Friday, January 10, 2014

They Saw A Star (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Another year is past and a new year has begun!  Good-bye 2013.  Hello 2014.  Can you believe it?  How do you feel about it?  Are you happy or sad or do you have mixed feelings?    I friend of ours said – “I sure hope this year is better than last year.”

Yes, like the multitudes of people in America who run in races, 5 K's, ½ marathons and marathons, our feet have left the starting line and we are off and running.  January marks a new start, a new beginning, a new race!    Get ready.  The question today is: "I wonder where this year will take me."

Its in this context that we turn to the story from Matthew of the Magi or Three Wisemen.  As the story tells us they were guided by a star along their journey until they finally reached their destination.   I think this story captures our imagination because we too are on a journey in this life.     

What is a star?  A star is a fixed luminous point in the night sky composed of burning gas.  It is a large, remote incandescent body like the sun.  It is a celestial body.  

What are stars from a biblical perspective?  Stars are symbolic, symbols of divine guidance.  Don't get too caught up in the literal, like thinking - “I've never seen a star in front of me, a star has never led me anywhere, this story is nothing but fantasy.”  

We need to think figuratively, symbolically, metaphorically.  Stars are signs and symbols of God's guidance, God's calling, God's prompting, God's leading, God's means of grace, God's surprises.

The lesson here is that God sets stars for us to follow.   God may use a real star, like in this story or God may select something entirely different.  Stars are about God's fulfilling His purpose.

Stars  -  people God puts in our lives, a need you feel drawn to respond to,  a light in the darkness, an Ah Hah moment where suddenly it all comes together, signs, miracles, opportunities,  challenges, special events or circumstances, prayers answered, an inner tug or inner-voice, a word from the Bible or a call from the Lord.   God sets stars before us to help guide and direct our lives. 

God does not abandon us to navigate through the vicissitudes of this life alone.    Stars may be calls to serve in the church or in the community, to make a change in your life, to invest in something, to dedicate a period of time in helping your parents or grandparents, to spend more time with your family, to deepen your walk and craw closer to God.  God's stars are about worship and service, faith and obedience.

Even the learned Magi who represent the Gentiles in our story, needed help to first reach Jerusalem and ultimately to reach their destination at Bethlehem and to be in the presence of the Messiah, the Christ child.  Without the star to guide them they would never have reached their goal.  They would have become lost or turned around and headed back home in frustration.  God knows that we need stars in our lives.

The story of the Magi alerts us to a danger, the peril that looking at stars can turn into star gazing.   The scripture says: “Wisemen from the east came to Jerusalem asking: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews. We saw His star in the east.”  God didn't place that star before them to simply be studied and analyzed and admired.  God didn't place the star in the sky for these sages to write a paper about and submit it to the academic community of astrologers for intellectual discourse.  God put it there for a greater purpose.

The Wisemen could have simply remained in the east and studied stars and entered into intellectual discussions debating about their interpretations of the designs of the stars in the sky.  Great fun right.  Stimulating right.  They didn't, fortunately, but I suspect it was a temptation.    All of us, you and I, are subject to the temptation of star gazing.  That is, standing motionless and staring at stars.

We read in the Old Testament, in the book of Numbers, that the Jews of the day expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah.  This was a long held wide-spread belief in Hebrew culture.  Dr. Paul Maier, in his book, In The Fullness of Time writes:  “Eastern astrologers, were acquainted with Hebrew beliefs, since there was a large Jewish community living in the East.  There is nothing improbable about a group of sages being attracted by some astral event and then trying to investigate it more closely.” 

Now star gazing can be enjoyable and inspiring.  No argument.  I recall as a youngster in San Diego going outside at night with my dad and my brother and my dad would point out various constellations, like Orion, the hunter, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, and Gemini the twins.  It was a thrill to look up into the sky and try to identify these constellations of stars.  How magnificent and majestic is a starlit night. 

Today in our celebrity obsessed world people often watch for other kinds of stars.  I think back about the 17 years that our family lived in Santa Monica when I was pastor of First Presbyterian Church.  I remember people who spent a lot of time searching for celebrities; hoping to catch a glimpse or take a photograph of a movie star. They would eat at certain restaurants in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, or walk around with cameras in hand or take bus tours, hoping to see a star.

