Game Time: Thoughts on stepping up for Jesus when he calls.

Game Time

Last Sunday I watched the NFL playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns.

I had reason to favor both teams.

One of my best friends is a lifelong Browns fan and frankly, I feel sorry for him.

A Browns win would be good for his soul.

But I was actually rooting for the Chiefs because I like Patrick Mahomes, their quarterback.

He is exciting to watch and incredibly talented.

He is also the Chief’s most valuable player.

But he is not the team’s only player.

He is not even the team’s only quarterback.

The Chiefs, like every other NFL team play 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense and carry 53 players on the sideline during a game.

And they, as a team, have a goal.

To win the game and maybe a championship.

Whenever a team heads out onto the field, every player must be prepared to play.

They run onto the field as a team.

The chest bump and hand slap and smack each other on the side of the helmet.

They are ready!

The whistle blows and it’s game time!

Now some of those guys just watch from the sidelines and cheer on their teammates.

But every one of them has to be prepared to go into the game when called to do so.

That need for every member of the team to be prepared to play became a reality for the Chiefs in the third quarter when Mahomes got up staggering after a play.

It was pretty clear he was done for the day.

Then two things happened.

A new quarterback came in, some guy named Henne, to run the offense.

The second was that the defense dug in and stopped the Browns when the outcome of the game was on the line.

The MVP went down, and the rest of the team stepped up.

Result?

Chiefs win!

This is the perfect illustration of how just about everything in the world happens as the result of a team effort.

The coordinated endeavor by a group of people who are committed to a particular goal.

Mahomes, regardless of his amazing ability, can’t win all by himself.

He needs to be surrounded by others.

A team.

With a commitment.

To achieving a goal.

“But Jeff,” you say, “What does this have to do with Jesus?”

Let’s take a look at our text.

Mark 1: 14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Let me give you a bit of background here.

Mark has no birth story.

We meet Jesus at his baptism performed by his cousin John.

Jesus comes out of the water and heads to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.

While Jesus is gone, John the Baptist is arrested.

Jesus then returns and heads to Galilee to begin his ministry.

What does he do?

He preaches.

What does he preach?

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

But here’s the thing.

All that preaching doesn’t do even Jesus any good if he doesn’t have a team around him.

So, what does he do at the very beginning of his ministry?

He assembles a team.

Jesus had no intention of going it alone.

He needed help from others to get his job done.

So he made an announcement.

Jesus sounded an alarm.

The time is fulfilled!

Its game time for the kingdom!

I need a team.

Jesus as star quarterback …

So, the first thing that happens is that Jesus begins to choose some teammates.

His top draft choices.

Jesus picks four [JT1] fishermen.

Peter, Andrew, James and John.

What do we know about them?

They were fishermen.

They were likely educated at least enough to run their fishing businesses.

They were wealthy enough to buy boats, and in the case of James and John, hire employees.

They were businessmen.

And I think we all know that running a business is a team effort.

They knew how share responsibility in order to achieve a goal.

And here comes Jesus, preaching.

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Drop your nets and follow me!

You will no longer be men who fish for fish, you will be something new.

Fishers of people.

“Join my team!”

Together, we can do something world changing.

And they did!

Peter and Andrew leave their boat at the dock.

James and John leave their father in their boat, not doubt with his mouth gaping in disbelief!

Many have spent a lot of time over the centuries trying to explain these remarkable responses to Jesus.

Maybe these four had been disciples of John.

Luke says Andrew was one of those.

Others say that Jesus was so charismatic and had such a powerful presence that these folks could not resist him.

Others say that these four kept doing their jobs while Jesus taught them and did not give up their occupations until Jesus headed out into the surrounding communities.

Still others say that Mark is compressing time to make a point.

The point?

These four, and later eight others, took the time to become a members of Team Jesus with the goal of becoming “fishers of people” for the kingdom of God.

Jesus might have the most skill, talent and charisma.

