By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 20, 2019
John 2:1–11 (NRSV)
The Wedding at Cana
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
At times when I study scripture, I get stuck. I am sure many of you have similar issues. You read something over and over, you get to a point you believe that you understand what is going on, and then you read it again and you just sit there knowing that God is telling you something but you just cannot get out of the way to let Him speak.
That is where I was this week. I have read this passage many times. When people who are exploring faith or are new to the faith ask me where they should begin to read scripture, I almost always tell them to read John. It is my favorite Gospel. I like it because there is action, adventure, excitement and drama, triumph over evil, you know everything that makes a story good, John has it and more it speaks about Jesus. And when there is Jesus there is hope.
I sat there this week, I read this passage over and over. I considered everything I had known about it and I studied everything I could. And yet I sat praying, “what could you possibly want me to say.” The main reason for this is because I grew up in a temperance-oriented community, so this first sign of Jesus has always been a struggle for me. I grew up being taught that wine in the story was not really wine. Throughout most of my life I was questioning this story, I knew Jesus did something remarkable but to be honest I questioned why.
Before we go deeper, I want you all to know that the wine in the passage is, in fact, real wine. No matter how you look at the passage the wording used refers to wine. And people have been making wine for thousands of years so wine is a word they know how to use. I also know that this is really wine because, wine was a sign of blessing in ancient Jewish cultures. They would not celebrate without actual wine, and even to this day in religious observances they are required to use actual wine. The last thing to mention is the fact that there is references in this passage to the effects of the consumption of wine, so why would they mention that if these people were simply drinking juice.
With that out of the way, there is much more going on in this passage. During the season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, we should see something about God revealing Himself, or the Gospel, to us in some way. What is God revealing to us through this story?
If we are to look at the life of Jesus and try to construct a timeline, we would find that it is difficult. Most of the time Jesus and his disciples are running from one end of Israel to the other, they are getting into verbal confrontations in the temple and the next scene they are on a boat going across the sea. Some might be troubled by this because when we read a biography today, we are accustomed to the authors beginning at the figure’s birth or maybe even giving a brief history of the parents, and then proceeding through their life in chronological order. This was not that important to the gospel writers for many reasons, the main being that world at that time was largely illiterate so most people listened to the message orally. And if you are giving an oral account it is interactive, meaning there is a person speaking and a group listening. There are situations occurring all around and the speaker is asked to speak into their situation. How does faith speak to our current situation? Why should I believe that God cares about me? If I am having an interactive conversation with someone, I rarely begin with history. We usually begin in the present and go backwards then forwards, usually there is a circling back to the present, and a side trip down somewhere that may or may not have any real value but was interesting at the time. Unfortunately, because paper was scares in the first century the side trip discussions of the disciples and apostles were not always recorded.
The gospel accounts are not exactly in complete chronological order, and that is ok. John for example has Jesus clearing the temple near the beginning and the other writers place that right before the trial. Does that mean John is wrong, no it just means when John was speaking to the people, he taught that event needed to be spoken of earlier. Why is up for debate, but John’s gospel is believed to be the last written so maybe the people needed to hear about Jesus getting upset at the exploitation early because they were facing similar situations in their own lives. The gospels might not be in complete chronological order but there is chronology within. The baptism of Jesus occurs early, and the crucifixion is near the end. What happens in-between is like every conversation we have ever had about life, filled with switchbacks and roundabouts.
Today’s passage is one that scholars agree to be early in the ministry of Jesus. It occurs after the baptism and after the initial calling of the disciples, but before Jesus really enters ministry. Directly before they go to the wedding, we hear about the calling of the first disciples, Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathanael. When Jesus spoke to Nathanael, he told him that he would soon see greater things. Right after this they go together to a wedding and we observe what is regarded as Jesus’s first sign.
Weddings are an important event in anyone’s life. It is the joining of two people, that unites two families together. It is a union, a partnership, but so much more. It is the melding of two ancestries, two beautiful family histories together, what were separate are now united and everything after that the greatness and the tragedy will be united. Today we enjoy a good wedding celebration, to be honest if there is cake, I really do not mind a celebration that is minimalistic. I will be honest I like weddings, but the celebration is the part I enjoy the most, the party, and at times the dancing. Jesus’s first sign was at a wedding celebration. Think about that for a moment. Last week I mentioned that the baptism of Jesus was a point in life where Jesus was leaving behind everything, he did for the thirty years prior and entering a new life. A wedding celebration is very similar. We celebrate this united future, what was once separate is not together, its something new. God is revealing something here.
I like a good wedding celebration, but our best celebrations today are nothing compared to the celebrations they had in the ancient world. Their parties would go on for days sometimes it would last an entire week. The ancient Jewish people knew how to celebrate. And rightly so, people would travel by foot to attend, and they would be hungry, and thirsty. They might not have seen these friends or family members for an extended time and they needed to catch up. And in an era without social media that could take time. The social standing of the new couple was often galvanized by the wedding celebration. The longer it was the better the union would be seen.
They are all celebrating this wedding on the third day. On a Tuesday, I do not know if that matters, but who has a wedding on Tuesday? They are celebrating, and Jesus’s mom has found a problem, a scandal. “They have no more wine.” She hurries over to Jesus and informs her son of the issue. Have any of you ever thought why at this point? Why did she go tell Jesus? Why did it even matter to them? Was this a close family member’s wedding or was Mary just sticking her nose in another people’s business? No matter what the reason was she told Jesus.
The response of Jesus might set some of us on edge. He says, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” To our ears this almost sounds rude, but it is a traditional conversational structure. We do not go around saying Woman today, but this is our culture, this was not rude in their culture, it could be translated as dear woman. But the interesting thing is that there is something going on in this response, even though it is a common conversation, it is uncommon that a son would use this with his own mother. John is trying to show us the new life Jesus has before him, this division of the old and new. A son would have said, mother, not woman, yet Jesus says woman. Without missing a beat, Mary takes the response and immediately goes to the servants and informs them to listen to whatever Jesus has to say. There is a revelation here, Mary know that Jesus was moving away from the family business and entering the lifestyle revealed to her by the angels.
The servants listen to Mary, and they turn expectantly to Jesus. They look expectantly at Jesus because they are aware of the situation, they are the ones carrying the food and drinks out to the guests, and they know that when the wine is gone the celebration is over. We do not know how long this celebration had been going on, but we are given the impression that it is not a traditional length of time. The servants are nervous because if the family cannot continue the celebration it might be omen to economic hardship, which might translate to a loss of their livelihood as well. The party must go on, and they have one hope, Jesus.
He looks around and sees stone jars nearby. These stone jars are used for purification. They are the equivalent to the sink today. These stone jars were used by the guests to wash their hands before they began to eat a meal. The interesting thing is the amount of these jars. To require six jars holding thirty gallons of water informs us that this is a large party, with many guests how many parties have you attended that required one hundred and eighty gallons of water just, so the guests could wash their hands? It must be an important family.
Six jars are there so he says fill them up with water. They do it because Mary said to do whatever he said, so the jars are filled to the brim. They quickly hauled one hundred and eighty gallons of water to the celebration. This is not a small endeavor, today we have electric pumps and running water, and to get that amount of water takes time, just filling our gas tanks takes longer than we have patience for, yet these servants are doing this by hand.
At this point we have an additional revelation. The jars are used for religious observance, the purification of the hands so that they can participate in the feast. Jesus has them fill these jars with water, he then tells them to take a cup from the jar and give it to the head steward. As they do this the water has turned to wine. Good wine, the best wine at the party. The wine that most would have served at the beginning of the celebration not at the end. If you were to have purchased this wine it would be the top shelf bottle, not the bottom shelf box. Jesus turned the water in the purification vessels in to wine. Many see this as a sign or a prophecy of the new covenant, grace overcoming the law.
