Wise Actions for a New Year
In my first church out of seminary, there was an older adult Sunday School class who wanted to do a study of church history. Now, I know that sounds like a riveting discussion to many of you but for them it seemed interesting and worthwhile. In fact, it checked a lot of boxes for their particular group. For one, it was different than their normal studies. Second, it was a subject that most of them knew very little about. And third, they had several class members who were interested in history in general and the subject of church history, in turn, struck a chord with them.
To help, I met with their teachers a number of times to give some guidance, help narrow their focus and occasionally to answer a question or two. In the midst of our collective work on this subject, we all recognized a temptation that kept rearing its head. The temptation was for their Sunday School class to become an information session each week which is to say for it to become only about their passing along the important dates and facts of the history of the Christian church. This was a temptation because Sunday School should never just be about information sharing. Instead, Sunday School, as well as worship or church small groups, are more about how the information being learned every week, whether it is the story of the early church or of the gospels, transforms us, changes us, shapes us. As a result, when we would meet together, as we prepared for their next week or two of lessons, we constantly asked each other, how does these next class sessions not only inform us but how can and do they transform us?
Truth be told, this is a temptation for all of us. It is easy for any gathering of God’s people and for any encounter with God’s word to be just about information gathering rather than about being a transformational experience. Our passage for today about the wise men is a classic example.
The story of the wise men or magi, presents all sorts of interesting questions and mysteries. Who were they and where did they come from? How many wise men were there? Were there really three since there were three gifts or were there more wise men or even fewer than three? What did they really expect to find when they arrived in Bethlehem? Sure they were looking for a newborn ruler but did Jesus really fit the bill of what they had expected? And, what happened to them as time went on? We know they went home by another route but how did their encounter with Jesus continue to shape and influence their lives long after their visit with the infant Christ child in Bethlehem?
These are just some of the fascinating questions that the story of the Wise Men creates for us. There is a lot to learn, ponder and debate in their story. This has been the case for two thousand years and will continue to be the case for as long as their story is retold. But, again, the reason that Matthew tells their story is not simply so that we will learn about them. More importantly, their story is told so that we can be changed and transformed through them and their experience.
After all, in spite of the questions that the story creates for us to debate and ponder, there are just as many truths that the story offers for us to gain wisdom from as well.
This morning, let me mention a few of these nuggets of wisdom from the story of the Wise Men that I think are particularly valuable as we enter a new year.
First, the story of the Wise Men provides us an annual reminder as the new year begins of the wisdom found in being people who are constantly watching for and expecting the movement of God. The best we can say from what we do know is that the Wise Men were astronomers who connected the movement of the stars to the activity of the God. They studied the skies looking for abnormal activity – the coming of a comet, a meteor shower, an unexpected bright star or planet. In these abnormalities they sensed that God was telling them something important. They lived studying the skies and constantly watching for and expecting to encounter divine “signs” that would call them to action.
Now, don’t hear me wrong. I am not calling us to connect the movement of the stars with a word from God. I am also not calling us to over-analyze every unusual experience in life ready to give it a spiritual meaning. There are Christians who do this and frankly I think it regularly leads to making something out of nothing.
At the same time, being a watchful person who anticipates God’s movement is a wise way to live. So often, we simply live with no expectation that God may be up to something in the midst of our day. Some times we have no anticipation that God may be ready to teach us something right now, today – even before this service ends.
About a year ago, I shared a story with you that I think is worth retelling at this point. It was the story of a man who was learning to become a bird watcher. One day he was out along the shoreline of a lake out West with an expert in the birds of that area. As they traveled through a particularly unattractive community on the edge of the lake with lots of run down houses and businesses, the expert stopped and asked the new birdwatcher in training how many birds he had seen as they had traveled around that old, worn out town. “None” was the reply from the new birdwatcher. “Funny,” said the expert “I counted nine different species”. Thought that experience the new bird watcher was led to the conclusion that the birds were there, he just hadn’t developed the skill to see them. Further, he was so used to the dilapidated old structures in that town that they were all he was conditioned to see. He missed the birds altogether. (Eugene Peterson in As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, pg. 83-84)
This is our lives. And, this is a seminal lesson of life. God is here. God is here. God wants to speak to us, teach us, grow us but we often don’t have the skills or eyes to see. Now, I have oversimplified this reality but for today allow me simply to say that wisdom comes in watching for and expecting God and God’s movement in our daily lives. Wisdom is anticipating God’s movement and expecting it.
