“Home By A Different Road”
An adaptation of a sermon by The Very Rev. Harry H. Pritchett, Jr.
Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 3, 2016: Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
Have you ever wondered about what happened to the Wise Men when they went back home? Did they live happily ever after? Were their lives changed by what they had seen in Bethlehem?
After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery of having now, at least, peered into the center of their hearts’ desire—after all that, did it make a different back home? Did it make a difference on the mundane Monday morning of taking out the garbage and changing the diapers and balancing the checkbooks? Did it make a difference in paying the bills and attending meetings and driving the carpools? Did seeing the baby Jesus make a difference for these wise men in figuring out the taxes and calling on clients and getting their teeth filled and all the thousand-and-one things that it takes to live?
After all, the Wise Men had followed a star and were exceedingly joyful in their journey’s end. But was coming to Bethlehem the end of their journey? Not really: it was necessary for them to eventually return to their own country. They did not remain in the ‘royal beauty bright’ of the star, but were warned in a dream to not return to Herod because he had a murderous plot in mind. Instead, they returned to their homes by a different road. But what was life like for them afterwards? After the star, in the cold light of day, did any of it really matter? Did it make any difference at all?
After the anticipation and the celebration and the wonder of the holy night, with candles flickering and the smell of cedar and the songs of angels, does the Christmas spirit really matter? Does it make any difference at all? When it comes time to drag the tree outside or up into the attic and get back to school and work, it is very easy to feel like the Wise Men who saw the Christ child but, eventually, had to go home.
In his poem, “For the Time Being,” W.H. Auden describes this post-Christmas mood. He says, “Well, so that is that…we’ve gotten through Christmas once again, perhaps in spite of ourselves…” but it’s over now. Auden goes on to say, “Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility. So, it’s back to the old world we left behind for just a bit on Christmas Eve, and perhaps that makes us weary. And yet the Vision will not entirely go away. We almost wish it would. Auden concludes, “To those who have seen the child, however dimly, however incredulously, the time being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”
What Auden describes is more subtle, more profound than what we might refer to as the ‘after Christmas blue.’ Like the Wise Men, for those who have seen the star, it will not easily fade away. The sense of wonder, the capacity to dream, the joy of that holy night continues to catch our imagination. The joy that we knew in our hearts as we went to Bethlehem to see what had happened, won’t easily go away. We still long to know it right here in the midst of the old routines, right here where we are and always have been—in a world that Christmas doesn't seem to have changed very much.
Could it be that our world is really Herod’s world, the Roman world, rather than the mysterious eastern world of the Wise Men? Are we not more children of Herod than descendants of those starry-eyed star gazers? Do we not seek order, decency, efficiency, and control, rather than the unclear, vague, formless mystical naiveté of the Wise Men?
I believe we live in a world in which almost all of the wonder has been drained away. We tend to see religions as only a system of rights and wrongs, or as a pattern of engaging in worship. We tend to have insulated and isolated ourselves from wonder, from imagination, from mystery, because it is unmanageable, impractical, and deemed as useless.
But I also believe that wonder is precisely what we, God’s creatures, are most hungry for today. In the midst of our technological and mechanical and scientific world, I find that my soul is often unsatisfied and my heart yearning for something more. How about you? Some people flee to Eastern gurus or modern new age cults. Some flee into fantasy literature or movies, which have become a major component of our entertainment. Think about the new Star Wars movie; sure, it has a long and deep following, but it has been the fastest film in history to gross $1 billion dollars. It did this in 12 days, with it’s other-worldly setting and constant, even spiritual, interplay of light and dark. We hunger and we long for mystery. We wish and yearn for that which is greater than ourselves, for that which outreaches our human grasp. We yearn for affiliation with something that transcends the horrors that technology has given us under the false promise of salvation. We experience moral poverty in almost all of our common systems—political, social, and economic. We watch powerless as international violence and terrorism explode across our lives, and we hear the macho game playing of our leaders under the giant shadow of war and rumors of war. And we sense that the world is out of control, reeling towards some hideous nightmare end…something nuclear or at least toxic.
And so, we know deep down that we must reach beyond this world for anything that sounds of hope. The crazy thing is, when we reach beyond this world for something that sounds of hope, there is only mystery, wonder, and a bright shining star.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” It is that mystery, that wonder, that capacity to dream that we celebrate today through the story of the Wise Men. When they arrived at the home where Jesus had been born, light splashed onto them that transcends all order, all ethics, all understanding. They were the first people from the outside to see God in the flesh. We call this day ‘epiphany’ because it was on this day that God made himself known to insider and outside alike—God got in the face of everyone who came looking. The world of the Wise Men is distant from us by millennia, but it was no different from our own. Herod may have been a mortal figure in history, but his policies, his murderous wrath, his scheming and plotting, thats immortal. Their world, like ours, has corrupt parts that need God’s light; their world, like ours, was under the shadow of war, looking like it was spinning towards a hideous nightmare end. But they saw light, they followed that star, that unpredictable and unmanageable star, and all their wishes and yearnings and dreams for something more, something beyond, something of hope, came to life in a little baby, lying in a manger. As the song says, “The hopes and fears of all the years,” were met in him, in Jesus, that night. The Wise Men reached out to something beyond themselves, to something beyond their world, and they were able to grasp the true Light of a The World.
