Seeking, Finding, and Following

With it being the 20th of December, preaching a Christmas message seemed the right thing to do when I was deciding what to speak on this morning. That would make sense. After all, Christmas is but a few days from now, we had the Christmas concert last week, we sang carols this morning, and we just read a couple of very familiar passages from Matthew and Luke chapter 2. You would think that this is going to be a Christmas themed sermon, and while it starts out that way, I’m not so sure that it’s really a Christmas sermon. Think of the carol “We Three Kings” which starts off with a Christmas theme, but once you get to the fourth and fifth verses, it’s not talking about Christmas any further, it’s talking about Christ’s death and resurrection. This sermon is a bit like that. It’s all bundled in Christmas themed wrapping paper, but I could get away with preaching a very similar sermon in April or October.

Read Matthew 2: 1-12. 1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Then read Luke 2:8-20. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass , as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass , which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 

It so happens that these two passages, these two very well known Christmas stories serve as an excellent starting point for what I would like to talk about. My subject this morning is seeking, finding and following. No, that’s not Christmas specific, it’s applicable all year round. It’s a topic that should strike a chord with many today. There are many who are looking for something, seeking something. There are many who have not found what they are looking for. There are many who want to follow, who wish to be led. We see aspects of seeking, finding, and following in both stories, it’s something which the shepherds from Luke 2 and the wise men from Matthew 2 have in common.

Let’s start with the shepherds. They had been minding their own business, keeping their sheep in the field at night. So far as we know, they were not seeking anything in particular up to that point. It was just another night in the hills outside Bethlehem. Shepherds had taken care of sheep on those hills for a thousand years before this, and do doubt continued to do so long after. David, before he was the king of Israel, of course, had kept sheep as a youth, on those very same hills, perhaps even the same pasture where these shepherds were on that night. That’s just a guess on my part, but it is certainly possible.

In any case, the shepherds were not planning to go looking for any babies that evening. Maybe some new lambs, those would have been the only newborns they could have been expecting to be concerned with. Then out of the darkness an angel suddenly appeared and proclaimed the birth of the Messiah. This was of course shocking and completely unprecedented for these men. It’s already an exceedingly rare event for an angel to appear to anyone, so they were no doubt astonished. In case they didn’t quite get the point, an entire heavenly choir materialized to sing praises to God. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. I imagine they sat there, unable to move, until the show was over, so to speak. Then they were left in the dark, with amazing news of the new born saviour.

It probably didn’t take them all that long to decide to head into town and search for the Messiah. I do say search, because while they were informed that the baby had been just born and was lying in a manger, it’s not as if there was only one manger in the town. Presumably everyone who owned any animals had at least one manger, maybe more. If you have sheep, or cows, or goats, you need somewhere to put their food so they can eat it, and that’s all a manger is, it’s an animal feed box.

As an aside, we all know the Christmas story, and how Mary and Joseph did not have a crib or a basinet or anything like that, so they put the newborn baby Jesus into a manger. We’ve all heard this a hundred times, so maybe it doesn’t really resonate any more. When my children were born, once they were cleaned up and put into a diaper and some other clothing, they were placed into a little basinet on a convenient rolling cart with supplies stored underneath. They were not placed into an open wooden box designed to hold hay. We almost had Emma-Lyn in the hospital lobby, we were cutting it close, but at no point was there a suggestion to wrap any of them up and let them sleep in a food storage area.

It is remarkable that the saviour of the world, the Son of God, was born in such humble conditions. It’s a long way down that He came for us. I don’t know that it is totally unprecedented in the history of the world, for a baby to sleep in such a bed, but the simple fact that the angel was able to direct the shepherds to search for a baby lying in a manager probably meant that there were no other infants sleeping amongst animal feed in Bethlehem that night.

The shepherds knew what they were looking for, and who they were looking for, and they had a reasonable idea of where to look. Maybe it took them half an hour to find which stable held the baby they sought. Maybe it took longer, maybe it took hardly any time at all, we don’t know, but they went, with haste it says in verse 16, and they found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

They sought, they found. Then they moved on, they shared the news with those they met, we learn in the next few verses. We don’t hear from those shepherds again, their part in the story is small, lasting only a few hours, and it ends here. They sought, and they found, but the only following they did was to follow the directions given them by the angel.

