Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Preacher's Temptations

Luke 4:1-13
Ordinary 3
January 20, 2019
William G. Carter

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

We are considering Jesus in this winter series. The Gospel of Luke portrays him as the prophet-preacher. Last week, we considered his heritage: Jesus is both the child of Adam and the child of God. He comes for the benefit of the whole human race. And immediately after Luke tells this profound truth, he speaks of the preacher’s temptations.

The temptations are three: turn stones into bread, sell out to the devil, and arrange for a few angels to rescue him from deadly behavior. On the surface, these are strange invitations. Nobody that I know has the power to turn stones into bread. No rational soul would give himself to Satan. Jumping from the tip-top of a temple is generally a stupid thing to do.

But this is the scope of what Jesus is tested to do, and the temptations do not go away. Luke says the tests will come up again and again. At the outset, Jesus needs to work them through if he is going to serve and save his Father’s world. If he gives in to any of these temptations and what they represent, God’s entire mission will fall apart.

The late, great preacher William Sloane Coffin Jr. suggested a fourth temptation for our time. If Jesus walked among us today, he would be tempted to appear on national television. Coffin may have been on to something. Do you think Jesus, the prophet-preacher of God, was tempted to be famous?

It’s there in that unusual second temptation: all the glory, all the authority, all the power. Satan says, “Bow down before me, Jesus, and I will make sure everybody notices you.” You will be the lead story every night on the news. You will make the headlines of newspapers. You will have a lot of friends on Facebook. Your life will become one big Tweet on Twitter. “Just sign here…”

The same temptation is in the offer to turn stones into bread. Jesus has the power, presumably because he is one with the Father and together, they created stones and bread. Here in Galilee, he is surrounded by scores of hungry peasants. They don’t have a lot of bread, but they have a lot of rocks. If he can perfect that magic trick out in the desert, he can feed a lot of people and satisfy that growl in his own stomach. It would make him famous.

Just imagine how famous he could be if he gave into that third temptation. The Tempter says, “Do a triple flop from the top of the Temple.” Use God to catch you. Be sure to quote Psalm 91 all the way down, ‘God will catch me, God will catch me, God will catch me.’

“After all,” says the devil, “you command all the angels. Right? So take a flying leap and prepare to autograph everybody’s Bible.”

At the heart of these three tests is the singular enticement of becoming famous. If Jesus should give in, everything he has come to do will be at risk.

The spiritual life is never aimed toward fame and glory. The prophet preacher will remind us of this after he makes his way through the desert. He will say, “When you give your money to the poor, don’t blow your own horn.” When you pray, don’t call attention to yourself – because prayer is not about you. When you fast, don’t moan and groan about it, lest your spiritual growth be suffocated by the attention you seek.

There is something risky about being famous. Ever notice how many famous people go off the rails or smash into the wall? Every week we hear about some new movie star going into rehab, some famous musician who develops destructive habits, or some sports hero who smashes up a bar room. And no preacher is exempt from this, even Jesus. In fact, there’s something about celebrity status that seems to have magnetic power for attracting trouble.

We have a love affair with fame, and we hate it, too. Maybe that’s why we secretly love to see famous people fall apart before our eyes. Maybe that’s why we crave the sordid stories. We amplify their troubles, push them toward the cliff, and then buy the books they hired ghostwriters to write. It’s a way to cope with the sadness in our own souls, to see someone soar in the stratosphere of public appeal, and then to be knocked down into the mud.

Nobody talks about Vickie Lynn Hogan any more. She quit school after failing ninth grade, bounced from one job to another, and read a lot of tabloids about Hollywood stars. Her idol was Marilyn Monroe, and Vickie Lynn decided she wanted to become like her in every way. She dyed her hair, had a couple of surgical enhancements, and changed her name to Anna Nicole Smith. Then she married an 89-year-old billionaire and buried him fourteen months later.

Fame was fickle. Just like her idol, she died of a drug overdose. I remember thinking, “That poor soul.” Even with 400 million dollars in the bank, she was a poor soul, a victim of her own need for attention. She didn’t invent anything, make anything, or contribute anything. Her reality show was so bad it was re-labeled a comedy. A line from her obituary is now repeated regularly: “She was famous for being famous.”

As someone said about her, “She was a giant cartoon version of the universal danger. Her tragedy is the extreme danger that faces every one of us… to be something that we are not.” To live larger than life. To forget who we are.

Jesus won’t have any of it. At least, not for himself. He resists the fame and fortune that the tempter offers him in the wilderness. He will not take the easy way out for feeding the hungry, nor will he order God’s angels to give him preferential treatment, nor will he skip the cross to gain the power and the glory,

In fact, it is on the cross, at an opportune time, that the tempter tries again to twist Jesus’ understanding of his identity. The soldiers say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself (23:37).” Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He is the prophet preacher who comes to save the world. In his mission on earth, as in his authority of the resurrection, Jesus shrugs off the fame machine.

It is hard to keep this straight. Someone reminded me recently of the off-the-cuff remark that John Lennon once made. The Beatles were at the peak of their fame. They filled football stadiums with frenzied fans. Their recordings were flying off the shelves of stores. Ever the wise guy, Lennon said to a London reporter, “We are more popular than Jesus now.”

The religious response was furious, even though in many corners the statement was probably true. The Vatican demanded an apology, while the Southern Baptists declared it was an unforgivable remark. The Ku Klux Klan sponsored record-burning bonfires, which meant people had to buy Beatles albums before burning them. Lennon and his bandmates received death threats, and the response was one of the reasons why the Beatles stopped touring.

It is ironic that the Christ who refused fame and fortune would be defended by people who were unforgiving and threatening. It is particularly curious that a world that first rejected Jesus would not acknowledge that he is still overlooked and rejected. And the saddest bit of all is that John Lennon was later murdered by a man who had once adored him. It was being more popular than Jesus that eventually did him in.

Meanwhile, the assassin’s parole board keeps turning down his appeals, noting more than once that John Lennon was killed by a man who craved a lot of attention.

So I raise all this because it identifies the ongoing temptation of the preacher. As we will hear through the Gospel of Luke, the fame of Jesus will increase and advance, yet he himself never acts like a famous man. He walked flat on the ground like everybody else. He spoke with great power but never used his power to lie, manipulate, or advance his cause. Jesus had the authority to shout down a wind storm and chase away a physical illness, yet he never used his abilities for his own benefit. It was always in service to the needs of others.

It is hard for us to keep this straight, to not let it spiral off in one direction or another. Maybe the best advice is to paraphrase what the apostle Paul gives us in one of his letters, “We don’t think of ourselves too highly or too lowly (Romans 12:3).” It’s probably best to stay somewhere in the middle, balanced, intact, and honest; confident of how God equips us, yet trusting God to finish what we cannot.

There are no experts in holiness, no famous people in the Christian life, no perfect heroes who have it finished or figured out. All of us are pilgrims on a journey, strugglers in the desert, disciples on the road, forgiven sinners who might be saints in the making.

So as we reflect on the prophet preacher and his temptations, let us walk with our feet flat on the ground and remember who we are. We are the children of God, claimed in the grace of the Son of God. We are God’s own people, called from the shadows of our own self-magnified glory into God’s marvelous light.  

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Preacher's Heritage

The Preacher's Heritage
Series: The Prophet Preacher
Luke 3:21-38
Baptism of the Lord.

This winter, we will consider Jesus as the “prophet preacher.” That is how the Gospel of Luke regards him. Jesus comes to proclaim the living word of God. He speaks in the voice of a prophet. Sometimes he raises his voice, which is often how we regard a prophet. Other times he chuckles, even whispers, and the effect is no less profound. This prophet preacher comes with the power of Holy Spirit, and his words change the world. So we will spend time this winter with him.

The first issue is his heritage. Where does Jesus come from? And to that question, Luke provides his answer. Listen:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.
He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 
son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 
son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 
son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 
son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 
son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 
son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 
son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 
son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, 
son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, 
son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 
son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 
son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 
son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 
son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 
son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

I am reminded of an old story of a director on Broadway. He was working at his desk one night. In front of him was a tall stack of scripts, and he was looking for the one that would be his next successful show. The hour was late, as he thumbed through one thick manuscript after another. In his weariness, he accidentally picked up the Manhattan phone book. (Remember phone books?) Flipping through a few pages, he paused to write a critique in the margin: "Not much plot, but, what a cast of characters!"

It sounds like Luke is reading us the phone book. It’s a long list of names, difficult names, strange names. The liturgist is glad we didn’t assign him that reading. These are people we never met, who lived and died a long time before we ever were born. They have no immediate connection to any of us, except that this is the recital of Jesus’ heritage. It sounds to us like a list of names, but it’s more than a list. It’s a family tree.

A couple days ago, I was cleaning out a bookcase at home and came across an untitled manila folder. It was full of information about my father. Mom gave it to me after his funeral and I had stashed it away. What a wealth of information! There were news clippings about his accomplishments, letters of commendation from his supervisors, and a handwritten resume.

Then there was worksheet for a security questionnaire for the Defense Department. It listed his brothers and sisters with their birthdates. It also listed his parents. I did not know that my grandfather’s middle name was Milford, and did not remember he was born on Christmas Eve 1901. I had forgotten he had married a woman who was a Thorngate. Her family came from Wales. Now to you, those would merely be names. But not for me. Don’t call it a list. It’s my heritage.   

What is most curious is why Luke should include this list. Joseph was the son of Heli,  son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph . . . Joseph was named after somebody five generations before. They would have remembered the name.

My younger daughter is Margaret Rose. She hates it when somebody calls her Megan because that’s not her name. Her name is Margaret. My father’s mother was named Margaret, Margaret Thorngate. She was pleased that we named one of her great-grandchildren after her. I said, “Well, Grandma, actually we didn’t name her after you,” and Grandma said, “Oh yes, you did!” She lived for four more years after Meg was born. She held her in her arms only a few times, but the generational blessing was given. It’s stated in Psalm 128, “May you see your children’s children.” The human race continues; that is God’s blessing.

The genealogy of Jesus pushes us to the past. It points to those from whom we have come. If you go over to the first chapter of Matthew, he doesn’t restrict it to men only. He includes some women, some curious women. Go poking around in Jesus’ family history and who do you find? Rahab, the prostitute. Tamar, the incest victim. They are on the list, which is more than a list. There is Bathsheba, whom King David stole from her husband before ordering his death. There is old grandmother Ruth, who was a Moabite woman. Jesus had Moabite blood in his veins! Now, that’s interesting. It is Matthew’s way of saying the birth of Jesus was an unusual birth.

As you may have noticed, Luke doesn’t have that much imagination. He mentions only men. Seventy-six men. A long line of men: Melchi was the son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er,  son of Joshua.

That’s what it says: son of Joshua. Joshua and Jesus are the same name. Did you know that? In Hebrew, it is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” According to Luke’s story, Jesus was named before his birth by an angel. It turns out that 26 generations prior, the name was already a family name. Trust me when I tell you the Jewish people have long memories.

I bet you thought the last thing we would be doing today is reciting a list of names – except it’s so much more than a list. Don’t call it a list.

Some years ago, I was preaching at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s an annual summer pep rally for Presbyterians. Presbyterian pep rallies happen with a lot of sermons and I was one of the preachers. The director of development at the conference center was named a woman named Revlan. That was her name. She looked like she could model in a makeup commercial.

Revlan was a Virginian from the Shenandoah Valley. One day from our lunch table, I watched her work. An old duffer hobbled up with his food tray, his pants hiked up to his lungs. She stood and helped him take his seat. She sat down with a big smile. She offered her name, he spoke his, and then she said, “Who are your people?” That was the magic question. It must be the Shenandoah Valley Question: “Who are your people?”

This old guy sat up straight. He recited names, shared connections, told stories. Revlan sat with a radiant smile and took it all in. This is how she did fund raising, asking about relationships, discerning values. By the time she was done, she could have filled in the amount on his check – because she took him seriously. It began with a single question: who are your people?

“Jesus, who are your people?” He could tell you. Any Jew in the first century could tell you. He could trace the generations back for hundreds of years. This was the Palestinian way. This was the Jewish way. You could go to any town where a member of your family lived. If you recited your generations, the people would open their doors to you. This is how we can be certain that Jesus was not born in some backyard cave. All Joseph had to do upon coming into Bethlehem was to begin the recital of generations . . .

Simeon son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim,  son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David . . .

And with that, every home would be opened to Joseph the son of David.[1]  These were his people.

