Monthly Archives: December 2013

“Why were the Wise Men so late?” (Youth Sunday School 12/30/13)

Matthew 2
The Visit of the Wise Men
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.


This Sunday, in the period between Christmas and Epiphany (known as Christmastide or the 12 Days of Christmas), we talked about the Wise Men whose journey is celebrated on Epiphany (the 2nd Sunday after Christmas). The story of the Wise Men is found only in Matthew 2 and we walked through the story bit by bit to answer one big question “Why were the Wise Men so late?” They didn’t arrive till Jesus was nearly 2! That’s quite a bit late to the birthday party.

It’s easy to miss a lot in this story if we don’t know the meaning of certain details. First, who were these magi or wise-men? And where in “the East” were they coming from? Matthew’s story is pretty sparse on what seems like key detail. But from the time period when Jesus was born we can assume a few things from the details we have. Another word sometimes used for our “Wise men” is astrologers. They were star gazers. And no amateurs either, they believed they could read the movement of the stars and use it to get insight about the future. When you put together astrology and a country to the East, someone in the days of Jesus or Matthew would have heard “Babylon.” Babylon was a huge empire to the East of Israel that had conquered the nation several times in the past. They were well known for their astrologers and the use of divination (reading the future) in their religion and their politics. So these wise men were probably astrologers from Babylon.

So why do they go see Herod and why is Herod “frightened” when he meets with them? Well, these astrologers were probably also political advisors (if you were king and had people around you thought could see the future wouldn’t you probably hire them too?). So they’re political advisors. Today we might call them the “Deputy Secretaries of Star-Reading.” They have real political power. They live in palaces and work with kings and princes and generals every day. So when they see this star and read from it that a new King of Israel has been born they go to the palace. They’re political men. They know where Kings should show up.

But why does Herod freak out? Well because Herod is already king! The job is not open! We are not accepting applications for “Messiah” or “King of the Jews” at this time. The Wise Men weren’t random strangers, they were powerful representatives of another government acknowledging a new king. This would be like the Ambassador from Canada to the US telling the President that he was here to officially greet his replacement.

The wise men made a big assumption about what kind of King God was sending into the world. They went looking for crowns and soldiers and thrones and brushed right past the lowly stable and the peasant village of Nazareth. They thought that God would do something that looked like them and made sense to them. And they ended up chumming around with one of the scariest most violent men of the time.

We do this all the time. We assume that God looks like us, thinks like us, works like us. God will intervene in the world in the way I would do it. God will be present in the places I am. But God picks unexpected lowly ways of breaking into the world. We have to open our eyes and break out of these assumptions. Be prepared for the God who won’t be boxed in. The god who picks stables over palaces and sends a peasant carpenter instead of a governor.





A post script for your edumahcation:

The three gifts the Wise Men bring each represent something different about Jesus’ life and ministry. The song “We Three Kings” spends one verse on each of these and explains their significance.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Gold represents Jesus royalty and his place as King.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Frankincense or just incense is a traditional temple offering for a God, pointing to Jesus’ roles as Priest, Prophet and Son of God.

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

Myrrh is a kind of perfume which was used in Jesus’ time to prepare bodies for burial. It pointed forward towards the end of Jesus’ ministry with his death on the cross.


A Mustard Plant Kingdom: God’s preference for the small and improbable (or “Crosses instead of Towers”)

This one is a bit long but bear with us folks. Here’s our lesson from Wednesday 12/11/13

Mark 4:30-32
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Genesis 11:1-9
The Tower of Babel
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The story of the Tower of Babel gives us one of the most well known images in the Hebrew Scriptures. Its a very striking image. A huge architectural and engineering project involving thousands of people. They strive together to create something grand. To “make a name for ourselves.” Then, seeing this undertaking God comes down and scatters the people. Not only scattering but confusing their speech that they could never organize this way again. That seems like an odd thing for God to do. What does God have against towers? Or architecture?

Something isn’t clear when we read the story by itself. But we have to remember a few things about the world this story was told in. The story of Babel was probably written down the way we have it now around the 7th or 6th century BC. After many of the Israelites were taken away into exile. In Babylon. Babylon was famous as one of the civilizations which built Ziggurats, huge square temples which were built in rising layers. Like this one.

This design allowed Ziggurats to be one of the tallest building of its time, towering above everything else. Sound familiar? Ziggurats were also centers of worship for the Babylonian gods, like Marduk and Nabu. The Israelites in exile would have seen these pagan temples towering above them as they waited for God’s rescue. They would also have seen first hand the kind of people it takes to go about a project like this. In history its not usually been the nicest folks who can rise to the top and command a project like this to happen. There was probably a lot of abuse and mistreatment in putting together something like this. Babylon created a lot of amazing advancements in art, law, science and engineering but they did it at least in part by being bigger and nastier than everyone else.

