Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 New International Version (NIV)

1 And God spoke all these words: 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

We are in week three of Lent, and less than one month away from Easter Sunday. Lent is meant to be a period of reflection and introspection. We take these forty days, which are symbolic of Jesus’s time in the wilderness, to ask what we have done wrong and how we can do better. For some of us, forty days isn’t long enough to cover all of that. I’ve got a long way to go, and I am thankful for the grace of God and those around me. Please know that I am trying to be a better person, a better pastor, a better husband, a better father, and a better son.

As we walk through these next few weeks, I simply want to invite you to join me in this endeavor to do better and to be better. Not because this will make God love us more, and not because following all the rules will get us into heaven when we die. No, I believe the teachings of Jesus and the ethical teachings within the Bible are meant to help us live in the best way possible here on earth. These rules are for our own good.

Last week I spoke about how Paul was essentially throwing out some rules, or at least saying that they were no longer necessary. I called those rules “purity laws.” These were the laws that kept the Jewish people “pure” and separate from the Gentiles. There are also “holiness laws,” laws that are meant to keep the people of God from worshipping other gods. While I don’t think that all of these laws still need to be followed to the last iota, the point is still valid. The same thing is true with the ethical laws. The point of the ethical laws is still just as relevant as it ever was. And in many cases, when Jesus talks about the point of these laws, he makes them even more difficult to keep.

Today we are looking at what we commonly call “The Ten Commandments.” The commandments show us that it isn’t always that easy to distinguish between holiness and ethical teachings, as some of these would be difficult to put into one category or another. For instance, Don’t work on the Sabbath, sounds like an ethical teaching, to keep it holy makes it sound like a holiness teaching. So they aren’t always that clear, but it also doesn’t always really matter.

But let’s start by messing with everything that you’ve ever been taught about the Ten Commandments. First question, which is the first commandment? If you are a Christian, you will probably start at verse 3, “You shall have no other gods before me.” But if you are a Jew, you will start with verse 2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

To make it come out to ten commandments, Jewish people traditionally combine what we Christians consider numbers two and three, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the extended commandment about not making any graven images.

Now if you are paying close attention, you may read that first part about God being the one who brought the people out of Egypt and say, “That isn’t a commandment; that’s a historical reference.” And if you said that, you would be right! So how can the Jewish people call this the Ten Commandments?

They don’t.

Do you know who else doesn’t? The Bible. The Bible calls them the Devarim, the words, the sayings. Nowhere does the Bible call them commandments. And nowhere does the Bible say that there are ten. If you separate out all of the different sayings about not coveting, you actually get the 14 or 15 words. But “the 14-15 words” just doesn’t roll off your tongue like “The Ten Commandments.” And they are commandments, even if they aren’t labeled as such by the Bible, and they can be placed into ten different categories.

So don’t be too critical of the Jewish people and how they categorize and number these teachings. If we are honest, they’ve been doing it longer than we have, so we should respect their decisions.

But there is more to the Jewish way of numbering than a random decision to start in verse two rather than verse three. When Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew people had just come out of slavery in Egypt where they were subjected to teachings about all sorts of different gods and demigods. However, they hadn’t received much teaching about the God of their ancestors. So this is a clear reminder to them of who is speaking these words to them and the authority that he has. This isn’t some distant and out-of-touch deity. This is the God of the Exodus, laying claim on these people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. Therefore, as my people, this is how you are to act, this is how you are to live. This is how you are to treat your servants, this is how you are to treat your neighbors.

One more thing I want to bring to your attention before we dig into some of the details here. Look at verse 17, the commandment about not coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Notice that your neighbor’s house is separated out, and then everything else is lumped together. By lumping the rest together, it would appear that our neighbors’ wives are essentially put on the same level as our neighbors’ donkeys. I don’t know what to make of that.

Actually, I do. We know that women were seen as possessions in those day, as were the servants. The Ten Commandments were originally given soon after the Israelites came out of Egypt. But after the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years, they receive the Torah again. That is the meaning of Deuteronomy, second [giving of the] law. And we find the Ten Commandments again in Deuteronomy 5 with very little change, only slightly different wording. But the wording seems significant when it speaks of women. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, now the women are not lumped together with the donkeys. The men and women servants are, but at least for the free women, there is some progress.

And if you recall as I opened this message, I said that I believe that is what God is looking for. God wants us to make progress. God doesn’t expect perfection, but God does expect us to try, to make an effort, to make progress.

The first few commandments seem to be focused on the supremacy of the God of Israel. Even the opening remarks about God being the one who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt is a reminder of all the signs and wonders that God has done. God is more powerful than the gods of Egypt. God is more powerful than Pharaoh. Therefore, you should not put any gods before the God of Israel.

God continues by saying that the people should not make any image of things above, on, or below the earth. It isn’t clear if they aren’t supposed to make images of anything, or if they just aren’t supposed to make images of things and then worship them. If you read the next verse, however, I’m pretty sure it is the second option. Immediately after the commandment to not make any images, the next line says, and don’t worship those images. Well if you don’t make any images, you can’t be tempted to worship them. So I’m going to say that this isn’t a prohibition against all images, but a prohibition against making images that represent a deity. Don’t even try to make an image of the God of Israel, because nobody has seen him, so any attempt to make such an image will lead to idolatry.

Just a quick aside, this is the reason why Amish dolls do not have faces and why the Amish do not want to have their picture taken. These are seen as created images, which they believe is forbidden by this passage.

This section on the supremacy of God concludes with the reminder that even God’s name is holy and should not be abused. I personally think that this is a reference to what we often call the “tetragrammaton,” the holy name of God which is sometimes pronounced “Jehovah,” and more recent scholarship has suggested that it should be pronounced, “Yahweh.” Which is right? We don’t know, because the Jewish people were so afraid to utter this name that we lost the pronunciation over the years.

While I think that many people are missing the point and being a little legalistic about the saying of God’s name, I also have a deep respect for the Hebrew tradition of referring to God as “Ha Shem,” the name, or reading the Tetragrammaton as “Adonai,” Lord, instead of uttering the name out loud. There is deep reverence there, and I think that is the point. Reverence for the supremacy of the God of Israel over all others.

The Ten Commandments are often included in our Lent readings because Lent is a time to reflect and ask how we can do better. And today I lament that in many ways the Ten Commandments seem to be under attack in our society. I don’t mean that in the sense that some do when they argue for putting the Ten Commandments in the courthouses of America. I say that the Ten Commandments are under attack because I fear that we have failed to remember the supremacy of God. We have put other gods before God; we have made objects into idols.

Here is the thing about placing other things before God and making idols out of objects: it happens slowly and unintentionally. You tell yourself it is just going to be this time, or you justify something by saying that it is for the greater good or for the protection of your family. As we go down these slippery slopes, even something good and helpful can become an idol. And here’s the tricky thing, it might not be an idol for everyone just because it is an idol for some.

I debated whether to even mention this or not because it is such a divisive topic. But I feel compelled to share an example of how some people can make idols out of something while others can use that object without crossing that line. The object that I am speaking of is a gun.

I grew up in a hunting culture where many of my classmates missed a week of school every year for hunting season. I’ve shot my fair share of guns, and I don’t mind saying that I think it can be fun to shoot guns. I enjoy target practice, and I’m not too bad of a shot. Though we have chosen not to have a gun in our home, I understand why some people want to have a gun for protection. I disagree, but I understand.

I believe that most people in the United States do not see guns as an idol and do not put them before God. But some do. Last Sunday a church in Pennsylvania had a blessing ceremony where over two hundred people gathered, many carrying AR-15’s, some with crowns made of bullets. This was done less than two weeks after Nikolas Cruz used the same weapon to kill 17 people in a Florida High School.

The AR-15 is often classified as an assault rifle, though the AR does not stand for assault rifle, but for the name of the original manufacturer. The AR-15 and similar versions are semiautomatic versions of guns originally manufactured for the military. This is the style of gun that was used in not only in the recent school shooting, but also Orlando and Las Vegas. They can shoot a lot of bullets and shoot them very quickly.

Here’s the thing, most people support either a ban or a limit on assault-style weapons. Most people support banning “bump stocks,” which can essentially turn an AR-15 into a fully-automatic weapon. But many people don’t.

What I hear people saying is that if we limit the sale of assault weapons, the entire 2nd amendment is in danger. They won’t give an inch out of the fear that they will lose a mile.