The steward drinks the wine and loudly boasts to the crowd, this bridegroom is amazing, this has gone on for a while, and we have all enjoyed a fair amount. But this guy he is now serving the good wine. The wine most of us would have served at the beginning he is serving when we are all drunk. Imagine the surprise of the bridegroom. He knew what was purchased, and he knew what was served. He knew that he served the best stuff that he purchased at the beginning of the celebration just like everyone would have expected yet now they are drinking something better. Another revelation? Could this be telling us that there is something better in our future if we listen to Christ?
One sign, the first sign, a sign that many of us might consider pointless. Yet it is filled with so much. Only a few knew what happened for sure. The disciples knew because they were there hanging out with their new friend. The servants knew because they had carried in all the water. The bridegroom knew that there was one hundred and eighty gallons of wine at his party that he had not purchased. And Mary, Jesus’s mother knew. One sign, the symbolism is full. It reveals that God is opening the heavens with flowing wine, which was a prophecy from Amos and Joel which is saying that when the messiah comes there will be an abundance of blessings in the land. And the wine filled the jars used for purification. What was once used as a symbol of washing away what was unclean was now the vessel of celebration.
There is more to this. The first sign of Jesus happened during a celebration. This should tell us a great deal. Our faith should be enjoyable. So often we focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, and we focus on the things we sacrifice to follow him. Is life always about sacrifice? No, we are told to weep with those that weep and to share in the joy of others. Celebration, like fasting, is a spiritual discipline. But do we take time to celebrate? Do we take time to enjoy the friendship of those around us? Are our schedules so filled with things that we forget to enjoy life occasionally? Jesus’s first sign was to keep the party going, imagine that. The first miracle Jesus performed many of us would consider to be frivolous, without value, unspiritual. Yet Jesus used a party to reveal to those around him that he had power over nature and could turn something as simple as water into something as valuable as wine. And he did this for one reason, they were out of wine and when the refreshments are gone people start to leave.
God has a plan and purpose for you in this community. You may not fully know what that is, it might require sacrifice, you might endure hardship for it. People might ridicule you for your faith and people might say that your faith is a joke. But there is hope and there is joy also. Jesus wept, and Jesus laughed, Jesus was angry, and Jesus enjoyed playing with the children. Jesus taught deep spiritual lessons and Jesus celebrated at a wedding. God wants us to enjoy our lives in a way that brings glory to Him. God wants us to be bearers of light in the darkness, and that requires us to lighten up at times. When was the last time you let yourself have fun for the glory of God? When was the last time you celebrated your life with God?
Let us now enter this time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends considering the joy of the lord. The joy of the lord. And let us celebrate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15–17 (NRSV)
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The season of Epiphany is one of revelation. Last week we saw how God revealed the gospel in the stars to the magi, what that star was remains a mystery even after 2000 years although some have some convincing research. That revelation to the magi, showed us that God revealed the gospel to the gentiles, that God’s ultimate includes all people. It does not matter who you are, where you were born, what your social standing, or personal wealth is God loves you to such a degree that Jesus left heaven to be born. He grew up in a common family in a community of friends and family. He worked within his family business and was known in his home town as the carpenter’s son. And after thirty years he actively begins the mission he was born to fulfill.
I want each of us to consider this timeline before we proceed. Thirty years to us does not seem like much time. In our culture, people are not even considered actual adults until about that time. The age of thirty in our culture is often the beginning of many things. It’s when we start families, it is when we become set in a career that we hope to remain. It is when we start families. It is when we finally begin to feel as if we know who we are. Thirty for many of us is not that old, and when we consider the age of Jesus, we often think of him through the lens of our culture. Jesus was a young man when he entered his ministry.
This is not exactly the case. In the first century thirty was different. The boys would begin in their family business at around the age of thirteen, and they would work with the family their entire lives. If your father worked with ceramics, you would work in ceramics or most likely marry a man who worked with ceramics. If your father was a priest, you became a priest or married a priest. If you father was a laborer the same career path was set before you. The only way out was if you happened to be very intelligent and you parents were able to afford extended education with the rabbis or you entered the service of the government.
