Following our Star…bringing our gifts

Matthew 2:1-12, with Isaiah 60:1-6 and Micah 5: 1-5

1. Background

The magi appear on the Christmas cards alongside the shepherds, but only Matthew has the magi and only Luke has the shepherds.

A closer look at Matthew’s story reveals that the story is more like a symbolic painting than a verbal photograph of historical events.

Let’s look for the learning and insights set up by Matthew.

First it is not difficult to recognise the distinctive contours and plots:

  • Israel went down to Egypt and returned; so did Jesus.
  • Moses could have died when an evil Pharoah sought to kill all Hebrew infants; Jesus escaped Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

But then Who came to Jerusalem? Who were the Magi?

The description of people as Magi could have had at least two meanings, but none of them would endear them to a devout Jew.

  • The wise man’s special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination that are inaccessible to ordinary people. The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord.
  • The more specific meaning of the word “mago” referred to a member of the Persian priestly caste, the rulers and practitioners of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices and the interpreters of special signs associated with the pagan cult. The Jewish attitude to the priests of pagan religious cults was very negative. The term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver.

Whichever of these meanings they were well understood by Matthew’s readers and particularly the high Priests. It would have aroused immediate suspicion and deep distrust in their minds.

In short Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were complete anathema to the people of Israel.

Yet here is the rub from Matthew…it was these very Magi from the East who brought to the Jewish authority news of Jesus’ birth!

The birth was noticed…expected by outsiders… they had read Isaiah 60 and awaited its advent.

The outsider is bearing witness to God’s actions and God’s calling.

We see it many times in the Bible where it is the outsider…the least expected who bears wit ness to the truth that God has for us….

Perhaps finally the message can hardly be missed:

…the best of the world’s wisdom came and acknowledged the Christ.

2. A new angle on the Three Wise Men

Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. ( Walter Brueggemann  “Off by Nine Miles”) 

Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change. 

Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, “Well, do you have a better text?” The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: 

But you, O Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter – From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.  He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.  His family tree is ancient and distinguished.”(The Message). 

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground. 

Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals the truth, and the rest is history. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious. It is, however, the proper milieu for the birth of the One who will offer an alternative to the arrogant learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of urban rulers.  

The story of the Three Wise Men sets up our options.

  • We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction.
  • ·         Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. A life lived around a baby with no credentials.

 Unpacking the story offers us the opportunity to let the vulnerability of Micah 5   and the truths of Micah 6:8 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. The first day of this New Year is a good time to take the journey. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.

This old story of the Three Wise Men has connections also to those passages in the Old Testament which speak of the nations coming together in peace, to beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-hooks and to share in a great feast and learn the law of God. 

The wise men, and the eager nations ready for an alternative, made the trip. It would be ironic if the “outsiders” among us made that move and we who are God’s own people resisted.

3. So what star are we following…?

What story do we expect to find under the star we are following?

  • What is our guiding star for 2012?
  • How do we come as we follow our star ?
  • What gifts do we bring …?
  • ·         ….that depends
    • On the star we are following!
    • On what are we seeking…?
    • On what we expect…?


If we can see ourselves in an image of us following a star…what is the story of God in our world, nation, city, community, our life, that we seek or we expect to find.

If you can imagine and feel yourself in a dream or in this story… what sits under the star you are following?

What is your hope for?

Is it…

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Career
  • Education
  • Relationship wellbeing
  • Family
  • Healing
  • Social Justice
  • Compassionate society
  • Prosperous nation


What the wise men found was a child in a manger in a dusty, unimportant village 14kms outside the Jewish capital. Not perhaps what they were looking for…perhaps they had been looking for the birth of a leader of the new powerful reconstructed Jerusalem…the future influence in the region…maybe to rise up against the Romans…but instead they found a stable, a manger, and a child.

When we seek out God in our lives what are we looking for?

If we see Christ in the child we will surely find Emmanuel …God with us. God pitching tent with us.

In that we can expect to find a way to be in an enduring relationship with the living God.

The way beyond is for some of us not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.

In ways that will hold our life together in rich and unexpected ways…

…In ways where God travels with us and lives with us though all of life.

As Charles Ringma writes: our spirituality does not embrace only an aspect of life…but all of it, all of life’s experiences become the testing ground for linking faith and practice. Thus, in being, living, doing, praying, serving, risking, loving, and participating, we are weaving a pattern for understanding our spirituality…our relationship with the living God.

4. What gifts do we bring?

So as we come before the crib…as did the Wise Men..

What gifts do we bring.

What gifts do we bring to draw near the Living, loving God visited by the Three Wise Men?

A clue from our first hymn:

Fear not to enter his courts  
 in the slenderness

of the poor wealth  
 you would reckon as thine:

Truth in its beauty  
 and love
in its tenderness,

These are the offerings  
  to lay on his shrine.

So think what gifts you bring…self, talents, time, money, possessions…that’s just too simple and maybe just too trite…but what else do we have?

But I wonder…in giving gifts most of us think about what the other person might enjoy and need and may hint or tell us…

I wonder if as we enter the new year and ponder our relationship with God that we might listen, think, imagine what God might want, need, in fact enjoy of the gifts we could bring this year….

We have evidence that God seeks a loving relationship with us. One of trust , honesty, healthy dependence, willingness to wait and to listen.

Each of us will be different, but the gift I believe God seeks most of all is our whole self.

The image of the wise men from the east, kneeling before the Christ child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations.

When we, as it were, kneel upon it, we place ourselves in the story. It becomes our story.

So let it be that for us, as we sing…

Come as you are, That’s how I want you

Come as you are, Feel quite at home.

Close to my heart, Loved and forgiven

Come as you are, Why stand alone.


Posted in Sermons

Comfort, Punctuation and Marriage Equality

It’s not just as a grammar purist that I bring you a reminder today.
And that reminder is that punctuation is incredibly important!.
In fact it is not only important, it is life saving

Punctuation, such as the careful placement of commas saves grandparents from cannibals.

Wayward and lazy use of punctuation is extremely dangerous to girl scouts

Swapping a comma for an exclamation mark can make all the difference to a woman’s status.

It changes the weather to a welcoming attitude to animals

And even gives us a new way to understand songs from the 1980s.

 But it can also change our understandings about the character of God.

When the gospel writers were drawing on the quotation from Isaiah 40
in a way that could reference the great character of John the Baptist, they played with punctuation.

In the gospels, the verse is recorded as saying “A voice cries in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord”

But in Isaiah, it is just a little different.   There is says
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”

The simple change of punctuation made it
so that in the gospels it is the voice which is in the wilderness

However when the heavenly conversation is taking place in Isaiah 40,
with the first 11 verses set as a discussion in the Heavenly council (just like Isaiah 6)
It is not the voice which is in the wilderness,
but the preparation for God’s coming which is there

So what?   What does it matter whether the colon is before or after the wilderness?

Because the difference between the two is the picture of an outsider,
yelling words of comfort back into what is going on in the “main” part of the world (gospel)
and the picture of a God whose heart, whose compassion is directed to the place of the outsider.

“Comfort, comfort, my people” commands God.
Speak tenderly – literally “speak to the heart” of those who are oppressed.

These 11 verses effectively act as a prologue – a summary – of the message of Isaiah 40-55.
And the theme of this prophetic work – the one which is one of the foundational elements of scripture for understanding the life of Jesus –  Is that the work of God takes place with those who are alienated, exiled, marginalized, oppressed.

This is the prophet who sees what is going on in the world of politics and military action
with the Babylonians and the Persians and who can see the hand of God in the strangest of places.
This is the prophet who voices the most radically inclusive understanding of the compassion of God

“All people shall see the glory of God”

This is the voice that is expressing the most fundamental of divine truths: that God’s grace doesn’t depend on your history, that God’s grace doesn’t depend on the way you live. God’s grace simply depends on God’s character, which is gracious.

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.

Don’t get caught up looking in the corridors of history and power.
Prepare for the fact that God’s action is compassionate, inclusive and will start with those who are dispirited, who have suffered the pain of exile who have been told that they are people whose are second rate who have been denied rights and privileges afforded to others around them.

Comfort them!.   Speak to their hearts!   Get into the wilderness with them and comfort.

