Posted tagged ‘Christian’

The Star vs. the Angels, a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

January 4, 2016

The summer before my last year in high school, my family took the long drive from Georgia, where we lived, back to Texas for a Boswell family reunion. I don’t remember much about it except we stayed at a camping place near Lake Whitney. There were cabins with screened in porches and there was fishing and swimming and all the fun stuff you are supposed to have and do on a vacation. But the only part of the week I remember at all well was sleeping outside by the lake one perfectly clear night and looking at the stars. I think I had never looked at stars before. When you are young you don’t get outside much after dark and when you do you are generally playing hide and seek or something that keeps your eyes focused on the things around you. That night, looking up at what seemed like a million stars, was one of those formative moments for me. I got a lifelong love of stars and astronomy and science, but more importantly I first began to realize how big the creation is. I had never felt emotionally what infinity means; and if anything the universe has only gotten infinitier as I have gotten older.

People in ancient times got that sense of the bigness of things very early on in those days before light pollution hid the night sky from us. It is no wonder that astronomy was one of the first sciences to begin. But astronomy grew up for practical reasons, not just from being in awe of the sky; it grew up because they needed a good calendar. Their lives depended on the flooding of their river – it was the Euphrates in Babylon and the Nile in Egypt. They didn’t get rain and snow, weather patterns like we get. They depended on the floods to fertilize and irrigate their fields, and the floods depended on the weather in some other part of the world entirely. The cause of the annual flood was mysterious, but they soon noticed that the stars lined up with the floods.

So the story of the wise men really begins in Genesis 1:14, And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” The stars were given as signs, and the Babylonians became the first experts at reading them. It was the beginning of what we call science. Science is just the expertise we have developed at reading the signs in nature that God has given mankind to help us find our way. And one of the first major scientific discoveries was the calendar. It didn’t take long before this great technological marvel of the calendar spread throughout the ancient world and it all came from the Babylonians paying very very careful attention to the stars. The wise men who came looking for Jesus were essentially scientists, from a two or three thousand year tradition of science in one of the more scientifically advanced nations on earth. Scientists of the present day are their intellectual descendants and study the signs and patterns in the sky and in all of nature just as they did, though with more sophistication.

God gave the stars specifically as signs to all mankind – but not to Israel. The Israelites were the only people in the ancient middle east who did not use the stars for their calendar. The calendar of Israel came from God Himself and He told them to use the moon to date everything. The year was measured by months, from one new moon to the next. It was at best a poor calendar. The months do not come out even in the year. There are twelve and a pesky fraction of months in a year. We have to add a leap day every four years because the days of the year don’t come out even either, but the Israelites had to add aleap month” to get their new year back to its rightful time, near the beginning of barley planting season. God had given them an agricultural calendar rather than an astronomical one. For us it would be as if we scheduled the new year to begin on the first new moon after the snow melted. It would be like dating the new year the way we date Easter, and you know how changeable that is.

So why would God give them such a poorly designed calendar when all around them their neighbors had good calendars that were marvels of accuracy? It turns out that He didn’t want them to look at the stars. The problem was that the people who did look to the stars for signs soon began to worship them as gods. They worshiped the stars and the moon and the sun, but God kept the Israelites’ eyes focused on what was going on around them, the cycles of planting and harvest. He wanted them to direct their lives by trusting Him, not the stars, so He gave them a calendar that did not work too well. It was not that the stars were bad, or that science was bad; the problem was that they had not learned to keep things in perspective. “Oh, this calendar works great. The stars make it work. The stars must be gods.” We still tend to worship what works.

God kept His people from learning to read the signs He had given to the rest of the world. And that is why it was these astrologers from the east who saw the star and followed it. The wise men came from at least seven hundred miles away, probably from near the Babylon. They saw the star from seven hundred miles and the shepherds just out in the field down the road didn’t see it? Really? The scribes in Jerusalem a few miles away didn’t see it? Seriously? Of course they saw the star, but it didn’t mean anything to them. They didn’t care about stars. The star that announced the birth of the Son of God announced it to the world, not to Israel.

