Journeying Toward the Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 | Matthew 2:1-12

Jeremy Richards

This is the first Sunday of the new year, so it’s only fitting that we, as a church, pause and reflect on our past, and also to look forward to the coming year, just like individuals do.

Over the last few months we’ve been having conversations about who we are and where we’re going. My first Sunday here, a little over 2 years ago, there was a celebration of Grant Park Church’s 90th birthday. We watched a documentary put together by Carol and Mitch Schaub describing the history of our church. Since that Sunday over two years ago, a lot has changed. We’ve gained some new members (many of you weren’t yet a part of our church when we showed that video 2 years ago), and we’ve lost a few. We’ve continued some of the old traditions, like the neighborhood clean-up in our parking lot, our hanging of the greens, our Easter potluck, and our Christmas Eve service.

We’ve also started some new traditions, like Wind Down Wednesday and Coffee and Conversation. The last couple of months we’ve started getting more involved in volunteer opportunities outside of our church building. We volunteered with Northwest Children’s Outreach and L’Arche Portland’s tree lot. In the midst of these changes, we’ve also kept some of our tenants, lost one or two, and gained others. We’re excited that we’ve kept a solid relationship with Lee Owen Stone Preschool while also gaining new friends in Small Wonders Preschool.

All the changes that have taken place are exciting, but they can also be a little unnerving. Some of us are still new and trying to figure out what this church is all about. Others of us have been here for a long time, but many of the faces we see today are different from those we saw 2 years ago, the services look different, some of the emphases may have changed. In short, whether we’ve been here for a long time or just a little while, we might have trouble putting our finger on exactly what our church is all about. Who are we?

I remember my very first day on the job, one of the parents from Lee Owen Stone asked me, “So what’s this church all about?” Being that it was my first day, I didn’t have a very solid answer. I think I mumbled something about community and inclusivity. I would imagine those are still two things most of us would mention: we’re proud of the part we play in our community. We’re proud that we are, in some ways, a community hub. We host 3 different churches including our own, two preschools, AA, Alanon, at least two scout troops, the Neighborhood Association, various Grant High School groups, and many other organizations.

Likewise, we pride ourselves of being hospitable, welcoming, and inclusive. Most people comment that everyone was so friendly from the moment they walked in our doors on their first Sunday. We’re, hopefully, a warm and inviting group of people. We’re also proud to be welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ+ folks. Beyond just saying this, we’ve taken steps to backup this claim by joining the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, participating in the Pride Parade, and inviting our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer siblings into full membership and participation in our community.

Another characteristic of our church that many of us are proud of is that we value critical thinking. It’s no secret that we don’t all agree on everything. We believe this is a huge benefit, and value hearing from others that may think differently than us. We don’t think faith and intellect are enemies but good friends who occasionally fight but ultimately bring out the best in one another.

Lastly – and this one some of us might be very proud of and others might try to avoid at all costs – we are a Baptist congregation, which means a lot of things, but probably most importantly to us is that we value the soul freedom of the individual to follow his/her/their conscience, the autonomy of the local church, freedom of religion, and the priesthood of all believers.

Those are some of the characteristics of Grant Park Church that stand out to me. What about you? If you were asked to describe our church, how would you do it? 

You may have to think about it for a minute, but, overall, answering the question of what our church is all about isn’t too hard. (Hopefully!) there are some things that come to mind when you think about Grant Park Church. But, I would suspect, it’s harder to answer the question: Where is Grant Park going? What are our goals? What’s our vision? What does the future hold? It’s much easier to identify what already is than what has yet to take shape.

I would like to spend the next 6 or 7 weeks, until the beginning of Lent on March 10th, exploring this idea: Where is God leading Grant Park Church? We’re going to look at stories from the Old and New Testaments about people journeying with God from one place to another. We’ll look at stories of those who go looking for God themselves, those who God appears to in the midst of a journey they’re already on, those who are sent by God on a new journey, and even those who intentionally set out on a journey away from God, only to have God chase after them. We’ll hear these stories with the question, “Where are we going?” in the back of our minds. What do these ancient stories about journeying have to say to our journey as a church and as individuals today?

And let me say, I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t have an agenda in this sermon series. I don’t know what we’ll find. We’ll be good Baptists and discern together.

I don’t know what we’ll find in the coming weeks, but I’m confident that God will meet us and lead us as we dive into the sacred stories of Scripture, explore where they intersect with our own lives, seek God’s direction, and discuss what we find.

