Unexpected roads: The transformational wisdom of the magi

The manuscript from my sermon on The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.  The link to the lectionary is here.

Have you ever gone to meet someone or to do something and have it turn out differently than you thought it would?  Maybe you’ve heard stories about someone and carry those stories with you into a meeting. You go into the meeting prepared to react in particular ways, to have feelings like those of whoever has told you the stories.  And then something odd happens.  You meet this person and it is as if he or she must be someone else.  Your experience is so different than you were told to expect, that you find yourself wondering if it is the same person.

Maybe you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or co-worker.  At first it seems like it makes sense but then…after you’ve actually started in on whatever it is, something changes and you think, “Ahh…not so much.”   So you change things up.  You listen to whatever is telling you something is not right. You go in a different direction.

The wise men in today’s Gospel are kind of like that.  We call them “wise men” but their real title would be “magi.”  Magi were people from Persia or Babylonia.  They were not Jewish.  They were not kings.  They likely were astrologers who believed that the stars always shine a bit differently whenever a king is born or crowned.  Back in those days it was customary for people to travel great distances to show their respects by bringing gifts to new kings, so the magi set out from their homes to do just that.

Along the way they run into King Herod, who asks them to come back and tell him where to find the newborn king.  It seems they agree to do that, and why wouldn’t they?  Herod says he wants to be able to visit the baby and show his respects.  That probably would have made complete sense to the magi.  After all, it’s what people do.

But …something happens.  The magi follow the star and find the place where the baby Jesus lay.  Before even seeing Jesus,  “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10).  Just being in the place where the infant lay, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Wow!  And then they meet Jesus and it can’t have been what they expected.  A newborn king born into poverty?  Lying in a feeding trough?  No trappings of wealth or privilege?   Suddenly this isn’t just a polite visit to make nice with a new king.  This isn’t what they expected. This is different.  Sure, they go on and pay their respects as planned, they give Jesus the gifts they brought.  But they don’t go back to Herod as agreed. They have a dream and decide to heed its warning. They return home by another road.

One of the most amazing things about this story – something we don’t think about that often – is that the magi didn’t know what we know today.  They didn’t have 2000+ years of history to help them understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t Jewish so they didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures with the prophets’ foretelling of the birth of the Messiah.  We’ve all heard the stories of Jesus’ life, with all the miracles and the parables and the absolute commitment to love and justice.  We have Easter and the Resurrection.  We are part of a Church that is founded, that gets its very name, from the reality of those things.

The magi didn’t have those things.  Those things hadn’t even happened yet.  The magi had themselves and their experience in the world.  They were intelligent men, learned men, some of the scientists of their day. They were courageous and curious, traveling great distances to learn more about the stars.  And they were willing to change their plans when it made sense.

They had something else we have today – what all people for all time have had and will always have – God fully present and at work in their lives.  What the magi responded to that day in their encounter with the baby Jesus is the God who is present to all of us even when we do not know it.  Even when we do not understand it.  Even when we don’t know we are seeking God.  In following that star to the place where the baby Jesus lay, they got the answer to a question they probably did not know they were asking.  That was the overwhelming joy.

They felt God’s presence up close and personal and it changed their lives.  God had come into the world in a new and different way and they were curious enough and courageous enough to let go of their plans and their expectations.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we, too, get to experience God in new and different ways, all of the time. We are able, as were the magi, to live with a curiosity and a willingness to be changed by the new, by the unexpected, by any of the myriad ways God will show God’s grace and love to us.  That isn’t always so easy, though, is it?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who has had the experience of God’s presence in a new or different way and known it at the time.  I’m probably not the only one who has said, “Thank you, God, for being with me in this way at this time,” and then gone right back to doing whatever it was I was doing.  Living with the kind of curiosity and openness to God that leads to changed hearts and minds, can be a challenge.  It often is easier to rely on the planned, the familiar, the status quo, to accept the change that comes in surprising, unexpected, even overwhelmingly joyful ways.  And, yet, that is what the magi teach us.  They teach us to be open to the ever present invitation from God to journey deeper into the heart of God and to let that set the course of our lives.

As we journey through the season after the Epiphany and beyond, may each of us be curious enough and courageous enough to feel the overwhelming joy that is ours through Jesus Christ.  May we be open to changes of mind and heart as we follow where the Living Spirit guides us, trusting in the presence of God at all times, in all places. May each of us welcome God’s presence with joy and express our gratitude to God in ways that make a difference in the world. Amen.

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