Epiphany: Returning by a different road

Day 156/September 19 - Two roads diverged in a wood...
"Two roads diverged in a wood..." by John Piekos, on Flickr
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. (Matthew 2:1-12)

The old gray station wagon was mostly packed. Suitcases were lined up in the back of the car, and the cooler of sandwiches was wedged between my parents’ seats in the front. Each of us three sisters had our own bag of markers, notebooks, and games. My mom had the important items: the little notebook where we’d keep track of gas mileage, the Super 8 and Holiday Inn books so that we could make motel reservations along the road, the atlas, and two different colored markers.

Whether our final destination was Yellowstone National Park or the far reaches of the Maine coastline, our two-week driving vacations all had something in common. We would take one scenic route to the far point of our trip, and my mom would trace it in the atlas using one color marker, and we would always take a different route home, which she would trace in the atlas in a different color.

We always took a different road home. Because there was always more to see. Taking a different road gave us more destinations, more crazy roadside sights, more towns to pass through, a fuller journey, a way to make the trip home feel like a new part of the vacation rather than just a return home.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road.

Today’s gospel is a story of travel.

A star rises in the sky. A bright star, perfectly aligned with all of the right planets, a clear sign to a group of astrologists in the east that a king has been born. A divine king. A king worth seeking out.

So the magi pack up and head out on the road. They travel with the star as their guide, and their road first takes them to Jerusalem, to Herod, the sitting king, who seems as good a person as any to inquire about the newborn king who has been revealed to them.

Herod, of course, knows nothing about the newborn Messiah, and is terrified. His power is threatened, his authority shaken. So he plots with his advisors, he calls the wise men in secret, he has a plan. He tells the wise men to continue along their journey until they find this baby king. Then, he says, travel home by this same road that you came in on. Swing by Jerusalem again on your way back. Tell me what you learn about this baby, and where he is, so that I too might “worship” him. And by “worship,” we know that Herod means “destroy.” Fear drives people to do despicable things.

The wise men continue on the road, following the star, traveling because stars and kings are exciting business, alluring, irresistible. They travel until the star stops over the place where the child is.

They enter the house, see Jesus, and Mary his mother, and they rejoice. Before them is the child who is called Messiah, God-in-the-flesh, prince of peace. The child who will threaten all political order by preaching a message of love instead of power, a policy of forgiveness instead of retribution, an agenda of servanthood instead of exploitation. And they rejoice. They come face-to-face with Jesus, and they are filled with joy, not fear. They meet Jesus, and they see there eternal light and life, and they know in their hearts that there is no good to be done by returning to Herod. This child needs to live. And so they set out for home once again, returning not by that same road through Jerusalem, but by a different route.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road.

I don’t know why you are sitting here today. Maybe it’s habit, to get up on a Sunday morning and head to church; maybe it is what you did as a child and what you mean to do for your children as well. Maybe you met Jesus years and years ago, and your heart has long trusted God’s promises of grace and mercy, and you come here to repeat your joy, week after week. Maybe you believe but are doubting, and come here for answers or assurance. Maybe you are intrigued by this Jesus-guy, but still unsure, and you are here because you are following a light toward a child who you have not yet seen, and you wonder if one day, you will meet him here.

Like those traveling magi, each of us is here because some star in the sky has captured our imagination, and we want to find the place where Jesus is, and meet him face-to-face.

We want to draw near to love and to forgiveness. We want to know that we are not past hope. We want to know that there is a power beyond our own selves, our own governments, our own international struggles and dictators and disputes. We follow the star to Jesus because we want peace and we want to be restored and we want the old, rough parts of us to be made new. And we want to know that there is life beyond life, abundant life beyond just going through the motions, life that wins out even over death.

And so we travel together, following a star in hopes that we will meet Jesus. Maybe we’ll meet him here, in the waters of baptism or in the bread at the table, or in the witness of the scriptures, or in acts of mercy and hospitality and love. And maybe we’ll meet him outside these doors, in friends who shine with divine love, or in places of hope, or even in places of fear and despair that leave us clinging to faith instead of to our own ambitions.

But you have to know something. I have to warn you. Something happens when we meet Jesus face-to-face. Something happens when the star stops over the place where Jesus is. Our hearts leap for joy, yes, but then something else happens. We are changed. We are made different. We travel home by a different road. Meeting Jesus makes all of our old roads obsolete.

When we have been forgiven so deeply and completely, we cannot walk our old roads of spite. Christ calls us to new roads of grace and mercy.

When we have been fed with holy food and drink, and bathed in cleansing, forgiving waters, we cannot walk our old roads of luxury. Christ calls us to new roads of feeding others, and giving them water when they are thirsty, and caring for their basic needs.

When we have received peace and hope that pass all understanding, we cannot walk our old roads of division and distrust and war. Christ calls us to new roads of reconciliation and unity and love.

When we have been given abundant life, we cannot walk our old roads of ignorance or greed. Christ calls us to new roads where we are dissatisfied with oppression, poverty, and death, new roads where we seek life and abundant life for all.

When we have received such great joy, we cannot walk our old roads of bashfulness or keeping quiet. Christ calls us to new roads of witness, of letting our light shine in word and deed, of making an account for the hope that is in us.

You have two markers in your possession, my friends. One has traced your steps this and every time your travels have brought you to Jesus. The other is just waiting to trace out your new path home.

Yes, this new road might be bumpier. It might be dirtier, and filled with strangers. It might take you a long way off course. But there’s a lot to see on this new road – beauty and wonder and newness - and it’s well lit.

In the words of artist and poet Jan Richardson:
We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.

But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
spilling from
your empty hands,
shimmering beneath
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
you take.
Blessings on your journey, my friends. Blessings on your new roads. May the light of Christ that meets you in the star and in the manger accompany all of your steps. And may you shine with the light of Christ who walks with you. Amen.

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