I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
For many of us, New Years is a time to pause and ponder and set resolutions or “revolutions” as we like to call them in my house. It is time when we not only reflect on what was, but also turn our eyes towards the horizon line and envision what could be. Most often our resolutions/revolutions tend towards making improvements, making things better, — making thing right, — overcoming deficits. “Where would we like to be at the year’s close?” “How would we have liked to have changed and grown?” we ask ourselves and then with vision of where we want to be we then articulate steps to get us from here to there – a road map for becoming who we want to be.
Turns out we are not the only ones to long for newness of life. Turns out our Biblical witness is full of God’s longings, time and again, of wanting to do a new thing.
Consider this passage from Isaiah (43: 18-19):
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Or this from the Book of Revelations of the New Testament (21:1-5):
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
And there is wonderful symmetry in that the start of our calendar year occurs in this season of Christmas where we are pondering the new life given to us in Jesus and what that means for our living as we set out into this New Year.
It is no wonder then that the spiritual life is most often conceived of as a journey. We travel from where we are to where we want to be. And then, God willing, in that moment of arrival we are changed into all we hoped and commissioned to set out in a new trajectory.
Such it is in the scripture this morning. The wise ones see a star and it represents for them all of their longing, their hopes and their dreaming. So they prepared their camels and set out to follow the star.
And they traveled far and not just in distance I imagine. They traveled out of their comfort zone. Testing their patience, their friendships, their intention, and their purpose for travel itself. It was not easy. And when they arrived, they had the humility to discover they had first arrived at the wrong place for they arrived at Jerusalem. And so they had to set out again, and after travelling 11 miles more they arrived in Bethlehem.
And when they arrived they were weary but elated. They fell on their knees and the light that was the light of the world smiled at them. They offered what they carried and then the text tells us they returned by a different way. The old path would no longer do. They were changed. A new path was needed now.
I love this story of the wise ones, for it seems to perfectly encapsulate what it is to be a person of faith, a person on a journey. Look for the light and with all you are made of journey straight into it!
This week, I journeyed out to Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to spend some time with my Dad and Step Mom. What a beautiful place. Mountains and ocean. Silent forest and roaring winds. Nature fully alive and wild. Midway through the week, though, it was time for me to sit down and write out some words for today. And so, I retreated upstairs to my step-mom’s study to pause and ponder a bit.
Sitting there in silence, I looked up and saw a picture of my step sister Karen who three years ago died by suicide on the shelf before me. Looking at her smiling face, I realized I was sitting in the same spot where, three years ago, I struggled to find the words I would offer at Karen’s funeral.
As I pondered the words for the new beginnings of this Year in this Christmas time today, I found myself sitting, in a place where the painful truth of a journey that ended much too soon.
I know that I am not the only one who has struggled to make sense of the undeniable reality that for many a time of renewal and promise and new life does not come despite even the most laborious of journeys. We know many whose journey is one of loss. Treatment denied, barriers impenetrable, hope snatched. For Karen and like so many, the journey was not one of renewal and rebirth but only one of confronting so many dead ends.
And many of us too may be feeling a particular heaviness as we head into this New Year and into the unknowns that it will bring. The headlines are fearful and the hope for renewal and new beginning seem more like stuff of fairy tales than Gospel witness.
As I pondered the word for today in the light of all of this suffering that is so present in the world today, I was drawn in by a rip in the seam, as it were, in the Gospel story. There seems to be a snag in the fabric, a flaw in the design that got me wondering. Why did the wise ones go to first to Jerusalem looking for the baby? Why despite their astrological acumen, and their title of “Wise” did they travel hundreds of miles only to arrive at the wrong place. For we learn in the Gospel account that they first when to Jerusalem, right? Not Bethlehem.
I wonder if this imperfection in the account is to show us that if “Wise Ones” can get it wrong so to can me. For going to Jerusalem tells us that the Wise Ones could not imagine at first that God’s own self could be revealed in any other place but a place of power and privilege – the veritable Wall Street or Fifth Avenue of its time. The wise ones could not imagine that God’s self could be revealed in any place except a place where all that is good and desirable, apex of what human striving should look like. They just assumed that there is where they would find the new born King.
