Christians traditionally celebrate the coming of the wise men or magi on January 6th. The Bible story says they arrive sometime after Jesus’s birth, not necessarily on his birthday as our nativity scenes display. So we celebrate their arrival on January 6th, which we call the Epiphany. Christmas is where we focus on God’s coming to us. Epiphany is about our journey towards God.
The story of the magi is a good passage to launch our new sermon series because it reminds us that like the magi, each of us is on a spiritual journey. We are not all at the same place on that journey. We choose different paths and scenic overlooks along the way. But our spirits are all in motion, affected by the way our lives unfold. And as we begin the New Year, we ask how is it with your soul. It’s kind of a check to discern where you are on the journey by paying attention to your direction, and the landmarks around you.
If you had to pick just one, what one word would you use to describe your interior life right now? Peaceful, tranquil, content, anxious, afraid, lonely, cynical, despair, disconnected, exuberant, something else?
How would you describe your journey right now? Dead-end, road-block, diversion, full speed ahead, scenic vista, in a rut, exponential stupendous, amazing growth where you feel constantly connected to something big and important?
Today we begin a new sermon series about how to grow closer to God. We got the idea for this series when a major report about religion in America came out last year. One of the things it asked people who regularly go to church is “Why do you go, what are you looking for?” By far the #1 answer was that people were looking to grow closer to God. Assuming that this would also be one of the top answers for many of you, we thought we’d address the question head-on. How do you grow closer to God? Are there certain practices, habits, attitudes that facilitate this kind of growth? Well, yes, actually, there are and we are going to talk about them over the next several weeks so that you can start the year out in a positive direction.
If the question of growing closer to God hasn’t been on your radar, there are some very good reasons to put it there. The Bible talks about life in the spirit as one being filled with the fruit of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, joy, and self-control. A more fulfilling spiritual life translates into a reduced stress level which has lots of health benefits, when you are centered and okay about who you are relationships improve, you have a sense of meaning, purpose, a path, more fulfilling life.
Studies indicate that those intentional about developing their spiritual life have benefits for blood pressure, depression, loneliness, anxiety over life’s curveballs, big and small. They have a higher sense of overall well-being. Happiness because you have a sense of being more centered in the moment, not worrying about what bad thing is happening next or has already happened. Take the pleasures as they come. As you gain spiritual maturity there isn’t some Pollyanna naiveté, but you know that when hard times come you have the tools to deal with them, a light for the darkness.
One of the things you hear us talking about at Bay Shore Church is that each of us is on a spiritual journey. As we progress through life there our interior lives are going to experience a log of ups and downs. We learn. We grow. We make mistakes. We tend to repeat mistakes until we learn the lessons they teach and do something to change. Inside we go through seasons. Ups and downs. Our experience of prayer and God informs us and changes us.
Notice how the language of journey is more dynamic than the ways we are used to talking about faith in much more static terms. I am a Christian. I believe. We were taught this way of categorizing ourselves, defining ourselves. But it leads to the false impression that we are merely called to give intellectual assent to a set of theological claims. That is it looks like you achieve something and you are good once you come to believe that there is a God and you’ve asked Jesus to save you from your sins. You are a Christian. But Jesus never asked you to be a Christian, just to believe certain things. Jesus asked you to be a disciple, a follower of his path, of his example and teachings. That it has something to do with the way you live as a person of compassion and kindness and love. Someone who cares about justice and the well-being of people who are less well-off than you are.
It just sounds different to say “I’m on a spiritual journey” than it sounds when you say, “I’m a Christian.” One makes it sound like you accomplished something.
I think confirmation classes kind of do that. I had a girl once who didn’t go through confirmation class with her peers. She waited a year and when I asked her what that was all about she said that she saw the kids who were a year ahead of her and how they went through confirmation and it didn’t make much difference—they were still jerks—so she didn’t think it was worth bothering with. She decided to go through it the second year and decided to get confirmed. I asked what it meant to her. She said that she didn’t understand all the faith yet, and live a good life, yet, and never would, but to her confirmation was a commitment to keep on trying.
