most likely to understand. Maybe Elizabeth had always been that cooler relative who she could go to with her problems. We don’t know.

What we do know is that when this pregnant, unmarried teenager shows up, Elizabeth welcomes her in.

That’s right. Mary isn’t met with condemnation or rejection. She is met with blessings. Elizabeth says things like, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” and “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

What is Mary’s response to the blessings? She sings. She begins by saying, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” We sometimes call Mary’s song the Magnificat, which is simply the Latin word for glorify.

A closer look at Mary’s song will reveal something strange. Most of what Mary says here is in the past tense. God has brought down rulers and lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has helped his servant Israel.

It could be argued that God has done these things throughout history. But at that time, the Israelites were ruled by the Romans, and had been for about 60 years, so the humble weren’t really lifted up. God had fed the hungry, but there were still hungry in Mary’s day. But the way Mary begins this song with the phrase, “from now on…” suggests something different. It suggests that Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, is saying that things are going to change. From now on, things are going to be fundamentally different.

If you were here for the first week of Advent, you may recall that I used a word that was new to many of you. That word was “proleptic.” Proleptic means, “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” Mary is living proleptically, as if these things have already happened. The world is changing, and Mary is proleptically living into that change.

Throughout this entire experience, Mary isn’t focused on what she will have to endure. She surely knows that Joseph will look to divorce her. She surely knows that her parents will reject her. She knows that she has a lifetime of struggles before her. But Mary celebrates what is happening, even though it will bring her suffering and pain, because Mary knows that she is a part of something bigger. Mary is willing to make sacrifices for the good of others.

We know what love is…right? I did an internet search for definitions of love and I came across one site that identified 60 things that define what love really is. It ranged from popping the zit on his back in that place where he can’t reach, to sharing secrets about your own brokenness and calling one another out on things that we do that are hurtful. This website was talking about romantic love between two people, but even these descriptions were about actions, about serving one another.

A few weeks ago our adult Sunday school class took up the challenge of defining love. It was a lot harder to do than you might think. We filled a chalkboard with ideas, some better than others, but which is right? At times the best we could do is describe aspects of love, much like Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy. Those aren’t definitions.

Other attempts named manifestations of love. Love is giving, caring, putting others first. But that’s still not a definition. We even went so far as to quote 1 John 4, where the author says, “God is love.” And that is helpful, except I’ve never had a face-to-face interaction with God, and only a few people are said to have had a close interaction with God like that.

How do we know what love is? Well we need to start with some theological assumptions. The Bible teaches us that God is love. The same Bible also teaches us that Jesus is a perfect representation of God, in him the fullness of God did reside. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the father.” So if God is love, and Jesus is the perfect representation of who God is, if we want to know what love is, we look at Jesus.

“Love Came Down at Christmas” is a poem written by Christina Rossetti and first published in 1885. Music was arranged at a later date and is included in our Hymnal: A Worship Book (208). The song has also been adapted by contemporary bands like the Christian group Jars of Clay. The words go as follows:

Love came down at Christmas,/Love all lovely, Love Divine,/Love was born at Christmas,/Star and Angels gave the sign./Worship we the Godhead,/Love Incarnate, Love Divine,/Worship we our Jesus,/What shall be our sacred sign?/Love shall be our token,/Love be yours and love be mine,/Love to God and neighbor,/Love for prayer and gift and sign.

This poem/song takes a rather abstract concept and gives us a tangible example of what it means. That abstract concept is love, and the tangible example is Jesus. If you want to know what love is, you look at Jesus.

This means that love feeds the hungry and clothes the naked. This means that love crosses boundaries to reach out to the oppressed. Love breaks bread with the outcasts, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the sinners. Love holds the oppressor accountable for their actions. Love forgives when others have wronged them. And love gives of itself, sometimes sacrificing our own wellbeing. That’s what Mary did when she brought Jesus into the world, and what Elizabeth did when she brought Mary into her home. That’s what Jesus did when he came into this world. And that’s what Jesus did when he died on the cross.

