Matthew

Right Under Their Noses

Traditionally, but not scripturally, there were three wise men.

Traditionally, but not scripturally, there were three wise men.

Matthew 2:1-12

From a distance, the wise men saw so much. At the same time, Jewish King Herod and his best advisers were oblivious to the most important moment the people of Jerusalem could imagine, the coming of the Messiah just six miles away from Herod’s court.

How do you see so much from afar? How do you miss such a big event when it’s happening right under your nose?

The wise men, most likely astrologers who advised rulers living in what we now call Iraq, responded to a sign in the sky by packing their camels and making a months-long journey to Jerusalem. For them, whatever was going on in Jerusalem was huge, and they needed to get there despite the hardships.

When the wise men arrived, however, no one in Jerusalem seemed to know what they were talking about. Jewish King Herod had to ask the wise men when the sign in the sky had occurred, despite having consulted with his chief priests and scribes.

So much for the “Little Drummer Boy” television version of Christ’s birth, where a star shines so brightly that its tail points toward the manger like a neon sign at a roadside motel.

The best astronomical explanation for the wise men’s sign in the sky probably lies in a series of conjunctions involving Venus and Jupiter near the constellation Leo and its bright star, Regulus. Such conjunctions would have screamed “a king is born in Judah” to these astrologers while going unnoticed by others. (For a detailed explanation of this theory, view this slide show.) It’s also possible the star was a supernatural event, unusual in that it was intended for the wise men and no one else.

Regardless of exactly what motivated the wise men, it seems God spoke to them in signs for a simple reason. They were seekers. They spent their lives anticipating great events, looking for signs in the skies. God grants guidance to those who actively seek his will.

I’m not suggesting everyone take up astrology to hear from God. In this case, I think God simply was speaking to these seekers in a language they understood.

They also were the kind of men who were not afraid to go out into the world. These weren’t ivory-tower academics. They knew how to get those camels across the desert; with God’s guidance, they knew how to deal with the evil, wily Herod, heading home “by another way” to keep the Christ child safe.

And perhaps most importantly, they were ready to respond to the truth that had been revealed to them. They accepted God’s revelation, and they acted accordingly, honoring the Savior of the world.

The wise men stand in stark contrast to the corrupt King Herod, a man who sought his own glory rather than that of the God he should have been serving as the leader of the Jews. In many worldly ways, Herod was a great king. Certainly, he was a great builder, expanding the Second Temple and building the fortress at Masada.

He also was mercilessly shrewd, murdering his own wife and two of his children when he began to consider them threats. That ruthlessness is seen again in what we call “the massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill the Messiah. Blinded by his worldly concerns, Herod could not have seen God’s glory if the baby Jesus had been born at his feet. Here was a Jew who should have spent a little time studying Psalm 2.

It’s not hard to see which model we should follow. Like the wise men, Christians should be seekers of God’s truth, listening for God’s sometimes subtle answers.

As seekers who begin to hear, it also is important to respond bravely. Do we put our possessions and even our lives at risk? What is our equivalent of getting on a camel and riding into the desert?

I would like to know more of the wise men’s story. I feel certain they were changed forever by the experience. For some reason God chooses not to give us those details through Scripture, however.

At least we are allowed to make a similar journey. We can be wise men and women ourselves, pursuing and worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

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The Oil Merchant

I’m not offering you a Sermon Short this week because I borrowed (and personalized) a sermon from J. Ellsworth Kalas’ “Parables from the Backside: Bible Stories with a Twist.” This is one of my favorite Kalas sermons, as it brings out some important points regarding Matthew 25:1-13 in a unique way. I was blessed to have Dr. Kalas as a preaching professor during my time at Asbury Theological Seminary. I admire him as a person and as a preacher, and I highly recommend any of his books for devotional reading and spiritual development. His title for this particular sermon is, “I Wish I Could Sell You More.”

FYI, I’ll be off the next couple of weeks, taking a little vacation time.

Fully Clothed

"Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet" by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet” by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) – Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:1-14

The king in this parable takes his son’s wedding celebration very seriously. No surprise there; what’s astonishing is how no one close to the royal family seems to care.

