“Bless the King”
January 2, 2011 - Epiphany Sunday
One in four Americans cannot name a single positive contribution that Christianity has recently made to our society. That’s the finding of a Barna Group telephone survey of a thousand randomly selected adults in August. Generally, people across the spectrum of religious belief found it easier to name the negative contributions of Christian faith rather than to state some positive benefits of our religion.
Like President Obama, British Petroleum, Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan, Christianity has an image problem. We just don’t look that good to the world at large. Another study shows that 38 percent of Americans say they have a general “bad impression” of Christianity. Since more than 70 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, it means some of us are saying it about ourselves.
Our psalm this morning, a portion of Psalm 72, is a prayer for a King with no image problem at all. Verse 8 sees him as immensely popular, having “dominion from sea to sea… to the ends of the earth.” It goes on to picture even His enemies bowing before him. All the rulers of the earth show up to render tribute and bring Him gifts. In the Christian festival of Epiphany we recall the magi carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and bowing before the infant Jesus. We believe this psalm was fulfilled there in a little house in Bethlehem as eastern wise men worshipped Mary’s Child.
Yet for all the worship of the magi, and the shepherds, and the angels, and yes, of kings and emperors like Constantine and Charlemagne and just about every American president, Jesus Christ and His Church have an image problem in our day. Fewer and fewer people, especially among young adults, want this psalm to be true of Jesus. They’re not at all inclined to join in verse 15 saying, “Long may He live! May gold of Sheba be given to Him,” or verse 17, “May His name endure forever, his fame as long as the sun.” They feel that the world might even be a better place if Christianity and the name of Jesus just sort of faded out of the picture.
Jesus’ image problem, of course, is not really His problem. Some of those who are terribly negative about Christianity feel pretty positive about Christ. It’s the Church and the people who are part of it that inspires most of that negativity uncovered by pollsters. That’s why there’s a trend among younger believers to try and break away from the Church, to call oneself a “Christ-follower” rather than a “Christian.” It’s an attempt to deal with the image problem by changing the label.
It’s very modern and very American to think that a change of label will help a product perform better in the market. It’s easy to think we can rehabilitate society’s impression of our faith just by talking about it and advertising it in new and different ways. Label changes can occasionally be helpful, but ultimately and in the end, the label needs to hang on something that’s worth wanting, worth having.
Twenty years ago I walked into our post office in Lincoln, Nebraska and saw a bright banner with the familiar red, white and blue logo of the United States Post Office. It read “The New Postal Service.” After the usual long wait in line, I got up to the counter, pointed to the banner, and asked the clerk, “So what is new about the postal service?” He turned, looked at it for a moment, thought a bit, and said, “We got a new sign.”
A new sign, a new label is not enough. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if we call ourselves Christians or Christ-followers or make up some brand new term for people who believe in Jesus. There still needs to be something worthwhile going on beneath the sign. The name still has to mean something.
Our psalm shows us part of the answer. The Messiah King pictured here by David is honored and blessed and showered with gifts because of what He does, as described beginning in verse 12, “For he delivers the needy when they call.”
The King in this psalm is being honored because he helps the needy, the poor, the weak, the oppressed. He takes pity on them. He saves their lives. He rescues them from violence. That’s the work of the great King. That’s the work of Jesus Christ. That’s our work.
In the Barna survey, when people did come up with a positive contribution made by Christianity, the one most mentioned, by about one-in-five, was just that: service to the poor and needy. People get the greatest good impression about Christianity when we do as we’ve done this past week, taking homeless men, women and children in out of the cold. We are making Jesus look good when you and I are feeding people, covering them with a blanket and putting clean, dry socks on their feet.
Isaiah chapter 60 also talked about those kings coming to worship Jesus. He even mentioned the gold and incense, and the camels that the magi traditionally rode on their way to Judah. Yet the whole prophecy is framed by those wonderful lines, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.”
The world is dark and people are looking for light. Jesus looks good when His people make Him shine in the darkness by the things they do, by the love they show, by the help they offer. We have a King who came to be light for the whole world. Everything we say and do together as Christians, as a church, is to make Him shine.
