Here’s a question pertinent to this first week in Lent: Why has baptism fallen on such hard times, especially since historically it has figured prominently in the church from the beginning?
- The relationship of Baptism to Lent
- One New Testament theology of baptism
- Hidden meanings in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism
- Four first steps we can take this week to get into Lent
Lent is the liturgical season lasting 40 days preceding Easter. On the calendar, it consumes 46 days because Lent includes fasting, and Sundays are not counted as fast days. Yes, this means that whatever you “gave up” for Lent is still fair game on Sundays. You’re welcome.
Lent is modeled after Jesus’ wilderness sojourn after his baptism. It originally emerged as the time for preparation for converts to Christianity before baptism. Today it is generally a time for the entire church to rededicate itself to baptism. However one looks at it, Lent is oriented around baptism.
The letter known as 1 Peter provides an example of the importance of baptism in the New Testament church. The author describes a relationship between baptism and the great flood of Noah’s time. He views baptism from three perspectives. First, God’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism occasion the washing of sin. Second, Noah’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism save us. Finally, there is the author’s perspective, which is that these waters offer us an opportunity to “appeal to God for a good conscience” on the basis of the resurrection of Christ.
Probably what the author is referring to in this third perspective is that, on account of the resurrected Christ’s ongoing priestly ministry of mediation on our behalf, we have confidence to approach God without fear regarding our sin. So baptism, for the author of 1 Peter means all three: the cleansing of sin, securing our salvation, through X’s resurrection.
One would assume that Jesus’ own baptism would be the foundational model for the church’s practice. As the tradition around Jesus and baptism evolved, this certainly proves true. But how this came to be would be a bit of a mystery if all we had was the first and earliest Gospel account of the event, namely Mark’s.
Mark doesn’t give us much compared other Gospels. Whereas Luke only casually mentions Jesus’ baptism, Matthew gives us dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, and John gives us a long testimony from John the Baptist.
Mark’s account begins by informing us that John’s baptism is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that numerous people came confessing sin and were baptized in the Jordan river. Then Jesus is baptized. Period.
Even after Jesus’ baptism, Mark is relatively terse. With Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us Jesus was driven to the wilderness by the Spirit and tempted by Satan. But unlike Matthew and Luke, he doesn’t tell us the content of those temptations. Mark simply says he was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”
Then after John’s arrest, Mark says Jesus comes to Galilee and finally gives us a summary statement of Jesus’ message: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”
Since baptism became so important, why is Mark so stingy? Perhaps it’s because he’s written a short gospel and wants you to read it. Maybe he realizes that baptism is only the beginning, not the arrival, and what matters is living it out. Or maybe like other initiation rites, Mark is keeping it a secret. Only the insiders are allowed to know what happens when an individual is removed from her society for a time, given a new identity through some kind of trial, and then reintroduced as a changed person.
Or maybe there’s more to Mark’s account than meets the eye. Could Mark have hidden some meanings into his account of Jesus’ baptism? If so, maybe Mark’s hidden meanings can give us a clue how to observe Lent.
Consider the heavenly proclamation, which begins, “You are my son, the Beloved.” It’s a reference to Psalm 2, in which God adopts the king of Israel as a son. The point there is that, while other kings are waging war and expanding territory and wealth through military might, the king adopted by God is different. And thus the kingdom of God is also different from the kingdoms of this world.
Then the voice says, “With you I am well-pleased.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 42, the first of the so-called “Servant Songs.” In these lyrics we learn what pleases God most; it is a love for others that results in sacrificial service on their behalf, especially when that service is offered in faithful obedience to God.
Jesus hears these words, Mark tells us, “just as he was coming up out of the water.” So baptism identifies Jesus as the king blessed by God to inaugurate the kingdom of God. But not only does baptism identify Jesus, it identifies us. When we are baptized, we become part of the kingdom. We become, like Jesus, one of the servants of God and of the world.
This is the practical meaning of Jesus’ 4-fold invitation: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near, repent, and believe.” That the time is fulfilled means that God’s promise is being fulfilled. All our yearnings are being fulfilled. That the kingdom is near, a spatial declaration, might just as well be heard as a chronological one that the kingdom is now. With Jesus’ presence, the kingdom has come. Since this is the case, we are commanded to forsake other kingdoms (“repent”) and live from now on in God’s kingdom (“believe”).
And the rest of the Gospel of Mark shows us what this means. It shows us how to do this through the example of Jesus Christ.
So here are some first steps we can take together as we begin our Lenten journey. 1. We can start by remembering 1 Peter’s teaching on baptism—that it cleanses us from sin, that it represents God’s saving of us, and that the resurrected Christ is with us.
- We can remember God’s kingdom—that God is king and not someone else, and that God’s kingdom endures and not the others.
- We can remember that we are adopted into this kingdom through our own baptism. What is said of Jesus is true of us: “We are God’s beloved.”
- We can remember we are called to delight God, just like Jesus was and did, by serving others.
As we remember these truths, we rededicate ourselves to the baptismal life. We engage the season of Lent. And after these “forty days,” we will more meaningfully receive the resurrected Christ anew come Easter.
One of the reasons religion has fallen out of favor is because it is so out of sync with our culture, which prefers replacement over transformation.
- Why replacement isn’t always the best answer
- How knowing the narrative transforms us
- That transformation results from listening to Jesus
- Questions for discussion or reflection
Across the street from me are two brand new houses. They are huge, especially compared to the tiny ranch houses they replaced. The marketing material asks this enticing question: “Want to live in an historic and established neighborhood, but not deal with the troubles of a 100 year old house?”
I live in one of those 100 year old houses, and I can tell you I’ve often thought about replacing it. That’s the impulse of our culture. Even our most recent technological tools are designed with planned obsolescence in mind—no sooner are they introduced to the market than their replacements are in production.
Some things can be replaced. Others cannot. It’s essential that we can tell the difference. For if we can’t tell the difference, we’ll spend a lot of our lives trying to replace things that really aren’t designed for replacement. We’ll perpetually chase the dream job. We’ll cycle through challenging relationships. We’ll move from the church that makes us uncomfortable because it emphasizes grace and giving too often.
We as people are not designed for replacement. We’re designed for transformation. And many of the things we try to replace are only delaying the transformation they’re put in our lives to achieve.
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Elijah and Moses appeared to them also. Elijah is the great prophet who was promised to return. Moses is the great liberator and law-giver. These are people and periods from the past that were not forgotten, but when seen in relation to Jesus, they were transformed.
I’m presently reading some books on pastoral ministry, looking ahead, trying to figure out more specifically where is God calling me. I’m being challenged in many ways, and looking back at my professional ministry. I can’t believe some of my earliest sermons. My bookshelves are packed with flawed leadership paradigms. This kind of juxtaposition of my past with my future confronts me with a choice.
I can try to replace myself as a pastor—find a new paradigm, or what most pastors do—a new church. I can become paralyzed by regret or embarrassment. Or I can find God working in my past to transform me as a person. I can let go of the past without forgetting it.
Letting go of the past without forgetting it is possible because we’re designed not for replacement, but for transformation. And we’re designed this way because our designer is one who likes to transform.
Just look at the narrative. Moses parted the Red Sea. Elijah parted the Jordan. Then Elijah’s successor also parted the Jordan. In God’s narrative, there are always new prophets, but they share a common story. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in the line of Moses and Elijah. And they could recognize this only because they knew the narrative—letting go without forgetting.
How well do you know the narrative? One of the transformations I get to see is how money is transformed into ministry. Day by day I get to see how the donations to the church transform into care and hope for others. Because I know the narrative, I see the transformation. And I know the narrative because I’m involved in it.
Getting involved can be a scary thing. On the mountain, the disciples were “terrified.” Transformation is scary because it means things change. Peter just wants it all to stop—“Let’s build shrines!” he says.
