Sunday, January 28, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Helmsmen's Duty (Titus 1:5-9)

Things would have gone differently, they say, with another commanding officer. The story of the HMS Hermione would have been a different one. And with it, American history. That, at least, is the thesis of Roger Ekirch's excellent book American Sanctuary, which came out last year. Ekirch tells the story of how our 1800 presidential election was shaped by a long-forgotten issue: the controversy over the fallout of what happened to alleged American citizens impressed into naval service aboard an infamous British ship: the HMS Hermione. Things could have gone well on that ship, with a different captain at the helm: one the crew had reason to trust.

Instead, the ship had recently received a new captain: Hugh Pigot, a late admiral's 28-year-old son. Gifted as a tactician, that was about where his leadership qualities ended. Pigot's command experience was but three years deep. He was unfamiliar to much of the crew serving under him. And on his last command, he'd ordered eighty-five vicious floggings in just nine months, and two of his old crew had died from their whippings.

On his new ship, he played favorites between old and new crew members. His mood and behavior were erratic. He was sensitive to the slightest slight, and demanded his officers bow before him. In a perilous storm, Captain Pigot shouted threats to the slowest topman working on the masts – and in their fear and haste, three of them plunged to their deaths. He ordered their corpses shamefully swept off the deck, and the next rainy morning, had fourteen of his men beaten. No wonder the night to come – September 21, 1797 – would be the last night alive for Captain Pigot and several other officers of the HMS Hermione. It was mutiny. And so turned the wheels of history that night.

Last Sunday, as we picked up Paul's letter to Titus, his delegate to the rough-and-tumble new churches of the infamously 'post-truth' mission field in Crete, we described his ministry as being like sailing a ship through choppy seas, like the dangerous waters off the southern Cretan coastline. And we talked about the importance of having a sure anchor to give a ship stability in seasons of storm. For us, for the church, our sure anchor is a “God who never lies” (Titus 1:3), which was a great relief for Titus surrounded by a culture that didn't care about truth and was skeptical of knowledge.

But just like a ship needs a sure anchor, a ship also needs trustworthy officers – the team responsible for steering the ship and giving leadership to the rest of the crew. If the ship's officers act like Captain Pigot, the ship is in real trouble! And, in fact, the HMS Hermione didn't accomplish what it set out to do, because the mission was compromised by an understandable if brutal mutiny. Just the same, a local church needs trustworthy officers. The local church needs a captain and other officers who can steer it with confidence and wisdom, who can give leadership to the rest of the crew, who can ably get the ship where it needs to go and ensure that morale stays high, the crew stays fed, the resources stay managed well, and so on. It will not do to have Pigot the pastor, Pigot the lay delegate, Pigot the trustee, Pigot the steward!

And that's basically what Paul tells Titus in this morning's passage. He reminds Titus that Titus' job is to select officers for each of the ship in the fleet of Cretan churches (cf. Titus 1:5). These officers – variously called 'elders' and 'overseers' – need to meet certain qualifications if they're going to guide their ships. If you compare this to other letters, Paul doesn't raise the bar too high for church leadership in Crete – after all, it's a rougher culture, and all these believers are new believers, not like the folks Timothy is working with in Ephesus. But Paul insists that, if the ship isn't going to crash, and if there aren't to be grounds for mutiny, the ships' officers will need some basic qualifications. And the same is true for the people leading this church – your pastor, but also your lay delegate, your trustees, and your stewards, and all the officers of the board. So what does Paul insist we officers of the churchly ship need to be?

First, the officers of the ship need to be “above reproach” (Titus 1:6-7) – have no charge that can fairly be laid against them, nothing to compromise their broader reputation. Paul fleshes that out: he envisions the officer as “a one-woman man” with believing children (Titus 1:6). That isn't a command for the elder to be married with children; in Crete, that would have just been the most common thing, and Paul himself had neither wife nor kids. But Paul is envisioning his church leaders as faithful in marriage and wise leaders for any families they have – raising their children to love the Lord, rather than tolerating all sorts of nonsense.

Paul then focuses in on what we have to not be. The officers of the ship cannot afford to be arrogant, pointing to themselves and insisting that others in the church bow before them. The officers of the ship cannot be quick-tempered, ready to fly off the handle and behave erratically. In short, Paul is saying, Pigot is disqualified right here! The officers of the ship are not allowed to be self-willed, not allowed to be prone to outbursts of anger, not allowed to be violent types of people. Nor can they afford to be addicts – the word Paul uses here suggests addiction to wine. (Crete has some very good wine!) Local church leaders, at the very minimum, have to be free from such addictions and habits.

Unlike the many false teachers, who were mainly concerned with their profit margins, church leaders cannot afford to be greedy, always looking for their fee or a way to turn their position to their financial advantage. Paul believes strongly in the rights of full-time Christian workers to “get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), and even says that those who preach and teach are “worthy of double honor,” probably suggesting a high standard of remuneration compared to others (1 Timothy 5:17) – but they are not to be focused on gain beyond that level, and certainly not on collecting fees for every little thing (Titus 1:7).

Instead, officers in the church need to be hospitable – literally, they need to 'love strangers,' love foreigners, love 'intruders,' love 'inconveniences,' love 'interruptions.' In Titus' world, the leaders in the churches needed to be ready to offer food and accommodations to traveling missionaries who'd come to visit. They would also need to open their homes to other believers in general, for meetings there. In today's context, you might say that each church leader should be ready to host a Bible study, a prayer group, a house-church gathering, a festivity where believers can mingle with nonbelievers. In a setting like Crete, where would most people hear the gospel for the first time? Probably around the table in the home of a Christian host. And in today's world, with people mistrustful of the so-called 'institutional church' and everybody professing to treasure their sleep so much more on a Sunday morning than on every other day of the week, we might be in the same place. Dinner invitations, small gatherings with Christian and non-Christian friends together, just sharing life – that might be the place where the gospel can spread and flourish best. And officers in the church need to set the stage for exactly that. Hospitality.