This is why Isaiah 40-55 has offered for centuries an insight into the character of God as displayed in the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. Because God’s actions, God’s initiative, God’s grace does not wait until people have started to act the way that we may think that they should

God’s grace does not wait until people have come back from exile into the holy city.
God’s grace comes in weakness as an infant.
God’s grace comes to live alongside and include and welcome those who are always left outside
God’s grace comes in the wilderness.

That is why there are so many Christians – from Desmond Tutu, to David Pocock, to Rowland Croucher, in fact from recent evidence a majority of Australian Christians – who support Marriage Equality.

In comparison to human frailty and fickleness – being like grass, coming and going – God’s grace is eternal, sure and found most strongly in the desert with those who are on the outside.

The words of Isaiah 40 –
sung every year in the Messiah, and warming the hearts of people throughout the centuries,
promises that God’s comfort will bring an end to all inequality:
every valley will be lifted up
and every mountain and hill made low.
the uneven ground shall become level
and the rough places a plain
And all people shall see the glory of God.

God’s grace is surprising.   God’s compassion is boundless and we are called to see what new thing God is doing in our midst.

Comfort, comfort my people, says God.

In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord


Posted in Sermons | Tagged

The Great Escape part 6

It’s great to have certainty in life.  
There are so many times that things change on us that certainty helps us settle down.  I think that that is the attraction that the 10 commandments hold to many people
In times of ethical uncertainty, there is something that is appealing about them
And there is probably quite a good chance that we know them

Let’s see how we go
1               You shall worship no other God

2               You shall make no molten images

3               You shall keep the feast of the unleavened bread

4               All first-born belong to the Lord

5               Work for 6 days but you must rest on the 7th

6               You must observe the fast of the weeks and the feast of ingathering

7               You shall not offer blood sacrifice with leavened bread

8               The fat of the feast must not remain until the morning

9               The first of the first fruits must be brought to the Lord’s house

10           You shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk

Exodus tells us that these are the commandments that Moses finally brought down the mountain. Whatever was written on the first lot got lost when Moses got annoyed and smashed them. So for certainty’s sake we should go with the ones from Exodus 34, right?

(Though I must admit, while I am pretty good at not boiling a kid in its mothers milk
and I don’t ever recall offering the blood sacrifice with leavened bread I cant say that I have always been so good at observing the feast of weeks or ingathering)

Though, if we decide that THAT version of the 10 commandments is there for a different purpose. We can go back to the one that is in Exodus 20 and Deut 5.   Almost the same each time.

So, here’s a quick quiz for you – How many commandments are in the 10 commandments?
For those of you who said 10, you are only sort of correct.

We are told that they are 10, but if you count the number of statements that are like commands there are around 14 in both Exodus 20 and Deut 5
And what is counted as a commandment varies between Hebrews Catholics, Lutherans & Protestants
So the 7th commandment in one reading is about not stealing, but to someone else it is about adultery.

All this is fine detail just about the text isn’t it?
The better and more important certainty about the 10 commandments is what they mean Because we all at least know what they mean, even if the numbers or the precise wording change.

Or does that actually depend on who you are and whom you ask.

Ask a soldier in war about the 5th/6th commandment – “You must not kill”
They will probably tell you it means something different from a Pacifist.
And they could well both tell you it means something different from a Federal Court Judge in USA

And if you ask people about what it means to keep the Sabbath holy,
Asking an Orthodox Jew will lead you to something quite specific.
Should you work in retail.   Should you buy things which means someone else has to
Should I even be preaching?

Then you can get into a discussion about what is the Sabbath.  
Is it Saturday, Is it Sunday or does it mean some notional 7th day, which could be any day ….


The 10 Commandments are not a blanket certainty, as much as some part of us might like it. They are an expression of the covenant relationship between God & people.
They are setting out a way for people who sign on to an alternative existence in life.

They are framing something new.   Something that doesn’t look like slavery and oppression
Something that says that the way we relate with and exercise power isn’t about objects and objectifying. They are about faithfulness to a relationship.

The early commandments are about the way that the people of God relate with God
God is not about a socio-economic, a political or a military project. There is a holiness. God is not there to be a utilitarian expression of convenience for the people.

