Repentance and Delight

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Please don’t hate me for this, but I live in the same town as my grandchildren.  Not only that, but I work four blocks from home, where my wife watches them on weekdays, and where I am often able to slip away for lunch and a quick visit.  But I think it’s a good thing for me as a preacher to have some children in my life.  They help me see the world through their eyes: to appreciate all over again how wonderful it is, how full of beauty, and to remember what is most important. 

Last Wednesday I went home and found that Leo (who is two-and-a-half years old today!) had conked out on his way home from preschool.  He was asleep on his nap mat in the living room.  I ate lunch quietly in the kitchen with Christy and Vivi, but when it was time to go back to work Christy mentioned that it was also time for Leo to wake up from his nap.  So, I went to the living room, and sat on the floor beside him, and began to rub his back and tell him a story, and the one I told him was the story of the first Christmas.  I talked about Joseph and Mary making the long journey from Nazareth, and about how, when they got to Bethlehem, they couldn’t find any room in the inn.  I talked about how they ended up in that stable with donkeys, cows, sheep, and chickens (making all the animal noises in an effort to rouse Leo from a very deep sleep).  I talked about how worried Joseph was and how hard Mary worked and how, eventually, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.  While I was telling that part of the story I was looking on Leo’s face, and thinking what a beautiful boy he is, and wondering how long people have been doing this: telling stories to their children.

As I read through the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah last week I could imagine the people of ancient Israel telling that story to their children, partly because it has so many animals in it: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and bears, and a little child who leads them all (notice I didn’t say anything about snakes).  But before all that it has a king, and not just any king.  Isaiah predicted: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” and anyone who knew anything about Israel’s history would know that he was talking about Jesse, the father of King David, the greatest king who had ever lived in Israel.  He was saying that another king would spring up from the stump of Jesse’s family tree.

Isaiah wrote: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (fear in this case meaning profound respect).  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with [God’s kind of ] righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (meaning the people of Israel); he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” Isaiah continued, “and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (meaning their enemies).[i]

Isaiah tells the story of a perfect king, one who is descended from the family of King David, one who will be full of the wisdom and power of God, one who will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and one who will smite the wicked with the breath of his lips.  “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,” Isaiah promises, “and faithfulness the belt around his loins!”[ii]  And for centuries afterward, when parents were putting their children to bed at night, or trying to wake them from their midday naps, they would tell the story of that king.  “One day he’s coming,” they would say, “and when he does the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  In those days “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” says the Lord; “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

It’s the story of a perfect king and a peaceable kingdom.  It’s the kind of story parents would tell their children whenever things got bad and through the centuries they had been given plenty of reasons to tell that story.  The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.  The Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587.  The Greeks took over what was left of Israel in 333 and the Romans did the same in 63.  In between Syria to the North and Egypt to the South fought over the tiny nation of Israel like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat.  But even when the sounds of battle could be heard in the streets, or maybe especially then, grandfathers would rub their grandsons’ backs and tell them the story of the king who would someday come, and how, when he did, the wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them. 

But before that day—before God rendered his terrible judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, before he placed his Chosen One on the throne of his ancestor David—God would send the prophet Elijah to call his people to repentance, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”  It said so in the very last sentence of the very last book of the Old Testament.[iii]  And so, when John the Baptist stepped onto the stage of history looking very much like the Prophet Elijah—making his home in the wilderness, wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey—the people of Israel got very excited.  All those grandchildren who had been told the story in their youth must have thought, “This is it!  This is what Grandpa was talking about!  This is the beginning of the great and terrible day of the Lord!”  And so when John began to suggest that people needed to repent and get baptized they came, they repented, they were baptized in the Jordan River.  Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came.

But when John saw them he said, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (See? There are snakes in both of these stories).  Bear fruit worthy of repentance!  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (And see?  There are also stumps in both of these stories).  What John is saying is what I’ve heard some of the old preachers say: that God doesn’t have any grandchildren.  You don’t get to heaven because your parents were good Christians and you don’t get a seat in God’s banquet hall because you’re a descendant of Abraham.  Every tree bears its own fruit, and the kind of fruit John is looking for is the fruit of a changed life.