He was certainly the Most Valuable Player.

But Jesus still needed people to support him.

After all, Jesus knew he was going to be taken out of the game soon enough.

He needed those people then, and Jesus needs people to support him now.

That’s us.

When we read that text this morning, Jesus preaches to us.

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

What Jesus is saying to us is that it’s time to get moving.

I mean, the time is now.

Believe that the kingdom of God, the goal, is near.

Change how we live.

Get committed to our goal.

Get on Team Jesus!

And when you are needed, get in the game.

Does this have anything to do with JMPC?

I think so.

Let’s take a look back one year.

Things were going great.

We were financially set with record pledges of contributions from the congregation.

We had a pre-school that was full of kids and had a new director.

We were getting ready to install screens and a camera in the sanctuary to help us make worship more meaningful.

We were planning to refurbish our Narthex.

Children’s church was in full swing.

Youth Group was making plans to go to Puerto Rico.

The adult mission team was making plans to go to Chiapas.

Our choir was growing.

We had a vibrant pickleball community!

Easter was coming.

Our membership was growing.

We were looking good.

Then … COVID-19.

And everything just stopped.

The preschool closed.

The church building was closed.

The wheels seemed to have come off.

Jesus words seemed distant.

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Then we learned something about ourselves.

We had players ready to step in and keep JMPC a community of people who know, glorify and worship God.

The first week after we closed the building, Carolyn, Matt and I tried to think about how we would worship.

Toni Sulkowski called and said she could put us on Facebook Live!

And so we started worshiping on Facebook Live.

That went well and over the months we added music recordings from choir members.

Betsy Gilbert, Chris Todd, Marielle Brown, Anna Todd among others.

Donations still needed to be counted so Jim and Linda McCalmont, Jeff Ruch and Don Ewing volunteered to come to the church from home, in masks, to count the money after the service was done.

VBS time came and we could not gather.

So, Emily Shubilla organized an online Staycation Bible School with lessons and crafts offered by Carol Cowser, Caitlin Smith, Devon Serena, Linda Pelan, Sarah Douglas, Zach Smith and others.

Then as Kick Off Sunday approached, someone asked why we couldn’t worship in the parking lot to get the new year off and running.

Why not indeed!

But we needed some folks to help buy and set up equipment.

Set up tarps in foul weather.

Direct traffic.

Sing.

Thankfully we had Jim Ellis, Paul Zandhuis, Rick Brow, Wayne Fast, Janet Dykstra, Cheryl Davies, Chris Todd, Dave Dowdell, and others to be our stage crew and choir.

That went so well that when it got cold, we started broadcasting on FM radio so people could stay in their cars.

Meanwhile, we did not ignore the kids.

Emily Shubilla and Caitlin Smith taught the kids about Jesus in the playground and then, when it got too cold, on Google classroom.

The Christmas Affair became a silent auction at the hands of Donna Kovell and Nancy Page.

We had so many members of the congregation offering items for sale and chores to be done for others.

Even Pickleball moved outside.

When Advent arrived, we still managed to have our usual events.

Carol singing and storytelling and bonfires in the parking lot.

The children went online with the help of Heidi Todd, Betsy Gilbert and Kaitlyn Todd with their rendition of Lessons and Carols.

And now we are in the new year.

Too cold for the worship team to be outside, so we started streaming from the sanctuary.

We need a lot more help with that because of sound issues and again our stage crew stepped up and continues to look to improve.

Toni Sulkowski, Rick Brow and Doug Mickey are getting trained to use the new equipment in the sanctuary so we can make our services as good as they can be while we are not gathered together, and even better when we are gathered together.

And most recently, we welcomed our new church officers who all agreed to serve even in the middle of the pandemic.

Elders:

Jessica Scott.

Jeff Woolstencroft.

Nathan Knopp (for a second term)

They join Emily Shubilla, Connie Smith, Michelle Chenevert, Jessica Braden-Rogers, Steve Masley and Joe Pelan.