The wise men from Matthew chapter 2, they had some following to do. They followed a star all the way from the east. We don’t know where exactly they started, Persia or Babylon are the most common suggestions, but they might have come from the kingdom of Sheba on the Arabian Peninsula, or from India, or as far as China, or elsewhere. All we know is that they came from somewhere in the east. The shepherds had come from the hills in the immediate vicinity of Bethlehem, their search was over on the same night it began. These visitors, however many there were, the idea of three wise men comes only from the mention of three different gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they undertook a journey that lasted for months.

Much as we don’t know where the wise men came from, we also do not know how they knew to come to Israel at that time to find the new born king. We don’t know why they thought this particular star, this sign in the heavens, indicated anything in particular, especially something as auspicious as the birth of the Messiah. Obviously this was vitally important to them, because no matter how they knew, whatever knowledge they had, they did know, and they did come. They came to Jerusalem, presumably more than a year after the fact, and discovered that no one there knew what they were talking about.

That had to be incredibly deflating. They had travelled many hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, to a foreign land, seeking a foreign child, born a king. They probably expected that this would be a big deal in Israel when they got there. They may have been like tourists coming to PEI in the summer who want directions to Green Gables in Cavendish, of course everyone knows where that is. I remember when I lived in Charlottetown, people would stop by my place of work and ask directions to Cavendish. We had it down pat, even to the point of asking do you want the shortest way or the more scenic route? The wise men may have anticipated that sort of reaction upon their arrival in Jerusalem. Or they may have expected that of course this new born king would be in the palace. Where else do you find new born royalty? But no, the locals knew nothing. They had no news of someone born King of the Jews. This was a startling development, especially for King Herod.

It says that Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. It is of course going to cause agitation for the existing king when people show up looking for some new king. That is to be expected. The fact that the whole city was troubled with him, that may have been simply because Herod was troubled, and when the king is upset, no one sleeps easy. Or it may have been that the idea of someone born King of the Jews meant a disruption to the way things were. They may not have loved Herod, but they knew Herod. They knew he was on good terms with Rome, and so there was political stability to be had with Herod. They knew he spent lots of money and kept a lot of people employed. Some new king? Or more specifically, a baby born to be king at some point in the future, that did not address any concerns they had right at that moment. They may have been wanting a Messiah, but a baby born recently was not what they sought.

They should have been seeking Him, though. They even knew where to look. When Herod consulted the chief priests and the scribes, they were able to point right at Bethlehem. They were able to quote from the book of Micah, and to say definitively that this is where the Messiah would be born.

This was most helpful for the wise men, they had followed the sign of the star to Jerusalem, now they knew to seek He whom they sought in the town of Bethlehem, which was only six miles away. That’s a journey of only a couple of hours. The star which they had seen in the east reappeared and guided them the rest of the way, right to the house where Jesus was. He wasn’t in a stable any more, of course, months had passed, Mary and Joseph had taken up residence in town for the time being. Perhaps Joseph was doing carpentry work to pay the bills. No doubt the rich gifts that the wise men gave were most welcome.

It’s remarkable that those wise men travelled so far, invested so much time, effort, and expense, to find He who was born King of the Jews. They sought, they followed, and they found, at long last. It’s a striking contrast with the shepherds, who likewise sought and found, but with minimal time and effort required. Now, they had good news to share, and we are told that they did, they made known abroad what they had been told of this child, but they were able to go back to their regularly scheduled routine the very next day. In contrast, the wise men took a year or more out of their lives to travel in their search. Both groups had in common that they had uncommon knowledge of the Christ child, and that they acted upon it. They sought, they found. It cost them differently, though, didn’t it?

It’s all the more remarkable that the priests and scribes, those who knew the law and the prophets, those who had all the information, and who knew that wise men had come from the east seeking the Messiah, they did not seek, and thus, they did not find. They could have very easily followed the same directions they gave the wise men, they could have walked the six miles down to Bethlehem and seen for themselves. You leave after breakfast, you’re in Bethlehem before the heat of the day, plenty of time to ask around, find the Messiah, and be back home in time for supper. But they were not willing to even invest a day trip.

