Reaching for the Star (1/3/2016)


Audio

Scripture

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.[a]

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Sermon

Next to the house where I grew up, stood a towering windmill which was taller than our two story farmhouse.  The windmill had these little metal steps so that you could climb to the top.  Periodically, my dad would climb up every one of those metal steps to fix something at the very top of that windmill.

When I was around 13 or 14 years old, dad asked me to climb up that windmill with him to help fix something.  He needed me to carry some type of metal piece up the ladder with him.  Even though the thought of climbing to the top with him scared the liv’n daylights out of me, I didn’t want to disappoint him.

I remember gripping tightly onto each of those metal steps as I made that long climb to the top following just below him.  Once I made it to the top, I felt really proud of myself that I actually made it all the way to the top with him.  But no sooner than we were at the top of that windmill, my dad said to me, “I need you to go back down and bring something else up for me.”

That frightening experience of climbing the windmill with dad helped me to really appreciate what he did for our family every year for Christmas.  Every year, dad would go up to our attic and bring down an enormous aluminum Christmas star.

And every year, he would climb to the top of that cold windmill and tie that large Christmas star to the top of our windmill.

We thought he was either really brave or just plain crazy for doing this every year.  But that annual ritual was dad’s way of making Christmas special.  We became known as the family that had a large aluminum Christmas star at the top of the windmill along Plank Road.

I think that Dad was just trying to remind everyone of this scripture reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning; this extraordinary story of wise men who ended up following a star to the place of the Christ child so that they could offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrth.

This morning, I want to talk about reaching for the star like the wise men and what this can mean for our faith.

It’s easy to get discouraged and to get down in life, especially during this time of year.

The story is told of the former heavy weight boxer James “Quick” Tillis, who as a cowboy from Oklahoma started boxing in Chicago in the early 1980s.  He still remembers his first day in the Windy City after his arrival from Tulsa.

He says, “I got off the bus with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower.  I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’  When I looked down, the suitcases were gone.”

Welcome to the big city!

It’s easy to get discouraged.  Just when we’re looking up and thinking about reaching for the stars, something happens that steals our energy and robs us of our big dreams and plans.

That’s why I like our scripture this morning from Matthew’s Gospel.  The story of the wise men following the star.  The wisemen were people who not only reached for the star, they followed it all of the way to the Savior of the world.

In what ways can this story help you and me to reach for the star like the wisemen as we begin this brand new year?

First of all, the wisemen teach us to expect the journey to be long, but filled with adventure.  Expect the journey to be long, but filled with adventure.

We know from historical records that the wisemen, journeyed somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 miles in order to travel from Persia to the city of Jerusalem and eventually to the Christ Child.  That trip would have taken at the very minimum, three months to travel by camel.  It might have even taken them twelve months to travel that distance.

That would be like us leaving today, and arriving to our destination at the minimum, sometime during the month of April and quite possibly later in the year. That’s quite a long trip.

For most of our Thanksgiving holidays we travel to my sister’s house in Maryland which is about 20 miles west of Baltimore.  Our trip to my sister’s house is about a 350 mile trip from here in Ohio. If we leave by 9 in the morning we usually arrive at her house sometime late in the afternoon.  And even though we make this trip a lot, it doesn’t stop me from complaining about how long that trip is.

Can you imagine how much more I would complain if I would have to ride a camel for those 350 miles from Athens to Columbia, Maryland?  Can you imagine how much grumpier I would be if that trip would take me at least a month and a half to complete riding a camel?

Let me add another piece to this journey of the wisemen.  Not only did this journey take three to twelve months, historians say that there were also probably several weeks of preparation before they even began their journey by camel.

Now, we’re talking a trip that could very well have been over a year long when you factor in the weeks of preparation.

But on the other hand, think of the adventure this trip must have been for these wisemen.  And by the way, bible scholars are uncertain as to how many wisemen there really were.  Folklore says there were three wisemen because three gifts were given to Jesus but that’s just an assumption.