We had our training on January 16 and our forst Session meeting on the 19th.

The planning for 2021 is underway!

Deacons:

Karen Timko

Linda Pelan

Marielle Brown

Grace Bogdon

They join Sue and Ray Pierson, Deanna Kovell, Lynn and Judy Willison.

Their training was January 5, and they are already caring for our church family.

Treasurer Jim Hinerman and Finance Ministry Team chair Chris Todd managed our money and gave us a budget for 2021.

The Personnel Ministry Team chaired by Dan Depra did its job “virtually” and set compensation for 2021.

But make no mistake, the rest of the congregation has done what they needed to do as well.

You all are like fans who can claim the status of the twelfth (football) or tenth (baseball) or sixth (basketball) or seventh (hockey) member of the team.

Lots of players will testify that they are encouraged and inspired to do their best by enthusiastic cheering and support from the stands.

Church folks can cheer on the team and support it with the funds that allow the team to succeed.

JMPC has done that.

We have kept the contributions coming and we ended the year in a strong financial position.

Make no mistake, we as members of John McMillan Presbyterian Church were called to be part of the JMPC team.

The team that is part of the Jesus Team.

The team that was and is ready, willing and able to keep us in the game, every day.

Because every day is game day.

It is also important to remember that no team (except the Miami Dolphins of 1972) goes undefeated.

Even Patrick Mahomes throws an interception every now and then.

The same is true of JMPC.

We aren’t perfect.

Sometimes we fumble.

The disciples certainly did.

Peter denied Jesus.

James and John fought over who would get to sit beside Jesus in the kingdom.

All of them scattered when in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But they were only human and did their best.

And Jesus kept the team together and told them to stay in the game even after he was gone.

We are on that same team, though a few generations down the road.

And when the going gets weird, we have to keep on going, too.

When someone goes down, or something goes wrong, we need everyone to get in the game in any way they can.

Who knows what’s going to happen in 2021?

Not me.

But this I do know.

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

So, let’s get back to the game.


 [JT1]

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Are you ready to get into the game?

I am not a morning person. I have a hard time waking up. Which means I have sort of a love/hate relationship with my alarm clock. Every night I turn it on so that it wakes me up in the morning. When it goes off, I know it’s time to get the day started. Some people wake up to the alarm refreshed and ready to go. They are the people depicted in the TV commercials who wake up with a smile on their faces, give a quick stretch and are ready for the new day. I tend to hit the snooze button several times until it’s imperative that I throw the covers off and slouch to the coffee maker for a cup of caffeinated beverage that gets me ready for the new day. There are other alarms that result in quick action. Some announce the need for quick action to prevent or avoid a danger. A smoke alarm fills that need. We know what to do and are ready to do it. Some end a time of toil and free us to go play. A bell at the end of the school day is such an alarm. The kids know what to do and are ready to do it. Alarms tell us that it is time to act. The action called for depends on the type of the alarm. Whatever the alarm tells us it is time to do, we are best ready to do it. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he announced that the time was fulfilled. That was the alarm. Time to do something! Do what? Repent and believe in the good news. Why? Because the kingdom of God had come near. But there was something else that needed to be done. Were we ready to do it? Want to hear more? Join us at the John McMillan Presbyterian Church Facebook Live stream of Pastor Jeff’s message “Game Time” on Sunday January 24 at 10am. Set your alarm!

Two Kinds of Wisdom: Thoughts on the criteria for making good choices.

Two Kinds of Wisdom 2021

In the movie “Freaky Friday” Lindsay Lohan plays a teenaged girl and Jamie Lee Curtis plays her mother.

There is a scene that captures the essence of what every parent wants from her child.

Curtis drops Lohan off at school.

Lohan is walking away, and Curtis rolls down the window of the car and shouts to a mortified Lohan, “Make good choices!”

Good advice, right?

