Another Favorite Christmas Poem

T.S. Eliot was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and remains one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century. Below is his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” I pray it evokes the same wonder at the birth of Christ in you that it does in me.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I’d love to discuss any thoughts you have about this magnificent poem below in the comments.

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Sermon Manuscript: Luke 2.1-7

advent

This past Sunday we look at Luke 2:1-7. Luke shows us that the birth of Christ is a historical event. He links the birth of our Lord to historical facts. Christ’s birth was also a prophetic event. Luke highlights Bethlehem as the city of David pointing us back to Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 7. Finally, Luke shows us that the birth of Christ is an offer of peace. Christ humbled himself to redeem us.

Here’s the manuscript for the sermon: Luke 2:1-7

The Wise Men and the Christ Child Part 3

This is the second post in a series of posts from a sermon preached on December 14th, 2014 entitled The Wise Men and the Christ Child. Be sure to also read part 1 and part 2.

The Response to the Story

First, come and see just as the Wise Men did. Come and see the one born King. Come and see the one who was cut off for your sakes. Come and look long at the one who lost his life so that you could have life. To trust in Christ simply means to claim credit for what he has done. You have been working to earn credit with God, with your spouse, with your boss, with yourself. The problem is you have no credit. You never feel as if you have done enough to prove yourself; to justify yourself. Guess what– you haven’t and you can’t. That’s why Christ was born and lived before God as you should have—he never shut God out. He always honored God. At every point he obeyed God and gave him priority. And he is asking you to look at him and take credit for what he has done. You’ll have that opportunity in just a moment.

 

Secondly, our church has to work towards the same kind of diversity we see in Matthew’s gospel. There is no segregation in the kingdom of Jesus, therefore there can be no segregation in his church. There can be no segregation in our small groups. There can be no person who can’t enter our services and hear the good saving news of Jesus.

 

One of the key signs that a church isn’t diverse enough is that everyone is comfortable. You are comfortable with the, with the energy level, with the people on stage, with the social strata. A sign that your small group isn’t diverse enough is that you’re comfortable. You are comfortable with the makeup of the group, the people leading, the way everyone prays, the outreaches you are involved with. A church, or small group, that’s working towards gospel honoring diversity is one in which you aren’t always comfortable. In other words, there can’t be any one reigning culture that excludes all other cultures. The gospel of a Christ who came to redeem every nation tribe and tongue has to challenge the way our church looks and acts. It has to challenge the way your small group meets and who it invites. We always have to strive to reflect the diversity of the nativity- shepherds and wise men.

 

Finally, we have to go and die just as Jesus did. It’s natural for us to love those who love us and hate those who hate us. But, Jesus rejected that ethic even in his birth. He left the most exclusive gated community to move into the neighborhood of those who hated him. Jesus rejected that ethic for his disciples in his first sermon. Matthew 5 when he said “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

 

Finally, Jesus categorically rejected that ethic on the cross.  So what we see in the nativity, and the teachings of Jesus and the death of Jesus is a new kind of ethic. It’s an ethic of sacrifice. Nothing demonstrates the effect the gospel has in our lives than when we sacrifice for those we disagree with, those who cannot pay us back, and those who attacks us. Many of you have been apart of that this Christmas season. Celebrate.

 

Church–when you really see the eternal God coming to live and die in human flesh it changes everything about you. It calls us to be a diverse church looking more and more like the diversity of God’s kingdom. It causes us to love our enemies, just as God for Christ’s sake loved us.

The Wise Men and the Christ Child Part 2

This is the second post in a series of posts from a sermon preached on December 14th, 2014 entitled The Wise Men and the Christ Child. Be sure to also read part 1 and part 3.

The Significance of the Story

If you want to understand the Bible you can’t treat it as a dogmatic handbook. It isn’t a bullet point list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. There are certainly times when the Bible is explicit about what you should believe about God, and life, and justice and so on and so forth. But the Bible isn’t a cold unfeeling list. Rather, the Bible, as Gerhard Vos said, is a historical book full of dramatic interest, and you have to read the scriptures with an eye towards that dramatic interest.

 

If you read the story of the Wise Men looking for a bullet point list of what to do and not to do here’s what you end up with:

  • Look for new stars in the sky.
  • Search for God like the Wise Men.
  • Worship God like the Wise Men.
  • Give to God like the Wise Men.
  • Don’t kill babies like Herod did.