While there could have been three wisemen on this trip, tradition in the Orient favors a total of twelve wisemen.  The truth is, we just don’t know.  But I do think it’s interesting that the journey was made by more than one person.

Our journey to find a deeper faith often involves other people.  We learn so much more when we travel with other people on our journey.

We all know that we have good intentions with New Year’s Resolutions but we also know that we tend to break them after a couple of weeks or even a couple of days.

We can only reach for the star if we expect the journey to be long but filled with adventure.  The adventure includes some valleys but it also includes a lot of high and exhilarating moments as well.

The adventure is in the journey itself.  As we reach for the star this year, let’s remember the wisemen and remember that our long journey is also filled with lots of adventure.  The Christian life should be anything but boring.  It will literally change us from the inside out.

The second expectation.  Expect the journey to be difficult but filled with joy.

How was the journey of the wisemen difficult?  Well, I would say that a three to twelve month journey would be difficult enough for most of us.

But look what happens to the wisemen.  After they made it to the child Jesus and presented their gifts, they were warned in a dream to not return to Herod and to take a different road back to their country.

Herod was totally threatened by the news from the wisemen that they were searching for the one who was born king of the Jews.  In fact, Herod wanted to use the skills and expertise of the wisemen to help him find Jesus so that he would be able to kill him.

And yet, even though the journey of the wisemen was a difficult one, when the star finally stopped over the place where Jesus was, Matthew tells us that they were overwhelmed with joy.  Sometimes it can be so easy for us to be caught up in the difficulty of the journey that we forget all about the joy along the way.

These wisemen were overwhelmed with joy.

I read a while back about a church conference of a mainline Protestant denomination that was held in Omaha, Nebraska.  People at this conference were given helium filled balloons and were told to release them at some point in the service when they felt like expressing joy in their hearts.

A few of the balloons ascended during that worship service, but when the service had ended, two-thirds of the people in that service still had not released their balloons.  Too often, we forget the joy that Christ wants to give us as we journey with Him.

George Barnard Shaw is quoted in a book written by Jon Johnston entitled, “Courage – You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear” in which he says,

“This is true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Now that’s a quote that gets our attention!

As we begin this brand new year, let’s remember to be filled with joy throughout our journey of faith.  Let’s remember to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with joy.  Let’s remember to let go of our balloons and express the joy that God has placed in our hearts.

There’s a third expectation that the wisemen had that can really be helpful to us in our journey of following Christ in this new year.  Expect the journey to be costly but filled with personal transformation.  Expect the journey to be costly but filled with personal transformation.

The gifts that the wisemen brought to Jesus are another important part our scripture this morning.

The giving of gifts was in keeping with an Oriental custom.  The purpose of the gift of gold was pretty basic.  It was to provide money for this very poor family. Mary and Joseph were very poor and so this gift of gold helped them immensely just from a very practical standpoint.

Some people have seen symbolism in the other two gifts which were frankincense and myrrh but most scholars do not think that the wisemen had any symbolism in mind when they offered these two gifts.  What were frankincense and myrrh?  They were aromic gum resins that were obtained from shrubs found in the tropical countries of the East.

We probably might be wondering why the Wise Men didn’t bring more practical gifts like diapers, a casserole, and a Walmart gift card, but the important point is that the wisemen did not come empty handed.  They offered their best gifts to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

I can’t even imagine what the wisemen must have felt in that moment when they paid homage to the child Jesus and gave him these gifts.  That one moment was the culmination of what could very well have been a journey that lasted for more than a year.

In that one moment, what must have went through the minds of these wisemen?  The star that they had been reaching for over a year had now brought them to this incredible place.

In January of 1995, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with the Bishop and with several clergy of our Conference to visit the holy sites of our faith.  One of the most incredible moments was going to the town of Bethlehem and kneeling before the place where many believe Jesus was born.

Here, I had planned for this trip to Israel for several months, and there in that space and time that I had been looking forward to for so long, I was finally kneeling at the site of Jesus’ birth which is marked by a star on the floor.  It was incredible.

