It happens every year at Christmas time. It might be caused by a childhood memory of a candlelight service, or hearing a choir singing Silent Night. It might be listening to a soulful version of O Little Town of Bethlehem and daring to believe that your “hopes and fears of all the years” could be met in the Babe that night. It often occurs at our last service on Christmas Eve night, or in our Christmas Concert, or in a Sunday worship where somebody slips in the back late and slips out early.
But it happens. Every year. Every year at Christmastime somebody unexpectedly wanders by, or wanders back, or maybe, wanders in.
Someone who is outside the faith thinks about coming “in” for a look.
Someone who has forgotten the ways and will of God remembers the grace and love of Christ.
Someone who thinks that there is nothing more awesome than the beauty of creation falls silent at the possibility that the Creator may really have come to this world and is reaching out in love.
This Advent and Christmas Season is dedicated to contemporary magi, wanderers and prodigals and this is the story that they we all most need to hear and most need to share.
Do you know someone like that? Are you someone like that?
Maybe you are like the couple who shared with me that for weeks before they finally got up the nerve to attend a worship service they used to do church “drive bys”. They would get up on Sunday morning, drive by a church, see if they thought they would fit and if they didn’t they would go to breakfast and try again the next week. One day they drove by our church, got up their nerve, wandered in and have stayed ever since.
Or maybe you know someone who used to be deeply rooted in a faith community and living out a life of faith until something happened. A life circumstance, a Christian whose hypocrisy painfully disappoints, a struggle with sin, something that made them turn away and wander off.
Or maybe you are here quite regularly, at least in body, but you know that your soul is beginning to drift away. You know deep in your bones that reality of the old hymn that says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.”
Jesus’ coming into the world was focused most directly at those who
- Wander by (like the crowds on the shore who listened to him tell of the Kingdom),
- Wander back (like those who needed healing and sought out the power of God in Jesus)
- And wander in (like those who began to follow him, not really knowing where he would lead.
But let’s begin with those wanderers who knew that they were not where they wanted to be. Those seekers who searched the night sky to see a sign of the light of the world, the would-be king of the world and who set off wandering across the world.
This is usually the last story told at Christmas time, indeed. But because it is the story of so many of us, we’ll start with it. First a snippet of prologue from the gospel of John that functions like a narrator setting up a flashback and then the scene itself from the gospel of Matthew.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ (NRSV)
I grew up in church-going home where I learned about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I am not sure if I really believed in God until one sleepless night when I was 12 years old.
We were going on our first backpacking trip and my family rolled into a campsite at the trailhead late at night in order to get up the next morning early and hit the trail. So we piled out of the station wagon, plopped our sleeping bags on the cool ground and poured ourselves into them. Tall Sequoia trees ringed our campsite, a frame for a night sky filled with more stars than this kid from the smog-filled San Gabriel Valley had ever seen.
My brother and parents were soon asleep, but I was too stirred by the spectacle above me. I felt so small, so insignificant, and yet at the same time so special. Here was this grand heavenly host all laid out for me. A shooting star took my breath away. And then another and another. I counted seven shooting stars that night, a biblically significant number that I have always taken as a sign from God. And I remember praying with a kind of awe and wonder that I had never felt before.
Maybe you could recall an occasion like this. Maybe like me, it was an event that began a search in your soul. The first word of a grand story and not the last by a long shot. Maybe it was a moment that roused you out of unbelief and stirred you to a restlessness that would eventually lead you to a place where you can hear an explanation.
Maybe it was a multi-colored sunset or amidst a thundering wave. Maybe it was after your child was born when you sat spell bound by the delicate detail of their small fingers or when you gazed at their sleeping face. Maybe it was a time when you fell asleep with you ear on you beloved's chest and felt comforted by the rhythmic beating of their heart.
Maybe it was a silent starry night when you were more aware than ever that you are so very, very small and for the first time had your life in perspective. And ever since that day, I have felt a kinship with those who find it easier to seek God, to search their souls, to connect to something bigger than themselves in the beauty of nature than in the community of worship. I really do understand.
Those moments seem to offer us a perspective for looking at our world and for seeking the one who made it all… And I believe can make it right.
We can’t be sure of why the wise men were looking at the stars that night so long ago somewhere in what is today Iran or Iraq. They were not, as the legend says, kings and you will notice that there is no mention of three of them in the Bible story. They were likely scholars. Philosophers. There is ample evidence that Middle Eastern peoples of the day believed that the stars heralded the birth of humans who were destined for greatness. They is also considerable evidence that even among Greek and Arabian scholars of the day, there was an expectation that a world ruler was going to be coming out of the region of Judea. For some reason, those “wise men” were searching for a sign that a king was coming to make the world right.
And while we don’t put much stock in the stars speaking to us about world events, we do have a sense that the more we look at the stars we find something of our selves in the middle of this muddled world.
In what is my favorite song from my son, Brooks’ favorite rock band, we hear this bit of poetry about reflection, humility and perspective.
Stars lookin at our planet watching entropy and pain
And maybe start to wonder how the chaos in our lives could pass as sane
I've been thinking bout the meaning of resistance, of a hope beyond my own
And suddenly the infinite and penitent begin to look like home
I've been thinking bout everyone, everyone you look so empty
But when I look at the stars I see someone else Jon Foreman of Switchfoot
The light of the stars offer perspective for our lives as a small part of creation, made by One who is infinite.
The light of the stars shine truth in our lives, inspiring penitence for thinking that we are more than we really are.
The light of the stars stir our souls to seek the One who brings light and life.
When the Magi were moved by the stars, they didn’t just boast at what they had seen, or bathed in the glow of the beauty, they began a search. And let’s be clear. It was not a search to simply find themselves, it was a search to find one worthy of their lives, their fortunes, their devotion.
“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.”
A few weeks ago I was running with a friend on the beach path and we saw a pod of dolphins break the water. Part of the wonder of this time of year for those of us who live here in this coastal town is to enjoy the hundreds of dolphins and whales that are migrating right in front of us. And every time I see these beautiful creatures effortlessly swimming through the ocean and playing in the waves, my heart leaps for joy.
The beauty of creation is so inspiring. But inspiration is not enough. While inspiration can motivate us to live vibrantly, while inspiration can encourage us to walk through this world gratefully, while inspiration can stimulate us to reflect on our days deeply, Inspiration itself offers no instruction, no direction, no wisdom for living in this world that will make a difference in our lives and in this world.
The light of the stars stir our souls to seek the One who brings light and life.
It is a poignant irony that the Wise Men who are the heroes of this story started their journey in the very part of the world that today is crying out in so much pain. It is not too much for me to think, that maybe today there are people who are looking at the same stars in the same sky as we are, and are praying to whatever Creator is up there to bring peace in their world the same way that we are praying today.
In some ways we are all like the Magi who were searching the sky for a sign that the world will turn for the better. That is why experiences, even spiritual experiences are insufficient by themselves. Inspiration is not enough. Creation is not enough. It wasn’t enough for the wise men of the first century and it isn’t enough for wise ones today. We need more than inspiration. We need revelation. We need guidance from God, a light for our lives, a light for our steps.
Mountains are beautiful but they don’t offer hope to the world. A shooting star can stir my soul but not transform it. A dolphin has never offered me wisdom. A sunset has never granted me forgiveness.
True wise and good living, true spirituality, true faith, a true response to the good God who created the seas, the mountains and the stars is to submit our lives in worship to the One Creator King.
Just like the Magi. A few verses later, Matthew tells us that “they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The stars set them on a journey that was not fulfilled until they were kneeled down before the Baby who was the very Word of God that had created it all in the beginning. Indeed, as the Switchfoot song says, when we have eyes of faith and look at the stars, we “see someone else.”
This morning, if you recognize in your own life that you are a wanderer, even if it is only in your own heart that is “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” then let me invite you to consider become a worshipper.
The story of the Magi and the wisdom of the stars tell us that to even to be a seeker is not enough, for the life that we long for, the life we desire for ourselves and for our world is only found as we submit ourselves to the Creator King who we find this time of year in the crèche of Bethlehem.
Seekers must ultimately become worshippers to find what they are looking for.