Archives for January 2018
Christ’s authority isn’t imposed or enforced: it is in his very being as God-with-us, the God who astonishingly and foolishly and improbably loves us beyond death.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, year B
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. What authority!”
These good folks in Capernaum hear an authority in Jesus’ teaching they’ve never heard before. He spoke in their synagogue and they were astounded.
But then, when the unclean spirit possessing this man recognized the same authority, and obeyed Jesus, these people were amazed beyond description. They “kept on asking one another, ‘What is this?’” You can imagine the buzz, neighbor turning to neighbor, trying to comprehend this new authority they’re witnessing.
But notice they say, “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” “Even” they obey. That implies others recognize Jesus’ authority, too, and are also obeying.
That doesn’t seem to be very common among Christians these days. Obedience isn’t a word we often use.
Do you remember the last time you obeyed someone?
Did something because someone told you to? We certainly tell children to obey lots of authorities, parents, teachers. Did we resent obeying so much when we were young that we don’t want to talk about it as adults? Even the law is disregarded by more and more. So many believe obedience is required only when there’s a risk of being caught in disobedience.
But it also seems rare to hear people in the church decide a course of action by saying simply, “this is what God commands, and we need to obey.” It certainly happens. Maybe many of us here have that as part of our decision-making. But to listen to the way Christians often deliberate, one might think obedience was the least of our concerns.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t permit anyone, not even God, to have ultimate authority over us. Because these people of Capernaum knew what they saw: it was Jesus’ authority, whatever that was, that the unclean spirits obeyed.
But do we like “authority” any better than “obedience”?
Does anyone have authority over your life? Anyone who’s word you must obey? Obviously if you work, your supervisor. But in your daily life?
Law and the government are institutions of authority we are privileged to create and change by election and citizen involvement. But they largely work as authority only because they can back their commands with threats of punishment. Even when we stand up to their authority on moral grounds, when the institutions act unjustly, or do evil, there is a good chance we’ll face punishment.
The Church used to be an authority, with temporal and eternal punishment as the threat. But in the last century many Christians have set aside the Church, whatever they mean by that, as ultimate authority over their actions. Centuries of abuse of that authority certainly contributed to this. But there’s also this modern idea that we each are our own authority, the buck stops with each of us and no one else, and no one can ultimately tell us what to do. That’s effectively ended the Church’s ability to act as authority in people’s lives.
And there’s still the question of God’s authority over us. Must God also step aside in the face of our self-interest, our desire to do what we want, our need to be who we are without change? Must God also be included among those whom we say cannot tell us what to do?
Of course, our answer should be no. As believers, we acknowledge the Triune God has authority over us.
But do we live that way?
It’s hard to separate the authority of God from the authority of the Church. For centuries we’ve been taught they were one and the same. Those in the Church who make pronouncements over people’s lives usually cloak them with God’s authority. So when people start rejecting the Church’s right to tell them what to do, God’s authority also gets left behind.
But Martin Luther taught us that each of us is given God’s Word in its written form, the Scriptures, that we might hear it ourselves, and follow God’s living Word, Christ Jesus our Savior.
The people of Capernaum heard, and were astounded, and agreed Jesus had authority. His authority over unclean spirits was recognized by those spirits and they obeyed him. This story suggests that the others at least were considering their own obedience to this new authority. Maybe we can start there, too.
Now, Mark significantly doesn’t describe Jesus’ authority by explaining his methods of teaching or his style.
That suggests Jesus’ authority came from inside him, not from his rhetoric or technique. Something he carried within himself that was evident when he spoke, when he read Scripture, when he declared God’s will for the people.
We know the rest of the story, so we know what was within him. Jesus was and is God-with-us, the Son of the Triune God in human flesh, who set aside all divine power and glory to become one of us, become family with us. The God who faced death on the cross, rose from the dead, and has begun a new life in the Spirit in all who believe and follow.
Jesus’ authority didn’t come from threats of violence and punishment, either. It also didn’t come from a legal status or a government position. It wasn’t imposed on others. Jesus’ authority was simply who he was. God-with-us, who loved humanity enough to come and be with us, even to the point of dying for love of us.
