December 29, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR
I sometimes open a sermon with a trivia question. Sometimes I ask one you can’t answer, which always makes me feel good because I stumped you. But it probably doesn’t put you in the best mood for listening appreciatively to the rest of the sermon. So today’s question is one I think you can answer. At least someone here can. I am sure of it. Here’s the question: The song “When You Wish Upon a Star” was first heard in what movie?
It was “Pinocchio”, 1940. That’s the movie we had on video cassette when our son Collin was small. He must have watched it 1,000 times. He never got tired of it.
I’m guessing Glenn Kessler liked that movie, too. He is the one who writes the “Fact Checker” blog for the Washington Post. He assigns erroneous statements made by politicians 1, 2, 3, or 4 Pinocchios. Remember, Pinocchio is the one whose nose would grow when he told a lie. Since that doesn’t happen to politicians, and since it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say you can tell they are lying when their lips are moving, Glenn Kessler has to write that blog to help us know when we’ve been told something that isn’t so.
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.
We have always been fascinated by stars. There is nothing like a starry night out in the country, away from city lights, to fill the soul with awe and wonder. Stars have always held spiritual significance for people, whether by helping them appreciate God who created all this or by leading them into that strange pseudo-religion called astrology. We’ve heard people use that phrase, “I thank my lucky stars”. Even people who should know better say that. It’s a very old idea that has been handed down to us that there is something in the stars that controls our destinies.
Of course, you know where I’m going with all this. Today’s scripture tells of the Wise Men who came to Jerusalem in search of a newborn king. They said, “We have seen his star in the East.”
In the ancient world, kings would hire wise men to advise them on what was about to happen. These wise men would study the heavens and make predictions. It was all there, written in the stars, for those who could read what the stars were saying.
Sometimes the stars would say, it’s time to leave where you are in your life right now and seek something new. It’s time for a road trip. That would seem to be the message the Wise Men got from that star in the East. It seems a strange intersection of faith with superstition. We read it in the Bible and we don’t quite know what to do with it. Surely it’s not there to get us to take astrology seriously. Maybe it’s just there to justify all the presents we give to each other at Christmas.
But I wonder if this story might be there just to remind us that life is a journey. It was for the Wise Men. It is for us. It’s a journey that sometimes involves a physical relocation. My family has done that a few times. Other times you don’t have to move physically, but you have to change spiritually. You are searching and seeking for something and you haven’t quite found it yet.
The classic statement of this search as we journey through life was made by one of the early Christians. He lived not quite 400 years after Christ. His name was Augustine. Here is what he said: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
I imagine the Wise Men suffered from “restless heart syndrome.” They were not Christians. There was no such thing as a Christian when Jesus was born. They were not Jews. We’re not sure exactly what their religion was but it obviously had something to do with paying close attention to the stars. Whatever they believed, however they understood God, they were ready to leave behind whatever stability and security they might have had in their existing lives and go in search of something new. They had seen a star. They were on their way to wherever that star might lead.
One thing the Christmas story tells us plainly is that Christmas is for everyone. The way the story is told makes that very clear. Everyone in the world, from the Jewish point of view, could be divided into two groups of people. There were the Jews and there were the Gentiles. A Gentile is defined as anyone who isn’t a Jew. So it’s real simple. You’re either a Jew or you’re a Gentile.
The Wise Men were Gentiles. Their story is told in Matthew’s version of Christmas. You know the story is over when the Wise Men show up. Then you turn to Luke’s version of Christmas, and you won’t find any Wise Men. You will find shepherds. In Luke, the shepherds go on the journey to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has make known to us.” But that’s not the end of Luke’s Christmas story. You know Luke’s Christmas story is over when Simeon meets the baby Jesus.
Simeon is a Jew. A faithful Jew. So faithful he has been waiting at the door of the Temple for much of his life, expecting that the Messiah will come any day now. He knew an obscure Old Testament verse that said the Messiah would come suddenly to his Temple (Malachi 3:1). So he figured he would just wait. He didn’t want to miss it when it happened. So he basically lived his life at the door of the Temple.
Here comes Mary and Joseph holding a baby. Simeon jumps up, pulls down the blanket covering the face of Jesus, and looks into his eyes. He is certain. There is no doubt in this old man. He says, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
In Matthew, the story ends not with the Jews, but with the Gentiles. It ends with the Wise Men who at last reach their destination. They come to the stable, find the baby in the manger, pull down the blanket covering his face, and look into the eyes of Jesus. They are certain. They have found what they were seeking. They fall on their knees and worship the baby Jesus.
So Simeon says he has come for the Jews. The Wise Men say he has come for everyone else, for the Gentiles. He is what everyone is looking for. The search is over. The journey is finished. Or is it?
