NRSV ISAIAH 60:1-6
60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
NRSV MATTHEW 2:1-12
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It’s only the fifth day of the year, the very first Sunday, the start of yet another journey around the sun. And already we have a convergence, a meeting of so many different roads. There is the road of Christmas; this is after all, the 12th day of Christmas. We are met not with 12 drummers drumming, but with three Wise Men worshipping, but more on that later. It’s still the Christmas season, the time to consider what this radically new thing is that God has done, to take on flesh and dwell among us.
It’s also the day before the road of Epiphany, which begins with the coming of the Wise Men. Not just the day that marks the end of the Christmas season and the day to conduct the sad work of putting all this beautiful greenery away for another year. But a time to mark a movement in the church; a movement away from our obsession with buildings and outward into the world.
It is, of course, the first Sunday of the year. It’s a special time, a time to mark the passage of time yes, but also a time to mark the ongoing nature of our time, to remind us that God – who is beyond time – is still also with us in the midst of the time in which we find ourselves. To celebrate this I always like to have us sing the last hymn for today, “God of Our Life.” It was written by a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr, in 1916 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. But that’s not the time that is significant. It is the time that we remember that no matter what time it is in our lives, early or late or somewhere in between, God is present, God is active, and God is still leading us, shining as a star of hope in our often dreary lives, compelling us to go home another way.
There is the road of Christmas, the road of the beginning of Epiphany, the road of the start of the year – and the road of Communion, the sacrament we celebrate that marks our identification as the body of Christ. After all, it was John Calvin, the founder of our faith tradition, who held that the marks of the church – the things that made a church completely distinctive from any other place or community – were where the Sacraments are rightly administered and the word of God faithfully proclaimed. We begin every year by coming to the table, by breaking and pouring, eating and drinking, and doing it all in remembrance of God in the flesh whose presence we feel in a special way as all these elements converge.
With the convergence of all of that, our attention this day is on the Wise Men. A lot of us grew up with nativity scenes in our homes, with the wise men and the shepherds all crowded in there worshipping Jesus while angels hovered overhead. Of course, the biblical facts are a little different. Each of the birth stories given by Luke and Matthew (actually, the only birth stories we have of Jesus) direct us toward specific points those Gospel writers wanted to make. In Luke, Jesus is fresh out of the womb, his coming announced by angels to lowly shepherds. It reflects Luke’s concern for the lower parts of society, the people who were tossed aside and ignored. In that wonderful story we read just over a week ago the angels come not to royalty or the intellectual elite, but to shepherds who hardly had any schooling, out there in the elements making sure the sheep were okay. It’s as if Luke were saying “If God can come and reveal God’s self first to lowly, dumb shepherds, why can’t God come to you?”
In Matthew’s account, there are no angels, there are no shepherds. And Jesus is probably not a neonate. He is a toddler, and his folks are not living in a manger, but in a house. All of this points to Matthew’s desire to show that this child is royalty beyond what others can imagine. That royalty is not just for the house of David, for the people of Israel; it is for Gentiles, outsiders who come and worship Jesus as the King of the Jews, pointing toward the mission to the Gentiles that the resurrected Christ will give to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s account.
And yet with all of those differences, there is still a convergence. For me it is in those wonderful words as Matthew sets those intrepid wise men off on their journey back home – they get to go home by another way. They have to stay away from Herod, for as noted writer Frederick Buechner informs us in one of his sermons, anyone can tell you that no king enjoys news that another king has been born to take his place. The forces of power and empire always rely on fear. But this is a new king, a different kind of king, and his way will not be the way of fear, but of love and peace and hope for all people. Even for superstitious, wandering Gentiles like the wise men. They get to go home another way.
And so do we.
We may not do it to get away from a murderous, vindictive, vicious king. But we have all kinds of vicious forces in our lives that seek our fear. Or maybe simply our acquiescence. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep going where you’re going, don’t venture off too far, don’t take any chances, don’t be adventurous. I know there are times when those words are good counsel. Taking too many chances is dangerous and maybe a sign that perhaps we need some counseling for being a little too careless with our own safety. And despite my many calls for us to embrace change, I have to say as someone who has had too many changes in the last six months that a little more stability in my life would look really good about now.
But a quick look at the Biblical witness tells us that God is always on the move. Very rarely does God tell someone to stay in one place. The word of the Lord coming to Elijah on Mount Horeb in a still, small voice to go back and keep at it is one example, but there are so many others of the voice of the Lord saying, “Go…” Like to Abraham. Like to Jacob. Like to Moses. Like to those going into exile. Like to those returning from exile. Like to Jesus himself. Like to his disciples, like to the apostles, traveling all over the place, taking the good news. The call to us is to dare to go home another way – take another route, one you might not have thought of before. If we get caught up in doing things the same way over and over, we may miss out on what God is calling us to be and do; which is distinctive and unique every day we live.
Think of the time you took on something daring, something a little bit adventurous. Maybe something in which you were not sure of, but you had faith that God would see you through. I remember going to Jamaica almost 40 years ago, never having been out of this country. But it was a transformative experience. I just cannot imagine who I would be without that time of being away, of seeing people live out their faith in vibrant ways; of living in a place among people who were just as proud of their country as I was of mine; without that time of seeing how people with little material resources could be so happy and joyful and faithful, because they didn’t have a lot of stuff holding them back. They just had the Spirit of God dwelling mightily in their midst giving them a joy that was contagious. A joy from going home another way.
What is home anyway? It’s a place where you live, a place where when you go there, they have to take you in, as Robert Frost once wrote. But it is also a place where you see and sense and feel the presence of God in a strong way. It is a place where you go, sometimes a place you’ve never been to before, yet a place where you feel like you have lived there your whole life. It can a place far away, it can be the same place you have lived in for 80 years. What makes it a home is that God is there, the Spirit of the Lord is there. And you get there by going another way; by looking at people differently; by sensing God differently. It doesn’t matter if you board a plane or have never been to an airport for a seafront terminal. You can always get to go home another way when you, like the wise men, open yourself up to the star God gives you to lead you home.
Especially on this first Sunday of the year, and especially during the Sacrament of Communion. We celebrate this special event several times a year, and it might seem like we say the same words over and over. The Words of the Institution. The Sanctus. The Memorial Acclimation – “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” But in the midst of all of that we have this long Prayer of Thanksgiving, and in every liturgical season they are different. Each one leads us home a different way. At the start of the year, by reminding us that God is God of all times and places. In Lent that God’s presence sustains us in our times in the wilderness. On Maundy Thursday, as we remember the night of our Lord’s passion so we might sense his presence in our own times of suffering. During Pentecost, when the gifts of God’s Spirit allow us to see creation and ourselves anew with light and love. During the summer, when activities calm down, we need to remember God grants us the gift of sabbath, of rest in the midst of our work. During World Communion we sense God’s direction taking us into engagement with other Christians who do not speak our language, except the language of Christ’s love. During All Saints as we remember those who showed us what it means to go home another way in faith. At the start of Advent, with Christmas all around us, as we go in a different journey, one marked by preparation for the arrival of God in our midst and in our flesh.
It’s all going home another way. Or, as the late Ann Weems once wrote:
Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.