When God announced the coming of the Messiah to His own people He used a totally different form of social media, using the particular signs He had given to Israel. First, He announced it through the prophets. When the wise men got there, the scribes told them all they needed to know to narrow their search, because it was all right there in the prophets. And the shepherds out abiding in their fields probably thought the star was a nuisance, interrupting their sleep and confusing their sheep. What got their attention were the angels. The prophets, the angels – these were signs an Israelite could understand.

God gave science – the stars and the rest of nature – to the whole earth to be signs to us all of how to order our lives wisely, and we have read those signs very well. We have learned how to recognize selenium deficiency in the soil, and what selenium is, and how to move around very fast and build big things and measure the world. If you have learned the right perspective of the Spirit, that we should not worship the work of our own hands, then you should not despise science or any of the signs He has put into the world around us for our help. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork(Psalm 19:1) and they still do. Science is as valuable today for declaring the glory of God as it ever was in the days of the wise men looking for Bethlehem. It is only a danger to those who worship it.

But the people of God have other signs as well, signs that unbelievers cannot interpret but that will lead us to Bethlehem, by a more direct route. When God took us for His own people, He gave us other signs for our direction. He gave us Himself, He gave us His word. There are Moses and the Prophets in written form, there was Jesus coming in the flesh, and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and consciences.

I am using the different kinds of signs, the star and the angels, to represent science and faith. And just as I don’t see any conflict between following the star and following the angels, I do not see any conflict between science and faith. I love them both. Let each one follow the signs that he can see and understand. The wise men could never have seen those angels that came to the shepherds (scientists typically can still not see them), and the shepherds could never care about some strange star (just as most people of faith cannot grasp physics). But both of them, the wise men and the shepherds, followed the light they had to the one necessary place. Let not the one despise the other.

The science of this world, works marvelously well, giving us a depth of vision into the creation and a power over it that was inconceivable even a few decades ago. The science of this world gives us both a calendar to plan our year and a compass when we are lost in the woods. The angels and other signs of faith do not tell us such things. The angels give us a calendar that goes from life to death and back to life, and a moral compass to live by. The star of science tells us when our soil is selenium deficient and what selenium is; the angel of faith tells us when our souls are compassion deficient and what compassion is. Faith was not given to show us how to get to the north pole, and science was not given to teach us right and wrong.

We make a mistake when we pits the signs against each other. On the one hand, we may wrongly think that our signs are less important than the world’s signs, that the angels aren’t as reliable as the star. It is what we do when we try to find some scientific way this or that miracle could have happened, explain the feeding of the 5000, or the Resurrection, or speaking in tongues. That’s what we do so often in sermons about the wise men, trying to figure out which star it was they followed or what combination of astronomical events led them to Bethlehem. I know a little about stars now and I can tell you plainly, none of the stars in astronomy classes are what they saw. What they saw in the sky does not matter. Where it led them matters a great deal.

Or we may wrongly think that their signs don’t count, that the star is not as reliable as the angels. That is what we do when we ridicule the theory of evolution or poke fun at scientific studies we don’t understand. Remember, the children of this age are wiser in their own generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8). Mocking the signs God has given to the world only makes the people of this world less willing to follow them to Bethlehem. We would do better to not talk about what we do not understand and for the most part we do not understand the stars.

God does not give signs so that we can look at them. He gives us signs to point us to what we ought to look at. Don’t get all tangled up trying to decode the book of Revelation and end times prophecies and whether or not the rapture will happen. The point of all the signs, be it star or angels, is to get us to Bethlehem. Signs don’t matter. It is where they point that matters, If they do not make you listen more closely to God then you have seriously misunderstood them. He has always and only wanted one thing, that we should know Him, that we should go to Bethlehem. From Genesis 1:14 on, whether in science or in faith, everything He has done is to get close to us. So be a wise man today and follow that star. Or be a good shepherd and follow the angels. Just get going.

