The Gospel of the Magi

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Three Kings by Mary Tere Perez

Plenty of people have been packing up their Christmas decorations since December 25, but the celebration of Christmas continues for twelve days. It only ends at the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

And then at Epiphany we remember the visit of the magi, or the wise men, to young Jesus.

Sometimes we rush past this remembrance as we put away our trees and head to the gym armed with New Year’s resolutions. But we need Epiphany. The magi are essential to the Christmas story and essential to our faith.

They are not essential because they were there on the night of Jesus’ birth (they likely weren’t) or because they were earthly kings who bowed to the one true King (they likely weren’t kings either). They aren’t essential because they round out our  nativity scenes and Christmas pageants and greeting cards.

They are essential because they carry the Gospel. They themselves are an announcement, a proclamation, a living, breathing sermon about who our God is.

See the magi were not Jewish. They weren’t part of the chosen people. They were Gentiles, outsiders. Strangers.

Worse, they were likely priests in another religion. Pagans. Idolaters. False prophets.

They studied and/or worshiped the stars looking for signs and wonders. They were astrologers, they were magicians and sorcerers, not the kind of people who get much applause in Scripture or Christianity.

They were from foreign lands and spoke foreign tongues. Potentially from people groups who were enemies of the Jews. Definitely from other cultures and values.

These folks did not belong.

And yet here they come.

Present before Jesus. Included in our celebrations. Sign posts of the good news.

This is the Gospel of the magi: God has come.

God has come not just to a select few but to every person on the face of the earth. God has come for those who are close to the truth and those who are far from it. God has come for pagans and sinners and saints. God has come for us and them and those people over there.

God, in Jesus, has come for us all.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s character – he is what God looks like, the Bible says.

And Jesus is revealed not just to his people, the Jews, but to Gentiles and pagan priests and shepherds and wise men and midwives and governors and janitors and kings and presidents and teachers and bus drivers and pastors. He is revealed to insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, right and wrong, poor and rich and everybody in between.

The magi are an announcement about the wideness of God’s mercy.

The love and grace and mercy and heart of God don’t stop at national borders. It is not reserved only for those in the right religion. It doesn’t have a specific language. There are no prerequisites or hoops to jump through.

The grace of God shows up first.

This is good news.

In the magi we can see ourselves. We have been wrong. We have been outsiders. We have been far from God. And yet the grace of God has come for us anyway. Calling, wooing, changing us.

And in the magi we can see every person. Every skin tone and every language. Every religion and political party. In every stranger on the street. And in the person who we’d least expect (or hope). The love and grace of God has shown up for them as well.

Yes, Epiphany is essential. Epiphany reminds us of our story. It comforts us and challenges us to be faithful to goodness of our God.

We need reminded that ours is a God who comes for each person, no matter how far away they have started. We need Epiphany to keep us accountable so that our own love doesn’t sputter out at borders and church signs and party platforms. We need it to keep us from thinking we’ve somehow earned something because of our position or denomination or family of birth.

The magi are preaching the Gospel to us today: God is for us all. For you. And for me. And for them.

May we know and follow and trust this God, the God who draws the whole entire world in. May we find ourselves aware of the presence of God’s grace right here and now. And may we embody the good news of God’s love to all those for whom God has come.

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Christmas is Messy

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source: davide ragusa, unsplash.com

Christmas is messy.

Just look at the shreds of wrapping paper and the stacks of receipts. Look at the scattered stocking stuffers and the crumbs of quickly consumed cookies. Look at the half eaten candy cane stuck to the carpet and the Pinterest fails and the exhausted in-laws. Messy.

But Christmas was messy long before any gifts were unwrapped or mixing bowls were left in the sink.

Christmas has been messy from the very start.

Christmas is centered on a human birth. I’m not sure if you’ve ever witnessed one of those, but I can testify to this fact – they are quite messy. Messy with blood and amniotic fluids and tears and sweat and other, well, messes.

This is the way Christ comes into the world. This is the way God shows up. A messy miracle.

And the mess wasn’t contained to just the biology of it all. The mess included livestock’s sleeping quarters, which smell about as good as you might imagine.

Christ comes not into a sterile hospital room or even a well-prepped master bedroom. He comes into the equivalent of an oft used garage. Nevermind the animal feed and draftiness and random goat or two.