Of course, Curtis wants Lohan to make the choices Curtis would make.

More to the point, Curtis wants Lohan to choose to do what Curtis would do.

Making good choices is really important because the choices we make ultimately determine what we do and define who we are.

So, how exactly do we make good choices?

We want a certain standard.

We want some sort of criteria.

So, I submit that number one on the list of criteria would be whether the choice is wise.

Which then makes us ask how do we know if our choice is wise?

What is our criteria for that?

One place to go is to James who talks a lot about wisdom in his letter.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

James 3: 13-18

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

James starts this passage, which is part of a much longer discussion, with an interesting question.

“Who among you is wise?”

Which is akin to asking, “is anyone wise?”

To answer it we should first take a look at what he means by wisdom.

To James it is the Greek word sophia.

And the Hebrew word chokmah.

Both can be translated as skill, shrewdness, moral insight, justice, intelligence or purpose.

But in the Old Testament, chokmah was more than intellectual ability, it was intellectual ability based on the fear of God and and on a moral way of life.

In fact, wisdom in the Old Testament was personified as the means by which God created.

Proverbs 8:22-31 are the words of wisdom.

27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
   …

30   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

But it was also a way the early church described Jesus.

The logos.

The incarnate word or wisdom of God.

And so wisdom in the New Testament is knowing God through the incarnate son.

James calls this the wisdom from above.

We are called to make our life’s choices base on that.

How does James describe it?

[T]he wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

It should surprise none of us that James is describing Jesus – that incarnate logos or wisdom of God.

Choices based on wisdom from above, according to James, yield a harvest of righteousness … sown in peace for* those who make peace.

James contrasts wisdom from above with what he calls wisdom from below.

How does James describe that?

[B]itter envy and selfish ambition … boastful and false to the truth.

That doesn’t sound like Jesus and so might be considered – unwise?

Choices based on wisdom from below, according to James, that yield envy and selfish ambition, … disorder and wickedness of every kind.

Seems like an easy choice, right?

Yet we sometimes choose wisdom from below, right?

And we are in good company.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon”?

If someone is said to have the wisdom of Solomon, that person is thought to be among the most intelligent people.

Brilliant.

A genius.

Where do we get that?

The Old Testament book of 1 Kings.

Just after David’s death, Solomon became king of Israel.

Solomon had a dream in which God asked Solomon what God should give him.

Solomon asked for the wisdom necessary to lead the people of Israel.

And God responded:

‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

If you pay attention to this passage, we see that James might have had it in mind.

God wanted to know what Solomon wanted from God now that he was king.

Solomon asked for wisdom.

God seemed surprised.

God expected Solomon to want wealth and power.

God was please that Solomon made a better choice and granted Solomon’s request.

Solomon’s wisdom was and is legendary!

He answered the riddles of King Hiram.

He answered the questions of the Queen of Sheba.

He was second only to Moses in his knowledge of the law.

His reign over Israel was the most successful and bountiful ever.

Because of the wisdom God gave him.

Wisdom from above.

But Solomon was not immune from that other wisdom.

That earthly wisdom.

A wisdom based on ambition for that power and wealth that Solomon wanted in addition to wisdom from above.

That ambition led Solomon to diplomatic marriages and affairs that seemed wise to him, but which had been forbidden by God.

Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines!

All from different political alliances.

And in order to keep those alliances, he would worship the gods of his wives and concubines.

God’s response?

Then the Lord was angry with Solomon, [and] said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant.

God seems to be saying that Solomon had lied from the beginning.

Solomon wanted wealth and power and had only sought God’s wisdom to obtain that wealth and power.

And so Solomon’s earthly ambition ultimately resulted with the disintegration of David’s kingdom.

James teaches that we are all just like Solomon.

We are exposed to two kinds of wisdom.

Wisdom from above and wisdom from below.

We are subjected to a tug of war for our obedience.

So, what does James want from us?