Paul adds a few other virtues, too – “self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:8). Aboard a ship sailing at sea, these are the kinds of people you want at the helm. You don't want the guy at the wheel to panic easily or break under pressure. You don't want the officers to be drinking and partying when they need to be focused on a safe and well-directed voyage. You don't want them to be corrupt, to be playing favorites, to be targets for a bribe, to default on the crew's trust. You want them, ideally, to be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. And the same is true for your church board – you want your leaders to be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

Finally, officers in the church need to be committed to “the trustworthy word as taught” – in other words, they need to be loyal to the gospel message and the elements of Christian teaching. They can't be cult leaders who make it up as they go along. They can't be inventing new heresies or reviving old ones. They can't be indulging in their pet theological agendas. They need to be whole-gospel people, they need to be committed, and they need to understand it well enough to tell the difference between the gospel and its many counterfeits.

For what purpose? To “give instruction in healthy teaching” – God willing, that's what I do up here on a Sunday: give you instruction in the healthy teaching of the prophets and apostles, to fill your lives with more health, more life! But it can't stop on a Sunday, and it's not just my job; other officers of the church have a share, too. And, Paul says, a church leader needs not only to be able to instruct the willing but also “to rebuke those who contradict it” – in other words, to offer clear-headed answers to those who start filling the air, or just their own heads, with crazy ideas that ultimately won't lead to health (Titus 1:9).

Above reproach” – faithful and wise in family life – not arrogant – not quick-tempered – not addicted – not violent – not greedy. Instead, loving what's good – keeping self-control – being upright, holy, and disciplined. Welcoming the church into their homes, and providing places where believers can be the light of Christ to non-Christian friends. And being loyal to the Christian message, understanding the Bible well enough to offer healthy teaching to others and to correct those who are making a mess of it. That is what Paul asks Titus to use as a standard for church leaders, officers aboard the ships in his fleet. And we have a right to expect the same.

This morning, as we hold our congregational meeting, you'll hear from several of the officers in this crew. You will have the opportunity to, as a congregation, appoint some officers. Yes, there are specific job descriptions we have in our bylaws for exactly what a trustee is to do, what a steward is to do, what a class leader is to do, and all the rest. But beneath the job description is this character description; beneath it, there's what Paul is telling Titus about who a trustee, a steward, a class leader, a lay delegate, a pastor, is supposed to be. As we commit to another year of sailing this ship, keep these things in mind. There need be no mutinies, because every member has a hand here in choosing and confirming leaders who fit this vision, and every member and friend has a hand in encouraging us in it. May this ship be steered well, and may her crew benefit from good and health-giving leadership, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: The Sure Anchor (Titus 1:1-4)

The sea was the darkest blue he'd ever seen. It was like sailing in a pool of rich wine. But it was not still. The ship heaved and lurched, battered by a fierce wind. The rocky coast seemed to promise refuge but also threaten destruction. Because of the wind, the voyage was slow going. The captain should have listened to Paul. It was too dangerous to keep going; they should have hunkered down longer at Fair Havens. But winter was coming, and the captain hoped to reach further west along Crete's southern coast, to the harbor of Phoinikas. But the wind kept coming. The sea stayed choppy. A violent storm seized the ship, and soon the ship was in greater danger than everyone's worst fears. For fourteen days they weathered the storm, until finally running ashore at Malta. They were safe – for now.

We learn that story in the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts – continuing the tale of Paul's transfer as a prisoner from Jerusalem to Rome. The Book of Acts closes with Paul's two-year house arrest in Rome – and then it stops. We hear no more, because the book is not a biography of Paul; it's all about how the gospel spread from its Jewish homeland to the halls of imperial power in the pagan world. But church tradition suggests that Paul was acquitted and set free that time. Remembering the places he'd passed along the way, Paul must have returned to Crete with his coworkers, proclaimed the good news of Jesus there, and then left Titus as his apostolic delegate among the scattered new churches to continue the mission and organize them. Titus was a good fixer, a good problem-solver; he was the one Paul once sent to Corinth to take up a love offering in a den of hostility. But the problems were dire indeed, and even an experienced young man like Titus needed encouragement. And so Paul, perhaps while staying in Philippi, commissioned Luke to aid him in writing Titus a message – the letter we have here before us today.

I'm sure that, as they wrote to Titus and meditated on the challenges of ministry in Crete, Paul and Luke both remembered those harrowing days spent together on the sea – churned by winds, clouded by storms, clobbered by waves. And perhaps, as they recalled the sorts of problems Titus had been left behind to handle, the parallels were clear: that ministry in Crete was a lot like slow sailing through rough and perilous waters, and a captain needed some real wisdom to navigate a church through it. We know Titus did eventually have success; even today, you can visit ancient and modern churches in Crete named after him. I've been there; I've visited them myself.

But that wasn't obvious – not at first. It maybe wasn't obvious to Titus that the churches there wouldn't crash or sink in his own lifetime or the generation to follow. And so Paul wrote him a refreshing letter, to help him chart his way through the wind and storm and waves. Now, if Paul remembered one thing from his voyages on the high seas, it was perhaps the importance of the anchor. When they took refuge in Fair Havens, it was the anchor that kept them safe and secure there. And when they pulled up anchor to continue onward, that's where they got in trouble. A sailing vessel without an anchor is a lost cause. And the same is true, I think Paul would say, of the church: without a sure anchor, we'll be forever at the mercy of every shifting wind and every passing wave.

