God’s GPS (The Epiphany of Our Lord)

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I remember the first time I ever saw a GPS system.  It was on a ship where my uncle was the captain.  He had spent decades in the Coast Guard and had commanded a couple of cutters. And in that role, he had been one of the “early adopters” of the new technology when the military first rolled out GPS.

It was a huge help to the Coast Guard!  And when I first saw it, it seemed like magic (and even today, it still does!)  And as I looked at it the first time and remarked at how great it was, my uncle said, “yeah, it’s really great.  But you should never count on the technology working.”  And he then told me the story of how, on the first cutter he commanded which had GPS, he’d go up to the bridge in the middle of the night, turn off the GPS, and then say to the bridge crew: “there’s the sextant, there’s the compass and there’s the chart.  Look at the stars and tell me where we are.”  He wanted to make sure that everybody who worked for him knew how to figure out where they were if the technology went down.

I’ve thought about that story a lot in the last few years, as my life has become more and more reliant on technology.  I presume stuff will work, and that there will be a back-up someplace.  And even when I travel, I no longer carry paper maps – instead, I have back-up GPS with me!

Yet I’m old enough to remember that there are other way of figuring out where you are and where you’re going, even if I personally have no idea how to use a compass, sextant and nautical charts to triangulate my position.

But these ancient magi knew how to use the stars to navigate. In fact, lots of people did back then.  They had other ways of figuring out where they were, where they were going and how to get there.

Yet, while we often romanticize the one star (which may have been a pretty small speck), it’s clear that the magi used at least three methods to find Jesus.  And they weren’t magical means – these means were actually available to everybody.

The magi found Jesus by:

  • Looking at the world around them – they looked up at the sky, and they paid attention.  What they saw probably wasn’t a big, flashy thing.  Otherwise, when they got to Jerusalem, people would have said, “Oh, we were wondering what that big bright star was all about!”  Instead, the magi simply saw something different that caught their eyes, and they asked what it could mean…;
  • Getting on their camels (probably!), and going someplace outside of their normal environment – we don’t know where they came from, but it sounds like it could have been a long journey through probably inhospitable places; but somehow they knew they couldn’t just read books and wonder; they had to actually get out and see what was beyond their normal experience…;
  • Talking to other people, even people they probably disagreed with and didn’t like – we know from sources outside the New Testament that Herod the Great had a reputation as a ruthless and vindictive person (because of which he was also “effective” at keeping order, so the Romans kept him in place); but when the magi reached the general area, it wasn’t enough to simply watch the star – they needed to have actual conversations with others, even Herod; and that part was essential to finding the place to which God was guiding them…;

And just as the magi were able to navigate to where God was leading them through means other than GPS, it occurs to me that this is a lesson beyond celestial navigation. 

When I’m looking for God’s guidance in my life – or for directions I should take – I also realize that it’s easy for me to spend too much time “looking at my phone.”  And I mean that both literally and figuratively.  Sometimes, when I wonder what’s going on and what God wants me to do and where God is leading me, I realize that I may be overly influenced by the stuff I’m reading on my selected news or social media feeds; or by the people around me who mostly agree with me; or by how I personally experience life in Montgomery County.  Maybe you feel this way, too.

And so maybe the story of the magi challenges us to not entirely rely on our “regular GPS”, but also to be people who look for God’s guidance and God’s direction by:

  • Looking more broadly at the world around us – what’s going on, even in my regular environment, that I haven’t been paying attention to because I’ve been watching my phone?!  After all, the star that the magi saw was in principle visible to everybody.  But lots of folks, for lots of potentially very good reasons, weren’t looking.  And sometimes the “stars” we see when we look around and pay attention (instead of just watching our usual stuff) give greater context, or greater clarity, to the rest of what we’ve been seeing in our lives…
  • Getting out of our comfort zones – sometimes literally!  We’ve heard a lot in recent years about people living in political “silos”, where I only hear the opinions of people who mostly agree with me.  But one of the great things about travel (which we keep hoping will get and stay an easier thing to do!) is that you get to meet and interact with people who live very differently than you do.  That’s also one of the great things about mission trips.  And it’s not that you find out you’re all wrong, and somebody else is right.  It’s just that you get a deeper appreciation for people whose lives are very different from yours.  As Christians, we should see all of them (and us) as people Jesus loves.  And that gives us a broader appreciation of who God is calling us to be and to become…
  • Talking to other people – one of the really bad things about technology is that people write horrible things to and about each other online that they would NEVER say in person!  And those horrible things end discussions and harden ugly feelings.  So maybe part of being God’s people in the world is being people who are willing to simply talk to each other – not to convince the other person that they’re wrong – but to be open to learning and growing through conversation, even with people we may not like or agree with…

I still think GPS is a great thing, and I don’t want to live without it.  And many of my usual ways of listening and looking for God’s guidance in my life are also ways that I want to keep up.

But like the magi, God is often using different ways and even unusual means to guide us, to point us in new directions, and to give us to a deeper experience of Jesus in our lives. 

So as we move into this season of Epiphany, be open to how God may be guiding you through things around you that you might not have noticed because you were watching your phone.  Be willing to get out of your comfort zone to see what else God is doing in places and among people you don’t usually see.  And be willing to engage in real conversations with people, even people you don’t agree with, because God often uses difficult conversations to help us arrive at the places God wants us to be.