He wants us to choose wisdom from above.

How do we do that?

What criteria should we use?

Again, I suggest we read James.

Is our life pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy that will yield a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for* those who make peace?

In other words, does it resemble Jesus?

Or is it full of bitter envy and selfish ambition, boastful and false to the truth that will yield disorder and wickedness of every kind?

In other words, does it resemble Solomon?

The problem is that the answer to these questions is often not obvious to us.

It wasn’t to Solomon.

Why not obvious?

Solomon was biased and so had a blind spot.

His bias was that he believed that getting wealth and power for himself would also do that for Israel.

So, all those concubines?

That was OK.

God thought otherwise because what Solomon was really doing was using God’s wisdom for his own selfish interests.

Solomon just couldn’t see it.

We have the same dilemma.

We want to have and use wisdom from above, but we are biased.

We assume that we are given wisdom and are using it the way God wants but, in fact, we are doing it for our individual benefit.

It’s called projecting.

We say we want to do God’s work with our wisdom, but we really don’t do it, and decide that’s OK.

This is what James is talking about.

So, back to that question.

Who is wise among us?

Anyone?

Anyone?

To answer that question, it might be good to look at what people are doing, not just saying.

So, we need to compare what we do with to the life of the only one who we can trust without hesitation as wise.

Jesus.

Jesus was wisdom from above.

And doing what Jesus calls us to do is living wisely.

Because wisdom, as James defines it, is not about what we say, but what we do.

So, wisdom is:

Loving God.

Loving neighbor.

Feeding the hungry.

Clothing the naked.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Caring for the sick.

Welcoming the stranger.

Visiting the prisoners.

And as one pastor put it – Confronting chaos and destruction, hatred and suspicion, violence and pride?

If so, we are using wisdom from above.

Or do our actions encourage chaos and destruction, hatred and suspicion, violence and pride?

If we do that, we are using wisdom from below.

So, what does wisdom from below look like these days?

Well, we need look back no further than 2020.

We have had quite a journey in 2020, haven’t we?

Our trifecta of trouble.

Pandemic.

Politics.

Protest.

Have we handled these things with wisdom from above?

Doesn’t seem so, does it?

People are elevating their own perceived individual rights over the health of others by claiming that wearing a mask is somehow oppressive.

People are demonizing candidates and polices that might actually benefit all of us simply because they are not introduced by the party of their choice.

People claim to be exercising their right to protest but violate the law and pursue chaos and destruction.

And who will ever forget January 6, 2021 when our nation’s capital was invaded by a mob,  many of whom appeared to have the intent of overthrowing our government by violent force?

Do we think that any of this is wise?

Do we think that any of it is the exercise of wisdom from above?

Does it sound like a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for the peaceful?

Or is it simply the inevitable disorder and wickedness that stems from, among other things, envy, selfish ambition, pride, and rejection of truth?

What would Jesus do?

I don’t think any of that.

Jesus would do what he always did.

He would invite people to sit with him, talk with him and eat with him.

Regardless of race, nationality or creed.

Then he would teach them to love God and love neighbor with words and action.

Action that took him to the cross.

How does James describe it?

[P]ure, … peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

 How do we do that here at JMPC?

It’s when we do small things.

Making a meal for someone sick, visiting the shut-in, befriending the lonely, showing hosptality, praying with a friend, being merciful and gracious to all.

It’s when we support Family Promise, SHIM, First Presbyterian Church of Duquesne, our Hebron partners in Chiapas, all the PCUSA missions and all the missions overseen by our outreach Pillar.

It’s also when we gather, virtually, for worship and on-line companionship and Children’s Christian Education.

And this week, it’s gathering on the JMPC Facebook Page with our interfaith friends to pray for unity and peace the day before the inauguration.

It’s about being a community, a family, regardless of our differences.

We will always be subjected to two kinds of wisdom, but when we do our best to live the Jesus way, that is living with wisdom from above.