I understand that fear, but I also believe that perfect love casts out all fear. When we put owning an assault rifle, whose sole purpose is taking human life, above the teachings of God, we’ve made that gun an idol. When we put the 2nd Amendment above the 6th Commandment, we have made it an idol.

Now don’t think that I’m naïve; I don’t think that there is any one simple solution to the gun violence problem that we have in the United States. I hear people say that we have a problem with guns, and I agree. I hear people saying we have problems with mental health and we should invest more time and money in that area, and I agree. I hear people blaming the bullying culture and violent video games, and I agree. I hear that we have a heart problem, and I agree. But ultimately, I believe we have an idolatry problem, idolizing our rights, idolizing our weapons, and glorifying violence. I think that our first step is to repent of our idolatry and turn back to the supremacy of God.

I applaud those who are making a difference. Dick’s Sporting Goods has decided that they will no longer sell assault rifles, even though that means that they will lose a lot of money. Dick’s, Walmart, and Kroger announced this week that they will voluntarily raise the age requirement to buy guns and ammo to 21. To which I say, “Kroger sells guns?” It’s one-stop shopping. We need bread, milk, and 22 long rifle ammunition.

My friends, I don’t want to take your guns away, but we do need to make progress. Let us start by repenting of idolatry, whatever that might be for you. And let us move toward something better, to supremacy of the God who called the Israelites out of captivity. The one and only God of all, revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

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Breaking the Law

Romans 4:13-25 New International Version (NIV)

13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

I believe I was in third grade when I was introduced to the idea of poetry. I’ve never been a big fan of poetry, I’ve not written much poetry, and about the only poem that I can recite from memory is “Roses are red/ violets are blue./ Sugar is sweet,/ and so are you.”

We learned about the normal conventions of writing in the 3rd grade. We learned where to use commas, exclamation marks, and paragraph breaks. And by this time we were well versed in the rules of capitalization. You capitalize the first letter of a sentence and the first letter of a proper name. That stuff was understood by the third grade.

So when we were introduced to poetry, many of us were surprised. This stuff didn’t follow the rules that we had been taught, and these poems were considered “good?” The last straw was when we were introduced to a poet by the name of Edward Estlin Cummings. You may know him better by the stylized name that he used to sign his poems, “e.e. cummings.” It was bad enough that Cummings didn’t follow the normal patterns of poetry. His lines didn’t rhyme and he didn’t seem to care about the meter of his poetry. This guy was all over the place! But what was worse was that he did not capitalize any of the letters of his name. And in my third-grade mind, after three years of learning the conventions of writing, I simply couldn’t stand for it. Rules have always been important to me!

My teacher explained to us that Mr. Cummings had what she called a “creative license,” which allowed him to not need to hold fast to every rule associated with what we traditionally would call good writing. And I remember, even now thirty years later, wondering just where I could get one of those licenses.

(I’m borrowing and adapting this illustration from: http://scarletletterbible.com/rules/)

Here is the thing, Cummings knew the “correct” way to write. In fact, he could write very well. He knew the rules, and he knew that he was not following the rules. But he also wasn’t just breaking the rules to break the rules. He felt that in this specific instance or that particular case, the rules were not what was needed. Yet he could only make those decisions because he had already mastered the standard conventions of writing.

I’ve heard something similar about the cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. I know even less about playing the cello than I do about writing poetry, but this makes sense to me. Yo-Yo Ma is known for making adaptations and changing music as he plays. He integrates elements of syncopation and changes the length of notes for dramatic effect. Again, this is a creative license. It isn’t that Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t know that a whole note should be held for four beats or that he should be clapping on two and four. But he plays off the beat and in ways that may not be what you expect. But this isn’t because he doesn’t know the rules and it isn’t because he wants to break the rules. In fact, with poets like Cummings and musicians like Ma, they know it so well that they understand when they can exercise some flexibility.

When we read our text for this morning, it can seem like Paul, and Abraham before him, is playing pretty loosely with the rules. Elsewhere Paul can seem even more dismissive of the rules. Paul says at one point, if the rules could save us, then Christ died for nothing! (A bit of a paraphrase, I know.) And in Paul’s day, the rules were often called “the law,” or “the Torah” in the Hebrew.

Yes, Paul broke the Law. But he didn’t break the law just to break the law. Like Cummings and Ma, Paul knew the rules so well that he understood the reason behind the rules.

Our text for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. There would have been some Christians of Jewish ancestry in Rome in those days, but most of them would have been converts to Christianity. They were Gentiles. So as we often find in the writings of Paul, we see here the struggle between whether or not it is necessary for those who have come into Christianity through other religious backgrounds to also take on the teachings of Judaism. Christianity clearly began as a sect of Judaism, so many argued that it was necessary for all Christians to keep the Jewish Law. Ritual washings, clean and unclean foods, and of course, circumcision were all highly-debated topics. In all, someone with too much time on their hands counted 613 different commandments in the Hebrew Bible.

If you read through Paul’s writings, it is clear that he does not believe that it is necessary to keep all of these commandments. They aren’t bad commandments; they had a time and a place. But now there is a new way in which people enter into the family of God: through Christ. I kind of look at Paul as a prototype of ee cummings or Yo-Yo Ma. He understands the rules, and he understands them so well that he also knows why they exist. For Paul, these rules, the Law, the Torah was all about pointing to Jesus. And now that Jesus has come, the Law is not necessary.

One of Paul’s go-to arguments, especially in Romans, is to found in the person of Abraham. Abraham, as you may remember, was a pagan man who heard God call him one day. God said to go, to leave his father’s land behind, and head to a place that God would show him. It was more than a little unclear where that would be. But Abraham picked up his things, somehow convinced his wife, and they left for an unknown place. And several times God promised Abraham that not only would he be blessed with a new land, he would be blessed with a family. Then it says in Genesis 15, and Paul repeats in Romans 4, Abraham believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

It was Abraham’s faith that made him right with God. It was because of Abraham’s faith that God chose to start a new people group through him. And it was because of Abraham’s faith that all the world would be blessed through this family.

So as Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, they are going through this debate about whether or not it was important to keep every aspect of the Law, and Paul builds his argument on this story from Abraham. New Testament scholar, NT Wright, says in his commentary on Romans that many believe that the stories of Abraham had spread widely in those days and that he was a well-respected man of faith. Even among other religions. Perfect guy to use as an example, right?

Here’s why Abraham is perfect for Paul to make his argument that the Law is no longer valid. This well-respected man of faith did not keep the Law. He didn’t play by the rules. He did not observe Torah. And you can’t argue otherwise because the Torah didn’t come along for several centuries, close to a millennium after Abraham was called by God, was faithful, and was credited with righteousness.

This is good news to us today, especially those who aren’t interested in eating kosher or observing all the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. I’ma gonna go all ee cummings and Yo-Yo Ma on ya here and say that we don’t need to follow all the rules. Rules aren’t what will get you into heaven. Rules aren’t what will make you right with God. But with Cummings and Ma as our guide, that doesn’t mean absolute anarchy and that rules no longer matter. Paul, after all, is always giving rules and ethical teachings.

I want to offer a bit of a disclaimer here before I go on to say what I plan to say. First of all, not all of the commandments in the Torah are the same. There are purity laws and there are ethical teachings. I also would say that what I am about to say sounds a little patronizing toward those at other places in their faith journey, but I’m going to say it as carefully as possible. With that out of the way, let’s go on.

I believe that in many ways the Torah was given to the people of God because they were not mature enough for the freedom we have in Christ. I’m speaking specifically of some of the ethical teachings. Like in 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul talks about giving the new Christians milk because they can’t handle solid food, some of the teachings of the Torah make it easier to be a follower of God. Clear-cut rules can make it easier to know what one should do. But the more you study and understand these rules, the more you realize that they are there to point to something bigger. So after over 1,000 years of following Torah, Paul now says, “We don’t need 613 commandments.” Now, following the teachings of Jesus, we can say that we only need two: Love God and love your neighbor. As I’ve said before, everything else is just commentary.

Again, that doesn’t mean that we throw out all of the rules. A lot of those rules help us to love God and love our neighbor. But like E.E. Cummings and Yo-Yo Ma, the more you know, the less clearly these things need to be defined.

Yet when we get right down to it, this passage really isn’t about breaking rules. All the talk about Abraham, the Torah, and breaking rules only serves as Paul’s example to hammer home a central theme in Paul’s writings: this is about entering into a covenanted relationship with God.