He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  That, too, sounds like something I’ve heard the old preachers talk about—“unquenchable fire”—but as I looked at this passage again it occurred to me that fire could be a very positive thing, and maybe just what we need.

Some of you have been reading through the Bible with me this year.  I don’t know where you are in your daily reading, but last week I was making my way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I came to chapter 7, where Paul laments the state of his soul.  He writes: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[iv]  Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.  I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”[v]  The real answer, as Paul writes in the very next verse, is Jesus Christ.  And in his own way that may be what John the Baptist is saying.

“Look,” he says, “I baptize with water,” which means, “I can get you cleaned up on the outside.  I can get you looking pretty good externally.  But I can’t do anything for you internally.  Jesus is going to have to do that.  He’s the One who’s coming after me.  He’s the One who is far more powerful than I am.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  I baptize with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  And fire is what it will take. 

I know you don’t hear me talk a lot about sin.  I’m not one of those preachers who dwells on that.  I talk a whole lot more about working with Jesus to bring in the Kingdom of God.  But sin can get in the way of that, and sin can trip you up.  When I talk about the Lord’s Prayer I say that Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  That’s what he really wanted.  But he also taught them to pray that God would forgive their sins, because sin can be a stumbling block: it can keep you from fulfilling the mission.  I think about Paul, wrapped up in a wet wool blanket by the side of the road somewhere on one of his mission trips, unable to sleep and thinking about the sin in his own life.  There couldn’t have been much, could there?  He spent all his time working for the Lord!  And yet in a moment like that he may have thought, “Wretched man that I am; who will deliver me from this body of death?”  And that’s when it hit him: Jesus.  The one John was preaching about.  The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  “That’s what I need,” Paul may have thought.  “And especially on a night like this one, when I’m cold and miserable and unable to sleep because of worrying about my sin.  I need some refiner’s fire.”

You may remember that Paul was a saint.  He was precious to God, just as you are.  But even precious metal needs to be refined.  Gold, for instance, is heated in a crucible to as much as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  According to the experts, “When the gold reaches this temperature it melts.  The metals in the alloy separate and the gold sinks to the bottom of the crucible.  The other metals and impurities are left behind.”[vi]  When John says that the One who comes will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire he doesn’t say how hot the fire will be.  Maybe it depends on how many impurities there are and how much dross needs to be burned away.  Maybe it’s different for each person.  But the good news is the same: when the refiner’s work is done, “the…impurities are left behind.” 

I don’t know how you feel about that but I would love it.  I would love it if every impurity in my life, anything that might offend God, could be purged.  And I think I would be willing to go through it even if the process itself were painful, which is what being baptized with fire sounds like.  John says that the One who is to come will have the power to do that, and not only that, but also to baptize with the Holy Spirit.  I picture it like this: I picture Jesus baptizing me with refiner’s fire, purging away every impurity from my life, but then baptizing me with Holy Spirit, filling up all those places where the sin used to be.  Can you imagine that?  If your life could be flushed of every impurity and then filled with the Holy Spirit?  Can you imagine how different things might be?  In your own life at least that internal conflict could come to an end; that “war” Paul talks about, between what he knows is right and what he actually does, would be over.  The wolf would live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them.  This little child; the one whose birth we will celebrate three weeks from today.  The perfect king of a peaceable kingdom.  The one who has the power to make us perfect.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Isaiah 11:2-4 (all Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted).

