God’s Signs for Us
The angel announced to the shepherds the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, and gave them a sign, “you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” All infants in those days were wrapped in swaddling cloths, but lying in a manger, a feed trough for animals, that was the sign. Don’t look for this kid in an expensive crib, born to wealth and privilege, don’t even look for this child in the rude cradle of a substantial peasant household, no look for this Messiah among the poorest of the poor. Born in a stable, a cave, this Messiah is resting where the stable hand puts the hay for the cow and the donkey. This is not good news for Caesar, or Herod, or the Priests in Jerusalem, this Messiah is born for landless peasants like you shepherds good news for the poor.
And so God gave a sign. There are other signs in the gospel story like the sign Pilate derisively placed on the cross above the head of Jesus that read “King of the Jews” — signs of the Messiah appearing in the most unlikely places — an infant in a feed trough for animals, a homemade sign nailed above the head of a criminal executed by the state. Who would guess? Does God provide us with signs today? Where would we look?
The first signs we might look for are God’s signs for us individually. Ever think about that? God gives us physical signs of what is going on inside of our bodies. Our doctors call these signs symptoms: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, blood sugar, weight (gain or loss), hair, (texture, color,) pain, appetite, fatigue, nausea, water retention, bowel movements. These are all signs of what is going on inside our bodies. And when we don’t pay attention to the physical signs, we can get into trouble.
Good rule of thumb, if it hurts, pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, or there is anything we can do about it, but if it hurts, God is trying to get our attention. God often provides us with very early signs we are getting sick. Maybe we just feel a little tired. Or we have a little headache. If we stop, get some rest, drink plenty of fluids, take care of ourselves, maybe even take a day off, we get better. For the most part human beings are self-healing organisms. Stop, rest, take care of ourselves, we get better.
But if we don’t listen to our symptoms, and instead we press ahead with an over full schedule of stress filled work, and we consume lots of caffeine and alcohol to dull our pain, or we overeat and don’t get enough sleep, then we really get sick, and we may have to go to the doctor, who writes us a prescription and sends us to bed for two or three days. And if we take our medicine and follow the doctor’s orders, then we get better and resume our regular routine.
But if we don’t go to the doctor or we don’t take our medicine and follow the doctor’s orders and instead try to medicate away the symptoms at the same time we put our foot on the accelerator refusing to stop and rest and take care of ourselves, then we might get really sick and get sent to the hospital, where they start an IV, so we can’t get away, and then they run tests and perform procedures, and hopefully when we get better they send us home, and tell us to rest and change our life style, and come back in two weeks and they will tell us whether we can go back to work. But if we ignore the signs long enough, we can get dead, and become God’s sign to our friends and relatives about why they should take care of themselves.
What other signs does God provide for us? Emotional symptoms are also signs from God: feeling “stressed out,” insomnia, panic attacks, anxiety, compulsive behavior, depression, emotional outbursts, excessive fear, addictive behaviors. Physical symptoms are easier to recognize than emotional symptoms. If I am running a fever, I can measure that. Blood pressure and blood sugar can also be measured. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation are kind of hard to miss. But depression, anxiety, difficulties in relationships, compulsive or addictive behavior may not be obvious until someone else points them out, and even then we can indulge in denial. Denial is not a river in Egypt. One reason for living in community with good spiritual friends is that friends can help us identify when our emotional symptoms are signs from God. And good spiritual friends help to hold us accountable. It’s the accountability stuff that will drive us nuts, but exactly what we need — praying with and for each other opens us up to accountability.
Besides these very personal signs God provides for us, God also provides more generalized signs available for anyone to see if we open our eyes to what is going on around us. There are signs of warning. Thunder for instance usually tells us there is lightning somewhere at hand. The tornado siren is not a sign to go out and look for the funnel cloud. A rain soaked road, or a road covered with snow and ice is a sign to slow down, maybe even get off the road. When all the vegetation starts to die and the animals disappear, it might be a sign something is wrong in the environment. When the ice caps melt, and ocean levels rise, and mangoes and papayas start growing in Michigan, maybe we will recognize signs of climate change.
In addition to warnings God also provides signs of hope, wonder and encouragement. Every year Spring comes again, life starts anew, hope is renewed. Spring is God’s sign that in the end life prevails over death. In the words of the Bette Midler song “the Rose”: Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the Spring becomes the rose.”
The birth of babies is a miracle, one of God’s signs of wonder and hope. New life is born in the world fresh, new, innocent, full of possibility. Christmas is about the birth of a child in the midst of winter at the darkest time of year to bring light into the world — God’s sign of encouragement and peace. And so the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people with whom God is pleased.”
