When You Follow a Star and Find a Stable.
Some unrelated random thoughts about the text.
· How many wise men were there in the story? Does not give us a specific number. We say there were three because of three gifts.
· They were not kings either. They were magi from the East/Wise men. Skilled in Philosophy/Medicine/Natural Sciences. Considered holy men/soothsayers/who could interpret dreams. Later times Magi became bad name for fortune tellers/magicians/charlatans. Like people who read palms in a trailer on side of a freeway.
· Hard to believe these magi were men/ not a feminist revision of the story. But men don't generally stop and ask for directions do they?
· Don't know why we call them wise men? How bright is it to stop and ask King Herod where King of Jews was to be born?
Thinking about their experience at the stable where Jesus was born.
· We tend to paint a sentimental picture like we see on Christmas card.
· But a deeper look into the text reveals something quite different.
· Don't you think they were disappointed when they found the stable?
· I mean they saw a star and traveled a long distance to see a king.
· What do you think they thought they would find beneath the star?
· Were probably expecting a beautiful palace/a baby king wrapped in purple linen/a jewel encrusted crib/parents with a pedigree.
· The never expected to find a stable beneath the star.
· Probably thought: "We traveled hundreds of miles for this?"
· A baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
Has that every happened to you?
· Ever follow a star and find a stable where you expected to find something else.
· Following stars and finding stables is something we can all relate too.
· It is a very common human experience to find a stable beneath a star.
· Everyone has set his or her sights on a high and lofty star only to find that it leads us to a stable.
Hundreds of examples could be given.
· Strive to get the ideal job that turns out to be something less than ideal. Turns out to be just an ordinary job like the job your dad had.
· Strive to find the perfect mate in life. You have the great wedding. Then you find out he's just an ordinary guy who squeezes the toothpaste in the middle and leaves his underwear in the floor. For some reason you never noticed the hair growing in his ears.
· Or you can't wait to be a parent and have your own children. You have this dream and then it turns out to be something quite different. Maybe child born with some genetic difficulty or you find out its hard work.
· Or we set a goal to find the perfect community to live. But then we get transferred to a less than ideal place to live that fails to meet our expectations.
My own personal experience as the pastor in Little Rock Arkansas is an example.
· Just could not wait to get my own congregation.
· Followed a star to a church in Little Rock Arkansas.
· They had amazing facilities and some very good people.
· Thoughts of just going in and building church with sheer determination.
· But quickly discovered it was more of a stable than a palace.
· The church was in a dying neighborhood troubled with drugs.
· Traditional congregations were closing their doors and selling out to congregations with names like Full Gospel Praise Temple.
· Congregation itself had some riffs in it that could not be overcome. There were people who did not like one another.
· Hard to accept idea that my star led me to a stable.
I'm sure you've all seen It's Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart.
· It's one of my favorite movies.
· He comes up short at the Building and Loan.
· Could end up going to jail for embezzling funds.
· Begins to question his whole existence.
· He even considers taking his own life.
· But then an angel intervenes in the situation.
· And in the end townspeople come up with the money.
· But the trouble is we don't all live a Frank Capra kind of life.
· We come up short and no one steps forward to bail us out.
· We end up filing for bankruptcy or we go to jail
The question is then what do you do when you follow a star and find a stable.
For one thing, wise men look for God in the stables of life. The magi did not shake their heads and return home. Somehow they found God in the Stable and bowed down to worship him.
We think God is out there somewhere in the grand experiences of life on the mountaintops - in the cathedrals. But you don't have to climb a mountain or sit yourself down in a cathedral or having some exciting revelatory experience like those TV preachers describe. All you have to do is open your heart and mind to the presence of God in the most ordinary details of your life.
God is present when we are sitting at the dinner table with our family. God is present when we are tucking our children into bed. God is present when we are caring for a parent who cannot take care of himself. God is present when we share a cup of coffee with a friend. God is present when we perform the most menial tasks in our work. God is present when we are laying on our back looking at the stars in the sky. God is around us when we take a walk early in the morning.
Think about the ordinary people you meet everyday in the checkout line or the tollbooth. We pass them by without even paying attention to them at all. But what we don't realize is that they are cathedrals for the presence of God too. That Guy who sells newspapers at the Intersection of I-45 and Sawdust road he is a cathedral for the presence of God. That Guy who cuts your grass once a week he's a cathedral for the presence of God. What would happen if you began to treat every person in your life as if they were a cathedral for the presence of God? That was the secret to Jesus life and ministry and what made him the Christ. Jesus had that gift for seeing God in ordinary people. How else do you explain his choice of disciples? They were not kings and learned people. They were common and ordinary people. But he saw them as cathedrals for God's presence.
