Sunday, January 27, 2019

Learning to Follow: The Great Reversal

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:1-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: God, the Creator; God, the Redeemer; and God, the Sustainer. Amen.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been in the first few chapters of Matthew, focusing on how Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. At the very end of last week’s reading, if you heard it, we listened to Jesus speak his first words of public ministry. They are the same words we heard John the Baptist speak. “Repent! [Or change your hearts and minds!] For the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Today’s lesson begins with Jesus going up to a mountain top. Sitting down. To teach. A common way of teaching in his time. In Matthew, this is the beginning of three full chapters of teaching by Jesus. It’s what we call the Sermon on the Mount. 

Now, most scholars agree that Jesus was probably not on a mountain when he spoke these words. Again, as we’ve seen before, the author is deliberately making a connection for the Matthew audience. Drawing a line for them between Jesus and Israel and, especially, helping them see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel. So, just as Moses shared the law with Israel from the mountain - from Mount Sinai - so, too, the writer of Matthew places Jesus on a mountain to, share the law with his followers. Just like Moses.

Now, we know who the followers of Moses were, right? Israel. But, who were the followers of Jesus? If we back up a few more in chapter 4, we see who they are beginning with verse 23. “Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”

So, the first thing we note from this text is place. That Jesus was in Galilee. He was not in Judea, which was where Jerusalem was. Instead he was in an area that was far north. An area that had historically been the most devastated because it was near the northern border. In an area that had a long history with empire and oppression. An area that had first fallen to the Babylonians, then to the Assyrians and, then, by Jesus’ time, to the Romans. It was an area on the margins. 

The second thing we note is the activity of Jesus. He announces the good news of the kingdom of heaven. But, this is not the good news of a kingdom that is far into the future or in an afterlife, but it is the good news of a kingdom that is being experienced now. That is being lived out now. The good news pronounced by Jesus is connected with activity in the here and now. With the healing of every disease and sickness among the people.

The last thing we note in this text is about the crowd that was following him. This was not a crowd that was made up of the elite: the wealthy, the powerful, the successful. But it was a crowd of people who were diseased, in pain, with mental health issues and epilepsy, and with paralysis and the friends and families who were supporting them. Who were bringing them to be healed by Jesus. It was a crowd of people on the margins. 

So, Jesus’ ministry in Matthew is one of good news bringing healing in the present time to a marginal people in a marginal place. 

Then, we turn to chapter 5 and our reading today. Which begins with the Beatitudes. It is in these statements, each beginning with the words “Blessed are” that we begin to understand what the priorities are for Jesus in the kingdom of God.

To help us better understand this, I have a little activity that I need 3 volunteers for. I need each of you to go to the back of the sanctuary by the front doors. Then, when I say “go,” I want you to run forward as fast as you can to give me a “high five.” Ready? On your mark. Get set. Go.

The person who was in last place is our winner today. Is that a surprise for you? How is this different from what you expected? 

Thanks to all of you for your participation. 

Do you see what just happened? The world has trained us to believe that only the fastest, the smartest, and the best will be the winners. But, this is not so in God’s kingdom. So often we look at this list - at the Beatitudes - as a “to do” list for us. If we will be poor in spirit, we will have the kingdom. If we mourn, we will be comforted. If we are meek, we will inherit the earth. And on and on. 

But, that’s not what Jesus intends. Instead, what Jesus intends is the exact opposite. It’s what we call the great reversal. The radical nature of the gospel. The scandal of the good news. Jesus teaches that those who are poor in spirit, that those who mourn or are meek, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that those who are merciful or pure in heart, or who are peacemakers, or who are persecuted and reviled - that all of these people are the priority in God’s kingdom. Jesus isn’t calling us to go and get persecuted, but to honor those who are. As we do this. As we honor and lift up these qualities, we will be transformed. We will realign our own priorities with those of God. We will follow Jesus’ command to repent. To change our hearts. To be transformed.

But, that’s not all. Because this is not the end of our lesson today. Matthew goes on to talk about two things: salt and light.

What does salt do? Yes, it gives flavor to food. It’s a preservative. Before the days of refrigeration, it was the only real way to preserve food. In Jesus’ time, though, salt had a different function. Palestinians in the first century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire. Salt was a catalyst that caused the fuel to burn. So, in other words, salt provided the spark for the fire. 

Then, what about light? What does light do? It helps lead us. It guides us in the darkness. Yes, these things. And, have you been in a dark movie theatre and your phone screen turns on? It’s is really hard to hide light. 

So, what is Jesus telling us today in this two-part text? He is telling us that the priority of God's kingdom begins on the margins. That, it consists of people, broken like us, who have been healed and made God’s disciples by grace. But that the discipleship doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with healing and with salvation, with simply sitting and waiting for that eternal, heavenly kingdom. It exists in the here and now, just as Jesus taught. With us, as his followers, being salt in the the world. Being the spark that gets the fire burning. And being light - not light that is hidden - but light that shines brightly and can be seen for miles.

You see, discipleship is intended to turn our lives upside down, just as God’s kingdom is one of great reversals. Discipleship is intended to change us completely in how we plan our days - both in what we do and in how we do it. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the here and now. It is to be a leader. To be the salt and the light. To guide the world to a deeper understanding of God's kingdom - a kingdom of great reversals. A kingdom of the here and now. A kingdom for all eternity.

May God guide us in our transformation - in our great reversal - that we might be more fully the salt and light for the kingdom of God. Amen.

Preached January 27, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 3
Readings: Matthew 5:1-20, Psalm 1:1-3

Saturday, January 26, 2019

God's Promise of Jesus: Being Tempted

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Since our lectionary year began, we’ve been talking a lot about promises. Especially about how God keeps God’s promises. At the beginning, we heard the story of Noah. And of God’s promise to never again send a flood to destroy the world. A promise that was marked by a sign. Do you remember what that sign was? Yes, a rainbow.

