The central characters of today’s New Testament reading are shepherds. In the Bible, shepherds are treated with a great deal of respect. The first shepherd mentioned in the Bible was Abel. Genesis, Chapter 4, tells us about the nature of Abel. “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.” Abel, the shepherd, was favored by God because of Abel’s humility before God.
Elsewhere in the Book of Genesis, we find Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. In the first book of Samuel, we find God’s favor resting upon another shepherd. God sent a man named Samuel to an out of the way town of Bethlehem to see a man named Jesse. Among the members of Jesse’s family was the future king of Israel. God sent Samuel to anoint the future king with oil as a sign of God’s favor. Samuel asked Jesse to have his sons presented to him.
Scripture tells us, that “6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’ 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ 11 So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’ ‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’ Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’ 12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’ 13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (1 Samuel 16:6-13).
The anointing of David, a shepherd boy and future king of Israel, occurred in the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem. Now, we come back to see that Bethlehem and its shephers was once again the center of God’s attention. Only this time, we need to understand that people of power looked down on shepherds and considered them lazy, unrespectable, smelly, and outside the mainstream of life. Why did the world view the shepherds so differently from Scripture? I think the answer is in the question. The world always looks down on those things and those people God chooses to elevate. How and why did we get back to Bethlehem? Luke said it all happened because the most powerful man on earth, the Roman emperor, Augustus, ordered a census to be taken, a counting of the people. The Roman government conducted periodic counting of people to assess the amount of tax their country should pay the treasury of the Roman Empire. Luke wrote, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1, 3-5).
Joseph and Mary were of the lineage of David, the shepherd. Augustus ordered and Joseph and Mary obeyed. Augustus was considered perfect and the pinnacle of all power. The ruling class that surrounded Augustus revered him. Before the birth of Christ, the leading citizens honored Augustus with these words, “the most perfect good for our lives [came about] by producing Augustus...the benefaction of humankind, [having been sent to] us and those after us a savior …and whereas Caesar when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good news...and whereas the birthday of this god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming...” Augustus the powerful, the revered, the savior, the good news for the world, ordered the misfits of the world to be taxed. Those ordered to be taxed included a young couple Joseph and Mary. They were engaged but not married. They were pregnant but not by each other. They were misfits to the power of Rome and misfits to the society of their own people.
Luke continued the story of the misfits moved by the power of Rome. “6 While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” The misfits, Joseph and Mary, were now parents but that did not change their circumstances. In Bethlehem, they were homeless. There was no room for them in the house of a family member, friend, or stranger. There was only a stable. Mary, Joseph, and the baby were among the unwelcomed and unwanted of the world.
From a human experience they were in awful circumstances. But we need to remember that we are reading from the Bible. The Bible is not the language of humanity about God but is the language of God about Himself that is understandable by humanity. And God does not write stories we might write. God does not raise the proud to even higher heights. God uses the misfits of the world to humble the proud. God elevates the misfits and gives them great purposes. Luke records for us the action of God to use the humble and the people the world considers misfits. Luke wrote, “8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-11). The misfits, the shepherds in the field, looked down upon by the world, were elevated by God and told to look for a savior. A Savior? Where would they find this savior? In the palace of Rome where Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world lived? No. In the Temple of Jerusalem, the place of worship for the High Priest of Israel, the most religious person in the world? No. The savior was not to be found among the powerful. The savior would be found among the homeless laying in an animal’s feeding trough. The savior would be found among those considered misfits. It is in the humblest of locations that makes the savior so accessible.
Luke wrote, “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about’” Luke 2:15). The shepherds immediately left to find the homeless couple and the babe described to them by the angels.
Luke finished the story of the shepherds this way, “16 So they [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they [the shepherds] spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:16-18). The misfits found the baby and shared the good news concerning this child with Mary and Joseph and all who listen to the shepherds’ excited words. Although the shepherds were put down in society, they did not want anyone to miss the message they had received from God. What the shepherds had to say and that they were the ones chosen to announce the news amazed all who heard them speak.
