Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Excellent Way: Filled with Power

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
January 27, 2013
© 2013

I.                Each year’s observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday holds up the themes of justice and compassion. That many of the prominent voices in the civil rights movement arose from the church is no surprise. Since slave days, African-American and white abolitionist preachers have drawn on the imagery of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and the Hebrew Prophets’ crying for justice. In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus opened his ministry by claiming the call for justice in Isaiah 61:1-2 as his own manifesto. By looking at today’s other Scriptures through this lens, we see that a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.

A.            Luke emphasized different details in the start of Jesus’ ministry than we saw in John last week, but they come in the same timeframe. The Holy Spirit dramatically came on Jesus at his baptism. Then the Spirit lead him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil for forty days, in which he overmastered the devil.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: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,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

B.            The scheduled reading from the Prophets on the Sabbath when Jesus went to the Nazareth synagogue must have been from Isaiah, since that scroll was handed to him. But he unrolled the scroll to purposely skip the assigned reading to find the passage of the Spirit’s anointing to the ministry of justice. That passage from Isaiah 61 is also quoted in Psalm 146:7-8, which is call a “Hallel” Psalm that the Israelites sang in procession to the Jerusalem Temple on holy days. No wonder the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. He changed the order of worship. What was he going to say about this?

C.            Jesus began to speak to them. As we shall see next week, what he said was so shocking that they interrupt him. By saying this scripture was fulfilled, he did not imply that justice had been permanently established. Rather, he claimed that the Spirit had authorized and empowered him for the ministry on which he was embarking.

II.            We are so used to having books in print, radio, television and now electronic media that we may miss the power of hearing Scripture read aloud as Jesus did in the synagogue. As we read from Nehemiah, this same power is clear when Ezra read what quite possibly was part or all of Deuteronomy. Significantly, the people are gathered as a single body to hear from God. Men, women and even children who were old enough to understand. They responded as one body, much as today a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.

A.           This was not a dull experience of sitting still in silence while Ezra read. The people were actively engaged with voice and body. When Ezra unrolled the scroll to read, in unison the people stood in respect, much as liturgical churches today stand for the reading of the Gospel. Ezra blessed the Lord, and the people lifted their hands and answered, “Amen! Amen!” At a pause in the reading, they bowed their faces to the ground to worship, perhaps somewhat like we might see in a mosque today. In these pauses, the reading was translated for those who could not speak Hebrew and then interpreted or explained so they could understand and have their questions answered.

B.            The people responded emotionally to hearing Scripture read. They wept! They wept for joy to hear God’s Word after generations of exile in Babylon. And they wept in repentance, knowing that had not been living by Scripture. But Ezra thought the weeping defiled the Scripture, so sent them out for a festival that included the wine of joy, as I mentioned last week.

C.            An essential part of the celebration of hearing Scripture read was to send festive food to those who couldn’t afford their own parties. Rich and poor alike were one single community of God’s people. Justice and compassion demanded that everyone share the joy.

III.       The first half of 1 Corinthians 12 that we read last week emphasizes the diverse joy of the gifts of the Spirit. The second half that we read today focuses on the joy of our unity in Christ. Paul is showing us how a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.

A.           We think of “members” as people who have joined a club, organization or other group with some common interest or purpose. But the word Paul is using for “member” means body parts: limbs and organs. Though ancient Greeks and Romans did speak of their ruling classes as “body politic,” Paul may have invented the use of the word “member” to mean people who belong to the Church, not a list of names but being so connected to Jesus that we are the limbs and organs of the Body of Christ: arms, legs, fingers, toes – eyes, ears, nose, mouth – liver, kidney, pancreas, intestines. We have radical unity by one Spirit in one Body. Our Disciples of Christ fore bearers got it! Thomas Campbell wrote in his 1809 Declaration and Address, “The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”

B.            When Paul asserted that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free share one Body by one Spirit, he shattered every ethnic, national, social and economic barrier. The complete unity of the Body of Christ is God’s justice at work, not in some abstract, ethereal, theoretical, invisible Church but in the real daily life of real people in real congregations.