Which is why, in the very first opening sentence of his letter to Titus in Crete, Paul points him back to the sure anchor for the church's voyage. Paul makes reference there to “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2), and the fact that we have promises from this unfalse God, this God who cares passionately about the difference between the truth and our fabrications and can be relied on to tell the truth every time. “God, who never lies.” That was a big deal in Crete. See, Cretans had a bad reputation when it came to the truth. Paul says as much to Titus later on: he quotes a Cretan poet and prophet, Epimenides, whose one poem censured his people for their deceptive ways: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). And Paul admits, “This testimony is true” (Titus 1:13).

The people of Crete earned that reputation. It was one thing for them to claim to be the original Greeks, nestled in their island off the coast of mainland Greece. They had a point there: the Minoan civilization was among the oldest in Europe. But the Cretans infamously claimed that they were the creators of Greek religion. They held that the gods worshipped all over Greece – Zeus and the rest – were really heroes who were born in Crete, and even died there. When Epimenides called out the Cretans as liars, he was referring to their claim to have found the actual tomb where the Greek god Zeus was dead and buried. The Cretans proclaimed that the god was dead. That didn't go over well.

What's more, Crete had a history of wars between all its leading cities, up until fairly recent memory as of the time Paul was writing. And the memory of those wars lingered on. In that sort of world, citizens from one city might feel justified in lying and cheating the people of the next city over – telling them whatever stories would prove most advantageous, not most honest. Preserving civic pride, and putting one over on the other guy, was simply valued more highly than truth.

And then, a century before Paul left Titus on Crete, a philosopher born there named Aenesidemus made a name for himself. He made a name for himself by arguing that, because each person looks at the world with different eyes and hears it with different ears, and because each mind must put the information of the senses together differently, well, then we can never actually know the truth about anything. We can't know that the sky is blue, he'd say, because how it looks to you may be different from how it looks to me. We can just never know, he'd tell us. Buy into that philosophy, and the ideal of truthfulness gets tossed by the wayside pretty easily.

So between those three things, first-century Crete had earned its reputation for greed and deceit, and for putting a low value on truth. They said God was dead, they scoffed at the possibility of real knowledge, and centuries of war left them more than willing to lie to each other. It sounds like a terrible society to live in, and certainly a hard one to evangelize.

I wonder, though: Is it really so different from twenty-first-century America? We live in a culture that holds truth in about the same regard as first-century Crete. People are reluctant to talk about truth. People will talk freely about 'my truth,' 'your truth,' 'their truth.' Everyone in our culture is talking past each other. In 2016, do you know what the Oxford Dictionary chose as its word of the year? “Post-truth” – as in, an age in which people no longer consider the truth valuable, relevant, or even possible or desirable. Crete was a 'post-truth' mission field, but so is ours. There's just as much skepticism here as there was there and professing Christians aren't exempt!

If Crete in Epimenides' time proclaimed that God was dead and buried, well, look around you. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that, to modern eyes and ears, God was indeed dead and buried, and all our carefully constructed systems of values were buried with him, gone for good. In today's society, we may not be fighting literal wars against each other, but the strife and tension between political and religious groups is no less real, no less damaging to our ability to agree even on basic facts. We seem to all see things hopelessly differently, just like Aenesidemus said. The sad truth is, what Epimenides said about his people, we may have to say about our own: twenty-first-century Westerners “are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Can we seriously look around us, even look in a mirror, and disagree?

Ours is a lot like the world where Titus was ministering. No wonder it felt like the choppy seas! No wonder a pastor and preacher in first-century Crete could feel seasick even once ashore! But Paul offers an antidote, an anchor: a “God who never lies.” God's every word holds up under the tightest fair scrutiny: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Proverbs 30:5). In our world, we don't know whom we can trust. Every institution seems corrupt: political, religious, social, charitable, financial, entertainment, academic, athletic, you name it, all throwing up our pervasive red flags for institutional corruption. But God is no institution. His word is no willful grasp for power, no perverse ploy to take advantage of our gullibility. His every word proves true; he never lies. God is not dead, nor does he sleep. God is alive and well.

Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4)! He is alive and well, and even if the whole consensus of the human race agreed otherwise, it wouldn't change the truth. And the God of Truth, the “God who never lies,” can see the full truth beyond all our partial perspectives. His is the outside vantage point from which we can see ourselves and our situation as we really are. His is the light that pierces our shrouded half-vision; his is the voice that resounds above and beneath the cacophony. He offers reconciliation to the hopelessly divided. The deeper we get into him, the more we're cured of our skepticism and our doubt, our fractured vision and our mistrust, our greed and our deceit. God is not content for his to be a people who pass along stories without investigating them. God is not content for his to be a people devoted to mindless gossip. God is not content for his to be a people who buy into every idea that makes them feel good, no matter how clothed it is in thin Christian trappings. God wants a people relentlessly devoted to the truth, because he himself is a God who never lies, and he wants us to be like him.

Moreover, Paul calls him “God our Savior” (Titus 1:3). The God of Truth sets us free. He sets us free from the lies, free from the division, free from the skepticism, free from the uncertainty, free from the fog and the tumult and the chaos. God is our Savior from all these things, because the God who never lies is our sure anchor. Paul explains that God made a promise “before times eternal” (Titus 1:2). He did not utter an eternal lie. He had no need or desire to deceive us from eternity past. How could he? The promise was made before the world even existed, before there was any division, before we were even around, much less had things all figured out. God didn't wait to make his promise until we'd met certain criteria – until we'd proved ourselves good enough, until we'd jumped through the hoops, until we'd dotted our i's and crossed our t's, until we'd earned a gold star or gotten enough points. God made his promise before times eternal, before the ages began, before heaven and earth, because his promise for us is no Plan B, his promise for us is not by merit but by faith.

