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Monday, January 3, 2011

By Another Road

Epiphany A, 2011

Matthew 2:1-12 1/2/2011

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Last week I was reading in the news a list of what New Year’s resolutions people should not make: find love; lose five to seven pounds; quit obsessing; have a baby; quit your job; convince your significant other to marry you; quit dating; learn to get along with (whomever) ; wake up 30 minutes early to meditate; and win the lottery. The list says something about CNN’s target audience – young adults who can’t find love, commitment, or good jobs. The point the article was trying to make was that people tend to make all-or-nothing resolutions, and such are doomed to fail by February. Instead of finding love, the author suggests, get more involved in activities that help you meet and get to know more people; instead of meditating (or praying) for 30 minutes, start with 5 or 10; don’t obsess about obsessing; make your job better rather than quitting; take a break from dating instead of quitting altogether; and so forth. It’s a provocative headline that, surprisingly, covers some good advice.

It’s important, on a regular basis, to stake stock of our lives, and make whatever changes are necessary. Annual doctor’s examinations; preparing tax returns; church stewardship campaigns; and, of course, a New Year are opportunities to take a hard look at who and where we are, and who and where we want to be. Every now and then there are some seminal events in our lives that give us pause to do the same thing: the death of a loved one, a critical illness, or a new experience that makes us see ourselves and life from a completely new perspective.

Despite what we’ve learned from Christmas pageants, cantatas, and Sunday School, the wise men didn’t visit the manger the same night as the shepherds and the stork. Church tradition says they arrived twelve days later, January 6th; the reality is that it may have been weeks or months later. They approach the manger with one set of assumptions: that King Herod, the priests and scribes, and all the people of Israel would welcome with great joy the birth of the Messiah. They come to Jerusalem expecting anyone and everyone to know about the miracle that had been foretold by the star. As it turns out, all of Jerusalem, from the king down to the common folk, were frightened by the whole idea. Herod learns from the scholars that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem, so he summons the wise men and recruits them as spies. Go to Bethlehem and find the baby, then come back and tell me where he is. In my favorite dramatic retelling of the story, The Cotton Patch Gospel, Herod says “I’d like to shake his hand. I’d like to shake it real good.” And so the Magi head to Bethlehem, find the baby and his family, and, before offering him presents, knelt down and paid him homage.

Preacher and theologian Tom Troeger suggests we’ve missed the order of what the Magi do at the stable. First, they worship. These learned holy men from a far country and culture kneel at a cattle trough and give honor to the Savior. This was the whole point of their journey, they announce in verse 2. They have come to bow down, to surrender themselves, to Jesus. Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present their material gifts.[1]

Giving gifts, Troeger says, can be a way of controlling others, of putting ourselves in a position of superiority. The first business of Christmas, and the first business of life is not to control, or even to gift. It is to kneel before Jesus and offer him our lives. If we don’t get that right, anything that follows misses the point.

Then, Matthew says, a remarkable thing happened: the Magi took a different road home. An angel spoke to them in a dream and saved their lives, because, had they obeyed the King, retraced their steps, and told Herod the 911 address of the stable, Herod would have slit their throats on the spot. They are now under the same protection of God as is the baby.

When we kneel at Jesus’ feet, everything changes, and we can’t take the same road home. The world is different and we are different. We now have to listen to directions from angels.

This morning we’re celebrating a new road to a new home for Mark and Grace, who will be married as a part of our worship service. God led Grace here last year; God led Mark to a new life, and God led them to each other. It’s not only a wonderful thing that they understand that their marriage is an act of worship that they wanted to share with all of us and their family in Christ, but that on this first Sunday of a new calendar year, we all have the opportunity to renew our vows to each other – married and single – and to Christ. Their first meal as a married couple will be the Lord’s Supper, which will then flow into the reception in the fellowship hall. Thank you, Mark and Grace, for giving us a model for the integration of faith, love, marriage, and church. This is the way it’s supposed to work! For all of you who might get married someday, remember this morning.

Mark and Grace’s marriage is a new road that came because both of them knelt at Jesus’ feet. Now, like the Magi, they’re traveling a new road at the directions of angels. For all of us not sure where we are, not sure where we’re going, and terrified by the principalities and powers waiting to do us in, follow the example of truly wise men and women, from Bethlehem to Quinton: kneel down, and pay him homage. Don’t offer your gifts until you’ve surrendered yourself. Then, listen to the angels, who will send you down a different road.

[1] Bartlett and Brown, eds., Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, p. 217

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