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Monday, January 4, 2016

First Sermon of the Year - 2016

The Big Reveal (Matthew 2:1-12)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 3, 2016
My wife loves home remodeling shows and I love my wife.  So, I have watched these shows.  We don’t see them often now that we don’t have cable TV.  But, whenever we get a night away, we sit in the hotel room and watch some “do-it-yourself” program.
The experts from the Bravo network or HGTV meet with homeowners and spend the entire show with crowbars and sledgehammers tearing the kitchen apart.  It looks like a disaster.
            But, they stick with it.  They paint.  They review the designs.  They encourage each other in moments when it seems like it cannot possibly come together.  Then at the show’s end, they provide the “Big Reveal.”  The new kitchen is worthy of display in a design magazine.  It is immaculate, fresh, innovative, and so wonderful the homeowners weep in wonder and joy.  Can God do something so marvelous it leads us to weep in our gratitude and wonder?
            Adam and Eve weren’t sure he could.  They decided to trust their own wisdom instead of God’s.  The rebellion continued when their son Cain killed their other son Abel.  Sin spread to the point that the world descended into chaos so bad that God wiped it all out in the flood.  God started over with Noah’s family. 
            As soon as Noah was off the arc, he worshiped.  God accepting the offering, but God also noted that evil perpetually lurks in every human heart.  Noah’s son Ham confirmed God’s observation by shaming his father, who himself had passed in a drunken stupor. 
            By the first century BC, the world appeared as if for centuries human structures and institutions – societies, governments, families – had been torn apart by crowbars and sledgehammers.  However, unlike the design show, the destruction had no bigger purpose.  Sin has taken the good world God created and sent it in plummeting into chaos.  Sin destroys individual lives, communities, nations, and the natural order. 
            At Christmas time, we see how God deals with the devastation.  The coming of Christ is God’s “Big Reveal.”  Jesus is God’s answer.  If we look at disease and disasters, divorce rates and abortion rates, drunk driving deaths and addictions, terrorism and war – if we consider all the ways people suffer; if we see this and ask, OK God, what are you doing about it all???  “Jesus” is God’s answer.
God came and dwelt among us as one of us.  On the cross we see God take all the damnation of sin on himself.  Christmas – the birth of the Savior – is the beginning of God’s revelation of how the world is saved.  On the design show, in the newly remodeled kitchen we see results of the homeowners’ efforts.  They worked really hard.  The birth of Jesus is the big reveal of what God has done.  This is God’s work.  Salvation is what God has done and will do.
            Viewers of the design show, if it is done well, find themselves joyfully surprised at how wonderful the new kitchen is.  It went from a seemingly irredeemable mess to a place of beauty, a work of art that invites us to come in, sit down, and enjoy coffee and conversation.  What surprises come in God’s Big Reveal? 
            Hear that question, and rest with it for a moment.  What surprises does God have in store for you?  If you are an experienced churchgoer, can God surprise you at all?  Everything I have said about God, coming in human form in Jesus, all of it has been said before.  If you attend church regularly or even occasionally, you have heard this many times.
January 6 is Epiphany – the revelation of the Lord.  How much of a revelation is it?  Every year has a January 6 on the calendar.  Every year the magi come and see Christ for the first time.  They may be filled with wonder each time, but we read the story over and over.  How can we still be surprised by God?
I can’t give an exact answer.  If I could it wouldn’t be a surprise!  But I do believe with everything that is in me that God has new things to show me and to show you, to show our church and to show the world. 
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has written several books that anticipate the Second Coming of Christ, the final Judgment, and eternity spent in the Kingdom of God for all who are in Christ.  Wright does not attempt to describe that day in more detail than the Bible gives.  He imagines what life in the Kingdom will be like, but acknowledges that what he’s offering is imagination.  We are given glimpses in the Bible, but not much more than that.  Wright does offer this important suggestion.  He thinks the Day of the Lord, “will be full of surprises.”[i]
I don’t think we have to wait until then for surprises from God.  If we live in a dynamic relationship with God in which our prayers include listening to God, in addition to asking things of God which is also appropriate, God will open our eyes to new wonders all the time. 
To explore the thought that God might surprise us, we will begin 2016 in Biblical stories about people who went looking for God and were amazed and surprised by what they found.  We will go from now, into the first Sunday of Lent, February 14, seeing how different individuals in the Biblical story were surprised by God.  Along the way, we keep in front of us some questions. 
How can God surprise me?
How can God surprise HillSong church?
What surprises does God have in store for 2016?

