Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Gifts of the Magi - December 19, 2010

December 19, 2010

Matthew 2:9-12

The Road to Bethlehem

The Gifts of the Magi

Have you noticed how different people are when it comes to finding the right gift for Christmas? There are some people who hint all year long. On December 26 they are already dropping hints for next year. Then, there are those who are very difficult. I’m talking about those who, when asked about a gift, will respond I don’t need anything, and they give you no help.

As we continue our Advent series The Road to Bethlehem this morning we complete the passage of the magi. Last week we studied their encounter with Herod as they came in search of Jesus and this morning we will study The Gifts of the Magi.

The gifts I want us to consider, though, are not the ones we usually think of in relation to the magi – the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are important gifts, but there are some less noticeable gifts in this passage that are very important as well.

The gift of spiritual awareness.

As we saw last week, the magi arrive in Jerusalem after following the star. Their journey had been long and they had followed the star for quite some time.

What’s interesting in this passage is that the magi arrive in Jerusalem in search of the Messiah and no one seems to have any idea what they are talking about. This is Jerusalem – the center of faith in Israel – and the religious leaders seem to be absolutely clueless about the birth of Jesus. How is it that you can be in the epicenter of spiritual influence and expertise and miss what’s happening around you? Sounds like Washington, DC, doesn’t it?

Matthew says that Herod called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law (verse 4) and asks where the Messiah would be born. This is the entire religious brain trust of Jerusalem that Herod assembles. These are the rocket scientists of faith. If anyone should know the answer to this question, these are the guys. They tell Herod in Bethlehem in Judea (verse 5), as was prophesied, and they quote the prophecy, while totally missing that the prophecy has been fulfilled. This group is testimony to the fact that you can know certain facts without having an understanding of the facts. The magi, in comparison, knew nothing of the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but they knew of his birth; the religious leaders and teachers, who knew all the prophecies, knew nothing of his birth. The magi have a gift of insight into spiritual matters that the religious leaders themselves did not possess.

I have been reading a fascinating book – The Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. One of the things researchers are asking is, why are some people more attuned to spiritual matters than others? Why is it that some people have an innate interest in spirituality while others never seem to think about anything spiritual? It’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s one that science can answer.

But it does cause us to consider the question of spiritual awareness. How could this group of learned scholars – the religious leaders and the teachers of the law – miss such a momentous even that took place in their own backyard while the magi – who begin their quest far removed from these events – are the ones with the knowledge of the birth of Jesus? The magi, along with their other gifts, bring the gift of spiritual awareness.

We live in a world very attuned to the material – the things that can be touched, and seen, and measured. We are seeing such a growth in this kind of materialism that matters of the spirit are being pushed more and more to the fringes of life. But the spiritual longings of society are popping up all around us, even while society moves away from the spirit. I have a theory, and it’s just a theory, but it’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. My theory comes from movies, especially the genre of superheroes. Superhero movies have had a long, successful run at the box office. I keep wondering why these movies haven’t run their course. You know why I think they remain so popular? Because while there has been a move away from matters of the spirit there is still a very deep spiritual longing in our society, and movies about supernatural characters express that longing. As I say, it’s just a theory.

Spiritual awareness is a gift that has to be nurtured, and nourished, and fed. And in our fast-paced, material world, it is very difficult to nourish a sense of spiritual awareness. The magi had that gift.

The gift of inclusion.

One of the most interesting facts about the magi is that they were outsiders. The magi were not from Jerusalem; they were not even from the nation of Israel. They were from much further east, probably Mesopotamia or Persia. All the other characters in this passage were insiders. Herod was an insider; the religious leaders were certainly insiders; the teachers of the law were insiders. They belonged there; this was their territory; everything was happening on their turf. The magi, though, were from far away, from a different country and an alien culture.

It is no small matter that magi from another nation and another culture came in search of Jesus. Though the magi were in Jerusalem, as outsiders they would have been denied entrance into almost any part of the Temple, but they were welcomed to come and worship Jesus. This is a prophetic proclamation about the ministry of Jesus, which was very much about inclusion. Jesus always welcomed the outsiders – he welcomed the tax collectors, he welcomed the lepers, and he welcomed those labeled as sinners.

There are churches, unfortunately, that specialize in exclusion. Some churches develop rules about who is welcome to worship and even make lists of the people they believe are acceptable to God and those who are not. Those are the churches that think they get to be the gatekeepers for the kingdom. But the people and the groups they want to exclude are those who are welcomed to come to Jesus, just as were the magi.

In the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet, where the invited guests turn down their host and the host tells his servant to go out and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:21). The gospels give us example after example of Jesus throwing open the doors of his kingdom to invite in those who had been rejected by the religious leaders. The gift of inclusion is one of the most important gifts.

The gift of worship.

The magi gave away as gifts what most people were trying to gain for themselves – gold, certainly as a measure of financial security. Frankincense and myrrh have medicinal qualities, so they were giving away something that brought health in a world where there were so many threats to a person’s health and well-being.

But the magi, by worshipping Jesus, were demonstrating the importance of worship by giving away. The core act of worship is the act of giving away – giving of ourselves, our time, our resources, our love – to God.

