Sunday, January 27, 2008

Follow Me - January 27, 2008

Matthew 4:12-18

Thanks to Rob Bell, Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, MI, who introduced me to the First Century world of the rabbi in a message seven years ago, entitled, “In the Dust of the Rabbi,” and then in his book, Velvet Elvis.


“Come, follow me!” and they did; just like that.

Has that story ever struck you as odd?
Is this the way discipleship is supposed to happen? Jesus calls and away we go?

It hasn’t helped that too many movies portray Jesus as a dreamy-eyed mystic – white bathrobe, Miss America sash, beautiful hair, far-away voice: “Come follow me!”
The disciples look heavenward; light shines on their faces - ethereal music – they float off their boats and follow Jesus.
I don’t think so!

There’s a real story here.

About a Rabbi and His students – four fishermen from the Sea of Galilee.
Actually fishermen is a bit misleading – “fisher-teens” might be more accurate – late teens, early twenties at most.

Let’s get into our time machine and pay a visit to first century Palestine. Like Rod Taylor in the 1960 movie version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine – fasten your seat belt. Our next stop: the world in which Jesus lived.
The world of the rabbi.

I’ll move the lever – we can hear the whirling motors, we begin to spin, the clock ticks backward, 1950, 1900, 1500, 750, 325, and begins to slow, 150, 75 … and the year 30, when Jesus began His work.
Bright sun and hot winds.
Welcome to first century Palestine.
The world of the rabbi.

A rabbi is the most respected person in the Jewish community – the rabbi is the best of the best – Harvard, Stanford and Yale, Princeton, Duke and MIT – it’s a long and arduous road to become a rabbi.

A rabbi began his official work around the age 30, as Jesus did following His baptism.

But a rabbi’s education began at age five or six – to study the Torah!
What we call the Old Testament.
Genesis to the Italian book Malachi –

Every Jew lives with the text, morning to night, birth to death – a people of the book.
Memorizing it from beginning to end, discussing and debating it’s meaning – playing scripture games – someone recites a sentence from Isaiah, and others repeat what comes before and after.
The art of questions: a woman had seven husbands; whose wife will she be in the life to come? Is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans? What must I do to inherit eternal life?

And lots of parables – stories with a twist; images to tease heart and mind: the prodigal son; the pearl of great price; the vineyard.

It’s all about the text – Moses, the prophets, the Psalms - because the text is survival.
The text preserves and empowers the Jews in a hard world.

So began a child’s education.
How young should a child be to begin instruction in the Word of God?
One rabbi said: “Under the age of six, we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him [with Torah] like an ox.”
Imagine the early morning hours in the synagogue of Nazareth – boys and girls fidgeting - scared and eager; the rabbi, wise and respected.

On the first day of class the rabbi would take honey and cover each student’s slate – a wonderful treat for every child.
Honey was a sign of God’s favor. There was nothing finer, nothing sweeter, nothing more full of pleasure than honey.
The rabbi would rub honey all over the slate. And then he would say, “Now class, lick the honey off the slate and off your fingers.”
As the students did this, the rabbi would say, “May the words of God be sweet to your taste, sweeter than honey to your mouth” (Psalm 119:103). May the words of God be the most pleasurable, the most enjoyable thing you could even comprehend.

First level: Bet Sefer – “House of the Book.”
By the time children finish Bet Sefer, around age 10, they know the Pentateuch by heart – the whole thing: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

Is this kind of memorizing possible today?
Watch a 14-year old plugged into her iPod – thousands of lyrics memorized.

Children who demonstrated ability with the text would be invited to the next level – Bet Talmud – “House of Learning.”
By age 13 or 14, the top students had the entire Bible memorized.

Think of Mary’s Magnificat – her song to the LORD is all Scripture – remember, Mary was about 14 when Gabriel paid her a visit – Mary, like all Hebrew children, knew the text well.