The unwelcomed, the unwanted, and misfits of life had been chosen by God to bring the good news to other people of what God was doing.
Being unwelcomed and unwanted is painful but particularly so at Christmas. In 1964, a Christmas stop motion animated television special was released called Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph and a companion elf named Hermey, misfits both, travel the icy and snowy North Pole regions. In their travels, they arrive at the Island of Misfit toys where they meet such notables as a Charlie-in-the-Box, a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels on its caboose, and a water pistol that squirts jelly, just to name a few. The characters talked about their pain of being called a misfit with the loneliness, the isolation, and the hopelessness. We can all understand those feelings.
Misfits are the people of God. As God said to Samuel when sent to Jesse to find the new king to anoint, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God knew the heart of Mary and Joseph, two nobodies, and knew they were the perfect people for his plan. God knew the heart of these shepherds and knew they were the right people to begin spreading the good news. God knew his message of hope and peace could not come from the high and mighty among the world whether they were of the government or of the religious institutions. Those who have power and prestige do not share the stage with God, so neither does God use them to share the message of hope. God’s good news of hope and peace had to come from the misfits.
Wonder if the good news only comes from misfits? Look at the people this baby, Jesus, would surround himself? Twelve men all either smelly fisherman, tax collectors, or other marginalized people. There were the women who cared for Jesus. The sinner who pour perfume on his feet. Mary Magdalene who had been possessed by seven evil spirits. Speaking of evil spirits, Jesus once healed a man who roamed the cemetery because of the evil spirits possessing him. That man was such a misfit that his own people tried to chain him down. After Jesus healed this man, Jesus told him go and share the news of what God had done with his people. Ten lepers approached Jesus and asked for healing. These men were the ultimate misfits of society. Jesus healed them and said go and show the priests what God had done. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, a misfit to the people of her town. She left Jesus and proclaimed the good news. Christ came as a message of hope for the misfits not the mighty. What of the powerful? Oh, yes, the powerful religious people and powerful governmental forces of Rome would come together and in agreement on Jesus. They would kill him as a misfit.
Not much has changed in the last 2,000 years. Christ and Christmas are still for the misfits. You and I are here today because we, in our own unique ways, we are misfits. You would not seek Jesus unless you were. In Jesus own words, he said those who would come to him be blessed are those who are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, and those who peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-9). These are not the attributes of those who have everything. These are attributes of those seeking a relationship with God. If you did not think of yourself as a misfit before seeking God, rest assured you will be considered a misfit to this society once you do seek God.
Jesus knew the journey of faith for those seeking him would be difficult and at times exhausting. And to give us the strength we need for that journey, Jesus gave us a meal to sustain us. He gave of his body and his blood. His body nourishes our spirit, and his blood cleans us of all sin. Together his body and blood unite us to him and one another. Our status in Christ is changes us from misfit to citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Our inner being is comforted. We are heirs to eternity. We are filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit. We will see God and be called his children. This is not how humanity would write the story. This is how God wrote the story. We know the beginning. We know the ending. We are somewhere in between, on a journey of faith together. Christ and Christmas were made for us misfits and we have a story to tell.
I want to encourage you to be strengthen for the journey as we share the Lord’s Supper. I also want to encourage you to begin thinking about going in haste to share the good news and have people amazed that God chose you to speak to them. Amen and Amen.
We have now entered the Christmas season. Despite COVID-19 virus, the social distancing regulations, and the color-coded zones established by NY State, the calendar relentlessly churns forward toward Christmas Day. Interestingly enough, Christmas day is celebrated by the overwhelming majority of countries across the world. Of the 195 countries in the world, 160 countries have some form of Christmas celebration. Among those nations there are some common traditions and some uncommon practices. A few of the uncommon practices include one from Caracas, Venezuela, where it is the custom to travel to church on Christmas Eve wearing roller skates. In the Ukraine, people add artificial spider webs to their tree decorations. In Spain, it is customary to wear red underwear on Christmas Eve. This is just a sampling of the unusual ways Christmas is celebrated across the world.