But this eternal promise was made manifest in Paul's preaching, he says – only, Paul outright calls his preaching 'his word,' as in, the word of God (Titus 1:3). It was the word of God translated into the words of a human tongue and human pen. And so when Paul proclaims the gospel, his words are the word of a God who never lies. You can be sure that there's no deceit in the equation. The gospel is the truth. 

But what did God promise before times eternal? What promise was manifested in Paul's preaching? Just this: “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2). Not 'eternal lie,' but 'eternal life' – life unending, life unquenchable, life that no one and nothing in this world can damage or destroy. And the hope of which Paul speaks isn't wishful thinking. It's a solid certainty set before us, a refuge from the storm once we dock at our destination. It's where we're headed, if we stay aboard the Lord's ship and hold fast to the course. Because we have a hope. And we're elsewhere told that “by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope...” (Hebrews 6:18-19), namely, Jesus Christ, the living Truth in whom we come face-to-face with the saving God who never lies.

It was to encourage us in this hope that Paul was sent. He tells us as much himself: he opens the letter: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with piety” (Titus 1:1). Paul was sent – that's what 'apostle' means, somebody who is sent – to cultivate the faith of God's chosen people, the people gathered and formed by his eternal promise: namely, the church. If we belong to those whom God has chosen, Paul was sent to build up our faith, our trust in God, our reliance on the sure and steadfast anchor of our soul.

What's more, he was sent to cultivate our awareness, our knowledge, of God's truth, which is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Too often, we try to divorce the two: we try to say we should grow in faith, but we don't care about growing in knowledge of the truth. Or, especially outside the church, we want to grow in factoid-gathering, but not in faith. But they go together. And Paul here affirms that we can have knowledge of the truth. Despite all that Aenesidemus said and taught, and despite all the complaints and objections of his latter-day disciples, we can know the truth through having a trusting relationship with a God who never lies. That was true in first-century Crete, and it's true in twenty-first-century America.

What happens when you bring faith, plus knowledge of the truth, together? It leads to what Luke, writing for Paul, calls 'piety.' One Roman author defined 'piety' as “to have the right opinion about the gods, as existing and administering the universe well and justly, and to have set yourself to obey them and to submit in everything that happens, and to follow it voluntarily, in the belief that it is being fulfilled by the highest intelligence.” In other words, it combines an inward attitude of reverent trust with the conduct and rituals that would honor the gods. In other words, it's worshipful living fueled by authentic faith – that's what piety is. It's a lifestyle that gives everyone his or her due, but especially to the God who never lies. It's a lifestyle of trust and worship, viewing God the right way and acting accordingly. That's where faith, plus knowledge of the truth, leads. And it's where Paul is steering us toward.

In just these few verses, Paul has sketched an overview of our voyage. Paul does not deny that the church will have to sail through some choppy seas. He knows well the seas are choppy. He knows well it's rough going. He knows it's demanding, it's hard, it's dangerous. But he urges us that we dare not give up growth in piety. We dare not waver in our practical faith, which is founded in and enriched by knowledge of the truth. We dare not give these up, because we have a sure anchor. We have the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ, and the surety of our anchor is secured by a Savior God who never lies.

Over the next weeks, we'll be investigating more what we can learn from Paul's letter to Titus about sailing the church through choppy seas. But we have to begin here, with the safety of the anchor. The sure anchor means we aren't a lost cause. The sure anchor means we have hope. The sure anchor means it's worth undertaking the trip. It's worth setting sail, and not giving up and turning 'round. Whatever you hear out there in the world... whatever prized cultural beliefs or instincts you cherish or challenge... whatever you hear from the 'mainstream media' or the 'alternative media' or social media... whatever gossip you hear on the corner or at home... whatever doubts nag at you, whatever temptations gnaw at you, whatever concerns stress and dismay you... trust the God who never lies. In him, we have a sure and steadfast anchor indeed. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: King vs. King

It's the part of the Christmas story no one ever talks about. Everybody loves the angels. Everybody loves the shepherds. Everybody loves the happy family 'round the manger. People even like the wise men. But nobody likes the king and his soldiers. I've never seen a Christmas card with butchery on the front of it. But our unease and discomfort doesn't stop Herod from barking his orders. It doesn't stop the weary soldiers from marching the four miles from his Herodium to David's sleepy hometown. It doesn't stop them from barging through the gates and smashing down the doors. It doesn't stop them from roughing up the locals as they hunt, house to house, for any toddler and infant boys, and putting them to the sword. Bethlehem wasn't a large town – there can't have been more than twenty. But from Bethlehem, the soldiers spread to all the neighboring villages, repeating the same. I wonder if, in the year after they saw the angels, any of the shepherds and their wives welcomed a son into their home. I wonder if any of them were bereaved in the belated aftermath of the heavenly song. But peace on earth was never popular with tyrants like Herod.

No, the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly anyone's favorite scene in the Christmas story. But there it is. And Herod is hardly anyone's favorite character, nor should he be. But there he is. Over the past six weeks, we've met seemingly all the cast of Christmas – we've given our listening ear to the stories of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the prophets, the wise men. But now we meet the one we're not sure we want to meet. How many of us really know much about Herod, after all? Why did Herod do what he did? What's his story?

