The Adult Version Matthew 2:1-23 Micah 5:2-5a

2 When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. 4 Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
5 They told him, “He will be born in Bethlehem, just as the prophet wrote,
6 ’Bethlehem in the land
    of Judea,
you are very important
    among the towns of Judea.
From your town
    will come a leader,
who will be like a shepherd
    for my people Israel.’”
7 Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. 8 He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
9 The wise men listened to what the king said and then left. And the star they had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 They were thrilled and excited to see the star.
11 When the men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him. They took out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and gave them to him. 12 Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
13 After the wise men had gone, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him.”
14 That night, Joseph got up and took his wife and the child to Egypt, 15 where they stayed until Herod died. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “I called my son out of Egypt.”
16 When Herod found out that the wise men from the east had tricked him, he was very angry. He gave orders for his men to kill all the boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years old and younger. This was based on what he had learned from the wise men.
17 So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet Jeremiah had said,
18 “In Ramah a voice was heard
    crying and weeping loudly.
Rachel was mourning
    for her children,
and she refused
to be comforted,
    because they were dead.”
19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph while he was still in Egypt. 20 The angel said, “Get up and take the child and his mother back to Israel. The people who wanted to kill him are now dead.”
21 Joseph got up and left with them for Israel. 22 But when he heard that Herod’s son Archelaus was now ruler of Judea, he was afraid to go there. Then in a dream he was told to go to Galilee, 23 and they went to live there in the town of Nazareth. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Micah 5:2-5 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
2 Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
3 The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
4 Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
5 because he will bring peace.

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When we say “the adult version,” what are we implying?
First of all, we are saying that an adult version of a story or a movie or book requires the years of experience accrued through age. Oftentimes, it helps to have gained some wisdom through the years, so that the story or movie can be fully and correctly understood.
Sometimes, when we say “adults only,” we are warning listeners that the information is going to be uncomfortable or threatening in someway.
Matthew’s rendition of the birth of Jesus is the adult version. Luke’s version is the romantic version, the version that makes for great Sunday School pageants with children dressed in bathrobes or adorned with gauzy wings and halos. Our favorite Christmas carols are based on Luke’s version…Hark, the Herald Angels Sing! While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. O Little Town of Bethlehem.
True, there is a pageant-perfect element in Matthew’s version: the Wisemen. Elegant, mysterious strangers from a distant country, bearing gifts for a king whom they learned about through astrology, through science, that is, not through Scripture.
But those astrologers, those wisemen, are also the cause of terror and disruption and murder. What if they had simply followed the star, without stopping in Jerusalem to ask for directions?
2 When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
I wonder where they stopped. They didn’t go directly to the king. Did they go to the temple? Did they simply stop at a local gathering place for a meal? They would have attracted attention, simply because they were different and they were strangers. Did they engage the locals in conversation? They must have stopped at a Jewish, rather than a Roman, establishment because word of their visit got back to King Herod, who summoned the priests.
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. 4 Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
Herod was not pleased about the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. He was frightened that he would be replaced by the new king, Messiah or not. If the Scriptures were true, Herod would be out of a job, out of his palace, and no longer in favor with the occupying Roman government. He, like nearly every member of the Jewish nation, expected the Messiah to be a military conquerer.
Herod was in the Roman version of the 1%. He had more to lose than a title and a job if a new king was born. He had sons of his own who were hoping to take his place someday. A king born somewhere else was a threat to everything he had worked for, to everything he had accumulated. A new king would take away his wealth and power, or so he would have thought.
Herod was desperate, so he took no chances. First, he tried to use the wisemen to get to the new king.
7 Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. 8 He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
That didn’t work. The wisemen also believed in dreams. They were warned in a dream to not trust Herod.
12 Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
Herod was denied a chance to find the threatening baby. Based on his next action, I don’t think he planned to worship the “new king.” He planned to kill the baby.
16 When Herod found out that the wise men from the east had tricked him, he was very angry. He gave orders for his men to kill all the boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years old and younger. This was based on what he had learned from the wise men.
This is the adult version of the nativity. A child is born into this world, not in the comfort of his parents home, but in a barn, a stable, a cave, without a midwife, without grandmothers and aunts talking to him and cuddling him, with only two frightened, inexperienced parents. No neighbors standing outside the door, ready to support the parents and welcome the new baby to the village. Only strangers—-the lowest of the low—shepherds—and the strangest of the strange—-eastern astrologers—to share the joy of a new child with the parents.