[ii] Isaiah 11:5

[iii] Malachi 4:5-6

[iv] Romans 7:21-23,

[v] Romans 7:21-24, The Message

[vi] “How Gold is Refined,” a step-by-step guide from Pease and Curren (

Hopes and Fears

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

 In the past few months, I have come to appreciate the biblical insights of a woman named Debie Thomas, who was born in India but grew up in Boston, the daughter of an evangelical pastor.  Now she works at an Episcopal church in California and writes for the Christian Century.  In her comments on today’s Gospel lesson, she explains: “I didn’t grow up observing Advent.  My childhood church didn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and ‘Jingle Bells’—one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next (that may sound a lot like your childhood).  But,” she writes, “as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we are now entering.  I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer.  And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency—not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul.  Jesus as thief.”[i]

You may not love that the Gospel gets us started on this season with such startling images, but there they are.  The word advent means “coming,” and the one whose coming we anticipate is not Santa Claus, with a sack full of toys, but Jesus, with who knows what?  Justice?  Mercy?  What will the world look like when God’s will is done and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven?  We don’t know, exactly, and it makes us a little anxious.  We’d probably rather talk about Santa than Jesus during this season because with Santa at least we know what to expect.  Jesus has always been a little too unpredictable for our tastes.  In today’s Gospel lesson he talks about the coming of the Son of Man and says that it, too, will be unpredictable.  It will happen when we least expect it.  He urges us to stay awake, therefore, and be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour— “like a thief in the night.”

This Advent sermon series is called “What’s the Word?” and it was dreamed up by my friend Dorisanne Cooper, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.  She’s one of the preachers in my Preacher Camp group, and in the notes she shared with us last summer she wrote:

The question, “What’s the word?” is something we ask when we want to know what’s going on, when we want to get a picture of things. (Or when we can’t quite think of what we want to say).  Advent is a season with lots of familiar words (stable, swaddling clothes, shepherds), but as we more deeply engage the Advent texts themselves, other words arise that both reflect and shape our days and call us to deeper living. In many of the weeks’ texts, the Gospel reading tends to be more of a reflection of our days while the Hebrew Bible reading (all from Isaiah) points us toward the possibility of what might be.

So, is the Gospel reading for this Sunday, with all its frightening images, a “reflection of our days”?  Maybe so.  Dorisanne writes:

Ah, the tradition starting Advent with the apocalyptic texts! It’s actually one I lean into, usually borrowing from Fleming Rutledge’s phrase, “Advent begins in the dark.” [As a preacher] I don’t mind on this Sunday giving space to naming how hard life really is, and how bad things are or feel, to allow for people to be honest about where they are in response to the way the world of television commercials and glossy magazine ads tends to paint a picture of a perfect season with diamonds and new cars and everyone getting along. I find this Sunday gives extra permission to name how things aren’t like that for most all of us, but the truth of Advent is that that’s exactly what God comes into. The Matthew text allows us to name the feeling of the uncertainty of our days while diving deeper into the “word” that Isaiah saw and the hope of the ways and paths of God.

Dorisanne chose the title “Hopes and Fears” for this Sunday, two words suggested by the readings themselves.  The reading from Matthew is unusually fearful, while the Isaiah reading is abundantly hopeful.  Both words have something to do with Advent and as I thought about them last week I thought about how both words look forward, toward something that hasn’t happened yet.

In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago I talked about children, and how one of the things I love about them is the way they live in the moment.  Over Thanksgiving I asked the family, “When does that change?  When will Leo, for instance (my two-year-old grandson), start looking forward to Christmas?”  We agreed that he is already getting excited about Christmas lights and the prospect of presents, but he isn’t yet able to say, “Remember what we did for Christmas last year, Opa?” or, “Do you think it will snow on Christmas this year?”  For the most part, he is still living very much in the moment, and if the moment has Christmas lights in it, so much the better.

I’ve heard that anxiety occurs when our bodies try to respond to something that hasn’t happened yet.[ii]  We perceive a threat—real or imagined—and some internal alarm goes off.  Our hearts start beating faster, adrenaline is pumped into our system, we get ready to fight or flee, while actually there may not be anything to fear.  Amy Frykholm, a journalist who focuses on religion in America, seems to have that phenomenon in mind when she writes:

Lately I’ve been trying out a new discipline: reading the news without engaging in speculation about the future. I’ve been curious about how much of my daily news intake is not about what has happened, but various predictions about what might happen. As far as my new awareness indicates, my own news-reading routines are full of predictions: weather predictions, election predictions, economic predictions. Who will say or do what. What it will mean.