Our lives can’t be transformed without experiencing change. This is one reason we prefer replacement—it makes us feel like we’re in control. But the transformation God intends requires exactly our being OUT of control. We can ask God to stop it like Peter did. But God has a different answer.
God’s answer is to listen to Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” In the transformation of our lives, we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by others that Jesus has invited, like the three disciples, to the mountain. We’re surrounded by our tradition, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. But mostly we’re not alone because Jesus is there.
Jesus makes our transformation bearable. He is with us. We are with God’s beloved. These are the words of baptism—which reminds us that we also are God’s beloved. Even though it’s scary, even though we’re out of control, when we do as God says and listen to Jesus, we become part of the narrative of God’s beloved people.
And what does Jesus say to us? On the way down from the mountain, Jesus told his disciples to wait until the Son of Man rises from the dead before they say anything. The transformation of our lives is a process. It requires faith and patience. We give control over to God and we have to wait.
Jesus’ transfiguration was a preview of his resurrection—and that’s what we’re waiting for. Our transformation is complete only in resurrection. It starts sometime in our lives—like with the disciples on the mountain—but like they did, we have to wait to understand it fully.
As we prepare to enter Lent, Mark invites us to transformation. In Lent, Jesus calls us up the mountain, to be apart. In Lent, we remember the narrative. In Lent, even though a little scary, we surrender control to God.
Jesus promises not to replace us, but to transform us. And because the Son of Man has risen from the dead, he is able to do it. Let us listen to Jesus this Lent.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Are there any things in your life that God is asking you to let go of, but not to forget?
- As you look back on your life, identify some things you tried to replace but that kept coming back. Could these indicate opportunities not for replacement, but for transformation?
- How do you deal with the scariness of getting involved with God’s narrative? How do you deal with listening to Jesus when it means giving up control?
- Who are the James and Johns in your Peter life—those companions on the journey that assure you you’re not alone in your transformation? What traditions are meaningful to you in this same sense?
Many of us believe that God isn’t powerful enough to solve our problems, or that God simply doesn’t care. Today’s lectionary readings testify to a different kind of faith.
- How Isaiah and the Psalm answer the human complaint that God isn’t involved
- How Jesus fulfills the vision of Isaiah and the Psalm
- What faith looks like on the basis of these passages
- Questions for discussion or reflection
The people of Isaiah’s time were overwhelmed with sorrow. Their nation had been overrun by the Babylonians, their capital city Jerusalem destroyed and the Temple razed, and their prominent citizens had been exiled to foreign lands. By the time Isaiah 40 was written, the refrain heard by the prophet from the people was, “Our way is hidden from the LORD!”
How often have we felt this way? The people of Isaiah’s time might have thought that God can’t do anything about my problems—they’re too big. Or they thought God has the power, but just doesn’t care.
In his answer to this complaint, Isaiah affirms that compared to God, we are indeed like grasshoppers. God does, after all, bring out the stars every night. In the words of the Psalm, “God is great, abundant in power, and his understanding is beyond measure!” So with regards to whether God can address our biggest concerns, Isaiah and the Psalm say that God does have the power to do something.
The people of Capernaum witnessed God’s power working through Jesus. When Jesus cast out the demon in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Mark tells us the people were “amazed.” They said to one another, “He teaches with authority, and even demons obey him!”
Then Jesus shows up at Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed. It’s hard to imagine a more marginal character in this scene. She is a woman in a patriarchal culture, she is in bed with a fever, and she is a mother-in-law guest in her son-in-law’s house.
She might have felt like Isaiah’s Exiles. She may have been thinking, “God may be powerful, but he’s not interested in me. This Jesus may heal a religious man in the synagogue, but he won’t bother with me. Jesus might heal for publicity’s sake, but I’m no celebrity. God probably is powerful, but my concerns are too small.” If she knew Isaiah, she would have quoted, “My way is hidden from the LORD.”