That’s why no one should think that we can just turn into some sort of religiously neutral social service organization. Hardly any of us would do that service without Him to motivate us. Those of you who’ve stayed up late or gotten up early to serve the people who’ve slept in our sanctuary probably would not be doing it if it were not for your faith that Christ is the world’s light.
A couple days ago as our guests sleeping in the sanctuary awoke and got breakfast, one of them asked a volunteer, “Why are you doing this? We’re just a bunch of dirty, smelly, foul-mouthed bums. Why would you want to do this for us?” That volunteer replied, “I’m doing this for Jesus.” And our guest said, “That’s a good reason.”
One of the greatest and most visible miracles of Christianity is that Jesus causes people to give. It started with those nameless sages from Persia trekking across the desert to bring their gifts to the little Boy. They wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble except for their desire to worship the King. You and I would never go to all the trouble we do to give and to serve except for our own desire to worship our King. He came and gave Himself to the world and people all over world have been giving themselves back to Him ever since.
That’s what keeps Jesus’ image intact. For every scandal, for every misbehaving member of the clergy, for every ugly political statement made by a Christian, there are many, many more believers quietly doing what Jesus came to do, shining His light where there is darkness.
Blessing our King and making His image shine in the world happens in all sorts of small and gentle ways. I’ve seen it happening among His people all around me. We got a Christmas letter Friday from a pastor and his wife now retired who helped welcome Beth and me into the Covenant church by their friendliness. Even now in their eighties, when we haven’t seen them in years, they sat down and hand-wrote a long letter to tell us about their family and to say how they remember us.
A long time ago in the church in which I grew up, I remember our little, struggling congregation buying an old bus and driving it around a poor section of Los Angeles to pick up children for Sunday School. I remember others seeking out and inviting some pretty wild young men from East LA to play on our church basketball team. And I remember my mother, long after her own children were grown, putting together Sunday School lessons and snacks for those little kids who arrived on the bus and cooking a steak dinner to celebrate those big tough guys who played on the basketball team. I think it made Jesus look good.
I remember an attorney in our church in Nebraska who did pro bono work and raised money for our city mission, and a whole group of people in our church in Indiana who put on a Christmas party every year for people with mental illness and handicaps. And I remember that this congregation was already housing homeless people for a week every year when I came here. That all makes Jesus look very good.
Each of us has our gifts. Those magi came with what they had and they blessed Jesus. One tradition says that Mary and Joseph were able to sell the gold and incense and perfume to finance their journey to Egypt. Their worship and generosity kept the Holy Child safe and alive. Whatever gifts and worship we bring to Jesus today help keep His reputation and glory alive in our time.
Your wonderful gifts to Jesus at the end of this past year mean that we’re going to be able to pay the gas and electric bills to keep the name of Jesus shining for those who slept in the building next door last night. It means that we can keep sharing the light of the Gospel with anyone who walks in our doors and with those whom we meet in our community. You are making Jesus look really good.
David the psalmist first prayed Psalm 72 as a kind of exaggerated fatherly hope for his son Solomon. Verse 20 which we didn’t read says that it was the last of his prayers. David must have had some sense that his prayer went beyond his immediate children. It’s a song that captures the light and hope which his greatest descendant, Jesus, would bring into the darkness of this world. It sings of faith in a King who will always look good. Verse 17 says, “May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.” We’re here because the name of Jesus is famous and we’re keeping it that way.
However you came here this morning, my hope and prayer is that you will be blessed by Jesus the King and will bless Him with your own gifts. You may have walked in today in darkness. Then I pray that, in someone’s kind word, in the grace of the Lord’s Table, in a friendly greeting, or in some form of tangible help, you will see Jesus looking good, looking bright and glorious as your Savior. If you came in blessed or feel blessed now, then I pray you will bless our King with what you do and give in the new year. Put your talent and time and treasure into His service.
Then in this Epiphany season before us we will remember that our King is the King of the whole world. His name is honored and blessed wherever we make it so. As verse 19 says, “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth.” May you and I bless the King so that the numbers in those polls turn around. May there be no one in our town or in our world who has anything bad to say about Jesus. May we Christians wear His name in such a beautiful way that everyone knows the name and the blessings of Christ the Lord.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj