Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Wisdom 6/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 10th, 2017
Matthew 2, 1;12
We have been looking at the Old Testament as it leads to Christmas, which is two thirds of the Old Testament. It’s two thirds of the book are about what’s coming. Our cultural religion has told us and convinced us and sold us on the idea that one night out of the blue, Mary had a baby and we should be grateful. That’s the not the biblical message, in fact our cultural religion has reduced the meaning of Christmas to be all about us and making ourselves happy and one another happy. And all God really wants is for us to be happy, so he sends Jesus to die on the cross, so Merry Christmas, okay, we’re done. There’s a whole lot more to it than that as we have discovered, Christmas in the church is a little bit like paint that has been thinned by adding too much water, it doesn’t really hold up. And trying to make it work is a waste of our time. What we’ve discovered is that for hundreds of years there was an occupation force in Israel and power was power under and trying to get power over. And there was the Assyrians and there was the Babylonians and there were bad kings and there were bad decisions and bad leadership and self-focus and greed and longing for power. And the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians and then the Persians drove out the Babylonians and then, following the Babylonians came the Romans. And it’s during this period when Jesus comes and Jesus comes with a purpose, he comes with a message. The message from the Old Testament, prophet after prophet after prophet, the message is that ways of unbelief and ways of unfaithfulness bring decline and destruction and doom, lead to the fall of a nation.
And so the implication there is that believe and faithfulness make all the difference and so you might be wondering, well, remind us again what belief and faithfulness mean? I’m glad you asked, I’ll be glad to tell you that, thank you. Mostly because our cultural religion has somehow linked redefined belief to mean your belief that true includes hokey and weird and dodgy and suspect claims of anything said in the name of religion. That’s not what belief means at all, that is not what belief means, getting you to believe weird stuff that I found in the Bible, that’s not what belief means. Belief means that what is important to what I believe in becomes important to me. So for me to say I believe in God is me saying I’m trying to make what is important to God important to me. Faithful simply means acting on what I believe, believing it enough to put it into action, even if that costs me something. It’s not difficult to understand, we know intimately unbelief, we know intimately unfaithfulness, and humanity has this kind of a repetitive habit of believing in ourselves and longing for what we want and how we want it.
And we stay at it with perseverance, it’s not that God’s way is difficult to understand, it’s that our way is what we really want. And so we really don’t believe. And it’s not that God’s way is difficult to understand, Isaiah lays it out for us in chapter one and then everything that follows chapter one refers back to God’s way and God’s longing for someone who will actually practice God’s way. If you want to look at God’s way, chapter one verses 16 and 17, 12 words. That was it was in the original Hebrew, 12 words: cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help oppressed, justice orphan, plead widow. It’s not hard to understand, it’s about compassion. It’s not hard to understand, it’s hard to do because it gets in the way of self-focus and it gets in the way of greed. So we label God’s way as impractical, as impossible, as irreconcilable to the way of the world. It’s a nice idea, preacher, but not really.
Isaiah then goes on to say: so that you may believe that God’s way is real and will work, there will come a servant of the Lord, this servant will live out God’s way. He will demonstrate for you God’s way, he will be a light for justice; he will be prince of peace. God’s servant is coming to show us God’s way, he’s a new king that brings a new kingdom, that’s what Emanuel means: God comes among us in this servant. This servant will bring also a word that is new for us, discipleship. Discipleship simply means imitating Jesus. Imitating Jesus makes faithful people who put what they believe into action, even when it costs us something. Shaping our behavior, that’s discipleship, so that what is important to Jesus becomes important to us and then acting on that. That’s the Old Testament message.
Second two thirds of the Old Testament is pointing toward Bethlehem and we’re finding ourselves beckoned to go to Bethlehem and as we go, we’re looking for that discipleship. Thought it might be helpful for us to learn from some people who made the trip to Bethlehem previously, they went the first time. And they represent the echo of Isaiah. The first, actually the second group that is called, they come first in scripture, but I’ll tell you why they’re second later, is the shepherds. Shepherds in Isaiah’s day, 600 years before Jesus was born, shepherds were honorable and valuable members of society. But the religious folks teamed up with the business folks and they started writing new rules and then they rewrote those rules, mostly to make themselves look important and to make them some extra money. That’s always the way, the reason, rules get rewritten, is to make somebody else look important. They set into rules what they were already doing, they normalized their own behavior, they increased the purity laws, and they stringently regiment the cleanliness requirements for access to God. So it made it very hard and then it made it impossible for the folks who live on the land, like shepherds, to meet the requirements for access to God. And so that made those shepherds outsiders and the perfection of the religious folk became more like an exclusive little club.