Back in his time, Isaiah reminded the Exiles that, “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” He gives them the image of a young athlete who will eventually tire and fail, but promises that, “Those who wait for the LORD will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, the shall walk and not faint.”
Just so, Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law. He reaches out and takes her hand. He lifts her up. And what little her society allowed her to offer in response, she does. She begins to serve them.
Mark tells us at sundown, many others came to the house. Sundown begins a new day, the Sabbath is over, but Jesus is still proclaiming a message of healing. The people came with various dis-eases, and Mark tells us Jesus cured “many,” but not all. Others apparently had to continue waiting. The difference now is that they wait with hope.
Many of us are awaiting a new day. We would like the day we’re in to end. We would like Jesus to come into our Monday to Saturday lives, into the problems that are overwhelming to us, or into our “God is too big, mine are too small” problems.
Like Isaiah, Psalm 147 praises God for bringing out the stars, but also assures us: “God heals the broken hearted, and binds up their wounds.” “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden.” God even gives animals their food, so the Psalm, like Isaiah, calls us to faith and hope in God.
The next morning Jesus goes in to the darkness to a deserted place and prays. He “waits on God” to use Isaiah’s words. He puts his trust and hope in God to use the Psalm’s words. Then Simon comes to find him, to put him back to work. There are a lot more people in Capernaum who need healing.
But Jesus knows there are people in the neighboring towns also. So like the God who cares for the brokenhearted, like the Savior who heals the mother-in-law, Jesus goes to them, takes their hands, lifts them up, and heals them also.
This morning your problems might be as big as the demon possessed man. Or they might be as small as a fever. Or they might be in the neighboring towns, waiting for Jesus to arrive.
Mark wants you to know that the God of Isaiah and the Psalms has come in Jesus Christ. And he urges us that, when Jesus arrives in our synagogue, or house, or town, may he find us waiting.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Share a time when you thought, like Isaiah or Simon’s mother-in-law, “My way is hidden from God.” How did that situation finally resolve?
- As you think about a current challenge in your life, where would it be in this story? Is it in the Synagogue, that is, a big problem like the demon-possessed man that only God can solve? Is it more mundane like the fever suffered by the mother-in-law? Are you one who is waiting for resolution, like those in Capernaum who were not healed? Or is it in a neighboring town, that is, still waiting for Jesus to arrive?
- Jesus was very deliberate about prayer—he woke up early and went to a solitary place. How focused is your time of prayer? What might Mark be trying to teach us about prayer with this scene?
Some of us are like Nathanael, subject to swings in our faith, a sort of religious manic-depressive. Jesus provides us the hope of a steady faith.
- How the swings in Nathanael’s faith might have been caused by personality and experience
- How Jesus’ candid and humorous response to Nathanael gives us hope
- Meditation as a path to a steady faith grounded on an eternal hope
- Questions for discussion and reflection
All we know about Nathanael is included in this very short encounter with Jesus. He starts with skepticism, but then makes an over-exuberant confession of faith. If Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew in the other gospel writers, then we know he is named within the lists of disciples, including those gathered after the resurrection in the upper room of Acts.
If so, how does one go from subjection to great swings in the faith to so steady a faith as to just be mentioned?
I think Nathanael was probably an Introvert. There was more going on under the surface than ever showed. Those around him might have perceived him as generally quiet, but occasionally punctuated by outbursts of opinion.
I think he was also a bit of a romantic. There was in him an undercurrent of hope and a desire for a better world. But he was also probably someone who was disappointed a lot, or perhaps only once but very significantly.
If I am right, if Nathanael was introverted, romantic, and suffering disappointment, this could help explain the wide and sudden swings in his faith. At first he is dismissively skeptical: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Then, after what everyone recognizes is a rather small realization, he offers an over-the-top expression of faith: “Truly you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”
I love Jesus’ candor and his sense of humor. First he says, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And then, “Did you (seriously!) believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?” But Jesus is also patient with this excited new convert, and it shows in his promise: “You will see greater things than these.”