God made a covenant with Abraham to blessing him with land and with family. And if you read this story in Genesis 15, you will find that God doesn’t say he will do this after Abraham circumcises himself or after he keeps the Torah. Nope. Abraham believed God. Abraham put his faith in God, and that was what it took.

Paul continues in verse 16, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

The promise, the covenant, the agreement between God and Abraham is to all those who like Abraham put their faith in God. Remember that Paul is writing this to those who are arguing about whether a person needs to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. He is saying that the covenant with God doesn’t come through the Law, it comes through having faith like Abraham.

I know that the word “covenant” can be a bit confusing to us, as we really don’t talk about covenants today. We have contracts. I would differentiate between the two by saying that a contract is a legally-binding agreement. If one party in a contract fails to fulfill their part of the contract, there can be legal ramifications. A covenant is not necessarily a legal agreement, but a “gentleman’s agreement,” an understanding, and an expectation. It is a vow. It is giving your word. It is a promise. If you break a promise, you might lose credibility or even a friend, but there isn’t usually a court case to determine who was at fault.

One of the most common forms of a covenant that we find today in our society is the covenant of marriage. We have made marriage a legal agreement, but at its roots, marriage is a covenant between two people who promise to love, honor, and adore/obey one another as long as they both shall live. You enter into this covenant with the belief that your spouse is going to hold true to their part of the covenant. If you get married thinking, “Eh, he probably won’t be faithful to me, but I’m going to marry him anyway,” that probably isn’t a healthy covenant to enter into. No, covenants require faith. Covenants require you to believe the other person.

In our marriage, just like every other marriage, we have our expectations of one another. I usually wash the laundry and Sonya folds it. I get the kids on the bus, she often gets them off. And we seem to have an agreement that nobody will ever clean the microwave. Seriously, that thing is nasty.

What we don’t have are laws. We never sat down and wrote out an official document stating that under penalty of the law we would pick up after ourselves and make sure that all of the toothpaste washes down the drain rather than sticking to the side of the sink. We don’t need laws when we know one another and when we know one another’s expectations.

So I wash that last bit of toothpaste down the drain. I don’t leave my sweat socks on the couch. And I learned a long time ago that it is a lot easier to put the toilet seat back down when I am done than it is to deal with an angry wife.

Paul’s not against the Law, the Torah, or even rules. What he is saying is that these things are not the conditions for being a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham all those years ago. Faith is the only condition. Faith that he who began a good thing will see it through. It is our faith in Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection, that we are included in the covenant. And when you think of our relationship to God through Christ as a covenant like a marriage, we see how wrong it is to ask “is this about grace through faith or works?”

For those of you who are in healthy relationships, does your marriage work because of your faith that the other person will hold up their end of the agreement, or does it work because you hold up your end of the agreement?

The answer is yes.

And when you know someone so well, whether that person is your spouse, a friend, or your God, when you know them well, you don’t need rules. You just need to want to show your love and appreciation for that person. And together we can create something beautiful, even more beautiful than anything from Yo-Yo Ma or EE Cummings.

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All Things to All People

1 Corinthians 9:16-23New International Version (NIV)

16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Chameleons. What do you know about chameleons? We know that they are lizards. We know that they live in warm climates. One interesting fact about chameleons is that their eyes are independently mobile, so they can look and move their eyes different directions at the same time. But of course, the best-known characteristic of the chameleon is its ability to change color.

The color change isn’t complete, and it is not as drastic as you might see in the cartoons. You can’t hold a chameleon in front of a rainbow and watch him develop stripes of ROYGBIV. But many chameleons can change their colors from greens to yellows to browns. There are different theories for why and how chameleons change their color, but what is often cited is that this change in color is intended as a camouflage. A chameleon changes its colors to match its surroundings; it doesn’t want to stick out. It is safer to blend in.

I’ve known a few politicians like that, too. Politicians can change their “color” to match their surroundings if they think that they might win a few more votes. If you ask a politician how they feel about DACA or healthcare reform, they will probably answer slightly differently in different settings. Many politicians are simply going to tell you what they think you want to hear. If someone calls you a chameleon, they probably don’t mean it as a compliment.

But before I go critiquing the politicians, I need to do some personal reflecting, too. Because I’m just as guilty of changing my colors from time to time based on my surroundings. If I’m spending time with my politically progressive friends, I may use certain language and criticize certain leaders. Yet when I’m with my conservative friends, I may use different language and criticize other leaders.

I’m trying to fit in; I want people to like me. Is that really so bad? No, I don’t think it is the worst thing in the world, but I do think that there are better ways of doing it. I think we really do need to be authentic, especially today when so many people are suspicious of Christians and Christianity. So how can we try to fit in and be authentic at the same time? And what about Paul and his claim to be “all things to all people?” Is he being a chameleon, changing to his surroundings? Or worse, is he being a hypocrite, putting on a mask to conceal who he really is? Jesus had a lot of things to say about hypocrites.

To understand what is going on in our text for today we need to turn back a page and remember the text we looked at last week. Last week Paul was talking about whether or not it was okay to eat food that had been used in ritualistic sacrifices offered to idols. Paul’s point comes down to yes, you can. But don’t allow your freedom to cause another person to stumble. The meat is just meat, the idols are just wood and clay. What is really important is the relationship that you have with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Relationships are more important than your freedom.

That was 1 Corinthians 8, and in our text from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is attempting to strengthen his point. It may seem like Paul goes down a number of rabbit trails, and perhaps he does, but these rabbit trails eventually circle back to the main path. Most of the time, anyway. So after a little diversion and a discussion on whether or not he is a true apostle and whether or not an apostle should be paid, Paul returns to this idea of elevating relationships over our personal freedom.

In verse 19, Paul writes, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”

Paul uses the word “slave” quite frequently in his writings. Often he talks about being a slave of Christ. Here he says that he is a slave to everyone. The noun that is usually translated as slave is “doulos.” Or here it is a verb, “doulow.” Our modern understanding of slavery may make this a little bit challenging to understand, and that is why many translations choose instead to translate doulos as “servant.” I prefer “servant” because you may volunteer to serve someone, while entering into slavery is usually compulsory. But they didn’t ask my opinion when translating the NIV, NRSV, or any V, for that matter.

I find it helpful to think of a doula. The term doula, which comes from doulos, refers to a person who provides nonmedical care to a woman who is bringing another life into this world. From DONA, the largest doula licensing organization in the world, we find that a doula is “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.”

This is what Paul is claiming to be. He provides continuous physical, emotional, informational, and I would add spiritual support to young Christian communities. I like this metaphor as it is consistent with what Jesus says in John 3:16 about being “born again.” There’s this birth of new Christians and the birth of a new Christian community, and Paul offers to be the doula to this community, making sure they get off to a good start.

I can get behind that concept. Let us all be doulas for the kingdom! But then Paul keeps going, and I start to have my concerns. In verse 20-22, Paul writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

It sounds to me like Paul is becoming a bit of a chameleon, just changing his colors to blend into his surroundings. When he is around people who keep the Torah, Paul keeps the Torah. That means certain dietary restraints. But when he is around gentiles, he enjoys his crab cakes and lobster rolls. Paul sounds a lot like the politician trying to get your vote, telling you what you want to hear. Sure, Paul’s intentions are better than the politician. Rather than trying to get your vote, he is trying to save souls. But I don’t know about you, I can smell a disingenuous person from a mile away. And that’s usually where I like those dishonest people to stay, a mile away! Paul seems like a chameleon, and Paul sounds a bit like a hypocrite.

But what if Paul isn’t talking about being fake? What if instead he is talking about being hospitable and full of grace? What I think Paul is saying here is that we need to allow room for other people to practice their culture, their dress, their lives, and express their world view and their identity without always feeling condemned or challenged. This isn’t to say that you do things that you believe to be unethical or even encourage other people to do unethical things. But in matters that are not foundational to your faith, we need to let some things slide. If nobody is being hurt, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed, I think it is best to let certain things slide.

Notice here that Paul is on the progressive side of this one. He does not consider himself to be under the Torah. He doesn’t eat kosher. But his Jewish friends do. So even though Paul doesn’t eat kosher himself, he is willing to do so when he is with his kosher friends. It’s not hurting anyone, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed. Giving up crab cakes is a small sacrifice toward strengthening relationships.

I’ve mentioned before that I come from a pretty conservative branch of Anabaptism. To this day the church of my youth requires that men sit on one side of the sanctuary and women sit on the other. Women wear long dresses or skirts and head coverings over uncut hair. Many people don’t go to college, unless they are going for teaching or nursing degrees. And then you go to a church-approved college.