Harvest is another sign of God’s blessing and encouragement. Life is a gift. God is generous and abundant. The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants seed in the field. The earth produces of itself the grain, the farmer doesn’t know how: first the green blade appears, then the stalk, and finally the full grain appears. And then comes the harvest. God provides for our needs: ask and it will be given to us, seek and we will find, knock and the door will be opened to us.
Rainbows are a sign of encouragement and hope. Even in the darkness and danger of the storm the rainbow is God’s sign that this too will pass. Be patient, be still and know that God is God. The sun will come out and the rain that has washed and watered the earth will bring new life eventually.
I want to share with you a sign of hope I saw this summer of all places in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birth place of the Prince of Peace has come to symbolize one of the most intractable conflicts on earth – the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem it would be a suburb except for the wall that now separates the Israelis from the Palestinians. The Israelis built the wall to prevent terrorist attacks, and the wall has been remarkably effective.
But the wall as become a symbol of a conflict that won’t go away and seems to have no resolution. Neither side will budge an inch to make any of the compromises that might possibly lead to peace — sort of sounds like Congress doesn’t it? Anyway the security wall has become a symbol of hate and despair.
When our group visited Bethlehem we were invited to visit the Kando Souvenir Shop owned by Shibli Kando the grandson of the man who originally purchased the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Bedouin tribesmen who found them. Shibli generously gave each one of us a hand carved olive wood nativity set. After tea and looking around the shop, I walked out the front door and there was the security wall in all of its oppressive ugliness symbol of despair. And then I noticed some graffiti, a sign, God’s sign of hope in the midst of despair: “Love Wins.”
Love wins was the sign God gave to the human race in a new born infant lying in a manger two-thousand years ago. Caesar August with all of his military and commercial power doesn’t win. Herod with all of his political manipulations and his violent attempts to hold onto power, he doesn’t win. Not the priests in Jerusalem exploiting the people in the name of God, pushing peasants off the land in order to build up their own estates, they don’t win. Republicans and Democrats don’t win. Wall Street doesn’t win, because at the end of the day when the tomb is empty Love Wins. And this shall be a sign for you, you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger – love wins. This is God’s sign for us.
Allow me to share a postscript to my story of visiting Bethlehem. We went on to visit the Church of the Nativity traditionally the site of Jesus’ birth. This was the first time I have visited the church when the line was really short, so I went down into the grotto, where a silver star on the floor marks the place where according to custom Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church building in the Holy Land, because it has never been destroyed unlike every other church in the Holy Land that has been destroyed and rebuilt at least once. When the Persians invaded the Holy Land in about 500 A.D., they destroyed all the churches. But when they came to the church of the Nativity they noticed murals of the three Wisemen on the walls, and recognized that the Magi were Persian. So they left the church alone. But what really impressed me was that the Church of the Nativity still has an active congregation. People other than tourists worship there, and the church was prepared and decorated for a wedding that evening – even in the midst of conflict, strife, terrorism, and despair — Love Wins!
Yitzaak the Baker
Come in, come in. You would like some bread today? Not bread, but a story? Simon sent you? Yes, you want to know about that night. Well come into my shop. I am Yitzaak the baker of Bethlehem. You know, Bethlehem means “house of bread.” So I am the baker of the house of bread. Perhaps you can excuse me while I work. I have a daily contract with the Inn to deliver 10 loaves. But we can visit, while I make the bread.
Well, let’s see. You want to know about the night Jesus was born. That was a busy time for me. I was helping my Uncle Eli then, may his memory be preserved for ever, and we were baking over two-hundred loaves of bread per day. It was the census. Curse the bloody Romans. Bethlehem was bursting at the seams. All sorts of high and mighty people wanted to claim ancestry from the Great King David. So the Inn was crowded with important people with money. We were delivering fifty loaves a day at the Inn alone. And what with all the other visitors, as fast as the loaves came out of the ovens, they were sold. That census brought Uncle Eli many shekels.
I was helping Uncle Eli with his ovens, because I could not be a shepherd. You see I was born lame, and I could not walk well enough to be a shepherd. So I was apprenticed to my Uncle to become a baker. In a small town like Bethlehem, a baker does not earn a lot of money, but for a lame boy like me, baking bread for others to buy, I could earn enough to live. Anyway we were especially busy because of the census ordered by the Romans. It was evening, and we were removing an oven full of bread. Uncle Eli was going to stay up half the night baking again in order to have enough loaves to sell the next morning. So he says to me, “Yitzaak we must deliver ten more loaves of bread to the Inn this evening. Quickly now, put ten loaves in a bag and hurry them over to the Inn Keeper as fast as you can.”
“As fast as you can,” I thought to myself. “No matter how hard I try, when other people look at me, all they see is a cripple.”