What should we do? What can we do? Now that we have seen the child and sung the songs and lit the candles, what can and should we do so that Christmas matters, so that Christmas will make some difference for us and the world in 2016?
The Wise Men were warned in a dream to go home by a different road. If they had gone home the same way they came, Herod would have found Jesus and would have ended his life. The Wise Men listened to the warning, and we can too. We can go home by a different road. We can resist the Herods of our time who try to trick us into believing that wonder and dreams and imagination are just for kids and not for so-called grown ups. We can resist the Herods of our time who try to lure us back the same way we came, not because it is good for us, but because it is good for them. We can resist the Herods of our time who say that Christmas is just a season and Christ’s birth happens just once a year. We can resist the Herods of our time, and we definitely should, because while they may be very smart, the will never be very wise.
Contemporary Herods are all those people, institutions, and cultural assumption that kill the childlike wonder in us all. Herods inside or outside always say, “It can’t be done…there is no way…you must never take a chance…everything you do must be useful and efficient…imagination is worth nothing…playing is wasteful…never follow stars.” Again, while they may be very smart, they will never be very wise.
Wisdom. That is how we keep the spirit of Christmas from being packed away with the manger scenes and Christmas trees. Wisdom is how the wonder of that holy night will remain lit inside of us, pushing us to always reach out for that something more. Wisdom is how things will change, how the difference will be made, in here and out there. And wisdom begins, not in big things, but in small things.
For Christmas this year, Katie and I gave each other a devotional book called Sacred Ordinary Days. We saw the book on Kickstarter, the website where anyone can contribute financially to a project they want to support. The reward for contributing to Sacred Ordinary Days was a copy of the book. It is a year-long journal that follows the church calendar, and it tells me each day what I should be reading from the Bible. There is space to reflect on the Scripture passages, to set goals for the day, and to look ahead to goals and projects throughout the year.
Heres the thing, though. I am not very good at following through with things like this. I’ve tried many devotionals through the years, and I usually start strong and fizzle out early. I get distracted easily and you know what its like trying to survive these day. I simply don’t take enough time for myself, for prayer and devotion and rest, and I'm not complaining that I don’t have enough ‘me’ time. This is a problem I think most people have. What turns me off to these things, and what I think makes most people fizzle on commitments, is that we bite off more than we can chew. Read the Bible in a year? Sure—its all well and good until you get to the book of Numbers in February and you end up turning on Law and Order because the pages and pages of genealogy are mind-numbing. Pray or meditate or rest for an hour each day? Sure—its all well and good until you have a deadline, or the kids needs something, or there are simply not enough hours in the day. Read more, write more, travel more, do more creative things? Sure—until the money runs out, or your health takes a turn, or you simply lose the creative bug.
But small things? Those are manageable. Reading a few passages of Scripture each day and jotting down some reflections? That is manageable. Taking fifteen minutes each day to quite your heart and your mind, thinking on God or thinking about nothing? That is manageable. Taking a once-a-month course in watercolor painting? That is possible. Reading a book of poetry over the span of a month? That is possible. Playing with your children instead of just standing by, waiting to clean up? That is possible. Writing down all the questions you’ve ever had, not to search for answers, but to live in the mystery of the unknown? That is possible. Paying more attention to all life, your’s and the creation around you; listening more to silence; looking for the Christmas star in the face of everyone you meet? That is divine.
All these things, these small things are manageable, possible, divine—and this is where wisdom starts, and where wisdom grows. Through these small things, the wonder and the imagination and the creativity of Christmas lives on, not just sentimentally, but actually. Through these small things, the Herods of the world turn and dash away in fear because their world will be deconstructed by the wise. Order, rules, decency, efficiency, and control are not abolished, but rather enhanced by wisdom to become servants of a more just world, not the other way around. Wisdom gives us courage to seek the will of God, not just in this season or that one, but in every moment we are alive. Wisdom sets you and me free to dream, to imagine, to embrace wonder as we look for the star and bask in its eternal light. Wisdom will bring us to life, and all of this will come to be if you decide today to go home by a different way, whatever way that may be.
We really don’t know for certain what it was like for the Wise Men when they arrived back home. We can only imagine. But their message today is one of hope because it is not about certainties, but about journeying with joy and wonder in everything we do. It is about dreaming of new futures; it is about following the star of Christ wherever it may lead; it is about small things that plant and grow wisdom; it is about a people who are called to arise and shine for our light has come; and it is finally about the deep, deep love of God that is for you and me, insiders and outsiders alike. Decide today how you will go home. If it is by a different road, there is a star of wonder, a star of night, a star of royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guiding you to the perfect light. Guiding you to Jesus. Amen.