Thought for Meditation:
Jesus blessing the little children “tells us that he was the kind of person who cared for children and for who children cared. He could not have been a stern and gloomy and joyless person. There must have been a kindly sunshine on him. He must have smiled easily and laughed joyously.” William Barclay
Jesus and the Children
About a week ago one of the comic strips in the paper caught my attention. Baby Blues is a fairly new comic to me. Mom was cleaning underneath the kitchen sink. Zoe, her young daughter, commented, “Mom, your wedding ring is on the counter.” Mom said that she always takes it off when she cleans under there because it gets so dirty. Zoe then said to Dad, “Mom takes her wedding ring off when she gets down and dirty.”
Kids have a wonderful way of mixing up words just enough to be entertaining. There is always a certain danger in leading the children’s message. Here are a few examples of things kids have said:
- Noah’s wife was called Joan of Arc;
- Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day … and a ball of fire at night.
- It is sometimes difficult to hear in church because the agnostics are so terrible,
- Christians have only one wife. That is called monotony.
The parents of the children who made those statements were probably humiliated. The wonderful part of many churches is that everyone else loves it. The antics and sayings of children bring joy and laughter. Their energy brings life to worship. Now, that isn’t true in every church. There are some congregations that want worship to have a certain formality and decorum. They don’t really want children in worship.
The disciples probably would not have wanted children in worship, but Jesus would have welcomed them with open arms. In the passage I read from Mark a few moments ago, people brought their children to Jesus, so that he could touch them. The disciples tried to keep the children away. Maybe they assumed that Jesus had more important things to do and shouldn’t be bothered with children. He was teaching them deep, theological truths and shouldn’t waste his time on children. Several times Jesus had predicted his own death. Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus and keep the crowds away. Maybe they just wanted Jesus all to themselves. For whatever reason, the disciples scolded the parents who were bringing their children to Jesus.
Fortunately, Jesus liked the children and the children liked him. Please notice that second part – children liked Jesus. In Biblical times teachers usually sat as they taught. As Jesus sat there people brought children to him. He took them in his arms. He held them on his lap. He hugged them, touched them and played with them. The fact that the children came to Jesus tells us something about him. If Jesus was an angry, stern-faced prophet, or if he was a boring intellectual, children would not have come to him. Jesus was a fun-loving, warm and friendly teacher, who loved children. They flocked to his side and into his arms.
Johnny was there with his runny nose, drooling down his face. Liz gave Jesus a big, wet, slobbery kiss, and then sneezed all over him. Bart had a smile that never ended and diaper that could stop a skunk. Theresa had cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk. Michele had been abused by her uncle and wouldn’t talk. Marcus was a shy and awkward little boy with a lisp. Benjamin talked nonstop about crickets and fishing and reading books and playing with his friends and watching the clouds, and everything else he could think of. All the kids crawled over Jesus and hugged him. They all came to him for one, simple reason. They liked Jesus and he liked them. Even deeper than that, they wanted and they needed to be touched and blessed by Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The word “bless” is the Greek word, “eulogos.” It means a true word. To bless someone is to touch them, maybe hugging them or putting your hands on them. To bless someone is also to speak a word about that person, a word of love and peace.
This story shows us one of our basic human needs. We all need to be touched and blessed by others. One of the saddest and most moving stories in the Bible is the one Chris read a few minutes ago – the story of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau. Isaac was an old man and getting blind. Before he died Isaac wanted to bless Esau who was his oldest son. Isaac sent Esau out into the field to kill some wild game. Then Esau was supposed to prepare a meal with the meat and bring it to Isaac so he could receive his blessing as they shared a meal.
Rebekah, Isaac’s wife and Jacob’s mother, heard about this. Whereas Esau was Isaac’s favorite, Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite. She told Jacob to go to their own flock and kill one of their goats. She took the meat and fixed a meal which Jacob took in to Isaac. Jacob had dressed up as Esau and fooled his father, receiving the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.
As soon as Jacob had received the blessing Esau came in with the food that he had killed and prepared. “Here’s the food, Father. No you can eat and bless me.” Isaac began to tremble. He realized that he had been fooled and had given his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Esau figured it out too and cried out, “Bless me also Father. Don’t you have a blessing for me? Please, bless me.” It is one of the most desperate and painful cries in the Bible. It was a cry of despair, a longing to be blessed.
