By Jared Warner
December 29, 2019
Matthew 2:13–23 (ESV)
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
For most of us we often stop the Christmas story after the gifts presented by the Magi. I really do not know why, but that is just how our cultural expression of our Christian faith. Last week during our celebration of Christmas, it was discussed that many of our Friends from other nations include the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of innocence in their nativity celebrations. I found this very intriguing.
The interesting thing about Christ is that He truly is God with us. The theological concept surrounding this idea is something that makes my heart leap. If God is truly with us that means that He understands the various things that we face. God understand the pain our stomach gives us when we eat just a bit too much. He understands the joy of marriage, the incredible grief we feel when we experience the loss of a loved one. God understands. But there is one area of life that I do not understand, the senselessness of the suffering during war.
When the Magi come to Jerusalem and announced their quest, fear pulsated throughout the region of Israel. Why exactly were the people of Israel afraid of the announcement of a king? Probably because there was already a self-proclaimed king currently occupying that position. This person was not exactly a benevolent leader, even though the leader did inspire greatness within the nation. This king commissioned the building of the greatest religious facility known to humanity. And the religious leaders knew that their lifestyle was dependent on the pleasure of this tyrannical benefactor. If the king is happy the nation is happy. But when an authoritarian individual is plagued by paranoia, fear permeates all those around because those in authority use fear and violence to maintain their authority.
As I considered the traditions of Christmas I am reminded of the various histories of the locations, and since our meeting has a significant population of families that immigrated from Congo, the tradition of incorporating the some of their traditions is important. But what is their history?
As in many areas, Africa has a long history of colonialism. One might take a couple of views of colonizing areas. You might see it as progress, but there is another view one of oppression. Congo is a nation rich in natural resources. This nation is so rich in these resources they could stabilize the economies in all of Africa. But there is a problem, for centuries people have come into their lands and established control over those resources. At times the control over those resources was held by an authoritarian hand that held an entire nation in slavery. Then there have been various waring factions seeking to gain control over the riches of nature. The people of Congo have experienced oppression and exploitation of some of the worst. They have been involved in the longest war in human history, yet many people in the world know very little about those that call that land home. I myself am not an expert.
Today’s passage though speaks of a nation in fear, because their leader was introduced to a threat to his power. And all of Jerusalem was in fear too. The magi came and went, with the instructions of Herod to come to tell him where the child was to be found. But the magi did not return to Herod, and the great man was furious. These wealthy and wise men from the east did not respect his authority. They did not listen to what he had to say. They treated his decree as something optional instead of law.
This is the time and place the prince of peace first made an appearance, in a nation filled with fear and abuse of power. Abuse of power in the religious sense and in the secular realms. The story does not stop with the birth of Jesus, it does not stop with the visit of the shepherds, or even the gracious gifts from those wealthy academics from schools of magic. Right after the gifts were given Joseph was warned in a dream to run. He was warned to run because the life of the child and the family was at risk. The Holy family were faced with a decision to stay among their people and to live in a nation rule by paranoid tyranny, or run away to find a place in a foreign land where they might possibly find peace and a place to be free to raise their blessed child.
I have thought of this passage the past few weeks. I have considered it for most of my adult life. My oldest son was born in 1999, nearly his entire life our nation has been at war. My youngest son was born on Patriots’ Day, the day of remembrance established to remind us of why we have been at war for nearly twenty years. We have been fighting a war for my entire adult life. We look at those wars as being far away, until families begin to find their way to our nation who are attempting to flee from the dangers those various wars have caused. I am not saying that we did not have just cause to enter these battles but there is a cost. A great cost.
Wars are fought, and human lives are lost, damaged, and in many ways broken. These lives are not only lost among those involved in the fight, but the bombs often fall on those whose only offense was that they were born in a nation whose leaders oppose that of another. These families often stay, they have no desire to leave their home, but eventually the threat becomes too great. Eventually the adults must face the reality that they can stay and potentially face death, or they can fly to another place and attempt to start over with whatever they might have available to them. This is a story that has been with us in all human history. Wars, famines, persecutions force people from one area. The story is one that can see in the movies. One of my favorite movies as a child was “An American Tale” it was a story of a family of mice that fled their home to start again in the land of opportunity America.