When I visit my conservative cousins, I don’t start bragging about my freedom in Christ. I wouldn’t walk into the church on a Sunday morning with my wife and her uncovered head and sit in the front of the sanctuary. Are there things that we disagree upon? Absolutely. But if nobody is being hurt, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed, I’m comfortable with them being as conservative as they want to be. And like Paul, I may make a few sacrifices so we can all feel comfortable together.

Now if someone was being hurt, that would be different. If they were performing child sacrifices, I’d do something. (Not that they would ever do something like that. I’m looking for an extreme example here.) Or if I thought the women were being forced to dress plainly without them having any say, I would voice my concern. But while I’m in their community, in their place of worship, or their homes, I’m going to be respectful of their tradition.

Like Paul, I am elevating relationships above my own, personal freedom in Christ. I’m offering them grace, leaving room for their interpretation of the scriptures. And I’ll admit, for me, I find it the most difficult to offer grace to people who are in places where I used to be (theological, spiritually, socially, and politically).

I think rather than considering Paul a faker or a chameleon, we need to think of him as a doula, one who cares for the church and the community. Now let’s put a different spin on this whole idea of being all things to all people.

During my time in Virginia, I have had to endure way too many conversations about topics that I don’t care about, namely NASCAR and Virginia Tech football. Confession time: ten years ago I could count all the NASCAR drivers I knew by name on one hand and still have fingers left over. And this might seem blasphemous to you, but ten years ago, I didn’t know who Frank Beamer was.

But today, after I have been a part of this worshipping community, I can say without hesitation, reservation, or equivocation that I…still don’t really care about NASCAR or Virginia Tech football. Don’t get me wrong, the crashes are exciting, and the end of the race is too. It’s just that everything else in the middle gets a little boring. And ACC football is simply inferior to the game that they play in the Big Ten (which is a bit inferior to the SEC, I’ll admit it).

My point is that today I at least pay attention to who wins the NASCAR race and I can name a lot more drivers. I know that there are people here who like Truex, some who like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and even some who like the Busch brothers. And I didn’t even need to look up “Virginia Tech coach” to know Justin Fuente’s name. I pay attention to these things because I know that they are important to some of you.

Let me give you another example so you can see why I pay attention to these things. Every day when our kids get off the bus, I ask them about their days. What did you paint in art class? What did you play at recess? Who did you sit by at lunch? I’m not really interested in finger paintings, kickball, or the social practices of Kindergarteners. But yet I do care, not because of the activities themselves, but because of the people taking part in the activities.

I love my children, so if something is important to them, it is important to me. I love my church, so if there is something that is important to you, it is important to me. So if I ask about NASCAR or Virginia Tech, I’m not trying to be a chameleon, or worse, a hypocrite. I genuinely do care about these things, because I do genuinely care about you.

I wonder if this isn’t a part of what Paul is getting at when he talks about being “all things to all people.” It isn’t about faking it to make people like you. It is about loving people so much that you are willing to eat kosher around Jews. It is about loving people so much that you care about the things that are important to them. This is about putting relationships first, because the kingdom of God is by nature relational.

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Love Builds Up

1 Corinthians 8 1-13 New International Version (NIV)

8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.

4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

When I was in Middle School, our school participated in something called Outdoor Education. I don’t remember how long of an event it was, maybe two nights and three days spent at a local campground. We learned about different animals and plants. I still recall dissecting owl pellets and how to identify white pines by the number of needles in a cluster. White pines have five needles, one for each letter of the word “white.”

Looking back, I now realize that we were learning about a lot more than just nature. We were learning about human nature. We learned about kindness, and we learned something that we might call “team building” today. One of the rules at the campground was that if you put someone down, you owed them three put-ups. I recall hiking with a group of classmates that included a kid named Jeremy and another named Sam. I think we were all grouped together because none of us were really in great shape, so we weren’t going to slow down the rest of the group. Jeremey was especially heavy, and he was just struggling the entire time. We would sit and wait on Jeremy. We would walk a little slower for Jeremy. And after we climbed an especially steep ravine, Sam said out loud so everyone but Jeremey could hear, “There’s no way that fat boy is going to make it up that hill.”

Yeah, our group leader didn’t like that very much. So Sam had to give Jeremy three “put-ups;” I think he said “I like your shoes. You’re a nice guy. You’re funny.” But even more important, Sam had to help Jeremy up that hill.

In the middle of 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul offers one of his famous “vice lists.” This includes swindling, lying, idolatry, cheating, and the sexual immorality. Then in verse 6, Paul writes, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”

Then, after our scripture today, which deals with eating food sacrificed to idols, Paul revisits the issue. And in regard to this practice, Paul writes in 10:23-24, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

In both passages, Paul states that Christians have some flexibility in what they are permitted to do. I don’t think we should read Paul as giving a complete pass on ethics, because if how we live didn’t matter, Paul wouldn’t have included that vice list in chapter 6. But when compared to the Torah, Christianity seems pretty libertine. We go from 613 commandments in the Torah to 2 in the New Testament. That’s quite a reduction (praise God!).

What I hear Paul saying here is that “all things,” or at least a lot of things, are permissible. But not all are beneficial. You might be doing harm to yourself, to others, or to your relationships.

Biblical Corinth was located on the southern part of an isthmus connecting the northern and southern parts of Greece. It was also about the halfway point between Athens and Sparta, and situated close to the gulfs on either side. So there would have been a lot of travelers, and a lot of traders in this region. These people brought with them their culture and their religion. In or near Corinth you could find temples to Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, and Isis. Just down the road was the altar to an unknown god at the Areopagus of Athens.

I can’t begin to imagine how many animals were sacrificed in these temples. The number of bulls and lambs sacrificed in Jerusalem alone seems staggering. So imagine that number in a larger city with multiple temples.

It would have been the practice of the time to take the meat left over after the sacrificial rituals and sell it in the market. So for the new Christians in Corinth, the question was, Can we eat this meat if we know it was used in a pagan ritual?

Paul’s answer is deeply theological and rhetorically convicting. Paul says, “Yep.” Sure, eat it. He writes in verse 4, “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’”

What Paul is saying is that those idols are just wood and clay. There is no living being represented in them. And then he goes on and says even if there are other gods, they don’t stack up to our God. So the meat, hey, if you get a good deal, grab me a T-bone while you’re at it.

So when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul says, It’s all good…except…All things are permissible, but they aren’t all beneficial.

Paul gets to thinking about some of the new converts to Christianity, and some of the people who maybe haven’t been convinced yet that these idols are just wood and clay. Some of those who are newer to the faith, Paul calls them “the weak,” may not realize that eating that meat isn’t an act of worship to these pagan deities. Those people shouldn’t eat the meat sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, Paul says, those who are more mature, those who are stronger in their faith and can eat that meat without worshipping other gods, they should choose to give up the meat as well so as to not cause a brother or sister to be confused and stumble.

Imagine being a young convert to Christianity and seeing the elder from your house church eating meat that was used in a religious service to Zeus. What would go through your mind? Are the God of the Christians and Zeus the same? Is there a pantheon of gods? Are they all equal? Paul says that those who have a firmer grip on the teachings of Christianity need to be careful not to make things more difficult on new believers. We want to see them succeed.

Paul then closes our passage with these words of encouragement in verse 13: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

Maybe Paul is using hyperbole a bit to make his point here, but I respect him for this statement. The longest I have gone without meat has been a 40-day Lenten fast, and that was tough! So for Paul to say that he will give up meat for the rest of his life if it helps a brother or sister out, I am impressed. And I am convicted. I want to know what I can do to help my brothers and sisters succeed in their attempt to follow Jesus.

Most of us don’t need to worry about food sacrificed to idols today. Although, when I was a student, our World’s Missions class went to a Hindu Temple, where they served a meal that was prepared in honor of Vishnu. Pancakes are good, no matter how many arms your deity has. But Paul’s point is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago, even if the issue has changed. Are we helping or hindering others? Are we secretly cheering when other Christians slip up because it makes us look better, or are we there to help them along the way? I think the way of Jesus would be to want to see everyone succeed. No matter who they are, we should be asking what we can do to help others follow Jesus better.

Look at the second half of verse 1: “We know that we all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.”

