Where to Next?

God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the church around the world in observing the Epiphany of Our Lord in our worship January 7 (a day late, perhaps, but the attendance was better than it would have been on Saturday…).   The readings for the day included Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi as well as Isaiah 60:1-6.


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below…

Let me start off by affirming that I like – no, I love – babies. I’ll hold babies. I’ll change babies. I’ll coo and ooh and ahh over babies. Some of my favorite people are babies. Heck, I was a baby. I like babies.

Having said that, I need to confess how deeply I hate baby showers. That whole process is painful to me… playing cute games…watching people unwrap gifts which are either profoundly practical, yet dull (ooooh, a dozen diapers!), or wildly entertaining but not necessarily helpful (like the baby poop alarm that slides into the diaper). I don’t like watching people pretend that they don’t already have four other Bumpo seats while they are unwrapping the one I got for them. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of the Baby Shower.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1500)

But imagine if you could have been a fly on the wall the day that the Magi came to visit the Holy Family. Can you imagine reading Mary and Joseph’s faces as they unwrap the presents that came in that day?

“Hmmmm… what could it be? Oh, look, Joseph! It’s gold! What a nice gift – I’m sure that will come in handy in the days ahead…” So far, so good.

“OK, Mary, what’s in that one? Frankincense? Um, thanks. I’m sure that, you know, when he’s older, he’ll really like burning this and smelling the, you know, good smell. When it’s on fire. So, we’ll just hold onto it for him for the next decade or so…”

And finally, “Ooooh, golly! Myrrh! What young family wouldn’t be thrilled to get the gift of embalming fluid at a time like this! Thank you so much…”

Frankincense and myrrh. Two of the least practical baby gifts in the history of baby gifts.

And yet, the Magi not only gave them to Jesus, but this is one of only two stories that Matthew chooses to tell us about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Why would that be so? Why did they give those gifts, and why do we need to know about them?

Willie Sutton was a notorious bank robber in the middle of the last century. According to legend, one reporter asked him, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” His answer was simply, “Because that’s where they keep the money.”

Why did the Magi leave gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Because that’s what they had. OK, but why did they have it?

Well, for starters, they had that stuff with them that day because they’d been intentional. They had brought it from home, hoping to meet a king, hoping for a chance to honor that king, and hoping for the opportunity to present gifts signifying wealth and power to that king.

More to my point, I would emphasize that they still had the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That is to say, they had it on the day that they met Jesus because they didn’t give it to anyone else along the way. Which is, when you stop to think about it, fairly remarkable. They’d come to Israel seeking a king. And they’d already met a king – his name was Herod. When they showed up in the country where they thought that the king would be, they did what you or I might do – they looked in the palace for the king. And yet when the got to that palace, and they met that king, they chose NOT to give Herod the gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They might have left a few other trinkets or hospitality gifts, but they opted not to leave the “real” gift with him.

Journey of the Magi, James Tissot (c. 1894)

And we might say, “OK, they gave the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they happened to have them on hand, but presumably they had a lot of other things on hand, too.” In all probability they had camels and servants and scrolls and granola bars and license plate bingo games (ok, I’m not sure about those last two; I’m just inferring from when my family takes long trips…). When they got to the house and they saw that the king was only a baby, why did they follow through on their plan to offer those things to Jesus?

On the one hand, we could say that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts that symbolized honor and worship. That’s why they left home; that’s what they came to do; and that’s what they did. The visit wasn’t so much about providing the new king with tools that would equip him for his reign as it was about making a statement as to what they thought of him and his role in the world.

And on the other hand, we could say that they really had no idea what they were doing in presenting those gifts to the child. The author of Matthew used this event, in a broad way, to symbolize the fact that in the years ahead, Jesus would be rejected by those who ought to have known better and at the same time his message would find widespread acceptance by those who for centuries had stood on the outside looking in. There’s no way that the Magi could have known the impact that their visit would have so many years after it occurred.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I will point out that there are, to my knowledge, no near-eastern mystics, astrologers, or potentates in the room this morning. And I will go out on a limb and predict that when it’s time to receive the morning offering, the plates will come back up front with some cash and a few checks inside, but there will be no bullion, no incense, and no embalming fluid in this morning’s collection.

