On Straight Lines and Following God

magi

Matthew 2:1-12

One of my favorite things about being a priest is hearing you all tell your individual stories of your journeys of faith—hearing your faith pilgrimage. Two things about your journeys stand out to me: every pilgrimage is unique; and each pilgrimage goes differently than expected.  No matter who tells me his or her story, it is guaranteed that unanticipated forks in the spiritual road, bumps, obstacles, and barriers will confront your faith.

Here’s an example from my own story.

I sensed a call to ordained ministry in college.  It crept in at first, quietly dropping hints, suggesting itself—insinuating itself, really—through work I was doing in churches, parachurch organizations, and Christian camps.  By 1990 it revealed itself entirely and undoubtedly.

This sense of call was so strong, in fact, that when Holly and I began to imagine the possibility of marriage—in 1991—I felt compelled to bring it to her attention.

“There’s something you should know,” I said.  “I feel called to ministry.  And you and I both know quite a few pastors who haven’t had the easiest life.  Are you up for it?  Are you ready for whatever life God might bring?”

And, like Mary, she said that she was ready to go wherever God might lead.  And I knew she was the one!

Anyway, where God led us from there was anything but a straight line.

We were at Point A and we wanted to get to Point B.  And the shortest distance from Point A to Point B is a straight line, as we all know from high school geometry.

So why couldn’t we have simply gone from college straight into seminary?  This seemed to me to be the shortest distance from Point A to Point B.

But—as it turned out—for us to get from that conversation in the spring of 1991 in Davis, California, to my ordination in 2012—more than 20 years later!—in Comfort, Texas—1700 miles away!—was anything but the shortest distance!

Following God is like that.  I have known it.  You have known it.  And the writer of Proverbs knew it when he wrote: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9).

In our desires to walk a straight line between Points A and B, we can learn a great deal from the Magi: the “wise men from the East” of today’s Gospel.[i]

For the Magi had been doing their homework.  Or, another way to say this: they did not just happen to stumble upon Jesus’s birth; they weren’t just in the right place at the right time.  They had prepared.  They were students of their own history and sacred writings.

But it wasn’t just their sacred writings these Magi were paying attention to; their noses weren’t merely buried in their books.  They also paid attention to the world around them: creation—the stars in the heavens—and their contemporary culture.  They knew both the signs of the heavens and the signs of their times.  When they recognized signs pointing to an important event, they were willing and ready to act.

And they did act.  The Magi gathered their travel wares and gifts, loaded their camels, and set out on unknown adventure.  They went in search of a king.  Beyond that, no doubt they knew very little.  Yet they were willing to risk the dangers of the unknown out of faithfulness to God.

Next, don’t you find their interaction with Herod peculiar?  The Magi were in search of a king.  But Herod, who had all the pomp and circumstance of a king—and the tyrannical temperament to go with it—was not the object they sought.

And then they had the boldness to ask him for directions!  “Where can we find the child who has been born the king of the Jews?” they asked.  Talk about risky!  The passage says Herod was frightened.  But imagine the internal rage Herod must have struggled against when he heard this news!  Point being, the Magi were willing to take risks, daring risks, in their faith.

The story of their faith pilgrimage gets even more impressive when the Magi find the king they seek.  By all appearances, he’s not a king at all, but a baby of peasants, with a teenage mother!  Yet the Magi know, their faith assures them, that here before them is the King of kings.  And they show all the thankfulness they can muster with those celebrated gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Finally, the Magi reach their goal; they’ve gone from Point A to Point B.  But they don’t stop here.  These Magi remain teachable and attentive to God’s leading even after their arrival.  An angel warns them in a dream to return home by a different route, and they heed the angel’s warning.  They’ve met their goal; they’ve checked off their bucket list; they’ve arrived.  But they don’t let their guard down; their faith remains active.

Let’s return now to this geometric idea, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I’m standing here at Point A and I want to get to Point B.  Why can’t I just go there then?  Why does God have to take me here and there and everywhere in between before finally getting to Point B?

Along these lines—pun intended!—the Magi teach us a very important lesson.

We naturally think horizontally.  When we recall our individual faith pilgrimages, it is only natural to relate them in concrete terms: we talk of the ideas, events, and people who have influenced us—for good or ill—the circumstances surrounding why we have followed one path instead of another, why we took a certain fork in our spiritual road, why we climbed over one obstacle but turned around when confronted by another, and so on.  And from a horizontal perspective, this seems like anything but the shortest distance between Points A and B.

But the Magi aren’t thinking horizontally.  They’re thinking vertically; they’re focused on God’s pilgrimage for them, not on their own earthly journey.  And the result is nothing less than mind-boggling.

They’ve been studying their arts and their culture, looking for signs of a coming king.

When they discern these signs, they leave on a journey into the unknown.  They leave family, friends, and familiarity for something entirely unfamiliar, risky, even dangerous.

Along the way they are willing to ask directions—they are teachable—even to the point of asking the wrong person, Herod the tyrant himself!

When they find what they seek—Mary and her baby—they respond with all the thankfulness that they are able to show.  And they do this despite appearances.  Despite seeing a teenage mother and a baby born into poor circumstances, they worship him as King of kings!

And after they find what they’re looking for—after they reach Point B in their spiritual pilgrimage—they remain teachable and attentive.

Seemingly impossible obstacles confront the Magi.  Their horizontal pilgrimage—their earthly journey from Point A to Point B—is anything but a straight line.

But they follow God faithfully throughout their journey—through and beyond impossible obstacles.

And in doing so they show us a vertical perspective.

Points A and B are not about where we are now and where we hope to end up in space and time.  Rather, these points are about who we are now and who we are becoming in Christ.  Points A and B are vertical, not horizontal.  And thus the shortest distance between A and B is a straight line after all.

The shortest distance between us and God is following Christ faithfully in all we do.  Even when we can’t see where we’re headed!  Even when dangers frighten us unbelievably!  And even when and after we realize our temporal goals!

[i]               In the observations that follow I am indebted to William Arnold’s comments in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008) pp. 212, 14.

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2 Responses to “On Straight Lines and Following God”

  1. Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

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