When Jesus’ parents found Him in the temple, how old was He? He was 12.
And what was He doing?
He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them, asking them questions – they were amazed at his understanding and His answers.
Around the age 14 or 15, the best of the best continued their studies. The rest are sent home to learn the family trade and begin their own families.

The best of the best ultimately apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of the rabbi’s talmadim – one of his disciples.
The goal of a disciple was more than just learning – the goal was to be just like the rabbi.
Guys, remember buying a pipe in college because your favorite professor smoked a pipe? How about that tweed jacket with the elbow patches?
Ladies, you did you hair the way she wore her hair and held a pencil to your lips as she did while lecturing.

More than learning, it was all about living.
When a student applied to a rabbi, he was asking to take the rabbi’s yoke upon him.
Remember when Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you”?
The “yoke” was the rabbi’s teaching – the rabbi’s way of life.

If the rabbi decided that a student had what it takes, he would say to the student: “Come, follow me!”
The equivalent of the “big envelope” in the mail from the university of your choice.
Rejection notices come in small envelopes: “Thanks for applying. Your strengths and abilities are better suited for another school. Good Luck.” Which simply means: “Get outta here and don’t bother us again!”

Acceptance comes in a large envelope.
“Welcome! We’re glad to have you as a student! Enclosed, please find housing applications, and financial aid forms.”

The big envelope.
“Come, and follow me!”

Let’s return to the Sea of Galilee.
Why were James and John, Peter and Andrew fishing?
They got the small envelope.
They didn’t make the cut.
The dream was over.

Jewish boys dreamed of being a rabbi … and girls did, too. But girls couldn’t, which makes the story of Mary and Martha so fascinating – when Jesus visited their home, where does Mary sit?
“At His feet” says the text.
Code language for being a student.

Martha’s consternation over Mary’s behavior is embarrassment – Mary’s audacity, behaving as if she were a rabbinical student, is improper and unbecoming for a woman.
Perhaps Martha was a wee bit envious.
Jesus affirmed Mary’s status that day – she got the big envelope!

Every family wanted their sons to be rabbis.

Like the Irish families of old Boston – to have a priest in the family, or a nun – a mark of distinction, a source of pride and gratitude.
“Yes, my son is priest. My daughter’s a nun.”

Every culture has “status” positions – a physician at the Mayo Clinic; an attorney with a Washington law firm – a poet or a painter (well, scratch those last two).
In Palestine, first century, “My son is a rabbi!”

James and Andrew, John and Peter were fishing because they weren’t the best of the best.
But on a memorable day, a rabbi walked the shore of the sea – his reputation already established – a rabbi of distinction and unusual insight.
“You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” This rabbi teaches with an uncommon authority.

Of course they knew Him. Everyone knew the rabbis.

Rabbi Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”
They didn’t even have to apply!
He choose them!
The big envelope.
A second chance for them.

Remember sixth grade recess?
When the teacher would call on two of the best softball players to be captains, and then have them choose their teams.
I hated it.
I wasn’t much of an athlete – I couldn’t hit a ball if you’d paid me.
So, the teams are chosen – the best first, the rest, and finally, the leftovers only because the teacher made it so.
Without the teacher’s assignment, the least of the least would have been cleaning erasers.
“Come, follow me.”

Like Tiger Woods calling you up tonight to play golf with him next week at Pebble Beach.
Or George Clooney inviting you to his home in Italy, all expenses paid.
“Yes, of course, we’ll leave our nets, we’ll leave home, to follow a rabbi.”

And what about their Dad the next day?
At the Coffee Company – “Ah, you notice my boys aren’t here with me today? Well, I tell you, the rabbi Jesus invited them to follow Him.” And all the men give Dad a high-five and hoist their cups in salute.
And Mom at the bowling alley, “You’ll never believe what happened yesterday; my boys were invited by Rabbi Jesus to take up His yoke. We’ll miss them, of course, but we’re so proud. A dream come true.”