[3]And yet, each of you is from somewhere, and you are someone, and you have something…which means that every person in this room faces some level of choice which is not altogether different from that with which the Magi dealt so many years ago. Each one of us left home on Monday carrying the promise of 168 hours in this week. Every single person in this room can choose to invest energy into relationships and the lives of other people. We all have some level of opportunity connected with our financial situation. I understand that nobody has unbridled control over every aspect of their lives, but I am here to suggest that how you decide to allocate those resources over which you do have control says a great deal about yourself and your value system.

I suspect that for the first wise men, and for us, the temptation might be to look at those items of value we’ve received – our treasure, our time, our skills – and be tempted to simply leave them at home. We don’t want to use them, we aren’t interested in giving them away, so why bother carting them around?

Then again, we could all simply hand that stuff over to whoever passes for Herod in our own lives. We could show up at the place that symbolizes power and majesty and fame and offer the best that we carry there.

But I am here to say that offering my self – time and energy and finances – in the service of Christ has been a source of deep blessing for me.

And I’m also here to say that some of the things that you and I have done in our lives that have had the deepest and longest-lasting impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and our world have been done in sheer ignorance of their impact. We had no idea that the little thing we did affected someone so profoundly. We couldn’t see it coming any more than the Magi saw themselves as agents of God’s working in and through different cultures in the world. We had a nudge, we felt a little prompting, and so we gave, or we served, or we acted like a friend to someone… and the world changed a little bit.

And all of that leads me to my absolute favorite aspect of the whole story from Matthew: the last phrase in this morning’s narrative. In the midst of all the details about the visit of the Magi, the author makes sure that we know that these travelers “…returned to their country by another route.”

Three Wise Men Watercolor 4, Niall Drew (2014) Used by permission. For more, see http://nialldrew.com

Now that could mean simply that they chose an alternate route home. They went by boat over the Sea of Galilee, or they took route 80 instead of the turnpike. It certainly means that they decided not to go back to Herod and fill him in on their visit to Bethlehem. While both of those things could be true, I choose to add my own interpretation as well: that these mystics returned to their point of departure having been changed by the travel they’d shared.

That is the power of a pilgrimage. They went on a trip, and the things that they saw, and did, and heard affected them to the core of their being. Coming up against the power of Herod, the act of giving gifts to the Holy Family, and their encounter with the Christ child all led them to redefine themselves in such a way as to ensure that none of the days that followed were as they might have been otherwise.

You know this. You’ve been on a pilgrimage, I suspect. I’m certain that when I use this word, some of you reflect immediately on that time when you had a huge, once-in-a-lifetime trip. It was a mission trip to somewhere far away, or you visited the Holy Land or the Vatican, and you knew, even as you were preparing for the journey, that it would be powerful. You hoped for it. You planned for it. And it changed you.

And others, I hope, will think a little deeper. You’ll remember the day that the pastor called you to go and visit the hospital, but the day that you got there, the patient asked you to help her die. You were invited to a Youth Group retreat, and while you were there, something just clicked. You asked a friend have a coffee or a beer with you, and you wound up hearing for the first time the story of his failed marriage. In other words, there have been times when you didn’t know something was going to happen, but you found that you were changed anyway. You thought you were doing something that required a few steps or a couple of minutes but discovered that you were in the midst of a journey that affected you in a profound way. You didn’t know it then, but you can point to it now.

That is the essence of a pilgrimage – whether you’re an astronomer 2000 years ago or a soccer mom today, a pilgrimage is accepting the invitation to a journey that results in change. My call for today, and the invitation I put forward this morning, is for each of us to consider 2018 as a year of pilgrimage. As you consider the year that lies ahead, can you ask yourself, “What next?”

Everybody in this room stands at the door right before you walk out of the house, and you say, “OK, do I have my wallet? My keys? My phone?” Let me encourage you to adopt this as more than a pragmatic ritual. Think about what you have when you answer the phone, or leave the house, or open your email. Think about how you steward the resources at your disposal, and what you think of as “yours” as opposed to what you think of as something to share.