So our story is a little different. God looks down on this project. The mighty and the grand and the powerful whipping the poor and the weak into service, using someone else’s sweat and pain to try and grab greatness. Babylon has one language and one goal not out of a sense of unity but out of fear and ambition and violence. This isn’t God’s intent for the human project, for the way people would live. So God scatters them and stamps a definitive “No” on this way of living in the world.

But God doesn’t stop there. Having broken up the unjust undertaking of Empire God is ready to start something different.

So God goes and finds the perfect place to start the next chapter of humanity. Abram and Sarai. An old, barren couple with no children. God doesn’t go to a king or a priest or a general or a wealthy merchant. God picks two senior citizens, late in their lives, and tells them they will be the parents of many descendants. The couple considered cursed for their lack of children will bring God’s great people into the world. Nations and kings will come out of what God will do with them. The name that Babel couldn’t take for itself with its tower God gives to these two. Literally. God gives them new names, Abraham “Father of many nations” and Sarah “the laughing one.”

For some reason God keeps picking these unlikely people. An exiled Egyptian shepherd, wanted for murder becomes the first Great Prophet and confronts a Pharaoh. A group of desperate escaped slaves become God’s people. A young shepherd is plucked off the side of a hill to replace a charismatic warrior as King of Israel. Disciples are chosen from amongst illiterate fishermen and sinful tax collectors. A murderous zealot is chosen to be God’s apostle of reconciliation and love.

This is why Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom is a mustard seed kingdom. Not the mighty Cedars of Lebanon or the luscious grape vine. But a weed. A pervasive, pungent weed which springs up without warning and is almost impossible to remove. An unlikely banner plant for God’s kingdom but perhaps the perfect plant for God’s consistent choice of the lowly and the unwanted as his people. Mustard wasn’t seen as a desirable thing. It could taint a whole batch of crops. It was common and lowly and a bit of a nuisance.

But that’s the point. God’s kingdom will always seem undesirable to the Babel’s and Babylon of the world. Its about working small and faithfully. Its about trusting that God redeems even the most broken of things. Its a messiah and savior born in a stable instead of a palace. Its a king who dies in shame. Crosses instead of towers.

God help us to start small, love much and live faithfully even when its not glamorous or easy. Help us to turn down the temptation of great towers and live like lowly mustard in a world of great cedars. Amen.

Our Father: Some things the Lord’s Prayer teaches us about praying

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your Kingdom come
Your will be done
On Earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread (or bread for tomorrow)
And forgive us our debts (sins, trespasses)
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And do not bring us to the time of trial (lead us to temptation, test us to destruction)
But rescue us from the evil one (deliver us from evil)
Matt 6:9-13 NRSV with variations

The Pater Noster, Lord’s Prayer or Our Father is probably the most famous prayer in the Christian tradition. It is the prayer, offered by Jesus himself. Every moment of every day it echoes from church to church, from house church to campus ministry to mega church to country chapel, as it is prayed in a hundred different languages.

So as the prototype prayer of the Church, spoken by Jesus himself, it follows that we can learn something about God’s own understanding of prayer by looking at the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Though only a few verses in length there is a world of depth implied by each line and as we pray it we find God offering more and more of that depth to us.

Our Father in Heaven.

Our. Our Father. The prayer is plural. It is collective. Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray together. Everything that follows is about the whole community as well as the individual.

Father. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are not just a community but a family and God is the head of that family. And family meant even more to Jesus’s 1st century audience. Family was an extended economic unit; a business partnership. Most families worked together in a trade like fishing or carpentry (many of the disciples were working with their own fathers when Jesus called them). Family was also a legal and status group. You were vulnerable or protected under Jewish and Roman law based in large part of your family. And individual  achievement was secondary to your family’s success and advancement over time.

Finally, Families were religious and  political wholes. The head of the family made decisions for everyone. That’s why we see things like “and the household of so and so was baptized” in Acts. Breaking away from your family (as many early Christians were forced to) would be particularly traumatic and isolating.

God is the great adopter and Jesus and the gospel authors wanted us to the all the ways that Father captured the goodness of God. God protects, provides, leads and honors, making room not only for those who have honor and home elsewhere but especially for those who are forsaken and cast out.

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom come. Your will be done. On Earth as it is in Heaven.
God has a plan at work in the world. Started in Creation and renewed in the birth of Jesus. God has a model for how humanity should relate to His creation and each other. God’s Kingdom isn’t just about worshiping right but also living good lives and treating each other fairly. God’s Kingdom and God’s love and justice go hand in hand.

Also God’s will is sometimes bigger than we can wrap our heads around. When we pray God always hears and cares but God’s plan is often hard. But in the long arc of everything God is working everything to the good, for us as individuals, for all humanity and finally for all the Creation. This is why we have to sometimes remind ourselves to pray not only for our wants and needs but also that we might stay open to the way God might unexpectedly work.