The truth is you will never get to know God as long as you think God is somewhere out there. The only way to get to know God is to get the ability to see God in the most ordinary details of your life. The funny thing is that we are born with the ability. Just take a look at children in our lives. They have the ability to see God in everything around them. They look at the world with wonder and delight. My son for example, can find God in the simplest of things. When he finds a lizard in the grass, or sees a rainbow he reacts as if he has just won the lottery. But for some reason we lose that ability to see God, as we get older.
So your job is less that what you hoped for. Your marriage isn't what you dreamed it would be. Your kids aren't the all-American kids. Your home isn't what you hoped it would be. Look for God like the wise men looked for God in a stable and you will find God there.
A man was justifiably proud of his lawn until one year a heavy crop of dandelions appeared. He
tried everything imaginable in an effort to get rid of them, but without success.
Finally in desperation, he wrote to an agricultural college, listing the remedies he had tried, and concluded with the appeal, "What shall I do now?"
Several weeks later, he received this reply: "We suggest that you learn to love them."
We bemoan the stables in our life but we need to learn to love them because is truly present to us in them. Can you see the hand of God in the ordinary details of your life?
Secondly, the wise men gave the best they had to offer. They hold nothing back from God in the stable. They give God their very best. The wise men knelt before the baby Jesus and offered him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The disappointments we experience aren't our biggest problems. Our biggest problem we face is our failure to pay attention to the things we do have in our lives. It's not what you don't have that matters. What matters is what you do have. What are you going to do with what you have in life is far more important than what you are lacking in life
Quit your worrying about the job you don't have? If I only had this job I'd care more about my work. What are you going to do with the job that you have? Why would anyone want to give you a better job when you haven't cared about the one that you have. Give God your very best where you are right now. If I'm working at McDonald's building burgers I'm going to make every burger a work of art. I'm going to lay down every pickle with precision. If I'm laying down tile to put food on the table. I'm going to lay down tile in every home like it was a cathedral. Wherever you work give it your best to the glory of God.
Quit longing for the perfect man or woman you thought you married, or the one you wish you'd married. You've just got to face it that that person doesn't exist and never existed. Instead start paying attention to the wonderfully flawed man or woman you sleep next to every night. Give that guy with the hair in his ears your very best. Whether your marriage is in a stable or is in the clouds give it your very best. Bring all the gifts that God gave you to your marriage. Hold nothing back for the mate you were joined to at the altar. What kind of spouse you wish you had is not as important as what are you going to give to the person you are married to? Are you going to give everything that you have to the glory of God to build the best marriage that you can with the person that you are married too?
Think about your children for a moment. We all have the ideal of the perfect child and what we want for our child. But that whole thing is thrown out the window the moment they become teenagers. Well quit worrying about the child you wish you had and start focusing on the children that actually live in your home. Focus on the good that is in them and you will grow the child that God wants them to be. A few months ago when I was attending a conference in San Francisco I began to talk about my daughter Rebecca. During the course of the conversation I said that she was amazing. On the way home it occurred to me that I did not say that nearly enough. Maybe our kid isn't the All-American kid but he's my kid and I'm going to be the very best dad that I can and I'm holding nothing back.
Often people will say to me that when things improve for them they will serve God. Or they will say when they are filling better they will work for God in the world. But what I'm saying here is that you need to serve God the best you can in whatever circumstance you are in. When you find a stable beneath a star it's not time to hold back it's time to give God your all. If you wait until you are healthy and strong and out of a tight spot to start serving God then you'll never ever serve God. You've got to serve God where you are right now. It's like the Psalm that says How Can we Sing the Lord's Song in a strange land. But if you wait until everything is right in your life you will never sing the Lord's song.
When you find a stable beneath a star give God your very best in the situation.
And so third, their life was altered when they found God in the stable and gave God their very best. Did you hear what it said in the text? The wise men left the stable and they took another route home. Instead of whining about our stable or being depressed about our situation our lives can change for the better. I would even argue that the stable experiences in our life have more potential for change in our life that mountaintop experiences. When you find God in the stable and you give God your all in the stable your life will change for the good in ways that you never dreamed possible.
When we find God in the ordinary things of life, when we give God the best we have to offer the direction of our lives will change.
Conclusion: Story of Alma Melson and her incredible faith. Alma's husband was critically injured in an automobile accident when they were newlyweds. He became a shut in over night with the mind of a four year old. All of her dreams for a family ended. She spent the rest of her life caring for him. But she never complained. She loved him dearly and cared for him as if here were the same man she married. You could see that she saw Christ in him in the way that she cared for him. She did the best she could with the hand she was dealt with in life. At first glance Alma looks like an ordinary woman. But a closer look at her reveals the presence of God.
When you follow a star and find a stable here's what God's Word says. Look for God. Give to God your best. In other words, bloom where you are planted. It will change your life.