Look for ways to engage with others in the pilgrimage that is worship, and ask for God to change you in and through that worship experience so that you, no less than the wise men of old, might be changed for having encountered the Christ – and that therefore you, too, can go home by another way.

The opportunity for such an encounter stands before you this day. Thanks be to God for the privilege of saying “yes”.  Amen.

The Secret Giver

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably almsgiving, as found in Matthew 6:1-4.   As we celebrated Epiphany in worship that day, we also considered the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.

BatmanTVseriesMy first foray into cultural or political activism came at the tender age of 8, when I wrote a letter to those mean people at ABC who had cancelled my favorite television series, Batman. My little brother and I savored each episode that had an odd mixture of campy humor, kitschy fight scenes, and not-so-subtle moral lessons about the importance of wearing seatbelts or drinking milk.

When Batman aired, there were two episodes a week. On Wednesday nights, the dynamic duo would be left in a very difficult situation, and on Thursdays, they’d find a way out of it (or at least they did until those knuckleheads at ABC did what the Joker and the Riddler couldn’t do – they stopped Batman…). One of the devices that the series used was a dramatic narrator who would intone phrases such as, “Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor”. There had been an interruption in the story, and now we were returning to the scene where we’d had some action previously.

SermonOnTheMountSo meanwhile, before Advent interrupted us, we were working our way through the most important ethical teaching in the history of words, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You may recall that Matthew 5 starts with the Beatitudes, which we considered to be the “ground rules” for life in the Christian community. The pronouncement of blessing upon the meek, the mourners, and the pure in heart is not an attempt to convince anyone to live that way – it’s simply a description of the kinds of fruit that faithful living produces.

From there we moved on to an examination of the Law and its demands in daily life. Perhaps you’ll recall the series of passages that all began by saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” As we looked at those, we noted that Jesus calls his followers to a “higher righteousness”. In Greek, the word is perisson – the “something more” that is expected of those who bear the mark of the Christ on our lives. And chapter 5 ends with Jesus’ command to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, a call to live lives of integrity and completeness – to follow Jesus wholeheartedly in every area of life.

Today we return, not to stately Wayne Manor, but to the Sermon on the Mount, and begin our reading of chapter six as we listen to Jesus’ description of what faithful living looks like in the religious arena. In particular, he holds up the spiritual practices of giving alms to the poor, prayer, and fasting. In what ways does this perisson – the “something more” affect the way that we engage in religious practice?

Jesus starts this section of the sermon by warning his followers to “beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…”, and that sounds reasonable enough until we remember that less than one page ago, Jesus said, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to stand up tall and proud as we follow you? Or be secretive about it? Both. There’s not really a contradiction here – Jesus is simply warning us about different sins. There are some places where we are tempted to fear and cowardice as we follow the Lord, and in those instances, Jesus would have us follow him with courage and confidence, not worrying about what others might think of us. In other places, though, we are seduced by our own pride and vanity. In that case, Jesus says, remember that we follow him because it is right, and not because we want people to think how holy we are. John Stott suggests a good rule of thumb: when it comes to practicing our faith, we ought to display our faith when we are tempted by cowardice and hide our actions when we are convinced that everyone should know exactly what we’re doing.[1] In any and every case, the reason that we act is so that people can see God at work – not us.

As Jesus discusses the spiritual practices of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting, he uses a very important four-letter word. In Greek, it is otan. In English we say “when”. Followers of Jesus do not have the burden of deciding “if” or “whether” we are givers, prayers, or fasters. When you give, do it like this.

It’s important for us to hear that little word and to consider its importance. Too many times I have been in situations where someone – maybe me, maybe another person – has said, “Wow, I wish I could help, but I just can’t right now.” And surely there are times and places where we can’t help more, or in that place, too. But I am here to tell you that I have tried to walk in Jesus’ footsteps for more than four decades, and in all that time and in all the places I have been, I have never seen anyone who was so poor that they could not give something. I’ve seen people give money, and lots of it. I’ve seen people give eggs and bananas and chickens. I’ve seen people give time and energy and respect. The life of the disciple is one of giving and sharing, of offering and receiving. Jesus does not prescribe what his followers will give, but he surely assumes that they are givers.

