Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Voyagers, not voyeurs"

Message preached January 4, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 2:1-12

Order of Worship

            It was Christmas Eve. The choir was sitting up front. Once again, we had each lit our candles and now had extinguished them, much to the relief of a few anxious parents of small children. A gospel reading, a hymn, and then another word of good news in this well-planned service... And then we sang "The first Noel."

            I donít know about you, but that Christmas carol wears me out. To start with, itís five verses long. A century ago, Godís people would think nothing of singing hymns with upwards of 10 or more verses, but our attention spans are much shorter today - mine included. Another thing: the refrain at the end of each verse in that song reaches a climax, especially in the menís lines, that leaves you exhausted. Of course, as soon as that end is reached, you pick yourself up and start all over again.

            Now, I suppose we could omit a verse or two. After all, folks only remember the first, and maybe the last verses of Christmas carols, anyway. However, unlike some other hymns, "The first Noel" tells a story. Taking out a line or so in the middle is like reading the first and last page of a novel.

            Well, it was during the third verse of this 180-year-old hymn that my mind really started wandering - at about the spot where "three wise came from country far" to meander through the rest of the song. Rather than just mentally checking out of the service (of course, Iím sure none of you ever does that...), I recalled the request of someone beforehand that I pray for her. So I used the time to do that. My list grew as I prayed.

            My mind started checking back in on the hymn somewhere during the last verse, when I started thinking about those wise men. If they had had as short an attention span as I, they would never have followed that star all the way to Bethlehem. They would just have done their business from far away, observing the heavens but never stepping out to follow what they saw. They would have been voyeurs, not voyagers.

            It was about at this point that I opened my eyes again and observed the choir director motioning me to stand up. A glance to either side revealed I was the only person in the choir still seated. Oops! Good thing it was a candlelight service. Embarrassment doesnít show up well in dim light.

            Voyagers, not voyeurs. Whatís the difference? Well, a voyager is someone who actually steps out on a journey, who accepts the risk involved any time a comfortable place is left behind. A voyeur, on the other hand, keeps to the sidelines - never fully becoming involved, never actually stepping out, never taking on the risk of a real journey. A voyeur merely observes from afar. A voyager travels from afar, leaving it "far" behind in order to come near.

            The story is told in Matthewís gospel of the wise men who visited Jesus. We really donít know very much about them, although down through the years tradition has greatly embellished their personalities. Most probably they were astrologers, star gazers who scanned the heavens, not so much to map the universe as to chart the course of peopleís lives. And yet, even though by occupation they were celestial voyeurs, these Magi left the comfort of their homeland and journeyed to Palestine to follow a star.

            Think about it. They were not Jewish, following the God of Abraham, Moses, and David. So why should they have any interest in the birth of a Jewish King? However, they cared enough about a particular star they saw in the sky to get up and follow it. "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" (2:2), they asked King Herod along the way. "For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

            Now, I donít wish to paint too virtuous a picture of these guys, for other than this passage of scripture, there is zilch in the Bible on them. If we look too closely, they might still appear to be voyeurs. After all, though they have traveled a long distance, they donít really get involved. With a little heavenly help, they avoid getting drawn into a royal plot to kill this would-be King. They come to his bedroom, look on, and leave, never to be heard from again.

            But, backing up a little bit from the page, we see three persons (well, actually, Matthewís account doesnít really mention how many magi there were, it just says they offered three gifts). Nevertheless, these individuals are affected by what they behold in the sky. As a result, they donít sit back down on their couches and say to themselves. "Thatís cool." No, they follow a star to Bethlehem. Once there, scripture says "they were overwhelmed with joy." So much so that they enter the house. They donít just peer in through a window. They come inside and encounter this mother and child. Furthermore, they give of themselves.

            Over the years, much has been made of the gifts they gave - gold to crown a king, frankincense to perfume the sacrifice of a priest, and myrrh to embalm the body of a dead person. Interesting. However, let me point out that none of this is actually said in the scripture as we have received it. The three gifts are mentioned but once in Matthew 2:11, and never again.

            I say this not to raise doubts as to the authenticity of this gospel story. Rather, I believe the reason this scripture has been handed down to us has little to do with the three gifts. Like the best of what we may have received on Christmas Day, the significance of these gifts lies in the act of giving. You cared enough to leave your world and step into mine. Isnít that, by the way, what our celebration of Christmas is all about? God stepped into our world.

