Friday, January 12, 2018

Into a New Year (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A church member writes:  “While participating in 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 drama.  At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice: ‘And we kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.’

I recall a cartoon which pictured three women standing near the manger.  The caption read: “After the three Wiseman left, three wise 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, the mysterious men from the east.  A community of Jews lived in the east and Magi, astrologers, who lived among them were familiar with their beliefs, including the belief that a special star was expected that would be a sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah.  When the Magi saw this star in the sky, they packed their suitcases, kissed their families’ good-bye, boarded their camels, embarked on their adventure and followed the star until it led them to Jerusalem, and eventually to Bethlehem.  The story captures our imagination because it's a metaphor for the journey that we all are on in life.

The story of the Magi reminds us that people follow all kinds of things in life.   We follow celebrities, leaders, principles, ideologies, ideals, goals, dreams, feelings, the stock market, politics, current events and yes even stars. Some of these things are good, inspiring, and noble.  They help our lives to grow or others' lives to flourish.  They lead to happiness, joy and fulfillment.  These stars contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service to name a few.  Other people follow things that are false stars, things that are foolish, worthless, trivial or harmful like greed, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, addictions, exploiting others, or evil.

I remember a conversation when I was a pastor in CO with a man who had followed his love of gambling for many years.  He told me he once had a family, a job and a home.  But over the years, his addiction to gambling cost him and he lost everything.  When I met him he was on his way back from the bottom.  He had become a Christian, had broken his gambling addiction, was dating a woman, had re-connected with his children and had started a new career.

In speaking about stars I am referring to God’s leading, God’s guidance and God’s will, which occur in a variety of forms.  God’s will was that the Magi find the Messiah and worship Him.  We all have the freedom and opportunity to follow stars in life.  But not all stars are the same.  We must distinguish between them, because what we follow in life makes all the difference.  God gives us the freedom to choose, to obey and we must choose wisely.  What are you following?

The story of the Magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives.  I am not being literal here. Please think symbolically.  I'm not picturing a celestial body floating over your head.  God can create anything, or use anything or turn anything into a star.  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 in the form of God's calling, God's vision, God’s tugging at his heart to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church.  He got out of his office and started playing pick-up basketball with neighborhood youth who were involved in illegal drugs and violence.  God used this pastor's athleticism, faith, outgoing personality, and dedication to steer many young people 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 to further his purposes for us or for the world around us.  God sends stars to guide and use for His glory.

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

Clearly the journey the magi took across the desert involved hardship, suffering, discomfort, and struggle. But these Magi persevered; they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.

This is what’s involved in following Jesus.  It means at times we must endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is worthy of such faith and obedience and because His purposes for our lives matter.  I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth, Esther, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle Paul.

Like the Magi, God calls us to persevere, to continue the journey with every fiber of our being, which includes our body, our intellect, our emotions, and our soul. For sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are emotionally or spiritually exhausted or physically drained.  This is when we must get down on our knees and pray for strength.

Clearly in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, here and around the world, particularly the middle east, it takes perseverance, faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart to follow God’s leading in 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.”

The Magi could not predict where the journey would take them, or what fortunes or challenges they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where they could meet and worship the king.   And so with us.  You sense what God wants you to do or where God wants you to go, but you are not exactly sure how you are going to reach that destination.   That’s why it is critical to follow God’s leading, so the star you are following in your journey into the future will be the one God has set for you, and not someone else’s.

Come on now pastor, does God really send stars?  A pastor tells this story about a young woman who came to his church.  “She began:  ‘Pastor, could I talk to you for a minute?’ She looked to be in her early 20s.  I'd never seen at our church before. ‘What can I do for you?’  ‘Would you please talk with my husband?  He moved out from our home and into an apartment. I don't know what to do.’   Her name was Laura. ‘Is he a Christian?’ the pastor asked. ‘He's the one who led me to a relationship with Christ.’  ‘I'll be glad to talk with him. How can I get in touch with him?’  ‘That's the problem’ the young woman replied, ‘I can't reach him. If he wants to talk, he calls me.’  At this point there was little I could do.  I asked her to have him call me if he talked with her again.  I remember the look of despair in her eyes as she walked away.

Friday was my day off.  We were landscaping our front yard. By late afternoon, I was muddy, aching, and thoroughly tired of the whole project. I had run out of ornamental plants so I drove to the store for more.  I arrived at the store, loaded my cart and headed to the checkout.

As I waited in line, I glanced at the cashier's nametag. It looked familiar.  As he began to ring up the plants, I motioned to his nametag. ‘Is that your name?’  He looked at me blankly, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you married to Laura?’   He looked wary. ‘Yes?’  I gave him my happiest smile. ‘God has sent me here to talk to you about your marriage.’”

The pastor continued:  “Some 300,000 people lived in the Fresno area then. Out of all of them, the first person I had talked to—other than family and staff—since Wednesday night was this husband.  At times I've really needed guidance and have prayed earnestly for it.  God has helped me. But my divinely guided trip to that husband remains my most remarkable example. Not only was I not trying to be led, I wasn't conscious of God's leading. I just wanted the yard finished.”

Over the years that I’ve been pastor here I have had people say to me:  “Pastor, I was looking for a church and God led me here.  I am happy to be in this church.”  I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life, which have led me along my journey. The Magi show us the importance of being alert to, and following, God's stars in our lives.

The Book of 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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