If the wise ones can get it wrong, can’t we as well? Don’t we too believe that we have to journey to that place of perfection we seek for ourselves, where we are better, more worthy, have our act together, cleaned up and presentable before God will show up? Blinded were they by this narrative of what we should look like, should have, should be doing, should be achieving, that they just assumed that it was God’s narrative as well. And what if we are doing the same.
God was born in Bethlehem not Jerusalem because the new thing that God is doing, is revealing what was already imbedded in the reality of creation but which we had forgotten or chose to ignore. And that is that before we do a thing, we are loved unconditionally by God. So often our journeys to make ourselves better actually end up taking us away from God for we come to rely more on ourselves and our strivings than on God.
For God was not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem. God was not in the court of power surrounded by extraordinary people, but at home in a humble manger, surrounded by ordinary people that that loved God extraordinarily. We may be out striving to be better, more accomplished, respectable, praise worthy, God is already home and at peace, dwelling in the mess and poverty of our lives.
I’d like to end by telling a story of a remarkable man that I met while working as a hospital chaplain as part of my training to be a minister.
It was early afternoon, when I knocked on the door of a patient I had been asked to visit. As I entered the room and rounded to curtain to introduce myself, I was pulled up short. Stopped in my tracks as it were. I was amazed by what I saw. Lying in bed was an older gentleman but what was amazing about him is that he was radiant. Truly, there was a glow about him. I had never seen such a thing and have never since. It was subtle and at first I thought it must be coming from the window but the curtain was closed. There he was held in a very soft, gentle light.
I recovered and putting back on my professional demeanor asked him how he was feeling and how his spirits were. But he brushed my question aside. He said that he had asked me to come because he had something very important to tell me that I needed to hear. He told me to take a seat and listen. Then he told me this story.
He told me that when he was a young man he was a bit of a scoundrel. Not a very nice person. He was impatient, often drank too much and held his money much too tightly. He had few friends but he did have a job. He worked as a line man for an electrical company. One day, he was up on a pole tending the electrical lines when he reached up and his arm hit a live wire up above where his this rubber gloves did not quite reach.
He said the next thing he remembered was looking down on his body as first emergency personnel and then doctors in the hospital where he was taken working on him. And then he said he began to move quickly through a shaft that was full of light towards a light in the distance that was drawing him forward. He said he could feel the light on his skin. It was viscous and warm. Comforting and holding him even as he moved onward towards the light. The light surrounding him and the light leading him was such that he could not just see it but he could feel it too.
And then, he was back. Back in his body, but he said the light never left him. He said he could feel it and still can. It is all around we just cannot see it, he said. And he said that he knows why he did not die that day. He said, he was sent back because he needs to tell everyone about the light. And that is why he called me. He wanted me to know and to tell others. The light is all around. It is here, right now. Even if you cannot see it can you feel it?
So let’s go ahead and make those resolutions/revolutions but let them not be so much about overcoming deficit in our selves but instead about living into the abundance of grace. Let the journey we are on be to discover a light not in the distance far beyond ourselves but the light that is already here, the light that is waiting for us, in our poverty and in the mess of our lives. The light that is God’s indwelling presence that came to us so long ago. The light that has not left us but that even now is waiting for us to come home to that light, and love that even now burns in the center of our very being.
This does not mean that we do not need to journey. It does not mean that we do not need to seek ways to close the distance between how the world is and how we long for it to be. It does not mean that we do not need to stop from making straight the ways of our brothers and sisters whose paths are entangled in so much suffering and dead ends. It does not mean we stop from working for justice.
But what it may mean is that while we do so, the light we seek is in fact one we already have been given. It means our journeys are lit by the light of God with us, in us, working through us. So let us journey into this New Year knowing that our path is already illuminated by the indwelling of God’s love. The light is all around! Can you feel it? Thanks be to God. Amen.