Tag Archives: God as a Gardener

Parable for Gentiles

The Epiphany season reminds us that Jesus is the Savior of Gentiles as well as Jews. Initially, the church in Rome was composed of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Almost immediately, Jewish believers evangelized Gentiles. Then, Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome. For 12 years, the Christian church in Rome consisted of only Gentiles. When Nero became Emperor, he invited the Jews back to Rome, noting that they were good for business and trade. The problem was that Gentiles refused to allow Jewish Christians back into the Christian church in Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans (about 71 AD) included a parable using cultivated olive and wild olive trees to illustrate Gentile’s proper response to Jewish Christian brethren. Carefully, read what Paul wrote to the Romans (Romans 11:16-24). In this parable of the in-grafted wild olive branch, Paul identified:

  • A root and branches (boughs) of a cultivated olive tree. The original cultivated olive tree with its root and branches is the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their offspring, the Jews. This root was solid and sure. Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah were the original root and branches of the early Christian church. Branches broken off from the cultivated olive tree were Jews who refused to believe that Jesus was the long looked-for Messiah. These were most Jews who lived in Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire at the time.
  • A branch (bough) of a wild olive tree. The wild olive branch equated to Gentile Christians who believed that Jesus was the son of God and followed his teachings.
  • Grafting a wild olive branch onto a cultivated olive tree. Gentile believers were grafted into—became an integral, productive off shoot—of the Jewish faith.

Despite the lesser value of wild olive tree products than cultivated olive tree products, Paul’s parable didn’t mean that Jewish Christians were more valuable than Gentile Christians. Similarly, although Jewish Christians were represented by branches (more than one) and Gentile Christians by a single branch didn’t mean that there were more Jews than Gentiles in the Christian church at Rome. Probably, the opposite was true. Data aren’t available for the number of Jews who became believers in the early centuries after Christ’s death; but, by the early 21st century, most Christians are Gentiles. Globally, less than one half percent of Jews self-identified as Messianic Jews, Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah.

Although the cultivated olive tree formed the root and some branches of the olive tree in Paul’s parable, the in-grafted wild olive tree branch resonates with most of us. We, Gentiles, are the wild olive branch. The interpretation of Paul’s parable in the eleventh chapter of Romans is that the Gentile believers were grafted into—became an integral, productive off shoot—of the Jewish faith. Epiphany and the Epiphany season celebrates the extension of Jesus’ saving power to non-Jews.

In the parable of the in-grafted wild olive tree, Paul encouraged a fully integrated church. Paul wasn’t attempting to make the Christian church in Rome a sect of Judaism, nor was he advocating that Gentile Christians replaced the Jews in God’s favor.

Laywoman’s Epiphany

Epiphany isn’t a season that gets much attention, sandwiched between Christmas and Easter.  In this respect is like the hidden or veiled aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

As a laywoman in a liturgical church, often I still ask, “What is Epiphany?” Epiphany is childhood Sunday School: Gospel stories of Jesus being baptized, healing the blind, the sick, the mute, the lame, teaching in the synagogues “with authority,” rebuking the Pharisees, and feeding the thousands with a few loaves and fishes. Epiphany is Jesus being chased by the crowds, trying to sneak away to the quiet places, telling people “don’t tell anyone what I’ve done for you;” but, they always do.

Epiphany is Jesus telling parables and then explaining them to his slow disciples. Epiphany is Jesus asking, “Who do you say I am?” Epiphany is the light of Christmas, bursting into wildfire. It is the babe in the manger, the Son of God walking among us.  It is the transfiguration on the mountaintop that made those Apostles closest to him, those who walked with him every day, fall down and worship Jesus in awe of his glory. In a church which follows a lectionary and seasons of the church year, the earthly life of Jesus is laid out like one of those thorny parables he told. Often, like the disciples we need some explanation. Hearing the same stories year-after-year, eventually, we put Jesus’ life together. There is good in the repetition of the church year. The familiar doesn’t become old. It becomes home.

As a wife and mother, I haven’t been intentional about celebrating the season of Epiphany in our home. Even when I’m doing my best to walk with Jesus, I need the blazing light of the transfigured Christ during the Epiphany season to shine on me and leave me speechless for a time. My young school-aged children have heard about the wise men visiting the baby Jesus; they know the story well. We talk about Jesus and his miracles and life as often as a teaching moment presents itself.

My goal is to live a life truly transformed by Christ, so I see more of these teaching moments. I want to see more of the connections between the life of Jesus and immediate circumstances in my life as wife and mother. Some days it seems I am slow to learn these connections. Perhaps, that is how God planned it, learning about Christ is a year-after-year process, a life-long process.

Our personal “epiphanies” of what God is doing in our lives often come after a struggle, thinking he wasn’t there, and finally understanding that he was with us the whole time. In our weakness and infirmities, we seek Jesus as many in the crowds did—to just touch him so he will touch us. We want Jesus to take pity on us, to turn toward us rather than away from us, to feed us, and to teach us. The great news is that Jesus wants to feed us, teach us, and take pity on us. Jesus never turns from us.

*Written by Kathy Miller, St. John Lutheran Church, Roanoke, Virginia.

Where did Star of Bethlaham Go?

In ancient time, travelers didn’t have GPS.  Most travelers navigated a journey by following stars. Travelers and astronomers knew the night sky. Based on their observations over decades, astronomers knew that star constellations and, what we now know as, planets moved in a prescribed pattern over a year’s time. They trusted this annual rotation of heavenly bodies. You can imagine how surprised these same astronomers were to see a new phenomenon in the night sky.  They didn’t know how to describe it, except to call it a “star.”

Today, a goodly number of Bible scholars and secular astronomers believe that the Star of Bethlehem was an alignment of stars and planets in the Leo constellation. They include the star Regulus (king) in Leo and four plants. Those planets were Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system and the planets Mars, Mercury, and Venus.

Many astronomers and wise men (Magi) in ancient Near Eastern countries lived in Persia. As they talked with one another about the new star that appeared in the sky, they concluded that it must herald the birth of a king. Perhaps, they remembered Balaam’s oracle regarding the Israelites: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.  A star shall come out of Jacob; and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17 NIV). Several of the wise men determined to follow the star to see this new-born king. Of course, they carried presents for the baby.

Following the star, the wise men arrived in Jerusalem and went to King Herod’s court. They expected that a newborn king would be birthed in a palace, amid a court. The Magi asked King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2 NIV). King Herod was flabbergasted. He didn’t see a new star in the night sky. His own wise men didn’t tell him about one. Most assuredly, King Herod knew nothing about a newborn king. When King Herod learned that the future king would be born in Bethlehem, he directed the wise men to continue following the star. Once the wise men learned exactly where this newborn king was, they were to report back to him, ostensibly, so he too could go and worship the king.

Following the star, the wise men came to a humble house in Bethlehem where Joseph, Mary, and the young child lived. Although we celebrate Epiphany 13 days after the feast day for Jesus’ birth, best evidence indicates that the wise men didn’t arrive in Bethlehem for a year, possibly, even two years, after Jesus’ birth. The star that led the wise men to the home where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived, wasn’t spectacularly bright. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Joseph and Mary ever saw a large star over their home. Likewise, there isn’t Bible documentation that King Herod saw the star.

The Bible doesn’t identify, what happened to the star. Did it disappear or stop moving when the wise men reached the home of Jesus? If the star was an alignment of planets and Regulus, it would have continued to move westward in the night sky. Yet, the wise men didn’t continue to follow the star westward. They returned to Persia without going back to Jerusalem and reporting to King Herod.

The star’s presence was a heavenly announcement that God’s son was born to humankind; and this son would save both Jew and Gentile from sins. As stars rule the night sky, Jesus Christ rules the powers of darkness on earth.

Epiphany Scripture

Epistle Reading – Ephesians 3:2-12 NIV: Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

Gospel Reading – Matthew 2:1-12 NIV: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

What is Epiphany Season

Although some churches celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday nearest January 6, Epiphany Day occurs on January 6, or 12 days after the birth of Jesus (December 25). The Epiphany season (Epiphantide) extends from January 6 to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. It encompasses six-to-eight Sundays depending on the date of Easter. In some churches, these Sundays are named Ordinary Time; however, better labels are the First Sunday of Epiphany, Second Sunday of Epiphany, etc. The feast of Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church and reflects the mystical thinking in Eastern Christian churches, to include the weaving and reweaving of themes in celebrations.

Epiphany Day (January 6) ends the Christmas season. The Epiphany season is time to lift our eyes from gifts, parties, and Christmas trees. In Epiphany, we imagine the faith it took for Magi (wise men) to follow a star up to one thousand miles. Their journey was hazardous. Most people they encountered couldn’t see this “so called” star they followed. At almost every stop or town along the way, the wise men were ridiculed when they told local people that they followed a star which was leading them to a new-born king.

During Epiphany, we focus on our own faith. As we reach out to others with the good news of Jesus, we modern day “wise men” must be ready for physical hazards, laughter, and incredulity. Still, as the wise men kept going from their home in the East to Bethlehem, we too must keep reaching out with our belief in Jesus and his redemptive work that began when he was born in Bethlehem of Judah in the days of Herod, the King. The four main concepts of Epiphany10 are:

Divine Manifestation. Epiphany is a Greek word epiphania, which means “a god visited earth.”  Twelve days before the start of Epiphany, God came to earth as the baby Jesus. Jesus’ birth was the first incarnate manifestation of God the Son to humankind, but not his last manifestation. At the end of the ages, Jesus will again walk the earth. In this final manifestation, Jesus will bring with him an army of angels.

