Sunday, January 14, 2024 First Mennonite Church – Harry Harder
Geography of the Bible
Geographical map of Palestine
Hills of Galilee
Sea of Galilee
Jordan Valley
Jerusalem
Nazareth
 
Today’s scripture story is in situated in Nazareth. I will take the opportunity to describe some of the geography of the place.
Galilee is in the north of Israel. Contains the Sea of Galilee (also called Genesarret, Kinneret, Tiberias). Galilee is a hilly region, south of the Lebanon mountains. South of Galilee are the hill regions of Samaria and Judea (site of Jerusalem). Jordan Valley is a long trough that is eastern border of the region.
Scripture: Luke 4:16-30
Meditation:
This is the story in the gospel of Luke of Jesus making his announcement in Nazareth of the beginning of his ministry. Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan River. After he came up from the river, the holy spirit descended on him like a dove and a voice was heard saying “ You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Luke the Gospel writer emphasized that Jesus has been anointed by God for his ministry. He has God’s divine blessing for what he is about to do.
And so Jesus returns to Galilee and begins preaching in the synagogues of the region. His activities gain attention and even before he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, the people there have already heard what he is doing. This is Joseph’s son—the hometown boy.
On the sabbath he shows up at the synagogue in Nazareth, just like he has always done, with the rest of the local worshipping community. But this time he is given the Torah scroll to read—to read and then exposit about what he just read, to do a sermon. “You went to seminary. Let’s see what you can do.”
The portion he reads is from Isaiah 61: 1-2 61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; Jesus takes some liberty in quoting his Bible verses. The last phrase ‘the day of vengeance of our God” in Isaiah is omitted in what Jesus says. That takes out the negative aspect of Isaiah’s message. From 58: 6 to “let the oppressed go free.” is added. These adjustments put emphasis on “me”, Jesus is identifying himself in these verses. The word or theme “release” becomes very prominent. Jesus will be the agent who brings release. The word “release” in Luke often has the meaning of forgiveness—release from sins or “forgiveness of sins”. Jesus is the one who grants forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness implies restoration or entry into the community. Who are the poor, the oppressed, that are highlighted? “Spiritually poor” doesn’t cover this category. Status in this culture was defined not just by economic wealth, or if you were a Jew or a Gentile, but by factors such as education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation. All these things determined social boundaries of who was inside or outside of the boundaries of God’s people. These things were all very well understood. Jesus did not recognize these markers and by so doing said that these outsiders were not beyond God’s grace—they too had a way open to God’s salvation. “Recovery of sight” is not just about physical healing but also a metaphor about receiving revelation(being able to see, discern what is happening) and experiencing salvation and inclusion in God’s family.
 
The passage also draws attention to the Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was part of the law in Leviticus. Every 50 years was to be a year of great reset in the Israelite nation. The release of debts---slaves set free, land left fallow, debts forgiven, land being returned to the original owners. The economic playing field was to be levelled every 50 years. Jesus is the anointed herald of God’s gracious visitation when the social and economic order will be reset. So the people heard the scroll being read and they reflected on the themes of deliverance which they as a people had experienced through history. They responded positively to Jesus reading and were impressed by their own, ”Joseph’s son”, doing so well, and by his gracious words. The people of Nazareth see in Jesus the beginning of prophetic powers, but their understanding of what that meant is different than Jesus’ own vision. For them especially, Joseph’s son could be a special source of God’s favor. Jesus will act as one of us. But Jesus says to them, “You will tell me, “Doctor, cure yourself. Do also in your hometown the things we heard you do in Capernaum.’” That is what you want me to do, isn’t it?
 
