Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From the Heights to the Depths

In the month of February we will see the heights of glory in the Transfiguration and the depths with our observance of Ash Wednesday, the Temptation of Jesus, and the season of Lent. It’s popular in America today to minimize talk of suffering in the Christian life. Prosperity and good feelings about yourself are the standards for what it means to be a Christian and what it means for God to bless you.

It’s no wonder, then, that things like Ash Wednesday and Lent, somber reflection on our sinfulness and the need for repentance, aren’t all that popular. In fact, there are Christians who might even believe that it goes against the Bible. We are forgiven, aren’t we? We are a new creation, aren’t we? Jesus died, yes, but He also rose.

It’s commendable, of course, to make clear these things. We shouldn’t be moping around when we are in fact a new creation. It is indeed true that our sins have been forgiven. So why the need for going from the heights—the glory of Christ shown in His Transfiguration—to the depths—talk of being dust and ashes, utterly corrupt, and in need of mercy? Why not a more positive message of feeling good, of having a life in which we’re prosperous?

We shouldn’t confuse the depths with misery. We shouldn’t think that God wants us or calls us to be down or somber. What we need to see is that our life in Christ is exactly that—life in Christ. It is not one in which the barometer is how we feel or how well things are going for us or even what the world thinks of us. Our life in Christ means that we are wrapped up in Him—His life.

Christ Himself went from the heights to the depths. His Ministry began with a triumphant display of God’s power and grace in His Baptism. But what immediately followed was going to the depths: He was sent out into the wilderness (by God) to be tempted by Satan. Jesus certainly could have come to earth and carried out a prosperous reign as He is the King of Kings. But He chose the path of suffering.

On the Mount of Transfiguration He once again displayed His glory. But the Transfiguration wasn’t really about the glorious display of power but about once again going down to the depths. It was soon after He made His way down the mountain that He set His face toward the place where He would suffer and die.

So what does this mean? It means that we ought to be careful about how we view the circumstances of our lives. When we’re in the depths, does it mean that God has deserted us? Is God blessing us only if things are going well, we’re feeling good about life, we are prospering?

No, rather it means that what God has called us to is not necessarily what it seems. New life, forgiveness of sins, eternal salvation, don’t necessarily mean an easy ride in this life. His eternal blessings to us don’t necessarily mean we’ll prosper and always feel on top of the world. It does mean, though, that whether you’re at the heights or in the depths that He’s with you. “If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!” [Psalm 139:8] Whatever you’re going through, He’s there with you because He’s already been there. He has gone to the cross. He has emerged from the empty tomb. The depths you find yourself in do not compare with the heights of eternal glory in heaven that He has already prepared for you.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

God Has Called You

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Matthew 4:12-25

Today’s Gospel reading teaches us about vocation. Vocation is what God has called us to. You may not think God has called you to anything spectacular. And, in some sense, you may be right. What you do need to know is that God has called you to something important and far greater than what it may seem. We can see this in the way God called the various people in our Gospel reading to.

John the Baptist was the last prophet God called to pave the way for Jesus. Think about the long line of great prophets God called to this task: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel, among others. But here John comes along and Jesus says of him that no man born of woman is greater than he. That’s a stunning statement. Of all the great prophets, all the great people of history, he stands out as the greatest.

And yet, what do we see of him here? He has done his task, he has paved the way for Jesus, and now suddenly he finds himself in prison. Is this what he gets for faithfully carrying out the call God gave him? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. But we shouldn’t think that God was ungrateful or didn’t care about him. Rather, we need to realize exactly what God has said about the kind of call He gives us. Since it is a call that is from above and regarding spiritual matters, it will not always fit in with the way we would like for things to work. This is why Jesus said that we are blessed when we are persecuted on account of Him. So far from giving up on John the Baptist, the fact that he was now in prison was evidence that God was faithful to him in his carrying out of his call.

It’s kind of ironic, actually, that we refer to those men of old—Moses, Elijah, Isaiah—as “great”, when really what God calls us to is a humble role and task. That John the Baptist was the greatest of all prophets is actually seen most clearly in the fact that there he sat in a dreary cell, with only the hope of God to rest on. His call from God was never about himself but only and always about Christ. Being holed up in jail really drives it home that this call is not about John but about the one he was pointing to.