A Critique of When You Follow A Star And Find A Stable
The following sermon was preached on January 6th to a white suburban church. The sermon is only an outline of the thoughts I had before stepping into the pulpit. Though the outline is longer than usual, I preached without the outline in front of me. For the most part the outline was just a jumping off point for me. The delivery was much smoother than the rough outline presented here. Many people were enthusiastic about the sermon. What appealed to them was the usage of family and work issues that they can all relate too. The sermon deals with a human experience that everyone can relate too: disappointment. The main goal of the sermon was to help people find God in the ordinary situations of life. A secondary goal was to encourage people to begin to see their disappointment in life as a place to meet God. The sermon was prepared at the last possible minute on a Friday afternoon. The idea came from a three-point outline from a lectionary resource by Brett Blair that sends illustrations through the e-mail. There were just three points in the outline. I had been away on a week of vacation and came home to a host of problems in the church. There were a lot of pastoral issues that demanded my attention, alongside the completion of our building program. As well, after a demanding Advent schedule and three Christmas Eve services and traveling several hundred miles to see family I did not have much energy for it. To be quite frank, the only thing I did to prepare the sermon was to read the text and worked from the outline. I was aware of the fact that Matthew does not mention a stable in the text. Matthew's version says they found Jesus in a house. But I chose to ignore it and just do what many have done before and blend Luke's version with this one. I made mention of this in the sermon, but as an aside. I generally do not like three point sermons. But this was a major time crunch. I simply took the easy way out.
Though the sermon was helpful to many in the congregation who are trying to make sense of some major disappointments in their life, the sermon was not faithful to the text in many ways.
First, there was no stable in Matthew. Failing to acknowledge that there was no stable for Matthew is a significant problem in the sermon. This probably would not bother too many people in my congregation who are content to blend Luke and Matthew together. However, in the end it ends up just contributing to the Biblical illiteracy of the congregation. I'm guilty here of everything that I dislike about the popular seeker driven congregations that twist scripture to fit their purposes.
Second, though many people could relate to seeing the text through the eyes of the magi it misses the point of the text for Matthew. Matthew does not want us to focus on the inner thoughts or feelings of the magi. Matthew wants us to look at what God is doing in this text. That's why he keeps saying "Behold" in the text. God is the actor here and God is doing something decisive in history. Everyone in the story is just a supporting actor or perhaps even just a prop. Focusing on the magi does not allow the congregant to hear the good news that God is up to something big. Something so big is going on that the whole world is troubled by it.
Third, We are the focus of the sermon. It deals with our disappointments and helping us find meaning in life. But this text is an epiphany text. It screams out at the reader to stop and look at what God is up too. God is coming into the world in a new and surprising way that will turn the world upside down. This explains why everyone in the text is troubled by what is going on here. It makes sense that if this is an epiphany text that declares the manifestation of God that the sermon should be about God and not about us.
Fourth, the sermon skips right over the problem of evil in the text. There is a real horror in this text. But I chose not to deal with it at all by not reading the rest of the text as the lectionary suggests. The sermon is like most sermons today it deals with personal pain, but not the larger world and how it suffers. I think I missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about what God is doing in a world where planes crash into towers and children are killed by stray bombs and labeled collateral damage. There is the possibility in this text to speak meaningfully to the problem of evil and how the Kingdom of God is breaking in on it.
Fifth, the sermon makes no mention of the concern that Matthew has to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He goes way out of his way in theses first two chapters to place Jesus in the line of David. This story is wrapped up neatly in the salvation history of the Jewish people. In fact, this story appears to be a retelling of the story of Moses and the killing of the innocents when he was born. Matthew seems to have this story in mind when he tells this story. In fact, some have said that Matthew paints Jesus as the new Moses in his text. What this text is doing then is setting the stage for what is to come. He is laying it all out for the reader so that when he begins to tell the story of Jesus ministry it has been placed in the proper framework.
However, I do think there is a place where this sermon is faithful to the text. Matthew and Luke both want us to know that when God became flesh he was born just like all of us. This messiah was not born like other kings. He was poor and ordinary in every way. The fact that none of the Jews in the text are able to find him suggests this much. There does seem to be some argument for God being found in the ordinary experiences of life. After all it is Matthew who tells the story of the sheep and goats where Jesus is found in the hungry and oppressed. I think a good cares can be made for using the text to help people find God in their ordinary lives. In a world that is going to be destroyed by unchecked consumerism this is a message with some power. You don't have to have this or this or this to find meaning because meaning can be found in the simple and ordinary places of life. For everything negative I've said about this sermon there is still some merit too it. Looking at people as Cathedrals of God's presence is helpful in a society that is very dehumanizing. As well, a lot could be done with the star stable image. One could get a lot of miles by saying that God's stars always lead us to humble places, or to places where people suffer.