Jesus worked from the age of thirteen to thirty with the family, as a carpenter. He worked alongside Joseph, and the other members of the family for seventeen years, cutting stone and timber to build and repair houses and other buildings in and around Nazareth. Seventeen years, in today’s culture if you work twenty-five years with in one company your pension is matured, and you can retire, so if Jesus was in our culture today, he would be less than ten years away from this.
In many ways Jesus would not be what we would consider a young man, but an established man, if not an elder. There were very few careers where he would not be a master of his trade at this time. In his culture there would be only one area he would have been particularly young and that would be the priesthood, because a priest would begin their service in the temple at the age of twenty-five and continue to serve until, they were fifty.
Jesus would have been at an age that he would be considered established, he had made it over one very huge milestone, he lived to the age of thirty. Life expectancy in the first century was not what it is today. The average life expectancy during the first century and really till the 20th century was around thirty-five to forty years old. Today because of the advancements in medical sciences we live much longer, about twice as long. We often think of Jesus being young, but the event we read about today in scripture, Jesus would be like many of us here today, middle-aged at best. After already living a full life, Jesus then began something different.
Today we meet again on the banks of the Jordan river, we meet this enigmatic man John. We spoke about John a few weeks ago, so I will not go much deeper into who he is. He is Jesus’s cousin, and is a son of a priest. Yet John did not follow his father into this career instead he went out into the wilderness and began a different sort of ministry. He challenged the established religious industry, and from the testimony of his teaching we might be led to believe that he was disgusted with what religion had become. He would yell at the religious leaders and called them a brood of vipers. Personally, I do not know of many insults that would be worse.
John is preaching on the banks of the Jordan, and the people of Israel are going out to meet him. They go out because they have this expectancy, a holy anxiety that something is going on. Something deep within their spirit is telling them that they are missing something profound in faith. And they cannot find. They listen to the teachers and they are telling them the messiah is coming and that is what you are sensing. And as they teach them about this messiah, they are telling them what to expect. A king, a military leader, a man that will lead them from the heel of Rome into independence and prosperity. Could John be this man, clearly, he is charismatic enough to challenge the establishment but is he the one?
If we were to read all of John the Baptist’s message, we would find that most of what he taught was based on turning from the ways of the world and living a different lifestyle. This lifestyle he explained as, “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.” Which leads us to a significant question, what is repentance? When I look this word up it speaks of a changing of one’s mind, a change of heart, or direction. John is on the Jordan shouting at people telling them that they are going the wrong direction and need to turn around. But I want us to keep in mind, these people are not grave sinners they are the child of Abraham, God’s chosen people. These are the people who eat, drink, breath, and sleep religion. These are the most righteous of all people, their temple is the greatest temple ever built to facilitate worship. He is yelling at the righteous to turn around.
These people filled with expectation are going out to listen, they hear the message and they realize that there are areas in their life that they do need to turn. Then they wonder is John the one they have been looking for? Is he the messiah? He is out there screaming and dunking people under the water as a sign that they have been cleansed from their unrighteous past and can stand clean before God, yet when they consider him John rejects their thoughts. Saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This great charismatic teacher that has all of Israel leaving the towns and villages, to be immersed in the Jordan tells them, “You think I’m great. You just wait, there is someone else coming and I am not even worthy of being his slave.” John is not even worthy to perform the lowest task of the lowest slave within a house. He is not worthy to untie and wash the feet of the one who will come.
Think of all the people you respect and why. Consider all the value you place on their character or their accomplishments. John was the greatest preacher of his day, crowds were coming out to meet him, to listen to his message, enduring the ridicule he might bring them. Not just simple common people, but even the scribes, the teachers of the law. Each listening and many moved to the point that they walked out into the water to plunge beneath the waters. Yet John says, “Nope, I’m not the one you are looking for. I’m not even worthy to be his lowest slave.” John uses water to draw attention to a changed life, but the one that John is looking for will use the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus at this point is there among those people. He this established carpenter is standing with the rest of Israel listening to this crazy preacher, rant on religion and telling the righteous that they need to turn around because they are going the wrong way. Jesus was there and entered the water. According to the other gospel accounts John knew who Jesus was, and even told Jesus that he should not baptize Jesus, but Jesus should baptize him. John knew Jesus, yet there is a reason Jesus was baptized. Up to this point his life was established, he was the carpenter, everyone else knew him as a carpenter. For seventeen years that had been his life, now in the twilight years his life will turn and go a different direction.
