Well, Friends, here we are at the end of a very long, very challenging, and for far too many, a very painful year. 2020 has brought hardships on just about every level you can imagine—physical, emotional, occupational, financial, and relational. All across the country and around the world, we have lost loved ones, we’ve lost jobs, and far too many to count have lost the sense of security we once took for granted. Many people are also having to deal with a resurgence of battles they had once won—the return of addictions, or depression or life-limiting conditions like high anxiety. That’s an awful lot of heartache, experienced in less than one calendar year.
You’ve probably heard people joking about how glad they will be to see 2020 go. But we all know that the turn of the calendar isn’t going to make everything magically better. Yes, we very much hope and pray that on average, by this time next year, we’ll see that 2021 has been infinitely better, healthier, and happier than 2020 was. But the trajectory of change is often slow and incremental. It happens step by step and choice by choice.
The good news is that in good times and bad, our choices have creative power. Even when we’re living through the most difficult of times, we have the power to choose so many things. First and foremost, we can choose how we will look at this time in our lives. If we look at 2020 through eyes of faith, we can see where God has been with us, leading us through the valleys, inspiring us to make good choices, helping us find calm and peace in a scary time. If we look at 2020 through a political lens, we see all the painful and rancorous divisions and accusations that aren’t helping anyone. If we look at just what’s happened in our own small corner of the world, we might feel we’ve gotten along pretty well. If we widen our perspective and care about all the people of the world, the loss and grief is devastating.
How will we look at 2020? And what will we carry with us from this year? It’s a choice.
Our Old Testament scripture for today is a much-loved verse from the book of Isaiah. It is a promise God makes each of us, one we know well in the presence of the Light of Christ that comes to teach each of us himself. “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” Isaiah shares this as he tells the people about the mercy of God, how God does not leave us alone but provides a teacher to help us with each the tiniest decisions of our lives. The question is—if God is willing and present to help us know whether to turn to the right or to the left in even the small decisions of our lives—will we listen? It’s a choice.
Our choices not only give us the power to find and act on the truth in our circumstances, but they also say something true about how we look at life, what we believe, what ideas we hold dear. When we stop and pray and listen before making a big choice, that says that we trust God to lead us, that we believe God is listening, and we anticipate God will help show us the way.
When we forge ahead into the unknown without listening for that divine guidance, maybe it’s because we feel we are supposed to do things on our own, or that maybe God doesn’t care about the small stuff and wants to be consulted only for big things. That might be our unexamined thought—and maybe something we heard from someone long ago that we never really thought about after. But the trouble is that that idea—that God puts conditions on his desire to be with us—isn’t loving or merciful or kind, and that means it’s not God.
Thank heavens the Magi were listening to God as they made the long journey to meet the Christ child. It all began when they saw the new star in the sky—the star of Bethlehem—and they knew that it foretold the birth of a great soul. They probably made dozens—if not hundreds—of choices as they made their way to Jerusalem. Along the way, they stopped and asked the townspeople, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod caught wind of this, instead of being curious or even excited to hear the news, he was angry, threatened, and jealous. He wanted to do away with anyone who might challenge his power—even a newborn son of God. Herod’s choices were all about holding on to that power. He called for his priests and teachers and wanted to know precisely what had been written in scripture about this so-called king. He then had the magi brought in before him and asked them many questions about the star. He wanted to find out precisely when it had appeared and how long it had been leading them. Even though Herod had an evil intent, he tried to hide it so the Magi would think he simply wanted to worship the child like they did. He gave them instructions to report back when they had found the baby. Thank goodness, the Magi were listening to God and could hear the lie in Herod’s voice.
The story tells us that once they were back on the road, the magi found the star again and they were overjoyed. It led them to a house, Matthew says—not a stable—where they found the child and his mother Mary. They shared their treasures with him, giving him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And when it was time for them to return to their country, God directed them yet again, warning them in a dream not to go back the way they had come. They wouldn’t report back to Herod with the information he sought. Instead, they went home by another road.
The choice the kings made said a lot about who they were and what they believed. The fact that they would travel such a great distance to find the child says they had a great faith, faith that a great soul can be born anywhere, to anyone—even to a poor, unmarried couple. They had faith in goodness, faith in their training, belief that the star was leading them to fulfill prophecy they’d probably known all their lives. Choosing to go home by a different way—even though the powerful Herod had commanded them otherwise—said that they had a relationship with a higher authority than Herod. They knew their part in this story of Divine Love had to be directed by the one who hung the stars in the sky.
As so often happens when I’m working on my message for Sunday morning, a timely idea was posted only yesterday, this one by Pope Francis. He wrote,
“We too can change evil into good each day. Loving actions change history: even the ones that are small, hidden, everyday. For God guides history through the humble courage of those who pray, love and forgive.”
Isn’t that a beautiful and empowering idea? Our loving actions—and the choices that lead to them—are creative acts, capable of bringing mercy, kindness, goodness, and light to world around us. Writing a check to a food pantry. Taking some supplies to the Trustees office. Supporting an organization that provides help to those who are struggling. When we choose to do whatever we can, we are part of God’s work of love in the world.
How many choices do you think you make in a day? And how many are inspired by love? Chances are that the number is much higher than you think.
I remember when I was in third grade and our teacher was talking about the four main types of writing: expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive. To illustrate expository writing, in which the writer wants to inform or explain a subject to the reader, she asked us to get out a sheet of paper and write “How to Fry an Egg” at the top. Then she asked us to write down all the steps involved in frying an egg. Most of my classmates had three or four steps: (1) get a pan, (2) get an egg, (3) cook it, and (4) eat it. I looked down at my paper. I had 21 steps. The mark of a future technical writer.
But our choices are a lot like that. The closer we look, the more there are. If you think back quickly over your morning so far, you probably remember two or three big choices. You got up at a certain time. You chose what you wanted for breakfast (or maybe whether you wanted breakfast). You chose the clothes you’re wearing. You chose whether to turn in for the live stream of worship today, and then made all the choices that flowed from that—to go to the computer, to get online, to find the email, to click the link, and here you are.
Each choice we make is one step in a path as we follow the star. And God promises to be there, directing us, helping us know whether to go to the left or to the right. God is our companion and guide for the whole journey.
What if we decide in 2021 to listen very closely for God guiding the choices of our days—small and large? We could allow ourselves to be led by Love, to respond with faith, and over time, to find ourselves more and more attuned to God’s ever-present, all-pervasive, eternally perfect love.
In Pope Francis’s post, he said that “God guides history through the humble courage of those who pray, love and forgive.” The magi on that first Christmas were certainly part of that humble trajectory. And we—when we choose to pray for, love, and forgive each other, or those we don’t know, or everyone in the world—we bring more light and love within reach of us all.
In closing, I’d like to share a poem by Mary Oliver that has a particularly 2020 kind of feel about it, with a hopeful and encouraging nod to the opportunity our choices will give us in the New Year—especially if we welcome God along and choose well, to listen to his voice.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.