Lay Reader = Ephesians 3:1-12
3This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
This is the last week in our Advent and Christmas series. The Christmas story isn’t quite finished yet – we still have to account for the wise men from the East. And for your annual reminder, the wise men shouldn’t be in your nativity set. They weren’t there for almost two years. If you want to scoot your wise men figurines over to the side so they’re “on their way” to see the baby Jesus, I won’t quibble with that. This serves as your annual public service announcement on this topic!
Next week we start a new series looking at Paul’s two letters to the church in Thessalonica. These two letters address what faithful living looks like today, tomorrow, and forever. I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, so this should be enlightening.
But this week we’re going to learn from the wise men from the East. This is a weird story. There aren’t a lot of examples of foreign dignitaries making a multi-year pilgrimage to view the birth of a king. And that is especially rare when you’re talking about a nation like Israel who was conquered and occupied by Rome.
I know you all remember my sermon on this from four years ago…but since there are some new people here let me remind you. There is no logical explanation for the journey of the Magi, the wise men from the East. This wasn’t normal. This wasn’t planned. This wasn’t in their job description.
Also as a reminder about the characters in the story, King Herod was actually a Roman governor who was called “king” because he had especially wide-ranging authority. But he was still a Roman governor who was far beneath Emperor Augustus. Also, remember that he’s Roman, not Jewish. When he heard that the “king of the Jews” was born, he would have heard the word “rebellion” in his mind. The Jewish people had only been under the rule of Rome for a few decades, so it wouldn’t take much of a spark to reignite the rebellious spirit in them. Also there’s an interesting parallel. What does Pilate write on Jesus’ cross? “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Preparation and Inspiration
A couple of weeks ago, my younger son asked if we can see any asteroids. And I am always game for a conversation about space, so one thing led to another and eventually I pulled up a stargazing app on my phone. It uses the sensors on the phone to figure out where the stars and planets and satellites are from your current location.
So I was giving him the tour of some of the visible stars at that early point in the evening, and then he asked to see some of the planets in our solar system. I asked the app to show me Mars, and show me it did. All I had to do was look through the ground beneath my feet to see Mars. It wasn’t visible in the sky yet, but the app knew where Mars was nonetheless. Let me tell you, that led to some difficult questions from the curious little boy.
But I found it interesting that the app drew the future path of Mars and all the other visible points of light in the night sky. It could tell me when Mars would be visible from my back yard. There are two ways the app can know the future position of Mars. Since the 1600’s, we’ve had an equation that describes orbital motion. Einstein’s theory of special relativity modified that math a bit, so now it’s even more accurate. So math is one way to predict the future position of Mars.
The other way is by keeping really good records of your observations of the night sky for a really long time. Different stars and planets are visible at different times of year as the earth moves and tilts, and their visible path changes on a predictable schedule based on where our planet is orbiting the sun and which hemisphere you’re in. But you don’t have to know any of that if you have really good records of the night sky for a really long time.
And then with your really good notes of the sky you might also notice that the Orion constellation appears around the time that summer is ending. And you might start noticing how the path of other constellations correspond with fall and winter and spring. So with your really good records of the sky, you can start predicting the seasons. Wouldn’t that be useful in the ancient world? Wouldn’t it be useful to know when you should start planting your crops or when the weather will start being good enough to go to war?
That’s what the Magi did. If you combine a farmer’s almanac with stargazing to tell time, you’d be in the general vicinity of their regular work. It required a lot of preparation. It required a lot of nose to the grindstone work.
But they also had to account for the unexpected. A comet suddenly appears. A regular star brightens sharply and then disappears. A meteor shower looks like stars are falling to earth. The Magi developed a system for interpreting those unexpected occurrences in the night sky. It wasn’t directly telling the future, but more like cosmic omens. They thought these unexpected occurrences in the night sky gave a general sense of what was coming next. Interpreting these omens didn’t come from preparation. It came from inspiration.
And in the case of the unexpected star that announced the birth of Jesus, the Magi felt inspired to make a pilgrimage to see him, give him gifts, and pay their respects. Again, this wasn’t normal. This wasn’t part of their job. This came from a moment of inspiration, not a lifetime of preparation.
Preparation…and inspiration. Are you with me?
When they prepared for their trip to see this king, they made a very logical plan: go to the capital city of Jerusalem and ask the current king. Surely the newborn king would be the son of the current king, right? That’s sound preparation.
But it was also wrong. When their preparation ran out, they followed their inspiration to Bethlehem and found Jesus and his family. I’m sure they were a little confused by this poor family instead of a royal king, but they followed through with their preparation and gave away their gold, frankincense, and myrrh and praised him.
They prepared to go back home the normal way, but they were inspired by a dream to go back home a different route. This saved Jesus from death at the hands of a jealous Herod.
The Magi, these wise men from the East, are a great embodiment of what Dwight Eisenhower said: “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” They show attention to detail and foresight in their preparation. But they also show an openness to new directions as the situation changes through inspiration. Preparation and inspiration.
