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12-19 - Wise Men, Did You Know

          Today marks the fourth Sunday of Advent, a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

          As we have spoken about in the last three weeks, one way we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to adorn and decorate the sanctuary of the church and our homes with many symbols of Christ’s birth.  We have spoken in prior weeks about the Advent Wreath and its candles, about the nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and last week about the Christmas tree. This week, I would like to highlight that we also prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth by gift giving.

          Gift-giving at Jesus’ birth happened for Jesus with the wise men.  We will talk about that event a little later.  But sharing gifts with one another to mark Jesus’ birth did not become a custom in celebrating Jesus’ birth for a few hundred years.  When early Christians did share gifts, they did so on New Year’s Day.  Then, in 386 AD, Christ’s birth was decreed to be celebrated on December 25.  At that time, some folks kept to gift-giving shifted on New Year’s Day while others began giving earlier in December.  The idea behind the gift-giving was to reflect the gifting done by the magi to Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew even if the gifts were not shared on December 25th, the day chosen as Jesus’ birthday.

Now, not long after the shift to December 25th, Christian rulers, kings and princes as such, came to an important conclusion about gift giving.  These rules concluded that the wise men had given gifts to Jesus, a king.  Therefore, it was only right that gift-giving at Christmas should be from the people to their kings.  So, the tradition became that at Christmas, that kings received gifts from the people.  Apparently, this gift giving to kings and other rulers went on until about the 10th century.  At that time, a story of Good King, Wenceslas, began circulating how he had trudged through the snow at Christmas time to give gifts to the poor.  Not long after Good King Wenceslas’ story became widely known, tradition shifted and gift giving among and between the people became the norm and the date for sharing gifts moved from early December or January 1 to December 24.

Now that is probably more than you wanted to know about gift-giving at Christmas but again coming to know what we do not know is how we grow in life.  To continually grow in knowledge, holiness, and compassion and develop a broad sense of righteousness, being right with God, is the hallmark of the Christian faith journey.  We grow in righteousness when we become willing to explore what we may not know about the mysteries of faith.

So today, we come to the mystery of faith found in the story of the wise men coming to see this baby Jesus.  What did the wise men know about Jesus?  What can we discover from the wise men’s experience that will help us in our faith journey?

The only account of the wise men’s journey and encounter with Jesus is found in the Gospel of Matthew.  The Gospel of Matthew is believed by Biblical scholars to be written for a Jewish audience. Matthew wrote, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.”  We want to pause for just a moment and realize to the Jewish audience to say, “Magi from the east,” would have strongly suggested the Magi, wise and learned men, came from what the lands the ancients would have identified as Babylon, some 1,700 hundred miles from Jerusalem.  The Babylonians had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BC.  Most of the surviving elite of the Jewish nation were then taken into captivity and exiled to Babylon itself.  The Jews would not be allowed to begin returning to Jerusalem for several decades. Given this history, to have Babylonians arrive in Jerusalem could be cause for alarm among the Jews.

We see the arrival of the Babylonians did cause quite a stir.  Matthew wrote, the Magi “Asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’

When King Herod (the king of the Jews at the time the Magi arrived) heard this [news of a newborn king of the Jews] he [Herod] was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:2-3).  We wonder, “Wise men what motivated you to endure the hardship and dangers of traveling 1,700 miles from the lands of Babylon to worship a child born king of the Jews?  What had you learned from the Jews while you held them captive that would then cause you nearly 600 years later to desire to worship one born king of the Jews?  Why, indeed, had you come all that way?”

          It is possible the Babylonians had learned this from the Jews from Psalm 89: “1 I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.  I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.  You (God) , ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

At the time of the Magi’s visit to Jerusalem, kings of Israel were not born into kingship, the kings of Israel were appointed to the throne by the Roman Senate.  To say someone was born king of Jews would mean to the Romans that they were not involved in the king selection process and  it would mean to the Jews that the person of the bloodline of David had been born and the enduring kingdom God had promised was about to commence.  The psalmist said of God, “You have established your faithfulness in heaven itself” (Psalm 89:2b) and in Numbers “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17a).  For the learned men from Babylon to see a new star, a new light in the heavens over their western skies, would mean to them God was real and had acted as the Hebrew Scriptures said God would do.

Matthew in providing this account to his Jewish audience was relating information important for them to know that God had kept his promise and even the learned people of Babylon knew it.

The news from the Babylonians to the people of Jerusalem should have been cause for great joy but it was not.  The news of someone born king of the Jews and of a star signifying God had acted was Matthew said news that “disturbed,” the king and his subjects.   Why did Jesus’ birth disturb so many people then?  It disturbed Herod because Herod was already king and wanted to remain king. So, Herod was disturbed at the thought someone greater than he was in the world.  Herod had a reputation for killing those who he imagined were trying to take his throne.  So, we understand Herod.  But why does Jesus’ birth disturb so many people today?  Why have people become accustomed to hearing someone use Jesus’ name as cuss word but then get disturbed with someone who says Jesus is Lord of their life?  Like Herod, people today are disturbed because they like being king or queen of their lives and want to remain that way.  People are disturbed by the thought someone greater than they is in the world. And so, people reject rivals for the throne of their life.  The inherent character of people has not changed in the last 2,000 years.

Herod was disturbed and he would not rest until this rival was killed.  But Herod wanted no one to know of his plans.  So, Herod dealt secretly with the people who could unwittingly help him in his plans.  Luke said in verse 4, “When he [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he [Herod] asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied” (Luke 2:4-6a).  “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared” (Luke 2:7).  Herod, working in secret, was the only one who knew when his rival could have been born and where his rival could be found.  So, Herod, “Sent them [the Magi] to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Luke 2:8).  Herod must have so proud of himself.  Herod had constructed the perfect trap, wise men indeed, Herod must have thought.  “I have outwitted them and now I, Herod, will kill the precious person born king of the Jews. I am greater than God.”  But Luke later cues us in that the Magi became aware of the deceitfulness of Herod.  Luke wrote in verse 12 that the Magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod and share information about the child with Herod.  The Magi who had seen the star placed in the sky by the God of Israel had received God’s wisdom that Herod’s desire to worship the child was not to be trusted.  This would have shocked Matthew’s largely Jewish audience that God would speak to the Gentiles, non-Jews.

Luke said, “After they [the Magi] had heard the king [Herod], they [the Magi] went on their way, and the star they [the Magi] had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they [the Magi] saw the star, they [the Magi] were overjoyed” (Luke 2:9-10). The Magi took the information from Herod and headed south from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem.  Sometime after this journey began, the star that had first attracted the Magi’s attention appeared again in the sky.  Seeing the star again, this light in the heavens, was cause for the Magi to be overjoyed.

Why did the star appear and why was the appearance of the star cause for joy?  Herod told the Magi where to find the baby.  Wasn’t that enough?  I believe the Magi were overjoyed by the appearance of the star because that meant they no longer were dependent upon Herod in any way to complete their mission. Instead, the Magi were joyful because they were once again fully dependent upon the God of Israel who had sent this light into the darkness.  The Magi understood Herod was disturbed and his behavior was cunning and manipulative. To be freed of the cleverness of Herod and dependent upon the wisdom of God alone was cause for joy.

The Apostle Paul expressed would later express this type of joy two ways, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.  See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:6-8).  Having our lives rooted in Christ means we are no longer subject to the whatever fad or new idea comes along.  We always know who we are.  Paul also said that when we place our dependence on God, then “14 We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). 

We are all dependent upon something.  Some people feel dependent upon their job, others by their wealth, or some by how their friends see them.  But when we are dependent solely upon God then we are free from everything else, including the deceptions and cunning schemes of others.  The Magi had information from Herod, the king of deception and cunning schemes, and they had information from God in the form of a star of pure light and dream warning them of Herod’s intentions.  With the appearance of the star, the Magi had to choose. Listen to Herod or listen to God. The Magi were be joyfully to be able to choose God.