Esau’s story may be more dramatic than our own, but most of us have had times when we longed to be blessed, but didn’t feel blessed. We all desire to be touched; physically, emotionally and spiritually, in a way that we know that we are connected with someone who truly cares. We want, we need, to be blessed; by our parents, by our family and friends, and by God. We long to be held in or Heavenly Father’s arms, to be touched by his love and to receive his blessing.
The good news of our New Testament passage is that Jesus has come from our Heavenly Father to bless us, just as he did the little children. All we need to receive that blessing is to receive the Kingdom of God like a child.
How do we do that? What does it mean to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child?” (Mark 10:15). To be childlike does not mean to be childish or immature. To be childlike does not mean that we need to be innocent or perfect. Children aren’t always innocent and certainly are not perfect. Even if they were, there is no way we could ever become innocent or perfect.
To receive the kingdom of God like a child is to recognize that we are completely dependent on God. Imagine that you are an 8-year-old kid. Your family is going on vacation. What is your job? You aren’t responsible for making sure there is gas in the car and that the car is running well. You don’t need to worry about getting directions to wherever you are going. You don’t have to pack the car and probably won’t even pack your own suitcase. Your only job is to get in the car and enjoy the ride. You depend on your parents, or some other adult, to get you there safely.
To be childlike is to depend on God for your salvation. To enter the Kingdom of God is simply to accept God’s love in faith and trust. In the Bible, the word receive is often used as a synonym for faith. Jesus invites us to receive God’s blessing by trusting in God’s love for us.
There is a story of a Pentecostal preacher. One Sunday, after his sermon, people came forward for prayer. In a Pentecostal church they might have four or five elders up front who would pray for people when they came forward. This particular Sunday there seemed to be a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the time of prayer. People were truly feeling blessed. The Pentecostal preacher saw this happening and was basking in a bit of self-congratulations for the power of his sermon and all the good his ministry was doing for the church. Then he was interrupted by a very clear sense that God was speaking to him. “I am blessing them not because of what you said, but in order to help them forget what you said.”
I don’t know what it would look like in your life to experience a blessing from God. It would probably be different for many of us. What I do know is that the blessing we need, the blessing we long for, is not going to be the result my fabulous ministry or your hard work. The blessing we need is a gift from God. Through Jesus Christ God has blessed us and continues to bless us. We are God’s beloved children.
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Isaiah 58:1-12; James 1:19-27
Thought for Meditation:
Piety (spiritual practices) that does not produce a passion for God-exalting social justice and practical mercy is worthless…. God promises that we will break forth like the dawn if our piety produces a passion for social justice and practical mercy. John Piper
A Call to Justice
Friday afternoon Tanya and I went to see Selma, the movie that shows Martin Luther King Jr. as he led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was the event that brought the Civil Rights Movement to national prominence and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Tomorrow is the holiday when we remember and honor Martin Luther King Jr. He was actually born on January 15, 1929, down in Atlanta, Georgia. He died on April 4, 1968. He was only 39 years old.
The King holiday was signed into law in 1983 and first observed in 1986. I’m not sure why the delay. What is interesting is that it wasn’t until the year 2000 that every state in our country actually observed it. What I find even more fascinating is that many churches, white churches including Sharon, don’t take it as a holiday. I imagine that there are a variety of reasons for that. I have a sense that one reason is that many churches don’t think that racism and justice issues are central to the Christian life and to the ministry of the church.
What I would like to suggest this morning is that justice, including racism, is central to the Christian life. Working for justice is one aspect of a faithful and obedient response to God’s grace and love. Let’s look at the Scriptures and see what the Bible has to say about justice.
I want to start with our passage from Isaiah. Let me give you the context. God sent Israel into exile as punishment for two basic sins: idolatry – worshipping other gods, and injustice – not treating other people with compassion and love. After 70 years in Babylon they returned to the Promised Land. They thought everything would go back to the good-old-days, which of course, never works.
The Israelites started complaining to God. “God, you aren’t treating us right. We fast and do all the right religious things, but you aren’t listening to our prayers.” The rest of the passage is God responding to their complaint. “Here is why I’m not answering your prayers.” Then God gives two reasons. First, their religious practices, including fasting, are self-focused. They fast for what they can get out of it. They draw attention to themselves and want everyone around them to notice them.