Jesus alludes to a scene in the life of Jacob from Genesis 28. There Jacob dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it. Upon awakening, Jacob exclaims, “God is here, and I didn’t know it.” Jesus promises Nathanael the same vision.
Jesus seems to be inviting Nathanael to slow down and rest. “Stop looking so hard. Stop hoping so frantically. Just come and see.”
What is the nature of faithful hope? Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, write this: “Hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God.”
What we learn from Nathanael is that Jesus honors our personalities and our experiences. He uses whatever we have to offer, even skepticism or exuberance. And taking whatever we bring, Jesus makes us a promise unlike any other promise. He promises God’s presence. We will see “heaven opened, the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.“ If only we will give him time. If only we come and see.
Jacob was resting when God came to him. So was Samuel. John tells us that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. Some rabbinic texts identify this as a symbol of studying Torah. Buddhism gets is start when Siddhartha achieves enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree—a kind of fig tree. Nathanael is offered to us as a model for bringing consistency to our faith through meditation.
Psalm 139 is a form of biblical meditation. For both the extravert (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Even at the farthest shores you are there!”) and the introvert (“It was you who formed my inward parts within my mother’s womb.”) It suggests that when we give God time, when we “come and see,” God’s presence is revealed. Our skepticism is restored to hope—a hope anchored in something real and eternal.
Can anything good come from Nazareth? . . . Come and see.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways are you like Nathanael? Have you ever been subject to swings in your faith? What are the factors of your own personality or experience that may have contributed to this?
- How have disappointments in hope impacted your outlook on life and your faith? Where have you placed your hope, even within the church, and been let down? What has resulted from these disappointments?
- How have you grown more steady in your faith? Do you think study and meditation would help you have a more consistent faith? In what other ways have you “come and seen” the presence of God in your life?
Like many pastors, Apollos was a gifted speaker. But like many pastors, his understanding of baptism was incomplete. Fortunately Paul came along and sets us straight.
- An example of diversity in early Christianity
- Christianity according to Apollos and Paul
- The meaning of baptism
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Our passage today evidences a truth about early Christianity that makes some people uncomfortable. It is that there was diversity. And the even more uncomfortable truth for some is that there is diversity even today.
Acts 19 depicts two versions of Christianity—an Apollos version and a Paul version.
Apollos was a gifted teacher and debater. His skills were recognized by Pricilla and Aquila, who also noticed that he needed some further instruction. He preceded Paul and started a Christian fellowship in Ephesus.
Apollos’ Christianity was Jesus-centered and Scripture-oriented. As an eloquent speaker and convincing debater, Apollos’ Christianity had a very cognitive flavor, disproportionately so such that it ended up a distortion of Christianity.
Paul apparently observed this. The disciples he saw in Ephesus were saying all the right things, but they were not doing any right things. They were more about talk and ideas than transformation and action. This realization prompts his question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
Now Paul also was a learned and skilled debater. But in contrast to Apollos, Paul had a transformative experience with the Spirit of God in the risen Christ. As the story goes, Paul even lost and regained his sight. In this encounter he received power. And it all related to his baptism.
You can see the negative effects of too much Apollos Christianity all around us. Christians who think Christianity is matter of “just believing” are Apollos in their Christianity. They reduce Christian faith to accepting as true something dubious in its common sense assertion. Apollos Christianity often leads to a sense of having “special knowledge”—there are those who get it and those who don’t.
When Paul baptized the disciples of Apollos, he taught us that Christianity is a matter of word and sacrament, of thought and action.
Paul corrected Apollos’ Christianity’s emphasis on the “baptism of repentance.” This emphasis deceives us into trusting the exercise and experience of our own will: “I repented, therefore I qualify for baptism.” This attitude leads to pride at first, but later to despair when the initial exuberant strength of will fails to maintain us in a repentant life.
