Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The gift of the future (follow your star)

The tale of the wise men has always fascinated me. In my youth, I was in a handful of Christmas pageants and I was always cast as one of the wise men. I never really knew why. Maybe it was because I had the right amount of charm or because I seem to exude wisdom. Or maybe it was because shepherds look sillier in glasses than wise men. Whatever the case, being the wise man in the church or school Christmas pageant was my destiny from year to year. So I have a kinship with this story. I have a connection to the wise men and I hope after today you will too.

The first aspect that is remarkable about the wise men is their journey. We rarely ever see the wise men mid-expedition. We usually focus on the payoff, them surrounding the Christ child. But let us not forget that it was a long path in getting there. Imagine it. You and a bunch of your astronomer buddies decide to take off for a foreign land following a star. Now of course back then you could just not charter a flight and head over to Jerusalem. This journey would take much planning. You would have to stock up on provisions. Strap up your camels. Bring everything that you needed on your backs and in your caravan, and begin. Begin the long slow journey westward. This is what the wise men faced. Not knowing what they would find, they traveled through desert, darkness, cold and rain. The were likely tired, perhaps frustrated and certainly unsure of what they would find. Maybe that is why most of the images of the journey are taken from afar like the one on the cover of the bulletin today. This is a familiar image. The three camels silhouetted against the evening sky. You don’t see them close up because maybe if you did you would see the struggle on their faces. The frustration that can only come from days and days of travel. If any of you have ever been stuck in an airport overnight, you can sympathize.

Like the wise men, we also are on a journey, a journey of life. And it is not so different from the wise men’s. It is sometimes dark, sometimes unsure, Treacherous. Confusing. Frustrating. At times, we wander through life not really sure where we are going or what we are supposed to be doing. From a distance we may seem fine, a silhouette that appears calm cool and collected, but when the camera gets close, it shows the lines on our faces, the weariness that the journey has caused. What can we do to ease this struggle?

If we look to the story of the wise men, one of the lessons that we can learn is that we do not have to go it alone. There was not a wise man, but rather wise men. Partners, compatriots. Now there is some question as to how many wise men there really were. If you look closely at the text, it never actually gives a number. We have a tradition of three because of the three gifts, but we really do not know. There could have been a dozen or more. A whole crew. Partners, friends helping each other out through their journey across the harsh lands.

Who are your traveling companions? Maybe it is a spouse that you have grown to love and committed to be with through thick and thin. Maybe it is a close friend, someone with whom you can share your deepest secrets and problems. Perhaps it is your children or your parents that have become your kin in the truest sense of the word. Maybe it is this church. I believe that church should be one of your closest traveling companions through life. It should be here to support and help you as you move from place to place. If you do not feel like this is the case, let me know. I want to talk to you about it.

Just as the wise men traveled together, all of your traveling companions are with you as well. They are there to share with you in all of your greatest accomplishments. They are there to keep you moving when the times get tough and you want to give up. They are there to support you and be supported by you.

With the help and companionship of each other the wise men reached Jerusalem, and that is where they found help in one of the most unlikely of places. This brings us to our second lesson to be learned from the wise men: seeking help from the stranger. If you will permit me a little dramatic license, I see the wise men arriving at Jerusalem tired and frustrated. After the long and wearisome journey they have still not found what they have been seeking. Their impatience is evident in the way that they talk to Herod. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Herod, though with his own agenda, calls in all of the priests and the scribes to find out where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The wise men had the when, given to them by the observance of the star, but not there where. Conversely, the priests and the scribes had the where, Bethlehem, but not the when. Together they give a wonderful example of cross-cultural religious collaboration. The wise men’s knowledge was made complete because they sought help from others. Even though Herod’s people were strangers, they became great help to the wise men telling them where to go. Help can come in unlikely places.

Up until now the wise men might seem like another group of traveling wanderers that we find in the Bible, that of the Hebrews leaving Egypt. It took them forty years to get where they were going, but they were missing one very important element that the wise men had, the star! Though their journey is long, the wise men are not aimlessly wandering. They have a guide, a light that directs them. A star in the West. Okay so when we last left them they were about to leave Herod’s. From the priests and scribes they gain a newly acquired drive and purpose and set forth toward Bethlehem. And as they do, day begins to turn into night. Darkness creeps up over the horizon and with it, their guiding star. It continues to move, the texts says, leading them all the way to their final destination, the baby Jesus.

Finding a guide is the third lesson that the wise men have to teach us this morning. Their guide, their star, meant a great deal to them. It was what initially prompted them to leave their country and begin their journey. It was for them a sign of change. The old would pass away and something new would be born. A new king. A new era. It is then appropriate that we would be hearing this story at the beginning of the New Year. This is a time for us to spark hope of something new. Something that will allow us to leave the old and start fresh.

So the question that I have for you is this: “What is your star?” The wise men found their king because they had a guide, a God-given sign in the sky. It gave them hope. It gave them direction. It forged them onward. So what is your star? What is going to guide you this year? Perhaps your life is generally troubled. You do not have a clear heading, you are wandering around without a course to direct you. Spinning and spiraling downward. Or maybe you are coasting. Just getting by. Whatever the case, perhaps what you need is a light to guide you, a star to shine the way. Something to give your life focus and direction.

So what is your star? What is leading you this new year? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Where are you going to seek God’s presence in your life? Perhaps you have a relationship in your life that has become broken. Perhaps there is someone with whom you need to make amends. Let reconciliation be your star. Perhaps it is something that is troubling you. A broken promise. A mistake that you cannot put behind you. Let forgiveness be your star. Some of you may have struggled with addiction, or are struggling now and a star of recovery is what is sitting on your horizon. Remember to keep it there and follow it. Others of you may be committed to social justice. Put a star of peace and of equality up so that you can see it and follow it to your destination.

We will have more of a moment to reflect on this in our time of prayer today, but I want to make clear that I am not talking about a simple New Year’s resolution. Those usually take the form of one minor change or decision that you want to make, try for a while, and then give up on. I am talking about a God-given guiding force in your life. Something that will put you on a journey of transformation. What that will be is only something that you can decide for yourself with the help and guidance of a God that loves you and wants to see you grow.

Remember from the wise men that it may not be an easy journey. Likely, it won’t be, but you must forge ahead. And also remember that you are not alone. There are all of your traveling companions. And there is whole community here that can help and support you. And finally remember when the times are the hardest is when we forget to look up, to see our star and to remember that God is with us.

When the wise men finally arrived at the house and gazed upon the baby Jesus, they were struck with his majesty. All of the toil and journey was worth it. They knew that they had reached their destination and they were filled with such reverence that they began to worship. In a tiny baby they saw all of the hope and love for a new era. They were filled with the presence of God. By staying focused, by following their star, they had come to a future that was more radiant and beautiful than they could have imagined. What is your star?

This is where their journey ended but it is where ours begins. God gives us so much opportunity for love and hope in the world. We only need to seek it out. So pack your bags. Find some companions, maybe some strangers. And follow your star. Seek God’s hope for you and for the world. For just as the wise men found hope and renewal in the eyes of a child, so will we find it at the end of our journeys. May God bless us as we continue onward. Amen.