Jesus was baptized to show the people of Judea that the carpenter they knew is no longer the man before them. The course they expected him to follow is now turning a different direction. And according to Luke, the first thing Jesus does after this baptism is that he prays. It is in his prayers at that moment that heaven opens, and the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For seventeen years, Jesus has lived the obedient life. He had lived the life expected of him. The life that his culture dictated to him. He was according to them, the son of a carpenter and that is what he would remain. But after the baptism Jesus turned from the ways of the world and pursued the life and lifestyle he was meant to live. The life of the Beloved son of God. The lamb who takes away the sin of the world. From that moment on Jesus turned from the life of a carpenter and pursued the mighty life John and all of Israel anticipated.
Often, we get caught up in the baptism of Jesus. We as Christians often mimic the activities because Jesus did them. But what was it that Jesus did? He was baptized because it was a sign, a religious and symbolic way of telling the people of Israel that Jesus’s life from that moment on would take a turn. The reality of it is that Jesus did not need to be baptized, nor does anyone else, because that is all it is a sign a symbol of the reality of what is and has already occurred. When John speaks of the one to come who will baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit and fire, he is speaking of something far greater than anything else, because water does not change anyone. Water may clean the outside of a body but something more must occur.
I spent some time looking up the significance of the words John used in his proclamation, and to be honest there is not any single understanding as to what he fully means. There are various perspectives that each work in some way. When we look at fire, it could mean judgement and punishment, or it can mean the purification of metals. I might also be referring to the disposal of unwanted chaff. From the statement about the winnowing fork being in hand to clear the threshing floor I tend to think John probably means getting rid of the unwanted chaff. But all these perspectives are good.
The fire is getting rid of the things that lack value. When a farmer is gathering grain, the kernels are encased in m material that has little or no use. When the plant was growing there was membranes that surrounded the seed protecting it from harm, but this membrane is inedible. Even if it is fed to animals it has the potential to cause harm. The beards of wheat have a Velcro like quality that can become lodged in the gums of livestock and cause infection. And as humans our bodies cannot digest the cellulose, so it provides no nutritional value for us. When the heads of the wheat are taken to the threshing floor the kernels are knocked out of these membranes and when they are scooped up and thrown into the air the wind will carry the chaff, the unwanted and worthless plant material, away and the kernels will fall back down. Eventually, the chaff will form piles on the edges of the floor and this would be removed and burned, leaving the kernel or the fruit.
The picture created by John’s words resemble his message, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The fruit is what is wanted not the chaff. The fruit has value, the chaff is simply residue, a byproduct, worthless. But what if we look at the words as refiner’s fire? Most metals are not found in a pure state in nature, but in an ore. The ore is the elemental metal crystalized with other elements forming a rock. When the ore is placed into fire the various elements melt at different temperatures. As the temperatures rise and cool these elements can be separated and you are left with a desirable and pure metal which can then be used to form various things like the vehicles we drove to get here or a ring to a marriage. Again, the fire removes the things that have little value so that the things with value can be obtained.
Now what about the Spirit? This also can mean a couple of different things. Some would say that it is God initiated, which means we repent or turn, because God does it within us. While others believe that maybe John is speaking of the wind which will blow the chaff away from the kernel and which intensifies the heat of the fire. No matter how we look at it, either God or wind, what is happening is outside ourselves. Our repentance or turning, the fruit we bear is a cooperation between ourselves and something that only Christ can provide. We cannot do it on our own.
John’s baptism is man initiated. Where the baptism of the one that comes after John is divinely initiated. When we work in our own strength, we do not always have the desired results but when we allow God to work within us it intensifies. When we repent, when we turn from the ways of our worldly systems and walk toward God in Jesus, the things lacking value blow away to be burned, and what is left is pure fruit.