As it is Epiphany, we begin with those seekers from the East who followed the star.  In our hymn, we described them as “three kings” from the Orient.  They are also called “wise men.”  We don’t know the actual number in their traveling party.  They were magi, ancient astronomers, first century Persian scientists.  They journeyed across the desert following a phenomenon in the sky.  They were headed toward Jerusalem.
Because so many Jews stayed in Persia after the end of exile, the Jewish religion was known there.  These intellectuals were more familiar with Hebrew Scriptures, including Messianic prophecy, than many Jews.  The amazing star and the fact that it led them to Israel made it clear that the Jewish Messiah had come. 
So the seekers went to the King’s palace in Jerusalem.  There, Herod gave them their first surprise.  “When King Herod heard this,” Matthew writes, “he was frightened.”  Why would the king of Israel fear the coming of the one promised in his own holy book?  He should have been watching for the Messiah.  Why did these Persians see the sign God had sent, and Jewish king did not?  The seekers discovered that Israel was not expecting anything from God; at least Herod, the supposed Jewish King, was not.  How could this be?
We must pause and deal with a haunting question.  If someone outside of Christianity looked into the church, would they be surprised to find that Christians don’t expect much from God?  Would they be shocked to discover our view of reality and our values in life are no different than people who have no interest in God?  We may find it easy to cast Herod as a faithless villain.  How much are our lives marked by a faith that truly expects God to speak, to protect and provide, and to act in ways that will bless us and the world in which we live?
The second surprise for the magi came in Bethlehem.  By the time they arrived, Joseph and Mary were out of the stable.  However, I bet their living quarters were far more humble than what the magi had back in Persia.  These erudite, wealthy scholars found themselves in the home of a peasant family.
Yet in that home in that baby, they saw the face of God.  How surreal was it for Mary when these exotic guests  began showering her with gifts worth more than generations of her family had ever seen?  What did Joseph think when these men who would normally never cross his path knelt to worship his baby boy?
The wise men left Bethlehem with an understanding of God they did not have before they came.  That’s what happens when we meet God face to face.  They learned how unconcerned God is with human conventions. God has no need of human kings.  God did not need Herod’s approval or acceptance.  God was fully God in a simple peasant family’s home.  And God was fully absent from deviant, faithless king’s palace. 
The wise men did not know a cross was coming, or a resurrection.  But after what they had seen, I don’t think they would have been surprised.  Rome crucified so many people, the news of Jesus’ death would not have causes even a ripple in the lives of people in other parts of the world.  Yet, I kind of think that the magi, the wise men, kept tabs on this baby they visited.  I believe they heard news; Jesus has been crucified.  I imagine them in deep grief.
And then, in a way that strains credibility but is just like our God of the possible, the report of the resurrection found its way east to the ears of these God-seeking scientists.  And I believe their heavy hearts felt the blinding brilliance of Heaven’s light shine on them.  Of course!  The God we met so many years ago, the nursing baby, conquered death through resurrection.  We didn’t see it coming.  Of course we didn’t.  I think they heard of the resurrection, believed it more easily than even the disciples, and broke out in smiles that could not be erased. 
This is the God we meet in the story of Jesus: the God of surprises.  What is God going to do in your life in 2016?  I believe God will do something.  I don’t know what it will be.  I am certain it will be beautiful.  I am certain of this because of who God is.  God is the God of the possible, the God of blessing, and the God of wonder.  I believe wonders are in store for us. 
I say this knowing people are going through some real trials.  Many among us care for ailing parents and have to make hard decisions.  Some among us face the specter of cancer.  Some live in the shadow of job uncertainty.  Some are in relationships that are very fragile right now, threatening to completely break.  I believe God sees all this, all that we go through.  I believe God loves us so much, there is more than just a promise of help in the face of pain or crisis.  God does not just want to get us through, help us survive.  God has blessing in store. 
This doesn’t mean the pain is not real.  It is and that needs to be named.  But even in dark days, I think God can and will reveal blessings that bring joy and enable us to flourish.  We will see what God reveals as we watch and listen in prayer, and we do this together.
How can God surprise me?
How can God surprise HillSong church?
What surprises does God have in store for 2016?

We begin 2016, turning our hearts to Heaven and putting these questions to God.

[i] He says this in Surprised by Joy and in other writings.  I have also heard him make this point in several speeches.

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