And that will bring a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

That is a good choice.

Pre-inauguration Interfaith Prayer Vigil – January 19 at 6pm.

On January 19 at 6pm, John McMillan Presbyterian Church will host an interfaith prayer vigil on the JMPC Facebook Live page. Information about this event is posted on the JMPC Facebook page now. This vigil is a follow-up to the vigil JMPC hosted prior to the election. It will offer prayers from a large variety of Pittsburgh faith communities. Please plan on joining us on January 19 at 6pm.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Two Kinds of Wisdom

I am a big fan of Indiana Jones, the fictional adventurer/archeologist of the silver screen. One of the great movie quotes I have used many times comes from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Maybe you have seen the movie. There is a race to find the Holy Grail. The cup Jesus drank from at the Last Super. Indiana Jones’ father, also an adventurer/archeologist, has been searching for the Grail his entire life. Indiana is recruited to help when an evil Nazi kidnaps the elder Jones in order to find the Grail first and take it to Nazi Germany. After an action packed quest, Jones and his Nazi adversary end up in a room filled with bejeweled cups. One of them is the Grail. The keeper of the cups tells them to choose. If the choice is correct, the one who chooses can have the cup and whatever power it yields. Jones’ adversary goes first and looks for the most beautiful cup. He picks the one with the most gold and jewels. Certainly, he says, this is the one Jesus would have preferred. He drinks from it, chokes, screams in pain, and literally disintegrates on the spot. The keeper then calmly recites my favorite words in the movie. “He chose … poorly”. It’s Jones’ turn. He picks up an old, beat up cup, recognizing that Jesus would have used the common, simple ordinary cup of a carpenter. He drinks from the cup and he lives. He uses its power to heal his father’s gunshot wound. He chose … well. Both the evil Nazi and Jones use their wisdom to decide which is the true Grail. The evil Nazi uses a different kind of wisdom than Indiana. This is an illustration of what James, in his letter, refers to as the “two kinds of wisdom”. Jmaes’ words were true when James wrote them and are true today. Join John McMillan Presbyterian Church on January 17 at 10am via Facebook Live to hear what Pastor Jeff has to say about this passage and how we should think about it in 2021. We hope to virtually see you then.

Three Kings: Thoughts on finding meaning, purpose and eternal peace in Jesus.

Three Kings

I have shared stories with you about my Dachshund Roxy.

When you own a wiener, as Doxy owners like to call them, you know that they were bred to hunt badgers.

If you know anything about badgers, you know that they are burrowing animals that shelter underground in what can be fairly large dens.

So, for your wiener to hunt badgers, you need to train it to go underground and find them.

I learned this when I was told about “Earth Dog” competitions.

The organizer of the competition will set up an underground course, don’t ask me how, and throughout the course, will insert a caged rat that is to be “hunted” by one of the competing wiener dogs.

So, you take your wiener to the competition, then let it loose at the opening hole that leads into the underground course.

I have never seen one of these events, but I’m told that if you are there you look out on an empty lot and hear a lot of muffled barking as the wieners run through the course.

The wiener uses its only tool to find the rat.

Its nose.

When it finds the rat, it hits the rat cage, and a flag pops up above ground and someone goes and digs up the wiener to see whose it is.

I laugh every time I think of such an event.

When we humans search for something, we need more than our noses.

We need other tools.

Mostly in 2021, we use GPS, IMaps or Google Maps.

It wasn’t long ago that we used actual paper maps.

And before that, we used compasses and landmarks.

Back in the really old days, folks followed stars.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

It’s about star followers.

Searching for something.

Matthew 2: 1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today we read one of those Bible stories we all love.

The Three Kings.

We have several hymns in our hymnal where the kings and star are mentioned.

We all know the story well, right?

They come following a star.

They are searching for what it means.

The star leads them to a baby in a manger.

They kneel in adoration.

They give expensive gifts.

The way we see it in our family manger scenes.