C.            Practically, this unity is expressed when we suffer together when one of us is suffering and rejoice when one of us is rejoicing. Sometimes simultaneously. Just as we care for our physical bodies from grooming to health care, we care for each other in the church. This is justice in action. God intends the church to be a living alternative to the injustice and dissension in society, living proof that justice and compassion are preferable and possible.

IV.      Paul’s approach here is not to criticize the Corinthian church for its disunity (though he made his concern clear in chapters 1 and 11). Instead, he affirmed the principles, attitudes and behaviors he wanted to nourish. Some of you into management literature may recognize that as “Appreciative Inquiry.” In this way, even with all of our flaws, Paul asserts that a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.

A.           Start by thinking of your own spiritual gifts and resources. Thank God for entrusting you with something that contributes to the Body of Christ. Take seriously Paul’s word about honor for the seemingly weaker members.

B.            Now think of someone who is different than you are in some way that you notice occasionally. It could be spiritual gifts or temperament or perspective or opinion. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what only they can contribute to the congregation by those differences. Pray to be able to accept those differences as God’s gifts to the congregation.

C.            Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit when he started his ministry in Galilee. The power of the Spirit is essential to living in unity as the Body of Christ. Joy is not an individual emotion but the profound experience of the community of faith. I love the last line of our reading from Nehemiah today, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” It has just enough ambiguity to be fascinating and enough simplicity to be compelling.

1.              We are strong when our joy comes from delighting to be with God’s people in God’s presence.

2.              We are strong when our joy comes from delighting in the gifts the Holy Spirit has given others.

3.              We are strong when we draw our joy from God’s vast reservoir of joy.

4.              We are strong when we are overwhelmed with the realization that God receives joy when all of our gifts work together for unity in the Body of Christ.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Excellent Way: Gifted People

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12-1-11; John 2:1-11
January 20, 2013
© 2013


I.                I’m sure you’ve seen the Geico® insurance TV commercials that tell us that Geico customers are happier than any number of wackily happy characters. As I’ve soaked in today’s Scriptures this week, I’ve pondered the question: How happy is God? And I’ve heard this answer: God is happier than a bride and groom on their wedding day when we delight in the diverse joy of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the Church.

A.           I have called these four messages on the Holy Spirit between Epiphany and Transfiguration “The Excellent Way.” I took that from 1 Corinthians 12:31 where Paul wrote, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” We will get to that on February 3.

1.              Several years ago “excellence” became a buzz word in church growth circles. Everything a church did in public, especially worship, was to be thoroughly rehearsed and presented only by the best talent available. No surprises, no flubs and no amateurs. Church was not American Idol® tryouts.

2.              If you read “Beck’s Bytes” in each week’s newsletter, you know that Andy signs off with the line from the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Be excellent to each other!” What a huge difference between excellence in performance and excellence in relationships!

B.            Your Search and Call committee has worked hard for months to gather information and insights from you to prepare a profile so pastoral candidates can get a picture of this congregation. This afternoon they meet with Rev. Dean Phelps to start looking at the profiles of potential candidates. I know they are going to look for excellence in preaching and teaching, care and administration, spirituality and leadership. I have a lot of confidence that they will prayerfully listen for the Holy Spirit to find an excellent pastor for you. But I can also tell you, that there are no magic pastors out there. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. In these months ahead, we’ll be attending to the Holy Spirit so you can become an excellent congregation with an excellent pastor.

C.            You have excellent lay leadership, and I have been working with Jason and Terry to further improve the leadership of the Board and Elders. Julia and Andy are two of the strongest associate ministers I’ve had the privilege to know or work with. Adult Sunday school classes are healthy and substantive. Youth and children’s ministry is creative and attractive. Your quality choir is a solid foundation from with even more music ministry can grow. Your vision and efforts for outreach to your neighbors is innovative and appealing. But you can’t coast. The interim between pastors is a time to build momentum so you’re well underway when the new pastor comes. Don’t wait! A church is much like paddling a canoe. The bow paddler must keep the canoe moving faster than the water so the stern paddler can steer. Otherwise you’ll drift in aimless circles or the current will crash you into the rocks. More important than all of this is for the whole congregation to keep growing as Andy encourages the youth: Be excellent to each other!

