Taking another road: Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas, 2010

Taking Another Road

Second Sunday after Christmas

January 3, 2009

Although Corrie would tell you otherwise, I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction. I was talking with someone a couple of weeks ago about having to find our way around, and he observed that there are two types of people: map people and directions people. Both he and I are map people. We have to see on a map where it is we are supposed to be going. Directions just won’t do. In my case, by the time I’ve received the third piece of information (take a left at the old Shell station), I will have forgotten the first two. But even with a map, and if I’ve made no wrong turns, it’s often the case that when I leave, retracing my steps is very difficult. Instead of turning right, you have to turn left, and what happens if there’s a one-way road? It often happens that a trip that took fifteen minutes one direction, can take a half hour the other. So finding the way to a new place can be difficult, but finding one’s way home is not always easy, either.

I was reminded of this while reading this week’s gospel—the story of the wise men and the star. We know it well, but we don’t often note that while the magi had little trouble finding their destination, thanks to the star, and a little help from Herod and his advisers, we know very little about their journey home. Matthew writes simply, “they returned home by another road.” The story ends there; the magi leave the scene, but continue to pique our curiosity.

In the reading from Jeremiah, the prophet promises that Yahweh will lead the people of God home. It’s actually not at all clear when this particular passage was written, but it seems to presuppose that the prophet is writing during the exile, when many of the people of Israel had been carried off in captivity to Babylon. God is promising them that their exile will cease, that God will bring them back to the promised land, that God will lead even the lame and the blind home. It is a powerful image and theme, common not only to the Hebrew Bible but also to the Christian New Testament, to both Judaism, and Christianity. Such imagery was also seen in our readings for Advent; with the cry of John the Baptizer: Prepare a way for the Lord.

But we often think of this imagery only in terms of God leading God’s people to a new place—the promised land, and not in terms of God leading God’s people back. The familiar story of the wise men is a good example. They followed a star from the east to Bethlehem, stopping in Jerusalem to confirm their directions. Let’s unpack this story a little bit; let’s make it strange instead of familiar.

First of all—the wise men themselves. As you know, there is no mention in the text of the number, that they were kings, and certainly not their names. All of that is later pious Christian accretion to the story. In fact, “wise men” is even something of a mistranslation. They are magi—astrologers. That they come from the east suggests that Matthew is trying to emphasize their foreign-ness, that they are exotic travelers. What’s more from the perspective of the Gospel of Matthew, to call someone a wise man is not necessarily a compliment. Matthew consistently contrasts wisdom and foolishness—the wisdom of the world is not true wisdom but folly.

To be sure, there are kings in Matthew’s story—two of them, Herod and Jesus with very different kingdoms and with different sorts of power. The magi come to Herod for directions, because Matthew wants to highlight the opposition between Herod and Jesus and because, I think, he wants to say that for all the magi’s knowledge, in fact, to call them wise is somewhat misleading. They have seen the star, and they want to follow it, but they still don’t know its meaning.

When they reach Bethlehem, they bow down and worship Jesus. And then they go home by another road. We don’t wonder what happened to them after that. Matthew isn’t interested in their journey home; just as Luke is not interested in what happened to the shepherds after their encounter with the infant Jesus.

I’m inclined to imagine that what happened to the magi and the shepherds after Christmas is very much like what happens to us, too. There’s this tremendous build-up: growing excitement, heightened activity, everyone’s just a little bit on edge with the planning, the parties, and all. And then comes Christmas, and inevitably, there’s something of a letdown.

But it’s not just Christmas that has such an effect. No doubt you’ve all experienced it—working toward some goal that was at once elusive, yet seemingly full of promise, even life-changing. Reaching that goal takes all of one’s effort, incredible psychic, spiritual, and sometimes physical energy. Then having achieved it, what’s next?

Perhaps some of you the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air.” His character lived and worked for a single goal, one that he hardly dared articulate to his friends. At the end of the movie he achieved it, but his victory seemed somewhat hollow. There was no one to share it with, no one who cared and the goal itself, 10 million frequent flyer miles, seemed hardly worth the effort.

For many of us, achieving the goals we laid out for ourselves may be something of a game, a way of challenging ourselves to improve our lot, to better our selves, and when we’ve achieved them, we set a new goal. For others, that goal may be our raison d’etre. And when we get there, we have nothing more to look forward to.

What the magi may have had in mind is quite beside the point. According to Matthew they saw the star; they followed it, and when they reached their destination, they returned home by another road. Did their long journey and the encounter at the end change them? Who knows? That’s not really the point. For Matthew, what mattered was to depict these men, come from afar, worshiping the newborn Christ, while others, most notably Herod, sought to kill him.

The magi knew to go home by a different road but what was next for them? Did they set new goals? If so, how? And we, like the magi, have encountered the incarnate Christ again at Christmas. What’s next for us? What are we looking forward to? How do we set those new goals? How do we find our bearings, when the star we were following no longer leads us, and we’ve reached our destination? Where do we go from here? Do we retrace our steps, or embark on a new journey?

These questions are especially compelling, now, with the beginning of a new year. We look forward to what might come, with some apprehension perhaps, but also with a sense that there are infinite possibilities lying ahead. We want to start over anew. We make new year’s resolutions to change our lives.

In the life of our parish, we have also reached an important milestone. After years of conflict and turmoil, uncertainty, many of us finally feel like we have achieved what we were working for the last few years. There seems to be some stability, new energy, and a new rector. Outgoing Senior Warden Sally Phelps and those vestry members who have seen us through so much in the past few years have stepped down. They may feel like they deserve a break, and indeed they do. As a parish, we need to thank them again and again for their hard work, and for having brought us to this place in our common life.

Yet all is not perfect by any means. There is work to be done and it is no time to rest on the journey. We must continue to move forward. Perhaps we do not yet have a clear goal in mind; there is no star leading us forward. The direction may not be clear.

The magi knew where they were going when they left Bethlehem, they were going home. They chose a different route for expediency’s sake. We may lack the clarity they had as they got up from the encounter with Christ but like them, we should be wise enough to choose the better road, for ourselves, and for Grace Church. Let us be like those, as the Psalmist says, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

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