A New Thing

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21

Sports fans are familiar with the concept of “tanking.” In baseball the Baltimore Orioles are actually a good example of this right now. The Orioles have been a good team for several years. Last year they were not a good team, even though they had a lot of the same players they’d had when they were good. But some of those players had gotten a little older and weren’t as good as they used to be, and weren’t likely to get better again. If the Orioles were going to get back to being a contending team they needed to get rid of these older, higher-priced players. This would give them room on their roster to try out a whole lot of younger players, players who both might develop to be better than the older players and who would be a lot less expensive to pay than the older players. This would free up money to invest in finding and signing even more good young players.

The downside of all this is that it means that for the next two or three years, the Orioles are likely to lose a lot of games. They aren’t necessarily trying to lose these games – the players are playing as hard as they can and trying to win. But they aren’t good enough to win, at least not yet, and

that means that they will lose more games in the short term, which gives them better draft choices of amateur players, which means that in the long term they are likely to get better and contend again. Does that make sense?

That’s what is meant by tanking. Putting together a team that is young and cheap and not likely to win now, in hopes that they will develop and that you can find and sign some better young players and be a good team again in a few years. It is very difficult and very frustrating for fans to watch a team that is tanking, but the fans usually understand what’s going on and are willing to put up with losing now in the hopes of winning in the future. It has become a part of the regular cycle for sports teams.

In Psalm 126, our Call to Worship today, we see this interplay of hard times and of good times, of struggle followed by joy. In verses 1 and 2 it says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;” The laughter and the joy comes after Zion’s fortunes are restored, which means the laughter and the joy come after something bad and difficult and hard. The laughter and the joy come after a time of turmoil and a time of desolation. You see it again in the prayer captured in verses 4 through 6, particularly in verse 6. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the

seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” With faith in God after pain comes rejoicing, after risk and work comes reward.

I preached a sermon here several years ago about being adopted. I don’t remember if it was after Nate and Jenn started worshipping with us or if it was before then when I was doing pulpit supply around 2005 or so. To sum that part of it up, I’ve known ever since I was a little child that I was adopted. When I was around 40 or so my doctor recommended that I see if I could find out anything about the medical history of either of my birth parents, as things related to that can start to develop more as we get older.

I asked my parents if they knew anything, and they had a possible name, and they said they would see if there was anything more that they could find out. I took the name that they gave me and played around on Google a little bit and found a couple of other names, maybe, but not really enough to do anything with or about.

A while later when I was visiting my parents they gave me an envelope with all kinds of information about my birth mother. They learned that I had been named Derrell Gebhart at birth, and they had learned who my birth mother was. They had visited a couple of her sisters, one of whom was related to a family that we knew. They had found some pictures of my

birth mother, including a high school graduation picture and others that her sisters had, and they had recorded some stories and information from her sisters. They told me that I had four brothers and sisters. They’d learned that my birth mother had died of ALS several years ago.

I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do with all of this information. I’d just wanted to know a little bit about my medical history – I wasn’t trying to do any genealogical research or anything. I couldn’t process all of it and so I mostly didn’t do anything with it. I let it sit.

A year or so ago my sister-in-law Gaye bought a package of Ancestry.com DNA kits for family members. She had one left over, and wondered if I would be interested in using it. I was – I’m a little bit interested in history and I’d heard stories about my Davidson ancestry being German/Irish, and I wondered if that was true. It didn’t occur to me at all that this test would not trace my Davidson ancestry; it would trace my Gebhart ancestry, my birth ancestry.

When the results come back on these things, there are different pages to click on that give you different information. The first one that I looked at was about geography, and I learned that based on this DNA sample they estimate that a large percentage of my ancestry is from England, generally speaking – Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

A smaller percentage is from the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe.

Then there was a tab for possible DNA matches with other people. I clicked on this tab, and then I knew. The first name it showed was a possible first cousin, and I realized that it was a match from my birth family. I recognized this person’s maiden name as the same as my mother’s last name after marriage. I knew it was possible we were first cousins, but I don’t know if I had considered that we were a closer relation than that.

I wasn’t ready to do anything with the information. I’m not sure if I even told Julia about it – I thought I did, but she says I didn’t. Anyway, I just let it sit.

A few months later this person I matched with wrote to me asking if I knew how we could be connected. She couldn’t figure out how we could be cousins and couldn’t find the connection. I still wasn’t ready, and still didn’t do anything.

A week or two ago it occurred to me that I should probably write back to her. I thought that it wasn’t fair for my own uncertainties to leave her with questions about herself or her family that she couldn’t answer. I wrote back that I thought we might be connected through my mother and shared what information I could remember. The material my parents prepared is still

boxed up somewhere after our last move, I think, so while I could remember her maiden name was Gebhart I couldn’t remember her first name for sure.

She wrote back with her mother’s name and wondered if we might share the same mother. I replied that since I wasn’t sure about my birth mother’s first name I couldn’t say based on that, but that there was one piece of information I remembered that might settle it. My birth mother died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

She replied that so had hers. I was pretty sure We were brother and sister.

I’ve spent the last few years withdrawing from people emotionally I think. My work takes a toll on me, and my coping mechanisms for the stress of work are to eat mindlessly and watch TV or play games on the Internet mindlessly. My sister Lori, who I grew up with and was also adopted, died a couple of years ago. I got closer to my parents during the year or two that they lived with us, but then they moved back to Ohio so there is a lot more geographic distance and the various issues they are dealing with can create some emotional distance sometimes.

