Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bible Road Trips: The Traveling Magi

My last post for 2016 is another "road trip": the story of the Magi who traveled to visit the young
Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). The lovely story is usually an Epiphany story.

The Magi possibly came several hundred miles, "following yonder star." They weren't "kings," as the old hymn names them, but probably Persian or Babylonian astrologers and dream interpreters of the priestly class. The Bible doesn't actually say how many there were, nor their names. An old joke goes that if the wise men had been wise women, they would've asked for directions, helped deliver the baby, and brought more practical gifts!

The Wise Men were the first Gentiles to pay homage to Jesus. We miss the significance of God's blessing of the Gentiles because we're all Gentiles and we already know that the God of the Hebrews has touched our lives. But if you read Acts and Paul's letters, you can feel a palpable joy at the blessing and generosity of God in showing his love and help for all people.

The story of the Wise Men has given us some very important traditions and theological elements to the church. Let me just highlight four.

The first aspect of the Wise Men: thanks to them, one of the most significant Christmas traditions, coming from Matthew's story, is gift giving. The wise men brought Jesus fine gifts (Matthew 2:11). Thanks to the Wise Men, the church has always had a very strong Christmastime tradition of sharing gifts with those less fortunate. Boxing Day, which is the first weekday after Christmas, is celebrated in some countries: for instance, public workers like mail deliverers received appreciative gifts and workers received food and supplies from employers.

The second aspect is that the nature of their gifts gives us a subtle unifier of what Jesus was about. The Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay notes that gold is the gift of a King, which Jesus certainly is. Frankincense is the gift of a priest. We don't always appreciate the "priestly" role of Jesus, but read Hebrews 4:14-16: "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Finally the gift of myrrh implies death, because that substance was valued for its fragrance but was also used in embalming. Without realizing the symbolic significance of their gifts, the Wise Men "preached Christ" as king, priest, and crucified savior.

In my 2009 Advent study book, I remarked that we tend to separate in our imaginations the birth of Jesus from the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I wondered if perhaps we should display both poinsettias and Easter lilies together in our churches. I doubt that will ever be done, but we do well to keep other both Christmas and Easter in our minds. Jesus was born for our salvation, which was eventually achieved by his atoning work on the cross and his resurrection from the death. These aspects of Jesus belong together, because they are all part of God's work of salvation.

The third aspect of the Wise Men is how they highlight God's way of doing things. Matthew and Luke's gospels give a place of honor to the lowly. Luke's gospel in particular continues the strong Old Testament theme that the poor and needy must be provided for, and that God takes the side of the poor. In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew echoes the story of Moses' birth (the threatened ruler, the killing of children, the secret rescue of the child, the location of Egypt) in order to proclaim Jesus as a liberator for his distressed. The modest circumstances of Jesus' birth shows him to be a different kind of king than Caesar or anyone else holding political power. God chose to be born in circumstances mirroring the unfairness, oppression and injustice that we see in the world.

The fourth aspect is related to the third. Pastor Richard Fairchild on the Spirit Network website notes that the Wise Men were open to and recognized King Jesus in spite of the modesty of his circumstances. They came to visit a king, but Jesus lived in a carpenter's simple home. The Wise Men could've assumed they were in the wrong place and kept looking, or given up. Fairchild writes, "So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that he gives it. Because we are waiting for a gift from God - we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders, trumpet calls and 21 gun salutes. We may pray to God for a special blessing - and then turn away at our door a pan-handler who is looking for a meal, or a neighbor who is dropping by unannounced, or a client who shows up just when we are preparing to leave work for the day."

That last point is a good one for us to keep in mind as we prepare for a new calendar year. If you're like me, you hope to grow spiritually and are keenly aware of ways that we fall short. At the same time, we often don't give God credit for doing things differently than our expectations. The great thing is that God is always way ahead of us and seeks to help and guide us along our own journeys. One of the ways in which we grow spiritually is in discernment of God's works in the world. Some of them we miss, because God does things contrary to our expectations. Some of them we see, however. The Wise Men provided wonderful traditions for us, but the example of wisdom about God's purposes is a particularly fine tradition as we look to the Lord for guidance and help for the upcoming year.

(from a 2011 sermon)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Women Composers: Beth Anderson

Starting with my August 23rd post, I'm exploring (to me) unfamiliar music by women composers. I'm  beginning with the composers whom Barbara Harbach mentioned there.