It’s not that God had no use for John the Baptist anymore but that his call was no longer to be out in the mainstream, but in an unlikely place, a prison cell. God has plans for others, as well. But they aren’t the “great” ones like Moses, or Elijah, or John. They are ordinary people like you and me. They’re fishermen. People we would never have heard about had Jesus not called them to such a remarkable calling. But to put this in perspective, Moses himself was born of ordinary people also. God’s plans for him are what changed his life. They brought him into extraordinary circumstances. And you can find this time and time again in the Scriptures, where God calls ordinary people like you and me to great things. To become great leaders and people who make a huge impact on the world.

Here we find people like that. For all we know, Peter and Andrew and James and John would have ended out their days like their fathers did, out on the lake, fishing. But God’s plans were different for them. They would end up being apostles, and there were only twelve of those that Jesus called. But even here, we see that God’s call to us is according to His terms. Two of these men are among the most well-known men in Christian history, Peter and John. The other two, brothers of them, Andrew and James, didn’t have as spectacular of a role.

But does that mean it was any less of a call from God? Far from it. Whether a Peter, or a John the Baptist, or a Moses, or a lesser known Andrew or James, each of their calls from God were not about them but always about Christ.

And that’s really why Matthew tells us these accounts of who John the Baptist was and what he did. And about the calling of the two sets of brothers. But notice who also we find out about. People we might just pass right on by because it may seem they’re not as important as the others. James and John were with their father. We’re not told about the family of Peter and Andrew, or about the rest of the family of James and John, for that matter.

But just because we don’t see much of them doesn’t mean they’re not important. Or didn’t have an important call from God. So where do we fit in to all of this? Maybe some of us will end up being like Peter, or John the Baptist, or Moses. Most of us, though, will be like the family members of the “famous” people God called. And while it may not seem spectacular, we pray that we will learn as Moses and John the Baptist and Peter and John did that this call from God isn’t about us. It’s about Christ. Whether our circumstances turn out the way we’d like or we find ourselves wondering what kind of a call God has called us to, we know that when God calls us, it concerns eternal things.

John may have been sitting in a jail cell to finish out his days, but he had the privilege of being the one who got to point to Christ and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Moses may have been ridiculed by the pagan Egyptians and even by his own people the Israelites, but he was blessed by God to bring His people out of their bondage to the Egyptians and give us a wonderful picture God saving us from our bondage to sin. Peter was most likely martyred and John finished out his days in exile on an island, but they both were privileged to be servants of Christ as apostles.

But we’re missing the whole point of God’s call to us if we talk only about all these people that God called. And if we talk only about God’s call to us. Matthew wasn’t just telling us about John the Baptist, and Peter and Andrew, and James and John. He was first and foremost telling us about Christ. Jesus goes from His home town and into a new region. He is the light that they see. The people’s having seen a great light is the Gospel. It is the salvation Christ has come to bring. And here at the beginning of Jesus’ Ministry Matthew is anticipating the end of his Gospel account, the Great Commission. Here he shows us that Jesus comes into a land of Gentiles. In the Great Commission Jesus’ command is to make disciples of all nations. Jesus has come for you. He has called you. The mission statement of our congregation is to spread the Word of God outside our congregation, at home and in other countries.

Why is the coming of Jesus described as a great light for the peoples? Because we are in darkness. Being in jail would seem a pretty dark time in life, but we are in eternal darkness without the light of Christ. Matthew describes the work of Jesus in coming to be the Savior: he taught and healed; he came to bring light and life. If we ever wonder if God has called us or what He has called us to; if we ever wonder about God’s call when our lives seem dark; we may look to the cross where darkness reigned supreme. Jesus was called by His heavenly Father to suffer on behalf of the world. The darkness He endured was His act of love for a fallen world. This is where you look to see what God has called you to. Because of His death and resurrection He has called you to life and salvation. Amen.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Magic of Wisdom

The Epiphany of Our Lord
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men who visited Jesus are so often simply known as “the wise men”. These were people from a far country who came bearing valuable gifts to the baby Jesus. We’re so familiar with the angels and the shepherds and even the animals that were there at the birth of Jesus that oftentimes we don’t think twice about them. But how do these wise men fit in? Who were they? Why did they come? How did they know about the star?

Matthew doesn’t give us a lot of these details. But there’s something I wonder about even more: when they came to Jerusalem and talked to Herod about the “king” who had been born, I can understand why Herod was troubled, but why was all Jerusalem troubled with him? Herod wasn’t exactly a compassionate king. That he would be disconcerted at the news of a new king is understandable. But wouldn’t it appear that the people might want someone other hand the ruthless king Herod? He had no compunction about killing even his own sons at the thought that they might murder him to take over the crown.

