How did you first come to Jesus? Many of us first came to him for the comfort he offers. Life was turned upside down and he offered a safe haven in the midst of turmoil. Maybe someone we loved was taken from us by death, we found solace in his promise of eternal life. When things were spiraling out of control, he was the one who gave meaning and purpose and order. More than anyone else, Jesus is our source of comfort and peace.
But we can get too comfortable with Jesus, the way we can get too comfortable with another person if we’re not careful. A husband and a wife can become so comfortable with each other they take each other for granted. Marriage falls into a predictable routine they don’t even have to think about. They have each other figured out, and life plugs along the way it always has. Then one day someone wakes up and realizes that what was reassuring comfort has drifted into stifling complacency.
The people of Nazareth were comfortable with Jesus. He had been reared there; they knew his family; they had watched him grow up from the time he was a youngster. They were pleased that Jesus had made a name for himself. He was gaining a reputation as a wise preacher, and it had even been reported that he performed miracles. Now he had come home, a local boy made good. They wanted to hear for themselves his teaching that had received such acclaim. Certainly he would have some encouraging words for them. He would show his appreciation by letting them know how much they meant to him and what a big part they played in his success. He would perform some miracles for them. They knew what to expect of Jesus. He was one of them.
But Jesus didn’t do what the hometown folks expected. Instead of comforting them, he upset them so badly they tried to throw him off a cliff. The home folks weren’t upset that Jesus had come to help the poor, the blind and the oppressed. They were pleased that Mary and Joseph’s boy cared for the down and out. It’s just that there were plenty of people right in Nazareth he should tend to first. Charity begins at home, you know. But instead of looking after his own people, Jesus quoted scripture to them. He reminded them of Elijah. While people were starving in his homeland, Elijah went to a foreign land and fed a poor widow. He reminded them of Naaman, a foreigner, whom Elisha cured of leprosy even while there were plenty of lepers right there in Israel who needed to be healed. What enraged the people of Nazareth was that Jesus didn’t put his own kind first. Those who knew him best did not have first claim on him. That made them very uncomfortable.
Sometimes the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things we know but choose to ignore. The strength of Martin Luther King’s message was the very thing that made so many uncomfortable with it. It was firmly rooted in the principles Americans value. King confronted the United States with the words of the Declaration of Independence that say “all men are created equal.” He took seriously the words of the Constitution that say the government exists to promote justice and the wellbeing of all its citizens. He reminded white Christians that the one they worshiped as Lord said he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and liberty to the oppressed.
Jesus wasn’t telling the people of Nazareth anything new. He was just reminding them what their scripture had been teaching them all their lives. God has a surprising way of putting the last first, of making the weak strong, of bringing the outsiders inside. Remember the story of Exodus. God could have chosen a nation like Egypt to be the special people through whom God showed the world God’s power and love. Egypt was the superpower of the ancient world. But God chose Israel, the underprivileged minority, the immigrant laborers. It was those who had nothing whom God led into the land of milk and honey. After Israel lived in the promised land for a while, they started to take it all for granted. They forgot that once they had been outsiders who had nothing and that God had reached out to them when they were down and out. They began to think of God’s grace as an entitlement, something they were due, rather than a free gift they had done nothing to deserve. They ignored the poor and the handicapped. It was more important to them that they have luxuries than that the poor have basic necessities. But God wouldn’t let them stay so self-centered. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to call them back. And when they still didn’t listen, God sent them into exile and made the people of Israel foreigners and slaves. God made them the ones who were outcast and oppressed so they would remember that their relationship with God wasn’t something to take for granted.
The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the rights of the rich and the powerful. It’s not that God doesn’t care about them, it’s just that they will always have the money and the influence to make sure their rights are protected. The Bible does have a lot to say about those on the bottom of society’s ladder, those who don’t have enough money for a decent living or enough influence to get the attention of the movers and shakers of the world.
But we know that. We have seen first hand that it’s in our weakness that we often know God’s power best. Think of the times you’ve felt closest to God. Often, they’re the times you’ve felt the weakest and most vulnerable. It’s not that Jesus isn’t there when things are going well for us. He is. But it’s when we don’t have anything else to fall back on that we learn to rely on God the most. It’s when our self-sufficiency reaches its limits that it’s easiest for us to look to Jesus, to set aside our own agendas and rely on his strength completely.