All of Israel came to John to listen. They came because they were filled with expectation. The Spirit of God was working within them, but they did not know it. John spoke words of truth and they began to wonder even more. John then said I am not the one you seek but there is another and what I symbolize with water, he will actualize and intensify. But will we listen?
Jesus spent seventeen years of his adult life, living the life of a carpenter and one day he turned and went a different direction. He spent nearly his entire life, which was not necessarily a short or young life, being obedient to his culture and then he turned to follow the paths set before him even before time began. Time is not an obstacle to God, age is not a complication to God, our resources, our careers or lack thereof are not problems for God. Our genders, our education, our heritage, or nationality do not matter to God. All of that is mere chaff, it is worthless material encasing something much more important, the essence of your life.
The fact that each person is here today, means that like Israel before us we have some deep yearning and expectation we hope to meet. This is God urging us to that life. What will we do from here? The most charismatic man of that day, John said you are looking for the messiah, but I’m not it. I am not even worthy of untying his shoes. Yet he still said turn, repent. Turn from a life focused on the values of men, and pursue the pathways of God, now today. God has a life that he created you to fill in this community, a life where you will find hope, peace and joy. A life where you can be yourself and others will accept you. A life that is available to you and you can have when you turn.
As we enter this time of open worship, and holy expectancy I pray that each of us in this moment will consider the life of Jesus, as well as the life and testimony of John. I pray that we will consider the community around us and the community we hope to see. And I pray that we will repent, that we will turn and walk not according to the ways of the world, but in the ways of Christ, so our hope will become sight.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1–12 (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Have you ever experienced a time where everything around you seemed to be confusing? Maybe it was a math class in high school, or in my case chemistry class in college. Everything the teachers or whoever was in charge was saying just caused greater confusion to the point you could barely listen anymore. I often feel this way. I like to see myself as an intelligent person but there are some things I just do not understand. I am comfortable enough with who I am now, so I do not mind admitting it. It is alright to exist in our world and not know something. In fact, one of the funniest scenes in Sir Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is where Sherlock is in total confusion when his friend Watson explains the concepts of Copernican heliocentrism. Holmes this genius of a man could not grasp the idea of the earth revolving around the sun, for the simple fact that it did not attract his attention. No matter how much he listened, he could not make sense of it and the scene closes with Holmes still ignorant of the concept. We do not have need to know everything, nor do we have to have an opinion about everything. And if something does not really matter, we should not really get ourselves worked up over or preferences.
At times no matter how much, we would like to understand we just cannot, but at times something in our minds click and suddenly things just begin to make sense. I have said a few times over the course of my ministry that my oldest son James is one of the people in my life that lead me to Christ. Yes, I had knowledge before, and if anyone would have asked me if I was a Christian between from the time, I was five to nineteen I would have answered with an affirmation of faith. But there was much about my faith that I did not understand. I had read the bible completely at a young age, there was even one time we had a bible quiz at our local meeting where everyone, children and adults competed with one another, and I won. I had knowledge, but it was not until I held my son for the first time, that the knowledge I had between my ears made sense. James, a minutes old child, lead me to the knowledge of my salvation. That infant, my infant, my son became the conduit of grace for a broken and struggling young man. And in my quest to be the best dad I could be, God revealed to me who I truly was and who I was created to be.
I am a pastor. It is not because this Meeting has asked me to share words of wisdom every week, it is because it is who I am. I cannot do anything else but teach the gospel. Even when I work outside the church there are times I am teaching. Even when I stepped away from pastoral ministry for a couple of years, I was still ministering on a voluntary basis, because that is who I am. At times I wish God would have called me to something else, but I honestly cannot see my life in any other role. Through my son, God provided an epiphany, he revealed myself to me.
I reflect often on that day. A day that will be twenty years ago next week. On that day I began a journey of discovery that was filled with struggle. Every day I continue to struggle, because I know who I am. I know what I have done, I know how flawed I am. Yet I see not other life for me, because on that day I began a journey, not in religious duty but in love and grace. I saw a metaphorical light reflecting in the eyes of a child, and my life was no longer my own.
