“A Different Way”

January 8, 2017


Matthew 2:1-12


“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Well, the magi are off stage, on their way home, and that pretty much wraps things up for another year.

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, they left the 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.

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.

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

But not so fast!

The word epiphany often conjures up images of a flash of lightening and sudden shouts of “Eureka!” It brings to mind the idea of an “ah-ha” moment—an unexpected insight that comes out of the blue.

The story of the magi suggests something different—a slow, patient process, more like the dawning of a new day than a light bulb being switched on.

Following a star takes time. It is a long way from the courts of Parthia or Armenia to Herod’s palace. And, a difficult journey as the poet said, “such a journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.” By the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem—after questioning Herod, after listening to the advice of the chief priests and scribes, after further following the start that they had seen—they enter, not the manger of carols and Christmas cards and popular imagination, but a house. Mary and Joseph had found the time to acquire better housing during the journey of the Magi.

Ephiphany, revelation comes over time as we journey. God is still being made known in the world, even now, even here. Slowly. Over time.

We began our Advent preparations with the prayer: “O come, O come Emmanuel.” 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 who beg on the Ped-Mall, the hungry at the Free Lunch, the destitute at the Crisis Center. Be with this nation in this time of transition of power. Be with this world in a time of growing instability and uncertainty, with ongoing violence, wars, and rumors of war.

Come Emmanuel—God be with us.

The answer to such prayers? Epiphany. We receive, not certainty, but the slow revelation of something 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 beginning again 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 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 take a different way.

The Magi find another road home.

Those disciples who went back to fishing after the resurrection were told by the risen Christ: “Try letting your nets down on the other side of the boat” when their earlier efforts yielded no fish.

What hasn’t worked needs to be changed.

And what has worked might also need to be changed—because the world keeps changing. Time only moves in a forward direction.

Take a different 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.

Epiphany brings our Christmas celebrations to a conclusion. The angels have gone. The shepherds and the Magi have found their different ways home. But do this, would you? Read Matthew’s 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.”[i] This is how God chooses to be with us—in a way beyond our deepest fears and our wildest hopes.

This is the God who is with us as we go a different way.

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