Then, we heard about Abraham’s call. And another of God’s promises. Who remembers that promise? Yes. That God would make from Abraham a great nation - a nation with their own land and a nation through whom God would bless all people.  

We heard the story of Israel at the Red Sea, the culmination of God’s promise to deliver them from slavery. And we also heard the difficult stories of Israel and their failure to live up to their part of the promise - to remain faithful to God. And, yet, God, who is always making things new, made another promise to them. That God would provide a new king - a Messiah. One who would restore Israel and who would usher in a new kingdom - God’s kingdom - of mercy, justice, and peace.

Beginning on Christmas Eve until this very day, as we began reading in the Gospel of Matthew, we have heard the fulfillment of that promise.  Of God’s greatest promise - God’s Promise of Jesus. Over and over again, we have heard the characters in our stories proclaim that this Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah. We heard it from the angels on Christmas Eve. It was recognized by the Magi (and also Herod). Last week, we heard it proclaimed by John the Baptist and by the voice from heaven, declaring the arrival of this promised one. The arrival of God’s promise of Jesus. And now, today, even the tempter proclaims that Jesus is God’s Son - the Promised One, the Messiah. 

This is the last week we will spend hearing about this fulfillment of God’s promise of Jesus. Because this week is the final test. The final question of whether or not this is the true Messiah. Or just some pretender to the throne.

Do you notice that our story begins in the wilderness? The Spirit, whom we were introduced to last week at Jesus’ baptism, leads Jesus into the wilderness for the test. For forty days. A test to determine the true identity of Jesus. Will he be faithful to God? Will he be faithful to the kingdom of heaven? Will he be the one to fulfill all righteousness? Is he truly the Son of God?

It’s no accident that our story begins with a period of 40 days in the wilderness. It’s the author’s intent because any person of Jewish descent would be immediately reminded of another wilderness. And another period of time using the number forty. It’s Matthew intent to immediately draw the comparison here between Israel and Jesus. And between Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Even the nature of the temptations are the same. The first one - for food and sustenance. The second one - for well-being and protection. And the third one - for power. Israel had experienced each one of these in the wilderness, just as Jesus experiences them. But there is a difference. Because with each temptation, Jesus responds to the tempter with quotes from Deuteronomy. From the Torah. From those books of Instruction given to Israel by God to teach them how they were to live as God’s people. The Instruction that Israel so miserably failed to live out. 

The temptation of both Israel and of Jesus are all about identity. About who God’s people and who God’s Son are to be. About what their identity is to be. What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean to be God’s Son?

As Jesus is tempted, he must decide what this identity means. What his character will be. And, make no mistake. This is not the only time that Jesus will be tempted. As we will move throughout the Gospel, we will see him tested over and over again. By his disciples. By the crowds. And, finally, by the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem.

We should also not make the mistake of assuming that Jesus overcomes his temptation through his divine nature. In this story, the author of Matthew is emphasizing the comparison between Israel and Jesus to show that Jesus is the true and loyal expression of Israel, the people God originally intended to use to bring blessing to the whole world. Jesus, in his human nature, is representative of Israel - a new Israel - who, through his faithfulness to God, is able to overcome temptation and remain faithful.

Because this is who Jesus is.

Who are you? What is your identity? These are the same questions we ask when faced with difficult choices. As Christians, these questions are even more important. Our identity is more than just a collection of individual characteristics and personality traits. Our identity is wrapped up in who we are as people of God. What does it mean that we are Christians?

It is that identity - as children of God - that is most challenged when life is hard. Verse 2 of our text says that Jesus was “famished.” We may find our own selves - our own identities - tested when we are stressed. Or overtired. Or anxious. Or sick. Or as a church when we face financial problems, internal conflict, or threats from outside. It is during these times when things seem hardest that it is also the hardest for us to follow God and to be the people that God has called us to be.

It is when we, like Jesus, orient ourselves around God that the kingdom of God is fully realized. Notice that the orientation is “around God” and not around the things God provides. There is a subtle difference between celebrating the good gifts of God and turning them into idols. God is the source of our sustenance, yet Jesus resists the temptation to allow his own physical well-being to become the priority. So he replies, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God intends our well-being, yet Jesus refuses to make his well-being the measure of God’s glory. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he responds to the tempter. Power allows God’s people to serve God’s purposes, but Jesus does not allow power to become the end in itself. And so he dismisses Satan’s offer with the words, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.” 

We are often tempted to put God at our disposal. To love God’s gifts more than the giver. To measure God’s value by how well our own wants are realized, rather than conforming ourselves, our desires and our values to God’s will. Instead of our own.  

Through his temptations, Jesus shows us that it is when our lives are difficult that we choose who we will be. Like Jesus, we will be hungry. We will have times when we are tempted to doubt God’s faithfulness. We will be tempted to reach for power, rather than to live a life of service. 

Yet, to be a child of God we must serve God even when our circumstances are hard. To live as God’s people we must turn our focus to God and to God alone. With no expectation other than to trust that God keeps God’s promises. Just as God did with God’s promise of Jesus. That very same Jesus, who, in just another two chapters, will say in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, do not worry...your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

And that very same Jesus who, even later in Matthew, will give his very life so that, even when we fail to make the right choices as we so feebly attempt to live as God’s people, we know that God has forgiven us through the actions of that very Jesus. The Messiah. The One God promised to us so very long ago. Amen.

Preached via video on January 20, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 2
Readings: Matthew 4:1-17; Psalm 91:9-12

God's Promise of Jesus: Being Made New

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about water. As I was thinking about our worship on this day known as the Baptism of Our Lord, my mind began to wander as I was thinking about water.

