Print This Post

Sermon – January 2, 2011:To Make Everyone See

Sermon for January 2, 2011

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
To Make Everyone See

Isaiah 60: 1-6, Ephesians 3: 1-12, Matthew 2: 1-12
There is still a pay phone in town, at least I think there is. There are far fewer of them anywhere than just a few years ago, and the day may come when there aren’t any. The whole era of phones that one would rent for minutes at a time by dropping coins into a slot will be forgotten. It’s not just pay phones– soon only gaffers will recall when telephones were connected to a line, and even the most frugal soul will expect to find a telephone in his pocket, if not clipped to his ear.
Later developments have a way of effacing earlier facts. Recovering the past is made difficult not only by scarcity of records and limits of imagination, but also by what was once unusual having become ordinary. When we read the New Testament the old Greek words are translated into our own speech, but unless we bother with scholarly treatments of the socioeconomics and politics and meteorology of the Holy Land in the first century, we can’t appreciate what life was like for Jesus and for those who became his disciples. We naturally read the past through the present.
We tell ourselves that the three so-called historical religions–religions which believe that God has acted in human affairs to establish a relationship with believers through particular individuals–Moses for Judaism, Jesus for Christianity, and Mohammed for Islam– we now say that all these religions are monotheistic, that they accept the existence of only one God. Judaism didn’t start out that way, as all the language about rival gods in the Old Testament attests. It was a later development in Jewish religion to equate other people’s gods with the images they created of them, and therefore to say that they had no reality of their own.
This is ancient history, that religions connected to Jerusalem decided that the God they worshiped was not just their god, but the only God of the universe. Before that time gods were local, and people expected gods to be local. Since then most of the world has expected god to work the way we think god works now.
Long ago God’s self-revelation was a family matter– “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”– is how God introduced himself to Moses. However, as Israel began to understand God as God of the whole world, God’s self-revealing ceased being for the in- group and began to be for everyone, for the world; indeed, the cosmos.
That is what this holiday, Epiphany, is all about. People don’t use the word “epiphany” very much, but when they do, they mean by it a revelation from heaven. The church has celebrated this day a couple of weeks after Christmas as God’s decisive self- revelation for the world, and it’s because of the way Matthew tells what we think of as the Christmas story.
All the gospel writers already comprehend the miracle of Christ as being intended not only for Jews but for Gentiles. That means that the gospels have to account for this Jew born in the city of David being bigger than the boundaries set by ethnicity and religion. Different gospels do that in different ways. Matthew does it in two ways. First Matthew gives Jesus a long genealogy which includes foreigners, so that we are reminded of God’s concern for foreigners all through Jewish history, and how foreigners came to recognize and serve the God of the Jews. Then Matthew relates Jesus’ birth in terms of the visit to the Christchild of three foreigners, who are guided to this new king, not by any of the customs or expectations of the Jews–because they don’t know those at all– but by a star, because they belong to a foreign culture which divines things through the stars. That’s very foreign– that’s forbidden to the Jews, who are to rely on what God chooses to tell them instead. But the very foreignness of the way the Magi come to Christ is the point–everyone striving to understand the things of heaven comes to Christ, because God calls to each in ways appropriate to his or her own understanding. When the Magi are guided by the star to visit the child and his mother, It’s not “an epiphany”, not one instance of God being made known– it’s the Epiphany, God inviting the world to see who God is.
When people worship a God they know is the whole creation’s God, they can be motivated to share that insight with the whole world. The impulse to convert nonbelievers to a worldwide faith has been stronger and weaker throughout the history of the monotheistic religions, but one thing we often forget is that it was relatively strong in Judaism in the century or so before Christ. The Jewish trading colonies all around the Roman Empire welcomed non Jews to their synagogues to learn about God, and though there were few complete converts–ritual requirements were difficult enough to discourage conversion–many non-Jews in cities around the Mediterranean became known as “God- fearers.” They believed in the God of the Jews. It was this presence around the Mediterranean basin of well-informed, Jewish-leaning seekers among local populations that made the missionary efforts of Paul so effective among the Gentiles. When the gospel of Matthew is written, a generation after the influx into the church of Galatians and Corinthians and Ephesians and Thessalonians, the Magi in the birth story stand for all the non Jews who will recognize the real nature of God in the baby born in Bethlehem.
We are a tradition that believes that God is God of the whole world. Baptists always have been a missionary-sending people, because our forebears rejected a model of church life that was tied to national or cultural identity or established as a local organization busy with its own. Baptists believed that God made every single person, and that faith in God properly was the business of each individual soul, to be led to conviction and commitment by an encouraging witness based on the Bible and practical kindness.
We’re celebrating this church’s founding this morning. One hundred and sixty-seven years ago a detachment of Baptists from the Milton congregation and a new group converted to Baptist principles by a series of evangelistic meetings set up a church here in Lewisburg. They had a big vision. They were determined to start a college. That was all about outgrowing boundaries. The nation was developing westward.
The national government had resolved, with the European powers and neighboring nations, the competing claims for territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the frontier was expanding.
Lewisburg was relatively recently civilized at the time, just enough to begin to have dreams like the one the local Baptists had. They knew that the west was going to continue to grow and that areas like this would continue to be settled and farmed and, even in the days of simple mills and furnaces, industrialized. They wanted there to be a strong witness for the gospel to all the thousands of new people who would be making America what it would become.
The University at Lewisburg, which was the name of the college until financial troubles gave William Bucknell one of those opportunities to have something named for himself in exchange for financial support, was created to serve the conversion of the young nation. Bible studies were part of that, and a seminary, but the college had a larger concept of what God wanted than the equipping of preachers. Knowledge, useful, practical knowledge, in order to address human needs and unlock human potential, was part of it. Wherever knowledge could be gained that could be put to work for God’s purposes, it was sought, and it was taught.
That approach to sharing God with others owes something to the story of the Magi, and it owes something to the story of Jesus. God invited strangers to see who God was by the use of their own wisdom and insight into the heavens, and God did that despite the hostility of established power. Jesus shared a vision of God with ordinary people, and did that in the face of suspicion and opposition on the part of established religious authorities. Those were two kinds of boundaries broken through in the gospel story.
We still reject the idea that our own traditions, our own customs, our own comfort level define a monopoly on the right way to know God. There is a whole world out there of individuals equipped by God to listen and to think and to decide for themselves, who need to have God offered to them in terms they can understand. When we support missionaries all around the world– most of whom, at this point, are themselves foreign-born people who have come to share Christian faith–we stand in a tradition which sees the project of Christ always as being for the world, always inviting to the outsider, always subverting established forms of political power and religious privilege. We believe that God believes in the ability of the wise person from anyplace to contemplate Christ, and offer such gifts as he or she possesses, and know the meaning of the life God intends God’s children to have. To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon” button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting recent sermons.
To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon” button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting recent sermons.