With a new year come resolutions, and though I haven’t made any formal ones, one of my informal intentions is to get back to having a regular presence here. We all know how Christmas goes… and between the pageant and vacation, I wasn’t preaching quite as regularly. Anyway – it’s a new year – anything is possible. I’m hoping to be here more regularly, and maybe even blog a little about things beyond weekly sermons.
Sunday was the feast of Epiphany. It marks the end of the Christmas season and is the day we remember the three wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem. It’s a good day for pondering the year ahead, listening for God’s leading, and looking for new stars that might guide us in the year to come.
My reflections are after the jump. If you’d like to listen to, rather than read these thoughts, you can do that at Bethany’s website, right here. Services are usually posted by Tuesday each week.
They came from far, far away, over mountains and through desert, because of a star? Really? As a twenty-first century city dweller, I can scarcely imagine knowing the stars well enough to even notice a new star. But of course, they knew the stars. The stars were a universal map.
But even in those days it must have been unusual to strike out on an epic journey following nothing but the leading of a star and whatever gut feeling it had inspired.
They didn’t know how the story would end, didn’t know what they would find, or even if they would find anything.
They had no proof, no end game. What they did have seems awfully slight compared to all they didn’t have.
What did they have? These wise men following a star and a hunch?
They had curiosity. Apparently none of their peers were as curious as they were. And when they got to Jerusalem, so close to their goal, not even the scribes and professional holy people were curious. When they hear the question they all kind of yawn. Oh, yes, right, a savior in Bethlehem. That’s what all the old prophecies say. So?
In hindsight the scribes look like idiots, but their response was the reasonable one. Those prophecies had stood for hundreds of years. It was the wise men with their curiosity and urgency that was unreasonable. They were like children who will not stop asking why, and what’s that, and why. These wise men were almost foolishly curious.
I wonder where our curiosity falls short.
In some ways we know so much more than those early wise men. We know what the stars are made of and why they twinkle. We know that new stars do not just appear, and that if we want to find our way GPS is essential. But perhaps in our knowledge we have lost some of our wisdom. If we have traded curiosity for certainty, was that a wise move?
These wise men who didn’t have a plan or proof. They had curiosity, and at least one more thing—they had a willingness to let go of their fear, or at least live with the discomfort it caused, rather than letting it rule their lives. It took courage to strike out on this journey. They must have been scared of looking like fools, of getting lost along the way; maybe they were even scared of what they might find. But, fear and all, they went.
Herod was terrified, too. We know that Herod’s the bad guy so we don’t really take his response seriously, but it made sense for him to be afraid. It’s an understandable reaction to something unplanned and utterly new. What on earth? What will this mean? What will happen? What will I lose?
We know how this is. Change comes at home or in our social circles, at work or at church, and we hesitate. The old ways worked just fine. What dangers might lurk along this untried path? What will we have to give up to grasp this new thing?
Herod had good reason to be afraid.
With hindsight we know—his worst fears were right. This child would not leave him unchallenged and unchanged. Embracing the life being born in Bethlehem would mean death—death for his love of power, his love of ease and money, death for his way of life. It makes all the sense in the world that Herod would be afraid.
What doesn’t make any sense is that these ostensibly wise men wouldn’t be. Or that they would be willing to live with their fear, to be afraid and yet plunge ahead, following the lead of this star.
They didn’t emerge unscathed. They had at least one brush with physical death, and at the end, after finding the child, they weren’t able to go back the way they came. They had to go home by another route. When something new breaks into our lives, we are changed. We are not the same people. And we can’t ever quite get back to who we were before.
T. S. Eliot tells the story of the wise men in a poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” It is written as if it is a first person account of the journey told many years later. The story concludes like this:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
They had struck out with curiosity, a willingness to be led, and hope—hope for what lay at the end of the road marked out by the star. What they found was life—real Life. And having found that Life they were changed. Their lives were no longer their own, but were shaped now by the child they found in Bethlehem.
This birth was, indeed, a death. In being born to the wonder, the majesty, the joy of life with God, they died to all the lesser loves that had previously shaped their lives.
This is how it is with us as well. When we say yes to Christ, whether it is in a life-changing crossroads moment, or in one of the thousands of small ways that Christ calls us to follow, we are being asked not only to follow, but to leave something behind; we are called not only to life, but also to death.
For the new life of Christ to be born in us—new life that is marked by humility and gentleness, peacefulness and joy—for that to take shape in us, there needs to be space, breathing room. Christ asks us to let go of some of what we hold dear. Maybe like Herod, that means letting go of some of our power, our comfort, our willingness to have ease at the expense of others. Maybe like the scribes and wise people of Judea, it means letting go of our worldly ways, our carefully cultivated boredom and skepticism. Maybe, like Mary, we will have to let go of respectability and social approval. Maybe, like the shepherds, we will need to let go of what we were doing and all that makes sense. In some way, when we follow, we are all like the wise men from the East, letting go of the safety of home and traveling to a new land.
It makes all the sense in the world to be afraid. I am sure those wise men were afraid. But they did not let that fear have the final say. Day after day on their journey to Bethlehem and back they chose hope, they chose life.
When they set out to follow that star, they didn’t know how the story would end. They didn’t have a plan that covered all the contingencies. They didn’t even have a vocabulary for what they were looking for.
But it turns out that they didn’t need to wait until they knew how the story would end or where their wild plan would lead. They didn’t have to have all of the answers. They didn’t need any of that.
They had been given exactly what they needed: curiosity, a willingness to let go of fear, and a desire to follow.
Friends, these are gifts we have all been given. If we choose to embrace them, the wild good news is this: there is a star rising, for each of us, for all of us. There was a child born in Bethlehem; there is life being born as we speak. God is calling us into a future of hope. God is calling you, you, into a future of hope, into life, life abundant, life that is more than we can imagine. There’s a star, just up ahead. Shall we follow?by Sarah W. Wiles Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA