Sermon written by Rev. KJ Norris for Kerr Presbyterian Church on Epiphany Sunday, January 3, 2021 based on Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12.
We are beginning 2021 with a new sermon series, “Life in the Spirit.” Over the next 6 weeks we will be taking a look at the Holy Spirit and how God the Spirit moves in our lives and in our world.
If you would like to know more about this sermon series, you can find out about it on our church website and you can prepare your hearts for worship by reading the Scriptures we will be studying ahead of time or by participating in our new Psalm Challenge.
Today, we are opening this study of the Holy Spirit by asking: what is sacred and what is secular? Let’s turn to our Scriptures this morning.
Let us Pray: God of light and life, open our eyes as well as our ears,
so that we may not only hear your Word preached today
but then see your Word lived out in our lives and in your world, through Christ, our Lord, the light of the world. Amen. (Sourcebook, 509)
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So what do you think of when you hear the word “sacred?”
(Sacred music, sacred objects. Generally anything that has been blessed by God or set apart for God’s service).
What do you think of when you hear the word “secular?”
(Generally anything else! Things of the world. Things not set aside for God’s use).
So if I was to throw out a few words for you, tell me—are they sacred or are they secular: Bible, socks, cross, washing the dishes, mountain.
Right. In English we have these words—sacred and secular. And I would submit to you today that these are not just words but rather ideas. Or even ways of life. Language influences thought. And in English speaking cultures—in the dominate American culture and in many cultures around the world today—we not only have these words, we have a general idea that the world is split into two parts. We generally think that the world is divided into what is sacred—the things of God—and what is secular—the things that are not.
There are other cultures that do not think that way and most ancient cultures (the ones that I have studied anyway) did not think this way. They saw no separation between what is sacred and what is secular. But we as a culture have created a line, a great chasm between these two aspects of our life—between what is God’s and what is not.
This has been going on for quite a while. And it has looked different for different people of faith.
This cultural shift really began in the 1500s, in the beginning of what historians now call the Modern Period. The history buffs in the room can tell you this is also known as the Renaissance period of the Age of Discovery in Europe.
In this time, there were vast scientific advancements being made and Christians started to ask whether or not all this knowledge and growth of understand and way of thinking was a good thing. There were some faithful Christians who rejected all of the advancement of ideas calling it secular knowledge and seeing that way of thinking as negative or even against the will of God.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this which is still common today is our Christian brothers and sisters who are Amish—the PA Dutch who live just north of us and also in Lancaster and other parts of PA. They rejected advancement and science as being too secular, as knowledge that could lead them from knowing God. And still today they live their lives with horses and buggies and with ancient farming techniques instead of tractors.
The person who founded the Presbyterian Church, though, a person named John Calvin, wrote against this way of thinking. He was a prolific writer and took on all kinds of topics about God and faith, especially in his book called the Institutes. Because it was written in the 1500s, you can find the whole book now online for free if you are interested in it.
It’s an amazing work and I enjoy reading it because John Calvin was a really passionate person. He gets all wound up about this stuff. I imagine that if he was here today he would be banging on the pulpit and spit would be coming out of his mouth showering everyone in the front row. He was that kind of bold and passionate person, but used the fire in his belly for good.
Here’s what he said about rejecting things because they were too secular. Just listen.
Read Except from Institutes II.2.15 Science as God’s Gift–note, it is found half way down on the long internet page. (Calvin, 274)
Calvin goes on to say that mathematics and linguistics and medicine and philosophy and all these ways of thinking that are supposedly “secular” are not ravings of madmen, but instead a great gift from God.
He says, “We cannot read the writings…on these subjects without great admiration…let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature.”
Calvin looks at this line many in his day were drawing in the sand, saying that we should ignore the wisdom of the world—that which is secular–and forsake it completely for the things of God—for the things that we say are sacred—and Calvin turned it on its head.
Calvin helped people of his day, and us now 500 years later, to understand that it’s a false dichotomy to think that there are something that are God’s and some that are not; that there are some ideas that are secular and some that are sacred. No, he said. All knowledge that we have is a gift from God. Our minds are a gift from God and therefore should not be taken for granted.