A few years ago I stopped fasting during Lent. For a number of years I had given up desserts, or given up one meal a week or even one meal a day. Then I realized that as I fasted I was focused on how much weight I could lose, or Easter became the day I could eat sweets again. Not a very good motive. It was a self-focused religious practice.
The second problem that Isaiah points out is that their fasting was harmful to others. They oppressed their workers and they argued with other people. Probably what that meant is that they required their servants to fast, but still expected them to do all their work. It’s hard to do manual labor when you haven’t eaten. It also might have meant that as they fasted and got hungry they became grumpy – I know that when I’m hungry I’m not always the nicest person to be around – and took out their frustrations on people around them.
Isaiah goes on to describe three different aspects to a faithful response to God. These are justice issues. These are what God wants from us. The first part involves working for freedom.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)
We live in a world in which many people are held captive against their will. I’m not talking about people who have been convicted of a crime, but people who having done nothing wrong but are still captives. 200 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Three journalists in Egypt are in prison for doing their job. I’m sure that if you search the news you could find stories of hundreds, maybe thousands of people who are captives.
However, the captives of our world are not always behind bars or locked doors. Some of you may remember Ben Weir, the Presbyterian pastor who was held captive in Lebanon. He is actually a shirt-tail relative of mine. After he was released he and his wife, Carol, wrote a book called “Hostage Bound, Hostage Free.” Carol wasn’t behind bars but she was just as much a prisoner as he was – held captive by the fear that she might never see her husband again. Some people are held captive by memories of abuse. Others are prisoners of alcohol or drugs. There are many prisoners of our materialistic, media-saturated culture that tells us our value is based on how much money we make and how many things we own. Our worth is determined by how good looking, talented and successful we are. Our world is filled with captives. Maybe even some of you are being held captive right now. Working for justice includes helping set people free.
The second way we can work for justice involves caring for the physical needs of people. Isaiah calls us to share our food with the hungry, our homes with the homeless and our clothes with the naked. This congregation does a good job of this, especially feeding the hungry. The Food Pantry is a wonderful ministry. If you haven’t been involved in it I would encourage you to start. They probably could use more volunteers and I know that they could always use more food donations. For more than a month Tanya and I have talked about bringing food for the One Can Ministry, but we keep forgetting. I’d like to challenge everyone to remember it.
The third part of a faithful response to God involves healthy relationships with other people. Isaiah talks about not hiding from your own kin. Later on he talks about not speaking evil of others, or pointing your finger in accusation. Stating that in a positive way, working for justice as a faithful response to God includes building healthy relationships with our family and friends, even within the body of Christ.
With all that has happened here at Sharon over the past several years I imagine that one of the needs in this church is for healing of relationships. I don’t know what that means for any of you as individuals. Probably that means that some of you need to ask for forgiveness. Others need to forgive. Or maybe it means calling those who have stopped attending worship and saying, “We miss you. Hope you are doing okay and that you come back soon.” Working for justice involves working on healthy relationships.
I’d like to mention one other justice issue that is part of a faithful response to God. It comes from our passage in James. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Caring for those who cannot care for themselves, caring for those who are lonely, depressed or afraid, caring for anyone and everyone, is part of a faithful response to God’s love and an act of justice.
I’ll be honest with you. Social justice ministry is not one of my strengths. As an individual and as a pastor, when I hear justice issues in our world, and I’ve only mentioned a few, I tend to get overwhelmed. I don’t know how we are called to a ministry of justice. What I do know is that part of a faithful response to God involves working for justice.
I want to be careful not to give the message that we need to do these things so that God loves us. That is not a Christian message. We participate in justice ministries because we are loved, not so that we are loved. I also want to point out the amazing promises that Isaiah gives to us as we work for justice.
First, when we respond to God’s love by working for justice God’s light will overcome the darkness that surrounds us. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,… then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:8a, 10b).
Frederick Buechner describes darkness like this:
Darkness suggests a world where nobody can see very well – either themselves, or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment. Darkness conveys a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid. Darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals…
If we are people who pray, darkness is apt to be a lot of what our prayers are about. If we are people who do not pray, it is apt to be darkness in one form or another that has stopped our mouths.
The promise we have is that when we work for justice the darkness of our lives will be overcome by Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world.
