Twists, Turns and Detours Along the Way
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Happy New Year! Yes, I know our New Year began on November 30, but let’s give the pagans their day. It’s the start of a new calendar year and we’re all looking to see what the next twelve months have in store for us.
If you read the pundits and watch the news, you know there’s a lot of speculating going on about what to expect in the coming year: Uncertainty about the economy, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming, immigration and the changing landscape of the population.
The bottom line is no one knows what lies ahead except God, and God’s not telling. At least, God doesn’t lay out the whole plan for us all at once. God reveals his will for our lives in small increments, one day at a time.
I said in the December newsletter: “Just as God has been faithful to us in the past, so God will be faithful to us in coming year.” I believe that. Circumstances change, but God remains the same. The writer of theBook of Lamentations put it this way:
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)
So, it’s the first Sunday of the pagan New Year. It’s also Epiphany Sunday. From now to Ash Wednesday, we’ll be focusing on how the light of God’s love manifested itself in the person of Jesus Christ and continues to brighten our world to this day.
I didn’t know this, but the celebration of Epiphany actually predates Christmas! Richard Donovan writes,
“Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the great holy days for the early church. Christmas came along later.” (SermonWriter, Volume 13, Number 1, ISSN 1071-9962)
The gospel lesson for Epiphany Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Unlike Luke’s account, there’s no mention of angels in the sky or shepherds in the field; no cattle lowing, no swaddling cloths, no manger filled with straw. Matthew’s concern is with …
• Joseph, whose life takes a different turn when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant;
• and magi from the East, who are forced to go home by a different route to avoid the wicked King Herod;
• and an unexpected trip to Egypt, which leads the holy family to move from their home in Bethlehem and settle far away in the sleepy little hamlet of Nazareth.
What I want to explore in the sermon this morning is this common thread of unexpected circumstances: How God is constant and faithful to lead and guide us, even when our life journey takes us in a direction we didn’t necessarily choose to go.
Let’s begin with Joseph. Matthew would have us know that Joseph was a righteous man, honorable and beyond reproach. When he learned that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, as it were, he resolved to put her away quietly rather than humiliate her publicly. (Matthew 1:19)
Yet, Joseph was a devout man willing to surrender his will to the will of God. Matthew writes,
“Joseph arose from his sleep,
and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him,
and took his wife to himself;
and didn’t know her sexually
until she had brought forth her firstborn son.
He named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)
Because of his obedience, Joseph’s life took a different turn. This simple carpenter would become the instrument of God’s choosing in the unfolding drama of salvation. Can you imagine a higher calling than to be the father of Jesus?
Then there were the magi from the East – the wise men, as we like to call them. They were astrologers, not theologians; Gentiles, not Jews. They followed the star as far as Jerusalem, but, at this point, they needed help. So, they asked,
“Where is he who is born King of the Jews?
For we saw his star in the east,
and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)
When Herod got word, Matthew says he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. (2:3) He had every right to be. Kings lived by the sword and died by the sword. There was no place in his kingdom for another king. If there was a child born as a king, that child had to go.
He asked the religious leaders where the Messiah was to be born, and they told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea …” So, he asked the magi, when they found the child, to come back and tell him where he was so that he, too, might offer homage to the newborn king. Yeah, right.
Matthew says they found Mary and the baby in a house, and it was there that they knelt before him and offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (2:11) Then Matthew says – and this is the part I want to emphasize:
“Being warned in a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod,
they went back to their own country another way.” (Matthew 2:12)
To our modern ears, that sounds pretty lame: If I-30’s closed, take Highway 67. No big deal.
But, remember, travel wasn’t that easy back then. There were trade routes to follow, and to venture off the beaten path was to do so at great peril. For the magi to take a different trade route might well mean that they had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to get back home. You would’ve thought that, under the circumstances, they would have simply disregarded the dream and taken a chance.
In the mid-70s, I was commuting to seminary from Quinlan, Texas, east of Dallas. We’d had a lot of rain the night before and, when I got to a certain spot in the road, there was a detour sign: Road Closed. Traffic was being diverted to the north. If I took the detour, I was certain to be late for class. I looked down the road as far as I could see. It looked all right to me. So, I drove around the sign and headed to Dallas. Piece of cake. About five miles down the road, I saw what the problem was: A little stream had flooded the highway. There was a lake in front of me that hadn’t been there before. I had no choice but to turn around and go back.
The Good News is God is faithful through the changing circumstances of our lives. The bad news is we experience God’s faithfulness only as we let go of our rebellious spirit and conform to God’s will. Like the magi, God will lead us home, but it’s apt to be a different journey than we had expected, with lots of twists and turns and detours along the way.
Matthew goes on to say that, after the magi left, Joseph had another dream. This time the angel warned him to get out of Bethlehem, that his son’s life was in danger. Like the Pharaoh vowing to kill the baby Moses, Herod was going to kill all the Hebrew boys two years old and younger. So, Matthew says,
“He (Joseph) arose
and took the young child and his mother by night,
and departed into Egypt,
and was there until the death of Herod.” (Matthew 2:14-15)
The story is told of a little boy in Sunday school who drew a picture of a jet airliner. The teacher had asked the children to draw something to depict a Bible story, and this is what he came up with. “That’s interesting,” the teacher said. “What Bible story were you thinking about?” The little boy said, “The time they flew the baby Jesus to Egypt.” “Ah,” the teacher said, “The flight to Egypt.” She looked more carefully and saw that there were four windows and a face in each window, so she asked, “Who are the people on the plane?” He pointed to the three in the back and said, “Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus.” “Who’s that in the front seat?” she asked. He said, “That’s Pontius, the pilot.”
Joseph kept his family in Egypt about two years, until Herod the Great died. Then he brought them back to Bethlehem only to find out that things were worse under Herod’s son, Archelaus. So, he took them on to Nazareth, and, well, you know the rest of the story.
Safe to say, none of this fit into Joseph and Mary’s plans of getting married and living happily ever after. From the moment of the angel’s first annunciation, their life would turn out far different from anything they could have expected.
Here’s the bottom line: We stand at the threshold of a new calendar year. Who knows what twists, turns and detours lie ahead and what effect they’re going to have on our lives?
Life is full of changes. Some we choose – like going off to college, or moving to a different location, or starting a new job. Some we don’t – like experiencing the death of a loved one, or the failure of a marriage, or the devastation of a storm. In the last three months, millions have seen a good portion of their investments wiped away by the downturn in the stock market. You may be one of them. Just when you think things are going your way, the rug’s pulled out from under you and everything goes topsy-turvy.
Of course, we’re not the first to face the uncertainty of the future. Like those who’ve gone before us, scripture beckons us to look to God to order and provide. The Psalmist writes,
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalms 27:1)
Jesus told his disciples,
“Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’
‘What will we drink?’ or ‘With what will we be clothed?’
For the Gentiles seek after all these things;
for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well.
Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow,
for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.
Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” (Matthew 6:31-34)
Paul told the Philippians,
“In nothing be anxious,
but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving,
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”
Here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: You can’t predict the future, but you can choose how you’ll respond to it – you can worry about what’s going to happen next, or you can be confident and trust God to lead the way.
Kelly Price summed it up as well as anyone I know in an old gospel song her mother used to sing to her when she was a child. It goes like this:
“I don’t know about tomorrow,
I just live from day to day;
I don’t borrow from its sunshine,
for its skies may turn to gray;
I don’t worry ’bout the future,
for I know what Jesus said;
And today he walks beside me,
for he knows what lies ahead.
Many things about tomorrow
I don’t seem to understand;
But I know who holds tomorrow,
and I know who holds my hand.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.