Do We Have the Courage to Follow?
First Baptist Church Laurens
Over the holidays, while at my parent’s house, I picked up a book off of one of the shelves in their house. The book was called Mysteries of the Bible or at least something similar to that. Knowing that I was going to be preaching on Matthew’s story of the Magi today, I immediately went to the table of contents, and, as I suspected, there was a nice section on the Wise Men.
In the end, it dealt with the usual questions. How many Wise Men were there? Of course, we don’t know for sure. We say three simply because there were three gifts. Where we they from? Again, we don’t know but many suggest ancient Persia, which would be modern day Iraq or Iran. What exactly was it that they followed? Here, all kinds of theories were given – the tail of Haley’s comet, an alignment of two planets with the moon, or even a new star that had never been seen before. And, how long did it take them to get there? Yet again, this is a mystery too. It likely took quite a while since Matthew states that Herod, after meeting with the Wise Men, ultimately had all of the boys two years of age and under in the area of Bethlehem put to death just to make sure that Jesus was in the mix.
This book devoted quite a lot of space to the Wise Men and their story. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed reading what it had to share and the theories that were explored. But in the end, it made the same fatal mistake that we too so often make when it comes to this story – it dealt with all of the unknowns in the story and failed to address what we do know and what we can learn from this beautiful passage in the early pages of Matthew’s gospel.
Without question, one of those obvious lessons is that the Wise Men were followers!
There is a story which I like that may be more legend than historic truth and yet it makes a great point that is right on the mark. The story is of a small college where applications were being considered for the following year’s freshman class. One particular application was from a young girl named Mary. Mary had evidently asked one of her high school teachers to write a recommendation for her. The teacher, in his or her recommendation wanted to be very honest with the admission board and wrote the following, “Mary is NOT a leader, but she is an excellent follower.” According to the story, the president of the little college, having seen the application, wrote across the top, “by all means admit Mary; with a class of four hundred and fifty leaders we need at least one follower!” (Thinking About Leadership, Nannerl Keohane, Princeton University Press, 2010, page 48)
Today, on this first Sunday of the New Year and in light of today’s text regarding the Wise Men, I want to make a similar suggestion to all of us. In 2016, in a world full of people charting their own paths, we need to be people who are followers – Jesus followers!
I say this knowing full well that followers are not always admired in our day. Instead we lift up those who are pioneers, who dare to be different and who lead us down paths and in directions that we have never known before.
Without question there is something very praiseworthy and very biblical about leadership, about being different and about refusing to simply go along with the crowd. And, I am in no way knocking that approach to life and to life choices. But, I do want to suggest to us that the truth of who God wants us to be probably lies in the middle of these two extremes. In truth, God doesn’t want us to blindly follow at all times. And yet, at the same time, God doesn’t want us to always blaze our own trail. Instead, when it comes to the ways and the life of the Christ child our job is to follow as carefully, closely and as courageously as we can.
When I think about the Wise Men as followers, there are a couple of things from their story that are well worth our reflecting on as 2016 begins.
First, being a follower takes a great deal of courage. Again, often times, when we think about this, we think of being a follower rather than a leader as taking the easy way out. But, the truth is that faithful following is often just a much a choosing of the narrow or little traveled road as is being our own person or charting our own path. Think about the Wise Men for a moment. Certainly there were others who saw the star – but only a few followed.
Further, when they arrived and encountered King Herod, he encouraged them to return to him after they had found the child so that he too could go and “worship the newborn king”. But, their quest was the child of Bethlehem not the King of Judea and they refused to return to Herod although certainly this was a dangerous choice to make. Whether it was their following of the star of Bethlehem or their following of the child of the manger rather than King Herod, both choices to follow required courage and were more of a narrow rather than wide path.