The second promise we have is healing. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Isaiah 58:8a-b). We are called to work on healing our relationships. However, healing is not something we can do by our own strength. Healing is the work that God does for us, through us, and in us.
About the first week that I was here I overheard a comment, I don’t even know who said it, but it went something like this. “I hope he doesn’t preach about forgiveness. I’m tired of hearing about that.” I haven’t, and I won’t. You know that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to forgive. You also probably know how hard forgiveness is. In fact, without God it is impossible.
Forgiveness and the healing of relationships is only possible through the presence of God working in our lives. In fact, I’ve had people tell me that they can’t forgive. Here is my suggestion, tell God that you can’t forgive and give him permission to work in your life so that you are able to forgive. We have the promise that God brings healing.
The third promise is for guidance. “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you,… The Lord will guide you continually” (Isaiah 58:81-c, 11a).
I don’t know where God is leading the Sharon church. Together we have to discover that and discern where God is leading us. However, as we do that we have the wonderful promise that God is leading us.
Finally, we have the promise of God’s protection. “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8).
Whatever the future holds, through all the dangers and problems that we have to face, through the changes we have to struggle with, we have the amazing promise that God is Lord of this church and will protect us.
If you have not seen the movie Selma, I encourage you to do so. It was a powerful movie; disturbing, challenging, and encouraging. It ends with King giving his speech on the steps of the state capital, in Montgomery. At the end of the speech he asks the question, “How long will it take?” He answers the question. “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.”
It’s been 50 years since the march from Selma to Montgomery. As we’ve heard over the last few months, the past few years, racial issues are still part of our society. There is still work to do. We are called to work for justice. But as we work we have hope because God is still at work. As King said at the end of his speech, “How long? Not long, because ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…. Glory, glory, hallelujah. His truth is marching on.’”
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Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Thought for Meditation:
We have created a culture in which Christians tend to see Jesus as a sort of static mechanism by which salvation is secured rather than the full embodiment of God’s will for the world whose life and teachings we are called to emulate and follow.
Basically, we believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but we haven’t yet embraced the reality that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins. Rachel Held Evans
Who Is Jesus?
Last week I started a class on C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia. I want to share with you a reading from the fifth book of the Chronicles, “”The Horse and His Boy.” It is a story about a horse named Bree and a young boy named Shasta. As the story opens Shasta is an orphan. He is living with an abusive man who treats him as a slave. Shasta meets Bree, a talking horse, who is also in a bad situation. They decide to run away and head toward the land of Narnia. As they travel they meet up with a young princess and her talking horse, Aravis and Hwin. They go through a series of adventures as they travel toward Narnia.
They discover that an evil army is also going toward Narnia, to attack it and make all the Narnians slaves. The four run-aways race ahead to warn the king. They get to a hermits house, just outside of Narnia. Shasta is the only one who can go on. Aravis has been badly injured and the two horses are completely exhausted. Shasta gets another horse and goes on to warn the king. The king and his hunting party race back to Narnia, leaving Shasta behind. He is in the mountains; cold, tired, hungry and afraid. He begins to feel sorry for himself. Let me read to you what happens. (Read p 155-157)
I won’t give you the rest of the story. You’ll need to come to our class to hear what happens next, or read the book on your own. I will tell you that the mysterious creature with Shasta is Aslan, the great Lion, who is the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia. I tell you this story because I believe that Shasta’s question, “Who are you?” is a question that we all ask. We have just finished the Christmas season. Who is this little baby at the center of Christmas? Who is this child who has touched our lives? That is the central question of the Christian faith. Let’s look at our Scripture lesson this morning and see what it tells us about Jesus.
The first part of the passage is about John the Baptist. When he started his ministry people were excited. They hadn’t seen anything like him in four or five hundred years. He spoke like one of the Old Testament prophets, which he was. He spoke with power and with passion, calling people to repentance. People flocked to hear his message. They began to wonder if maybe John might be the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel.
When John realized that this is what people were thinking he made it very clear that he was not the Messiah. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not even good enough to untie the Messiah’s shoes!” Remember, in Middle Eastern culture feet were the most disgusting part of the body. Untying someone’s shoes was a job that no Jew would ever be expected to do, not even a Jewish slave. John tells us that the Messiah was so powerful and so great that he wasn’t even good enough to touch the Messiah’s feet.