All of that is to say that while this wasn’t totally unexpected once I’d seen the DNA results, I still wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My sister

shared that she was struggling with mixed feelings too. Her first message after we confirmed our relationship said near the beginning, “It’s almost more than I can grasp and at this point I feel kind of numb” and said near the end, “…despite the pain I am thankful our paths have crossed.” While I worked with and through the pain of never having known my birth mother, she had a pain that was almost the opposite: the pain of thinking you knew someone and finding that they had a secret or hidden past and maybe you didn’t know them after all.

Over the last week or two we’ve both made strides processing our feelings and reaching some conclusions. Her last message to me ended saying, “P.S. As time goes on and the shock of all this wears off I have to tell you I am so excited to have another brother.” I feel the same way about her and the three other siblings I haven’t met yet.

The theme of great joy coming after great pressure or pain or worry or stress is a common one in the Bible and in life itself. We talked about how it shows in our Call to Worship, Psalm 126. Our scripture reading from Isaiah opens with a reminder of the bravery it took to have faith and trust that God would part the waters so that Israel could escape from Egypt. We see in nature examples of butterflies that come from cocoons, or flowers that grow from bulbs.

One of the most famous sermons of the 20th century is called “It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming.” It was made famous by the sociologist Dr. Tony Campolo, who adapted it from a sermon by the great African-American preacher the Rev. Dr. S. M. Lockridge. (Shadrach Meshach Lockridge.) Lockridge was a pastor for decades in San Diego, and wrote a sermon around the darkness of Friday, when Jesus was on the cross, dying. The disciples were discouraged. Peter had denied Jesus three times. The man they believed was the Messiah, the Son of God, had died on a cross like a common criminal.

But Lockridge’s message was to not be discouraged. It was Friday, yes, but Sunday is coming. The resurrection is coming. We should cling to our faith in God, because the blood of redemption, pouring out of the broken places of Christ’s body, truly redeems on the Sunday that is to come. Easter Sunday when Jesus is risen from the grave and his followers see his victory over the grave.

We are going through something of a Friday as a congregation. We’ve had families who were important and active members of our body move away. We’ve seen our attendance at worship go up and then back down again, and we have difficulty sometimes in finding people to fill the spots that need to be filled in our administrative structure.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know it will be wonderful whatever it is.

We’re going through something of a Friday as a denomination. Along with a lot of other denominations attendance and giving are down, evangelism in multi-cultural settings is a challenge, and we are facing differences that seem like they may be impossible to reconcile around certain issues. The denomination may end up splitting.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. Whether that means a Spirit-led renewal within our own denomination or two new denominations no longer arguing over various issues but each moving forward with God’s Spirit and God’s leading as they discern it I don’t know, but I know that whichever of those happens it will be wonderful.

We all have pressures and doubts and pain in our own lives. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know that God will lead you through it and that you will end up in a much better place as a result.

In my situation, I know what at least part of the new thing is. I have a new relationship with a sister and at least a couple of nieces. I spoke on

Facebook yesterday with a new brother. I have some new family to be connected with, new stories to learn and to share, new memories to make. I know what the new thing is, although I still don’t know what all it will look like, but I know that God is in it and it will be wonderful.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Thank God for the new thing. Amen.

Come to the Waters (embracing bounty)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9, Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

In the book of Exodus, the once inarticulate Moses faces the Pharaoh backed by the power of God first appearing to him in a burning bush in the desert. As the Hebrew people head into the wilderness, they are followed by the Egyptian army which is driven by the recognition that their emancipated slaves are not coming back—that the subjugated people who had done their work were perhaps too easily set free. Up against the Red Sea and certain destruction, Moses led them through the sea. The cloud of the presence of God veiled them while a great wind was sent to divide the waters.

The Apostle Paul picks this up and reads it Christologically—that is, through Christ. In this passing through the waters of the sea, the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians are saved. The Apostle reads the water as a baptism. A passing through Christ’s death into life. For in Romans we read, Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)). They were saved by passing through these waters.

Come to the water.

Paul writes “all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

Not only was the water of the sea a baptism but the rock in the desert out of which a sustaining water flowed was Christ. The Christ which appeared centuries later but whom the Gospel of John asserts was present and participating in the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the waters—this is the one whom Paul proclaims as the fount of water in the desert—in the time of need this one is the living water. Come to the waters.

The prophet Isaiah exhorts,

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This sounds like a great deal. It isn’t even buy one get one 50% off. This is like a free fancy think tank reception where you not only get hear an interesting talk about policy but get nice food while on a BVS budget. However, my dad, who is a very practical fellow, used to say some variation that “nothing is free.” Which is, of course, true. Someone picks up the cost because they care about something or have an interest in you caring about it.

In Luke we read, At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

There is a persistent notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people—at least when we observe others. So, when something bad happens we assume that they did something bad and if something bad happens to us or our friends we ask—why me? Certainly, the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate must have sinned. Certainly, those on whom the tower fell must have really ticked off God.

Jesus, however, disconnects a negative occurrence from that of punishment. Those who suffered in this way are no worse than you! However, he also seems to reattach it. Those who died in these tragedies were not being punished for their particularly heinous crimes. Rather, all deserve a harsh retribution and it is only by a particular grace and mercy that we make it through. He seems to imply all of us should die in a tower collapse but don’t by God’s mercy—this is a type of comforting. It also feels like it could be ominous and threatening. The intent is rather to get us to focus. Because of the gravity of our action or inaction and intentions we should take this seriously. Though God is radically graceful we must not be presumptuous.