II.            We read the first half of Paul’s treatise on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, which emphasizes the diversity of gifts. I sometimes imagine the Church as a stained glass mosaic with the glory of God shining through gems of every color to make a full portrait of Christ. As wonderful as spiritual gifts are for us, God is happier than a bride and groom on their wedding day when we delight in the diverse joy of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the Church.

A.           I have heard the church compared to a football game: 22 people desperately in need of rest and 50,000 people desperately in need of exercise. Not true for you! You are excellent in involving a lot of people in lots of different ministry. This increases when everyone’s spiritual gifts are actively deployed in the life and mission of the congregation. You don’t need to hang labels on the gifts or squeeze them into duty slots, just find joy where the Holy Spirit nudges and gifts you to serve.

B.            By delighting in the gifts of others you nourish the excellence of the congregation. I like to encourage “good gossip.” Be on the watch for people whose spiritual gifts are unacknowledged and tell someone you noticed and appreciated. It might be as simple as catching someone picking up trash on the way in from the parking lot. Then tell someone who won’t keep it secret. Imagine how they’ll feel when the “good gossip” gets back to them.

C.            Gifts of the Spirit are gifts! We receive them, we don’t earn or deserve them. They are a grace, just like salvation. Gifts of the Spirit are not for putting the spotlight on individuals but for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord! It’s not about me or even about us as a church; it’s about Jesus!

III.       We’ve been in Luke’s Gospel and will go back to Luke next Sunday, but today we get a delightful story from John 2:1-11. I think this is because it is also about the start of Jesus’ ministry, but John handles it quite differently than Luke. In symbolic action we see that God is happier than a bride and groom on their wedding day when we delight in the diverse joy of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the Church. Jesus had been with John the Baptizer at the Jordan River when Andrew, Simon Peter and another disciple (perhaps John) go with Jesus to Galilee, and Philip and Nathanael join them.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.9When 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 bridegroom10and 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.”11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

A.           John only directly wrote that the servants knew where the wine came from, yet he wrote that Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. So those five disciples and probably his mother knew. Just because your gifts seem insignificant and hidden, but by the Holy Spirit, they reveal Christ’s glory and prompt people to trust and follow Jesus.

B.            The conversations with John the Baptizer and these 5 disciples in John 1 indicate they considered Jesus to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the Messiah, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. But what it meant for them to believe in Jesus developed as John’s Gospel unfolds. In our time when what people know about Jesus is sketchy at best, what it means to believe in Jesus may take considerable time to emerge. Arguing and explaining doesn’t usually get too far, but as the glory of Jesus shines through us individually and as a congregation, the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus.

C.            Though the steward and the bridegroom didn’t understand it, that Jesus kept the best wine for last points us beyond our daily struggles to the hope of eternal joy with Jesus.

IV.      God’s joy in Isaiah 62 is not for pristine, innocent Israel but for the hope of restoration from desolation. In a certain sense it interprets the spiritual significance of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. God is happier than a bride and groom on their wedding day when we delight in the diverse joy of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the Church.

A.           Wine is a sign of joy in the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah 5 and Psalms 80 and 104 are particularly vivid. Jesus spared the groom the embarrassment of running out of wine and prolonged the party for the guests. But this was not a parlor trick or miracle of convenience. This was a sign of Jesus’ divine, redemptive identity intended to reveal his glory and stimulate faith.

B.            Isaiah 62 is just one of many places that present God as the husband of Israel. They point ahead to the New Testament imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ. In a way that is unique to John, the wedding at Cana points to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19, which also comes to us through John. Then the hidden host and joyful groom who is the source of joy will be revealed in full glory. And we are the joyful bride!