A common tradition is putting lights on the Christmas tree. For many of us, putting up the lights can be a stressful event. I read an article about reducing the stress of lighting the tree. A British company, Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job—a Christmas Light Untangler. The job involved 36-hour-a-week with the principle duty being to staff and manage the Christmas Lights Detangling stand. Detangling Christmas lights seems like a great service.
It would also be a good service to the Christian community if we detangled the Biblical story of Jesus from the traditions, customs, and folklore about Jesus birth. Detangling the story of Jesus’ birth helps us understand the true message of Christ from the glitter, tinsel, and wrapping paper that symbolizes Christmas.
I would like us to begin our work at the detangling stand by reading from today’s New Testament reading found in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew. The Bible says, “16 Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16). Then Matthew wrote, “18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (Matthew 1:18a). The first truth we learn from Matthew was that Jesus was the Messiah. What did Messiah mean to the people of Israel?
The Messiah had been promised to Israel by God through the prophets. The Messiah was believed to be a coming king of Israel anointed by God. There were two schools of thought about the Messiah. One group believed the Messiah “king” would be a political leader; a ruler, visible and powerful, and victorious for Israel. On the other hand, there were those who hoped the Messiah would be sent from heaven, part human, part divine, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth. Both groups believed that when the Messiah came, it was the beginning of the end of times.
The promise of a Messiah was found in passages from the Books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi, just to name a few. It had been over 400 years since God spoke about the Messiah making the Messiah’s coming long expected. Even the Romans wrote of an expectation of a king coming from Judea. People were waiting for their version of the king to come.
As we untangle Christmas then, we should see the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, as the answer to prayer and the answer to promises made by God. We should also see Jesus as king, not as a political leader, but as one who invites us to be led by him into God’s kingdom. Christmas Day then should be a celebration of our place in God’s kingdom.
As we look further in verse 16, we notice that Jesus’ mother was Mary, but the name of Jesus’ father was omitted. Matthew was signaling to his readers that Jesus did not have an earthly biological father. Matthew would explain the truth about Jesus’ father a little later but he wanted his readers to wonder, who is the Dad? The second thing we learn was that Jesus was born. Jesus was not created out of thin air. He did not descend from heaven in bodily form. Matthew wrote Jesus was born of Mary. This means Jesus, the Messiah, the king, was fully human. Jesus had the customary ten fingers and ten toes evenly divided over two hands and two feet. Jesus was physically helpless and as dependent upon his mother as any other infant. Jesus’ mother would have wrapped him tight with cloths much in the same way mother’s today wrap their newborn babies in a receiving blanket. But as we detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas traditions, we need to bear in mind that there was no halo encircling Jesus’ head. Jesus did not have blond hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion as is often depicted in paintings and nativity sets. Jesus would have had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. Jesus was a king and a human being.
So in our detangling of Jesus’ life from Christmas tradition, we should celebrate Jesus was as human as we are. Jesus understood the human experience firsthand because he lived it.
Matthew then wrote, “His [Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Mary’s family had arranged her marriage to this man Joseph, but the wedding ceremony had not yet happened. Marriage happened early in life, so Mary was only a teenager. Mary was legally bound to Joseph but still lived in her father’s house. The wedding would occur when Mary’s father decided the time was right. When he decided, then Mary and her family would travel to Joseph’s house for the wedding. Joseph needed to be ready.
Matthew said that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, meaning that Jesus’ father was not human but was God himself. The apostle John would later record these words from Jesus. “6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). Jesus was therefore, human because flesh, Mary, gave birth to flesh. And Jesus was divine, God, because Spirit gave birth to Spirit. This means Jesus had the will of God, the divine and the will of Jesus, the human. Jesus had two wills in one being and yet his two wills were never in conflict. Jesus always wanted whatever his father wanted. Jesus came as king to lead, human to live our experience, and was God who would get things right.
