Sunday, January 8, 2012

Home By Another Way

Reverend Mel Baars
January 8, 2012

Home By Another Way

Like most kids who grew up in a church going family, a part in the annual Christmas pageant was hard to avoid. It didn’t help at all that my grandmother, stalwart Methodist and avid church go-er, also happened to be a drama teacher and the pageant organizer. My role as head angel was secure throughout all the years of my childhood. The pageant would unfold as most pageants do. Mary and Joseph would knock on the innkeeper’s door and after being told there was no room in the inn, would settle into the makeshift stable where paper mache sheep, goats and cattle would be “lowing.”

At some point, I would sing Away in a Manger and then, shortly thereafter, the wise men would appear bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, foam boxes spray painted to look shiny and regal. The wise men, typically clad in bathrobes and converted bed sheets, were often the “wise men” of the congregation. Baring death or serious illness, their parts were also set in stone. Since nativity plays are not able to honor “real time,” the wise men always arrived about five minutes after the Jesus’ birth rather than a few years. We don’t really know when they arrived or how long it took for them to find Jesus. All we know is that these wise men embarked on a long, uncertain journey, following a star all the way.

Nativity plays can’t really capture the journey of the magi. In a way, watching the journey wouldn’t be THAT interesting, at least for a large portion of the time. I am sure there were some adventurous moments, traversing the sand dunes, balancing on a camel hours at a time, and all the while, being guided by a star. It is not really the details of the journey, though, that matter so much as it is the way that the journey must have changed the travelers. Most of us, whenever setting off on a journey, don’t really conceive of what it will mean to us, how it will change the course of our future. I wonder if the Wise Men had any idea what they were getting themselves into or how this journey would change them forever. Would they have still gone, if they had known the whole picture, if they had known about King Herod’s deception and fear? Would they have followed the star knowing that an encounter with Jesus would mean that nothing would ever be the same?

We don’t have much factual knowledge about these magi. Some scholars have claimed that they were magicians who practiced divination which was regarded as dangerous, to say the least. Others have argued that they were a part of a priestly class serving the rulers of Persia therefore wielding significant power and influence. Still others figure that they were astrologers who looked toward the heavens for signs, providing advice and insight.

We can’t begin to know, really, what it is that they saw and subsequently followed all those many miles. Perhaps what they saw was a supernova or major celestial explosion. Although, it could be that what they saw wasn’t that remarkable to the average onlooker. Maybe these wise men just happened to have their eyes tuned in to the world that was unfolding around them. While Biblical scholars and scribes serving King Herod should have been watching and remembering the words of the prophets about a ruler coming out of Bethlehem in Judah, they were not paying attention. Instead, it was these magi who not only had eyes to see, but also had enough faith to embark on a journey to find the truth.

I can imagine, in the fervor and excitement of such a discovery, a star rising, signaling this new birth, that deciding to go on the journey was the easy part, particularly with “group think” mentality. If everyone thinks it’s a good idea, then the more negative consequences are not always brought to light. It is less scary to do something brave with a friend, versus on one’s own. Yet, I can imagine, a few weeks into their traveling, their faith in this star and this prophecy must have started to wane. What if they had gotten it wrong? What if this wasn’t what God really meant when God spoke through the prophets? What if they were too late and their journey was for nothing? As they traveled over weeks and months and maybe years, not knowing where they were going or what they were going to find when they got there, I am sure that their faith in the star must have faltered. After all, they were human, however wise, and surely, on some of the more cold, dark, and lonely nights, they must have thought about turning back toward home, back toward what they knew was certain.

Yet, in a way, they must have know that once embarked upon this journey of faith, there was no going back. Faithfulness on this journey did not manifest itself in what they knew for sure. Having doubts or wondering if they would ever make it did not mean they were lost. Instead faithfulness meant taking the next step. Not giving up. Following the star when everyone and everything else around them advised otherwise. Their faithfulness was rooted in how they pressed on, not derailed by exhaustion or distraction along the way, but simply staying the course, following the star no matter where it led them.

When I think about journeying, it’s hard not to consider the journey that we are all on here in Afghanistan. Instead of a star to propel us onto the plane, across the miles and away from the comfort of what we know well, we had orders and a commander or First Sergeant telling us what to do and when to do it. Nonetheless, coming here has required leaps of faith. Whether we work as a part of the guard force, practice some form of detainee medicine, or engage in other aspects of the mission, on many days, staying faithful to our calling has meant, simply, putting one foot in front of the other, not giving up or letting frustration get to us, remembering that we, too, are guided by the light of a star. Even when life seems dark. Even, when we feel alone and disconnected from God.

This journey of faith is not without doubt or fear. It is not without our questions or confusion. It is not even without our protest or sadness in times of suffering or loss. I think that we sometimes confuse our confidence with the quality of our faith. But real faith is not captured in a moment. It is not only understood when life is in order and the sun is shining bright enough to show us our way. Faith can also be real when belief has become strained. Faith is also present when we have lost our way because the darkness has not let up. Faith is real even when we are tired and spent and barely stumbling along. Faith exists when we simply continue the journey.

This is why the journey is so important, because it shapes us and makes us into something we never dreamed we could become. In the roads that we travel, in the life that we live and the people that we cling to while traversing our paths, we are in the process of growing and changing, transforming into something new so that when we finally get to the end, when the star that we have been following has stopped over the place where the Christ child waits and it is time to pay our tribute, we will be the kind of people who are ready to offer the gift that matters most.

As one author has put it, “Each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift most needed-- the gift that only you can give-- before turning to go home by another way.”[1]

And, that’s the thing. On this journey of faith which brings us to the heart of God, we can’t go back the way we came from. We are not able to retrace the same steps or use the same route, but we go home by another way. There is no going back, but only forward. Once we have encountered Christ in the place where we meet him face to face, we are no longer the same. When we met Jesus in the flesh, perhaps in friend or even in a stranger, perhaps in the face of one who is different or one who challenges all that we know to be real or true, but when we have come to find him wherever he is, we realize that we have been changed.

Our encounter with Christ changes our path forever, making it impossible to be who we once were, to follow in the ways that we once tread. We are no longer comfortable in a world that is not centered in Jesus and his gospel. We are no longer able to stand by and watch injustice doled out to the poor. We are not able to turn a blind’s eye to those who are in need. Even when we don’t choose to act, to stand up for the weak or troubled, we still churn with unease because we know what Jesus would do. We know what Jesus is calling us to do again and again. And, no matter what, once we have knelt by his manger, we can never forget it. We can never go back. The journey has shaped us, and the encounter has transformed us. We live life differently because of the new life that lives inside of us. This is the life of Christ. A new heart to love as God loves, this is what we find when we follow the star.

So, come on this journey of the magi. Your life will never be the same. Amen
[1] Jan Richardson, “For those who have far to travel.” An Epiphany Blessing

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