Maybe the king’s son is like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all pasty-faced and whiny and trying to sing his way through life, and no one wants to put up with him for the next seven days or so. (Wedding banquets could go on for quite awhile.) Such speculation will cause us to miss the point of the parable, however.

Jesus told this parable near the end of his ministry, while delivering a withering critique of the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews. The kingdom of heaven is like a glorious banquet. To refuse to go to such a feast makes no sense. Jesus was implying that the Jewish leaders were worse than the wedding guests, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of the messiah and the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, they and their ancestors for centuries had participated in the persecution and slaughter of prophets who had declared the coming kingdom.

Therefore, Jesus was saying, the king—God—would invite others, people who had never expected to go to the banquet. For non-Jews, this is the important part of the parable. We Gentiles are the ones gathered from the streets, “both good and bad.”

What an opportunity! All we unwashed heathens have to do is say “yes” to the invitation. But one thing remains in the story: what to wear?

"The Marriage Feast" by John Everett Millais

“The Marriage Feast” by John Everett Millais

This is where we run into the really difficult part of the parable, the four verses that serve almost as a parable unto themselves. The king enters the banquet hall full of commoners but sees a guest not dressed properly. The king’s men bind this slob hand and foot and cast him out into a place darker-than-dark, a location full of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and sounding suspiciously like hell. Here we see it is possible to say yes to the invitation, get into the party, and still not please the king.

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus concluded his parable.

Three weeks ago, while preaching about God’s enormous grace, I mentioned that Jesus and the early church fathers at times seemed to indicate salvation will be widespread, possibly even universal, while at other times they spoke in a very sober way about the demands inherent in following Christ. This parable seems to be on the more restrictive end of the spectrum.

If we’re not careful, we can be left feeling as if we’re once again striving for our salvation, trying to earn it under some sort of new code or law that has replaced the Jewish system that proved to be such an impossible burden. What must we do, and how well must we do it? What might the king’s fashion rules be? Go to church? Read your Bible? Say your prayers?

The parable, however, really isn’t taking us in such a direction. To fully understand what Jesus was saying, we need one important piece of background information. In Jesus’ day, guests at an elaborate wedding banquet like this one didn’t have to dress for the occasion. The host provided everyone with robes to wear. You simply had to wrap yourself in what was his.

When we accept that invitation to joyous life with Christ, we receive more than an eternity scheduled to begin at a later date. God’s Holy Spirit clothes us with his righteousness and attributes now, if we let God work in us.

This was what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians that the Holy Spirit gives us characteristics we cannot achieve on our own: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the garments we put on, a kind of clothing we could never stitch together on our own.

Activities like worship, Bible study and prayer aren’t rules, they’re garment boxes, wrapped and ready with our holy, eternal clothing inside. The more we open these boxes, the more of God’s robes we put on.

With such gifts awaiting us, why would anyone want to wear the stinky old clothes from days gone by?

Unfair!

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard lets us thoroughly explore a subject we just barely began to touch upon last week. God’s grace can seem strange to us—perhaps even unfair.

There is no trick to interpreting what Jesus means in this parable. It’s just that confronting the plain meaning can be troublesome. Would you want to work all day in a field, see other workers arrive in the last hour and work alongside you, and then watch them receive the same pay as you? Any of us would be indignant.

Let’s explore that sense of injustice a little further. As is pointed out in the parable, the workers who bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” really don’t have a sound economic argument to make. They receive a fair wage, one clearly prearranged before they began work. They have not been cheated in any way.

No, their anger, their desire to cry “unfair,” seems rooted more in the simple fact that no one wants to feel like a fool.  They see what has happened and think to themselves, “I could have waited in the marketplace day labor camp until almost evening, done hardly any work at all, and gotten exactly the same amount of money.” Stupid, stupid, stupid!

There is a parallel in the Christian life. Some will receive God’s grace early, devoting their lives to Christ in the process. Some will come to Christ later. Some will come so late, perhaps on their deathbeds or in a last fleeting moment, that they leave little evidence in this life of their conversions. The reward is the same, however, eternal life with God.

