Celestial GPS (10am Worship with Jerry Parsons)
January 1, 2017 Pastor: Jerry Parsons
Topic: The story of the wise men. Scripture: Isaiah 60:1–60:6, Matthew 2:1–2:2
Some people down south, even a hundred or so miles south of here, flatten out their vowel sounds. There’s a village, for example, that’s named Tower Hill. Some of the folks from that area call it Tar Hill. I’m reminded up the rotund bumpkin from the Hee Haw TV show Junior Samples. Someone asked him: “Junior, are you working?” to which he responded, no, I was working part-time but I got fired pronounced (far’d).” “Why?” he was asked. “Cause it was a full-time job.” If you will indulge me, I’ll cite one more example misuse of the vowel sound, one that pertains to our scripture for today. AA humorous speaker from Arkansas named Grady Jim Robinson said that at his Sunday school, children were asked to bring something symbolic of the Christmas season. One little boy showed up with a fire truck. The teacher asked what that had to do with the birth of Jesus. The little boy responded: “Well, the Bible says the wise men came from afar.”
This may not be my best attempt at humor, but it does bring us to the subject of the wise men who were guided by perhaps the very first GPS, the Star of Bethlehem, to the place where Jesus was residing.
That celestial body is the featured attraction besides the Christ Child in the story of the wise men and has been featured in songs, stories and poetry. That star led the way to the Christ child, who became the super star, the light of the world.
Thus, my sermon this morning is about all about light, a light that still shines today in the lives of believers. This story of the wise men and the star is tied to Epiphany, which is observed on Jan. 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Epiphany is more than a day; it’s an “aha” moment in which Christ’s glory was revealed. This is an occasion that warrants celebration even beyond all of the celebration of this season. There’s a contemporary country music song that’s called “The Star Still Shines.” It goes like this:
It won’t go out after Christmas
Like a candle in the wind.
It’s a light that shines forever
Not just every now and then
And the star still shines after all this time
As light for me and you
And beckons us to see him
Wise men still do
Wise men still do
Wise men still do.
Of course, wise women do as well. Let us look at the star itself that is told about in the scripture from Matthew 2 that was read today. It’s a familiar story, one that’s often lumped in with the nativity. Yet, much of what is said about the wise men is added. It goes beyond that the scriptures actually say.
For example, nothing says there were three wise men. This is merely assumed because they brought three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. It does say they were from the east, some belief from Persia or modern-day Iran. They set out to seek the Christ because they had seen the star that was illuminated upon the birth of Christ. One thing that’s pretty clear is that they did not arrive immediately after Christ’s birth because of the distance they had to travel. Most scholars believe it may have taken them many months to cover on foot up to 1,000 miles. The time and distance estimates are pure conjecture. However, if you paid careful attention to the words from Matthew, you noted that when the wise men finally arrived, Mary and Joseph and the babe were living in a house, not a stable. And just one more thing, although the wise men are sometimes called kings, there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel to support this. And yet, the prophecy from Isaiah 60 that was read today, as well as Psalm 72 foretell that kings would come to worship this Christ. I read where one pastor, in an attempt to make the Christmas pageant more contemporary had the three dressed as kings such as those in the Burger King Commercials. Legend actually applied three times to the wise men—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but I assure you these names are not found in the Bible.
Now, I’m not here to debunk the legends and stories that surround the wise men, but to report on the facts that are obvious, facts that are in themselves remarkable and inspiring. The wise men are in some Bible translations referred to as magi, people who studied the stars and who dispense knowledge on mystical topics. One thing that is obvious, however, is that these were men of great faith to have set out on such a long journey based on nothing more than the appearance of a bright star and their interpretation of prophecy about the birth of a king. They were perhaps a bit naïve because they asked Herod where they might find the child, not realizing that this paranoid ruler would be threatened by and want to kill any potential royalty. Our story, like so many in the Bible, produces gut-wrenching sorrow, as Herod ordered that all boys in Bethlehem age 2 and under to be slaughtered. However, as you know from the story, God intervened, causing the wise men to opt not to report to Herod the child’s location and to return home by another route. It’s important to remember the wise men, though, for their persistence. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And they bowed down and worshipped him and presented those gifts, all gifts fit for a king.