All of those points could be argued from the text, but none of those capture the essence of Matthew’s message. None of that list conveys the mystery and wonder that Matthew wants you to see. You have to read the scriptures as a drama unfolding with plot, and turn, and foils and resolution. That’s the only way you will appreciate its significance.

 

And you find that significance in two words: irony and joy. To understand this story you have to see the irony in it, and you have to see the joy in it.

 

Irony- Think back to the story– A caravan of Magi, having read the scriptures of Israel and expecting a King, along with their families and a small army, are traveling over 1,000 miles across the Arabian peninsula to find the one born king of the Jews. Meanwhile the Jewish king and all his chief priests and scribes are oblivious. Isn’t that ironic. Herod is five miles down the road from the greatest gift in human history. The chief priests, men who should have known the prophecies and known the stars, have no clue.

 

What is Matthew showing us? Matthew is showing us that the good news of the Christ child isn’t just good news for one privileged nation, or ethnic group, or social class. The gospel isn’t just for those who are on the in; those who have a Bible on the shelf, those who come to church. Remember who visited Jesus- shepherds and Magi. Matthew tells us that the gospel destroys every conceivable barrier you and I throw up against it. It always challenges the social circles we are comfortable with. God invites people we would never imagine.

Salvation is found in Christ alone– but all people are welcome to come to him. He came to rescue shepherds and philosophers, and school teachers, and small business owners, and those on welfare, and white collar alcoholics, and divorcées and pornographers and democrats and republicans and terrorists.

Don’t you see the irony of our situation? We spend so much time posturing to be in the right crowd and associated with the right groups while Jesus lived and died for all of them. The inclusion of the Magi—Pagan astrologers—is God’s way of saying don’t assume you know who I love and who I don’t love. And don’t you dare exclude those I am calling into my family.

It’s also ironic that these court officials in Persia traveled thousands of miles in order to pay homage to a toddler.  That isn’t lost on Matthew. You have to create a mental picture of this. Imagine– a caravan of a few hundred people stop outside the small house of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. As many as possible crowed in and start unloading boxes of gold, spices and oils. Then they worship a 12 month old. Why? I have an 18 month old who I love, but I promise you I don’t bow down to her. What would cause the most dignified men in Persia to bow down to a toddler? Well they understood exactly who this toddler was. And if you read the rest of Matthew you find out that this toddler grows into a man who has control over disease, demons, and even life and death. If you read the rest of the New Testament you see that the baby, lowly meek and mild, will one day return to this earth with sword in hand and a robe dipped in blood in order to judge the nations. While that may cause fear, Matthew also shows us joy. Though the Magi understood that this child would one day judge the nations they don’t respond with fear. Matthew tells us they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Why?

Joy

Unlike earthly kings who oppress the poor, Jesus was born into a stable and called broken people into his Father’s family. You see, all of the kings in history were born into royalty, or they took it by bloodshed. In other words, if you were a ruler in the ancient world you were either detached from the common people due to your birth, or you ruled them with terror and fear. Jesus is a completely different kind of king.

The Son of God chose to give up his position of royalty, which belonged to him for eternity and was born into a poor family from Galilee. In doing this he was showing us what kind of people he would call to himself. Even the poorest of the poor is welcome. In fact, an ancient prophecy of the Messiah is found in Isaiah 43 and says, a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” That prophecy tells us what we can expect from the savior king who God sent into the world. When bruised people approach this king he will not break their spirits. When those whose light is dwindling come to him he will not put them out.

Unlike earthly kings who kill their own family members, Jesus would die for his enemies. In this story Matthew contrasts the treachery of Herod against the compassion of Jesus. Herod executed members of his own family– Jesus forgave the very people who executed him. And I don’t mean Roman centurions or the ruling Jewish rulers. I mean us. The Bible plainly teaches that before Christ found us, we were his enemies. God created us and made us for his glory, and we denied him access to our life. We shut ourselves off from him and we broke his laws. Because we severed our relationship with him we deserved to be cut off. The wise men found supreme joy that there in a clay house in Bethlehem stood the one who would be cut off so that they could be brought in. My friends, until you realize that you are cut off from God, and Christ in love, chose to take your place you can’t understand joy.

How should we respond to such a king? Read part 3 of this series to find out.