And then the joy turns to panic. Little boys are being ripped from their parents arms and being slaughtered all over Jerusalem. No warning. No reason. Just the king’s soldiers descending and invading and murdering the darling little boys in each household. Violence. Bloodshed. Weeping. Deepest grief. Helplessness. Anguish. Murder. The murder of innocent children.
Once again, God intervenes through a dream. Mary and Joseph leave this most violent and dangerous of places to go to a strange land, a land where they knew no one, where they did not speak the language, where they had no address to claim.
They struck out because they needed refuge. Refugees. How many times have parents left the violence and danger and despair of all that is familiar to protect their children? Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled certain death for uncertain refuge. This is a story that repeats itself over and over, even in our own time.
I just read a moving story about a family in Mt. Pleasant. The son was in school, in his hometown, but was being threatened by various gangs to become a gang member. He made his way to Mt. Pleasant, where his father was working. For now, he is safe. But there are thousands like him who are not safe, who are forced into gangs, who are hiding, who are trying to find their own Egypt, as Mary and Joseph did.
Who is to say that God didn’t plant the dreams of a safer home in the minds of parents and children who are now detained at our borders, seeking legal asylum?
Regardless, Jesus was born into a violent world. God created a beautiful, perfect world, but sin invaded and the struggle has never stopped.
Sometimes Christians become impatient with God and scold God for not stopping the violence, for not defeating or transforming those who cause war or injustice or hate.
That is not God’s way.
Sometimes Christians think that God sends evil to punish us or to teach us a lesson.
That is not God’s way.
God’s way is to walk with us through the violence, through the heartbreak, through the injustice.
We have learned that God is not a military God, nor a financial God, nor a dictator God. God is a companion God, a healing God, a strengthening God.
God walks with us through the bad times, through the sorrow, to bring us to peace and justice and glory.
Jesus’ birth did not make everything ok. Jesus’ birth did not vanquish evil or war or cruelty.
Jesus does bring us peace, healing, hope. And that hope is realized as reality when we leave this world, not as beat-up sinners, but as the restored children of God.
Jesus lived this life in real time, as a real human. Jesus conquered the worst that can happen to us: death. Because Christ died and conquered death, we will die and conquer death. This is the good news that started in such a precarious place, in such a strange place. This is the good news that lived among violence and poverty and fear and emerged triumphant, not over a king or government but over death.
That is the greater glory. We know that Jesus walks with us because prayers are answered, good deeds are accomplished, and we enjoy a peace that is other-worldly.
O little town of Bethlehem, O strange visitors from the east, O parents of lost children, O foolish kings who know only their own greed, O shepherds and soldiers and sleepy villages. O people who lie in hospitals beds or on the hard ground at the border of hope. O children of God, welcome God into your lives and embrace God’s Son, your Savior. Amen.

Parenting –Matthew 1:18-23

Matthew 1:18-23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
18 This is how Jesus Christ was born. A young woman named Mary was engaged to Joseph from King David’s family. But before they were married, she learned that she was going to have a baby by God’s Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph was a good man and did not want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone. So he decided to quietly call off the wedding.
20 While Joseph was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit. Go ahead and marry her. 21 Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, 23 “A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
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The power of a dream. Do you have favorite dreams? Recurring dreams? Scary dreams? Sad dreams? I can tell what is going on in my life by which dreams I have. If I dream about skipping class so many times that I can’t remember where my classes are or what time they start, I know I’ve got too much on my plate. If I start having dreams about my Mom and me fighting, I know that I’m coming down with a spell of depression. Some people pay attention to dreams. Some forget them. Some ignore them.
Dreams are important in the Bible. Joseph and Daniel both used their dreams to give guidance to kings. Joseph, son of Jacob, ended up as second in command to the Pharaoh; Daniel ended up in the lions’ den. (He was released when the king realized he was right.)
Joseph, Mary’s true love, had a dream—-just in time. He was ready to divorce Mary when the dream arrived. The visitor in the dream was Gabriel, the same angel who had visited Mary in broad daylight to tell her to go buy diapers and receiving blankets.
Gabriel gave Joseph explicit information: the Child’s father is God. And by the way, you don’t need to think about a name. His name is Jesus. Furthermore, just so you know how important this child will be, this child, this one that your wife is bearing, this child, will save his people from their sins.

