St. George's United Church
Epiphany Sunday - January 4, 2015
"Going Home a Different Way"
by Ryan Slifka
I remember, back in grade one or grade two, I was in the school Christmas pageant. I was a shepherd. I don’t remember a lot about it. One thing I remember is that the boy playing Joseph got sick before he was supposed to go on stage. And he threw up. They nabbed one of my fellow shepherds to fill in. I was disappointed. Because I had somehow missed my big acting break.
And I remember, too, the scene right near the end. Where finally, three small children with fake beards, gold crowns and shiny aluminum-foil covered boxes, stepped out on the stage. The wise men had arrived. Lots of photos. And lots of proud parents excited about the "cutest Christmas, ever."
But when the wise men show up in Matthew's gospel, it's anything but cute. It's kind of dark, actually. Outraged tyrants. Murder plots. Last minute escapes. Matthew's story doesn't have any angels, shepherds, donkeys or a sweet little manger, even. These all belong to Luke's story. Which is the kinder, gentler gospel. The wise men get a little spotlight time this time of the year. But kind of like my Christmas pageant, they are usually tacked on to an already awesome story. As a bonus or something.
But these wise men are more than kings with shiny gold boxes. They aren't even kings. This is a tradition that gets added later. They are even more exciting than kings. The word we translate as "wise men" is from the Greek "magi." The root of the English word "magician." They're astrologers. They observe the sky, the stars, the planets. And they interpret them. They read them. They search for meaning. They look for signs, seeking the divine in the movements and activities of the natural world. Like new-agey scientists.
And so the movement of this star pulls them towards Jerusalem. The home of the Temple, the beating heart of Israel’s ancient faith and worship. They arrive at the palace of Herod the great, the king of Palestine. He’s been appointed by the Romans. A puppet of the empire. He has a reputation ruthlessness, having murdered the rival family to the throne. These wise men arrive at the palace and tell Herod about the star they followed there. And they come searching, sharing their analysis of the data. “Where is the child?" they ask, “born king of the Jews?” “We’ve been watching the sky and we followed the star here and we’ve come to our respects.” They have no idea where to go. They were drawn there by the star. But there's something missing. Something they can't quite figure out.
Herod is freaked out, it says. And the whole city is terrified with him. The wise men tell him that a new King has been born. But Herod's already the king. Herod and the whole city are terrified because there's a new king in town. In fact after this point in the story Herod is never referred to as a king again because there's a new king in town. Herod’s time has come. He doesn't know what to do. So he gathers the kingdom's top political advisors and spiritual gurus together. And he asks where the Messiah is supposed to show up. They search their bibles, cobbling a few verses together. Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the city of David, Israel's most renowned king. This is where the new king, the promised One is supposed to be born.
So Herod calls the wise men back. And he send them to Bethlehem to get the location of the baby so he can pay his own respects. But it’s all a trick. Herod plans to kill the wise men and to kill this new, upstart king. The irony, of course, is that in his own drive for security, power, and control, Herod uses the same scripture that promises the coming of the Messiah to deliver his people from oppression and control to maintain oppression and control. to stop this new king. The same scripture that points the wise men towards God's coming in Bethlehem, is the same scripture that Herod uses to get in God's way. In Herod's hands, the scriptures are dangerous. In Herod's hands, the scriptures are a weapon.
And I don't know about you, but before I actually started hanging around an actual faith community, I'd have agreed. The bible seemed dangerous. I'd hear folks quote chapter and verse as if it were a weapon. Against others. For the purpose of control. A friend of mine once said that many of us have become so suspicious of the Bible due to its negative use that it's become "clumsy, foreign, and awkward." Even though we come so close to it every Sunday. The bible is like a stranger. A stranger that has been used to cause such suffering and pain that we hold it at arms-length. On account of the risk.
But it’s not that people are turning to atheism. People have the hunger. At least here in British Columbia. People my age, we describe ourselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” We are likely to say that we still feel “something,” whether it is a sense of awe and gratitude at the wonders of the natural world. Or an unexplainable presence of something in our lives beyond ourselves. And we are more likely to say that we find our connection to that “something bigger” while walking through the woods. Or paddling a kayak in alongside a beach, rather than the pews of a church. Yes, like the Magi, the wise men, wise people in our story, there are plenty of us watching the stars, seeking divine answers in all of the majestic places of creation. Feeling pulled, and compelled by something we can't quite name, but know is real. But the word "bible" conjures up images of King Herods armed with Bible and verse. More than ready to cast judgements, to victimize and control. Rather than pointing people in the direction of Bethlehem, it seems to point away from it. Towards Babylon.
But here's the real twist in this story. Herod, the chief priests and scribes draw on their tradition, their history and their Bible to point them to Bethlehem in order to kill Jesus. And to stop God’s coming into the world. Yet, it is the same scripture used to hurt that is the thing that eventually brings these seekers great joy. When they set out again, the star reappears. They again follow and it lights their way. The star, burning brightly, finally stops in the sky, it says, “over where the child was.” And, it says, they are overwhelmed with joy. They are drawn to this place and they open the door and enter. They see this child, it says, in the arms of Mary his mother. In spite of the humble scene, they kneel down, it says, and paid him homage. At this place they worship, opening their treasure chests and offer the famous gifts. They give gold, frankincense and myrrh. All gifts for the coronation of a king. And all they can do is fall to their knees, offer their gifts, and give thanks and prise. Because they've followed their intuition. And come face-to-face with the divine.
And this is my favorite part: Remember how Herod plans to kill the wise men? how Herod plans to kill Jesus? An angel comes to the wise men in a dream and tells them of Herod’s plans. They escape! So, says the story, they leave for their country by another road. Or, as the original King James version says: They leave for their country “By Another way.” The star drew them. And the story sends them. They find the source of their seeking. The one who drew them. Who called them in the first place. On account of the story in the scriptures. They become part of this story. And they go home another way. They go home different. They go home changed.
And so here we are today. Somehow gathered in worship. Somehow, gathered around this same scene. Somehow the same scripture has been read. And the same ancient promises have been made. In spite of the reputation of the church as a people who get in the way of God, in spite of the reputation of the Bible as something that hurts, rather than heals. Somehow, here we are again following the star, hoping and maybe finding that overwhelming joy of a face-to-face encounter with God. The kind that, like the wise men, sends us home a different way. Sends us home changed.
So maybe there’s something to this story. Faith communities best when it points those who seek to the place where Mother Mary cradles Christ in her arms. We are at our best when the old promises are spoken, heard, then lived out in gratitude. We are at our best when people are able to come face to face with the living God. And are able share their gifts, their joys, and even their hurts. And sent out in to the world to carry the light, to bring healing to the world. And tell the story again. So, friends, listen to these ancient promises. Come, kneel before the holy One. And find this as a place to share your gifts. You will return home. But you will return a different way. Amen.