We’ve probably all heard that before. Knowledge puffs up, makes you walk around with your chest out, like you just won an award. There’s nothing wrong with knowledge, but that’s not the end goal. What Paul values greater than knowledge is love. Love builds up.

Paul includes this phrase at the beginning of the section about food sacrificed to idols because those who understand the freedom that they have in Christ to eat food sacrificed to idols have knowledge. They get that those idols are made of wood and clay. And they are a little puffed up about what they know. They are arrogant. They obviously know more than those new converts who won’t touch that tainted meat. Ha, ha, ha! Silly converts. The lack of knowledge on the part of the converts makes the more established Christians look even more learned and more knowledgably. They get even more puffed up!

How many of you are familiar with the term “frenemy?” A frenemy is a person who is both a friend and an enemy at the same time. Maybe you like certain things about this person, you may share some interests, and you probably share some friends. But deep down, you really don’t like that person. And because you have shared interests and shared friends, you probably see them at parties and community events. So you’re cordial and polite when you see them, even if you do secretly find a little bit of pleasure when they spill that red punch on their white shirt.

It might be a little bit of a stretch to say that I have a frenemy, but there is one guy who I went to seminary with who is as close to a frenemy as I have. Let’s call him John. John is a nice guy; people like John. John started Seminary a year after I did, so we had a few classes together, and we saw each other outside of class a lot. John is tall, just a little taller than I am. John has a good set of hair and a better set of teeth. He is outdoorsy, and in great physical shape. He bikes around town rather than using a car. In many ways, John was just a little bit better than me.

That alone is enough to make me a little uncomfortable around John. Then one day in class, John responded to something I said, and his response began with two words: “I disagree.” John then went on to offer bullet points articulating why he disagreed with my statement.

Maybe “frenemy” isn’t too much of a stretch.

But I got a better job out of seminary. I was a lead pastor, he was a youth pastor in another state (there’s nothing wrong with that, but as far as seniority goes, I win). And like many youth pastors, he didn’t last long in that position.

Yeah, then he moved to a large, established church where he became lead pastor. And in June of 2016, John was featured in one of our denomination publications in an article about 20 leaders under the age of 40.

I’m under 40, too, you know.

Pause that story for one minute, and we will come back to it shortly.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an article about teachers online. The author had put out a request for teachers across all levels to reply to one question. And Elementary, Middle, and High School teachers, along with college professors did just that. The question was simply something along the lines of, “What has surprised you the most during your years of teaching?”

Some teachers replied with things like, “I was surprised just how involved some parents are in their children’s educations.” Others said, “I was surprised just how little some parents are involved in their children’s educations.” “I was surprised at how caught up I could get in supporting school sports after never being an athlete myself.” “I was surprised at the relationships I’ve had with students years after they graduated.”

Then there was one from a college professor that caught my attention. It went something like, “I was surprised at how truly happy I have been for my colleagues’ successes.”

So I come back to my experience with my frenemy, John. There is one word that gets right down to how I viewed John’s successes. That word is jealousy. If the college professor could be truly happy for her colleagues when they got a promotion or published a book, what was keeping me from being truly happy for my frenemy?

Upon further reflection, I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t want John to be successful. I just didn’t want him to be more successful than me. When it comes right down to it, I wanted people to think that I was better than him.

I realize that I was just being petty. And if you really think about it, since John and I are both in the same line of work, what I was really wanting was for people to think that I was the better pastor, the better leader, the better preacher, the better man of God.

Why wouldn’t I want to see John succeed? It isn’t like we were competing for a job or even a trophy. There’s enough starry crowns to go around. His success doesn’t make me any less successful. I was just getting puffed up, and John came along and let a little air out of my inflated ego.

It comes down to a choice that I must make. Will I be jealous, or will I cheer him on? I know which is easier, but I also know which I need to do. I need to be less worried about being all puffed up on knowledge and start building people up in love.

Here’s my point: if we really believe that following Jesus is the best, most beautiful, and most important thing that we can do with our lives, we should want to see others succeed. We should want others to follow Jesus as best as they possibly can, even if it means we must give up something. For me, I know that I need to give up being the best at everything. And I need to give up jealousy. For you, it might be something else. For Paul, it was eating food sacrificed to idols. We must give these things up so that we can build others up.

I want to be the kind of person who is truly happy about the successes of others. Not just in matters of the church, but in all walks of life. I hope that you will join me in this as well, because we are not called to be puffed up on ourselves. We are called to build one another up in love.

Whatever it is that is keeping you from encouraging others and celebrating in their success, I pray that you will give that up, too. We aren’t competing against one another. The church is a team, and when one person succeeds, we all succeed.

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Gone Fishing

Mark 1:14-20

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

I went fishing with my family a while back, and things get pretty quiet out on the lake, and maybe even a little bit boring. So I asked my children if they wanted to listen to some music while we fished, and they asked, “What kind of music do you listen to when you fish, Dad?”

I said, “I don’t know, something catchy?”

I’m not much of a fisherman. The last time I fished I used a plastic Fisher Price fishing pole emblazoned with Mini Mouse. We ate like kings and queens that night, which is to say that we got fast food on the way home. All I caught was algae. Actually, my entire family has been sick this week, everyone but me. So I guess that you could say that I can’t even catch a cold, let alone a fish.

I may not be a very good fisherman, but I think that we all get the basic idea. You bait your hook with something tasty, something tempting to the fish. You throw that baited hook out into the water and wait for some unsuspecting fish to come along and take a bite. Then you battle the fish for a period of time until it gets loose or you reel him in. Or, as they did in commercial fishing endeavors of Jesus’s day, you throw a net into the water, immobilizing the fish below, preventing them from swimming off, and forcefully pull them onto your boat.

All of that is to say that I find a few places where the metaphor of fishing for people breaks down.

This is a popular passage that is used to describe how Christians are to go out into the world and make more Christians. But I don’t think that hooks and nets were meant to be the main imagery here. Though if we are being honest, many Christians do a little bait-and-switch act when they introduce people to the Gospel.

This isn’t about a bait and switch. Nor is it about filling your net with fish or hooking people by the lip, and dragging them into a boat, or dragging them into the kingdom. In fact, I would say that this is even more than just a convenient metaphor that Jesus uses to connect with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, who happen to be fishermen. No, what Jesus is doing here is inviting these men into a radically different lifestyle, a lifestyle which in turn invites others as well. I would say that Jesus is inviting them to see the world differently.

Our scripture for this morning starts with verse 14, but I want to skip over verses 14-15 and come back to them shortly. Looking at 16 we find Jesus beginning his ministry along the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, Simon, who is also called Peter, and Andrew…who is also called Andy. I just assume everyone had nicknames. As Jesus went a little further, he comes across brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who are also called “Boanerges,” which means “Sons of Thunder.”

In addition to them all having nicknames, all of these men were fishermen. And Jesus calls out to these two sets of brothers and invites them to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he offers this metaphor that would have been familiar to them. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (v.17b).

But this is more than just a familiar metaphor for these fishermen. And it is surely not meant that they are to bring people to Jesus with hooks and nets.

The imagery of fishers fishing for men comes up a number of times in the Hebrew Bible. And being Jewish men, these brothers would have made the connection to passages like Jeremiah 16:16. Let’s go back to Jeremiah 16:14-15 for some context: “‘However, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”

Jeremiah is addressing a portion of Hebrew people in exile and proclaiming that God will bring them back to the Promised Land. Now verse 16, “‘But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.’”

I want to admit that this is an extremely difficult passage to interpret, and there is not consensus among scholars about a number of issues here. So I’ll tell you what others have said, and then I’m going to give you my interpretation.

One interpretation is that God is going to send out fishermen and hunters to gather in the sinful Israelites so that he can punish them. This is especially understandable when you read verse 18a, “I will repay them double for their wickedness and their sin.”

The Word of God, for the People of God…

Some claim that the fishermen represent a gentle gathering of the Israelites for judgement while the hunters represent a violent gathering. I even read one person’s interpretation that said the fishermen represent the Christians who are trying to bring safety to scattered Jewish population today, while the hunters represent the Nazis who violently pursued the Jews during the Holocaust. This implies that the Holocaust was God’s judgement on the sinfulness of the Jews.

I’m not going with that one.

As I was reading a commentary by OT scholar Walter Bruggemann, I was reminded of Isaiah 40. Bruggemann notes that the language of repaying double for the wickedness of sins is very similar to what Isaiah says when he speaks words of comfort to the people after the exile. It doesn’t make sense to think that God punishes people double for their wickedness. No, God is fair, God is just. In the Old Testament God teaches “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment should fit the crime. But what does seem consistent with God’s character is that he repays people with a double portion of grace for their wickedness. Neither Jeremiah 16 nor Isaiah 40 say how God is repaying these people double for their sins.