I gathered together the warm fresh loaves, filled a bag and began to hobble my way to the Inn. As I walked along that evening I noticed a bright star in the sky and wondered why I had been born different. I hated my crippled leg. It had always set me apart from the other boys. Sometimes people would stare at me and worse make fun of me and the way I walked. Worst of all some people said my lameness was the result of sin my parents had committed and I was cursed because of it. I had asked the Rabbi, if this was so and he answered me, “why else would a just God afflict an innocent child, if not to punish some hidden sin of the parents.” I had resolved that if God had cursed me before I was even born, then it was no use praying to him. And so I grew up hating God and myself. But that night on the way to the Inn with the smell of fresh baked loaves over my shoulder, and a beautiful new star in the sky I wondered if God had truly cursed me. But then as the Rabbi had said, “why else would God afflict the innocent, if not to punish some hidden sin.” So I continued on weighed down by my bag of bread but mostly bending under the weight of my curse.
Levi the Inn Keeper was happy to see me. “Yitzaak,” he said, “I was going to send for you. I have customers waiting.”
I laid the bag full of bread on a table. “Uncle Eli wants to know, when you will be paying him for the last two days of bread.”
“Tomorrow,” he replied, “tomorrow without fail. I have many wealthy guests tonight.”
“By the way,” I asked, “is Miriam working tonight?”
“Yes,” Levi responded, “she is serving tables now.”
Miriam was one of the prettiest girls in town, at least as far as I was concerned, and I invented all manner of excuses in order to see her. But so far she hadn’t noticed me.
From the kitchen I limped into the large and overcrowded serving room. Levi was correct, he did have many rich and important guests that evening. As I tried to make my way across the room, a Roman Centurion eying my limp reach out his foot and tripped me. As I fell to the floor, the Roman soldier said to his friends, “the flower of Israel falls in the dust. No wonder these stupid people need us to run their country.”
I felt anger and shame rise in my throat. I wanted to pick up a knife and kill the Centurion. But I knew the gesture would be foolish, so I simply rose without saying a word and found myself standing face to face with Miriam. “You are embarrassing us,” she whispered, “why don’t you leave.”
I was crushed. First I had been shamed by the Romans in front of a room full of people, and then the one girl I wanted to impress asked me to leave. As fast as I could, I left the Inn, even as the tears were filling my eyes. Life can be cruel to someone who is different, and early in my life, when the other children would make fun of me I had sought comfort from animals. Animals did not tease me, and for a few handfuls of hay they would listen to me, even appreciate me. So as I left the Inn in tears, I went to be alone with the animals in the stable.
Excuse me, I can smell that the bread in the oven is ready. I will return shortly.
Nothing like the smell of fresh baked bread. Food for the body and the soul I always say. Now where was I? Yes at the stable.
I entered the cave and with only the dim reflection of star light and began to make out the forms of the animals huddled together for warmth. I searched for an old donkey kept by the Inn Keeper named Baruch. I had known Baruch for many years. Levi had allowed me to use Baruch on several occasions, and the donkey and I were fond of each other. I found Baruch lying down in his customary corner and began to stroke his head and neck as I told him of my anger and hurt. Although donkeys can be stubborn, they are very understanding and affectionate. As I sat with Baruch I was comforted.
I had sat in the darkness perhaps half an hour, when Levi entered the stable leading a man and a woman. The lamp Levi carried was small, and I was concealed in the shadows of the cave. Levi spread some fresh straw in another corner of the cave away from the animals and said, “it’s not much, but you can stay here. I’ll come out later to check on you.”
The woman was moving very slowly and as she lay down in the straw, I heard her cry out in pain. The man spread a blanket over her and sat down reassuring her everything would be alright. It was apparent to me the woman was going to have a baby. I felt sorry for her.
Softly I rose, stepped out of the shadows and said, “Hello, my name is Yitzaak.” The man jumped and almost knocked over the lamp beside him. We stared at each other for a long moment and I said again, “My name is Yitzaak, is there anything I can do to help?”
“My name is Yoseph ben Yacob, a carpenter from Nazareth. My wife, Mary, you see it is her time; we had to come because of the taxes.”
“May God grant you many sons,” I replied. “I have no home of my own, where I can offer you shelter, but can I bring you anything to make you more comfortable here?”
“You are kind,” said Yospeh. “We are hungry and have but little food.”
“That is easy,” I replied, “I am a baker, and I will bring you fresh loaves from the oven. Be patient and I will return.”
As I turned to leave, Yoseph called after me, “May God bless you and if you have a blanket or a cloth in which to wrap the child, I will bless you to the end of my days.”