Love isn’t just some warm and tingly feeling you get inside. Love, from a biblical perspective, is about becoming more and more like Christ.

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Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

18 “I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.

One of the things that I appreciate about our children being in public school is that they are exposed to and interact with a wide swath of the population of our city that many of us are not even aware exist. It is true that there can be negative aspects to that, but there are also positive ones as well.

Our son came home from school recently and had a certain song on repeat. He sang it over and over, only stopping to ask about the actual words to the song after he had sang it to us a few (hundred) times. The third graders had learned a song about Hanukkah, not as a way to convert the children (the music teacher is a Presbyterian), but a way to teach the children that not everyone has the same beliefs. This song contained references to all the usual aspects of Hanukkah that even us Protestants know: the spinning of the dreidel, the eight crazy nights, and the lesser known eating of latkes.

Paxton asked us what latkes are, and thankfully I knew. They are potato pancakes fried in oil that Jewish people eat during Hanukkah. The oil is a reminder of the oil that burned in the menorah for eight nights during the rededication of the Temple. Paxton also asked if we could make latkes, so this past Monday, when everyone was home because of the snow storm, we celebrated the last day of Hanukkah by making latkes for breakfast.

We didn’t just want to eat fried potato pancakes for breakfast, so we also fried up some breakfast meats while we streamed Hanukkah music. And when everything was ready, we sat down for our Hanukkah breakfast of latkes and…bacon.

This is when I started feeling guilty about doing a little something for Hanukkah. My oversite made me think of how our Hanukkah breakfast might be offensive to an observant Jew, not just because of the bacon, but because we are not Jewish. Was this a cultural appropriation? Was I making light of something that is very serious and important to another person’s faith? As I was feeling a bit guilty our Hanukkah radio station started playing a variation of one of my family’s favorite holiday songs. You know the song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas?” As we ate our latkes and bacon, our smart speaker belted out “I Want a Hippopotamus for Hanukkah.”

Now who’s guilty of cultural appropriation? 🙂

My point is, find joy in whatever you are doing. Don’t be offensive, but we had a great breakfast, a wonderful snow day filled with sledding and hot chocolate, and we had immeasurable fun singing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Hanukkah.” And more important, don’t ever let anyone steal your joy.

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What is Gaudete Sunday? I’m glad you asked! I’ll answer that in a circuitous manner.

We are in the third Sunday of Advent, a time set aside to focus on our waiting for the arrival of Jesus. We started by looking at the hope we need to have in the midst of brokenness. Last week we considered the peace that we can have with one another, with God, and with ourselves. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, focuses on joy. The name Gaudete comes from the Latin mass, which draws from the epistle reading for today from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

As I mentioned two weeks ago, this is also the week when we light the pink candle. This is my 15th year celebrating Advent as a pastor, and every year we light the pink candle on week three, and every year I have no idea why it is pink. Even in my research, I had only found that we have a pink candle and decorate the altar in pink on the third Sunday of Advent because it is the week where we focus on joy.

Because, evidently, pink is the color of joy.

No longer am I uninformed. Thanks to our sound technician, I now have a suitable answer as to why pink is linked to joy.

Advent was first observed as the wintertime counterpart to Lent. Like Lent, Advent was originally observed as a 40-day period of fasting and repentance. You know, because one of those each year just isn’t enough. And the color purple is not only the color of royalty, but also the color of repentance. And the pink isn’t actually pink, but rose, a less-intense shade of purple. This less-intense shade represents a break from the solemn nature of repentance; a perfect opportunity to focus on joy.

And it gives me the opportunity to wear the pink shirt someone gave me.

Joy. I’m not sure that I have ever preached on joy before, and that is sad to me. But I’m not going to let that get me down. I realize that most weeks I speak on issues of theology and ethics, in large part because these are the things that interest me. But think of all the joy in the Bible.

The first passage that comes to mind is one of the first passages that I ever memorized, and of course, I memorized it in the KJV. That is Psalm 100:1, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.”