Throughout Hebrew Scriptures God said to the Jews:

  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
  • Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:4).
  • Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known (Jeremiah 33:3).
  • Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness (Psalm 37:3).

What Luke provided here was that the Magi, pagans, came to place their trust in God.  That these non-Jews would have trust God must have astonished Matthew’s Jewish readers. Here were the Magi, probably Babylonians, once bitter enemies of Israel, pagans, had been captivated by the light placed in the sky by God and spoken to by God in their dreams.  These pagans were following God’s leading and excited to find the child born king of the Jews and worship him.  What an incredibly exciting moment in the history of Judaism to see non-Jews being called by God to worship him.  Meanwhile, the Jewish political leader, Herod, was plotting to kill the child, and the Jewish religious leaders seemed uninterested in the news that the heir to David’s throne had been born.  What an incredibly disappointing moment in the history of Judaism when some chose indifference and deceit in worshiping God.

This moment of two distinct behaviors occurring at the same time shows us yet again that God was calling people, one at a time, to come into his presence.  He is still calling people into faith one at a time.  I think God is excited for each person who comes to faith regardless of their standing or station in life and he is disappointed for each person who is indifferent to his call or who seeks to destroy his work among the people. 

The Magi, who accepted God’s call, saw the star stop over a specific house in Bethlehem.  Luke said, “11 On coming to the house, they [the Magi] saw the child [Jesus] with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him [Jesus]” (Luke 2:11a).  The desire of the Magi’s heart had been satisfied.  They worshiped Jesus.

Worship, as the Magi experience and as we have been experiencing this hour, is a powerful transforming experience.  Worship in dependence to God, elevates our thinking and opens our minds to hear God, to see our own dignity in him, and the worth of others.  Worship takes individuals of vastly different background and experiences and builds a single body of unity.  There in that house were the Magi, Babylonians, worshipping Jesus, with his mother Mary, a Jewish woman.  Jew and Gentile were brought together by the person of Jesus Christ.  Here in this house, a unique group of people have come together by the person of Jesus Christ.  This is the way life should be. 

For one and all present in that house with Mary and the child, giving worship to Jesus was the true gift of the moment.  Oh yes, the Magi gave tangible gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all highly valuable materials of the time.  But I think these gifts were more a reflection that having found Jesus and worshipped him, the Magi’s were transformed by that worship and did not want to hold anything back from God.

I am joyful that we explored the account of the Magi told because it reminds me how glad I am that each person here answered the call to come and worship God.  I am glad that each person here came to express a dependence upon God, upon his love and wisdom, and upon his Son, Jesus.  I am glad people from so many different backgrounds are here transformed by worship into a single body expressing as one our love for God, seeing our individual dignity in God, and coming to see the worth of each person here. These are gifts of incredible value that we have all received today.  Yes, the Magi gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that were used and expended.  But the gifts of worshipping together, choosing dependence upon God, and unity of body are the enduring gifts of the Magi.  I am glad you and I are here today to enjoy those gifts together.  Amen and Amen.

12-12 - Shepherd, Did You Know

          Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

          One way we have prepared to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to adorn and decorate the sanctuary of the church with many symbols of Christ’s birth.  We have spoken in prior weeks about the Advent Wreath and its candles and about the nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  This week, I would like to highlight that we also prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth by bringing Christmas trees into the sanctuary.

          Did you know that the use of evergreens and evergreen trees in the celebration of Christmas came originally from the Scandinavian countries?  In those regions, people put evergreens on the outside of their houses and barns to keep the devil away.  Who knew the devil did not like the scent of freshly cut pine?

          People in Germany liked what the Scandinavians were doing and so they began bringing an evergreen tree into the house and placing it at entrance to the home.  Again, the idea was the fresh cut tree would keep the devil out of the house.  Did you know that people in medieval Germany began a tradition of using evergreen trees, fir trees to be precise, in theatrical plays to celebrate the coming of Christ? They referred to these trees as “Paradise Trees” and used them in plays about Adam and Eve.  I could not locate a source that showed how the feast of Adam and Eve connected to Christ’s birth.  But folks adorned the Paradise Trees with apples.  They would later hang wafers on the trees as a reminder of the communion hosts used in Mass.  Sometime later they removed the wafers and hung cookies instead.  Those folks were probably early Baptists.

          In addition to the Paradise Tree, people celebrated with a Christmas Pyramid of sorts.  The pyramid was hung on the wall, in a triangular shape, consisting of evergreens, candles, and a star.  Eventually the Christmas Pyramid and the Paradise Tree were incorporated into one which we know as the Christmas Tree.

          Now that is probably more than you wanted to know about Christmas trees.  But discovering what we do not know is part of our Christmas preparation.  This year we began exploring Jesus’ birth with the question Mary, did you know?  Mary, did you know that in consenting to God’s plan you risked everything people hold dear in this world and gained not just a son, but a Savior and Lord giving you and us eternal life?  Last week, we explored Jesus’ birth by the question, Joseph, did you know?  Joseph, did you know that Jesus would take the provision of bread and juice that you gave to him as his earthly father and change them into powerful symbols of his body and blood, signs of a love so strong that he would die to bring salvation to all who would follow him?  This week we want to ask Shepherds, did you know?  Shepherds did you know what had truly happened that night in Bethlehem?

          There is only one source for shepherds’ first Christmas experience, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke.  The Gospel of Luke was the last of the stories written about Jesus’ birth in which the writer relied upon people who were there at the time.  It is widely believed among Biblical scholars that Mary was the source of Luke’s information for his gospel account of Jesus’ birth.

          In the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Luke recorded that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby [near Bethlehem where Jesus had been born], keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them [the shepherds], and they [the shepherds] were terrified” (Luke 2:8-9). 

The appearance of the angel to the shepherds is the fourth and final appearance of an angel in the birth of Jesus.  An angel appeared to Zechariah while Zechariah was alone in the Temple.  The angel announced that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have a child, John, who would go ahead of Jesus to prepare the people to hear Jesus’ message.  An angel appeared to Mary to announce in private she had found favor with God and that God desired Mary to bear the son of God.  An angel appeared to Joseph in the privacy of his dreams to let Joseph know that the child Mary was carrying was from the Holy Spirit.  Now, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel comes to the shepherds to announce Jesus has been born.

How many shepherds received the announcement we are not sure.  We only know the angel’s announcement to the shepherds came at night. Why at night?  I believe it was to make the announcement privately. 

This tells us something about God.  God the creator of all that there is uses a small voice to speak to us.  In the Old Testament, a man named Elijah sought out God to speak with him.  Elijah was in a cave atop a mountain.  “11 The Lord said Elijah, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it [the gentle whisper], he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  Then a voice [God] said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 9:11-13). God’s voice was but a private whisper to Elijah.

          God uses a small voice, a private voice, when he speaks. He spoke that way to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Samuel.  God spoke through an angel using a private voice to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds.  We then should expect to use a small voice, a private voice when he speaks to you and me. Part of our Christmas preparation then should be to make place or find a place where we can hear God’s use of his small private voice with us.  We need to hear what God is saying to us in our unique circumstances. 

Think about God’s way of communicating with us this way.  In the first Christmas story of the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote, “ But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child” (Galatians 4:4-7).  Children, especially infants, can give us insight into how God communicates with us. Have you ever seen an infant react when they hear the voice of their mother?  When an infant hears mom, that baby’s face lights up and their spirit soars with joy.  This is how God wants us to react when he speaks to us, full of wonder, awe, and love. So, it is important that we do not allow other loud other voices to keep us from hearing what God wants to say to us in the quiet and private moments.

From our Bible passage today, we find that the angel came to the shepherds at night out in the fields.  While others slept and the world was quiet, the angel came to the shepherds so that they could hear a message from God meant just for them.  The angel said, “10 ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:10-12). 

The angel’s words formed the most unique birth announcement.  “Born in Bethlehem, today, a baby boy.  He is Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord.”

Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told a Savior had been born?  A savior is a person who rescues others from evil, danger, or destruction.  To the Jews of Jesus’ time, God was considered their savior.  “There is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior” (Isaiah 45:21).

Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told the Messiah had been born?  The Messiah was the one anointed by God and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to deliver God’s people and establish God’s kingdom.  In Jewish thought, the Messiah would be the king of the Jews, a political leader who would defeat their enemies and bring in a golden era of peace and prosperity.

Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told the Lord had been born?  The Lord was God.  To the Jewish people, the name of the Lord was so sacred that they would not even say it aloud but used a substitute word, Adonai, when speaking of the Lord.

The Shepherds must have been overwhelmed.  A baby had been born.  A boy who was the God the Savior, the Messiah who embodied God’s spirit, and my Lord, Adonai. The angel standing before the shepherds was heaven on earth telling these shepherds that this baby boy was heaven on earth sent to save them.

Not only that but a sign as to the truth of this happening had been given to the shepherds. Was that sign of heaven on earth to be a great and powerful wind tearing apart and shattering rocks?  No. Was it then to be an earthquake shaking everything at its foundation?  No. Was it then to be found in a great fire of intense heat and light?  No. The sign was more like a gentle whisper. The sign of heaven on earth was a baby. A baby wrapped in swaddling cloth, strips of cloth much like narrow bandages wrapped around the newborn baby to restrict movement.  Swaddling cloths mark parental love and care and the dependence of the newborn child. This is not exactly the powerful sign of God that the shepherds might have expect but, again, God speaks quietly to people.

The shepherds must have thought, “What on heaven and earth is going on here?  The all-powerful heavenly creator God savior, messiah, and lord, had been born and was wrapped so he could not move and placed in a manger, an animal feeding trough.”

The angel then revealed to the shepherds that he had not come alone.  The angel allowed the shepherds to realize that this baby coming was truly an invasion of heaven onto earth.  Luke wrote, “13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host [an army of angels] appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13-14).  The invasion of heaven on earth with the angel, the army of angels behind him, and this baby meant the invasion was not war-like, it was an invasion of peace to roll back evil.  But the angel said that such peace would be only for those who willingly sought God meaning some will seek God, which meant others will resist God.  Some will find peace, and some will live in turmoil. Some will be saved, and some will be lost.

These shepherds stunned by all that had been told them said to one another, “‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’  16 So they hurried off [to Bethlehem] and [searched until they] found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was [indeed] lying in the manger” (Luke 2:15b-16).  The shepherds, how many of them we do not know, made the journey to Bethlehem.  On the way, they moved quickly and quietly. The shepherds did not share what the angel told them with anyone along the way to Bethlehem.  The shepherds simply moved as quickly as they could to find the sign that the angel’s words were true.

Luke said, “17 When they [the shepherds] had seen him [Jesus in the manger – the sign], they [the shepherds] spread the word concerning what had been told them [by the angel] about this child [Savior, The Messiah, and the LORD], 18 and all who heard it [what the shepherds heard from the angel] were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). 

The shepherds message amazed those now in and around the baby, whoever those people were. Not only was what the shepherd said amazing, namely the baby boy was Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord but also that the Shepherds had received this word from God.  In the society of that day, shepherds were not well respected. In fact, shepherds were disqualified from giving testimony in legal matters.  Shepherds were very much a whisper of a voice in Jewish society.  This part of the story teaches us that it is not the witness that brings power to the story of God, it is God who empowers the witness to speak the story.  We must be attentive to those God empowers to speak a word of truth even if it someone who is not held in high regard.

Luke said that after the shepherds shared the word of God with those in Bethlehem, “20 The shepherds returned [to living in the fields], glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).  The call placed on the shepherds was not to be afraid but to receive the message from God in great joy.  On the return trip, the shepherds were joyful and could not be kept quiet because they had received and shared the true word of God.

How do we sum up what we have learned from the shepherds?  I think there are three things we can take with us today.

First, God spoke to the shepherds in the quiet of the night.  Did you know that God is still speaks to us today?  If we are quiet, we can hear God.  We need to quiet our surroundings and our hearts enough to hear God because God most often speaks in a whisper.  That whisper might be as just as you and I speak in a whisper. That whisper may be our own voices as we gently read aloud God’s Word from the Bible.  That whisper may be small voice of a child, a friend, or a stranger who says to us in our moments of despair, “God loves you.”  We need to be able to hear God speak.

Second, God spoke to the shepherd who were thought to be unqualified to testify in court. The shepherds did not let what others thought keep them from sharing what the angel had said of Jesus’ birth.  In sharing the shepherds’ initial fear was transformed to an everlasting joy.  Did you know that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection from the grave were women who also were not qualified to testify in court?  The women did not let what others thought keep them from sharing what the angel said of Jesus’ rebirth in the resurrection.  In sharing the women’s initial fear was transformed to an everlasting joy.  We need to not care so much about what others think of us as we live out our faith.  We should share our faith with joy.

It is the joy of Jesus’ Christ that brings us to our third lesson learned from the shepherds. The shepherds were not qualified to give testimony that is true enough and that status did not change.  But more importantly, because of sin, the shepherds were not qualified to be come into God presence and neither are we.  Sin separated the shepherds from God just as sin separates us from God.  This separation occurs even though God wants us in his presence.  God wants us in his presence not for his benefit, but for our benefit.  Outside of God’s presence there is evil, danger, and destruction of our souls. 

To come into God’s presence, God needed to send a Savior, a rescuer.  To live the life now in God’s presence, God needed to send a Messiah, to share with us God’s Holy Spirit.  To live life forever with God, God needed to send the king of heaven and of earth, the Lord.  We are not qualified to be in God’s presence without the Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord. This is why God sent Jesus to be Savior, Messiah, and Lord.  It is Jesus who qualifies us to be in God’s presence.

Do you know Jesus as your Savior, as the Messiah, and as the Lord of your life?  If you are afraid that you do not know the babe in the manger this way, listen carefully.  God is speaking to you right now in a gentle whisper saying, “Follow my Son, and this will be a sign to you.  He is the one who died for you on the cross for you. His name is Jesus, and he will transform your fear into overwhelming joy.”  May we all be like the shepherds qualified by Jesus to be in God’s presence and able to share with joy the birth, life, death, resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.  Amen and Amen.

12-05 - Joseph, Did You Know

          Today marks the second Sunday of Advent, a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.  One thing that is done to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to add nativity scenes to the church and for many people adding those scenes to their own homes. The nativity scenes always include three figures representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  More elaborate scenes will also include shepherds, animals, a stable, the wise men, and an angel or two.  The scenes we have available to us today range in size from as small as a walnut to one erected last Christmas in Spain in which the figure of Joseph stood an amazing 60ft high.

          The earliest nativity scene found thus far dates to some wall paintings in a catacomb in Italy from about the year 380 AD.  But the idea of a nativity scene in a church did not catch on until the year 1223 AD when Saint Francis of Assisi created the first live nativity scene with people and animals.  What motivated Saint Francis to create a live nativity?  Saint Francis organized the nativity scene because he was trying to get the emphasis of the season focused on the birth of Jesus and away from the material things of life.  Apparently, making Jesus the reason for the season was a problem as far back as the 1200’s. For hundreds of years thereafter churches only displayed live nativity scenes.  The idea of ceramic and wooden figures came much later.

          That is probably more than you wanted to know about nativity scenes.  But knowing about the nativity scenes helps us in our preparations in one regard.  All nativity scenes focus our attention on three characters: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Jesus is at the center.  Mary is usually the next most prominent figure often appearing colorfully dressed.  Finally, Joseph is present, usually represented as a figure standing with a subdue look on his face and adorned with dull colored clothing.

          Last week we learned about the story of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary through Mary’s story, first found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and then found in Matthew’s Gospel.  We learned through Mary that God sent Jesus, God’s Son, to Mary that through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection we all could be adopted as God’s children.  In that adoption, God would send the Spirit of His Son to live within our hearts, a Spirit that would teach us to call back to God saying, “Abba, Father,” just as Jesus did.  We learned through Mary’s story that Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit, the author of life.  The same Spirit that gives us life.