In the next sentence, he returns to the theme of secrecy. When we give, he says, we are to be so attentive to both the needs that are in front of us as well as the God who calls us to join him in giving that we don’t bother telling the left hand what the right hand is doing. I would say that it’s important to plan our giving and to know what we have available and where and when is best to share it – but that we do so without a trace of self-consciousness or self-centeredness. Just as he warned against giving to impress other people, such as the hypocrites were doing, here Jesus cautions us against being overly impressed with ourselves or our own religious observances.

And when we get it right, Jesus says – when we are a people who give with humility and passion, with freedom and joy, focused on the Giver of all good gifts and those who can benefit from what has been entrusted to us – then we are rewarded.

As we read verse 4: “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you”, let me speak deliberately against the heresy known as “the prosperity gospel”. A whole lot of preachers have made big piles of money by telling their people that God’s intentions for us include material wealth, and the best and surest way to fatten up the old bank account is to send a “love offering” their way. In this line of thought, God sees the so-called righteous act of giving to the Lord’s work and God rewards that act with a monetary windfall.

One advocate of this theology was preaching in a crowded church. It was well known that this man was worth millions of dollars, and he had the suits and the cars to prove it. He stood before the congregation and he thundered, “I didn’t always have it this good, brothers and sisters. There was a time when I was down on my luck. In fact, I was down to a single $10 bill when I went to church, and I heard the Lord ask me for everything. I didn’t know where I was going to get my next meal, but I knew then that I had to give my all to Jesus. So when the ushers came around with the plate, I did it. I gave it all to the Lord, and I trusted him for tomorrow. That day, I put all the money I had into the offering plate, and look where that has brought me today!”

The church was quiet for a few moments until an elderly woman in the second row piped up: “Amen, brother. Go ahead now. I dare you to do it again!”

The “prosperity gospel” is a lie. I am here to tell you that God does reward those who give, but rarely financially. The reward of which Jesus speaks here is the sense of joy and satisfaction that one receives when one who has ached because of a need is privileged to see that need addressed.

IMG_6851Most of my friends have seen this photo before. If I get hit by a truck this afternoon, you can tell anyone that this is the single greatest photo I’ve ever taken in my life – because it documents the kind of reward of which Jesus speaks here in Matthew 6. Our friends in Malawi had faced an incredible famine, and we were in a position to help. People around Pittsburgh and across the country rallied, in large part behind this congregation, and I was privileged to be a part of the “launch” of a campaign wherein hungry families would receive monthly allotments of food until their gardens came in. This young mother has just received the food that will keep her and her child alive, and now she is walking back to her home to celebrate God’s provision.

Although we had spoken briefly, she is not looking at me – because I do not matter to her. She had a profound need. Through people like you, God addressed that need. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, watching and celebrating how God’s people are privileged to share in the love of God. As she became smaller and smaller in my sight, walking towards her home, I wept that God should include me in that great gift.

In a few moments we will celebrate our Epiphany Communion. We will remember the day when some un-named strangers showed up in the home of a poor family and showered them with gifts. When that baby had grown to be a man, his friends understood that the gifts that he received that day merely pointed to the supreme love that lay behind the Gift that he himself was – the Word becoming flesh and living among us. May we join the Magi in being people who are eager to share what we’ve received in ways that bring blessing to those around us, and may all our gifts point, not to ourselves, but to the one from whom we’ve received everything. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Intervarsity, 1978) p. 127.

When The Kings Come Marchin’ In

On Epiphany Sunday, January 4, the people of Crafton Heights wondered about the power of celebrity and the difference between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – then and now.  Our texts for the day were Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Think about these people for a moment: Shia LaBeouf, Alice Cooper, Pocahontas, and Tim Tebow. What do you think connects these people? What do they have in common?Celebrities

Each of these people has self-identified as a “Bible-believing Christian”. I know that because some other Christian writer or speaker has pointed to those folks and said, “See? These people are Christians…” as if acknowledging Christ is somehow more attractive or effective when a celebrity does it, rather than when you do.

Every now and then I’m with a group of pastors and someone will nudge me and say, “Do you know so-and so?” And I’ll say, “The famous athlete/musician/politician?” And the other person will say, “Yes, that person. Did you know that she worships at my church? Yep. A believer.” Or take a look at the “head table” at just about any prayer breakfast around the country – the wealthy and powerful elite, calling the rest of us to be encouraged and faithful.