So began a three-year journey for Andrew and James, John and Peter – students of Rabbi Jesus – following Him closely, so closely that at the end of the day, they’re literally covered in the dust of the rabbi – wanting to be just like Him.

That’s why Peter got out of the boat and walked on water – if his rabbi could do it, he could do it, too.
And Peter did. Peter walked on water.
And when Peter grew frightened and began to sink into the angry sea, Jesus said, ”You of little of faith. Why did you doubt?”

Did Peter doubt Jesus?
Peter doubted himself.
“I can’t do this. I’m not capable!”
Self-doubt disturbs Jesus more than anything else.
Jesus knows what we’re capable of doing – that’s why He calls us –
“Come, follow me!”
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
Our rabbi believes in us.
He knows we can be just like Him.” Amen!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

God's Lamb - January 20, 2008

John 1:29-42

Can you see what I’m holding in my hand?

Yes, that’s right, a surgeon’s scalpel.

Not the most pleasant looking device, but an essential tool for health … as the expression puts it: we need to go under the knife now and then.

Some years ago, through routine testing, abnormal calcium levels in my blood were detected … further testing by an endocrinologist and a few sleepless nights, revealed a misbehaving parathyroid gland.

Solution: surgery!
It has to come out.
I had to have some knife time.

So, the early morning trip to the hospital … prep for surgery, onto a gurney … a couple of happy drugs later, I was ready … Donna gave me a kiss and I was wheeled down the hall to a bright room seriously cold.

The anesthesiologist put something into my intravenous, had me count backwards … ten … nine … eight … lights out.

Three and a half hours later, eyes open – bright lights again … cold … recovery room … a blood sample taken … the doc comes by – “Calcium levels back to normal, Tom, just like that.”

Thank God for the scalpel and the folks who know how to use them!

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

The scalpel of grace …

“The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

To take away the sin of the world!

What is sin?

Must be mighty important for the Son of God to be so utterly involved in its removal …

Must be something big … evidently we need lots of help on this one!

Nothing less than divine surgery … no one less than Jesus.

What’s sin?

Ever hear the term “original sin”?

The first one, the biggie … the source, the center … the one and only … original sin.

We associate “the big one” with the image of Eve plucking the fruit and Adam right with her.

But that’s not the “original sin.”

The “original sin” occurred prior to the fruit-picking … the “original sin” – believing a lie.

The Snake in the Grass suggested to Eve that she wasn’t quite up to snuff, suggested that God might have left a few things out of the equation, and further suggested that she misunderstood God’s plan … and it would be just fine to pluck the fruit – because the Tree offers what’s missing from your life.

She believed it … and so did Adam.

Though Eve is the principal actor here, the text is clear: it says pointedly, “Adam was with her” – cheering her on; “you go, girl!”

She believed the lie, and so did Adam – something is wrong with us, something is missing, and you can’t even count on God for it.

That’s the original sin … that’s original lie.

And if you know anything about lies, you know that once started, lies take on a life of their own … compounding themselves until a whole world has been created with lies …

But a lie is still a lie … without truth, without love, without hope and without peace … lies never work … though we often believe them with all our heart … because the first lies are always told to us … they come from people of the lie … parents who were lied to, teachers who were lied to, politicians and neighbors who were lied to, spouses and children who were lied to … the lies are passed on, and every permutation, they grow a little larger, a little stronger … until they have us in their grip.

Think of it …

You’re not up to snuff …
Something is wrong with you …
You’re not fit for the fight …
You’re a flub, you’re a flop, you’re a failure …
You’re a lousy Mom …
You’re a crummy Father …
You’re a terrible student …
You’re stupid, you’re dumb, you’re ugly …
You’re hair is all wrong …
You’re too fat … and too slow …
You’re clothes don’t fit …
Your teeth aren’t pretty …
Why can’t you look better?
Why do you have be so slow?
Why can’t cook better?
Why don’t you get better grades?
Why aren’t your prettier?
Why don’t you lose some weight?
I won’t love until you do!

