2:1 After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” 3 At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. 4 Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.” 9 After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. 10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, 11 upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another way.
By a Different Way
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Given on Epiphany, 2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
Each year, we come to this place about this time and find ourselves at something of a crossroads. We have all journeyed together and come to the manger. We have all lit candles and sang the carols, and gotten that warm feeling we each get when we think about the baby born in a manger, the shepherds tending to their flocks by night, the angel and then angels appearing to them and telling good news of a great joy happening in the nearby town of Bethlehem. We have had our special reading of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas that we do every Christmas Eve with the children and nestled them all snug in their beds while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads. We have gathered with our kith and kin around a tree and exchanged gifts with one another and seen the twinkle in our children’s’ eyes as they see that once again, Santa has come to visit them and once again they made the nice list, ever how close they may have cut it this year, and the sheer joy of seeing that one thing they wanted set before them. We have gathered with family around the large dinner table where the patriarch of the family stood over the golden brown bird that is the centerpiece of so many family meals this time of year while we watched him cut into it and begin to distribute pieces based on peoples preference, dark meat for some, white meat for others, the drumsticks for the kids. See, I still remember some things about turkey. In that week between Christmas and New Years maybe you took the opportunity to celebrate with other family, other friends the spirit of the holiday season as you prepared to ring in the new year and all that is wonderful and lovely, and enlivening, and special, and magical, all at the same time. And then you come down. There is a house to clean. There is torn shreds of wrapping paper everywhere! There is glitter in your rug from that one ornament that you wished you kid had never made and it is never coming out. What was once an awe-inspiring symbol of life with garland or tinsel and lights and ornaments from generations past has now become a dead tree sitting in the middle of your living room, perhaps in a window that faces the road and now all the neighbors can see your increasingly browning symbol of you inability to get it out of your house and out by the curb. And there are now needles everywhere mixed in with the glitter and the torn wrapping paper and your house which was pristine only a week ago looks like a hurricane blew through it. Incidentally, when on Friday, we took down the garland and the lights and the ornaments and threw our tree unceremoniously over the backpack and into the back yard to be rolled down the hill at some point in the future, Lesley and I danced a little jig because we had managed to keep thing 2 from actually getting up to the star that adorned the top for almost a month. There was actually a moment when, and I can’t explain the physics of this, thing 2 actually grabbed one of the strands of garland that was hanging straight down from the top and tried to use it, I think, as a belay line for climbing the tree. To hear his mother tell it, the full tree nearly touched the ground and then snapped back up to attention while all the Hoos in Hooville breathed a sigh of relief, if I might, for a second, mix two Dr. Seuss metaphors. I am a father of children after all. And there are children to get ready to go back to school and parents to get ready to go back to work. And a driveway to shovel and what was the world altering birth of the baby Jesus only a couple of weeks ago has been swallowed up by the rhythm and movement of life to return to a more normal stasis until Lent begins in a few weeks. And by now, we have all adjusted to the normal winter routine when these three guys show up, completely unannounced and uninvited with their gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, and they remind us, because we all need reminding, that each year, the Christmas season is supposed to alter the way we are human to one another, the way we look for Christ to emerge in our midst, the way that we are to seek the star throughout the year, to look for the light of God to appear not when it is convenient, not when it is expected, but in that time that we need it most, that time when it can alter the way we view creation and inspire us to transcend whatever is going on in our lives and become even more faithful followers of the one born in a stable.