My interpretation of Jeremiah 16:16 is that God is now calling the Israelites back to the Promised Land. Yes, he is judging their wicked actions, but he is offering a double portion of grace and forgiveness. And the idea of sending out fishermen and hunters isn’t to suggest that some will be brought back violently and others brought back peacefully, as if fishing is peaceful for the fish! Isaiah isn’t saying that there will be nets, guns, or spears involved. When I read Jeremiah 16, especially when I read it through the lens of the New Testament and the person of Jesus, I find a God who is sending out fishermen and hunters, a God who will search over land and sea, to find those who have sinned, to find those who have wandered away, to find those who are at a distance, to offer them grace and forgiveness. God will search land and sea to bring people back from exile and into his kingdom.

And Jeremiah isn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this image of fishing for men and women. I won’t read through them all here, but you can find similar references in Habakkuk 1:14–15; Ezekiel 29:4–5; 38:4; Isaiah 37:29, and Amos 4:1-2. Not all references use this metaphor in the exact same way, but they always suggest taking someone out of one context and placing them into another.

So when Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men,” he is just using a metaphor that will be familiar to Simon, Andrew, James, and John because they are fishermen, but also because from a young age they would have studied the scriptures.

Now with all of this information from the Old Testament, we must ask anew what it means to fish for people. Let’s back up to verses 14b-15: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

You’ll see the phrase “good news” twice in those two verses, and it is used a third time earlier in this chapter. We should take notice! As I’ve said before, the word that is translated “good news” is the Greek word, “euangelion.” We also translate euangelion as “gospel.” This is the gospel.

If you ask people, “What is the gospel,” many will say something along the lines of “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven when I die.” I believe that is true, but there is more. Jesus didn’t come into Galilee in Mark 1 proclaiming that he had died for our sins. And in Matthew 10:5-15 we find Jesus sending his disciples on a mission. Verse 7 in the NRSV says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

The death and resurrection of Jesus is an integral part of the good news, but Jesus himself says that the good news is that the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And what does one need to do to be a part of that kingdom? Repent and believe.

This is where I push back. Repent is such an ugly word. We hear preachers screaming on street corners that we need to repent or burn. I’ve seen pictures of protesting Christians with strongly-worded signs, including who God hates, and the eternal destiny of these people. I even found pictures of this gem of a van with lettering that emphasized that whoremongers will be going to hell, and then invited you to donate to the driver. And it make a case for giving to the driver because, and I quote, “Your pastor lied.” The tithe is 10%.

Remember that to repent, metanoia in Greek, literally means to turn. Some need to turn more than others, but we all need to turn. When our lives don’t line up perfectly with God’s desires, we need to turn.

So let’s go back to the imagery of the fishermen and hunters from Jeremiah 16. God says that he will send out fishermen and hunters to search the waters, the mountains, and the valleys. God will search land and sea for those who have wandered away. And God will bring them back, offering a double portion of his grace. But in order to come back, they must turn away from something. It is the job of the fishermen and hunters to show the people that what is being offered, the Kingdom of God, is more beautiful, more holy, more right, more loving, and more peaceful than anything else that is out there.

There is a saying that fish don’t know that they are in water. Most fish have never been out of water, so they simply don’t know anything but water. As author, musician, entrepreneur, and public speaker Derek Sivers writes, “Fish don’t know they’re in water. If you tried to explain it, they’d say, ‘Water? What’s water?’ They’re so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see. They can’t see it until they get outside of it. This is how I feel about culture.”

Many people have never spent a significant amount of time in a different culture. But when you do, you start to notice things are done differently. When I was in Trinidad I was shocked to see multiple generations living under one roof. These were grown men and women with good jobs. Couldn’t they afford their own place? When I was in Jamaica, I was surprised by the way that they drive. Do those lines on the road not mean anything here? When I was in Texas, I was surprised by their diet. Have you not heard of vegetables?

Anyone who has ever been married or lived with a non-relative roommate soon realizes that not every family does everything the same. Do you sit down to eat together every meal? Do you say a prayer, or even sing a prayer? If all you ever know is your own way of doing something, you might not know that other cultures even exist. And you might be missing out on something beautiful.

I wonder if the job of a fisherman or a fisherwoman today is to show people other ways of seeing the world. Even as our world expands through electronic devices and social media, our circles of influence continue to shrink. We watch one news station or go to one website. We interact with the same friends day in and day out. And we don’t even realize that we are swimming in water because we don’t know any different.

I think that the role of the fisherman and fisherwoman is to pull the fish out of the water so that they can experience something different. No, not forcefully removing someone from the water, but showing them that there are other options.

In a culture that knows nothing but revenge, we show others forgiveness. In a culture that knows nothing but selfishness, we offer generosity. In a culture that known nothing but punishment, we offer grace. In a world that asks, “What can these people offer us?” We ask, “What can we offer them?”

Two years ago, when Paxton was in kindergarten, we made the decision to place our first-born child on a big, yellow bus with a bunch of strangers. “Just bring him back in a few hours!” As a parent, you need to learn to give up control, because you have no control over what happens on the bus. You might think that you have some control over what happens at home, but it’s like Lord of the Flies on the bus.

There was a little girl who rode the bus with Paxton who we later found out had a challenging first five years of life. She came out of an abusive situation and was living with a foster mom just up the hill from us. One day Paxton and this girl got off the bus, and the bus driver called the foster mother over and told her that the girl had been spitting on other kids, including my son. And for some reason, Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady” starts going through my head.

The next day Paxton comes home with a note from this little girl, apologizing for spitting on him. And without prompting, Paxton said, “I want to write her a note back.” So in his best five-year-old penmanship, he scribbled, “I forgive you” on a card and took it to her the next day.

Two years go by and I find out that the foster mother and one of my friends walk together in the park. Sonya ran into them while she was jogging. The little girl had gone on to another family, but the foster mother still had stories about that challenging experience. And she told my friend about the spitting experience and Paxton’s forgiveness offered in a card. Through tears she said to my friend, “Who does that?”

Today I want to say that fishermen and fisherwomen do that.

Through our words and actions, we show people that something different is possible. A different kingdom is at hand. God has been searching the land and the sea, and if you will turn to him, you can be a part of something beautiful.

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God has heard, have you?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I heard a comedian recently talking about how good kids have it today. It was one of those “back in my day…” kinds of sketches. One of the things he said that made me giggle was, “Back in my day, we used to have to answer the phone to know who was calling.”

Caller ID is a great thing. So is the “ignore” button on the phone. I try not to ignore calls because people don’t usually just call me to chat. If my friends or people from church call me, they probably need something. So if I’m available, I answer. However, this week I was playing around online looking at refinance options for our home. I’m always looking for a way to save a little money, and I think that we might be able to get in on a HARP refinance deal. I put some information into a website, which I thought was a government website. I hesitated a bit when they asked for my phone number, but I clicked “submit.” And of course, there was a disclosure that said, “By clicking submit you are agreeing to our terms and conditions.”

Yeah, cuz I read those.

I just wanted to see if I was eligible for the program, and I kid you not, within two seconds of clicking “submit” my phone started ringing. I didn’t know the number, so I answered. “Hello, Kevin. I’m from Quicken Loans. We have your inquiry and would like to ask you a few more questions.” And before he could get out that sentence, my phone started beeping. I was getting another call from an unknown source.

What I thought was a government website that would tell me if I was eligible for a reduced cost refinance, actually turned out to be a third-party who immediately sold my contact information to several loan agencies.

I’ve been thankful for that “ignore call” option.

What do you do when your phone is ringing, but you don’t recognize the caller? It probably depends on your personality and your line of work. Before the refinance fiasco, I would usually answer in those situations because I do get a number of calls from people in the community and in the broader church whose number I don’t have stored. But often those calls are informing me that a car I sold five years ago is eligible for an extended warranty or that because I’ve stayed at a certain resort in the past I’m now able to get a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

Even with all of our technology and all of our experience, it can still be really hard to know who is calling. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to tell whose phone is ringing when they all have the same ringtone! How can we sort it all out?

