In the middle of a weekend full of guest speaking, Room In The Inn, funeral leading and funeral preparing, and our first annual Latino ministry celebration, there was a sermon to preach.
One I felt good about in preparation.
And so, predictably, I grew more despondent through the latter part of the week and into Saturday afternoon as the weather forecast grew more and more dim.
“What if I have a really good sermon and the roads are too icy for anyone to come hear it?”
As if God’s main weather concern is my message delivery.
Anyway, the weather held off — sort of — crowds were reasonable, and the message went quite well. Focusing on the dream communication of Matthew 2:1-15 (especially 2:12 and 2:13-14), I had landed on this main idea:
God wants your foresight to be as accurate as your hindsight.
I like that thought, its implications, and the sermon that led to it. So here is a rough transcript, complete with an almost-identical-to-the-one-we-played video segment:
Not too long ago I saw a program that re-liveda college football game between Alabama & Florida that was played 21 years ago. Called The Play That Changed College Football, the show centered on the fact that the game was decided when Florida’s QB, Shane Matthews, threw an interception to Alabama’s Antonio Langham who returned it for the winning touchdown. They gathered the key players together to watch the game tape, re-live the memories, and reflect on what it all meant. What was stunning to me was the melancholy Shane Matthews still had; he watched that replay over and over of his big mistake. On that tape, he saw what he could have done, what he should have done, the signals that he missed . . . and then he saw what he did wrong. With perfect clarity. Check it out:
VIDEO (“nightmare”) More than most of us ever get to do, he could literally see part of his life and where he had blown it. Why? Because hindsight is 20/20.
Isn’t it? You may hate football but you know what it’s like to look back and think, “if only” “Why did I?” “Why didn’t I?” With that perfect hindsight – almost like watching a game tape of your life – you see why you shouldn’t have said that thing, why you should have gone to that college, why you shouldn’t have married him or moved in with her, why you should have chosen club soda instead of 7 & 7 that first time, why you never should have lit up your first joint or went to your first questionable website. You see things after the fact with the kind of clarity that doesn’t seem possible beforehand.
And you know what makes it worse? When other people had tried to tell us, to warn us, and we didn’t listen and so afterwards what do they do? “I told you so!” Worst. Four. Words. Ever. I was a young pastor, serving in Union County, and a family with a couple of teenage boys had backed out of a youth retreat that they’d signed up for. I was highly offended – primarily because it might reflect badly on the student ministry I was trying to build. So I was like “I need to go over there and just be straight with that family and let them know how disappointed I am.” Julie was like, “Don’t do it.” I was like, “what do you know? You’re a sales manager; I’m the pastor around here!” “Don’t do it.” Did it. Result. Disaster, the kind of which that tiny little church really couldn’t afford. Lesson #1: Don’t seek out conflict. Lesson #2: Listen to your wife. Yeah, hindsight is so accurate; and all the more painfully so when you ignore warnings that are put in your path.
Which brings us to The Dream Police. This is such a great, timeless story, one that I never really GOT until this year. Now if I can spoil the run-up to Christmas 10 days before the day itself: the baby gets born. That’s where all this whole Advent/Waiting period stuff is headed. The baby/Savior we are waiting for really does come. Sorry if that spoils Christmas for you by talking about this story before the big day, but it’s what I am compelled to do. And this particular scene from Matt 2 probably happens a couple of years after that first Christmas Eve & I say that primarily because Jesus is called a “child” here and not a baby.
And there are so many assumptions people make about this narrative that aren’t based on what’s actually in the words of the story: we’re not at all sure that there were three wise men, they weren’t kings at all despite what the carol says, and it’s ultimately not about gifts but instead offers some incredible insights into the way God works in the world. Like I said, Jesus is probably in early childhood – perhaps a Messianic version of the terrible twos – and so look at Matthew 2:1: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem READ. “Magi” there (as I said) doesn’t mean kings; it more likely means they were magicians & astrologers who worked for a king. But here’s the import: they’re not Jews. They are pagans! They obey the stars, not the one who made the stars. Ask them “what’s your sign?” and they not only know the answer but feel that answer determines their lives. These are the kind of folks who would be the last ones on earth you think God would give special communication to about his Messiah.
But God so often does what we think is the last thing in the world he’d do! Isn’t it cool! He speaks to people who don’t know him! So look at 2:2:
and asked, “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.”
Great! They are not Jewish but God has given them insight into the King of the Jews. Yet within that verse there is a problem: a king has been born in a place where there is already a king. And there’s not room for two kings in that one place. Look at 2:3:
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod wants the kingship to be his and through the revelation of the star to the Magi we see a conflict set up between the kingdom of this world and the world of the kingdom. This world’s kingdom is characterized by deception and manipulation; as proof, look at 2:7-8:
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Love it! “You all do the leg work and I’ll follow right behind so I can worship him.”