We then read that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and not by him. Matthew wrote, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19). God waited to act through Mary until she was engaged to Joseph and before they were married. Mary was part of God’s plan, and so too was Joseph. An unmarried pregnant young woman was at risk. Her father could have her put out of his home or he could pursue the law and have Mary killed for fornication, sex before marriage. God would use these circumstances to show the character of righteous men through Joseph. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph felt he had two choices: demand Mary be punished under the law with a cry for justice or divorce her as quietly as possible as an act of mercy. Joseph could see no other alternatives. As we detangle the emotions of the moment, we discover that Joseph loved mercy more than justice.
From Joseph’s posture of mercy, Matthew picked up the story again. Matthew wrote, “20 But after he (Joseph) had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:20-24). We detangle the next layer of emotions and discover that God helped Joseph see more options were available to a righteous man. God asked Joseph to be obedience to God even over Joseph’s own sense of mercy. In listening to God and being willing to be led by God, Joseph came to see that Mary, the baby Jesus, and he, Joseph, were part of God’s plan to fulfill his promises. Joseph came to see that God is not a God of chance or improper timing. Nothing about Jesus’ birth was a coincidence and certainly was not a surprise to God. Each person, including Joseph, had been hand-picked by God for a purpose.
So when we detangle Jesus’ birth from the traditions of Christmas Day we realize that God has a plan and that plan includes you and me. In God’s plan, He has a desire for us to be obedient to Him and in doing so we can display God’s righteousness through our lives. As important as Joseph was to the story of Jesus, there is not one sentence recording his words. Joseph showed God’s righteousness by his behavior.
For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people waited for a messenger from God, the Messiah, to lead them as king. Now, in Joseph’s life, God was finally acting. The bitterness Joseph felt in believing Mary had betrayed him was removed and replaced with the joy of doing what God wanted him to do. There was no need for justice or even mercy. The only thing that God required of Joseph was obedience. Matthew wrote, “24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph conformed his will to the will of God. That is what obedience means, conforming two wills into one.
When we think of Christmas Day, we see that God was detangling the idea of Messiah. The Messiah had come as a king. But Jesus did not come to command and demand allegiance by the power of political forces or military might. Jesus came in the flesh to walk with people and talk with them and to love them. Jesus came as God to heal the sick and give hope to those who were lost. Matthew wrote that Jesus came to save people from their sins, sins that would destroy not just their bodies but their souls. Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises.
As we detangle Jesus’ story from Christmas Day traditions, we might ask ourselves some questions in the format commonly used in youth groups with each question beginning with the word, “Would you rather?” Try these questions:
We could go on with this list for quite some time. The point is that we need to detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas Day traditions. When we separate the two, we discover Jesus came to lead us into the kingdom of God. Jesus came to walk with us through the good and the challenging human experiences. Jesus came to reveal the power of God. Jesus came to reveal the plans of God. And Jesus came to invite us to show God’s righteousness through our lives. We will not find any of these wonderful and inspiring realities in our wearing roller skates to church, putting spiderwebs on our Christmas trees, or even wearing red underwear. We can only find the essence of Christmas when we put such things aside and come into the presence of God through Jesus Christ. This year, I encourage you to spend some time at the detangling station and pull from all the Christmas Day traditions the essence of Jesus birth. Amen and Amen.
This Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally, we know this day as a day of feasting and gathering our families, friends, and neighbors. It is a time of sharing with closeness. We know this year will be different. Our gatherings will be small, if at all. Very few will invite neighbors or folks they do not know to join them for dinner. We will not invite the relatives from out of state. Afterall they might have to stay with us for 14 days! Thanksgiving will feel different. Undoubtedly, we will feel some sadness over what or who is not present on Thursday. But on the other hand, perhaps, the changes in the day will give us space to consider more fully the essential elements of Thanksgiving.
