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Monday, January 25, 2010

Solomon: Wise King? (1 Kings 3,11)

January 24, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

This is our third week looking at kings in the Bible. We are doing so not just for a history lesson, but because doing so provides us with good points of application as we have opportunity to be leaders and have influence on people around us at work, school, home, and among our friends. Regardless of age or stage, each of us will have the opportunity to speak and act in ways that lead and impact others. The purpose of this study is to help us do so in good and godly ways.

Each week I’ve shared five basic facts about each king, then we’ve looked at a key scripture text to understand one significant event or quality of their lives. Today we are looking at King Solomon of Israel. So, first let me give you five things you need to know about Solomon and then we’ll turn to 1 Kings 3 and see why he is known as the “wise king.”

Five Facts

1. Solomon was the third king of Israel (971-931 B.C.). He became king in the midst of great contention for the throne and came to rule through politics and strategy rather than by anointing. He later received God’s blessing when he asked for an “understanding heart” over riches and power. (1 Kings 3:9)

2. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba.

3. He was credited for much of the wisdom literature in scripture (Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes).

4. He engaged in much building, trade, and political alliances (no major military campaigns) – including building the Temple, though at the expense of popularity with the people.

5. Political marriage to many foreign wives was detrimental to his spiritual health and seen as a breach of the covenant.

An Understanding Heart

As we have done the past two Sundays, I want to look with you at one key passage and quality of Solomon’s leadership. Solomon was known for his “wisdom” and today I want to look with you at the benefits and the limitations of that trait. In Solomon’s case, it was both a gift of God and something he walked away from as his life progressed.

Let’s look at 1 Kings 3, particularly verse 9. It is the record of Solomon’s famous prayer, asking God not for riches or power, but for wisdom. More accurately, Solomon doesn’t ask for wisdom, but asks in verse 9 for “an understanding heart to judge your people to discern between good and evil.” Most literally, the phrase “an understanding heart” reads “a listening heart” or “a heart that hears.”

I have preached a number of times on the meaning of worship, including numerous references to the Shema, the foundational passage in Deuteronomy 6 that reads, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might.” That first word, shema in Hebrew and “hear” in English is what Solomon asks God for. He asks for a heart that hears and listens. And interestingly and rightly, such a listening heart should be able to listen to both God and man. And that’s how Solomon finishes the sentence. He asks for an understanding or listening heart so that he may do two things: 1) judge [God’s] people; and 2) discern between good and evil [i.e. according to God’s Word].

As you heard in the first scripture reading, God was pleased with Solomon’s request – that he didn’t ask for power or riches. And God responded by granting Solomon what he asked PLUS riches and honor. But notice, too, the last thing God said in response: “If you walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as your father David walked, then I will prolong your days.” (v. 14)

I make the two point distinction in what Solomon asked and note God’s response because it is at this point of listening to God’s Word that Solomon falls short.

Selective Understanding

Solomon did indeed become known for his understanding heart. Stories are included in Kings about his effective judging of the people. The most famous is probably his resolution of a dispute between two women about which one of them was mother of a baby. You can also read Solomon’s wise words in Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and some of Proverbs. But I chose the passage in chapter eleven to point out the limitations of his gift and the danger of significant human talents not offered in obedience to the Lord.

Solomon did use the gift of an understanding or discerning heart to judge the people well. He also was known for his political alliances, usually achieved through marrying the princess of a foreign power. He was able to greatly strengthen the kingdom through these alliances, and greatly enrich the kingdom, such that he financed and completed the building of a Temple to God in addition to a palace for himself. It is easy to see how his significant God-given gift of reading the human situation allowed him to prosper among men.

But 1 Kings 11 is also the record of Solomon’s spiritual failure. Though warned that foreign wives who worshiped false gods could turn him from the Lord, Solomon continued marrying them for the sake of the kingdom. And that led to his dabbling with and then worshiping the gods of these foreign women and building places of worship for those false gods.