Serious business!

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

To take away the original sin was the toughest thing God ever did …

Creation was a breeze … God said, “Let it be” and it was … but take away the original lie, to free the soul … that’s a horse of another color … it took everything God had, and then some.

Wherever Jesus went, whomever He met, He told them the truth … because “The truth sets us free.”

The first miracle – at the Wedding of Cana – ran out of wine they thought; and to the human eye, the jugs were empty – Jesus said, “No, you didn’t run out of wine. Let me show you.”

Jesus clears the Temple – here’s what a Temple should look like, here’s what a Temple should stand for … too many lies about power and prestige … too many lies about money and influence.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “This is too much for me. I’m too old. I’ve believed this all my life. I can’t change.”
Jesus says, “Not true. You CAN change; you can start all over again. Sort of like being born all over again. Not easy! But you can do it! Life is resilient. Nicodemus, you can do it!”

The Samaritan woman goes to the well at noon – in the heat of the day, when no one else is there, because she can’t stand the haughty glares and the whispered gossip – she’s tired of their self-righteousness, so she goes to the well alone.
Jesus meets her there … she’s trapped in lies: “There’s no hope for me. A good man will never love me. I’m stuck in a rut, and that’s where it’s going be for me. No way out.”
“Not true,” says Jesus.
“Let me help you.”

The son of a royal officer is ill and dying … and the man comes to Jesus, “Sir, help me before my son dies.”
“He will not die,” says Jesus.
The human eye can only see death. Jesus sees life.

At the pool of Siloam, a man crippled for 38 years … begging …
Jesus asks, “Do you wanna get well?”
“But there’s no one to help me get into the healing water. Every time I try, others push me outta the way, and by the time I get there, the water has stopped bubbling.”
Jesus probes, because Jesus knows that the man has accepted the lie – “There’s no hope for me, no way out – it’ll be this way forever.”
“No you won’t,” says Jesus.

At every turn, Jesus sees the possibility … hope for a new day … the door that no one else can see … because God not only opens doors for us, God creates doors where none previously existed.

“God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do no exist” (Romans 4:17).

“Takes away” the sin of the world, says the text.

God doesn’t wait for us to come around; God goes after it, tackles it by Himself – God intrudes, breaks in, enters the human heart … like a thief in the night, a smash and grab ruffian … God TAKES away the sin of the world

No self-help here … no self-healing at this point … something radical is needed … surgery … the scalpel of grace, and a skilled surgeon.

The Lamb of God who TAKES away the sin of the world.

And it’s “sin” not sins, did you notice that? … singular, not plural.

God goes for the root cause, the beginning, the source, the origin.

And leaves much of the clean-up work to us … with the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the root cause is removed … the original lie undone.

The truth be told!

There is nothing wrong with you.
There is nothing defective in you.

You can handle it … you will make it through … you’re a gifted and capable human being … you already have what it takes …

The original lie has been dispelled in Christ … so we get on with the task of healing … the cause of the wound is removed, but the healing takes time … and we heal with one another … that’s why Christian fellowship is so important … we heal in the company of others.

And we become little Lambs of God for one another …

Every time we encourage someone.

Every time someone wants to give up and give in, we help them take a deep breath and stay the course, and if need be, start all over again – we’re a little Lamb of God who takes away the lie from someone else.

Now, suddenly, we can read self-help books with profit … therapists can really help here.

To build upon the work of Christ!

We don’t believe the lie anymore … well, maybe, just a little bit now and then, but the Spirit intervenes … “Not true” cries the Spirit when we’re discouraged and ready to give up.

You’re a terrific human being …
You have what it takes …
You can manage the challenge … you can climb the mountain, you can solve the case, you can ford the rushing river …

You’re not a victim; you’re a victor.
You’re not a loser; you’re a winner!

You have great reservoirs of love …
You have intelligence and good character …
You have faith, hope and love … even if it’s just the size of a mustard seed, it’s good enough to move mountains!