This was more than a local thing, more than relationship of Bethlehem. Luke is very clear that Jesus is a Jew. He structures the book that way, begins his gospel in the Jerusalem temple with the priest of Zechariah, and concludes it in chapter 24, with the Christian believers worshipping in the temple. Luke says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, like every male Jewish child. Jesus was taught Torah and discussed it with the teachers in the Temple. His family kept Passover every year. They didn’t wink at the hold day; they journeyed by foot to Jerusalem. They did this every year! Because Jesus is a Jew. These are his people. . . for Luke goes on,

Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah,  son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. . .

That is the Jewish family tree. But the most curious thing of all is that Luke does not stop there. For Matthew, the line goes back to Abraham, father of the multitude, “exalted father” of the Jewish race.

Now, that is some heritage. My friend Lynn was interested in visiting our church some time, so I invited her to Christmas Eve. The church looked great, the choir was tuned up, and I said, “Come and enjoy Christmas with us.” She said, “Well, I’d like to, but we have a long-standing tradition to go to a family church near Philadelphia. Everybody looks like me, and although nobody says it out loud, I think you can only have communion if your ancestors were on the Mayflower.” We had a good chuckle over that.

But I had to wonder, whatever did they do before the Mayflower? If you talk to some folks, some rare folks these days, their family’s significance and stature go back only so far. But what happened before that?

So when Luke speaks of Jesus, he takes it all the way back. I mean all the way back . . . Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam . . . son of God.

Now, that’s something. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens open, the dove descends, and God says directly to Jesus, “You are my son. You are my beloved child.” When the genealogy is recited, it goes all the way back to Adam, the first child of God, the original Single Father. Jesus is named “Son of God” at his baptism and traced back to the first “Son of God” in the genealogy. That is to say Jesus is a member of the human family and he is also mysteriously the source of the human family. He comes for everybody. Not just for some, but for everybody, because from the very beginning God created everybody. And what Jesus comes to proclaim is for everybody.

This is the preview of what is coming. Jesus speaks in the small town synagogue as well as the national temple. He instructs the rich and lifts up the poor. He eats at the affluent dinner party and feeds the hungry with loaves and fishes. Never in the Gospel of Luke does Jesus ever distinguish!

He calls the unclean tax collector to give up his dirty job and welcomes the touch of the unclean leper. He raises from the dead the son of a Jewish widow and welcomes the servant of a Roman centurion. He sits with the judgmental Pharisee and attempts to enlarge the man’s heart, and he welcomes the anointing tears of a woman with a questionable reputation. Men support his ministry, and women respond to by supporting him out of their own purses. Jesus will not divide or discriminate. He comes for everyone.

And where does the prophet preacher come from? Luke says, It was supposed that he was son of Joseph . . . who was son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. To put it simply, whether they know it yet or not, the whole human race is connected to him. And he comes to you and to me and to everybody else and says, “You belong to God.”

Just ask him, “Jesus, who are your people?” He looks at us and says, “You are.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 28.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Strangers at the Door

Matthew 2:1-12
The Day of Epiphany
William G. Carter

I did a quick survey of Christmas cards we received this year, and didn’t see a lot of Wise Men. Usually a number of magi ride their camels across the desert sands and into our holiday greetings. They come with jeweled turbans and luxurious robes, back lit by the moon on the horizon, a bright star over their heads. But not this year. I’m wondering why that is.

Maybe it’s because they were running late. According to the story, it may be two years after the child was born, and here they come, knocking on the door. Enough time has passed that Mary and Joseph are now living in a house. Verse 11 says they were in a house. But the house is in Bethlehem, which is a four days walk from Nazareth, which is where they live. Two years is a long time to live with an infant far from home, far from his grandparents, far from Joseph’s wood shop. That’s unusual.

But these wise men don’t seem to care about the timing. They aren’t in a hurry. Like the guy I know who doesn’t take down the Christmas tree until early in August. By then, the round red ornaments are covered in pine pitch, and he doesn’t notice. Or that lady I know who had every intention of sending out a Christmas letter. Last year it became an Easter letter. The year before that, it arrived on Valentine’s Day. If the baby Jesus is important enough for God to put a new star up there to mark his birth, he has eternal significance. Nobody should be in a hurry. Maybe this year, the wise men aren’t on any of my cards because they didn’t get their pictures to the print shop on time.