XnCelebsWe love our celebrities, don’t we? In fact, in Christianity, we have our own: Joyce Meyers, Tony Campolo, Chris Tomlin, Rick Warren, and others.

Why do we do this? What makes us care more about what, say, Clint Hurdle has to say about faith than about the woman who works in the cafeteria line?

I heard one man compare it with the practice of putting our University stickers on the back windows of our car – we seek to bolster our own insecurities by reminding people that although we might drive like jerks, we’re probably smarter then they are. We appeal to celebrity Christians in an effort to remind ourselves that we don’t need to doubt – almost as if we’re saying, “Well, sure, I might be wrong about a few things, but would Chuck Colson or Tom Hanks or Donna Summer steer me wrong? They believe, and so I can too.”

There is an attractiveness in celebrity Christianity that bears examining.

Isaiah 60 describes a similar situation. The reading you heard is a poem that was read to the people in Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ. Isaiah 58 and 59 describe a people who are cut off from God. They are not walking in God’s ways, and they complain that God has forgotten them. They have returned to Jerusalem after decades of life in Babylon and they hate it – and who wouldn’t? Who wants to live in a burned-out, bombed-out city where there are no jobs, the economy is in the toilet, and nobody does anything? But the prophet says to them in chapter 60 that things are going to change – the city will be reborn! Prosperity is coming! Peace can be found, and the King himself will come and lead us! The inhabitants of Jerusalem are, not surprisingly, encouraged by this.

The Three Wise Men Visit Jesus MAFA Art in the African Christian Tradition (used by permission) http://www.jesusmafa.com/?dt_portfolio=n-4-the-three-wise-men-mt-2-1-12&lang=en

When Matthew got around to writing his account of Jesus’ life, he chose to use the passage from Isaiah 60 to remind people about the fact that God himself indicated that the power, wealth, and majesty of foreigners would come to worship the true King of Israel…although as it turns out, they do not do so in Jerusalem.

The Magi show up from distant lands looking for this wonderful new king and Herod, unsurprisingly, is a little concerned: He kind of likes the current King (himself!). He decides that he’d like to find this new king as well, and so he calls in his best advisors to see if they can’t help locate the one for whom the wise men are searching. As it turns out, they recall an obscure verse from the prophet Micah, who indicated that the light of God would indeed shine forth, not from Jerusalem, but from Bethlehem.

Now, the truth is it’s only nine miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but by any objective measure, it’s a lot further than that. If Jerusalem is the “Golden Triangle” downtown – the center of commerce, industry, wealth, and power – then Bethlehem is Wilmerding. Nowheresville.

But what surprises Herod – and us, if we’re honest – is that the wise men go ahead and make the trek to Bethlehem, a village of peasants. They thought they were en route to meet a powerful king, but somehow they were able to reorganize their lives and their trip around the information that Herod gave to them. They arrive in Bethlehem and discover a “king” who is a vulnerable baby, the son of a teen mother and a father who is virtually unknown. And in that crude place, these scholars from the East bow down and worship.

And I thought this morning about the fact that today nobody knows who these “wise men from the East” were. We’re not sure where they’re from, who they represent – heck, we’re not even certain how many of them there actually are. Matthew doesn’t give us any of the details about them. But he does give us Jesus’ name, doesn’t he? We may not know who they are, but we know who they came to worship.

Nine miles. It’s not that far. Most of you could walk that in a few hours. Some of you have run farther than that in a morning. I’m not sure what would compel you to do so, but I know that you’ve done it… Nine miles is close.

It is. But while the line that starts in Jerusalem is quite close to line that starts in Bethlehem, their trajectories are significantly different. What looks like only nine miles at the start is light-years away at this point.

As we start 2015, are you looking for power, security, and prestige? Are you looking for celebrity status and recognition? Or are you willing to trust a God who shows up in anonymous backwaters and speaks quietly to the poor? A God who not only comes to those places, but who invites us to humbly follow him there; moreover, a God who seems intent on sending us to those places to celebrate, discover, and share his love and grace.