Royal Kingship. God’s son, the baby Jesus, was a manifestation of the greatest king that ever lived. At Christmas, Jesus was shown to Jews. At Epiphany, he was shown to Gentiles. At the end of the ages, when Jesus returns in all his majesty, the designation Jew and Gentile will be irrelevant. At that time, Jesus, the king of kings, will separate the righteous from the unrighteous regardless of whether the individual is of Jewish or Gentile heritage.

Light. The third theme that runs through the Epiphany season is light. During the Advent season, the world was in darkness. Christians prayed and waited for the coming birth of Messiah and his second coming in judgment. At Christmas, the Light broke forth; but, was seen only by Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. At Epiphany, the mysterious star summoned Gentiles to benefit from the work of God’s son. The prophecy is fulfilled: “The nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3 ESV).

The royal nuptials. Marriage, or nuptials, is the final theme in the Epiphany season. Two thousand years ago God’s son married into humanity. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church his bride. Jesus’s celebration of the marriage feast at Cana is symbolic of Jesus’ marriage to the Church. The wise-men from a far-off Gentile country hurried to the wedding feast with royal wedding gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Mary Pondered, Do You?

“Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19 ESV).

Several times in the Gospels we read that Mary pondered things in her heart. What in the world were the “things” Mary pondered on or about the first Christmas?  Unlike 21st century Christmas, Mary’s “things” weren’t newly bought, she wasn’t concerned about returning them, or giving them to Goodwill.  Mary didn’t ponder how to make January charge cards payments.

The liturgical Christmas is a twelve-day season beginning with the celebration of Christmas Day on December 25 and continues through January 5. These 12 days are a gift Father God provides for us to ponder, to think about, what is important and to discount, or not think about, what isn’t important. Now, the halls are decked, gifts exchanged, and most parties over.

Mary completed an 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, delivered her first-born son in a barn, and showed him to shepherds who stopped by. If Mary had time to ponder events surrounding Jesus birth, do we have any excuse for doing less? During the 12 days of Christmas, focus your mind on pondering what it means for God to come to earth and into your life. Take time to recognize and ponder the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” Luke 2:10 ESV).

As you sit beside the Christmas tree, consider that Jesus is the light of the world, consuming all the world’s darkness. What darkness has been allowed to creep into your thoughts and actions this year, seeking to consume your soul?  Where is Christ leading you to be light in the world in the new year? Do the gifts you share lead others to eternal treasure?

Reflection: In many churches, the church office is closed Christmas eve through the day after New Year’s Day. Perhaps, even liturgical churches export a message that Christmas is a day rather than a season.

*Written by Denise May, St. John Lutheran Church, Roanoke, Virginia.

Why Shepherds?

Initially, when I read the story of the angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to shepherds, my response was, “Couldn’t the host of angels found a more important group to tell this earth-shattering event?” From what I read in the Bible, the shepherds were the only group who received this celestial announcement on Christmas morning. True, the wise men saw a star; but, we aren’t exactly sure when the star appeared to them. Further, wise men had to interpret what the star meant and follow it from Persia (Iran) to Judah. In contrast, the angels were clear when they announced God, the Son’s birth, to the shepherds.

A new acquaintance is a lay Catholic sister at Madonna House. When I told her my observation about angels choosing to give the announcement of Christ’s birth to shepherds, her response was that God loved and saw the value of poor shepherd on a rural hillside as much as he loved and valued the wealthiest king in a sumptuous palace. To her, God’s choice of the shepherds for this impressive announcement was based on love, consequently, not the least surprising. Not willing to give up my perspective that the shepherds were a strange choice for this august announcement, I asked my husband what he thought. Bruce believes that God’s choice of the shepherds was God’s first symbol that the infant Jesus was born to be the Good Shepherd of the world.

                These two responses reminded me that there is no greater love than when a man (or woman) lays down his/her life for another.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gave his life for the sheep, that is, Christ gave his life for you and me. Given Jesus’ love and actions, having his birth announced to simple, even smelly, shepherds makes God-sense. It was consistent with Jesus’ choices while he lived on earth, to include how Jesus died.

                Jesus died to protect us and save our lives for eternity. Before Jesus died for us, he had to be born; and his birth was announced by a choir of angels to simple shepherds who lived and worked in the Bethlehem area. So why didn’t the angels find a more important group than shepherds to announce the birth of Christ? Because of love and because Jesus started as he finished, as a Good Shepherd who was willing to give his life for sheep.