Or maybe it’s because of the gifts they bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Three gifts, that’s why we have always thought there three of them. There might have been two, might have been seven, but we settle on three. One of them brings gold, a gift to honor a king. As they said to Herod the king, “Where is the new king?” Another brings frankincense, an expensive incense that you ignite when you offer prayers. It is an appropriate gift to give to a priest. The baby Jesus will be the king above kings. He will be our one and only high priest.

And the third brought some myrrh. Apparently he didn’t get the memo. Why did he bring myrrh? Myrrh is a burial spice. It is used for embalming the body. It’s not the most appropriate gift to bring a young child. It’s like purchasing him a cemetery plot. I would guess, after they left, Joseph turned to Mary and said, “How about if we sell the myrrh and get some diapers?” I wonder if the word got out about their gifts, and they didn’t end up on a lot of Christmas cards?

Maybe the reason is because they are strange. They are odd. They don’t come from around here. Like my friend who moved to Pittsburgh a few years ago. He says the people in Pittsburgh are born in Pittsburgh, they die in Pittsburgh, and in between they hardly ever leave Pittsburgh. After he moved in, my buddy went to the gas station to buy a pack of gum. He handed over the money and the clerk said, “You’re not from around here, are you.” He said, “How can you tell?” The clerk said, “I can just tell.” My friend said, “Is my money still good in here?” The clerk said, “I’d better check.” Ever have that experience?

We are not sure where the wise men come from. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you will discover they probably came from Persia, what we would now call Iraq and Iran. So that might explain their absence from the Hallmark store. This year, they probably got held up at the border. In previous centuries, they could have brought their caravan right into the country. These days, not so much.

But we can be absolutely certain: the three Wise Men aren’t from here. They don’t come from here. They don’t belong here. They read the stars rather than read the Bible; according to the book of Deuteronomy, that makes them suspect. As one Bible scholar sums up the research, "The term ‘magi’ refers to those engaged in occult arts and covers a wide range of astrologers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers, and magicians of various plausibility."[1] If that is so, and we have every reason to expect it is, traditional Jews would declare them as pagans and heretics. What are they doing at the cradle of Jesus?

Did you ever stop to think about this? It is one weirdest details in the Christmas story: wise men from far away are drawn to the baby Jesus. They look to the sky and perceive something is up. They figure out enough of they mystery to travel the long road to Jerusalem. They presume it is a royal birth, so they go to the palace. Something is drawing them in. Call it “God,” or “the star,” or “the primal mysteries of the universe.”

They tell us why they come in the very first line of the story: “We have seen his star at its rising and we come to worship him” By worship, they don’t mean yawning through the sermon nor writing a grocery list in the margin of the bulletin. The verb for “worship” is a physical word. It has to do with bending your knee or falling on your face or offering your deepest riches, all in response to the One you are honoring.

What the Gospel of Matthew is suggesting is that even the strangers out there declare that this is their deepest need. The magi travel for weeks, at great expense, through foreign land and hostile territory, to the one aim that they can kneel before the newborn King. They are willing to give up everything if they can only see him and honor him. That’s the definition of worship.

The irony of the Gospel of Matthew is that the very people you would think would welcome the Christ are the ones who dismiss him or ignore him. It is the newcomers and the outsiders who show us all what we’ve been missing.

Someone was telling me about a recent worship service they attended. In fact, it was in another church, just last week. We had a good service ourselves last Sunday, although you could tell by the attendance figures that it wasn’t Christmas Eve. That’s how it is in many congregations on the first Sunday following a holiday, and that’s how it was the congregation that I heard about.

The numbers were down, there weren’t a lot of kids, the congregational energy was on a slump after a sugar high. The advent wreath was turning brown, and starting to look like a fire hazard. There was a guest preacher, who unlike our guest preachers, was not very good. The greens were still in the windows, the twinkle lights were still on. In fact, the handmade wooden manger was still in the chancel, leftover from the previous week’s pageant.

But something happened. The congregation was singing “The First Noel.” It’s a long Christmas carol, has a lot of verses, and arguably goes on way too long. But this time, in the middle of the second verse, a woman nobody knew made her way down the aisle. She looked Middle Eastern, Egyptian as it turned out. Her head was covered in a traditional scarf. She came down to the first step, knelt before the manger, then prostrated herself on the floor and started to weep.

The ushers didn’t know what to do. Here is this lady nobody knows, weeping on the floor in front of a leftover  pageant prop, while the congregation is singing a half-hearted version of a really long Christmas carol. It was a shocking moment. Everybody froze in place, wondering what to do.

