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Here is the sermon I’ll be preaching on Sunday, January 6, 2008 – Epiphany Sunday.  Have a great day Sunday!

Tell The Story, Part 1

Matthew 2:1-12 NIV

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east[b] and have come to worship him.”

3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ[c] was to be born. 5″In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’[d]

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east[e] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Telling the story of our lives

If I were to ask you today to tell me a story from your life, what would you tell? Of course, most of us don’t remember when we were born, but we could tell the stories that our mother and father told us about that event.

Or we could tell some endearing story from our childhood. Every time we had ham slices with the bone in — you know the round bone — my mother would tell the story of the time I got to eat steak, which they told me was T-bone steak. Now we didn’t eat steak that often, so I guess it stuck in my little preschool brain. So one day not long after that when she served ham, I asked if it was “O-bone” steak. Which my mother thought was quite clever and charming, which is what mothers are supposed to think of their little children.

But, back to my question — what story would you tell me from your life? Well, this month we’re going to focus on our church theme for 2008. You remember our theme in 2007, which was our sesquicentennial year, was “Praise for the past, faith for the future.”

This year our theme is very simple — “Tell the story. Invite others. Bless the world.” I’ll explain what I mean by each of these during this month, and today we start with “Tell the story.”

Now, when I first thought about this theme, I thought I might need to leave the lectionary texts for the month of January in order to kick off the year talking about our theme. But after I read the texts for this month, I thought they couldn’t be better, because each week the scripture readings actually highlight one part of our theme. For the next two weeks we focus on “Tell the story.”

When you read the Old and New Testaments, there are two things you notice. First, the Bible is mostly stories. Of course, there are some things that aren’t stories, like the Ten Commandments, but even the Ten Commandments come to us wrapped in the story of how they got from God to Moses and finally the people. Old and New Testaments contain the stories of God and his people.

Which is the second thing I want you to notice about the stories — God’s people told them over and over. In the Old Testament, the primary story was of the Exodus, the story of God delivering His people from slavery. That’s still the dominant story in Jewish life today, and they tell that story with the coming of every Sabbath and Passover.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells the stories to the disciples and others who will listen. He used parables — stories drawn from real life — to illustrate the work of God in God’s world. After Jesus returns to the Father, the disciples tell the story of Jesus as the first century church begins. God’s people know they are God’s people because they tell the stories of God and find themselves in those stories. Today we’re going to look at one story as we think about telling the story this year.

The story of the wisemen, an evil king, and Jesus

We know this story. It’s the story of the wisemen — astrologers or philosophers or whatever they were — seeing the star in the eastern sky, and traveling from a long way off to pay homage to this newborn king. We sing the song, “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.”

To get some things out of the way, let me tell you now that the Bible does not say there were three kings, only that they presented three gifts. But that’s not the important part of the story. And the names that legend has given them — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar — have no basis in scripture. But, that’s not the important part of the story, either.

And, here’s one more — the star is not the most important part of the story either. Various explanations for the star of Bethlehem include:

  • the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 BC;
  • a nova — a star that grows very bright, and so is dramatically visible in the sky;
  • the appearance of Venus at its most brilliant.

Each one of these explanations has its pros and cons, but the star is not the important part of the story. We have to assume that the star the wisemen saw was visible to others also. So, just seeing the star is not the most important part of the story.

The most important part of the story is that the wisemen understood the meaning of the star. They said to King Herod —

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east[b] and have come to worship him.”

To the wisemen the star was the sign that a new king of the Jews had been born, a king that demanded their worship. So they traveled to find him, which they had difficulty doing because they stopped off to ask the current king, King Herod the Great, where the new king of the Jews was. Now, the wisemen get a lot of points for their knowledge of astronomy and theology, but not very many for politics. You would think they would understand that the current king of the Jews might have some problem knowing that a usurper to the throne had been born. Or maybe the wisemen thought the newborn king was King Herod’s heir, and so they stopped at the palace to check out that possibility. Whatever the reason, they got Herod all stirred up.

King Herod, smiling that syruppy smile of his, tells the wisemen, “Thanks for dropping in. Let me do some checking on this and I’ll get back to you.” Which is king-talk for, “If there is a new king out there, he won’t be around for long.”

Herod assumes that something supernatural is up, so he calls his own wisemen and asks them, “Where is the messiah going to be born?”, for I’m sure Herod figures that the messiah is the only one who could challenge his authority. To which his wisemen reply —

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6″ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’[d]

So, Herod calls the wisemen back privately and asks when they saw the star exactly. They tell him, and he sends them to Bethlehem with instructions to come back and tell him where the child is.

So, the wisemen are on their way to Bethlehem, where they present their gifts to Jesus and pay him homage. But, being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they return home — wherever that was — by another route. Which I am sure infuriates Herod, and so he orders all the boy babies under 2 years of age killed. But, that is another story for another time.

The story we tell is God’s story

So, that’s the story of the wisemen, the evil king, and Jesus. And our theme this year is “Tell the story. Invite others. Bless the world.” What can we learn about telling the story from this story?

Well, first, we can learn that this is God’s story. That’s the story we’re telling. We’re not telling our story, although we might have a story of how God saved us, God guided us, or God provided for us. That may be our story, but the story we’re telling first — the overarching story that includes our story — is God’s story.