And then the messy welcoming committee arrives. Not kings or princes or the head of the local chamber of commerce. Shepherds. Night shift shepherds at that.

Shepherds who likely hadn’t had a proper bath or used copious amounts of hand sanitizer in some time. Dirt under their fingernails, sheep poop on their sandals, long stained clothes. There is that smell again. What a mess.

And of course, there is the mess involving his parents. Mary says the child isn’t Joseph’s. Rumors swirl and the folks in town give knowing glances. “Who is the father?” the gossipers ask. Joseph plans to stay with Mary and raise this child as his own, despite laws and opinions suggesting otherwise. What a mess.

And then there is Herod. He fears the child so much that he will order all boys under the age of two to be killed. The heartache. Little Jesus and his family will flee their home and escape to Egypt to ensure his safety. The chaos and mess seem to never end.

Back then and still today, Christmas is messy. And that is good news.

Because our lives are often messy. And our world is often messy.

We make messes out of our relationships, messes out of our futures, messes out of our finances. Our faith gets messy, our pasts are messy. We have an incredible knack for messing things up.

We do what we don’t want to do. We don’t do what we do want to do. We are slow to learn our lessons. Quick to find new ways to blow it. Messy.

Rather than avoid the chaos, our God jumps right into it. Moves toward it. Enters the mess.

Rather than avoid it, because the mess is gross and God is above all that, a God whose holiness is rooted in love dives in after us.

To help us. To clean us up. To lift us out of our mess.

To forgive all the messes we have created. To heal all the messes that have been set upon us.

Christmas is messy. And grace is messy. And love is messy. People are messy.

And it is here in the mess, not above it, not once the mess is cleaned, right here in it, that Christ is found.

Here in the mess Christ comes, not to scold us for the messes we’ve made or keep a suspicious watch as we work to clean ourselves up.

He comes and stoops and washes and tends to needs and makes right what is wrong.

He enters the mess not to remind us of how bad we are, but to show us a better way. To lead us out of darkness and into light. He comes to the mess and offers us his presence, his tenderness, his understanding, his unmessiness.

So when the mess is so bad that you don’t know where to begin the clean up, remember Christ comes to messes.

When you buy the lie that you have to clean yourself up first, remember Jesus is deeply familiar with messy people and situations.

When you nervously wonder if perhaps you’ve missed a spot or left something untended, remember God is more concerned with the position of your heart than what you’ve stepped in.

When you feel unworthy or too dirty, remember Christmas is messy.

And that’s the point.

The love revealed at Christmas is intended for you and all your dirty, stinky, bloody messes. Joy to the whole messy world!

Have Mercy On Me, a Sinner

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What we think of ourselves says a lot about how we approach God and how we treat others. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses a story of two men at the Temple praying in order to teach us a thing or two along those lines.

One of the men is a Pharisee. He is devout and schooled in theology. He knows the Scriptures in and out. He has mastered the disciplines of his faith. He knows he is good.

His prayer is a picture of self-righteousness, “Thank God I’m not like everyone else.”

The other man is a tax collector. He is considered a traitor to his people and his faith. He gets rich working for the bad guys while lining his pockets with the neighborhood’s money. He is despised. He knows he is broken.

He prays from a place of humility and contriteness, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus explains it is this man, not the “good” one, who leaves the Temple right with God.

Now sometimes us church folk fall into the category of Pharisee. We start thinking we are better or more holy than others because we do the right things or avoid the wrong ones or at least don’t do them as much as other people. The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that it isn’t true, but that it is built on what he has done and dripping with pride.

This mindset is graceless. Here being right with God is about behavior modification. Here we forget we need God just as much today as we did at our lowest point. And here we become hypocritical judges in our assessment of everyone else. We reassure ourselves of just how good we are and miss out on God’s work in our lives and transformational relationships with people around us.

This is a dangerous place to live.

There is another mindset that isn’t mentioned in the parable but is prevalent in our culture. Sometimes we model a similar prayer, “Thank God I am just like everyone else.”

Here we aren’t bothered by our brokenness, we are just glad we aren’t the only ones experiencing it. We excuse our behavior/thoughts/attitudes because everyone else seems to be on the same page and, hey, we’re just human after all. Here the idea isn’t to elevate ourselves over tax collectors, but to lower the bar for what is required of us.

We like being broken, so we don’t change. We rest in the comfort of knowing there are other broken people, so we don’t want to see them change.  We enjoy our sin. Or perhaps its too hard to resist so we’ll just stay right where we are.