Everyone has moments like these. They may be life altering events that change the course of our personal history, or they might be simple recalculations within our spiritual GPS systems. But in every life, both for those of faith and those without faith there are moments that become revelations of truth to them. Moments where they become who they are to be, or in some cases they reject who they were meant to be. Those moments if we look back on our lives were days the ancient Quakers would call days of visitation. Days where the divine light spoke into their lives and they made a choice to walk toward or away. Today we interact with one of those days of visitation that occurred among some men from the regions east of Israel.
Last week I mentioned that each of the gospel writers focused on different aspects of the life of Jesus. I mentioned that the Gospel according to Mark did not speak much at all about anything prior to Jesus’s ministry, and it begins when Jesus is approximately thirty years old. The Gospel of John is one that begins with abstract theology of the preexistence of Jesus before the foundations of the world were even created, then again, we see Jesus as an adult at his baptism. Luke and Matthew give us a glimpse of the early life of Jesus. Both give a genealogy, and both speak of his conception and early childhood, but both give us different perspectives. Luke seems to look through the eyes of Mary, while Matthew speaks from Joseph’s point of view. But what is interesting about all the gospels is that it speaks of the same thing, the revelation of God, the good news of God’s kingdom, the incarnate word made flesh to dwell among us.
Luke gave us a glimpse into the later childhood of Jesus when Mary and Joseph lost track of their child and left him to fend for himself for three day at the temple. Matthew give us something different. Only in Matthew do we hear about the early struggles of the Holy Family. Struggles they did not ask for, struggles they probably wished they did not have to endure, yet struggles they embraced because of their faith in God.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” It is important that Matthew included this verse, because it gives us a frame of reference to the actual historical events. This event happened after Jesus was born, during the time of King Herod. We can look up information about this person outside of biblical sources and see that there was an actual king Herod who reigned in Jerusalem during an era of history, from 37 BC to either 4 or 1 BC. This means that these events happened some time during this period. Also included in this verse is a strange word we do not see often in scripture, Magi. The word is associated with the word we know as magic, because that is what these men were thought to have practiced. So, of the approximately eight times a form of this word is mentioned it is referring to sorcery. Most of the uses those are in this chapter of Matthew. When we attach the word magic to it, we automatically connect everything about the word with evil, but these are not evil men, even one of the most revered prophets of the Old Testament would have held this title, the prophet Daniel. The Magi were the priestly class of the Persian empire. They were scholars of that culture. Their careful studies on various topics provide a foundation to many of the scientific studies and discoveries we enjoy today. Without the magi, we would know very little about mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy. The magi were the priests of the religion we know as Zoroastrianism, and without this religion no one would own a Mazda vehicle because we would not have that word.
The magi were priest, they studied many things and they used interpretations of these things to encourage and advise their rulers. The prophet Daniel was one of the chief magi, even though he practiced a different faith. He worshiped the Hebrew God, yet the people of Persia recognized that his wisdom was true. And if you were to investigate the faith of the magi you would find that there are many similarities between the faiths.
If we continue to read, these magi traveled to Jerusalem for a reason. They saw a star, and they determined that this star announced the birth of a Jewish king. I mentioned that the magi gave us foundations to the modern science of astronomy, or the study of stars. These scholars studied the stars, they knew what the exact position of stars would be at a given time and could tell when things like an eclipse would happen. They are not the only ancient people that could do this. Ancient Egyptians, Gaelic Druids, and even Native Americans studied the stars, and many of these star gazers were leaders of their various religions. The difference between astronomy and astrology is what people do with the knowledge they gain from observing the stars. One is a observes starry skies and records and predicts what might happen with those bodies in the future, the other is the belief that those stars can dictate and predict what events will happen in someone’s life.
The interesting thing is that these magi saw something, and they knew that this even spoke of the birth of a Jewish king. They saw a light, God revealed something to these gentiles and they responded to the light that they were given. These magi may or may not have had true salvation, but God used them to reveal something to us.