In this country, we attribute Thanksgiving Day to the Pilgrims of Plimouth Plantation; that is what they called the original settlement in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were a collection of men, women, and children. They were an odd bunch. They originated in England, lived a time in Holland, and then set sail for America in two small sailing ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. They did not get far before they had to stop. The Speedwell was sinking. The group reassembled with as many on the Mayflower as it could accommodate. Some families were divided. Some never to be reunited again. They ventured across the Atlantic Ocean. Battered by storms and blown off course the ship arrived far north of their intended destination of Virginia. They came ashore in Plymouth, supposedly on what is now, Plymouth Rock.
Why had they come? They came because they wanted something. The spiritual leader of the group, Elder Brewster, said they came because they believed in the new world they would be able to have “The right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to have and to be ruled by the laws of God’s word, dispensed in those offices, and by those officers of Pastors, Teachers, and Elders, and to do according to the Scriptures.” The Pilgrims, from whom we get Thanksgiving, wanted only to worship God in everything they did, period. They desired that nothing be added to the Scriptures and nothing be taken away. And for that opportunity, they would be thankful.
Last week, we spoke about the topic of worship when we briefly spoke about Paul’s letter to the church at Rome and as we heard in our New Testament reading today. Paul said, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1). What is it that Paul wanted his readers to do or not do because of these words and what should we do or not do, some 2,000 years later?
Paul’s message is a call for us to be transformed for and by worship of God. He is seeking a renewal of our minds so that everything we do, not just everything we do when we come together on Sunday mornings, but everything we do, will worship God. If we are honest with ourselves, what Paul is asking frightens us. If we take his message seriously, he is asking us to first to accept Jesus unreservedly and allow Him to make us into a new person, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. Then completely changed, Paul wants us to let the Spirit of God lead us into worship of God in everything we do. This is what the Pilgrims desired; that their lives would be seen as worship of God as the Scriptures made clear. The Pilgrims felt the restrictive government of England would not allow them to worship and live in this manner. So, the Pilgrims moved to Holland. There, in Holland, the Pilgrims learned that the permissive and promiscuous culture of Holland was corrupting their youth and leading them away from the faith. And so they boarded a small ship and sailed across the ocean to find a place where worship was possible. Nearly one-half of the Pilgrims died seeking a place to worship.
To risk one’s life to worship God frightens us almost as much as worshipping God without reservation frightens us. To risk our lives or worship without reservation would cause us to do things we cannot imagine doing. So, we tend to approach this Scripture and worship in the manner described by author Wilbur Rees. He wrote with satire, “I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal, just put it in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please."
Rees’ satire points out that the idea of transformation really scares us. We realize that with transformation comes a major overhaul of our lives and priorities. Worship though, genuine worship of God, is uncomfortable to natural man but is to be the most natural thing to do with one who has Christ within. Because we still fight against our own nature, we tend to treat worship as an optional thing to do. Paul understands these emotions and fears but he has one fear greater than being anxious or uncomfortable in worshipping God. It is the fear of going astray and not worshipping God. Paul does not want to miss an occasion to worship because in worship we acknowledge and rejoice in God’s presence among his people. Paul is concerned that his readers will be paralyzed by fear and stay within the structure of the church itself and worship God only there. We must not let ourselves and our church become as though we were mummies in a museum. Paul calls us to be transformed by and for worship of God.
