Archive for January, 2007

The Samson Saga: An Ancient Tale for the 21st Century

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

We return to the Book of Judges after several months of respite. I stopped preaching through it abruptly, not because some particular season of the church year intervened, but because it felt like too much–too much violence, too much mayhem, and too much tragedy. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to wrest the light from the deepening darkness–yet, paradoxically, the darkness also illuminates the lessons it offers. This is crisis literature. The stories recount the tales of Israel’s heroes and anti-heroes in a time when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

The name of God is not absent–in fact, it is flung far and wide. God’s name is invoked to direct wars (Judges 1:1-2, Judges 4:6-7), avenge enemies (Judges 16:28), and commit genocide against alien people (Judges 18:1-2, 5-6, 27-28). It is invoked to punish the miscreant (Judges 8:6-7, 15-16) and fix human-made disasters (Judges 6:1-10).

In our own culture, we often hear stories with heart-breaking beginnings that lead to happy endings. These are the stuff of inspirational biographies and fillers for the weekend newscasts. It is harder to interpret happy beginnings that lead to tragic endings. “She had everything going for her,” or “How could this happen to such a wonderful family?” become the whispered thoughts of friends and loved ones when such tragedies occur.

Such is the tale of the epic character, Samson. His mother is visited by a man who gives her the wonderful news that she will bear a son. The boy is to be a Nazarite from birth–dedicated to the Lord. He is called to rescue his people from Philistine oppression. Both parents are so eager to raise their son in the ways of God, that the father, Manoah, asks that the visitor return again to tell them how to do this. After this second visit, Manoah realizes that he and his wife have seen God (Judges 13:22).
In Hebrew Law, a Nazarite must never cut his hair (Numbers 6:5). The hair is a sign of his dedication to God (Numbers 6:6). He also must not defile himself by going near a corpse (Numbers 6:7). Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, given all sorts of freedoms yet commanded not to touch the apple lest she perish,

Samson is offered both freedom and prohibition. Born of devout parents longing for a child, given God’s blessing and a calling before birth—Samson has everything going for him.
His adulthood unfolds in all its troubled complexity. A warning siren blares beneath the surface of the text when Samson demands that his parents get him a certain Philistine woman for a wife. With mixed feelings, they comply with his request; they are wary of his marriage to a foreign woman, what alone a Philistine. The narrator of the story interprets this marriage as a vehicle for the liberation of Israel from oppression–and what a tragic vehicle the aborted marriage becomes!

Some time before the wedding celebration, Samson kills a lion. The next day, he scoops up honey from its insides. He breaks the Nazarite prohibition against touching a corpse and does not tell his parents. At the wedding celebration, Samson plays Russian roulette with the Philistine guests, spinning riddles for them to solve, daring them to discover what he did. His new wife is in a terrible position–threatened by the Philistines to extract Samson’s secret, yet expected to be a loyal wife. She finally gets Samson to tell her the answer to the riddle. She divulges it to her people, and Samson loses the bet.

Samson had an anger problem, among other things. He stalks out of his wedding celebration alone and furious. In retaliation, he kills 30 Philistines. Later, he returns to find out that his bride’s father has given her away to another man in his absence. In revenge, Samson terrorizes a bunch of foxes by tying them together and lighting their tails, letting them loose in the fields of the Philistines. The terrified animals burn the fields to the ground. In retaliation, the Philistines burn the woman to death and burn her father’s house to the ground. It’s ugly, violence for violence (Judges 14-15).

Things don’t get any better. Samson both uses women and is used by them, as he indulges in some pleasure with a prostitute and then becomes involved with the wily Delilah. She, too, plays the Philistine spy role. After a cat-and-mouse game of trying to learn the secret of Samson’s strength, she finally succeeds in getting him to speak the truth. Cutting his hair, Delilah robs him of his power. The Philistines capture him. They gouge out his eyes, and put him to work doing hard manual labor. They have him just where they want him–humiliated and harmless (Judges 16:4-22).