But if we let Jesus comfort us in our weakness and that’s the extent of our relationship with him, then we’re too comfortable with him. Jesus did come for you and for me. He does meet us in our need. But he thinks more of us than to keep us in our own narrow selves. He came to lift us out of ourselves, to see that there’s more to this wonderful world God has made than ourselves.
People often try to spiritualize what Jesus says and take away some of the punch of his message. People have tried to avoid getting their hands dirty with real physical human needs by interpreting what Jesus said to mean he came just for the poor in spirit, that he proclaims release to those who are held captive by sin, that he restores sight to the spiritually blind, that he sets people at liberty from being oppressed by the torments of the soul. And he does all those things. Jesus engages us on a spiritual journey where we grow in our faith and commitment to him and in the process point others to that freedom of the spirit he gives.
But the people of Nazareth knew Jesus meant more than that. That’s why they were so upset. They knew that Jesus was talking about more than God’s liberation of the spirit. After all, when God freed Israel from Egypt, he did more than free them spiritually. God led them in an insurrection against their captors. The land he gave them was real land, not just the promise of a spiritual home. The demands he put on them were more than spiritual. He commanded them to do concrete things like leaving some of the grain in their fields after the harvest so the poor could glean it, like setting aside the first fruits of their harvest for God. And Jesus’ ministry was more than spiritual because human beings are both spirit and body. When he talked about being the light in the darkness of the world, he backed up his words by actually healing blind people. When he said he was the bread of life, he showed that God intends to provide us with real food by feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The good news of Jesus is a liberation of the spirit. But it also comes with liberation from poverty and sickness and real, physical injustice.
That’s why churches have always been leaders in establishing hospitals, why widows and orphans and sick people and the elderly have always had special places in the church. Did you know that the first life insurance company in America was set up by Presbyterians in Philadelphia as a way of caring for orphans and widows? Churches are at the forefront of feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, improving agriculture in developing countries.
Sometimes proclaiming the liberty of Christ means more than just providing food to alleviate people’s immediate hunger or speaking consoling words to those in pain. Sometimes proclaiming the gospel has meant changing things to get at the root causes of hunger and oppression. The first installed pastor of the church Carol and I served in New Jersey was The Rev. Charles McKnight who died as a prisoner in the brig of a British man-of-war in New York harbor because of his advocacy of the American Revolution. The only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence was the Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, whose faith in Christ led him put his life in jeopardy by standing up for what was right. It was Jesus’ proclamation of the release to the captives that put the church in the forefront of the crusade to abolish slavery before the Civil War. It is God’s call to give liberty to the oppressed that leads Christians as diverse as Pat Robertson and the World Council of Churches to work to end human trafficking. It’s when the church has proclaimed that message of liberty in such a way that it not only comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable that it has found itself in the same place Jesus was, at the brink of the cliff, ready to be thrown over. It’s when those who have things going their way are threatened by the reminder that Jesus came with good news for the outcast, those who are different, that we’ve found ourselves at odds with those who have power and influence in the world.
But where does that leave us if we’re not poor or captive or blind or oppressed? What if we’re doing alright? Is Jesus for us? Yes, because Jesus also liberates us from seeing the world from the narrow confines of our situation. He gives us the eyes of faith to see life from the perspective of those who are victims of the world’s oppression and to act on the basis of what we see through their eyes.
The good news, the news Jesus brought, is that God is bringing in a whole new world where there won’t be injustice or pain. We can’t be part of that if we protect our possessions and privileges. Jesus invites us to join him in welcoming those who make us uncomfortable. In doing that, we not only help set the captives free, we find that Jesus sets us free as well, free to enjoy him unencumbered by our cares, free to do what he has called us to do – serve others in his name. Even if that takes us right up to the edge.
Al is good at what he does. He’s in information technology, but after his company downsized he was out of a job. He got some contract work to upgrade another company’s IT system, but that contract is over soon, and ever since the calendar turned he’s been having sleepless nights. His family has always had enough, but he’s worried about this time. Will there be something there for him a year from now?