A commentator writes, “Luke does not destroy severity by infusing grace, nor does he destroy grace by infusing severity. As a theologian he knows that any mixing of severity and grace or any attempt to average them will result in neither severity or grace” (Craddock, Luke¸167). It is not that grace and mercy balances out justice or punishment in some sort of neutral middle—like white and black paint make grey or green and red make a muddy brown. Rather, they both exist.

The passage continues with a parable of a fruit tree—a fig fruit tree.

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Here the issue of fruit is ventured. A fig tree, not unlike our own likely dead fig tree, does not produce. The only reason it exists is to produce fruit for its owner. The owner is persuaded to have patience when it doesn’t produce as anticipated. This picture of divine patience follows the teaching which presents both grace and punishment, mercy and justice. The Apostle exhorts, “We must not put Christ to the test.”

He continues “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful… [you will not] be tested beyond your strength.

Come to the water! This water is free (for you). For God it is a costly gift. A gift that requires patience and as we will discover in Holy Week a great sacrifice. The water of life is not free so that we can muddy it and abuse it—note here the parallels between both the gifts of physical waterways that we humans often damage or destroy and the spiritual water of life that we muddy through distractedness and injustice. The season of Lent invites us to focus. The movement towards Easter and the pain of Holy Week beckons us towards abiding with God, the source of life. The imminent death of Jesus will provide the greatest challenge to the false theology that the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate or those 18 who died in the collapsing tower were worse than us.

The water of life is given to us in abundance. While it isn’t earned, it requires much of us. This is part of Kameron Carter’s critique of white theology in Race: a Theological Account. It says we can do theology separately from the realities of the world in which towers collapse and kill people because those supposed to be responsible cared more for their money or power than the people. This is artist Ai Wei Wei’s documentation of the collapsed school buildings in China which thousands of school children died.

Our enjoying the abundant water of life is not somehow separate from the racism that allows communities of color in this country to be poisoned by their water which is polluted by others. The question that the crucified Holy One of God will bring is not “what did the suffering ones do to deserve this?” but what did those with any power do or neglect to do that caused their suffering?

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Come to the waters! Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down!

Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down! You may no longer live for yourself. The water of life that rushes from the Christ in the desert

revives you to be a conduit of life and justice and mercy. The God of mercy is the source, but you have the privilege participate in this good work. Come to the waters!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Come to the waters! Come drink from the abundant water of life.

Forty

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

Numerology is the branch of knowledge that deals with the occult significance of numbers. What I am talking about here is not numerology. While these numbers may have some significance in the Bible, they have no special power. They are not predictive of anything. There is nothing of the occult about them.

There are at least three numbers that show up in various ways in the Bible. One of them is the number three. With three, it’s not just a Bible thing. Two is company, but how many are a crowd? Three. How many times is a charm? The third time. Bad news or celebrity deaths or the deaths of people that we care about seem to come in – yes, threes.

Who can tell me some threes in the Bible? The trinity – God the Father or Creator, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Peter denied Jesus three times. The rooster crowed three times. Noah had three sons. Three visitors appeared to Abraham. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days. Jesus was in the tomb three days. In John 21 Jesus affirms his love three times. Jesus’ public ministry lasted three years. Even in our

scripture reading today Jesus is tempted three times, and three times responds with scripture.

Another significant number is seven. How many sevens in the Bible can we think of? The first and most obvious is the seven days of creation. No animal could be sacrificed until it was seven days old. There are seven “I am’s” in the Gospel of John that Jesus used when He spoke of Himself. Jesus mentions seven woes (or judgments) on the unrepentant in Matthew 23. In Revelation there were seven letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation and there were also seven trumpets announcing judgments by God in the Book of Revelation. We are to forgive people seventy times multiplied by… seven. Joshua and Israel marched around Jericho seven times while seven priests blew seven trumpets before the walls came crashing down. Elisha told the military commander Naaman to bathe in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed of his leprosy. There are plenty more sevens that I was not aware of at all.

How about forty? What are some forties that you remember from the Bible? One of them should be easy – Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and prayed and fasted. So did Elijah and Moses. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. The rains that brought about the Great Flood lasted for forty days. In the Old Testament, forty years is considered a generation. Goliath taunted Israel for forty days before David

defeated him. Just like with threes and sevens, there are still more forties that we could mention.

This is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a period that lasts how long? Forty days, not counting Sunday. The word “lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that meant “spring”, and the forty days of Lent are a symbolic reenactment of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness and that we read about just a little while ago. The reason that Sundays don’t count in the forty days of Lent is that each Sunday represents kind of a mini Easter in anticipation of the resurrection to come. Sunday is a special day all on its own aside from Lent.

A lot of times people give up something for Lent. Sometimes it’s something they enjoy eating or drinking or doing but they want to give it up as a way to discipline themselves. Chocolate is something that a lot of people give up. Sometimes it’s television, or social media. I once gave up French fries for Lent, and I made it. I had no French fries for the forty days plus Sundays, and I survived. Somehow.

Today’s theme in our series of Lenten services is “In the Wilderness” and encourages us to think about facing temptation. There are a couple of examples from the forty list we had earlier of being in the wilderness, literally, and both of those involved facing temptation.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before finally entering the Promised Land. There had to be temptation along the way – temptation to give up. Temptation to just stop where they were and put down some roots. Temptation to forget about God’s promises, forget about the covenant, forget about the Promised Land and what might be waiting ahead.