So Jesus’ authority is the authority of a forgiveness that rejection cannot stop. It is the authority of light that darkness cannot overcome. It is the authority of love that hatred cannot extinguish. It is the authority of life that death cannot destroy.
This is the authority who says, “Follow me.” Obey me.
Because that’s what “follow me” asks. In Christ we see the astonishing, improbable, foolish love of the Triune God for the whole creation, for each of us. That is Christ’s authority. And that authority now says, “Follow me.”
We know what we are asked to do, what obedience is desired. We know the commands. Love. Forgive. Trust God, not wealth or power. Set aside anger. Seek reconciliation. Care for those in need, don’t walk by on the other side. We’ve known what following means for a long time. What’s left for us today is the question of whether we’ll obey.
Maybe, like those unclean spirits, we needed the proper authority to inspire our obedience.
We’ve grown weary of institutions and people seeking to control us, make us do things, weary of such so-called authority.
But now that we see true authority in our midst, Christ’s authority, it’s a different question. Because if the Light that darkness cannot overcome is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find ourselves walking in light, not in darkness. If the Love no hatred can extinguish is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find ourselves bathed in love, shaped in love, not hate. If the Life no death can destroy is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find life in a world that looks like death is winning.
You see, once you recognize the true authority of divine, undying love standing before you, you realize obedience is the path to joy and abundance of life, not a path of drudgery or fear.
This is truly a new teaching, what Jesus offers, with authority. Even unclean spirits obey. What will we do?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Listen: Christ is calling you, calling me, to follow, and our lives will be changed. That will be our witness. That will be the sign that God is in the world in love and light and hope.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday after Epiphany, year B
Texts: Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
How many times had these four met Jesus before this, do you think?
It’s nearly impossible to believe this was their first encounter. A strange man, a teacher, walks up to them at their work, and says, “Follow me. I’ll teach you how to fish for people.” And off Simon and Andrew go. Then James and John, leaving Dad in the boat holding the nets.
John’s Gospel describes a previous encounter to this call. Andrew and John are disciples of the Baptizer, who points out Jesus as the Lamb of God. They start following Jesus, and Andrew runs to tell his brother Simon they’d found the Messiah.
Today’s story makes more sense if John’s story came first. Because if this is their first encounter, this is a stunningly spontaneous and even shocking thing these four men do.
It’s an important question, because it’s fair to ask how many times we’ve met Jesus, how often we’ve heard him, and whether when he calls we are ready to follow. Jonah today is easy to count: this is round two with God. Andrew and Simon, James and John, really early in their time with Jesus, drop everything to follow him. They utterly change their lives.
Why does that seem so foreign to us?
Maybe we’re a little awestruck by their changes, these Galileans and Jonah.
Jonah leaves house and home and, after running away, heads to the heart of the enemy to deliver God’s message. The four fishermen leave house and home, leave one of their fathers literally holding their business in his hands. These are dramatic life changes as a result of God’s call.
We like these kinds of stories. Some of us here have families who did the same thing: moved across the world in response to God’s call, uprooted home and family, went to strange islands or continents. These are inspiring stories.
But maybe we’re distracting ourselves from what’s important, focusing on such big-picture accounts. Most of us haven’t made changes in our lives remotely close to what our stories today tell, or what missionaries and their families can tell.
But if the only way Christ can call us to follow is by asking us to literally move our lives to another geography, then only a small number of Christ’s followers are actually called to follow.
That just doesn’t make any sense.
We’ve known Christ a long time. Some for over half a century or more.
How long do we have to know Christ before we start listening for our call to follow? Every day Christ comes to us in our home, at our work, with our hands in whatever it is we’re doing, and says, “Follow me. I’ll teach you how to fish for people.” This isn’t a call for others. It’s a call for you, for me.
We are called to reach people with God’s love in Christ, most of us – most of us – in our own worlds, homes, workplaces, not in faraway lands. But apart from the geography, our call is the same as any who packed their things and got on a boat or a plane. Once you’re where God needs you, whether Madagascar or Minnesota, the work’s the same.
