Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Paying Attention

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

            Have you ever wondered why out of all the people in the world the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to some shepherds in the Gospel of Luke and some foreign astrologers in the Gospel of Matthew?  That’s it.  As far as we know they are the only two groups to get an announcement of Jesus’ birth.  Why them?

            This question makes me wonder.  Maybe the shepherds and the wise men weren’t the only ones to get the birth announcement.  Think about this a minute.  A star is something up in the sky that anyone could have seen.  If God used a star to announce Jesus’ birth, then the announcement went out to everybody, but only these magi—these foreign astrologers—made the effort to look into it, to understand what it meant, and to follow where it led.

            How did the magi know that the star represented the birth of a new king of the Jews?  We don’t know.  But we do know that when King Herod hears their report, he is shaken, and all Jerusalem with him.  Something about the magi’s story has a disturbing creditability.

            Now we come to one of the interesting twists in the story.  If you noticed the wise men did not follow the star directly to Bethlehem.  When they saw the star they went to Jerusalem.  Why?  Because Jerusalem was the capital.  Jerusalem was home to the palace of King Herod, and the wise men assumed that any new king of the Jews would be born in the palace of the reigning king.  When Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her son George, who became the fourth in line to the British throne, no one went looking for the new child in Liverpool.  The reporters all camped outside the palace in London.  So with the wise men.  The star may have been shining over Bethlehem, but they went looking for the baby in Jerusalem because that’s where they expected a new king of the Jews to be born.  It was the Jewish scribes studying the Old Testament who told them to look in Bethlehem.

            I think this part of the story has a lesson for us.  Nature, in the form of a star, can bring you only so close to God.  Nature can give you certain clues about God.  Looking at the stars, looking at the mountains, looking at nature, you get some idea of God’s majesty and power.  But to find God, to really meet God in person, you need the help of the Bible.

            So it was for the wise men.  The star brought them only so far.  To find Jesus they needed the help of the scriptures.

            But here is the point of today’s sermon.  In Matthew’s gospel, the magi are the only ones to meet the baby Jesus, because they are the only ones who bother to look.  Herod does not look, even though he has been told where to look by the scribes.  And the scribes don’t bother to look, even though they have been told where to look by the scriptures.  The truth is that Herod and the scribes don’t want a new king of the Jews.  They don’t want someone coming along to shake up their lives and threaten their positions of power and privilege.  Only the magi bother to follow the star and the scriptures to see where they lead.

            Now we turn to the shepherds in Luke’s gospel.  Out of all the people in the region around Bethlehem, why were the shepherds the only ones chosen to hear the news?

            Maybe they weren’t.  Luke says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”  That would be hard to miss.  Like a star.  Their song may have echoed over the hills for anyone to hear.  But only the shepherds paid attention.  Only the shepherds bothered to go and look.

            For me this raises a question: Where might Jesus show up in our lives today, if we only paid attention?  Where might we see Jesus born among us today, if we only bothered to look?

            During my last several years in Spokane I went down every Wednesday morning with a small group of men to lead a Bible study at the House of Charity, the homeless shelter downtown.  We would get their early and have coffee with people who came in to have breakfast at the House of Charity and we would invited them to come to the Bible study and prayer meeting we had in the chapel.

          One week I sat down at a table with a couple of younger guys I had not seen before.  I introduced myself as Pastor Ken and told them about our Bible study and prayer meeting.  Then I asked them if they had anything they would like us to pray for.  One of the young men said no, he wasn’t interested in religion.  But the other young man began talking in a string of incomprehensible sentences.  I don’t know if he was mentally ill or on drugs or both, but I couldn’t understand a word he said.  Sometimes I understood individual words, but together the words made no sense.  Finally, I asked him if he would like to come our Bible study and share his prayer request in person.  He said sure.  So he followed me into the chapel for the Bible study.

            At that point I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  At the prayer meetings we not only each shared our prayer requests with each other, but we went around the circle and each person prayed for the person on his or her right.  Everyone said a short prayer out loud for the need expressed by the next person in the circle.  Sometimes new people were reluctant to do this, but I encourage them to try.  It is powerful to have someone else praying for you, but it is even more powerful if you are the person praying for someone else, especially when your self-esteem is at a low point.  I encouraged everyone in the Bible study to pray out loud for the person next to them, and when they realized that the person next to them might not get prayed for if they did not step up, they usually did.

            Well, we came to the prayer time, and as we went around the circle each person shared a prayer request.  About half way around the circle we came to the young man.  He paused, and then said, “I need a place to live.”  It was the clearest sentence he had said all morning.  “I need a place to live.”  Then the person on his right, an older man, offered his prayer concern.  He asked prayer for his son.  His son had left home and wasn’t doing very well.  He was worried about his son’s health, his son’s choices, and how his son was going to support himself.  Finally we started around the circle, each person praying for the person on his or her right.  We came to the young man, and I held my breath.  Then he started praying.  I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Lord, you got to help this man’s son.  You got to help this boy.  Please, Lord, don’t let him mess up his life.  His dad loves him.  So do you.  Don’t let him give up on himself.  Amen.”

            It was the most eloquent prayer I had ever heard.  And I realized that I was witnessing the Holy Spirit.  It was more dramatic than if he had spoken in tongues.  Actually speaking in tongues would have been more like what he did earlier when we were talking at the table.  But this was an embodiment of that verse in Romans 8 where Paul says, “Sometimes we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words.”  I didn’t know what was going on in that young man, but I had the feeling I was standing on holy ground.

            And that’s what I see in the story of the wise men and the shepherds.  The star is still shining today.  The song of the angels still echoes among us today.  There are signs of Jesus’ presence in our world even now.  But you see them only if you pay attention, only if you bother to go looking, sometimes in unlikely places among unlikely people.

            In a moment we will sing an old familiar Christmas carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”  Many of you know the first verse by heart,

            It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

            From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

 

The first verse is about when the angels come to the shepherds long ago.  But notice the second verse:

            Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,

            And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

            Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

            And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

 

            You can still hear the angels, you can still see the star, if you only pay attention.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7