The grand finale of the story is epic in its tragedy. Samson’s ultimate desire is to end up “on top,” if you will, to avenge his enemies one last time, even if this becomes a suicidal mission. His final prayer is not one of penance but one of vengeance. What could have been a journey of deliverance for his people has become a very brutal personal vendetta between Samson and his Philistine enemies. The son of the devout Manoah and his unnamed wife is willing to go out in a blaze of destruction, as long as he can take the Philistines with him. His final prayer is for success in this mission (Judges 16:28). To some, this last act surely was interpreted as the heroic martyrdom of a tortured freedom fighter. To others it appears to be a suicide mission bent on revenge. Exploring such topics is beyond the purview of this sermon, but they beg for our deeper reflection.

What happened to Samson? Isn’t this the question we ask whenever strength like Samson’s is used to deliver a people from oppression and instead it becomes a bloodbath of chaos? Isn’t this the question we ask about extremists around the globe, some from stable middle class backgrounds, who strap on belts and destroy innocents by the tens, hundreds, and ultimately thousands? Isn’t this the question we pose whenever the oppressed become the oppressors, the liberators become despots? What happened to Samson?

The Book of Judges offers no critique of Samson’s behavior as a Judge in Israel, in the days when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” and God was dangerously reduced to the emissary of the powerful. This lack of critique is in itself an ominous sign of the state of the nation. The narrator’s silence speaks volumes.

There are three particular lessons of this story that stand out to me. First, and most obvious, Samson did not take his dedication to God seriously in his adult years. He may have been raised by devout parents, but he needed to make this commitment to God his own. How great was his call, and how tragic his flaws!

Secondly, Samson continually overestimated his strength and underestimated his weakness. This proved to be a fatal flaw in his leadership of Israel. Again and again, he played fast and loose with his power and strength. He used women, but he never expected to be used back. He avenged his enemies, but he never expected to face retribution himself. Throughout his tumultuous and violent adulthood, Samson saw himself as invincible. He never expected to reap what he sowed.

The final lesson of his story is self-evident. It is a lesson that Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us so well—that violence only begets more violence (John 18:36, Luke 23:49-51). The cycle of blame and retribution spins farther and farther out of control, descending into deeper and deeper darkness. It is in that darkness that the story of Samson ends.

I never heard the phrase, “the Samson option,” until the recent fighting between Israel and Lebanan. It was a both chilling and cavalier useage in the news. ”Will Israel employ ‘the Samson option?’” is what I read or heard (I cannot remember where). As the commentator unpacked the phrase, what he meant was taking the ultimate risk that, in destroying one’s enemies, one also destroys oneself. This phrase makes Samson’s final act, in all its horror, so relevant to the 21st century.

As we look at the world stage today, the entire saga of Samson seems ominously contemporary. TV preachers and others dissect various scripture passages, warning of a spiritual apocalypse centered around War in the Middle East. Scientists warn of a coming environmental apocalypse, evidenced in the melting polar ice caps and escalating extreme weather around the world.

The story of Samson shows us the tragic ends of overestimating our strengths and underestimating our weakness, whether as a nation, world, or both. Human beings are neither invincible nor invulnerable. We are not God. Do we expect the natural world to forever adapt to human-induced climate change? Do we expect Jesus to come and rescue us from ourselves? Has our massive military might and our ability to militarize space become our own “Samson’s hair”? Denuded, we would be reduced to the stature of other nations.

By its very silence, the Book of Judges screams out, “Insanity, pure insanity!” We don’t need commentary with Samson’s story. The end result is commentary enough.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a different ending to Samson’s story. Samson is denuded; his hair is shorn, his eyes are gouged out, and he has plenty of time to think about his life while doing manual labor for the Philistines.