When you think of water, what comes to mind for you? There are a few things for me. One of them is a memory from my childhood, when I was about seven years old. My dad loved to fish. So, on weekends, when the farm work was finished for the week, we’d travel as family to one of two rivers nearby. If we went an hour or so east, we’d run into the Missouri River - a river that was particularly known for its walleye. If we went a little northwest, we’d come to the Grand River. This was a muddier river and, because of it, was known for its catfish.

It was on one of these fishing trips that we were accompanied by two of my great uncles - Philip and John.

Now, I’m sure you can’t imagine this, but I was kind of a little brat growing up. I was the youngest, a little spoiled, and was kind of sneaky. On this particular fishing trip, I was in pretty rare form. As my dad and my two great uncles stood on the riverbank, casting for catfish, I decided it was my job that day to pester the heck out of them. I decided I would sneak up behind them and pour a small bucket of water on each of them.

Well, this only lasted a few times before my great uncles had had enough of me. The next time I began to sneak up on one of them, they were fully prepared. My Uncle John grabbed me. Then, my Uncle Philip grabbed me. They picked me up, one holding me under my arms and the other holding my feet. They started to swing me back and forth and, then, on the count of three, they promptly threw me in the river.

Now, fortunately, the Grand River was a pretty shallow river. It was more like a creek. And I knew how to swim, so there really wasn’t any danger involved. But, it is an experience I have never forgotten. The water was cold. I was fully clothed and got soaking wet. And I spent the rest of the day, somewhat uncomfortable in my damp clothing. (It was still worth it, though!)

For us, as children, water was something that fun to play in, especially during the warm days of summer. But, for my father, who was a rancher and a farmer, water meant a lot more. We lived in an area that didn’t have irrigation, so the feed crops my father grew were completely reliant upon the weather. 

Water was critical for our animals. There were many times that my father would have to go down to our creek in the winter and break through the ice so that they were able to drink. In the summer, he or my brother were constantly repairing the windmills that pumped water from the ground into big tanks for our livestock to drink. Our family’s livelihood was critically dependent upon water.

In our more urbanized lifestyle today, we rarely have to think about water or its availability. We just turn on the shower and it’s there. Or open the refrigerator door and grab a bottle to drink. And, here, in Louisville, where, last year, we experienced the wettest one on record, we’re almost mindless in how we use water. 

Today’s story is set near water. The Jordan River. It’s where our story opens as we introduced to John the Baptist. Some 30 years has passed between our story last week about Herod and the flight of Joseph and his family to Egypt to escape. Matthew describes him as a voice crying out of the wilderness. He occupies a place on the margins. On the margin of Jerusalem. On the margin of this center of power - this city that is the cultural, religious and political center of Judah. And, yet, even though he is on the margins, John’s ministry draws people out from the city and from the surrounding areas.  Large crowds, our text tells us. So large that John is referenced in all four of the Gospels. And even by Josephus, a Jewish historian from the time. 

Our story today tells us that these large crowds included Pharisees and Sadducees, two groups in opposition to each other in Jerusalem. Each fighting for power in Jerusalem. It’s no wonder that John calls them “You brood of vipers.” It's the start of a conflict that begins with John and, as we move through our Matthew text, we’ll see that it continues with Jesus. Our story also begins to show us a difference in the ministries of John and Jesus. John, who’s ministry is removed from the central location of the powerful elite. Jesus, who’s ministry begins on the margins, but will move into the centers of power, bringing challenge and conflict.

There is one thing, though, in today’s story the connects everything. It is the water. Or, more specifically, the water of baptism. 

Last September, we began our lectionary cycle with the story of Noah and the great flood. This is often called the second creation story. God’s reboot of creation. When water was used to cleanse a world that had become so very evil. A way for God to start over with a human creation to whom God had given free will. A human creation that, even after the flood, consistently seemed to separate itself from God and seek power for itself. 

How interesting it is that God then uses this same, simple element of water and with God’s Word claims us as God’s own. In baptism. Where, with the water and the Word, we are washed clean through the power of Christ’s cleansing death. Claimed, just as Jesus was claimed, as God’s beloved ones. God’s own. In whom God finds happiness. This is the power of our baptism. The power of the water with God’s Word. As Luther writes, “Baptism is an external sign...which so separates us from the world [so that] baptized we are thereby known as a people of Christ.” 

He speaks of the threefold aspects of our baptisms: the sign, its significance, and of faith. That the sign consists of the physical thrusting into water in the name of the Triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, particularly, that we are not left there, but are drawn out again. He uses a German expression: aus der Taufe gehoben, which means that we are "lifted up" out of the baptismal water. 

This is the second aspect of our baptisms, then. The significance of our baptisms. That it is a dying to sin and resurrection in God’s grace. Where our old person - our old sinful person - is drowned. And a new person, born in grace, comes forth and arises. It is a washing of regeneration. A being made new. This significance, though, Luther writes, is not completely fulfilled in this life. Our spiritual baptisms, the complete drowning of sin, last as long as we live and are completed only in death. We give ourselves up to the sacrament of baptism, claiming our desire to die, together with our sins, and to be made new. God accepts this desire and grants us baptism. And, from that hour, begins to make us new people, by pouring into us God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. 

That, then, leads us to the third aspect of baptism: faith. Faith means that we firmly believe all of this. That we believe that, with our baptism, we have entered into a covenant with God to fight against sin and to slay it, while God promises to be merciful to us, to deal graciously with us, and to not judge us with severity. Luther writes that this faith is the most necessary aspect because it is the ground of our comfort. Philip Britts, who was a British writer and poet, pastor and naturalist from 70 years go, writes that “Faith is like water at the roots...If we have faith, we can face the sun, we can turn the heat and the light into life-giving fruits, into love...Faith is a gift like the rain and, like the rain, it is something to be watched for and prayed for and waited for.” 

This is baptism, then. Christ the water, incarnating God’s water of creation, flowing continuously in the Spirit, who waters the believers, who, then, themselves, become the spring of living water in the world.

