We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse a-far.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain –
Following yonder star.
So: how did the “three kings” find Jesus?
The followed “yonder star,” that’s how.
The wise men made their way to Jerusalem because they saw Jesus’ star rise. They found the exact spot when the star hung right over the infant Messiah. The star was the key; they navigated by the star to find Jesus.
Which makes me think: I would not have made a good wise man (or woman, as the case may be). I’m not so good at that kind of orienteering.
That’s not to say I can’t get around without a GPS. I’ve logged plenty of miles along wilderness trails. I’m so comfortable getting around in the woods, half the time I don’t even bother to bring a map. But that kind of trekking involves following a well-defined trail cut through a dense forest – often with white blazes to follow as extra insurance. What I cannot do is go away from the trail and the blazes and navigate toward some far-off point. I cannot orient myself by the night sky, picking out Orion and the Big Dipper (the only two constellations I can recognize) and charting a course accordingly.
I find my path by the nearby landmarks, not by some far-off star.
Which works very well, I might add. I have very rarely gotten lost in the wilderness.
But it has happened.
The most dangerous failure happened out in Colorado – a place I got to call home during three years of seminary. Hiking in the Rocky Mountains is different than here in the Appalachians, to say the least. When you hike in the trees (read: almost all of Appalachia), the trail is like a hallway: so distinct, I honestly wonder how people ever get lost. But above tree line (read: most of Colorado hiking) the trail is less obvious. There’s a dusty path and these rock piles called “cairns.” It’s much easier to miss.
Especially when it’s snowing.
One winter Saturday morning, my roommate and I took off to hike a 14,000-foot peak called Bierstadt. It’s a friendly one as 14er’s go (no avalanches on record!) but we still prepared cautiously. We picked a day with a favorable forecast, dressed ourselves in smart layers, and borrowed top-of-the-line snowshoes.
Everything went well… until we got above tree line.
Above tree line: the friendly trail turned into a white expanse of sameness. Above tree line: dense clouds rolled in and it began to snow. Above tree line: the cairns were indistinguishable from the boulder field that covered the very top of the mountain.
Above tree line: we got lost.
At 14,000 feet.
In a snowstorm.
As more time passed, we lost not only our orientation but also the feeling in our toes and eventually, hope. We got pretty freaked out. And reasonably so, because as I stated before:
We were lost.
At 14,000 feet.
In a snowstorm.
What we needed – all we needed, really – was to be able to see our destination. Not the next steps right in front of us, but the long view. If we knew the general direction of the parking lot, we could just start trudging through thigh-deep snow that-a-way until we got there.
What saved our lives that day (and I mean that literally) were God-sent glimpses of where we needed to go. There were two brief moments when the dense clouds pulled back and we got a quick panoramic view of Bierstadt and all her sister mountains. Each time, those long views of our final destination revealed both bad news and good news. Bad news: we were off-course, heading in the wrong direction. But good news: we now knew the course, and we could redirect ourselves so we were swimming through snow in the right direction.
Making it from short-term landmark to landmark wasn’t enough.
We had to know where we were going. We had to see the long view.
So – back to the wise men. (Or, as the song goes, “three kings.”) How did they find Jesus?
By following yonder star.
And I tell you: that’s part of how we find him today.
Yes, we need short-term goals – something like white blazes every 50 yards. We need daily and weekly practices that keep us on track. We might read the Bible and pray every day, or attend worship and a small group every week. Those things help us navigate so that we stay on course to follow Jesus.
But we also need a long view – something like a star far off in the distance. We need a big-picture point, the purpose of all those daily disciplines.
John Wesley called that big-picture point “Christian perfection.”
I know, right? Who could possibly be perfect? But note: it’s Christian perfection, not organizational perfection or being-on-time perfection or never-burning-the-dinner perfection. Christian perfection means being made perfect in love. Think Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And what kind of perfection is God? Not coincidentally, Matthew 5:48 comes right after Matthew 5:43-47, a teaching about how we’re to love our enemies. God is perfect in love. Later, Jesus would make the same point differently: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Day by day, we read our Bibles and go to church – we follow the trail and watch for blazes. But in order to get somewhere, we need to know where we’re going. We need to see the long view, where our star is hanging. According to Christ, it’s hanging over perfect love, the kind of love that causes us to treat others as we’d want to be treated, the kind of love that includes even our enemies.
As you head into a new year, look ahead – look far ahead. Look beyond your resolutions, look beyond your daily and weekly disciplines, look to the big goal of Christian perfection: being made perfect in love.
Keep your eyes on it.
Set a course.
Let it be the star that guides you.