Once upon a time, things were not looking good for the Jewish people. They were under the thumb of a Syrian king, who tried to ban Judaism and force the Jews to worship false gods. He even desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig to the Greek god Zeus in it. A band of brothers, sons of the priest Mattathias, led a rebellion, gained independence, and purified the temple – that's what Hanukkah celebrates. One of those brothers, Simon, was appointed not only high priest but also the Jewish leader. In 135 BC, Simon was assassinated, and his son John Hyrcanus stepped up. In the coming decades, John raised an army to conquer several small territories nearby – including Idumea. Idumea was home to the Edomites, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau from long ago. John forced them to convert and become Jews.

During the reign of John's son Alexander Jonathan, an Idumean named Antipater rose to become the governor of his home province. Antipater was a clever man – he exploited tension between Alexander's sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. In 63 BC, when a Roman general named Pompey took over the area, he confirmed Hyrcanus as high priest – but not as king. Instead, he appointed the ingratiating Antipater as a local civil authority for Judea. Sixteen years later, when Pompey went to war against his former friend Julius Caesar, Antipater switched sides, came to Caesar's rescue with three thousand men, and was rewarded handsomely. Antipater was able to appoint two of his own sons as governors – a son named Phasael became governor of Jerusalem, and for a governor of Galilee, Antipater picked his other son: Herod.

Herod was about twenty-six years old at the time, and he was a young man with a hard disposition and a quick temper. A band of robbers was harassing the area, so Herod had them apprehended and put to death without so much as a trial. The Sanhedrin, the council that enforced Jewish law, summoned Herod to be put on trial himself. He showed up armed with soldiers, hinting that any verdict against him would lead to a massacre. He then left the city, and only his father and brother could stem his temper from waging war on the high priest Hyrcanus.

Herod was about my age when his father Antipater died. Julius Caesar had been assassinated just a year before, and Mark Antony was seeing the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and running the show. When Hyrcanus was ousted by his own nephew Antigonus, Herod traveled to Rome, and thanks to some well-placed bribes to Mark Antony and the Senate, bought the title of “King of the Jews.” Herod came home and waged war for three years against Antigonus. During those three years, he banished his own wife Doris, and his son Antipater, so that he could marry Hyrcanus' granddaughter, a gorgeous princess named Mariamne. Around 37 BC, Herod and some Roman help recaptured Jerusalem. Soon the holy city understood why Herod was feared – he kept executing former rebels and demanding more and more treasure to line his pockets.

His new bride had a teenage brother named Aristobulus, a handsome young man who became high priest; but less than a year after his appointment, Herod was so afraid that Mark Antony would like him better and make him king, that Herod arranged for Aristobulus to 'accidentally' drown in a shallow swimming pool. Mariamne soon learned that her beauty made Herod insane with jealousy – whenever he went away, he left orders that she be killed if he died, so that no one could have her after him.

Four years after Aristobulus' death, Roman power struggles left Antony and Cleopatra dead and Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian on the throne as the Emperor Augustus. After gaining his favor, Herod was free to continue ruling in his usual way. The next year, he accused his wife's grandfather Hyrcanus of treason for allegedly bribing the Arabian governor – and had Hyrcanus executed. The year after that, in a fit of jealous rage, Herod ordered his own wife's execution. After her death, he became inflamed with a distemper, with sharp headaches driving him mad. His wife's mother Alexandra, Hyrcanus' daughter, declared Herod mentally unfit to rule and tried proclaiming herself queen; it didn't exactly help her life expectancy.

The next year, Herod had his sister's husband Kostobar executed as well, along with some others. It was around this time that he started spending big bucks on building projects, including Roman-style theaters in Jerusalem and sponsoring athletic games that included nude wrestling. Some local Jews were not happy, and tried to spark a revolt. But Herod's spy uncovered them, and they were tortured to death. When his spy was killed, Herod tracked down the killers and executed them – and their whole families.

In a bid to regain popularity, Herod curried favor with the people by feeding them during the famine of 25 BC. Around that time, he appointed Simon Boethus as high priest so he could marry the man's daughter – also named Mariamne. Herod rebuilt Samaria, founded the port city of Caesarea, and went on a marrying spree that included a Samaritan woman, a number of others, and even a couple of his nieces – he ended up with nine wives in all.

Herod ruled with a heavy hand, commissioning a secret police to put the whole land under surveillance and harshly punish any critics of his rule. Herod demanded that all people take an oath of loyalty to his government. But to establish his Jewish credentials, around the year 20 BC he commissioned his most daring building project: to expand the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem and make the temple more impressive than ever. And during his travels out of the country, he positioned himself as a defender of the freedoms of Jewish communities everywhere.

All this was expensive, and reportedly he tried to replenish his resources by actually robbing the tombs of David and Solomon. Around that time, family intrigue started spinning out of control in his home, with relatives all jockeying for power. By this time well into his sixties, Herod was becoming increasingly self-conscious about his age, reportedly dying his hair to look younger, and he descended ever deeper into paranoia. In 7 BC, after years of suspicions about their scheming, he had two of his own sons put to death. The next year, he began persecuting a Jewish movement that refused to pledge their loyalties to Rome and had the gall to prophesy the coming end of his reign. That movement was a sect known as the Pharisees.

Herod grew older and sicker. He divorced the high priest's daughter and removed him from office. In 5 BC, again paranoid about being overthrown, he had his eldest son Antipater put on trial and thrown in prison, and changed his will. The next year, a pair of leading Pharisees urged a crowd to tear down a pair of golden eagles that Herod had placed in front of the temple. Herod had the perpetrators all burned alive. But Herod's sickness grew stronger – he had a burning fever, constantly hungry and in pain throughout his body, developed gangrene, sprung a leak. On his deathbed, he knew he was an unpopular king, and so he gave the orders for all the prominent Jewish leaders to be brought to Jericho and shut up in the hippodrome there. Herod gave orders that, as soon as he died, soldiers were to massacre everyone the Jews loved, so that the day he died would be a day of sadness and not celebration for the people. His final act was to have his imprisoned son Antipater put to death. Herod himself died five days later, thankfully without the carnage he'd intended.