Now while star gazing or celebrity watching can be entertaining, the problem is when it becomes a priority, an end in itself,  a mission for your life, a trivial pursuit.  When this happens, do you go anywhere or accomplish anything?   Turning trivial things, fun things, inconsequential things, into life-time goals or major pursuits can become a waste of one's life.   It can become an escape or distraction.  It can become a way of avoiding or blocking God's call upon our lives.   

However you might define star gazing, it can lead to wasting away precious hours and even years time from your life.  You may become a professional star gazer, but not make any appreciable difference in your life or in the life of another, not contribute to society, not grow and learn and deepen your faith in God, not make any new friendships or deepen any existing friendships, and not take a single step closer on your journey.  God created us to lead positive lives, not to lead unproductive lives.

Like the story of Zeke the turtle.  Now I am not down on turtles.  I had turtles as a boy.  I like turtles.  But the story illustrates a point.  For 31 years Zeke lived in the home of Bob and Debbie Young of Beverly, Massachusetts. But on July 30, 2012 the box turtle made a not-so-quick escape, after the family cat pawed open a screen door on the back deck. For over a month Zeke, the prodigal turtle, was on the lam.  When the Young's realized he was gone, they placed ads in the local paper, put up fliers around town, and used the services of a  search and rescue dog trained to track down reptiles. They even offered a cash reward for Zeke's safe return.  The family loved this turtle.

Finally, their neighbor's golden retriever sniffed out Zeke as he was hiding in some ivy.  Ironically, Zeke was still on the family property.  He never made it off the property.  Zeke's slow but steady month long journey had taken him about 1,000 feet from where he had busted out of his home. The neighbor told reporters, "He hadn't really gone anywhere.  He was just sitting there in the Ivy, just waiting to be found.”  Star gazers and Zeke have a lot in common.

The story of the Magi says God calls us to be star followers.  The Magi said:  “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.  When they had heard the king, they set out and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen it its rising.”

When the Magi saw the star which they had been searching for, they set out and  followed it.  They acted on what they saw, they took risks, they left familiar surroundings, they made plans and preparations, they sacrificed, they made an investment and set out on a journey.

We too need to be ready to make our journey into this new year.  We too need to set out if  we are to discover the truth and find the answers we seek, or reach our goals, or make a difference in our community, or change things about ourselves that we know need changing, or gain the knowledge we need, or reconcile past relationships which are now broken, or form new relationships or discover and cultivate unused talents and abilities given to us by God.  God calls us to follow the stars He places before our lives.

Like the story about  an outlaw biker.  Pastor Miles McPherson of the Rock church writes:  “I walked out of my office one morning, and a guy I had never met was just getting off the elevator.  He was about six foot four, at least 250 pounds, and he wore cut-off jeans and a sweatshirt. His body was all tatted up …. We talked down the hall together, and he told me he was going to his first ministry meeting, and he was really nervous.  I asked, "Nervous? How come you're nervous?"

"Pastor Miles, you always encourage us to do something, so I figured I got to do something. I want to serve the Lord."  Pastor Miles continued:  “Since our church has over a hundred outreach ministries, I asked him, "What's the ministry you're joining?"  "The knitting ministry," he said.  He added, "Well, actually, I don't knit, I crochet."

Here's this huge guy who looks like he could be an NFL tackle, and he's nervous about joining a ministry that makes blankets and hats for hospitalized children.  Curious, I asked him where he learned how to crochet.  "I was in the Hell's Angels for 12 years," he told me. "I learned to crochet in prison. I know it's the one thing I can do for the Lord." 

Just then the lady who heads up the knitting ministry walked toward us, said a quick hi to me, then asked the former Hell's Angel, "Are you Jim?" She gave him a big grin and took his hand. I watched them go down the hall together.  It may not seem like a unique ability to crochet, but when you package that with his life, the ripple effect can push countless others out of their comfort zone to step up and stand out the way God designed them to.

God's star led an ex-Hell's angel to a knitting ministry.  You never know where God's star might lead you.  I believe God will set a star before you this year.  Watch for it.   Are you going to be a star gazer or a star follower?  Amen!

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