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Faith Is – A Sermon on Luke 17:5,6

October 6, 2013

This is one of my wife’s recent sermons that seemed especially excellent and with her permission I am sharing it here. For those of you who would prefer to listen to a recording of the sermon, you can do so by following this link: http://saintphilipsnorwood.com/2013/10/06/pentecost-20-october-6-2013-faith-is/

A few weeks ago I found a fun picture on facebook. It was a drawing of a chubby little cat who was standing on a stool and painting a self-portait. He was leaning over to view himself in a full-length mirror while he painted, but on the large canvas, instead of his own likeness he had painted a fearsome tiger. It was a picture of someone with a very good self-image.

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That’s what the apostles wanted when they came to Jesus. They saw Jesus do all kinds of amazing works – he had power over illnesses and demons and he spoke with an authority that people could feel – and they wanted him to give them that power, so that when they looked in the mirror they would see Jesus, the tiger, and not the pudgy puss they knew they were. And maybe also – because they were normal people who pretty much think the way we all do – maybe also so that they would look good to other people. So they came to Jesus and asked him, “Increase our faith.” Because they figured, reasonably enough, more faith equals more power.

And Jesus answered them “If you had the littlest smidge of faith you could order that huge mulberry tree over there to rip itself up by the roots and plant itself in the deepest part of the sea.”

And there are several different ways that answer might be understood. Jesus might have been criticizing the apostles for their lack of faith – “If you had any faith at all, you’d already be doing great works – you only need a little bit of faith, and you can move mountains.” It sounds like a challenge to them – well, DO you have enough faith? Do you have any faith at all? I know people who understand this verse this way, especially people in charismatic circles. And at various times in my life, this verse has made me worry about my own faith. I know that I don’t have the faith to go out and order trees around. But what about other things, things that are actually important. Do I have enough faith to pray that my friend will be healed, or that my son will get a job? How can we measure our faith – maybe we have enough faith to pray that we can find our car keys, but not enough faith to pray that someone will be healed of cancer. Maybe the big things we need to leave to the faith experts. We measure our faith against the faith of people that we think of as really spiritual people – clergy, because it’s their job to have lots of faith, and other really holy people we know – and we are inclined to leave the big faith jobs to them, like we leave the heavy lifting to my son Wyatt who has really big muscles.

And then we have fallen into the very trap the apostles had fallen into, because the problem was that they didn’t understand what faith is. Faith isn’t really quantifiable at all. That’s the point Jesus was making. Faith isn’t something we can have more or less of, like having enough money in the bank to write out a check, or enough medical training to give somebody CPR. Faith doesn’t come in sizes, and faith isn’t something we pump up, like lifting weights to increase muscle mass. And the reason we can’t measure big faiths and small faiths is that the whole power of faith consists ONLY in who you have faith in. Faith opens our eyes to see; faith is a window to see truth, and whether we look through a pinhole or a picture window, the only thing that really matters is what we see – or to be more exact, WHO we see.

There is a story about the prophet Elisha. A foreign king kept trying to attack Israel, but every time they were about to attack, Elisha warned the king of Israel, so that Israel was always a step ahead. When the frustrated king found out who was ruining all his plans he sent his army to get rid of Elisha. And when Elisha’s servant looked out the door next morning, he was alarmed to see that they were surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies, and he ran to tell his master. But Elisha told Gehazi, his servant, not to get all het up about it, and he prayed that God would open Gehazi’s eyes, and all of a sudden Gehazi was able to see that the enemy troops were surrounded by a countless number of angels with flaming swords. Very comforting indeed, and the story has a happy ending.