          This week we will look at the story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, through Joseph’s story and in doing so see what God revealed about himself.  In looking at Joseph, the first thing we would come to understand is that to many wives, Joseph is ideal husband.  Why so?  Because in all of Scripture, Joseph never speaks a word.  Joseph was comfortable letting his wife do the talking.  And so, we only know about Joseph only through his deeds and through Joseph’s dreams and visions.

          The first story of Joseph, or in Hebrew, Yosef, comes from the Gospel of Matthew.  In Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew we would read,  “18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

          Joseph learned some shocking news.  Mary, his bride to be, was not the woman Joseph thought she was.  Joseph and Mary were to be married but before the formal wedding ceremony had taken place, Mary became pregnant.  We wonder, Joseph did you know when Mary became pregnant it was as Matthew said, “through the Holy Spirit?”  Joseph, did Mary tell you this or did you not know?  Whether Joseph knew of the role of the Holy Spirit or did not believe the Holy Spirit was involved in Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph knew he was not the father of the baby developing within Mary.

Joseph must have wondered, “Was Mary pregnant when we became engaged or did Mary become pregnant after we were engaged?”  If Mary became pregnant before the engagement, Joseph must have thought Mary was a deceptive person?  If Mary became pregnant after the engagement, Joseph must have thought Mary was an unfaithful person?  Either deceptive or unfaithful, Mary was not the person Joseph believed her to be and not the person Joseph wanted to be with.  Mary, in Joseph’s eyes, was corrupt.

          Matthew said of Joseph that he was faithful to the law, to the law Moses set down to govern the people of Israel.  Under that law, there was no room for corrupt marriages. Joseph thought his engagement with Mary must end.  This was in Joseph’s mind the just thing to do.  But Joseph was not interested in solely in justice.  Matthew also said of Joseph that Joseph did not want to publicly disgrace Mary.  Joseph’s nature then was to temper justice with compassion.  Even in Joseph’s confusion and disappointment in the news of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph displayed God character of justice, compassion, and mercy.

          God was merciful to the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah.  Even the Ninevites could see that God was “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  David said God is “gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in loving-kindness. The LORD is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:8-9).  Joseph was trying to be just and merciful toward Mary.

          We see from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph did not act impulsively toward Mary.  Joseph pondered in his mind and heart how to be faithful and just under the law and how to be compassionate and merciful to Mary.  As Joseph slept on these matters and opened himself to God for wisdom and counsel.  Matthew’s account of Joseph’s story gives us insight into God’s desire for us.  God does not want us to act impulsively or out of anger. God desires that we would consider what is the right next step to take when confronted with disappoint and hurt. God desires that we would want to temper our rights with forgiveness and compassion.  Most of all, God desires that we would do as Joseph did and seek God’s wisdom. 

          We need God’s wisdom, especially when we are facing emotionally charged decisions.  In the New Testament Book of James, we would read about wisdom.  James wrote, “13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.  17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:13-18).  The words from James emphasize “deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom,” that does not come from “envy and selfish ambition,” but “comes from heaven.” These are the characteristics that we see in Joseph.  Joseph was seeking God’s wisdom as he decided what to do next with the news of Mary’s pregnancy.  And not to get too far ahead of ourselves but Joseph’s conduct in this circumstance was likely the way Joseph was in general.  We can surmise this to be true because the James who wrote those words was the young brother of Jesus, a naturally conceived son of Joseph and Mary.

          Joseph in seeking the wisdom from above, received the visitation of an angel of the Lord who said to Joseph, “20b ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20b-21).  Joseph had received wisdom from God “that is pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). God’s wisdom put Joseph’s mind to rest, Mary was not deceitful, unfaithful, or corrupt.  Mary was pure, submissive to God, and sincere.  Mary had found favor with God.  The child was conceived by the giver of life, the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph was to accept the child and treat the child as his own.

          In fact, when the time came Joseph was to give the child the name, Yeshua, Jesus.  In Jesus’ day, naming a child was done in a way to connect the child’s name to the root word from which that name was derived.  Jesus, Yeshua, is derived from the Hebrew word, יָשַׁע, yaw-shah', which means to save or to deliver.  In this early Christmas story, God revealed first to Joseph that this child would be a savior.

          Matthew wrote that, “24 When Joseph woke up, he (Joseph) did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he (Joseph) did not consummate their marriage until she (Mary) gave birth to a son. And he (Joseph) gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).  Joseph, through his deeds, followed God’s will not and took Mary to be his wife. In doing so, Joseph revealed that he was just, merciful, peace loving, faithful, and obedient to God’s word. Joseph, through his deeds, was not ashamed of the baby and willingly named the child Yeshua bar Yosef, Jesus son of Joseph, knowing that the Holy Spirit had brought forth a savior. 

Joseph was setting the example God desired for each one of us.  If we desire to be wise and understanding, we too must show it by living a good life with deeds in humility that comes from wisdom from above.  We must be as Joseph, letting go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Instead, we must seek and follow wisdom that comes from heaven that is pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, able to bear good fruit, impartial and sincere. We must not be ashamed of Jesus but accept him as Joseph did, as savior.  Jesus would later say, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Joseph was never ashamed of Jesus.  Instead, Joseph served as guardian of Jesus.  Joseph would move his family to Egypt to avoid the plans of king Herod to murder Jesus.  Joseph would move his family back to Israel and again avoiding dangers of its rulers. Joseph would bring his family to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill by deed all acts of righteousness for his own son, Jesus.  Joseph would teach his son, Jesus, the trade of being a carpenter.  Joseph lived his life never ashamed of his savior, always willing to call him Yeshua bar Yosef, Jesus son of Joseph.

When Jesus reached the age of 30, the age when men would be recognized as a rabbi, a teacher, Jesus began his public ministry to reveal that he was not just Joseph’s savior, but the savior of the world.  About the same time, Joseph life in the Scriptures came to close. The time had come for Jesus to speak fully and plainly that his father was God in heaven, sent to bring the good news of salvation to all had ears to hear and eyes to see. For some three years, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, about salvation through the forgiveness of sins, about the hope, joy, faith, and life.

And when the time was right, Jesus prayed to his father in heaven with the power of the Holy Spirit, “Abba, Father, not my will but yours.”  Jesus faced the dilemma as Joseph had faced, who’s will to follow.  Shall I follow my will, or shall I follow God’s will?  Joseph prayed and followed God’s will, taking Mary home to be his wife and bearing the Son of God, the savior.  Jesus prayed and followed God’s will, taking up the cross and be the savior of all.

In a few moments, we will take up the bread and the cup.  Provisions that Joseph would have given to his son Jesus as a sign of love and given to strengthen and nourish Jesus’ body. Joseph, did you know, that Jesu would later take those simple provisions of bread and juice and change them into powerful symbols of his body and blood, signs of love to bring salvation to all who would follow him?  Joseph did you know that the love you shared with Jesus would be multiplied in Jesus hands to a love for the world? 

Let us be as Joseph, dedicated to seeking God’s wisdom, showing ourselves through deeds done in humility, and let us not be ashamed of Jesus, our savior. Let us pray.

11-28 - Mary, Did You Know

          We have entered the season called Advent.  The season of Advent is a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son.

          We decorate the sanctuary of the church building as a way of marking the season.  In a place of prominence, we position the Advent Wreath consisting of four candles surrounding a center candle.  Did you know that the four candles surround the wreath are known by different church traditions?  In some traditions, the candles represent hope, peace, joy, and love. In other traditions, the candles represent the Messiah or Prophesy of Christ’s coming followed by the Bethlehem Candle for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the third represents the Shepherds, and the fourth represents the Angel’s Candle.  In the United Kingdom, the four candles represent the hope of all God's people (week one), the Old Testament prophets (week two), John the Baptist (week three) and Mary the mother of Jesus (week four).  In the Orthodox Churches the wreath consists of six different colored candles: a green candle, symbolizing faith, a blue candle, symbolizing hope, a gold candle, symbolizing love, a white candle, symbolizing peace, a purple candle, symbolizing repentance, and a red candle, symbolizing communion.

