Home by Another Road
At the beginning of each Advent season, there is a social media account that I follow with great delight. I don’t know who created it or who maintains it. It’s called Wandering Wisemen and it follows three magi playmobil figures along with their camel on their journey from seeing the star in the sky to their arrival in Bethlehem. Each day a photo of their adventures is posted. The wise ones in these photos encounter friends and foes, challenges and helps along the way. By Christmas day, they’ve made it to the Jesus. The maker of the page calls the wise ones by their traditional names and calls their camel companion Hezekiah. It is whimsical and fun. There is something magical and wonderful about it. It provides a bit of light and joy in the season.
It also causes me to wonder, what is it about this particular story that so captivates people’s imaginations? We only find the wise ones in the gospel according to Matthew and we are given few details about them. Most of what we think we know about them comes from tradition rather than the text. Were they kings as the carol says? We don’t know. Were there three of them? We don’t actually know. Were they named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar? Again, we don’t know, though those names appeared in a different text long ago and stuck. Over time, these details have been filled in for us by tradition. The origin of the celebration of Epiphany comes from this story. The star on my wrist comes from this story. King cake comes from this story. The star and the wise ones, their gifts and the notion that Jesus Christ is for everyone, that’s all here in Matthew’s gospel.
These stargazers noticed something unusual in the night sky. They saw a sign of something extraordinary, interpreted what it meant and when King Herod, the ruler of the land, asked them to investigate further, they did as he asked. They followed the star to the place where it stopped and encountered Jesus Christ, son of Mary and Joseph, son of the Most High. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what they felt when they met this remarkable child. According to the stars and prophecy, they believed this child to be a king. Did they know, could they know that he was divine? Did they know, could they know that he was the Savior of the world? Do we know when we’ve encountered the divine? What do we feel deep down in our hearts, deep down in our souls when we’ve encountered Jesus? Like the wise ones, perhaps, we may be surprised when we find ourselves in the presence of something divine. Like the wise ones, perhaps, we may be surprised when we witness something holy. It is my feeling that when we have recognized God in our midst, when we have realized that we are in the presence of God, when we know that we have encountered the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus, we are transformed. These are the transformative moments that change our hearts, our minds, our ways of being, our ways of doing. Perhaps we fall to our knees in awe. Perhaps we offer something back. Perhaps we are stunned into silence.
When we’ve witnessed God’s love firsthand, the power of God at work in the world, when we’ve experienced the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus, I don’t think we can go back to our ordinary ways of doing, thinking, believing, loving, living. The presence of Jesus in our lives and in the world changes everything. Our choices, our decisions, are now made in light of Jesus, the light of the world. The ways we give, consume, go about our day to day are now determined by the life-altering presence of Jesus in our hearts and minds. The wise ones weren’t looking for a Savior that day. They weren’t expecting to encounter something earth shattering, life-altering, game changing. It may be another gap we’re filling in in the story but I suspect it must be true. I don’t think they were expecting to be changed. I don’t think they were expecting for anything to be different after this meeting.
As it turns out, this encounter with Jesus did change things. The very presence of Jesus in the world changed everything. The birth of the savior was a dangerous thing: for the status quo, for the powers that be, for the way things had always been. The very presence of this child meant that nothing would ever be the same again. King Herod told the wise ones to find the child so that he could then come and kneel before this new king. Herod didn’t want to pay homage to the child, though. Herod wanted to hold onto his power at all costs. So when the wise ones were warned in a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod they went home by another road. Before he could walk and talk, Jesus shook things up and began to usher in something new.
Our world is not unlike the world around the time of Jesus’s birth. Our world is filled with power hungry people intent on keeping that power at all costs. And the message of Jesus is still as revolutionary today as it was in Herod’s time. The existence of the child born to Joseph and Mary signals a new world on the way, a world where the powerful are brought low and the low are brought high. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us promises a world where the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty, and the world order as we know it will be transformed. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us promises a world where love wins, injustice will be no more, and wrongs will be made right. It’s a dangerous message, indeed, for those who seek power at all costs. No wonder Herod wanted to get rid of this child. The wise ones couldn’t go back to all of that. They couldn’t return to the world as it was they would return to the world as it should be home by another way.
This year’s Advent devotional from my alma mater, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, focuses on hymns and songs of the season. In today’s entry, Assistant Professor of Sacred Music & Dean of the Chapel Eric Wall, writes about the 5th stanza of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. “O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery.” Eric says that “In this Advent, the plea [is for] a way, for God’s road to a better world. How often we have yearned this year for the closing of misery’s path, of misery’s headlines and statistics and breathless sorrow and microscopic terror.”
It’s true we’ve had an incredibly difficult year this year. Everything has been turned upside down and everything we know has looked different. Every occasion has looked different from what we know. Birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, holidays, all marked in unfamiliar ways. Our day to day has shifted. Our responsibilities have shifted. Our priorities have shifted. The way we take care of our families and ourselves and our communities is has shifted. We have laid low and slowed down. We’ve realized what matters most. Loving our neighbors has looked different than we ever imagined. Who would have thought the best way to care for one another would be to keep our distance and cover our faces? And yet, that’s what this year brought to us. This year also brought continued division and demonization of the other side whatever that side may be. We have felt isolated and lonely. We have felt anxious and fearful. We have been angry and frustrated. We’ve endured a year like no other and I wonder where we’ll choose to go from here. Will we go back to the same road, do things the same way we did before? Or will we go home by another way? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed for good by all that we have experience?
You see, I think we have an opportunity to choose another way. I think we have a chance to go home by another road. I think this is our moment to determine how we’ll move forward. Each year we acknowledge and celebrate the coming of the light of Christ into our lives. Each year we anticipate the coming of the light of Christ into our lives once again. For those of us who have witnessed the power of God, the mercy of Jesus, and the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in this world, I don’t think we have any choice but to be changed and to move forward in faith. We can’t go back to the way things were. We can’t go back to division and demonization. We can’t go back to selfishness and isolation. We can’t go back to greed and power grabs. We can’t go back to indifference and apathy. We can’t go back to dark assumptions and mistrust. We have to seek another way. We have to ask God to show us another way. There is another road, another path to take and we pray for God to give us the eyes to see it. We may not know where the road will lead but we do know that God goes with us encouraging us and equipping, holding us up even carrying us, if need be. I can’t tell you how often I wish I had some sort of divine GPS that will map out the road ahead exactly so that I can’t ever make a wrong turn. That’s not what we’re promised, though. We are promised presence. We are promised God-with-us. We are promised a home in God’s eternal kingdom now and not quite yet.
The wise ones in the gospel of Matthew are a part of the story to remind us that Jesus was born so that all might know him. The love, mercy, and grace of Christ are not for one group exclusively but for all of God’s children…the stargazers, the faithful, the faithless, the lost, the found, the unsure, the certain, the powerful, the powerless, those at the center of community life and those pushed out to the margins. There is no one for whom the birth of Christ does not signal a new way of being, doing, living, loving. There is no one for whom the birth of Christ does not offer an opportunity for life-altering transformation. And in light of that truth, how can any of us go back by the familiar road? In light of that truth, isn’t it necessary for us to go another way?
As we follow the star and kneel before the child this Christmas, as we offer what we can in worship, as we ponder all these things in our hearts, may we know that going back by the familiar road is no longer an option. May the wonder and the challenge and the hope of this season inspire us to new ways of living, being, doing, loving. For those of us who have witnessed the love of God at work, for those of us who have been transformed by the grace of Jesus, for those of us who have been embraced by the Spirit of God, may we never be the same.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care