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EPIPHANY 4B – January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Psalm 111 – I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Concerning food sacrificed to idols: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. No idol really exists. So we are no worse off if we do not eat food sacrificed to idols, and no better off if we do. But take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to others.

Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits, and they obey him on the Sabbath in the synagogue, and the people are amazed.

January 25, 2018 – 5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

Lutheran Legislative Event
Join me for the Lutheran Legislative event at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Austin. Learn and talk to your legislators about the key moral issues of our day. Registration deadline: February 1.
Sunday, 2:45 pm – 8 pm – Opening worship and plenary
Monday, 7:30 am – 8 pm – Workshop/training on key issues
Tuesday, 8:30 am – 1 pm – Legislative visits at the Capitol
Registration: http://www.swtsynod.org/article450789.htm

Healing

Three Sundays until Lent. The next few weeks we’re in for a lot of healing stories. This coming Sunday we read of Jesus doing an exorcism in the synagogue. This is the first miracle in Mark’s gospel. Changing water to wine in Cana is the first miracle in John. In Mark, the first miracle is an exorcism. February 4, 2018, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, then rises early the next morning to find time to pray. February 11 is Transfiguration Sunday already, then we are into Lent!

Epiphany B Gospels at-a-glance

Epiphany 1B (1/7): Mark 1:4-11 –Baptism of Jesus
Epiphany 2B (1/14): John 1:43-51 – Phillip and Nathaniel. Follow me. Come and see
Epiphany 3B (1/21): Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus calls Simon and Andrew
Epiphany 4B (1/28): Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus rebukes unclean spirits on the Sabbath
Epiphany 5B (2/4): Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus goes away to a lonely place
Transfiguration (2/11): Mark 9:2-9 – Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured

In this Sunday’s gospel we are told the man had an unclean spirit. There seems to be a clear message that Jesus is willing to encounter, care for and touch the unclean, as opposed to the religious leaders, who are distancing themselves. This is evangelism, Jesus-style. Jesus touches the untouchable, and loves the unlovable. When society ostracized, Jesus walked through the walls of stigma and fear.

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Capernaum, (In Hebrew, כְּפַר נַחוּם, Kfar Naḥūm) is a lovely fishing village on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. It is on the 32nd parallel, ironically the same as Palestine, Texas.

I visited Capernaum nearly ten years ago. Driving north on Highway 6 from Jerusalem, the red soil stands out, excellent for growing citrus, avocados, figs, olives, carob and strawberries. In the distance, Mount Hermon rose up, topped with snow.

Capernaum

I remember it being intoxicatingly beautiful. A warm breeze rustled the palm trees. For lunch we had St. Peter fish, dropped completely intact into a frying vat and served up for us to dissect.

Capernaum synogogue ruins
Capernaum syagoge ruins

Capernaum is the home of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew, the tax collector. It is where they left their nets to follow Jesus. Here Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4) and a Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8). It was here that a paralytic was lowered through the roof of a house to reach Jesus (Mark 2). Archeological excavations have uncovered two synagogues, one on top of the other. We visited the site where Jesus taught and healed a man with an unclean spirit, described in next Sunday’s upcoming gospel reading. Most synagogues were small and met in homes. This was a substantial place. The ruins pictured above are of a synagogue built after Jesus, but the earlier ruins predate his ministry. Witherington says, “It is a mistake to underestimate the profoundly religious character of the Galilee in which Jesus operated.”

Ben Witherington III (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) says Mark conveys the sense that Capernaum is Jesus’ base of operations in Galilee. It is the hometown of half of his disciples, so there are plenty of places to find hospitality.

Jesus is a teacher and an exorcist in Mark’s gospel. They are impressed with his teaching, more so than their scribes. Witherington says scribes are simply the very few in the area who can read and write. As such, they would become the local “authorities.” Jesus appears to be out-scribing the scribes.

While teaching, a man comes up to Jesus. He is unclean, so he should not be there in the first place. He should be shown the door. The unclean spirit initiates the conversation. “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Judges 11:12; 2 Sam. 16:10; 19:22; 1 Kings 17:18) The spirits recognize Jesus, and his authority. Jesus evicts the spirits and the man convulses. Most of Jesus’ miracles in Mark are exorcisms. Witherington: “Mark wishes to stress the supernatural war that Jesus is taking part in…” Once again, the people are astonished – both by his teaching authority/power and his healing authority/power. His fame spreads.

Last week we heard Jesus calling the disciples. “Follow me and I will teach you to fish for people.” What will Jesus have to teach them about fishing for people? Well, here it is: This is what fishing for people looks like, Jesus-style. For Jesus, fishing for people means teaching and healing around Galilee. Teaching with authority (power, strength), and embarking on an itinerant healing ministry, engaging the suffering and outcast of this world.

What would this look like in your neck of the woods? How are you bringing healing and teaching in your community? I want to point out that the teaching is an important part of this. They are astounded at his teaching. There are congregations that serve at a food pantry and then wonder why no one notices. There is more to evangelism than social work. A healing ministry without teaching doesn’t feed the soul and invite others into the dance. A teaching ministry without a healing ministry in the community is hypocrisy.

Teaching and healing will not necessarily make you popular. Speaking up for people who are getting a raw deal, sometimes irritates people. It pricks the conscience. It also means people have to confront their selfishness, and deal with the inequities in the system. And then there’s the very human: More for you means less for me. It’s a zero-sum fear. Try speaking up for any group of people that are struggling or outcast. See what happens.

Someone in a former parish once said to me, “Why don’t you stop talking about immigrants and just preach the gospel?” I responded, “Which gospel is that?”

I don’t know of any gospel without a call to love the stranger, feed the hungry, love the unloved, preach good news to the poor.

I read somewhere: How effective would Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God have been had it not been accompanied by his ministry of healing in the community?