They go back home by a different route.

But when we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel, don’t we have a lot of questions?

At our staff meeting this week, we read the passage and did have lots of questions.

Who were these guys?

Where did they come from?

Why did they come?

What did they expect to find?

And what about that star?

How do you follow a star?

How does a star point to something on the ground?

Was it really a star?

Well, here are some things that offer some answers.

These men were not kings.

We often refer to them as Wise Men.

They were probably Zoroastrian priests.

Zoroastrians believed in one god who created everything.

This god gave humanity free will and was going to judge everyone for the choices each made.

Happily, there was going to be a messiah who would come and “renovate” creation and save people from the consequences of their poor choices.

Sound familiar?

These Zoroastrians also studied the stars.

They were astrologers.

Astronomers.

In those days they were considered scientists.

Wise men indeed.

They had another name.

Magi.

They spent their time looking at the stars and trying to find meaning in them.

We don’t really know how many there were, but because there are three gifts described by Matthew, we assume there were three Magi.

They were from the east (which means the star was to their west).

Probably from Babylon, modern day Iraq.

They had seen something new.

A new heavenly body.

What was it?

A star?

A supernova?

A comet?

A conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn?

Who can know?

But these astronomers called it a star.

Because everything in the night sky, other than the moon as a star to them.

And this was a new one.

And they wondered what this omen meant.

A new star in the sky would have been considered an omen of something.

A divine manifestation.

God doing something.

Something big.

Really big.

Such things were often said to mean that a new king was born.

So, they decided to go check it out.

They left when they saw the star and arrived in Jerusalem somewhere around two years later.

Somewhere along the way, they lost sight of the star, apparently.

Which is why they stopped in Jerusalem to ask directions.

Which must have been awkward.

“Hey Herod, current king of the Jews, where is your replacement, the new born king?”

Which brings to mind this question:

What made them think this star was an omen of the birth of a king of the Jews?

Following the star took them to Jerusalem.

Judea.

Where the Jews lived.

Must have been their king, right?

They are told Bethlehem was where a particular prophecy located the birth of the “Messiah”.

Wait, what?

A messiah?

We are waiting for one of those, too!

And so, they went to Bethlehem, and for the first time since they left, there was the star again.

And guess what?

Following it did take them to Bethlehem.

How did they find Jesus?

They likely asked around a bit.

“Any babies born since that star appeared?”

I think it probably took them a while to find Jesus if that is all they had to go on.

Ultimately, they found Jesus.

Presumably they were told the story of Jesus’ conception and birth and knew he was more than just a king of the Jews.

Here was what they had been looking for.

And the Magi knew, everything was different.

The kind of thing that would deserve a starry announcement.

This was the messiah.

Not just the Jewish Messiah.

Everyone’s Messiah.

That was all they needed to know.

Their search was over.

They found what they were searching for.

And what did they do?

Their messiah, their renovator, their savior was here.

They knelt before Jesus and gave him gifts.

Then they went home.

Never to see or hear about Jesus again.

But they likely went in peace.

No need for more.

They knew their messiah had come.

So, that is the story with a bit more historical context and some educated assumptions.

Why didn’t Matthew tell the story better?

Because Matthew was focusing on what all good Jews of his day would have focused on.

What does the story mean?

And we should apply that thought process to our reading as well.

Let’s break down the story.

Three men searching for meaning.

When they find the meaning, they honor it and kneel in homage.

Then they offer gifts.

When I break it down that way, it kind of sounds like me.

And many of you all, too.

We human beings have been searching for meaning since we left the garden.  

We want a sign.

We want an omen.

We search for purpose, identity, and most of all eternal peace.

And while few if any of us have found such things in heavenly bodies, most of us here have fond it in Jesus.

The rest of us are still searching.

More and more people doing just that and some doing it here with us.

Some call themselves spiritual but not religious.

Not atheist.

Just not religious.

They know there is something to search for.

