HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 60:1-6 (p. 1155)
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 2:1-12 (p. 1497)
SERMON: “A Matter of Perseverance”
I might have considered today’s message as one more in the series on the “Characters of Christmas as we consider the Magi – or wise men – who brought gifts of great value as they visited the Baby Jesus. But it’s a new year and we are ready to work on new things. Nearly every nativity scene includes the three wise men as a part of the manger scene, gathering around the Holy Family along with the shepherds and angels, the sheep and the donkeys. But scholars are clear that their visit came considerably later, by perhaps as much as two years. When they did arrive, tradition and scripture tell us they knelt down, worshiped him and offered their gifts.
Having traveled a great distance, they finished what they came to do, and then, distrustful of Herod, they left without giving Herod the information he wanted about where the Christ Child could be found.
They finished what they came to do. This is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings, but some of us have unfinished projects that need to be completed before we are really ready to move on.
Anyone here have an unfinished project or two? I certainly do. I started to knit an afghan for my friend Pat, I’ve lost track of how many years ago. Maybe this will be the year . . . And there are other things.
If you also have unfinished projects, we are in good company. Bob Kaylor, Senior Minister of Park City United Methodist Church in Utah writes about Leonardo da Vinci and the fact that “in 1480, da Vinci was commissioned to paint an 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the San Donato a Scopeto monastery. He started his "Adoration of the Magi" and was well along with it, but then skipped town, went to Milan and never finished it. . .
“He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again. Eventually the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci's unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.”
An unfinished work by da Vinci – considered to be of great value in spite of the fact that it was not completed. I could wish that my afghan might also be considered of great value, but sadly, only about 80 of the 154 required squares are done, and it will need to be crocheted together and then crocheted around the outside edge. Obviously I don’t have da Vinci’s reputation or status as an artist, and those knitted squares are of little value.
It’s not that we don’t intend to finish the projects we start, but something happens, we get distracted, we are required to do something else. There were several things I wanted to get done in December, but a leak under my kitchen sink led to a visit from the plumber, which led his checking out the furnace, water heater and water softener in the basement, which led to his informing me that the tank for my well needed to be replaced and that the filter on the well was likely clogged, which ultimately led to a huge project on the well itself. Time, energy, money, people who need our help or attention can all prevent us from finishing some of the things we start or plan to do.
Before we just give up, and start on new projects for this new year, we might do well to consider some of those unfinished projects and whether or not they deserve our time, attention and resources.
Maybe I’m the only one here this morning with unfinished projects for which I no longer have the enthusiasm with which I began. But probably not, because there is something we all need to continue working on -- growing our discipleship and maturing in faith. We forget sometimes that the Christian life is not simply a matter of initial repentance, baptism and commitment, but also a matter of life-long perseverance. And discipleship and growth in faith require perseverance because it is so easy to lose those initial feelings of gratitude and joy that come when we first believe. I’m reminded of the last verse we usually sing of that great old hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
There’s no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Singing God’s praise isn’t just about literally singing. We sing God’s praise when we build God’s kingdom. The work of ministry never ends. The life of faith continues. The needs for Christian fellowship, prayer and study are never done, but our commitment and energy tend to drop off. Kaylor suggests that one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, "Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will."
In his book about keeping one's commitment to Christ throughout life, Steve Farrar, addressing men specifically, suggests four practices to help them finish the race of life strong and faithfully. They are:
Stay in ... the Scriptures. Meditate regularly on what the Bible says.
Stay close ... to a trusted Christian friend, for accountability purposes.
Stay away ... from other women. That is, keep appropriate distance from members of the opposite sex, other than one's spouse, of course. (And that goes for women as well as men.)
Stay alert ... to the tactics of the enemy. Beware the lies Satan sells.1
Tanzanian John Steven Akhwari competed in the 1968 Olympics in the marathon. Here is his story in the words of the Wikipedia entry:
“While competing in the marathon in Mexico City, Akhwari cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At the 19 kilometer point during the 42 km race, there was jockeying for position between some runners and he was hit. He fell badly, wounding his knee and dislocated that joint plus his shoulder hit hard against the pavement. He however continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 had started). The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27, when there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium, and the sun had set. A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received
that there was one more runner about to finish.
“As he finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, ‘My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."2
We're at the start of a new year. As we stand here at the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about the faith-projects before us as a congregation and as individuals. How do we know that the projects before us have value to God? One sign of God is that we are led to work that we did not intend to do. Another sign of God is that we are trusted to seek God's help to bring the task to completion. Believe this: When God calls us to a task, God gives us his help to finish it.
- What's the project (or projects) you are struggling with?
- What's the next step in that project? (I hope you all know the instructions for eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.)
- What's keeping you from taking that step, or implementing the step? Do you need help from others? or from God?
- What has God called you to do that suddenly seems to fall apart? Be assured that when God gives you an important project to do for the Kingdom, there will be difficulties, interruptions and obstacles.
- What nay saying comments need to be ignored? And what advice truly needs to be heeded?
- What hindrances are really indicators that you are on the right track?
- What last-stage problems are reminders to call afresh on God for help?
- In the coming year, how can you build accountability into your life to encourage faithful discipleship?
1Steve Farrar. Finishing Strong: Finding the Power to Go the Distance (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1995), 51-63.
2—contributed to Homiletics by Vincent J. Dominique, U.S. Army Chaplain, Fort Jackson.