The townspeople’s feeling is “We have heard you do things of great benefit to others. Don’t refuse to do those things also for your own relations. We’ve heard about what you are doing. We are in need of healings and miracles here in Nazareth too. Don’t do all this for other people’s benefit if you refuse to do the same for us.” Jesus saw his ministry for all people, especially for those who claim no status or favor with God. The townsfolk of Nazareth had an inhibited vision of what Jesus was about. They felt they were privileged because Jesus was one of them. This releasing business Jesus was talking about—well they were going to be first in line. Then Jesus refers to - two Old Testament stories. Scripture Reading: 1 Kings 17: 8-24 There was a great three year famine in Israel and Elijah goes for refuge not to his own country but to Sidon, further north in what is now Lebanon, where he is received and cared for by a destitute woman. She was a foreigner, a woman, a widow --all marks of someone being outside the boundaries of God’s people. Scripture reading: 2. Kings 5: 1-19 Namaan a non-Jew, a Syrian foreigner, leper, the military leader of foreign enemy power. God’s good news embraces the widow, the unclean, the Gentile, those of lowest status. The widow of Sidon showed exceptional hospitality. Naaman, the Syrian general, was willing, though reluctantly, to engage in a risky promise. The prophets were not programmed to specifically seek these “other” individuals out, but their ministry made no distinction between the insiders and outsiders. But the Israelites had no special status. Jesus tells these two stories of prophets coming to outsiders when the insiders had just as many needs. The townspeople of Nazareth turn on Jesus. Jesus has deliberately said, ”My ministry is not just for those who think they have a claim or priority on God. It is for all, especially those without status.” They can’t handle a god who has no boundary markers for the community of his people. There is a cliff at the edge of town in Nazaeth and they drag Jesus to its edge threatening to hurl him to his death. If Jesus is claiming divine appointment, then what he is saying is blasphemy and worthy of destruction. A false prophet cannot live.
 
The people of Nazareth had a tribal god. God was theirs alone and they were God’s people. Other nations had their own god and that was alright. But they had Yahweh and throughout history he had shown himself to be the strongest and that is how they wanted to keep it. They could not handle a larger God. The concept of God in the Bible develops from being a tribal god to a universal God. It is a development of the human idea of God. God probably does not change in that sense, but how people understand God to be that is what changes. God was first a God of the patriarchs and then he became the God of the Israelites. A god was associated with a particular region, specific real estate, a temple, a people. The Old Testament prophets began to see God working in the nations around them and while they lived in Babylonian exile. In the New Testament Jesus becomes the universal Christ—just as illustrated in this story. And the Christian story also develops after Jesus, from being a story of the reformists of the Jewish faith, to being a church of all nations. When I was a child I attended the Pleasant Point Mennonite church. My religious language was German. The country church and community was my whole life and I did not know much else. Because of my language difficulties and the way I read the Bible in my childlike way, I thought that Mennonites must be Jews because we were God’s chosen people and our history paralled Jewish history in so many ways. God’s love and grace was for the people who followed God according to the Mennonite catechism. All others were somewhat suspect. There is a negative arrogance to this. This understanding is something with which I have had to struggle in my life. This is a sermon I have needed to preach to myself many times. What happens when we make the boundaries where God has none? Look at what is happening in the Middle East. Under what circumstances is it justifiable to attack civilians? In Gaza over 23,000 people have been killed in 3 months in response to a terrorist attack in which 1200 were killed. Most of those killed are women and children. Children are starving, injured, and sick and live without medical assistance. The people run to and fro searching for shelter. There is no safe place. When we make our boundaries, of who is out and who is in, we dehumanize others. We exclude others from the humanity that we claim only for ourselves. We can justify doing horrendous things to others, which we would abhor in our own community. Our politics looks for scapegoats who we can blame for our problems. We search, we need something to blame so we can feel good about ourselves. We can only be right when others are wrong. Jesus made no boundaries like that.

“What star are you following?”

Matthew 2:1-12 (January 7, 2024)

Welcome to Epiphany. Actually, it’s the day after Epiphany, which falls every year on January 6th. Today represents the end of the Christmas season. We have one final burst of energy, singing carols, enjoying decorations – banners, greenery and candles – celebrating the light of God that has come into the world through the birth of Jesus. African Wisemen.pngToday we tell a magnificent story about some wise men from the East who followed a star, leading them to Bethlehem and a newborn king.

little tree angel.jpghttps://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57077 [retrieved December 29, 2023]. Original source: Lauren Wright Pittman, http://www.lewpstudio.com/." width="179" height="95" />There has always been some debate in our house about what ornament is appropriate for the top of the Christmas tree. Should it be an angel or a star? Lindsay’s family always placed an angel at the top of the tree. In my family, however, we followed a different tradition. Our tree always had a bright star, lifted high, shining its light.