Suppose Samson thinks about the lessons his devout parents taught him in his childhood. Suppose he begins to think about the vows of a Nazarite and his relationship with God. Suppose he begins to question the endless cycles of violence between himself and the Philistines. Suppose he begins to think that power is not meant to destroy but to heal. Suppose he begins to see his enemies as human beings. Suppose Samson is deeply, profoundly tempted to destroy them if at all possible, but instead he prays another prayer, one like that of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Suppose his final act is one of redemption rather than retribution.

This isn’t how the story of Samson ends, but why not? What do you think?

The tragic story of Samson is so dark that it, paradoxically, points me to the Light. I’m looking around me in 2007, and I’m seeing a lot of dark—aren’t you? I’m seeing a lot of Samson’s smug self-assurance, aren’t you? I’m seeing Samson’s tragic flaw, writ large on the world stage, aren’t you? I’m seeing nation states threaten the “Samson option,” holding neighbors and their own citizens hostage to utterly frightful scenarios, aren’t you? We know what night looks like. “Mutual assured destruction”, or MAD, was a name for the ‘Samson option’ during the Cold War. What do we call it now? In God’s great love and mercy, we can re-write the story. Following Jesus, we can light a candle in the darkness and resist such folly.

The Good News is this: while many stories in the Bible end tragically, the Big Story of the Bible does not. The Big Story doesn’t end in guts and glory, with a flag of any nation wrapped around the maimed and dying. The Big Story ends in the victory of the Lamb of God. It ends in the triumph of the Prince of Peace. It ends in joy, and worship, and praise. That Story offers hope and strength as we walk as Lovers of the Light, puncturing the darkness, penetrating it with life, light, compassion, and patient endurance–penetrating it with the very Light of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Maybe they should try to throw more preachers over cliffs

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

It wasn’t your normal church service. Jesus reads the scripture and makes some cryptic comment about it. He gets into an argument with the congregation, and they try to throw him over a cliff. But he got away. It kind of makes you want to go back the next week.

It all started out innocently enough. Jesus was in church, ‘as he always was on the Sabbath,’ Luke tells us. I find that kind of interesting. If anyone had problems with the way things were going in the synagogues of first century Israel, it was Jesus. But he showed up every week. He remained a part of the worshiping community. He was so connected that he was one of the scripture readers. But this day they got more than they were expecting.

Biblical scholars refer to this story as Jesus’ first sermon, or to put even more weight to it, his inaugural sermon. It wasn’t much of a sermon, though. He interpreted the text with one sentence. “You have just heard Scripture make history.” If he had left it with that, things would have been okay, confusing, but okay. But before the morning was done, they were ready to throw him over a cliff. Talk about not liking the sermon.

Jesus got in trouble where many of us are getting in trouble these days, he was being too inclusive. Thankfully, however, the reaction today is different than back then. Instead of trying to toss people over a cliff, the more likely response is a challenging email, or a move to disfellowship.

What Jesus did with the folk at the synagogue in Galilee was simply remind them of a couple of stories from the Old Testament. He recounted the story of the only person Elijah was sent to by God to help during a three and a half year drought. She was a foreign widow rather than an Israelite. And the only leper the prophet Elisha healed was Naaman, one of the King of Syria’s key generals.

Once the crowd in the synagogue heard that, they must of got thinking about the scripture Jesus read to begin this whole mess. He was quoting from the book of Isaiah, though taking some liberties with the text. And it turns out, from the perspective of many at the time, that he left out the best part; the part about God’s vengeance being poured out on the enemies of Israel.

All in all, it was a rough debut for the Galilean preacher man. But, it all worked out. Jesus got to define what his ministry was going to be about, good news to the poor, freedom for the captive, sight to the blind, and relief for the oppressed. And, of course, it was about God breaking through those walls and barriers we keep in place to separate us from each other.

Right off the bat, this sermon, really this little bit of Isaiah that Jesus read that morning, challenges us to imagine what good news to the poor must sound like. And I don’t think its all that hard to imagine. It must have something to do with things like having enough food to feed your kids, a decent place to live, clean water to drink, quality health care, and the opportunity to make the best of God’s good world like everybody else. Good news to the poor is that God loves rich and poor alike, and when Jesus comes he’s telling people God is more interested in making things better for the poor than for the rich.