This child, even though not yours, will be yours to raise, Joseph, and and to love and to teach. Joseph was not the first, nor is he the last to love a child who was dramatically different from him.
I recently read a book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Solomon talked with dozens of parents who are quite different from their children. The children in these specific families have Downs syndrome, are dwarfs, are transgender or gay, or were conceived in rape, or had committed a crime. Solomon wondered what made these families happy. Essentially, the condition for a happy family was accepting the child as the child was born, being happy with the child rather than trying to change the child,
Joseph accepted Jesus, even though Jesus was the not the kind of child Joseph would have chosen to raise. But Joseph accepted, graciously, gracefully, lovingly a child into his family, who though not his own, was raised as his own.
We have no record of Joseph’s conversation with himself or with Mary. But how interesting that would be! What did they understand about this unexpected event?
Ironically, this unexpected event was long-expected, long hoped for by thousands of Hebrew people down through the generations. Prophet after prophet had hinted that God had a bigger plan, one that would establish the independence of the Hebrew nation.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2). The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1–2).
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Mary and Joseph would have known those prophesies, would have heard them at synagogue, and surely they discussed their role in the prophecies. Of course, they could have missed the connection between the traditional Scriptures about a Savior and their own Savior, but Gabriel’s words were pretty specific to both of them:
30 Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, 31 and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
21 Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What did they talk about? What was their vision for their child? We all have some ideas for our children. They don’t disappear when the child is born. They grow grander as the child grows. As the child reveals his interests, his skills, we envision the adult he or she will become. When I look at my grandsons now, I see an engineer and an entertainer. Those visions will change as they grow and discover new interests. What did Mary and Joseph envision for Jesus?
The traditional expectation for this Savior was a military and political leader. This long-expected child would grow up to be a king and would help overthrow the occupying government. After all, God’s leadership had traditionally come to the Israelites through the leadership of their kings. And since the Babylonian captivity, Israel had been under the rule of the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. That was Israel’s biggest complaint and biggest shame: that they must submit to rulers who weren’t sent by God through their own bloodline.
Did Joseph wonder how he could give this child the necessary military training? They couldn’t afford a horse or armor.
I’m guessing that Joseph and Mary decided that since God sent this child, God would send the means to raise him. As far as we know, Jesus was raised like every other kid in the neighborhood, learning his father’s trade, learning from other neighbors, and learning at the synagogue. We know Jesus had a special interest in Scripture, based on the story in Luke 2:
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for Passover. 42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they all went there as usual for the celebration. 43 After Passover his parents left, but they did not know that Jesus had stayed on in the city. 44 They thought he was traveling with some other people, and they went a whole day before they started looking for him. 45 When they could not find him with their relatives and friends, they went back to Jerusalem and started looking for him there.
46 Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was surprised at how much he knew and at the answers he gave.
Perhaps by this time, Mary and Joseph thought of Jesus as just another boy.
Luke continues:
48 When his parents found him, they were amazed. His mother said, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried, and we have been searching for you!”
49 Jesus answered, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he meant.
51 Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.
Maybe Mary and Joseph still thought back to Gabriel’s words to them. But Jesus was just an ordinary kid, a good kid, for sure, who always obeyed his parents. And by now he would have had brothers and sisters. Surely he didn’t show any military tendencies as he played with the neighborhood kids. But Mary kept wondering. She never forgot those words: 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
And did Joseph contemplate Gabriel’s words to him? He will save his people from their sins.” What did those words mean to Joseph as he watched his son, for Jesus was certainly his son in every sense of the word but one. Did Joseph see Jesus’ future as more than another skilled carpenter in the village? Did Joseph, after that trip to Jerusalem, watch Jesus more closely for changes in conversation or in attitude?
One of the blogs I read is “Dancing with the Word” by Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. She sees Joseph as being instrumental in forming Jesus, as important in forming his ministry:

For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children?  Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son?  Where do you think the tenderness in his voice came from when he said we were to address God as ‘abba’ or ‘daddy’ if not from his own experience of an earthly dad?  I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here.  Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to ‘just be a dad’ to Jesus.  To give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary’s from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus’ life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.( http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2013/12/just-what-dad-does.html Dancing with the Word. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt.)
I love the idea of Joseph as a loving father to this surprise package of a son.