There are plenty of times in Scripture where the Israelites are complaining about something or other. They’re complaining about not having food, not having water, later they complain about the food that God provides. Each of those reflect a temptation – a temptation to chuck it all and go out on their own away from where God has called them.

And every time that happens, what does Moses do? He reminds them of all the good things that God has done. God brought you out of Egypt. God provided you manna. God did this and God did that and God has met your needs and God continues to guide you. Moses reminds them of their history, of God’s words and actions and commands in their lives.

When Jesus is tempted, that’s what he does too. Three times Satan tempts Jesus. Each time Jesus answers with scripture, with things that God has said about how we are or are not fed, or who we are to worship or what God says about tests. Jesus refers back to scripture, and takes his cues from God’s word and God’s leading.

Actually it’s a little deeper than that. The three passages that Jesus quotes are from Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy is the book that sums up the lessons that God taught the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness. Lessons of trust in God that the Israelites had to learn time and time again as they wandered in the wilderness and later as they abandoned God yet again and demanded a human king for themselves are repeated through the example of God’s son Jesus Christ with his own time of temptation in the wilderness.

The flood was forty days. Okay, a flood isn’t usually what we think of when we think of wilderness, but aside from the boat all that’s left is God’s creation. Water, animals, birds, fish, humans, and whatever of the earth lies beneath the water after forty days of rain. The waters begin to subside after around 150 days. And then once the ark is on dry ground, God establishes a covenant with Noah that renews the relationship between the Creator and the creation.

After Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he begins his public ministry. Luke chapters 1 through 3 are all about the birth of Jesus, the boy Jesus in the Temple, John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus really hasn’t done very much yet. It’s not until after his forty days of temptation in the wilderness that his ministry really begins. It’s not until after the forty days of temptation that the new covenant of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.

The lesson of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness isn’t just that we can rely on scripture to help us resist temptation, although that is part of it. The lesson isn’t just that God can and will strengthen us to stand up to Satan and to the earthly powers that he represents, but that’s part of it too. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness doesn’t simply mean that our faith in God is enough to make it through extended times of loss and loneliness. That’s true, but there’s more than that.

After the time in the wilderness comes the good stuff. After the time in the wilderness comes some great event that sets the tone for the future. After the time in the wilderness God’s blessing is poured out.

What came after forty days of rain and then the water receding? A promise from God that the earth would never again be covered with a flood, and the opportunity for humankind to start again. What was next after forty years of wandering in the wilderness? The Israelites entered into their own country, their own promised land. What happened after forty days of Goliath’s mocking? David defeated Goliath and rescued Israel from its enemies.

And what’s after Jesus praying and fasting and resisting temptation for forty days? He begins his public ministry. God’s kingdom is proclaimed on earth in a way that it never has been before. God has come to earth in human form, and will die, and will rise again.

That’s even how it is for us in our simple little Lenten disciplines. If you give up sweets for forty days you know what? You’ll be healthier afterwards. If you give up candy, or French fries, or television, or Facebook, you’ll probably be healthier and happier and less stressed out. It’s not as good as the kingdom of God, but it’s still good nevertheless and it can provide the basis for a healthier way of living that could revolutionize your life if you let it.

Time in the wilderness, resisting temptation, relying on God, trusting God, and obeying God, can bring us renewal in so many ways. I know that it is true, and I pray that you will find it so in your own life whether it’s days or months or years, whether it’s three or seven or forty. Amen.

Seraphs (each with 6 wings), Fishes (so many)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8(9-13), 1 Corinthians 15;1-6, Luke 5:1-11

Isaiah, when facing God’s majesty, said “I am not worthy”

An angel came and touched his lips with a coal to purify him and take away his guilt.

Paul, when considering his call as an apostle, said “I am unworthy because I persecuted God’s people.”

It is through God’s grace that he was given this ministry.

Peter, when Jesus instructed one more cast of the net after a long night of empty net—which resulted in so many fishes that the nets just about broke, said “Go away from me for I am sinful.”

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

This was not simply a subjective lack of self-esteem or timidity or fabricated humility. It is not someone on stage saying they are “humbled” at the point of great success or an award. It is not my overwhelming introversion when I arrive at an event that the only reason I am attending is to network for my job.

Paul was called to proclaim Jesus after he had hunted down and thrown people who followed Jesus into prison. Paul, who was formerly Saul, oversaw the stoning of the first martyr of the church. He then took up the attack of the Jesus followers with terrifying zeal. In Acts 8 we read, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria… Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison…[and in the next chapter]… Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9).

So when the Apostle Paul (the one formerly known as Saul) says that “I am unworthy “to be a proclaimer of Jesus except through the grace of God he means it literally. He isn’t just saying this because it the correct and humble thing to say. The transformation and renewal are profound. But it is not just so that he can have a comforted conscience—he is given serious work to do. In fact, he says that he does it more intensely than everyone else. Which is hard not to hear as bragging (which may be why I don’t think in the earlier section he is being falsely humble).

The prophet Isaiah, when faced with the dazzling and terrifying presence of God initially shrinks in fear. The scene is dramatic:

“Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”

While this might just sound kind of cool to us—I mean the “pivots on the thresholds” shaking basically sounds like Jake and I am a War in The Chapel studio or an evening at the Black Cat. While I don’t know Isaiah’s music of choice, he certainly was well aware of the danger of seeing God face to face. There was a precedent of this being an experience unlike others.

