I love to hear the story of the people from out of town, who met Jesus far from home, and afterward they took a different path to get home. They were on a journey to find Jesus – Christmas was not an experience of gathering in the comfortable, familiar space, with familiar people. These folks were on a journey through unfamiliar territory, and they found Jesus, and when they found him, they carried on the rest of their journey on a new path.
Now, tell me if this has ever happened to you: you’re outsider, or you’re a new person – in a church, work environment, a school, a neighborhood – and you see something other people don’t see.
Have you ever read a book on veganism, socialism, Buddhism, and gotten really interested in and then you asked a friend of yours who was a vegan, a socialist, a Buddhist, about something you read and your friend didn’t know what you were talking about? Sometimes a newcomer will see something veterans don’t see.
Have you ever met someone from another country, and this person wants to talk to you about some
chapter of American history, and clearly has a lot of working knowledge on the subject, but you realize you know almost nothing about it? Sometimes an outsider understands things better than an insider.
Have you ever seen something beautiful that you’d think anyone would just want to relish, but found folks who see it every day don’t see it. My wife is from Dubuque, Iowa. Iowa as a whole is kind of flat and boring (okay I should say it has an uncomplicated aesthetic appeal.), but Dubuque, by the Mississippi River is quite majestic – rolling hills and breath-taking views. The first time I visited there I said to her, wow you pass through the most spectacular landscape to go to your house. She said really? Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right.
Sometimes outsiders, newcomers, see and comprehend things that the locals miss, or take completely for granted.
The magi, the wise ones from the East, were outsiders. They were not Israelites, they were not Jews. They were probably from what is now Iran, they were probably Zoroastrian, which is a religion that still exists today. They were outsiders, newcomers, but they were the ones who were looking for Jesus. Folks in Bethlehem, folks in Israel were not.
If you have spent the last several weeks looking for Jesus, if in the midst of all the holiday mayhem, the American Christmas-industrial-complex, you didn’t let your shopping list control you, and your desire to look really great and perform in accordance with people’s expectations of you was not the most important thing on your mind, but rather you have actually been waiting for the birth of Christ, waiting for the light of God’s hope, peace, joy and love to break into the world, you may have felt like an outsider.
Because even though Christmas is all around us, most people aren’t looking for Christ.
The magi were. They didn’t know much about the Messiah, they didn’t have the cultural heritage, the traditions, they didn’t know all the stories, but they were the ones who saw the star, they were the ones who asked – where is this child?
When they came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the child, they didn’t know that no body else had seen the star. They probably expected to find everyone celebrating, but things were pretty chilled out. They asked around, ‘Where is the child that has been born king of the Jews?’ –But nobody knew what they were talking about.
Their search didn’t make sense to folks. They were newcomers, outsiders, they didn’t live there, they were there because they were on a journey. If you ever feel like an outsider, it might just be because you’re going somewhere.
The magi were looking for Christ. And when they started asking around Jerusalem, word got around of course. If you’re talking about a king being born, people want to know what’s going on. Especially the man who fancied himself the king, that would be Herod. Herod was a king in title, but not a ruler or a leader in the ways we think of kings. He held power over the people and the affairs of Judea because of his relationships with the agents of the Roman Empire. He could easily be replaced, and he knew it. Herod did not want to hear about a Messiah being born, not only because such person be a competitor with Herod, but because a people’s king would upset the folks to whom Herod was accountable. So Herod called for magi.
He put on a happy face. “Welcome to Jerusalem! We’re so glad you’re here. May I offer you some wine? Tell us how things are in the east. Listen, about this child you’ve been talking about – yes it’s wonderful. We understand he’s been born in Bethlehem. You know what would be really great? If you could go to Bethlehem, and find out exactly where he is – the name of his parents, and come tell me, so that I can pay him homage also.
Herod may have been laying it on a bit thick, and at some point the magi began to suspect he wasn’t being straight with them. Have you ever been speaking to someone, and just felt it deep down inside – this dude is lying! This person is not to be trusted. You encounter people like this when you’re on the journey. You confront a lot of lies when you’re looking for the truth. The magi were outsiders, they were newcomers, they didn’t know the backstory, but they were concerned about Herod.
They did go and find the family of Jesus, and they did what they came to do – they paid him homage, and gave gifts and blessings to his parents, they broke bread, they rested. They created community and fellowship. It must have been an extraordinary moment, and most of us would be quick to describe it as the culmination of long journey. Christmas Day is the culmination of a long period of waiting and preparation. But the truth of the matter is that after the Magi visited Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they had at least as much journey still ahead of them, as they had behind them – did you ever think about that? Have you ever had a monumental experience and felt that your whole life had been leading up to that moment? Isn’t that incredible? The thing is, it’s usually not the last moment of your life.
You encounter God on the journey, and then you’re still on the journey. When people ask me if I’m ‘saved’ I say I’m being saved, all the time, over and over, sure as Christmas comes around every year, my discovery and embrace of God’s love is not something I can ever put in the past tense.
The magi met Jesus as they traveled. As it happens when we travel, they went to bed one night and woke up the next morning knowing it was time to move on, time to leave Bethlehem.
Something was different, however. Something had changed, it’s true. Christ was a turning point for them, and they didn’t go back the way they came.
The Bible says they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They didn’t mind – Herod had really given them the creeps. Have you ever woken from a dream with greater clarity about something, your spirit was settled when you awoke. Herod was a desperate man, desperate to have a kind of power he would never have, anxious about every threat he imagined to be coming around the corner. He had long ago embraced brutality as a method for getting what he wanted, and soon enough he would order his soldiers to carry out a great atrocity. In Bethlehem something clicked with the magi, and they knew they could not have anything to do with Herod.
So for the rest of their journey, they couldn’t go back the way they came. They went home a different way.
When the light of God comes to you, it shows you a new path. When God’s light breaks into your life, it marks a turning point. You look around and see the place that you’ve come to in a different way, and you realize that you can’t go on traveling the same path that you’ve been on.
All throughout Advent we’ve been calling out in church ‘Come Lord Jesus!’. And now, Jesus is here. And you feel it, don’t you? You feel it. You are not meant to be just the same, going exactly the same way to tomorrow as you were yesterday. God’s light is shining into our world, into our lives, and it’s putting us on a new path home. You may be hurting yourself or hurting someone else, and you need to stop. You may be called to stand up or to sacrifice for someone who needs you, or to confront someone who is doing wrong. The Magi realized that by going along with what Herod asked of them, they would be collaborating with evil, and so at their encounter with Christ, they changed direction.
You and I have gifts for blessing this world – healing can happen, growth and learning can happen, peace can happen with your help. But on the path you’ve been some things have made stumble, held you back. When Christmas comes, when the light of God breaks into your life, you see a new way for the journey to come. What new way is God opening your eyes to see, this new day? You won’t go back the way you came. Thanks be to God, amen.