In the water of baptism, with God’s Word, we are made new. So walk wet. Remember your baptism. Remember that God has created you for God’s purposes. It is God and not sin that holds a claim on your life. 

In your bulletin, you have a small piece of paper. I invite you now to reflect upon an area of your life that requires renewal, repentance, or a new beginning. Pray about this in silent confession. Write or draw something on your paper to symbolize it. And, then, when you are ready, come to the font and submerge your paper in the water and watch it dissolve. And give thanks to God for the chance to begin again. To, once again, be made new. Amen.

Preached January 13, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 1
Readings: Matthew 3:1-17, Psalm 2:7-8

Friday, January 25, 2019

God's Promise of Jesus: Guided by God

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Matthew 2:1-23 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you, from God, our Creator, and from our Savior Jesus, the Messiah, who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

We’ve really romanticized this story, haven’t we? It’s not often that we hear this full second chapter of Matthew on this day. Usually, on Epiphany, we hear only the story of the three magi and the star. Notice, I use the word “magi” instead of “wise men” because this is what they were - magi. Short for magician. Not the magicians that we know, but more like astrologers. Those who look to the stars and to the heavens for answers. 

We’re romanticized this story, creating a myth that there were three magi, led by the star, from very far away. Assuming that, from the number of gifts in the story, there are three of them, although our text never says that.

We’ve romanticized the gifts themselves. The three gifts. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’ve created our own imagery around these gifts. That gold was given to represent Jesus as king. And of his kingly reign. Then frankincense. That it was given to represent Jesus in his priestly role, since this fragrant oil was used by the temple priests in their rituals of sacrifice. And, then, the third gift, myrrh, an oil used to prepare bodies for burial. Given to represent the sacrifice of Jesus. His death. For us. 

We’ve developed such a lovely and romantic story around the coming of the magi, that it is hard to hear the entire story.  The full story. Not only the story of the magi, who follow the star to find this new king. But, also the story of Herod. And of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Herod, a puppet king, controlled by Rome, claiming to have Jewish ancestry in order to get the position. And, then, there are the religious leaders. The ones who should have been the ones to know about this king, instead of these foreigners - these Gentiles - from the east. Both Herod and the religious leaders who are frightened by the possibility of a new king rising up to claim power. All of Jerusalem, which was the center of power. Threatened by a baby. 

And, then, there is the worst part of the story, a story that is often called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The killing of children two years old and under. Out of fear and out of Herod’s anger at the act of civil disobedience by the magi. As they, not trusting Herod, disobey his order to return and tell him where this new king is. With the result that Herod, in his fury, orders innocent children to be killed. 

Perhaps we have romanticized this Epiphany story, glossing over all of the evil, because it feels too close to home. Too close to our own world, two thousand years later. 

And, yet, if we look closely at this story, there are those small places of hope. Those small lights in the midst of the darkness. There is the warning to the magi in a dream to return another way. Instead of via Jerusalem and without providing intelligence about the child to Herod.

There is the angel who appears to Joseph again, in a dream. And warns him to go to Egypt. To take Mary and the child and flee. To become refugees in a land that once imprisoned and enslaved Joseph’s ancestors. To be safe from Herod.

And, then, there is the very star itself. Called the Bethlehem Star. That, if you listened carefully to the story this morning, you heard that the magi first noticed it at its rising. That it was lost along the way. Yet, that after the magi had set out from Jerusalem, it appeared once again. Leading them and then stopping over the very place where the young Jesus was.

I stumbled upon an article this week by Craig Chester, an astronomer who co-founded the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy.  This Star of Bethlehem, he writes, “is a mystery and a puzzle, involving not only theology and astronomy, but also history and even astrology.”

Theologians and astronomers and historians for years have struggled over this story. Trying to understand who the Magi were. Where they came from. When they might have appeared in Judea. Trying to connect historical timelines with astronomical knowledge to find out if this story of the star and of the magi is true. Even though, for us, we know that the gospels are not written necessarily for historical or other scientific purposes, but to provide theological understanding for God’s people. 

And, yet, Dr. Chester tells this story, from his perspective as an astronomer. That in 3 and 2 BC, astronomers know that there were a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter. Interestingly, the planet Jupiter represents kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “righteousness,” a term that was also used for the Messiah.

In September of 3 BC, for example, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, in the brightest constellation of Leo, which was the constellation of kings. It was also a constellation associated with the Lion of Judah - a reference that is made in Hebrew scripture to the Messiah. In that month, the royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet and the planet of love, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. And, then, the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated. Not once, but twice, in February and May of 2 BC. Finally, in June of 2 BC, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky except for the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch. To the naked eye they became a single bright object above the setting sun.

Chester argues that the Magi, being the skilled astrologers that they were, could not have missed this exceptionally rare spectacle. That the astrological significance of these events must have been seen by them as the announcement of the impending birth of a great king of Israel.

Now all of this is incredibly fascinating. At least, it was to me. But there’s one more observation made by Dr. Chester. You see, planets normally move eastward through the stars, not westward as they would have had to move to reach Bethlehem. They also regularly exhibit what are called retrograde loops, which are points in the sky when they appear to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (or westward) through the sky for weeks. As a planet nears the end of a retrograde loop, it slows, stops, and then resumes its eastward course. Chester argues that it seems plausible that the Magi were “overjoyed” at again seeing before them His star - Jupiter - which, at its stationary point, was standing still over Bethlehem. He argues this because astronomers know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC. And that it was at its stationary point on December 25th.

Now, I don’t know the truth or even the significance of Dr. Chester’s article. What I do know, though, is that, as we read through this story that has both great joy and deep sadness, we see these points of light appearing in the midst of darkness. Dreams. Angels. A Star. Points of light that guide the magi and Joseph out of darkness. Small moments of guidance. Moments of God’s guidance.

