Looking in Hope

       After a long, looong, looooooooong year, it was really nice to have a little time off between Christmas and New Years to refresh.  I did some small projects around the house, but mostly, the kids and I just hung out.  Once we got the internet back, we watched TV.  We played on our devices.  We vegged.  In a year of constant flux and adaptation, it was nice to just relax for a while.  One of the things I did this last week that I don’t normally do, was change the channel from SportsCenter to Good Morning America where I happened to catch an interview with Ryan Seacrest about his annual gig as the host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  The GMA crew was talking with him about how different it was to celebrate the new year this time around, and asked, “How do you find that balance?  Some people just want to put 2020 behind [them] and just have a party, but also… you still have to recognize what we’ve been through.”  While acknowledging that the crowd would be very thin this year and comprised only of first responders, front-line medical workers, and essential employees, Seacrest reflected on the goal of not just the celebration of the end of 2020, but really, the reason we make a big deal out of the new year at all.  “We do want to have a celebration,” he said, “We all look forward to celebrating this new year and what hope this new year can bring…”

       Isn’t that the truth?  “We all look forward to… what hope this new year can bring.”  Of course, even with the particular hardships that defined 2020, looking forward in hope is nothing new in the human condition.  In fact, you could say that the overarching story of scripture is humanity looking forward in hope to the restoration of all people to unity with God and each other.  This morning, even though it is a few days before the Epiphany, we hear a unique version of that story of hope as God uses foreign astrologers to further the work of restoration, but before we get there, we have to go back, all the way back, to the very beginning.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, we hear the story of how God’s overwhelming love resulted in the creation of world, of plants and animals, and ultimately, of human beings, with whom, God desired to have a special relationship.  In the Garden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God just as they walked and talked with one another, until one day, the serpent tricked them, they disobeyed the commandment of God, and their once perfect relationship was broken. Ultimately, they were expelled from the Garden to live East of Eden.

       For millennia, human beings looked toward the West, in the hope of seeing the sign of God’s forgiveness and the possibility of returning to Shalom, the perfect peace of the Garden.  So begins the well-known story of the Magi, astrologers from the East, who studied the skies, looking for signs of hope among the heavens.  Just as so many of us looked to the skies on December 21st to watch the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, these Wise Men set their sights on the skies in the hope of seeing a sign from above.  When a new star appeared, they interpreted it as the sign of a new King of the Jews, and so they packed their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and headed west to pay homage to the newborn king.  What they found on their arrival in Bethlehem was a child who we believe to be more than the King of the Jews, but the King of kings, the savior of the world, and the hope of all people.  Jesus, the Christ, the one who came to bring us all back from our exile East of Eden into perfect relationship with God and with one another.

Whether Jew or Greek or Zoroastrian like our Magi, it seems that there was an instinctual desire to look hopefully to the west and a return to the shalom of the Garden.  Of course, the reigning King of the Jews, Herod the Great, wasn’t so keen on the Magi associating this new star with the birth of his replacement.  His power was derived not from the Shalom of God, but from the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, that was seated not in perfect relationship, but in terror and violence.  As is always the case with empire, the authority of Herod was based in the sinful mess that is life East of Eden, and like all who buy into that system of power, Herod was hellbent on maintaining control.  He used all the political, military, and religious influence he had to try to subvert the Shalom of God, even to the grotesque point of killing all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, but the relentless march West to the Garden had already begun.  In the birth of Jesus, the final restoration was underway.

Two thousand years later, Christians no longer look to the West in hope.  It isn’t that we no longer have hope, though in 2020, it might have felt that way more than a few times.  Instead, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we believe that the return to the Shalom of Garden has already started, even as we await the culmination of God’s plan for salvation in the Second Coming of Christ.  As we wait, we work, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to rebuild the Shalom of God here on earth, and we keep our eyes now fixed to the East, to rising sun, waiting in hope for the coming of the Son of God to bring about the final restoration of all things and all people in the Peace of God.  Like Ryan Seacrest, we strive to strike that balance between acknowledging that right now, things are not as we wish they would be, even as we look forward with hope for better days ahead.