Nancy is going to retire soon. She’s looking forward to being free from the pressures of the working world, but she wonders if she’s ready to start living on a fixed income and worries that there will still be enough to make ends meet.
Julie is four years old. A few months ago her parents had a baby. At first, she was excited to be a big sister, but lately that baby has been taking a lot of Mommy’s attention. It used to be that when Daddy got home from work, he played with Julie until dinner. Now he spends some of that time holding the baby. Julie wonders if there’s enough love for her.
Maybe you’ve been asked to take on a challenging leadership role in the community. Will you have enough time and talent to do it well? Or you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness. Will you have enough strength and faith to keep your dignity and face whatever happens with grace?
It’s a question we ask all the time. Will there be enough? Can we trust that God will provide for us? Jesus answered that question. He didn’t answer by just telling us. He showed us. Today we read about his first miracle where he changed water into wine. Did you notice how much wine he made? Enough to fill six stone jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons. That’s 180 gallons of wine for a party that was starting to wind down. Jesus shows us something about God we need to know: God provides more than enough. That’s the way God is.
You don’t need to read the Bible to know that. You can see it in nature. I like to read the question and answer box in the daily weather report in the paper. One day the question was, “How much energy does the earth get from the sun?” The sun gives the earth more energy in 30 days than all the energy that human beings have ever produced from fossil fuels. God deals in abundance!
It’s as obvious as the noonday sun, but we have a hard time believing it. Instead of seeing things from the perspective of God’s abundance, we’re used to seeing them from the standpoint of human scarcity. One of the great challenges facing humankind is the problem of hunger. Every night millions of children around the world go to bed without enough food. The problem is not that there’s a shortage of food in the world. More than enough food exists to feed every person on the planet, but wars, political maneuvering, and just plain greed create a bizarre situation where part of the world suffers from chronic obesity while another part is dying from hunger. The genius of organizations like Our Daily Bread is that they get those of us who have more than enough to notice how much we have to spare and let go of some of it so those who are hungry can eat. Bread for the World works to change the political and economic structures that support inequality.
Ever since God created us, God has been trying to get us to see how abundantly God provides. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them they could eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if they ate from it they would know death and its limits. But which one do you think they wanted? The one they didn’t have. When God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God promised them a land of milk and honey, a place bursting with fruit and grain and minerals – more riches than they could ever want. To get there they had to go through a wilderness, but every morning God gave them manna from heaven so they were never hungry. They had the promise of abundant wealth waiting for them and they had food to sustain them along the way, but for 40 years they complained that they didn’t have the leeks and onions that seasoned their meager stews in slavery.
Jesus shows us life from a different perspective. He invites us to have faith in God who has not run short of anything since God flung the stars in the sky. Jesus asks us to trust that God is not going to give out on us now.
Jesus’ first miracle showed God’s abundance. The very setting was one of joy and exuberance. A wedding reception is not a place where you pinch pennies. One of the hallmarks of a good party is that you feel like you’re splurging. The food and the drink are not what you have every day. You indulge in the host’s generosity. A wedding is the celebration of unlimited possibilities. At a wedding the future is wide open for the bride and groom. There are toasts expressing the expectation that they are in for only the best. A wedding isn’t a place to worry about what you lack. It’s a time to revel in hope and promise and plenty.
And so it was at a wedding that Jesus did his first miracle, his first sign that points us to the one who sent him. Try to imagine the scene. There’s music and dancing and lively conversation. Jesus is there, smiling and laughing, perhaps talking with a group of people who had gathered around him. His mother comes over to him with a look of concern. Maybe she had been talking with the mother of the groom. Perhaps they were friends from way back who had shared the joys and concerns of rearing their sons. Maybe the groom’s mother had come up to Mary in a panic, frightened that her family was about to lose face in front of all their friends. Mary works her way through the crowd over to Jesus and says in a loud whisper over the music, “They have no wine.” He asks her, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me?” After all, he had come to redeem humankind from the bondage of sin. His mission was to restore creation. He was here to confront the power of death and establish the everlasting kingdom of God. Why should he be concerned that a wedding party had run short of wine? But God deals in abundance.