Facing God was not a normal Tuesday meeting. For example, though Moses interacted with God more than most he was also afraid to see God—”And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” This is THE Moses. The God spoke through a burning bush to him Moses. The lead the people out of Egypt Moses. This Moses hid his face. When Moses receives the 10 commandments, receiving them from God…he glowed. We read in Exodus 34 “29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.” Even the residue of facing God struck fear.

And Peter. We know Peter as the first to speak—not shy and timid. Peter eventually received the “keys” to the kingdom from which the tradition of succession of the Pope was built and was a disciple—a star—a least a significant character of the story of Jesus. Before Peter was “Peter the theologically glamorous,” he is the Peter we have today. Peter was a fisher. Though it seems he owned the means of his production and labor—the boats and nets—he was one whose work was manual and stinky. Likely not the most prominent. Peter was young. Peter lived under occupation. Peter was not, it would have been guessed, a soon to be leader. Not only this but on this particular day Peter had been up all night unsuccessfully trying to catch fish. This was his profession and not only was it likely a source of professional pride, but it was a matter of survival. Peter and his colleagues in fishing had ended the excursion without fish.

In this context Jesus, the newish popular teacher asked to borrow a boat to use as a pulpit. At the conclusion of what was a teaching that didn’t manage to get recorded, Jesus instructs them to cast out once more and lower their nets for fish. The result is fish, so many fish. It is at this point that Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Three people. Three cases of recognizing unworthiness. When faced with the presence of the divine they rightly recoiled but were brought near by the mercy of God.

But there is more.

They are given work.

Jesus says to Peter the fisher of fish, you will be catch people. Does Peter know what this means? When I thought about it, it seemed less clear. I grew up with the song, “I will make you fishers of men…” The interpretation that we assumed was Jesus was calling them to be evangelists or preachers who would tell about Jesus and this would lead people to salvation. When I read this passage, however, I wondered what exactly Peter thought this meant when he left everything to follow Jesus. The analogy is actually not all that clear. Peter caught fish to sell them so that people could kill them and eat them. He wasn’t saving fish, he was destroying them. The fish weren’t drowning in the water in need of saving but thriving where they were supposed to be. Clearly the metaphor is limited. As we will see through the Gospels and Acts that it takes

several years for the Peter and the other disciples to get clear on exactly what this calling was calling them to. Peter was called and given work.

Isaiah is given the undesirable work to proclaim destruction.

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”

But within the destruction there remains hope for the future. The holy seed is its stump.

And Paul (formerly Saul) goes from a well educated (and probably successful leader) to a transient self-supporting (he made tents), ship wrecked, and oft-imprisoned preacher. Which, admittedly, sounds like a bad deal.

It is such bold action, however, after seeing God, that that both leads to faith and is a result of faith. For as we read in James, belief without action is dead. And in Hebrews 11 it is the faith shown by the “cloud of witnesses” that is the result of the grace of God and a sign of this. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…. (Hebrews 11)

It is to such faith and to such work that we are called. To proclaim with Paul the reconciling grace of God. To proclaim with Isaiah that even amidst destruction there is hope. And with Peter that Jesus has come near.

En Route

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21

When I tell people that I work at a 911 center they often ask what the hardest part of the job is. They wonder about high-stress calls where people have been shot, or barricade situations, or perhaps childbirth or CPR calls. All of those things can be stressful, but there is one stressor that remains kind of constant through all high priority calls. That constant is the waiting.

When you’re on the phone with someone who’s been shot, or someone who’s been injured in a car accident, or someone who can’t breathe or someone who’s giving birth, obviously those situations are stressful in and of themselves. But adding to that is the stress of waiting for someone to arrive. Whether it’s the police department or fire and rescue services, as a call taker you know that nothing’s going to get a whole lot better until someone gets there. No one’s going to be treated, or rescued, or whatever until help arrives on scene.

Each call has a timer on it that shows four things. The first one is when the call was entered. When did I as a call taker verify the location of the emergency, decide what type of emergency it is, type up what was going on, and hit “enter” so that the call would go to a dispatcher.

The second step is the time the call was dispatched. If I enter a call and send it to a dispatcher at 8:00, the time of dispatch shows when the dispatcher notified a unit about the call and told them to respond. For high priority calls like the ones I mentioned, it’s usually just a few minutes. For a more routine call like a noise complaint or a parking violation, it can be up to 30 minutes or an hour.

The third time shows when the dispatched unit marks en route, or on the way. This is almost always within a short time of being dispatched. It can be up to about five minutes if we’re dispatching firefighters or EMS workers who are asleep at 3:00 in the morning, but it’s rarely as long as that.

Finally, the fourth time is when the responding units mark on scene at the site of the emergency. This can vary a lot, based on how far the units have to come, what the traffic is like, what the weather is like, and other variables.

For me, it’s that “en route” part that can be stressful because all you can really do is wait. There are some calls, like calls about a burglar in the house or someone who’s been shot or stabbed, where we don’t want to disconnect with the caller. We try to gather additional information about what’s going on, get a description of what the suspect looks like or where he or she went, what the weapon looks like and where it is, things like that. On some medical calls like a childbirth call, we give delivery instructions and then care instructions after delivery, or some emergency instructions if the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s throat. We monitor what’s happening until rescue units are on scene.

What makes that time stressful is sometimes the situation itself; other times it’s the person you’re on the phone with who is frightened or worried or angry. People keep asking “When will the ambulance get here? When will the police get here?” and I keep saying “They’re on the way. They’re coming as quickly as they can. They’ll be there as soon as possible.” I say those things with an eye on that third timer – the one that tells me when units marked en route, how long it’s been that the caller and I have been waiting. It is so hard when you know someone is hurting or frightened or in danger, and units are still en route.