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, as we hear again the familiar story of the Magi, we would do well to learn from their example.  We should live our lives with our eyes wide open, looking constantly for signs of hope and the places where God’s peace is already at work in the world around us.  We celebrate the vaccine selfies of front-line medical workers.  We give thanks for the work of street medicine teams keeping our unhoused neighbors healthy.  We applaud the generosity of so many who have kept small businesses and churches afloat.  Like the Magi, however, we don’t just stop at seeing and celebrating, but as we scan the horizon in hope, we also roll up our sleeves and get ready to work.  Whether it is making sure the women and children at BRASS have a healthy meal or cash-strapped families keep their lights on and heaters running or simply not having in-person worship to keep everyone safe, you and I aren’t just called on to hope, but to work toward the Shalom of Garden, the perfect peace that God intended for all creation.  Keep your eyes open, dear friends, for hope and peace are always on the horizon.  Amen.

Do your homework and pay attention – a sermon

Today’s Christmas 2 Sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When I was in High School, I learned about a chemical phenomenon called Osmosis.  You’ve probably heard of it too, it is the tendency of a liquid to pass through a semipermeable membrane into another liquid where the solvent concentration is higher, thus equalizing the concentration on both sides of the membrane.[1]  Being a curious, albeit also a lazy high school student, there were a few nights when I attempted to push the limits of osmosis.  With a big test looming the next day, a test that I had probably not studied for at all, I would place my text book under my pillow hoping that the information that was highly concentrated in the book would osmotically make its way into my brain where the concentration of information on the subject was quite low.  Unfortunately, it never worked, and I usually did pretty poorly on the tests that I studied for by osmosis.  Eventually, I learned that the only way to really learn something is by doing my homework and paying attention.

As we wind down the 12 Days of Christmas and transition to the Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary provides us with the story of some men from the East who did their homework and paid attention.  The Wise Men, the Magi, the 3 Kings; whichever name you call them by, this story is as much a part of our Christmas consciousness as the angels, shepherds, and swaddling clothes.  It is through their part in the Christmas story that we find our place in the Kingdom of God.  It is through their diligence, their devotion to an odd, pagan religion known as Zoroastrianism, and their desire to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel that we get our first glimpse into how the birth of Jesus was meant to change more than just the fate of Israel: Jesus came to save the whole world.

The story of the Wise Men begins long before Christmas and far away from Bethlehem.  These men, traditionally given the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar were men who studied both the stars and the world around them.  They were keenly aware of the promises made by prophets and oracles around the known world.  They had read the holy texts of the world’s religions so that when a new thing occurred in the night skies, they might know what it meant.  On that first Christmas night, a new star shone bright in the heavens, and the wise men were paying attention.  They had done their homework, and knew that this particular star was rising in the west, announcing the birth of the King of Israel, promised by the prophet Balaam in the 24th chapter of Numbers.  They felt compelled to welcome the newborn King, to pay him homage, and so they began their long journey, following the star along their way.

After a very long journey, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar finally entered the city of Jerusalem, home of the Throne of David, fully expecting that the now toddler to whom they’d come to pay homage would be found there.  They’d done their homework, but they’ve missed a few key details, and so “they strode into Jerusalem like a person wandering bare-footed into a snake pit asking, ‘Where’s the baby king?’”[2]  Eventually, they would find themselves face-to-face with the current King of Israel, Herod the Great, who also happened to be one of the most murderous madmen to ever occupy a throne.  The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia describes Herod as “of commanding presence; he excelled in physical exercises; he was a skillful diplomatist; and, above all, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[3] Needless to say, Herod didn’t take too kindly to the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  The Wise Men were schooled in the art of paying attention to the stars, but how about reading people?  Did they see the fear in Herod’s eyes?  Could they read the deception in his heart as he invited them to bring back word of his location?  Were they paying enough attention to see through his forked tongued hope to “pay the child homage?”  I can’t help but wonder if the dream that warned them not to return to Herod was the Spirit confirming their own suspicions honed by the reading of the stars, of holy writ, and of the many powerful people they had come to meet along the way?