I recently watched a documentary about on man’s research on this subject. The man’s name is Rick Larson. This man is not an astronomer, but he uses the tools of astronomy to find what he calls answers. In his research he finds what he would say is Bethlehem’s star which was the convergence or conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus. Regulus is one of the brightest stars and part of the constellation Leo the lion. And in the cosmology of the Zoroastrians Regulus is the dominate of the four royal stars and Jupiter is often seen as the king of the planets. When Mr. Larson used star gazing software and traced it back to ancient Babylon in 3 BC and he found what he thought was what they saw. Jupiter wrapped around Regulus three times, and then Jupiter and Venus came together nine months later. He goes on to observe that Jupiter appears to stop in the night sky over Bethlehem on December 25, 2 BC. All these things in the cosmology or the understanding of the world of the magi say Jewish king. And I understand his point.
But there is more to the word star. The magi said that they observed his star rising. Rising can mean birth or beginning. But from the understanding of many ancient cultures the stars represent deities or messengers of the gods. With this understanding we could also conclude that these scholars might have seen something other than a star in the night sky, maybe they like Joseph were visited by an angel. Maybe this angel in some way revealed to them what the movement of the stars might mean, and they responded. I mention this because Joseph was visited by an angel in a dream and revealed to him the origin of Mary’s child, and Joseph responded. Angels visited the Shepherds in the fields of Judea and told them about the child’s birth in the Gospel of Luke, and it is possible that maybe God revealed the light also to the Gentiles of Persia.
I do not know what the Magi saw. I am intrigued by all the interpretations and research that people have made in this area. What I do know is that people saw a light and they responded. A king was born to the people of Israel, a child of Abraham from the tribe of Judah, through the line of David. And this nation, to whom this king was born, was to be the light to all nations. God is not only for the Jews, they were simply the people that God chose to make the revelation through, God is for all the nations. And we see this epiphany occurring when scholars from Persia see a light and respond by bringing this king gifts of Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This story takes me back to my own journey through life. At one point I wrote a spiritual autobiography of my life. This is a discipline where you prayerfully reflect on your life and consider where God was and what your response to God was during every stage of your life. You consider who was with you along the way and how they influenced the choices you made at that moment. During this discipline I saw that God was working in my life all along the way. Working through my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, school teachers, and Sunday school teachers. I saw that God was present during the death of my sister, and even during the poor choices I made in my time of deep grief, he was revealing love and grace. The bright light that shown in the darkness was reflected brightest through the eyes of my son. And at that moment I chose to follow a path revealed by God.
We have knowledge, and we have opinion. We have confusion and we have ignorance. At times nothing makes sense and at other times everything makes sense around us. There was a time where God wrote the gospel in the starry skies and that bright light told scholars from the east to go and worship a king in a country not of their own, from a faith not of their own and they followed the light. It might not have made sense, but they responded. The child that they honored with their royal gifts, grew in grace and wisdom, and he marveled the teachers when he was only twelve. He obeyed his parents and worked along side his family until he was thirty. At that time, ancient middle aged, he made a career change and entered ministry, where he showed us what life with God should look like. He called people to follow him, to take on his lifestyle and he taught and showed us a holy rhythm of worship, prayer and service to others. This teaching threatened the leaders of his day and like in the days of Herod all of Jerusalem trembled because the teachings of Jesus challenged the commonly held beliefs, so they judged him, convicted him, and executed him. He lived to bring God to man, he died to take man to God, and on the third day he rose from the grave to prove that he had the power over our greatest fear death. This was all revealed for all to see, Jew and Gentile, man and women, children and adult, slaves and free. This life is available to all people, and all we must do is respond. Who is that child, who is that man, who is Jesus?
In this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect on the light that revealed to those Persian priests, let us reflect on our own journeys through life and see where the light might be in our own lives. Let us then make a choice, do we respond to the revelation before us and follow Him or do we stay trusting our own opinions? Who is Jesus to you?