This Scriptural truth that there is no separation between the things of God and the things that are not, is seen throughout the Bible and is especially evident in today’s New Testament Story.
The Magi were not people who were particularly religious. At least not religious in the way that we think that should be. There was a general understanding in the time of Jesus that God had come to one tribe, one people, one nation, the people of Israel. And that only they could know the truth of God.
It is true that God had formed a special covenant relationship with Israel, but that relationship had never meant to be only for some people. In fact, when the relationship between God and Abraham is first established, God makes it clear that Abraham will be blessed so that all people of the earth would be blessed (see Genesis 12:1-3).
The Magi were not necessarily looking for God—they were not trying to take on a sacred task. Instead, they were astronomers. They studied the stars and looked for patterns. They were mathematical geniuses who used the best scientific tools of their day.
And while they were going about their studies, God broke in. God revealed to them that a miracle was taking place. That the king of all kings was to be born. And then God lead them, through their secular understanding, to encounter the Christ Child, God with us, Emmanuel.
So this 6-weeks, we are looking at how the Holy Spirit is at work in us, in our lives, in our world.
The first, and perhaps most important thing to understand is, God isn’t separate from our world or only involved in certain aspects of our world, but God is in everything.
Here’s five very quick Scriptures about this:
From Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). –there is nothing in all of creation that was not made by God. Everything that is from the plants and animals and humans to even the star dust and the spiritual realm was created by God. There is no secular space that God did not create.
From Colossians: The author speaking of Jesus says, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). –Not only are all things created by God, but God continues to hold them all together. God did not just create the world and then leave it as if it didn’t matter, but God is still continuously at work in the world and in us.
And again while we are in Colossians hear these words: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). This comes out of the section in Colossians on Holy Living—on a sacred lifestyle, if you will—and the Scriptures affirm that living life for God is not about pulling away from the world but rather doing everything we do recognizing that God is with us—even if we are washing the dishes or going to the store; there is no secular act as long as we recognize God at work.
Two more. First, there is a Psalmist who pondered this question about the secular and sacred just as we are doing today and just as John Calvin did before us. The Psalmist asks it this way, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8). –There is no place that God is not. Sometimes we worry that our families are far from God. Or we think that there are places that God cannot reach—drug dens, prisons, ways of thinking that we suppose can never be changed. But there is no place that God cannot touch. Nowhere that God cannot be. The Holy Spirit reaches into the depths. We can trust God even in our most hopeless moments.
And finally the words of Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26). –Jesus assures us that he is a work in everything. From the food that we eat to the clothes that we wear to the care of the birds in the sky. There is nothing outside of the realm of God.
So, what’s our take away for this week? I hope it is two sides of the same coin. You see, when we think that there is a sacred and a secular we can fall into two traps:
- on one hand we can think to ourselves—oh, I did my sacred duty for the week. I went to church! I can check that off the list. Done. But in reality, there is not a sacred checkbox; all of life is sacred and everything you do is sacred so our lives should be filled with the glory of God and service to God throughout the week
- And on the other hand, when we think that there is sacred and secular we might shy away from the wisdom of the world, thinking it is somehow bad or harmful. But if we do this, we might miss what the Magi could see. We might miss God at work in ways that we don’t expect. We want to be constantly looking into the world and seeing how God is at work in and through it.
So, I’m giving you homework for the week!
This week we are going to start something new. I’m calling it the Psalms Challenge. The Psalmists understood that God was in and through everything and so they brought their whole lives before God. I want us to live like the Psalmists, and we can start by tucking away some words of Scripture in our hearts. That way, whatever we do, we do it thinking of God and God’s work.
If you are up for the challenge, here is what we are going to do. We are going to learn 4 Psalms over the next 4 weeks. They are all up on the website so you can find them there and join in the fun. Next week, before church, at about 10 till 11, I ask all of us, whether you are in the building or online to say Psalm 100 by heart. If you can learn 4 Psalms in 4 weeks, you will get a very cool Kerr Prize.
And as you learn it this week, look for the ways God is at work in the world for God is everywhere. Let us pray.
The worship sourcebook. (2013). Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
Calvin, J. (ed. 1960). Calvin: Institutes of the christian religion: In two volumes (J. T. McNeill, ed.). Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press.