Give us this day our daily bread
The image here is intended to make us think back to the Exodus, to the story of the miraculous manna which fell from the sky each day. Each person could gather what they needed and eat their fill. But it couldn’t be stored and no one could take too much or too little. God is still providing. But like the Israelites, God doesn’t want us to have everything. God wants us to have enough. What we really need. If we have too much we forget we need God, we get arrogant and wasteful and cruel to one another. If we have too little and our needs aren’t met…well its self-explanatory why that is bad.

And remember, this is a collective prayer. We are praying this with people in very different situations than ours. Some with so very much, some with very little. Maybe in the same room or community, maybe across the world. But if God is the father of us all then those our or brothers and sisters without enough. Our daily bread means their daily bread (or daily lack of bread) is my problem.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

We’re never going to be perfect. Each day we’re going to fall short. And that’s OK. God continually forgives. But we can’t hold on to the illusion of perfection. We have to name our faults and ask God for the Grace to get a little bit better every time we fail.

And we also can’t be the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18). We’ve been forgiven much and that calls us to forgive in turn. Our forgiveness isn’t conditional but it is important. We can’t ask for God’s kingdom even as we toss out its forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

This is probably one of the hardest lines to understand. But in some ways its very simple. There are dark and trying things in this world. Until God’s renews the Creation and fully realizes the Kingdom in the world there won’t be perfect peace. There won’t be life without times of suffering and loss and difficulty. We can’t ask God to simply shield us away from all of these things. But instead we ask God to preserve us, to save us, to bring us back from the brink when things seem too much. God keep us in the world but help us to live faithfully in it.

In these few lines of verse we hear an awful lot about the shape of prayer and even a good deal about what a good Christian life might look like. By praying these ancient words we not only speak to God but perhaps also hear God speaking back in unexpected ways. If there’s one simple takeaway from this then it is this. Pray the Lord’s Prayer. Learn it inside and out. Carry it in your phone. Pray it throughout your day. Join in the tradition, join in the choir. Let it shape you like it did those early disciples who heard it from Jesus himself.


(We talked a little bit extra in Youth about other things the Lord’s Prayer might say about the whole practice of Praying but we’re going to come back to those at another time.)

Habits: Becoming Ourselves a little at a time

There are a lot of big decisions that happen over the course of your life. Those big turning point moments that will drastically shape the way you live your life for years to come. Things like choosing a college or career, taking a job, moving, if and who to marry. These big decisions have long lasting consequences that are often difficult to change. There are also big in the moment decisions. Do I jump into this difficult situation? Do I choose to do something especially wrong or do I go with a heroically selfless option?

These kinds of decisions are very important and we spend a lot of time thinking about them. Not only the decision itself but even what method we use to make a big decision. Do I use pro and con? Do I have boundaries I’ll never cross? Or maybe I try to always choose what’s best for the most people. Certainly I pray hard and consider God’s will in it. Maybe even study the Bible with it in mind or talk to a pastor or teacher.

But here’s the reality of it folks. For all of the importance of these moments of major decision they are only brief moments alongside millions of moments in your life.

If we’re really concerned with making our whole lives good, lives which delight God, we have to think harder about all those little moments in between. All those decisions we make every day but barely consider.

Will I do the work in front of me the best I can? Will I be kind to a classmate? Will I be thankful to my teachers and parents? Will I be careful and loving in the words I use?

These little decisions made over and over and over again say as much or more about us than those moments of crisis or big decision. Philosophy uses the term Virtue to talk about this way of being good, training yourself to live and act rightly day in and day out.

And it is a kind of training. Being good, living right, showing God’s love is like just about everything in life. It takes practice. When the batter steps up to the plate she can’t be thinking through every step of the swing. She has to have put in the hours at practice, swinging again and again until the swing is as much in her bones and her arms and her hands as in her head. A singer has to know her pitch and her intervals before she performs, the pianist and guitarist have to know their chords.

It’s no coincidence that Paul uses the metaphor of an athlete to talk about the struggle to live into the life of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9 saying:

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

We are making ourselves every day. We are determining who we are gonna be. If we want to be people who show the love of Christ to the world around us we have to commit to daily practices of Jesus-ness. We have to commit to the long struggle to grow in love.

Start small. Everyday be kind to one person. Tell someone you love and appreciate them. Stand up for someone who needs it. And pray.

You’re not going it alone. God blesses the little things. The Spirit goes with you out into the world and so do the prayers of your friends and church family. With God’s help we can grow each day in love, a little bit more like the One who loves us.


Greetings friends, family and passerby. This blog is being launched as an archive for our Youth and Young Adult lessons at Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham, NC. If you want to review, catch up or just follow along from home I’m going to do my best to keep this site caught up. Thanks for stopping by!
-Colby Whittaker
Assoc. Pastor for Youth and Young Adults