Because this, I think, is how God guides us throughout our lives. Through small points of light - star gifts - small moments that lead us out of darkness to the light and the joy of the incarnation. To the coming of God to earth to be present with us for all time. 

And, so, this morning, I have a small point of light for you. We call these Star Gifts. There are a number of stars here. On each is a word that I would like you to reflect on for the coming year. Hang it somewhere, where you can see it every day. And, then, like Mary, ponder the significance of this Word on your life this year. Wonder how God might be speaking to you through this simple Word. Notice that you are not asked to give anything, but invited to receive. Because this is always the order of things in God’s realm - God always gives first. And then we are invited to respond with our gifts and ourselves.

May this star gift provide for us moments this year to ponder the incarnation of God. How God comes to us. How God speaks to us. And how God guides us, just as God did the magi so very long ago. Amen.

Preached January 6, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Feast of Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 2:1-23; Psalm 96:10-13

God's Promise of Jesus: Passing On the Promise

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. Matthew 1:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Good morning, once again, and Merry Christmas to you on this sixth day of Christmas - a season that is only twelve days long. 

When I first read through our Gospel, my immediate thought was that many of you would be grateful not to have to read this text today - this lineage of Jesus. The second thought I had was one of frustration with the developers of the narrative lectionary - frustration that they would choose this text for pastors to preach on. I mean, come on! What is there to find in this list of names. This list of Jesus’ ancestors.

Then, coincidently, I received this interesting gift from my son for Christmas. How many of you know what this is? That’s right. It’s a saliva test from 23andMe - better known as A DNA test. To help me find out more about my own ancestry.

My son knows that I, along with several of my family members, have been working on our family tree for some time on My mother actually began this work when she created a fabric wall hanging for my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1972. Since that time, we’ve continued to work on it. Work that has been immensely improved over the past several years through the internet and websites like Family Search and My Heritage and, yes,

Three of my four grandparents emigrated from Europe around the turn of the 20th century. We don’t have much history beyond their generation, although that is beginning to change as more and more records become available from European sources. The biggest challenge now is being able to read birth certificates or baptismal records in German. Their ancestry is a reminder for me, though, that it is only two generations back from mine that we were newly-emigrated to this country. That we were like those trying to come into this country now - and that, at the time my ancestors came, there were no laws to restrict them from entering.

There is a fourth grandparent - my paternal grandmother - whose family line we have been able to trace much further back. In this country, we’ve traced our family line to Aquila Chase, a man who came with his brother to New England in 1636, just 16 years after the pilgrims. In England, we’ve traced this line all the way back to 1225.

Why do we do this? This searching back into our family line? This seeking to find out more about our ancestors? Perhaps it is to find out who we are. Because it is our families who do this - who give us our identity.

And, so, it is with our text today. Within this list of names we see who Jesus is.

There’s been an immense amount of literature written on these first 17 verses. Did you notice, for example, that Matthew’s record of Jesus’ ancestors begins with Abraham.  This is different than Luke’s, which traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. Why? Well, we’ve talked before about how each writer of the gospels intended to reach a certain audience for certain purposes. Where as Luke intends to show the universal scope of Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew seeks to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promised blessing given to Abraham - that through Abraham all the world would be blessed.

Do you also notice that Matthew’s genealogy shows a mathematical precision? That there are 14 generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Christ? Fourteen. A number divisible by 7. Seven, which is a number associated with perfection. The seven days of creation. The seventh day of the week. The day of rest. The Sabbath. In these three periods of Hebrew history - the ancestral period, the monarchy, and the exile - there are six periods of seven generations, according to Matthew’s calculations. Thus, the advent of the Messiah - the coming of Jesus - is appropriately the beginning of the seventh period, the messianic period, the period of perfection.

Then, do you notice the four women mentioned in the genealogy. In this list of patriarchs. An anomaly in ancestral lists. The only list in which women are mentioned. All non-Israelites. Women living in a patriarchal society, needing to do what was necessary for their own survival.  Also, the naming of a New Testament woman. Mary. Of whom Jesus was born. Mary, with her unconventional pregnancy. 

There is much we can learn from Matthew’s list of Jesus’ ancestors. Perhaps, though, the most important aspect of this list is pointed out to us by Raymond Brown, one of the most important New Testament scholars of our day. In a reading that Keith shared with me this past week - a reading written by author Gail Godwin, but that talks about Brown’s insight on this list. 

In it, she points out that Brown notices that Matthew’s genealogy contains the essential theology of the Reformation. That of salvation by grace.

Do you notice that the story of the origin of Jesus Christ begins with Abraham begetting Isaac. There’s no mention of the older brother, Ishmael. The deserving older brother. Then Isaac is the father of Jacob. With no mention of Esau, the brother whose birthright Jacob stole. Jacob, then, is the father to Judah. Not Joseph, who was sold into slavery by Judah and his brothers. 

Brown points out that this list in Matthew tells us that God does not necessarily select the most noble or the most deserving person to carry on the legacy. To carry on God’s purposes. 

God selects the Judahs who sell their brothers into slavery. And the Jacobs who cheat their brothers to first place. And the Davids, who steal wives and murder rivals. And women. Not women like Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, but women with checkered sexual histories or with scandal attached to their names, even Mary, the mother of Jesus.

No, Brown notes, God doesn’t select the saints. God selects the sinners. As we will see in the coming weeks, this will fit in with Matthew’s theme - that Jesus’ ministry is not only for those who are already righteous, but that it is, particularly, for those who aren’t. For those who are flawed. For this who are cunning and evil. For those who are weak-willed. For those who are misunderstood. For those who are broken.

For people like us. Because this is how God comes to us. God comes to us not through our perfect obedience, but through our brokenness. Through our deepest of flaws.  God comes to us in grace.