We witness to God’s love in Christ by our lives that look like God’s love in the world. Created in the image of God, now in Christ the Spirit is shaping us to bear the likeness of God in the world. So our outside lives match our inside truth, our inner godliness.
Remember why God came to us in person: to make us like God, children of God.
To help us become in practice what we already are, images of God. Everything Jesus taught intends to help us find that likeness, to be like Jesus. Love as I have loved you. Forgive completely, as God forgives. Do to others what you would have them do to you. If your neighbor is hungry, feed her. If your neighbor is thirsty, give him a drink. Don’t let anger control you, but be reconciled with each other. Be careful not to look at people as objects. Don’t worry about food or drink, don’t seek wealth and riches, don’t trust in your own ability: put your lives in God’s hands.
We know all these teachings, and many more. Following Christ, dropping what we’re doing and heading up the beach with our God, is pretty simple. We just follow this way that’s summed up in love of God with all our being and love of neighbor as ourselves.
And let’s not fool ourselves: when we follow this path, walk in these teachings, everything will be changed.
Just try to do one of them every day, in every encounter, you’ll see. Just a month or so ago I was telling my spiritual director how frustrating it was to live in a self-giving way. I was trying to put my needs second to others, and in some circumstances, that meant that people were taking advantage of me. My mistake was trying to follow Christ as if that were a strategy: I’ll act this way, and then others will respond.
What he reminded me was that we don’t have a strategy when we follow Christ. Simon and Andrew, James and John, there was no master plan. They followed, and learned as they went. Jonah went with no plan. Letting go of my needs for the sake of the other, that’s the plan. Whether anyone responds in a way that I like is irrelevant. Follow me, Jesus said. Don’t worry about the rest.
When we follow this way, we are dramatically changed. When we decide we will no longer justify our unkindness or selfishness or lack of love by blaming others, or saying we can’t be anything other than we are, our lives are forever different, even if we never move. When we look at today, just today, as the day we try forgiving, loving, giving of ourselves, our lives are utterly changed.
Maybe people will notice. Maybe they won’t, at least at first. Over time, there will be a witness, in our changed natures, our softening and kindness. We will look more and more like the God who loved us into this new life, more and more reflect the divine image that is already in each of us.
And let’s not be discouraged by the seeming smallness of the light we’re asked to cast in the world.
These disciples we know and remember thousands of years later, they’re like bright torches. That’s why we remember their stories thousands of years later. Our sacrifices, our changed lives, the witness you and I make, these are candles in the dark, not blazing torches. But they are the light that is needed, and they are God’s grace for our world.
It doesn’t matter if we’re each the only ones who can see how our lives are changed. The point is being ready for the change, when God calls for it, and asking the Spirit for strength to follow through.
It will be the small candle of our changed lives, our grace, our forgiveness, that witnesses to Christ, fishes for people. It will be our changed nature when dealing with others, our kindness, our love when others are unloving, that will be the flicker of light and hope that tells others God has not abandoned this world.
Maybe we’ve waited long enough. Listen: Christ is calling. Will we follow, and be changed forever?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
When we hear that God knows everything about us, we might feel nervous. All of us have things about ourselves that we’d rather hide from God’s sight. But we don’t have to be afraid, because scripture tells us that what God sees in us is wonderful.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Epiphany, year B
Texts: Psalm 139:1-18; John 1:43-51
What exactly happens to Nathanael? This might be the strangest call story in any of the gospels. In the space of an instant, he goes from a tough-minded skeptic to praising Jesus as the son of God. And it’s hard for us to understand why. It all starts when Jesus calls Philip, who quickly believes that Jesus is the messiah. So Philip grabs Nathanael to share the news. But Nathanael’s not buying it. He doubts that anything good could come out of a poor little village like Nazareth. But Philip challenges him to come and see for himself. So Nathanael follows. When Jesus sees the pair coming, he greets Nathanael as an honest man. Again, Nathanael is guarded. “How do you know me?” he asks. Jesus responds that he saw him earlier, standing under a fig tree before Philip approached him. Maybe Jesus is referring to a supernatural vision of Nathanael or maybe he just saw him in passing, John’s Gospel isn’t clear. All we know is that Jesus saw him before they met, and understood something about him. That’s it. That’s the miracle, that Jesus saw and knew Nathanael. It doesn’t sound like much, and even Jesus is a bit taken aback that Nathanael responds with such enthusiasm. “You will see greater things than these,” Jesus promises his newest disciple. But Nathanael doesn’t need to see to believe. He only needs to be seen.
