Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany of the Lord

Star of Bethlehem by German painter Waldemar Flaig (1892-1932)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
    are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
    who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back, and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (NLT)

The Three Kings, Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people in the world.

Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” The event which is associated with this season is the visit of the Magi to Jesus. Included in this time of the year between the seasons of Christmas and Lent is a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The great celebration and focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

Every season in the Christian Year has its unique angle of grace. With Epiphany, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people who seem far from God with the gift of Jesus. God grants repentance that leads to life for all kinds of people no matter their race, ethnicity, class, or background. It is a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from ourselves. Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to be worn away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace brings down barriers and does away with unnecessary distinctions between others. The appropriate response to mercy is to glorify God for such marvelous light and amazing work.

It is a merciful reality that the Magi, or Wise Men, pagan astrologers, were directed to the Messiah. A light was provided to lead them to Jesus. Apart from God’s care and intervention they would have remained in darkness.  And it is no less true for people today. This old broken world is wrapped in darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings that light to those walking around with no ability to see. Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ so that they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives can be in the gracious rule of the kingdom of God. 

As we celebrate Epiphany and journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing and into his gracious ministry to people, let us keep vigilance to not let our light grow dim. Instead, let us hunger and thirst after Christ’s righteousness so that our joy is full, and our light is bright.

God of mercy, Lord of all, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands and do your work, to be your voice and share your words, to bring healing to broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new. Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for service so that the love that we have may overflow into the hearts of others, and receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Luke 6:27-31 – Love Your Enemies

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” NIV)

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

–Frederick Dale Bruner

Here are a few rhetorical questions, considering the astounding words from Jesus to love enemies: Have you ever had someone not like you?  Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? I once had a next-door neighbor who was plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When such things happen, it is tempting to respond in kind with the same behavior as the obnoxious person.  Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies of getting back at others when they do or say offensive things, and we consider them an enemy.

The situation with my neighbor was frustrating, yet quite benign. It is an entirely different matter trying to love someone who has deeply hurt us. Their words of malice or actions of abuse are evil, and we naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting them back. This is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It will be hard to love a villain apart from the grace of God, and Jesus knew what he was asking of us.  He does not ask of us anything that he himself has not already done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle for us, at times. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because that is what God does.

Jesus did not say anything new in calling for neighbor love. The Old Testament clearly says to do so: 

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to hate your enemy. However, over time, the idea became popular that if we are told to love our neighbor, then we must hate our enemy (who is not our neighbor). Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I encounter is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need. (Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus let us know that when we walk in the way of love, we will sometimes be treated harshly by the world (Matthew 5:10-12).  When that happens, Christ says we must not exact revenge or retaliate. Even more, we are to respond with overt gestures of love, rather than simply ignoring them.

We are to pray for our enemies. It is hard to hate someone or a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. Pray the Spirit would open their eyes so they can see the error of their way. Make sure to leave the judgment to God, for that is divine business, not ours.

We are to love because God loves. To love those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. When we love our enemies, without expecting anything in return, we imitate God’s character as children of God:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He did not love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG)

If we have no love for our enemies, then we are no different from them. Christians are to be distinctive because of the way they treat others, especially outside the faith. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. God does not expect us to live as followers of Jesus by only showing reciprocity, that is, just giving back to those who already have given something to us. Instead, we give even when we are persecuted. We do this because God shows no distinction in the distribution of sunshine and rain. Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, can be God’s rain and sun toward others.

“To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.” Alfred Plummer

Grace, undeserved kindness, is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

During World War II, a Lutheran pastor, imprisoned in a German concentration camp, was tortured by an S.S. officer who wanted to force him to a confession.  The pastor did not respond to the torture.  His silence only enraged the officer to such a degree that he hit the pastor harder and harder until he finally exploded and shouted at him, “don’t you know that I can kill you!?”  The pastor looked him the eye and said, “Yes, I know – do what you want – but I have already died.”  At that point, the officer lost power over the pastor.  All of the officer’s cruelty had been based on the idea that the pastor would hold onto his life as his most valuable property and would be willing to give a confession in exchange for his life.  But with the grounds for his violence gone, torture had become a ridiculous and futile activity.

Our human relationships may easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, when we make enemies of each other and treat people as properties to be defended or conquered instead of precious gifts to be received. If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace,
you have asked us to love our enemies 
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, 
may all people learn to work together 
for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.
Holy Spirit of God, we ask you for the strength and the grace to love those who harm us, that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have hurt our church.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.  Amen.