In addition to this false worship, we read in 1 Kings 11:9 that his “heart was turned away from the Lord.”

In keeping with the strong, strong promise of the covenant we talked about last week, God did not abandon him or Israel, but there were horrible consequences that were played out in Solomon’s family and among his children.

Ultimately, Solomon’s story is not about seeking wisdom from God, but about what one does with the gifts God gives us.

Gifts from God

Growing up, I think the great lesson I always heard in relation to Solomon was the importance of asking for and seeking wisdom. Solomon prayed for wisdom, therefore I should pray for wisdom. And it seems like something God would grant.

But remember my warning from the first week of this series? We can get into dangerous territory if we simply use biblical characters as examples for our lives, because all of them (with the exception of Jesus) were flawed. We also have to ask what NOT to do, and Solomon is a good example of why that distinction is necessary.

Wisdom, or a discerning heart, is a good thing and worth praying for. But Solomon’s example teaches us that it is not enough to be able to employ that talent among human beings. Ultimately that talent, as any, must be submitted to God in obedience to His Word. That’s the broader application here. Whether God has given you an understanding heart or a sharp mind or a strong body or blessed you with wealth, we each then have the opportunity to decide what we will do with those talents and gifts.

Maybe you can sing like an angel. You can try to become the next big thing in music, or you can lay your life and your voice before God and say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

Maybe you are smart. You think strategically and can make things happen. You can pursue success in business and try to climb the ladder. Or you could lay your life and your intellect before God and say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

Maybe you are young and strong. Maybe you could get somewhere with sports or at least be popular in school. Or you could lay your life and your health and strength before God and say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

Maybe you have great wealth. Even with a depressed economy, you have invested well and know how to get the most of out every dime. You can use your wealth to gain more wealth, perhaps do great and noble things with it. What would it mean to lay your life and your wealth before God and say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

And just so you’ll know this isn’t a sermon for the Solomon’s, Michael Jordan’s, and Bill Gate’s of the world: maybe you are in poor health or feel inadequate or ill-equipped or trapped. You could spend your time dreaming of what you need or lack. But what would it look like to lay your life and your limitations before God and say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

Solomon had the gift – a gift from God. He could hear and discern what was going on around him and he could use that for good and even for his own advantage. Somewhere along the line, he stopped listening to God and turned away from God.

I want to be a pastor who listens to God and who urges you to tune in and listen to God. With you, I want to keep asking what God is doing around us and how we can be a part of that. With you, I want to continue again and again, week after week, to lay our lives and our gifts and our limitations before God and say, “What would you have us do and be, Lord?”

Solomon had a significant gift – the gift of a heart that could listen well. And he did some good with it. But in the end he wasted that gift and dishonored God because he tuned God out.

The question Solomon raises for you and me is this:

What will you do with what God has given you and who God has made you to be?

Lord, what would you have me do and be?

Monday, January 18, 2010

David, God's King (2 Samuel 7, 11-12)

January 17, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

The spoken version usually varies somewhat from the printed version. In some cases (like this one), it is quite different.

We are in a series studying kings in the Bible. And while that may sound like a big history lesson, or something that is not particularly relevant to your everyday life, I believe there are significant points of application. For each of us will, at some time in our lives, have the opportunity and responsibility to lead other people. That may be in the workplace, at school, with your family, or among your friends. And you may be an adult, a teenager, or even a child. But it’s the nature of human relationships that you will, at some point, have the opportunity to lead and influence another person. So that’s the big lesson I want to draw from the kings of the Bible. When you have that opportunity, how do you go about it? What role does faith and God have in that moment? What dangers and pitfalls are there? How can you be a godly leader, parent, mentor, or friend?

Last week we looked at Saul, the first king of Israel. We learned five facts about him and then focused on one key characteristic of Saul: he was an extraordinarily talented and capable warrior, but failed as a servant of God. While he and his people had reason to trust in his physical abilities, they were not enough to save and deliver them in the end. So we talked about the need to look to God as our ultimate King and to recognize our earthly resources in proper perspective to God’s strength and wisdom.