          That is probably more about Advent Candles than you wanted to know.  But coming to know what we do not know is an essential part of Advent.  This year I would like us to explore what became known through the birth of Jesus.  We began our worship service today with the song, “Mary, Did You Know?”   We lit a candle and reflected upon Mary.  As the candle brought light into the sanctuary, so too does Mary’s experience of coming to know God bring light into our lives.  So today, I would like us to explore what God revealed about himself through Mary.  Next week, we will ask, “Joseph, Did You Know?” and explore what God revealed about himself through Joseph.  In the following weeks, we will look ask the same question through the eyes of the Shepherds and then the Wise Men.     Let’s begin with “Mary, Did You Know?”

          Who was Mary?  Did you know that the first information Christians had in writing about Mary came from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians?  We tend to think that the New Testament books are arranged in the order the books were written.  But that is not the case.  The letters Paul wrote to his churches are the earliest Christian writings even though they appear later in the New Testament.  And so, Paul’s letter to the Galatians provides the earliest written “Christmas Story.”  Here it is: “1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out “Abba, Father.”   7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Galatians 4:1-7).


The earliest Christian writings of the “Christmas Story’ do not mention Mary by name.  She is simply known as a woman.  Nevertheless, the few words that Paul mention reveal some important information about this woman and about God.  First, we learn this woman was “born under the law.” To be under the law was a way of saying she was Jewish and followed the law God gave to Moses for the nation of Israel to follow.  Second, this woman was chosen by God.  Paul said, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” to be born of a woman. God took the action and sent Jesus to this woman.  The birth of God’s own Son had never happened before and will never be repeated.  This woman, unnamed by Paul, must have been extraordinary because God chose her for this “once in all time” purpose.

          Paul left open the question, “Did Mary know the fullness of God’s plan?”  Paul made clear that this woman would have the Son of God mature within her own body, God within her.  For the woman, it must have been an amazing experience.  This woman would be the first human with the essence of God growing stronger and larger within her.  And while this woman would be the first and only person to experience God this way, I wonder if this woman, whom we know as Mary, knew she would not be the last human to experience the essence of God growing stronger and larger within them.

          Look at what Paul said as to the purpose of that baby, God’s Son, that developed within this woman. Paul wrote, “God sent his Son, born of a woman (Mary), born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:4b-6).  Paul was saying just as God sent Jesus to be born of this woman, Mary, God also sent his Spirit to all who would believe in God’s Son and that they too would have God’s Spirit living within them.  The human experience of having God growing stronger and larger within them would be repeated in the life of everyone who claimed God’s Son as their Lord and Savior. This means when we claim Christ as Lord and Savior of our life, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. So, we might ask, “Mary, did you know that you ushered into the world a new experience for all the people in that each of us can continue to share your experience of new life through God’s Spirit growing within us?”  That is an important question of history.  But it is more important of personal salvation that we ask of ourselves, “Do I know that I too can experience God living within me by accepting the gift of Jesus?”

          Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the earliest “Christmas Story” account with Mary.  Scholars believe that account was written by Paul sometime between around the year 50 A.D.  The second version of the Christmas Story authored by the Christian church came near 30 years later in the Gospel of Matthew.  In Chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel, written between 80 and 90 A.D., we would read, “16 And Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.  17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.  18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they (Joseph and Mary) came together, she (Mary) was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:16-18).

          Matthew, in the second “Christmas Story” has added much. First, we learn the woman Paul referred to did have a name.  Her name was Mary, which is the English translation of the Hebrew name Myriam. Second, we learn that God did not choose just any woman to bear his Son. God chose a woman who was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  Paul said, “when the set time had fully come,” God acted and now we learn God acted not just through the life of a woman named Mary but also a man named Joseph. 

Matthew said Joseph and Mary were engaged but not married. Meaning Mary lived in her father’s home and Joseph lived elsewhere.  Matthew made clear there was no sexual activity between them and yet Mary was found to be pregnant.  Joseph would have understood the child was not his own.  In every moral, emotional, and legal way, Joseph had every right to end his relationship with Mary and cancel all his plans for their life together.

But Matthew added an important piece of information for his readers to understand something unprecedented had happened.  Yes, the child within Mary was not created with Joseph.  Instead, the child within Mary was created through the Holy Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit of God had given life to the Son of God in the womb of Mary.  How can this be?  Well, we know that the Holy Spirit of God was present in the creation of the world.  In the first words of the Bible we would read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).  The Spirit of God was poised in the beginning to start creating life. After the creation of the heavens and earth, we would read in the second chapter of Genesis, “7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  Again, the Spirit of God, here described as the very breath of God, gave life.  Now, in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the same Spirit of God gave life within Mary in the form of a developing baby, the Son of God.  The Holy Spirit is the giver of life.  The Spirit gave life in creation.  The Spirit gave life to Mary in the Christmas Story.  And Spirit will give life to us now.  The Spirit is life.

Matthew’s “Christmas Story” of the Holy Spirit giving life to Mary, through her pregnancy with God’s own Son, revealed that God allows us to make plans but may when it suits his purposes reveal a better way to us.  Mary had plans, I am sure, for a life with Joseph.  A life of living together as husband and wife and raising children.  It was a quiet little plan.  But God had something else in mind for Mary.  God chose Mary to be part of his plan to change the world. Mary had to make a critical decision.  She could either keep her own quiet little plan and reject God’s plan for her life, or she could accept God’s plan and reject her own plan.  Mary had to test her plan and purposes against God’s will. Matthew made it clear, Mary consented to God’s plan even though she knew doing so would end her plans, may end her plans with Joseph, and may even bring the disappointment and condemnation of her family upon her.

God’s plans are not always the easiest plans for us.  In fact, the easiest plans for our lives are often found by just following the ways of the world.  Often, decisions to follow God’s plan will place us in conflict with our own plans and place us in conflict with the desires of those who are closest to us. Matthew would later record for us in Jesus’ own words how following God’s plan can even bring discord and not peace.  Jesus said: 34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’  37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).

Mary lost the life she had planned and risked all her relationships to follow God’s plan.  But in doing that for God, Mary found her true life and she will be remembered for all generations for having followed the will of God.

          So, we might ask historically, “Mary, did you know that in consenting to God’s plan you risked everything people hold dear in this world and gained not just a son, but a Savior and Lord giving you eternal life?”  The answer would be interesting.  But the better question for us today to ask of ourselves is, “Do I know that in consenting to God’s plan we place at risk our little plans and what the world hold dear, but we gain a Savior and Lord and become a child of God?  Am I willing to obey as Mary did?”

          The Christmas Story from its earliest and simplest composition is all about God plan to change the world.  But rather than bring his plan about alone and on his own, God chose to incorporate into his plan people of simple faith.  God chose to work through Mary and thus fulfill a prophesy made hundreds of years earlier, “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). 

I wonder, “Mary, did you know, did you ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ?’ (Ephesians 3:18b).   Mary, did you know, your Son would die for your sins, for our sins? Mary, did you know that though your Son died, he would rise into a new and resurrected life? Mary, did you know that in your Son taking your sins and our sins we are all cleansed of unrighteousness and can be presented to God as holy and acceptable?”  Mary, did you know?

Do we know these things, these truths?  I hope we do now.  Next week we will ask the question, “Joseph, did you know?” and learn more about God and his love for us.

The Christmas Story changes everything if we willingly accept the gift of Jesus presented to us.  But did we know we must open the gift for it to be ours?  Let’s pray that we do know. 

