A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 5, 2020: Epiphany
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions so I was delighted this week to learn about a practice called “Star Words”—not to be confused with the equally exciting Star Wars. I read about Star Words in the Presbyterian Outlook which is our denomination’s main publication. Star Words are inspired by the star that led the Wise Men to baby Jesus, and they can be used to guide one through a new year and into the presence of Jesus. Star Words are like resolutions, except without any of the guilt—they give us something to practice, to look ahead to, to work on the entire year until we welcome the birth of Christ again next Christmas.
So, for my sermon today, I would like to share with you the three Star Words I have chosen to guide me through 2020.
My first Star Word is ‘hope.’ That seems simple enough, but my first Star Word is born from the fear and anxiety I felt this week as I followed news of the escalations in violence all over the Middle East. In particular, I’m afraid of what is happening right now between the United States and Iran. I understand that discord between nations is not new and that every generation has had to deal with the consequences of war. It is a bit different for my generation because for half of our lives our country has been at war. At last I checked, four people I graduated high school with have been killed in conflicts overseas while serving in a branch of the military; another 8 committed suicide after returning from war. I am no expert in geo-politics or the anatomy of war, and I don’t know where this is all headed, but I am nonetheless afraid of what I’m hearing and seeing. I’m also afraid of the impact it will no doubt have on our country, on the world, on people I know and love, and on the innocent bystanders who are so often the causalities of such conflicts.
I chose ‘hope’ as my first Star Word because though I am afraid of what is happening in the world right now, the good news of the Gospel is that God is not moved from power by any conflict we might engage in. Even more than that, the good news of the Gospel at Christmas is that God came down and experienced the fear and pain and anxiety of human life and transformed it with words of peace and comfort and strength. In Jesus, God turned the world around, and through Jesus’ followers—you and me—God promises to continue to turn this world around until everything is made new again. Wars rage and tyrants oppress and governments fail and people fail, too. But God never changes and God’s power to make wrong things right again never fades. I need to remember that each and every day. What we experience on a daily basis is not the ultimate reality. I am choosing to have hope even though all the signs around me point to something different, and I’m choosing as inspiration to work peace and reconciliation into the sphere in which I live.
Now, my second word is actually meant to support the first: patience. I’m not good at it and I haven’t met many other people who are good at it. I’ve chosen ‘patience’ as my second Star Word because like the Wise Men, I need to have faith in God’s timing and in God’s plan, and I need to stop trying to micromanage God. Not only is it exhausting to try and micromanage God, it is completely unproductive when there are so many other important things to do in this life of faith.
The Wise Men are an example of true patience. They were star-gazers, astrologers and astronomers, looking to the heavens to tell time and the future and the course of events on earth. They were in the business of looking up and waiting until something happened. When something did happen, like a strange star appearing in the east, Wise Men, and probably some women too, sounded the alarm for others to take notice. A special start appearing was the sign that something divine and miraculous was about to the happen on earth. These events didn’t happen often, though; you might spend your whole life looking to the heavens for a special star and never see one. And so these Wise Ones sat and waited, and when the time came they were ready to shout the good news.
The same must be true for us as followers of Jesus. We have the promises of the Scriptures and we have our faith and hope in what God promises, but we do not know the day or the time when those promises will be fulfilled. We could sulk in despair that the day will never come, or we can live boldly and confidently that God is working even when we can’t see it. Because that’s the truth of God—God is working, whether we see it or not. Patience in faith brings a tremendous amount of comfort, and opens big spaces in which we can live like Christ has taught us. Patiently waiting for God’s promised time, we can bring good news to the poor. Patiently waiting for God’s promised time, we can feed the hungry, shelter the widow, and care for the orphan. Patiently waiting for God’s promised time, we can offer grace and peace to one another and build communities of reconciliation and wholeness. Patiently waiting for God’s promised time, we can cling to the hope of our faith that God has not abandoned us but is actively working for our good and the good of the world.
My third and final Star Word is ‘joy’ and it will be the word I have to practice the most carefully this year. I have to admit that I am prone to despair. I look at everything that is happening in the world today, in the church worldwide, even in our community, and sometimes I wonder if anything will ever get better. I again look at the condition of the relationship between the world’s nations and I wonder if there will ever be a time, like the prophet Isaiah foretold, when nations will turn their weapons into gardening tools. I look at the corruption and scandals and oppressive behaviors that mark every government in every nation, and even in the church, and I wonder if there will ever be a time, like Jesus’ mother sang, when tyrants will be ripped from their thrones. I look at the rise in violent crime in our community and I just have to wonder. Where is God? Where is goodness? Where is simple respect and honor and love?
Then I’m reminded that this type of thinking is really the work of dark and evil forces. The easiest way for evil to seep into our lives is to strip joy away from us. The easiest way for the devil to turn us away from God is steal our joy and fill our hearts and minds with despair and hopelessness. And my friends, this season we’ve just celebrated is all about fighting despair and hopelessness. Christmas is about the joy of a God who showed us great love by taking on our flesh and living among us. Christmas is about the joy that comes into the world in the form of a helpless and innocent baby, one we must protect and nurture until he is ready to change the world. Christmas is about the joy that comes from Jesus’ message of peace, of resisting violence, of speaking truth to power in love. Christmas is about a world that was upside-down and backwards and how God was not and is still not content in leaving it that way. Joy is the death of despair and hopelessness and it is the start of working with God to transform everything.
Put together and practiced daily—living in hope, patience on God, filled with joy in the work of God—my prayer is that God will help me this year to become even more the person God created me to be and an even more faithful follower of Jesus. Today I challenge each one of you to choose one or two or three Star Words to guide your way this coming year. Choose words that will inspire you to be the person God created you to be because God created you in great love and has promised each of you life in abundance. Choose words that will help you to strengthen your relationship with Jesus because he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Choose words that will lead you to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength because there are no greater commandments than these. Choose words that will lead you to the place where the Savior of the world has come, bringing hope and healing in his wings.
When the Wise Men saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Follow the star. Joy to the world, Lord is come! Amen.