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Dear Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy New Year! Thankfully, 2020 has come and gone. The countdown to the new year 2021 with its hope of a healthy future and the healing possibilities has arrived at last. The ball has dropped in New York to an empty Time Square. “For Auld Lang Syne” has been sung. No doubt, a bit more melancholic than in years past, and with fewer voices. A glass or two has been raised to toast the hope for a better year, most likely with fewer faces gathered round the table. Yes, on New Year’s Eve, across the globe, people were bidding goodbye, and perhaps good riddance to the challenges of the year 2020, trusting, and indeed praying fervently, that the mere flip of a page or the changing out of a calendar could make all things better. Maybe it will. But one truth I have learned from this past year is this. “Never waste a good crisis.”
Of course, that is not my own original phrase. The Italian renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli the author of “The Prince” was first attributed with the quote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Since then a host of politicians have been tied to the phrase and not exclusively in a negative, Machiavellian way. Franklin Delano Roosevelt seized the meaning of the phrase to promote the New Deal. It’s also been attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who when he was working to form the United Nations after World War II, is said to have uttered, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”. More recently, the phrase was used by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do.” Unfortunately today, everyone assumes that anything Machiavelli had to say must be cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous. I think that is an injustice to Machiavelli’s writing. We can and should learn something from his words.
2020 was a challenging year, to be sure, but in hindsight, there are still lessons that you can draw from those challenges that may give you hope and wonder for the near that has unfolded before you. Many of us were forced to face more quiet time, and to slow down our daily pace with less commuting and instead spending more time with family. So what did you learn from that experience? What did you learn about yourself? Remember, “Never waste a good crisis.”
My friends, as we begin this new year, I would like to invite you to look at the world today through the eyes of the ancient wise men who followed the star. They were first drawn to Jerusalem and the Court of King Herod. It was where they expected the new King of Israel to be born. But after travelling to Bethlehem and beholding the Christ Child, they suddenly realized that they were facing a crisis- a personal crisis. What they discovered in Bethlehem allowed them to make a decision, and that decision is what I would like us to explore today.
The wise men of old are often portrayed in Christmas art as three solitary men seated on camels, traveling at night, following yonder star. We almost forget that for the majority of that 500 mile journey lasting nearly two months was during the day. According to scripture, the star was not always in the sky. It had appeared only on the night that Jesus was born. More logically, the wise men would have traveled by day and slept in their tents by night. Over that harsh Middle Eastern landscape, they had their ups and downs. They dealt with the hot sun and dust, with blisters and sore muscles, and thirsty camels.
Certainly, during those long nights when the sky was dark and empty, the wise men questioned the wisdom and impulsiveness of their journey. The star that had once risen for them in the East was now nowhere to be seen. Of course, they knew where they should be headed. They knew their destination. Or perhaps they had doubts during the days when the sun was hot and the path was dusty and they longed for a drink of cold water. They only knew for certain that they had to keep on going, determined to reach Jerusalem and greet the infant King.
For many here, the personal journey of 2020 is not unlike that of the wise men. There was a wonderful and sudden illumination in the sky a year ago, when all looked joyful and promising. You believed you could see the future clearly with your new 2020 vision. And then just as suddenly, the star disappeared from the sky. Life went south. One hardship seemed to pile up upon another. There were times, when all you could think was, when will this year end?
When the wise men finally reached their destination-the city of Jerusalem. They were stunned at the people’s response when they asked, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the East and have come to pay him homage.” Deafening silence. Nobody seemed to know what they were talking about. The wise men went to the palace and inquired of King Herod where they might find this new born king, a king so noteworthy that a star had appeared in the sky to proclaim his birth. And King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. There was no new born prince in the palace. King Herod brought together the Jewish religious leaders and questioned them.. Surely, if there was a King who had been born, if the Messiah had really come, they would know about it. But the religious leaders knew nothing. . All they could suggest was that the Messiah would be born in a little town called Bethlehem.
For the wise men, each new disappointment seemed more painful than the last. Doubt and bewilderment crept into their thought and conversation. Was this whole journey a mistake? A year of planning- all for naught. Even the religious scholars in Jerusalem hadn’t noticed any extra star in the sky, nor could they be bothered to travel six miles to that little town of Bethlehem to see if a Messiah had been born. Dismayed and dejected, the wise men must have been wondering, “What were we thinking?” But still they agreed to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then back to Jerusalem to tell King Herod if they found the new born king.
You see, one lesson the wise men had learned on that long journey from their homeland to Jerusalem was this, “Never waste a good crisis.” And they were at a critical, crisis point. Countless skeptical observers dismissed the wise men and their trivial pursuit, but the wise men decided to move on to Bethlehem. And suddenly, miraculously, there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising and it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But beneath that star of wonder, star of night, star with royal, beauty bright, the wise men were suddenly facing a new crisis. Should they return to Jerusalem or not? Should they honor their word to King Herod or not? Should they forget about the fate of Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus? They were faced with a moral, ethical crisis. They recognized that there was something about the King’s words which did not ring true. Scripture says that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but what would be the consequences? At worst, they had been manipulated to be used in a plot for assassination and murders. And if they didn’t return, surely Herod would then hate them too, and they themselves might be forced into hiding. But they knew, “Never waste a good crisis.” And so we are told that they left for their own country by another road.
The wise men’s crisis has been for many people the greatest challenge of 2020. It is a spiritual crisis. “What difference does any of our personal decisions and actions make on the lives of others? After all it is my life.” Let us be honest. Don’t we all prefer the disengaged life and lifestyle of Jerusalem. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann contrasts Jerusalem with Bethlehem. One was the capital city with “great pretensions,” high levels of anxiety and great expectation, the other was a small village with “modest promises.” In Jerusalem, the citizens were playing the political games of trying to reach the top without drawing too much attention to themselves. They liked the notoriety of affluence and influence, all done to the approval of King Herod. It was not surprising that the wise men journeyed to Jerusalem. Where else would you expect the extraordinary to happen?
But that is not God’s way. God uses life’s crisis moments in the Little Towns of Bethlehem around the world to help us see life more clearly and to live life more faithfully. That is where God appears. It was where God appeared to the wise men long ago. The child they saw with Mary his mother was not merely a humble carpenter’s son. He was the Messiah. While the king they met in Jerusalem was not a man in whom they could trust their dreams and hopes. They could see that and experience all that in the face of that tiny child, Jesus.
My friends, do no not waste the crisis that you have known in the year 2020. You too can return to “normalcy” by another road. That’s the hope for all people who find their way to Jesus. That is God’s promise and hope in this Christ Child. Once you have seen this Jesus, you don’t have to go back through Jerusalem. You can go home by another road, and. like the wise men from the East, you will be changed.
“Never waste a good crisis.” The year 2020 may actually became an accelerator for growth with in you, both spiritually, emotionally and personally. And like the wise men, having seen Jesus, you may travel back home with a renewed spiritual awareness that is connected both to the foundations of your past and to that new and deeper place you have discovered That new spiritual place just might be your truest home. Life does not change with the flip of a page or by the shifting of one old calendar for a new. So do not let go of the lessons of 2020 too quickly, and do not be afraid or anxious of the new year. But to get there you too must go by a route different than the one you used before. And be assured and confident, that Christ goes with you. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen