January 5, 2020

Pastor Tammy Sharp

Jeremiah 31:4-14 Ephesians 1:3-14 John 1:1-18 Matthew 2:1-12
In recent weeks, I have had the very unexpected pleasure of spending time with a couple of people who were part of my youth groups, oh so many years ago. As I walk away from those conversations, I literally stop and say a prayer of thanks to God that a) I have been blessed to be a part of their journey and b) that the Spirit worked things out just right so that I could not screw things up. I left college at 21 and moved the nearly 1100 miles from Cedar Falls, Iowa to Alvin, Texas. I really thought I knew what I was doing. I had life figured out. I knew God wanted me in ministry. My life experience alone set me up to understand things maybe a little more than many my age. I had been working in youth programs since I started High School and been in Bible Studies at least that long. I was ready. I thought. I jumped in to the unknown not realizing how much unknown there was. What I know now at the age of nearly 56 is that at 21 God had sent me on a journey into the unknown when I thought I knew. I think my journey to this time and place in my life and faith is not unlike the journey that the wisemen from the east.
I have decided that today should be marked as the Festival of Holy Mystery! It is the second Sunday of Christmas and we have this text from the Gospel of John that is poetic and profound and, if we are completely honest, a bit mystical. It draws us to the understanding that Jesus has always been and Jesus is God. It reminds us of the great gift of Christ is “The word became flesh and dwelt among us”. And, this prologue to John’s Gospel leaves us with that question that is always lingering among Christians, if we are perfectly honest with each other: “If Jesus (the Word) Was with God, how can Jesus BE God? If Jesus is God’s Son, than how exactly is Jesus God? And when we allow ourselves to even begin to wrestle with these burning questions, our heads get a bit overloaded like a computer working to hard and we may even find ourselves, or at least our faith, crashing and burning, or at least, needing a serious reboot of sorts. John does not start His Gospel with a gripping story of Jesus Birth or even his Baptism. John hits hard from the beginning and throws the greatest of the Holy Mysteries in our face. MIND BLOWN!
And then, looking to tomorrow, the day of Epiphany, we have the story from Matthew’s Gospel, of the Magi (of no particular number) from the East coming to pay homage to the new “King of the Jews”. Now, this story has become a part of the Nativity narrative for most of us, but it isn’t until tomorrow (though we put them in the nativity today) that these “Wisemen” come to meet Jesus. We place these “kings” who were really Magi; Astronomers to be precise, in our story of the birth of Jesus and it looks really nice on greeting cards and in our manger scenes. We may have debates over weather these were Kings of sorts or some sort of sorcerers or just really good Astronomers, but we never really get around the wrestling with the Holy Mystery that is the story of the Magi: Why would individuals from a far off land, or at least far by the first century standards, look in the sky and see some bright star and come to understand it marked the coming of the King of the Jews, when not even the Jewish wisemen of sorts knew this was happening? Why would God reveal this miraculous thing to individuals who were not even awaiting this messiah? And, knowing, however that happened, that this was the “King of the Jews”, why would they care enough to go a see for themselves? Have you ever stopped to think about these dudes that are so prominent in our Nativity and what in heavens name they are doing there?
I know that you are all sitting on the edge of your seats dying to know the answers to these deep abiding mysteries that I have thrown in your face this morning. I am a pastor who studies a bit to prepare these messages. So surely I have a riveting answer for it all. NOPE. Sorry. Holy Mysteries are that. They are good to ponder and even to debate and discuss, but at the core of both of these words given to us in scripture is the message not the answer.
John may have been trying to be poetic and share the message of Christ coming into the world in a way that may catch the attention of people looking for more than a nice story. Maybe John had a bit of a, dare I say, “mean streak” in him and wanted people to scratch their heads and think a little harder. But the message is that God is God, greater than we can imagine and God loves us enough to become flesh and dwell among us. God, in Jesus Christ, gave it all in order that we might see God at work in the world. We will never be able to fully know or understand what that really looks like, but we know that means we are loved beyond measure. Of all Creation, God did not wait for us to come to God. God comes to us!
And those Magi. I have no idea what would stir these learned individuals so much that they would travel a great distance to see what they knew to be the King of a people of faith they were not a part of! When they finally got to their destination, and found this young child (not the infant) playing beside his mother, I can only imagine the way the Holy Spirit moved within them, that they would know for certain that their journey was not in vein. While their gifts to this child were of great value, at least in part, they were also things that were used at the time of someone’s death. Now there is the sort of baby shower gift you want to get right! They followed this star, thinking they knew exactly what they were doing, only to find out that there was so much more than just a child to be honored. They stepped out in their faith in the stars, not God, and God met them in that home where Jesus was because they were willing to go and see.