It’s hard to know what exactly to do with the Magi every year. Most scholars would tell you that the story is almost certainly a later addition to the birth narrative drawing from a tradition of persons coming from the east during significant moments in Judean history, much of which has been lost in the sands of time. And in our story, they are as much a symbol of impending doom as they are of celebration. As a literary device, they allow the author of Matthew to introduce the villainous character of Herod and his attempt to kill the baby Jesus before he can ever take his first step by killing all the boys born in and around Bethlehem in the previous 2 years. This also allows the author of Matthew to begin a theme that runs through the whole of the gospel comparing the story of Jesus to the story of Moses and the death of the Egyptian children at Passover in the book of Exodus. The magi, through their gifts, also allow the author of Matthew to introduce the death of Jesus even at his birth, so that his readers never lose sight of the ultimate destiny of Jesus even in the midst of miraculous brith. And we know this because of the gifts that each of the visitors from the East bring. Gold, befitting a king. Frankincense, an incense used in the Temple to signify the presence of God in their midst. These two make sense if you are welcoming the one in whom God is present, if you are welcoming one that you believe will become the new ruler of the Jews. But it is the myrrh that brings Matthews readers back to the reality of Jesus’s life as it is an embalming oil, used, almost solely to clean the body of the dead and prepare them for burial. And so it is that in this story, Jesus is a ruler, one who shares the presence of God, but also one who will eventually die at the hands of a broken world in the midst of an occupied country. Finally though, it is the vision of the angel that the three magi share that allows the whole of the experience to come together for them. It is this shared dream that convinces them not to return to Herod but to leave the manger, changed people, with an altered destiny, in which they return home by a different way. Now, it is possible that in my own love of the poetry of the English language, in my own love of simple turns of phrase that it is this single fragment, “by another way” that sticks with me the most out of the story, but it seems that in this period in which we are all returning to a normal routine in which the Christmas of 2015 is done and we have now moved onto making the most out of 2016, that we need to be reminded that something of our lives is supposed to be different in the time that follows the reappearance of Jesus in a world that needs desperately to have Jesus appear again.
I am convinced the longer that I am alive on this planet that all people have something towards which they are striving. Something that gets them out of bed in the morning and enlivens them throughout the rest of their day. Something that they can reach towards and strive for and take an accounting at the end of each day and judge how well they did in their efforts. And maybe its not a particularly thing. Maybe it is not wealth or acclaim or success or comfort. Maybe it is not a promotion or a grade or a specific goal. In this period immediately after the new year begins so many of us use the turning of the calendar to put before us a new set of goals, maybe around weight loss or spending more time reading than watching television, stopping chewing your nails or some other bad habit. But, if you are like me, those types of goals are rarely the kind of thing that motivates you for the whole year. Almost two weeks in, there is little doubt that those of us who have made those sorts of commitments to ourselves have already fudged on them. That’s why gyms are always packed in January and often ghost towns in February. So what I’m talking about isn’t a thing, or an accomplishment, or goal in the distant future, that motivates us, but rather a drive towards something that is greater than ourselves. Something that forever sits just past our reach but that draws us to it nonetheless. Something that puts a fire in our belly and that convinces us that our best selves and our best world sit in the future and not the past. Maybe it is that there is a star in your life. A star that beckons to you all the time, like an itch that you can never fully scratch, a star that forever shines even in the darkest periods of your life, somehow grounding your life to strive for something greater, more wonderful, more beautiful. Something to which maybe you can’t even put words. Just a feeling that tells you that there is something more, something greater to move towards. And then each year, you come to Christmas, and like the Magi from the east, you are drawn to the star that has settled just over the top of a stable in a nothing town, in an otherwise out of the way country that has long ago been swallowed up by the mighty Roman Empire. And yet, they are drawn to it. And we are drawn to it. And then we get there. Now what? Once you have touched that thing that you reach for. Once you have seen and experienced the Christ in your midst again. As that moment fades into he recesses of your memory and the experience, though it has left an indelible mark, still exists in the past. Something that happened to you before. Once all that is happened. How will you return to your life by another way.
I’d like to think that I know each of you pretty well at this point. I know some of your struggles and your successes. I know some of your family situations and those places that you would like to change about yourself. But even in the midst of all that, I cannot tell you how you should change. How you should return to your life by another way. We are each changed by having encountered the Christ being born again and anew in our lives and in this community of faith but it will only be a blip on our radar, a single experience alongside a lifetime of experiences if we do not commit to one another to leave this place, this manger a changed people, a changed community, a redeemed collection of travelers propelled each year to search for a star, and a savior, and a new way to be with one another. I cannot tell you what that looks like from one moment to the next. I cannot tell you what God is asking of you, What the divine spark is illuminating in your world that only you can see. All I can do is say that when you are ready to let go, to let the spirit move unencumbered by personal wants and desires, once she is freed and you are only conduit of God’s love and God’s light, the world bathed in that love and light will never again look the same and you will be ready to leave this place, this stable, this manger, this star, this baby, this Christ and go home by another way. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.