Herod's career was full of political maneuvering and lofty building projects, including work not just on God's temple but the erection of temples to pagan gods like Apollo. He postured as a defender of Jewish rights abroad but had no qualms about repression at home that would have done the Soviets proud. His appetites for gold and for women ran away with him, and his impulsive temper and ever-expanding paranoia led to unspeakable bursts of violence during the years of his rule – though Herod probably would have just prided himself for being tough on crime and acting in political self-defense.

During those last fever-ridden years of his life, perhaps a year or two after he had two of his own sons put to death and maybe at or shortly before the time he was putting his heir Antipater on trial, a diplomatic mission from the Parthian Empire arrived, with astrologers saying they'd seen portents indicating that a real King of the Jews was on the scene now – someone who would rule by birthright, and not simply by bribing his way into it as Herod did. With Herod constantly paranoid about being replaced even by his own children, it's no wonder we read that “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). All Jerusalem was getting used to the consequences of Herod feeling troubled!

Knowing the story of Herod's life, it's hardly out of character for him to try manipulating the wise men into finding this troublesome new rival for him. Herod never intended to “come and worship him” like he said (Matthew 2:8). If there's one talent Herod perfected since the days he was governor of Galilee, it was lying to conceal his real intentions. And when the wise men foil his plot, it's hardly out of character for Herod to be “furious” and to order the slaughter of any possible candidates (Matthew 2:16). This was the sort of thing Herod did all the time, really – from a worldly point of view, this one little act of cruelty was small potatoes.

Nothing Matthew tells us about Herod is out of character. Anyone who remembered the Herod years would nod sadly along with everything Matthew reports. Of course Herod would try trickery. Of course Herod would be upset when it failed. Of course Herod, ever crafty but ever impulsive, would be thrown into a paranoid tizzy by the thought of anyone else becoming king in his place. So the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly unexpected. It's just the sort of thing tyrants past their prime do: lash out petulantly in their perpetual insecurity. Of course the so-called “King of the Jews” would become like the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and of course a new Joseph would have to flee to Egypt to protect his son from the new Pharaoh in Judea. The exodus story gets turned on its head. To have a man like Herod wearing a crown and commanding armies is a dangerous thing.

And yet the world is full of Herods whom we gladly crown. There are so many things we tend to exalt as kings in our lives. You see it in the political arena, of course. We've had our share of presidents, legislators, and judges who seem to live by Herod's code. But in our lives, there are things we crown – ideas, ideals, goals, forces, people, desires. And it plays out just as well as the Herodian administration of the first century BC. What happens when we crown a Herod in our lives? Herod spirals out of control – constantly demanding more from us, more from other people, constantly demanding that everything and everyone be subjected to and controlled by it, always consuming and abusing, until finally the things that are most tender and precious to God become broken and harmed.

In America today, we treasure our independence, our individual right to be a law unto ourselves, to abolish the restrictions telling us what we can and can't do. We cherish our freedom to be masters of our own fate and our own bodies. And what do we see? That freedom spirals out of control until it reaches the clinic, where the Massacre of the Innocent Children happens all over again. That's Herod right there. But we're the ones who crowned him in the first place; what did we expect? Or, again, we treasure our passions, our feelings of love and desire; we have to follow our hearts, we say, and do whatever they pine for. We've crowned the little Herod in each of us. So it's no surprise when a string of broken homes stands in his wake, and when we learn not to trust each other anymore. That's Herod right there. We crowned him; what did we expect? Or try this: we treasure our sense of honor and standing – maybe in the town, maybe in the home, maybe in the church – and so we let our thirst for respect and status run rampant over those around us. We become protective of our sense of who we are, and step by step we become willing to put others down, even tear the church down, for the sake of it. You've no doubt seen things like that happen. That's Herod right there. What did we expect when we crowned him?

Examples could be multiplied 'til Monday morning. But so often, in our lives, we crown Herod as king – any created reality we choose to feed and heed, anything we allow to rule us – including ourselves – that runs the risk of consuming and abusing what really matters. It can be a hobby. It can be a relationship. It can be a value or an ideal. It can be a family member. It can be a behavioral dynamic. It can be a desire, a passion, an agenda, an idea. It can be some aspect of yourself. It can be something that, without a crown, might lead a fine life. But put a crown on its head, and you can expect nothing less than a repeat of the story of Herod – and sooner or later, something innocent will be sacrificed in its name.

But Herod isn't the only king in this story. That's actually rather the point. Herod was the so-called “king of the Jews” – a title bought from foreign oppressors for cold hard cash – but there's someone else in the cast of the Christmas story who is born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). And he isn't just in the cast; he's the star of the show. Herod has one way of being king, but this child born in Bethlehem has another. Herod is old, sickly, and insecure. But this king is both ancient and newborn – ancient in his divinity, infant in his humanity. He has no insecurity in him. Herod's rule is full of political schemes, constantly lying and distorting reality to manipulate others. But this other king, this Jesus, never manipulates and never lies; he just is the Truth (John 14:6).

Herod built so much during his reign. I'm sure many people were glad for it. In fact, a lot of the things people go over to the Holy Land to see as tourists, are the things Herod built. Herod built a lot. In fact, he built too much. He tried to build both God's temple and demon temples. He tried to honor God's law while promoting blasphemy. He tried to play both sides. But this king born in Bethlehem builds only one thing: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). And the church he built is so much more beautiful than the temples and theaters and fortresses of Herod, and we don't have to travel far away to see it in action.