C.            God revels in the vast variety of our spiritual gifts. Yet we humans seem to struggle and even clash when our uniquenesses bang up against each other. Excellence for a church is not about flawless performances or institutional efficiency. Excellence is the joy of a community in which people delight to serve with their gifts and celebrate each other’s gifts. As Andy regularly encourages the youth: Be excellent to each other!

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Excellent Way: In the Spirit

Isaiah 43:1-12; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-18, 21-22
January 13, 2013
© 2013


I.                In 313CE the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have converted from paganism to Christianity, and in 340 CE he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However sincere he may or may not have been, he saw Christianity through the lens of empire building. He had his soldiers “baptized” by marching his army along a river as priests used tree branches to fling water over them, so they were now officially Christians. In that atmosphere, the spiritual fervor and strength of the Church declined precipitously. In response, a revival movement began, but they had no illusions that the Empire could ever nurture authentic spiritual vitality. Many people with spiritual passion withdrew to desert communities where they not only pursued their own spiritual lives, but also instructed and encouraged spiritually alert pilgrims who came seeking advice. We know them today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas). They left us both their own writings as well as legends, some of which seem rather fantastic but often point to an important spiritual truth. Abbas Lot and Joseph is one of my favorites.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I  fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 103)

A.           Whatever Abba Lot saw when Abba Joseph lifted his flaming hands, it was a sign that God was present with him in a remarkably immediate way. Throughout the Bible, both Testaments, fire is a sign of God’s presence, from Moses’ burning bush to the tongues of fire at Pentecost. This week you might want to make a list of the many others as we start talking about the Holy Spirit.

B.            Ephesians 1:14 says that the Holy Spirit is God’s pledge of our inheritance of redemption. The idea is repeated in Ephesians 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5. Having the Holy Spirit living in us now is God’s pledge we’ll be in God’s direct presence in the resurrection to eternal life.

C.            Like Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, I aspire to become spiritually all flame. For me, I understand that as a prayer life of total intimacy with Jesus. I encourage you to think about your spiritual dreams and aspirations during these weeks when we are thinking about the Holy Spirit.

II.            The Holy Spirit plays an important role in the account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:15-18, 21-22. As you listen for the Holy Spirit, remember that Luke is not presenting systematic, abstract theology but is describing the free work of a divine person. In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can mean breath, wind and spirit, which the New Testament writers often use in plays on words that we miss in English. John 3:8 gives us a feel for this when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John the Baptizer’s preaching attracted a large following.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and 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.”

A.           In Luke 1:15, the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptizer will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. And while Luke is clear that Jesus was the Son of God from his conception and as a child, something new happened when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. The one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit received the Holy Spirit just as he launched his public ministry. Along with the voice of the Father from heaven, this was the presence and power of God for the redemptive ministry Jesus was about to undertake. Jesus did nothing on his own. Everything he did was at the direction of the Father and empowered by the Spirit.

B.            Isaiah 43 is God’s promise to the people of Israel, and not to individuals and is not usually considered to be particularly messianic. Nevertheless, for God to call the community of faith by name and claim them as belonging to God, is echoed in the voice of the Father at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son.” The voice of the Father also told Jesus he was the beloved who please the Father, again echoing Isaiah 43 where God tells Israel they are precious and created for God’s glory.

C.            Our own baptisms also echo Isaiah 43. In the tangible drama of baptism, God assures us that we belong to God who created and redeemed us, who loves us and protects us, who honors and values us. Passing through water and fire points to baptism and the Holy Spirit.

III.       Luke makes a very specific point that Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. George Hendry taught theology at Princeton Seminary for 24 years. “To take the measure of other theologians, he would read what they had to say about prayer. If a theologian took prayer seriously, Hendry took that theologian seriously, even if he had theological objections. ‘Prayer is the life line of theology,’ Hendry said.” (Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 8)

A.           Luke gives more emphasis to Jesus’ prayer life than the other Gospels, but he does not tell us what Jesus was praying when he had been baptized. I don’t know if Jesus specifically asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit, but I suspect he was praying to have whatever he was going to need for his ministry, and he received the Holy Spirit.