Think about this. What if Jesus had just preached? I believe his message would have lacked authenticity. Our preaching informs our ministry in the world. Our ministry in the world informs our preaching. One without the other is bereft of substance.

How effective will our preaching be if it is not accompanied by a healing ministry in the community? Will it be bereft of substance? Will it lack the inescapable sense of real world truth? “Preach the gospel always,” said St. Francis, “if necessary use words.”

Friar and priest Brennan Manning challenges our churchy private clubs: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

If we really want to get people to respond to the call of the gospel, the preacher might consider providing a list of opportunities to participate in healing ministries of the congregation, of other congregations, and in the community. It could be part of the worship registration card or another piece. Give people an opportunity to sign on the dotted line. “I’m interested in finding out more about…” This doesn’t commit them, but gives them a chance to respond tangibly to your message. Too often we inspire people, bring them to the edge of the water, the send them home without a chance to respond to the good news and call of the gospel.

Have your stewardship team follow up with these responses. Don’t limit yourself to what your congregation is doing. Another neighboring congregation may have a great Alzheimer’s program. Include it. Meals on Wheels is looking for volunteers. List it. List contact information, so that they can take initiative, but don’t leave it at that. Have a team ready to call with information and questions. “What interested you about this? “What have you done before?” “When have you served in the past in a way that moved you?” “Where is God calling you to serve these days?”

The power of Jesus’ witness lay in the irresistible combination of his teaching with authority and his healing with compassion. It’s an unbeatable combination, still today. If Jesus is teaching his fledgling disciples to fish for people, they will learn to do the same. So will we. Our best evangelism program, our best fishing, will be lives given in love for the world. When people see the church doing what it’s supposed to be doing, what Jesus did, they will sit up and take notice. People want to be part of a movement that is making a difference in the world, impacting lives, serving in Jesus’ name.

EPIPHANY 3B – January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – After the incident with the big fish, God told Jonah again to go and call Ninevah to repentance. He did. They believed him. The king called a fast and told the people to turn from evil and violent ways. God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.

Psalm 62:5-12 – For God alone my soul waits in silence… Steadfast love belongs to the Lord, who repays all according to their work.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – The appointed time has grown short. Don’t get married, grieve, rejoice, shop or deal with the world. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus preaches in Galilee and calls disciples: The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good news. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to fish for people. Jesus calls James and John.

Some traditions recognize the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25.

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Texts can be found here.

5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

Fish!

The Calling of the Apostles
The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

The text for this coming Sunday is Mark 1:14-20:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Last week we had the story of Philip and Nathaniel from John 1. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. Philip responds, “Come and see.”

This week we have a call of Simon and Andrew and James and John, sons of Zebedee, as recorded in Mark 1.

Jesus proclamation of the Good News

The first thing is to observe the content of Jesus’ preaching according to Mark.

  1. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
  2. Believe the good news.

It strikes me that the first is indicative and the second is imperative. My New Testament professor pointed out that Paul does the same in his letters. Indicative, followed by the imperative. First, what God has done or is doing, then what we need to do. After 11 chapters about what Christ has done and is doing, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, be transformed by the renewal of your mind, don’t think too highly of yourselves, be devoted to one another, bless those who curse you,” and so on. Imperative.

It seems to me our preaching is vapid if we don’t have both the indicative and the imperative. If we have the imperative without the indicative (do this, don’t do that), then the sermon is all law and no gospel. If we have just the indicative and no imperative, no call to follow Christ, no invitation to respond to the gospel, then we have cheap grace, grace without the cross, grace without a call.

In Mark, Jesus begins with good news. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Marcus Borg points out that Jesus’ use of kingdom language is political. The Roman Empire did not call itself an “empire.” That’s our word. Their word was “kingdom,” η βασιλεια (basileia). It was the Kingdom of Rome. Jesus juxtaposes the Kingdom of Rome with the Kingdom of God.

Today we might do the opposite. Since kingdom language is rarely used, except in a few Middle Eastern monarchies, we might talk about the kingdom of God as the empire of God, or the government of God. That might help people not tune out the language, and help them appreciate the radical nature of what Jesus was preaching. A new empire.

The Kingdom of Rome was a system of domination. Wealth and power flowed to the few. You did what you were told or you were crucified. Jesus proposes an alternative, in the prophetic tradition. It’s probably what got him crucified. He’s very political. If he had wanted to avoid politics, he could have found another way of saying this.

This Kingdom of God coexists with the Kingdom of Rome, but transcends it. The Kingdom of God is breaking in now, Jesus says, because the time is right. The many healings that follow in Mark’s gospel are a sign that this is so.

The second part of Jesus’ preaching is, “Repent and believe the good news.” Borg points out that we often think of “repenting” as “feeling bad for our sins.” But repentance actually means changing our mindset. Repent (μετανοειτε), means to change, or transform your mind. We need to meta our noia.

Canadian Indigenous Bishop Michael MacDonald points out that our society does not have the capacity to think of sin as systemic. We view it as personal autonomous behavior. We look for a perpetrator to blame. But racism rarely has one person to blame. It’s baked into the laws, into our culture, into our mindset. That is what needs to change.

In Romans 12. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” the gospel is about something that happens in our minds. It’s thinking about the world differently. It’s a different world view, mindset. It requires a transformation, a change of mind, almost like being born all over again. In Philippians, Paul says, “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus…” He goes on to talk about Jesus’ emptying of himself for God. Being “in Christ” is about dying to yourself, emptying yourself, and transforming your mind.

The gospel calls us, invites us, to see the world differently, and believe the good news. What good news is Jesus telling us to believe? The good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus? Probably not. Jesus was not asking people to believe any doctrines. He was asking them to believe the good news just stated: It’s time; the Kingdom of God is breaking in.

Gordon Lathrop’s book, The Four Gospels on Sunday, is a terrific read. Lathrop points out that the genre of gospel was invented by the evangelists (contrary to Ben Witherington III, who claims Mark is a bios, a biography in the classic sense, promoting virtues, like Plutarch’s biographies). Lathrop presumes Mark invented the gospel, since Mark is generally accepted as the oldest gospel. (Some might argue for Thomas.) The gospels conveyed the good news of Christ. The literary genre was new, but the idea of good news was not.

“Good news” (τω ευαγγελιω in today’s text) was what the Emperor brought back from a military battle. The good news was the good news of victory. More subjects. More power. More slaves. More revenues. Less taxes (none for those in Rome). Caesar’s victories mean the gods are on Rome’s side, and on his side, as emperor. The gospel writers juxtapose Caesar’s good news with Jesus’ good news, which they present as better news. For Caesar, the good news was that Rome wins, peace is restored in the the world through the pax romana. For the gospel writers, the good news is God wins, the poor win, the marginalized of the world win.

The preacher has the joyful challenge of bringing home this good news. We create a bubble where our cultural worldviews, the capitalistic worldview, the military worldview, the Republican worldview, the Democratic worldview, the socialist worldview, and all our other worldviews give way to the gospel’s worldview. We begin to see what is important to God, through Jesus – through his life and ministry. If we do our job well, with story and vision, our listeners say, “Ahhhhh. Yes. It’s true! I get it! I see it! That’s what really matters in the world.”

And then, like a one-two punch, while they’re still fully in the Kingdom of God bubble, we hit them with the imperative: repent and believe. Because of what God is doing, here’s what we have to do! Indicative and imperative. Good news and call to discipleship. Before they walk out those doors and the other worldviews begin to push out the Kingdom of God, we invite them to commit to acting on that Kingdom. We invite them to eat bread and drink wine, and to become what they eat: the body of Christ.

It might be like this: Yes, hurting people matter to God! And if so, they matter to me too. God promises to be present when we serve the least of these. Therefore, I need to arrange my life so that I bump into these folks, for their sake and for mine. What opportunities are available to me? Where do I sign?

Ultimately, the gospel is about the transformation of our minds, so that we are part of God’s transformation of the world that God loves so much. It’s not about growing churches. It’s about growing disciples that serve the world in Jesus’ name. As Reggie McNeal pointed out, Jesus did not say, “I have come that you might have church, and have it abundantly.” Our product is not church. It is transformed lives, that transform the world in Jesus’ name. “Church” is simply the community of those who have been baptized into this vision, God’s vision for the world.

Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John

This preaching leads unquestionably to the calling of disciples, those who will live out this gospel, as the body of Christ. Jesus goes hunting, or rather, fishing for those who will be caught up in this vision of the kingdom of God. He calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, to drop their nets and leave their family businesses behind, in order to devote themselves full-time to the kingdom of God. Not everyone is called to do this, to leave their nets, to leave their job. We are all called to devote ourselves full time to the gospel, but not everyone has to leave their business to do so. Jesus’ call to Simon, Andrew, James and John, to drop their nets and follow Jesus on his itinerant ministry of healing and exorcism, is not for everyone. One wonders what their father Zebedee thought about this. Their spouses? We ministers of the gospel are challenged to this calling, but the vast majority of Christians are called to a baptismal vocation served out in the world, in their life situations. The preacher must address this.

Jesus says that he is going to teach them a new vocation, a different kind of fishing: fishing for people. He is not above analogizing the market. Instead of gathering fish, they will be gathering people, into the Kingdom of God. He will spend the next couple of years training them to do so, on the job, through ministries of compassion and healing, through preaching, teaching and baptizing. This is what we are called to do as well. We are fishers of people.

I love it that James and John are mending the nets. There’s a certain amount of net mending that has to take place if the fishing is going to get done. We sometimes make the distinction between maintenance and mission, or maintenance and ministry. This is a helpful distinction, but make no mistake, communities need maintenance too. Steven Oelschlager, ELCA Stewardship Program Director, talks about the difference between learning about nutrition, learning how to cook, and learning how to run a restaurant. All are about food, but knowledge and expertise in one area does not imply anything about the others. I take Steven’s comments like this: theologians are nutritionists. When we pastors and deacons preach the gospel, we are cooking. Then there is running a congregation. This latter is important too, if we want evangelizing communities to thrive.

The nets are the tools of the trade. If you told a fisherman, “Don’t worry, God provides the fish”, s/he would say, “Of course, but we’ll still need nets, right?” And as the net technology advances we will want to keep up. When new kinds of nets become available, that don’t break as easily or rot as quickly, we will want to keep up on our game.

It might be worth our time as a church to think about how much time we spend fishing, and how much time we spend mending nets. We probably spend too much time sitting in the boat mending nets. Congregational leaders (lay and clergy) who spend most of their time in the boat will likely not be effective at fishing. If James and John sat in the boat all day mending nets, there would be no fish. If, however, they spend the whole time fishing, and don’t take care of their nets, they’ll eventually have problems. Both are important.

I once read an article that said stable/declining churches spent 80% of their time in committee meetings and 20% of their time doing ministry. Their research showed that growing churches spend 80% of their time in ministry, and 20% of their time in meetings. In other words, 80% fishing and 20% net-mending. Sounds right. My years as a pastor lead me to believe that most people would prefer to fish. Most people would rather be actively engaged in ministry than sitting on a team that organizes.

Russ Crabtree just came out with a book called The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective. He found, after surveying 288 ELCA congregations and 57,000 members, most people perceive their ELCA congregation to be more inwardly-focused than outwardly-focused. It may be counter-intuitive, but internally-focused congregations are rarely happy ones. This is, after all, the point of the gospel. Until we die to ourselves, we do not find joy. It is part of The Gulf Coast Synod’s mission statement to become a network of “Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations…”

In an article I wrote a few years ago, “Insiders/Outsiders”  https://bishopmike.com/2011/12/05/insiders-and-outsiders/, I suggested that we need to become obsessed with fishing – reaching the outsider. This is not to the exclusion of the insider. When a church grows, it usually does so because it has taught insiders how to fish. Outsiders become insiders, who then become fishers of more outsiders. We work with the insiders by turning them into evangelists. The whole organization becomes bent on welcoming those not yet present.

