I preached this message- or a version of it- this morning at a church nearby.
A Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2007
First Presbyterian Church, London, Kentucky
Michael Spencer, preacher
Scripture: Matthew 2:12-19, John 1:1-18
As our students were preparing to leave school the Friday before Christmas, we had a power outage. There’s nothing like having a school full of students ready to burst the bonds of their educational incarceration in three hours being stuck in cold, dark classrooms without a working DVD player.
We survived, and I found myself thinking about what it would be like if there were a serious, nationwide loss of power. (My friend John Jaspersen is here today, and he just endured 12 days without electricity in Oklahoma!) What if we were thrown back into the world of our parents and grandparents when they were children, at least those that lived here in the mountains? Can we even begin to imagine how much each of our lives would change without the simple presence of electricity for lights, heat, appliances and entertainment?
It would truly be a “world-changing” event. That’s what I want to talk about today: what is a world-changing event?
Our answer depends on what we mean by “world.” It seems at first that we all mean the same thing when we say “world.” A “world changing” event is a Pearl Harbor, an asteroid hit, a 9-11 or a nuclear war. Everyone in the world is changed and affected.
But really, it would be more helpful if we talked about our “personal worlds;” the worlds that we each live in that are unique to us. The worlds where each one of us sets the “thermostat” of what is significant, what is important and what matters. A family can all live in the same house, but each person lives in their own personal world. With modern technology, we have immense control over what we hear, what we have to think about, what confronts us in any day. If we don’t like what is coming at us on the news channel, we can watch the food channel. As Americans, we tend to believe that our personal world is the extension of the guarantee that each of us has a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In other words, our personal worlds are made up of what we want. We are kings. We’re in charge. In a very real sense, we get to draw a circle and say “in this circle, I am God.” In that personal world, few changes come unless we want them to come.
Our text today is about the ruler during the time Jesus was born, Herod the Great. Herod’s personal world was changed- rocked to its foundations really, by three visitors from the east, knocking at his door and asking “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
Herod is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible, because we know a great deal about him from history and archeology. If you’ve ever heard this part of the Christmas story and thought that slaughtering children sounded like a bit of a dramatic over-reaction, let me assure you it’s right on the money for Herod.
When the Romans occupied Judah and what was once Israel, they didn’t want a local king to be in power because of the risk of revolution, so they franchised out the job of King of the Jews to the Herod family. Herod was not a Jew and he wasn’t royalty. He was an Edumean and his daddy had money. Herod spent every day he was king deeply aware that he didn’t deserve to be there, that his people hated him no matter how many great temples he built and anyone who could claim to be a descendant of David could easily become a Messiah and a revolutionary to overthrow him. This might shed some light on Herod’s “personal world” and how the news of a royal birth sounded to him.
It also helps to remember that Herod was crazy, or at the least paranoid to the point of violence. He eventually killed several members of his family for perceived conspiracies against him. Sending out his soldiers to clean up a potential problem among the children born in David’s royal birthplace is exactly what we would expect from Herod.
So this part of the Bible has always reminded us that there are many people in the world who hate the idea that Jesus Christ is king and they are not, and some of those people can become very nasty, even violent about it. For all of Christian history there have been Herods, who greet the news of Jesus birth with opposition and hostility.
We hear about anti-Christian violence in the news and we nod our heads. Yes, we say, there are many people who truly hate and despise what we believe. The Bible predicts such things, doesn’t it?
But what about most people? Not the school shooters or the vociferous atheists or the terrorists in the news. Most people. What about the guy in the next cubicle? Your teaching assistant? Your neighbor? You brother or sister? The people who work on your computer?
How is their world affected by the birth of Jesus Christ?
I believe that for most of the people you and I know, the people who surround and touch your personal world (even here in the Bible belt of southeastern Kentucky), the arrival of a new King, Jesus Christ, means almost nothing. Their worlds- public and personal- are not altered or changed at all. The birth of Jesus is, for them, as dry and dusty a piece of information as the most boring trivia in the most boring history textbook. They are not like Herod. They are like the vast majority of people in the world the night Jesus was born whose lives were completely unaffected.
Now let’s be careful. I know we live in a community of Christians and churches, that Christmas is celebrated and churches are attended. I’m aware that politicians talk about Christian “values” and religion still plays a part in the the fringes of many lives. We have Ten Comandments signs in yards and plenty of Gospel music on TV and radio. But I do not believe many people- even among Christians and certainly not outside- have their world deeply changed by the announcement that God is now with us; that the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father and Prince of Peace is ruling and reigning in th world.
I don’t believe the personal worlds of most of the people you know- and sadly, including many of us- are changed by the world-changing event we’ve just marked this past week. I think many of us know that as we sit here today. It is poking at us, eating away at us, nudging us- the Son of God has been given for us, and our lives are more affected by the price of gas than by the birth of our Messiah.
What we have among Christians in America has been rightly called a Christian ghetto. It’s very nice, we’re all together- or at least grouped by denominations- and we can talk to each other, which we are very good at doing. We have our own media, TV, movies, music and radio. We have teachers and preachers that tell us how to have our best life now. We have Christian stores, products and clothes. If we want to live inside this ghetto- and many Christians do and will tell you it’s the way of Jesus to do so- you will find lots of encouragement.
If you want to live the life of a Jesus believer and Jesus follower outside of that ghetto, in the world that Jesus came into, loved, lived in, died for and rules over, expect to be uncomfortable and misunderstood. I believe many of you this morning, particularly among those who are youth and young adults, are very aware of this, and if I can encourage you to choose to leave that Christian enclave, I want to do so. God has great things for you to do in the world he loves.