In two weeks, I’ll be (Lord willing) in some village you’ve never heard of in South Sudan. I’ll be trying to keep up in worship with a group of people who have spent far too much of their lives as refugees and aliens, who may not be able to read well, if at all, and for whom fear and uncertainty could be constant companions. I’m not going because I’m all that; I’m going because in that place of need and vulnerability and war and hope and perseverance and joy I hope to get a glimpse of how and where the God who was behind that star 2000 years ago is on the move today. I know God is at work there – and I’m not going because I have any illusion that my showing up is going to somehow make some poor man’s life better. The purpose of this trip is to strengthen and encourage the church – by allowing some American church leaders to see where God is on fire.

I have it easy. You’ve got the hard part. While I’m off gallivanting around Northern Africa preaching to and praying with the church under fire, you’ve got to try to get a glimpse of that same God and where he is at work as you ride the 31 bus or walk through Brashear High or visit friends in nursing homes or pick your produce at the Giant Eagle. That same God is surely at work in those places, my friends.

This morning we celebrate our Epiphany Communion. Epiphany is not usually celebrated that well, at least by Protestants. One writer blames that on the fact that it happens to fall between Christmas Eve (the Christian Super Bowl) and Lent, which is capped off by Holy Week (the Christian World Series).[1] Many of us are too worn out from a week of holidays to think about one more little religious afterthought. In fact, I would imagine a few of you are wondering why in the world we’ve still got the old Christmas carols out…

Because the story isn’t over until the Magi make it to the manger. The story of Epiphany is a deep and powerful message, centered in hope and directed toward peace. In this story, we are reminded that we, like the Magi, are to follow the light of Christ and then to reflect that same light.

Epiphany is here to remind us, and the rest of our celebrity-crazed culture, that the God of the ages comes to us by way of Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. Epiphany is a good time to take the journey, for [the conflict in our world] reminds us of the shambles that can come through our excessive pretension. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.[2]

Let’s you and me be found in Bethlehem this Epiphany. As we continue to live in and under the light of that star, we can be assured that the celebrities from Jerusalem will find us sooner or later. The only starpower that matters is the light that calls us to live in the same manner as did our Lord. Thanks be to God for the ability to do so together. Amen.

[1] MaryAnn McKibben Dana, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/old-testament/epiphanycot/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Off By Nine Miles”, Christian Century 12/19/2001.

Waiting for The Dough

On January 5, we observed the Day of Epiphany (a day early – so sue me!).  We read from Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-7.

         Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota.  Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public.  In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers.  It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth.  And what a variety!

You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”.  There are a litany of notes from past elections.  Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.”  Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times:  “Hungry?  Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.”  And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.”  And some are out of control…

I don't even know what to say about this one...

I don’t even know what to say about this one…

And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy.  Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”

Life stinks, and then you die.  That must be a hard load to carry around every day.

waiting-for-godot1   When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot.  This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”  It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that  characterizes much of modern life.

The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon.  They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go.  They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot.  As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.

The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.

Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail.  Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends.   Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death.  Life stinks, and then you die.  Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”

But not everyone believes this, of course.  That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.

There are many others.

Agrippa_I-Herod_agrippaKing Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life.  He was no idle bystander.  He was not waiting for anyone or anything.  And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading  “life stinks and then you die.”

Herod was a man with power over his destiny.  He was the king.  He was in charge.  He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted.  What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle.  So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation.  He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah.  He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere.  After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run.  He’s got interests to protect.  And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life.  They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”.  Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers.  These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women.  The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is.  For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.

When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room.  They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty.  They worshipped him.  They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way.  They went home changed.  Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life.  Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.

For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting.  We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy.  We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives.  We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator.  We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys.  We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”

There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men.  We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it.  We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.

We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night.  Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.

And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod.  We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king.  But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives.  We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now.  We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.

If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence.  We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use!  Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.

communion_elements On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope.  On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.

People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.

This meal is what we have been waiting for.  All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us.  And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime.  This is what we have been waiting for.

So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.

Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off.  Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.

Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God.  What are you waiting for?  Christ is waiting with and for you.  What are you journeying toward?  Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live.  And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.