The first thing we learn about Jesus, from Jon the Baptist, is that Jesus is powerful and worthy. There is a story in the gospel of John that makes this obvious. Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. Judas, who betrayed Jesus, arrived at the garden with a detachment of Roman soldiers and Jewish temple police. There were 200 – 250 of the meanest and most violent men in Palestine.
There was no way Jesus could escape. Instead he stepped forward and asked, “Who are you looking for?” They responded, “We’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said, “Here I am. Come and take me.” At that point John tells us that all of the Roman soldiers and all of the Jewish temple police stepped back and fell to the ground in fear. Imagine 200 U.S. Marines, Navy Seals and Army Rangers trying to capture one person. That person steps forward and says “I’m right here.” All the soldiers collapse in fear. That is how powerful Jesus is.
John the Baptist describes Jesus as a man of great power. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is the one who will judge the earth. He will separate the wheat from the chaff and will burn the chaff.
I have a sense that this image of a powerful Jesus is very different than the most common image of Jesus in our culture and even in our churches. At Christmas we sing songs about a helpless little baby. We imagine Jesus as an adult being meek and mild. He never raises his voice. He never gets angry. He is a nice man. He would never speak harshly to anyone or confront someone with sin. He accepts us just as we are and doesn’t care what we do or how we act.
We ignore, or forget, that Jesus got angry and turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and called them hypocrites. Jesus challenged the conservatives and liberals of his day, and our day. Jesus was and is the Lord of the universe who will someday judge us and all of our sin. Jesus loves us more than we will ever know. But that doesn’t mean that he is weak or timid. Jesus is the most compassionate and loving person we will ever know. He also the most powerful person who ever lived on the earth. He is a man of unsurpassed power and greatness, a man whose presence alone can knock down a whole army just by saying, “Here I am.”
There is a second lesson about Jesus that comes out of our passage. As Jon baptizes people Jesus comes to him to be baptized. After Jesus is baptized God spoke to Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). At his baptism we learn that Jesus is not only the greatest and most powerful man who ever lived, he is also God’s beloved son.
I once read a story about a missionary who was working with a very primitive tribe in an undeveloped country. He told people all the stories about Jesus. He talked about our sinfulness and separation from God. He talked about Jesus death on the cross and the resurrection. For several years he lived with the people and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. No one became a Christian.
Finally, he made a discovery that changed everything. The tribe he was working with was at war with another tribe. The king of this missionary’s tribe wanted to make peace with the other tribe. He sent a messenger to the other tribe, to talk about peace. But he didn’t send just anybody as his messenger. Most messengers would not be taken seriously. In that culture, if you wanted someone to take you seriously you sent your son. The king sent his beloved son to the other tribe to work for peace.
When the missionary learned this he talked about Jesus as God’s Son. God sent his son into our world because God wanted to make peace with us. God wanted a relationship with us. When the missionary described Jesus that way many of tribe members responded and became Christians. The truth that won the tribe to Christ was that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus has many names and titles. He is the Christ, the Prince of Peace and the King of Kings. He is the Righteous Judge, Savior and Lord. At the center of his identity Jesus is God’s Son. God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee, or another prophet, or a warrior. God sent his Son into the world that we might be saved.
Shasta asked the basic question of faith, “Who are you?” That is the question we must all ask. Who is Jesus for you?
That is the end of the sermon, at least how I wrote it earlier this week. As I’ve been working on this sermon I’ve had a sense that there was something more I needed to say. The end of the sermon just didn’t feel like it came together. This morning I came in here to pray, and had one more thought I wanted to share with you.
The question, “Who is Jesus?” is not an academic question. It isn’t a question that you need to learn the right answer so you can pass the test, and then forget about it. That is how I got through college – learn the information, answer the questions on the test, and then forget about the information. I’m good at that, but that isn’t what this question is all about.
“Who is Jesus?” is a question of a relationship, the relationship that we have with God through Jesus Christ. As with any relationship it grows and changes. Who Jesus is different for a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old and a 60-year-old. In my own life sometimes that relationship is a frustration that causes me to struggle. Other times it is a relationship that brings great joy, peace and hope.
Since the question, “Who is Jesus?” is about a relationship; it is a question that you will need to keep asking throughout your life. I invite you today, throughout this week, and for the rest of your life to as the question. “Who is Jesus for you?”