I love especially that Joseph loved Jesus, accepted him, taught him, and encouraged him. God gave Joseph a most important role in Jesus’ life. Mary gets a lot of attention because Jesus was physically a part of her. But think about it. God didn’t need Joseph. God could have kept Mary a single mother, protected her, let her raise Jesus on her own. But God chose Joseph. God used an earthly father to create a heavenly Savior.
So, give Joseph some credit. He was not a betrayed husband. He was a necessary and fundamental part of the nurturing of the Savior of the World.
God had the big picture handled: That was the salvation of all of us from our sinful bondage. Joseph handled the finessing, just as a carpenter uses a plane and sandpaper to finesse the lumber he has sawn. Thanks be to God for parents, for women who serve as mothers and for men who serve as fathers! Amen.

You are Pregnant Luke 1

You are pregnant. Elizabeth, you are pregnant. Mary, you are pregnant.
What does the statement “You are pregnant.” mean? For one woman, it can bring unbelievable joy. For another woman “You are pregnant.” brings on fear and foreboding.
If I were a man, I couldn’t have written this particular sermon. But I’m a woman who has been both afraid and eager to hear the words, “You are pregnant.”
A remarkable number of women in the Bible waited many long years to hear the words, “You are pregnant.” Sarah, mother of Issac. Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau. Rachel, mother of Joseph. Hannah, mother of Samuel, the prophet. Mrs Manoah, mother of Samson. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
They prayed for years for a baby and kept getting the same wrong answer. And then God finally answered those fervent prayers. The saddest part of their lives was not that they were childless, but that they were ashamed of their childlessness. They did not bring that shame on themselves: the community provided that shame. A woman without a child was an enigma.
Women are supposed to have children, right? We’re built for pregnancy, designed for pregnancy, wired for pregnancy. Or so we’re taught. Eventually, we learn that we are also wired to bake bread, run marathons, pilot airplanes, manipulate computer programs and raise cattle. But there is something beyond our flesh and blood, something in our DNA that makes us motherly. In Sarah’s day, in Hannah’s day, in Elizabeth’s day, women were seen as child-bearers. Have you ever heard the term “of child-bearing age?” Not of “needs to wear a bra” age or “cooking age” or “advanced-skills age.” Child-bearing age.
Are men designated as being of “child-begetting age?”
In many cultures, ancient and recent, women desperately have wanted children not only because they wanted to love those children, but also because it was the only thing that made them worth feeding and housing. So, by biological accident, not by any moral flaw or social faux pas, women without children were made to feel less important, less valuable, less worthy. Has it changed much since the first century?
Pregnancy was a litmus test for validity.
And then we have another woman who did not pray to get pregnant: Mary, mother of our Lord—-unmarried. She, just the opposite of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth, got pregnant without trying. Again, not because of a moral flaw or social faux pas, but because of a miracle. Mary became pregnant. And shamed. It doesn’t say in scripture that she was shamed, but we do know that Joseph was going to “put her away”—that he was embarrassed, that he was ashamed because his fiancé, his bride-to-be, was pregnant. And he knew who the father wasn’t: it wasn’t him. We do know that Mary left town shortly after that announcement from Angel Gabriel—-if not to avoid shame, why else?
I find it ironic that a woman can be shamed for not getting pregnant as well as for getting pregnant. Isn’t that weird?
All of these great women, mothers of these great men, had to endure shame before they could enjoy motherhood.
For Sarah, Elizabeth, Rachel, Mrs. Manoah, Hannah, those words were the most beautiful words in the world. But for Mary? “You are pregnant.” Terrifying, but then again, it was God, right? God doesn’t rape or seduce, right?
Likewise, in many cultures, ancient and recent, I think of the women who hear “You are pregnant.” and react only with fear—fear for self, for future, for reputation, for survival.
And, ironically, who is blamed for that unplanned baby? I think we’ve been around long enough to know the mother’s reputation hits the cellar and the father, anonymous or not, has proved something positive about himself. I don’t ever remember a boy being called an unwed father the minute he proves himself fertile. Girls on the other hand…well.
I remember one recent conversation with friends. Talk was about someone’s cousin, an amazing business woman who has a son, who has his own wonderful family. But being an amazing business woman was not what the speaker talked about. Instead, he shamed her because Cousin X had Baby Z “out of wedlock” forty years ago. And he threw further shame by mentioning that grown-up son’s daughter has a baby “out of wedlock.” I hadn’t heard that term IN YEARS!!!! But that is how that woman and her family were described, remembered, categorized, discussed. Out of wedlock. That was all they were noted for. How far have we come?