The story of Nehemiah is kind of a cool story. Nehemiah was an official in Persia. He heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem, and got permission to travel there to rebuild the temple. He begins seeing that the defensive walls around Jerusalem are rebuilt, and he declares a time of Jubilee in the midst of poverty and famine. This means that he required all debts and mortgages to be forgiven so that the poor could use their money to purchase food.

Then Nehemiah assembles the Jewish people and has Ezra read to them the law book of Moses, the Torah. The people confess their past sins, remember how God has helped them, and rededicate themselves to God’s worship and God’s service.

What strikes me here is how the reading of God’s word brings sadness to the people. They realize how far they are from God’s will. They recognize how far they’ve fallen, and they regret it bitterly.

But Ezra tells them to be joyful! The presence of God’s word symbolizes an end to their failures and their darkness and their ignorance. The proclamation of God’s word is a time for rejoicing! A time for celebration! A time to share with the poor! God’s word is a reason to be happy, not sad. God’s word is a reason to rejoice. God’s word is a reason

to think of and take care of the poor, of those who are not able to prepare for themselves.

In the New Testament, Jesus says starting in verse 18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then in verse 21 he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What is it that has been fulfilled? There are still captives – not just prisoners in jails, but people held captive. People enslaved. People trafficked and bartered.

We still have blind people – not just people who are physically limited in their sight, but people who are blinded by greed. People blinded by anger. People blinded by racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry. People blinded by nationalism. People who are blinded to the reality of the joy of life in Christ.

The oppressed are still with us. Oppression is sometimes political, in places like North Korea or China or Cuba. Oppression is sometimes economic as folks are oppressed by crushing debt and predatory interest.

There’s overlap between oppression and blindness and captivity depending on how we want to define them, but we can be sure that whatever it is that has been fulfilled, it hasn’t ended these things.

But Jesus didn’t proclaim the end to these things, to captivity and oppression and blindness. Jesus proclaimed that the end of those things was coming. Jesus proclaimed that the end was on the way. Jesus proclaimed that the end was en route.

The whole idea of the Kingdom of God existing within the midst of the fallen kingdom of the world is hard to grasp. Being citizens of both kingdoms is really challenging. Christians at different times have resolved the tension between the demands of the two kingdoms by withdrawing as much as possible from the kingdom of the world and living as fully within God’s kingdom as possible. That’s their way to be “in the world but not of the world.” Rod Dreher’s book from last year The Benedict Option tries to work at this idea, recommending that Christians consider living in intentional communities such as the Bruderhof.

There’s something to all of that, but the response to the proclamation of God’s word can’t be retreat – at least, not a permanent retreat – from the world. Hearing the word of God from Ezra at the Water Gate, how were the

people of God supposed to respond? By going out to find the poor. By meeting their needs. By having a party – one that everyone could attend and from which everyone would benefit!

That’s the same call that we face as Christians today. Jesus has proclaimed that captives are to be released, and that the blind will recover their sight, and that freedom is coming for the oppressed. “Are to be” released; “will recover” their sight; “is coming” for the oppressed. These things are en route. These things are on the way.

They have happened to some extent, but not to a full extent. The proclamation of the coming reality has been made – the units have been dispatched and they have marked en route. We are among those units of the kingdom that are already here, that have marked on scene. We are the ones to start working for that release, that recovery, and that freedom. We are the ones who are to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to declare and live out the Jubilee. To claim and live out of the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Kingdom is here, but some of its members and some of its results are still en route. The Kingdom has been proclaimed. Our

response isn’t just to wait for units to arrive. Our response is to celebrate and to act. Amen.

Getting Voice

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 2:1-11

On Monday Garba and I were taken around the Dutse Uku area of the city of Jos in Middle Belt region of Nigeria. Dutse Uku means “3 Stones” in Hausa. Jos is approximately a 4 hour drive northeast from the centrally located capital of Abuja, a city, like DC which was built solely as a capital. Jos has been the site of repeated violent crises since 2001. Though these crises would typically be relatively short lived, while Jenn and I worked in Nigeria, Jos experienced an extended period which meant we were unable to pass through for most of our two years. Jos was the center of one of several reoccurring conflicts that had political, economic, and power as well as ethnic and religious facets. Dutse Uku, 3 Stones neighborhood in this city, was at the center of these. My hosts said that the crises either start there or somewhere else but always end up in Dutse Uku.

Before entering this area, we needed to talk with a military checkpoint. They said since we hadn’t gotten a permit ahead of time (even though we were walking with residents of the area) we needed to talk to the military commander for the area. After waiting for maybe 20 minutes he arrived. He said that since we didn’t have the permit, he needed to hear from both the Muslim and Christian leaders that they agreed that we could enter and that we would walk with both Christians and Muslims so that people wouldn’t think we were favoring one side. We then visited the district head of the area in his home to also inform and ask permission.

We then began to walk. This house was owned by a Muslim and destroyed in October 2018. This dry, deep, washed out river bed was the dividing line where conflicts often start. Here was a house destroyed in 2008, 2010, 2018—the government has only collected data but never brought assistance. This street was mixed religiously and has two Christian and two Muslim homes destroyed. Here is a building never rebuilt from 2010 standing next to one recently burnt. (Since the buildings’ walls are cinder blocks, they usually remain standing but are unusable due to heat damage). Later we saw entire blocks that were uninhabited, and all the buildings destroyed, and then the remains of the Mosque of the Imam that we are walking with. After some time, we returned to the military checkpoint to get our vehicle. The one soldier said, when you go, remember not just to tell about the bad things—there are many good things about Nigeria.