The idea that God sees us and knows us can be a source of joy, but too often, we hear it as a source of terror. In many Bibles, Psalm 139 is titled “the inescapable God.” The writer sings that there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. If we go to heaven or Sheol or the far side of the sea, God will be there. God is above and below us, before us and behind us. Not even our innermost thoughts are hidden from God. It’s beautiful and comforting to hear that that nothing can separate us from God, but every time I’ve discussed this psalm over the past week, someone has joked about how ominous it sounds. “The inescapable God” – it sounds like a threat as much as a promise. You can run, but you can’t hide. In this age of stalkers and hackers and the NSA, we’re uneasy with the thought of some unseen force watching our every move. It makes our skin crawl.
But it’s not just our modern nervousness about surveillance that makes us uncomfortable with the idea that God knows us completely. We don’t like the thought of other people watching us because they could have bad intentions, but we know that God would never hurt us. No, we’re nervous because there are things about each of us that we’d rather God not see. All of us have parts of our soul that we have roped off and declared unhallowed ground. Our insecurities, our ugliest thoughts, our worst impulses – we’d much rather hide those away than entrust them to God. When we don’t love something about ourselves, we have trouble believing that God could love it. We have trouble believing that God could love us if God knew us too well. We’re terrified of being exposed as unlovable. And so we try to hide parts of ourselves – from each other, from ourselves, from God – and it scares us to be reminded that that doesn’t work. “Where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your presence?” Nowhere? That’s not very reassuring in those moments when we’d prefer to run away and be alone.
If anyone knew about trying to hide from God, it was David, to whom our tradition attributes this psalm. Israel’s greatest king was far from a perfect person. He had plenty of things to be ashamed of. Whenever we think of the sins of David, we tend to think of his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, and that’s part of his story, but it was far from the only thing he did wrong. In his pursuit of power, he committed treason, extortion, and murder. His very last act before dying was to give his son a list of his surviving enemies, with orders to hunt them down and kill them. Scripture tells us that God gave the honor of building the temple to Solomon because David had too much blood on his hands. He was great, but he was rarely good. There are plenty of things he must’ve wished he could hide from God’s sight.
And yet, the sinful psalmist whom we name David says that God’s knowledge of him is wonderful – more wonderful than he can understand. He tells us that we are God’s creation, and as God’s creation, we are marvelous. God knows all that we think and do. If we had to see ourselves like that, as we really are, we might want to flinch away, but God keeps looking, and calls us good. We can give up on parts of ourselves. We can despair completely and say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” but even the darkness is not dark to our God, for the night is as bright as the day, and darkness is as light. God looks at us in our wonderful, terrifying fullness, and God sees light in even our most shadowy places. It’s not because God thinks we’re perfect, or because God ignores our sins. No, it’s because God knows us, and God knows that each of us are made wonderfully, even when it’s hard for us to see. That’s the message we need to live. We all need to be loved for who we are. We need to hear that we don’t have to earn love, because we already have it. God loves us at our worst just as much as at our best. And when we accept that nothing in us is too ugly or sinful for God is when we can finally stop running and do something our sins.
On this Martin Luther King Sunday, we are called to face hard truths about our sinful nature. We are challenged to confess that, not only is this country still broken, but we are still broken too. Even in this wonderful community, where people try so hard to do justice and love kindness – none of us are free of sin. All of us contribute to the injustice of this world. Consciously or not, we perpetuate worldviews that place some human lives above others. We participate in economic systems that take advantage of those who have less than us. We look away when we see our fellow children of God suffering. These are scary things to face, because they mean admitting that terrible ugliness lives within us. We don’t want to deal with that. We don’t want add racism or classism or sexism to the pile of things that we dislike about ourselves. And so, when we hear that we have failed to live alongside all people as equals, our instinct is to push that truth away. We shut down or lash out because those things are so unlovable, and we desperately want to be loved.