There are a lot of people who are still looking for Jesus. Very likely, some of you fit that description. You are still searching. You are still seeking. Your journey is still underway. I am proud to be part of a church that welcomes people who aren’t at all sure about what they believe or even whether they believe. This church is a great place for you. Because we aren’t here to push some narrow doctrine on you. We aren’t here to give you all the answers.
Not that we don’t think we’ve found a few answers. Not that we don’t believe that Jesus is the answer. But we’re on a journey, too. We all are. Even after we have knelt at that Bethlehem manger and looked under the blanket into the eyes of Jesus, the journey continues. That’s the whole point of being a Christian. Having found Jesus, we now follow Jesus. Wherever he leads, and we aren’t always sure where that is, we follow. Because “restless heart syndrome” is not curable. Not entirely. Not in this life. To be spiritually alive is to always be searching and seeking.
I want to stress that because I know some Christians feel that once they have found Jesus they can settle down. Once they’ve been to Bethlehem, they don’t have to move around any more. They have “arrived”. Spiritually, that implies that they have reached perfection. Intellectually, that implies that they have all the answers. When I put it that way, we know that isn’t so. It can’t be! Not for any of us. Because a sign of how intelligent we are is knowing how much we still don’t know. And a sign of how godly we are is knowing that we are still a long way from being like Jesus.
Finding Jesus is not the end of your journey. Finding Jesus gives direction to your journey. Finding Jesus doesn’t mean you can settle down. Finding Jesus means you will never walk alone. Finding Jesus doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Finding Jesus means you can now search in the right place to find the answers. Finding Jesus doesn’t make you perfect. Finding Jesus makes you strive for perfection in your life. In other words, to keep moving in your life, to keep growing in your life, to keep maturing in your life. That is what characterizes the Christian journey.
When we find Jesus, we don’t stop our journey. When we find Jesus, we have a guide and a companion to travel with us on our journey.
Wise Men aren’t the only ones who take a journey. So do disciples. Wise Men search and disciples follow. And following Jesus is the adventure of a lifetime.
I have a theory. I’d like to try it out on you. I’m not sure about this, but see what you think. Could it be that we feel that restlessness in our hearts that Augustine wrote about more these days than ever before because we are afraid of adventure? An adventure means you aren’t sure what is going to happen. There is danger. There is risk. There are problems to be met head on and solved. But if you are afraid of adventure, all you have to worry about is that your boring, predictably, comfortable life might be disrupted. Maybe even taken away from you. So you hunker down and play it safe and try to run out the clock.
And it turns out more scary to live life that way than it is to throw caution to the wind and go try something you aren’t sure you can do. You aren’t restless when you are fully engaged in something difficult. You are restless when life is too easy and your biggest challenge is trying to keep it that way. That’s my theory. That we were created for adventure and we will be restless without it. That life works best as a great adventure to be sought, not as a series of problems to be avoided. That life works best on offense, not defense.
So, if you’re with me so far, here is the logical conclusion: When you see a star, don’t wish upon it! Don’t expect a magical solution to whatever you are dealing with in life. The stars aren’t there for that. They are there for inspiration. They are there for guidance. They are there to give us something to reach for and to strive for. They are there to challenge us to go on a great adventure, a daring journey, and to live life with courage, not fear.
There is a movie that came out this year called “The North Star”. The title comes from an anti-slavery newspaper published by Frederick Douglass. The movie tells the true story from back in 1848 of a runaway slave named Big Ben Jones. He’s called “Big Ben” and not just “Ben” because he is 6 feet 10 inches tall. His size poses an extra challenge for a runaway slave. But he is determined to leave his old life behind and to find freedom.
He’s not exactly sure where he is going, but he figures if he will just follow the North Star he will eventually get to where he needs to be. The odds are against him. He knows that. There is a record bounty set for his capture and the slave hunters are out in force. The heroes in this film, aside from Big Ben himself, are Methodists and also Quakers who were angels of mercy.
It’s an adventure film. It reminds us that life is an adventure. There is no telling what we will find when we leave behind the life we know and follow a star. If we knew for sure it wouldn’t be an adventure. But we go, as the Wise Men went. We go not because we know where the star leads us and that’s where we really want to go. We go because we trust God in this adventure called life. We go because we know God made us for more than hunkering down and playing it safe and running out the clock.
God, this is the last Sunday of 2013. We begin a new year this week. We will be moving forward chronologically. That cannot be helped. Time moves forward, never backward. But may we also move forward spiritually, not content to stay as we are and where we are in life, but trusting you to lead us as we dare to follow into whatever you have in mind for us in 2014. In Jesus’ name, Amen.