Our scripture for this morning is the calling of Samuel. Samuel is the prophet who will go on to anoint the first king of Israel, Saul, and his successor, David. It was Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who prayed to God for a son, and promised to give him back in service to the Lord. The name Samuel means “God has heard.” (Samuel can also mean “name of God.”)

Young Samuel goes to live with an old priest by the name of Eli at the synagogue in the city of Shiloh. Notice what we find in verse 1: “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.”

I sometimes hear people say things like, “Miracles don’t happen anymore.” Or “God doesn’t speak to us like he used to in the Bible.” This may be true, but notice that God didn’t speak often in those days, either. The Bible is a collection of stories spanning thousands of years, and when we put them all together in one place, it seems like God was always doing miracles and speaking to the people. So maybe God speaks less today than in the biblical days, but I don’t know for sure. But I would guess that the heavens could seem pretty quiet at times in those days, too. And maybe God was speaking, but they didn’t know how to listen.

So things have been a little quite around the synagogue in Shiloh. Some historical figures suggest that Samuel is about 11 years old at this time. Samuel lies down and someone calls him. But there is no caller ID, so Samuel assumes that it is Eli, the curator of the synagogue, who is calling him. So Samuel gets up, runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am.”

Then Eli says, Why are you waking me up? I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!

Samuel goes back to bed, and he hears someone calling again. There must not be anyone else in the synagogue because again Samuel assumes it is Eli. So again Samuel goes to Eli and says, “Here I am!” And again, Eli says, Go back to bed.

            A third time someone calls out for Samuel. Whoever is calling is even more persistent than Quicken Loans, who eventually got the idea that I didn’t want to talk. Samuel again goes to Eli, and all at once, Eli realizes what is going on. They haven’t heard this voice for a while in this synagogue, but after the first few attempts, Eli recognizes the caller. Verses 8b-9a say: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’””

And when God called the fourth time, Samuel was ready. “Speak Lord,” he said. “For your servant is listening.”

Why was it that Samuel did not recognize the voice of God, and Eli eventually did? Look at verse 7: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

I hear people use the phrase “know the Lord” differently today. This verse isn’t saying that Samuel didn’t believe in God or follow him, but that he hadn’t had a personal experience with God. Again, we are talking about a boy of about 11-years-old, and verse one said that God had been quiet for a while. But the old man Eli, he could go back in his memory banks and recall. Maybe God had spoken to him in the same way many years ago. Or maybe he had a different, yet consistent experience. Either way, after the third try, Eli recognized it was God speaking to his young apprentice, and Eli was the one who gave Samuel guidance on how to proceed.

Like all times and places, we in the modern, western world value certain personal attributes. We value the self-made man or woman who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. We value youth. We value beauty. We value celebrities who are famous simply for being famous. And all at once we have this new term, a new class of people who are looked up to known as “YouTube Celebrities.” I don’t get it, you just video your day, upload it, and people watch this? My children have been talking about JoJo Siwa recently; I seriously feel old and out of the loop. I had no idea who JoJo Siwa was. But thanks to the public school system, my kids do, and now I do. As of Friday, January 12, 2018, JoJo Siwa has over 324,000 followers on Twitter, 428,000 likes on Facebook, and 6.5 million followers of Instagram. And in my opinion, after watching portions of two videos, she isn’t that talented, either. Her songs are all voice-overed.

What is she? She’s young. She’s cute. She blonde. Evidently 6.5 million people value these things.

Some cultures have totally different values. Rather than the young and the beautiful, they value the elderly, the experienced, the wrinkled, the gray-haired people. Because with every wrinkle and every gray hair comes wisdom.

I think we in the church would do well to slow down and listen to the voices of experience. I’m not suggesting that older people have all of the answers, but I also think that there is wisdom in the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9b, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In a few weeks our conference will be losing two more churches over the issue of inclusion of people in same gender relationships. We’ve lost a number of conservative churches, and now we are losing a few more progressive churches. This is dividing our denomination, our conferences, and our churches. How do we deal with this divide? I wish I knew! But I think there is wisdom in going to our elders and asking about how they dealt with divisive issues, what they would do the same, and what they would do differently. I bet they would say we got some things right and some things wrong. Though this may be a relatively new issue, there have been issues before. We need people like Eli to help us discern God’s calling. We need people who have heard God’s voice before to help us hear God’s voice today.

We also could do better at utilizing the people around us, people who know us. Our church, our community, our friends. These are the people who can help us discern God’s voice.

Each month our Church Council meets to discuss the work and mission of the church. Sometimes I think we could call this group the Church Counsel rather than Council. We do counsel one another and I believe it is helpful to bounce ideas off one another. We gain more insight this way. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of it from a certain perspective.

One of our deep discussions this past meeting was the pronunciation of the word spelled A-U-N-T. It is my observation that those born south of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce this word awe-nt, while those of us born north of the Mason-Dixon Line pronounce it…correctly. When asked why he pronounced it awe-nt, one insightful individual said, “Because that’s how it is spelled.” Add another letter or two and you get words like taunt, haunt, flaunt. Many people on council contributed their opinions, but finally, I just asked the question, “Where do we live?” We live in Staunton (pronounced Stan-ton).

But that was just a warmup for our meeting. We went on to talk about how we might be able to help a refugee family who had to leave their home in Florida because of Hurricane Irma. A mother with three children, the husband is not in the picture, is living in our community. One person on our council has a personal relationship with the family, a senses God’s calling to help. How can we be of help? How is God calling us to help? What is God calling us to do? What are we overlooking, and how might we do the most good? I can try to help and think through these problems on my own, but we do a much better job asking questions and digging deeper when we gather to discern in groups.

But what about those who don’t have a Church Council/Counsel at your disposal? A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in a process known as a Clarity Circle. This is a practice that traces back to the Quaker tradition, and probably much further. When someone had a decision to make and they were trying to discern God’s calling, they would invite people from the church to meet in a circle and just ask questions. This is often used when someone is considering changing jobs or moving. Trusted friends ask questions like, “How will this affect your family?” “Are you happy doing what you are doing now?” “Will this be financially advantageous?” This is an extremely vulnerable situation. Some Quaker traditions even invite people considering marriage to participate in the Clarity Circle process. “Have you thought through how you will spend your holidays?” “Have you talked about how to divide up household responsibilities?” “Are you sure you want to marry him/her?” J Often it is people who have experience asking questions that the younger couple may have never even considered.

The Clarity Circle that I was a part of was for a young couple considering doing international mission work. The challenge for them was that they had an established life and would be leaving a lot of things behind. He co-owned a construction company with a friend; she was a school teacher. They owned a house. They were very active in their church. They were very aware that their decision would affect many people, and they wanted to make sure that the voice they heard saying “Go to a land I will show you” was the voice of God and not just simply their desire for something new and exciting.

They went, and it was a great experience for them. They spent six years ministering to and teaching an underserved population. I have no problem saying that God was calling them to the mission field.

In historical Christianity, there is a concept known as the Deus Absconditus, which is Latin for “The hiddenness of God.” To abscond means to leave secretly. Deus Absconditus can be used to describe the situation in 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord was rare and rarely heard. And I believe many of us can feel the same way today. The word of the Lord can be very difficult to hear, and when we do hear something, how do we know that it is a word of the Lord and not just something of our own fabrication?

I believe that the Deus Absconditus is not the result of God retreating from our world, but our own lack of perception of God’s word and activity all around us. I think we would do well to learn from Samuel when learning how to discern God’s call. We don’t have a caller ID that will inform us when it is God, or when it is Quicken Loans. So like Samuel, we go to those with more experience than we have, to learn from their successes and from their failures. And like the Quakers, our Church Council, and so many groups before us, we gather together to discern God’s word together.

The name “Samuel” means “God has heard.” Now the question is, have you heard God? Let us discern together.

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An Open Invitation

Matthew 2:1-12New 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.

It seems to be widely accepted that the wise men rode camels as they followed the star in search for the one born King of the Jews. There is really no evidence for this, but when you think about it, it is rather obvious. These are, after all, wise men. And if you know nothing else about camels, you know that they can go for a long time without water. This would have been very important information for the wise men as they began their trip, because the wise men had heard that in Israel, there was noel (no well).

Today is Epiphany Sunday, which marks the end of the Christmas season in the church. Epiphany is usually celebrated on January 6, which is the twelfth day of Christmas. So if you ever hear someone complaining that their Jewish friends get 8 days of Hanukkah and they only have one day of Christmas, remind them that Christmas has traditionally be a twelve-day-long event. We start with Christmas day and end on Epiphany.