And again, it is not hard for those who come to Christ early to perhaps feel a little indignant, deserving of something more, although it’s difficult to imagine what “eternal life with God plus more” might look like. The convenience store robber who pleads to Christ for salvation as he bleeds out from a bullet in his chest—he is equal in God’s eyes to Mother Teresa? Really?

When I was in seminary, a teacher illustrated this well, turning a mid-term exam into a lesson about God’s grace and the importance of not resenting what is given to others. Grace is a gift; it cannot be earned, only accepted.

If you study today’s parable and other texts illustrating the magnitude of God’s grace, the situation can become even more perplexing, particularly if you immerse yourself in a centuries-old argument. Is God’s grace so great that everyone will be saved?

Does God create some path, some sort of opportunity in this life or beyond, for everyone to see the work of Christ clearly and say yes to what is seen? One controversial early church father, Origen, built an elaborate argument that all creatures—even Judas, even the devil—ultimately will be restored to God.

I think no pastor can preach such an idea as biblically true. As attractive as the notion is, I cannot be a universalist. Now, I should acknowledge there are biblical texts that talk about the full and complete restoration of creation.   Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:19-20 are sometimes cited as examples. But there also are many texts about hell and eternal separation from God for nonbelievers, some of those warnings in the same gospel where we find the parable of the laborers. The subject simply cannot be resolved in a clear enough way to establish doctrine.

The concept of salvation for all can shape our hopes, however. Can we sincerely desire eternal life for the worst people we can think of, perhaps the people who have wounded us most grievously?

Such questions serve as a litmus test for Christians, a way of determining if we’re able to reflect God’s love for all. Essentially, we’re trying to emulate the mind that makes possible John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

If you carry such hope in your heart, God bless you. You are a remarkable person. The rest of us may find we need to sink deeper into God’s incredible grace.

*****

To give credit where credit is due, my introduction to the idea of  of salvation for all as a matter of hope came from an article by Father Richard John Neuhaus in the August 2001 issue of the journal First Things, titled, “Will All Be Saved?

The Upside-Down World

Matthew 18:21-35

Last week, I talked about the importance of communication, describing a model Jesus gave us to seek peace in times of discord. A few of my congregants told me afterward they found the sermon to be a bit of a toe-stomper—all of us, myself included, were thinking of moments where we had let our tongues get ahead of our relationships.

At least there is lots of forgiveness to go around. Jesus’ teaching on communication and unity is followed immediately in Matthew by a question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter’s question implies there are limits to forgiveness, even within the community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ answer, however, shows there should be no limits. Yes, Jesus provides a specific number, but biblically, sevens upon sevens point us toward a lifelong behavior rooted in an eternal truth.

Of all the marks of a dedicated Christian, a willingness to offer forgiveness may be the most important one. Jesus follows his answer with a parable, telling the story of a slave whose master forgives a ridiculously large debt. The slave, however, later refuses to forgive one of his debtors, a fellow slave who owes him a relative pittance. When the master finds out, he rescinds his forgiveness of the large debt and punishes the slave terribly.

“So my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus says in concluding the parable.

The demand on Christians to offer forgiveness within the community is indisputable, it would seem. And yet, I often see people struggling with the concept after disputes within their churches. I even have heard Christians use the phrase “I’ll never forgive you” or “I could never forgive that,” which, in the context of the parable mentioned above, causes me grave concern.

Forgiveness is a difficult concept because it seems to conflict with our desire for justice, particularly when we consider ourselves victims. There’s no doubt the two are somewhat related—some people certainly find it easier to forgive after justice has been achieved—but we have to remember the two concepts are not mutually dependent. And forgiveness is hardly the weak theological sister to justice. We are all told to forgive; we have no guarantees of justice as long as the world remains broken, just a promise God will set all things right in the end.

To borrow from Acts 17:6, we are called to turn the common notions of the world upside-down, just as the early Christians were accurately accused of doing. Forgiveness does this more than any other Christian concept, I think. Its most powerful effect is when it ends the cycle of punch and counter-punch, the model the world has long upheld as the norm, the way of thinking still driving much of the decision-making in the world today. Forgiveness likely prevented mass slaughter in South Africa after apartheid came to an end. Properly understood by the right people, forgiveness could end the problems of the Middle East.