At the end of the text, Jesus gives Peter a nickname … from now on, you’ll be called Cephas, the Rock!

To all of us, Jesus gives a nickname:

You’re Tom Terrific and Wally Wonderful.
You Susie Stupendous and Marlene Marvelous.

You’re all Servants of the Most High God!

Remember that … that’s the truth!


Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Son - January 13, 2007

A Texas preacher bought a horse, and trained it to respond to “Praise the LORD” meaning giddyup and “hallelujah” for whoa.
His friends were impressed.
Every time he said “praise the LORD,” the horse would take off running, and every time he’d say, “hallelujah,” the horse would stop.
Out riding one day, the horse was spooked and took off running full tilt toward a cliff … the preacher yelled out, “whoa, whoa,” but the horse didn’t respond; then he remembered he’d taught the horse something else, but couldn’t remember what it was.
He shouted: “Amen,” “glory,” “bless God,” and nothing happened, and finally, just as the horse reached the edge of the cliff, he shouted, “hallelujah,” and the horse came to a skidding halt.
He breathed a sigh of relief, wiped his brow and said, “Praise the LORD.”

Good morning and welcome to Covenant Presbyterian Church … Hallelujah and Praise the LORD … it’s a good day, God is here, we have the gift of life … and we’re baptized.

Today, we celebrate the baptism of our LORD Jesus …

Jesus steps into the water … Jesus stands with us … our life becomes His life, and His life flows into us!

The Father in heaven says with pride: My Son … my beloved Son … I’m well pleased.”

What does it mean to be baptized?

Let’s begin with John, because it’s his baptism that Jesus receives … John was surprised: “You should be baptizing me.”

Jesus stands in the Jordan with John - Jesus embraces John’s message, and sends a message to the world that John’s message is the right message … not the gospel according to Rome, nor the gospel according to Jerusalem, but the Gospel according to the fierce grace of God!

What does it mean to be baptized?

I’m reluctant to offer answers … because I’m tired of answers … I’m tired of religious talking heads who talk as if Jesus were a card-game buddy of theirs.
I’m weary of politicians who claim to have an inside edge with God, because they have faith, and not only do they have faith, but they have the right faith, the better faith, and the rest of us better get on board before it’s too late!

I love Jesus … He’s been my LORD and Savior all of my life … but I don’t own Jesus, I don’t have an inside edge with God … I don’t have any secret links to heaven … my faith doesn’t make me better than anyone else – I’m afraid of the all same things that frighten everyone … I have profound moments of doubt … I fail more often than I want to … things keep me awake sometimes, and like all the rest of humanity, I’m headed to the end of the trail, because the last time I checked, the mortality rate was still a hundred percent!

Yes, I love Jesus … He’s been my LORD and Savior all of my life … but I don’t own Him, and I have much to learn from Him … I’m still a work in progress.

So what does it mean to be baptized?

It’s a bit like loving one another …

Donna’s been trying to love me for forty-two years … what a trooper … she stays with it, and if Congress were ever to award medals for marital bravery, Donna’s name would be on top of the list.

Speaking of love … a group of children were asked their opinion about love … here’s what some of them said:

"Love is if you hold hands and sit beside each other in the cafeteria. That means you're in love. Otherwise, you can sit across from each other and be okay."

"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs."

"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday."

"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other."

"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you."

"You can break love, but it won't die."

For God so loved the world …

Love one another as I have loved you …

Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind … love your neighbor as yourself …

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13)

What does it mean to be baptized, but to live in the love of God … a turbulent sea … fierce grace … “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” but Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me” … “deny yourself and put God first” … “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

I’m reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain … after graduating from Columbia University, Merton was in turmoil, the kind of turmoil only God can cause – wrestling with angels and fighting with demons …

After his conversion to faith and then his entry into the Roman Catholic Church by baptism, Merton decides to become a priest.
He begins the process of entering the Franciscan order … because he believed he could keep their way of life with some ease, without a whole lot of sacrifice.
For some months, it was all sunshine and light … and no little vanity as he imagined his monastic name … Fr. John Spaniard …

Then a crisis of conscience: “I’m not cut out for this; I’m not what I appear to be” … and finally, a Franciscan counselor closes the door on Merton’s dreams, and all seems lost … Merton secures a job at St. Bonaventure’s, teaching English … he’s faithful in prayer and study, but as far he’s concerned, God closed the door to the priesthood.