This too is a dangerous place to be. Here we find cheap grace. Cheap grace is as useless as no grace.

The only proper approach is that of that tax collector. It is here we realize how much work needs to be done in us. That scandalous sinner or pious preacher, I need God. It is here we see regardless of how good or bad our behavior is we must have mercy.

Change without mercy is fine, but cannot save anyone. Mercy without change is easy, but meaningless. Mercy, when experienced with a humble heart, has the power to bring about change in us.

This is the mindset the Church is to have: acknowledging our need of mercy and allowing mercy to transform us.

That means more than mouthing these words in prayer, but allowing this understanding to shape us through and through. We are to embody this concept in attitude and action. It should guide the way we take inventory of our hearts. It should affect the way we approach our neighbors and our God.

O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

May these words be on our lips and in our heart. May we pray them and live them. May we be humble and contrite. And may we find the mercy we so desperately need.

To My Non-Christian Friends This Election Season

To My Non-Christian Friends, dearfriends_black

This election season has been something else, huh? (Here is a video of puppies if you need something to cheer you up.) Take heart, it is almost over. We have at least until February before people start openly campaigning for 2020.

In the meantime, I’d like to say something to you. Specifically, I’d like to say sorry. I think you have seen us Christians at our worst lately and for that I apologize.

I’m sorry that you’ve seen so much fighting between us. We can be brutal to each other and we call ourselves family. We fire missiles from all sides of the aisle and don’t worry too much about collateral damage. It probably isn’t very inviting when we behave this way. I’m sorry if you are less likely to want to be around us after all this.

I’m sorry that you’ve probably gotten into a debate or two with one of us. I’m sorry that we don’t often fight very graciously. I’m sorry that we stoop to things like name calling and rapid dismissal.

I regret that we often want to be heard, rather than hear. That isn’t very kind of us.

I’m sorry if you were unfriended because of your political views. I’m sorry we value our opinions more than your friendship. I’m sorry that we let partisanship get in the way of relationship. There are things we will all never agree on, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing meals and photos of our kids and life in general.

I’m sorry that you see us defending things that are indefensible. Things Jesus would oppose. Things we have routinely and loudly condemned. I’m sorry that we hold a double standard so that we can excuse our candidates and condemn someone else’s. That’s not consistent and its certainly not Christlike.

I’m sorry for all the false memes and bunk articles we have posted. We don’t think very highly of lying, but we are at times in such a rush to be right we fail to check our information. That isn’t very good of us.

I’m sorry if we have led you to believe that a person’s eternal destiny hinges on how they vote. We don’t actually believe that, though we sometimes act and preach like it. Sometimes we (rightly or wrongly) put a lot of hope and energy into these things, but if you give us a time to catch our breath we will remember it is grace, not ballots, that save us.

We sing a song that says our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus. I’m sorry we haven’t acted that way lately. While we want to have a say in government, ultimately our hope is not in presidents and senators and legislation.

I’m sorry if you’ve been hurt by the way we talk about the candidates and their supporters. Regardless of politics you and they are loved and cherished by God. We’ve failed to reflect that too often. That grieves me.

I apologize that regardless of which side we are on, we are often unable to understand where you are coming from. I’m sorry if we talk down to you or figure you couldn’t possibly know or have hurt you with our assumptions.

I know it is probably hard to see through all the nonsense, but Jesus is better than we represent. I’m not sure of a lot of things, but I’m absolutely positive of that. I’m sorry if we have failed him and you this election season.

If we are honest we are just regular ole humans. We mess up, we don’t always do what we want. We can be too passionate, we can be misguided, we can be flat wrong. Please don’t hold that against Jesus.

I can’t speak for all of us, but I can speak for me. I would trade in all this election stuff if it meant people would be more likely to consider following Jesus. His ways are better. We have a saying that goes like this, “His grace is sufficient.” The grace of God is sufficient to cover our weakness and our mistakes. We greatly depend on that.

Now I’m asking for grace from you. Please forgive us for our actions and attitudes, our words and our compliance. Please forgive us for pointing you toward a political party more than Jesus. Please forgive us when we cross the line, wound others, or look no different than any other person you know.

We are supposed to do better than that. We have been wrong. Maybe not all of us, but some of us, including me. And I’m sorry.