1 Thessalonians 5:16-24Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
But, I'm going to focus today on Jesus and the temptations that he faced and what he did about them.
Billy woke up one Monday morning particularly tempted to stay at home because he was feeling quite sick, fed up and nervous about going off to school and so he told his mother about it. She was having none of it.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
The Corinthians self-image was of a spiritually mature congregation, endowed with all the spiritual gifts they needed, well taught and self-sufficient. In fact they were quite similar to some churches today. They thought their learning and their experience of the gifts of God made them better than others. But as Paul looks at them he says Mature? I think not! Spiritual? No! Not spiritual.
You could say they’re suffering from what you might call an adolescence syndrome. They think they’re mature, and in some respects they are, but in other respects they’re still acting like children. What they don’t realize is that mere lapse of time doesn’t bring maturity whether in the secular or the Christian world. Maturity has more to it than just age or experience or education. It has to do with an attitude to life, with an ability to deal with the real world, to accept the limitations of life, the variety of gifts that people have. And that’s how he knows that they’re not yet mature as Christians.
There’s quarreling and jealousy among them. How can they say they’re spiritually mature if they show that sort of worldly immaturity? Rather than being directed by love for one another they’re driven by competitiveness. They’re constantly comparing one with another to see who’s the best, who’s the smartest, who’s got the right answers, or the best pedigree.
And of course the major issue in this divisiveness is the issue of leadership. They each have their favorite spiritual leader that they place on a pedestal. It’s amazing how little we’ve changed isn’t it? They may not have had TV or the mass media that we have today, but they still had their favorite stars. So what’s wrong with them having their favorite spiritual leader? Why is this a sign of immaturity?
The problem is that this view of leadership comes from the world, not from God.
The world’s view of leadership is that the leader is the one who gives directions, who sets the agenda, who determines what’s important and what’s not. He or she is the most important person in the organization. They’re the ones to be emulated. That’s why big companies pay their CEOs million dollar pay packages. Because without them their company will flounder. And of course that’s why eyebrows are raised when those corporate executives still get paid even if their company does flounder. But that’s another discussion.
But this isn’t big business. This is the church we’re talking about, and the criteria are different. Mind you, we need to be careful here. We’ll see later that he isn’t saying we don’t need leaders, or that the apostles or the preachers of the gospel don’t have a place in setting the direction of the church. But the problem he’s addressing here is the status that these leaders are being given that seems to set them above even Jesus Christ.
So he asks what is Paul, what is Apollos? Not who, notice, but what? You see, this isn’t about personalities, it’s about function, gifting. What are they there for? Well, in the Christian economy they’re there as servants. In fact he uses a metaphor from everyday life to illustrate what he’s saying.
Paul says, one plants another waters. So which is the one that matters most? Well, neither. What matters is that God gives the growth.
Will the plant grow if it isn’t planted? No. Will it grow if no-one waters it? No. What if the waterer waters a different piece of soil and ignores the bit where the seeds are? The seed won’t grow then either. Both are vital tasks. Neither is more important than the other. They are in fact fellow servants of the one God. Equal in importance and value.
Look around you today. What do you see? I hope you can see not just an odd bunch of people (or maybe a bunch of odd people) but a team of workers called by God to work together to grow his church.
You see, we’re all important members of God’s workforce. There are no part-time Christians in the Church; at least there shouldn’t be. Some of us are the ones who plant the seed of the gospel, through our words or our actions. Some are those who make the last connection for someone when they finally take the step of faith in Jesus Christ. Others water the seed until it comes to fruition or nurture the plant after it’s sprung into life through our encouragement. But without all of those tasks being accomplished by you and me the plant won’t thrive. In fact it could whither and die.
But notice that the one who serves is not dismissed. This isn’t saying they don’t matter. God uses this servant leadership to do his work, to build his church. Leaders matter, but only ever as servants of God, never as gurus or figureheads.
So there’s a line we need to walk between raising up our leaders to a place above the community and merging them into it to the point of insignificance. All the time remembering that we’re each fellow workers for God, serving together on God’s project, the Church.
So who do you belong to? Not Paul or Apollos, not the Episcopal Church. In fact they all belong to you, because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Here is true wisdom. If you’re on God’s side it doesn’t matter who else is on your side or not. We are all working together to plant the seeds, water the plants and then after God gives the growth, help in the harvest.
So lets work together as servants, so as to build up the church in unity according to God’s wisdom, not human wisdom.
