Faith Projects (for a New Year!)

Matthew 2: 1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”

When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

If only the magi had had a GPS….then they wouldn’t have ended up in Jerusalem asking for directions on where the star and the child would be.  Did you ever notice that they actually got lost?  It seems as if they followed the star for a time, but then they lost sight of it and asked where the child would be, and then they saw it again as it led them to Jesus.  If only they had had a GPS, then maybe they wouldn’t have encountered King Herod, who was a threat to them.  If they hadn’t have stopped to ask for directions, then maybe King Herod would not have heard of the child.  If he had not heard of the child, then maybe he would not have gone on to murder innocent children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. If only…if only….but our “if onlys” don’t do us any good, because we only have this story of the wise men in front of us.

The magi, or wise men, appear only in Matthew’s Gospel.  We are not told how many there were, but we can guess that they were probably from a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in astronomy or interpretation of dreams.  Perhaps it was their custom to follow astronomical events to new rulers.  All we are told is that they come from the east to Jerusalem, following a star, and seeking a child.  These magi were not Jews, they did not have the Torah, and maybe they did not even worship God.  But here they were, seeking a child so that they might honor him.  These are the first non-Jews who acknowledge Jesus as something more than a just a baby.  They come seeking him perhaps because God, in his love and grace that goes before each of us, called upon them to witness the wonder that is Jesus Christ.  The magi set out on a journey and followed the light to the place where the child was, perhaps not knowing what it all meant.  But the light was there nonetheless, guiding them on.  Their journey was a faith project- one that God started, but they were called upon to finish.

So, we too, in this new year, must decide what faith projects we will take on.  God is calling each of us, and also all of us as a congregation, to start new projects, continue present ones, and complete old ones.  We have tasks ahead of us, and God gives us the signs we need and the road for the journey ahead.  Like the magi, there are times when we might find ourselves lost, or we might find ourselves at a crossroads.  Faith projects are not easy, and they are not meant to be.  But we press on, searching for the light, and find ourselves greatly rewarded when we see God face to face.  If we focus too much on the “if onlys,”, if we get sidetracked wondering if we took the correct road, then we might miss the joy of the journey and what lies ahead of us.

One of my favorite poems is “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost.  You might recall these words:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

When the magi set out to follow a star, not knowing really what they would find, they took the road less traveled by.  When they set out to go home by another road, they took the road less traveled by.  When we are called in our faith to step out and listen for God’s call in our lives and how to move forward together, we take the road less traveled by, and I dare say that that will make all the difference.  We stand at our own crossroads here as we begin a new year.  There are multiple paths before us, a variety of roads from which to choose, and the question is, which one will you take?  There are stars to follow and people who might try to stand in our way, and the possibility of getting lost and needing some help getting back on track, but it is up to us to continue on the road or not.

Over the Christmas holiday, my family and I went to see the movie, Wild.  I know that several of you have read the book, but this is a story about a fascinating and troubled young woman named Cheryl who decided to hike the Pacific Coast Trail after her mother’s death.  Her book documents her 1,100 mile hike from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to the border with Washington State.  Having never backpacked before, she kept asking herself why in the world she decided to do this unthinkable thing…to hike through the desert, mountains, snow, heat, and rain just to find herself…just to try to come to grips with her mother’s death.  But she presses on with her strength and determined will to come out of the wilderness with a new outlook on life, and a sense of direction of where life would take her next.  At one point, she writes,

“The clamor of ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers. 

But I wasn’t thinking of them.  It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” 

Cheryl’s story is one of coming to grips with a troubled past, the grief of losing a loved one, of trying to pick up the broken pieces of a life and put it back together again.  Cheryl did this by taking the road less traveled.  She did this by making her hike through the wild her main goal- her faith project- of finding faith within herself.  Her travels include encounters with rattle snakes and strange and interesting people.  She endures bruises, scrapes, blisters, lost hiking boots, and toenails that need to be pulled off.  But, at her journey’s end, she feels whole again, still not completely sure of the future, but confident in the sacredness of life, ready to take the future head on, without fear.

When the wise men left for another road that day after they left Jesus, what was their topic of conversation that day?  Did they leave rejoicing?  Did they leave with fear in their hearts?  Did they leave knowing that their lives were forever changed by their encounter with this mysterious and holy child?  I’d like to think that even though they were afraid of what they had heard about King Herod, they left with joy in their hearts at what they had seen.  I imagine that they talked and talked about Jesus and the things that he would do- about his life, his teachings, his future.  They imagined what he would give to the world as their hearts burned within them at all they had seen.  At the same time, I also imagine that they were uncertain of where they were going and what was ahead for them on their journey on this new road.  Their lives forever changed by this child, they now faced an unknown journey with nothing but their faith to guide them.

So, we too have encountered Jesus this Christmas.  We have seen him face to face after all of our waiting and hopeful expectation.  We have knelt at the manger and have celebrated with joy in our hearts.  But now we, too face a crossroads in our lives at the start of a new year.  We must decide what path to take, what signs to follow, and what to do now that we have seen Christ for ourselves.  We must decide what faith projects to take on for this next year together- projects that will make this church a place where all may come and worship, and meet God face to face themselves.

A few months ago, I challenged each of you to write down a sentence or two about how you will work to ensure a bright future for this church.  I challenged each of us to pray and discern about what we will do together to make this congregation vital, spiritual, and more alive.  Today, I will invite you to take someone’s card home with you and put it in a visible place and pray for that person’s task.  And as we begin a new year together, make sure that you are doing your part in listening for God’s call on your journey so that we can be stronger together.  If the magi can teach us anything, it is that when we set out on a journey to encounter Jesus, we count on one another and on our faith to get us there.  And when we do get there, we come away different people, ready to take on the unknown paths ahead with strength and confidence.

A new year means new roads ahead and decisions to make.  It might mean new challenges and resolutions for yourself.  You might already have a new year’s resolution, and I hope you have one before you that involves what you will do for this congregation and how you will continue to build your relationship with God.  But if you need a little help deciding on what you will do in the new year, Jim Wallis, on his blog called “God’s Politics,” gives some great faith projects that you might decide to take on for yourself.

  1. Love God
    2. Extend who our neighbors are: whom we are also called to love.
    3. Love hardest those who are closest.
    4. Build racial bridges.
    5. Always ask, “What does THIS mean for the poor and vulnerable?”
    6. Support and empower women and girls.
    7. Stand up for the reality of climate change.
    8. Question every act of war.
    9. Practice presence.
    10. Embrace hope and joy.

It’s a new year full of opportunities and possibilities.  Let’s take on new faith projects, travel new roads, and start new journeys with hope and not with fear.  A year from now, let’s not look back on 2015 wondering “If only…” but trusting in God and trusting in ourselves that we will choose the road that is right for us and that leads us to meet God face to face.  And may we find that when we meet God face to face, that we come away transformed people, ready to guide others onto the path of grace and righteousness, even if it means that we have blisters on our feet, bad toenails, or shoes that are worn from travel.  There are always new roads and new projects to undertake, as long as we have faith to guide us.  What will your faith project for this year be?  Amen.

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