As I walked back to the bakery I forgot about my own sorrows as I thought about Mary and Yoseph in the stable. God had certainly not been kind to them. He brought them a long, long way from home to a stable to have their baby. I thought about Levi who could not find room in his Inn for them, and how everyone who worked at the Inn would be too busy with the rich people to help a poor woman having her baby.
“Where have you been?” asked Uncle Eli, as I entered the door of the bakery.
“Uncle,” I said, “I have been helping a man and a woman from Nazareth. They are in town for the taxes and have no place to stay and the woman is having a baby right now in the stable of the Inn. And they are hungry, and I promised to bring them some bread.”
“Oh you did, did you,” said Uncle Eli. “And whose bread are you going to take to them?”
“Uh, can I have two loaves?” I asked. “I feel so sorry for them, and I’ll do extra work.”
Uncle Eli was really a kindly man, and so he said, “‘Blessed is he who remembers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.’ Hurry up and help me take the bread from the oven, then take them three loaves. That way you don’t have to go back in the morning, when I need you in the shop.”
We removed the loaves from the oven and set them out to cool. Then I quickly swept the shop, gathered three loaves in a bag and hurried as fast as I could back to the stable. By the time I arrived at the entrance to the cave, I could hear the tiny cries of an infant. Yoseph was cleaning the baby with straw. I handed him my own blanket to wrap the child, and then took some bread to Mary. She was tired, cold and hungry, and accepted the bread gladly.
“My uncle Eli makes good bread,” I said, “the staff of life.”
“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” said Yosef as he handed the newly wrapped child to Mary.
“On the other hand,” I said, “a man does not live for very long without it.”
Yoseph laughed and sat down to eat his bread. We sat in the stillness listening to the wind outside the cave. The silence was heavy. The darkness all but overwhelmed the tiny flickering lamp. Then, suddenly, the cave was filled with the light of four torches as a group of Shepherds came running into the stable. “This is the place,” cried one of them.
“The vision of the angels was true,” gasped another shepherd.
Yoseph stood up in alarm, and began to ask the shepherds questions. As my eyes adjusted to the light I began to recognize them: Micah, Joel, Bartholomew, James, even Daniel my cousin. They told a strange story of a vision of angels telling them to seek for a child born in the stable, who would be the Messiah.
When the Shepherds finished their story, Yoseph muttered, “the same message as the angel in my dream.”
“What dream, friend Yoseph?” I asked.
“In Nazareth,” he said, “an angel came to me in dream and told me that this child was to be the Messiah. I thought it was only an idle dream, but it must have been a true vision from God. The Angel said to name the child, ‘Immanuel, God with us.’
Excuse me, that is my wife Elishevah calling. Let me go see what she wants. I will only be a short time.
Thank you for waiting. She needed help with her loom. Fine woman God gave me in Elishevah. Let’s see, I left off with Yoseph telling me that the angel had said to name the child Immanuel.
I pondered what Yoseph said. I knew cousin Daniel to be a truthful man. But how could this baby born of poor parents eating my bread be the Messiah? And if this child was God’s chosen one, then why had I been cursed by God? As the shepherds began to leave, against my will, tears began to form in my eyes. Here was God’s chosen one, and I was still Yitzaak the cursed. As the tears dribbled down my face, I heard the soft voice of Mary beside me.
“What troubles you, friend Yitzaak?”
“This child is God’s chosen one, and I am Ytizaak the lame; Yitzaak the cursed. Sometimes it is too much to bear,” I cried.
“Yitzaak,” soothed Mary, “you may be lame, but you are not cursed. God has blessed you with a good and kind heart and that is what matters. God’s ways are mysterious. The shepherds brought wonderful news tonight, yet we are still resting in a cold and dark cave. Jesus is wrapped in your borrowed blanket. Who can understand, but Yitzaak, I tell you, you are a blessing.”
My tears stopped as I gazed into the soft lines of Mary’s face. I felt a warmth inside of me I had not felt before. I heard Joseph recite the blessing for bread: “Barukh attah Adonai eloheynu melekh ha’olam hammotsi lechem min ha’arets. Blessed are you O Lord our God King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”
That night my life changed. I didn’t understand what was happening all at once. But I was blessed, for the Lord preserved my life to see Jesus grow up to adulthood. I heard him with my own ears preach and teach, and when he rose from the dead, I was there in Jerusalem. I even baked the bread he used at the Last Supper with his disciples – the bread to remind us of his flesh I made with my hands, even as I made the bread to feed his parents on that first Christmas night. “Yitzaak, I tell you, you are a blessing.” And all of you can be a blessing too. Just remember it’s what God gives you in your heart that counts, and what you give to others makes you a blessing. When you share the bread tonight, remember the story of Yitzaak, and become a blessing for others.
Bible Study 12.19.11, 12.22.11, 12.25.11 For Worship 1.8.12
Luke 2: 41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover.