Let us pray,
Dear God, we may plant the seed of your faith, but it is you, God, that makes that plant, your Church, to grow. May we be careful tenders of the Church, so that your will on Earth be done. In the name of the Father, the Creator, the Son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
In 1961, one of the abiding symbols of the Cold War and Communism went up between East and West Germany. On November 9, 1989, that symbol came down. I remember watching TV news reports as people celebrated on top of the wall and how they took sledgehammers to break the wall down by themselves. I also remember reading an article about the fall of the Berlin Wall written by a World Methodist Council representative, it quoted a sign that the author saw the day after the wall came down, it read, 'Not the bear, not the lion, not the tiger, but the Lamb; the Lamb wins!
The lamb is usually a sign of gentleness and timidity, prone to disaster from many hazards. But for Christians, the lamb is a sign of victory. In today’s lesson, John the Baptist attaches the title “Lamb of God” to Jesus. While all of the gospels record the baptism of Jesus by John, each does so in a different way.
On the day after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist saw Jesus walking toward him and exclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God. While the expression Lamb of God has passed into regular Christian usage, it is not at all clear what it means exactly. This phrase only appears in this chapter of the Gospel of John.
St. Jerome, the great 4th century scholar, translated Scriptures into Latin (Vulgate) from their original tongues. Near the end of his life, Jerome encountered Jesus. The old saint and scholar gazed at Jesus for a moment and then asked: "Lord, what do you want from me?" Jesus said nothing, and continued to look lovingly on his faithful servant. This silence greatly disturbed Jerome. "Lord," Jerome insisted, "what do you want of me? My writings are all yours, my mind and my gift for languages are all yours, my piety and prayer life - they are all yours." "Jerome," Jesus said, "I already have all these things. I want what you have kept from me. Give me your sin."
Giving God our sin can be the hardest part of the Christian faith. It means that we have to admit that even our best efforts fall short of God’s righteousness. John the Baptist understood at some level that the Lamb of God would be sacrificed for the sin of the world. Perhaps John the Baptist is referring to the lamb of the Jewish sin offering. The Passover lamb is not a sin offering, but this is another possibility for interpretation. Possibly the Lamb of God of John the Baptist should be understood by the Church that lives after Christ’s resurrection as the conquering lamb of the Book of Revelation. Or is He the gentle lamb led off to slaughter in the prophecies of Jeremiah (11:19)? There are so many possibilities.
John the Baptist testifies that he saw the Spirit of God descend from heaven like a dove and come to rest on Jesus. John reiterates that before this happened he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Now he understands that it is Jesus that he has been preparing the world to receive. Two of John's disciples listen, turn, and follow Jesus.
When Andrew and friends asked Jesus where he was staying Jesus replied, “Come and see.” They stayed with him for the whole day, and at it turned out, they stayed with Him the rest of their lives. The very definition of a disciple is one who stays with Jesus wherever that stay may be.
On the third day of this story, John sees Jesus once more, and he again identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God. This intrigues his followers. What could John mean? Someone versed in the Old Testament might recall the lamb that God provided when Abraham and Isaac went up on the Mount of Moriah (Gen. 22). Some see the Lamb of God as a subtle reference to the suffering servant that we find in Isaiah’s prophecies. Maybe Lamb of God is meant to signify the horned ram that leads a flock of sheep.
The truth is that there are so many possibilities, but what is clear is that the Lamb of God is the Messiah sent by God to bring judgement to the wicked and deliverance to the righteous. As we were last week, again we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In today’s lesson, John the Baptist is pointing his followers toward Jesus. Two of them are curious enough that they begin to follow Jesus and Jesus notices them and asks them a question. This is the first question that Jesus asks in the Gospel of John and it is a good one. It still has relevance. "What are you seeking?"
It is quite possible that they, like many of us, didn’t know what they wanted or what they were looking for. What is it that any of us seek and find in Jesus? Perhaps there is a vague sense in us that we want what most people want: a comfortable lifestyle, good health, and maybe children who are successful. We want security for our golden years and to have some fun along the way. And hopefully, along that same way we can be of help to others that we meet.
Maybe we want nothing at all. I recall one of the scenes in Field of Dreams when Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella goes to Fenway Park with reclusive author Terrence Mann. Kinsella asks Mann, “What do you want?” To which, Mann answers, “I just want to be left alone.” Kinsella points to a concession stand and explains that he was asking whether or not Mann wanted any food or drink.