It’s probable that most of the people hearing Jesus that morning were among the poor that he wanted to proclaim good news to. They knew the oppressive religious and political and social and economic systems that Jesus wanted to free them from. They needed healing. They probably had family and friends in Roman prisons, or had spent some time in them themselves. So why did they want to throw him over that cliff?

I think, though I don’t know because I’ve never been poor or oppressed, is that when the whole system is designed to come down on you, the only recourse some can imagine is coming down on somebody else. And for first century Israeli poor folk, the main candidates were the foreigners. Those listening to Jesus may have been poor, but they weren’t Gentiles.

Keeping the poor against each other was surely good news for the rich and the powerful. If you can keep the poor suspicious of the immigrants guess who wins? Not the poor nor the immigrants.

Jesus knew he had his task set out for him. The rich and powerful weren’t going to like him preaching good news to the poor, and the poor and dispossessed weren’t going to readily trust him. It would take time, time spent with the poor, time spent challenging the powerful religious and political establishments, time helping people turn from suspicion and fear to love and inclusion. And Jesus knew it was going to get him killed. Thankfully, it wasn’t that day. He escaped that day and went about all Israel as we read in Peter’s sermon from Acts 10, “helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil.”

And here’s something that is important to remember about that first sermon, or whatever you want to call it, that we read in Luke 4. It is very specific about issues Jesus wants to address. He is bringing good news to the poor. He is going to heal the blind. He is going to set free the oppressed. And he is calling for people to join him in this liberating, good news. But it’s not one size fits all.

There are plenty of economically poor in this world that need to hear good news from the followers of Jesus. And that good news is that we are on their side and it is our calling, from the Jesus we follow, to make things better for them.

As Mother Theresa pointed out, however, when she first visited the United States, there is a spiritual poverty that engulfs this nation. What is the good news we are going to bring to the spiritually poor, people who have more than enough money but can’t think outside of themselves to what God could mean in their lives?

When Jesus said he came to set the oppressed free, there surely is a call there for his followers to challenge torture, harassment, prejudice, sexism, homophobia, violations of civil and human rights. But what are the more private oppressions we experience, the things that hold us down, that keep us imprisoned? Jesus is interested in all these things and interested in all kinds of freedom.

I was reading an article this week that talked about how this passage has something for everyone. We are all oppressed, all poor, in prison, all in need of healing, just in different ways. And we can’t ignore any of those needs.

We can’t spiritualize this message so it’s no longer about good news to the economically poor, but simply something for the spiritually poor. But we can’t reverse that either.

Someone pointed out that this is a passage that most liberals and conservatives can claim, they just claim different parts. The more conservative folk like the part about Jesus being anointed and led by the Spirit. This is a big passage in charismatic circles. But it also is near the top of the list in liberal Christianity because of its call to social action.

It’s obvious Jesus can’t be isolated to either camp, though we keep trying. Luke keeps telling us about the Spirit at work in the life and ministry of Jesus. This is how he begins chapter 4, “Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. And after being tempted by the Devil there he returned to Galilee “powerful in the Spirit,” where he chooses that day in the synagogue to read the passage from Isaiah that begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

The Pentecostals and the conservatives have it right. This is a divine mission that Jesus claims. He sets himself up as one who is being led by God’s Spirit with a special mission. He’s not doing what he is doing because it’s simply a good thing to do, it is what God has called him to do.

But the liberals and main liners are right, too. This mission is going to the poor, to the oppressed. This is a mission about healing, and making things better for people in the here and now, not just in the sweet by and by.

And it leaves us challenged to the core of who we are. What is the good news we are going to bring to the poor, all the poor, economically and spiritually poor, including ourselves?