42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom;
43 and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it,
44 but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances;
45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him.
46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions;
47 and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
48 And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”
49 And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
50 And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.
51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.
When someone is born, we don’t know they will be famous. So no one is writing down their every move. Of course with cameras and video cameras and the immense amount of record keeping in our modern world, we have a lot more factual material to work with than in the First Century. Of course just because we have the facts, or what we think are the facts, doesn’t mean we have a handle on the truth, or understand the “meaning” of a personality or an event. In the First Century, when someone became famous, people would “remember” material from their past and tell those stories and retell those stories. Memory is, however, famously unreliable. Stage an event in front of an audience, and then go back several hours later and question people about what happened, and sometimes we might wonder whether those people were in the same room. Also telling and re-telling stories allows discrepancies to creep in, like when people play the game of telephone.
After the death of Jesus, the early church told and retold stories about the ministry of Jesus. They recounted sayings they remembered. They talked about stories of healings and miracles they had witnessed, and after a while they tried to reconstruct the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. But true to their own time, they read back into the stories they reconstructed words and concepts they found in the Hebrew scriptures and the prophets. For instance, Jesus cry from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” comes directly from Psalm 22. The mocking of Jesus by the Temple authorities at the cross can be directly related to Psalm 22:7-8. Casting lots for the clothes of Jesus at the cross can be related to Psalm 22:18. Now the question the reader must answer is whether these references are the Hebrew Scriptures fulfilled in history, or whether this represents scripture historicized.
The people who had known Jesus and followed him were less concerned with his early life, than with their experience of his living presence in their community of faith. As that first generation died off, and the followers of Jesus were dependent upon the stories remembered and shared about Jesus there began to be a hunger to know more about Jesus’ early life.
“The rarity of information about the childhood of Jesus in the canonical Gospels led to a hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of Jesus. This was supplied by a number of 2nd century and later texts, known as infancy gospels, none of which were accepted into the biblical canon, but the very number of their surviving manuscripts attests to their continued popularity.”
Most of these were based on the earliest infancy gospels, namely the Infancy Gospel of James (also called the “Protoevangelium of James”) and Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and on their later combination into the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (also called the “Infancy Gospel of Matthew” or “Birth of Mary and Infancy of the Saviour”).
The other significant early Infancy Gospels are the Syriac Infancy Gospel, the History of Joseph the Carpenter and the Life of John the Baptist.” The popularity of these narratives about the early life of Jesus were in part dependent upon fanciful and imaginative miracle stories. We should note that in the canonical gospels only our scripture today survives as a memory of the growing up of Jesus, and there are no miracles associated with Luke’s story.
There is nothing in the narrative that on the face of it is impossible. Many families of the time journeyed to Jerusalem for the great feasts of the Temple. There were three “Pilgrimage Feasts” in Judaism: Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Passover was certainly one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” and perhaps the most important. Certainly Passover was the most politically volatile of all the feasts during the Roman Occupation, because it celebrated the Exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery. The timing of the visit might coincide with the tradition of Bar mitzvah, but in the First Century this ritual did not exist. But clearly the age of 12 or 13 is important in any culture as children move into young adulthood.
Sometimes people question how parents could leave their kid behind on a large journey like that. Several explanations present themselves. First, families traveled as large extended families, aunts, uncles, cousins, a large group, where a twelve year old could immerse himself in the crowd and then stay behind unnoticed. Another possibility is that in those kinds of caravans, the men would march at the front of the pack to clear the way, while the women would walk near the end of the procession with the women and children. Since Jesus would have been on the cusp of manhood, his father might have assumed he was back with the women and children, while his mother assumed he was up with the men.
The image of the divine child who stuns the sages with his wisdom is a common theme in ancient literature. And we should also note that while the text mentions that the teachers were amazed at his understanding and his answers, the teachers are even more impressed by his listen and his questions. We should also notice that in verse 51 the author stresses the obedience of the young Jesus after this episode, because so many of the apocryphal infancy narratives paint a picture of a mischievous, ornery little cuss, who on occasion was downright mean, killing other children with curses. I think the church was probably correct in excluding from the cannon the following story:
From the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:
And the son of Annas the scribe had come with Joseph. And taking a willow twig, he destroyed the pools and drained out the water which Jesus had gathered together. And he dried up their gatherings.
2 And Jesus, seeing what had happened, said to him, “Your fruit (shall be) without root and your shoot shall be dried up like a branch scorched by a strong wind.”
3 And instantly that child withered.
While he was going from there with his father Joseph, a child running tore into his shoulder. And Jesus said to him, “You shall no longer go our way.” And instantly he died. (Jesus the serial killer.)