Just then, the congregation sang, “Then entered in those Wise Men three, with reverence fall on their knee, then offered up in his presence the gifts of gold and frankincense.”

When the song was over, someone was up there, checking on her, helping her back to her feet. And she explained, “I know the Christ has been born among us, and I had to fall down and worship him.”

They tell me that they never caught her name. She slipped away rather quickly. But they said, “For the moment, it was very clear that she was reminding all of us why we are actually here every Sunday.” Somebody else added, “It shook me awake, in the best kind of way.”

After the birth of Jesus, strangers arrived to say, “Where is he, born king of the Jews? We have come to kneel down, to fall before him in worship.” We may not know who they are. We may not know how they got here. But they point us to the place where the whole Christmas story directs us: to worship Christ, the newborn king. To give ourselves completely to him.

Jesus Christ is the Lord over God's creation, the king over all other kings, and crowned by the praises of those who love him.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 167.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Things We Do to Our Children

Luke 2:21-24
Christmas 1
December 30, 2018
William G. Carter

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Here we are on the sixth day of Christmas. Somewhere there are six geese a-laying as we sing some of the Christmas carols that we couldn’t squeeze in last week. In a few minutes, we will baptize a little boy named Declan.

I imagine the day will come, sometime in the future, when the young lad will look at his father and say, “Why did you do that?” His father will say, “What? Why did we baptize you?” And the boy will say, “No, why did you name me Declan?” Oh, let’s think for a few minutes about the things we do to our children.

Declan is a noble name, an Irish name. According to my sources, it either means “full of goodness” or “a man of prayer.”[1] Either one is really good. Our great hope is that he will grow into his name.

Declan’s middle name is Arthur, taken from his great grandfather. A graduate of Duke, great-grandpa Art was an extraordinary golfer. Art won the Masters in 1959 and made over forty holes in one. (Declan, no pressure there!)

Today his parents present him to be baptized. Declan has no choice over that, either. It’s not up to him to decide that today is the day when he joins the Christian tribe. Today his parents, his family, and all of you hand him over to God. We trust God to honor this covenantal promise, to be at work in his life, to guard him from evil, and to be both “full of goodness” and “a man of prayer.” We look forward to the day when he claims for himself his full identity as a child of God.

Right now, of course, he had little clue what that means. His parents are choosing all of this for him.

The Bible passage we heard resonates with this. The baby Jesus is presented in the temple. He is only eight days old. The shepherds have gone back to their fields. The angels have returned to heaven. Since Joseph and Mary are only seven miles away in Bethlehem, they decide to take their child to the temple in Jerusalem. That’s what the scripture told them to do.

If they have been home in Nazareth, that wouldn’t have been practical. Nazareth was a four or five day walk to Jerusalem. The rituals would have been done closer to home, in a much smaller synagogue, by a rabbi not quite as notable as the professionals in the Holy City.

So the child is circumcised, just as it says in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus: “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” This unusual procedure is not done for sanitary reasons. Rather, it is a commandment from God that marks him as a child of God. No little infant boy would ever choose to be circumcised. No clear-thinking grown-up man would ever choose it for himself, either.

Centuries later, the Christian people saw all kinds of significance in this event. The Orthodox church declared this is evidence that Jesus truly was a human being; he had a physical body and it was cut. The Roman Catholic church delighted that this was the first time Jesus would have his blood spilled, a sign of his sacrificial death on the cross.[2] The Jews would tell Orthodox and Catholic to settle down. This is the moment when Jesus becomes part of the tribes of Israel.

It means that his education starts now. His parents will teach him the psalms, the same psalms that their parents taught to them. “These are the words of prayer,” they will say: “The Lord is my shepherd,” “my help comes from the Lord,” “My God why have you forsaken me,” “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him.”

Joseph and Mary shall teach him the stories that give the little boy his identity:

  • In six days, God created the heavens and the earth, and rested on the Sabbath.
  • And God said to Abram, ‘Your children will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.’
  • A new pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph, and we were slaves in Egypt…
  • God brought us out with an outstretched arm,
  • and God gave the scripture as a lamp for our feet.