This year, for the first time in forty years, we have an angel on top. It’s very small, because we have a Charlie Brown tree. It can’t support the weight of the star. (Besides that, the lights on our poor star have burnt out!)

The wise men, or Magi, were great observers of the skies. They studied the constellations and believed that heaven and earth were linked together. Happenings in the stars were portents or signs of momentous things happening here on earth.

These men were not of Jewish faith. They were Gentiles, perhaps Zoroastrians, from the modern day area of Iran, as some have speculated.Do you find it strange that foreigners, outsiders, could have insight into the birth Christ? Wisemen and camels.jpgBut God is God of all people, don’t you know? – the whole creation!

Here we have people from another part of the world making a long and arduous journey, following a star to greet a king born in a tiny Judean village. This king, though Jewish by birth, will be for all the people. So here we have even Gentiles rejoicing!

They followed a star.

Last winter, Lindsay and I were in Waskesiu. Parks Canada had a program in the evening, so we went down to the lake, where there were bales of straw set in a circle, with a fire to keep us warm. The leader handed out a star chart, and helped us to identify some of the constellations. She told us stories that circulated among indigenous people about the stars and their interactions with humanity.

The Big Dipper.pngThere’s a universal appeal to this. Our planet earth is set in the midst of stars, and so they appear in some form to everyone, wherever we may be.

I’m reminded of enslaved people in America who had a song called “Follow The Drinking Gourd.” That was their name for the Big Dipper. If you line up the two stars at the end of the dipper they point to a third star, the North Star, around which all the others appear to move.

The North Star was a guide for them. It promised to lead them on a journey to the northern states and across the border to Canada where they hoped to find their freedom.

North Star photo.pngWhat star of promise have you followed? How did you first discover the light of God?

Did you have family, or friends, or a community to guide you? I remember my mom reading me Bible stories at bedtime. That is one way.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polaris_DSS.png" width="285" height="36" />But the wise men show us there are many ways. They looked to the stars to discover an order and meaning to the universe. And when they saw an anomaly – an object in the sky never seen before – they were compelled to pursue it. Why else would they journey so long and far? They were compelled.

In my experience, there is something powerful at work here: The activity of God’s Holy Spirit, leading us ever closer to the life of Christ.

It was St. Augustine who developed the idea of God’s prevenient grace – God’s grace that works in our lives before we know anything about it. The Spirit of God stirs in our hearts, awakening our desire, drawing us to the light of Christ.

So what brought you to Jesus? Was it someone you knew? Was it the sheer wonder of being alive here on God’s good earth? Was it curiosity? Was it some desperate need – for hope or forgiveness? Was it the beautiful life that Jesus lived, and the wish that you might live it too? Did you stumble into Jesus quite by accident, or so you thought?

What was the star that led you to him?

And now, tell me this: Is that star still shining? I ask because sometimes our faith can begin with enthusiasm, then become lost in all the myriad stars of the sky.

I notice that sometimes at night when I’m looking up at the stars of heaven. Something will catch my attention for a split second, out the corner of my eye. But when I try to look directly at it, it disappears.

Here’s a scientific explanation for that: There are two kinds of light receptors in our retinas: One helps us to see in colour. The other enables us to detect very faint light. Looking to one side allows us to see those blinking stars, which we might otherwise miss.[1]

What star are you following? What do you see? What has captured your attention? What is compelling you forward on your journey?

It’s interesting how we’ve come to use that word “star” to describe all sorts of things. We speak of “rising stars” in the world of sports, and theatre, and business and academia.

Young Hockey Player.jpgAt eighteen years old, Connor Bedard is seen as a rising star in the hockey world. This rookie player, and former Regina Pat, was the number 1 pick in the 2023 draft. He has recently emerged as the youngest player ever selected for an NHL All-Star Game. Eighteen years old and he’s already a star![2]

What star are you following? A political star, a literary star? A technological star? Who or what captures your attention, and motivates your journey? What do you find compelling?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Connor_Bedard_rookie_closeup.jpg" width="186" height="46" />And now, listen: Do any of these stars draw us closer to Jesus?

A good indication of this might be how you spend your time. So take a moment now and think about that. How do you fill your days? Does any of it bring you closer to Jesus?

