By Another Road
When I was a child, my mother used to let me play with the nativity scene.
We set it up on the lid of the piano, and added figures as the story unfolded-
A bare stable in Advent, with Mary and Joseph travelling across the room to ‘Bethlehem’ day by day Adding the baby Jesus at Christmas.
Then we’d move the Wise Men closer during the 12 days of Christmas
Until finally on January 6, the festival of the Epiphany, the Wise Men arrive in the stable with the other figurines. We spent a lot of time and attention getting the wise men TO the manger, But after Epiphany, we quickly boxed up the nativity scene with the other decorations Unceremoniously put them back downstairs.
It’s kind of the way many of us have thought of the story of the Wise Men.
We sing “Star of wonder, star of night... westward leading still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.” We imagine following the star through weeks of travel, finally reaching the destination The babe in a manger. Indeed, matthew identifies that these visitors were ‘from the East,’ which would have been Persia/Iran It stokes our imaginations further of a journey that must have taken months, And people whose study and faith that motivated them beyond their own land and religion To bring treasures to the Christ child.
But there is this little phrase that caught my attention hearing this story this time around:
“[The wise men] left for their own country by another road.” I realized I have paid so much attention to how the wise men came to Bethlehem, now I wonder— What happened afterward? Were they changed by their experience meeting the infant Jesus?
What was the road home like? We don’t have a narrative to answer these questions—but we have some clues.
The first clue is that Matthew calls these wise men “Magi,” which is from a Greek word that referred to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion of Persia based on the prophecies of Zoroaster, A religion that is still alive today. Zoroaster was believed to have been miraculously conceived by a 15 year old virgin, and Zoroaster prophesied that there would be other virgin births producing divine prophets.
The priests of Zoroaster studied literature, mathematics and astrology to discover when the prophet would be born. The point of all this comparative religion is that Jesus’ birth represented not only Jewish prophecy fulfilled But also Zoroastrian prophecy fulfilled.
These magi had been studying their whole lives, waiting for the sign of this star.
Their people had been waiting for hundreds, if not thousands of years, for this birth.
And so the Magi are the spiritual twins to the Jewish prophet Simeon from Luke’s gospel, who upon meeting Jesus at his presentation at the temple sang:
“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people." For Simeon, seeing the promise of the Christ child fulfilled meant that he could rest in peace. He had lived long awaiting this day, and now he could let go and die in the confidence that the Savior of the world would put all things right.
Did it mean something similar for the wise men? Did they too long for the day when a Savior would come and right the persistent wrongs in the world? Did they also hunger for a leader who would draw ‘every people’ together Rather than splitting people apart?
And upon finding this promised child, finding that the promise of God to provide a leader to shepherd the people into justice and peace had been fulfilled Did they live differently?
I think they must have.
For when I’ve had a significant fulfillment— completing a challenge, accomplishing a goal My life has changed. Throughout the challenges of my life, God has proven faithful—not in taking challenge or difficulty away But in providing grace enough for the day.
And in noticing the grace provided for the day, I begin to trust in God more To live in greater confidence that no matter the external circumstances, that God is working.
As I gradually see God working in my life, I am given a greater sense of purpose
Because what I do isn’t just about my life, its about God’s greater work in our world of which I am a part.
And so I imagine the Magi returning home with a new hope for themselves and the world, One that changed their daily living from searching and striving to gratitude and direction and Good News to share. The wise men ‘left for their own country by another road.’ They did this because they had been warned in a dream that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. They took a different route home so as not to be detected. But it was a different road for them at a metaphorical level, too. At home in Persia they had regular access to the king, and often advised him. In not returning to Herod as commanded, however, they were disobeying authority. In these new circumstances, they choose honor a higher power and practice civil disobedience. Bethlehem marked not only their arrival, but also it a new beginning, a new journey They returned home by another road with new understanding, new routes, and new tactics. Here at St. Matthew, I think we can identify with the Magi because we have been on a journey, too—
For some of you, it began three years ago this month when Pr Carter announced his retirement. Since that time, you have said goodbye to Pr Carter and Pr Hille, as well as welcoming me and Pr Bill.
You have had three music directors and two sextons.
Today we celebrate Pastor Brian’s first Sunday with us, and in some ways it feels like we have arrived. We have our new permanent staff in place.
But like the wise men, this arrival is really the beginning of a new journey. We have now to unpack the gifts that our new staff will unleash among us. Each of our staff has treasures to share— Gifts that will support your ministry—you, the members of this congregation. Journey ahead of us will take us by another road It won’t be a repeat of what worked in the past. Much of ministry in today’s changed cultural landscape involves adaptive learning instead of technical fixes In other words, learning to do things in a new way with different tools, rather than simply refining the ways of the past.
This is a new chapter and new beginning in Christianity in America And as in the first century, God is acting in history God is acting in our lives We have a message of hope that unites people We have a shepherd who goes after the lost and the least
we are changed from our worried solitary preoccupations and turned outward to share Good News that the world is worth saving and that Jesus, through our hands and feet, is doing just that. I guess you could think of us as the modern day magi,
Searching and journeying And at the same time, changed by what we have seen and experienced— Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.
May God continue to guide our congregation by the light of Christ to send us out to share and be Good News And to lead us as we journey together by another road.