No one knows these truths until they are told from one generation to the next. No one knows automatically that God is concerned with justice and all evil doers will perish. They must be instructed. Otherwise they are left to their own whims, their own distortions, their own screwy ideas. To belong to God means that we will be taught the truth about who God is, what God cares about, and what God wishes to get done – through us or in spite of us. It is a lifelong commitment with eternal significance.

I guess that’s why, when my daughters were young and they complained, “Why do we have to go to church,” I often retorted, “We are going so that you learn who you are, and so you can make your way through a world like this.” I would never back off and allow them to decide for themselves. That would make me an inept parent.

It’s fascinating to me how the Gospel of Luke insists Jesus was a Jew. He may have been born in a barn and visited by ranchers, but he was raised in the promises of God. Luke begins his book by telling about a priest named Zechariah and his vision in the temple. He ends the book in chapter 24 with the disciples meeting regularly to praise God in the temple.

In between, Jesus is saturated in scripture. He teaches in the synagogues, he tells the truth about God, and he knows the tradition so deeply that he becomes a prophet within his own tradition. Nobody gets that way without being shaped, being formed, by a way of life that is far greater than one’s individual opinion.

One of my minister friends talked about doing away with the Christian Education committees in her church. A few of us sat up straight and said, “What?” She smiled and explained, “The work before us is so much more than education; it’s actually formation.”

“We teach Bible stories,” she said, “but it’s always to the end that we shape values, nourish trust, discern the truth, and engage in God’s work in the world. We want to do so much more than teach Bible facts that kids might forget or adults dismiss as myths. We are trying to shape souls. We are working to help our people look more like Jesus.”

So they did away with a Christian Education committee? She said, “We call it the Christian Formation committee, because that is the work for all of us from cradle to grave. All of us are Christians who are still becoming Christians.” I think she’s right about that.

One more thing, she said: “When the children see their parents are still growing in their own faith, they tend to take it more seriously for themselves.”

The brief little Bible story that we heard today tells us a great deal about the decisions that Joseph and Mary made for Jesus. They are Jews, and they are present their son to be a Jew. They pledge to raise him within their faith, to teach him who he is. And they do this, even though they are four days away from home, far from family and familiar surroundings, even though they don’t have a lot of money.

That, by the way, is also in the text. When a child’s birth was celebrated in the Jerusalem Temple, the scriptures declared, “You shall offer a lamb to be sacrificed as a gift for God.” However, if the family cannot afford a lamb, the book of Leviticus offered an alternative: “a pair of turtle doves or a couple of pigeons.”[3] According to Luke, that’s all that Mary and Joseph could offer. They didn’t have much, but they had their faith, they had their pride, and they had their first-born son.

They named him “Jesus.” Not Joseph Junior, but Jesus. The name was given to them by the angel of God, but according to the story, they were far too modest to tell anybody about that. Jesus is a human name, a common name. In Hebrew, it’s essentially the same name as Joshua. You can hear it: Yeshua/Jesus, Joshua.

There were, and still are, a lot of people named Jesus or Joshua. When I was a kid, I opened a pack of bubble gum cards and found one for an outfielder for the San Francisco Giants. His name was Jesus Alou. You’ll never guess who he was named after.

Jesus is a big name, a really big name. In Hebrew it means, “he rescues, he delivers, he saves.” Imagine him growing up and knowing that was his name! Imagine the day his momma told him where the name came from. And after a lifetime of learning the scriptures and reciting the prayers, imagine the day when he decided to grow into the fullness of his name. Jesus … he rescues, he delivers, he saves.

In light of him, and in his name, we can reflect on the things we do to our children. Some things are admirable, some could be mistakes, some may take some therapy to undo, and some might turn out better than we could have ever imagined. Most parents make the best decisions they can, and time will tell how things will turn out.

I am convinced one of the best things we can ever do is to give our children the knowledge of God. When we baptize our children, we place them into the hands of the Love that holds all things, bears all things, and endures all things. And we do this in the name of Jesus, in the rescuing, delivering, saving name of Jesus.

 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Thoroughly Human, Completely Alive

John 1:1-5, 14-18

2018 Christmas Eve Sermon
Bill Carter

By my calculation, this is the 35th time I have preached on Christmas Eve. That’s not counting the teenage youth group Christmas pageant, where I portrayed the front end of a donkey. 35 Christmas Eves. It takes a while to get it right.