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Isaiah 49:1-7; Matthew 2:1-12
Thought for Meditation:
So how do we ordinary shepherds find this God who's behind all the blessed routines of life? The same way the wise men find him, and the same way those in crisis like Mary and Joseph find him. As a surprise. Craig Barnes
Songs of the Wise Men
A four year-old girl loved the Christmas story. She had memorized most of the story of baby Jesus from her Children’s Bible. One day her dad was quizzing her on her colors. He pulled out a silver crayon and asked what color it was. “Gold,” she replied. “It’s not gold. Try again.” She thought for a moment, and said, “Frankincense!” She obviously knew the story of the Wise Men.
Today we are celebrating Epiphany, which is the story of the Wise Men. Officially, Epiphany is Tuesday, after the twelve days of Christmas. Since this is the closest Sunday we are going to focus on Epiphany today. I imagine that you probably know this story, but to be honest, much of what we “know” doesn’t come from the Bible but from traditions that have developed over the years.
For example, we usually talk of three Wise Men, but the Bible never says how many there were. There were three gifts, but there could have been two or twenty Wise Men. We generally call these Wise Men kings – “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” This idea was fairly well developed by about the 6th century A.D. It is based on several Old Testament passages. Psalm 72 talks about foreign kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king. Isaiah 49 talks about kings worshipping the Messiah. However, Matthew never calls them kings. He calls them “Magi from the east.”
By the 8th century A.D. these “three” Wise Men actually had names and their own unique stories. Depending on where you live there are some significant variations. The western church tends to use the following names. The first Wise Man was called Melchior. He was an old man with a long, gray beard. He was the King of Persia, modern Iran, and he brought the gift of gold. The second Wise Man was called Caspar, or Gaspar – it’s spelled several different ways. He was a young man, didn’t even have a beard. He was the king of India, and also a priest. That is why he brought the frankincense, which is used in worship. The third Wise Man is called Balthasar. He was the king of Arabia and brought the myrrh. Myrrh is found in the Middle East only in the southern part of Arabia, in what is modern day Yemen.
Laying all the traditions aside, today I want to focus on the gifts that the Wise Men brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh. What I would like to suggest is that these gifts are symbols of the spiritual life.
The first gift was gold, a gift for a king. You have control over certain aspects of your life. To be human means that you have influence over certain things, you rule over your own world. In other words, you have your own kingdom.
The doctor may tell you that you must lose weight, but you control the food you eat and the exercise you get. I have control over the clothes I wear. There are times when Tanya will give me that look – “are you really going to wear that out in public?” But ultimately, I can choose to wear whatever I want. We have control over the things we think about. We can’t always control the thoughts that come into our head, but we can control whether or not we think about those thoughts. Everyone has his own, or her own, kingdom.
Part of growing up is learning to accept the fact that we don’t have complete control. There are some things in life that are out of our control. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control other people. We can’t control disease. Maturity means recognizing those limits. Ultimately, true maturity means allowing Jesus to be our king, giving him control of our lives. Spiritual maturity means recognizing that our kingdom is under his kingdom. The gold that the wise man brought reminds us that Jesus is our king.
In his book, Disappointment With God, Philip Yancey tells a story that Soren Kierkegaard wrote. It is the story of a king who loved a humble maiden. Let me read it to you.
The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all his opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden.
How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist – no one dared resist him. But would she love him?
She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind. Would she be happy at his side? How would he know?
If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, and equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them.
For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal. (Yancey p103-104)
The king knew that the only way he could truly have this maiden’s love was to let go of his kingliness. So he clothed himself in rags, took on a new identity, and came to her cottage as a beggar.
That, my friends, is the incarnation. Jesus is God, the heavenly king. And yet he is so madly in love with us that he let go of his divinity, gave up his power as king to come down and live with us so that we might fall in love with him. Yet, at the same time, he is still the king who loves us and wants our love, as well as our obedience and our worship.
The second gift is frankincense. During my freshman year in college I was in the concert choir. We went on tour and sang at a Roman Catholic church. It was a high mass. The priest had this little metal thingy, with smoke coming out of it, that he waved back and forth. Within a few moments a smell filled the room. Right after that we had to sing. It was tough because I was gagging on the smell and the smoke. That was the first time I had ever smelled incense.