This idea of a journey seems like a fitting theme for Grant Park Church, since our mission statement, after all, is “We are an open-minded, welcoming congregation, journeying deeper into the love and knowledge of Christ and inviting all to join us.” The interesting thing is that, while we readily acknowledge in our mission statement that we are on a journey, we don’t yet have a vision statement. We know we’re going somewhere, but we don’t know where. Of course, we can’t know exactly where we’re going, only God knows that, but we need to have some idea.

Proverbs 29:18 says, in the KJV, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This may seem harsh, but the truth is, without vision, churches perish. Churches all around the country and the world are dying, because they sit back and want to do things the way they’ve always been done. They don’t have any vision that they are striving toward. They’ve lost sight of the star leading them through the night. (Some got to Herod’s court and decided never to leave).

The Wise Men in our reading today know little of the God of the Hebrews, maybe nothing of Yahweh, but they see a star rise in the West and they follow it. Some people have tried to argue that it was Haley’s comet or some other explainable cosmic event, but it seems to me that it’s pretty clearly meant to be a supernatural sign signaling the birth of the Messiah.

If we’re going to see ourselves on a journey like the Wise Men, we should keep this in mind. As we begin to explore where God might be leading us as a congregation, we must remember that it is God alone can reveal where we’re going. Interestingly enough, while the KJV of Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” the NIV says, “Where there is no revelation.” We have a responsibility to get up, hold on to what’s important to us, leave behind what isn’t, and travel in faith toward the future God has for us, but God is the one who will reveal the way.

In the time we have left, let’s look at the story of the Wise Men and try to get some pointers for our own journey.

The first thing that strikes me about these travelling Wise Men is that, unlike most biblical characters, they aren’t called by God to set out on this journey. They see a star in the West. Big deal. No one tells them they need to follow it. They choose to follow it, without knowing anything about Yahweh, the God of Israel, without knowing where it will lead or what hardships they might face on the journey.

This makes me think that they must need something, or maybe desire something. These men – respectable, wealthy enough to travel with expensive gifts, educated – have still not found contentment. They are still searching.

How many in our world are the same? How many have achieved success, wealth, and education, and yet are still unfulfilled? How many of us here are still tempted to think that the markers of worldly success will bring about our own contentment? We just need a different job, one more degree, a promotion, a raise, then we’ll have made it.

But our fulfillment is found in the God of Israel, who was revealed all those years ago in a tiny baby, Jesus of Nazareth, who the Wise Men sought when they arrived at King Herod’s door, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The one the Wise Men sought is the one we seek, and the one so many in our world also seek.

This is, I think, very important. Like the Wise Men, we need God. Before we can ask where God is sending us as “the hands and feet of Christ,” we must first be honest about what we need. Before we can journey out – sent by God into the world – we must journey in – into the presence of the God who created us and loves us. Before we can save we must be saved. Before we can heal we must be healed. Before we can spread God’s love we must receive God’s love.

A couple of weeks ago, Mitch and I got together and we were talking about the church among other things. And I forget the exact context in which he said it, but at one point Mitch said to me, “What does Grant Park need? That’s the question: what does Grant Park need?” That’s where we all start in this journey with God: with need. We, like the Wise Men, all need God.

What’s interesting is that as I started answer Mitch’s question, to tell him what I think Grant Park needs I quickly realized I was describing what I need. But that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because what we need – what you need and what I need – can’t be separate from what “the church” needs. We are the church, so what we need and what the church needs must be bound together.

We can’t answer the questions “What does Grant Park Church need?” without first answering the question, “What do I need?” And we cannot answer the question, “What is God calling us to?” without first asking, “What is God calling me to?”

It can be very tempting to try to answer the question, “Where is God leading us?” by looking at other churches and trying to mimic them. They’re successful and they do x, y, and z. Therefore we should also do x, y, and z. I know I’ve fallen into that trap. But we aren’t other churches. We are uniquely us.

Here’s the next lesson we can learn from the Wise Men: when they finally arrive at the home where Jesus is, they offer the gifts they have: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are great gifts (I think?), but surely there are others they could have given. But they don’t give anything else. They give the gifts they have. We can only give what we have, and that’s enough.

So, as we spend the next couple of months exploring where God is leading us as a church, I invite you to intentionally explore where God is leading you as a person. And I invite us not only to look for direction about where we’re supposed to go, but also to be honest, open, and vulnerable about what we need from God. Because what we need and what the world needs from us are tied together.

My prayer is that the journey we are beginning today will also be the beginning of a journey for you as well, that you will begin this new year asking, “Where is God leading me in the coming year?” so that we can ask together, “Where is God leading us?” In the coming months, will you please pray regularly, along with me, that the words of Isaiah would come true for Grant Park Church, that God’s glory would rise upon us, that we would see it and be radiant, that our hearts would thrill and rejoice. That, like the Wise Men from the East, we would journey together toward the light.