Let me show you the horizon of the world in which we live, because sometimes when I talk about this post-Christian world it is a bit hard to believe (at least for adults. I’m sure our young people are right there with me because they’ve been living in that world for their entire lives.)
Tony Blair, the previous British prime minister, entered the Roman Catholic Church this month after being a lifelong member of the Church of England. One commenter said that England was now a Catholic country, an interesting comment about a place where 70% or so of those born there are still baptized in the Church of England. One writer explained the ironic comment with these numbers:
When you read more carefully, however, it turns out the picture is not quite so rosy, even for the Catholics. It turns out that 861,000 persons in Britain attend mass every Sunday while only 852,000 turn up for Anglican services. The population of Britain is about 60.7 million souls, so even the combined weekly attendance of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church aggregates only 2.8 percent of the population.
Now someone will say, “Here in the Bible belt, we’re a long way from that. At least 40% of Americans, on the average, go to church weekly.”
I know I am a guest, and I should be careful what I say, but that’s simply nonsense. Does anyone here actually believe that 40% of the city of Louisville or Cincinnati are in church today? Or 40% of the student at the state university are in church? Or 40% of the people in the major corporations some of you work for? Even here in our little corner of the Bible belt, such numbers are simply bizarre. On Easter, in the most dedicated of Christian villages, such a percentage might be approached. When I tell you that across the Atlantic, less than 7% of the British are in church anywhere on a given Sunday, it ought to ring true: this is exactly where we are going. Not the way of Herod, but the way of the unchanged, uninterested, unmoved world.
It is right to call these post-Christian times, and we can’t celebrate Christmas without asking how we livve in them.
Now, I want to look at another text as I come to the point of this message. In some churches, the lectionary reading for today is John 1:1-18. I often tell my students these are the most important verses in the Bible, and certainly they are very important for the Sunday after Christmas, because they direct us to “what now?” What now in a world that doesn’t care.
Listen: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t comprehend it. He was in the world, and the world did not know him. He came unto his own, and his own didn’t receive him.
John knew that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world didn’t impress anyone. In fact, the entire life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus wouldn’t have been on anyone’s daily news summary for more than a few moments during the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple. John wrote about what it was like to believe something that most believe not only didn’t believe, they didn’t even know it happened. The whole world had changed in Jesus, but most people’s world never changed at all.
So John the apostle points us to John the Baptist. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
Don’t let that word “witness” get you off track. It’s a word that most evangelicals can’t hear without thinking of all sorts of things they don’t want to do. You should give it another chance.
John isn’t advocating putting up billboards with a verse here and a slogan there. Being a witness to the light is, of course, being a person whose world has been changed, rocked, altered by Jesus Christ. Luke said that the angels told the shepherds that there was a Savior, a Messiah and Lord…in Bethlehem, not in Rome or Jerusalem. And the shepherds’ world was changed. They become witnesses: “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child….glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
To be a witness in post-Christian times is to leave an unmistakable trail of evidence that your world- and the world- has been changed by the coming of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean button-holing people with a sales pitch. It doesn’t mean reducing Jesus to a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. It doesn’t mean filling your world with Christian stuff. It means that the guy in the next cubicle, and that teaching assistant, and your unbelieving chiropractor and uninterested neighbor won’t be around you without seeing that your world is ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ. You, your life, your calling and all you have, become a witness to world-changing one.
John was not the light. That’s important and fundamental. The message is not about us, our church, our wonderful pastor, how great it is to be us or anything that takes us out of the place of a witness and makes us the point of the Gospel. It’s important to remember that what Christians are pointing to with their changed lives is Jesus, not the changes he makes. There are many ways to explain what changes a person’s life, but the change that Jesus makes reorients life so that we are never caught claiming that we’re wonderful, because that doesn’t hold water and it’s just not true.
John tells us in verse 14, I believe, the most important thing I can leave with you today. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In these post-Christian times, it is tempting to look the other way, change the channel, put on the Gospel station, invite over out friends from church and keep a low-profile. Instead, I want to invite you to put flesh, hands, feed, gifts, creativity and life at the service of the Word. I want to ask you to put the world-changing one in your life in a way that the Word of God’s love, grace and Gospel, takes on life in your world in you.
A friend told about a seminary class on Islam where the professor required each member of the class to invite a Muslim family over for dinner sometime during the course. My friend said the lack of enthusiasm for this idea was universal. These were students who wanted to preach against Islam, or teach about Islam or debate Muslims. They didn’t want to invite over Muslims for dinner….which, of course, amounts to putting the Word into flesh.
As each student returned to class, they told of what a wonderful evening it had been as they discovered the power of hospitality to be an evidence that Jesus Christ changes worlds, including worlds of prejudice and hostility. And they told how, almost without exception, each visit included questions about the Christian faith.
The early Christians lived in their own version of post-Christian times…pre-Christian times. Un Christian times. Few knew and few cared. When you look at the story- and I hope you will take time to do that- you will discover that what overtook that very unChristian world with the Good News of Jesus was people including the excluded, serving the hurting, inviting the forgotten, risking, creating, suffering, giving and going. Putting flesh, hands and feet on the Word.
This is not the short way, the easy way or the profitable way, at least not as the world counts profitability or ease. Contrary to what you may hear from Christians talking to one another, this is not the way to the next level of success. The incarnation is a way that is plainly marked out for us by Jesus and by those who have followed him.
In a world that make take the way of Herod or of those who slept through it all, we are invited to be people who live in a changed world, as changed people. When you have found the treasure that we have found in Jesus, everything will change. What will change with you today?