In From the Fringes (1/8/17)

Attending college was a goal of mine when I was in high school. To help me get ready, I took college prep classes to prepare for the academic work. Participating in leadership positions in the various clubs not only helped make me a better person, it also made my college applications look better. One club which I felt was vitally important to have on my applications was the National Honor Society. So, during my junior year, I applied and was accepted into membership.

I looked forward to this club because I was friends with most of the other members. We ate lunch together, played sports together and hung out. But something changed when we gathered for our meetings. Some of them became snobs. To make matters worse, the club didn’t seem to have a purpose other than to puff up the members because they had good grades.

The longer I was part of this organization, the more I despised it. During my senior year, the club leaders organized an overnight trip to Marshall University so we could learn more about college life. I was the only member of the club who didn’t go. By this point, I was living in the fringes of this club. Yes, I was a member and attended the meetings but I didn’t really feel like I was part of the group.

It’s OK to be on the fringes of a high school club that really doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of life. It’s much different, however, to be on the fringes of a body created by God to help prepare its members for eternity.

Jesus didn’t live a sinless life and die on the cross for anyone to be on the fringes of church. Matthew 2:1-12 saysAfter 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In this passage, we’re introduced to two things we don’t see anywhere else in the Bible. The first is the Magi from the east. Who were they? While little is known about them, many scholars think they were astronomers who lived in Persia, the area that is now Iran. They believed events on earth were revealed in the heavens. Evidently, they saw something in the sky which told them the king of the Jews had been born. So, they set off to find him.

The second thing we see in this passage is a moving star. What exactly was it? Some have said it was a comet or even a supernova. Others say it was the alignment of Jupiter, which represented royalty, and Saturn, which sometimes represented the Jews. While these theories might explain a phenomenon in the skies over Persia, they don’t explain how a star can later move and then stop over a specific house. Comets, supernovas and planets simply don’t do this. Clearly some sort of miracle happened.

A careful reading of the scripture passage shows something interesting happens with the star. It appears in the sky to the Magi, disappears, and then appears again over the house where Jesus’ family is living. We usually don’t think about this when we read the Christmas story or put out our manger scenes.

How do we know it disappeared for a time? If the star stayed in the sky the whole time, the Magi could have left home and followed it right to Jesus’ house without having to stop in Jerusalem to ask for directions. Obviously, God wanted the Magi to stop and talk with Herod, the Jewish king. But why?

The answer is actually quite simple. Even though the Jews were praying for a Messiah, they completely missed his arrival. The very people Jesus came to redeem weren’t able to see what God was doing right before their very eyes. Because of this, God sent Gentiles to tell them.

The fact God worked like this is also a little ironic. In Exodus 19, Moses had led the Israelites to the foot of Mount Sinai so they could meet God. Exodus 19:3-8 says, Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.”

Throughout the following centuries, the Jews became very proud of their heritage and the fact they were God’s chosen people. They also forgot their purpose. They were to be a “kingdom of priests.” The purpose of a priest is to be a mediator between God and humanity. They are a go-between. God called the Israelites to introduce him to the other nations so they too could have salvation in his name. As a whole, the Jews failed miserably at this. They became proud and thumbed their noses at the Gentiles. Instead of leading the Gentiles into a closer relationship with God, the Jews kept them on the fringes.

Sending the Magi, who were Gentiles, to announce the arrival of the Jewish Messiah was God’s way of reminding the world that he wasn’t just the God of the Jews. He’s the God of everyone. People no longer needed to live on the fringes with God.

Today is the first Sunday of Epiphany in the church.  The term comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” and originally marked a feast which celebrated the baptism of Jesus. Beginning in the fourth century, however, Epiphany has been linked with Christ revealing himself to the Magi, the first Gentiles to believe in him.

Why did God need to reveal himself in the form of Jesus Christ? Without Jesus, none of us have hope.

When I was younger, I had trouble believing Jesus really died for me. He died for the other people who seemed to have it all together. Perhaps I could sneak into heaven on the coattails of what he did for them. Then one day, something happened. I had a true experience with Jesus and finally accepted the fact he died for me too. I could come in from the fringes. I didn’t have to live on the outskirts of the church I attended.

Are you living on the fringes of the Snake Spring Valley Church of the Brethren, attending worship when it suits your schedule and helping with an event here or there, but keeping yourself at a distance from everyone and everything else? If you are, why?

If you’re living there because in the past someone in church leadership acted like a snob and made you feel you didn’t belong, on behalf of church leadership everywhere, please forgive us. Come and talk to me about it so we can work things out. We do not want anyone to feel this way. Come in from the fringes.

Perhaps you’re on the fringes because you don’t feel you’re worthy to move in closer to the center of congregational life. If this is you, please know something. Jesus died for you too so you could be lifted up out of the hole of sin, doubt and weakness. You don’t have to try and get into heaven on the coattails of what he did for others. You are forgiven and redeemed. You need to come in from the fringes.

Perhaps you’re on the fringes because you choose to be. You are more interested in spending your time working or playing than you are in being part of the church that God created. If this is you, please know you’re playing a dangerous game with God. This isn’t what God intends. Come in from the fringes.

So, how do we come in from the fringes of a church congregation and truly participate in what Christ is doing here? Let’s look at some lessons we can learn from the Magi:

1) Don’t be content simply hearing about Jesus. Meet him face to face. The Magi didn’t sit around wondering about Jesus. They made an effort to meet him. We can’t be content just reading about him in the Bible or listening to sermons that we think are for everyone else but don’t apply to us. We have to let Jesus into every area of our lives.

2) Be willing to move. Most likely it took the Magi weeks or even months to make the 1000-mile journey to Bethlehem after God revealed the star to them. Are you letting God move you closer to Jesus, even if you’ve had some bad experiences in the church or the journey is long and slow?

3) Give Jesus your gifts. The wise men brought gifts to Jesus. 1 Corinthians 12 says every one of us has spiritual gifts that we are to use for the benefit of God and others. Are you giving your gifts to Jesus and using them to your fullest potential?  If you aren’t as active as you should be, how would you like to be more involved with the ministries of this congregation? Perhaps God is laying it on your heart to start a new ministry. Please talk with me or with someone else in leadership to let us know how you’d like to use your gifts.

The fact I was on the fringes of the National Honor Society hasn’t affected my life one bit. However, living on the fringes of church has eternal consequences. It will affect the rewards you receive in heaven and it may indicate you really don’t know Jesus. If you’re living out there, please come closer to Jesus and, ultimately, closer to us.

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