Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lessons from the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


A young Christian man writes:  “While auditioning for my church's Christmas pageant years ago, I had the good fortune to be chosen as the narrator.  Each rehearsal went off smoothly and I was confident when it came time for the pageant.  At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice:  “And the kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.”

I recall a cartoon of the nativity which pictured three women standing near the manger.  The caption read:  “After the three wise men left, three wiser women arrived each presenting a gift to the baby Jesus.  Fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and lots of formula.”
Which takes us to the story of the Magi.  Are there lessons the Magi can teach us?  The Magi were guided by a celestial body, which according to the star-gazers in their day meant that a special birth, the birth of a king, the King of the Jews, was coming into the world.  So they packed their suitcases, said good-bye to their families, climbed upon their camels, and set out on an adventure to find this king.    Yes, it was a modern day road trip.

I think this story captures our imagination, because it's a reminder that all of us are on a quest, a journey which we call life.  Magi were Wisemen, Astrologers, or Magicians from the east.  The East in this context has traditionally been identified as Persia, modern day Iran.  The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem signified that this astonishing birth was inclusive, intended not only Jews, but Gentiles, non-Jews, represented by the Magi.

The presence of magi confirmed that God sent Jesus not just to be the savior of Israel, but that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed one for the whole world.  Centuries earlier we hear the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

The Magi followed a star.  The story reminds us right off, that people follow all kinds of things in life don't they?   Some things, like stars, are positive, good, inspiring, and beneficial.  There are stars that help our lives to grow and others' lives to grow.  There are stars that lead to meaning, joy and fulfillment.  There are stars that contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service, and spirituality.  Other people follow things that aren't stars, but follow them anyway.  Things that are dumb, foolish, worthless, harmful or trivial, like trouble, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, greed, crime, using and exploiting people for personal gain, hurting others, and the god of money and wealth.

I remember a conversation with a man when I was pastor in Colorado who had followed his love for gambling for many years.  He told me he once had a family, a job and a home.  But over the years, his love for gambling became an addiction and caused him to lose everything.  When I met him he had come a long way back from the bottom.  He had become a Christian, was no longer gambling, was dating a woman, was trying to re-connect with his children and had started a new career.

We all have the opportunity to follow stars or things.  It's critical to distinguish between them, because what we follow makes all the difference in our lives.  Choosing wisely is crucial.  What are you following?

The story of the magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives.  Now please don't be too literal here.  Think symbolically.  I'm not picturing a celestial body hovering over your head while you are walking in your home or walking around outside.  God can use anything as a star to get our attention and to guide us according to His plan.  God can turn anything or make anything into a star; we are after all talking about God.  God sends stars to us in order to fulfill His purpose for our lives.

I think of a pastor friend in Los Angeles who saw a star or sensed God's call to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church.  He started playing pick-up basketball, in parks in his community and befriended a number of troubled youths who were involved in illegal drugs and violence in the neighborhood.  God used this pastor's faith, his personality, his athletic ability, his presence to help steer many young men away from trouble, or prison or death on the streets and into productive lives.  He led many to come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord.  Yes, God sends stars into our lives and can even use us as a star to guide others, to inspire others, to point others to the glory of Christ.

I further believe the Magi story reminds us that in following stars we must persevere.   Just because God set's a star before us, and we have a clear direction, a path, a call to follow, doesn't mean the journey will be easy or comfortable or stress-free or risk-free.

Clearly the journey the Magi took involved suffering, sacrifice, discomfort, and struggle.  The distance from Iran to Israel is well over a thousand miles.   To make that trip, crossing deserts by camel would have pushed one’s inner-strength to the extreme.  They would have faced untold hardships.  But these Magi persevered, they didn’t give up, they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.

Their story reminds us about what’s involved in truly following Jesus.  It means at times we must persevere and endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances.  Why, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior is worthy of such faith and endurance.  Why, because God’s purposes for our lives matter.  God’s purposes are worth persevering after.

I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth and Esther, and Micah, and Elijah, and Mary Magdalene, and Joseph and John and Timothy and the Apostle Paul.

In the letter of Hebrews we read:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”   In the letter of I Timothy we read: “Fight the good fight of the faith; pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance.”

Christ calls us to persevere, to carry on and that includes every aspect of our being.  It includes our intellect, our emotions, and our soul; the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of our being, for sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are downcast emotionally or spiritually exhausted.  Sometimes we are physically drained.  This is where prayer, getting down on your knees and going to God in prayer, is so essential.

Hardship doesn't mean you have mistakenly followed a star that you thought God had placed before you.  It doesn't mean that you are following the wrong star.  It doesn't mean God is punishing you because you aren't following in the manner God expects you to or in accord with God's timetable.

This is where we Christians sometimes misread God's plans and purposes for their lives.  In fact just the opposite can be true.  If the journey is too easy, too comfortable, you just may not be following the star, the path, the destination which God has in mind for you.   It is clear in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, in this nation and around the world, that following stars takes faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart for the privilege of God sending stars into our lives.

The author Fleming Rutledge writes: “As our life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not only those offered for obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

My friends trust this, when God sends a star to you He will lead you.  The Magi traveled along their route with a sense of direction in mind.  They could not predict where the journey might take them, or what fortunes or disappointments they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where God wanted them to go, Bethlehem, to where they could worship the king.

It’s been said: “The future is an opportunity yet unmet, a path yet untraveled, a life yet unlived.  The direction we take now, determines where we will end up in the future.”   When you aren’t sure which way to turn, what decision to make, or what you should do, remember and rely upon Jesus’ promise “I am the way.”   And fall down on your knees and pray.

I have spoken to many believers over the years who have told me about the guidance and direction God has given to them.  I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life, which have led me and have been a guiding light for my path, my walk, my journey.  Yes, I think the Magi have lessons to teach us after all.

Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  Amen.

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