Sad, when you think of it. Those who had the most knowledge on the subject, those who should have been the most eager to investigate, those who in fact spent so much of their time learning, were unwilling to put out any practical effort. They were not interested. They were not willing to seek, and so they did not find. And in all likelihood they would have been completely unprepared to follow.

Following is what comes next. First you seek, then you find. Then, you can follow. Turn please to the gospel of John, first chapter, and we’ll read about some additional people who found the Saviour and how they responded. Starting at  verse 35 Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; 36 And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! 37 And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. 38 Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? 39 He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. 42 And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone. 43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. 44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. 46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! 48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. 49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.

These men were all looking for something, they were all in search of the Messiah. Some of them were more actively looking at that moment, and when John the Baptist proclaimed that this man was the Lamb of God, they immediately went after Him. They followed Him home, and stayed with Him. Over the next few days we see how more individuals were added, both by Christ Himself, and how the disciples gathered friends and family members, they sought them out and they in turn attached themselves to the Lord.

We know from reading the gospels how they spent the next three years living on the road. They followed Christ back and forth across the countryside, going from town to town, living very much an itinerant life. Christ said Himself that He had nowhere to lay His head, and those who followed were no better off. At times they were hungry and had to pick stalks of grain from the fields and eat it as they walked. But they were probably hungry at times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they frequently had to wonder where their next meal might come from. After all, we know of only two occasions, where Christ fed them and thousands of others besides, through supernatural means. Other times, well, how many times do we read of Christ eating at the home of someone else? Sometimes He even invited Himself over for a meal, such as was the case with Zaccheus, for example. Following Jesus of Nazareth was not an easy life for the disciples. We know that many may have followed for a while, but left when the going got tough, or after Christ said things which were too challenging to them.

And there were definitely challenges put forward to those who would follow Christ. In Matthew 19, we can read the story of one who came, seeking the Saviour, seeking to obtain eternal life. Reading from verse 16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

The shepherds and the wise men sought Christ, and they found Him as a baby in Bethlehem. There was no real opportunity for them to follow Him at that time, you can’t follow a young child. The disciples found Him as a teacher in Galilee, and they decided to follow Him. He had, as Peter said once, the words of life. But this unnamed young man, he came seeking the saviour as well. He had the best of intentions; he had the best goal in mind. He wanted to know what he had to do in order to obtain eternal life. That is a worthy objective if ever there was one. He was willing to obey the law, he said that he had done so thus far. One wonders how entirely perfectly he might have followed it, but he undoubtedly was sincere in his words and most likely in his efforts as well. He came so very close, but fell short. He sought the Lord, he found the Lord, but he was not willing to follow. The price was more than he was willing to pay. Give up all his possessions and follow? Live the nomadic live of poverty and uncertainty? Not know where your head will lie tonight, not know where supper is coming from? No thank-you. I’ll keep my money instead.

He had eternal life within his grasp, but instead of following the Saviour, he walked away. The passage says he was sorrowful, and while it is good that he was not happy about this, it still says that he walked away. He didn’t like the outcome, which says something. A lot of people today couldn’t be more happy to put distance between themselves and the Lord. They would walk away contented, or walk away pleased with themselves. That’s assuming they ever got to the point of seeking out Christ in the first place. There are many, many people today who are not even interested in taking that step. They are content to be like the chief priests and the scribes, unwilling to investigate the truth even when it’s right in front of them. They are uninterested.

This man was interested. He had put out some effort. He sought Christ once, did he at some point in the future re-evaluate and seek out Christ once more? It’s nice to think so, and it’s certainly not impossible, but we have no evidence to suggest that ever happened. We don’t hear from this man again. So far as we know, he made his choice, and that choice was not to follow. He sought, he found, but he did not follow. He was not willing to walk that road.