And the part of God’s story that we know begins with God creating the world. From nothing. Ex nihilo is the Latin for that. Out of nothing. God made the world and all that is in it. That’s where we start telling God’s story. Now, right here we could get bogged down in how God created everything. There are about as many theories of how God created as there are scientists and theologians, and that’s a lot. But, do you want to know how God really created everything? Because the Bible tells us. Are you ready? He spoke it into being. And God said, “Let there be light (to use one example) and there was light.”

Beyond that, I’m not particular about the how. The important part of the creation story is that God is the One who did it all out of nothing. That’s never happened before or since.

So, the story we tell is the story of God doing what only God can do. And we have that illustrated right here in the story of the wisemen. The wisemen, we have already said, saw the star that everyone else could see, but they understood what the star meant. That’s God, again. And again we don’t know how the wisemen knew, how God told them about what the star meant, but they knew and they knew it was important. And they told the story they knew about a star and a king. They didn’t apologize for the story. They didn’t say, “You’re not going to believe this, but we saw this star…” No, they just told the story they knew to be true.

The story we tell comes from the Bible

Which brings us to the second thing we need to know about telling God’s story. We find it in the Bible. Even Herod, who by any account was a wicked, despotic ruler, knew that any challenge to his authority had to come from the messiah because Herod had killed everybody else who was a threat. And, of course, Herod knew about the messiah from scripture.

So, he calls his own wisemen in, the chief priests and teachers of the law, and they quote scripture to him.

In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written…”

The prophet Micah, to be specific. Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. And, of course, today we read Isaiah’s prophesy that people will come “bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

The story we are telling is God’s story found in the Bible. I had a seminary professor who asked us on the first day of class “Where did the Bible come from?” Of course, we all sat there in total terror, because we sensed this was a trick question, which seminary professors like to ask from time to time.

To our silence Bill Hendricks replied, “Some of you think the Bible came from God, and some of you think it came from the Baptist Bookstore. The question we’re going to tackle in this course is how the Bible got from God to the Baptist Bookstore.” We were right, it was a trick question, but I thought that was an important point. The Bible we have did come from God, but it came through a lot of human hands, too.

I think we have to be careful or we can fall into the trap of making the Bible a completely supernatural book. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — the Mormons — have this view of the Book of Mormon. They believe that it came down as plates of gold, and that Joseph Smith was shown these plates of gold which he transcribed. When Joseph Smith had finished transcribing the plates of gold, they were taken back into heaven by the angel Moroni. That’s about as supernatural as you can get. So, the Mormon church cannot show you the original plates of gold.

But, neither do we have the original manuscripts of the Bible. And, you might think that would be a problem — how do we know the Bible we bought from the Baptist Bookstore is accurate if we don’t have the original to compare it to?

Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea scrolls? When Debbie and I were in California this fall, the Dead Sea scrolls were on display at one of the the San Diego museums. We didn’t get to see them, but they were there.

The Dead Sea scrolls, because they were from a couple of hundred years before Christ, verified the accuracy of the oldest Biblical manuscripts we had when the scrolls were discovered. Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but that’s the main point. The careful transcription of sacred scripture over hundreds of years was verified by the discovery and study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, the book we call the Bible, and that we buy at the Baptist Bookstore, is reliable and trustworthy.

In the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, we affirmed —

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, that true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. The Baptist Faith and Message 1963, pg 19.

And here’s the point I want to make. The Bible is “…the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man” — in other words, the story of God. It is the result of divine revelation and human participation. That is how we account for the Bible being one story, with many authors, written over more than a thousand years of time.

Paul said, “All scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16 ) Which is a phrase we have used to explain how the Bible was inspired. But, I think Paul also means that God continues to breathe His breath, the breath of life, into scripture so that we can live into the truths of scripture. This story we tell is not a story of an old book written in the past. The story we tell is from a living book, a book energized by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. It’s not just a history story that we tell, but an ongoing saga of God with His people in the past, God with His people in the future, and God with His people in the present.

The story we tell will be accepted by some and rejected by others

But, the third thing we need to know about telling the story of God is this — some will believe it and some will not. Some will even oppose it stridently. In Kenya this past week, during mob violence over the election of the president of Kenya, women and children who had taken refuge in a Christian church were killed when the church was set ablaze by the angry mob. In Palestine this fall, the young manager of the Christian bookstore in Gaza was murdered. In China and Russia and Iraq and Afghanistan, Christians are being persecuted and killed because others do not like our story — the story of God.

Herod was only one among many who did not like the story. But the wisemen were among many who embraced the story. They heard it as the story of God, and they came and worshipped the newborn King.

So, this year we are going to “Tell the story.” We are going to tell the story of God found in the Bible and made real in our own experience, and we are going to tell it to this community and to others around the world. The story we tell is a true story. It is the story of God who created everything, who loves the world He created, and who sent His only Son Jesus to show that love to us. The story we tell is a story we have embraced as our own. It is the telling of that story that makes us the people of God. It is God’s story in our hands, on our lips, and in our hearts.

And if I asked you now to tell me a story from your life, would you tell me the story of the time you found your place in God’s story? For that is the greatest story we can tell.