In both the Old and New Testament there are two different words that are translated incense. One is usually translated as incense and the other as frankincense. Both of them describe items that are burned in worship. Sometimes it is an animal that is sacrificed and burned. Other times it is a mixture of sap from a tree and a variety of spices. In either case the idea is that something is burned, which creates smoke that rises up to heaven as an offering. There are at least two ideas that come out of this.
First, the smoke that rises up to heaven is intended as a pleasing smell to God. As I said, I don’t particularly like the smell of incense, but the smell of a good steak on a barbeque, or cookies baking in the oven – those are smells I can appreciate. I can imagine the smell of an animal that has been sacrificed and is burning as pleasing to God. The question for us is, “What can we do that is pleasing to God? What can we do that makes God happy?” Let me mention a few ideas:
Worship – your attendance at worship is pleasing to God. The fact that you are here makes God happy. It is also an encouragement to the rest of us. I don’t know if you realize how much easier it is to preach when this room is full. But beyond that, you have sacrificed your time. You could have slept in. The fact that you are here is pleasing to God.
Obedience – God is happy when we are obedient to his will for our lives. It makes God smile when we do what we are supposed to do.
Giving – God rejoices when we are willing to trust him with our finances, when we are willing to give back to him what he gave to us in the first place.
Thanksgiving – God is pleased when we say thank you, recognizing that everything we have is a gift from God. What can you do, what will you do, that is pleasing to God?
There is a second idea that incense points to. The third verse of We Three Kings starts like this: “Frankincense to offer have I: Incense owns a Deity nigh.” This is a poetic way of saying that God is near. In the Old Testament incense was only allowed to be offered by the High Priest. In fact, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were killed because they offered incense when they shouldn’t have. The priest, especially the High Priest, was the one who closest to God and who connected people to God. He offered the sacrifices that allowed people to have a relationship with God. The incense given to Jesus reminds us that he is our High Priest, who makes it possible for us to be near to God. Through Jesus we can come in to God’s presence, we have a relationship with God. That is the good news of the incense.
The third gift is myrrh. Myrrh is the gooey stuff that comes out of the bark of a particular tree. The Hebrew word for myrrh comes from a root that can be translated as bitter – it probably had a bitter taste and can be bitter smelling. The Hebrew word can also be translated as grief, which is a very bitter experience. Myrrh was often used as an embalming substance to wrap around the body of a person who had died. After Jesus died Nicodemus brought myrrh to put on Jesus’ body as he wrapped it in the burial cloths.
Myrrh reminds us that Jesus is not only the high priest who brings us close to God. He is also the sacrifice for our sins, who makes it possible for us to be forgiven and to come into the presence of God. Myrrh reminds us that Jesus died for our sins. Even at Christmas we must not forget the cross.
Down in Brazil there is a prison run on Christian principles of love. There are two full-time staff. All of the rest of the work is done by the inmates. People who are not in the prison volunteer to adopt a prisoner. They visit the prisoner while he is in the prison, and help him after he gets out. Chuck Colson, who was very involved in prison ministries, went to visit the prison. Let me read to you his description of what happened.
When I visited the prison I found the inmates smiling – particularly the murderer who held the keys, opened the gates and let me in. Wherever I walked I saw men at peace. I saw clean living areas, people working industriously. The walls were decorated with Biblical sayings from Psalms and Proverbs…. My guide escorted me to the notorious prison cell once used for torture. Today, he told me, that block houses only a single inmate. As we reached the end of a long concrete corridor and he put the key in the lock, he paused and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in?”
“Of course,” I replied impatiently, “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.” Slowly he swung open the massive door, and I saw the prisoner in that punishment cell: a crucifix, beautifully carved by the inmates – the prisoner Jesus, hanging on a cross.
“He’s doing time for the rest of us,” my guide said softly. (Chuck Colson, quoted in “In the Grip of Grace” by Max Lucado, p113)
Jesus is doing time for all of us. He died for you and for me, so that we might be forgiven, so that we might live, so that we might be near to God. Even during the Christmas season we must never forget that Jesus died for us.
The Wise Men brought their gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, reminding us that Jesus is our King who rules our lives, Jesus is our High Priest who brings us near to God, and Jesus is our Sacrifice who died for our sins. Let us stand, remembering the Wise Men and their gifts, celebrating the gifts that Jesus gives to us.
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