Maybe you feel like Terrence Mann; you just want to be left alone. The problem for the Christian is that Jesus doesn’t just leave us alone. When we are first intrigued by Him, he beckons us further with a simple invitation, “Come and see.” When we have chosen to be His follower, He sends us into places and situations that we never would have chosen for ourselves. Chances are, for most of us, we’re not going to be staying at a fabulous hotel when we are on the road with Jesus.
In April of 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King was invited to stay in a place that was not of his choosing. King was in Birmingham, Alabama for a series of civil rights protests. The police commissioner “Bull” Connor had King arrested on Good Friday along with 54 other marchers for “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing. King was parked in the Birmingham Jail where he was singled out for isolation and denied the chance to make phone calls or the legal right to talk to his lawyers.
He had no mattress or linen, and ended up sleeping on metal slats. Over the Easter weekend, in solitary confinement, down in what was called “the hole,” Martin Luther King was staying with Jesus. It was while he was locked up that King penned one of the most significant Christian documents of the civil rights movement. Surprisingly, his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was not addressed to abusive police officers or racist politicians, but to a group of white, liberal clergymen who were urging people to withdraw from the demonstrations which they called “unwise and untimely.”
King responded strongly to their criticism and rebuked them by saying “we must use time creatively and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” He pointed out that “it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” His letter was a stirring condemnation of those who would do nothing in the face of so much injustice directed at blacks.
When Jesus invites us to “Come and See,” He is welcoming us into a life that is abundant with meaning and purpose, but He is not necessarily inviting us into a life free from conflict or turmoil. Who is this Jesus? One of the hallmarks of our day is the proliferation of alternative views of Jesus. Listen to what Andrew says about Him:
One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah.”
Andrew understands John’s calling of Jesus to be the Lamb of God as a synonym for the Messiah. When we come to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, sent from God, it doesn’t matter where He sends us or what we find in the places where He sends us. Back in 1963, who was really staying with Jesus? Was it the white moderate who was devoted to law and order, or the black radical who used non-violent means to push for justice? Was it the majority who preferred a negative peace based on the forceful control of tensions? Or was it the minority who worked for a positive peace marked by the presence of justice?
Whether it is the Berlin Wall or the Birmingham Jail, wherever Jesus takes us we have nothing to worry about. He may take us to a natural disaster like the recent floods, or to an AIDS hospice. He might lead us to be a part of a demonstration or a mission trip. He may send us to a classroom, a community, a neighbor’s house or a hospital. What matters most is that we go at the direction of Jesus and stay with Him.
You see, the lamb that we follow is the Lamb of God. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. His is the one who calls us to Himself, and the one whose presence transforms our lives. Go with Him and stay with Him. Jesus bids all who encounter Him, “Come and See.”
Let us pray.
Most loving Father, we give thanks for your Son, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Set us free from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray. Amen.
Sometimes,we take the long way home, just to enjoy the scenery and the companionship. Christmas is about a lot of things, but it is at least about getting back home. We sing about it: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.
And “Over the river and through the woods.”
Over the river and through the woods,
To grandmother’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to follow the sleigh
Through the white and drifting snow
When I was young, in my mind's eye, I imagined what the stable where Jesus was born was like. It was a lot like the barn that we had. During the chill of wintertime, it was a warm place where the milk cows stayed. It was a nice, warm, steamy place with the earthy smells of the cows. So I thought I knew what a stable was like because I knew what a barn was like. I knew how warm it felt to lean against a cow. I knew what it felt like to lay on a pile of hay or straw. I had seen donkeys and sheep. It was not hard to picture Jesus’ birth place as being very like our farm on a bright, snowy, December night. It was a place of safety, where, in my child eyes, no one would want to leave.
Which brings us to this first trip of the holy family. Of all the dreams of Christmas, this one is the strangest even if it makes common sense. Joseph went to bed with his conversations with the Wise Men on his mind. What should he do? He was terrorized, for that was the way the Puppet King Herod ruled the land on behalf of Rome. Herod maintained control by a reign of terror. He had his own male children killed because he feared they might grow up and steal the throne from him by leading a rebellion. He feared Rome. He feared his own people and his own children. It was said of Herod, better to be his swine than to be his sons.
