Sermon
January 5, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Ephesians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
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Sermon: Any Resolutions?

How was your New Year’s celebration? Did you make any resolutions?

Resolutions have been very much in the news this past week – more so it seems to me than in past years. I admit to being reluctant to writing my resolutions down. I have a few in the back of my head, but I have not committed them to any format which could be discovered by others. I certainly don’t have the courage of those brave souls who had their pictures large and bold on the front page of the second section of the Danbury News Times yesterday.

Earlier in the week I read an interesting article that traced this American penchant for self-improvement back to Ben Franklin. Under the subtitle, “Drowning in Resolutions? Blame Ben Franklin,” it tells how Poor Richard molded his career in business and government according to a set of resolutions that he drafted as a young man in an effort to undertake the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”

Reading Franklin’s resolutions now they tend to sound a little like the Boy Scout Law, calling forth the virtues of being Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. Franklin had “silence” on his list, but other than that there is little to surprise us about his moral resolve.

But the article makes the point that these resolutions were revolutionary in their day, a rebellion against the religious definition of virtue that prevailed at the time.

The author writes:

Franklin was born and brought up in Boston at a time when moral perfection meant absolute obedience in mind and deed to all of God's commands, something seen as impossible for mere human beings. Only Jesus Christ had ever attained such perfection, and to suggest that it was within reach of anyone else was sacrilege.

At an early age Franklin decided that this was preposterous. And in his list of virtues that constituted moral perfection, Franklin was mocking the injunctions he had heard sounding relentlessly from New England pulpits. The fulfillment of Franklin's list of virtues did not necessitate anything more than self-control, and the virtues brought their own rewards in this world, not in the next.

While old Ben Franklin may have wanted to give people a path to self improvement based on human effort rather than divine intervention, I can’t imagine how he would feel about the level of self-absorption that is now disguised as virtue in a culture intensely focused on the individual and instant gratification far and above any sense of sacrifice or the common good.

This morning our scripture lessons draw us into a story that is bigger than the self and broader than the present moment. It brings us an epiphany, a manifestation, an encounter with a God who is revealed on earth and in the heavens, a God who is working out a plan set in motion before the foundation of the earth.

We begin with the story of the “wise men from the East.” These astronomers, astrologers, Kings, Magi, Zoroastrian Priests, whatever you wish to call them, had seen a sign in the heavens that indicated to them the dawn of a new era – the birth of a new king of the people Israel, a King from the House of David, a Savior. Their observations caused them to undertake a journey, and so they become seekers who arrived at the manger to pay homage and give gifts to the baby Jesus.

The significant fact about these seekers is not what they are but what they are not – they are not Jewish. God has been revealed to these Gentiles in a general way through nature – and through the star that went before them – but they must inquire of the Jews where the messiah is to be born, for it is to the Jews in their history and scriptures that God has given the details of the plan. The irony for the Gospel writer is that those in authority who had the details and only a short distance to travel did not bother to make the trip, while those who came from afar complete their pilgrimage and worship the new-born king.

The story of the Magi is that the news of Jesus birth is not just for an “in” crowd but for the world. God may have chosen a people and worked through their historical development, but the work was never just for the benefit of a few – it was for the benefit of all. The authorities in Jerusalem had a very self-centered approach to their faith – it was for them a source of identity, prestige, and privilege. When God acted to broaden the scope of salvation they did not rejoice, they resisted. Their vision of what God was up to was not big enough, and so in seeking to save what little they had they lost the greater blessing that God was bestowing.

Paul takes up the theme of the greater blessing of God in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Before the foundation of the world, Paul says, God put a plan into action. Paul knows there is both a personal and a bigger than personal reason for each of us coming to faith – he talks in terms of God choosing us for adoption, for forgiveness, for the seal of the Holy Spirit, and for “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

How often, in the course of our daily life, do we take the time to consider our individual lives in the light of God’s greater plan? How often do we take a step back and contemplate the bigger picture? What epiphanies might come to us if we broke free from the bondage of self-centeredness and viewed our lives in terms of serving God’s plan for salvation?

And these questions are not only relevant to us in terms of our personal lives, but also in terms of our life together as a church. The story of the Magi might also teach us that the church does not exist simply for the people on the inside – but for the world. It might warn us of the danger of missing the bigger thing that God is doing because it is different from what we are familiar with and from what we expected.

Three times in Paul’s letter we hear a similar refrain – God has adopted us, given us an inheritance, and marked us with the seal of the Holy Spirit - all so that we might “live to the praise of his glory.” Three times Paul repeats it – to the praise of his glory.

To me that is something of a mysterious phrase – a phrase that requires inquiry and study and evaluation. It speaks of a possible resolution – a resolve to ponder with greater urgency the purpose of each day, each blessing, each decision to pay attention to one thing and let another thing go. It calls us to wonder what opportunities are open for us, as a church, to serve one another and the greater purpose of God in the world outside our doors – to live our life to the praise of God’s glory and to be a sign of God’s salvation for the believer and the seeker alike.

And I thought I had my resolutions all wrapped up for 2003 – now it seems like the work has just begun.

Let us praise God’s glory as we join together in a prayer of Thanksgiving   
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