This text lends itself to further preaching and conversation on evangelism and outreach. Another direction, however, might be to talk about calling. What’s your calling in life? How do you know? What are some of the signposts along the way? How can we become better at listening for God’s call? How can we find others who have the same calling, with whom we can team up?

This is personal stuff. The preacher cannot stay at a safe distance. It’s important to tell your own call story. Why have you, as a pastor or deacon, devoted your own life to this work? If you are a second-career pastor or deacon, what caused you to leave your nets? How did you personally hear this call, internally in your spirit, and externally from others? What were some of the hiccups along the way? Did you have any Jonah moments? What wisdom do you have for your flock in hearing their call?

Those of us who have devoted ourselves full-time as ministers of the gospel have a unique call, but in baptism all are called to a vocation of following Christ and fishing for people, each in our own way. It is a great privilege we share to have the opportunity to help others find their own God-given calling in the context of the good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world. When someone finds their calling, their higher purpose, their ministry, there is great joy. When you help someone find that, they will be eternally grateful. Go, fish for people, make disciples.

 

Epiphany 2B –January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) – The Lord calls to Samuel, who thinks it is Eli. “Speak your servant is listening.”

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Lord you have searched me, and know me… Where can I go to flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. You knit me in my inner parts…

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Your bodies are members of Christ… You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body.

John 1:43-51 – Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me.” Philip goes and tells Nathaniel. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Come and see.”

January 15, 2018 – Martin Luther King Day

Another option for January 14 is to call out the heresy of racism, mourn the division of Sunday morning, preach the dream of justice so embodied in the Scriptures. This theme goes well in Epiphany, which focuses on the nations coming together around Christ.

January 23, 2018 – Mark Allen Powell: Preaching Lent and Easter Sunday

Zion Retreat Center
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 8:30-3:00 PM

$30, includes a continental breakfast and lunch.
Stay overnight on Monday the 22nd and/or Tuesday the 23rd for $45 a night.
Register with Lutherhill by Epiphany, January 6, 2018

January 18-25 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – Texts at this link

January 21, consider preaching on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in which he prays that his followers will be one.

January 25, 2018 – 5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

Epiphany B Gospels at-a-glance

Epiphany 1B (1/7): Mark 1:4-11 –Baptism of Jesus
Epiphany 2B (1/14): John 1:43-51 – Phillip and Nathaniel. Follow me. Come and see.
Epiphany 3B (1/21): Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus calls Simon and Andrew
Epiphany 4B (1/28): Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus rebukes unclean spirits on the Sabbath
Epiphany 5B (2/4): Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus goes away to a lonely place
Transfiguration (2/11): Mark 9:2-9 – Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured

Follow the Dream

The text for this week is focused on Jesus’ call for Phillip to follow him, and Phillip’s invitation to Nathaniel. It’s a great evangelism text. I’m going to offer two reflections. The first picks up on Martin Luther King’s call to follow the path of non-violent justice. The second one, below, talks about becoming a disciple-making congregation.

Jesus’ call to his disciples in this morning’s gospel reading is shockingly simple: Follow me. No bells, no whistles, no fancy marketing technique. Just, “Follow me.” “Do as I do.” There are too many leaders out there who say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Gracious God, give us leaders that can say, “Follow me.” Do as I do. Perhaps the children’s message could be a quick game of follow the leader. Do as I do.

Pastors and deacons need to hear this. People are more likely to follow your lead, than just do what you say. If our words and actions don’t align, our words will sound hollow. This goes for praying, serving, giving, and studing. I am reminded of a Shakespeare quote that Phil Harris, General Counsel for the ELCA shared:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

And what did Jesus do? He traveled around the countryside listening to people, proclaiming God’s love, offering grace, forgiveness, and healing. He blessed children and welcomed outcasts into mainstream society. He had a vision, and he was willing to give his life for the vision. “My hour has not yet come. The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be tortured and crucified and on the third day rise.” He knew who he was and what his life was all about. His life had purpose and direction. He had clarity on his mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

– Luke 4:18-19

Sight to the blind. Justice to the oppressed. Proclamation of jubilee. Jesus knew what he was called to do. What are you called to do?

Everyone needs purpose and direction in life. Without it, we falter. The Bible says, “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Without vision, we are like boats tossed on the water with no direction. What’s your vision?

You say, “I, I don’t know what…” If you don’t know, then pray, and pick something and go after it. Any vision is better than no vision. That’s probably not true, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there. Families die for lack of vision. Churches die for lack of vision. Countries die for lack of vision.

Set a vision for yourself. Set one for your family. Set one for your extended family. Set one for your church. Sure, you’re going to have to do the hard work of convincing others of your vision, but that’s half the fun. It’s a lot more fun than no vision, right.

Think of the people you know who have had a clear sense of vision. Who are they?

Martin Luther King had a clear sense of mission. Pastor King and his flock experienced first hand the institutionalized racism that was all around. There were separate black and white drinking fountains, separate black and white schools. Blacks were required to sit in the back of the bus so that whites could sit in the front. What does one do when one is confronted with injustice? Do you take up arms? King believed in Jesus’ nonviolent way. He had read about Gandhi. He was convinced there were other ways to combat injustice. Maybe you boycott the busses, the system itself. In 1955, King became involved in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. The boycott worked, bringing the bus company to its knees.

In the coming years, they applied the nonviolent protest model to many other situations, in various places. Albany, Georgia. Birmingham, Alabama. Selma. In 1963 the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought together a quarter of a million people who called for desegregation of schools, civil rights legislation, protection from police brutality, a minimum wage, and more.