11-21 - The Battle - Christian Spirituality

          For a few weeks, we have been exploring Christian Spirituality through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church.  We have learned much in our time together.  We learned Christian Spirituality acts on the belief that God loves loving us and He made us to be his own children.  We learned that we, in our Christian Spirituality, act on the belief that God sent Jesus to show us the excellent way to live and to remove from us the burden of sin.  We also learned that we, in our Christian Spirituality, act and move like Jesus by cooperating with the power of the Holy Spirit embedded within us.

          A Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his contemplations about such matters as Christian Spirituality said we must see that, “"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

          Christians are indeed spiritual beings.  Being made new in Christ as spiritual beings, Paul shared with the Ephesians that they were now designed for a unified relationship with others in the church.  As a church, they, now we, form the body of Christ with all its gifts and talents to build up each part of the body.  We also learned that in our maturing through the church, we can then create homes and family relationships that a loving and sacrificial, rich in the grace of Christ. This is the Christian Spirituality Paul has spoken of thus far in his letter to the Ephesians.

          Now we come the end of his letter and Paul began his closing with these words, “10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10).  As we look at Paul’s words here, “10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” I want to make a brief point about the word “finally.”  The word “finally” here does not mean Paul is introducing a new final thought.  The word “finally” here does not mean after pages and pages of writing Paul was at the end of all his thoughts.  “Finally,” here means Paul is connecting his thoughts of the spiritual nature of Christianity at the end of the letter with the thoughts at the beginning of the letter and throughout the letter.

          We might remember Paul said in the beginning, “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).   Paul began his letter as a spiritually rich letter. 

We might remember in the middle of the letter, Paul wrote, “14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19).  Paul’s desire at the mid-point of his letter was that the Ephesians would remember the power by the Spirit of God strengthens in their inner being.

Paul then at the end of the letter said, “10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10).  Paul was reminding his readers that life in Christ was a spiritual life in which the followers of Jesus could appropriate power from the Lord to live the life God desired.  Paul then offered an illustration intended to show the power available to us from God.

Paul said, “11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12).  Many sermons have been preached on the armor of God and the specific elements of that armor that Paul will later cite.

If we searched the Internet for images for Paul’s words almost every website that provides a graphic presents Paul’s words through the image of a Roman solider, standing upright and strong.  The soldier is equipped with a properly fitted body armor, a helmet, a sword, proper shoes, shield, and a belt.  The soldier appears as a brave warrior ready to deal a death blow to a foe coming across the field of battle.  It strikes me that this common image of Paul’s words, this magnificent Roman soldier, is incorrect for two key reasons and that that common image may lead us away from what Paul intended for us to understand.

First, the common image of this battle-ready Roman soldier is wrong because any soldier appearing in battle in this manner would have quickly killed.  While it is true that Roman soldiers had equipment such as we imagine, it would have been unimaginable for that soldier to go into battle alone.  Roman soldiers had no strength on their own, but they were a formidable force when they fought alongside other soldiers as a phalanx with perhaps as few as 16 soldiers or as many as 1500 soldiers.  That mass of men and muscle then moved as one body, one unit.  There walked so closely together that there was no room for an enemy to get between them.  When attacked by arrows, those in facing the enemy used their shields to protect the front of the group, those on the edges used their shields to protect the side of the unit, and those in the middle held their shields over the heads of all to protect from above.  When Paul says you must put on the armor of God, he is using the plural of you.  You, all those who comprise the body of Christ, the church, must work together and be equipped for mutual defense with the armor of God.  I do not believe Paul ever meant for the Ephesians or us to see ourselves as soldiers standing alone.

Second, the image of a soldier dressed for combat against a mortal enemy is wrong because Paul says our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the forces of darkness.  If we think of ourselves or our church as carrying combat equipment to face a mortal enemy, other people, then we have Christian Spirituality all wrong.  Our battles are not against other people.  It is most assured no against others who claim Christ nor is against our neighbors even if they do not claim Christ.  We are, together, not individually, to be equipped for spiritual battle against the forces of darkness.  That is why I believe the image of a solitary soldier dressed for mortal combat sends us down the wrong path for what Paul is saying.

Allow me to give you a very personal example.  A few years ago, I was providing counsel to a man after one of his children died by suicide.  He was a Christian as was his child.  His grief was all consuming.  One day as we talked, this Christian man, said to me, “I have been having dark thoughts.” I asked him, “What do you mean by ‘dark thoughts?’”  He said he thought it would be best if he joined his child and that he too die by suicide.  I asked the man if he had a plan to take his life.  He said he did.  He said there was a knife at his home that someone brought back from World War 2. He planned to use that knife to end his life.

Think for a moment what the man said and then think about Paul’s words, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).  This man, this Christian was being attacked by spiritual forces of darkness and evil.  Those dark forces had found their way into his spirit, into his strength.  He felt alone in his battle.  But the armor of God was not given to a person to be on their own.  The armor of God was given so that we could work together with other Christians as a unit. And so, I said to this man, “How would it be if we went to your house, we retrieved the knife, we returned to the church, and we stored the knife in the church?  Anytime you want the knife back, we could meet at the church and pick it up again.”  He said that would be a good plan for us to follow.  We ended our session.  We retrieved the knife and we stored it at the church in a safe location.  The next week when we met to counsel, this man said he no longer had the dark thoughts or desire to die because he no longer possessed the knife.  The ranks of those bearing the armor of God and closed tight such that the enemy could find no room between them.

The experience with this man struggled against the darkness showed me that we are called to fight the spiritual battle not on our own but  with brothers and sisters who are able to close the gaps that could let the spiritual enemy through the armor.  The Old Testament tells us: 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).  Paul’s words in his letter to the church is about us suddenly going on our own as a self-sufficient soldier, but as the church, the believers, coming together in God’s strength not to battle other people but to defend ourselves in the spiritual battles of darkness in the world.

Having made this point, Paul, in verse 13, repeated, “13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).  Twice Paul said to put on the armor of God.  Twice Paul said it is for a spiritual protection.  And twice Paul said it is to be done that we could stand together. We naturally would want to know, what is the armor of God?

Paul explained it this way using six piece of equipment each of which represents a measure of spiritual strength from God.  Paul talked about the spiritual strength of truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.  Let’s look at these spiritual powers that come from God.

We begin with truth.  Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say He would show the truth or teach the truth or model the truth. He is the truth. Truth personified. Paul said earlier in his letter to the Ephesians said, “13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth (Ephesians 1:13).  Paul’s point was finally, tie the truth of Christ around you as tightly as you would a belt.

We now turn to righteousness. Paul said earlier in his letter, “21 When you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus (that he died for your sins)…24 and (you then) put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:21, 24).  We are to put on righteousness as though we were putting on a new garment given to us by God as his child.

Paul then turned his attention to the gospel of peace.  We remember that Jesus had said to his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul echoed Jesus words earlier in his letter to the Ephesians when Paul said, “He himself (Jesus) is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).  We have spiritual power when we remember Jesus established peace for us with God and other believers.  That good news, that gospel, allows us to walk with confidence and strength.

Fourth, Paul spoke about faith.  Paul had written, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Faith in God saves us, it shields us, from perishing in the spiritual battle.

Fifth, Paul cites salvation as armor of God.  Paul had said earlier in his letter, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). Salvation brings in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit transforms our minds so that we can see the battles as spiritual not of the flesh.  The seal of salvation, the Holy Spirit, protects our minds.

Lastly, Paul spoke about the word of God. Paul told the Ephesians previously, “11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:11-14). Relying on God’s Word, His knowledge, allows the church to cut like a sword through the philosophies that sound good but carry no truth.

I do not believe Paul expected his church to see themselves as warrior soldiers like a Roman soldier.  Instead, I think Paul wanted his readers, and now you and me, to see that soldiers are equipped appropriate to the battle they are to fight, and they fight that battle together.  We likewise must be equipped to fight the battles we face and to face them together. But our battles are not with each other or other people.  Our battles are against spiritual enemies, darkness, and evil.  We need truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word.