I’m aware of how attractive these predictions are to me. I almost always heedlessly give a part of my morning to participating in this collective project of predicting the future, for good or for ill, right or wrong. It is almost as though I am trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future. Given the number of these articles in the various news media that purport to know the future, I am guessing I am not alone.[iii]

“Trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future,” she writes.


Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples not to try too hard to figure out when the Son of Man would come.  “But about that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  So don’t waste your time making a list of the “88 reasons Christ will return in 1988” (like the one I remember seeing back in 1987, replaced the next year by a list called “89 reasons Christ will return in 1989”), and don’t waste your time putting up billboards announcing that Christ will return on May 21, 2011, as some people did, or that the world will be destroyed six months later, on October 21, 2011 because that didn’t happen either.  Amy Frykholm writes:

We tell ourselves these stories about the future because they allow us to imagine that we can prepare, that we know what’s coming, that if we only analyze the future rightly, we can create viable safety plans. The bigger the predicted catastrophe, the greater we imagine that just by knowing it is coming, we can avoid its most adverse effects. In other words, we use predictions about the future to try to escape the basic vulnerability of being human.[iv]

“Don’t even try” says Jesus, “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  And this may be a good time to admit that some of the warnings in today’s Gospel lesson are really scary.

Jesus talks about the days of Noah and then reminds his disciples that “in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.  So, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man,” he warns.  “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

When I was just starting out in ministry I talked about the return of Christ as a good thing, a happy thing, like when you were a child and your father had been away on a trip and then he came home a day earlier than you expected and you jumped up and down and said, “Daddy’s home!”  So shall the coming of the Son of Man be, I preached.  But when I look at this passage closely I hear Jesus warning of devastating floods, and sudden disappearances, and thieves breaking down our doors.  It’s not very comforting.  It could make you anxious.  It could make you fearful.  It could make you turn to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, from Isaiah chapter 2, which looks forward not with anxiety, but with expectation.

This is “the word that Isaiah saw,” a vision of the future that could make your heart beat faster with hope.  Listen: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

This passage comes from the Eighth Century, BC, a time when the nation of Israel was surrounded by enemies, when the threat of war was an ever-present prospect that must have made everybody anxious.  Into that grim reality Isaiah speaks this word of hope, a vision of a future in which everyone will want to know the Lord, that he may teach them his ways, that they may walk in his paths.  When that happens then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  Can you imagine?  Can you envision the people of our time, the people of this world, hungering and thirsting for the word of the Lord, hearing it and obeying it until they saw the foolishness of their ways and gave up their lust for power, until Russia, for example, turned its tanks into tractors and its helicopters into hay balers?  If you could hold onto that kind of vision you might be able to look toward the future with hope.  You might even begin to feel a sense of expectation, wondering,

“Could it come today?”

Which is what I think Jesus wants us to feel when we consider the coming of the Son of Man.  I don’t think he wants us to feel anxious; I think he wants us to feel expectant.  If I were advising him I might say, “Jesus, do you think you could cut out some of this language about floods and sudden disappearances and thieves?  That kind of talk just scares people.”  And he would say, “I didn’t mean to scare anyone.  What I meant is that you can’t predict these things.  You can’t wait until you know they’re coming and then get ready for them.  You have to be ready for these kinds of things at all times.  So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.”  And if you read all of Matthew 24 and not just today’s passage, you will find that Jesus is talking about something really hopeful.  “When the world around you is falling apart,” he says; “when you think things couldn’t get any worse; that’s when you need to lift up your heads, because that’s when the Son of Man will appear, and that’s when he will send out his angels and gather his beloved from every corner of the earth.”[v]  Whatever else that might mean, I think it means that if you belong to Jesus, you have nothing to fear.  And that’s good, because looking toward the future with fear leads to anxiety in the present, while looking toward the future with hope leads to expectancy.

