This past week I was blessed with some quality family quiet time at the cabin. On New Year’s Eve, we gathered around an outside campfire down by the lake. Bundled up against the cold our gazes moved between the fire at our feet and the dark sky overhead, the backdrop for countless magnificent bright stars. As one year ends and another begins it’s a common practice to reflect on all the changes over the year, what happened… expected and unexpected. We know it’ll be true again for 2020. This year will include some things we expect but overall, life surprises us again and again. Our former Senior Pastor Chris used to regularly remind us that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But it’s also true that every one of us ends up traveling roads we never expected, experiencing life in ways we never imagined.
It’s true for the magi in the bible story today too. They found themselves on a road they didn’t expect to travel, experiencing something they never could have imagined. But from their story, we learn something about navigating the unexpected roads on which we find ourselves these days.
We don’t know much about these Magi. Matthew’s gospel tells us they were from the East. Scholars agree that they were most likely from Persia, Zorastrian priests, who were known for their skills in interpreting dreams, understanding astrology, telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were not of the Abrahamic faith. They paid close attention to the stars. So, when they have a grand celestial sighting they saddled up their camels and set out to follow what they saw as a sign.
Uncertain of what was ahead, the Magi followed the star. It was a sign — not exactly a sure thing, certainly not something to use as proof to skeptics, but enough of a sign that they couldn’t not respond. They moved with curiosity, following the star, to see what might be revealed.
It takes eyes of faith to believe that something — or someone — is guiding you. Eyes of faith followed by acts of courage to move forward into the future even when the path seems unclear.
God used a star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. But that’s not all. God also used them to enlarge the scope of the story. In Luke, God announces the birth of the Messiah to a few Jewish shepherds through an angel. By the time we get to Matthew, God is announcing the birth to magi through a star. A little later still, through these magi, who were gentiles — people outside of the Jewish traditions and faith, God announces Jesus’ birth to King Herod and his court.
From a simple manger, where a child is wrapped in cloth, God’s reach expands and grows. The good news is not for a particular people at a particular place in a particular time. God is willing to do whatever it takes to reach out to all people. And God is willing to work through any and all people to increase love in the world. Through the story of the magi, we learn that no one is outside of God’s love.
Author Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B, tells a story about the unexpected ways in which God guides and God loves. The story takes place on the author’s 49th birthday. She’d prayed that morning: “Lord, help me to be helpful.” But immediately afterward she was lamenting: the problem with God is that God rarely answers right away. Lamott was going to the grocery store. While she was standing in the check-out line, she was told that she’d won a free ham. Lamott admits to not being all that enthused about the free ham, or the attention that came with it, but she politely received her gift and said thank you.
As she was walking out of the store, she was shaking her head: “God, I asked for help, not a ham.” She was so distracted that she crashed her grocery cart into a slow-moving vehicle in the parking lot. The car was a rusty wreck. Just then she saw that an old friend of hers was at the wheel, a friend she’d gotten to know through AA. The friend opened her window. Lamott said hello, and the woman in the car began to cry. She looked drained. She pointed to her gas gauge. “ I don’t have any money for gas or food,” she said. “I’ve never asked for help from friends since I got sober, but I’m asking you to help me. Lamott pushed some money into her friends’ hand. It was her birthday money. It was everything she had. Then she reached into her shopping cart and held out the ham. “Hey, do you and your kids like ham?” The woman replied, “We love it! ”
Lamott concludes: “God has a way of providing showers in the desert. You can go from parched to overflowing in the blink of an eye. Anne Lamott didn’t recognize God’s guidance in the moment, but with eyes of faith and an act of courage, she was able to see that God was guiding her to reach out to another with God’s love. Story after story, in the Bible, and in our own lives too, God chooses to use ordinary folks like Anne Lamott, like you and me, to reach out with the love of Christ.
With God’s guidance, the Magi traveled an unexpected road. Curious and open, they found Jesus and worshipped the one true God. When they found him they bowed down and offered gifts. They responded to his presence with humility and praise — signs of faith even in the midst of all they didn’t, they couldn’t understand.
Not so with King Herod. Jesus’ birth called Herod’s entire future into question. What would happen now? What would his future be? The road ahead was uncertain. Herod found himself on an unexpected path and he is filled with fear. Jesus was a threat. Herod responds with aggression, wanting to rid his rival from the throne.
This is where the story gets a bit more complicated. We know what it feels like to be on an unexpected road. We wonder what we should do: Embrace it or resist it? Head out or hold back? Look to see if God is up to something new or turn away in fear? We’re not always sure. We might say things like: “It’s never been done that way before. It’s too risky. It won’t work. Chasing after stars is a crazy stunt in the first place.” Maybe that’s exactly what we’re supposed to say… some of the time. Then again, if we never get around to saying anything else, we may end up being closed off to God’s new possibilities for us. We may miss God’s nudge that moves us to an experience of Christ.
So, what do we do? We keep looking for signs. A star in the sky, a verse of scripture, a dream in the middle of the night. Or maybe something more down to earth: a talk with a friend, a song on the radio, or a hymn that really hits home. We listen as carefully as we can. What’s God trying to tell us? Do this. Try that. Sign up here. Serve there. Take a risk. Get up and go!
Whatever road you and I may be facing, it takes eyes of faith to believe that God is guiding us. And it takes courage and trust to take the first step when you’re not sure what’s ahead.
In the midst of the chaos in the world and all we can’t understand — the threat of war, tragic acts of violence, fires that rage, systems that perpetuate injustice… and in the midst of uncertainty sometimes closer to home — a diagnosis that terrifies, a job that’s eliminated, a new stage in life — it’s easy to be overcome by fear, it can be hard to know your next best step.
But there is a way forward. The Magi kept their focus on a star, a sign, as they traveled the unexpected path. They remained open and curious. And the star was enough to keep them moving toward Christ.
I’m sending each of you home with a star today — a star sticker to be exact. It’s not just for the kids. For you and I need to be reminded of God’s promise too. There are stands with baskets at the exits as you leave worship today. In the baskets there are stars.
I encourage you to take one and put it somewhere where you’ll see it every day — on a refrigerator or bathroom mirror, on the steering wheel of your car, the handlebars of your bike or the back of your phone. And then as you encounter a place that feels unfamiliar or a situation that seems uncertain, when fear and worry take hold of your heart, let the star guide you back to God’s promise for you: you’re not left to yourself to figure things out, look for signs, listen carefully, stay open and curious… for God meets you where you are, God will guide you along the way, and God will lead you to an experience of Christ.
If you’re feeling a strong sense of God’s promise at this time, then take a star and share it with someone in need of a sign, a reminder the God’s promised presence is for them. The star won’t make everything clear. It’s just a reminder, but we need reminders to not lose our way. So take a star or share it and take God’s promise with you wherever you go: God is with you and working through you every step of your way.