But we can confront these sins, and all other sins, because God already sees them, and God loves us anyway. There’s nothing to hide, and there’s nothing to lose. The God who knit our cells together in the womb knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God is better acquainted with our sins than we ever could be. God sees us in our entirety, and scripture tells us that what God sees is wonderful. That means we can finally stop trying to run away. We can follow Christ without being ashamed of all the ways we fall short. God knows us completely and loves us completely, and nothing we do can ever take that away. We are seen and known by God, and we can rejoice in that without fear.
You are already filled with the Spirit of God, who moves in you with every breath, filling you, changing you, leading you into the life God has always wanted for you and for this world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Baptism of Our Lord, year B
Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11, with references to 1 Corinthians 6 and 12
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In the beginning, God breathed on the waters of chaos.
God’s Spirit, like wind, moved over the waters, and, as light was separated from darkness, land from waters, God opened a space for the creation.
In that beginning, God created humanity in God’s own image, and God breathed again, into these frail creatures. God’s breath filled them, and as they took breath, they breathed in God. God still breathes into the creation, into us. Our every breath breathes in God’s Spirit, exhales God’s Spirit.
When Jesus rose up out of Jordan’s waters, baptized, and saw the Holy Spirit descending, this wasn’t the Spirit’s arrival in his life. Human, like us, from his first breath he breathed God’s Spirit. Yes, Jesus was also God’s Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, one with the Father and the Spirit, yes, that, too. But in his humanity, he was filled with the Spirit. We all are.
So what happened at the Jordan? The presence of God’s Spirit was witnessed publicly. Jesus saw the Spirit, heard his Father’s voice, was confirmed as God’s beloved Son. So as Jesus headed into the desert and then his ministry, he went reassured that the Spirit was with him.
In the beginning, God breathed life into us. But that doesn’t always mean we know it.
In Acts today, Paul comes to Ephesus, and finds disciples of Jesus. But when he asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, they say, “We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit!
Yet with every breath the Spirit of God had always moved in them. They just didn’t know it. So Paul teaches them, and baptizes them in the name of Jesus. Then, as always in Acts, after their baptism Paul lays hands on them, and the Holy Spirit fills them. As at Pentecost, they spoke in tongues, they prophesied. They knew the Spirit was in them.
But the Spirit had always been with them. Naming that, calling it out of them, opened them to see the Spirit’s presence and gifts, just like Jesus.
It isn’t just Genesis that says this about the Spirit. Paul knew it, taught it. Maybe even shared it with these disciples.
Paul told his friends at Corinth in his first letter that faith itself is evidence of the Spirit’s presence. He said no one can confess Jesus as Lord if the Holy Spirit isn’t with them. (12:3) So the fact that these Ephesian disciples believed in Jesus proved the Holy Spirit was already there.
But he also could’ve told them a deeper wonder: God is never “out there,” but within. He could have said, as he also did in that first letter to Corinth, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” (6:19)
Their very bodies are where the true God lives! That’s always been their reality. They just didn’t know it.
“We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
Is this our problem? Lutherans talk a lot about Jesus, the Christ, about the cross and resurrection. We talk about and pray to the Father and the Son a lot. But the Spirit doesn’t often get much attention from Lutherans.
That may be because the Holy Spirit is God’s wild card. The Spirit is the uncontrollable God in the world, who moves where she wants, fills whom she wants, does what she wants. The Spirit breathed over the waters of chaos at creation, and still breathes into this world, and there’s nothing we can do about it. She will fill all people, no matter what they believe, will inspire and give gifts to all people, no matter who they are.
We’ve always been a little afraid of this unpredictability of the Holy Spirit. It’s easier to nail down doctrinal truths, tighten up our theology. There you can feel a little secure.
But calling on the Holy Spirit, who can’t be controlled? You’d have to be a little reckless even to try.
But don’t you know, Paul says, that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?
How have we let that truth be buried, this astonishing, miraculous proclamation of Paul? We spend our lives looking for God. We talk about God, make theories about God, we try to get all our teachings in order.
