The Guiding Star Behold

(Mtt 2:1-12) – J G White
11 am, Epiphany, Sun, Jan 6, 2019 – UBC Digby

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William Chatterton Dix, 1858)

The finale of the Christmas story we saw from the beginning, with Magi in our nativity scenes starting in late November.  These mysterious wise ones continue to inspire people to seek wise ways. Yet, it can take some work to be wise. Even to follow star.  

A month ago John Marshall told some of us about the Star of Bethlehem from the astronomical point of view.  Remember? I’ve read the same information in a booklet given to me years ago by Maureen Potter. Those Magi were celestial experts, and it may well have taken an expert to notice what was happening in the sky, not the mention understand that it might actually mean something for humans down here.

So, it often takes attention our our part, to see and know God with us.  to know what way the Spirit is guiding me.  It takes intention – we seek on purpose, in our lives.  The guiding star that we behold can be very subtle, not obvious.  Christ in our lives and our world is so gentle, so hidden, so just-under- the-surface.

Baptist scholar, Dallas Willard, called this The Divine Conspiracy.  The hiddenness of Almighty God.  We live in a world in which it is possible not to know there is a God, or believe there is.  Yet it is also infused with God everywhere!

When a person does understand God is there – out there or nearby – life becomes a faith journey. For many, it is as if a guiding light draws us closer, year by year, to the One who came.  

‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem’ is a song I heard played each year on a Christmas LP at home, sung by Emmylou Harris.  I heard the song sung recently, and noticed the line that says:
Jesus is now that star divine,
Brighter and brighter He will shine.

We don’t think it funny when we sing songs to inanimate objects like a star.
O star of wonder, star of night…
guide us to thy perfect light.  

Perhaps you have whispered out loud to the beautiful stars some dark evening.  And maybe we know, in this carol, we are really singing to Jesus Himself: the Bright Morning Star, as one scripture says (Rev. 22:16).  

Yet the brightness of Jesus in our lives can wax and wane like the brightness of the moon and stars.  Emmylou Harris’ song says:
Beautiful star of Bethlehem,
Shining afar through shadows dim…

It is when the shadows are dark and dim that we need some help, perhaps some encouragement to press on and keep seeking the One we’d met before.  

At times in my life, the Absence of God, so to speak, has been louder and brighter than the Presence.  (Whatever I think the presence of God is supposed to be like or feel like.) I sometimes agree with Jean- Francois Six, French Catholic priest and theologian, who reflected on knowing God, saying this:

The more a human being advances in the Christian faith, the more they live the presence of God as an absence, the more they accept to die to the idea of becoming aware of God, of fathoming Him.  For they have learned, while advancing, that God is unfathomable… God always precedes us, we see Him only from behind, He walks ahead, He is ahead of us.
(The Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer, 2000, p. 628)

Personally, I have great confidence in this God, who goes ahead of me, of us.  So often, it is after, looking back, that I see my best glimpses of Christ.

So I preach a life of following the hidden God, who is so incredible, and at the same time amazing in being always here, unseen.  Being a wise one, following a star, is not about a clear, obvious sign that no one can miss. It is about the ‘Divine conspiracy,’ the Holy Spirit hiding behind the scene, every scene.    

Writer Luci Shaw tells this story: of an epiphany she had: a showing, or showing up, of God, in her life.

When a real epiphany comes for me, I recognize it as God dealing with me in a direct, irrefutable way.  One such sighting came in the fall of 1988. I was teaching poetry at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, while living an hour away, in Bellingham, Washington [USA].

The Pacific Northwest is known for its rains that fall steadily for days (or weeks) and for clouds that hug the earth, shrouding the landscape in a gentle gloom.  Just a few miles from the coast rise the Cascade Mountains and, spectacular among them, Mt. Baker.

I wrote in my journal:
For weeks I’ve driven my highway, sixty miles north in the morning, then south again at the end of the day.  The mountains are clearly marked on the map, but they might as well not exist, lost as they are in clouds, obscured by drizzle, fog, haze.  Then, some morning, unexpectedly, a strong air from the sea will lick away the fog and allow the sun to shine clearly. And Mt. Baker, towering magnificently beyond the foothills, unbelievably high above the other mountains, is seen to be what it has been all along — immense, serene, unmovable, its dazzling, snow-draped profile cut clear against a sky of jewel blue.

Today it happened.  The mountain “came out”!  I kept turning my eyes from the highway to look one more at its splendor, wanting to be overwhelmed again and again.  It is heart-stopping. I can’t get enough of it. And I can never take it for granted– I may not see it again for weeks.

It’s God, showing me a metaphor of himself.  I mean–he’s there, whether I see him or not. It’s almost as if he’s lying in wait to surprise me.  and the wind is like the Spirit, sweeping away my foggy doubt, opening my eyes, revealing the reality of God.  Annie Dillard’s words say it for me: “It was less like seeing than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance…”  
(Eugene Peterson, ed., Stories for the Christian Year, 1992, pp.40-41)

So many of the great little stories like this are testimony to a lone individual on the journey with Jesus.  Maybe it is incidental, but I like the fact that there were wise men, together seeking the new-born king, not one wise man.  Seek the Master together, dear friends.  Let us be so good at being pilgrims on a journey with each other.  This way, your special expertise in knowing and following Jesus can help guide us all, and my different experience and talents in seeing God can help guide us all.  

It is fitting, at the end of this sermon, that we commune together.  We share the Table of our Lord as Jesus invites us here.  

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William C. Dix, 1858)

See the Plan

(Ephesians 3:5-12; Matthew 2:1-12)

Jan 7, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

One day, three men set out together.  Their journey would be long, and difficult mainly because it was so long.  They had a goal in mind, a motivation.  They had planned their route, at least some of it, and had some tools to guide their trip.  They took provisions with them, and had some planned stops along the way: places where the hospitality would be good and they could rest and refuel.  They also had to be wise enough to prepare for the unexpected.  

When was this day?  Yesterday, January 6, 2018.  Was it three wise men?  I won’t claim that.  It was two local fellows and I, making a 50 km hike from East Ferry to Digby.  50K

Yesterday was, to some people in the world, Three Kings Day.  We know little from scripture about these wise magi – not even how many of them there were – just the three gifts are named.  They apparently did have a plan, and they accomplished their mission.

Much of the Christian Church celebrates January 6th as Epiphany. Jesus the Messiah being shown to the world.  Beginning with the Magi who come from farther east to the Middle East.  We even call this little season Epiphany, the first six or more Sundays of the year.  Jesus gets shown to the world.

Amid the run-on-sentences of Paul’s letter, what we call Ephesians in the Bible, is Paul’s claim that he gets to do this: …to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God… (E 3:9)

How have you found out about God’s plan?

How has Jesus been shown to you?  

Did He come and meet you somehow?

Did you take a long journey to find Christ?

See the plan of God… for you.  Personally.

“God has a wonderful plan for your life.” ?!  We should heed some warnings about this claim.

From on online page for a small church:

Speak your future into existence. If you do, guess what will happen to your future? You got it; you will have what you say!

Matthew 19:26 “With God all things are possible”. You will persevere, you will win, you will come out on top!

God wants you to succeed in every area of your life. The power for your success comes from one person only – God! Deuteronomy 8:18 that says, “But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth…” God gives you that power to establish His covenant through you, which means He wants you blessed in the city, blessed in the field, blessed going in, and blessed going out.

There is more to the plan than this, of course.  

Is not the Plan for God for all one that deals with problems, evil, pain, trouble, suffering?

In his book, Prayer, Philip Yancey speaks of this by talking about a film we’re going to watch soon.  “… Keeping company with God also includes expressing the times of trial and frustration. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye keeps up a running dialogue with God, giving credit for the good things but also lamenting all that goes wrong.

In one scene he sits dejected by the side of the road with his lame horse.

“I can understand it,” he says to God, “when you punish me when I am bad; or my wife because she talks too much; or my daughter because she wants to go off and marry a Gentile, but … What have you got against my horse?!”

The Jesus plan, that we remember here today, goes right through pain and death, doesn’t avoid it.  And those who follow are told: 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  1 Peter 4

What has God’s plan for you been?  Can you tell it briefly?