When I think about the image Paul was painting through truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word I do not see the image of a Roman soldier.  I see the image of Jesus Christ.  I hope we all see the image of Jesus Christ and we gather strength from him.  I am glad you are here today to help gather up that strength we need from God, to put on full display truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word.  I am glad you are next to me, helping to ensure that there is no space between us for the enemy to make an inroad as together we face the spiritual battles that are ahead.  Let us pray together.

11-14 - Family - Christian Spirituality

          We have been exploring the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus so that we might be able to better understand Christian Spirituality and its distinctives from other forms of spirituality that we will most assuredly encounter.

          We have learned quite a bit about Christian Spirituality from Paul’s letter.  We learned that Christian Spirituality is all about:

  • God, the Creator, blessing people because He loves loving us.
  • God making himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, His son.
  • God giving us His Holy Spirit to guide us, challenge us, comfort us, and correct us.
  • Accepting Jesus as Savior and imitating Him.
  • Acknowledging Jesus unites followers by tearing down the walls that divide us and giving us peace.
  • Building up other followers of Jesus.
  • Living a life worthy of the love God has invested in us and the peace Jesus has given us.

We have learned a lot about the distinctives of Christian Spirituality.  In Christ, we can live a new life completely unencumbered by traditions and religious rules.  Christian Spirituality gives us a freedom to be the people God made us to be.

          Freedom was very much a foreign concept to the people of Ephesus.  The people of the ancient near east were bound in many ways.  For the most part each person was known by their father, their tribe, or their hometown.  We see evidence of that in the Bible.

  • There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36).
  • “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)
  • Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
  • The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.” (Acts 9:11)
  • Finally, send a few minutes with the genealogy of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

There are many examples of people being known by their father, tribe, and hometown.

          People were known by the customs of their people. Consider just a few examples.

  • 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (John 4:9)
  • He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. (Acts 10:28)
  • 35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” (John 18:35)

Yet into all these differences and divides, Jesus came with the message, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus’ words and actions caused the Apostle Paul to write to the Ephesians that, “14 For he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations” (Ephesians 2:14-15).  Paul saw that Jesus destroyed all the divides in life for those who would follow Jesus.  That, dear friends, was freedom in ways people had not previously imagined.

          Jesus made people truly free.  What then were they to do with that freedom?  How were they to conduct their affairs?  To whom were these new Christians accountable?  These must have been pressing matters for the early church because Paul felt compelled to answer them.  In answering these questions, Paul said to the Ephesians, “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

          What did Paul just say?  “Submit to one another.”  Was Paul really telling the Ephesians to take all that newly given freedom and give it away? Not exactly.  Paul, speaking to followers of Jesus, said that followers of Jesus ought to “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Paul was asking followers of Jesus to make mutual submission of their freedom to one another as a sign of their individual and mutual trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  What Paul had in mind was that each Christian would reject the idea that their freedom meant they were now free to be concerned only or primarily about themselves. Instead, Paul wanted Christians to reject self-centeredness and to adopt the idea of working for the good of other believers.

          Paul was not talking about equality here.  Equality necessarily carries with it the idea of making things equal and continually checking the scales to make sure that things are properly balanced. Equality means we are constantly keeping track to make sure that we get at least 50% of whatever it is that concerns us, whether that is power, purse, or pie.  Mutual submission is a much stronger relationship in which we willingly give up rights to support and encourage the other, even if the other receives more than 50%.  Why would we do such a thing?  Paul said do it out of reverence for Jesus.

          What Paul was saying here, when followed, was earth changing.  We see glimpses of this behavior among the early church.  In the Book of Acts we would read, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).  These people were submitted to each other in reverence for Christ.

          Paul’s point was that mutual submission among Christians in reverence to Christ was the clearest way to show the distinctive and transformative nature of being in Christ.  What Paul asked for apart from Christ was illogical.  With Christ, what Paul asked was a wonderful expression of love.

          From this foundation of mutual submission, Paul then wanted to help Christians understand how this new Christian Spirituality should play out in the home.  In Paul’s day, there were formal household codes that existed as to how a home ought to be run and how husbands, wives, and their children ought to relate to one another. In Paul’s day, woman and children were often regarded as property with which the man of the house was free to do with whatever he pleased.

          With freedom in Christ, those rules no longer applied.  What did Paul say would be a fitting replacement for all those rules?  Paul began with, ““21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  Paul then followed up with specific charges on wives and husbands.

          Paul said, “22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22) and “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  What Paul’s words meant was that first both the husband and wife were to live in, to, and for the Lord Jesus.  And second, mutual submission means that decisions are to be made by both partners for unselfish reasons.

          I do not think Paul’s words were as radical for the women as they were the men. Men held all the power and many saw women as property.  Paul said Jesus changed all that.  Men, husbands, were now to love their wives.  Love is a voluntary giving of yourself to another.  Secondly, the love a man must now give to his wife is like that that Jesus did for his church.  Jesus gave sacrificially to the church, to his followers.  Men must be givers and not takers.

          Paul continued with more detailed instruction for the men, more so than the women.  Paul said, “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:25-29).

          Why did Paul feel the need to be more specific with men?  I think Paul did so because Paul understood the facts of life.  Men have a much higher capacity and propensity toward brutish and violent behaviors as takers, particularly behind the closed doors of the home.  Sadly, as many as 1 in 4 women will experience some form of abuse in their relationships with men.  Even sadder, far too much of that abuse occurs at the hands of men who claim Christ.  We must not equivocate on the sin of spousal abuse.  Men cannot abuse women and claim Christ.  Paul makes it clear that cannot be.  Men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and in doing so, please God.  It follows then that men who abuse women necessarily abuse Christ.  Men who abuse Christ make themselves an enemy of God. I believe on the day of judgement men who abuse women, will hear Jesus say to them, “‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23).

          Paul challenged the men of Ephesus and said, “Each one of you (men) also must love his wife as he loves himself” (Ephesians 5:33).  Paul was making clear that a Christian marriage was far different from anything anyone had thought about.  A Christian marriage was not about rights and laws.  A Christian marriage was not about working hard at equality, a 50/50 proposition, if you will.  A Christian marriage, a true Christian marriage, was to be a partnership of each giving the other 100% because doing so honored their love for Christ and one another.  You know the ideal for a true Christian marriage is still far different from any other form of marriage.

          Having asked husbands and wives to submit to each other, Paul turned his attention toward the children of a Christian family.  Paul said, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1-4).

          Again, the command is that children submit to their parents and fathers do not exasperate their children.  Exasperate here means that men are not to provoke, antagonize, and cause their children to become angry.  Instead, men are to give instruction to the Lord. 

Paul knew something about the significance of fathers, faith, and children.  Recent studies show that, if a father does not go to church, even if his wife does, only 1 child in 50 will become a regular worshiper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of what the mother does, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will attend church as adults.  Fathers are not to exasperate their children telling them to go to church.  They are to instruct them by leading them to church.

          Out of what Paul shared with the church in Ephesus about Christian Spirituality, what then can we draw out for ourselves?  I think there are three points for us today.

          First, in Christ we are made free, really free.  We are new creations who are made free to be the person God intended for us to be.  We maintain that freedom not by force but by following the lead of Jesus Christ and imitating Jesus at every turn.

          Second, in Christ we are free to mutually submit ourselves to be part of the body of Christ, the church.  Our submission means that we can work together to build each other up and do good for each other simply because it is good.  We don’t do good for credit by anyone.  We do good because it is our way of showing our love for Christ.

          Third, in Christ, we are free to mutually build a home where wives, husbands, and children are built up in faith through love.  Our home can be shaped by Christ into the ultimate sanctuary from the world.  Our home should become the place of greatest refuge from the storms and disappointments of the world.  Home should not be a place of misery or captivity.  We, working with Christ, can make that happen.

          Being a Christian, living in Christ, is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. When living as a Christian first appeared on the scene it captivated people’s attention because Christians were so unlike the world.  We still are called to be unlike the world.  It is for that reason I am glad to be here with you today seeking a life of a submission to one another in, through, and for Christ.  Let us pray.