The reason Jesus told the apostles that they could move mountains – or mulberry trees – if they only had the tiniest bit of faith, is because they had faith in the One –the only One – who can do all things, because he is the Lord and Creator of the Universe. If you are surrounded by enemy troops, or if you are diagnosed with cancer, your faith had better not be in the power of your prayer – it had much better be that you are praying to the right person. It makes no difference if you feel hopeful; it doesn’t matter if the words of your prayer are eloquent, or if you feel particularly full of faith when you pray. It doesn’t matter if you have ever before prayed a single prayer in your life, and it doesn’t even matter whether you have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ or not. When you pray for healing, it only matters that you pray to the One who knit your body together in your mother’s womb, the One who is in control of every atom of creation, and the One who is able to love and care for you whether you live or die. And that One is the Father, to whom we can come and ask all things, any thing. The Father hears the smallest cry; he listens to the weakest prayer, he can be reached by faith even if it is the size of a tiny seed. But all the power is his; he is able to do all things.

When we say that people have great faith, we don’t mean – or we shouldn’t mean – that they are spiritual giants, who have a direct line to the heavenly throne, so that their prayers carry a lot more weight than us poor schmucks with our awkward and stumbling prayers. When Jesus chided his disciples for being people of little faith, what he meant was simply that they kept on forgetting to trust him, like Peter, who actually stepped out onto the waves of the sea, but then began to sink when he took his eyes off of Jesus and focused on the impossibility of what he was doing. Genuine faith, and firm faith, and perfect faith, all those things that the evangelists and apostles wrote about faith, are not levels of spiritual power – they are talking about the trust that grows in us little by little, prayer by prayer, as we live our lives with our eyes on Christ, because Jesus Christ is the one who makes the Father visible to us.

The Old Testament reading today was from the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk wrote in the 7th century BC. The little kingdom of Judah, which was all that was left of the nation of Israel, had become so corrupt that God was about to send Babylon to carry out his judgment on them. It was a terrible time, full of violence and wickedness, and the prophet is crying out for justice. And God answers him that the judgment is surely coming, but – God tells Habakkuk – the righteous shall live by his faith. God said, through the prophet, that no matter what was going to happen, no matter how powerful Babylon might be, faith in the Living God was the source of life for his people. Habakkuk’s words, “the righteous shall live by faith”, are quoted three times in the New Testament, because it is just as true for us as it was for the people of Judah. In Romans, Paul says that those words describe the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation. In Galatians, Paul says that those words express our freedom from the tyranny of the Law. And the writer to the Hebrews quotes Habakkuk to urge us to hold fast to the one in whom we have put our trust: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”

Faith is not a spiritual superpower, but it is the very source of life for God’s people because by faith we see that we are in his hands always. By faith we see, like Elisha’s servant, that the armies of God’s angels have the minions of this world surrounded and outnumbered and outclassed. By faith we see that neither life nor death nor any other power in creation can separate us from the love that the Father has for all his children. We don’t need bigger faith or smarter faith or stronger faith. But we do need to practice our faith. We need to practice looking at Jesus instead of looking at the waves beneath our feet. And we need to remind one another to look past the fears and sorrows and doubts that threaten to overwhelm us, to the glorious armies of God that surround them all.

There is a quote by Don Shelby in the bulletin today that reminds us that our faith is in a person, not in ourselves, and not in just any person, but in Jesus himself. He writes, “When we tell ourselves “I can never change” or “That will never happen,” we presume too much and believe too little. In Jesus Christ, God renders all of our final conclusions premature and all of our talk of determinism as simply bad faith. In Christ, God opens closed doors, brings resurrections, reveals possibilities, reclaims the lost, liberates the cursed and possessed, and changes the unchangeable.”

Lollapalooza

April 5, 2013

It was a lollapalooza from last week
that landed like a left hook
and left me slack jawed and listless
kneeling there like a lump.
That haymaker haunts me
in the here and now,
uses my yesterday lie
like a bonecrusher to the ribs.