We like the stories of rebirth, the emergence of something great out of the ashes of life, but what about those that have lived in the lands not of opportunity but fear? Where is God in those places, where people seek to destroy you because you believe differently, or you look different, or speak a different language. Where is God when those that have authority over others seek to rid the world of those individuals that seem to threaten their ability to rule? There are many faces and names for these people. In my grandfather’s generation the world dealt with one of these authoritarian individuals that wanted to blame all their problems on one group of people. Another movie, “Hotel Rwanda” speaks of another instance of one group of people seeking to blame another for all their problems. Where is God when those of Jewish heritage face death simply because they were born to a Jewish family. Where is God when the Kurdish people living between Turkey and Syria face death because two nations seem to hate them. Where is God when corporations buy land in Latin America from the governments in power and the people living on those lands are forced to find a new home after living on the land for generations? Does God know the plight of the refugees fleeing nations in fear of their lives?
Herod was furious, because those wise men from the east did not return to tell him where the child was. The result of that fury was the death of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding country under the age of three. Imagine soldiers entering a quite village and entering every house with weapons raised grabbing the child from your arms. What happened if you resisted? What would happen if you did not resist? We do not often reflect on the slaughter of the Innocents; we do not reflect on it because it is not a pretty image to have in our minds. What could possibly drive this sort of madness that the fury of a ruler would be imposed on individuals that literally have no voice of their own?
Where is God? God is with the refugees, because God was one of them. God is with the refugee; God called his son out of Egypt to fulfill our salvation. God is with those that live in fear of those in authority over them because it was from one of those individuals that God found protection from in a foreign land.
How often do we really consider this flight of the Holy family? Have we ever imagined ourselves in this portion of the story? Have we ever considered if the lives that we live support or oppose the flight of the innocent?
I sat with this image in my mind over the past few weeks. I have thought about the various responses that people have made throughout history. What would our response be to those people from Ireland who made their way across the ocean when the famine struck? What would your response be to those people of Jewish decent that sought safety from the camps? What would our response be to so many people fleeing from one area of the world to another? Do we respond with authority or compassion?
In this era of history expressing ideas of charity are often met with shouts and curses. Often, we want to place the blame of all our problems onto those that we see as being the cause of all our problems. How quickly we do forget. My family came across the ocean for the same reason that people of Latin America come north, they came for the same reason that my friends from Africa boarded a plane to an unknown destination in a country on the other side of the globe. My family came, because they feared for their lives or feared that they could not live the life they desired. They came because they had hope that there was a land where they could live life without fear. They came because God is with the refugee, he is with them providing hope in the hopeless situation. God is with those that have lost everything. God is with those that welcome the ones that flee, and God will call his children out of those lands to fulfill his plans.
Let us remember who we are this during this Christmas season. Let us remember that God is with us, even in the darkest times of our lives, and that God is calling us to bear the light of hope in a world of darkness.
Today we did not have a traditional service. We had a visit from a missionary that is serving in one of many areas where the persecution of those that profess faith in Christ is high.
Whenever we have the opportunity to have these guest we invite them to join us in worship. That being said I did not prepare a message but enjoyed the testimony from those of other lands.
We have several active ministries on the international plain you can learn more of these works by visiting this website.
Hope you have a wonderful week as we approach the day we celebrate the Birth of Hope!
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 8, 2019
Matthew 3:1–12 (ESV)
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There is something very interesting about this time of year. It seems as if the entire world is caught in a state of anticipation. Children across the land eagerly seek out the man in a red suit to whisper their greatest desires into the ear of the one that might fulfill their greatest longing. Lists are being made as living rooms are being decorated with garland and lights. We eagerly wait some something miraculous.
There is something about this season, even when the true meaning is so often lost under layers of secular veneer, that can almost give us a glimpse into the holy anxiety of advent. Yes, I use the word anxiety because I feel it encapsulates the tension of this season so much more than anticipation. There is excitement and dread. There is stress and there is joy. We eagerly wait yet we also long for something simpler. The season is filled with anxiety. Anxiety with a righteous twist.
I want us to consider the anxiety as we think about the coming day, we celebrate the dawning of our salvation. I want us to consider it because there is anxiety. As we anticipate time spent with family, we know that there is joy and stress. You travel distances, you plan a meal, or you are reminded of a vacancy of those that you will not see. There is joy and stress, there is hope and there is tension. Yet the day will come and when it comes, we see smiles, we hear laughter, we sing for joy because we know even in our darkest days there is hope.
Remember that anxiety and as you consider it, you might just get a glimpse into the lives of those that lived so long ago. For centuries they longed for the day where the anointed one would come. They longed for that day because it gave them hope, a hope that one day they might see a future where peace would reign, and work might be easier.