We will never know what was going on inside the Wise Men as they finished their journey, following the star until it stopped over the house where the Holy Family lived, but we do know what happened when they got there: they were overwhelmed with joy and bowed down in worship.  Once again, I can’t help but think that these Wise Men were in tune with what was going on both within them and around them.  They had come to meet a King, but found themselves face-to-face with the Son of God himself, a holy child who would change the fate of the earth just as he had already changed the landscape of the heavens.  All throughout their journey, the Wise Men paid attention, learned new things about themselves and about the baby boy they hoped to find, and they came to realize that God was doing something amazing.

As we embark on a New Year as disciples of the King of Israel, I wonder if I’m paying enough attention.  Star gazing isn’t a part of my spirituality, but listening for God certainly is, and I believe that part of a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with Him and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As Keith said in his sermon last week, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to better pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the wonderful works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worrying about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  The problem gets compounded in the church.  Too often, congregations get so wrapped up in their own needs and desires that they forget to pay attention to God’s call to get beyond what time Sunday services should be or what kind of music people like or whether or not the whole prayer list is read every week and actually make a difference in the world around them.

God can change our hearts through osmosis.  The Spirit can work her way in, even without us noticing, but the real gift comes when we pay attention, when we do our homework, and when we seek out the will of God in our lives: personally and communally.  May God bless us richly with open eyes, ears, and minds that are paying attention to his call to be his hands, his feet, and his heart in Foley and to the ends of the earth.  Amen.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/osmosis

[2] This paragraph owes thanks to Alyce McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12” www.patheos.com

[3] http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i (emphasis mine)

What the joy of the Lord looks like

“They rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” – Mt 2.10

On Christmas 2013, I preached a sermon that argued that God matched the Shepherds “fearing a mega-fear” with good news of “mega-joy.”  I loved that sermon, and I’ve been thinking of it here in this Christmas season.  It came to mind again today as I read of the response of the wise men when the star stopped over top a house in the Judean countryside.

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”  That’s the NRSV’s version of Matthew 2:10, and it was enough to pique my interest.  So, I opened up my ten year old version of Bibleworks to look at what Matthew actually said.  Young’s Literal Translation handles the Greek original in this way, “And having seen the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy…”  I’m not a grammarian, but I did notice that they handled the adverb rather poorly, so the SJP Translation goes, “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

That’s what the joy of the Lord is like, “rejoicing with exceedingly great joy.”  That’s a whole lot of joy; joy enough to overcome even the darkest nights, the hardest hours, the toughest days.  It isn’t the sort of happiness that Joel Osteen promises in terms of ease of life and toothy smiles, but joy that sustains even when it feels like all hell is breaking loose.  That’s the sort of joy that the Wise Men will have to draw from when they escape Israel while hiding from Herod, the sort of joy Mary and Joseph will need when they flee to Egypt, and the sort of joy that the people of the house of David will need as Herod’s fear means the slaughter of innocent children.  Joy that sustains even in the darkest hours, that’s the joy of the Lord.

Are you paying attention?

The good folk over at WorkingPreacher’s Sermon Brainwave spend a pretty good amount of time during their Epiphany podcast on a tangent about the stars.  After going back and forth about the delicate way in which a Christian preacher should treat astrology and suggesting that maybe the star is more Garmin GPS than it is horoscope giving future teller, they got me thinking about the fact that these wise men pay attention to the star at all.

They were tuned into stars.  They paid enough attention to the night sky to realize that something new had appeared.  “We saw the star at its rising,” they told Herod, “and we’ve come to pay homage to the newborn king.”  Star gazing isn’t a part of my personal spirituality, but listening for God’s call certainly is.  Whether you are Zoroastrian or Christian, the key to a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.

God might work through stars.  God might work through loved ones.  God might work through budgets or car repairs or the struggles of addiction.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with God and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As TKT said in his sermon yesterday, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is more often than not to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the still, soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the amazing works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worried about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  As I prepare to preach Christmas 2, while “off” this week and looking forward to 48 hours of nothing but football in the middle of it all, my prayer is that I can pay attention, that my eyes might be fixed on the hand of God, and that I might answer the call to follow his lead, no matter when he calls.