It was at that march that King preached his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech was laced with images from years of preaching the gospel.

I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brother­hood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…

I have a dream today … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

The work was hard, but productive. So much so, that in 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. His faith was not an armchair faith. It was a faith meant to be lived out in the world, whatever the cost.

King unveiled the scourge of poverty. He decried the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech entitled, “Beyond Vietnam.”

In 1968, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign. On April 4 he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis Tennessee. The museum there is worth your time. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later in London, and sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder.

Why is it, the nonviolent leaders always get assassinated? Jesus, Gandhi, King. They fought with words. With kindness. They took blows, but did not return them. And it cost them. Jesus says, “Count the cost. Take up your cross and follow me.”

Later, King would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work, which is still maligned in the racist corners of the U.S. His birthday is now a national holiday.

There is plenty of injustice today. Racial injustice. Gender inequality. Income inequality. Hatred and prejudice abounds. Which injustices bother you most? To what ministry is God calling you? Are you willing to respond? Put your life on the line?

“I’m no saint,” you may say. That’s okay. Dr. King was far from perfect. Don’t let that stop you. The Bible is filled with stories of imperfect people that God used for God’s purposes in the world. Moses and Paul were even murderers! Don’t wait for perfection before responding to God’s call.

Follow me, Jesus calls. You.

Phillip and Nathaniel: From Crowd, to Committed, to Core

This is our last text from the Gospel of John until Lent 3, John 2, the Cleansing of the Temple.

In Epiphany the gospel moves outward, centrifugally. The coming of the Magi is about the gospel for the Gentiles, the nations, not just the disciples’ own people. In John 1 this week, Philip shares the gospel with Nathaniel. There is a lot to learn about evangelism and witnessing in this text.

Charlie Brown cartoon
Rebecca McDonald, our former office manager in the Gulf Coast Synod, now Director of Music at Covenant, Houston, once shared this cartoon with staff:

Perhaps this week, and the weeks to come, would be a good time to talk about how we share our faith. Thursday begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This week we have Philip witnessing to Nathaniel. Next week Jesus tells his disciples he will teach them to fish for people.

We can see in today’s text that witnessing is not arm-twisting, but simply sharing what you’ve found. It’s hard for people to argue with your personal experience. It is what it is. Philip’s comments are a kind of fishing for people (next week’s text). He dangles the bait, and Nathaniel bites.

Know that when people bite, it may be snarky: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you share what God is doing in your life or in your church or in the world, don’t be surprised if people are a bit leery. Some have been burned by religious folks. They’re likely to be suspicious. Expect skepticism. I’m impressed that Philip is not put off. How do you respond to a snarky question like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” or “Can anything good come out of the institutional church?” My gut, as a lover of the church, is to say, “Of course!” Perhaps Philip’s response is better, “Come and See.”

This comment suggests that evangelism is a community effort. Philip is not saddled with the burden of proving or convincing. His role is only to invite. He is not responsible for Nathaniel’s response. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I would observe that while Philip was prepared for Jesus’ deeper invitation into discipleship: “Follow me,” perhaps Nathaniel was not. Not yet, anyway. Most newcomers are not ready to make a deep commitment. They’re checking you out. Their only commitment so far is to “come and see.” They might not even stay to the end of the service, small group or activity they’re visiting. When inviting people into a life of faith, we need to be intuitive enough to not under-challenge people, or over-challenge people.

community crowd congregation committed coreRick Warren suggests we are dealing with five different groups of people: the community, the crowd, the congregation, the committed and the core. Or at least five stages that people find themselves in at one time or another. Each requires a different approach. You can’t relate to these folks the same way. Jesus didn’t. To one he says “Follow me.” To another, “Come and see.” To another, “I’m coming to your house today.” To another, “How about some water from that well?”

As leaders of congregations, we need different strategies to reach people at different stages. To the community you say, “Come and see.” They may have no commitment to the mission of the church. They’re not ready to be invited to tithe. They’re probably not ready to be invited to join. I have yet to see anyone join a church before visiting. Evangelism begins with an invitation. “Come and see.”

This means, of course, that a congregation intent on making disciples needs to have something people can actually come and see. Come and see our committee meeting, or worse, come and see us fight about something inconsequential at our congregational meeting, is not going to appeal to anyone. It’s more like repellant. There need to be multiple, compelling, life-giving entry points.

Where does the gospel meet the world in the life of your congregation? Come and see us play with children. Come and see us serve those in need. Come and see the joyful worship life we have. Come and see how we gather in homes to study, to eat, talk about life, and care for each other. Come and see how we make life-long friends.

Big events can also be “Come and See” opportunities. Easter is a great time to invite. Shape worship so that every Sunday is a super time to invite. Let preaching be compelling, life-giving and relevant. Let ministry be vibrant and enticing. Have an event once a quarter off of Sunday morning that’s fun and inviting. Include food, free food, or at least free will offering, so that the poor can eat and guests find hospitality. Some folks will come to a social event long before they’ll ever step foot in worship.

Doing evangelism as a team can be fun. There is no magic to it. It’s inviting people to be part of something worth being a part of. It’s inviting people to make friends, something most people want. It’s inviting people to be in relationship, with one another and with God.

The church evangelizes one-on-one, but one or two conversations aren’t going to be life-changing. Evangelism in community is much more effective and long-lasting. Phillip doesn’t have to convince Nathaniel. He just invites him to “come and see” what they are doing.

This is where large seminal events can be helpful. Jesus invited Philip to follow him, one-on-one in this Sunday’s text, but later his reach expanded as he fed the five thousand. John the Baptist had mass baptisms. Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Evangelism takes place both through one-on-one interaction, but also through seminal events that allow people to bump into each other, so that good things (including one-on-ones) happen. Invite the community in. Neighborhood gatherings. Oktoberfest. VBS. Your preschool. Christmas concerts, programs, worship. Organize a prayer vigil around a community concern. Find a way to draw a crowd.