A mother and a child are a thing of beauty, no matter the circumstances previous to the birth. And fortunately, most of the people I know believe that. I bring this up, not to enforce some kind of feminist agenda, but to marvel at how all of these women, Sarah through Mary through somebody’s cousin, became, according to God’s plan, mothers of very important men.
Sarah—- God promised her that her descendants would be more than could be counted. Hannah—the mother of the great prophet Samuel—was so grateful for her son that she dedicated him to service at the temple. Rachel—the mother of Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from starving during famine. Elizabeth—mother of John, who prepared people to follow Jesus. Every one one of these long-awaited children became a rich blessing to the people of Israel.
And Mary’s son, our own Lord and Savior…greatest man ever born.
When Luke relates the birth of John the Baptist, he describes the reactions of the friends and relatives of Elizabeth and Zechariah: 66 Everyone who heard about this wondered what this child would grow up to be. They knew that the Lord was with him.
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to welcome every child? What will this child grow up to be? Anticipation. Hope. Wonder. Possibility. Expectation.
Those are the emotions we try to capture in this Advent Season. Anticipation. Hope. Wonder. Possibility. Expectation.
I am in awe of God’s method of renewal and resurrection. Every time a child is conceived, friends and family enter into a kind of Advent, a time of hope and wonder and expectation. God choose this very same, ordinary, extraordinary way to save God’s people. Have you ever wondered about the absurdity of God rescuing us through one of our own kind? God could have sent angel armies, dragons and unicorns, mind-altering drugs, to create the Kingdom God dreamed of. The possibilities are limitless. But God choose a human baby, and that baby, 100% human and 100% God—not half and half but whole and whole, became the Savior not only of the nation of Israel, but of all generations of all people to come.
You are pregnant. God takes a negative and turns it to a positive. God takes nothing and turns it into everything we need.
Praise be to God for loving us and blessing us, not according to our own expectations, but according to God’s expectations. Amen.

Not as Planned Exodus 13-16

Judges 13:2-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. 3 And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6 Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; 7 but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’”
8 Then Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” 9 God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, “The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11 Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12 Then Manoah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?” 13 The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. 14 She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.”
Judges 13:24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him.
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Samson is not the smartest character in the Bible. But he is interesting enough to make it into a few Sunday School lessons. You may remember the story of Samson, that he was dumb enough to tell Delilah the secret of his strength. His secret was his long hair. As long as he didn’t get near a barber, his super-human strength was secure.
Samson was not the smartest guy in our common ancestry. In fact, my commentary says that he was the worst of all the judges.
Do you know about the judges? Before Israel had kings they had judges. The judges were the go-to people. If you had a problem or if you wanted to conquer some nearby property , the judges were there to advise you, and to lead you into battle. They were the leaders for about 350 years. Eventually, that system fell apart and the Israelites demanded that God give them a king, instead. That is another story.
Samson is one of the reasons the system fell apart. He had a hard time following rules.
Samson was a miracle child. His parents had remained childless well into their married life and they had given up hope of every having a child. Like some of the other mothers in the Bible, Samson’s mother was visited by an angel who told her that she was no longer barren, but with child. How exciting and how frightening to find out you’re pregnant at that age!
God had special plans for this child, so God asked his mother to follow special rules. God wanted this child to make a covenant with God.
Numbers 6:1-12 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
6 The Lord told Moses 2 to say to the people of Israel:
If any of you want to dedicate yourself to me by vowing to become a Nazirite, 3 you must no longer drink any wine or beer or use any kind of vinegar. Don’t drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins— 4 not even the seeds or skins.
5 Even the hair of a Nazirite is sacred to me, and as long as you are a Nazirite, you must never cut your hair.
6 During the time that you are a Nazirite, you must never go close to a dead body, 7-8 not even that of your father, mother, brother, or sister. That would make you unclean. Your hair is the sign that you are dedicated to me, so remain holy.
9 If someone suddenly dies near you, your hair is no longer sacred, and you must shave it seven days later during the ceremony to make you clean. 10 Then on the next day, bring two doves or two pigeons to the priest at the sacred tent. 11 He will offer one of the birds as a sacrifice for sin and the other as a sacrifice to please me. You will then be forgiven for being too near a dead body, and your hair will again become sacred. 12 But the dead body made you unacceptable, so you must make another vow to become a Nazirite and be dedicated once more. Finally, a year-old ram must be offered as the sacrifice to make things right.
