Although most nativity scenes show the Magi crowded into the stable of Jesus’ birth—along with the shepherds, animals, an angel, Mary, Joseph and the baby—the Magi were almost certainly later visitors, coming perhaps as long as two years after Jesus’ birth. By then, Joseph had no doubt found better lodging for his family, which is why Matthew says the wise men entered “the house” to find Jesus. But whatever the time and place, these Gentile visitors “knelt down and paid him homage.” In older vocabulary, they “adored” him.
We know that they came from a long distance, which took time and energy—you could say, in a day and age where traveling long distances was far from easy—they persevered. You could further say they finished what they came to do. The Wise men did. But the same can’t be said about Leonardo da Vinci.
Over the centuries, various painters have portrayed the visit of the Magi in all forms of art, but one of the most famous—despite it being unfinished— is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi.
In 1480 da Vinci was commissioned to paint this 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato-a-Scopeto, near Florence. He worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown and yellow ink groundwork stage. However, within the year da Vinci moved to Milan and left this piece behind, never to work on it again.
Da Vinci’s unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and though unfinished, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.
Wouldn’t it be great if our unfinished projects were considered important works in their uncompleted states? Imagine all the stuff you could let go of, saying, “It’s not finished and it never will be—isn’t it a masterpiece!”
But as nice of a thought that might be, would we really want our contributions to the world, or even to our family, to be in the form of stuff we started but never got around to completing?
Even though in this case there is explanation that there was likely an issue of compensation for the work, Da Vinci himself still had a reputation as being unreliable at completing commissioned works. He would devote months to the concept and composition of the work, but it is known that he had no appetite for the actual labor of carrying out the painting itself.
So the fact remains… The Magi finished their work involving the Messiah; da Vinci, however, did not. Which sets up for us, on this Sunday before Epiphany, the question and consideration… When it comes to our work for the Christ child… who are we more like? The Magi who persevered? Or da Vinci, who gave up?
Usually, it’s not that we don’t plan to finish, or even that once into a project, we make a reasoned decision to let the thing go, which sometimes is the better part of wisdom. Rather, even with those things we think important to finish, we still have to deal with flagging energy and/or unexpected hurdles. Sometimes it’s almost as if some chaotic force is triggered when we’re within sight of the finish line. Some examples:
You practice for weeks for your solo in the Christmas pageant, then, just before the performance, you lose your voice.
You finally start that bathroom remodeling project, but then the water heater blows up and you have to deal with a flooded basement, and replacing an expensive needed appliance. Somehow, you never get back to the bathroom remodel.
You vow to spend more time helping your son with his homework, but then you’re pressed into longer hours at work.
And the oldie but a goodie for us Christians— You resolve to be more intentional about your devotional and prayer life, so you rearrange your schedule to allow yourself a half hour of quiet time at home. But a week into it your energy for it all starts to wander.
I’m not trying to heap guilt on anyone about unfinished projects or good intentions gone awry—I speak as one who has plenty of unfinished projects in my house. But I do want to remind all of us that if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ it means following through on: intended good deeds, missions to which we are called, and resolutions to let go of prejudices and hatreds. It means doing the right thing long-term and following Jesus as consistently as we can in the situations of daily living.
Now certainly, in these things, like New Year’s resolutions, it’s not uncommon for us to make a good start and, in some cases, even make a lot of headway toward where we think God is pointing us. But just as certainly, we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s when a fresh wave of problems and hindrances hits us. We shouldn’t be surprised if things that have never gone wrong before go wrong. We also shouldn’t be surprised if our passion for the endeavor suddenly evaporates. Life is like that. Which is why a spirit of perseverance—like that of the Magi—becomes a critical component of the life of faith.
The Magi are a great example of the perseverance our faith life needs. Their two year journey can become a powerful model of faith because of how easy it could have been for them to give up—and no one would have been the wiser—pun intended.
That’s the truth, right? They could have given up, and no one would have known they gave up. But then, no one would have come to know the magnitude of their coming either—for by coming as they did they gave even more authority to the birth of Jesus—even more hope, peace, and joy to those already filled with such because of him.
Beyond that, it gave even more worry to those in positions of power who Jesus came to challenge—“When King Herod heard” from the wise men “he was frightened.”
The Magi could have given up. And no one would have known. But they persevered and got to the place God was guiding them.
One of the signs that we are maturing in faith is when we realize and accept that the Christian life is not only a matter of initial repentance and commitment, but also a matter of perseverance. Eugene Peterson, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Peterson writes further, saying:
“One aspect of the world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by 30-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by 30-page abridgments…
Though there is a great market for religious experience in the world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
Peterson is right. We miss holiness when we are impatient. We miss the Holy Spirit’s work when we give in to giving up. We miss holiness when we lack perseverance.
So then… How do we attain a life of discipleship that is filled with holiness?
Well, if we are going to do such then what better time than at the New Year? But let’s not make this a New Year’s resolution. Instead, let’s make it a New Year’s Perseverance. Let’s make it a New Year’s Perseverance where we keep in mind…
The life of faith is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon.
The life of faith is not a project to stick with and get it done.
It’s not a tourist jaunt; it’s not even a New Year’s resolution.
The life of faith is an ongoing pilgrimage.
Yes, there are some shorter races that need to be run, some projects that need to be completed from time to time—such as sticking with the not-so-easy task we feel God has called us to do; such as continuing to root out our unrighteous attitudes and behaviors that impede our spiritual growth; such as continuing to work at loving our difficult neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
These projects and others like them are all part of our pilgrimage to where we, overwhelmed with joy, enter the house and see Jesus again, but in a new way—as those who didn’t give up.
One sign of God is that we are led to work that we did not intend to do. Another sign of God is that we are trusted to seek God’s help to take the task to completion. But no matter the task, believe this: When God calls us to a task; God gives us all the help we need to finish it.
The Magi surely had to persevere in order to find Jesus—the Messiah. Had they, like da Vinci—dare I say like us sometimes—left their pilgrimage unfinished, the power and magnitude of the Messiah’s birth would have been missed by the many who they ultimately shared their story with.
We’re at the start of a new year which can help us in this endeavor. As we stand here at the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to think about the faith-projects before us.
What’s the project you are struggling with?
What’s the next step in that project?
What’s keeping you from taking that step, or implementing the step?
What has God called you to do that is suddenly seeming to fall apart?
What naysaying comments need to be ignored?
What hindrances are really indicators that you are on the right track?
What last-stage problems are reminders to call afresh on God?
In the coming year, how can you build accountability into your life to encourage faithful discipleship?
These questions, and others like them, can be a star-like guiding presence for our life of faith. May they, in 2016 and beyond, lead us to the faithful perseverance we need to find, and follow, Jesus. Happy New Year. Amen.