Faith in Hard Places: Changing Direction
First Baptist Church
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Every year when we go home at Christmas, I am reminded of a similar journey home during the holidays that happened back a few years ago when the road that we travel was closed due to flooding in the area. As we neared home that year, the roads were no longer passable. They were under water and we were greeted by large orange signs that let us know in no uncertain terms that we needed to take another route.
We really had three choices. We could turn around, go back the way we had already come and take the longer way around to our destination. We could follow the detour that had been established just beyond the warning signs. Or, we could continue on our normal path while ignoring the warning signs.
Now of those three choices – turn around and take the longer route, take the detour or ignore all the warning signs and forge ahead – I am sure you know the one I chose. You are exactly right… I ignored the warnings and plowed ahead assuming that those signs applied to everyone else traveling that road on that night but me. The result was that we got lost and tried to create an alternate route on our own which only led to more flooded roads. Ultimately, after all of the dead ends, we had to retrace our steps and then take the long way around. My stubbornness added about 45 minutes or so to our trip home that night. My stubbornness also created a memory that I won’t soon forget.
As human beings, we don’t change easily. When we have decided the direction we are going to go in our life or in a particular situation it becomes incredibly difficult for us to change directions even when we have been made fully aware that making a change is the best thing that we can do. In fact, sometimes we don’t like the idea of change even when it is the only thing we can do.
The first twelve verses of Matthew Chapter 2 tells us the story of both the Magi and of King Herod. We learn about their response to the star they saw in the East and about Herod’s response to them and their news of a possible future king having been born in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
In many ways, it is a story about change. On the one hand, it is a story about the willingness of the Magi to make changes – even if and when those same adjustments were spur of the moment, illogical and costly. On the other hand, it is also the story of the unwillingness of King Herod to change but rather to do everything within his power to keep things just as they were.
When we think about the role that change plays in the story of the Wise Men, we may be surprised to discover just how much of their story zeros in on their need to adjust, refocus and go a different direction than planned. Think about it for a moment. One can say that the first change required of them was to give themselves over to the star that they saw which Matthew says had “appeared in the East”. It is doubtful that when they saw the star that the Magi were just sitting around looking for something to do. Likewise, the journey to where the star seemed to be pointing didn’t require them to simply walk across the street or around the corner. Instead, their journey from the outset required them to set everything else aside and to make a trip that had to have been financially costly and time consuming in that it almost certainly took several months at the very least to complete.
In the same way, when the Wise Men arrive in Jerusalem, an urban setting where there had to have been at least some well healed people, they find that the prophets had foretold of a child being born not in the city but rather five or six miles away in the small town of Bethlehem. And, once they arrive at the place over which the star hovered, they found a poor family and their child not an infant born to a power couple with a solid pedigree. This king was born in an out of the way place and to unexpected people. To embrace it all, the Magi had to be willing to again change. This time the challenge was to change their minds and ideas about where they would find this new born king and about what kind of a family he would likely be born into.
Finally, the Magi have to change their route home. When they had stopped in Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem and sought Herod’s help, he had disguised his fears about such a newborn king as a potential threat and had asked the Magi to come back to Jerusalem and let him know where to find this child so that he too could go and worship. The impression we get is that the Wise Men had promised Herod to do just that. Yet, after meeting the Christ and worshipping him, they are warned by an angel not to go back to Jerusalem and certainly not to tell Herod. Again, this requires them to change their way and their plans. Again, they listened and were open to change but it couldn’t have been easy.
King Herod is the ultimate opposite of the Magi. He senses the possible winds of change that such a child thought to be the long promised Jewish Messiah could bring. He smells a potential threat to his power and as a result, he does everything within his power to resist. Historically, we know that Herod was just this type of a paranoid figure in that even before Jesus, he had authorized the death of several members of his own family when he feared they too wanted to take his power. Herod liked things just as they were and he was willing to do whatever necessary to keep this status quo and to resist change at all costs which led to the classic statement of the times that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his son”.