Or consider this: How are you spending your treasure – your precious gold and frankincense and myrrh? Who do you bow down to? What is the object of your devotion?

I wonder if these questions might make us a little bit uncomfortable?

Jerusalem.jpgThe wise men arrive in Jerusalem with some questions of their own. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

“We observed his star.” But no one in Jerusalem has observed a thing. “We have seen its rising in the East.” But they know nothing about it. “We have come to pay him homage.”

And now Herod gets a little antsy. “Pay homage to whom? Aren’t I the king?” He flies into panic mode and calls all his religious officials together to inquire where the Messiah will be born.

“In Bethlehem,” they tell him. But Herod is in no mood to welcome this Messiah. Herod, you see, is following a different star: The star of power and wealth and status, which he will not relinquish. The star he follows has no room for Jesus. The star he follows is threatened by Jesus.

“Go find him,” he tells the wise men, “Let me know when you do.” And now instead of a star, we see a dark and terrible shadow fall upon the land and its inhabitants. Because, in a fit of fury, he will order all the children in Bethlehem, two years old and under, to be killed.

Does the star we follow take us closer to Jesus? Or does it lead us farther away?

lights of a city.jpg

What star do you follow?

Some time ago, I heard an interview with a pilot from World War Two. He flew many dangerous missions. He said the mark of a really good pilot is the ability, when instruments fail, to navigate by the stars. He always got his plane and the crew he carried back to base.

The stars can tell you where you are, and point in the direction you need to go. They can guide your journey home. It’s a skill not so familiar to our modern world.

What star are you following? As we enter this new year, may the star that points to Jesus lead us on our journey. And, at the end of all things, may it guide us to our home. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/why-can-you-see-faint-stars-better-if-you-dont-look-directly-at-them, Accessed January. 5, 2024.

[2] https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/nhl/he-shouldnt-be-an-all-star-this-year-nhl-fans-divided-over-connor-bedards-all-star-game-selection-representing-chicago-blackhawks/ar-AA1munk6, Accessed January 5, 2024.

“Why me?”

Luke 1:26-38 (December 24, 2023)

It was a day like any other, the day an angel came to visit Mary. At least that’s how I imagine it: It was quite an ordinary day … with a very unexpected occurrence.

Mary & Angel.jpgHere’s how one artist has portrayed the scene. Mary sits on the side of her bed, half-dressed. She is young and innocent, and a bit dishevelled.

She’s not entirely sure what is happening to her. How could she be, there, in the presence of a heavenly being? Before her stands Gabriel, sent from God.

“Greetings, favoured one!” the angel declares. “Are you talking to me?” she asks.

Notice the expression on her face. We’re told that Mary “was much perplexed by these words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

She may be perplexed, but she’s not frightened. The angel speaks to reassure her: “Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God.”

And then the strangest words tumble out of the angel’s mouth. Mary tilts her head as she tries to take them in: “Conceive. A son. A kingdom.”

Wait, what? “How can this be? Since …”

Well, you know the situation. Mary has long been promised to a man named Joseph … but she knows nothing of either birth, or the human intimacy that must come before it.

“How?” she repeats, with genuine curiosity.

Mary’s life is about to change, dramatically. That’s how it is when God decides to do something. One ordinary day, you’re minding your own business, pretending there’s nothing else that matters.

And then … it happens! Not usually because of an angel. But something catches hold of you. Something from the recess of memory, perhaps. A stirring in your heart. A glimmer of light, God’s light. A sudden awareness that you are not alone, and never have been. And it’s up to you – whether you deny or welcome it.

And that brings us to our question for today. All through Advent we’ve been wrestling with questions, each week a different one. And here is today’s: “Why me?”

It often comes as an expression of complaint. As in, “Why did this unfortunate, unwelcome, unappreciated thing have to happen?”

fixing tire.jpg“Why did I get that parking ticket? Why was my house broken into? Why did my car stop working, leaving me stranded at the side of the road?

“Why did that deal fall through? Why did that relationship not work out? Why did I have to receive that dreaded medical diagnosis?”

“Why me?” Often the question is unanswerable. But we ask it anyway. “Why me?” expresses a feeling that something has come to us that we don’t deserve. And where, we ask, is the justice in that?

