Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Epiphany: Stop, Look, Listen, Respond

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church during worship services on January 10, 2016. Though Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, is always on January 6, we commemorated January 10 as Sunday of the Epiphany, so that we could celebrate the day together during Sunday worship.]

Matthew 2:1-12

Once, the pastor of our home church in Columbus told the story of how he became a follower of Jesus Christ. He came from a non-churchgoing family. He’d never been in a church building until, when he was a boy, he heard that there was going to be a magic show in the fellowship hall of the local Lutheran congregation. Curious, he went. Apparently, the magician talked about faith in Christ as he did his act. Our future pastor came for the magic. But he stayed for the Savior.

His experience relates to today’s Gospel lesson is several ways.

We call the visitors who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in our Gospel lesson wise men. We also sometimes call them kings. And while there’s nothing terrible about those designations, they’re really not accurate.

The original Greek of the New Testament calls them
magi. We get our word magic from the term.

The magi were, to put it bluntly, first century versions of palm readers or fortune tellers. Only they had credibility. They enjoyed a high status in places the New Testament called “the East”—they probably were from countries that set in what is modern day Iran or Iraq. They often served as the powerful advisers to kings.

But God’s people, the Jews, took a dim view of people like the magi. That's because God is clear in His Word that things like horoscopes and consulting with fortune-tellers is wrong. God’s people were (and are) to rely on God and His Word alone.

The magi though, thought that events in the heavens bore a relationship to events on earth. When they saw a light that may have been the conjoining of Jupiter and Saturn or, according to a new and interesting theory, maybe a comet, they were certain that something major was up. Probably unschooled in the prophecies of a Savior Who would be more than the king of the Jews, but also the Savior of the whole human race, they went to Herod. In 40BC, Herod the Great had been declared to be King of the Jews by the Roman Empire, though Herod himself wasn't really a Jew. The magi may have thought that a baby had been born into Herod's royal household.

Instead, Herod’s household and servants--and Jerusalem--were thrown into an uproar, a fact that they tried to conceal from the visitors from the East.

Scholars and theologians were consulted and the magi were told that the Old Testament prophecy from Micah had said that a king of the Jews, the Messiah, was to be born in a tiny village about five miles from Jerusalem, the hometown of Israel’s first king, David. The place was called Bethlehem.

That’s all the magi needed to know. They left the king and found the baby living in a house in Bethlehem. There, we’re told, they worshiped Jesus.

Think of it: The first people to worship Jesus were Gentiles, non-Jews.

Just as the angels’ announcement to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth signaled that the Messiah had come for the humble and lowly of heart, God’s guidance of the magi to the house of the baby Jesus was God’s signal God loves all people and it’s God’s desire that all people should come to worship and follow Jesus and have eternal life with God.

Like our home pastor who had been attracted by a magic show and instead found the Lord of his life, the Magi had been attracted by what they thought was the portent of a birth in the Judean equivalent of Buckingham Palace. Instead, in a humble home in a tiny town, they found the God of all creation, come to save the world from sin and death!

You never can tell what might attract people who have never had anything to do with God before to come and worship Him! The unlikeliest things can be attracted to follow the Savior. And magic shows and stars aren’t the only things that can attract people to Christ. Sometimes other people--siblings, parents, friends, classmates, co-workers, even husbands and wives--can attract others to Christ!

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the day that God used a star to guide people who didn’t even know God to Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.

The word
epiphany is what’s called a transliteration of a Greek word, epiphane. It literally means shine upon. It carries the meaning of making something clear, of manifesting something. In other grammatical forms, the word can mean to see glory.

On the first Epiphany, a bright star shone upon the magi. But having received clarification from the Word of God in Jerusalem, they understood that they were doing more than following a star. The Savior of the world, the One Who gives the gift of new and everlasting life to all who repent, or turn from their sin, and believe in Jesus Christ, was made clear to them. Jesus was the brightest light the magi saw that day at Bethlehem!

Some three decades after the Magi visited the baby Jesus, after Jesus died and rose from the dead and spent forty days instructing His disciples, it was time for Him to ascend to heaven. But before He did, Jesus gave one last bit of instruction to His followers, including me and you. “As you go through your lives,” Jesus said, “make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This is often called the Great Commission.

You and I are called to be stars who shine the light of Christ’s Gospel into the lives of others. You and I are called to make Gospel clear to others, so that they can see the goodness and the greatness of the Lord Who was born among us, died for us, and rose for us to give us life with God forever. In short, God has called us to be something that is a bad word to some people, witnesses for Christ!

We’re to let others see Jesus Christ.