Epiphany is the celebration of the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem where they worshipped the baby Jesus. I have no idea how they decided that these travelers arrived on January 6, and many scholars will say that they may not have got there until almost two years after Jesus’s birth. That’s okay, we really don’t know when Jesus was born either. The important thing is that we remember the birth of Jesus and the visitors who came to worship him.

I read this week about one strange way to remember this visit. Some traditions celebrate Epiphany by swimming in icy rivers and lakes. We are talking about churches in places like Siberia. Aren’t you glad that we celebrate with 12 drummers drumming around and a glass of wassail around here! Though it wouldn’t be too hard to find an icy place to swim this time of year.

On this Epiphany Sunday I want to look at the visitors who came to see Jesus soon after he was born. Who were they, where did they belong, and what did they believe.

When we look at the Christmas stories found in the Bible, we go to two different books: Matthew and Luke. Each of these books of the Bible tells the story a little different, offering various details and other snippets into the birth and early years of Jesus’s life. This doesn’t surprise me, as I’m sure I would tell the story of our children’s birth differently than my wife would. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong, but that we emphasize different parts of the story.

One of the differences that we find is that each gospel tells the story of different visitors who came to see Jesus. Our text for this morning tells about the wise men who come from the East to offer gifts and worship the newborn king of the Jews. We will come back to this story shortly. Luke also describes visitors who come to visit the baby. We usually refer to them by their occupation: they were shepherds.

Shepherds have received a bit of a bad reputation over the last century or so, and I’m not sure that it is entirely accurate. Many people assume that they were thieves. There might have been thieving shepherds, but it wouldn’t be fair to assume that they were all thieves. Some claim that shepherds were despised, but we don’t have a lot of reason to believe this either. If shepherds were such terrible people, I would think that the Psalmist would hesitate to say “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Furthermore, God is described by Jesus as a shepherd who leaves behind the 99 to search for one lost sheep. Jesus even calls himself a shepherd, which seems like a strange thing to call yourself if all shepherds are thieves and are despised by others.

I’m just looking out for you and your reputation, farmers around the world.

Yet while it might be a stretch to call shepherds thieves and despised, they also weren’t the social elite of the time. Watching sheep by night for multiple nights in a row probably meant these folks didn’t bathe as often as some others. And we know that animals, and particularly what comes out of animals, can have a—how shall I put it—pungent fragrance. It stings the nostrils. The things that they touched, the work that they did, probably caused many shepherd to be ceremonially unclean. And we find from the writings of Aristotle some 300 years before the birth of Jesus that many considered shepherds to be lazy. Because really, how hard is it to look after a docile animal.

So while shepherds surely weren’t all despised thieves, they weren’t the most respected people in the world. And that is why it is surprising that they are invited to be the first non-parents to visit baby Jesus.

But what if the Jesus story had a different beginning? What if he was born in a big city, the capital city, in a castle among servants and laid in a shiny and new bassinet? First of all, the shepherds probably wouldn’t have been able to get past security. And if they did, they probably would have felt pretty awkward in such a luxurious setting. They are used to sleeping outside, and here’s this infant, sleeping in a fancy bed in a fancy room in a fancy house surrounded by fancy people.

But Jesus wasn’t born into that scenario. No, he was born in a little Podunk town, in an animal stable. And his bed was an animal feeding trough. These things would have been very familiar to the shepherds and their animal husbandry experiences. They might have even been familiar with the very stable where Jesus was born. Going to see Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the shepherds, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.

It almost seems as if God entered into this world in such a way so as to meet the shepherds where they were. There was something familiar and something novel all wrapped up into one.

But that’s Luke’s gospel. We are looking at Matthew today and this story of the three wise men. Or are they three kings? I think that it is amazing that of these four words that we use to describe the visitors in Matthew’s gospel, none of them are actually in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew never says that there are three, he never calls them “wise” or “kings,” and he never says that they are men.

Why do we call them wise men or kings? I think they probably were wise people; they found a baby in a manger using little more than a star. I have problems finding my car keys. When we come right down to it, we call them wise men because King James called them wise men in 1611.

Matthew uses the word “magi” to describe these visitors. We still call them magi sometimes today, and the NIV chooses to not translate this word and just calls them magi. But what do we know about magi outside of this story?

Magi actually has similar roots to our English word magic. These were magic men, and it isn’t their first appearance in the Bible. The Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, makes several references to the magi, such as in the books of Esther and Daniel. In one case, Daniel and some companions are captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and questioned during the Babylonian exile. In Daniel 1:20 we read, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom.”

And for a quick geographical review, can anyone tell me which way Babylon would have been from Israel? To the east. These are magi from the east.

In these stories, many of which are from the exilic period, we find the word “magi” translated as wise men. So it isn’t surprising that King James would simply call them wise men.

We also call them kings because it seems to fulfill several OT prophesies. For instance, Psalm 72 includes the line, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” And Isaiah 30 includes, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

Were they kings? Perhaps. Were they wise men? Sure. But Matthew intentionally calls them magi, and I’m glad that the NIV leaves this word in its original language because Matthew isn’t trying to sanitize this encounter. These were magic men, they were astrologers who attempted to discern the future by looking at the stars, and likely members of a religious group known as Zoroastrianism.

Adherents to Zoroastrianism believe in two competing gods: one good and one evil, but each equal in power and strength. Furthermore, Zoroastrianism teaches that stars were angelic or heavenly beings, perhaps deceased relatives, who could reveal the things that would happen in the future. This is what the magi in the book of Daniel were doing, and this is what the magi in Matthew appear to be doing. They seem to be able to discern the events about Jesus’s birth by studying the stars. I don’t know how that works, and I’m going to guess that most of the time it didn’t. But in this case, it seems to work quite well.

Like the shepherd in Luke’s gospel, God uses something that these people were familiar with to lead them to Jesus. It has a kind of “Paul and the altar to the unknown God” feel to it. Following a star to find Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the magi, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.

I think these stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew are very important to us today. Outsiders are the first to recognize Jesus and to worship him.

Over Christmas break we decided to go to Washington, DC to take in a few of the (free) museums and get a little culture for our children. One of the things that always impresses me about the DC area is the ethnic diversity. We didn’t have much of that in rural Ohio growing up, and I think that we were worse off for it. So we went to the American History Museum and the new African American Heritage Museum. I actually got to see a pair of pants worn by MC Hammer, now that’s high culture!

We also had a chance to enjoy some ethnic foods. We went to multicultural restaurant for breakfast one morning. It was called the International House…of Pancakes, or IHOP for short J. Okay, the IHOP isn’t actually what I think of when I think about ethnic foods, but the staff there sure was diverse. The man who seated us, the wait staff, and the cashier all appeared to be first-generation immigrants (based on their accents). Our waitress was clearly of Indian decent, wearing elements of culture under her uniform.

After all the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were consumed (don’t judge, we were on vacation!), the waitress brought us our check and said, “Have a Merry Christmas!” I replied, “You, too!”

I was immediately embarrassed. The woman, coming from India, was most likely a Hindu, and her apparel suggested as much as well. I wasn’t embarrassed because I wished her a Merry Christmas. And I sure don’t get caught up in the whole “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” debate. We aren’t saved by the well-wishes we exchange, and I don’t think saying a phrase that isn’t even in the Bible is going to lead people to follow Jesus. My embarrassment came from the fact after I had wished a Hindu Merry Christmas, I realized she knew more about my religion than I know about hers. I couldn’t even come up with the name of a single Hindu holiday. And it turns out that there are a lot of Hindu holidays, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that they have 330 million deities.

But I had read a book on a major Hindu holiday, and I was drawing a blank. I couldn’t come up with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Diwali is one of the big ones, and is celebrated by several religions. I didn’t even care enough about that holiday to remember its name.

Here’s the thing, God didn’t tell the shepherds that they needed to go take a bath before they came to see Jesus. Nope, the dirty, smelly, ceremonially unclean people were told where to find the Messiah. And he was in a dirty, smelly, perhaps ceremonially unclean stable. God didn’t tell the Magi to first repent of their wicked ways. Nope, God used their practice of interpreting the future from the stars to lead them to Jesus. Because even though forbids astrology, God loves the astrologers more than he hates astrology.

I’ll be honest, Hinduism makes me uncomfortable. All of the statues of all of the deities stand in opposition to some of the most foundational teachings of the Ten Commandments. But like God, our love for people must be greater than anything that makes us uncomfortable about them.

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