John 1:1-18 – God in the Flesh

Welcome, friends! The astounding love of God is seen most clearly in the face of Jesus Christ. Click the videos below and let us enjoy worshiping our incarnate Lord…

John 1:1-18
O Word of God Incarnate by Jeff Pardo
He Came Down by the Gaither Vocal Band, 1999

May your hearts be filled with grace through the incarnation of Christ.

May your minds be filled with truth through the knowledge of Jesus.

May your soul be filled with love through love incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

God in the Flesh

The Word Became Flesh by Guatemalan painter Hyatt Moore

In the biggest cities of the world, like Mexico City, and Manilla, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live thousands of families who have made this their home. Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive.  Few others tread where these families are.  Yet, there are believers who make the journey and try to bring the gospel of grace and mercy to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation that this is, it is incomparable to the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made. Christ came to the sin-soaked dump of this world, to us who were living on a heap of garbage and entered our lives to save us from our wretched condition. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, frames the Gospel of John 1:14 this way:

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

Jesus did not merely appear to be human; he is human. The Christ of God, enjoying unhindered fellowship within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit, became like us and lived with all the same things we face from day to day.  He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

We must remember that the Apostle John and the other gospel writers were evangelists; they wrote so that people might believe in Jesus and come to see what God has done through joining them in this broken world. Another John, John the Baptist, had a sole purpose in life to be a witness of Jesus to others, to testify to the truth that Christ came to rescue us from our terrible condition.

The Apostle John saw Jesus interact with families in the dump. He knew what was happening, that God was coming to save the people. The way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation – in testifying to what God has done in Christ and being sent as little incarnations entering people’s lives. 

In this way, believers are like the moon, not producing light ourselves, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun so that the earth may know that Jesus is coming. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus became human and descended to live among us.

Any birth is an incredible miracle. I was present at the births of all three of my daughters, and one of my grandsons. There is nothing quite like it. Life coming into the world for the very first time is an unparalleled mystery with an unmatched sense of majesty. Although childbirth involves pain, agony, and mess, it is all quickly forgotten amidst the joy of this little baby becoming alive to all that is around them.

What a crazy contradiction of a virgin having a child gestate in her womb and then giving birth! That is something more than a miracle. It is Divine accommodation or condescension in which God does the unimaginable and unthinkable in not only coming to earth but entering as a vulnerable human baby. The great and mighty Sovereign of the universe got down on all fours and descended far beneath such loftiness. God got off the throne and sat on the garbage heap with us.

God is so far above and beyond us that to be revealed and communicate to us, the Holy Trinity conspired to enter the earth by means of a baby. God came to us. The sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin, framed the incarnation of Christ in these terms:

“God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children. Such modes of expression… accommodate the knowledge of the divine to our feebleness. In doing so, God must, of course, stoop far below his proper height… Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of God must be lowered to our capacity to be intelligible… God voluntarily lowers himself not as he really is but as we conceive of him.”

Indeed, God coos at us and babbles baby-talk not because that is his language but so that we can understand. What is more, God became flesh and blood for us, so we can climb up into his lap or lean into him, just as John did with Jesus. (John 13:23-25)

The incarnation of Christ means God loves us so deeply and completely that Jesus became one of us to bring that love with skin on, in ways that truly communicate empathy, compassion, kindness, and goodness to people. This is grace, that God first conformed to us before we are conformed to Christ. God went to the greatest lengths possible to reach us, save us, and bring us into the life of the Trinity.

Jesus climbed into our skin to assure us that God understands and cares. Jesus also gets into our hearts and invites us to know God. Even though Christ said a lot of things that can be difficult to understand, the love of coming alongside another person communicates well in any language and culture. Jesus, full of both grace and truth, bent over backwards to speak and act in ways that say, “I love you.”

God got down and dirty with us. The Lord jumped into the fray of broken humanity. God connected Jesus to an umbilical cord, covered him in the muck of fetal afterbirth, and caused him to cry alongside the sorrows of humanity. None of this was illusion or appearance. It was real, just like us. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews said this:

Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it is logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.

It is obvious, of course, that he did not go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That is why he had to enter every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed. (Hebrews 2:14-18, MSG)

God’s grace stretches out on the wide horizontal beam of the Cross with compassionate arms for the world. God’s truth goes down deep with the vertical beam of the cross to give stability for the world. The truth of Jesus Christ, the One who reveals God, is strong enough to support the wide beam of grace which stretches round the earth to bring deliverance from the garbage dump of sin, death, and hell.

May we rejoice and be glad in this reality, and may it move us to be used of God to save those on the sin heap of this world.