Tuesday, January 23, 2018

We Belong Together

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS.  Listen here.

Read Psalm 133 & Romans 15:1-7 here.


We belong together.
What do you think about that statement?  Some of you are in full agreement that we belong together, but maybe some of you would like to argue against it. In the United States, we value our individualism highly.  Being an introvert has almost become a heroic trait.  The growth of online communication and social media has made it tremendously easy to keep our social interaction at a safe distance, metered out in short statements.  But we also have an inherent need for belongingness. (Yes, belongingness. That really is a word.  I even went to the library to look it up in a good old-fashioned giant book.)
The psychologist Maslow lists belongingness in his hierarchy of needs right above safety and security. We need to have relationships that go deeper than simply connecting.  We need to be in authentic community with one another, and what better place to have meaningful relationships than in the church?
There have been times in my life when I would have argued hard against this idea that we belong together.  As Steve Martin would say to his audiences back in the 70’s, I would have said, “I don’t need you.  I can do this act alone.  I often do.”[1]  But even as he was saying that, he was depending on the team of people running the lights and sound for the stage he was on, the people managing the venue at which he was performing, and living off of the money people paid to get into that show, and enjoying the laughs of the people in that audience that encouraged him to keep talking.
We need authentic community, we belong together, and through our faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit works among us to help us achieve that, drawing us together.
Jesus talks about this in Matthew 18:20.  He says, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name…” . . .there’s gonna be trouble.
Our scriptures for today show us why we’ll find people on both sides of the argument about whether we belong together.  Being together, belongingness, is beautiful, but it’s also difficult and messy.  It takes commitment, and it takes time and energy, and it takes grace.
Belongingness is Beautiful
Both our scripture readings have some lovely statements about the beauty of being together.
Psalm 133 says, How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!”
How wonderful, how beautiful,
    when brothers and sisters get along!
(Message version)
Romans 15 says, May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These beautiful statements are true.  Unity is good and pleasant.  Harmony sounds much nicer than dissonance.  One of the images Psalm 133 uses to describe the beauty of unity is the dew on Mount Hermon. It’s the highest mountain in that area, and is known for having heavy morning dew, a surprising abundance of moisture in the midst of the relatively dry climate of Palestine.  That dew is fresh and new every morning, just as God’s blessings are new every morning.  Belongingness is beautiful. They are not saying that it’s easy, though, and it’s the difficulties and challenges we go through to achieve unity and harmony that make them all the more beautiful.
It is difficult - Psalm 133 says it’s like precious oil…not just any oil, but the really good costly oil.  True unity and harmony are not easy. They cost us.  The Bible is full of stories of conflict and division that threatened the unity of God’s people, and conflict and division have continued throughout the history of the church. Divisions in church and between people are nothing new.  In fact, they begin all the way back in Genesis, in the first family.  Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel.  Cain killed Abel, the very first murder.  Why did Cain kill him?  Because he was Abel.
The book of Romans is written to people who were in conflict, Jews and Gentiles who had different ideas about what was required to be accepted into their Christian fellowship.  Before getting to the part we read this morning, Paul has spent three chapters in Romans talking about how to get along with one another because it is difficult.
Belongingness is messy – We see in Psalm 133 that there is oil and water all over the place. 
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
What a mess! There’s oil in Aaron’s hair and it’s dripping all through Aaron’s beard, and it’s getting all over his clothes . . . yes, I’m being funny.  The psalm writer is painting us a vivid picture of God’s abundant blessing that comes through being united with one another.  The oil on Aaron’s head is the anointing oil that was used to ordain him as the first priest over Israel. 
Being around people is messy like that.  The more we get to know one another, the more we get to know about the real person that lives beneath the facades we put up for the public to see.  We tend to give the impression, maybe especially when we come to church on Sunday, that we’ve got it all together.  Underneath the facades, we are real people with real hurts and real fears that we’re often reluctant to share, and reluctant to hear about.
That’s why…
Belongingness takes commitment
We are a covenant people.  A covenant is a commitment.  “The Old Testament tells the story of God’s steadfast love from generation to generation. God made promises of faithfulness to Adam and Eve, to Noah and his family, to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and Aaron, and to the house of David, calling the people to respond in faith. … God made a new and everlasting covenant with us through Jesus Christ.[2]
We’re going to be talking in our membership class this afternoon about the commitments that we make in response to God’s covenant with us.  We respond by accepting God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, we make commitments to follow him when we are baptized, and we commit to his church and to one another when we join the church.  That commitment deepens as we commit to participate in various ways, and to serve one another, something we’ll be talking more about in the coming weeks.  The more fully we commit, the more our belongingness grows.
Besides commitment…
Belongingness takes time and energy – Together we are on a journey that lasts through all the seasons of our lives.  In many ways it is like a marriage.  Our marriages and friendships don’t do very well if we don’t give them much time or effort.  But with time and effort, we can thrive together.
The psalm we read this morning, Psalm 133, is called a “song of ascent.”  It’s one of 15 psalms with this heading. Psalms 120 through 134 are all songs of ascent. Jerusalem sits on top of a mountain, and people came from all over Palestine to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals, and sang these songs as they walked together along the road that went up into Jerusalem.  They are songs for the journey.  Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson writes about these songs of ascent in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  In his discussion of Psalm 133, he says,