Forgiveness also has the possibility to create some very awkward situations on Judgment Day. Imagine this scenario: A man full of anger and evil murders another man, and goes to prison for life. (Justice in this life actually prevails.) As years pass, the murderer learns that even his sins are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and he accepts Christ as his savior.

During the same time, the brother of the murdered man, a leader in his church, grows angrier and angrier about the crime, despite the killer’s conviction. The brother wants a more painful punishment for the killer, every day imagining the worst kinds of prison deaths. He never lets go of his anger, his hatred, leading a bitter life to the end.

At the judgment, who, according to our text today, is better off? With forgiveness as an important standard, Judgment Day is liable to be a strange scene. As hearts are measured for forgiveness, we may be surprised at who stands as righteous with God, and who does not.

 

Face to Face

I never cease to be amazed at how poorly Christians handle hurt feelings and perceived slights within the church. Judging from my own experiences over the years and from what I hear from other pastors, it must be a widespread problem.

Churchgoers, consider whether this sounds familiar: Christian A (insert here pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, choir director, the person in the next pew, etc.) offends Christian B. Rather than discussing the situation with Christian A, Christian B grumbles to others.

What we're trying to avoid, with Jesus' help.

What we’re trying to avoid, with Jesus’ help.

Christian B’s confidants then mumble those grumbles to still others. Emotional and spiritual wounds fester, and the Christian love we’re supposed to feel for one another in church fades. Sometimes, factions even form.

It’s particularly disappointing because we have clear guidance from Jesus on the proper handling of even serious conflict among church members.

Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew 18:15-20, is rooted in a situation where a sinful church member has in some way victimized another church member. And the situation doesn’t have to be as serious as you might think when you hear the word “sin.” It’s easy for us to classify offensive behavior in others as sinful when the words or actions simply stem from mild pride, selfishness or simple thoughtlessness. (Lord knows, those are three areas that get me into trouble.)

Here is Jesus’ recommended strategy:

Step 1: The wounded person should go to the offender and explain the problem. Implicit in this step is that there has been no griping to others about the wound inflicted. This step creates the potential for the problem to be resolved one-on-one, keeping bad feelings and misunderstandings from spreading.

Step 2: If Step 1 doesn’t bring reconciliation, the wounded person should involve one or two others in speaking to the offender. Discretion remains important, however. “One or two” means one or two, not five or fifteen. This step also acts as a corrective to someone who may be overreacting. If the wounded person cannot find one or two people who are willing to say, “Yeah, that sounds like a problem,” then a little reflection on what was said or done may be in order.

Step 3: If Step 2 does not bring the offender around, the wounded person takes the problem before the “whole church.” At this point, I should say that we have left the realm of dealing with simple disagreements or misunderstandings and are now dealing with a very serious situation, one probably involving blatant sin. Most reasonably organized denominations have a procedure for Step 3 and also Step 4, which involves the temporary or permanent removal of an unrepentant offender from the church.

It’s been my experience that when Christians practice this scriptural model in a loving way, situations that have triggered hurt feelings are quickly resolved at Step 1. Mature Christians are horrified to realize they’ve wounded a sister or brother in some way.

I realize it’s not always easy to talk to certain people, particularly if the offended person has a more shy and quiet personality and the offender is louder or more authoritarian. As I think about how accessible I am to others, I try to keep in mind something my wife, Connie, once told me: “You have got to learn that you frighten children and small animals.” And because some people find pastors a little intimidating, I always welcome anyone offended by me to bring someone along for support during the conversation.

Adults in Christian community owe it to each other to first discuss our hurt and confusion with the one who caused it—we’re talking about a behavior that keeps us unified, allowing the Holy Spirit to work among the church more effectively. As Jesus said, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Clinging to the Gunwales

Matthew 14:22-33

We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.

Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.

Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.

Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.

In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.

In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.

In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”

Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?

What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?

I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.

What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!

Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.

As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.