What healing do we need to offer others and find for ourselves? How can we release the burdens others are feeling, how is God going to release our burdens?

What does it mean for the Spirit of the Lord to be upon us? What is Jesus calling us to? What have we been anointed for, touched by the very God who created this world to invest our lives in?

Jesus showed up in the synagogue every week, not because he agreed with everything going on there, but because he knew what could happen to people when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon them.
This story is rooted all the way back in the Jubilee when debts are canceled, land returned to those forced from it, when slaves are released, when people are set free. The Jubilee never really happened, but Jesus wasn’t looking to the failures of the past, but the possibilities of the future when God’s Spirit takes hold of us and leads us in a divine mission to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.

God is always ready to act, always ready to include. That’s why Jesus kept showing up at church. But can we allow God to be that inclusive, inviting everyone in, calling everyone to follow Jesus, calling everyone to know God’s freedom, including ourselves? Or is it just easier to, at least, metaphorically just throw it all over a cliff and be done with it?

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

As many of you know, one of the pillars of Peace Community Church was Bob Thomas. By the time I was a student at Oberlin in the early ‘80’s, Bob was well into his eighth decade, though you’d never know it by looking at him. And Bob was a witness to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Bob would often tell of meeting King when he was a journalist for the local paper. He would recall King’s work in the Civil Rights movement. But nothing resonated with Bob more than King’s statement about the church’s role in the perpetuation of segregation. King once stated, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing to sing, `In Christ there is no East nor West,’” (Stride Toward Freedom, 207) When Bob heard King say this, he left the safety zone of his own church home, Mt. Zion Baptist, and came across town to the virtually all white then First Baptist Church of Oberlin. 

Tomorrow is a national holiday – a day set aside annually since 1986 to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As most of us know, and as Bob would recall, King was at the center of the civil rights movement during the 1950’s and 1960’s. For twelve years King led non-violent campaigns to promote legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. He also fought for desegregation of schools and other public facilities. But King sought to eliminate social evil wherever it was found in such forms as segregation, poverty, and war. He was active in opposition to the United States involvement in Vietnam and in the “war on slums” in Chicago, Washington, and Memphis. And at the age of 39, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee where had had come to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. (Dekar, 228)

Although tomorrow is a national holiday, King’s legacy for us as a church is rooted in his deep Christian faith. As King himself noted in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1965,

I am many things to many people: Civil Rights leader, agitator, trouble-maker and orator, but in the quiet resources of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher. The Church is my life and I have given my life to the Church. (Dekar, 231)


Fundamental to King’s life and faith was to meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. The stands King took against social injustice, his willingness to love his own enemies, were the fruit of his faith. He dreamed of a “beloved community” where not only racism did not exist, but neither did war or economic injustice. (Dekar, 236) King’s life and his dream, then, stand for us who call ourselves Christian as a model of how our life as individuals and as a church might be transformed.

And so we come to our gospel story today. A story that is also one of transformation. It begins on the third day of an ordinary wedding feast in Cana of Galilee – Jesus’s homeland. And the mother of Jesus is there – Mary is her name, according to the other gospels, though John’s gospel never identifies her by name. So perhaps this is the wedding of a family friend. And Jesus has come as any guest might come.

But by the third day, the wine runs out. Yes the wine runs out. And what’s a festive occasion, such as this wedding, without wine? Or at least that’s what’s implied by Mary when she says to Jesus, “They have no wine.” You can see them, can’t you? The mother of Jesus notices the dismay of the servants when they discover there is no more wine to serve the guests. She wends her way through the sea of guests to where Jesus is standing with his disciples. She stands by his side, surveying the wedding feast with him. There they are, mother and son, side by side. And then Mary leans over to her son, her eyes never wavering from her observations of the guests, and she mentions to him casually, “They have no wine.”

Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. He leans sideways towards her, also continuing to look straight ahead, and whispers back, almost playfully, “O woman, of what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” But Mary merely smiles knowingly and tells the servants standing near them, “Do whatever he tells you.” There is no anxiety here between Jesus and Mary. They both know that Jesus will attend to the problem, not because Mary has requested he do so, but because he is called to do so. And so he commands the servants to take the stone jars and fill them with water. When they draw water out for the chief steward, the water has transformed in to wine. And not just any wine. The steward proclaims to the bridegroom, “You have kept the good wine until now!”

And what about the disciples? They have only just met this Jesus who has called them to “come and see.” (Jn 1:39) They observe the conversation between Mary and Jesus. They are surprised by her boldness, her assumption that this man, a Rabbi or Teacher, will work some sort of miracle. But Mary seems to know what the disciples do not yet know, that Jesus is the Messiah – the one for whom they have been waiting. And in the act of changing the water into wine, Jesus reveals his true self to the disciples and the gospel writer tells us that,“his disciples believed in him.” 

But why did they believe in him? What did the act of changing water into wine reveal about Jesus to the disciples? To understand these questions, we need to turn to the elements of this sign story, this miracle. We begin by looking at the vessels for the transformation: water jars. But these jars are not ordinary jars, they are stone jars, set aside for Jewish rites of purification. Stone jars were used because, according to Jewish belief, because they would not contract ritual uncleanliness. (Vandana, 163) And so, in using these very special stone jars Jesus’s act ties Judaism to Jesus. Of course, there is a twist – for the waters of purification rites within these jars are not left the same but transformed into wine! In this sign, Jesus re-casts the Judaic law in the light of God’s grace and truth. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn. 1:17, RSV) 

And there is more. At the heart of this miracle, this sign, is its extravagance. Everything about the story is overdrawn (O’Day, 537-38). There is not one jar, but six. The jars hold 20-30 gallons each; filled they would weigh at least 200 pounds apiece! It is a huge amount of wine for a wedding feast. And the jars are not simply filled, they are filled to the brim – one has the sense that they might overflow at any moment. And this is perhaps exactly the image Jesus wants us to have. This sense of abundance, of the overflowing love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. A love that is not bound by ritual cleanliness, but by the One who came to love us. 

And it is this love that transforms not only the law, but transforms us. We are cleansed by the wine of Jesus, and not by the waters of purification. There are no “magic” words we must say to make us clean. There are no actions we must take to restore us to wholeness. There is no priest to whom we must confess our sinfulness. In Jesus we are not bound to rituals to make us clean but rather, we are free to experience the lavishness of God’s love for each of us. 

But what is that to me and to you? Do you hear Jesus asking us this question as he asked Mary? Do you hear our brother Martin Luther King, Jr. asking us this question? What does this sign have to do with us today, for us, the readers, those of us who are part of the church, who together call ourselves church, who live in a world that is still amass with racial inequality, economic injustice, and militarism? For what purpose are we to experience God’s lavish love? For the purpose of transforming a community. 

You see this sign was not performed in the privacy of one of the disciple’s home. Jesus did not perform this sign for the benefit only of his disciples, but for the benefit of the whole community. While the whole community does not see how the wine appeared (we are told only the servants and the disciples know), the wine appears for the benefit of the whole community. So, it is not only that the water is transformed into wine, but in the giving of the wine to the community at the feast we can imagine that the community will also be transformed by the wine. The celebration of new life that is from and in Jesus Christ occurs not only within us, but within the community. God fills us to the brim that we might overflow God’s love into the lives of others. Jesus’ sign is not only a sign of God’s abundant love for us, but of the abundant love we are to share and celebrate with each other. God reveals God’s self through Jesus Christ so that we might know more of how God calls us to be and do in the world. 

Jesus transformed the water into wine to meet the very real need of the bridegroom of the wedding feast to provide for his guests. In the same way, Jesus meets us in our need and transforms us and in so doing, reveals his love to us. Jesus lavishes God’s abundant gifts on us that we might also be transformed as a community into a community of God’s abundant love, a beloved community, as Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned. A community that models new forms of expressing the Christian life together. A community that understands that sin operates individually and collectively and that both must be addressed if God’s reign is to come. A community that seeks to meet the very real needs of people while at the same time challenging the social structures that oppress. A community that welcomes and affirms all as children of God.