Let us take a look at Paul’s words from the book of Romans. Paul began his letter this way, “1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1-7). Do you get the sense of the difference in Paul’s introduction? Do you get the sense that Paul is going to use every opportunity to worship God? How does he do that? Right from the opening of his letter, Paul gives an account of the Gospel story and makes clear that his salvation is a gift from God. It also makes it clear that Paul has a purpose in life, namely, to shared gospel and he is seeking the same mission from those reading his letter. It may seem to us to be just a letter, but Paul makes it an occasion to worship God. Now Paul does not do that just because he is trying to prove some point. He is doing it as a response to the joy of the Gospel. He knows that in receiving Christ and his offer of salvation, he, Paul, is free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. We might find it difficult to match Paul and write a 135-word introduction to every letter, card, or email we send. However, the point is clear, make the most of every opportunity to worship God because doing so says we are in awe of God’s creative and redemptive power. When we give away that Gospel message and invest it into other people through worship, our life grows larger. When we live our lives only for ourselves hoping to conserve our strength, we grow weaker.
From our New Testament reading today, Chapter 12, verse 1, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” In saying, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” Paul challenged his readers to see their lives rich with action, movement, and flow of daily activity was an integral extension of God’s creativity. Secondly, those holy and acceptable bodies are to be “living sacrifices.” Sacrifices of that time were animals killed for blood and burning. Paul saying, “Make your living the sacrifice,” meaning express your worship of God through daily and routine activities of the body. When we engage our bodies in worship outside the church, then we can bring healing to others, as Christ did, we can break injustices by our actions, as Christ did, and we promote and reinforce the dignity of life, as Christ did. Third, Paul says, that fully acceptable body, properly engaged in life’s activities with God at the center of them is spiritual worship. Meaning simply, you are glorifying God and showing His presence to all those around you. This is worship.
Paul continues along this line in verse 2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul is saying the way to get your body engaged in the right activities is to get your mind engaged on Christ. He argues against conformance to the world, meaning do not follow the patterns of behavior of the world because they are not Christ-like, but be transformed. The Greek word for transformed is the same Greek word that we get the English word, metamorphosis, which we use to describe the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly. You cannot miss significance of such change. Paul is saying that our mind must change similarly in order to know God’s will and empower our body into acts of worship. When we take on the mind of Christ, then we are asking God to change the deepest decisions that shape the way we live. We worship God and serve others; rather than essentially ignoring both God and those in need.
Paul provided some practical guidance over the next few verses. He said, through grace, God gave different gifts to each believer and fitted them together as if different parts in the same body. Every body part has a function and operates for a purpose. In verses 6 through 8, Paul lists some of those gifts given by God’s grace and he says use them in worship of God. If you have the gift of prophesy, then speak God’s word. If you have the gift of ministering to others through hospitality or compassion, then minister. Do so because that is the part of the body of Christ you represent. Extending hospitality and compassion then is your spiritual act of worship. If you can teach, then teach in ways that worship God. If you are gifted to encourage then do not wait for someone to collapse in despair; give them a call, a card, an email, or a visit and let them know you are encouraging them in their giftedness, in their purpose of sharing God. When you do so, you worship God. If you are a giver of funds, then give as an act of worship to God. If you are a leader, then lead. That does not mean enslave others. Leadership is about empowering others to accomplish great things for God. However, to be transformed, you have to do this all day, every day. This was how Christ lived, and Paul calls us to imitate Jesus.
Let me give you a couple of illustrations of transformed behavior that sets the stage to worship God in your everyday life. Some will eat in a restaurant at some point this month? That still happens. Most Americans will not say a prayer before eating a meal and most Christians who do pray before meals at home will not do so in a restaurant. When we do not say a blessing in public, we are missing an opportunity to worship God and we are conforming to the ways of the world. So you say, “OK, Pastor, I will say grace at the next time I dine out.” I would say wonderful, but if you want to be transformed and make it a memorable act of worship, then when your server comes and introduces themselves and says, “I’m John or Jane, I will be taking care of you today.” You say to them, “John or Jane, nice to meet you. We pray before we eat. Is there something we can pray to God for you?” That is transformational worship because you are revealing the presence of God among His people and you are inviting others to be part of that experience.