There’s one more thing, though, according to Dr. Brown, for us to notice about Matthew’s genealogy. It’s to be found in the last list of fourteen. People like Azor, or Achim, or Eliud, or Eliezar, or even Mathan, who was, according to this list, the great grandfather of Jesus. None of these men are found in scripture. It is in this last list of fourteen that the message becomes most real for us. Because, if so much powerful stuff can have been accomplished through the hundreds and thousands of years by such rascals and outcasts, through people who were such a mixture of saint and sinner, and through people, like these last fourteen, who were completely unknown and obscure, how much more likely is it that God can use us? That God can use us and our gifts, in all of our strengths and weaknesses, to continue to share the promise first given to Abraham so many generations ago? Or that God is using us to pass on this promise?

This is where we continue the list, where we continue the list of the origin of Jesus: “Jesus called Peter and Paul...Paul called Timothy...Timothy called someone else...someone called your ancestor in the faith….your ancestor called, you must call someone else.” 

Go. Live into your family heritage. A heritage of passing on God’s promise.  Amen.

Preached December 30, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Christmas 1
Readings: Matthew 1:1-17; Psalm 132:11-12

God's Promise of Jesus: For You and For All People

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV).

Have you ever noticed that God seems to have a love affair with shepherds?

When God first appeared in a burning bush to call a leader to bring Israel out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, God chose a man living in exile tending sheep.


When Israel became a nation and it was time to call a leader to be their king, God chose a young shepherd boy to be anointed.


Even in the time of the prophets, we find Amos. No one of great stature. But a shepherd, whom God called into service.

It was to such people that God first sent the angel to announce the birth of the Messiah. “Shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

If your imagination is anything like mine, it has painted this beautiful pastoral scene of shepherds quietly tending their sheep in the hills around Bethlehem. It’s a scene that has been painted for centuries. A scene that we’ve witnessed depicted on many a Christmas card over time.

And, yet, these shepherds of Palestine were anything but quiet and pastoral. Shepherds were considered one of the lowest classes of people. Because of the itinerant nature of their work, they were unable to participate regularly in the religious rituals of their time.

There were discriminating practices against them with respect to the law courts, as a shepherd was not permitted to give testimony. They were considered to be so unscrupulous and so untrustworthy that their testimony was of little value.

They were often involved in violent altercations with villagers as they moved their flocks from place to place. In fact, there is a historical account by Josephus of one shepherd in particular who aspired to be king, and who organized his followers into bands of rebel fighters who, for a period of time, terrorized the entire Judean countryside with their guerilla warfare.

Yet, it was these very people - non-religious, unreliable, violent - it was these very people whom God called to be the first to witness the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world. The birth of the Messiah. Of God coming to earth. Or when “visible form kisses infinite light,” as the poet Derek Webster describes it.

It is to this rag-tag, rowdy, bunch of rednecks to whom the angel appears and says, “Do not be afraid,” when, in truth, it’s probably the angel who should be fearful. “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day…a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”

They go, then. Into the village to see this sign. This baby in a manger. This unexpected child whose parents know he is from God, but likely have no real understanding of the ramifications of his birth.

Yet, it is the shepherds who, after witnessing the child, are the first to help them begin to understand. “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child. And all - meaning only Mary and Joseph - all who heard it were amazed.”

Yes, God has a love affair with shepherds.

Perhaps it is because they are the most unlikely characters to be witnesses to God’s amazing activity in our world.

I wonder if you aren’t a little like the shepherds.

Now, I’m not saying that you’re not religious, or that you’re unreliable or violent. But, I wonder if you, like the shepherds, haven’t been an unexpected witness to God breaking into our world.

Perhaps it’s been at a time when you’ve felt alone. Or when times have been hard. Or when you’ve been anxious about things. Or when you’ve felt tired or beaten down. And it feels as though God has abandoned you. Or you’ve abandoned God.

And, then, something happens. Or someone comes into your life. And, suddenly, you are witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. To God coming to you. Getting your attention. Turning you around. Leading you to the Messiah. Just as God did to the shepherds on that dark night so long ago.

Because, just as God has a love affair with the shepherds, with that rag-tag, rowdy, bunch of rednecks, so, too God has a love affair with us. Because God’s good news - God’s saving story - is not only for the shepherds. But it is for us. And for all people.

May we on this Christmas Eve night, ponder and treasure this good news, just like Mary. And may we leave here tonight sharing it, just like the shepherds did on that night so very long ago. Glorifying and praising God. For everything that we have heard and seen.


Preached December 24, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church
Christmas Eve
Readings: Luke 2:1-20

Faith in God's Promises: Unexpected Plans

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We began today talking about trust. With a couple of you, I tested your trust in me. Your faith in me. Whether I would drop you. Or not. Our reading today about Joseph is also about trust. About who or what he should believe. And why.

There are a lot of legends in our world today, aren’t there? Legends that many people think are true. We’ll call them urban legends. Here’s an example. If you swallow your chewing gum it will take seven years to digest. Do you think that’s true? Or false? It's false.

Here’s another. One that’s especially appropriate for December. Most of our body heat is lost through our heads. True or false? True for infants, but false for everyone else.

One more. This one is about Coca Cola. We’ve all heard about how if you pour Coke onto a car battery it will wash away corrosion. Did you know that, if you put a tooth in a glass of Coke overnight, it will dissolve by morning? Do you think that’s true or false? It’s false.

How do you know what to believe or who to believe? Any ideas?

Most often, we believe in the people we trust. Perhaps we trust them because we know them well - we’ve been in a long relationship with them. Perhaps we trust them because of their knowledge. Or their education. Or their role. Or, perhaps, we trust them because their word is reliable. They do what they say they will do. Whatever the reason, trust usually happens as a result of our experience with people.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. We’ve been waiting for a few weeks now. Thinking, as we wait, about courage and hope and justice. Today, we make a transition. Not only is this the last Sunday of Advent, but in our lectionary we now move out of the Hebrew scriptures and into the New Testament. Into the gospel of Matthew.