The latter commandments are about the way that people are to relate with each other.
People are not there as a utilitarian expression of convenience for others.
There are limitations on the way that we live.
We are not to be trying to acquire all we can to survive.
Fellow human beings are to be respected, honoured, protected and treated with dignity.
A pretty important lesson for people coming out of generations of slavery and survival.

And sitting in between the early and the latter commandments is the one about the Sabbath. The centre of this new covenantal way of living is about stopping from work.
It is about drawing apart from the social aggressions in the market place.

This central command is about not being swallowed by the rat race – ancient or modern.

These are the values that we hear again by Jesus in the beatitudes and his teaching from the mountain. These are the values that when they are broken by the Israelites, broke God’s heart and had God start the whole thing again.

Their reminder to us is not to try and find certainty in rules and then define our lives by those rules.

But to find the relationship and the values that demonstrate  the ways that we honour the God who is with us and providing for us  and the people with whom we share our homes, our community and our world.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged

The Great Escape part 4

23 October 2011

Last week, we concentrated on the story of the plagues and the Passover.
And we remembered it is a story which is a complex story which sometimes gets told simply.   Overly simply
There is part of that in today’s reading as well, and it is good that we don’t lose that element.
We can probably quite seriously understand Miriam’s song at the end of chapter 15
“I will sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously – the horse and rider thrown into the sea”
It is a song of joyous relief.  We have seen images of that same joyous relief coming from Libya over the past 48 hours.
We saw it coming from the USA and other areas across the world at the death of bin Laden in May.
There is something about this relief from an oppressing force that touches our very depth.
In fact this song by Miriam is the oldest recorded part of scripture.

There are times for us to reflect on the ethics of jubilation at the death of someone
And today the feelings that we have and we hear from others about Gaddafi
may help us reflect on the ethics of the joy of the Israelites.
It is no easy matter, and simplistic reactions either way undermine the ethical complexity.

But for today, I want us to think about those times when we or others
find ourselves trapped, bound and with no apparent way out
When we, like the Israelites, are caught between the Pharaoh and the deep red sea.

This story is one of the foundational stories of our faith
because we all live this story in one way or another.
All of us sometime find ourselves standing with our ancient forebears
on the banks of the Red Sea crying out in terror.
We commit ourselves to feeding the voice of hope in each of us,
while not shutting out the voice of despair.
For the voice of despair is part of the story too.  
It is the voice of despair which prompts God to say
“I have heard their cry and I have come to set them free.”

And when Jesus stood on his own Red Sea shore
and cried out in despair in the Garden of Gethsemene saying,
“Father, Isn’t there some other way than plunging into the sea of death in front of me.
But not my will but yours be done,”
there was God, ready to act again to ensure that although he plunge into the sea of death,
the way would open to the promised land of resurrection life on the other side.

When we shut out that voice and try to pretend that everything is on track and under control,
we start trying to prove it by asserting control and grasping at straws.
For the Hebrew people only two options seemed possible.
Either surrender and return to slavery and endure the increased suffering,
or fight the armies of slavery and at least die as martyrs in some kind of heroic freedom fight.
The odds behind them were overwhelming, but the sea in front of them was impossible.
And had they turned to engage with the pursuing armies, either in surrender or in battle,
surely they would never have even noticed the opening of a way through the impossible.

The God who hears our cry of despair, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
will act to save us. ”
The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land;
 and the waters were divided.
The Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea,
the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
The promise from Exodus – notwithstanding its ethical complexities,
is that God will come to save us,
to open a way through the sea of impossibilities and allow us to walk through.
And if we will take the way that God opens before us,
that same sea that saves us
will sweep away and destroy the forces of slavery and oppression
that sought to drag us back and hold us down.

The challenge is always, to be able to wait and trust,
 to resist the urge to hastily manufacture some half-baked solution of our own,
and to thus, in our busyness, miss the sign of the waters parting in front of us.
For God does not push us into the path that has opened.
God opens the way and bids us follow.