What if they only followed their inspiration? “Hey guys, there’s a new king in Israel! Let’s go see him! Are you in?” “Sure! It’s only a couple of years’ walk through the desert, we can make it! Let’s go now!” Do you think that would end well? Probably not. They checked their maps. They formed a caravan with supplies. They thought about what gifts they could bring that would be fit for a king.
What if they only followed their preparation? “The king isn’t here in the palace? Time to go home, boys!” Or after finding Jesus, “You had a dream about going home a different way? Yeah, me too, but that would be really inconvenient, and we promised Herod we would tell him where to find this child, so let’s stick to the plan.” Jesus would have been killed before he turned two!
They showed preparation and followed their inspiration.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we had to start preparing, right? We had a skittish dog we had rescued, so we read a book about how to handle the dog-baby interaction. We read about sleep training, because we knew that we would be too tired to read it when we actually needed it. I came up with a plan for how my discipleship team could cover during my eventual absence. We were preparing as best we could. Do you remember how you prepared for the birth of your first child?
Of course, not everything went according to plan. Four weeks and one day before the due date, Becca thought she was going into labor. We went to the hospital, saw the ObGyn. And do you know what we didn’t have four weeks and one day ahead of time? A car seat. Kind of important, right? You know what else I didn’t have? A ready bag to take to the hospital. Not strictly necessary, but nice. The room in our house wasn’t totally ready for a baby to come home, yet.
In fact, we realized there were all sorts of things that weren’t ready yet. The ObGyn told us that the child wasn’t quite ready, but actual labor could be anywhere from a day to a week away. So that night we ran around buying and setting up everything we didn’t have ready for this false alarm labor four weeks and one day early.
And when was Charlie born? Four weeks and zero days early. He came the very next day. In fact, he was born during the time I had scheduled to train my team for my absence. So that didn’t happen.
We prepared. That preparation was good! But our plan certainly didn’t happen. We had to roll with what life actually sent our way. Preparation and inspiration.
Preparing for the Spirit
So are you more wired or preparation or inspiration? Are you the planner? Or are you the improviser? Are you more reliable? Or are you the free spirit?
I’m definitely more of a preparation person. We were just at Winter Park with my family. So to pack, I checked weather forecasts from multiple sources, because mountain weather is tricky. I mentally ran through each day, considering how many layers I would need during skiing and what I would wear after skiing. But I’ve also lived enough life to know what to do after that mental exercise: throw in a few extras because you don’t know what will really happen.
For sermons, I’ve learned to mix preparation and inspiration as well. I usually study a Bible passage on Monday to get a ton of information in my head. And then I let it sit there until I am inspired in a particular direction. If I think of a story that might be applicable, I write it down immediately. Some weeks I write the sermon on Tuesday because I have the inspiration. Other weeks I write it on Thursday. Occasionally I have to just grind it out on Friday or Saturday.
If you are a preparation person, keep doing it. But also prepare yourself to be inspired in a different direction. If you are an inspiration person, keep going with that. But also inspire yourself to prepare ahead of time. We all need preparation and inspiration.
When you learn how to draw or paint or play music, where do you start? You start by learning the basics. You can create better music once you know the basic scales and chord progressions. You can draw better once you know techniques for shading or handling different types of perspective. You can expand your definition of what’s possible by learning what the masters did before you. Your preparation increases your inspiration, and your inspiration expands your preparation.
In our faith, we often talk about hearing from or being led by the Holy Spirit. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for “Spirit” means wind and breath. The Spirit is with us as regularly as we breathe – that’s preparation. But the Spirit also moves unpredictably like the wind – that’s inspiration.
If you took one of the Life Journals we gave away last year, the more time you spend seeking the Spirit, the more time you spend preparing your soul with that devotional practice or some other one, the more likely you are to be aware of the Spirit’s unpredictable inspiration and guidance. As a song on Christian radio says, “I don’t wanna miss one word you speak, so quiet my heart, I’m listening.”
To be inspired by the Spirit, you usually have to prepare your heart to listen. Preparation and inspiration work together.
So how are you preparing your heart to listen to the Spirit’s inspiration? If you really want to be guided by Jesus, how are you tilling and fertilizing and watering and monitoring the fields of your heart and soul?
Sisters and brothers, the Magi are great examples of the value of preparation and inspiration. Their preparation increased their ability to recognize and follow their inspiration from the star and from the dream. And their inspiration allowed their preparation to flourish and make a greater impact.
In your faith, your regular preparation through devotionals or journaling or regular prayer will train your soul to recognize the guidance of the Holy Spirit when it comes.
If you are a preparation person, I encourage you to be open to the unpredictable guidance of the Holy Spirit this year. If you are an inspiration person, I encourage you to put in some preparation to increase your ability to hear the Holy Spirit this year. God can do incredible things when we are open to preparation and inspiration. How can you help your soul be ready for those incredible things? Amen.