But in our dark hours of the soul, when we’re lost and afraid and can’t see through the brambles of the woods that have overgrown our path, none of that helps at all. When you’re terrified, or despairing, or angry, or grieving, or desperately lonely, or feeling guilt, words and theories do nothing. You need to know if God is with you, and nothing more.
But don’t you know, Paul says, that God is in you already? That your body is God’s temple? There’s no place to “go” for God. The Spirit of God lives in you, Paul says. The Hebrews say, you know this in your every breath.
In the beginning of your life, God breathed into you, and you were filled with the Spirit. You became God’s house.
But no, you say, we know science. Breathing, respiration, that’s a natural function. All animals do it. You take in oxygen, it feeds your body, you exhale carbon dioxide. It’s a mechanical function of a living organism.
OK, say our Hebrew ancestors. Maybe so. But this is also true: your breath is God’s breath. Your spirit is God’s Spirit within you. God has taken up residence inside us, has always been there. There’s no other temple.
John might not have been right about his baptism.
He distinguishes between his – a symbolic washing away of sin after confession – and the baptism in Christ, which, he says, is a baptism in the Holy Spirit.
But if the Holy Spirit was in all those people who came to John at the Jordan, if she brought them there in the first place, John didn’t realize the Spirit was also in his baptism.
Our baptism, like John’s, is also a washing away of sin and evil, and every day we renew that washing, every day we seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing, we start afresh.
But unlike John, in our baptism, the Church, as in Acts, asked the Holy Spirit to come upon us. The Spirit of wisdom and understanding. The Spirit of counsel and might. The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The Spirit of joy in God’s presence.
But the Holy Spirit isn’t waiting for this asking, waiting to enter a person until the Church says so. We ask the Spirit to come knowing she’s already here, so we name that, recognize that anew. We need to hear that there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit in us, and then we are able to see what happens.
So breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe of God.
You’ve been doing it your whole life, but now, like those folks near Ephesus, you know what you’re doing. You are living in God, and God is living in you.
Your baptism was the public announcing of this grace. Your washing in the waters of God, the waters God breathes upon, wasn’t the first time you were forgiven, either. But it is your washing, your cleansing in God. Just as it’s a sign that God’s Spirit is in you.
So breathe of God. Exhale into God. You are never alone. You are God’s beloved child, and God is well pleased with you. With each breath, the Spirit is moving in you, even when you don’t know it. The Spirit’s gifts are yours, as close as your breathing and sighing.
And now, following Jesus’ steps, it’s time to move from the waters, cleansed of sin, filled with the Spirit, with God’s voice still ringing in our ears, to do our work and life as God’s beloved children.
But not alone. Never alone. Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
“God meets us where we are, as we are, and speaks to us in words we can understand. Christ’s star shines differently in each of our lives, leading us to where God calls.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Day of Epiphany
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
They watched the stars for their signs. They spoke the language of constellations and comets. They believed they could read the movements of the heavens to better understand events on this earth. We call them Wise Men, or Magi, but they were astrologers, and they came to Judea because they saw something unusual in the sky. These men bearing gifts for the newborn king were foreigners, with a foreign religion, and strange, foreign ideas about how to make sense of the world. The idea that there could be anything right or real about their astral predictions seems absurd, even blasphemous. We think astrology is silly now, but back then, it was evil to the people of Israel. The Bible repeatedly condemns those who claim to be able to discern God’s will by looking at the sky. The Magi weren’t just different; their difference was dangerous. And yet – they were looking at the stars, so God came to them through the stars. God had a plan for them, so God met them where they were, and spoke to them in a language they could understand. God called to Zechariah in the temple, to Mary in Nazareth, and to the Magi in a star chart.