And just as the towering walls of angry water looked every bit as fearful
as what the Hebrews were fleeing, and just as arrest and crucifixion looked horribly worse than the mess Jesus was already in, so too for us the way that God opens will probably not look like a walk in the park on a summer day.

But God hears the voice of despair.
And God responds and comes to save.
And the promised land of life in the wide open spaces of God’s love
lies on the other side of the opening sea.
And blessed are those who put their trust in God
and step forward when God opens the way.

Posted in Sermons

The Great Escape part 2

I remember a few years back, there was a significant movement which advocated  that if you wanted your plants to grow better you should talk to them.

The herbal gardening society believes that it works, so too does the Royal Horticultural society even Mythbusters in one of their experiments classed the myth as plausible  though in a paper by the Professor of Horticulture at Pennsylvania State University  the conclusion was more guarded and suggested there isn’t a lot of research that proves any positive effect of talking to plants

So I don’t know if us talking to plants really has an effect or not. But today’s Bible reading certainly suggests that plants talking to us has an effect!

When Moses is going about his everyday business of minding sheep  something caught his eye.   He noticed something.

And it is the noticing of something that makes all the difference in the story.

Firstly – God has noticed something and has taken the initiative about it:

I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me,  and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them

And secondly Moses has noticed something and is ready to respond to it  Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up      Two simple things – God notices, and Moses notices

William H. Willimon, an Episcolpalian bishop in the USA tells a great story:

I think of a woman who was my lay leader in North Myrtle Beach.   Her methods were unorthodox, her theology was never apparent,   her language was often sprinkled with words not often heard in church.  But she knew about the world.    She also had gotten the idea that God expected her to be busy in the world in his behalf.

One day she was cruising down Ocean Boulevard   when a local policeman stopped the car of a youth in front of her.    She had seen this tactic before.    She knew that the city supported itself, in great part,   on the fines of youthful tourists whom the police preyed upon to enrich the city coffers.   She stopped her car behind that of the policeman.    “Can I help you, Miss Peggy?”, asked the offer as he stepped from his car.  “Yes.  Why did you stop that boy’s car?” she asked.    “I stopped him because he was speeding,” he replied.  “It’s really none of your business.”    “Well, I’m making it my business,” she snapped.    “I am sick and tired of you people busting these kids for minor violations.    If he was speeding, I was speeding.  I was going the same speed as he was.    You stopped him because he has long hair and an license plate from another state.” 

By this time the boy was out of his car with a confused look on his face.    His presence exasperated the patrolman who was now shouting at Peggy.    “Look, you had better stay out of this.  This is none of your concern.    I’m pulling this kid for a traffic violation and this is none of your business.” 

Peggy was undeterred.  “I told you it is my business.  It’s not right and you know it.    Let’s just go down to the station and talk this over…” 

“What’s the trouble, officer?” the bewildered youth asked.    The policeman did not answer.  He jumped into his patrol car,   slammed the door while muttering something about “smart mouth women,”   and squealed off in anger.  “Son, be careful.  Slow down and be careful,”   Peggy said as she started her car and drove on.

It’s about paying attention to what is going on!

But even though Moses paid attention, it’s certainly not the end of the story  How many people here are dancers?   Waltz?  Foxtrot?  Jive?  Disco?  Ceroc?  Here we are about to see the Moses shuffle be choreographed.

God and Moses do a two step, that has been re-performed countless times  All based on Moses dodging and God persisting

But Who am I? -I am not good enough  –       

I will be with you    Oh …

But Who are you – why should I trust you?    

I have been here with your ancestors 

I am reliable

But what if they don’t believe me and I fail?     

I will not let you fail   (I’m pretty good at this stuff)

But I am not talented enough:  I stammer     

If I can create humans and their speech  I can help you with what to say

Cant you find someone else … anybody? 

No.   But Aaron will help you

For all of the dodging, God follows in the dance  and despite its appearances at first, God is actually doing the lead.

Jesus seems more confident in his own baptism and his own call.  That probably seems easy enough to us – he is God’s son.   He has a head start!  The reality is we probably feel more like Moses than we do like Jesus

But Peggy got the message and had progressed beyond the Moses shuffle.  So too did Moses.   Eventually  I hope and pray that we each do as well.


Posted in Sermons