My work is peacebuilding—which implies there is a lack of peace and all that makes for peace, such as, justice. And policy advocacy—which implies that things are not the way they should be. So, my focus tends toward that which is not as it should be. However, this was a good word from the soldier. Incidentally it was similar to Jacob’s comment that helped frame our Advent themes—we may often focus on the negative or the difficult call of Jesus but there is also joy and beauty and God’s provision.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle is to sustain the joy of a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. This is an extravagant act that marks the coming of the Kingdom of God. The “on the third” day invokes the resurrection of Christ marking the experience of God’s power (Craddock and Boring). In the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the young man Alyosha, prays in despair at the death of his mentor Father Zosima, drifting in and out of sleep hearing the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle of turning the water to wine at a wedding feast, responds, “Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness…’He who loves men loves their gladness, too.’ ….’There’s no living without joy,” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 338). This wedding was taking place under an occupation by a foreign power—the Romans. The wedding was either poorly planned or the people were poor enough to run out of a critical beverage for such a celebration. Immediately after this Jesus

drives the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple for their economic exploitation of the worshipers. The joy, and Jesus’ acting to sustain the celebration take place in the presence of struggle.

While traveling I was reading James Cone’s recently published memoir. Cone was widely considered the Father of Black Liberation Theology. Cone powerfully describes how he began to find his voice as a young theologian in the 60s. Having written his Ph.D. in theology which, at the time, focused almost exclusively on white European theologians, he was filled with anger that the white church and white theologians of America maintained and supported white supremacy through silence.

He writes “When I turned away from white theology and back to scripture and black religious experience, the connection between Black Power and the gospel of Jesus became crystal clear. Both were concerned about the liberation of the oppressed” (Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, 15).

“…White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist” (Cone, 18).

He wanted to “wake up black people and let them know that the day of the white Christ was over. A new Black Messiah was in town.” This was because his theology was not just about the oppression but was also a celebration of blackness. It wasn’t only anger but also joy. He writes, “Black liberation theology came out of black culture and religion, and it celebrated a new freedom to talk about God and Jesus in a jazz mode, a blues style, and with the sound of spirituals…” (Cone, 64).

Cone finds his voice, which is both angry at injustice but also a celebration. In Cana of Galilee Jesus starts to get his voice. The first miracle of the Gospel of John is to keep party going, to protect a poor family from the humiliation of inadequate wine. Jesus will have many harsh words throughout his ministry. Jesus will also challenge and rebuke—there was and remains much in our world and in our lives that needs such a challenge—but Jesus, a poor Middle Eastern Jew, the incarnate one, this Jesus also celebrates and affirms.

We will read the passage again followed by silence and then a time to reflect on what we have heard.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

[***James Cone notes that his black liberation theology, which was a theology that took blackness and its cultural beauty as a source for theological reflection, was different from white theologies that were also affirming of culture. This mode of theology in Germany contributed to the Holocaust and in America contributed to the genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. For Cone, however, wrote from the “underside of American history” (Cone, 58). “I was thinking about God from the bottom and not from the top, from the experience of the powerlessness of black oppressed and not from that of the powerful white oppressor. God’s power is found in human weakness, the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors” Cone, 10).]

Epiphany

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

As a child my family always had a Christmas celebration with extended family. My grandparents would have meal at their home. This included, as one might expect, a meal and gifts. It also included riotous beat-up golf cart and mini-bike riding through their meadow and a Christmas reenactment. The kids were the stars of the show. While we did this as young children, what I remember most is the later years. While this marked the Christmas story—if we are honest—it probably was also a little irreverent (a later rendition may have had me wearing sheep ears and biting people with my younger (but old enough to be bearded) brother playing baby Jesus. Our costumes came from a collection of dress-up cloths that my mom had gathered. It included a gold and burgundy glossy velvety robe—perhaps a bath-robe? This, of course, was the garb of a wise one—a Magi. Today, Epiphany, we mark the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.

There is a theological point—that is a point that asserts a truth about reality as it relates to God. Theologians have historically asserted all truth is theological. There are not neat and separate spheres as if the world were divided by academic disciplines. Geographers have their rocks, botanists their botanicals, mathematicians have their numbers….but how do arborists count their trees or why is it that we happen to live on this particular rock? This is why in Psalm 19 the heavens and trees join in the praise of God—

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. The Gospels are not simply a dispassionate recounting of the so called “facts” but are an argument via story that the baby named Jesus is the appearance of the all-powerful God in not only human form but baby human form. The helpless baby is the long-expected savior. The one who sees the dim stable light for the first time was the creator of that very light.

Just before what we read, chapter 1 of Matthew ends with an understated record of the birth of Jesus. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that though the baby isn’t his, he should carry on the marrying Mary as planned. The final 2 verses read. “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.” The next line is—

“In the time of Herod…”. There isn’t any other indication of time passing but we gather by later events that it may have been 2 years after the birth.

A commentator writes, “ ‘ In the time of King Herod’ may seem like a return to reality. Apocalyptic time, creation time, the time of Jesus’ conception—given the way we assume the world works—may seem unreal. But apocalyptic time intersects with everyday time, the time of Herod, creating a political crisis. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 37).

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.”