“Living together in a way that evokes the glad song of Psalm 133 is one of the great and arduous tasks before Christ's people. Nothing requires more attention and energy. It is easier to do almost anything else.”[3]

Developing relationships with one another that go beyond the surface and that survive and thrive despite our differences require spending the time and energy to get to know one another more deeply.  That’s why we’re asking everyone to get connected to a small group during Lent, and why we’re developing additional small group opportunities for the time after Lent.

Belongness takes commitment, and time, and energy, and maybe most of all…
Belongingness takes grace
Paul says in our reading from Romans 15, in verse 1:
“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”
Paul’s doing a little bit of pandering there.  Whether or not we really are “strong” we probably all would think of ourselves as the strong.  Regardless of how you see yourself, Paul is telling us to have grace for one another.  He restates this in another way in verse 15:
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”
Jesus welcomes us all regardless of our strengths and weaknesses to be a part of the fellowship of his followers, to be a part of the community of saints, to be committed to following him and serving him together with the same grace that Jesus has for each one of us.
Pastor Timothy Jones tells a story about belonging and grace.  He says, “Our middle daughter had been previously adopted by another family. I am sure this couple had the best of intentions, but they never quite integrated the adopted child into their family of biological children. After a couple of rough years, they dissolved the adoption, and we ended up welcoming an eight-year-old girl into our home.
For one reason or another, whenever our daughter’s previous family vacationed at Disney World, they took their biological children with them, but they left their adopted daughter with a family friend. Usually — at least in the child’s mind — this happened because she did something wrong ...
And so, by the time we adopted our daughter, she had seen many pictures of Disney World and she had heard about the rides and the characters and the parades. But when it came to passing through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, she had always been the one left on the outside. Once I found out about this history, I made plans to take [our family] to Disney World ...
… I didn’t expect … that the prospect of visiting this dreamworld would produce a stream of downright devilish behavior in our newest daughter. In the month leading up to our trip to the Magic Kingdom, she stole food when a simple request would have gained her a snack. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults that were carefully crafted to hurt her older sister … and, as the days on the calendar moved closer to the trip, her mutinies multiplied.
A couple of days before our family headed to Florida, I pulled our daughter into my lap to talk through her latest escapade. “I know what you’re going to do,” she stated flatly. “You’re not going to take me to Disney World, are you?” … her downward spiral suddenly started to make some sense. She knew she couldn’t earn her way into the Magic Kingdom — she had tried and failed that test several times before — so she was living in a way that placed her as far as possible from the most magical place on earth.
In retrospect, I’m embarrassed to admit that, in that moment, I was tempted to turn her fear to my own advantage. The easiest response would have been, “If you don’t start behaving better, you’re right, we won’t take you” — but, by God’s grace, I didn’t. Instead, I asked her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?”
She nodded, brown eyes wide and tear-rimmed.
“Are you part of this family?”
She nodded again.
“Then you’re going with us. Sure, there may be some consequences to help you remember what’s right and what’s wrong — but you’re part of our family, and we’re not leaving you behind.”
I’d like to say that her behaviors grew better after that moment. They didn’t. Her choices pretty much spiraled out of control at every hotel and rest stop all the way to Lake Buena Vista. Still, we headed to Disney World on the day we had promised, and it was a typical Disney day. Overpriced tickets, overpriced meals, and lots of lines, mingled with just enough manufactured magic to consider maybe going again someday.
In our hotel room that evening, a very different child emerged. She was exhausted, pensive, and a little weepy at times, but her month-long facade of rebellion had faded. When bedtime rolled around, I prayed with her, held her, and asked, “So how was your first day at Disney World?”
She closed her eyes and snuggled down into her stuffed unicorn. After a few moments, she opened her eyes ever so slightly. “Daddy,” she said, “I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”
It wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.
That’s the message of outrageous grace.[4]
We are all God’s family.  We are his.  God has called us together to be his church – committed to serving him and to encouraging one another. 
We belong together . . .
…not because we’re Presbyterian,
not because we’re different or better,
. . .not because we’re good,
but because we’re his.
By grace, through faith in Jesus Christ,
Thanks be to God, we belong together.