Perhaps you like to take photographs. Look through them all and see which ones speak to you about God’s presence. Find someone to show them to and tell them, these are some of my favorite photos because I see God in them. Ask God what he wants you to do. I felt Him pushing me some years ago to write something poetic. I wrote a poem adapted to a song for a Maundy Thursday service and asked my son to sing it. The poem and song title is Hallelujah, which translates to “Glory to the Lord.” It was an act of worship. Each of us is called to worship God, in and through our daily activities.
This week when we celebrate Thanksgiving and we have space now for new traditions, make Thanksgiving a worshipful event. Instead of making the turkey and the trimmings the star of the day, make God the center point of the day. Instead of simply saying, “What are you thankful for?” Ask each other, “How has God been present and made you thankful?” “What story in the Bible makes you most thankful to God?” “What will you do to worship God this year?” We can transform our dinner into worship. Through that celebration, we will remember with our minds the outpouring of His grace through Jesus. We will worship through our bodies and taste, see, touch, smell, and feel the experience of Thanksgiving to God and in doing so we worship. Let the moments at the Thanksgiving Table be a moment at the Lord’s Table and let it be a defining point in your life to transform your mind into that of Christ and worship God like never before. Amen and Amen.
I am nearing the completion of teaching a ten-week course on Christian Ethics. Each Monday evening for two hours, I have had the pleasure of leading a conversation on approaches different philosophers and theologians have taken to define a system of ethics by which to live by. Some of you are part of that class and may not find it as pleasurable as I do because it is a lot of work. I have told the class that this course is the hardest course they will take in the series of lay study course being offered by the American Baptist Churches of New York State. It is a hard course because it requires the attendees to think deeply about their beliefs and convictions. This makes the course a refining process.
We all undergo refining processes in life. Sometimes that refining occurs in a school setting where we are challenged to develop greater knowledge or improve upon our skills and talents. Sometimes refining occurs at home where expectations of communal living requires each member of the household to change their individual habits to conform to habits that serve the greatest good for the group. In the grief counseling ministry, I have not yet met a person who did not feel they had gone through a refining process as their grieved the loss of a loved one. In and through grief, people learned to separate the things of life that did not matter from the things that do matter. So, when we forced to go through grief or when we voluntarily go through school, we are changed. Whether those changes are positive or negative depends upon whether the process was a refining process that improved our character or a process that infected our life with behaviors and thinking that does not well serve us or anyone else.
Our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Malachi promised a refining process for the people of Israel. God promised this process because the people of Israel, particularly with the leading of the religious teachers and leaders, were infecting with harmful thinking and behaviors. If we had read the earlier chapters of Malachi, we would discover the people of Israel doubted God’s love for them. The people showed contempt for God, instead of respect. The people gave the scraps of life to God, instead of their best.
God through Malachi had a particular warning for the priests, the pastors of Malachi’s day. God said, “5 My covenant was with him (Levi-the priest), a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them (people) to him (Levi); this called for reverence and he (Levi) revered me and stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. 7 For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. 8 But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:5-8). Pastors were not speaking the truth about God. The pastors had become more interested in being admired by the people than being true to God’s Word and thus honoring God. God said, “17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. ‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask. By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them’” (Malachi 2:17). It seems that pastors were celebrating behaviors of the people that the pastors knew were wrong in God’s eyes by saying those behaviors pleased God. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). God was not happy with the pastors.
Through Malachi, God said that a refining process was needed. God is an orderly and just God who does not act without warning. So, God outlined his plan for the refining process; a process to bring people back to holiness. First, God said, “1I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). God said a similar thing, again through the prophet Isaiah. God said he would send a messenger as, “A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Step 1 – God would send a messenger to prepare people before he arrived. God waited 400 years between setting out this plan to Malachi to send a messenger and sending that messenger. To us, 400 years represents 20 generations of people. To put that in perspective, 20 generations is the time between the Pilgrims landing in 1620 and our worship service today in 2020. For us, 400 years is a long time. To God, 400 years is a mere blink of the eye. When God is ready, he will act.