And at this stage the Magi don’t k now they are dealing with a megalomaniac; they assume Herod truly wants to do what he says he wants to do. That all sets up the scene we love in 2:9-11:
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Kids: this is why we have Christmas presents! (AV: J) Parents: this is why we have Christmas presents! (AV: L) But do you know what is the most profound takeaway from this act? Not necessarily the sort-of-well-known symbolism of the three spices – gold for a king, incense for a priest, and myrrh for a sacrifice. No, this is in Matthew for an even better reason. Remember who the Magi were? Right! Pagans! Gentiles! Excluded from the house of God by birth. And yet in this scene, Matthew anticipates that day to come when all the nations will bow before the king. That one day when not only will the Lord receive Gentiles in the church, but that day at the end when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Great stuff when you see it from God’s perspective. And the Magi here, after bowing before the real King are all set to report back to Herod, give him the GPS coordinates for where to find the holy family and say, “Now you can go worship him, too!” Had they done that, it would have been the kind of grave mistake they’d see in hindsight.
So that’s when God steps in. Look at 2:12:
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Dream. Again. In case with the role of that dream, the phenomenon gets repeated with Joseph in the next scene; check 2:13-14:
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
See, here’s what’s going on: there is this battle between the false kingdom (and its king) and the true one. And the enemy here is cunning, baffling, and powerful. Whether its Herod then or his offspring today, he will lure you, tempt you, and seduce you to pursue wrong relationships, to act on wrong impulses, to decide with wrong motives. In Matt 2 a king is born but a king is already here and that king does not want to give up his hard-earned territory. He is a master at making the destructive seem absolutely delicious. The magi were vulnerable. Joseph was vulnerable. So God warns them because he doesn’t want them having nightmares of hindsight. Listen: I’m less concerned with the method of God’s warning (dream) than the reality of the fact that he does warn us. In the middle of this very seductive war, God send us warnings. Could be dreams, sermons, the Word, LifeGroup, wise people, your gut instinct, a great song. Why all the warnings? God wants your foresight to be as accurate as your hindsight. Yes!
He longs for you and for me to avoid the “nightmares” of reliving those seasons of life where we made poor decisions based on flawed logic and so were drawn in by the false kingdom. Wouldn’t a life devoid of “if only” and “why didn’t I?” and “why did I?” be phenomenal? To be rid of the coulda, woulda, shoulda once and for all. So whether you get these warnings from dreams or not, I so desperately want you to see, hear, and heed the warnings that God gives you.
And we want the warnings to be blunt, don’t we? I love the difference between cig warning labels in the US and in Canada. Here’s the US: AV of “Surgeon general . . . “ And here’s Canada: AV of SMOKING CAN KILL. Which do you think works better? We want it to be blunt and sometimes it is, but often it’s not. Many times it’s like Erik Weihenmeyer who ascended Mt. Everest a few years ago. Now while that is an accomplishment, he wouldn’t be the only one, right? Why am I talking about it? Because Erik Weiehenmeyer is blind. How does a blind man climb Everest? By listening to the guy in front of him outfitted with a bell. He “saw” dangers before the factrather than after when it really would have been too late. REFRAIN.
I believe God acts in these ways because our responses really matter to him. He warned the Magi and warned Joseph because his story had to unfold. The contrast between Herod and Jesus is so vivid: Herod manipulates and deceives. What does Jesus do? 2:15 tells us: he fulfills. He fully fills the story. The way that the Magi heeded the warning and the way Joseph heeded the warning were both indispensable in unfolding that story. But you, too. God still wants to advance his kingdom, unfold his story, and if you’re sidetracked by self-destruction; if you’ve ignored the warnings or are oblivious to them, then you won’t play your role to the full. Remember: the enemy is cunning, baffling, and powerful. Without help, it’s too much for you!
So: where is the warning today? Does it have to do with that relationship that even though you know is toxic, you still are pursuing? Is it that thing you want to say to that person, even though saying that thing will likely escalate the conflict? Is it the email you want to send or the FB post you want to make, knowing that when you his “Send” or “Post” those words ain’t ever coming back? Is it even a warning to DO something rather than avoid it? Pursue that degree, interview for that job, make an appointment with that therapist to work on the marriage, go to the 12 Step Meeting you’ve needed to go to for a long, long time, get right with Jesus before it’s too late? Gulp. REFRAIN
And how is the warning coming to you? Is it this sermon? That Scripture you keep hearing in your mind or reading with your eye? The counselor that you stopped seeing – because he or she said stuff that made you uncomfortable? Wise people in your life? Mom? Dad? Spouse? The unsettled feeling in your gut? Whatever and wherever, heed those warning. Before is so much better than after. Avoiding catastrophe is better than regret for it. REFRAIN
Many years ago (17 or so!) I had a District Supt. in the UMC named Hank. A DS in the UMC is technically my boss and at the time I was serving in Union County (same churches with youth debacle I created). Anyway, in one of Hank’s first meetings with the 60 or so pastors under his care, he gave us some advice. I will always remember this bit: If you want to get the last word in, don’t. Lord, in the years since I heard that, do you know how many last words I’ve swallowed?! TONS! But guess what? When you heed that warning from DS Hank and swallow those words, relationships gets restored and people come back to church. I’ve seen it time and again, even here. In that case, REFRAIN.
Whether it’s dreams or District Superintendents, may it be the same with you. Because accurate foresight is a lot better than painful hindsight.