I’ve frequently referred to that verse during times of worship, as we sing songs of praise. I like to tell people, it doesn’t say to make beautiful music unto the Lord. So for people like me who are less musically inclined, we can rest assured that God is happy with the noise that is coming out of our mouths.

I often think about singing when we talk about joy. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Last week we looked at the song of Zechariah when his son, John the Baptist was born, and the song Mary sang when she received the news that she would bring Jesus into this world, and the song that Simeon sang when he finally laid eyes on the messiah. With joy comes singing. And even though it was pointed out to me last week that it never says in these texts that these lyrics were sung, I’m not going to let it steal my joy. It is clear elsewhere in Scripture that times of joy bring songs to our lips.

Look at our scripture for this morning. Verses 14-15 say, “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”

Zephaniah calls for a joyful response from the people, but they are actually still in exile. In fact, just a few chapters earlier, God was considering wiping all people and animals off the face of the earth. You want us to sing? To rejoice? To be filled with joy? Come on now, Zephaniah. Let’s be realistic.

I like the way Jin Han puts it: “Precisely at a time when there is no ground for optimism, Zephaniah dares to hold that things will take a radical turn for the better… Building on the gleam of hope, the prophet bursts into the song of joy… The world is a total mess, but though the people have failed God, God will pull them through.”

Please note that joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion, and it is often based on external factors. A new puppy may bring you happiness. Good food and good conversation may bring you happiness. But joy doesn’t come from external situations. Joy comes out of hope for something better.

Joy and happiness many look the same to an outsider. It looks like a smile or a cheerful disposition. It looks like love. But joy doesn’t depend on the situation in which you find yourself. So Zephaniah can call on the Israelites in captivity to rejoice. Not because all is well, but because they know something better is coming. They know that they are loved. Likewise, the Apostle Paul can instruct the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, and then say it again, rejoice. Not because all is well. Paul states in chapter one that he is in prison. Elsewhere we read that Paul was beaten, shipwrecked, and despised. Was Paul always happy? I don’t think so. But here he is, writing from his prison cell, instructing Christians to rejoice. In the Greek, rejoice is the verb form of the word joy. As Paul is filling the prison cell, he is calling on others to be filled with joy.

Additionally, we find something unexpected, and yet beautiful in our passage from Zephaniah. Joy seems to be contagious. In verse 17 we read, “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

God will take great delight in you, and he will rejoice over you with singing.

I don’t believe that God takes any pleasure in our suffering. God didn’t enjoy seeing the Israelites in exile, and God never enjoys seeing us in pain. I believe that Jesus was the full representation of who God is, so all we need to do is look to Jesus to see how God responds to our pain. In John 11 we find the story of one of Jesus’s friends passing away. When Jesus sees the emotions of his other friends when he arrives at the tomb, Jesus responds in a specific way. The shortest verse in the New Testament is also one of the most powerful. John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”

God hurts when we hurt, yet God still sings. Like Zephaniah, and like God himself, we cannot allow the pain and brokenness to take away our joy. Joy isn’t dependent upon our situation. Joy is dependent on our hope.

One of the pleasures of serving as a pastor is also one of the most painful parts of my job. I am welcomed into your lives in ways that many people will never experience. Times of happiness and times of pain. Just this year I’ve held newborn babies and I have laid to rest beloved family members. I hear stories of relationships breaking up, families feuding, wishes and dreams left unfulfilled. I hold your pain and suffering in my heart. I hold your pain and suffering along with my own pain and suffering. We can’t always be happy, nor do I think we always should be happy. But don’t let the world take away your joy.

We aren’t Pollyannaish. We don’t ignore the pain and suffering in our lives or the world around us. In fact, we don’t ignore suffering, we engage it in an attempt to make this world better. But never forget that joy—real, biblical joy—isn’t rooted in our current situation. Joy is rooted in our hope. Our hope is in the one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our hope is in the one who said, “Behold, I make all things new!” Our hope is in the one who called us to love our neighbor and our enemy. Our hope found in a baby, born in a manger. In that hope we find joy.

