Sermon for 01-02-11: “Wise People”

Happy New Year! “Wise People” finishes up what I think is my best series of Advent/Christmas-related sermons that I’ve preached. Next week, I’ll start a four-part series on the Ten Commandments.

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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The following is my original manuscript.

A couple of years ago, I paid a pastoral visit to someone who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He wasn’t a member of the church, but he called our church because he needed pastoral help, and we were nearby. Don Martin received the call and passed it on to me. He said—and I’m not making this up—“I don’t want to ask Larisa to go because I’m worried that this man might be mentally unstable and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize her safety.” Thanks a lot, Don! Send me instead!

The man was eccentric, and he was struggling with depression brought on by his illness, but he wasn’t unstable. He was a bit of an absent-minded professor—picture Christopher Lloyd’s character, “Doc,” in Back to the Future. He was a brilliant man—a former NASA scientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was also an amateur astronomer. To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in a little astronomical research.

On one of my subsequent visits to his home, he greeted me at the door with some exciting news: “I’ve made a discovery. I know the date on which Jesus was born!”

“Really?” He sensed that I was skeptical. He said, “O.K., maybe I don’t know the exact date, but I’ve narrowed it down to a small range of dates, within a couple of weeks, given certain assumptions. Let me show you.” He explained his findings using a star chart (which I had never seen before but reminded me of the rotating Led Zeppelin III album cover), some clippings from various astronomy journals, and a Bible.

Surprisingly, it all seemed very… plausible to me—who knows almost nothing about astronomy. He said that it wasn’t actually a star, per se, but a morning star—Jupiter, I believe—which was eclipsed by the moon—I think. It would have been visible to the magi at this particular time in this particular region on this particular date. Contrary to popular illustrations of the Star of Bethlehem and Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear,” this astral phenomenon was not something just anyone would have noticed. But think about this: There was no “light pollution” in the first century. Stars were bright and vibrant—and nearly everyone back then believed that there was a strong connection between what happened in the night sky and what happened on earth. Men like these magi made their living watching the night sky. They were, for their time, the experts in astronomy. If my scientist friend was right, what the magi observed would have been an incredibly curious event.

There are plenty of other plausible theories about what this Star of Bethlehem was, exactly. What all these theories have in common is that they describe a natural, rather than supernatural, event.

Does it disappoint us to think that, if these theories are true, what the magi saw was not what we would typically call a “miracle”? That the Star of Bethlehem was a completely natural, scientifically explainable event, unnoticeable except to those who studied the night sky?

It doesn’t disappoint me at all. What’s important is the way God used this completely natural, scientifically explainable event to get the magi’s attention and communicate something important: that Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior was born in Bethlehem!

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in miracles. But maybe miracles aren’t simply those things that God does in the world that we can’t explain or that defy the laws of physics. Maybe miracles happen much more often than we know. Maybe miracles happen all the time, if only we have the spiritual insight to discern them!

Thomas Jefferson, you may recall, was not an orthodox Christian; he was a Deist. He published a Bible in which he removed all references to miracles—because from his perspective, miracles didn’t happen. God was like a great watchmaker who designed the universe and set it motion, and then let it run on its own. God didn’t interfere or intervene. There is a softer, more christianized version of Deism that we Christians sometimes fall victim to: It says, “Well, God occasionally intervenes with a miracle here and there, but mostly God gives us rules to follow in this book, and then pretty much leaves us alone.” From that point of view, God is mostly absent and uninvolved in our world.

Fortunately, the magi didn’t believe in that kind of God. For them, every moment of life was pregnant with the possibility of encountering God. In every moment, they waited and watched for God. They tried to discern God’s presence not just in spectacular miracles but also in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday. They went about their lives and their careers expecting to see God at work in the world—expecting God to speak to them, to direct them, and to guide them.

If only we could follow their example! Their example challenges me to think about my own life. Is God doing something in my life right now through ordinary, everyday means to get my attention, to communicate something important? Am I paying attention? Am I watching for signs?

I saw an interview on Good Morning America with a man named John Kralik, who recently wrote a book called 365 Thank Yous. Until recently, Kralik was an ambitious, type-A lawyer and businessman probably not unlike a lot of people living in Alpharetta, who was going through a rough time in his life. He said, “I was working so hard at times I felt like I was envying people with heart attacks because they got a few days off.” Despite all his hard work, his business was failing, his second marriage had recently ended, and his relationship with his children was strained. Then he had an epiphany. He decided that the root of his problem was gratitude. He needed to be more grateful for all the good things in his life.

His New Year’s resolution was to write a “thank you” note to a different person for each day of that new year: 365 thank-you notes. One of his thank-you notes, for example, was to the surgeon who had performed some life-saving surgery 10 years earlier. Kralik was alive and healthy today in part because of the good work that this doctor had performed—so he wanted to say “thank you.” Another thank-you note was to his grown son, who had recently paid back some money that his father had lent him. He never expected his son to pay him back, but he was glad he did, because Kralik desperately needed the money to pay some bills—so he wanted to say “thank you.”

You get the idea. I do think this guy is onto something. I wish I could send a thank-you note to my Uncle Nick, who died two weeks ago from complications related to Alzheimer’s. Uncle Nick wasn’t really an uncle—he was a close family friend. Of course, in my experience, those are the best kinds of uncles and aunts, you know? I was sharing with one of you about Uncle Nick, and you said, “Oh, he sounds like a grandfather!” And I thought, “Maybe so!” Both my grandfathers were dead before I was born, and maybe Uncle Nick filled that role. He wasn’t old enough to be my grandfather. But he retired early, at 55, after a long career with one company. I was about 10 when he retired.

So for most of my life he was the man who had nothing he had to do each day except read the paper and work the crossword. And talk. He was a great talker—a true raconteur. There was no subject you could raise about which he didn’t have some interesting anecdote or story to share. I could listen to him all day—and often I did.

When it came to me, however, he didn’t just talk; he listened. And he did so in a non-judgmental way. This quality was especially important as I struggled in my adolescence and teenage years with self-acceptance—especially related to insecurities concerning girls, a lack of athletic prowess, and other perceived deficiencies. I walked around with a sense that I disappointed people, that I constantly failed to measure up to their expectations. I’m not saying I should have felt this way, but I did.

Looking back, I see that Uncle Nick sensed that about me. And he always made me feel better about myself. He would do so by sharing a story contrasting his two sons’ personalities—one was like this, the other like that. Neither was better than the other. Both are happy and successful people—that sort of thing.

I am grateful to Uncle Nick—I will have to thank him on the other side of resurrection.

Gratitude is important. But here’s the point: if we follow the magi’s example—and be wise men and wise women—we need to take our gratitude one step further. You see, John Kralik’s surgery wasn’t successful simply because this surgeon was incredibly talented, although I’m sure he was. His son didn’t pay him back the money he owed at this fortuitous moment simply because the son was becoming a mature and responsible adult, although I’m sure he was. My Uncle Nick didn’t help me through some difficult times in my life simply because he was a kind, compassionate, and sensitive soul, although he certainly was.

No, being wise people means understanding that God made that surgery successful; that God gave that money to this father when he needed it; that God used Uncle Nick in my life to help form me into the person that I am today. There’s one explanation for each event, but wise people see the deeper meaning in it: they see God at work.

It could be that in this new year, God is trying to get your attention; that God is trying to communicate something important to to you; that God is trying to lead you somewhere new.

Will you be wise men and women? Will you follow?

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