The love of God at work …

I’m reading the book on which the film, There Will Be Blood, is based - Upton Sinclair’s Oil … the story of a father and his son … the father, an oilman, a self-made man who rose through the labor ranks to become a man of wealth and influence … and his son, nicknamed Bunny, a boy of considerable conscience.

The father sees the world as it is and can only say, “that’s the way it is.”

Bunny looks at the same world and asks, “Why can’t it be different?”

Set in the oil boom days of Southern California at the turn of the 19th century, it’s all about wealth and power, unions and fair wages … the conflict between capital and labor … an oil man growing old and a young boy coming of age.

Many accept the way things are, like the boy’s father … and a few dream of the way things could be, like the son.

They live with conscience stirred and shaken soul.

Is that not love at work?

Jesus reminds us that love is tough and gritty, love dreams of a world that could be better, must be better, and will be better.

Love is harsh sometimes with those it touches …

Saul flung into the dust of the Damascus Road … Peter in prison … our very own LORD tried in a kangaroo court and crucified.

Merton’s conscience stricken … abandoned, alone, without compass … as Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet Merton reaches a point where he surrenders … what will be will be, and it’s all right, because “It was in the hands of One Who loved me far better than I could ever love mself: and my heart was filled with peace” (p. 314).

Spiritual writers all allude to the same realities … love has a harsh edge to it, a seeming cruelty … a dark night of the soul … until the soul surrenders and lifts its vision beyond itself to the glory of God.

The clay on the potter’s wheel …

The marble shaped by a sculpture’s chisel …

The grain of wheat ground to flour …

The soul seared in the fires of God’s love …

To live the baptized life …

To stand with Jesus in the Jordan …

To welcome the prophetic message of John: do not accept the world as it is, but strive for the world as it should be.

Live the baptized life …

I visited the Holy Land in 1998, I wanted to renew my baptism, as many do when they visit Israel

I was baptized as an infant …

54 years later I wanted to step into the Jordan.

The southern reaches of the Jordan are off limits to tourists, and it’s in the south where Jesus was baptized … the wilderness, desert, barren mountains, sand and stone, hot and dry … where the Jordan runs shallow as it enters the Dead Sea.
The landscape of the north is very different; green hills and verdant valleys; the Jordan runs deeper and muddier, with steep, overgrown banks.

In the north, where the river leaves the Sea of Galilee, there’s tourist center, with a large parking lot for the buses … you can go there, buy a simple plasticized paper robe (remember to take along your swimming suit) step into a dressing room, then down a winding sidewalk to a pool cut into the banks of the Jordan.

The bus parked … we all got out and walked over to the tourist center … aisles of kitsch: religious trinkets, statuary of every sort … and out around the back, the walkway to the Jordan.
Some of my tour-mates bought the paper robe, stepped to the dressing room and then down to the Jordan.

I walked outside … and there in the pool below me, 25 Pentecostals from Korea.
Splashing around and shouting in the Spirit, making more noise then a fourth grade birthday party … for them, a remarkable moment, I’m sure … for me, anything but.

I felt a deep sense of revulsion … the kitsch, the muddy water, the shouting, the tourists.

It wasn’t my cup of tea …

What does it mean to live the baptized life?

From 1978 to 1990, I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa … I learned there of baptism renewal services for Presbyterians … giving folks a chance to renew their sense of baptism.