Jesus used that opportunity to show what God is like. He told the servants to fill six stone jars with water. Then he told them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, the wedding director. The steward tasted it, and his face lit up. The party could go on. There was plenty of wine.
His disciples saw the sign and believed. They believed that God sent Jesus to transform scarcity into abundance, limitations into possibilities, death into life. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus would abolish the ultimate limit, death. Death is what puts an end to all things. When he was glorified on the cross, Jesus removed the limit of our mortality and opened the way to eternal life.
But not everyone who saw believed. Not everyone understood that what Jesus did was a sign pointing to God. When the chief steward tasted the wine, he didn’t thank Jesus. He called to the bridegroom and commended him for being such a generous host. “Everyone serves the good wine first,” he told the groom, “and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The steward had a perfectly rational explanation for what he experienced, an explanation that didn’t need God or faith. The steward’s explanation for what happened made perfect sense – and it was perfectly wrong.
Eastminster Presbyterian Church has experienced God’s abundance. You have a generous spirit that allowed the church to meet all of its financial commitments in 2018. Last month when Rhonda Kruse from the Presbyterian Mission Agency met with the mission committee and others, I was struck with how outward-looking this church is, how much you’re committed to making a difference in the community and the world. You’ve done that through the backpack program to East York Elementary School, mission outreach to Honduras, your support of Donegal Presbytery and the global mission of the Presbyterian Church.
Yesterday your session spent the day discerning how God wants you to use that abundance in the coming months. The elders studied scripture, prayed, and took inventory of the ways God is already using Eastminster to do the work of the kingdom. We spent half an hour listing all the things that Eastminster does, and after we’d posted all the sheets we’d filled on the wall, we were amazed at all that is happening here. Then we focused in on the things that Eastminster does especially well and the community in which God has placed us. We came up with three things to focus on in the next nine to twelve months as you prepare for you new pastor.
We’re going to build on what God is already using Eastminster to do in working with children and to relieve hunger; we’re going to intensify our efforts to keep people involved in the ministry of the church; and we’re going to maximize our communication to the community about what God is doing here. You’ll be hearing more about those things in the weeks ahead.
The prologue of John’s gospel speaks for everyone who trusts in Jesus: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace…. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
It’s no secret. Jesus came so we can know God, and if we know anything about God it is this: God has more than enough. God knows what we need. We don’t always have it in advance. Sometimes we have to trust, live with confidence that when the time comes, God provides what we need. It may not be what we expect, but it’s what we need, and whatever that is, there will be enough. Jesus revealed his glory at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. His disciples saw the sign and they believed, and from then on, their lives were full of the abundance of the Lord. That’s what God deals in, abundance, goodness and love that fills us to the brim.
In 2018, as in every year, leaders made a difference. Our country is divided in its opinion of President Trump, but we’re in agreement that, for better or for worse, he’s made a big difference in the political landscape and America’s place in the world. Companies are closely identified with their leaders. What would the world be like today if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t invented The Facebook when he was in college? But in 2018 we discovered that Zuckerberg’s invention isn’t an unmitigated good. He had to defend himself and the company before Congress and in the court of public opinion. In sports it was obvious that it makes a difference who’s in charge. It looked like the Ravens were doomed to lousy season when Joe Flacco was injured, but up stepped Lamar Jackson and now they’re in the playoffs.
It’s an old debate among historians: Does the person shape the times or do the times make the person? Personalities aren’t the only things that shape events, but it makes a difference who’s in charge. Just look at the three kinds of kings we read about in today’s gospel lesson.
King Herod had the kind of authority we usually think of when we hear the word power. He had armies at his disposal. He could make anyone in Judea do whatever he wanted. He had wealth. He taxed at his pleasure. He was in charge. Nobody told King Herod what to do.
Power like Herod’s, power based on force and coercion, has lots of appeal. Sometimes it’s necessary to deal with threats to safety and security from those who would harm us. We always want our police officers to be better armed than the criminals. We want our armed forces to have the best equipment possible to give them an edge over our enemies. But we have to be careful about our fascination with the power of force and coercion. It can be intoxicating. There’s a certain thrill that comes with the immediate effects of being able to impose your will on someone else by force. But that kind of power doesn’t last. Smart leaders know that. One of the reasons that New York is now one of the safest cities in the nation is because of the kind of community policing that its police commissioner Bill Bratton introduced. Rather than working out of fortified bunkers like Fort Apache in the Bronx, officers walk their beats, mingle with the people, build trust, and use force only as a last resort.