Today, we are looking at David, the second king of Israel. Again I’d like to share five facts with you – things you should know about David. Then we’ll focus in on one key aspect of his life and relationship with God.

Five Facts

1. David was the youngest of eight brothers and brought up to be a shepherd (1 Sam 17:12ff). As such he learned courage (1 Sam 17:34-35) and came to understand God as Shepherd (Ps 23).

2. David fought and killed Goliath, the Philistine champion, and earned Saul’s jealousy (1 Sam 17; 18:7-9). From then on, Saul tried to kill him.

3. When Saul died, David ruled his own tribe for 7½ years in Hebron, then later moved to Jerusalem to rule the twelve tribes once Saul’s successors faded (2 Sam 3-5). He ruled there for 33 years (starting in 1000 B.C.).

4. David enjoyed great military and strategic victory and growth, but his religious zeal outshone it, with the return of the Ark and beginnings of plans for a Temple for worship. He wrote many of the Psalms, used for worship.

5. David is known and remembered also for his sins of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah; but also for his significant repentance.

Those are five facts to know about David. I’d like to look more in depth at something probably less well-known about David, but perhaps the most significant thing about him. It is recorded in 2 Samuel 7.

Re-Upping the Covenant (2 Samuel 7)

The concept of covenant is relatively obscure to us, but one of the most prominent features of the Bible. We have talked about it here on a number of occasions, however, so I hope the word is familiar to you. It is a form of promise with legal, personal, political, and relational overtones. But it is more than a contract; it is more like a vow with very high stakes. In fact, the kind of covenant prominent in the Bible is one in which lives are at stake.

The closest thing we have to the biblical covenant is the marriage vow, and even that is more and more treated like a legal contract these days than the covenant it is supposed to be. But think of the vows – to love, honor, cherish, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, and so forth, until death parts us. The biblical covenant was very much like that, with at least one (or both) parties making similar vows, sealed not with “until death parts us” but with “if I break this vow, may God take my life.”

The most familiar covenant is the Abrahamic covenant, in which God vows Himself to Abraham and his descendants and promises land, children, and blessing. In many ways it is a one-sided promise, with God wielding the power and God vowing His own reputation and existence on the outcome. And the really significant thing about the covenant is that God pledges to be faithful, period. God’s faithfulness doesn’t hinge on Abraham’s performance or faithfulness, but on God’s own character. There are consequences, to be sure – curses and blessings for Israel as they exhibit faithfulness or not. But the covenant itself, and God’s faithfulness to His vows, are unconditional and unwavering.

There is another covenant in the Old Testament, lesser known than the one God made with Abraham. It is the one God made with David in 2 Samuel 7. David was significantly different from Saul in that Saul was everything the people demanded in a king. Saul was a mighty warrior. But David was what God required in a king. He trusted in the Lord and listened to His voice. He also turned out to be strong and courageous, but was victorious (as against Goliath) because of listening to the Lord, not solely because of strength of arms.

And God chose to make another covenant. It didn’t replace the one with Abraham, but re-pledged and re-committed. God took another step toward the human race. God renewed the promises to Abraham and made them again to David. He vowed land – a home for Israel – in 2 Samuel 7:10, “I will also appoint a place for my people Israel….” God vowed to preserve David’s descendants in verse 11, “…the Lord will make a house for you.” And God vowed blessing, that one of David’s descendants would establish David’s throne, in service to God, forever. Listen to verses 12-13: “…I will raise up your descendant after you… he shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

While aspects of that covenant were fulfilled by David’s son and successor, Solomon, what you are hearing is the specific promise for the Messiah – a Savior and King to come from the line of David, not to establish an earthly kingdom (which cannot last forever), but a spiritual kingdom. Now all of that wasn’t clear in this passage, but becomes clear with Jesus. That is one reason the Gospel writers take such pains to trace Jesus’ lineage back to David. Jesus is the fulfillment of this great covenant promise of God!