In the night, God spoke to Joseph’s mind in a dream. An angel 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. ”
To Egypt? Why such a long way? The recent history of the Mideast tells us why. During the last century there have been large movements of people across the Mideast borders of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Amenia, Palestine, Iraq and Iran as people attempt to escape civil war. Some 1400 years before Jesus was born, the Hebrew people immigrated from Egypt, not just once, but in waves over decades. They wandered in the desert of Sinai before arriving at what is modern day Palestine. Similarly, they had migrated from Ur to Palestine then to Egypt centuries before the Exodus from Egypt. The mass movement of people through the Mideast and frrequent wars in that area has occurred throughout recorded history.
Why would the angel say “Go to Egypt?”. Why not? Though it would take weeks, it was the nearest state, and the way was on a well-marked international trade route.
The long journey is typical of our spiritual life. It is the far country, the place outside the gate, the burning bush in the desert we must turn aside to see. It is the dream in the night, the sojourn out of the way, that leads us safely home. Mary and Joseph’s long way to safety makes a point: Jesus is special. He is the person chosen to be the leader of the people. Holy men had written in Scriptures describing what Messiah would be like and how he would appear.
“Out of Egypt I have called my son,” Hosea tells us in the Scriptures. To get away from Herod’s search for the heir to the David's throne, it made sense to go to the neighboring country. But something else is involved here. Getting where we want to go, really want to go, often involves going the long way home. Because it is in the journey that we are given the chance to deal with our brokenness, to discover what is missing in our lives, to confront our unanswered questions.
A gift is given in places where we are broken. We tend to equate brokenness with shabbiness. We toss our spare change into a pot for the entire lot of ill clad, unkempt people who stand on the street corners and mumble to themselves. We view them from inside our locked cars. We think that they are a problem of cities not our local small towns. We have words for them like “homeless,” or “marginalized,” and a thousand other subtle ways of saying, “Not like us.” Not so. The journey into wholeness leads us first to our own brokenness, to an inner Egypt. We can drive a nice automobile, have a comfortable home and be a pillar in our community but find our souls wandering in the desert wilderness. Each one of us who have lived any time at all have experienced a crises within our families, within our sense of who we are at home or at work or both. We are faced with death in the family, personal illness and one or another of the many losses life hands us and we wonder who we are and why there are such large potholes in our spiritual journey.
It is said that prayer is the spiritual journey into the unknown. We have to get rid of the need for certainty. It requires a long time of deep prayer for a person to understand his motivations and become vulnerable to God. The journey into our brokenness is a journey deep into our own being and outward into the unknown, where God is.
To find God we must be willing to undertake the journey to Egypt, into our own questionable motives and hidden wounds. It means leaving behind the familiar and going where only Gods love can feed us. Then we learn truly what Jesus means when he tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,.” for we all are.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.
The journey is about “the dark holes where something is missing.” We don’t like to think that anything is missing. We attempt to impose our definition of perfection on life while the actual process of life is something else altogether.
We imagine the things we must have to make life bearable and in the clutter of stuff, we lose sight of what makes life meaningful.
Most of us wish that life could be without trouble and trial. But we operate under a false view of a perfection that can be reached without darkness, without trouble and without sin and suffering.
We think of perfection as wholeness. Finding wholeness is a process of discovering the full life God always intended for us to have. It means finding our true selves. “
The Holy Family’s journey to Egypt is idealized in early Christian lore, glossing over the difficulty of the journey. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas tells of palm trees that miraculously bent down to feed the holy family, lions and leopards that wagged their tails in worship. One story tells that in one of the towns they passed through, all the idols in the local temple fell to the ground. It’s human to idealize our journey, to smooth out the rough places as we retell it.
But Scripture doesn’t. The flight to Egypt is also a reminder, an anticipation of the costly and painful price of wholeness for us all. If Jesus is the new Moses, come to deliver us into a new kingdom, then we must make a journey from our present Egypt and be brought out a dangerous and difficult way.
It is tempting to sit and wait for life to come to us, to forsake the journey and simply subsist. But doing that, we stop living life and squander it. Our refusal to follow, either as individuals or as a church does not mean that opportunities won’t be missed. There is a price for delay and disobedience.
At times I have thought, and I’ve heard other Christians say after an apparent failure, “It wasn’t meant to be.” We try to blame God for our failures. The Kingdom will come, even if we have no hand in it, and our improvidence is not to be interpreted as the Providence of God.
The Magi didn’t have to follow the star.
Joseph didn’t have to wed Mary.
God can and will bring in the Kingdom with or without us. We should be diligent so as to eventually enjoy the welcome into peace God offers.