So I thought that I would tell you tonight what Christmas is all about. Ready? I am aiming for the heart of it all. I’ve cut away the fake tinsel and the artificial light. No mention of gift cards, snowflakes, or chestnuts. I’m going put Christmas in three words. You might want to write this down. Here goes.

Union with God. That’s it.

We can expand on that, I suppose. Fortunately I have a few minutes to do that, especially for that guy in the camel hair coat who will meet me at the door and say, “What exactly did you mean by that ‘union with God’ thing?” That’s a good question.

Some people don’t think such a thing is possible, like the Puritans who came to America four hundred years ago. They hated Christmas. They did everything they could to shut it down. They broke off from the Anglicans, accusing them of partying too much. They complained there was too much merriment in late December, too much frivolity, too much celebration, too much brazen activity. Those Puritans declared, “The Gospel is made of sterner stuff!” So they outlawed celebrations of this night and stated that all must spend their time in repentance.

Hate to tell you, but this brand of church came from the Puritans. Well starched. Stiff backed. Affectionately known as the “Frozen Chosen.”

They believed there is no way any human person could ever be united with God, that we are too tainted, too dirty, too broken, too corrupt. It was not uncommon to attend a Puritan church around Christmas time and hear a two-hour sermon about how bad you were. When the congregation was properly chastised, the preacher would remind them that Christ died to take away our sin. If only they repented, their sins might be taken away. That’s the only way they knew how to get united to God: through the cross. They thought you couldn’t really live with God until you died. And then, maybe.

With that, they pulled on grey overcoats and shuffled home to a dinner of cold porridge. Merry Christmas, Frozen Chosen.

This was all they knew. I don’t blame them for that.  Life was hard. Living like Jesus was difficult, and still is. Their only connection to God was through the preaching of their sins, with the tail-end reminder that God could remove that sin if only they were penitent enough. For them, life was only about the death of Jesus. Not even a resurrection could lift their hearts. And so they squelched Christmas.

But here’s the thing: Christmas is the truth of God’s union with us. What did God do? Became a human child. That is the Christmas story. The Creator sets aside all power and heavenly privilege and becomes part of the Creation. “God is with us” – that’s the message. That’s the heart of it all. It’s what we are singing about. And if that’s true, maybe there’s more to life than the death of Jesus. Maybe there’s also resurrection. And maybe, the birth of Jesus matters too. Maybe his birth matters for our life.

Here is what one brilliant soul (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) had to say:

Christ took upon himself this human form of ours … In the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God … Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore.[1]

Now, that’s a lot of theology, especially for those who have had a couple of glasses of wine. So let’s hear it in words from the Gospel of John. First, this verse: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. “ And then this one: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” And if that’s still too much, here’s a line from a Christmas carol: “Light and life to all he brings.”

Light and life. These are the gifts of God. We don’t have to work for them. They are already there, ready to be received. Rather than stretch and strain and stress out, it’s so much better to lean back, breathe in the air, and say, “Thank you God for light and life.”  For God has dignified human life on the day that Jesus was born. It was the sign that God wishes for heaven and earth to be united. We don’t have to wait until we die before we live with God.  We can live with God here and now.  In the depths of prayer, the mystics call this “union with God.”

Now, any of us can lose that sense of living with God. God is quiet enough that a lot of us are accustomed to living only with ourselves. And we do have the freedom to mess up our lives as much as we want. But to mess up your life – or somebody else’s life – is not to own our God-given dignity. And if we wear ourselves out at Christmas time, we are not accepting the grace of God that says, “I made you, I became like you, and I love you just the way you are.”

Bonhoeffer was right: “In the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.”

We do not need to live as those separated from God if we can receive the gift of God-with-us. We do not have to allow our brokenness to break anybody else if we can receive the gift that God holds our broken pieces and offers to mend whatever can be mended. We don’t have to poison our own bodies or twist our minds or pull our arms out of joint by reaching for what we think we do not have; God has already entrusted great riches to each one of us. For our part, we can open our hands to receive what God has already given us and then we can do something beautiful with everything that we have received.

What we have received is life, God’s life - that's the light in everybody’s eyes. No need to make this harder than it is. The Christmas invitation is to stand in the light. Receive the life. And remember, on a night like this, God was found among us … and has never gone away. That’s what Christmas is all about. Union with God. God with us. It's the all in all, and it's enough. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to sing. Makes me want to dance.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995) p. 301