And that’s what we love about Christmas, isn’t it?  We expect something wonderful.  We don’t know what it will be, exactly, but we believe it will be good.  If it wasn’t they wouldn’t call it Christmas.

I think about my own Christmases as a boy.  I’ve told you about them before.  We were poor.  I couldn’t have looked forward to them because I was going to get so many presents or so many sweets.  And yet I looked forward to Christmas with an excitement I have rarely felt about anything since.  On the night before I couldn’t sleep.  I would lie awake in my little twin bed waiting until six o’clock, because my parents had told me I couldn’t wake them up before then.  And finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would pull my mattress off the bed and drag it down the hall to the top of the stairs, where I could lie on my stomach and see the clock on the wall and hear it tick-tick-tick ever so slowly toward the appointed hour.

I was well past that age when I was living in the moment.  I was living with the memory of Christmas past and the hope of Christmas future.  I was quivering with expectation, just waiting for that minute hand to reach the top of the dial so I could leap out of bed, run down the stairs, throw open my parents’ bedroom door, and shout “Merry Christmas!”

The coming of Christ is going to be kind of like that, Jesus says, and if you’re not ready it could scare the (what’s the word?) bejeebers out of you.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Like a Thief,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (

[ii] Andrew D. Lester, Coping with Your Anger: a Christian Guide (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1983)

[iii] Amy Frykholm, “Our Hidden Future,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Matthew 24:30-31.

Searching for Truth

The Sunday before Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

“You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will make you free.”  He said it a long time ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant than it is right now, when we Americans seem to be having such a hard time agreeing on what is true.  Seriously, is it only me, or have you had some conversations in the past few years where you think you are saying two plus two equals four, but the other person says, “No, it doesn’t; it equals five”?  And you say, “How is that possible?  Two plus two has always equaled four,” and they say, “No, it hasn’t.”  And you stand there, with your mouth open, not knowing what to say next, because you can’t even agree on the facts.

One nonprofit global public policy think tank notes that “the line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred.” [i]  They call this phenomenon “Truth Decay,” and this is how they explain it on their website: “America’s current era of Truth Decay is defined in part by an increasing disagreement about objective facts that exists on a scale not observed in previous periods,” and that includes the period in which I grew up.

When I was a boy my family didn’t have a television, but when I visited friends I would sometimes watch theirs.  I was so fascinated by TV itself that I didn’t care what was on and once ended up watching the evening news with my friend’s parents.  There was a man with a mustache telling us what had happened that day.  It lasted about half an hour and when it was over he said, “And that’s the way it is.”  That man was Walter Cronkite, and although I was seeing him for the first time a lot of Americans thought of him as “Uncle Walter.”  They loved him and trusted him to tell them the truth, and night after night that’s what he did, in about thirty minutes, on black-and-white TV.

But a few years later some crazy person decided that what America needed was a 24-hour cable news network, and CNN was born—all news, all the time.  But there’s really not that much news, not even if you look for it all over the world.  So, what we began to get was news plus commentary, and we didn’t mind that; sometimes it helps to have a little commentary.  But then, as competing cable news networks began to spring up, we began to get news plus commentary plus opinion, and we didn’t always mind that either.  Sometimes we like our news with a saucy side helping of opinion, especially if it’s an opinion we agree with.  But then social media made it possible to “like” those opinions, publicly, and to share them with our friends, until our friends who had different opinions began to argue with us, and call us names, so that we had to unfriend them and find other friends who agreed with us, who shared not only our opinions about things in general, and not only our commentary on the news, but also our understanding of the facts.

