January 3, 2016 – Home, by another road

Epiphany Sunday   January 3, 2016   (Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-6) Matthew 2:1-12      Home, by another road

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Following a mysterious star that rises in the East – searching for an infant king. Magi from the East, on a journey of faith… Arriving now in Jerusalem.

Looking for the child born king of the Jews. The star they’ve followed from it’s rising has brought them all the way here… But now they’re not sure exactly where the star is leading. So they ask directions. (Unusual men.) Asking first of the local ruler, King Herod; who has no idea, but is immediately fearful and anxious, though he hides this from the Magi…(Kings don’t like to hear someone else might claim their throne.) And we may wonder now about the wisdom of these wise men, telling their mission to Herod.

Herod sends for the high priests and bible scholars of Israel – who do know, as it turns out, where the Messiah is to be born. They know the prophesy; they quote the prophet Micah. They let Herod (and the Magi) know the nearby village of Bethlehem, King David’s hometown, is the place where the Messiah is to be born… But the religious leaders seem utterly disinterested in seeing the Messiah for themselves. And all Jerusalem, with King Herod, is fearfully disturbed by the news…

Thus the story of the Magi, bearing gifts for the Christ child, begins… A story some of us have heard since early childhood. A story told every year in churches that celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany meaning the revelation of Jesus as Messiah, not only of Israel, but also for all the nations. A message proclaimed by the prophet Simeon last week in the Jerusalem temple. But now the Magi are the first from afar to seek and find Jesus. The first in the gospels to be seen worshiping Jesus…

And the story is at once so very familiar…(I can remember singing We three kings of Orient are back in first grade…) And yet still so very strange… As we consider…

The bible never tells us these Magi are kings, and there’s no reason to think they are – except that Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60, that we read every year on Epiphany, both mention kings bearing gifts…

Likewise, calling the Magi ‘wise men’ is a stretch, a guess at best – since the ancient word Magi included astrologers, dream interpreters, fortune-tellers, and Persian priests of various religions…But there’s no evidence for the word Magi meaning wise men – though bible translations have often gone that route, following traditions from outside the bible.

And we have no idea how many Magi there were. The Eastern Orthodox church says a dozen. The Western church usually says three because of the three gifts the Magi bring. (Don’t worry, we’ll still sing We Three Kings and The First Noel… Which do get the most important parts of the story right…)

And maybe the term ‘wise men’ actually does work – since the scribes and chief priests of Israel, supposedly trained in biblical wisdom, fail to see fulfillment of scripture happening, even virtually in front of their eyes – while foolish star-gazers from afar demonstrate genuine wisdom… as they journey earnestly seeking Jesus…

Not many people travel today following a star in any literal sense. (I can’t think of many other than astronauts.) But in ancient times, before we had so many other things to be so busy with, people observed the night sky closely. Even with only the naked eye, ancient star-gazers mapped the heavens with remarkable accuracy. They understood things in heaven and things on earth are closely interconnected…

And astronomers have identified several possible star and planetary scenarios that may have led the Magi to Bethlehem… including a convergence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn; also the rising of Sirius, a star associated with the birth of a prince…Both of which occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth. But we can’t be sure of any details of the star, or the route of those who followed it… And that’s not the point of the story…

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And it’s really only as I recall my own journey to Jesus… That the story begins to come into focus for me.

Growing up in a time and place where it was widely supposed… nearly everyone was already Christian… complicated my search for Jesus considerably… Because as a skeptical teenager and young adult… I found it difficult to see much of Jesus in the culture… (Which is still true today.)

There were many churches around, growing up, but I don’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about meeting Jesus in any of them. (I do remember friends talking about how the pastor of their church always had golf clubs in the trunk of his Cadillac…and was thought to be on the golf course more often than doing pastoral work…) And I remember friends talking about feeling guilty because of their religious faith… (Sometimes with good reason.) But I don’t remember hearing much about how much Jesus loves us… or brings us deep and abiding peace…

There were of course always good Christians around… But my eyes and ears were not yet attuned to noticing them…

And I believe we all come to know Jesus through heavenly intervention… and through the church, which scripture calls the body of Christ… (Though seeing and recognizing Jesus in church can admittedly take practice… much like learning to recognize the stars and planets, takes practice…)

And when I did begin to get to know Jesus, it was through a funny mix of starry-eyed dreaming of a better world… and following many a false start, many a good lead in pursuit of the message we’ve heard the angels singing: Peace on earth, good will to all… And I could hear and did notice, some singing… Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, try to love one another right now…(Which, I’d heard, was a big part of the message of Jesus…)

Times were turbulent, growing up…(As they still are today.) But there was also passion to make life better for others… And the turbulence and instability of the times actually helped provoke me to do better… and helped keep me searching…

And ultimately meeting people face to face, who really had met Jesus… helped enormously… in opening me up to the possibility… of God being very real… and beautiful… and good beyond measure… and accessible to us all…

Which of course is exactly what the Magi found… in the presence of Jesus and his family…

And the more I’ve pondered the gospels, the more I’ve prayed, the more I’ve tried to practice the gospel… The more I too have met Jesus…

And now… I seem to keep meeting Jesus… even when I feel like I’m only following a distant star, dimly perceived….

Sometimes he surprises me with a word spoken almost aloud… Other times I see him in a family, holding, caring for a baby, a child, or an elder…

Often I see Jesus here among us… As we, like the Magi of old, bring forth our gifts… (Remembering…) Jesus said – ‘as you did for the least of these my sisters and brothers, so you did for me…’ So help we give neighbors in need, food we provide for the Food Pantry, and all the worship, prayer, and fellowship that we enjoy, and share, and offer all and everyone, here – this is our gold, our frankincense, our myrrh… our offering of hope, faith and love… for God and all God’s community…

Of course I should probably also say – speaking only for myself – that I also need to keep remembering… I can also see myself, sometimes, not just in the characters of the Magi, but in all the characters in the story…

When we get it right, we’re the Magi… But if I get spiritually lazy and stop paying attention, I can also be like the chief priests and scribes, who yawned when they heard of the Messiah’s birth…I can be like the pastor from my home town… (though it would be a fly rod, not golf clubs, in my car trunk…) I can even see myself sometimes in the people of Jerusalem, who with King Herod, felt fear at the birth of the Messiah… Guessing correctly – that he will bring enormous changes… And ask much more of us than we’re used to being asked.

That’s why I know I still need to preach to myself first… and keep practicing living the gospel… Because the gospel is always for today….here and now… (it’s never about past accomplishments…)

And still there is always so much more to learn… and to do… in this life of faith… So much we can’t see or hear with eyes and ears alone… Always an element of looking to the heavens… for signs only the heart can see and understand…

And there’s always something about meeting Jesus… (Every time…)

That sends us home… by a different road… (Because…)

When we travel with Jesus… every road… from now on… is different.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.