Sunday, January 5, 2020 “Curiosity is Not a Sin” by Pastor Erik Goehner
The message for Sunday, January 5, 2020 “Curiosity is Not a Sin” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00 Worship service.
Curiosity is Not a Sin Matthew 2:1-12 January 5, 2020
I think that curiosity sometimes gets a bad reputation. We use phrases like “curiosity killed the cat” to make wondering about things sound like a negative—as if you should not experiment or ask questions. While it is true we should be cautious in our actions and be aware of potential dangers, at the same time asking good questions can lead to growth. Wondering about various options can open up opportunities. Intellectual humility and a passion for lifelong learning can help sharpen our minds and prepare us for the unexpected.
One instance where this was demonstrated occurred on January 15, 2009. US Airways flight 1549 had just taken off from La Guardia airport in New York City. Within minutes of take-off, the plane had hit a flock of geese and the plane’s engines lost thrust. The situation was dire, but because of quick thinking by its Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger and quick work by the flight crew, the plane was able to land on the nearby Hudson River. All 150 passengers were able to evacuate and be saved. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on Hudson.”
When asked about how he was able to land a commercial aircraft safely in the Hudson River, Captain Sully described his passion for continuous learning. Although commercial flights are almost always routine, every time his plane pushed back from the gate he would remind himself that he needed to be prepared for the unexpected. “What can I learn?” he would think. When the unexpected came to pass, on a cold January day in 2009, Sully was able to ask himself what he could do, given the available options, and come up with a creative solution.
Those who are passionate about continuous learning—those who nurture a sense of curiosity– contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. As the accident report shows, Sully carefully considered several alternatives in the 208 seconds between his discovery that the aircraft’s engines lacked thrust and his landing of the plane in the Hudson. You might say that Captain Sully’s curiosity helped to save all those passengers on that fateful day.
The journey of the Wise Men in the book of Matthew began with a sense of curiosity. In the original Greek, the word for these travelers who come to see Jesus is Magi, but it often gets translated as wise men because it is thought that the Magi were advisors or counselors in the courts of Persian kings. There are many theories as to who the Magi really were and where they actually came from, but most scholars would agree on same basic things. The Magi seemed to be men of learning who studied a variety of subjects. While they were not scientists in the modern day sense of the word, they appeared to be curious about the natural world as well as the prophecies of other religions. They were probably familiar with astrology and had knowledge of the stars. Their varied interests, which seem to combine both intellectual and theological curiosity, led them to follow a celestial anomaly across many miles to an unknown location where they found Jesus. The questions the Wise men asked led them to seek out the one who would save the world from sin.
If the Wise Men in Scripture show us the importance of wondering and curiosity then why does it seem that we so often refrain from asking questions? Is it because we fear we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent?
When we are children we don’t seem to have these same fears and attitudes. As every parent knows, “Why?” is ubiquitous in the vocabulary of youngsters, who have an insatiable need to understand the world around them. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they don’t worry about whether others believe they should already know the answers. Did you know the inspiration for the Polaroid instant camera was a three-year-old’s question? Inventor Edwin Land’s daughter was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped. When he explained that the film had to be processed, she wondered aloud, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” This same sense of wondering can be true when it comes to matters of faith as well as children might ask: Where is God? Are God and Jesus the same? Does God really love everyone?
As we grow into adults, however, self-consciousness creeps in, along with the desire to appear confident and demonstrate expertise. By the time we’re adults, we often suppress our curiosity. As we become adults, it seems we do less wondering in many aspects of our lives, including when it comes to faith. Why is this? Maybe it is because we don’t have time or we come to think such questions are silly. Maybe we actually still have questions, but we just don’t ask them because we don’t want to appear like we are not knowledgeable in the Bible or even worse, we don’t want to seem like we are questioning God. Such questioning might mean we are doubting, as if we don’t believe or have enough faith. Perhaps at some point in our life we were even told to stop asking questions and to just have faith—as if curiosity was a sin.
But where would the Wise Men have been without their curiosity? Their whole journey began over being curious about a star and a prophecy and how the two might connect. They started asking questions about where and when and who and those inquiries led to a quest across desert sands to a place they may not have been before. It led them to a humble family with a small child who held a promise that the Wise Men could not fully understand. Without their curiosity and their willingness to be seekers, the Wise Men would have never found Jesus.
What if instead of stifling questions like so often seems to happen, the church took a cue from the Magi—from those Wise Men from the East—and encouraged people to become life-long seekers? What if as believers we didn’t get defensive when people asked questions, but welcomed such curiosity as a part of growing on the journey of faith? What if we encourage our children or adults who are wondering about faith to explore such questions? Could it be that rather than draw us away from God, curiosity might actually help us find Jesus?
Perhaps the church could learn something from parts of the business world which are discovering more about the value of curiosity. In a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review one researcher shows that many of our fears and beliefs around asking questions are misplaced. She points out that when we demonstrate curiosity about others by asking questions, people actually like us more and view us as more competent, and the heightened trust makes our relationships more interesting and intimate. By asking questions, we promote more meaningful connections and more creative outcomes
One experiment the researcher did was working with executives in a leadership program at Harvard Kennedy School. She and her colleagues divided participants into groups of five or six, and had some groups participate in a task that heightened their curiosity while others did not. They then asked all the groups to engage in a simulation that tracked performance. The groups whose curiosity had been heightened performed better than the others because they shared information more openly and listened more carefully. It seems that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.
Jesus knew about the value of asking good questions and in doing so, he demonstrated genuine interest in people which deepened his relationships with them. Jesus seemed to value curiosity in his followers and did not dismiss the many questions people had about who he was and what he was doing. Rather, he viewed such interactions as teaching moments when he could expand people’s notions of who God is and what God is up to in the world.
It is a good thing people were not afraid to ask Jesus questions because if they hadn’t, we might not have many important parts of the Gospel story. Imagine if a young lawyer had not asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We wouldn’t have the story of the Good Samaritan. Imagine if his disciples had not asked, “How many times are we called to forgive?” We would not have the parable of the king and the wicked servant and Jesus’ response of 77 times 7 times, which highlights the importance of forgiveness. Even questions meant to criticize Jesus are turned into teaching moments that give him an opportunity to help people grow in their faith. If the scribes and Pharisees had not questioned why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, we wouldn’t have the story of the Lost Sheep or the Prodigal Son.
It was the questions Jesus’ friends and followers asked that would help them realize he had been raised from the dead. One of those times is when Jesus is walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, but they don’t recognize him at first. These two disciples later ask the question, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he walked with us on the road?” Their wondering leads them to realize that Jesus has been raised from the dead and lives again. In another encounter, one of the disciples named Thomas questions whether the others have actually seen Jesus and this leads to Jesus appearing again after his resurrection. This is an epiphany for Thomas, it shows him that Jesus really is alive and it becomes an epiphany for the centuries of seekers after him demonstrating to people, even like us today who might have questions that the resurrected Jesus was real.
So what if one of our New Year’s resolutions was to not be afraid to ask more questions? What if as we start the year 2020, as we start this new decade, a resolution was to learn something new? What is something we are interested in that we would like to know more about? Or perhaps, who is someone we would like to get to know better? Who is someone we might not know at all who we could introduce ourselves to? Or, what is a question about the Bible we might have? What is a question about our faith we might have that could help us grow? Let us allow our curiosity to take us on a journey like the Wise Men—a journey which might be a little scary in the beginning, but in the end could help us find Jesus.
-Pastor Erik Goehner