What’s the most-visited home in America? The White House, of course.
What’s the second most-visited home in America? Graceland: Elvis Presley’s opulent mansion in Memphis.
Tourists flock to Washington to visit the mansion of the President. Others trek to Memphis to ogle the mansion of “The King.”
The Magi originally had a more conventional idea of the sort of king they were looking for, so they made their famous pit stop at Herod’s palace. After taking measure of the sly Herod, they crumpled up their MapQuest directions and threw them away. Eventually they found their way to a far more humble “house,” as Matthew describes it.
Anybody can find the White House. So, too, with Graceland. Yet, the location of the house where these visitors from the East bowed down and offered their gifts has been lost to history. Can you imagine how many pilgrims and tourists would visit that house every year, were we somehow able to recover the address? It’s probably just as well that Matthew stays mum on its location. It makes a far better spiritual destination than a physical one.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. These Gentile visitors from the East “knelt down and paid him homage.” In older vocabulary, they “adored” him. They finished what they came to do.
But Leonardo da Vinci didn’t. Over the centuries, various painters have portrayed this visit, but one of the most famous – despite its being unfinished – is da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. The artist had been commissioned in 1480 to paint this 8-foot-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again.
Eventually, the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci’s unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.
Wouldn’t it be great if our unfinished projects were also considered very important in their uncompleted states? Imagine all the stuff you could let go of, saying, “It’s not finished and now it never will be, but it’s got high value nonetheless.”
Like that’s gonna happen.
To start with, not many of us can rival da Vinci in terms of genius and artistry. But even if we could, do we really want our contributions to the world to be in the form of stuff we started but never got around to completing?
Da Vinci himself had a reputation as being unreliable at completing commissioned works. While he would devote months to the concept and composition of the work, he had no appetite for the actual labor of carrying out the painting itself. And there may have been a problem with getting paid as well. The point is, for whatever reason, da Vinci never finished the portrayal of the Magi adoring Jesus. The Magi finished their work of adoration; da Vinci didn’t. How about us?
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, 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 – something like the Allstate Insurance “mayhem” commercials – which delights in sidetracking our plans.
When I was a toddler, my dad began the great bathroom project. He put in new drywall and spackled it. But then he had to take on a second job in order to make ends meet, working 12 hours a day six days a week. So the bathroom project had to be put on hold. The bare walls meant that we could not take showers, only baths. Well, that went on for a little while – 15 years, to be exact. I’ll never forget the day I helped my dad finally finish the project. I enjoyed my first in-home shower at the age of 18.
I’m sure you have all experienced your own uncompleted home project.
Now I don’t want to heap guilt on you about unfinished projects around the house or elsewhere. But if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, that means following through on intended good deeds, missions to which we are called and resolutions. It means doing the right thing long-term and following Jesus as consistently as we can in the situations of daily living.
In these things, 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. Nonetheless, 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.
So one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, “Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will.”
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. The apostle Paul modeled such perseverance, writing as he drew near death, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). His words, of course, refer to more than simply completing a mission project or seeking more holiness in living; they refer to the completion of a whole life of discipleship.
But how do we attain a life of discipleship other than by completing the “faith projects” along the way? The life of faith is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. It’s not a tourist jaunt; it’s an ongoing pilgrimage. Nonetheless, there are some shorter races that need to be run en route – 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, and continuing to work at loving our difficult neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
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?
When God calls us to a task, he gives us his help to complete it.
So be a Caspar, Balthazar, or Melchior. And be a finisher.