A couple of years ago when we went to visit my sister-in-law in New Zealand, she and my brother-in-law also took vacation and traveled with us. They showed us the sights of the South Island, and I remember saying to her that I couldn’t believe she lived in such a beautiful place. Her response, however, made me laugh. She agreed with me, but then said, “Oh we hardly ever come to the South Island— we only come here when we have people to show around.” And I started thinking about how often that is true. When I think of the restaurants we like to go to, more often than not, we have found them because people were visiting. Or we have explored St. John’s or the Quarry or Munsinger Gardens or other beautiful places around here mainly when we ourselves were brand new to the area or because we were showing someone else around. So often we get stuck in our own routines that we forget the amazing places we live or the wonderful things we pass by on a daily basis.
The same is sometimes true of our faith. We may have grown up with Christianity or we may have come to it later in life, but at some point we chose this faith— we chose to respond to this God of love who revealed God’s self in Jesus Christ— and so here we are this morning. But how often we can get in a regular routine of doing the things of our faith and forget about the joy that comes in showing someone else around; or in seeing things through others’ eyes; sometimes we forget in our own religion about the wonders and the opportunities that are right in front of us. We neglect to see what God is doing right here.
In the Gospel of Matthew this morning we heard the story of the wise men who come to visit Jesus after he is born. Some scholars think they may have even shown up a year later— having followed the sign of a star. And although we’re not sure where they came from, travel of any sort back then was a huge ordeal. It was a risk that they were taking not to get ambushed along the way, or run out of food, or get caught in a storm. These men were clearly determined; resilient; looking for something they felt they needed to find.
And I think it’s rather charming, actually, that they can’t do it on their own. Their knowledge about the night sky and about where they should be going leads them all the way to Jerusalem, but from there, they are lost. Like having GPS to main city, they can get to the capital, to the palace, to the place that is on the map, but from there they need help. So they go to the Palace, a great place to look for a King, and there they meet Herod. Now, despite the fact that Herod is the King, no one really expects Herod to be looking for the Messiah— someone to replace him; someone whose leadership would be a threat to him. But the scribes, on the other hand... the scribes are religious scholars. The scribes have been studying the scriptures all of their lives. The scribes know the prophecies so well that they can tell the wise men exactly where to go to find the Messiah. They know where to look— and yet they aren’t the ones looking.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, What a contrast! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it spurred them to set out on a long, hard journey. The scribes, meanwhile, were much better informed, much better versed. They had sat and studied the scriptures for years, like so many dons. But it didn’t make any difference. Who had the more truth? Those who followed a rumor, or those who remained sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge?
The wise men need the scribes to help them in the last leg of their journey. But what the scribes don’t realize is that they need the wise men just as badly. They need the wise men, these foreigners from far away to relight their passion for finding the Messiah. They need their excitement, their faith; they need to see things from an outsiders’ perspective in order to find what they’ve been waiting for— they each need one another in order to see and experience God.
This is often true of the church as well. We have the things we know we do well; we have the things we have decided a long time ago that we don’t want to do; we study the scriptures each time we gather and we interpret them a certain way. And all of that is good and wisdom is gained that way. But we also need the insight, the passion, the sight of people who are new to us. It’s something that I’ve seen happen in my time here, and that I’ve heard many of you tell me— that those of you who are new to us are bringing insight and energy and your friends in ways that we may never have guessed and we didn’t know we needed, and it has been a blessing.
As we look at this coming year, as we grow deeper in our understanding of what it means to be a trauma responsive congregation; as we grow the children’s ministry and explore what it will mean to start a new kind of worship service, there will be a lot of wisdom needed both from those of you have been here a long time, and from those of you who have just come. We are gifted in this congregation to have both. We have been blessed by God to have not only all generations of people, but also all kinds of people who have been here a long time and all kinds of people who have just shown up to call this place home.
And there will be growing pains. And there will be disagreements about what to do next. And there will be questions about how we listen well to one another and to God. But if we can be like the wise men, listening to the wisdom of old, while following God into the new, than I truly believe that we will also be like those wise men, who in seeing Jesus and experiencing God, went home with great joy.
Change can be difficult for all of us. It can open up feelings within us of vulnerability, of insecurity, of loss. Change can also be good for all of us. It can open us up to see our world in new ways, to have to rely on God more, and to encourage us to follow the star that God has put in our sky.
When we were going through a particularly difficult time of change at my last church, I found a greeting card to give to one of the staff who was taking a lot of the criticism. It just said, “Without change, there would be no butterflies.”
I don’t want to imagine a world with hundreds of caterpillars and no butterflies! And I don’t want to imagine this church without the joy that comes from stepping out in faith, trusting in the God who loves us, and doing some things in different ways so that we can share the gospel and so the gospel can come alive in us.
So church, who are we going to be in 2019? The scribes, who know their Bible, but aren’t really interested in knowing the God who lives and breathes in this century? Or the wise men— who rely on the wisdom of those around them, and yet take the leap to follow the star and meet Jesus?
Sources Consulted: workingpreacher.org podcast for Epiphany Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.