And like the other covenant, God pledges to remain faithful, whether David is faithful or not. Like the other covenant, there are consequences if David or his children are unfaithful. There are blessings and curses. But God will not abandon His Word and promise; God will prove faithful to this promise.

Putting God to the Test

Well that sounds all nice and pretty and God-like on the front end. But what happens when David abandons any pretense of godliness? You don’t have to go much farther in 2 Samuel to read of his adultery with Bathsheba and then his murder of her husband, Uriah. There’s no question about whether this covenant rests on God’s faithfulness. It’s not like David puts on a good show but has some minor sins to deal with. He commits two of the worst offenses possible. On top of that, the nature of this covenant shifts somewhat with the kingship. In Abraham and Moses’ day, all of Israel were expected to be faithful to the laws of God – the covenant expectations. While the people still were to be faithful to the Law, this new covenant was specifically with David and his house. David was the representative for all of God’s people. He was to be the king, the example of faithfulness. He failed himself; he failed his people; and he failed the Lord.

By any standard of fairness, God should have walked away and kept looking for another king. Saul was too self-sufficient; David was too disobedient. God could have scrubbed the kingship or raised up another king. But God had spoken and given His Word. So, while there were dire consequences for David and his household, God stood by His promise and preserved the house and lineage of David. And when David was confronted by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 and offered sincere repentance, God granted forgiveness and a measure of restoration.

I chose these chapters because the covenant is relatively unknown and is most significant. And David’s sin is well-known, but not recognized in the context of God’s faithfulness. And it’s that point from which I want to make application.

Faithfulness as a Grace

I believe there are two great struggles people have with the God of the Bible. And by people I don’t just mean “out there” but people in here. I don’t believe our greatest struggle is intellectual, though I know those questions are floating around, too, especially in the wake of such a huge natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti.

Rather, I believe the greatest struggle we have with God takes one of two forms: either we don’t think we can do enough to measure up or we think we’ve already failed too badly. And really, both of those amount to the same thing: I’m not good enough for God.

That bottom-line thought can produce all kinds of misdirection. We can work and work and work to be “good people” but always live in doubt that we’ve done enough. Or we struggle with a huge burden of guilt that we’ve already failed and fallen too far to ever make it; and we give up.

The story of David – and God’s covenant with David – is a strong correction to either of those misdirections. And so interesting to find such grace in the Old Testament! Listen – this Word is a Rock; it is solid and true and unyielding. And this Word, this promise is not just for David; it is for you.

Three thousand years ago, and not for the first time, God promised to send a Rescuer and Deliverer to establish God’s Kingdom forever. That Savior would re-establish right relationship with God and be a faithful servant-King where earthly kings could not. And God’s promise to David was that nothing could undo or derail that plan.

Yes, disobedience and sin and evil have consequences, sometimes dire consequences. That is our guard and challenge against abusing God’s faithfulness. But God’s promise to send us a Savior-King could not and cannot be broken. If the one God originally made the promise to couldn’t turn God away with adultery and murder on the very heels of the great covenant, nothing you have done or could do can cause God to abandon that covenant.

The promise of God we have in Jesus is so very similar and tied to this covenant with David. By sending Jesus, God not only kept his promise to David, but holds forth a new covenant to us. It, too, is rooted in God’s faithfulness, not our own.

In Jesus Christ, God invites us to come, believe, follow, and serve. And here’s where God’s faithfulness and grace run up against those two struggles we have. God’s invitation to come, believe, follow, and serve, do not depend on our performance. If it did, we really would have no hope, because we can’t measure up and we do fall short! But hear the Good News: when you fall short, tune out, turn off, and outright disobey, God does not rip up your invitation and turn His back on you. He simply asks again, “Will you come, believe, follow, and serve me?”