Once you have a crowd, your message shifts. Draw the crowd into a deeper place. Invite them to help with a Habitat House. Many people come into the church through the servants’ entrance. They become a part of what the church is doing before they become a part of the church. People want to participate in ministry, not become members of an institution. Invite them to have a low-commitment opportunity to participate in something that matters. Invite them to a small group Bible study. First find a way to draw a crowd, then make sure every event you have that draws a crowd has an invitation to go deeper. Have fliers about the various ministries and small group opportunities of the congregation laying around so guests can’t miss them. Be sure to give a verbal welcome and invitation at every event. This is how evangelism works. It’s gradual, organic, communal. It takes a community.

Once people are a regular part of the crowd, invite them to a deeper commitment: to become part of the congregation. Frequent invitations to a new member class or forum let people know they are welcome to be part of the family. If you use the catechumenate or Alpha, be sure fliers are everywhere and people are verbally invited regularly. Be sure your new member class is more than club orientation. Don’t assume everyone knows what the church is, or the Bible or the Christian faith. Feed them. Teach them about daily prayer. Introduce them to faith practices like table prayer, Scripture reading, generosity and serving. That way, by coming into relationship with the congregation, they are also coming into relationship with Christ.

Once people are part of the congregation, make sure they get connected with a small group or choir. If folks don’t make friends, or get connected to a ministry group within six months, they will fade away. Use the new member class to introduce them to opportunities. Many churches, effective at welcoming newcomers, turn the new member class into a new small group. It’s often very hard to graft newcomers on to an existing group with history. Members of the congregation need to be challenged to “Follow me.” “Come and see” no longer works. They already have. They need meat. Help people not just join a group, but to find their calling in life. Where do my gifts and passions meet the worlds need? How is God calling me to serve? People will find fulfillment when they make sacrificial commitments to things that have holy significance. This is the deeper invitation Jesus gives to Philip and Andrew, James and John: Drop what you’re doing and follow me.

Not everyone will take this plunge. The road becomes increasingly narrow. Some will choose the way of the world over the way of the gospel. This is an irrefutable reality experienced by the church of every age, and even Jesus himself. Consider the rich young ruler. If you are going to invite people to give their lives away for the sake of the gospel, prepare yourself to be disappointed more often than not.

For those who move from the congregation to the group of committed folks, some will have high-level leadership capacity. They will not only be committed, but be prepared to lead others into commitment. Some will be prepared to spearhead groups of the committed to efforts that cannot be done by individuals alone. Some will be called to be part of the core. This will be the smallest group. Choose carefully.

I’ve invited newcomers to become part of the core too soon. It’s not pretty. They may be new to the faith. They have fallen in love with grace, with Jesus, with mission. We then invite them into the inner circle of leaders and they are exposed to the dark underbelly of the organization. They hear the complaints, mediate the angry divisions, struggle with the organizational deficits, bottom lines and other realities. They become overwhelmed and potentially sour. And frankly, ministry for the sake of the world can lead us to the cross. I could imagine hearing Nathaniel say, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Not everyone is ready. Not everyone has the stomach for the rigors of leadership. They are like the seed that feel on the shallow soil, sprung up quickly, then withered in the sun because they had no root. Jesus knew what he was talking about.

Everyone in the wider community should be invited to join the crowd. Everyone in the crowd should be invited to the congregation. Everyone in the congregation should be invited to deeper commitment. Not all of the committed, however, should be invited to be part of the core. An enthusiastic man once wanted to join Jesus’ inner circle of itinerant disciples. Jesus declined the request, telling he man to focus on ministry where he was. Jesus didn’t go running after the rich young ruler. Don’t invite all of the committed to be part of the core, and certainly don’t invite the uncommitted or nominally committed, with the hopes of jump starting them. Your core will set the course for your congregation’s ministry. Choose those who are spiritually mature, with a demonstrated track record of faith, commitment and follow-through. In 1 Timothy 3:6, the apostle says overseers of ministry (episkopoi) should not be recent converts. This sounds like wisdom borne from experience.

Epiphany is a great time to rethink our evangelism efforts. There are congregations that are disciple-making organisms, but this takes a team effort. It requires preaching, organization and training. This coming Sunday’s John 1 “come-and-see” and “follow-me” gospel and next Sunday’s Mark 1 “drop-your-nets-and-learn-to-fish-for-people” texts lend themselves to this theme. They also lend themselves to messages about hearing God’s call in our lives.

If your annual meeting is coming up, think about it evangelically. Think of it as a celebration of what God is doing in your community, and what you believe God is calling you to do in the coming year. Show pictures that bring people to tears – tears of joy at what God is doing, not tears from being part of a family squabble. Make plans to go into the world. We are missionaries who are sent. Jesus didn’t sit in the Temple. He went out into the world. We follow a “GO” God. Abraham and Sarah were called to GO from their home and kindred to a place they did not know. Moses was called to GO to Pharaoh. Jonah was called to GO to Ninevah. Isaiah was called to GO to Judah. Samuel, in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, was called to go. Jesus told his followers, “GO. Make disciples.” So, just as Jesus was called by God to go into the world, we in the church are also called to GO into the world, inviting them to come and see, inviting them to find joy and challenge in following Christ.

Native Americans in Houston

I have only begun to learn about the Native Americans in the Houston area. I have yet to learn about southern Louisiana and other areas in our synod, like the Atakapa, who lived from what is now Houston to what is now New Orleans, in several “bands”: Opelousas, Alligator, Snake, and the Akokisas.