They had heard for generations that one day their messiah would come. One day they would not have to struggle, one day their children would not face the horrors of war, one day their bellies would not growl while they slept. They longed and they hoped.
This holy anxiety was at a point where nearly the entire empire felt its pull. They knew that something was about to happen, and they did not know what. Some faced the day with dread because they enjoyed the wealth and status they accrued, while others looked at that system with disdain and sought a different lifestyle, while others just hoped to survive.
This is the setting of today’s passage. An entire culture gripped with some form of anxiety, a longing for change coupled with a desire for things to remain. In those days John was out in the wilderness of Judea preaching.
There is something in these words that stirs my heart. Something that gives me hope even though I have heard the story countless times throughout my life. John was preaching in the wilderness. There is something mysterious about it, something that attracts our imagination. The wilderness in ancient times and even today is something veiled. There is something to be respected and feared, while it also gives us a sense of possibility. John is out in the wilderness. Often the idea of the wilderness was a lonely place, an empty waste, filled with abandonment. It was to the wilderness the religious leaders would drive the goat to carry the sins of the nation, separated from the people and lost to the great unknown. It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist began proclaiming the Gospel.
He was out in that empty place, the place of separation and waste. He was out there on the fringe of life, yet it was there the glimmer of hope began to take form. He proclaimed, like an announcer at the start of a football game, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Sometimes I feel we do not fully see what is going on as we read these words. We forget that the world in ancient days was a much larger place. Today we travel distances unimagined even a hundred years ago. The distance I travel to work each day, is a greater distance than my great grandfather would travel in a week, which is a distance that his grandfather probably would not travel in his lifetime. To us mile seem small but, in an age, where the distance was covered on foot it is great. John was not just on the outskirts of town; he was in the wilderness. That area where no one was, separated from the rest of society, a place no one needed to go because there was no reason to be there. Yet it was there he preached, it was there in the wilderness people gathered, and it was there in that wilderness people longed to go because this holy anxiety they experienced found some release.
He stood there in along the banks of the Jordan peaching. He cried out in the wilderness to those that made the journey to listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That one statement is loaded with so much.
Do we know what it means to repent? At times we hear words so many times we no longer value the meaning. I feel repent is one of those words, but it carries so much depth. The word encourages us to reconsider, to turn around, or to change our mind. It prompts us to look at our current activities from a different perspective and examine our place. Repent, John said in that empty place, for the kingdom is at hand. One meaning of the word repent that I came across as I studied this week is to become sober again. This struck me, not because I am one that lives a life of intoxication but because at times, we can live lives bound in various influences.
As I thought of that concept of becoming sober, I considered mindfulness or being in the right mind, or frame of mind. I sat with this idea for a while. How often do we get bound in our minds? How often do we allow our minds to be bound by worry? I must admit there are moments where my mind can be gripped by various things, things that I think are important, I plan and I reconsider aspects of the plans that I make, I try to figure out where resources will come from and how we can stretch those resources. I can be so bound in my own mind that I totally miss what is going on around me. I am bound in a mindset that can be toxic.
John is out there proclaiming in the wilderness, “Wake up! The kingdom is approaching.” His words are just as jarring as someone honking their horn at a light that had turned green while you still have the brakes on. You did not see the light change because you were distracted. Your mind was elsewhere while those around you had places to be.
John is in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” The word straight came to mind as I read this portion of scripture. To me I find the wilderness inviting. I love going to Colorado where you can go out into the mountains and hike. I love driving on the mountain roads that twist and turn. I love it, but there is something about those roads that is annoying. You drive miles and you do not really get anywhere. You feel like you are driving somewhere fast and going a great distance, because the forces of gravity push and pull on you body. Yet the distance covered is only a fraction of the distance you could have covered in the same time if you were on a road in Kansas. There is something else about those winding roads, you must pay attention. You mind must stay focused on the road or you might run the risk of great harm. Although I love the twist and turns, I cannot fully enjoy the wilderness because my mind is bound not on the scenery but the lane lines, and the warning signs.
What is John saying out in the wilderness? Wake up! The kingdom of heaven is approaching. One might even say that he is telling us slow down, take a breath, stop and smell the roses. He is saying if you do not open your eyes you are going to miss everything.
