“By Another Way”

January 8, 2012


Matthew 2:1-12


Well, the magi are off stage, on their way home, and that pretty much wraps things up for another year. The wonderful mid-twentieth century Revised Standard Version of the Bible says of those ancient astrologers: “…they departed to their own country by another way.”

The Christmas season ends in returning—no, I don’t mean the exchange of gifts, although there has most likely been some of that.

The Christmas season ends with going back, a returning to where we were.

Remember the story from the Gospel of Luke that we heard on Christmas Eve? After the angels announced peace on earth to the shepherds, they left those astonished shepherds and went back into heaven.

And those astonished shepherds? After they got a glimpse of the baby Jesus and told the incredible news that they had heard from the angels to everyone who would listen, they returned to their flocks.

Our own lives echo this biblical model. Most likely, any out-of-town guests who were visiting you in recent weeks have left for their own countries as well. Maybe that came with some relief—wasn’t it Ben Franklin who first said that fish and house guests both start to smell after three days? One of my favorite Christmas movies is The Man Who Came to Dinner—the story of the chaos that ensues when a guest doesn’t leave. But the good guests, well, they’ve returned home.

Your presence here this morning indicates that if you were traveling at Christmas, you have now returned as well—although I in no way mean to imply that anyone tired of your company.

After Christmas—we return.

It’s the biblical thing to do. Even after the resurrection joy of Easter, the disciples returned to their previous occupation of fishing.

“…they left for their own country…”

Like the magi, like the angels and shepherds, like the disciples, we get on with our lives. We take down the tree, pick up where we left off, and return to normal—whatever that might be.

This is the time of starting over. We return to our work and our dreams, we go back to how things were bringing our hopes of how they might be.

And here’s some real good news for us: Sperling’s BestPlaces recently named Iowa City as the best city in the United States for starting over. If you’re looking for a fresh start, this is where you want to be. “Iowa City really is a nice town,” the report said. “It has an attractive downtown, a well-educated population, and a great community feel to it.” Given that we are an attractive part of that attractive downtown, that our members are a well-educated part of a well-educated population, and that this congregation has a great community feel to it, I’m willing to state that Congregational UCC is the best church in the United States for starting over. You’re in the right place this morning.

After Christmas—we return.
We go back after an epiphany—a revealing—of something new or something forgotten.

What has been revealed is that God is with us.

We began our Advent preparations with this hope, this prayer. “O come, O come Emmanuel,” we sang. The Hebrew word Emmanuel means “God is with us.” Emmanuel gives expression to our hope, our faith that we are not alone in what can at times seem to be a cold and uncaring universe.

You know, don’t you, that this is more than just a seasonal, Advent prayer. It is the prayer of each of our days: God be with my family, be with those I love, be with this congregation, be, even, with me.

Praying this way we slowly extend the circle of our concern: God be with those we don’t know—the homeless beggars on the Ped-Mall, the hungry at the Free Lunch, the destitute at the Crisis Center. Be with this nation as caucuses end and an election year begins. Be with this world still living in economic uncertainty, with ongoing violence, wars, and rumors of war.

Come Emmanuel—God be with us.

Revelation—an epiphany—answers such prayers. We receive, not certainty, but revelation—a making known to us what we can’t think through or reason out. The eyes of faith have seen and the ears of hope have heard what eyes have not seen and ears have not heard: God is with us—not just in the wonder and beauty of Christmas but also when the lights have come down, the tree has been thrown out and the angels have returned into the heavens. In all of our days and nights, in our living and in our dying, in our returning and starting over God is with us.

So we can be with one another, seeking to love as we have been loved. We can be with the world, seeking to bring healing to our city, our nation. We can even—and sometimes this is the most difficult—we can even be with ourselves in stillness, in acceptance, in love. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we can be at peace in our own skin.

This is the epiphany—God is with us.

After the revelation, we return.

We go back to where we were.

You see, in most respects, we’re pretty much the same people that we were back in November, aren’t we? We still have the same strengths that we bring to our work and our families, to this city and this congregation. We still have the same concerns about our world and the poverty, hunger, and violence that still haunt it. And, yes, we’re still dealing with the same foibles, flaws, and, well, sin, in spite of the goodwill and resolve that we’ve known in recent weeks.

Christmas, Epiphany—such days don’t change us. This, perhaps, was part of the wisdom of the old Congregational neglect of such occasions. But Christmas and Epiphany do remind us that God is at work in our world and in our lives—telling us that even we might be transformed by God’s love; even we might be remade in the image of Christ.

We return by another way.

You can take that literally if you want—go down a different street on your way home today or on your way to work tomorrow.

Or go down the unfamiliar, unknown roads of this New Year—finding new opportunities, new challenges, new wonder.

Read this story of the magi again sometime this week. Notice that God is never mentioned. God is with us. But God is with us “unobtrusively and ambiguously.”[1] This is how God chooses to be with us—in a way beyond our deepest fears and our wildest hopes.

It is a great time—and this is a great place—to start over, to begin again, to return by another way.

[1] Eugene Boring, Matthew, NIB, vol. 8, pg. 143.