B.            Acts 8 says that Peter and John prayed that the new Samaritan disciples would receive the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the Church was still very young, and things are just starting to unfold and not make sweeping principles out of their experiences. I am sure we can recognize in those new Samaritan disciples our own experience of not being aware of the Holy Spirit. I would also conclude that praying for the Holy Spirit to be present and active is not just acceptable but good.

C.            Luke 11:13 concludes Jesus’ teaching on prayer that is close to what Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount, with a very Lucian emphasis on the Holy Spirit. “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more with the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Would you like the Holy Spirit to be more active in you? Jesus says, “Go ahead and ask! The Father will joyfully give you the Spirit.”

IV.      While we can’t know specifically what Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, we can confidently pray to receive the Holy Spirit to purify us, be present in us and powerful through us. Romans 8:23 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So the Holy Spirit not only responds to what we pray, but recasts our prayers to be in congruent harmony with the will of the Father.

A.           A central significance of baptism is the cleansing of water that assures us that Jesus has washed our sin away. Fire also purifies, here burning chaff, elsewhere refining precious metals. Chaff burning fire may not sound like “good news” at first, but deep inside we all long to be rid of spiritual contaminants in ourselves and in our world. Getting pure may not be fun, but being pure is wonderful! So pray that the Holy Spirit will purify you.

B.             When Jesus was baptized, he identified himself with us – broken, sinful humans. When we are baptized, we identify with Jesus, the beloved Son well pleasing to the Father. The Holy Spirit lives within us so that God is always present. As we pray, the Holy Spirit sharpens our awareness of the presence of God in the ordinariness of our lives.

C.            Luke’s Gospel especially presents Jesus, not as a super hero with super powers, but as a human totally empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ insights into people were from sensitivity to the Spirit. Jesus got his direction from the promptings of the Spirit. Jesus did his miracles by the release of the Spirit. When you pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than expecting something spectacular, expect to be aware of the pain and joy in other people to whom you can extend the love of Jesus. Expect to be nudged, sometimes without being fully aware at the time, toward people and situations in which you can represent the grace of Christ.


Pray for the Holy Spirit to purify you, be present in you and powerful through you.

Friday, January 4, 2013

They’re Coming to the Brightness of Your Dawn

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2013
© 2013


I.                Decorations stored away for another year? Back to work and back to school? Getting back to “normal?” For many centuries, for much of the Church, today – Epiphany – is the main event! “Epiphany” means unveiling, revealing, appearance or manifestation. It celebrates that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God and savior to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi. Epiphany is about the mission of the Church to proclaim Jesus to all people everywhere. The Magi of Epiphany show us that surprising people come to the brightness of Christ’s dawn.

A.           The poet Christian Wiman is one such surprising person. He recently resigned as the editor of Poetry magazine to join the faculty of Yale Divinity School’s Institute of Sacred Music. In an interview, he told Christianity Today magazine how a serious cancer diagnosis at age 39 was a spiritual awakening for him. He was raised as a Southern Baptist, but all that just evaporated in the blast of modernism and secularism to which we was exposed in college. Then about 10 years ago he fell into an abyss of despair. “The encroaching darkness demanded that the light I felt burning in me acquire a more durable form.” One Sunday he and his wife wandered into a church. “I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that I had a conversion or even a ‘return’ to Christianity. I was just finally able to assent to the faith that had long been latent within me. My [writing] is still full of anguish and even unbelief, but I hope it’s also much more open to simple joy. I began to realize there was an enormous contingent of people out there who were starved for new ways of feeling and articulating their experiences of God. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. I have come to realize that the real question is how not what. I want to be taken over by God. I do feel that some people are called to unbelief – or what looks like unbelief – in order that faith may take new forms.” (January 2013, www.christianitytoday.com)

B.            Another poet, T. S. Eliot, also had an unconventional conversion experience, also at the age of 39. From a vague association with the Universalists of his New England background, T. S. Eliot was baptized as an Anglican and took British citizenship in 1927. He described the depth of this conversation in his poem Journey of the Magi that reflects on the Wise Men.

… were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

C.            Much of our popular Christmas imagery conflates Matthew 2:1-12 with Luke 2. We will do well to pay careful attention to get the distinct message of each. The shepherds and the Magi were not together at the manger. The shepherds saw no star, the Magi heard no angel chorus. The star seems only to have appeared at the beginning and end of their journey. Though Isaiah mentions kings and camels, Matthew does not.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,2asking, “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.”3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

II.            The Magi, who seemed to have little if any knowledge of Hebrew Scripture are the ones who come to the light of Jesus, while the High Priests, Scribes and even Herod, who had thorough access to the prophetic witness, miss him entirely.

A.           Herod seems to be the one who most believed the prophets. Matthew doesn’t say that the Magi went to see Herod, only that they came to Jerusalem asking for the child born king of the Jews. Everyone in town knew they were there and what they were asking. They knew Herod would feel threatened, even by a baby who might claim his throne, though he was 70. Everyone was afraid of how Herod would respond. He figured this could be the Messiah, so the prophets could identify the birthplace. As much as he believed the prophets, he foolishly thought he could alter God’s plan and kill this infant Messiah.

B.            The Chief Priests and Scribes almost slip by unnoticed. They were devoted to teaching the hope of Messiah. When Herod asked were the Messiah was to be born, I’d think they would wonder if Messiah might have come. “Are all our hopes for our people for many centuries about to be fulfilled?” They know all the right information, but the hope of Messiah had died in them.

C.            Herod and the Chief Priests and Scribes may be like some of the people we know who have been wounded or numbed by the church. They know and may even believe all the right things, but do not come to Christ. But surprising people come to the brightness of Christ’s dawn.

III.       Few people would be more surprising to come to Jesus than the Magi. They practiced astrological arts which were resoundingly condemned by the Hebrew Scriptures. Coming from the East, they could have been from Persia (Iraq), Babylon (Iran) or Arabia. Not only were they foreigners, those were empires who had oppressed Jews in captivity.

A.           Acts 17:11 commends the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. The Bible is our sole inspired, authoritative, reliable source for faith and life in Christ. But God is bigger yet and uses unconventional means to draw surprising people to Christ, just as a mysterious star brought the Magi to the child Jesus. Of course, they were actually directed to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, not by Herod but by Micah.

B.            We might compare the Magi to some of today’s seekers who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. They are the rapidly growing 16% that the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life identified as “unaffiliated” or whose religious identity was “none.” Rather than writing them off or wringing our hands, the experience of the Magi encourages us to think they might be more attracted to Jesus than church folk. Surprising people come to the brightness of Christ’s dawn.

IV.      I have read many books and attended any number of workshops, and seminars on evangelism and church growth designed to teach how to reach these “unaffiliated nones,” who are concentrated and growing among those in their forties and younger. I have gained a lot of valuable and practical insights and strategies. I have observed congregations who soar when they apply them, and others who crash. Some who soar seem shallow, and some who crash seem solid. Some deserve to soar or crash. If I could get all crashers to soar and put it in a book or seminar, I’d become wealthy.

A.           In Ephesians 3:1-12 Paul puts this in perspective. Surprising people, for Paul this was Gentiles, perceive the mystery of Christ, and the rich variety of the wisdom of God is made known, not just among humans but among the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

B.            So the Magi would tell us not to focus too much on techniques and methods for reaching the “unaffiliated nones” but to pay enough attention to the brightness of Christ’s dawn that we are drawn to him ourselves. That way we can avoid becoming like the Chief Priests and Scribes who had all the right information but missed the wonder of welcoming the Messiah.

C.            The Magi would also tell us to pay attention to the surprising people who will come to the brightness of Christ’s dawn. Those who know nothing about the Bible or Jesus, who don’t know what to do or how to act in church, who have no sense of religious duty are most likely to come to the brightness of Christ’s dawn and not to a program or a preacher. Hospitality is far more than a friendly welcome. It includes the most surprising people, not to reach them, but to love them, listen to them, learn from them.