The great strength of our country is that it isn’t founded on the power of coercive force. We use it for self-defense, but our nation is founded on principles of freedom and democracy. We know that coercive power, for all its immediate gratification, is limited. Those who use force in our behalf like police officers and the military are under the authority of civilians who are elected by the people. Leaders like Herod who impose their will by force, and after him dictators and tyrants throughout history, have caused immense suffering and death, but that kind of power doesn’t last. The pages of history are filled with the stories of empires that rose on the strength of their armies but fell because that kind of power has its limits.
So the first kind of king in the story we read today is the one whose authority is based on raw power. The second kind of king in the story is the magi. Matthew doesn’t really say they were kings. He doesn’t even tell us there were three; he just tells us the three kinds of gifts they brought to Bethlehem. But these men were regal. In order to afford gold, frankincense and myrrh they must have been as wealthy as kings. And they certainly knew something about leadership. They knew their own limits and realized they needed someone greater than themselves to lead them. The magi were looking for someone worthy of their obedience and praise, someone whom they could trust, a ruler who wouldn’t let them down.
The magi found that king because they studied the stars. There’s something about gazing at the stars that puts everything in a different perspective. The magi knew from spending so much of their lives looking outward into the vast reaches of the universe that there was something other than themselves at the center of creation. The magi knew which stars rose when and how they journeyed across the sky. They had studied their patterns and knew from watching the heavens that there was someone greater than they who put the galaxies in motion and ordered their movements. The magi were looking for the right kind of king. So when they saw his star, they headed for Judea.
The magi were polite to Herod. They respected his kind of power. When they passed through his capital, they stopped in and asked his help in finding the king they were looking for. But they didn’t obey him. They didn’t return to Jerusalem on their way home and tell him what he asked them to find out. They knew the limits of Herod’s kind of power.
What the magi were looking for, what made them wise men, was a third kind of king. This king was completely different from Herod. His power was a different kind, a kind that wasn’t based on the construction of alliances or the manipulation of force. It didn’t depend on the ability to impose his will on others. Jesus’ power comes from some place else. Its source is the same as the power the magi saw when they looked at the stars.
This king didn’t have any swords or riches to back him up. He didn’t need fear to make people fall at his feet. Nature worshiped him at his birth. Herod had to coerce people to honor him, but the stars changed their course for Jesus.
For this king, for Jesus, the poor and the needy weren’t helpless subjects to squeeze dry. This kind of king was the one the Psalmist described, the one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.” This king “has pity on the weak and needy. He redeems their life from oppression and violence.” His power wasn’t something he seized by force; it was something given to him to spread the goodness and the love of God.
And his power isn’t limited the way Herod’s was. It is a power that lasts as long as the sun and moon endure. It is not confined to one lifetime, because he overcame death that brings an end to all human power. Death was Herod’s greatest ally. The threat of death is what tyrants like Herod use to get their way, but death couldn’t coerce Jesus. When Herod sought to kill the newborn king, God led the infant Jesus to Egypt. 33 years later when he was nailed him to a cross, Jesus conquered death once and for all on Easter morning.
Jesus was the king the wise men worshiped. They recognized him as the true king because he is the one who has true power, the power of God that made the world. Where every other kind of power has its limits, Jesus’ power does not. When he rules our lives, it changes who we are and what we do.
We’re here this morning because Jesus is the right kind of king, the ruler who reigns not through coercion but through that most powerful force in the universe, love. We are here because he is the one who presides over the course of the galaxies. He is the one who guides and directs our lives. He is the one who hosts us at his table where he feeds us with spiritual food and drink. He is the head of this church, the one who has called us together to worship him, to study him, and to serve the world on his behalf. The wise men found their way to him and laid their most precious treasures before him. We don’t have to search or take a long journey to find him. He has found us. He is here. He rules the galaxies and the course of history. Does he rule your life?