We are four-dimensioned men
boxing over time.
Old Gang rumbles with New Gang,
running riot through soul’s inner city –
and one of them to the death.
Old Gang is pitiful
but he still packs a powerful punch
rising up in my inner vision
like muhammed ali out for blood.
I don’t think I’ll stand
much longer.

Sixty two rounds we’ve gone now.
I long for the bell
that signals some respite.
Every jab I make is weaker
than the jab before.
If I’m to win this fight
it won’t be me that wins it.
It will be he that loses.
I can last longer, that’s all.
I can last long enough.

He towers,
takes off his glove
looking for that final KO
this time.

But stand I will.
One more time.
His desperation steels me.
I set my jaw,
glare back into his glare.
Not one of my bones is broken.

The Disciples at the Well, part 2

February 23, 2013

There was a bit more going on with the disciples at the episode in Sychar. I think we can see between the lines a pattern that had been developing in the process of discipleship. The key is to consider why Jesus was alone resting by the well at noon in the first place. The text says that the disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Pause. All twelve of the disciples had gone into the Samaritan city to buy their food. I am reminded of the old series of jokes and this one would run something like: how many disciples does it take to change a light bulb? Were they buying so much food that it would take all twelve of them to carry it back? Judas was the one who handled their money. Why not just send Judas on the errand? It could have been too much food for one man to conveniently carry, but surely Judas could have taken one other disciple with him to do the errand.

It is more peculiar when we consider the explanation for their absence: Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. No dealings at all? None? How about buying food from them? How about buying food from Samaritans that might not be prepared according to the strict Jewish dietary laws? Kosher was not the elaborate thing in those days that it is now, I suppose, but still there could have been problems. Presumably the disciples would ordinarily have planned their provisions better to avoid having to stop at a Samaritan city, but this time they hadn’t; or perhaps the journey was slow enough going in Samaria that there was just no avoiding the necessity of getting something to eat from them. The disciples had passed through Samaria often enough, as many as three times a  year going to the required feasts in Jerusalem. There was no doubt a routine they knew well to avoid as far as possible any contact with the Samaritans.

But this time all twelve of them had to go into the foreign city and left their Rabbi alone. It requires some explanation, and I think the reason is an embarrassing one. They were tired of being with Him. Their Rabbi, who had so impressed them that they had dropped everything to follow Him, was just beginning to grate on their nerves. I said in my previous post that the honeymoon was over; that first initial enthusiasm they had felt for Jesus and the signs and wonders he kept doing had gradually become replaced by disappointment as He failed to meet each of their expectations one by one. Even before He did something as absurd as talking to the Samaritan woman He had been doing other things, little things, that had given them pause over the past year. John himself did not mention the gradual accumulation of irritating habits, and puzzling teachings, that they had been noticing in their Rabbi, but the other gospel writers filled in some of those details.

The disciples were just not sure anymore if Jesus was the man they had thought He would be. The signs, the miracles – they were great when it meant more wine for the feasting; and it was bracing the way He had turned over those tables in the Temple and refuted everything the rulers said against him, even when they didn’t understand what he meant themselves. But the truth was that on some days they just felt like they didn’t want to be around Him for a while. Sometimes they just needed a break and so when Judas was sent off to buy the food they suddenly all felt that it would be nice to do some sight seeing themselves. After their journey of the morning it would have sounded lame to say they needed to stretch their legs, but they would have found some other lame excuse.

But if they felt in a better mood when they got back it was all spoiled when they found Jesus talking with a woman. Luckily she went away pretty quickly and they could get on with their lunch and get on with the journey homeward. But oddly Jesus didn’t seem enthusiastic about eating the food they had brought. They had to urge Him. “Come on, Rabbi. Eat something.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Had that woman given Him something? Had someone else been there with some bread? But how would He have paid for it? We had the money? Why is He so weird all the time?