In the New Testament, Paul warns against abusing God’s grace. Why not just sin and then come ask for forgiveness? May it never be! There are consequences to sin even still. But God does not turn away or give up. He proved that with David, and did receive the truly repentant David back as a King who believed, followed, and served Him. And God made good on every promise He made to David, just as He will with you.

What can we learn from King David, the second king of Israel? We learn that whether we have the opportunity to serve as leader, teacher, mentor, coach, or friend, we have a faithful, rock-solid, unyielding invitation from God to do so under the authority and blessing of Jesus Christ, the Savior-King. So in all of life, and specifically as you lead and influence others, continually ask yourself how to respond to the invitation of God to come, believe, follow, and serve. As you do so, you have the opportunity not only to serve God, but point others towards His amazing faithfulness and grace. Amen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Saul, Israel's King (1 Samuel 8,10)

January 10, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today and over the next six weeks I’d like to look with you at a number of prominent people in the Bible who all have something in common: they are kings. While I want to take this opportunity to review some biblical history and parts of the Bible you may not have spent much time studying, I hope this will be more than a history lesson. And while it may not be immediately apparent what a king of Israel might have in common with you, each was in a position to lead others while serving the Lord. And that is a position almost every one of you will be in at some point in your life, whether at work, raising a family, volunteering at church, or any other number of scenarios. And the real trick isn’t figuring out how to lead, teach, or have authority over others; it is doing so as a servant-leader, under the covering of God’s ultimate Kingship.

We will see how different kings in the Bible succeeded and failed at this balance of earthly authority and divine dependency, and be challenged to apply the lessons we learn to our own lives.

Some of these characters are perhaps unfamiliar; so I plan to begin each week with five facts about each one. Then we’ll consider one or two key scripture passages about each one and what application we can make for our own lives.

Today, we are looking at Saul, the first king of Israel.

Five Facts

1. Saul was the first king of Israel, in approximately 1030 B.C. His rule followed the period of the Judges, both a book in the Old Testament and a means of governing by tribal warrior-prophets. Before Saul’s time, the enemies of the tribes of Israel had also been small and tribal; but leading up to his time, the Philistines had emerged as more of a unified enemy in the region.

2. We read in different parts of 1 Samuel about Saul’s qualifications for leadership. In a nutshell, he was the biggest and strongest, described as standing head and shoulders above other men (1 Sam. 9:2). He was a natural leader and had evidenced at least one spirit-filled experience among the prophets.

3. He was chosen in response to the people’s demand for a king, against the prophet Samuel’s advice (1 Sam. 10:17-27). This was described in one of our texts for today and we’ll talk a bit more about it in a moment.

4. He had early success as a king, defeating the Ammonites, the Philistines (1 Sam. 13-14), and the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:8).

5. He committed several spiritual offenses. He offered a sacrifice without Samuel present (1 Sam. 13:8-14), which was a no-no. He broke the very sacred ban against taking anything of those they defeated in battle (1 Sam. 15:2ff). For this grave offense Samuel deposed and sentenced him (1 Sam. 15:26,35). And in perhaps his most well-known transgression, he consulted a medium rather than the Lord (or Samuel) for guidance (1 Chron. 10:13). I’ll comment further on the deeper problem with these acts as well.

But there are five facts to know about Saul. He was the first king of Israel; he looked the part and was chosen for it; he was successful militarily; and he was not particularly mindful of what God wanted him to do. Let’s look now more in-depth.

Strong King

It is said that money cannot buy happiness. That is, perhaps, not a far distance from the claims of Psalm 33, which we heard in the call to worship:

The king is not saved by a mighty army; a Warrior is not delivered by great strength. (v. 16)

It’s counter-intuitive, I know. It depends on what you mean by ‘saved’ and ‘delivered’ – just like the saying about money depends on what you mean by ‘happiness.’ After all, money can buy you a moment’s pleasure – a tasty bit of chocolate or the newest electronic gadget or a ticket to the big game. The wisdom behind the saying is the realization that true happiness is deeper and more meaningful than those temporary entertainments.