We need to give credit to Luke, that in the desire to create or report on the early life of Jesus, Luke chose a story that is credible and instructive. Whether factually true or not Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 helps us to appreciate someone who was spiritually extraordinary.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. According to the text how often did Jesus’ parents attend the Passover Feast?
2. How old was Jesus in this story?
According to Jesus in the story why did he stay behind in Jerusalem?
According to the text, where did Jesus spend the night?
How long did it take Jesus’ parents to discover he was missing?
Where did Mary and Joseph find Jesus?
What was Jesus doing, when they found him?
Upon finding the boy, what does Mary ask him?
What did Joseph do with the boy?
Does the text report any other incidents from Jesus’ youth?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. Given what we know about Jesus as an adult, what kind of childhood do you think he experienced?
2. Marcus Borg refers to Jesus as a spirit person, someone who was extremely gifted spiritually. How do you imagine that giftedness might have manifested itself when he was growing up?
3. Are there any other stories in the gospels that would support the contention that Jesus had manifested unusual spiritual gifts in his growing up?
4. What do you think is the significance that Mary and Joseph made the pilgrimage at Passover?
5. What were the significant events in your life around the age of 12 or 13?
6. Do you think our culture needs to re-think rites of passage and initiation?
7. What other life passages do you think exist in our culture?
8. What are some of the ways a faith community could help people observe or navigate life passages?
9. What was the most difficult child raising experience you have had?
10. Have you known someone as a child who later became famous?
Bible Study 12.12.11, 12.15.11, 12.18.11 For Worship 1.1.12
Matthew 2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy;
11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Star of Bethlehem is a favorite show at planetariums at Christmas Time. There are several possible explanations offered for a showy heavenly display about 7-4 B.C. (the time most probable for the birth of Jesus.) The purpose of the story is to match the claims of heavenly events associated with the career of Julius and Augustus Caesar. Suetonius claimed a special star appeared at the time of the birth of Augustus, and a comet appeared in the sky at the death of Julius Caesar prompting the Roman Senate to declare Caesar a God, and then by implication Octavian his heir styled himself “the Son of God.”
In claiming a visit from Magi from Persia, Matthew was going Suetonius one better. Augustus had merely had a few Roman astrologers claim an auspicious horoscope for Octavian, but the whole world recognized the authority of the Persian star gazers. Since the people of the day believed that the stars controlled human destiny, an important heavenly event was important for every great leader.
The Magi introduce the theme of the search for the divine child, a fairly common subject in human story telling. On the one hand there is the search of the Wisemen with the intention of honoring the child and fulfilling Old Testament prophecy a consistent theme in Matthew. Both, “Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. ” and “Isaiah 60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.. Herod represents the search of evil to destroy the divine child. The film, “Willow,” captured this theme beautifully with the least likely protector of the child, a dwarf, out witting the forces of evil,” are prophecy historicized by Matthew’s story of the Magi.
Perhaps more important that the Star of Bethlehem is the way Matthew uses the Wisemen to weave Herod into the story. Herod the Great was a great builder. He built massive public works projects: the City of Caesarea, the Great Synagogue Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, the great aqueducts of Jerusalem and Caesarea, the great Rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple project, the Winter Palace in Jericho, the fortress of Herodiom, the fortress of Masada. To support all of his building projects Herod taxed his subjects heavily on top of the taxes he had to levy to send to Rome. Herod was also a murderous butcher maintaining his power and control by killing countless individuals including his brother-in-law, his wife, two sons and a multitude of Israel’s finest citizens, not to mention countless peasants, who occasionally revolted against his taxes and his rule, since most of his Jewish subjects did not consider him to be a Jew. He was a harsh example of the excesses of Roman Rule.
Roman rule was a heavy handed form of commercialized civilization. Hunter gatherer tribes were fairly egalitarian communities. There was leadership in the group, and leaders were often accorded greater honor than followers. But the economic difference between leaders and followers was fairly small. Once humans invented agriculture, and an excess of production was developed, humans began to invent hierarchies that resulted in the appropriation of a disproportionate share of production to the leaders of the society often by means of violence or the threat of violence. Especially after the invention of money, excess production could be transported and stored over long distances and long periods of time, making the appropriation of wealth by a leadership class easier. By the time of the Roman Empire, as much as 60% of all production was going to support the relatively luxurious life styles of the elite, while the masses lived in abject poverty. Most residents in the Roman Empire were slaves or landless peasants who merely subsisted on the edge of starvation. Some of the same concerns are emerging in the Occupy Movement of the 21st century. During the era of the Robber Barons, vast inequalities of wealth developed as the world industrialized. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, especially after the Great Depression, a more equitable distribution of income led to a consumer based prosperity. In the last third of the 20th century leading into the economic melt-down of the initial years of the 21st century a greater inequality of income has led to an economic stagnation that now threatens to impoverish the middle class of the industrialized nations. Strikes and economic struggle in the United States and Western Europe coupled with the threat to the economies of the Western Nations from runaway debt bring the miracle of consumer prosperity to an end, as the traditional hierarchy of wealth in civilization once again asserts itself, with the devaluation of labor and the shrinking value of wages.