Scholars believe that Matthew was written near the end of the first century, some 40-50 years after Jesus’ ministry. The author of Matthew was writing to a mostly Jewish audience after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE. God’s very home on earth had been destroyed. The city that had been the place of God’s presence had been overwhelmed by Romans. Thousands of friends and relatives of Matthew’s readers had been brutally killed. Hundreds of them by crucifixion on crosses. The world and the future did not look good for the Jews or even for the small, yet growing Jesus movement. 

Does this feel like a deja vu moment? After all, isn’t this nearly the same story as those we’ve been hearing about for weeks in our Old Testament readings. About Israel’s capture by the Assyrians. Then, the capture of Judah by the Babylonians. And with it the destruction of the First Temple. And the exile of the Jewish people. The diaspora - the dispersion of God’s people into exile away from the land that God had given to them. 

So, it’s no accident that in our reading today - in these opening verses of Matthew - that we hear the writer’s reminder of a prophecy for his audience. A prophecy from Isaiah. About a virgin (although the original Hebrew speaks of a young woman). About a girl who is pregnant. Not Mary! But, a girl who would have a child whom she would name Immanuel. Immanuel. Which means “God is with us.” In this prophecy, given at a time when Judah was under attack, Isaiah promised that by the time this child was old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the cities of the kings who were threatening Judah would be in complete ruin. And Judah would be safe. Because God was with them.

The author of Matthew is using Isaiah’s ancient prophecy to remind his audience nearly 800 years later that God was with them, too.

But, let’s turn to the time of our story. About Joseph. And Mary. And the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. Our story begins by telling us that Mary and Joseph were engaged. Now engagement, or betrothal, in ancient times was much different that it is today. When two people became engaged, it was a formal step. A formal agreement between two families. A point at which gifts were exchanged. Between the families. And between the bride and groom to be. During the time of engagement, which usually lasted an entire year, a man and woman were looked upon as fully committed to each other. It was so binding, in fact, that to break an engagement required a bill of divorce. If a spouse died during the betrothal period, he or she was considered a widow or widower, just as if they had been fully married.

So, when Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he was likely very hurt. And very upset. And publicly humiliated. Because he knew that the child was not his. And our story tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man. This meant that he was right-living. That he carefully abided by Jewish law. That, in a circumstance like this with Mary being pregnant, a strict interpretation of Jewish law required that he report her to the authorities. That she be publicly shamed and humiliated. And, even, that she could be stoned to death. As a righteous man, Joseph knew this.

And, yet, Joseph knew that he should also err on the side of love. And so, his plan was to break the engagement quietly, so that she would not be subject to public humiliation and, especially, that she would be safe.

How devastating all of this must have been for Joseph!

And, then, God breaks in. Sending a messenger - an angel to tell Joseph that this is no ordinary child. But, that this child is the Messiah. The Messiah promised to the people. A child from the Holy Spirit. And that Joseph should take Mary as his wife, meaning moving in together, shifting their relationship from engagement to marriage. And that, when the child was born, Joseph would be the one to name him. A right that ensured his position as the baby’s legal father. And  also that Jesus was not only Son of God, but also Son of Man. Jesus. Immanuel. God with us. Savior of God’s people from their sin.

Do you hear the complexity in this story? The many layers that are woven into this opening narrative from Matthew? Do you hear the truth of this story? That God is with us. Whether it is with Judah under siege in ancient times. Whether it is with Joseph in the midst of his confusion and humiliation. Whether it is with the audience of Matthew’s Gospel as they are being persecuted by the Roman empire. Whether it is with us in our lives today, whether we are beside still waters or on right paths. Or whether we are walking through the darkest valley. Do you hear the profound message in this Matthew text? The true story that is woven into these words?

That God is trustworthy. That God keeps God’s promises. That God is with us. Yesterday, today, and forever. May we hold this as truth in our own lives. Amen.

Preached December 23, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Advent 4
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25; Psalm 23:1-4

Faith in God's Promises: Waiting for Mishpat

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over the past few Sunday of Advent, we’ve been exploring what it looks like to have faith in God’s promises. We first looked at this through the eyes of the prophet Habakkuk, who directly challenged God with his question, “How long?” And who heard God’s response, that “the righteous will live by faith.”

Last week, we explored the story of Esther and what it looks like to respond to injustice with leadership and courage. What it looks like to be called “for such a time as this.”

Today, we move to the writings of Isaiah. Isaiah is an interesting book because it spans centuries. It covers both the time before the exile of the people of Judah and also their return from exile, some 200 years later. Because of this span, scholars have recognized for a very long time that major portions of the book were composed by writers other than Isaiah.

Isaiah is, generally, broken into two parts. Chapters 1 through 39, called the First Book of Isaiah. And, then, chapters 40-66, called the Second Book of Isaiah. First Isaiah covers the time before the exile. Second Isaiah covers the conclusion of the Babylonian exile and the rise of King Cyrus of Persia, plus later years.

Our reading this morning is from Second Isaiah, Chapter 42.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.  Isaiah 42:1-9 (NRSV)

“Here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.” This is how today’s reading opens. We, with our 21st century eyes, immediately think of this as a prophecy of Christ, the Messiah. The king long promised who would rescue Israel. After all, in our first reading this morning, we heard the writer of Matthew proclaim that it was Jesus who was the fulfillment of these very words from Isaiah 42.

Yet, there is much disagreement over who this servant is. In the time of its writing, the exiles believed that this servant - this chosen one - was King Cyrus, whom they believed God had used to restore them back to their land. Yet, if we back up one chapter, we read these words: But you, Israel my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham, whom I love, you whom I took from the ends of the earth and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant…” As time progressed, the Jewish people came to believe that it was they, as a people, who had collectively been called as God’s servants. This is a belief that remains today.