Likewise, a mighty army or great strength or the latest security system or a bodyguard can offer some peace of mind. They can even win the day. But the underlying wisdom behind the Psalm, ironically enough thought to be written by Saul’s successor, King David, is that there is greater deliverance and salvation than a strong king or army can offer.

In the history of Israel, God had consistently been the source of deliverance and salvation. In both the passages we heard this morning from 1 Samuel, there was reference to the Lord delivering His people from slavery in Egypt. But the people wanted a different kind of deliverance, a different kind of salvation. They wanted something for the immediate need, and that seemed to be a king like the other nations.

In 1 Samuel 8, just after where we stopped reading, Samuel tells them of all the costs of having such a king: there will be extensive taxes and taking of sons and daughters to service his needs. There will come a day when the people cry out because of the burden of serving a king. But the real spiritual problem in 1 Samuel 8 and following is that the Lord has been serving as the Great King of Israel and the people want something and someone just a little more tangible. So they choose the best-looking, strongest, fiercest warrior among them; after all, they fight a mighty foe. And despite the sternest warnings, Saul is crowned king.

It’s hard to tell in chapter ten if Samuel is playing along to illustrate the folly of their demand or if he, too, is persuaded by Saul. Verse 23 describes him as physically “head and shoulders above the rest.” And Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? Surely there is no one like him among all the people.” And yes, the Lord did choose him – but as what the people were asking for, not as His best for them.

As I mentioned in the five facts, Saul had early military success, defeating and beating back several of Israel’s enemies. But the Philistines continued to be a threat – remember Goliath? And Saul engaged in spiritual practices forbidden by the Lord. Perhaps the power of leadership went to his head. Perhaps he wanted to appear spiritual to the people or claim some mantle of spiritual authority in addition to military authority. In the end, he pitted himself against God rather than humbling himself before God. And that was his downfall.

True Strength

From this example to the Psalm we heard to the example of Christ himself, godly human leadership involves allegiance and service to God, the High King. There IS a place for strength, resources, money, technology, and every other human resource, but not at the expense of trust in and service to God.

Let me say again that there is a broad point of connection and application here. This biblical principle isn’t just for kings and rulers, but for every person who is in some position of leadership. And I believe that covers just about every one of you at some time or another.

You may lead a team at work. You may lead teenagers in the youth ministry. You may be a teenager and have the opportunity to lead and set an example for your friends. You may be a parent, with the responsibility of raising young ones to maturity and adulthood. In every case there are resources at your disposal, and good ones. It is wise and beneficial to have training, technology, money, support, and more. But the deep lesson from this first of Israel’s kings is that it is not enough to truly succeed. God is the true King, the true Rescuer and Deliverer.

God’s timing is always interesting. This past week I circulated a prayer request for a friend whose newborn baby has severe heart issues. My friend and her husband are journeying through challenges I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around, yet doing so with faith and grace that only God can inspire. At the decision not to pursue a high-risk surgery, my friend shared these thoughts. Listen for the truth of today’s scriptures lived out loud in her and her husband’s testimony: that God is the only one who truly saves.
When I felt I might be pregnant in April, I heard the Lord telling me not only that I would have a boy but that he would be like Josiah, one of the kings in 2 King 22-23 in the Old Testament of the Bible. Josiah became king at an early age and was faithful in leading the people back to their God. When I heard this, my vision for [my child] revolved around seeing him as a great preacher and evangelist, like Billy Graham, but I have realized in the past few days that [this little one] was first sent to turn mine and [my husband’s] hearts back to our God, for us to know Him more deeply as a God who is loving, always present, abounding in mercy and compassion, and sacrificial; he was sent to us to challenge our idols and gods of selfishness or self-centeredness, technology, dependence on ourselves; he was sent to us to remind us how we will suffer in this world but that there is an eternity free of suffering that awaits all of us.