We’re familiar with the traditional cast of characters of Jesus’ birth. But of the Epiphany, we know little about the wise men, Herod, the chief priests and the scribes. Even the common people of Jerusalem. Let’s start with the “wise men”. The Greek term for these men is magi. And that they’re called wise men so often is probably pretty accurate since they certainly were the wise ones in this whole episode.

So who were these Magi? Well, we know they were from a different country. We know they were Gentiles, in other words, they weren’t Jewish. They were also apparently men who used astrology to gain their wisdom. Another interesting thing with the term Magi is that we will recognize that our word magic comes from that Greek word. Now I’m not suggesting that these guys were magicians. But there is an aspect of magic to their type of occupation. Just think about how things were back then. With certain people seeking signs and wisdom from the stars, isn’t there a magical quality about that?

In fact, the mention of another king might not have been the only thing that disturbed King Herod. When these visitors from a foreign country come to his city with a mysterious message they got from the stars about a king, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was dealing with. Perhaps that had a little something to do with how the common people reacted as well. Herod, for all his cruelty, did provide many opportunities for them, especially with his rebuilding of their great temple. What was to happen to them if some new king came out of the blue that was designated by some star and foretold of by these mysterious men? The chief priests and scribes, of course, quoted to Herod from the Scriptures. But basically what we see in the rest of the four gospels from these religious leaders is opposition to Jesus.

In the Magi we see true wisdom. And what is that wisdom? Listening to the Word of God as opposed to the word of men, even if it is the word of kings. The Magi had their sights set on Jesus, even if they weren’t Jews, didn’t know the Scriptures, or put their stock in astrology. In all the characters of the epiphany story the wise men are the ones shown to be truly wise. And that is the magic in all of this. We wonder at times how God works. Here He worked in a truly mysterious way. But it was all grounded in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself.

Herod was wise to bring in the religious leaders to get the details. But he was too blinded by his own power to seek true wisdom in the King that was born who would eventually die for him. I wonder if the chief priests and scribes thought that these men who had traveled so far were a bunch of crackpots, talking about a star pointing the way to a king.

But wisdom doesn’t look at what appears to be strange. Wisdom looks at the Word of God and the Otherly way God works in this world. Didn’t we hear in our Old Testament reading this morning of the prophecy of the coming of the wise men, with their traveling from far countries and bringing gifts of gold and frankincense? Didn’t that very same prophecy prophesy of the Light that will shine upon the people of this world, and the darkness of sin that envelopes it?

Paul speaks of this kind of magic, also, in the Epistle reading. It’s not in sorcery or spells or illusion, but in the mystery of God’s love being revealed in the flesh of His Son. That so many when Christ was born missed this magical moment, what it meant for the world, is understandable. We so often seek the wisdom of the world. That most missed the working of God in human history in the person of Jesus Christ in His life and Ministry, isn’t surprising. Shouldn’t God have made more of a splash than just the three years where He gained a few followers? That everyone missed it that God’s love for the world was revealed and displayed in Jesus’ sorrowful suffering and death makes sense, since a king would be expected to put up more of a fight than just willingly let his enemies run all over him.

But what do we see in the Magi? Wisdom. What does it say about these men who bore valuable gifts and bowed before this infant? What does it say about the joy they had and the decision to not return to Herod? It says that they found something better than astrology, stars, or whatever else they may have put their trust in in the past. It says they now saw the true king. They had just stood before a very powerful king in Herod who had proven his power. Now they knelt before a baby.

The magic of their wisdom is in God coming into their world. They were likely highly regarded in their country. What would their countrymen think of them as they knelt before a Jewish baby and gave Him gifts? They’d probably renounce their status as wise men. But in these wise men we are given a picture of wisdom. Of the mysterious and Other-worldly way God works in this ordinary world. He gives us His Scripture, ordinary words on a page, which bring forth life and salvation. In simple water He raises us to new life by Baptizing us. With ordinary bread and wine He comes to us again. Where the Magi asked where He was who was born king of the Jews, we might ask today, where is He who has been born, who has suffered, died, and risen from the grave? He is here at His altar, ready to give you His body and blood. It’s not magic by any means, but there is a mystery about it, God loving you so much that He will come to you where you’re at to give you life and salvation by His very hand.

Wisdom sees God’s love where it is to be found—in God born in the flesh. Wisdom rejoices in this very One dying and rising so that we may enter into the place where there is no more darkness and wisdom sees only Christ. Amen.