Going Home Another Way

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Matthew 2:1-12



“Epiphany means a manifestation- a discovery, a showing, bringing into the light of day, seeing plainly. In the helpless child in his mother’s arms, the magi saw the Messiah: a powerful moment of epiphany. And now this dream shows them something else. It is a little epiphany, a way of seeing that everything is not as it seems; that there is another level of truth, and a different way home.” 

– Neil Paynter, Going Home Another Way

You may remember, about a month ago, we began Advent… inviting you to get on board the train to Bethlehem… everyone was welcome to get on board. It was a good trip. But today, we turn to the Magi or Wise men who missed that train. They will arrive to the stable later, maybe as much as 2 years later… on camel… following a star – their version of GPS!

Truth is, we don’t really know who they were… Do the research and you see them described in many ways:

-foreigners and pagans who came from another faith tradition: priests of the 6th century prophet Zoraster… worshippers of Ahura Mazda…

– you likely heard they were astrologers… people who knew the stars…

-One person described these wise ones from the East as scientists who practiced other religions…

What we do know is they were not great at directions… Walter Brueggemann wrote a whole article (in the Christian Century) about how they were off by 6 miles because they were using the wrong scripture… Isaiah 60… but Herod’s biblical scholars would give them the better text from Micah that would lead them to Bethlehem… (They recalculated their GPS)

But after all research, you still have the feeling that you really don’t know who they are.

I think Barbara Brown Taylor had it right when she wrote:(Read Matthew closely). We do not know who they were, where they came from, or how many of them there were. (read the text) We do not know how long it took for them to get to Bethlehem or how old Jesus was by the time they got there. We are not even sure about that famous star.  It is not that the facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do… (What really matters is how we respond to those stories)…

 Then she goes on to imagine them this way as she tells her version of their story:

“Once upon a time there were three- yes, three—very wise men who were all still sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their imaginations, but they were so wise they knew it did not matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.  Each in his own country had tried books, tried magic, tried astrology and reflexology. One had spent his entire fortune learning how to read and write runes. Another lived on nothing but dried herbs boiled in water. The third could walk on hot coals but it did nothing for him beyond the great sense of relief he felt in the end.

They were all glad for a reason to get out of town—because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out- away from everything they knew how to manage and survive, out from under the reputations they had built for themselves, the high expectations, the disappointing returns. And so they set out, one by one, each believing that he was the only one with a star in his eye until they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem…”[1]

As I think about her description of them… I learn many lessons, but two I would share today…

First, her description reminds me of so many people I know who are like them… wise people… smart people… people outside our faith…some from other faiths… some with no faith… who are searching… trying all sorts of things to make sense out of life… to find meaning and purpose and answers to life. They’ve been looking.

Sometimes they wander into the church, like those wise men wandered into the conversation with the Biblical scholars.

Sadly, did you notice, (as Soren Kierkegaard pointed out) that the Biblical scholars in Matthews time had all the answers… but did not even bother to make the 6 mile trip to see if the Messiah had been born.

He said:

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem.  They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him.  Similarly we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement.  The power that moved Heaven and Earth leaves us completely unmoved.

What a difference!  The three kings had only a rumor to go by.  But it moved them to make that long journey.  The scribes were much better informed, much better versed.  They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many (intellectuals) dons, but it did not make them move.  Who had the more truth?  The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge?

What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem! 

Seems what made the wise ones wise, was the willingness to seek, to learn, and then to act on the information… to go where the Scriptures led them. They wanted more than information, they were seeking transformation.

Which leads me to the second truth I’ll share today: The wise men – who after having traversed afar through field and fountain moor and mountain… upon finding the Christ child are coming ready to be changed… transformed. After enduring that long journey that involved a detour or two, they arrive and find new life in Christ.

And this is what they were up to, this is really what is happening as “opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

Those gifts have come to symbolize many things. Some have thought that those gifts symbolized Jesus as King, as God and Savior—the roles of Jesus. And they do.

There is also an ancient tradition from the twelfth century from St. Bernard that suggests that “gold was given to Mary to relieve her poverty, incense against the stench of the house… and myrrh… to put away vermin.” (The Story of the Three Kings; Metropolitan Museum of Art, p 66ff) 

Some have put both of those interpretations side by side by saying that one way we honor Jesus as King, God and Suffering Savior is to care for those in poverty, those who live in unfit and smelly environments. We pay homage to Christ by caring for all our brothers and sisters…in need.

As symbols, those gifts have rich meaning.

But according to the scholar who literally wrote the book on the subject, Raymond Brown, they were not giving away symbols. They were giving up something far more precious… their old ways, their old securities and comforts, their former understanding of what made sense and what mattered in life. That’s what they were really up to as they offered gifts to Christ. Those who dabbled in black magic and star worship were giving up the tools of their trade in homage to Jesus. Ancient records found on Greek magical papyri list frankincense, gold and myrrh as accompaniments to magical incantations. And just as the power of the Egyptian sorcerers was broken by Moses, so the power of the astrologers was broken by the Epiphany of Christ. The magi are led to kneel at the feet of the greater Moses” [2]

So what made the wise men wise to me is their willingness to seek and search… and their willing desire to be transformed. They knew that if they wanted a new life, they would had to leave behind their old life. If they wanted to be grasped by God, they needed to let go. And that is what they were up to. They were letting go of their past and taking the risk of a future with God in Christ.

I cannot think of a better message to share with you at the beginning of the new year… as we make our many resolutions to lose the holiday weight…to stop smoking, drinking—whatever it is you need to stop… as we make resolutions to start exercising… changing our lives…

May I suggest to you that the wise ones would lead us to think bigger than that.

How about his for a new year’s resolution… that we resolve we will not leave Bethlehem the same as when we came?

How about this? That we will devote ourselves to being changed by the one we worshipped a few evenings ago… In other words, that when we leave Bethlehem, we will follow those wise men and go home another way… We go home another way because we have seen things in a new light… our lives have been turned around… and we have discovered the importance of living another way. And we commit our lives to living in a way that honors Christ.

I’ll close with a poem prayer that I read and I offer as a guide for the new year… and as my prayer that the Lord may find all of us to be wise enough to go home another way.

The turning of the year
Is a time to look forward,
While holding on
To those moments in the year past
When we suddenly became aware
Of God with us.

We waste time if we look back in anger or regret,
Or forward in fear.
Though these days are short,
They can dazzle with their brightness.
Epiphany, a season of clear-seeing:
Life in perspective, with all its possibilities,
Before the diary fills up
An unwritten page; a door opening;
A field of snow untrodden.

God of dreams and discoveries,
At this turning point in our lives
May your epiphany open our eyes:
May we be wise enough
To become fools for Christ’s sake,
And as we step into another year
Of our journey home to you,
May we find courage to go a different way. Amen. [3]

From sermon, Home by another way

[2] Thanks to Roland Perdue for this insight from his sermon “O Star of Wonder, Star of Night”

[3] Going Home Another Way,  p 100