Why would God intrude upon Mary’s life, upsetting its order and stability, and sending her down a path that will change her life forever? It’s a path she hadn’t asked for. “Why me?”

If you’ve had a child – any child – you know what a life-altering experience that is. And part of what we see in Mary is how much she shares in common with the rest of us.

Mary is not unusual. She’s an ordinary teenage girl. I say teenage, because that’s when most women married in first-century Palestine.

She had no particular qualities that we are told of. The angel mentions nothing about her character, or religious inclination. We can only speculate about that.

And, in a way, it doesn’t matter who you’ve been – whether good or bad, old or young, rich or poor, big or small. None of that will ever prevent God from reaching out to you, inviting you to be part of God’s plan.

This is God’s doing, God’s initiative through and through. We were reading this passage in our Advent Bible Study last week, and one of the participants remarked that Gabriel’s visit is more like announcement than request. God shows up and simply declares “This is what I am doing!”

Of course, Mary also agrees to it. Which is a beautiful thing: to willingly participate in the work of God. To be open to the Spirit’s gift of life! Whenever we do that, any one of us might become bearers of God’s love, and birthers of God’s kingdom!

This is such good news! It’s what incarnation is all about: God entering into our flesh-and-blood world. Coming to live in the very midst of our humanity. So near to us! Immanuel, God with us.

We hear it every year in the season of Christmas. But can we still be amazed at the utter audacity of it? God values our earthiness! Honours it. Embraces it. Lifts it up and makes it holy.

nativity.pngIf God’s own self will come and live in Mary’s womb, endure the messiness of birth, emerging to greet the world there amongst the animals, in the dust and smell of a stable … Well, God can be present anywhere, anytime. There is nowhere we can be where God is not!

God with us. With Mary and her people, ordinary folk. With you and me. With all the “nobody specials” of the world.

“Why me?” I want you to consider this question again. Not as a complaint. But just the opposite! Consider it as Mary’s wonderment, and our wonderment, at the amazing grace of God.

Not “why me” because my life has been so inconvenienced. But “why me” that I should be shown God’s favour? That you, God, would send an angel to visit, here in this back-of-the-woods place?

Why should I, of all people, be included in your comings and goings? Why make me part of that company of saints who’ve been loved by you, and incorporated into your great kingdom? “Why me?”

stained glass.jpgRemember Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, whom she came to visit? Mary entered the house. And at the sound of her voice the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blessed Mary. And listen to what she has to say: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43)

https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54191 [retrieved December 23, 2023]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swperman/221074981/." width="238" height="114" />“Why me?” It’s not a complaint! It’s an expression of resounding joy! “Why am I so fortunate to be here in this place? Why should I be graced with your lovely presence? And the presence of my Lord!

Have you ever felt like you were the luckiest person in the whole wide world?

When you looked into the eyes of someone you loved? When you caught a glimpse of astonishing beauty in God’s creation? When you listened to a piece of music that sent shivers down your spine? When someone did something for you that was generous and good and completely undeserved?

“Why me?” I am so fortunate. Thank you!

Listen to this poem, part of a collection of poems written by inmates in prison. The author looks through a mirror one day and sees only darkness in his life.

But then looks again, and discovers a glimmer of light. A voice that says:

wire.jpg“You have one more chance
What are you waiting for?
Try one more time
Don’t look at the past.
Because …
I am ready to shine through you the rest of your life.
thank you LORD
Jesu Cristo”[1]

“Why should any of us be graced with forgiveness and love and new beginnings? Why should we be given the gift of Jesus? God with us, here in our flesh and blood lives. The mystery of the incarnation! It’s startling, astounding. Completely unexpected. “Why me?”

What amazing grace is given to us at Christmas! And to think now that we too might become part of God’s working in the world! Just think of that! “Why me?” Why not me?

To you be glory, God who brings heaven to earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen!

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

  • When have you said, “Why me?”
  • How is God gifting you this Christmas?
  • How might you be part of God’s kingdom way?

 

[1] Poetry from Prison: Lifting Up the Lowly, By Liz Milner. Posted 17 December 2017. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1595-poetry-from-prison-lifting-up-the-lowly, Accessed Dec. 19, 2023.