By contrast, for Paul baptism is just the beginning of the Christian faith, not its end. Paul teaches in Romans 5 that from the baptismal waters we rise to “newness of life.” This approach leads the Presbyterian tradition to speak of “improving one’s baptism.” (See the Westminster Confession of Faith) It is as if Paul has in mind the opening verses of Genesis, where God’s Spirit hovers over the primordial waters which are formless, void, and covered in darkness. There God’s Word and Spirit creates. And just as God took a chance creating out that watery chaos, so in baptism God takes a chance on us. God’s Word and Spirit create something new, a new beginning, a new genesis in our lives.
When Jesus was baptized he received the Holy Spirit. He also received God’s Word: “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is his baptismal identity. Word and Spirit gave him the courage and power to live as a child of God. This was his baptismal life. This is why in the funeral liturgy we talk about one’s baptism being “completed in death.” Only in death is our baptismal calling perfected, after we have lived by the power of God’s Spirit and according to God’s Word.
So it is also when we are baptized in Jesus, (and not just in John, as in Apollos’ Christianity). We receive the Spirit. We are declared children of God. We are given a baptismal identity and life, completed only in our death.
This is what it means to be baptized, what it means to be a child of God. It means being united with Christ, to be filled with the Spirit, and to follow Christ’s example as a child of God.
As we remember Christ’s baptism this day, let us also remember Christianity is more than words and rituals–it is a way of life.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- When were you baptized? Even if as an infant, what do you know about your baptism? What words were said, passages read, promises made? How faithfully are you living into and according to your baptism?
- Is your Christianity more Apollos or more Paul? How well balanced is your knowledge of the scriptures by actually living according to God’s Spirit and Word?
- Jesus lived his baptismal identity in his unique way. As a child of God yourself, how is God calling you to live in your own unique way in the world?
You may not like this metaphor, but I think the Magi started out like Washington lobbyists. Before you get too upset, consider the whole story and what happened to them after they met Jesus.
- The assumptions of the Magi and how Jesus challenged them
- The choice the Magi had to make, and how we have to make it also
- The meaning of the treasures the Magi brought
- The dynamic relationship between our hearts and our treasures
- A question with the potential to change everything this year
Note: On this eleventh day of Christmas we used the Epiphany texts from the Revised Common Lectionary. Epiphany ends Christmas on January 6 (thus “the twelve days of Christmas”), and the lectionary favors it as the visit of the Magi from the East (not the only way to commemorate Epiphany).
The Magi started out with conventional assumptions. The first is that power is where it appears to be—in their case Jerusalem. Second, treasures impress and influence the powerful. In this way, the Magi were like Washington lobbyists.
When they encounter Jesus, however, their assumptions are challenged. They discover that power isn’t in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem, a town so negligible it had to be assured by the prophecy from Micah of its relevance. And their encounter with Jesus showed them that God’s kingdom doesn’t’ come through the powerful and influential, but through the poor.
So now the Magi are faced with a choice: shall they follow the powerful Herod in Jerusalem? Or shall they follow Jesus? Matthew tells us that, after encountering Jesus, they avoided Herod and returned home “by another road.” They realized the importance of Jesus being “born King of the Jews:” he is God’s choice for king, not Rome’s.
We have the same choice, and we make it with two treasures, our literal treasures and our hearts.
The Magi bought literal treasures. Their three gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold were expensive treasures appropriate for any new king. But they also predict Jesus’ three-fold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. Prophets tell the truth even when it’s painful, even when it leads to their death as it did in Jesus’ case. Myrrh is a substance used for preparing bodies for burial. Jesus would be accompanied his whole life by the myrrh from the Magi, reminding him that truth is of higher value than ease.
Priests led worship, and used frankincense as a symbol of God’s presence and our rising prayers. Jesus would be accompanied his whole life by the frankincense of the Magi, reminding him of his calling as a priest, mediating the presences of God and humans to one another.
Kings used gold to rule over their people. We don’t know what Jesus did with the Magi’s gold, but if he followed the Bible’s descriptions of the godly king, he used it to assist the poor.