Something that will give them purpose, identity, and most of all eternal peace.

Think I’m wrong?

Read this from the Pew Research Center in January of 2016:

[A]mong U.S. Christians, there has been an increase of 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in the share who say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly (from 38% to 45%). And there has been a similar rise in the share of religious “nones” who say the same (from 39% to 47%) – not to mention a 17-point jump among self-described atheists.

Hear that?

[A] deep sense of wonder about the universe…

A 17-point jump among self-described atheists in the last ten years!

I think these people are like the wise men.

They see creation and want to find meaning.

They are searching for something.

And we need to help them find it.

Right here.

In the last 10 months, this congregation has had an average of over 300 “views” of our worship services.

More than twice the weekly average attendance we had before we started to life stream our services.

We don’t know who many of them are, ore even how much of the service they view.

But they are watching us.

Why did they come?

What were they looking for?

I have no idea, but I bet it has something to do with seeking purpose, identity, and most of all eternal peace.

They are looking at Jesus for it.

Just like every one of us who was once one of those.

Just like the Magi who found Jesus.

We all came here from different places.

Different world views.

Different generational cultures.

Different races.

Each of us should ask ourselves, “What were we looking for”?

Like the Magi, were we searching for something new?

Or were we looking for something we had once, but lost?

And then, what did we find?

Did we find our Messiah?

Did we find Jesus?

Did our world change just a little bit?

Did our lives change just a little bit?

If so, our search is over.

How, then, do we respond?

The same way the Magi did.

We kneel in homage before our God and worship.

One way to do that is at this table.

Jesus wants us to respond by coming to him.

He wants us to join him at this table.

He wants us to join him in his story.

He wants us to know what his story means.

And what it means for us.

A renovated world.

A changed life.

Purpose, identity, and most of all eternal peace.

What next?

We give gifts.

Money?

Sure, but more than that.

Listen to the prayer of Great Thanksgiving this morning.

We offer our very lives as living sacrifices.

Useful sacrifices.

Time.

Talent.

Treasure.

But most of all commitment.

Now let me ask you one more question.

Do you know people who are on such searches?

Bring them here.

Be their star.

You don’t have to say anything.

Just tell them that they might find what they are looking for right here.

Just like the wise men.

Just like the rest of us.

Let God take it from there.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Three Kings and a Star

On December 21, 2020 there was a celestial event that has not been seen since the year 1226 CE when Genghis Kahn was rampaging in Asia. The celestial event was the conjunction of two planets in our solar system – Jupiter and Saturn. Normally these two planets are just bright lights in the sky and are misidentified as stars to the astronomically challenged. From time to time, orbital paths across the sky of Jupiter and Saturn make them line up in a way that intensifies their brightness to the point they look like one bright star. This conjunction on December 21 was labeled the “Christmas Star” mainly because it appeared so close to Christmas. Such celestial events are something we humans have always looked at with wonder. From solar and lunar eclipses to passing comets, human beings have historically interpreted such sights as heralds or omens of some kind of change in the course of human history. (See Genghis Kahn rampaging Asia in 1226.) Halley’s Comet was said to have appeared just as the Normans were invading England in 1066 CE. King Harold of England saw it as a bad sign while King William of Normandy saw it as proof he was to succeed (which he did). A 585 BCE solar eclipse was so frightening to the warring Medes and Lydians in that they ended their war and left the battlefield. Then there was the Star of Bethlehem that portended the birth of a new king. Many believe that this star was, in fact, a Jupiter/Saturn conjunction. Whatever it was, the three “Wisemen” or “Kings” used it as a navigational aid to find the new king that was heralded by the “star”. This story only appears in Matthew’s Gospel. What do we make of this story? What does it mean to us in 2020? Hear about it Sunday, January 10, 2021 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Three Kings” at 10am on Facebook Live. You can also come to the parking lot and listen on the radio, though the worship team will be inside. We hope you join us.