Wise men, or Magi, arrive from the east. These mysteriously named ones arrive by a mysterious means of navigation. They could be magicians (as the name refers to in other texts) or astrologers. The later Christian Christmas tradition that they were “kings” (We three kings…) may arise from Isaiah 60:3—

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Hare, Matthew, 13).

The Magi are an affirmation of Jesus. Again, like the shepherds, this is unexpected. The shepherds were looked down on, lacked refinement that would be expected for such a task as receiving and then pronouncing the news of divine intervention and arrival. The Maggi are foreigners, almost certainly from a different religion and not from the local religious establishment experts that should have known. God’s people who had been waiting for the coming Messiah missed it—at least in part.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the 4th century, writes, “And now the Magi come and worship Him wrapped in swaddling clothes; after a life devoted to the mystic rites of vain philosophy they bow the knee before the Babe laid in His cradle. Thus the Magi stoop to reverence the infirmities of Infancy; its cries are saluted by the heavenly joy of angels the Spirit Who inspired the prophet , the heralding Angel, the light of the new star, all minister around Him” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

While he felt it necessary to take a swipe at their “vain philosophy” it is of note that they were just about the only people who picked up on the arrival of this king. Not only this but they seem to have traveled for 2 years and only were working from a mysterious cosmic sign. Sure, they went to Jerusalem on the false but reasonable assumption that a new king would be born in the capital city but that is pretty close (just under 10 kilometers though presently more difficult because of the checkpoints and separation barrier…). The shepherds got not one angel but a heavenly host singing and only had to walk into town. Both a hometown advantage and angelic booster.

The multiple (maybe 3 because of the three gifts?) seekers of the king of the Jews show and up and ask where this new king is. The asking causes a stir—a stir of fear and not joy.

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

The seekers of Jesus with a little extra guidance then set off again.

“…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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Though no longer a newborn and no longer sleeping in a feed trough, this child and this family, we can safely imagine, remained unassuming. While these searchers were looking for a king no one else had recognized this reality. It is all still rather normal seeming. The gravity of the presence of this child was easy to miss.

“The inward reality is widely different from the outward appearance; the eye sees one thing, the soul another. A virgin bear; her child is of God. An Infant wails; angels are heard in praise. There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshiped. The glory of His Majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

The purpose of this text is affirmation via mysterious travelers that the baby is the awaited Messiah—the awaited saving one. Magi don’t just show up, give gifts, and worship anyone. They give gifts worthy of the coming king. Though the main life events of Jesus will happen decades later, this unusual Epiphany marks this child as the expected Messiah. Much doesn’t match the expectations of God’s people so many miss him. Even his eventual disciples, those who witnessed in person, even these often miss the way Jesus is the arrival of the kingdom of God—And that this was a different type of kingdom.

Both the unexpected child showed up in an unexpected way—or rather, to most, was too expected. He was just born. In obscurity. With no accruements of power. Both the child was unexpected but also the first proclaimers were unexpected. This is both an observation from the narrative texts but also is a broader theological statement. God often speaks through the unexpected. This means that we may both be the unexpected proclaimers and that we must watch and listen for God speaking in unexpected places.

I almost started to say that God likely shows up in the person or place we don’t expect. So, if your theological and political orientation are such it is no surprise that God may speak through X ______. And if your theological and political orientation is such then God may speak through Y___. This isn’t quite correct. For certainly it is the case that some people are more formed to hear God more clearly than others—for example Jesus clearly affirmed those who were humble before God. The challenge is that we usually assume that we are the ones that hear correctly. We should recognize that we may not be the best hearers. It is not a general rule that God is tricky in always choosing the surprising speaker or messenger—however, the shepherds were

unexpected, the Magi were unexpected, a baby was unexpected, a donkey speaking was unexpected—we, if we happen to proclaim a word from God are probably unexpected, and we need to watch for the unexpected heralds of a mighty word from God.

The Magi were so confident in their ability that they traveled a long way. And they were correct. From the vantage point of the expected hearers of God this was unexpected. For them it was on point.

The lectionary passage stops with the heroic success of the wise men. They succeed and worship and are filled with great joy. There is, however, an ominous and terrible part 2. The fearful Herod, a king holding tenuous power on behalf of an occupying force, shows interest in a new king—when this happens we can’t expect something good. This king asking, apparently innocently and out of curiosity for the “exact time” hints at ill intent. Verse seven reads “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He masks potential motives by 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.”

We think that Jesus may have been 2 years old at this point because based on the Magi’s response to the appearing of the star, Herod, the fearful tyrant king kills all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. Hauerwas writes of this, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Hauerwas, 41).

This is a downer. From “overwhelming joy” at seeing the Christ child to overwhelming grief of the parents of occupied Bethlehem. Children lost at the hands of a leader they didn’t choose who was afraid of a baby that was barely walking, much less overthrowing regimes. This, however, is the nature of the world. Joy next to sorrow. Pain next to healing. Hope next to despair. It is not that these need to be “held in tension” or in balance or that one redeems the other or cancels the other out. In the Matthew narrative, the Christ child comes as God’s definitive action in a world where kings can force parents to travel while pregnant and kill babies. God’s saving action—God coming near to heal humanity happens because humanity needs healing, needs justice, needs peace. The presence of real evil in the context of overwhelming joy forces us to focus—focus! We must watch for the coming King. We must proclaim the unexpected word that the Creator has come near to heal, has taken the lowliness of humanity. That we can be reconciled, and that God has broken down the separating wall between us (Ephesians 1-2).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.