It was never promised as an easy road to walk. The disciples, those who actually chose to follow, they would have known this from experience, and from instruction. Christ did not tell them it was going to be a walk in the park. For example, in Matthew 16, at verse 24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. 26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

That’s a lot to give up, but far more to gain. It requires purpose, it requires effort. One does not come to Christ by accident. First there is the decision to come to Christ, to seek Him out and find him. Then there is the surrendering, the denial of self. That is where the rich young man fell down. He was not willing to give up what he already had. Hard to get to the next step of taking up the cross when you won’t lay down what you are already carrying. It’s not feasible to carry multiple burdens at the same time. No man can serve two masters, not with any sort of effectiveness or sincerity. You can’t effectively follow Christ when you are more concerned with worldly possessions.

Even if you do take that step, then there is the actual following. That’s not easy. Narrow is the way, strait is the gate that leads to life, and not many find it. The road was never going to be easy. Following Christ, actually following Him, in word and in deed, seldom is. There are people today who preach that God wants us to be prosperous, that He wants us to be comfortable, that He wants to give us whatever it is we want. People preach this in churches, and people listen to them, and believe them, because that’s what they want to hear, what they want to believe. But it’s not what Christ taught, not remotely. He instructed the man who sought eternal life to sell what he had and give it to the poor. That’s the polar opposite of becoming prosperous. He instructed the disciples to take up the cross and to follow. That’s the opposite of making yourself comfortable.

There are many today who would follow some other Christ, some other gospel. Jesus of Nazareth, what He taught was tremendously challenging. People might want to seek Him out, but when they find Him, they may not be so keen to follow. They’d rather follow someone else, someone who asks less of them.

As far as following someone else, let’s look at one more passage this morning. We read from the first chapter of John earlier, now we’ll look at the last chapter. This is the chapter where Christ instructs Peter to care for those who would follow, to feed His sheep. Immediately after that exchange, there is an interesting few verses that I had never noticed until quite recently. We’ll jump in halfway through verse 19 And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. 20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? 21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? 22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Peter, after being instructed by the Lord to follow and to care for others who would follow, turns around, sees John, and asks “What about him?” Perhaps Peter was feeling a bit overburdened here, he had after all been instructed thrice to minister to other believers. What was everyone else going to be responsible for? John was capable and was close to the Lord, surely there was something important for him to do.

To you and me, it sounds like a reasonable question. We like to see fairness, and it bothers us when someone else gets what we perceive as a better deal than we do. My children are very aware of this, at times they get exceedingly upset when one of them is asked to do a chore and someone else has not been tasked with anything. This is what it sounds like Peter was doing. He was looking at someone else, he was wondering about someone else, when what he should have been paying attention to was his own relationship with Christ, his own walk with the Saviour.

Jesus reminded him of that. What does it matter what someone else is doing? What does it matter if they get something different? Follow thou me.

That is what we have all been asked to do. All too often we look at the people around us, instead of looking to the Lord. Maybe we end up following someone else, maybe we end up criticizing someone else, or envying someone else. But none of that is important. What is that to you? Christ says. Follow thou me.

This morning, we looked at seeking, finding, and following. We saw those who undertook the first two, and those who actually did all three. It is needful to seek the Lord, and it is likewise needful to find Him. Whether the process is long or short, simple of complex, without those first steps, no one will come to God. But while seeking and finding are vital, they are not the beginning and the end of the matter. It is essential to follow. That is what we are actually called to do, to take up the cross and follow Christ. We are not to follow Peter, or Paul, or Billy Graham, or John Wesley, or J. N. Darby, or Charles Spurgeon, or Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or any one of a thousand other preachers I could name. We are to follow Christ. We are not to be concerned with what others might say or do, that’s not the important thing.

This morning, I hope that everyone here has sought Christ. The simple fact that you are here this morning suggests that you probably have. I hope as well that you have found Him. But are you following Christ this morning? That is a continual thing, an ongoing process. The choice to take up the cross and to follow, that requires a decision, it requires action. And it’s up to you.

While I can point you toward Christ, I can’t make up your mind for you. Only you can follow Christ, only you can make that decision for yourself. While the road is not easy, and the price is high, the reward at the end is more than worth the cost many times over.