Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sermon: "Home By Another Way"

“Home by Another Way”

We go a little backwards in our gospel readings today. Last week we heard the story of Herod and his fear of this new king born in his territory and his subsequent killing of all the young male children in his kingdom to try to prevent said new king from growing up and taking over the throne that Herod wanted for his own children. We usually hear it referred to as “The Slaughtering of the Innocents.” But this week we go backwards to the story of the wise men arriving to worship that child-king at his home in Bethlehem. This was when Herod first heard of this threat to his royal lineage; it all started with those wise men.

Those wise men, who were most likely scholars of magic or some sort of astrologers, those wise men show up in Judea, asking about a child born there who was to grow up and be a king. They were really just looking for more specific directions; stars can be kind of vague, I suppose. They may have assumed that everyone had heard of his birth, that the star was just as obvious to everyone else as it was to them. So where is this kid? We know he’s here in Judea somewhere. They seemed to know they were looking for a child, so they didn’t waste much time with Herod, since he obviously wasn’t the king they were after. They’d just stopped in as a courtesy.

Herod is thrown for a loop when these magi show up. What are they talking about? A new king? This is the first he’d heard about it and he wants to know what’s up. After checking with his own court wise men as well as the Jewish scribes and Pharisees, Herod finds that there is indeed some minor reference to a new ruler for Israel coming out of Bethlehem, but it’s from a pretty old bit of prophecy in Micah that no one had really thought would ever come to pass, nothing to get really excited about. Herod figured on saving his own servants (and the royal coffers) a reconnaissance mission by having these foreigners go up to Bethlehem and scope things out for him, just in case. He pretends that he’s interested in wishing this new king well and asks the magi to go with his blessing. Just like welcoming a new neighbor, he insists. He wants to give a tribute to the new guy and wish him a long and prosperous reign. Yeah, right.

But since there was probably something of a language barrier between the magi and Herod, they don’t seem to suspect right away that he’s a phony. So, they get on their way. They have brought their own gifts for this king. They don’t really know much about him, except that their astrological calculations show that he’s somebody pretty important. As I mentioned before, they do seem to know they are looking for a child, at least according to Matthew. He also tells us they were pretty excited when they found him, “overwhelmed with joy,” to quote the Gospel. They had been traveling for a long time. Matthew doesn’t say exactly how far they have come, but it took a long time to get anywhere in those days, so we have to assume that it was quite a journey. Most scholars assume that “the East” Matthew refers to was the kingdom of Persia, which is now Iran and the surrounding area, a pretty good trek in those days.

I suspect their arrival caused quite a stir. Even Mary who knew the divine status of her son, probably hadn’t been a hostess to foreign dignitaries before. She probably had to rush around to find enough chairs, and call on neighbors and family to borrow enough food and drink to offer them hospitality. I can only imagine the people peering in the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of these visitors and wondering why in the world they were visiting at the carpenter’s home. There would definitely have been a stir if anyone had caught sight of the gifts they offered to the child.

As is so much of Matthew’s writing, the arrival of the magi is shown to be a fulfillment of Scripture. That was one of Matthew’s main agendas, making sure to point out that the happenings surrounding Jesus were fulfillments of the earlier Jewish prophecies. I spoke about it a few weeks ago, noting that this is Matthew’s way of giving legitimacy to his own writings as well as to the legacy of Jesus himself.

These magi, at least according to Matthew, are aware that this child is hailed as king of the Jews, and they have come to worship him, though they themselves are not Jews. They have followed a star; no map, no compass, no GPS. And since they weren’t Jewish, they didn’t have the prophetic scriptures to look at either. But they still know that this kid is important enough that they travel a long distance in order to find him and offer up gold and expensive resins in his honor. So they must have divined that he was pretty important. Enough that they came with their treasures themselves and did not just send the gifts by Fed-Ex camel. Maybe they were just too curious about that star to not follow it themselves. Either way, they could tell it was leading them to something, or someone, really important.

But I’ll tell you what, it’s not the following of the star, it’s not the meeting with Herod, and it’s not even so much the worshipping of the Christ Child that got me really pondering this text. I have been haunted by the fact that they went home by another way.

Those wise men started out as agents of Herod's destructive agenda, though most likely unwittingly, by seeking out the child to report back to Herod where he was and who he was. Up until the last moment, it was their intent to retrace their steps and return to Herod’s palace and make a full report, just as he had asked, supposing that he wanted to honor the new king, just as they did.

But the night before they are to leave, they get a warning. Not another star or a prophecy, but a dream. A dream that warned them that Herod was up to no good. So all at once they are turned around by this dream, not on the path back to Herod with the information, but a path that protects this child. It was as though once they had offered their gifts and worshipped this new king, once they had come face to face with what was Right and True, they could no longer continue along the old route.

They found that the star had led them to more than just a king, but a Messiah. And not just a Messiah for the Jews, but for all people. I find in interesting that the first people who come to worship the Christ child are foreigners (remember, there are no shepherds in Matthew’s telling), so these magi are the first in this account, not Jews who have been looking for the fulfillment of these prophecies for generations, not even a next door neighbor or someone from the same city. Didn’t they notice the star? Weren’t they curious about it? No, it was these wise men, who’d traveled quite some distance to find him, who were the first. And they worshipped him as a king, not as a prophet, not as a nice guy, but a king, a ruler, a leader of people with divine right, though they may not have realized just quite how divine. Jesus was as much their Messiah as he was the Jews.

When the wise men were warned by a dream not to report back to Herod, they knew why they had to sneak out of the country on a different road than the one they came in on. There was something so obviously special about this child, that they knew they must protect him from discovery and harm. So they went home by another way. They deviated from their planned route, maybe even taking a longer and harder road, just to keep Herod away from this little boy who would become the Savior of his people.

Isn't that what our own encounter with Christ does for us? He guides us off our familiar, planned paths. We can no longer follow on the way we intended. Our trajectory is forever changed.

Epiphany, indeed.

The definition that Merriam-Webster’s offers up for epiphany is “an illuminating discovery or a revealing moment.” That’s the one we usually think of for epiphany, an “ah-ha moment” if you will. But they also post this definition: “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.”

And how true for those magi. They come face to face with a tiny baby, something so simple and striking, and the path they are on changes dramatically. The way they looked at their mission became radically different when they met the Christ child. They were no longer to report his location, they must now protect it. They became not just travelers, not just worshippers, but guardians. An intuitive grasp of reality as seen in the eyes of a child, stark and simple.

Listening to God, whether in a dream or in our prayers, or however it is that God comes to us, well, that can always shift our trajectory and cause us the need to consider a new route. It happened to the wise men, it happened to the disciples, it happens to us.

When we come face to face with Jesus, our paths will be changed. We cannot continue the way we were going. Once we have committed to worshipping the Christ, we will have to go home by another way. It is an intuitive grasp of reality. The reality of love incarnate, the reality of death on a cross, and the reality of a resurrection that says that death is not the final word. That is what we intuitively grasp when we follow the new path laid out for us by Christ. A path that makes straight the desert highway, where every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low and the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then, says Isaiah, then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Epiphany, indeed. Amen.

Thanks to Cheesehead whose words from the lectionary discussion board appear in a couple of place here. They are really what this sermon was build around. Inspiration, indeed.

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