Much of the journey is inward. Jesus said the kingdom of God is within you. Genesis says you were created in the image of God, that you bear that within you and you discover that connection to God by looking within your heart.
We always try to leave time in every service for some contemplation a time of quieting your thoughts, your busy mind. So you can listen. There are other practices to consider. Therapy. Meditation. Yoga—some evangelical pastors freaking out about yoga and meditation calling them tools of the devil to take people away from Jesus. No. They aren’t religions but are ways of focusing attention and are consistent with practices Christians have always been doing. Breathing exercises. 321. Many practices to help you do this. This sermon series is going to highlight a bunch of them for you to consider and try. It’s about finding the right set for you. Trying something new sometimes is the best way to jump-start your spiritual engines.
To see yourself on a spiritual journey. A seeker after spiritual experiences, contact with the holy. Not trying to manipulate it but to acknowledge it, experience it in their own lives. We are seekers after the sublime, something beyond what is seen in this world, something important and bigger than us, something that brings the best out of us and enfolds us in love. Learn from Magi. Instead of camels, use the Christian faith as a vehicle to get to the life you want. Jesus showed us how to get there in his teachings and example.
Commit to the journey. Say, “This year I’m moving forward. I want to get a closer feeling of my relationship with God.” I’m reminded of the old Seals and Crofts song from the 70’s; imagine God saying “Darling, you want me to be closer to you, get closer to me.” Try incorporating some practices and new ways of thinking into your life that will help get you there.
Prepare—inventory what baggage you are taking. Get rid of some of the unhelpful stuff. Shame. Guilt. Regrets. The wrongs done to you. A nametag that says victim.
Pack curiosity and humility to challenge your beliefs and confront your doubts to re-examine your assumptions about how the world works. If people are doing the best they can with the resources they have available to them. Pack a capacity for wonder—awe.
Sometimes you can get lulled to sleep on a journey. I remember long car rides in the Midwest. They were so boring. Look, a field of corn. More corn. More corn. Oooh, soybeans! Corn. Corn. Cow. Yawn. But there was so much more there and I discounted it all. It took me a long time to see the beauty there. But once I did the whole thing came alive. Barns and birds and creeks and the way the light attaches to the tassels on the corn. A spiritual life is about seeing and appreciating the beauty all around you. Who saw the clouds over the ocean this morning as the sun rose?
Bring your offerings. Your gifts. Your time, talents, treasure. Offer them at the disposal of things that are wonderful and important to you. Dedicate yourself. Volunteer. Get involved. Immerse yourself in life. Big spiritual ruts come from those times when we are navel gazing and don’t make room for anything outside of ourselves too give of ourselves to. Worthy.
Go with some companions. Church keeps you motivated. People notice if you’re gone. Ask how you are doing. Encourage you. Help you keep going forward.
Remember you will go through some unfamiliar territory and ugly times. Dark nights of the soul. Look to the light. Guided by the faith of that star. Trust God’s leading. Valley of the shadow of death. Times when you don’t feel close to God at all. You can’t see any evidence. Mother Teresa suffered this. Holy, good, practices—rituals help keep us connected, find something comfortable, familiar. Mother Teresa kept going and lived one of the most exemplary lives in modern times.
We have to learn to look for Jesus where he said he would be. We can see him every day in unexpected places. In the lowly, poor and marginalized. The sunset. The dew. The acts of kindness you see. People being better to others than they have to be. People who put themselves on the line and make sacrifices for others.
The Magi walked a long way. Take walks. Ambulance prayers. Prayer walks a word, a person, a problem.
Magi had humility to bow down. Worship has to do with finding something worthy of your praise. One who accompanies you on the journey. Who will never leave you. Someone worth bowing down to. Who is truth.
Magi do not follow the crowd, the emperor. Social defiance to not participate in something wrong. An act of civil disobedience. For many an act of service or justice is what really helps them feel closer to God.
On Christmas Eve we heard, O Holy Night. There is that line about how the soul finds it’s worth. Somehow in Jesus we find the worth of our own souls. He told us that it is valuable. Many parables. God searches for it, delights in it. Seeks its well being. Take care of your soul this year fellow traveller. It’s precious and of infinite worth