Now, what can you and I take away from this story? For one thing, it shows the significance of Christ’s birth, that he came to redeem all of mankind and to show us how to live.
Like the wise men, we can seek truth—in scripture, in prayer, in sermons and in books. We, like them, can be persistent in our faith journey, looking to God for guidance, even on the darkest nights. We can realize our utter dependency on God, not on ourselves. And we can bring him gifts—gifts of our time and our treasure. Above all, we can keep our eyes focused on the light, avoiding the distractions of the world, distractions like money, power and fame.
The celebration of Epiphany is the fulfillment of thee prophecy from Isaiah that was read to us: “Arise, Shine, for your light has come!” That passage indeed foretells the story of the wise men. The Christ child is the light, and I said earlier it extends to all the world. As Christians, we are called on to share that light. Matthew 5:16 says: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”
Despite the joy of this season, we must acknowledge that many people struggle in darkness and fear because of circumstances and because they have little or no faith. In his book, “In the Name of Jesus,” author Henry Nouwen acknowledges that people have such struggles and he calls for Christians “to enter into deep solidarity with anguish underlying all the glitter of success and bring the light of Jesus there.”
Can you think of examples of people for whom the light of Christ has penetrated their personal darkness this year? If you have heard me preach before, you know that I like to use personal examples to illustrate the message. Such is the case today, as I relate to you three examples of places I have seen Christ’s light shining very recently.
First was in the darkness of a prison, the Logan Correctional Center at Lincoln. Now, other people from our congregation have also engaged in ministry there, but when I returned after missing a year, I found it touched my heart like few other experiences have. There is just something so poignant about dealing with women wo have been hurt to the quick, who struggle for forgiveness and redemption, who try to make sense out of life when theirs is so filled with anguish, especially for those who regret not being with their children.
The sadness might seem overwhelming for those of us ministering to these women over a couple of days, except for the fact that with some we see evidence of a spiritual and emotional breakthrough as they share their stories in order to unburden themselves and turn to Christ for relief. I think of a young woman like Tiffany who sat at my table, who could barely hold her head up as she described being molested by her step father and her aunt’s boyfriend. Saddest of all, Tiffany said there was no adult she trusted to confide in. I was, however, able to pray individually with her and a number of other hurting women.
However, the greatest source of light for that weekend was Carolyn, an African-American woman from Peoria who organized the weekend activities. I’ll tell you right up front that Carolyn is suffering from a pernicious form of cancer and had to muster all of the strength she could to fulfill here duty. I’ve known Carolyn for a number of years, and I can tell you that despite her failing health and despite the fact she is relatively poor, I know of few people who demonstrate so much love for the Lord. Carolyn pours herself into organizing two separate retreats at the prison each year, and this is where her light really shines.
Carolyn is not an educated woman; and yet, her talk on forgiveness was probably the best of all the presentations made to the inmates that weekend, including my own. God certainly spoke through her, as she articulated the kinds of hurts she had suffered in her early years that caused her so much hate and contributed to her profligate lifestyle before Christ came into her life and changed all of that. Many of the women there, a majority of which are black, sought out Carolyn for individual prayer and counseling. I have to say that she shined like a brilliant light in the gloom of that prison, and was an encouragement to me as well as to the inmates.
Now, by no means am the only one from First Presbyterian who’s involved in prison ministry. Marilea White has been involved in ministering to women prisoners for at least 20 years, much of which she participates in a Mom and Me Program, a week in which children are united for a week of activities inside the prison while the children spend the week at East Bay camp. This next camp will be the 17th, and Marilea has been involved from the beginning. Nancy Annagers has been involved in women’s prison ministry for some time and Poonam McAllister, Marie Schwalm and Angela Brant also have participated. Terry Tosh and Scott McAllister have been in men’s prison ministry as well.