The introduction of Herod in the Christmas Story helps to frame the story of Jesus in relationship to the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a carpenter, which meant he was part of the landless peasantry, the impoverished middleclass that had been pushed into subsistence having to depend on the sale of his increasingly devalued labor, in the commercialized agricultural economy of the Roman World as large estates were accumulated by a small wealthy landed aristocracy. The Temple in Jerusalem was part of the movement to push peasants off the land and consolidate large estates, because the records of land debt were kept in the Temple and the Temple authorities were actively involved in the foreclosure movement at the same time they failed to honor the clear scriptural and legal principal of the “jubilee,” periodic cancelation of debts from the Law of Moses. No wonder Jesus was in conflict with the Temple authorities, and they were involved in his death. Of course we should note that the Roman authorities were only too willing to carry out the execution of Jesus, since he posed a very clear threat to their rule, and the rule of the Temple authorities, who were collaborating with Roman rule. In the end the divine child is “found” and executed by Rome.
In the popular Christmas Carol “We Three Kings,” the death of Jesus is foreshadowed in the verse about myrrh: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume. Breathes of life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The whole story of the three Kings with Herod searching for the divine child foreshadows the death of Jesus.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. According to this text where were Mary and Joseph living at the time of the birth of Jesus?
2. Who was King in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?
3. How did Herod find out about the birth of a potential Messiah?
4. Where do the priests in Jerusalem suggest they should look for the birth place of the Messiah?
5. What prophecies were involved Matthew’s birth narrative?
6. According to Matthew how did the Wisemen find the birth place?
7. Where do the Wisemen find the Holy Family?
8. What gifts did the Wisemen present to the Christ Child?
9. How do the Wisemen know to return to their country?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. Do you think the stars have any role in historical or divine events?
2. Do you think historical circumstances were at all important in the formation of the personality and character of Jesus?
3. How important is Herod in Matthew’s story?
4. Can you think of other stories where evil seeks to destroy a divine child?
5. Do you think Matthew wrote his story to fit passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, or do think Matthew’s story was a fulfillment of the scriptures?
6. Can you think of any stories that have been spawned by the story of the Magi? If so, what is your favorite?
7. What gift or gifts could you bring to the Christ child?
8. Can you think of any contemporary examples of a Herod?
9. Do you think jubilee could work in our world today?
What Purpose Shall We Serve?
United Church has very bright and talented people. Lots of folks in this congregation could be good at a variety of different jobs and tasks. Many of us not only hold down jobs we also have avocations coaching, providing leadership at church, or in community organizations, volunteer commitments that make a difference: Foodline, First Stop, Huntsville Assistance Program, Community Chorus, Huntsville Music Study Club, PEO, Toys for Tots, Alabama Water Watch and the list goes on. The question is not whether or not we have a purpose, but rather what purpose or purposes out of an array of possibilities should we serve.
I am aware this can be a particularly troubling issue as young people plan for their futures. Once again at our house we are receiving countless college catalogues, because we have a High School Senior at home. Because the cost of higher education has risen, the stakes are much higher, when young people make college choices. If a young person’s undergraduate choices turn into a five or six year program before graduation that can be a very costly mistake. The average debt of a graduating college student in 2010 was $25,250. Students who change their majors or transfer schools, or take five or six years to finish can run up far more than the average in debt. And so I have great sympathy for the pressure High School seniors experience in making their choices about what purposes they will serve in their lives, and how they will prepare for them.
So how do we make decisions, and how can we open ourselves to God in making our decisions? First, let’s return to the story of Mary and the angel for a moment. While some people would disagree with me, I believe Mary was presented with a decision to make. I don’t believe that God forced her to become the mother of the Messiah against her will – I don’t think God engages in divine rape. Though the story as we have it doesn’t tell us there was a pause between the angel saying, “for with God nothing will be impossible,” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word,” I think Mary took more than a few moments to make up her mind. And she had a lot to consider.
First, in that culture to show up pregnant, when you were betrothed to a man, was dangerous. If Joseph had denounced her as an adulteress, she could have been stoned to death. Pregnancy and childbirth are still something of a risk, in those days many women died. Also giving birth to a messiah was risky business. Matthew’s Christmas Story makes plain that the Herod’s ruthlessly eliminated any pretenders to the throne, and the Romans as we can see in the crucifixion of Jesus were not keen on Jewish messiahs.
