Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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!

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