We’re to invite our friends to know Jesus.

We are, when asked, to share what God has revealed to us in His Word, the salvation that comes in Christ alone.

We are to make disciples.

I know how hard being a witness can be. But I also know that it can be done. I am here this morning because people dared to witness for Christ to me.

And when we dare to be witnesses, God can do amazing things. This past week, I was talking with Dennis. He showed me some texts and pictures he received from a pastor in Haiti. The pastor indicated that his church was hosting a women's conference. The picture showed that the event was packed and that not just women were present. The women had invited male family members to attend as well.

The next day, the Haitian pastor texted that there had been three-hundred present, including males and females and people of all ages.

The next day he reported that the previous day's meeting had brought four-hundred to the event. This time, the youth of the congregation had gone door-to-door in the village to invite people to come. That night, eight people gave their lives to Jesus Christ!

I know that in our rich American culture, we have more distractions to entertain us and keep us from interacting with others or thinking about God. According to a 2014 study cited by the New York Daily News, the average time spent watching TV by Americans each day is five hours. And that doesn't count the time spent on Snapchat, Instagram, Genius, Twitter, or Facebook. It can be tough to reach people whose only accessibility is of the cyber-variety.

But witnessing is also hard for us. Often we lack the confidence to witness for Christ.

What if someone asks me a question I can’t answer?

What if my friend or family member will be offended and dismiss me as a nut?

It’s always possible that followers of Christ will be dismissed as nuts, of course. After all, if Jesus Himself was crucified, we can probably expect to sometimes be misunderstood or dismissed.

But when you know that you belong to the King of the world, you have every reason to be confident. And the better you know Him, the more confident you will be.

But how can we be confident? How can we be the means by which others come to follow Jesus?

As we prepare to begin the second phase of establishing a discipleship culture at Living Water, under the coaching of Navigators, there is a group of people who make up here in the congregation known as the Life and Learning Team. One tool that we’ve learned about and are now using is something called
Quiet Time. Quiet Time is a means we can use to cultivate closeness to and gain confidence in witnessing for Christ.

Quiet Time is summarized in four words: stop, look, listen, respond.

Here’s how it works. Five days a week (you can take two days a week off)--for most people usually the first thing in the morning, though others may find other parts of their days more conducive--close the door, turn off the cell phone, move away from the laptop, shut off the dumb box, get rid of distractions.

Then stop!
Come into the Lord's presence. Ask God, “Lord, where is my heart today?” Simply take the time to appreciate being in the presence of the God Who made you and loves you beyond all telling.

Next look into God’s Word. I suggest reading just one chapter of the New Testament each day and working through the New Testament as the year progresses. If you only get through part of a chapter when God gets your attention, that's great. Then, focus on the one verse in the chapter that strikes you most. As you do so, the Navigators teach us, you should ask God, “Lord, what new truth do you want me to discover from Your Word today?” This is not a request for head knowledge. You’re asking God to speak His truth to you through His Word. Since God’s Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, this can happen often.

After you've stopped and looked, next listen. We remain silent before God and ask Him, “Lord, what is Your thought for me today?” Don’t be afraid to be silent for a while. It sometimes takes a time for God’s message to get through the noise and distractions of our lives.

Finally, respond. Responding to what God has told us may mean offering up a prayer of repentance. Or, asking for guidance for a particular issue that God’s truth has surfaced in your mind. Or, it may mean deciding on an action step in line with the truth God teaches you.

A few months ago during my Quiet Time, God convicted me for failing to respond to the needs of people I met while walking down a North High Street in the Short North of Columbus before a concert. Several people, maybe homeless, certainly impoverished, asked me for money.

In my mind, I thought, “They probably want to use it for drugs or alcohol or cigarettes.” But the truth is that I was making rationalizations because  I didn’t to bother with people for whom Jesus Christ died and rose!

Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:40 rattled my conscience: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

“Lord,” I prayed during my Quiet Time, “how can I respond to the truth You’ve put before me today?”

In my spirit, God seemed to suggest that I buy gift cards from a fast food restaurant so that the next time I was tempted to  pass an imploring person on a city street or freeway off-ramp, I could hand them a gift card. I responded by buying four cards shortly thereafter. I keep a stash with me all the time.

The magi followed a star, looking for an earthly king and instead, found God come to earth as a baby. When we spend quiet time with God each day--when we stop, look, listen, and respond, we will know the Lord better. We will gain confidence in our faith. And we can be the stars shining in a darkened world, guiding people to Christ. God needs us to be confident witnesses for Christ now more than ever. Amen

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