We associate Christmas with giving, and rightly so, and the tradition of that giving comes from the centrality of worship at Christmas. Even in our larger society, the idea of giving of one’s self comes out of the Christian tradition – this is a gift that is given to us and to the world at large.

In a world that is becoming more and more about the self, it is a practice that we have to continue. It can be hard to be about selflessness and giving in a self-centered, self-absorbed world, but that is the essence of what we are called to do.

I like the way Mother Teresa said it, in a poem on the wall of a

hospital in Calcutta, India. She paraphrased a poem by Dr. Kent Keith in this way –

People are unreasonable, illogical, self-centered—love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives—do good anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow—do good anyway.

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight—build anyway.

People really need help, but may attack you if you help them—help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth—give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

The gifts of the magi are gifts that are needed as much today as ever; perhaps they are needed even more today. May we share them freely.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus - December 5, 2010

December 5, 2010

Luke 1:67-79

The Road to Bethlehem

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

If you have kids, especially younger kids, they are probably getting very anxious for the arrival of Christmas. When you’re young, it’s hard to be patient at Christmas.

I am not a very patient person. I don’t like to wait in lines and I get very anxious when traffic is moving too slowly. I don’t like to have to wait on the mail to deliver things I order and I really don’t like to wait on a meal. I’m just not very good at waiting.

When we read the Scriptures we find a lot of waiting. The Hebrew people waited for generations for delivery from Egypt. After leaving Egypt they waited decades to enter the Promised Land. Later, after being taken into captivity in Babylon, they waited decades for deliverance. And the longest period of waiting was in waiting for the Messiah.

The Road to Bethlehem is the theme of our messages for Advent. This morning, the road to Bethlehem takes us through Judea, to the home of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, where we find that the context of the first Christmas is very different from our context. For us, the time preceding Christmas is a joyous and festive time, but it was not for the characters in the story of the first Christmas.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, like so many other Biblical characters, had been waiting. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had waited many years to have a child but finally gave up hope when so many years had past.

But it wasn’t just Zechariah and Elizabeth who had given up hope because of a long time of waiting. At this point in history the people of God had not heard a word from God for about 4 centuries, and many had given up hope of hearing any word. Their frustration was compounded because they were once again a nation occupied by a foreign power. This time it was the Romans, and after centuries of being controlled by various powers the waiting for deliverance had simply become too much for some and they lost hope and wondered if perhaps God had forsaken them. Will we hear from God, they wondered. Will he deliver us?

As hard as it is to wait, it’s really hard to wait on God. A person might become impatient waiting on important information or waiting on important news, but when you are waiting on God, it can be very difficult to be patient. When you come face to face with a health crisis and you hope and pray for healing, you can become impatient waiting on God. When you face a financial crisis and you pray for help, you can become impatient waiting on God. When you worry about a friend or a family member, you can become impatient waiting on him to intervene in their life. In those kinds of instances you don’t want to wait; you want God to do something right then.

Have you ever become impatient with God? Have you ever wondered about God’s timing? Have you ever come to the point where you considered giving up or perhaps you actually gave up because waiting became too difficult and too discouraging?

One of the things the Scriptures teach us is that God works on a different timetable than we do. We become so anxious about the time frame of life events and so fixated upon the schedule we think God should use that we are easily frustrated with the pace of God’s movement.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says he has made everything beautiful in its time. I don’t have any idea why there was such a long period of silence prior to the time of our text for this morning. I don’t know why God works on a time frame that seem strange to us. But I do know that I am much more trusting of that time frame than I used to be, because over the years I have seen examples of how he has made everything beautiful in its time in my own life and in the lives of others.

When I was in seminary it was difficult to be hundreds of miles away from Tanya, but the time frame turned out for the best. Before we moved to Shelbyville and to this church I felt the spirit was leading me to something different, and I had a timetable in my mind. As much as I wanted to push things and speed up the process, in retrospect I can see how everything fit right into God’s timing.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up. In fact, when the heavenly messenger told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a child Zechariah couldn’t believe such news could ever be true. Because of his failure of belief he was unable to speak until the time of John’s birth, which the angel said would happen at the proper time (1:20). It was a reminder that he has made everything beautiful in its time.

It was a powerful message to Zechariah and Elizabeth of God’s promise and faithfulness. But it wasn’t just for Zechariah and Elizabeth; it was for all people. John the Baptist, the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth, would be the herald of a new day, of the promise that deliverance was at hand.

It is a universal message that rings true for today as well. It is a message of hope and deliverance of all people today. It is a message of hope and deliverance for those who are hopeless; it is a message of hope and deliverance for those who have lost everything or are on the verge of losing everything; it is a message of hope and deliverance to those who have suffered loss; it is a message of hope and deliverance to a world where so many have so little; it is a message of hope and deliverance to a creation that has been used and abused and stands on the precipice of ruin; it is a message of hope and deliverance for war-torn nations and people who have grown weary of violence and oppression; it is a message of hope and deliverance for people who yearn to live and worship in freedom; it is a message of hope and deliverance for people who want to live – there is hope; God has not forgotten us and he will be our deliverer