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 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.

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