In the meantime, we smile at [our son’s] unique frustrated cry, learn his different grimaces and smiles, enjoy his beautiful face, his long fingers, toes and serious brow, and remember that none of us are our own, that we belong to a God who gave us His Son that we may know Him and live.
There is much in us that demands a king – quick answers, deliverance from what ails us, freedom from what enslaves us. And we are so quick to turn to the stuff of this world to find peace, hope, and rescue. While we need not despise or decline helpful resources in this world, they are not our salvation. God is our only hope and salvation. It is a wise person who looks first to God for help. Whether a parent, boss, teacher, manager, or friend, it is a strong leader who trusts most in the Lord. Amen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gifts of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12)

January 3, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

It’s 2010 and we have a new year ahead of us. Interestingly enough, the church calendar celebrates Epiphany in the first week of January, so we aren’t quite done with the Christmas story yet. Last week, Dan Isadore preached and asked “What now?” as Mary, Joseph, and we look to the time after the birth of baby Jesus. Today we look at the visit of the wise men.

While I didn’t go into this passage looking for a connection with previous sermons, I saw a number of connections with what we talked about during December. Then we were looking at the story of Mary and asked these questions:
  • Is God trying to get your attention and what is God trying to say to you?
  • What does God desire to do in your life for His glory?
  • What is God doing in the world in and around you and how can you participate in that?
What we see in these magi are people who diligently asked those kinds of questions. We see what happens when we listen carefully for God’s voice and look for what God is doing in and around us. The magi provide for us a wonderful example of what it looks like to listen and attend to God. While there are many New Year’s resolutions we might make, I can think of no better commitment to renew and revisit than our commitment to make God a priority – THE priority – in our lives.

So as we look at this passage, note the connection to Mary’s story and those previous questions; but also consider the place of God in your life as we look ahead to a new week and year.

Paying Attention

When we talked in previous weeks about God trying to get our attention and having something to say to us, I said that I believe God is ALWAYS trying to get our attention and ALWAYS having something to say to us. The underlying question or issue is really whether we are willing to pay attention to God – to hear what He has to say.

Now the interesting thing about the magi – one interesting thing – is that as far as I can tell they were not particularly people of faith in the one God. They were likely court advisors to Mesopotamian kings, certainly wise and educated men who advised their ruler in all kinds of matters. So they were also foreign; meaning, they weren’t Jewish. They did take note of the world around them and particularly the sky above them, and they attributed meaning to things like the appearance and location of stars and constellations. To call them astrologers would be a little misleading because today’s horoscopes are a far cry from their studies. Nonetheless, they attributed meaning to what they saw and studied, and were particularly interested, as court advisors, to what they took to be the sign of a new king’s birth. So they set off, bearing gifts, to greet the new king.

The magi set an inspiring example of people who were interested in the world they lived in and even in what God might be doing around them. Even without the explicit truth of Scripture they were inquisitive and observant enough that that they found answers to those same three questions: What is God saying? What is God doing? And how can I participate in what God is doing?

Ironically enough, the fact that they were looking for a “King of the Jews” led to both trouble and help. They raised the dangerous interest of King Herod, who didn’t want any competition to the throne. But they also encountered the Scriptures and the promise of a Messiah to the Jewish people. There is no better combination to find God than one who seeks Him who encounters the Scriptures which speak so explicitly of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Unfortunately the world is full of seekers who do not turn to the Scripture and the church is full of the Scripture and those who no longer seek God or pay attention to this treasure they have!

Worshiping God

The middle verses are taken up with Herod’s plot to use the magi to find the child. We will not focus there today, but move on to the final few verses to look further at the magi and their seeking out the Child who would be king.

The text says (several times) that the magi came, seeking the newborn king, in order to worship him. Now you may remember that one of the main worship concepts in the Bible is literally “bowing down” or more figuratively “yielding” to God. That vocabulary is used several times in this passage, in verses 2, 8, and 11. I believe there is a progression of worship in this passage.