But Jesus was not talking about food. In fact, He was talking about them. He was talking about their irritation and disaffection with Him. He was talking, in fact, about how they had not progressed very far in discipleship, about how they still did not understand what He was doing. His food was to do the will of Him who sent Him, and to accomplish His work, and the disciples didn’t know about it. They didn’t think about doing God’s will. They didn’t understand what His work was. They wouldn’t even know if they were accomplishing His work or not. That was the kind of disciples they were: clueless.

But I don’t think Jesus was irritated with them the way they were  irritated with Him. He knew them, and He had chosen them knowing full well how they were going to be. You can’t disappoint someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Jesus was simply teaching them. However disaffected they might be, He was there to teach them and He knew they would go through their clueless phase of development before they would arrive at some maturity. And I think it is all part of a natural course of development that Jesus understood and accepted and worked with.

Developmentally, a disciple grows like a child. First there is infancy – total dependence and love and need for the parent. Then there is adolescence – when everything the parent does is stupid and uncool and embarrassing. Then there is maturity – when the child understands what it means to be part of the family and begins to consciously live like a member of the family. Jesus understood and accepted people as they were; He knew we are dust; and He knew that we need time and patience to grow. He knew, better than anyone, both how to be a son and how to be a father. Even He had to learn and grow into His Father’s work – the family business as it were.

But we don’t remember. We don’t know. We judge ourselves and each other in ways that Jesus never judges. We judge ourselves and each other stupidly, and if there is one thing He isn’t it is stupid. We expect the infancy stage of discipleship, our own or the others around us, to last forever, or to skip the adolescent phase and go right on in to maturity. We condemn our fellow disciples who are adolescent disciples, we make no effort to conceal our impatience at their lack of maturity, or what we think of their childish behavior. We violate the most basic of Jesus’ commands: not to judge. And to not judge means to not set up standards for other people and expect them to meet those standards, even if they are the standards we set for ourselves.

Jesus said to His disciples – and He says it to me and to you, however mature you may think you are – “I have food to eat that you do not know about”. He wasn’t condemning the disciples for their ignorance; He was teaching them, explaining what they would not understand perhaps for years yet, but putting remarks in their minds that they would remember eventually with dawning realization. I want each of you to take this to heart, each of you who reads this post: you are those disciples. He has food to eat that you do not know about. Don’t think you have arrived. And quit judging your fellow disciples. They aren’t as immature as you think they are and you aren’t as mature as you think you are. Quit urging your brothers and sisters to eat, when it is you that needs to pause and re-consider your own diet.

One TV Evangelist

October 13, 2011

It is not what you think it might be.
It’s a cover up,
though the blood and the pain are as real
as a notary’s seal can make them.
Sounds were uttered to blanket the blanks
so there were no gaps between words
and the ear was enticed to hear
what was not there.
It’s a smooth smooth speech.
It’s a special.
It’s a fistful of verbiage pounded into a pulpit
by a ravenous dog of a liar.
He calls it good news
but no paper would print this,
no clown would do tricks or put on a happy face for this.
He calls it good and he smiles
but what he really wants to do
is eat you handily
raw and alive.

One Night Out in the Pub

September 29, 2011

The music rolled off the keys
like a particularly satisfying swear word off the tongue.
No breath necessary.
Confusion of styles
wove light and night in warp and woof,
while tweeters and woofers washed their mouths with soap
just to get to the next chorus.
The music of the spheres
had a whole new rhythm section
there.
My own voice betrayed me.
My own ear mislaid the chords
and made my lyric the grab-bag for miscreants
to the tune of everything I had.
It put the pub in public.

I’ll give up my seat
on this world’s barstool
and let some other prophet
buy the next round.

The Fire

August 24, 2011

The Fire Flinger flung tongues,
kindled soon soon the west world’s kindling,
candesced huge and orange in summer’s heat,
made outrageous bon-flames.

The Fire Fighter fought burning flicks,
construction long long deconstructed,
incendiary tongues lapping vain memories
of extinguisher’s extinction.

The Fire Finder found cinders,
the camp long long decamped,
the smoldering wreckage reckoned a write off
by those who knew.