Plus on festival days it was the religious folks who made extra money selling sacrificial animals to the people of the land who were trying to get in good with God. It used to be, like I said, that shepherds were honorable and that’s because it was accepted that when sheep travel they just eat what they see. And so if I’m a shepherd and I’m walking sheep through our community, they’re going to eat your flowers and they’re going to chomp on your ivy. And they’re going to have a great time with that long grass that you’ve been working on out by your water pipe in front of your house, they’re just going to have a grand time with that. For a long time that’s just the way it was, nobody questioned it and then the religious folks and the business people got a hold of it and they started making the rules stringent and it became a misdemeanor and then it became criminal.
There was not punishment that came along with that, but it made it even more impossible for you to get in with God because you’re a sinner and there’s no way that you can atone for all of the damage, we would call it, that my sheep did to your grass, your flowers, your ivy. And so I would be out, that’s just how it was and that’s where shepherds were. Shepherds were off the bottom of every ladder in existence. Necessary, but not accepted, but here’s the kicker, they were invited to come celebrate the arrival of God’s servant with signs and wonders. And we might want to pause and reconsider who it is that we elevate and hold high in our lives because these are the ones God elevated and invited and holds high.
There’s something else, the shepherds have this thing they pondered, and that’s one of the things they had in common with the wise men, the wise men came… This is a little more mysterious, but not a lot, we filled in a lot of blanks by adding to scripture. We don’t really know a lot about the magi, they came from a foreign land, but we know they pondered mysteries because they said a star brought us here. They consulted with the stars, which brings to mind back in Genesis when God is talking to Adam and Eve, God says come and walk with me in the cool of the evening, stay with me until light has left the sky. What brilliance will you see in the deepest dark? Just an aside, where is your sense of awe? When was the last time you pondered? When was the last time you listened to the cosmos? Went outside at night, maybe even got in your car and drove out, away from the city so you could see stars and let yourself feel very small?
Well, back to the wise men. We’re pretty sure that the amount of energy and expense involved in making the journey would’ve been considerable and it probably would’ve taken them about two years to make this quest. And we can get focused on where they’re from or who they are, which is really neat, but also something of a distraction. And I think we might just want to learn from what they did when they arrived.
The first thing that the text tells us is that they bowed down and worshipped or paid homage to Jesus. Worship is a function of faith, putting into action what is important to God. It gives God the defining rites of our lives, our values, our money, I think the worst kind of fool is the person who says I believe there is a God, but lives their life as if God’s directives, God’s way is not to be taken seriously. The second thing that the wise men did, the text tells us, is that they opened their treasures. I don’t know if you’re noticing this, but the resources of heaven are released through God’s people. Miracles occur when we release our treasures to the hands of Jesus for the purpose of multiplying God’s ways in the world.
Although this part of the passage is a little bit problematic in our cultural church, I’ve heard pastors go on and on about how the gift of gold means God wants you to be rich. I have a problem with that, because I know what happens next in the text and I know what the gold is needed for. Do you know what happens right after the baby is born, after the wise men leave? Joseph has a dream and the dream tells him: you must flee for your life and the life of the child and the child’s mother because Herod is on the hunt and he will kill that child, run. And so Mary and Joseph, they hightail it for the border of Egypt. And so my mind begins wondering how much does it cost to hire a guide to show you the best way across the desert? How much does it cost to bribe a border guard? When you go to a foreign country and you’re trying to survive, you have no history with any of the people there, you have no family business, you have no land. How much does food cost on the streets and how about a place to stay? And what kind of work can you get as a foreigner? This is an immigrant; the birth’s story becomes an immigrant story about crossing the desert and trying to survive in a foreign land.
You want to know where that money went. I’ll tell you exactly where that money went. Those wise men made it possible for that family to survive as migrant refugees running from violence. Miracles occur when we release our treasure for the purpose of multiplying God’s way in the world. There is one more thing that the wise men do, they too have a dream. And the dream tells them, and they listen, don’t return to Herod. And so the text tells us they returned to their country by a different road, they allowed the course of their momentum, their direction, to be altered. And I think about this and I think about changing the momentum of my life usually takes time. Changing my attitudes and my practices, it’s a hard thing to do, takes a couple of years of effort. I see in the wise men, I see in the shepherds: belief and faith. Belief, I believe in God, God’s way becomes more important to me than anything else. Faith, I’m going to act on God’s way, His way becomes our way. And we travel by a different road.