Beth Anderson is a Kentucky native, a student of John Cage, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, Larry Austin, and others, according to good ol' Wikipedia, which states, "[She] is best known in her field for her swales, a musical form she invented based on collages and samples of newly composed music rather than existing music. She told a reporter for the New York Times in 1995 she named the form based on this definition of the word: 'A swale is a meadow or marsh where a lot of wild things go together.'"

Here is her website: http://www.beand.com.  And here are two of her pieces that I found on YouTube, including photographs by James Archambault. (He is a favorite photographer: my wife Beth was given one of Archambeault's photographs during a leadership conference she attended in Kentucky.) Beautiful music!   

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Identity Politics"

Here are two articles that I want to return to and reread this week. The first argues that "The Left’s obsession with identity politics has brought us Trumpism."

On the other hand, commentator Samantha Bee argues that it's "bullshit" that the Democrats lost the election on identity politics, and “Identity politics is the dismissive term for what we used to call ‘civil rights’ and ‘equality.’”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Enormous Bibles

A few months ago, as I browsed used book sites on line, I fell in love with a two-volume Bible commentary written by Thomas Scott (1747–1821), later edited with new material by William Symington. The bookseller, Peter Harrington in London, accurately described the books as 240 cm by 310 cm in dimension, so I knew they were very large. This edition, one of several different editions that one can find at online sites and old bookstores, was published in Glasgow in 1834. The red covers depict a decorative cross and also St. Paul's Cathedral, which I visited or the first time last week during my wife Beth's business trip to England. So now these enormous Bibles, which I photographed next to a more portable Good News for Modern Man---my long-ago youth group Bible---for comparison, are part of my library of Bible-related books.  

Good ol' Wikipedia's article on Scott indicates that he was an influential author and preacher, born in Lincolnshire. He came from a farming family but left home to become an Anglican priest, though he deepened his faith only later when he met the hymn writer John Newton, famous for "Amazing Grace." Scott served as a hospital chaplain and preacher, and began publishing his commentary on the Bible in weekly installments, beginning in 1788. His work was very popular and sold £200,000 worth of copies in England and America by the time of Scott's death. Unfortunately, Scott sold the copyright in about 1810, so he made about £1,000 profit. "John Henry Newman wrote: 'They [Scott's works] show him to be a true Englishman, and I deeply felt his influence; and for years I used almost as proverbs what I considered to be the scope and issue of his doctrine, "Holiness before peace," and "Growth is the only evidence of life."'" 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bible Road Trips: Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

This story is so familiar:

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV).

Just prior to his birth, Jesus' parents had to make a road trip of about eighty miles. Most of us have likely added details to the story in our imaginations. I tend to picture Mary riding on a donkey, for instance, but the text doesn't specify the way they traveled. I also think of the circumstances as harsh and heartless, as if they tried to check into a modern motel but, with no vacancy there, they were turned away and found refuge in the groundkeeper's shed. At the time, the stables would have been a reasonable overflow space. Nevertheless, Jesus was a longed-for king, but the place of his birth was very humble and unassuming.

A few years ago, I read a Catholic author who made a Eucharistic connection that I found interesting: Jesus was laid into a manger (a trough from which the animals were fed) as a precursor to the time when we would share his body and blood in the mass. Protestants don't believe in transubstantiation but instead believe (with nuances among denominations) in the spiritual presence of Jesus in sharing of the Lord's Supper. Still, it was a meaningful insight, and we're liable to emphasize the humility of Jesus' birth and miss the subtle implication (perhaps not even realized by the gospel authors) of his first bed, a feeding trough. "Take, eat, this is my body, this is my blood..."

There are scholarly questions about the historicity of the story's Roman census: whether it happened, and if so, whether it happened at the time of Jesus' birth. But it is a wonderful story that explains the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem (necessary, according to the prophecy of Micah 5:2) when his parents were actually from Nazareth. Recently I enjoyed a Howard Zinn essay about the human history and the possibility of optimism (https://www.thenation.com/article/optimism-uncertainty/). Even if we don't think about God's providence, history has an unpredictability that gives us reason for hope amid difficult times. In our story, an event authorized by the politically powerful of the world becomes the unpredicted way a 700-year-old prophecy came to pass, forcing Jesus' parents to make an 80-mile trip they otherwise would not have made.