Herod married many women. He was an abusive and controlling husband. He exploited his wives as pawns; he craved their beauty as an object; he wanted to keep them under lock and key; he wielded death and danger as a weapon even in his own home. He was the opposite of all a man should be. Herod collected wives like trophies, and his jealousies raged between passionate desire and bitter hatred. But this king born in Bethlehem cherishes a single Bride: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her … without spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). He has eyes for no other. He leads by gentle love, not an iron fist.

Herod was paranoid, and he craved power, he clutched after power, and he resorted freely to brutal violence to keep it; one early Jewish historian called him “a stranger to humanity” because of his animalistic cruelty. As a result, many lives were lost, freely sacrificed to Herod's ambitions, his appetites, or simply the unrestrained impulses of his hot temper. Herod lived by the sword; he ruled with repression and violence. But this king born in Bethlehem never did any violence. He lived gently, he pursued justice with the word of God and not with swords, and in the end he offered himself up to be sacrificed by the violent for the sake of others, to bring an end to violence. The prophets saw long ago that “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). No one could credibly say that about King Herod. But no one could credibly deny it about King Jesus.

We see, over and over again, what happens when we give the crown to Herod. And yet we keep doing it. We resist the real rule of a real alternative. We keep crowning a succession of Herods, and the results are hardly unexpected. But perhaps it's time to cast all these crowns at the feet of another king – this one called Jesus. What would your life look like if you withheld crowns from all your Herods and gave them to Jesus instead? Which king will you crown? Which king will you imitate? “Choose you this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: Sages

They gazed, I have to imagine, with intense curiosity toward the night sky, captivated by what they saw. This was no ordinary night. The constellations, the planets, the heavenly bodies were all in line to speak mysteries to them. Beneath the velvet heavens, a fire worshipfully crackled and spat before their feet. Normally, the Magi would be torn between the two: the truth defended and revealed by fire, or the potent influence of the skies. But tonight there was no contest. The Magi served in the Parthian court, a class of advisors, diplomats, even priests. They were, oftentimes, astrologers; they were, at times, arcane occultists. Some in the west called them magicians, conjurers. But this band of Magi saw themselves as scholars – researchers of the heavens and the earth, deep thinkers, meditating on the lore of the past and the shadowy shimmerings of the future, using all their ritual and intellectual skill, their wisdom and their studies, to quest after the secrets beneath water and flame, the script of spirits in the skies. They longed to serve truth rather than deception. And they were loyal to the rulers of Persia, and served in the king's court, as their distant grandfathers had served King Darius long ago, in the days of a troublesome rival 'wise man' called Daniel.

But their minds that night were not fixed on trivia of history, but on the sign in the sky. To astrologers like the Magi, it was a message as clear as a book. A king was born in the west, a great king, a king worthy of respect and honor, a fitting recipient of a diplomatic mission to whatever palace housed the young one. But the sign in the sky said nothing about Rome; it indicated the land of the Jews, the kinsmen of that Daniel. The Magi recalled that the fathers and their fathers' fathers had seen signs in the fire, telling them of the birth of a perilous king, a conqueror out of Greece named Alexander – and they had been right. That was a bold sign.

But looking at the sky that night... this band of Magi couldn't help but wonder... Newly born, and already with the proof of kingship? Could this king be the final king, the one spoken of in the texts they'd studied? Could this be the One Who Brings Benefit? The one promised to come and raise the dead, promised to come defeat the armies of evil, promised to come burn wickedness from the earth in a trial by fire, promised to make the world wonderful at last? Could this king be the Savior written of in the books?

After thorough deliberations, after investigating all other possible meanings, the Magi confirmed their hope. In the morning, when the court assembled, they surely brought their petition before Farhad, shah of shahs, a cruel man and yet a weak king, debased before Rome on account of his scheming Italian wife. Nonetheless, he gave them their desired commission: a diplomatic mission, with riches from the court treasury, toward the province of the Jews in the land of the Romans, to seek out this king. Perhaps this newborn king would answer their questions. Perhaps this newborn king would teach them some valuable wisdom. Perhaps this newborn king would bring them benefit after all, and show them how to be “redeemed from their mortality.” And so, thanking the Wise Lord, they assembled a caravan and embarked toward where this 'star' steered them. Surely by this, they thought, the Wise Lord would make them wise.

And aren't we all looking for the same thing? To be made wise, and know our way around this world? To have our questions answered? To see evil defeated and justice vindicated? To be relieved from death and redeemed from mortality? To see the world made pure and beautiful, and to enjoy that benefit and salvation ourselves? The Magi were many things, and it isn't surprising our Bible translations these days often refer to them as 'wise men' – after all, they were scholars from the east, devoted to truth and the service of a God whom they knew as the 'Wise Lord.' Throughout the centuries before and after their day, there have been many 'wise men' looking for real understanding, trying to unravel the universe or stand in awe of its bare-faced mysteries – the likes of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zoroaster, Buddha, Nagarjuna, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Camus, and vastly more. Many of them left behind records of their thoughts and reflections as they tried to love wisdom – and there are some valuable books there.

We may not write the books of wise men, but we ask the same questions that have animated those philosophers: What's the world like, deep down at the bottom? How does it work? What am I, and what am I for? How do we know those things? How much do we know, and how much can we know? What is truth, anyway? Are these things, these ideas, going anywhere? In light of all that, how should we be living? Some of us have more personal questions, questions about how to balance our desires, how to find health amid the chaos, how to face the confusion and the noise. In the end, we want to know: How do we find, and how do we get to, what it's all about? How do we answer the questions, and how do we reach what we're looking for? And I'd like to suggest this morning that following in the footsteps of this band of Magi might be helpful to us after all.

First, the Magi followed the star. When they reached Jerusalem, they said, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). For the Magi, this 'star' was a sign in the sky. It was God acting in nature to speak their language. Theirs was a flawed idiom; astrology was, and is, a load of bunk, a big bushel of road apples. The Magi were pagans – but God stooped to speak in a way these pagans could understand, with a sign. They merely took note of what they could already discern with what they already knew and understood. For us, the evident signs God leaves us might include cosmic wonder, purposive order, moral obligation, and human dignity.1 They might include the canvas painted at a sunset or the intricacy of a flower on a spring morning; might include the clear hand of Providence in history; might include the unshakeable call toward something greater, something truer, something more just and right; might include the many forms and specks of truth in what we already accept and admit even before we've met the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. But the Magi learned that what Daniel taught was true, that there is a God in heaven who “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who understand” (Daniel 2:21). God placed his sign in the sky for the Magi, so that those who studied could understand its meaning; God has placed his many signs throughout the world, pointing us the same place, for every star “proclaims the work of his hands,” every star “pours forth speech” and “reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Second, the Magi learned that the star didn't tell them the whole story. It sent them, first, to Jerusalem; but once there, they had assumed they would find this newborn king, the one who, unlike the Roman appointee Herod, had been born king of the Jews,” in a palace there. They had no inkling of elsewhere, 'til Herod asked the priests and scribes to fill in the blanks from the special revelation of God through his prophets, pointing toward the Judean town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6). The star was a valuable sign to pagans on a quest for wisdom, but it couldn't get them the full way. God's signs in nature, God's impressions on our reasoning powers, all our many ideas and speculations, our experiments of trial and error, our thoughts and reflections – they may well get us part way, but there's further to go. We need God to explain in scripture what we're missing. The stars may proclaim God's handiwork and reveal knowledge, but “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making the simple wise” (Psalm 19:7). And that's the next step.

Third, the Magi – unlike Herod's priests and scribes – actually took action. The scribes knew where to find the Messiah, but they didn't go to him. But the Magi put on their boots and their hats and headed out the door. The search for wisdom didn't begin and end in their armchairs back in Persia, or their laboratories, their studies, their fire temples or homes. They weren't content to just know about where to go; they had to actually go there. So they followed the star to Judea, and they set out to follow the prophecy to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9a). If we want to find the answers to our questions, the solutions to our problems, we have to do the same: we have to be actively responsive to God's signs and God's scriptures. And note that, after setting out for Bethlehem, the star didn't abandon them; now, equipped with special revelation, the star takes on a new meaning and leads them six miles south, to the very house where Mary and Joseph are living (Matthew 2:9b), letting them share the same “great joy” once announced by living stars to a band of perplexed shepherds some time earlier.

Fourth, by taking action on both the sign and the scripture, the Magi are blessed to encounter and recognize the Wisdom of God. They had gone in search of a newborn king. But they found, no mere king, but Christ. And we read that “Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), because Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). When God's Wisdom personally cries out in the Book of Proverbs, talking about predating the depths and the mountains and the hills, the one speaking is Christ, the Wisdom of God. And the Magi meet him. They recognize who he is: that the God who gives wisdom to the wise had become, not just a God in heaven, but a God on earth, a God in Bethlehem. So they worship (Matthew 2:11a). They find in him a confirmation of everything true, everything good, everything beautiful in what they had already learned in their studies and their lives; but they discover in him a world larger, stranger, brighter than they ever dreamed. All because they entered the House of Wisdom, and found “a Savior, who is Christ the [Wise] Lord” (Luke 2:11), the Wisdom of God made flesh (John 1:14). And they no longer encounter wisdom as a distant and impersonal thing in the pages of books, nor as a mystic force underlying the elements, nor as a far-off divinity; they meet Wisdom face-to-face, in flesh and blood, at the climax of their quest. So do we, as we take our questions and problems on a quest that inevitably leads us to meet the Wisdom of God in Christ.

Fifth, “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11b). The Magi came as a diplomatic mission, with treasures to bring – which all proved so small, one should think, in the light of Wisdom. But they offered it anyway, not just a tribute to a king, but submerging the best they had, the best they could give, into the life of Wisdom. They took their treasure, and they devoted it to Wisdom.

Having done that, sixth, “they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). Not only did they take a new route, but they went as new Magi, new wise men, new people, new lives. Having encountered Wisdom and placed all their gifts into him, things could never be the same again. They had met the Sufficient Reason, the First Cause, the Unity, the Supreme Good... the Way, the Truth, the Life. They had held hands with the Answer; they had brushed the Solution's hair; they had kissed the feet of the Logic of God, by whom and for whom all things exist, and by whom the world is being made wonderful, though the new creation be born in labor pains (cf. Romans 8:21-25).

In tracing the same path as these ancient 'wise men,' in acting on the signs and scriptures that point us here, we have the opportunity to encounter the Wisdom of God in person. And we bring him our gifts – gifts, not today of gold or frankincense or myrrh, but of the product of grain and grapes. But the gifts we render to Wisdom, to Christ, he renders back to us, transformed, into something else, something higher and more transcendent than all the stars, something more mysterious than all puzzles but more reassuring than all resolutions.

At this table, he offers us a taste of redemption from mortality, into the Best Truth of a world made wonderful. And Wisdom has built this house and cries out, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). Whatever your questions, whatever your problems, whatever your opinions and your reflections, come to the cradle, come to the table today; you need follow no distant omen or encrypted clue to get here, for there is no more uncertainty about where to get wisdom, where to find Christ. He is here. He is here. Let us have communion with Christ, the Wisdom of God. He is here.

1 - See C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (Oxford University, 2012).