Another place where I witness the light of Christ was in message posted on Facebook by Rev. Rick Tindall, whom some of you know. It was put there by a young man named Aaron Zinter and his wife Tiffany. I sang in the choir at Second Presbyterian when Aaron’s father, Al, was choir director and an outstanding one he was. Aaron grew up in Second Pres. And ultimately became the youth choir director. His choirs were quite large and very popular.
However, Aaron and his wife had made a video recently on behalf of their church in Minnesota to tell people about how God has touched their lives despite their having a child with a severe heart defect. Their little boy, Max, was born without the upper chambers in his heart having fused properly. He has spent 463 days in a hospital and has hade multiple surgeries, including open heart surgery. Yet, he is not yet three years old. He has had to have special care most of the time.
Yet, the Zinters both express that they believe God spared Max’s life for a reason. Because he is such a happy child, people are amazed. They call him their little miracle man.
The Zinters believe that people have seen Jesus through Max, that God has saved him thus far for a reason and that reason is to bring people closer to God. And they believe God is not done with him.
Brittany says that people suggest that this experience has made her stronger; when, in truth it has helped here to recognize just how weak she really is so that she need stop fully rely on God for help. Aaron says the experience with Max has shown him that we don’t have to worry, because God is faithful. He said: “He gathers the little lambs and holds them close to his heart.” To me, watching their video was like a bright ray of light, even though I don’t know either of them.
When I spoke of people who say far for fire and tar for tower, I was referring to the village in which my sister and three of her sons live. In a previous sermon here I mentioned the wife of one of her sons, who isn’t well educated but possesses an uncommon amount of common sense. I don’t expect you to remember, but I spoke of her going on Facebook to lambast someone from her little village who displayed a Confederate flag on his car. Such progressive thinking came to the fore again recently when she went on Facebook to do what she called airing dirty family laundry.
Now, allow me to set the stage for you. Her family lives in a town all of my sister’s family members are carefully scrutinized because they are seen as very religious because of the prominence they have in the fundamentalist church they attend. You might say they are under aa magnifying glass. What’s more, as is probably the case with many small communities, gossip is a way of life there. And so, it came as a shock to me this past week when I read Tracy’s Facebook posting that described her son’s struggle with marijuana.
She wrote that during the previous school, her son who was 15 at the time was in danger of flunking and not being able to move forward to his junior year or to continue to play sports. She had hinted that her son was having difficulty, but she was not specific as to the cause. But during this school year, the young man’s grades have improved to mostly A’s and B’s and he is on the basketball team. The difference in him, she declares, is that he no longer is smoking pot. He is a changed young man. Now, Tracy didn’t use her message as an indictment of all marijuana use. She suggests that it might be useful for medical reasons, but she declares that she was willing to me honest about her son’s experience to show others that can be very harmful to people who are pre-teens and teen-agers. She acknowledges that she is no expert on the subject; however, she believes that empirical evidence of her son’s experience support her beliefs about the drug.
I can tell you that it took a ton of courage for this mother to share her son’s story, and I can tell you it’s apparent that she and her husband have not demonized their son’s behavior. He was surrounded by love and s supported by countless prayers from family members. That strikes me about her actions is that her family struggled in darkness while their son was addicted, but now the young man and his entire family are radiating the light that comes only from Jesus Christ. He has been showered with messages of encouragement from family and friends.
If you haven’t already, you most likely will soon be taking down your Christmas decorations; yet, the light that led the wise men is something to celebrate far beyond on the Christmas season. The light of Jesus Christ shines perpetually beckoning you and me to follow. Wise men and wise women still do. May this light shine on us and through us throughout this New Year! Amen.