"Do We Need Signs?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/4/1998
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
What we do know is that they were looking for someone. They asked, "Where is the baby born to be the King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him." The mythology that has grown from this event has inspired the giving of gifts at Christmastime.
The story of the wise men has also provided fertile ground from which has sprouted the seed that we, too, need signs that will clear away the clouds of uncertainty regarding God's will for us. We remember the words of the angel, "And this shall be a sign unto you. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."
Looking for a sign to light our path has more than likely been a part of most of our personal journeys, particularly around times of major decision making. We have heard experiences of people who have randomly opened the Bible and placed their finger on a particular passage hoping to find comfort, affirmation or direction. We have heard fascinating stories from people following the death of their spouse. Many of these stories have described unique occurrences featuring symbols known only to the two, suggesting that a paranormal communication has come indicating all is well.
This morning as we consider the meaning of "signs" in our lives, I would like to suggest that such symbols are very natural occurrences that happen every day. From the text this morning, we learn that the visitors from the East made their journey having already made a decision. If there had been a mystery about the star's meaning, they would not have arrived bearing gifts.
Many of us, however, look for a sign from a position of uncertainty. Our hope is that God will make clear the right choice for some decision we must make. For example, "Should I leap at this new opportunity that has come?" "Should we relocate at this particular time in our lives?" "Should I try an alternative medicine?" Signs can and do guide us, but they are not meant to be consulted in the same spirit as people do when seeking the nature of their destiny from palm readers or astrologers.
Once a grandfather and his grandson were taking a sixty-five mile backpacking trip together. It was a wonderful opportunity for the two to bond and for each to share their experiences. All at once their north-south trail intersected with one that appeared to go east-west. As they stood there, the young man said, "Grandpa, which path should we take?"
The grandfather wisely asked, "What kind of an experience would you like to have? If we travel east, we will walk near the shoreline. There we will meet a culture that is surrounded by the fishing industry. If we travel west, we will experience the mountain country with many commanding views of the valley floor. We will also meet many farmers and sheepherders. Either path will bring to us unique experiences."
The visitors from the East were not interested in a sign that would tell them, "This choice is the right one." By following the star, the wise men were making visible the faith they already had. They knew their search would lead to a king. They were living from a sense of certainty. We want that sense of certainty before we live. Yet, if we return to the Garden of Gethsemane, we quickly learn that certainty was not a luxury that even Jesus enjoyed. In the Garden, there were no signs.
As we consider what happened when Jesus came into the world, we should realize that God was not dropping another new rule book of rights and wrongs into our midst. Yet, so many people believe that since "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," this is what happened. We want to please God and so we seek some sign that our choices will do that. Some people act as if they want to become Pharisees all over again, believing that "if we learn how to live life 'correctly,' we will be able to do God's will!" Yet, a much greater truth has come.
Jesus came into our midst to teach us about the loving spirit we have the privilege to extend in every experience we encounter. Does it matter to God whether we live in this house or that house, or whether we work at this job or that job? How manipulative do we believe God is? Sometimes we act as if we need to get it right before God's will can be accomplished. Again, another truth has come.
The more we extend our loving presence in every experience, the more signs we will see. By seeking signs out of fear, we may miss entirely the gift of abundant living that Jesus brought to humanity. Who knows what experiences and lessons our choices will bring? What we can be sure of is the spirit we bring to each. When we are confident of that truth, we will be equally confident that God's will is being done.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, how grateful we are for the signposts that guide our lives. We know that when we are ready, the teacher will come. We know that truth surrounds us when we are ready to receive it. Help us, O God, to sift through our experiences so that we may bring clarity to our choices. Help us to discover our defining moments. "Do we want our form of justice or do we desire peace? Do we want to be right, or do we want to become a good listener who teaches?" Lead us to understand that the seeds of truth lie in every experience. As we enter the New Year, we pray that our understanding of your will may be deepened. Help us to remain sensitive to your leading so that our desire will silence the voice of our fears. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever faithful God, we are so grateful for all the remembrances that have been ours this Christmas season, yet within the deeper recesses of our spirits, there is also the joy of knowing that the New Year has come, and our lives may now return to some degree of normalcy.
As with Mary and Joseph, we identify with their longing for normalcy, for familiar routines, and for the blessing of the comforts that a home could provide. And it was into such a setting that the wise men came, offering their gifts.
So often, O God, the giving of our greatest gifts do not come during the extraordinary times in our lives. They come during moments when we are engaged in the routine when life has gone back to normal. It is then that the blessing of friendship means the most, because it comes at a time when we least expect anything special.
As we enter the New Year, may our lives reflect the beauty of the season we have just experienced. May the warmth of giving, the joy of extending ourselves, and the peace of bringing love to others remain with us long after the glitter of our celebrations has faded. Such are the qualities of life that will always remain timeless. We pray these thoughts through Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...