So, three things—-nothing to do with grapes, never cut your hair, and don’t go near anything dead. Ever. These rules took affect at the moment of conception—that is the angel told Mother to follow similar rules:
Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. 4 Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, 5 for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
God had a plan for this baby. This baby would deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.
Who were the Philistines? They were Israel’s main enemy. At least a dozen battles between the Israelites and the Philistines are noted in the Old Testament. Remember David and his slingshot and the death of the giant, Goliath? Goliath was a Philistine.
Even though Samson was to, finally, after all the other judges, be the one to deliver Israel, he was only partially successful. If you read Judges 13-16, you will discover that he was able to do away with about 3,000 Philistines. The rest got away.
Samson was not given a choice as to his life’s vocation. It was thrust on him while he was still in the womb. He was born with rules to follow—no grapes in any form, no haircuts, no touching anything dead—-and another one—no foreign women. That meant no Philistine women. So of course, what did he do? He fell in love with a Philistine woman. Spoiled only child that he was, his parents gave in and arranged for his marriage to the Philistine girlfriend. The party lasted a week—the same amount of time as the marriage. We can assume that he broke the no-grape rule at the party. But he kept his hair, if not his head.
Samson’s claim to fame was his great strength. He was stronger than any man alive and his enemies wanted to know what his secret to super-human strength was. He had a lot of fun with that request and told several clever lies about his strength. Seven new bow strings. New rope. The most creative lie was about Samson’s hair, but he didn’t tell the real truth about his hair. “My hair is in seven braids,” Samson replied. “If you weave my braids into the threads on a loom and nail the loom to a wall, then I will be as weak as anyone else.”
All of these lies were told to his current girlfriend, Delilah. She tried everyone of them. She tied him up with bow strings and called the Philistines in. Samson broke the Philistines and the strings. She tried new rope: more casualties: the rope and the Philistines. She tried weaving his hair into a loom and nailing it to wall. Good-bye, loom; good-bye, Philistines. But Samson tired of Delilah’s nagging and told her the truth. Cut my hair and I’ll be weak as a baby. She did it. The Philistines captured Samson, blinded him and put him on display. How did it end? Read Judges 16 to find out. It wasn’t pretty.
So, why did God make such a big deal of Samson? Why did God want him to follow the nazirite rules in the first place? Why didn’t God give up on Samson when he broke the rules? In other words, can we learn anything from Samson?

Here is one idea I gleaned from my reading: God’s specific will may be helped or hindered by what humans and other forces in the world may do. (New Interpreter’s Bible, II, 847)

God can set us up to go in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow. What next? God gets us back on the path via a different route. My life is the perfect example. I went to college to be a German teacher. I got a failing slip in German my first semester. I switched to English, an language with which I was more familiar, but I kept up with the German, too. I took one teacher education course and decided teaching was not for me. So I graduated with a degree but no job. I moved back to the farm and became a cook at the local nursing home. Four years of college and I was poaching eggs for a living. Not what my parents had planned. But then my college professor called and said his professor friend at South Dakota State University needed some graduate assistants to teach Freshmen English. Why not? So I moved to South Dakota, took some graduate classes and taught some freshmen. That wasn’t so great either, so I moved back to the farm and back to poaching eggs. BUT I had loved teaching freshman, so when I had poached enough eggs to earn enough money to go back to school, I returned to my alma mater, got a teaching certificate. I didn’t tangle with any Philistines, but one thing I had in common with Samson was partying. So my path to Central Community High School was a little crooked. But God got me there. And then when I had had enough experience working with human beings, God sent me in new directions that pulled me into this gig.
What’s the point? We don’t have to be perfect to bring on the Kingdom. God meets us where we are, keeps turning us in the right direction, even when we are in enemy territory. That’s what God did with Samson and that’s what God does with each of us.
God didn’t plan on us being nazirite, but he does give us some rules. Grapes are ok, we can cut our hair, and we can marry pretty much whomever we like.
God found a new solution. He sent a baby, not to a barren woman, but to an unmarried woman. That baby grew up, took on the burden of our sins, and died for us.
Just as God presented us that baby out of love, so we present ourselves out of love to God, through our faithfulness to God’s commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. Amen.