In verse two, the magi were likely seeking a newborn king, with presents to bring, to literally bow down and recognize earthly kingliness as envoys from another earthly ruler (or rulers). In other words, as representatives of their own king(s), they came to welcome a new king into the world. To do so was good politics and perhaps also seen as good luck. Their original intent was not what we think of as ‘worship’ so much as literally bowing down to acknowledge a new king.

In verse eight, Herod asks them to report the location back to him so that he, too, may go and “worship” the Child. It is likely that Herod, knowledgeable of the Jewish scriptures and the prophecies his own advisors have just quoted to him, is using the word in both the literal “bowing down” and the more spiritual sense… except he is trying to deceive the Magi. He actually is an enemy of God and desires to locate and kill the Messiah, who would pose a threat to his own rule. It is that fear and evil that leads him to kill all the male children in Bethlehem.

In verse eleven, the magi find the child with Mary. It is at this point that they planned to bow down and offer presents to a new king. But it is at this point that the use of the word “worship” seems to match what we would think of as worship. While Mary and the baby were no longer in a stable, the magi surely recognize that this is no king’s palace. And they have heard some of the prophecies and Scripture about the Jewish Messiah at this point. And there are some extra words in verse eleven which describe their worship. They didn’t simply “bow down” as had been planned; rather, they “fell to the ground (i.e. face down) and worshiped (bowed down).” While it is not clear how much they understood prior to this point, it is clear that they realize they are in the presence of God and they offer true and humble spiritual worship.

Beyond this, they no longer are offering good will offerings between earthly rulers, but present their gifts as part of their worship. Sharp students of scripture will make a connection between these gifts and prophecies like Isaiah 60, which opens with “Arise, shine; for your light has come...” and verse six of that chapter, which says, “…they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.”

Again these magi serve as a convicting and inspiring example for us. Their worship is neither casual nor ritual. It is face-down, all-out, humility and awe at being in the presence of God. And their offerings, originally planned as “what you do for a new king” are now offered as part of that worship response to God, precious treasures in honor of the one they worship.

I wonder if we take such an understanding of God away from the Christmas birth story. Certainly we get sweet little baby Jesus in a manger. We can be inspired by angel choirs singing praises to God. But do we have any inkling of the kind of power and presence that would drive the chief advisors of foreign kings to their faces in the dirt? Do we tremble in awe? Do we offer God our very best in terms of treasure and time and abilities?

Paying Attention to God: Next Steps

I want to mention one last part to this story, tucked into verse twelve. The magi were confronted with deception and lies, described in verses 7-8. It is not clear until verse 12 that they were not deceived. There we read that they were “warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod.” What jumps out to me is that these men, who began this story as those tuned in to the world around them, but not necessarily to the God of Scripture, now are tuned in to God. And in being so tuned they are discerning what God wants them to do and they are discerning between truth and deception.

They began the story as seekers, perhaps not realizing in full who or what they would find. Encountering the Scriptures and the Christ child, they began to worship God and tune in to what He was doing in and around them.

This is what I desire for each of you; this is what God desires for each of you. This is what ties back in to those questions from December. God IS trying to get your attention; God IS speaking to you. God DOES desire to do something in your life and IS doing something in the world around you.

How do you tune in to that?

You look – you listen – you pay attention to God. You study the Scripture and respond to it, engaging in worship from the heart, not just going through the motions. You offer yourself to God – heart, soul, mind, and strength. You tune in, not just at Christmastime, not just as a New Year’s resolution, but day after day and week after week. Astronomers don’t just look up at the stars once every so often; they track movement and position and changes night after night, moment by moment. So it is with paying attention to God. God’s not going to disappear if you look away, but you will miss out on what God is doing around you and what God desires to do in your life, and may be deceived by evil and lies.

Pay attention; offer God that at least. Offer God what you treasure and yield yourself to him in worship. The magi were also called wise. For those with ears to hear… Amen.