[1] Steve Martin, Wild and Crazy Guy (1978)
[2] W -1.0103: God’s Covenant, PC(USA) Book of Order
[3] Eugene H. Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 1533-1534). Kindle Edition.
[4] Timothy Paul Jones in PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace
By Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones (Zondervan, 2014). This quote was found at http://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/belonging/

Monday, January 15, 2018

What Matters Most?

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, January 14, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS.  
Listen to audio here.
Read John 13:12-17, 34-35; Leviticus 19:9-18 here.

How do you feel about group projects?  If you teach, do you assign them?  As a student, do you love them or hate them?  I dreaded them.  I typically got good grades and didn’t like that my grade was going to depend on other people, people I didn’t know well, or worse, people who I knew didn’t care about their grades as much as I did.  So I learned that the best solution for the grade-conscious student is to be ready to do all or most of the work.

At Clemson University, my alma mater, group projects were common AND they were given a high priority because Clemson was very focused on making sure that students graduated with the skills that employers were asking for, and high on the list was the ability to work well with others.[1]  Because of that, the grades for group projects were frequently tied to how well we worked together.  Unfortunately for me, you got marked down for taking over and doing all the work. On one of my projects, the members of the group gave each other grades.  I decided what grade my partner would get and vice versa. We had to get along and work together.

If life had grades, and the grades were about how well we got along with one another, what would your grade be?

Technically, there are no grades, but in our reading from John today, Jesus does give us what might be grading criteria.  “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

Jesus is telling the disciples about this idea of loving one another during their last meal together before he is arrested.  In the other gospels, the writers tell us about the first communion, Jesus taking bread and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body broken for you.”  And taking a cup of wine and saying, “This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.” And he adds, “Do this in remembrance of me.” 

John chooses instead to tell us about something else that happened that night.  Jesus washes their feet.  It’s a menial task that was usually performed by the lowest ranking servant in the house.  It wasn’t notable that their feet were getting washed.  That was a normal thing.  But it was unthinkable that their teacher and leader would be the one to do it. 

Then he tells them that they too should wash one another’s feet. While they’re still pondering that radical idea, Jesus tells them he’s got a new commandment for them – love one another.

It’s not really new, though.  Moses had included this in the rules for living a holy life that we find in Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).  And Jesus had already identified this as one of the top two commandments in his conversation with the teachers in Matthew 22[2]:

 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Gospel of John, instead of telling us his version of the events that Matthew, Mark & Luke tell, seems to be more focused on filling in the blanks, telling us about events that the other gospel writers left out.  The one thing that all four include is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  John gives us four chapters of Jesus’ words that last night when he was preparing them for what was going to happen.  Twice in these four chapters, Jesus talks about this commandment to love one another.  He says it again in chapter 15, because this is the highest priority.  So they won’t miss it, he commands it.  And then he tells them how to do it.

 Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  (John 13:34)

He’s just demonstrated how to love one another by washing their feet, a shocking act all by itself, and he’s going to show them even more dramatically when he dies on the cross.

The Apostle Paul gives us reinforcement for the priority of loving one another in his letter to the Corinthians.  He says, “Without love we are meaningless” – 1 Cor 13 (Krabbe paraphrase).  I love how the Message version of the Bible makes this really clear.  It says:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Nothing we do or believe or say matters if we don’t love one another.
It’s a high priority, and it’s also a challenge.