“But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”
When God chooses people, God almost always wants something difficult and inconvenient, just ask the prophets. I don’t know of anyone God has approached to ask them to go lie on the beach and sip piña coladas. I know some people who are hoping that is what God is going to ask of them, but I don’t think so. Mary had a lot to consider in making her decision.
How long the angel had to wait for an answer, we don’t know. No matter how long, it probably seemed like an eternity. Gabriel was probably relieved when Mary finally said, “let it be to me as you have said.”
So how does Mary’s story speak to us in our decision making? First, when we have a decision to make we need to give ourselves time. Whenever possible we should avoid being rushed into a decision. When the salesman says, the price is only good for the next two hours, walk away from it. Creating a false deadline is only to the salesperson’s advantage. We need time to make thoughtful, prayerful decisions. If we are trying to make a decision about our purpose or purposes in life, it’s worth spending a few days or weeks or even months before making a decision. Don’t rush to judgment. God waited for the fullness of time before sending the Messiah. The prophets had seen him coming for centuries but as God said to Habakkuk, “still the vision awaits its time. . . wait for it; the fulfillment will surely come.” (Habakkuk 2:3)
Sometimes that means beginning the decision making process sooner rather than later. There are real deadlines in life we have to recognize. The deadline for applications is December 31st. Or the deadline for filing income tax is April 15th. So we need to back up from the deadline and begin the decision making process in advance in order to give ourselves enough time to thoughtfully, prayerfully make a decision. Sometimes we have to begin the decision making process before we have all the information we need like when we have applied to several schools, and we don’t know which institutions will accept us, and we will have a limited time to make up our mind after receiving the information. Back up and do as much information and advice gathering and sorting through options as possible before the deadline. Enter into prayer and consult with good spiritual friends to narrow down the options as much as possible before the deadlines.
Like Mary we also need to enter into decision making understanding that we can’t always be safe. Life is full of inherent risk. There are no guarantees we will always make the right decision. There is no magic and sometimes there is no right decision, just choices among different options.
When praying about decisions, don’t wait for Gabriel to show up. Listen in prayer, be silent, and listen to your dreams. God for sure can’t answer, when we are talking all the time. Keep your eyes open, sometimes answers appear, when we least expect them. Don’t miss the miracle.
Pray with good spiritual friends, people who know how to listen, rather than giving advice. Often when we allow ourselves to verbalize what we are thinking or wanting, and what we are afraid of, and what we hope for, answers become clearer. And the answers aren’t always what we want to hear. Don’t become paralyzed by indecision. Pray for the courage to act, even when the answer isn’t what we would prefer.
A person was asking for help with a difficult decision and asked some friends, “how do I know the answer. It’s not like I will get instructions in the mail. How do I know?”
Another friend wrote this very insightful comment: This might sound weird but for me it has been true. I personally don’t believe God cares as much about our specific decisions as we think — I believe HOW we make the decisions and our underlying reasoning is the key. If we ask something like “should I buy this apple or this orange?” God is likely to answer “I am that I am” or “feed my sheep.” I don’t think it is like “The Price is Right” where we have to pick the right door to win the prize. The outcomes and what’s behind the door isn’t really that important — but Love is always the answer. If we make decisions in Love, we can proceed confidently, and even if the superficial appearance of things makes our decisions look like they were wrong later, it is ok.” We have many different purposes we can serve in our lives. If we choose from love, it will be O.K.
Life is full of decisions, and one of the most basic decisions we have to make is our attitude about life. Will we choose possibility or limitation, hope or despair. I ran across a story that expresses this basic truth about attitude.
Jerry was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!”
Jerry was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.
Jerry replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Jerry, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood.’ I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it. Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.”
“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy,” I protested.
“Yes, it is,” Jerry said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”
Several years later, I heard that Jerry had been held up at gunpoint by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand, shaking from nervousness, slipped off the combination. The robbers panicked and shot him. Luckily, Jerry was found relatively quickly and rushed to the local trauma center.
I saw Jerry about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?”
I declined to see his wounds, but did ask him what had gone through his mind when he was shot. “As I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live, or I could choose to die. I chose to live.”
“The paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the emergency room and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’
“I knew I needed to take action.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, there was a big, burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Jerry. “She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them. ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.”
Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude. We have the choice to live fully. Attitude, after all, is everything.
Life affords us the opportunity to make many decisions. We are living through difficult times right now, and it is easy to give into anxiety, fear, depression and despair. Attitude is everything. Attitude is a choice. The story of Jesus tells us that even in the face of defeat and death, we can rise stronger than before. Choose life. Choose hope. Choose faith. Choose from love, and it will be O.K.