Is developing a watching, expectant attitude a need in your life as 2020 begins?
Second, the wise men remind us that there is wisdom in being patient people when it comes to the things of God. We don’t know exactly how long it took but the wise men made a long, long journey when they set out to follow the star and to find this child. They didn’t get to Bethlehem overnight. It took a long time. The journey required their patience.
One of my Christmas gifts this year was a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s book Nothing Like it Nowhere which tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad back in the 1860s. I am only about 25% of the way into the book but it is a fascinating story. One of the things that immediately struck me was how long it took to travel to the West Coast of the US from the East Coast before the building of the railroad. Generally speaking it was a trip of about six months and none of the three options for getting there were good ones. You could good straight across by wagon and face the Indians along the way. You could go down to Central America and go through the Panama Canal and risk typhoid fever and other illnesses. Or, you could travel by boat down around the tip of South America and live with sea sickness and malnutrition for half a year. My conclusion after reading this was that if these were our options for going to California in 2020, few of us would ever see Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge. The patience of a six month trip is just not in our DNA.
Yet, faith is a journey not a sprint. Following Jesus is a lifetime endeavor. Making changes in our lives that are really and lasting is not like flipping a switch. Becoming the person we know in our hearts that we want to be happens in fits and starts over time. Very few of the good things in life come quickly and there is wisdom in knowing this.
Where do you need the wisdom of patience in your life and in your spiritual life as 2020 begins?
Finally, the Wise Men teach us that being spiritual people means being people who change. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the wise men is that they allowed this experience to alter who they were and how they lived. Change came as they sat everything else aside to follow the star. Change came as they certainly had to adjust their idea of what it meant to be a king in light of meeting Mary, Joseph and the child for I doubt that Jesus was what they were expecting to find in an important world leader. And the text itself is clear that they changed in that they altered their route and went home by another way deciding not to return to Herod with what they had learned. These are all things we can glean from the text. What might be equally interesting is how they changed in ways and over the years after their experience in Bethlehem that are simply lost to history.
Real, authentic encounters with God and change go hand in hand. Following Christ is not about staying the same. Yes, God wants to change the world but that begins as we allow God to change us. Wise people don’t resist and stay the same at all costs. Wise people are open to the new things that God always wants to do through them.
You may have heard the story of the man whose doctor told him “you have got to make some changes. Your lifestyle is killing you! You and your wife have got to start eating better. Your diet is awful. You have got to make a budget. Your family spending and the increasing debt is causing you overwhelming stress. And, you have got to start staying home more, resting and getting plenty of sleep. You have no energy. Truthfully, if you don’t make these basic life changes, you will be dead in 30 days.” The man looked at his doctor, sat there for a minute and finally said, “you know, that is a lot to absorb. My wife doesn’t listen to me. Doc, why don’t you call her. This will be a lot better coming from you!”
When the man got home, his wife was in a state of shock. “My poor, sweet husband,” she said, “I can’t believe you have only got thirty days to live!”
We don’t like to change. We resist change even when we realize that staying the same is the worst thing we can possible do. Yet change and health, physically and spiritually go hand in hand.
In 2020, what changes do you need to work on in your life?
A new year is here. The wise men offer us wisdom for it: The wisdom of expecting God, the wisdom of recognizing that things don’t happen over night and the wisdom that says that faith and change go hand in hand. Where is the wisdom of the wise men needed in your life right now, on this day? Amen.