10-31 - Peace - Christian Spirituality

We have been exploring Christian Spirituality through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christian church Paul founded in the city of Ephesus.  And today I wanted to begin our conversation on Christian Spirituality with a contrasting view of spirituality.  While the person drawing the contrast is a modern person, her thoughts parallel the thoughts of the people Paul addressed.

The modern person is a 22-year-old college student named Lindsey.  Lindsey was stopped for an informal, person on the street interview.  Lindsey was relaxed smoking a cigarette.  She was comfortable speaking with the interviewer about spirituality and God.  The interviewer asked, “To you, what is God like?”  Lindsey replied, “To me, God is more like an energy than any sort of person. He is an energy that is like within everything, living, animated, not animated. It’s just everywhere.”  The interviewer, noticing the cigarette in Lindsey’s hand, asked, “So God is like in your cigarette there? Lindsey replied, “Yep. I am smoking God.”

          Lindsey’s view of spirituality is that God is an unrelatable energy force.  God cannot be seen, heard, or experience.  Instead, God is just there in the things that we can see, eat, or even smoke.  In Lindsey’s view there is no difference between you, a chair, a plant, a rock, or a cigarette.  Lindsey is not alone in her view of God nor is Lindsey’s view a modern view.  This view is called pantheism and it is part of the belief systems of Hindu, Buddhism, Christian Science, and Scientology. 

The Apostle Paul faced similar views as he planted churches in the ancient world.  As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, Paul, a follower of Jesus Christ, taught a very different view of God than the one to which Lindsey ascribed.  Paul taught that Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God is the Creator of all and that God values humanity about everything else in his created world, even above a chair, a plant, a rock, or a cigarette.  Christian Spirituality holds that God blesses people not because of our works.  This God and Creator, blesses us because God loves loving us.  Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever.  Paul taught and we have learned that being in Christ meant that Christ embedded within us the Holy Spirit to guide us, challenge us, comfort us, and correct us.  With the Holy Spirit, we can also see ourselves as changed by God’s love that redeems us and forgives us.  We see through the Holy Spirit that we can change our relationships and behaviors towards others by becoming for gracious, gentle, and loving.  In all these changes we then have hope and our presence to others becomes a source of hope.  This is the God of Christian Spirituality and, I can assure you, will not be found in a cigarette.

This same Christian Spirituality Paul taught is all about seeing that God works continually to remind us that the walls that create division among his people have been torn down.  This Christian Spirituality is all about seeing the paradox that the violence done to Jesus on the cross brought us peace.  Christian Spirituality is all about us coming together to encourage each other, to love each other, and to see that more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in building up this church in holiness and compassion the greater the sense we will have of God’s presence among us.

From this foundation of Christian Spirituality, we heard Paul’s words as he continued to encourage the people of the Ephesian church to fully embrace the God of love and peace.  Paul wrote, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:1-7).

          Paul, who explained that God loves loving us, and explained that God revealed his own nature in the person of Jesus Christ and that Jesus gives each person who follows him peace, turned his attention toward the behavior of individual Christians.  Paul said in response to God’s love and the peace from Christ, we ought to live a life worthy of God’s love and peace.

          I really like Paul’s words, “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  First thing we see in Paul’s words is that everyone responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ has received calling.  Paul means to include you and me in his words.  You and I have received a calling from God through Jesus Christ to be here this morning to be part of a Christian community. You and I are not here by accident or habit.  You and I are here because somewhere in time God moved within you to prompt you, to encourage you to be in worship.  We are here because we have received a calling from God.  Let that sink in for a few moments.

          Second, you and I have received a call from God to apply ourselves in this world.  Paul wrote earlier, “10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).  You and I each have a calling to be in Christ and to do certain tasks, certain work, that advances the blesses of God and the peace of Christ. The call on your life and the call on my life will overlap, there will be some similarities, and some uniqueness to each call.  Neither call is superior to the other.  Each call, the one on your life and the one on my life, complement and complete the others. I find that God would bring us together who were once strangers and unite us as a community to accomplish our callings together an amazing blessing.

          Our God is the same God who blesses us, Jesus is the same Lord who gives us peace, we have received the same call to follow Jesus, and we have received different callings to advance love and peace.  But…There is always the “but” in Scripture.  But in completing our different, complimenting callings, we must complete those callings in the same way.

          Paul said, “live a life worthy of the calling you received,” by being “2 Completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).  Paul was talking to the people of the church about their behavior toward the people of the church.

          I had a phone call a few weeks ago from a person who was angry, upset, frustrated, and exhausted.  For about 40 minutes, this person went on virtually non-stop recounting story after story of difficult interactions with doctors’ offices, merchants, and online support services all of which led to dissatisfaction because the people this person dealt with were cold, uncaring, and heartless.  This person said they were so angry they felt they were done.  When I had a chance to respond, I said, “You have told me about your interactions with the world which is as you experienced cold, uncaring, and heartless.  What you have not told me about is your interaction with the Christian community who are called to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving toward one another.  Tell me about your interactions with fellow Christians in worship, fellowship, and service.”  The person said there have been none.

          I think you can see that this person was, at best, dealing solely with Lindsey’s world of an impersonal God, some energy force found in chairs, rocks, and cigarettes.  This person was not dealing in the community of believers blessed by a God and Jesus Christ to be co-creators of love and peace by being shaped by God to be people who are humble, gentle, patient, and loving toward one another.  The differences between the God of the cigarette and the living God revealed through Christ could not be starker.  When we come together as a church this is our time to be refreshed, to refresh one another, to worship, to encourage, to receive grace and be gracious toward another. This is at the heart of Christian Spirituality.

          Paul said that in the presence of the Christian community, here, we can be brought to the fullness of Christ.  In the fullness of Christ, “14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).  It is in the loving arms of Christ made real in through his church, his followers, that we can be at peace knowing that God loves us and has surrounded us with gentleness and compassionate people.  To serve one another in this manner is part of the call on each of our lives and is part of living a worthy life.

          Paul then set out some behaviors to put aside and some behaviors to take on so that we can all express the calling on our life. Paul said:

  • “17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.”  “24 Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”  Allow the wisdom of God’s word guide your lives.
  • “25 Put off falsehood.”  “Speak truthfully.”  Speak the plain truth to yourself and to others.
  • “29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.”  Speak, “only what is helpful for building others up.”  Be encouragers of each other.
  • “31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  “32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Be willing to be made different from the world and be that beacon of light and peace to others.

Christian Spirituality then is about being a peace in Christ and living a life worthy of that peace by sharing the peace of Christ with other believers in Christ by imitating the characteristics of Jesus who was humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  This Jesus is the Jesus that had been promised to us in the Old Testament.  The prophet Isaiah saw the coming of Jesus and the depth of Jesus’ desire for our peace. Isaiah wrote of Jesus, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

          Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the paradox Isaiah saw of the violence done to Jesus that brought us peace.  Paul said, it is Jesus who reconciled us to God through the cross. (Ephesians 2:14-15).  It was on that cross that Jesus gave of his body and gave his blood.  Jesus called on his disciples to remember Him whenever they took the bread and drank from the cup.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are not some force we find in these elements as Lindsey might believe.  Jesus wanted his disciples, you and me, the church, to remember by taking the bread and the cup that through the cross we have peace.  So, the bread we eat is bread.  And the cup we drink is juice.  But…but the bread and cup remind us that we have a God who loves loving us and a Savior and Lord, Jesus, you gave us peace.  Jesus does not ask us to take his place on the cross and give our body or bloody. We are just asked to be humble, patient, gentle, and loving toward one another.  That is what the Christian Spirituality that Paul spoke passionately about to the ancient people of Ephesus.  That is the Christian Spiritualty that we desperately need to see and experience today.  To live in that manner, my dear friends, is a life worthy of the calling we received. I am glad we have answered the call together.  Let us pray.