One Clear Night

Edmund Sears wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear while a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. The hymn reflects the Unitarian emphasis on social implications (stanzas 3 and 4) of the gospels in mid-1800s.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
Oh, rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophet seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When Christ shall come and all shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And saints shall meet Him in the air,
And with the angels sing.

Christmas Superstitions

At midnight on Christmas Eve,
all water turns to wine,
cattle kneel facing toward the East,
horses kneel and blow as if to warm the manger,
animals can speak but it is bad for a human to hear them,
and the bees hum the Hundredth Psalm.

The Irish believe that the gates of heaven
open at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Those who die at that time go straight through
without having to wait in purgatory.

It is considered very lucky to be born
on Christmas Eve or Christmas day in most countries.
However, in Greece the child is feared to be
a Kallikantzaroi or a wandering spirit.
In Poland the child may turn out to be a werewolf.

The weather on each of the twelve days of Christmas
signifies what the weather will be on
the appropriate month of the coming year.

There is a game in Germany where they blindfold a goose.
The girls make a circle around the goose and whoever
it touches first will be the first to get married.

Place a branch of a cherry tree in water
at the beginning of advent.
It will bring luck if it flowers by Christmas.

You should burn your old shoes during
the Christmas season in Greece
to prevent misfortunes in the coming year.

It is bad luck to let any fire go out
in your house during the Christmas season.
The fire in your fireplace must continue to burn
for the twelve days of Christmas.

If you do not eat plum pudding during the season,
you will have bad luck for a year.

If you refuse mince pie at Christmas dinner,
you will have bad luck for a year.

A loaf of bread left on the table
after Christmas Eve dinner will ensure
no lack of bread for the next year.

If an apple is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve,
good health will follow for a year.

Tie wet bands of straw around fruit trees
to make them fruitful, or tie a stone
to a branch on Christmas Eve.

Nothing sown on Christmas Eve will perish,
even if the seed is sown in the snow.

In the Netherlands they take a fir stick and
thrust it into the fire and let it burn partially.
They put it under the bed.
This serves as lightening protection.

Never launder a Christmas present
before giving it to its recipient
as this takes out the good luck.

Were you born in a barn?

When I was a young girl, my cousin reprimanded me for something I did by asking, “were you born in a barn?”  The question was an insult at best. Nonetheless, Jesus was born in a barn.

Most Christians believe that Jesus was born in a stable. At other times, pictures of his birthplace show a cave set apart from the town of Bethlehem. Very likely, these ideas about Jesus’ birth place aren’t completely accurate.

Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered that a census be taken of the entire Roman world. A part of the order required that all adult men go the place they were born. Joseph lived and worked in Nazareth when he married Mary, the mother of Jesus. But, Joseph was from the tribe of Judah; his ancestors from the area of Bethlehem. To fulfill the Emperor’s edict, Joseph had to return to Bethlehem.

  Joseph left Nazareth along with Mary and traveled to Bethlehem. Most art depicting Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem show Mary on the back of a donkey. The Bible identified that Joseph and Mary were very poor (Luke 2:24). Conceivably, Joseph couldn’t afford a donkey for his wife to ride. Mary may have walked from Nazareth, Galilee to Bethlehem, Juda

How far Mary was into her nine-month pregnancy when Joseph and Mary made this trip, isn’t identified in the Bible. Pictures show Mary in about her eighth-month of pregnancy; however, these pictures could be inaccurate. It is unlikely that Joseph would wait that late in his wife’s pregnancy to start a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Conceivably, Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the 5th – 7th month of pregnancy.

 When Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, he would have gone first to his family home to stay with kinfolks. Perhaps, one or both of his parents were still alive. More than likely, one of his brothers lived in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, for Mary and Joseph there was no room for them in any home of Joseph’s kin. Possibly, several families returned to Bethlehem for the census. Relatives living in Bethlehem had no space for another couple. The Bethlehem inns were filled. Joseph and Mary couldn’t rent an inn room or even space on the inn floor.

Joseph and Mary may have stayed in a family member’s barn. In first century Judah, it was common for men to bring valued animals into the bottom floor of their home overnight to keep animals safe. This bottom floor functioned as a barn with family living space on the floor above. To understand this barn and home arrangement, think of the Middle Age crofters in Scotland.

 The bottom level of the home, the part reserved for animals, was rough, likely with a dirt floor. Its door may have been sufficient to keep the animals in the barn, but, did little to protect occupants from wind or rain. Most of these barns wouldn’t have had many, if any, divisions for individual animals such as we think of horse stables having stalls. Mary wrapped Jesus in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7). The manger was a better place for a newborn babe than the dirty floor with animal excreta.