I left from that spot a changed person.  I can’t even come close to imagining what the wisemen must have felt when they offered their gifts to the Christ child in that one moment.  It must have been unbelievable for them.

By the way, most scholars believe that the wisemen visited Jesus months after he was born because our text in Matthew says that the wisemen entered a house which is very different from a manger scene.  This is the reason why the story of the wisemen always occurs on Epiphany Sunday, to give it a little distance from the Christmas story.

But no matter when it was that they finally arrived to see the child Jesus, I am convinced that in that moment, they experienced a personal transformation like they had never experienced before.

Their lives were never the same again.  But even after that moment of being personally transformed, they still needed to continue in their journey and head back home to share this amazing story of how they were led to the Christ child.

What do the wisemen teach us in this text from Matthew?  They teach us that faith is a journey.  A journey that is long, difficult, and costly.  But our faith is also a journey that is meant to be filled with adventure, joy, and a journey that results in our lives being transformed just by being in the presence of God.

As your pastor this morning, I want to close by inviting each of us to bring four important things with us in our journey of faith this year.

The first important thing to bring for our journey this year is a commitment to read the bible and pray on a daily basis.  There are all kinds of tools to help us read the bible and pray on a daily basis.

The United Methodist Church has what is called “The Upper Room” devotional which includes some scripture, some reflection and a prayer focus.  Or maybe you want to use a different resource.  There are many out there.

Choose one that will help you to stay faithful in reading the bible everyday. That’s the important part.

There’s also a method that’s called “The Daily Office” which provides a Psalm, an Old Testament Lesson, a New Testament Lesson, and a Gospel for everyday of the year and it is always based on the church calendar.

This is the plan that I use and I find it very helpful. You can find this in “The Book of Common Prayer” or on the internet by typing the words “Daily Lectionary” in the search engine.

I had somebody tell me a while back that they started using this devotional method and they have really gotten a lot out of it.  It’s really changed his life.

In addition to reading the bible and praying on a daily basis, if you want to be intentional about the journey, also get involved with a group of other Christians that are also studying the Bible.  Maybe a Sunday School class, or a small group, or a bible study group.

During the last two Sunday mornings of this month, January 24 and 31, we will be hosting a small group orientation meeting in Fellowship Hall. These small groups of 3 to 12 people each, will meet for five weeks during the season of Lent which begins the 2nd week of February. Small groups are a great way to grow in our faith.

Remember, the wisemen didn’t travel alone.  They made the journey together and so should we.

Worship is another important part of being on the journey.  Worship is when we gather to honor and glorify God.  That’s why the wisemen saddled up the camels or whatever they do to camels.  Their goal was to eventually honor and glorify God.

Reading the bible and praying on a daily basis, being involved in a bible study or share group of some kind, weekly worship, and let me offer a fourth thing to bring with us on our journey as we begin this new year together. Invite Jesus Christ to be at the center of your life in everything you say and do this year.

The reason the wisemen left Persia to come to Jerusalem and Bethlehem was because they had heard that an important person had been born.  They also probably had some understanding of the Old Testament prophecies that foretold that one day a Savior would be born within the people of Israel.  So in a sense, they had already acknowledged this new born King before they even left ancient Persia.

What a difference it makes in our journey with the Lord, when we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  When you know in your heart that Jesus Christ is your Savior and Lord, it can make all the difference in the world.

I have no doubt that God will provide many opportunities for us to grow in our faith as we journey together throughout this new year.

Before I close, I want to share with you that I’m still not a fan of climbing windmills.  And I still complain when I drive long distances.  But the story of the wisemen in our scripture reading this morning has reminded me that the steep climb and the long journey are worth it.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism knew that the Christian journey can be long and difficult at times, but he also knew that as we move forward in faith, there’s also a lot of joy along the way.

To encourage those early Methodists in England, he put together a prayer which he wanted every Methodist to pray together, especially at the start of a new year. And I invite us to pray this incredible prayer together.

Let’s pray:

  I am no longer my own, but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.