And, then, we have the coming of Jesus, who has been identified as this chosen servant. This servant for whom the world has been waiting.

But, who is the servant that this text speaks about? Well, perhaps to answer this question, we have look at who this servant is. And, also, what this servant will do.  

First, who is this servant? In the first verse, we are told. One whom God upholds and chooses. One in whom God delights. One on whom God’s Spirit has been poured out. 

Then, what does this servant do? What is this servant’s ministry? To bring forth justice to the nations. To not raise his voice in the streets or break a bruised reed or quench a burning wick. But one who faithfully brings justice. Who will work tirelessly until justice is established in the earth. One who has teachings that the coastlands - the faraway lands - wait for. One who has the support of God. One who is given as a “covenant” to the people. One who is a light to the nations. Who will open the eyes that are blind. Who will free the prisoners from the dungeon - those who are in darkness. One who is part of the “new things” that God is up to.

This servant is one who has been chosen by God for a mission of global scope, a mission that includes healing, teaching, and establishing justice. 

Justice. We throw that world around a lot. I throw that word around a lot. But what does justice really mean? Anyone want to give it a shot? 

In Hebrew, the word for justice is mishpat. Like love is a one-word foundation of the New Testament, mishpat is a one word description of the ethical foundation for all of the Hebrew scriptures. Mishpat is best defined as a plumb line. That line or standard in society by which behaviors are to be measured. The prophet Isaiah insists that to be God’s people, Israel is not only to engage in the worship of YHWH, their God, but to also adhere to the behaviors that are consistent with God’s plans for Israel. 

According to Isaiah, God’s plan extends not simply to the king and his minions, but especially to the vulnerable, the “orphans and widows,” the poor, and others who are outside the halls of power. One of the major themes in Isaiah is the futility of pride, whether it is individual or collective national pride. And those who manipulate the legal and political systems to make themselves rich and to cheat people in need. Isaiah challenges this human pride and arrogance. And claims that it will inevitably be thwarted by God. In Isaiah, mishpat represents fairness and equity. A society in which everyone flourishes. Where all find peace and fullness - which are the plumb lines of society. In Isaiah, mishpat is the equivalent to shalom. Mishpat is the equivalent to the kingdom of God.

Given all of this, it is hard to specifically determine the historical identity of this “servant” in today’s reading. What we can say with certainty, though, is that the servant is the focal point of God’s promised activity. That the servant is not only the hope of Israel, but also the hope of the entire world. 

Perhaps the writers of Isaiah intended it to be that way. To not fully explain the identity of this servant. Perhaps it is left so open-ended because this is what God’s kingdom looks like when it arrives anywhere, anytime.  Whether it is the 6th century BCE. The 1st century CE. Or the 21st century CE. Whoever the servant is, the servant is the center of God’s promised activity.

I’d like to tell you a story about James. James is a member of our food pantry. He’s 76 years old. Retired. In his work life, he was a warehouse supervisor, managing an inventory valued at over $28 million. At one point, he also owned his own machine shop. James is also a veteran. 

Five years ago, out of the blue, he received a divorce summons from his wife of many years. It turned his world upside down. Emotionally. And financially. Living on a fixed income that was a combination of Social Security and a small pension, by the time he paid his bills each month, only $5 remained. He refused to file bankruptcy, even though everyone, including the judge on his divorce case suggested it and his attorney told him to. He started going to food banks near his house in southern Louisville. But, in his words, “It was snatch and grab, knock the old man out of the way.” There were fights for food. And, because he’d had knee replacements and was a little unsteady on his legs, he didn’t want to fight for the food, even though he so desperately needed it.  One day, one of the volunteers at one of the pantries mentioned our food pantry here at Grace & Glory. He called the church to find out when it was open and was asked if there was anything specific he needed. He mentioned coffee. When he arrived that first time, coffee was waiting for him. That was five years ago.

In these five years, thanks in part to the food he’s received here - food that has allowed him to use his money to get ahead in other parts of his life. Thanks to this, his financial situation has improved. He has been able to pay off the debt left behind by his divorce and even put a little in savings. Last year, he was able to buy his first home through the VA. So, now, even though money is still tight, it is going into his own house, instead of paying rent.  

Receiving food at our pantry has allowed James to improve his financial life. It has helped in other parts of his life, too. James says that he always thought people who were poor were lazy. Coming to the pantry, he has learned that there are a lot of people who need help, just like him. This has led him to reach out more, to help others who need help, and to share his new understanding with others, too. But, mostly, James says, his experience at the pantry has renewed his faith in God. Five years ago, he felt like he was losing faith in God. He wasn’t active in his church. Since then, he’s become more active and will soon take a position as a trustee in his congregation. 

This, my friends, is what justice - what mishpat - looks like. It is when all people have an opportunity to flourish instead of just a few. When we help those in need so they can reach that plumb line, those standards of fairness and equity and of wholeness that God desires for all people. That all might be brought into God’s kingdom, into life and wholeness, into shalom.

The birth of Jesus and his death on the cross has won us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But this is not all that Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection has done. Jesus’ coming has initiated the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world, with a promise that, when Christ returns, God’s kingdom of shalom, God’s kingdom of mishpat will reach its fullness. 

So, as we wait for this mishpat, with faith in God’s promises, may we also act. May we be God’s servants at the center of God’s promised activities in our world. May we, upon whom God’s Spirit has been poured, continue to proclaim justice in all that we say. And, especially, in all that we do. 

“You are my servant, whom I have chosen, whom I love, whom I took from the ends of the earth and called from its farthest corners. You are my servant, “ God says to us. “I chose you!” As we wait for mishpat, may we live fully into our call to be God’s servants to a world in need. Amen.

Preached December 16, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 3
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 12:15-21