Joseph and Mary could have sought an easier way to avoid Herod’s wrath than the journey to Egypt, but what disaster might an easier way have invited? What might they have missed?
Mary didn’t have to say to the Angel, “Be it done according to your Word.” She didn’t have to be a mother. Life will not come to us on our terms. Joseph’s dream was a call to enter the full danger of the spiritual journey.
Joseph and Mary knew some of the reasons for their journey. Their preeminent motivation for leaving was to escape the possibility that Herod would come after Jesus. But here we meet the question of suffering head-on. Innocent baby boys are killed for nothing more than political insecurity. The point is not how many died, but why God, who could intervene to save Jesus, did not intervene to save dozens of little innocent babies. Never is the idea of life’s purpose more at risk than in the face of innocent and undeserved suffering. Many come to Christmas every year with some unbearable sorrow that seems to render life senseless. “Why did this happen?” they ask. And there is no answer.
Things gone wrong, evil, is not God’s will, but its occurrence is still God’s dark mystery of how he creates good from evil. Jesus did not escape death at the hands of tyranny so much as postpone it. The death of the innocents was not a tragedy Jesus avoided but a tragedy that anticipated the darkest tragedy of all: the saving tragedy of Jesus’ cross.
Matthew affirms that God is not the author of evil. But he does assert that God is evil’s editor. God has the final word. God reframes, restates and corrects evil until it fits within God’s deeper purposes. That is what we want to know in our tragedies and sorrows—that they are not in the end merely empty and sad coincidences, random and broken bits of unfortunate pain.
God’s way is to outwit evil, or use its consequences for good.
We hear from friends all over the United States during the Christmas season. Sometimes in their Christmas letters there are hints of a long journey: a death, an entry into a nursing home, an illness that has changed the course of life forever, or other such things. Some of the letters we receive are from people asking help, as they have experienced disaster or failed in an undertaking. Others are reporting recovery from failures or tragedies.
There is a long way into and out of Egypt that leads us home. It is not the way we would necessarily choose, given our perfectionist ideals and our reluctance to experience pain as a price for joy. But that way is there.
So my prayer for all of us is that we find that no matter where we go on life's journey, God will be there for us, supporting us as he leads us home, just as he did with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Amen.
Yesterday, we heard the Bishop's take on today's readings. I'm not even going to come close to the wisdom that he shared with us, but his message raised some thoughts and questions with me.
What we have heard here in today's Gospel is Joseph’s story. The struggle of a good and righteous man, the struggle to come to terms with the fact his fiance is pregnant and that he is not the Father.
The truth, though, is that this pregnancy was only a part of Josephs dilemma.
The rest of the dilemma lay in the fact that God may have a place for Joseph, a place that only Joseph could fill.
Joseph, despite being a man of faith, could not believe that God would want anything to do with him, and his simple life.
He couldn’t believe that this living God that he worshiped regularly every Sabbath day would want anything to do with his tiny little life.
In God's eyes he saw himself as insignificant; after all, he was just a carpenter wasn’t he? Just your normal everyday person, he wasn’t anyone special was he?
If he was on God's chessboard, he would not have even considered himself to be a pawn worthy of sacrifice.
How dense could he be, how stupid could Joseph be to actually think that this Living God could not use Joseph?
How idiotic could Joseph be to think that God could not find a part for him.
I think we are all pretty stupid times.
We can all be rather dense like just like Joseph.
We may not face the dilemma that Joseph did.
But as a people of faith we often just can’t believe that God would want anything to do with us, and our simple lives.
After all we are nothing special either.
We often can not believe that this living God that we worship would want anything to do with our contribution.
We see ourselves as insignificant as Joseph saw himself.
How can we be so silly?
What Joseph needed was a wake up call, something to bring him back to his senses.
I am glad to say that as Joseph tortured himself over this dilemma. God gave him a wake up call.
One night an angel came to him in a dream, an angel that set the alarm bells ringing in Josephs life. An angel that gave him a wake up call, an angel that told Joseph that God did have a place for him.
It took an angel to convince Joseph of his importance to God.
What is it going to take for you?
What will it take for you to wake up and realize how important you are to God?
What sort of alarm call will it take?
I will leave you these questions for you to ponder as we pray:
Dear God of all,
May you help us, the people, your people gathered here today. To find what you would want us to do so we can become an advent people. Not just to wait for you, but to discern what you have in store for us and to go out and do your will. In your Holy Name. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.