John was not just a radical preacher, but he was a son of a priest. His birth was one that was foretold by an angel from God. John’s father served in the temple of God and it was in that temple that his father got the announcement of his long-anticipated son. John was a child that was born into one of the most influential families in the nation. In Israel, a priest was important. I used to think of John’s dad as simply being a pastor, but he was much more that that. The temple of God in Jerusalem was probably the single greatest religious structure in the world. To serve in the temple meant that you worked in the greatest center of commerce in all of Israel. This temple was the engine that drove their entire economy. And John’s father, was a priest, but not just any priest, he was a priest that served inside. He was one of the priests that brought the incense into the holy place. He literally carried the prayers of the people to the very seat of God.
John was born into a family that had influence. The temple and those that served there, were at that very center of Israel. They provided the services that gave the people their status and identity. Every Child of Abraham traveled to this place three times a year. And while they were there, they offered sacrifices and gave their tithes. This temple was not just a local church, but it was a marvel of the empire. The wealth of the temple, after its destruction financed the landmarks of Rome. The temple had influence. Yet John was not in the temple. He did not participate in the politics of this religious industrial complex. John was not in the center of Jerusalem; he was out in the wilderness. John seemingly turned his back on his very culture, and he cried out to them to open their eyes, because they are about to miss the very thing, they say they are waiting for.
John did turn his back on the mainstream culture. Those that served in the temple had certain requirements, John was raised in a family that was used to these finer things. I am not saying that John’s father was not a Godly man, but while he served in the temple, he wore clothing that reflected the majesty of the place he worked. Have you ever wondered why we know what John wore? It is because of it was so far removed from his father’s attire. His father wore priestly linen, and John wore camel’s hair. Camel’s hair was the garb of the prophets, it was the fabric that people used to make tents. John’s garments were not for pleasure but durability. We are also told of his diet. The priest of the temple would eat the meat of the sacrifices, but what does John eat? He eats locusts and wild honey. He foraged and lived off the land.
I want us to think about this. John turned from the social norms, he lived a simple life in durable clothing, eating what the land provided. And he is crying out in that wilderness, “you are missing it.” The entire culture is revolving around religion, yet they are about to miss the one thing they are looking for. The anxiety is building, the anticipation mounts and their minds are turned the wrong direction. He cries out, “Repent,” because he hears the voice of God, yet those that in a position to be the mouthpiece of God are not even listening.
He cries in that wilderness, and people begin to wonder. This son of a priest, a priest of a high order has left his rightful place in the temple and is out in the wilderness. He has sacrificed a good lifestyle and is living a life of poverty. And they wonder why? He looks out at the people that gather, and he sees those of his own class, and he yells at them, “You brood of vipers!”
And this is where my heart begins to ache. Israel at this time knew how to do religion. Their religious economy was the greatest it had ever been. They had a structure that had so much excess they could put golden siding on a complex larger than an NFL Stadium. They knew religion. They had a righteous marketplace that was selling perfect sacrificial animals that guaranteed that your petitions would be heard by the living God. They had a perfect religious community that was bringing a great majority of their nation to their steps.
And John looks at these religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. The viper had a sour history in Israel. God had sent a plague of vipers to Israel while their ancestors wondered in the desert. Those vipers were released on the people because of their grumbling. They turned from the God that brought them out of Egypt, they complained that God did not care. And God removed his hand of protection from them for a moment. And the vipers stuck. The venom of rebellion coursed through their veins and the only remedy was for them to turn and look toward the place God sat and lift their eyes up to the bronze representation of their rebellion.
John looks out at the religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. They are leaders of rebellion, instruments of the grumblings. John left their system and went out into the wilderness to call the people to turn. But these leaders were filled with nationalistic pride. We have Abraham as our father. And John says who cares God can make children for Abraham out of the rocks they are standing on.
What can we learn from John, in this time of holy anxiety? What is it we are looking at? Are our lives focused where it needs to be? Repent, turn around, become sober again. Get in your right mind and focus on the right things. Simplify your lives. Take the exit off the winding road and get on the path that take us to the true destination. The kingdom is at hand. It is near and all around us, but do we see it? The very place God wants us to be and serve is right here with us already but are we grumbling about what we do not have?
I am far from perfect. I live a life that is filled with busyness and distractions, I grumble, and I worry. I often find myself focused on what I wish I had instead of being thankful for what I do have. I am no better than a brood of vipers. I am filled with anxiety, yet do I see the precious gift God has provided? As we anticipate the coming day, we celebrate Christ’s birth I pray that we can approach it with sober minds able to see the kingdom. The kingdom he has called each of us to participate in, the kingdom that has no boarders, or limits, and will never end. A kingdom that Jesus rules and is available to us if we are willing to turn and follow him.