The synod office now sits on land that once belonged to the Karankawa (see the historical marker placed at Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island) or the Akokisas (a band of the aforementioned Atakapa, who lived along Galveston Bay and the lower Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers in what is now the greater Houston area). One of these (probably the Karankawa) was the first band of Native Americans reported here by Cabeza de Vaca in 1535. “The Spaniards’ journals give in-depth descriptions of life in the community—creating dugout canoes, fishing, gathering plants for food and medicine, and building different shelters to accommodate the seasons.” (“Houston’s Native American Heritage Runs Deep“). Their property was taken away from them, despite Sam Houston’s attempts to protect them. Things, as you can imagine, did not end well.

It is interesting that history is always written by the winners. This area is now called Houston. The victors even have the power to rename a place. The heavily-tatooed Karankawa people (sometimes referred to as the Kronk) lived along the coast down to Corpus Christi. They waded from the shallow waters in the bays to the deep pools with lances or bows and arrows to spear fish. They ate stone crabs, oysters, mussels, sea turtles, shellfish, clams, black drum, redfish, spotted sea trout, and the other abundant species of fish in the nutrient rich waters. During the summer months or hurricane season, when shellfish are not safe to eat, they would migrate inland. They loved dogs.

When Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528, he and his men were cared for and fed by the Karankawa. Starving and desperate, he was the first European to step foot on the soil of what is now the State of Texas. They lived there for six years. Many died of disease. Eventually Cabeza de Vaca trekked south to Mexico City.

In time, more settlers moved in, and settler violence ensued. When attacked for trespassing, they would inevitably fight back and were eventually labeled as vicious cannibals. The dominant culture must always demonize the subdominant culture in order to justify their violence and recruit others. The Karankawa were completely wiped out by 1858.

We only know about 100 of their words. No one ever studied them or learned their history. We have these words because a young girl named Alice Oliver hung out with them in the 1830’s. Her father owned land near the coast. He “let” the friendly Karankawa pass through and camp on “his” land, and allowed his daughter to spend much time with them. In the 1880’s, she recounted as many of their words as she could. When I read Texas history, I sometimes wonder how the Karankawa would tell the story if they were writing our textbooks.

EPIPHANY – January 6, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6– Arise! Shine! Your light has come… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… they shall bring gold and frankincense and bring the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14– Give the king your justice, and righteousness to a king’s son. May all kings fall down before him, and nations give him service.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The mystery made known by revelation: That the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The magi consult with Herod, then visit the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, returning to their country by another road.

THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – January 7, 2018

Genesis 1:1-5 – In the beginning God created, by the Word and the Spirit hovered…

Psalm 29 – Ascribe to the Lord O heavenly beings… glory and strength. The voice of the Lord is over the waters.Acts 19:1-7 – Paul encounters disciples in Ephesus who were baptized with John’s baptism. They are baptized again in the name of Jesus. Paul lays hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

Mark 1:4-11 – John appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and pointing to Jesus. Jesus is baptized, and a voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

January 15, 2018 – Martin Luther King Day
Another option for January 14 is to call out the heresy of racism, mourn the division of Sunday morning, preach the dream of justice so embodied in the Scriptures. This theme goes well in Epiphany, which focuses on the nations coming together around Christ.

January 23, 2018 – Mark Allen Powell: Preaching Lent and Easter Sunday
Zion Retreat Center
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 8:30-3:00 PM
$30, includes a continental breakfast and lunch.
Stay overnight on Monday the 22nd and/or Tuesday the 23rd for $45 a night.
Register with Lutherhill by Epiphany, January 6, 2018 

January 18-25 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – Texts at this link 

January 25, 2018 – 5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

The Baptism of Jesus

This coming Sunday is January 7, so the preacher and worship team have a choice to make. Epiphany, one of the six great feasts of the church year, is on Saturday, January 6. This is also Christmas in some parts of the world. Many congregations will observe this feast on Sunday the seventh. Others hold Epiphany services on Saturday (or whatever day January 6 falls on in any given year), and then will observe the Baptism of our Lord on January 7, the first Sunday after the Epiphany. I will cover both options here.

The Gospel reading for the Baptism of our Lord is from Mark 1. After all the Luke stories of Jesus’ birth, and the Shepherds from Matthew, we now hear Mark’s version of the story. It’s very different than Luke’s and Matthew’s stories.

The earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, has no birth story of Jesus. If you look at the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you will notice that his gospel begins with Jesus, fully grown, and John the Baptist at the Jordan River. The first Gospel has no Christmas.

Likewise, the apostle Paul and his letters mention nothing of an extraordinary birth of Jesus. This is to say, the earliest writings we have of the apostles never mention anything unusual about Jesus’ birth. Paul writes his letters in a period 10-30 years after the crucifixion. There is no mention of Bethlehem in Paul. There is no star, no inn/no guest room, no manger, no shepherds, no Magi and no virgin birth. Either Paul and Mark did not know about the events in Bethlehem, or else they just weren’t important enough to them to mention.

Paul was able to construct a perfectly good theology without Jesus’ birth stories. Mark constructed a perfectly good gospel (the first one, many believe) without an infancy narrative. The fact of the matter is, the birth of Jesus simply wasn’t that important to the early church. Christmas did not become a major celebration until the fourth century. The baptism of Jesus, however, figured prominently.

The birthday of the emperor, the Son of God, was celebrated throughout the empire. In time, the birthday of Jesus, however it came to be set, would gain importance. The earliest mention of a Christmas celebration occurs towards the beginning of the fourth century. There is a brief mention of a group of people who have fixed a date for Jesus birth in Clement of Alexandria, but that date is May 20, and there is no mention of a celebration.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus appears to not have had much significance. In fact, birthdays were less important than death days. The early church ascribed much more importance to Jesus’ baptism.