            Think about it. We may be tempted to see God as a celestial voyeur. During our roughest moments in life, we may cry to the sky and wonder why God just looks on and does nothing. But then, if we are able to open our eyes, we see that God has already stepped into our world and is beside us - a voyager, not a voyeur.

            The magi? They left comfort behind and followed the light. Isnít that what we are to do? Of course, we can get all wrapped up in the gifts we bring. Some folks remain voyeurs in this Jesus stuff because they donít imagine anything they may have to offer as being good enough. Better wait until my gift is fit for a king, until my sacrifice is acceptable to a priest, or until I am - if you will - ready to die. Until then, Iíll just stand outside and watch, thank you. I suppose the magi could have said the same thing, but they didnít.

            In a nutshell, what they did is sort of what faith is all about, isnít it? To be a person, a people of faith, means that we become voyagers, not voyeurs. Faith is not just reading the Bible, my friends. Itís being so affected by what we have received in this story of God caring enough to step into our world, that we take the risk and step out toward Godís world. Asking, "what do I have to offer?" isnít the point. God handles that end of things.

            I have a dream for a year from now. It involves our sister church in the Dominican Republic. I confess itís a pretty vague dream at the present, but it involves being more than a voyeur in our / in my relationship with these believers. I want to follow the star, if you will. Not that Iím all that wise a man, mind you, or that I can work magic by journeying to San Juan de la Managua. To be honest, at this point I have no idea what sort of gold, frankincense, or myrrh I have to offer those folks. After all, our Dominican brethren are really on fire for the Lord, often putting my meager faith to shame. Furthermore, what little Spanish I remember from high school gets me about as far as "ŅHola, como estas?"

            Still, the star I see is pointing there, and I want to be a voyager, not a voyeur. Are any of you also interested? In many ways, things seem to be lining up. Some good friends of mine, persons who know me at my best and worst, having been deeply involved with them many years ago, are now in ministry in the Dominican Republic. Among other mission activity, Irv and Nancy Heishman help coordinate much of the interaction between American and Dominican churches.

            This dream, still unclear, may be close to a work camp experience - a week or two (perhaps more) working beside our friends on some project. The significance of it, however, is not merely what I or we have to give. If I am (or we are) so focused on our "gold, frankincense, and myrrh" that Christ is not seen and followed, I/we will return home a voyeur, not a voyager. That, by the way, is one of the dangers of a mission trip. You see, itís not about us - what we can do, what we can give. Itís about what God is doing. Simply walking with our Dominican brethren, in spite of the language and cultural barriers, is an awesome thing. Just ask Dottie Krause, who returned home from Honduras a few years ago a changed person.

            I confess to being nervous over the prospect - the language being one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Thatís why Iíve asked my friend Izzy to go with me. Some others have already expressed interest, one newcomer among us even choosing this congregation because of our sister church relationship. She would like to go, also. Please talk with me if this is a journey you would like to make. Just as important, over the next few weeks, please pray with me for the way to become clear as I/we seek to follow this particular star.

            Let me say, however, that you donít need to go to the Dominican Republic to be a faith voyager. Regardless of where the star you see is pointed, my friend, do you want to be just a bystander? When it comes to faith, are you satisfied with just being a voyeur? Itís easier to sit back and watch, Iíll grant you. Itís also safe ... in the short run, that is. Is that really all you want? Or do you desire to step out and get involved, following Jesus wherever his star may lead? Again, itís not about the gifts you have to offer. God takes care of that end of things. Itís about a willingness to leave comfort behind and risk yourself to follow Christ.

            On this first Sunday of a brand new year, let me extend an invitation to step out on a journey of a lifetime. Perhaps youíve never taken that first step. Well, guess what? You gotta start somewhere. Why not here and now? We can easily fill up that baptismal pool again, right Deacons? Commit your life to Christ. Be a voyager, not a voyeur... Perhaps you are responding to a new call in your life with Jesus. You see the star and you want to get up and follow, even if it involves some risk. Well, being saved is not about being safe. If you wish to take some new steps in more fully being a voyager and not a voyeur, come on.

            Regardless of your reason, on this first Sunday of a brand new year, I invite you to come forward as we sing our final song. "As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold." That they did, but donít let the story end with them. Be a voyager, not a voyeur!

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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