Fear and Disobedience and Ordinary People

Exodus 1:8-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Exodus 1:22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Exodus 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
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I grew up being afraid of the end of the world. I had two options to fuel my fear.
One option was for Jesus to come charging in with the heavenly hosts to sort out the sheep from the goats, the chosen from the unchosen, ready to send some to hell and some to heaven. I was pretty sure he would arrive at Rural Route 4 just as I was fighting with my sister or sassing my mother. I was pretty sure I would spend eternity being roasted and toasted.
The other option was not much different in the long run. If you were a child in the fifties, you knew that eventually atomic bombs would fill the skies and land in your neighborhood. Naive as I was, I knew that hiding under my desk wouldn’t save me from instant cremation. This threat of nuclear holocaust still exists, but we have become so used to it that most of us don’t even think about it. During the seventies and eighties, I attended meetings with like-minded people to discuss what we could do to prevent nuclear holocaust. I especially remember one such meeting, not because Representative Jim Leach and his wife, Deba, were there, but because my husband asked me which bra I was going to burn that day. Those were the days when public protests were still safe. Fear drove us to seek solutions that would never materialize.
Fear drove Jochebed to put her baby boy in the river in a little cradle made out of what was available—leaves and tar. What was Jochebed afraid of? The nuclear bomb of that era: the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh, the king, had decreed that all baby boys the same color as Jochebed’s baby boy, were to be killed. Kill all the sons of those people. They are not like us, reasoned Pharaoh, and they keep having babies, and pretty soon there will be more of them than us. Pharaoh was desperate to keep people like him in the majority. He did not want to be in the minority.
People fear being in the minority, because, logically, those who comprise the majority get to make the rules. And the rules benefit, for the most part, not everybody, but the majority. In our country, for the last 240 years, the rules have been constructed to benefit white men. It’s practical and logical.
There is a trend in our country now to anticipate the loss of that majority with great fear and violent solutions to assuage that fear. It was the same in Jochebed’s time.
In about one generation, that fear will be realized. By 2045, whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population in contrast to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/) It doesn’t seem like much of a change, but it is still a threat, if you choose to see it that way.
The same population trend happened in Egypt. The ancestors of Jochebed and Amram and Miriam and Aaron and Moses were Joseph (the coat of many colors) and his brothers and their children. Three hundred years later, the reigning Egyptian ruler and his cohorts had no memory of how Joseph had saved the nation from starvation. Instead, they saw only what was before their eyes: the descendants of Joseph becoming more numerous than the descendants of Pharaoh’s ethnic group.
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
It makes me wonder why I wasn’t scared to death for thirty years—-one teacher alone in a room with twenty-five students. That is some minority! Why wasn’t I afraid? Because I was situated in a culture where the rules were made not only BY the rulers, but for the ones who were ruled. The students understood that the rules benefitted them in the long run and that if they broke the rules, they would answer to those who had more power than them: their parents. All of us, in the long run, belonged to the same ethnic group.
The Hebrews and the Egyptians were not of the same ethnic group. The Pharaoh, in order to control the Hebrews, had to make rules.
11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.
I’m guessing here, but based on my reading, the first rule was that the Hebrews could hold only certain jobs. They were construction workers. They built entire cities for the Egyptians. By limiting the work the Hebrews could do, they kept them concentrated in specific areas, which meant they were easier to control.
12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Pharaoh’s long-term goals was to limit population growth. Somehow, he reasoned that he could limit the number of babies born by working the potential fathers so hard that they apparently would go straight home and fall soundly asleep, ignoring their wives. It didn’t work. They kept having babies, lots of them. And apparently, conventional wisdom of the time said, if we have fewer boy babies growing up to be fathers, we can solve the problem of overpopulation.
22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
It sounds pretty drastic, doesn’t it? After all, girl babies grow up to be mothers, right? You have to understand that knowledge of human reproduction was pretty limited at the time, and Pharaoh had only the latest information to guide him.
Now, whose job would it be to throw boy babies into the Nile? Apparently, the midwives, the women who helped deliver the babies. Baby pops out: oh, it’s a boy! Go throw it in the river. What midwife would be able to do that? There were two, at least, who couldn’t do it.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Here is the problem: you can’t hide a baby forever. At three months of age, they start making noises that can’t be shut up with a warm nipple. Imagine the fear of losing your child to the whims or prejudices of the majority rulers in your city or state or country. But what could they do? Two especially creative parents came up with an idea. Construct a waterproof cradle. Place the cradle in the river near where the Pharaoh’s daughter usually bathed, and hope that she would find the baby and fall in love with him. Some sources say that on extra card played in this game was that the Pharaoh’s daughter was unable to have children of her own. This gamble worked!