This might sound unsettling, that God announced the birth of Christ through pagan divination, but it is an act that is full of promise for us. It says that God comes to us where we are, as we are. We don’t need to be more righteous, or more pious, or more learned, or more faithful to see Christ. We don’t need to be someone else in order to have a relationship with God. We only need to be ourselves, and Christ will find us, and speak to us in words that we can hear. We see this when Jesus explains the kingdom of God to peasants in Galilee using parables about things from their daily lives, teaching about eternity with seeds and sheep and weddings. We see this on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit allows everyone in the crowd to hear the good news being proclaimed in their native language. We see this when Paul stands on the Areopagus, and defends the Gospel to the leaders of Athens using the terms of Athenian philosophy. We see this in scripture itself, where the words of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, are preserved in Greek, so the good news could spread like wildfire across the Greek-speaking world. And we see this with startling clarity when God speaks to a group of foreign astrologers through an unusual star.
And today, God speaks to each of us in our own lives, using the language of our own hearts. We know that we meet God in this place, in our worship and the sacraments, but the Spirit is not bound by these walls. The God who made all things is present in all things and calls out to us through all things. Parents can meet God in their children. Musicians can meet God in their music. Scientists can meet God in their research. Lovers of literature can meet God in poetry. We find God in art, and in nature, and in our vocations, and in our relationships with each other. The light of Christ can flash forth out of anything. And so, the star that rises in my life to lead me to Christ is not going to look the same as the star that God sends for you. We all encounter God in different places, and hear God’s call in different words. It can be disorienting to realize how many paths there are to God. We can get distracted by jealousy or judgment when we see that someone else’s star shines differently than our own. We can be suspicious and possessive, wanting God to speak in only the language we understand. But in the end, it is a joyful thing that God is revealed to us in so many ways, because it means that all of us are surrounded by signs of God’s love, no matter who we are or what we do. It means that no one is unworthy, no one is unreachable. It means that we all can see God at work in our lives, if only we are willing to look.
But God doesn’t do all the work for us. Even though God meets us where we are, wherever we are, God doesn’t let us stay there. When God gives the Magi a sign in the stars, they have to get up and travel down a long road to see the promised child. They leave the comfort of their homes with no confirmation, no advance word, just the inner certainty that something special has been revealed to them. They’re willing to be strangers in a strange land so that they can pay tribute to the new king themselves. And that experience transforms them. God defies the expectations that they had at the beginning of our journey. Because as it turns out, the Wise Men don’t read the stars quite right. They head in the right direction, but they take a wrong turn at the very end. They’re looking for a king, so instead of going to Bethlehem, where the star points, they go to the palace in Jerusalem. They think they’re seeing the star clearly, but their sight is distorted by their bias. They need to change if they are going to understand the message that God is really revealing to them.
But they do change, despite their initial mistake. When the star leads them to an ordinary house in an ordinary little town, they aren’t confused or dismayed. Matthew says that they are overwhelmed with joy. What God is doing in them is bigger than their preconceptions. The revelation that God is giving them is far better than anything they expected to see. Instead of clinging to their assumptions, they’re delighted to discover that they were wrong. These proud, wealthy men who once looked up at the sky and claimed mastery of its movements now fall to their knees before an unremarkable child. These are powerful people. Mere days before, they marched into a foreign city and announced their desire to see the newborn king, apparently with every expectation that their wishes would be obeyed, but now they gladly hand over their riches to a little boy who has no obvious glory or grandeur. Instead of a star, they now see Christ, the light to all nations, and their understanding of the world is forever changed. The king they first met is exposed as a fearful tyrant, and the real king is a poor boy with no crown but the crown they have seen for him in the heavens. God has touched their hearts and transformed their lives – and they return home by a different road.
Finding God in our lives is only the first step. It’s a big and wonderful step, but it’s just the beginning. If we’re going to know Christ, we can’t just observe his star from a distance then move on with our lives. Like the Magi, we have to respond. We have to be ready to learn and to change. The real question is not where we will see God, but if we will follow where God leads. Will we have the courage to leave the lives we know, so we can get up and go see the promised king? Will we have the faith to keep following the road, even when it doesn’t lead where we thought it would? Will we be able to set aside our expectations and our pride to kneel before the Christ child, and offer up our gifts in service? It’s a tall order, but the good news is that we don’t just get one chance at this. Christ is always being born in us and around us, and God is always inviting us to witness to his presence. His star will keep rising for us, again and again, until we at last come to Bethlehem, where we will lay down our treasures before Christ, and find ourselves overwhelmed with joy.