Four lessons about change emerge clearly from this story. Each of these lessons are valuable to all of us. This morning, I also want to go a step further and suggest that these lessons are particularly valuable to us in the early days of a new year for virtually all of us have a least one or two things that I suspect we would like to change if we are to live life more fully these next twelve months. Some of the things we would like to change are fairly practical – the amount of sleep we get, our weight, our diet or how many hours a week we spend at the office. Some of the things we would like to change are more personal and relational – the amount of time we spend with our spouse or children, the quality of our relationship with our closest friend or our overall outlook on life. And some of our needed changes are deeply spiritual – such as our faithfulness to the study of God’s word, how often we come to church, how much we give to the church or our willingness to forgive ourselves or someone else. Regardless, I think all of these lessons that come from this story are valuable for whatever change we seek. So, here they are:
First, change is rarely easily. There was nothing easy about the change that the trip to Bethlehem brought to the Wise Men’s lives. Again, it drastically changed the schedule and trajectory of their lives for a period of time in lots of ways. One of the reasons we resist change is because it upsets and rearranges life as we now live it. Even if this is a good thing it isn’t easy.
Second, change often costs us something. The trip to Bethlehem was not cheap. The Wise Men were gone for many months. They had to pay their way and they brought gifts that were not inexpensive either. The trip could have also cost them their lives as it related to Herod. Change may or may not cost us financially. But it is rarely cost-free. Change can cost us sleep if we get up and exercise. It can cost us in terms of our hobbies if we choose to come to church more often. And, it might cost us a friend if we make serious changes that others don’t like.
This leads to the third lesson which is that change often comes with opposition. Herod didn’t care for the direction the Wise Men were headed or what it meant to him. And, very often, there will be people who will not like the change we feel is necessary. Sometimes, they will never be able to get beyond what our change may cost them. Even, if the other person knows the change is right for us, if it is wrong for them, they will resist. At other times, people who are important to us just wont agree with our sense of what needs to change. But, let us never buy into the idea that other’s opposition means our sense of a needed change is wrong. We will never please everyone with the decisions we make.
Finally, the most important lesson is that change is often the very thing needed to live obediently. The Wise Men would have never ever made it to Bethlehem if they hadn’t been willing to make a few changes. If Herod had gotten his way and prevented the changes that Jesus’ coming meant for that part of the ancient world, history would have been altered in an amazing way. Change is almost never simple, without cost or opposition, but, it is often the only way for us to get from where we are to where we want to go.
Let me also say this. Change begins with us. We can’t sit around and wait for others to change. We must take the responsibility on our shoulders and with God’s help embrace change for ourselves.
The past week, Ann Marie, Callie and Caleb and I went to see the new Mary Poppins movie called Mary Poppins Returns. Let me be honest and say that while I knew there was a new Mary Poppins movie out and I had filed away in my mind that this would be a fun thing for us to do over the holidays, I really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the ends and outs of it. By and large, I assumed that maybe it was a remake of the original – you know same songs, same story, etc. At the very least, I assumed that my favorite songs from the original would be in it. But, if you have seen Mary Poppins Returns then you know I was wrong. Yes, some of the original characters return but they are older. Yes, the story builds on the past but it is different. Yes, it is a musical but none of the original songs are repeated. Over the first fifteen or so minutes, I wasn’t sure about it. I mean what is Mary Poppins without Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke or A Spoonful of Sugar? What about Chim Chimery, Chim Chimery, Chim Chim Cheree?
My first temptation was to resist. But, guess what? The longer I sat there, the more I liked it. I grew very fond of Emily Blunt as the new Mary Poppins. I liked the story. And, the new songs are just as catchy and as enduring as the old. The new Mary Poppins isn’t the same. No, it is different and therefore it feels at little funny at first. But, the change, well the change is good. No, I take that back. It isn’t good… it is very, very good. Amen.