Roman Catholics remember their baptism with the sprinkling of Holy Water; every time a Roman Catholic enters a Roman Church, the first thing done is to dip a finger into small bowls of water affixed to the wall, making the sign of the cross on their forehead, reminding themselves, “I’m baptized.”

At the Abbey of Gethsemane, every evening at the end of mass, the monks and guests file forward to be sprinkled by the Abbot, to be reminded of their baptism … the last thing before bed: “I am baptized.”

Some things deserve to be remembered:

Every year, we remember our birthday; we throw a party, open gifts and sing “Happy Birthday” off key.
We remember our anniversaries … we do Thanksgiving every year … we mark time and remember who we are by such things.
A renewal of baptism is much the same … a time to remember where it began for us … a little Jordan River; a baptismal font … “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The church in Oklahoma did a renewal of baptism service every other year, and I’ve continued doing that for the last 25 years … giving folks a chance to remember …

In a few moments, we’ll do a renewal of baptism … we’ll step to the chancel, kneel if we can … receive the water crossed on our forehead … remember our baptism … Yes, I belong to Christ, the beloved Son of God, and the beloved Son of God is my LORD and my Savior. By his love, I am baptized! Amen and Amen!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Star Gazing - January 6, 2008

“Merry Christmas,” we say.

“Happy New Year!”

How about “Exciting Epiphany!”

“I had an epiphany,” we say when surprised with a good idea.

Epiphany Sunday – a very good idea.

The word “epiphany” means … revealing; uncovering … making known … a disclosure, a discovery …

In this case, the revealing of the Son of God … and the love of God for all the world … everyone included … no one left behind!

An epiphany of capital order …

Epiphany Sunday … the journey of the magi … astrologers from the east … months of travel … all the way to Jerusalem; then to the little town of Bethlehem … to present their gifts to the King of the Jews.

Matthew is spare in his details … who were these magi, these magicians, these court astrologers?

Though the hymn sings, “we three kings,” kings they were not, but royal advisors … they came from the East, Babylon perhaps, or even Persia.

What was it they saw in the sky?

All sorts of suggestions over the years … a comet, a planetary conjunction, or a super nova ...

Whatever it was, they saw a portent in the sky – a king to be born, in lands to the west.

They go to Jerusalem to inquire of King Herod, thinking that an heir was born, and Herod would know.

But Herod hasn’t a clue … clever man that he is, he inquires of his royal advisors … they have the answer.

Bethlehem … that’s where it’s going to happen … the City of David … the House of Bread.

So the magi continue on to Bethlehem, another 6 miles or so … and looking to the sky, they know they’ve arrived.

They bow down and lay before the manger royal gifts: gold and rare spices … frankincense and myrrh …

And just as quickly, they return to their homeland … the end of the story … no more is said about the magi from the East.

In these few verses, Matthew creates a timeless pattern …

A Star in the night …

Journey & Discovery …

Gifts given …

Return home …

What’s your star? You have one you know!

Maybe a book you’re reading,
Maybe a stroll in the mountains, or a walk along the beach …
A movie image, a fragment of dialogue; music.
A chat with a friend and a glass of wine.
Watching a gull soar lazily in the blue.
A quiet afternoon, a strange constellation of swirling memories …
A great heartache, a longing, a hunger, a thirst … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God for they will be satisfied.

We all have a star, something beckons us onward … “Don’t give up” … “stay the course” … “you’ll make it” … “it’s going to be all right.”

A friend of mine is going to be ordained January 27 … the same date I was ordained 38 years ago.

She came to me 10 or 12 years ago and said, “God is calling me.”

She came to the church as a young mother, started teaching Sunday School, something laid hold of her … she couldn’t shake it, she didn’t know what it was … but she knew Who it was … “God is calling me,” she said.

She explored that calling for five years … numerous visits with me; she joined a small group of similar travelers … trying to put the pieces together … saying yes with all her heart, and then saying no.
My little mantra: “God will make it clear.”