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Proclaiming Peace

Luke 1:67-80 Zechariah’s Song

67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:

74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Happy second Sunday of Advent. Last week we focused on hope. Advent always starts with a dark message where we explore the brokenness of the world. But we don’t stop there, because we know that God doesn’t stop there. We look for a little healing in this broken world, a little light in the darkness. The second Sunday of Advent is designated as peace Sunday, and it focuses on the person who comes before Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord, the man we know as John the Baptist.

I read an interesting fact this week. The story of John the Baptist is found in all four of the gospels, including John, which tends to be a bit different from all the others. But the birth narrative, the story of the babe born in a manger, is only found in two of the gospels: Matthew and Luke. The author of the commentary I read said that the story of John the Baptist was more essential to the gospel than the manger of Jesus.

So, in the spirit of Advent, turn to your neighbor and call them a brood of vipers.

Today we will be looking at the song of Zechariah, John’s father. This is one of at least three songs we find in the first few chapters of Luke. Mary sings when she finds out she is pregnant, Zechariah sings at the naming of his son, and Simeon sings when Jesus is dedicated at the temple. And each one is more than just a song of praise, they are songs of foretelling. “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.”

These aren’t just songs, they are prophecies.

Recall that Zechariah had an experience about nine months earlier with the angel Gabriel. Zechariah was a priest, but he wasn’t one of the big shot, important priests in Jerusalem. He was the priest in a smaller synagogue outside of town. But Zechariah was chosen by lot to offer incense at the main temple in Jerusalem, and it was there that he received the message from Gabriel that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child. Even in their old age, they would give birth to a son. This boy would be filled with the spirit of God, and a great prophet, like Elijah years earlier.

Zechariah said, “Coolio, looking forward to it.” No, he showed some doubt and essentially said that ship has sailed. So Gabriel gave him a sign. Zechariah was rendered mute until the boy was born and they named him John.

After Zechariah proclaims, “His name is John,” the next recorded words out of Zechariah’s mouth are found in this song/prophecy. He begins this prophesy by saying in verse 68, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.”

There is a challenging word in this verse, one that is not consistently translated. In the NIV is says that God has come to his people. The Greek word translated as “come” is ἐπισκέπτομαι,v  \{ep-ee-skep’-tom-ahee}, which is more appropriately translated as “visit.” The KJV translates it as visit, but most modern translations don’t because it is confusing to think of God as visiting us. Isn’t God always with us? I don’t speak of my wife coming home from work or my children coming home from school as a visit. They aren’t visitors, they live here.

But this is actually a specific kind of visit (see Scott Hoezee’s commentary, from which I am drawing a lot of this material). The episkeptomai is a pastoral visit, like when I visit someone in the hospital or someone who is sick. The concept is that there is someone who is hurting, and God has come for a pastoral visit. There is brokenness, and God shows up with a casserole.

Yes, God is always with us; God is always present. But God entered into this world in a special way to offer a pastoral visit to the broken. We call that the incarnation; we call that the birth of Jesus.

Hold this idea of God bursting into this world to pay a visit to the broken in the back of your mind for a bit, and we will return to it shortly.

It is Christmas time, and many people will be traveling. There are probably people here who will be staying with others, and there are probably people here who will be hosting others.

I heard it said that visitors (again from Scott Hoezee) always cause joy when they stay with you. The difference is some bring joy to your home when they arrive, and others bring joy to your home when they leave. Regardless, when someone is coming to stay with you for a period of time, there are usually some things you must do to prepare. You may bake some cookies or perhaps an entire meal. If they are staying overnight you may put fresh linens on the bed and towels in the bathroom. Depending on who is visiting, you might even get out the good monogrammed towels and the expensive hand soap. Unless you keep an immaculate house, fully stocked with food, a visitor is going to require some preparation.