Here are the very first words of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 1:1–3:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

This Sunday’s Gospel reading begins with verse 4:

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

baptism of our lord

Interestingly, Christian and non-Christian scholars alike believe the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus to be the most certain historical events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Historical studies of Jesus begin with these two events. Jesus’ baptism is described in the first three Gospels. John’s Gospel does not directly mention Jesus’ baptism.

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, according to traditional Christian theology, was sinless, why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? Why be baptized at all?

Admittedly, it seems odd, John baptizing Jesus. In Matthew’s version, even John balks at the idea: John tried to prevent him saying, “Wait. Haven’t we gotten this backwards? Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?” (Matthew 3:14-15, paraphrase) Jesus responds, “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So, being baptized by John is perhaps Jesus’ way of submitting to God’s plan. (Just as Mary did in our Advent IV reading?) Fulfilling all righteousness may be a first reason for Jesus to be baptized.

Jesus came to John, whom he considered to be one of the greatest people ever born (Luke 7:28, Matthew 11:11). Jesus’ baptism is an alignment with John’s vision and mission. This may be a second reason for Jesus to be baptized. Some have suggested that Jesus was a disciple of John. Others have suggested that they had parallel ministries, and that Jesus’ ministry took off with the arrest and subsequent death of John the Baptist.

A third reason: the purpose of baptism is not just repentance. In Acts 2:38, Peter tells people to be baptized for forgiveness and to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the Markan narrative.

A fourth reason: the baptism is the launching of Jesus’ mission and ministry. The affirmation of Jesus’ call from God is made clear in Mark, “You are my Son…” not “This is my Son…” as in Matthew and Luke. This is a private communication between God and Jesus, because in Mark, Jesus’ identity is not known to the other characters in the story, yet. It unfolds. Also, we have a reflection of Psalm 2, the David king as God’s son:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. — Psalm 2:7

These words of affirmation will be repeated on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018, only this time for everyone, “This is my beloved Son…”

Most importantly, Jesus’ baptism anticipates his own death and resurrection. Baptism represents death, and coming out of the waters, resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 says the familiar words:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

The central event of Jesus’ ministry is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. This Sunday may give the preacher an opportunity to talk about baptism as an inauguration of our own ministry, as well as our call to “be buried with Christ” so that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life. Into what ministry have you been baptized?

This Sunday might be a great time for an affirmation of baptism, complete with sprinkling, and a sermon inviting people to consider what ministry God has called them to in their baptism.

The Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. All six feasts fall in six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts.

There was some debate about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.

Some early Christians believed that Jesus’ conception (by the Holy Spirit) was on the same day as his resurrection. Since they set resurrection day around March 25, Frank Senn (The People’s Work) tells us it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21. When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.

For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus.

In the Eastern Church the historical theme was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D. For a while, Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century, John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.

For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot of time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals, because it fascinates me. However, I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”

The coming of the Magi is a tremendous opportunity to talk about gift-giving and generosity. We bring our gifts, whatever we have in our hands to Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to God’s work of renewing the world. I am reminded of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem In The Bleak Midwinter which was set to a brooding hymn tone. The final stanza goes like this:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Coming of the Magi

Another potential theme is global diversity. In the New Testament texts, the coming of the Magi is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading from Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading.

No longer is the divine favor upon only those who eat kosher, observe Sabbath in a strict way, and commemorate Pesach and other festivals. Christ is now our Pesach, our Passover.

Another theme is global mission. The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone. The Magi come from the East (Persia). People of other cultures and other religions come to see something in this Jesus.

Christianity in China will look different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. Christianity, and also Lutheranism, look very different in Latin countries than they do here. This is something to celebrate. The core message is the same, but many of the customs and traditions are different.

In the southern hemisphere, Christmas and Epiphany are not about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus. There, Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.

Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Even a small amount helps! http://www.elca.org/missionaries. Get started with a special Epiphany season offering.

Another theme is local mission. Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world?

ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” The word μάγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.

Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.

Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.) Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.

The Hellensitic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician), was a loan from the old Persian word magus.

Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” indicating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to an older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), in Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is usually translated “magician.” This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.

The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) also translates magus as “magician,” except in this Sunday’s text from Matthew, where it is transliterated “Magi” or translated “wise men.” This is an odd choice based more on legends than linguistics. Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew.

Consider reading it like this: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

The Magi were pagans. These pagans were interested in Jesus. There is great symbolism here. Pagans today are interested in Jesus is well, they just seem disillusioned with the church. Instead of seeing those who are disillusioned with the church as enemies, what might it look like to honor the spiritual hunger they have, and the righteous indignation they have when religious communities are more self-focused and other-focused? How might welcome them to the manger?

Finally, there are also power themes in this text. Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power.

We have here a continuation of the paradoxes, opposites we heard in the Christmas story. Angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, mortality versus the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (Rev. 12:1-4)

A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Mary. Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Herod? Or Rome (city of seven hills)?  Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation, and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.

Tangent: In 1529 Johann Cochlaeus used the above Revelation text to disparage Luther. His treatise has a woodcarving of a Seven-headed Luther on the cover.

seven headed martin luther

Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority, or to the power structures of the day. With all the demonstrations that have been taking place, when is it appropriate to challenge civil authority? A few years ago there was an execution of 132 children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Herod’s execution order does not sound so far-fetched. It still happens today. In our own country, there have been over 200 school shootings since 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Perhaps this is a Sunday to pray for children everywhere. Children trafficked. Children in danger. Children and their families running for their lives. Refugees, most of whom are children.

I leave you with a poem by Ann Weems, from her book, Kneeling in Bethlehem.

The night is still dark

The night is still dark

And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth

Killing the children to stay in power

The world still knows its Herods

And the world still knows those persons

Wise enough

To follow a star

Those who do not consider themselves

Too intelligent

Too powerful

Too wealthy

To kneel to a child…

Ann Weems

Schwarzkopf On War

“War is a profane thing.”

“Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.”

— General Norman Schwarzkopf

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