The Magi started out from the East with these expensive treasures, but their hearts may have been misaligned. When they encounter Jesus, he realigns their hearts, and redirects their treasures. They recognize God’s choice of a King, someone who would fulfill the description of Psalm 72. Someone who would, “judge the people with righteousness,” which it goes to explain as treating “the poor with justice,” “defending the cause of the poor of the people,” “delivering the needy and the poor who have no helper,” someone for whom the death of those suffering oppression and violence is “precious in his sight.”
The Magi had a Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol experience: They realized who Jesus is, and they trusted him with their treasure. Here treasure follows a realigned heart.
Later Jesus will teach: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Here heart follows treasure. It is an invitation at the beginning of the year, to dedicate our hearts to Christ by dedicating our treasures to him first.
December is a “catch-up” month with charitable giving. It may be the tax benefits, or Christmas, or both. In my case, I made last minute donations to Kiva, TwoCor, the scholarship funds of my educational institutions, and to my church and denomination. If you analyzed my checkbook at end of year, you might conclude that my heart is in the right place.
But what if you analyzed it before December 31? What if you did an assessment of my heart through a random analysis of my checkbook throughout the year? You might be concerned about the alignment of my heart.
But what if this Christmas realigned my heart? What if, after this Christmas, I was so grateful for the gift of Christ, that I redirected my treasures beginning now, as the Magi did? What if this Christmas realigned my heart, and by regular giving all year long I kept it aligned? Then my December contribution next year would merely be a final one.
Here’s a question for us all. How much closer will our hearts be to God in 2015? Part of the answer to that depends on where and when we open our treasure chests. If the Magi teach us anything, it is that the best answer is early and often, so that the light of Christ will continue to shine, ever brighter, in our own hearts and in the world.
Here are six short ideas I didn’t pursue in my sermon on the visit of the Magi.
When you take time to look, you see “stars.” The Magi saw the new star because they were looking. We shouldn’t expect God to reveal something new to us if we’re not looking for it (though sometimes God does grab our attention without looking, like with the Shepherds).
“Stars” appear in our ordinary routines. The Magi were most likely a professional class of stargazers. Doing what they always did, the star appeared to them.
“Stars” may need scripture to reappear. Apparently the start disappeared for a while during the time the Magi visited Jerusalem. If a “star” of revelation or guidance appears to you, then you lose track of it, maybe supplementing that impression with scripture will make it reappear.
“Stars” plus scripture lead us to Christ. The Magi had the original star to guide them, but they needed the scripture to lead them to Christ. This is consistent with how John Calvin viewed the Bible: there is a universal (general) revelation of God, and then there is the biblical (special) revelation. The general revelation can only take us so far. We need the Bible to take us to Christ.
New “dreams” lead us with Christ. The Bible may take us to Christ, but the Holy Spirit leads us today to follow Christ. Christ is not limited to what is revealed about him in the Bible. He lives today, and the Magi’s openness to further revelation (beyond star and scripture) through dreams (Spirit), led them away from Herod and towards the path of Christ. (I elaborate on this final statement in the full sermon.)
Finally, consider this “Continuum of Response to the Poor.” This is an idea I had related to Epiphany’s revelation of light to the Gentiles and the intended effect of that light according to the Older Testament passages for Epiphany, namely, that all nations will come to worship the God of biblical Israel. Those passages emphasize the treatment of the poor by the people of God. I offer the following continuum, from darkness to light, for consideration with the question, “Does the way we treat the poor shine with God’s attractive light or not?”
Continuum of Response to the Poor (from darkness to light)
- Steal from them
- Exploit them (financially, intellectually, etc.)
- Keep them ignorant (of rights and opportunities)
- Do not prohibit their helping themselves (basically ignoring them)
- Give them charity (short term aid that salves our conscience but doesn’t substantively change their situation)
- Pro-actively equip them to advance (through education, training, mentoring, advocacy)
- Work to change systems of oppression (advocacy, how we vote)
- Sacrificing oneself (and one’s self-interests) working on their behalf (as Jesus did)