That’s where we are today and this is how the people at Truth Decay sum it up.  They see: 1) an increasing disagreement about facts and data; 2) a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; 3) the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact; and 4) a declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.  And then they list the consequences of Truth Decay: 1) an erosion of civil discourse; 2) political paralysis; 3) alienation and disengagement; and 4) Uncertainty, when we just don’t know what to believe any more, when we have no real way of knowing what is true.[ii]

So, to hear Jesus say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” is exciting.  “Yes!” we say.  “Give us some of that!”  And if we had lived in the time when the Gospel of John was written, we might have been even more excited, because that’s what those people were searching for: a truth that would set them free.  John was written near the end of the First Century, AD, at a time when a new philosophy called Gnosticism was gaining in popularity.  Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has within us a “spark” of the Divine, but it is trapped inside this physical body, and the flesh is essentially evil.  So, what we need to release that spark, so it can return to its source, is some kind of special knowledge (that’s where the word Gnosticism comes from: gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”).  That knowledge has to come to us from outside the physical world, and the one who brings it to us will be our “savior.”

With that in mind, hear Jesus say, once again, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  For those who were just getting acquainted with Gnosticism, it may have sounded like an invitation to learn from Jesus the special knowledge (or, as he put it, the “truth”) that would liberate the divine spark within them from the prison house of the flesh so that it could return to its Divine source.

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, and in Greek the Gospel lesson from John 1 begins like this: En arch hn o logoV: “In the beginning was the Word.”  Rebecca Denova explains, “In the philosophical thought of the time, logos was the principal of rationality that connected the highest god to the material world.”[iii]  In other words, the logos was the mediator between God and people.  Keep that in mind as you hear John say, “And the logos was with God, and the logos was God…and the logos became flesh and lived among us.”

It would have been very exciting to those early adherents of Gnosticism to think that they might learn from Jesus the truth that would set them free from the prison house of the flesh, in the same way it excites me to think that we Americans, who have become so polarized by our competing versions of the truth, might find in Jesus something that would bring us together, and set us free.[iv]  At a time when we can’t agree on the facts, is it possible that we might come to know the Truth?

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, but it is also the Sunday before Epiphany, when we focus on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew, chapter 2.  You’ve already heard some references to that story in today’s worship service, but I don’t think you’ve heard this: that the wise men may have practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism.  I had heard that rumor somewhere before, but last week I began to do some research and was amazed by what I learned.  First of all, this religion was named for an actual man, a Persian named Zoroaster who lived hundreds of years before Christ.[v]  He grew up in the religion of his time, a religion which had many gods and offered animal sacrifices, but when he was thirty years old he had a vision of an angel standing on a riverbank who said that he had been sent with a message from the one true god.  From that message came a new religion, or at least a radical reformation of the old religion.  One of the first things Zoroaster did was put an end to animal sacrifice.  But he also taught that there is only one God.  He called him Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—and believed that he was not only all-wise, but also all-good.  He believed that human beings should reflect that goodness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.  And finally, he believed that each of us has free will to choose between good and evil.

Joshua Mark writes, “The central value of [Zoroastrianism] was human free will. If one chose to follow the precepts of Ahura Mazda, one lived a fulfilling life; if not, one became tangled in deceit and experienced strife and confusion.”[vi]  And so to believe in the one true God, to believe that he was not only all-wise but also all-good, meant reflecting God’s goodness by thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds, specifically:

  • Telling the truth at all times – especially keeping promises
  • Practicing charity to all – especially those less fortunate
  • Showing love for others – even if they did not return the sentiment
  • Moderation in all things – especially in diet

The new religion caught on, and it spread throughout ancient Persia, not so much through evangelistic efforts as through the virtuous behavior of believers who adhered to three core values:

  • To make friends of enemies
  • To make the wicked righteous
  • To make the ignorant learned”[vii]

I have to confess: I didn’t know any of this before doing my research for this sermon and I am astounded by all of it.  I’m not planning to become a Zoroastrian, but on this first Sunday of a New Year I can hardly imagine a better set of resolutions than these: to tell the truth at all times, to practice charity to all, to show love for others, and to practice moderation in all things.  And I can also hardly imagine a better way to win converts to the Christian religion than by doing what these Zoroastrians tried to do: make friends of enemies, make the wicked righteous, and make the ignorant learned.