During one particularly difficult time, she came to an Ash Wednesday service … bound and determined to “just sit there” … but as God would have it, she sat next to Donna.
When the invitation was given to receive the ashes, Donna got up, turned to Ruthanne, offered her hand, and said, “Let’s go.”

Ruthanne got up, came forward, received the ashes …

Ruthanne said, “Donna got me there. I wouldn’t have received the ashes were it not for Donna’s hand.”

God was in Donna’s hand that night.

For Ruthanne, that simple journey from pew to chancel was a decisive journey … something broke lose; a divide was crossed … from that moment on, though difficult days lay ahead, she was clear about the journey!

The Bible is a book of many journeys … Adam and Eve leave the garden; Abraham goes to the Promised Land; Moses to Midian and back again to Egypt … God’s people on their way through the wilderness and across the Jordan …

Jesus is a journey-man … restless and ready … on the move, on the go … preaching here and there … reaching everyone He can …

“Come and follow me” is the heart of our faith, restless and ready.

Always one more place to go,
A new idea to explore,
A new mission to undertake …
We never arrive; we never settle down …
We’re a people on the move,
Because the LORD we worship and
The God we serve are on the road
Ahead of us.

Ruthanne’s journey wasn’t easy … never is … wish it were, but it isn’t.
The clay on the wheel shaped by the potter’s hand must sometimes think: “There’s gotta be an easier way.”

In the dark places of the earth … pressure and heat transform soft carbon into hard diamond – the carbon must sometimes think: “There’s gotta be an easier way.”

You and I become servants of the Most High God, followers of Jesus Christ … it’s not an easy journey … we sometimes think, “There’s gotta be an easier way.”

But the clay becomes the pot … the carbon becomes the diamond … you and I become the Servants of the Most High God and the followers of Jesus.

We make it … love has a compass … though often feeling lost, we’re never lost, because God has an eye upon the sparrow!
God is beside us, within us … mostly hidden and obscure … but God will never let us go.

The magi make it … their journey a success … divine intervention here and there – who doesn’t need a little help now and then?
They make it to the manger; they find the Star-Child … they discover the glory.

Thirty years later Jesus said:

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

The magi find a place for their gifts … where every gift belongs … beside the manger.

We all have royal gifts to give … the golden gift of love … the sweet incense of mercy and kindness …

Gifts for the Master …

Life robs us sometimes of knowing our gifts … our spirits are mugged by folks who themselves were mugged …
Life hits hard … we hang our heads and declare ourselves worthless … “I’m no good. My life is a mess. I’m a failure.”

But every one of us is a magi!
We have gifts indelibly affixed to our lives … permanent gifts … slightly different for each of us … wonderfully shaped to fit the contours of our character … my gifts, your gifts … and we lay them down before the Star-Child, we lay them down at Bethlehem …

There by the manger, our gifts shine … the gold is brighter, the incense sweeter … the gifts find their rightful place …

The story ends simply: the magi return home!

I like that.
There’s something good and basic about that … simple and ordinary … nothing fancy or strange …
God takes us on a long and difficult journey … and in due time, we make our discovery, we find what we’re looking for, we lay our gifts by the manger.

Then, home again … back to where it started … ordinary life, but we’re different for the journey.
Journeys change us!
So many of my memories are journey-memories … a little boy in the backseat of a 1955 Dodge, sitting next to my brother, Mom and Dad in the front, on our way to Florida.
The college band tour … my friend, Freddie Cladder asks me to take his place in a Canasta game – I take his place at the table, and my partner is Donna, and, yup, she’s been my partner ever since …
My first trip to the Netherlands … getting off the plane, an overwhelming feeling of homecoming – roots, where it all began … going to the hotel, hearing the concierge pronounce my name correctly …
Our first trip to Greece to visit Rachel … the Parthenon … the boat to Mykonos … Rachel on the dock waving at us.
Journeys change us …
We come back home from the manger … oh so different … “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

Have an Exciting Epiphany!