Enter John the Baptist. John is the one who makes the preparation for the visitor. But rather than changing sheets, he’s changing people’s hearts. John calls for the people to repent, for the kingdom of God is near.

I don’t know about you, but I think that phrase has been overused and abused in our world. When I think of repentance, I think of some guy standing on a street corner, yelling into a bullhorn. More specifically, I think of the guy who used to (and perhaps still does) stand on the oval at Ohio State, yelling at students as they walked past, telling them that they needed to repent because they were going to hell. I never witnessed it first hand, but my friends say that this guy used to call college women “whores” as they walked by in their short shorts and tank tops. He never bothered to ask if anyone was already a Christian. In his mind, we all needed to repent.

And he was right. We all did need to repent, and we still do today.

To repent doesn’t mean to feel guilty about something you did until you do it again. It also doesn’t mean to ask for forgiveness and then pretend like it never happened. To repent literally means to turn. If you are walking along a winding path, and you come to a turn, you must adjust your stride, turning to the left or the right. If you don’t, you walk off the path. And the more you wander off the path, the further you need to turn to get back on the path.

So yes, we all did and still do need to turn. We need to make the adjustments in our life to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow. Some of us need to make greater adjustments than others, but we all need to be aware of the need to always turn back to Jesus.

This is how John prepares the way for Jesus. He calls people to make adjustments in their lives, to get back on the path. He isn’t just speaking to the tax collectors and the sinners. He is talking to the religious leaders and the pious people. We all need to take time to make those adjustments in our life and get back on the path. And in Zechariah’s prophecy, he calls this path the “path of peace.”

A few years ago, a Mennonite pastor, who is no longer a Mennonite or a pastor, voiced a concern to me and some of our colleagues. He was frustrated with the Mennonite Church, and I can understand that, as frustration with one’s church and denomination is nothing new. But what he said has stuck with me for the last five years or so. He said, “The Mennonite Church thinks that peace is the Gospel.”

I’m not sure how we responded to him at the time, but I assume someone said something about what voices he was listening to, or that he needed to be in contact with our mission agencies. We probably tried to offer a definition of the gospel that included the forgiveness of sins and peacemaking, as I think both are essential parts of the gospel. But as is often the case, I usually think of better answers at a later time.

I wish I would have responded to that disgruntled Mennonite pastor by saying that the central message of the gospel is indeed about peace. But we need to have a bigger understanding of peace.

When we think of peace, we often think of the absence of warfare, maybe the hippies protesting the Vietnam War, wearing their beads and throwing up a deuce. But as I’ve said before, when we think of peace, we need to keep the biblical concept of shalom in mind.

The complicated nature of shalom in obvious in 2 Samuel 11, the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. Uriah is out in battle under the leadership of Joab when David sends for him. In verse seven we read, “When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.”

Other translations have David asking about the “wellbeing” of Joab, the soldiers, and the “prosperity” of the war. In the Hebrew, David asks about the shalom of Joab, the soldiers, and the war.

The shalom of the war.

Shalom can indeed be translated as the absence of war. But words like wellbeing, prosperity, wholeness, completeness are also accurate. I think the best way to think of shalom is to use the phrase, “It’s all good.”

Wholeness. completeness.

Zechariah’s prophetic song says that John will go before the Lord to prepare a way. How does he do that? He offers knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins and he is “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

John’s job is to guide our feet into the path of shalom, the path of wholeness and completeness.

To the pastor who said that the Mennonite Church has reduced the gospel to peace, I’d say you have reduced peace to the absence of warfare. The biblical model of shalom is wholeness and completeness. And that means shalom in our relationships with one another, shalom in our relationship with ourselves, and shalom in our relationship with God.

The gospel is healing and hope in the midst of brokenness.

Remember that weird Greek word I started with, episkeptomai? Zechariah said that God came to this broken world on a pastoral visit. When we were sick, hurt, or broken, God came to pay us a visit. And in this brokenness, John proclaims wholeness and wellbeing. John proclaims shalom and he guides our feet into the path of peace.

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