Who Do We Follow?

Matthew 2:1-12

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I did something on Tuesday that I’ll bet many of you did too. No I am not talking about taking a nap, eating black eyed peas and collard greens or watching lots of college football — although I did do several of those things too. What I am referencing is the fact that I did make a few resolutions over New Years, and, as I said, I suspect that many of you did as well.

Mainly I made resolutions related to eating better, exercising more and shedding a few pounds. I also committed to reading more and watching less television. And, I resolved to try to spend more time with family as well. Again, I suspect that your resolutions fell along similar lines.

I say all of this because I think that we as people of faith should also make some collective and individual resolutions as we begin this New Year. No doubt, it is always vitally important for us to regularly take stock of where we are in our relationship with God. The start of January and a new calendar is the prime time to undertake this discipline. As a result, we are focusing worship over these four weeks in January on this theme. As we think about our commitments to worship, ministry to others, our witness and serving our world, where does God want us to focus and what goals should we set as we seek to be all that God desires for us to be in 2013?

From the very beginning, I want to ensure you that the suggestions made over the next several weeks will be very realistic and achievable goals for all of us. In other words, as we talk about these four areas and as we reflect on who God wants us to be, I want to set before us ideas and targets that while challenging are also doable.

On Wednesday morning of this past week, I was listening to the radio while driving to check on one of our members in the hospital. As I did, I listened to a news report about the common New Year’s resolution of losing weight. One of the ideas offered as a to why so many people never follow through with their commitment to lose weight is due to the images offered in countless commercials of what the ideal human body looks like. According to the story, when people get in their minds pictures of incredibly muscular, tanned or razor thin models as the image they are trying to reach, it is easy to get two or three weeks into a new commitment, throw up ones hands in utter frustration and declare such a goal as one that we can never reach no matter how hard we try. These are not the goals we are after. Rather, we are focusing on being all that God wants us to be while at the same time admitting our need to set the bar at a height that we can reach.

Having said this, who does God want us to be and how does God want us to focus ourselves in this New Year when it comes to our worship? This is our question on this first Sunday of the New Year and the story of the wise men, which is our central text for today, provides us with profound yet simple and straightforward guidance.

At its foundation, this passage offers two very different and unique approaches to the Christ child through the competing figures of the Wise Men and Herod. On the one hand, there are these mysterious figures from the East. We really don’t know how many Wise Men there were and we don’t know where they came from. The best guess is that they were from ancient Persia and that they were early scientists or astrologers. The idea that there were three wise men comes from the fact that they brought three gifts not from the fact that Matthew tells us a specific number of people who came bearing the gifts.

What we can say with great certainty is that they were Gentiles who appear to have affirmed a common belief throughout the ancient world at the time, that suggested that one day a leader for the entire world would come who would unite, lead and deliver all of humanity. When they saw the star in the sky hovering over Bethlehem, it became a sign to them. They felt compelled to go and to see what this star pointed to with great hope that perhaps it signified the coming of this long expected world leader.

On the other hand, there is Herod. Herod was the Roman appointed ruler of the region of Judea. Though not born a Jew, he appears to have been converted to the Jewish faith. There is one thing that history records that was more precious to Herod than anything else — his political power. Throughout his reign, Herod did anything necessary to preserve his power including having members of his own family put to death. In fact, under Herod a common saying of the day became, “it is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son”, which emphasized that while Herod may not kill his pig because of his Jewish beliefs, he would not hesitate to kill his own son if he felt there was a threat to his rule or his throne. So, when the wise men came, asking about this newborn king, Herod listened and as the text quickly points out, he become fixated on eliminating this new threat to his throne.

The contrast between the wise men and Herod as they react to this child cannot be more profound. The wisdom of the magi led them toward this child out of the belief that this one deserved their reverence, their respect and their worship. Their wisdom led them to believe that this one deserved their attention and their time. Perhaps through him they could become more than they were and their lives could be shaped for the better because of him.

Herod on the other hand, wanted to push against this child. Herod wanted to preserve what he already had for fear of what he might become if this newborn king had his way.

The contrast between the wise men and Herod is the battle of our daily lives. Which of these competing perspectives will rule in our own lives? We will view Christ as the one we will worship and whom we will invite to have shaping power over our lives? Or like Herod, we will become so caught up in who we already are, that we will push again Christ with all of our being for fear of who we might just become if God’s son has his way with us? Sure, all of us would like to admit that we are open to God’s transforming of us, but often, we are really most concerned with staying just as we are.

Choosing to come to worship and to be with other believers on Sundays, is the way that we answer this question each week. Our choice to be here is our affirmation that this Christ child deserves our focus, our attention and shaping power in our lives. Our choice to be here is our willingness to admit each and every week that we want to be more like him rather than pushing back or being satisfied with who we already are.

Make no mistake about it — choosing to be here on Sundays is a choice and this is the first faith resolution in this new year that I would invite all of us to make. It may sound simple but it really isn’t. It really is a choice and a commitment to do our best, as much as possible, to be here every week. It really is a commitment to make the conscious decision that this really is where we need to be, that each week, this Christ, is worth our time, our gifts, our worship. It really is a choice, to affirm and to believe that we need to be more like him, rather than being like Herod and doing everything within our power to simply preserve who we already are.

Now, let me be clear in stating that I am not unrealistic. I do realize that most of us cannot be here every single week. We do get sick, we do take vacations or go and visit family, we do from time to time have demands from our job — we do have to miss, including me, and I don’t want anyone to feel guilty about that. But, this doesn’t change the fact that being here is a choice and a commitment. It also doesn’t change the fact that we all must resolve to making this a priority of our lives and to guarding the sacredness of this time. In turn, I would strongly encourage you as individuals or as families to spend a few moments, even today, thinking about what it means and what it will look like for you as a family to pledge and resolve to make worship a priority of your life in 2013. In 2012, your commitment to being here was palpably evident. So in essence, I am encouraging all of us to maintain that same intentional resolve as we begin this new year.

I learned about something over the holidays that I didn’t know existed. One of our children received as a gift an “extreme” dot to dot book. You heard me correctly “extreme” dot to dots. Am I the only one in the dark or did you all know that such a thing existed? If you were unaware, extreme dot to dots are not 50 or 100 dot pictures. Instead, they are as much as 1,000 to 1,500 dot pictures and sometimes take up two full pages. Without a doubt, that is a lot of dots and requires much faithfulness to drawing lines from one place to the next.

In learning about this new type of puzzle, it came to my mind that faith and a commitment to worship are a lot like extreme dot to dots. Each week, as we come together and as we hear from God, we add another dot. Each week we draw one more line to last week. Each week, God once again does a little bit more in shaping us into who he wants us to be. And, here is the thing — that picture really can’t emerge if our worship consists of one dot over here and one dot over there — no, in that format the picture never truly develops. Rather, it is our faithfulness, over the long haul, as each week becomes one of thousands and thousands of little points, that slowly but surely God shapes us, over time into the people he wants us to be.

Through our faithfulness to this place, the wonder and promise of worship, is that the image of Christ truly does begin to be seen in each of us…Amen.