Another Road

When it starts, it often feels like an instinct or a growing sense of wondering. For the Magi, it was a star that caught their eye and ignited their studies. Regular night time studies of following the star. Each of them dropped everything and followed it! They travelled far across dunes with determination and grit. Not knowing exactly where they would end up, they were following the star that guided them. These wise ones were followers looking for truth and seeking the new King.
Most scholars believe that the wise men or magi were a group of Zoroastrian priests who were studying the stars as a part of their religious practice. When one, two, three different priests saw the same brilliant star and decided to follow it – imagine the excitement! Following a star across the land is a nighttime experiment in twists and turns. This way and that way. It is not a clear path with a concrete way forward. But for these wise ones that did not matter, they were following the star to find the new king.
The star led them out of their homes and through places knew and beyond to places they had not yet discovered. The Magi found themselves in the heart of the court of the current king in Jerusalem with King Herod. Maybe here in the palace was the new king? They wondered. The star was headed this way. They asked Herod about the new king that they crossed the desert to find, giving up work and their well-ordered lives to follow. Had Herod seen him? Where was this promise one?
And King Herod knew that this was not just a group of tourists who wondered into the West Wing. Their prophecies and observations were too keen and insightful. They hit too close to the old scrolls. There was the one in Micah about new ruler born in Bethlehem. How could they have known known? After conferring with his council, the sly communicator he chose to be suggested for them to collaborate with him. Why not have these men do the reconnaissance work? He tried to give away how nervous and on edge this made him. After the investigation, King Herod promised that he would send flowers and welcome the new king properly! The wise men were the advance team doing the scout work, and he would be behind to greet the new King properly. But Herod was undone, even as he tried to hold it together.
As they walked out, the Magi exchanged knowing looks about Herod, but they were still full force ahead. There was a King to find! Follow that star! Where it stops, nobody knows…. Until! The star stopped over the house where the child was, they were overwhelmed with JOY! Did you catch that? The JOY did not wait until they saw Jesus, like we would assume – it was when the star stopped. As soon as they knew their journey was achieving its goal, they would know joy.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflects: “Discovering more joy does not, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreaks without being broken.(1) ”
The house was not as they expected. It was modest and small, in contrast to the royal court. But it had enough. Enough for the family. Enough for a king who would change the world and our expectations. Enough for a king who would tell them all to go home a different way. Going into the house, each wise one offered their gifts and spent time with the child. The joy of time spent in good company was in each moment.
The next day when it was time to leave, there was no longer a star to guide the way. The star which had guided them all the way to see the Christ child was gone! Without GPS or no downloaded map, they were on their own to go back home. But the craziest thing, they were not on their own at all! Dreams had let each of them know, in no uncertain terms, GO home by another road.
The star had led them to the cradle of Jesus, and a dream would lead them away from the potentially political entanglement with Herod. Six days into this new year, many of us thinking in similar ways. How can follow where God is leading us? After we have been at the cradle of Jesus, where do we go from here? What comes next?
Like the Magi, we find ourselves drawn to follow hunches and movements of the Spirit. This is certainly more familiar to some than others. Like any activity, it takes practice to hear the voice of God in our dreams and natural phenomena. God’s voice is always on the side of love and justice as well as the love and care for all God’s people. We listen in prayer and ask God to tune our ears to hear God. And then pay attention – it may be stars or dreams, conversations or whispers to your heart.
The magi heard to go home by a different road to care well for the Christ child and the holy family. It is likely intuition that was triggered first when they met Herod, but God spoke clearly, so there could be no mistake. Herod was not the new king, and he was intensely jealous and willing to act out of his fear. Do not tell him where Jesus is; they determined listening to the dreams. They return a different way, physically and spiritually changed.
In our lives, we are creatures of habits. We do what is most comfortable. Sometimes, we need to go home by a different road. God, who sees, hears, knows our preferred future, a future with hope is calling us to life as a people who hear God’s way and follow it. Do not return to the place you have been! If you have been caught in worry or negativity or hopelessness or despair, do not return to the same path. Every time we identify the Herods in our own lives, like the Magi, we do not return to them, but rather practice joy. How can we practice this joy? Throughout January, we will talk more about the practice of enduring joy in the face of inevitable life challenge.
Last year, we began the tradition of the star words – a single word to guide your year. During communion, I will invite you to the same practice. There are 100 words, 2 copies of each word. They were prayed over as they were prepared. I have found that often a word chooses you. Take the word and hang in a place that you see throughout the year. Let it be your prayer for the year. Listen as God speaks through this practice to you.
We, like the wise ones are changed when we meet Jesus. Let your practices of discernment in hearing God’s voice bring you sustained joy. May you find joy in another road home!
This is the Gospel, the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.

(1) The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing Word by Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2016.

  Old Testament Lesson Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

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.

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

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.

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.

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

    all those from Sheba shall come.

  *Gospel Lesson Matthew 2:1-12

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.