Jesus says we’re to love, “just as I have loved you.”  He’s giving this command to the disciples, two of whom are doing some rather unlovable things.  While they’re in that room having supper, one of the disciples, Judas, leaves to go tell the temple leaders where Jesus is so they can arrest him. Jesus knows that Judas is betraying him, setting into motion the events that will lead to his death.  But he says, “Love one another just as I have loved you.”  Jesus has washed Judas’ feet, along with all the other disciples.[3]

Peter, the disciple who seems to always have something to say, says, “Of course, Jesus.  I will lay down my life for you.” Peter is so sure that he’s up for following Jesus no matter what.  But Jesus tells him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”  Peter has heard Jesus’ words and promised to follow, but then he denies even knowing Jesus.  But still, Jesus says, “love one another, just as I have loved you.”

It’s a challenge, because people aren’t always lovable.  Judas betrayed him.  Peter denied him.  But Jesus still died for them because he loved them, just like he loves us.
It’s a challenge because Jesus tells us we are even to love our enemies. In Matt 5, he says:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be perfect, as God is perfect.  Love one another like I have loved you.  This connects us back to those rules for living back in Leviticus, instructions for living as God’s holy people.  Loving like Jesus, living as God’s holy people, is a big challenge.  Putting love first, doing everything with love is not easy.

Which is why we need to practice.  And to practice you have to spend time with people, because we can’t love one another if there is no other. 

I started out talking about the challenge of doing group projects in school.  Those projects were opportunities to practice working with other people.  Sure it would be easier to get things done if we just did everything by ourselves.  No arguments.  No having to compromise.  But what if the point is not to get things done but to learn to love one another?

We often joke about how churches do everything by committee.  Have you ever considered that maybe we do things this way because it’s God’s way?  That the point is not just that we get things done, but that we do things together?

So we make love our highest priority because Jesus commanded us to, despite the challenge it is to love even our enemies, and we practice loving one another by doing things together.

Just to make sure that we don’t miss how important this really is, Jesus also gives us a purpose for working on this. He says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

I mentioned earlier in the service that this is the first sermon in a series of sermons that I’m calling Together@United.  We’re spending five weeks talking about this idea of loving one another because it is a high priority, then we’re going to have an opportunity to practice that together by getting together in small groups for the six weeks of Lent, the six weeks before Easter. It’s important for us all to take part in this, and to make this a regular part of our lives.  Small groups are an important part of discipleship, of growing in our relationship with God, because they give us an opportunity to work on learning the ins and outs of loving one another in a safe environment. They give us an opportunity to have conversations about God, and to get to know one another in a deeper way…to work on being the church – loving & growing & serving together.

It’s not going to be easy.  When we get to know each other better, we may find that we disagree about things.  We will find that we don’t all do life the same way.  Despite all that, Jesus tells us to love one another.

I’m pretty sure the hardest part will be to accept one another, to love one another without judgment.  I’ve heard it said that Alcoholics Anonymous becomes church for some people because they can go to an AA meeting and find encouragement without judgement, but when they go to church they find judgment. 

Do you know why there’s no judgement at an AA meeting?  Everybody comes with the common understanding that they are all alcoholics.  Some of them are sober alcoholics, and some of them have been sober for so long that people may not even remember that they were drunk, but they’re still alcoholics.  What do they way any time anyone speaks? They start by saying, “My name is ____ and I’m an alcoholic,” so that they don’t forget that they’re all alcoholics.

Maybe we should do the same in the church.  Hello, my name is Melissa and I’m a sinner.  We all are sinners.  We all are equally in need of God’s love and forgiveness.  Jesus died for every one of us.  Love came down for me and for you and for everyone we meet.  The most powerful way that we love one another like Jesus loved us is by showing the same forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus showed for us. Despite our faults.  Despite our differences.  Jesus came for all of us.  All of us are sinners in need of his grace.

We’re together because we all need love – the love we have through our faith in Jesus Christ.  God put us together to love one another – to practice what Jesus commanded us to practice – loving one another as he has loved us.

If life had grades, and the grades were about how well we got along with one another, what would your grade be?

[2] And Mark 12:28-31 and Luke 10:25-28
[3] Susan Hylen : Judas’s presence at the supper means that the example Jesus sets is not simply one of service to an elite group of believers. Jesus has washed Judas’s feet, and therefore has included him among those he loved “to the utmost.” Similarly, the love of disciples for “one another” might be understood to include even those others we might prefer to forget.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1583

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Star Word 2018 - Coming

Another year, another word.  This is only my second year to have a word.  I got so comfortable with my 2017 word "guidance"  that I was sad to see it go.  But I was also excited to see what the new word would be.  At first I was disappointed.  "Coming" is such an average word. 