Logically, it seemed like a long shot. And, more amazing, the mother of this little boy, Jochebed, was hired, through the negotiation of the baby’s big sister, to nurse her son for two years. The Pharaoh’s daughter got naming rights: she named him “Moses.”
That’s how God works. God is always on the lookout for ways to bring God’s children out of suffering. And most often, we are surprised by the lack of logic, by God’s penchant to make God’s own rules about who will be great and who will follow and who will run away.
Three points to consider today:
Fear of people.
Civil disobedience, aka, not following the rules.
God uses ordinary people.
—Fear. Fear runs through our scripture today like water through a river.
The Pharaoh is afraid of his Hebrew slaves The Hebrew parents were afraid for the lives of their sons. Jochebed and Amram were afraid for the life of baby Moses. Miriam was afraid for the life of her brother. Fear runs through our lives, too. Of what are you afraid?
Our current national situation shows us outstanding examples of fearing people. The one getting the most news coverage now at the border between us and them, them being parents and children fleeing the monstrous culture of their hometowns, fleeing persecution, slavery to a regime that is chaotic and merciless. Mothers and fathers are seeking refuge for their children, placing them not in the hands of the Pharaoh’s daughter, but in the hands of a beneficent country whose words at another border say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” My great-grandparents believed those words. I find it hard to believe that those words don’t apply to every port of entry of this nation. My great grandparents were no different from the refugees of this century. They were fleeing war and poverty —you might say my great-grandfather was a draft-dodger—just as refugees in every decade have sought safety. They were seeking asylum, and there will always be people seeking asylum. After every election, I hear about people who will be seeking asylum in Canada if so-and-so gets elected. I personally don’t know of anyone who has moved to Canada, because life hasn’t changed that much for them. If their lives had been in danger, if their children’s lives had been in danger, then they should have moved to Canada or Norway or Denmark. But as it happens, this place isn’t so bad after all. In fact, it’s so good, that others see relocating to this space as their best hope.
Fear does strange things to people. Fear causes us to make decisions that can have dangerous repercussions. Fear can make us short-sighted. Fear can isolate us from those who are different from us. Fear fills our minds with half-truths and drives us like a flock of chickens under the flapping wings of a hawk.
—Civil disobedience. Jochebed and Amram broke rules to save their son. That son grew up to be the leader of his people. It took time. And Moses was not perfect. He committed a crime, went into hiding, but God still found him and put him to work, eventually leading the Hebrews out of slavery, via forty years of not so pleasant wandering around, eventually to a settled place they could call home. Close examination of that rescue story includes many messy, questionable details. When rules become threats instead of means to civil society, someone must lead the way to break those rules. Just as the Bible is full of heroes, it is full of rule-breakers.
I wore a black armband on my left arm in 1971. I still have it among my memorabilia. I didn’t wear it to protest soldiers fighting in Vietnam. I wore it to protest rulers hiding behind the guns of soldiers, negotiating with other rulers hiding behind the guns of soldiers, for their own selfish ambitions.
—God uses ordinary people. Amram was nothing but ordinary, as far as we know. He was not a rabbi. He was a construction worker. Yet he became the father to one the heroes of our Hebrew ancestors. During this Advent Season, we’ll see that God finds God’s helpers in the most unusual, most ordinary places.
If you are an ordinary person, and God uses ordinary people to fulfill God’s plans, then the conclusion to this syllogism is that God uses you to help establish God’s kingdom on earth. You do it by providing deserts, quilts, food, baby items. You do it by keeping this church a living, welcoming space for all who seek God’s presence or who, perhaps more importantly, seek fellowship among God’s people.
We say that the Bible is the Word of God. What does that mean? Nonbelievers will describe the Bible as simply a collection of writings that are centuries old. Even if that were true, it still holds stories of human beings who have something to teach us, just like my students once learned certain truths from reading Romeo and Juliet or The Martian Chronicles.
That being said, because we believe that the Bible is the true Word of God, we learn not only from the decisions and actions of human beings, we learn also the intentions of God for us. In this Holy Season of Advent, as we live in expectation of the arrival of the Christ Child, let us also open our hearts to God’s expectations for us! Amen.