King believed Agape love was at the core of the Beloved Community and he described this as ”the love of God operating in the human heart.” King said that “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” (King Center website) As King put it further, a “religion true to its nature” must be concerned about a person’s social conditions. “Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal.” A religion true to its nature seeks not only to right the human relationship with God, but the relationships of person with person and each persons relationship with him or herself. (Dekar, 235) 

By setting aside a national holiday, the government of the United States has recognized King as a great man. But as a church, we recognize that King was a faithful Christian whose mission it was to make known Christ’s work of love and reconciliation, “making possible the creation of the beloved community.” (Dekar, 235) For King, this transformation could only come about through conversion to the gospel of peace, the gospel of the man Jesus who for us transformed water into wine that we, like King, like Bob Thomas, might become instruments in the transformation to the beloved community.

Light it Up!

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Today we celebrate Epiphany, which is the Christmas celebration for many Christians in other parts of the world. It’s the day we commemorate the arrival of the travelers from the East who came to Bethlehem to visit the one ‘born king of the Jews.’

There are some things we need to make sure are clear in our minds. The first is that they weren’t looking for the ‘king of the Jews’ since the word Jew wasn’t a word that has been introduced into any language yet. They were actually looking for the King of the Judeans, the king born in Judah.

The second thing to realize is that, in spite of what we have learned from all the Christmas pageants we have seen, the Wisemen and the shepherds were never together in the manger. Even if you have problems with the Christmas stories, Matthew’s story makes it clear that the Wisemen only began their journey to find this new born king when they saw the star that signified his birth. It may have taken them anywhere from a year to 18 months to finally arrive in Bethlehem where, we are told, they found the baby not in the manger but in a house.

The third thing is that we have no idea how many of them there were, or where exactly they came from. The story gives no numbers and only makes reference to the fact that they came from the East, not how far East.

And we don’t even know exactly what to call them. Magi, Wisemen, Kings, Astrologers, or Scholars (as Petersen) does. But scholars is probably as good a guess as any.

Notice that, whatever you want to call them, when these travelers saw the star leading them toward Israel their natural scholarly inclination was to go to Jerusalem. They are scholars, and all scholars know that kings are born in palaces in the capital city. It didn’t occur to them that the star could be leading them someplace else.

They were so sure that they were supposed to go to Jerusalem that they didn’t feel the need to keep following the star. Nor did it ever occur to them that the people of Jerusalem would have no idea what they were talking about when they showed up to see this recently born King of the Judeans.

They were doing only what they knew to do. Go to the palace to find this baby king.

For his part, Herod the only King anybody knew about in Jerusalem, did what kings and other rulers do when they fear, even slightly, a potential threat to their power. He panicked and then resorted to what kings and rulers know best, deceit and violence.

He called the Scholars in and gave them this song and dance about going to Bethlehem and finding the baby so he could come and worship him, too. He wasn’t looking to worship Jesus, of course, but to kill him. But the Scholars took him at his word and went off to find Jesus and get an address for Herod. But, as the story continues, an angel told the Scholars that the really smart thing to do on the way home would be take the Jerusalem bypass and keep away from Herod.

Herod is a king, though, and not so easily thwarted. He sends his best troops out to Bethlehem with the simple instruction to kill all the male babies two years old or younger. That’s why people think Jesus must have been between a one and two years of age when the Scholars showed up with their gifts.

Thankfully, the same angel that redirected the Scholars warned Joseph that Herod’s troops were coming to kill Jesus, so they got out of town in the nick of time.

There are many sad parts to this story. All those babies were killed. Jesus and his family had to spend the first years of his life as refugees in Egypt because they were at the top of Herod’s hit list in Judah.