I told everyone to start by asking God about their word, but I didn't.  I didn't even say thank you to God.  I probably wouldn't have meant it anyway.  Instead I went straight to the Bible app on my phone and searched.  This caught my eye:

Suddenly I remember what I've been telling people every Sunday in December - Advent means coming.  Jesus is coming!

My husband reminds me that the word also relates to another preaching theme from my past - showing up.  He says I'm very good at showing up.  Mostly he's right.  If it's on my calendar, I'm coming to it, because I have learned that attendance is the key to success.  I learned this lesson the hard way back in Jr. high when I got sick and missed a bunch on school and I lost a key role in a project the class was doing.

I do still kinda wish my word was more interesting. Maybe I could change it to "becoming"?

No, I'll stick with it.  God says he's coming.  Something will happen.  And Carl Sagan agrees.

Follow Forward

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, January 7, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS.  Listen here.

Read Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6 here.

In a small Southern town there was a beautiful nativity scene in the town square.  It was obvious that great skill and talent had gone into creating it.  A visitor from the north stopped to admire it, but was bothered by one small feature. The three wise men were wearing firemen's helmets.  He wondered quite a bit about that.

At a gas station on the edge of town, he asked the lady behind the counter about the helmets on the wise men. She answered harshly, "You damn Yankees never do read the Bible!" The man assured her that he did, but simply couldn't recall anything about firemen in the Bible. She jerked her Bible from behind the counter and riffled through some pages, and finally jabbed her finger at a passage. Sticking it in his face she said:

"See, it says right here,  'The three wise man came from afar.'"[1]

The wise men followed the star to Jesus.  In my mind, this looks a lot like the beginning of the movie Ben Hur (1959), a classic that won the Academy Award for best picture back in 1960.  In the movie, before the story of Ben Hur begins, there is the story of Jesus’s birth, including the star and the wise men.  In these scenes, the star moves through the sky, and when it gets to where Jesus is, the starlight becomes like a spotlight shining down lighting up the place where Jesus is.[2]  A star moving like that would be pretty easy to follow.  Now a moving star would more likely be an airplane or a satellite.

Following the stars was not an unusual way to navigate back then. They were the original global positioning system.  Theologians – priests and pastors – were also astronomers. They had to know how to read the stars and the positions of the sun and moon to know the seasons, to keep track of dates, and to know when to celebrate important church holidays.

Hundreds of years ago, churches throughout Europe were built for this...  to be solar observatories as well as places to gather for worship. One of the largest and most accurate is The Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, Italy. It has a strategically placed and carefully designed hole in the ceiling, and a copper line in the floor called a meridian line.
Sunlight from that hole shines on the line to measure the season and to determine the dates of the fall and spring equinoxes, the two days of the year that there are exactly 12 hours of daylight.  This was important because Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.[3]  They used the meridian line in the floor of the church to know when this was.

Now, instead of the stars, we use satellites and computers.  Whether we’re using the stars or a GPS, we are still using guidance.  As Christians, we are called “followers of Jesus” meaning that we follow Jesus’ guidance.  But following Jesus isn’t quite the same as following a GPS…or is it?

Our gospel-writer Matthew doesn’t tell us much about who the wise men were.  He calls them magos, magi, wisemen, says that they came from the east, and that they came seeking Jesus. Western tradition says there were three because there were three gifts, but Eastern tradition says there were twelve. 

Did you know that there were also three wise women?  After the wise men gave their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrh, the wise women brought diapers and casseroles and formula.[4]

Psalm 25:9 says [God] guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” Humble people seek guidance.  The wise men did that.  They sought guidance from the scriptures, they sought guidance from the stars, they even followed the guidance of King Herod for a little bit.  They listened and they followed.

The wisemen followed the star for guidance, but the wisemen kept their focus on Jesus.  They followed with a purpose.  If they followed the GPS without a purpose, they might end up like a woman in Europe who didn’t notice that her GPS was taking her to the wrong place, and ended up 900 miles from her destination.  She had intended to use the GPS to get to the train station 30 miles from her house.  She isn’t able to explain why she didn’t notice that the trip was taking way too long, or that she was crossing over into other countries.[5] She kept following the GPS, but she entirely forgot her purpose.  Psalm 16:8 says:  "I keep my eyes always on the Lord." We too need to keep our eyes on Jesus.