And so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the wise men, the magi, who show up in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 2, were probably not three kings named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, and probably not Professors of Astrology at the University of Persia,[viii] but were instead probably Zoroastrian priests.  Listen to this description: “While little is known about how the faith was observed or how rituals were conducted, sacrifices, probably in the form of food, grains, and precious objects, were delivered to the magi—the priests—in return for their intercession with [God], and this practice made the clergy one of the wealthiest and most powerful social classes of Persian society.”  Nevertheless, they remained seekers of the truth, and they scanned the night skies perpetually looking for signs from Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—that would lead them in the right direction.

They used logic, they used reason, but when they saw a new star blaze into existence in the Western sky, they must have been like schoolboys, jumping for joy, and they must have saddled their camels almost immediately to follow this sign to where they first spotted it, rising above the mountains of Israel, announcing by its very presence the birth of a new king.

It’s a long way from Persia to the Promised Land.  It would have taken them more than a year to get there.  And when they did they would have followed the same road everyone else took from Jericho up to Jerusalem, the royal city, the place you would expect a king to be born.  But something happened as they traveled up that road, something that may have happened to you.  Do you know how it is in the city, that you can’t see the stars at night?  Their feeble glow is overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city.  And so it was for these wise men: the closer they got to Jerusalem the less they were able to see the star, until finally it was gone altogether, lost in a blaze of ambient light.  So they asked Herod, “Where is the child that has been born king of the Jews?”  And although he didn’t like it, he asked his wise men what they knew.  “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, which was a little town just seven miles from Jerusalem.  Only as they left the bright lights of the big city were the Wise Men able to see that star again, and they followed it until it seemed to rest on top of one particular house, and when they saw that, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Their long journey was over.  When they entered the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother.  And they did something that tells us a lot about them: they knelt down and paid him homage, that is, they worshiped him, this little boy with dirty cheeks and shining eyes.  And then they opened their treasures and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts fit for a king.

In a story about the wise men Garrison Keillor says, “They came from a great distance, following a star, which for wise men was not really very smart.  Because a star is up in the sky, and so the sense of direction you get from a star is going to be a little bit general, and which [house] the star is ‘right over’ kind of depends on where you are standing at the time.  So these guys were navigating on faith.  They took a long trip based on less hard information than a person might like to have.  But, they came through, and they found Christmas, on faith.  They actually found it, and so may we, although it may be even more of an adventure for us today than it was for them back then, because there is so much artificial light during Christmas, and so much reflected light, that there’s kind of a general glow, and it may be hard to pick out stars in the sky, just as it is in the city, even a very bright one.  But it can be found, and it can be followed, and we can find [Christmas].

“There is hope.”[ix]

You’ve seen that bumper sticker: “Wise men still seek him.”  So they do, and so do wise women and children.  They are seeking the truth, the special knowledge that will set them free, and what today’s scriptures tell us is this: that the truth we are seeking can be found in Jesus.  When we know him—when we truly know him—that truth and that knowledge will make us free.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] The 70-year-old RAND Corporation, which claims to be nonpartisan.


[iii] Rebecca Denova, “Gnosticism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (

[iv] Just to be clear, Gnosticism was denounced by the early Christians as a heresy: they didn’t believe that that flesh was evil, and if they had John certainly wouldn’t have told us that the Word that was with God and was God became flesh (ugh!).  But they did believe there was a truth in Jesus that was liberating, a truth that liberates us still.

[v] Joshua L. Mark, “Zoroastrianism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] As I have sometimes imagined them, bumping across the desert on camelback smoking pipes and wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.

[ix] Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, “Faith: Stories from the Collection” (