All four Gospels record the story of the messenger’s arrival and his message. The Gospel of Matthew said, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Matthew 3:1-3). The messenger promised through Malachi and Isaiah had arrived. John the Baptist was announcing God’s refining process had begun.
John began baptizing in the Jordan River those who sought to change their ways and be refined. When John saw the priests from Jerusalem coming to be baptized, he scolded them. John told these priests they must produce fruit of repentance. The refining process being proclaimed by John must change them and be evident in the priests’ behavior toward God and toward people. If that was not enough, John told the priests that an even greater refining process coming. John said, “11 I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
John used language of a difficult process of separated what was of value from what was of no value. It would be done by fire and would look and feel to some people like the process of separating wheat from the chaff. John was speaking about Step 2 of God’s plan found in Malachi.
Step 2 - If we jumped back to Malachi, we would find these words about that part of the refining process. God said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. (That is John.) Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:1-2). John was saying the promised Messiah, the Lord himself, was about to appear. This we know was the coming of Jesus.
Jesus, the messenger of the covenant, was going to challenge the thinking of the priests and people about their understanding of God. Jesus was going to challenge the lack of honor toward God, contempt for God rather than respect, and their lack of love for God despite God’s unwavering love for the people. How would Jesus bring this message? Jesus would bring the message just as Levi had done. We recall God said the message was brought because, “6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” Jesus would do all of that as he would suddenly “come to his temple.”
Shortly after this scene with John the Baptist along the Jordan River we read this account of Jesus, the messenger, in the Gospel of John. “13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ 20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he [Jesus] had spoken of was his [own] body” (John 2:13-21). There was no mistaking that Jesus had arrived in the Temple and that he was beginning the refining process that looked very much like separating wheat from the chaff.
The refining process Jesus came to initiate was not simply to teardown what was corrupt. It was to build up what was good and pleasing to God. We see this as Step 3 in the refining process.
Step 3 - We return to our reading in Malachi and see that God said through the prophet, “2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites [priests] and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years” (Malachi 3:2-4). The prophesy of Jesus was that priests and people would seek to challenge him, to contest what he had to say, but ultimately they would not prevail against him. In all cases, Jesus would work to refine those he encountered that they would come to see God. The impurities of their lives, sin, would be removed and they would be made righteous through him. Their offering, their lives, would become acceptable to God. The Apostle Paul would later express this conclusion this way, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed [refined] by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).
The purpose of the refining process of Jesus was and remains to remove the impurities of our life and build us up in the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. I think this is an important point. Jesus did not come simply to make heaven available to us and leave our life on earth unchanged. If we think of Jesus only in these terms then we reduce Jesus’ message to something like, “You have a choice between living eternally in hell or eternally in heaven.” When we do that then following Jesus is nothing more than concluding heaven with God seemed like a better alternative to hell. That is not the Jesus message.
If we went back to Malachi, we would find that part of God sending his messenger of the covenant was that we would live a productive and pleasing life on earth. Malachi wrote that God “5Will come to put you [those who do not fear him] on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Malachi 3:5). The message of Jesus was that our life, here on earth, will evidence the presence of God. The impurities of life will be removed and the presence of God will be evident.
Think about that for a moment. Jesus had the fullness of God within him. He was the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus, in coming to us, presents us with an opportunity to imitate him and have the visible image of the invisible God displayed through us. That is called holiness. That is a wonderful life-giving, God-honoring, way to live that happens in our lifetime. We can experience the life of Jesus, but we must first submit ourselves to the refining process. We must come to Jesus and be forgiven our sin and receive the Holy Spirit to guide our steps toward making our lives a living sacrifice. It is a beautiful and pleasing way to live and, by the way, we discover that life will never end. It will continue with God in heaven. Let’s walk that life together. Amen and Amen.