The wisemen kept recalculating. They knew what the scriptures said, probably knew that…
  • Micah says in chapter 5 that a ruler will be born in Bethlehem. 
  • In Numbers 24, Balaam prophesies that a star will come out of Israel. 

And they could see where the star was, but they checked in with the locals when they got to Jerusalem to see what was happening there.  They asked if anybody knew about this baby.  That’s how Herod heard about them.  Herod wanted them to come back and report to him what they’d found, but a vision in a dream warned them not to, so they adjusted their plans….they reoriented

In the same way, a GPS is constantly keeping track of the route, your position, and bouncing transmissions between the ground station, your phone, and the satellite so that it can adjust its guidance to your actual location.[6]  We too need to keep checking and recalculating – asking God for help, reading the Bible for guidance, talking to others, observing what’s happening around us – because all these things factor into God’s guidance for us.

Maybe one of the toughest things about following is that we need to follow at God’s speed.[7] One of the great challenges of following is not getting ahead of the leader or lagging too far behind.  Have you ever gone hiking with a group?  If you don’t keep up and lose sight of the leader, you can get lost.  Or If you run on ahead, you can go the wrong way and get lost.  You have to stay with the leader.  The Bible warns us about those who run on ahead.  2 John 1:9 says “Anyone who runs ahead without remaining in the teaching of Christ does not have God.”

Following God’s speed, trusting in God’s timing, is maybe one of the most difficult things about following.  At least, it has been for me.  There have been times when I was sure I was doing things God’s way by taking things slowly so as not to upset people too much, only to find that God had an entirely different plan.  There have also been times when I was sure I knew what God wanted me to do so I charged ahead and started doing it, only to have it fail because it wasn’t in God’s timing.

When we come up to receive communion later in the service, we’re going to get a star with a word on it.  The wise men were guided by the star, and this star can also be our guide in seeking God.  Ironically, the word I got at the beginning of last year was “guidance.”  I’ll admit I was skeptical about this word…and about the whole idea of getting a word.  How could God speak to me through a randomly drawn word on a paper star? 

Here’s the thing.  How does God speak to us at all?

What are some ways that God speaks to you?

The Bible tells us that God is always with us.  Jesus said, “I will never leave you.”  Deuteronomy and Isaiah and the Psalms tell us that God is always holding on to us.  God is always here.  Through our faith in Jesus Christ we have the Holy Spirit living in our hearts.  The Holy Spirit is our guidance system, always there nudging us, encouraging us, enlightening us.  But we aren’t always listening.

It’s just like the GPS when you’re driving.  Do you ever get tired of that voice telling you where to go and so you just turn it off?  I’ve done that at some really stupid times.  One day in Houston I got mad at the voice.  I didn’t like the way it was taking me, so I turned it off and went my own way.  That would have been fine if I knew where I was going.  Guess what?  I got lost.  Really lost.  When I turned the GPS back on, it had some work to do to get me back on track so I could get to my meeting.  I ended up being 45 minutes late.  It was a very humbling experience.

We need guidance, but we don’t always seek it, and we don’t always listen to it.  God is always speaking to us.  A word on a star is an opportunity to seek God and listen to what he’s saying to us.  So when you get your word, start by asking God about it.  Prayer is the most crucial part of seeking guidance.  Then see what the Bible has to say about your word.  And watch and listen for ways your word might come up in your daily life. 

Can a word on a star give us guidance from God?  Yes it can, because God, the creator of the universe, can use whatever he needs to in order to get our attention.

One more thing about following.  It means we keep moving forward. (Follow forward) We’re on a journey through this life following Jesus. There will be times that go quickly and times that go slowly and times for being still, but overall we keep moving forward, even when we’re not quite sure where God is taking us.  Abraham followed God to a place he’d never been.  The stars were God’s sign to him of the future blessing that would result. God said, “I will make you a nation as numerous as the stars in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 26:4).  That was a prophecy about Jesus.

You and I are on a journey together.  I’m excited about following Jesus with all of you in 2018.  We’re only just beginning to know where God will take us.

[1] http://www.humormatters.com/holidays/Christmas/xmasjokes.htm
[2] Ben Hur (1959) first scene – star over manger and arrival of kings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b654a_u474Q
[7] https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/godspeed/ discusses the word “godspeed” and is what pointed me to the previous verse about not running ahead of God. 2 John 1:9 in Greek http://biblehub.com/interlinear/2_john/1-9.htm The word Proago running ahead is also the word for transgressing!