We also see the plan of God… for us.  Church.  Together.  My two congregational meetings in the fall about our ministries were intended especially for you folks who are not on leading committees, to share what you see our plan could be in this and the years ahead. Almost none of you came.

Have you any visions, ideas of what the plan is for us in 2018?

See the plan of God… for them?  Outsiders.

This is truly what the writings of Ephesians are all about.  …the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Ephesians 3:6

Out of the faith and practice of one ethnic group in the Middle East comes a Saviour, Teacher, Leader, a Manifestation of God, who is for all religious and ethnic groups!?!   Wow.  The New Testament becomes the story of all the people meeting up with the Spirit of Jesus, in those sent to them, such as Paul.

    As Jesus was, so are we. Archbishop William Temple said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Guiding Star

(Isaiah 60:1-2; Matthew 2:1-12)

Jan 1, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White
Oh to be guided by a star, by a dream, by wisdom, by God.  It seems  to me again and again that the Bible story of the Magi is so fitting for New Years.  All the ways they were guided inspire us, speak to us.  

Looking back and looking forward can be so dark and depressing, and, be so bright and hopeful.  For some people I know, 2016 was an annus horribilis, a horrible year, as Queen Elizabeth had said of 1992.  Surely the year that starts today will be so much better than the one that just ended at midnight.  The deaths, the illnesses, the troubles of 2016 are over.

For others, the year of our Lord 2016 was an annus mirabilis, a wonderful year, and that experience inspires great optimism as 2017 begins.  

However you feel, whatever the attitude to the new year is among those we love, how shall we be guided?  For it is so good to have some guidance.

Those wise astronomers, who sought out Jesus as a little child, have always inspired us.  God has spoken through this word.  

I think again about the tools the Magi used.  Their wisdom and knowledge.  The tools of their trade, which we would think of as primitive; the telescope had not been invented.  Their experience.  And their mysterious motivation – we know so little about these travelers. We do know they came to worship Messiah.  

Day one of 365 has opened.  How shall we be guided?  Might not be by a star in the sky.  We Christians have our own GPS: God, Prayer and Scripture.  We have the training we have undergone as disciples of the Master, Jesus.  We have our own motivation to know and love God; Father, Son and Spirit.  

I want to see in the story of the Magi both an optimism and a realism.  They were determined and positive in their quest.  They believed in what they were doing, this holy pilgrimage.  They were also sensible and careful.   They avoided the local ruler Herod on the way out of town.  

Whatever happened and did not happen in 2016, we can look forward to this new year.  I have been getting an advertisement when I play scrabble on my mobile phone.  An advertisement for an insurance company, which is of no interest to me.  But the ad talks about the most valuable asset I’ll ever own: my optimism.

Sharon and I happened to watch a film the other day, a movie I’d not really heard of: Tomorrowland.  A fantasy, Disney film, it painted a picture of our world today, getting worse and more dangerous, because people were not dreaming of a bright future, were too aware of the many dangers, were not being optimistic.  And how does the terrible future, and the end of the world get prevented?  By a girl who has some hope, sees possibilities, is optimistic.

Well, that was a movie.  What real optimism can guide us, and make a difference now?

Our service here yesterday for Jim Frost was itself a reminder that death does not win.  I think it a shame when people say, so-and-so ‘lost their battle with cancer.’  In the case of someone like Jim, real life has been won, thanks to Christ. Even if 2017 is the year you will die, with Jesus this is actually good news.

While we do live, there is real guidance from the Spirit of God and the word of God.  And, if that is not workin for some people real well… fine!  There can be great improvements in knowing how the scripture can change your life, and how to know the voice of God to you.  What Jesus promised was not false.  For God always to be with us, to understand our life and purpose, to be better people – all is truly possible because of our Saviour:  this one who was worshipped as a wee child by traveling Magi.  

Do not forget the great blessings of your past.  Do not forget the gradual blessings of your past.  Do not give up on Christ and His Church.  The darker the days ahead look, the brighter will be the guidance of our Master.  And He is all that matters.