The people of God had a very distinct understanding of what they KNEW the messiah would be like. They certainly had scripture to support all that they thought they knew. They could not imagine that The great God of the universe would come as a helpless child. Let’s face it. It doesn’t make sense. Holy Mystery! So God began to reveal Jesus to the world through people who were willing to seek and learn. And pay attention. Throughout scripture, God has not changed. God has always used nobody misfits who mess things up along the way. God comes to the unlikely because they are not stuck on who and what God should be so they can see.
Remember my arrogant move to Texas? Young and wise beyond my years, I was stepping into what I THOUGHT I fully knew, only to realize that God’s plan was for me to really see how little I know and how very much I had to rely on God and not my own understanding.
I thought I was pretty enlightened. I lived in the same town for the better part of 21 years. My family all lived relatively close by. I vacationed in Minnesota with my family and family friends. I went on mission trips to experience new things. I talked with people who were different than me. All in the safe confines of my home town, supported and protected by my church and the amazing people who were and still are a part of the youth programs there. But I didn’t know what it meant to really step out in faith until I came to the realization that many of the things I thought I knew with all certainty were not quite what I knew them to be. As I came to know people who not only had a different color of skin but an entirely different culture, even within the US, I began to discover how God was at work through them and in them and God changed me. When I actually sat with kids who were struggling with their sexuality and the fact that they were different, and I saw Jesus’ love in them, I realized I had a lot to learn. I thought I was coming to give a great gift, only to realize it is I who was gifted with a deeper understanding of this mysterious God found in Christ Jesus. I am one of those Magi who thought I was following a star to give a gift. SURPRISE.
Here is the very important message I think the Holy Spirit is working hard to give us: “The God of the universe, who became one of us to show us the greatest love of all, cannot be contained”. What you think you know, is a fraction of what God wants you to know and quite frankly, could be wrong. Sometimes, you will just know and yet, you have to be open to seeing that God has something new for you to see. I stepped out in arrogance more than faith. I thought…. So I jumped in and God loved me anyway. God calls us to step out in faith. I mean, God means you are to do some stepping. YOU need to be in motion; Actually, doing something that will stretch your knowledge and understanding of God. And the only way I know to do that is to get to know people more. Listen more; experience more; try something knew; know that you will get it wrong but God will use that too. Don’t make assumptions and be willing to see the surprises God sets before you.
I used to be certain about who would go to heaven. Not a statement of judgment. At least I didn’t think so. Just a statement knowing a few Bible verses. And then this Muslim boy showed Godly love when I was in the most need of God’s love. A gay man expressed the love of God and faith in ways I had never seen. A swarm of young Ethiopian children showed me what it means to be grateful and find joy in all circumstances. And a church full of people who are greatly flawed showed me deep love and compassion when I did not have the time and energy give much of anything. I now know that I know very little. I know that God is bigger than my understanding and that I, no WE will never know or understand God fully and that is a great gift. But that 21 year old arrogance only melted away when I was pushed into listening to people I didn’t understand, and experience life through the eyes of people who are so very different than me.
We all like to be where we are comfortable but comfortable is only valuable when we are need of rest. WE really don’t learn much or grow as human beings and certainly as people of faith, when we are comfortable. AS the year 2020 begins, make a resolution to be a little uncomfortable on a regular basis. Sit with someone and hear about their life without giving commentary or advice. Just listen. Experience life through their eyes. You don’t have to agree with them, but we do need to understand them. God is at work in them too.
Go to a new place not to be a tourist but to step into the lives and culture to better understand how they experience God. You don’t have to move there. But you will go home with a new understanding of how God works in the world. And you will be blown away by how big God really is.
I don’t know how Jesus, The Word, was with God and was God. I don’t know how Jesus can be the Son of God and be God. Frankly, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter in this life. It only matters that our great God is at work in the world and desires to continually work in and through us. That is the life call of a chrsitn.
We Christians are blessed to know the story of this child born in a manger that comes to welcome the outcast and feed the hunger and give hope to the hopeless, and who died that we might have life. We know of the resurrected Christ who has promised us life eternal. But if we think we know the mind of God, we will not be able to see the light shining in the darkness, and we will miss so many chances to experience God’s holy Mysteries and surprises.