What is absolutely devastating about his story to me, though, is that the soldiers did what they did. Now most people don’t go into villages and rip babies from their mother’s breasts so they can bash the baby’s heads in. But if you put people in a military uniform and tell them they have to kill babies for the sake of the nation, for the sake of freedom and liberty, some of them will do it with no questions asked.

Herod and the Scholars had no idea of what was going on with Jesus. It’s interesting that when the Scholars finally figure out that some peasant’s home in Bethlehem is the place to find this toddling king, it doesn’t occur to them that maybe they brought the wrong gifts. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh is what you bring to the palace. Hopefully, Joseph had time to find some place to sell the stuff and come home with something a bit more practical like diapers and food.

And there is no sense that they realized something different was going on here other than some heir to a throne being born. That star meant something far more significant than they realized.

Herod had it wrong about Jesus, too. Jesus wasn’t looking for Herod’s job. In fact, later in his life, a whole bunch of people were ready to proclaim Jesus as king, but he refused. As his momma once said, Jesus was going to do God’s work of bringing down rulers from their thrones and lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.

Herod didn’t need to take it personally. For Jesus it just wasn’t about Herod, it was about the system. Granted, it was a system that served Herod and folk like him well, allowing them, for example, to get away with anything they wanted like ordering the slaughter of babies, or killing your brother so his wife can become your wife, but that’s another Herod. Jesus was a threat to all Herods, but the Herod in today’s story never realized exactly how deep a threat it was.

What Herod and the Scholars had in common was that they misunderstood what Jesus was about. But here is where things diverged for them.

The Scholars had it right at the start. But it wasn’t only about some baby being born. It was also about the star. Here is the comment by the writer of John’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus.
‘What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.’

Things nearly ended badly for the baby Jesus because the Scholars lost sight of the light. But they found it again, and they found Jesus.

Herod, though, remained lost in the darkness. All he could see was his power being threatened, all he could think to do was have the threat killed, no matter how many other babies he had to kill along the way.

For us, Epiphany really marks the end of Christmas rather than its beginning as it does in so many other places in this world. Probably tomorrow we will take down the rest of the Christmas decorations at our house and put them away for another year.

I am struck, though, at the end of my Christmas celebration with the same feeling I had at its beginning back on that first Sunday of Advent. It’s such a simple story. The Christmas story is the story that God is with us, and it’s the story that light has come into this world and the darkness can not overcome it. That’s why I am so glad we are going to have all this light in the sanctuary during the weeks of Epiphany. It reminds us that the Christmas story is exactly what the Scholars realized it was, traveling toward the light. And that is exactly the call Jesus gave during his ministry, travel toward in the light.

It is the light of God’s presence with us that sustains us and bring us life. Love, forgiveness, mercy, peace, compassion are the ways God lives toward us. The call to follow Jesus is the call to allow God to light up our lives. God loves us. How much simpler can it get? How much more light do we need than that?

And what’s more. Not only does God light up our lives with love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness and peace, but God calls us to light up the world ourselves. We’ve talked about this a couple of times these past weeks. The One who was the Light and Life to live by one day said to us, ‘You are the light of the world. So let your light shine.’

But we all know it’s so dark. Herod’s troops killing all those babies tells you how dark it gets. And babies are still getting killed. That’s why we need to let the light shine. Our call in following Jesus isn’t to make the whole world all better, it isn’t even to make ourselves all better. It’s to bring light to the darkness, the darkness within and without.

My favorite Epiphany verse comes from Philippians 2. ‘Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night.’

God is lighting things up, lighting us up so we can be light in the darkness. Not the only light in the darkness. But a glimpse of the goodness and light that is in God. All we are called to do is to do our part. To bring the light we can bring.

Those folk who do their celebrating on Epiphany help us to remember that it is about the light, that’s why we do this every year. The light is something the darkness never can and never will overcome. And because of that baby we are children of the light. It’s a story that is never going to get old.