It will be no different for us. If we make our top priority in 2016 being Jesus followers it will take great courage too. I can promise you that following Jesus will not make everyone in our lives happy. If we truly choose to read the gospels carefully, to study Jesus closely and to model our lives as closely after his as possible then courage will be required. To follow Jesus will always mean upsetting some of our friends at times, it will mean disturbing some of our family members at times, and quite honestly, it will mean going against the wishes of other believers at times too. Like the Wise Men, being a follower will at times feel more like being on the road less traveled than it will feel like simply going with the crowd. And, yet, being a follower is exactly what Jesus calls us to do and to be.
I remember a trip that I made back over fifteen years ago. At the time, I knew a man with a small private airplane and he gave me a ride one day over the mountain of Western North Carolina. What I remember is that there was almost not visibility that day and so it really wasn’t a great day for traveling, but, it was the only day that either of us could make the journey. In turn, for a good bit of the trip, we had to fly with instruments only which means that we simply had to trust which way the navigation system on board the plane told us to turn or ascend or descend. We could not see for the thick clouds all around us and so we were totally dependent on what we were told to do. What I remember about that trip is talking to my friend the pilot and asking him how difficult that was. His response was that it was terribly difficult. His natural inclination told him to do different things – to turn this way or to turn that way, to go up or to go down and yet he had to resist his natural instinct and to simply follow. It was not easy task.
Again, courage was the word, and that is what we will need too.
But, being a follower also requires patience. Again, back to the Wise Men for a moment. As I said a few moments ago, most think that the journey of the Wise Men took quite some time to complete. We don’t know whether it took days or weeks or months. But, we do know that according to Matthew, Jesus and his parents were in a house in the Bethlehem area, no longer at the manger, by the time of their visit. And, we also know that Herod had the boys in the area two years and under put to death after meeting with the Magi which means that Jesus was likely in that general age range when they arrived on the scene.
I say all of this to invite us to reflect on how difficult it likely was for them to complete the trip they started. Granted, we are speculating at this point, but it only makes perfect sense that somewhere along the way the trip became arduous, difficult and financially costly. Further, who is to say for certain that those who finished the journey and arrived at Bethlehem were the same ones who started the trip? It only stands to reason that somewhere along the way one or more no longer found the trip to be worth their while or no longer in their best interest and simply went back home.
Following is like this. When we truly follow, things do indeed come our way that cause us to despair, that makes us want to give up or that call us to question what we are doing. This is most certainly the case with following Jesus. If we truly commit ourselves to being Jesus followers this year, I can promise you that there will be times when we will want to give up, when we will question what we are doing and when we will wonder if there isn’t a different or better way of doing things or living.
Life will still be hard, life at times still will not make sense, things will happen that we never expected in a million years and people will oppose us that we thought were our friends. In turn, patience will be required as will a belief that following Jesus, step by step is the best path to follow even if at times it all seems a bit illogical.
Do you remember the award winning moving Hoosiers, which was released back in 1986? I don’t want to make you feel old, but, that was 30 years ago this year. Ouch! If you can remember back that far, you will recall that Hoosiers is the story of a small Indiana town that loves its High School Basketball team. In the movie, the school called Hickory High School, hires a new basketball coach named Norman Dale. Coach Dale is unorthodox in his coaching. What he suggests in practice is different from what they had experienced in this past. And, in the beginning, Coach Dale’s methods bear little fruit as the team has limited success.
The film reaches a critical juncture where the townspeople hold a meeting wanting to fire Coach Dale – they have run out of patience! They have followed for a while, are know disillusioned and have decide they are ready to give up. Interestingly, one of the teenagers in the town is the one who sways the vote by suggesting that Coach Dale be given more time. In the end, it is this willingness to be patient that leads to success and a championship season.
Life rarely ever happens, as we desire in an instantaneous fashion. It almost always requires our hard work, our great courage and our patience.
In 2016, rather than lead, we will have the courage to follow? And, as we do, will we be willing to be patient and continue to follow even when things don’t go as we had planned, wanted or expected. If we will, we might just find ourselves nearer to the dwelling place of the savior than we have ever been before. Amen.