Home by Another Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 6, 2019
Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
For years, you and your buddies have gathered once a week at a local eatery for breakfast. It’s such a good time to catch up and enjoy one another’s company. Over time, strong friendships have developed—good friends are hard to find. But on this particular morning, with holiday obligations and all, only you and Tim, a relative newcomer to the group, show up. It’s just as well, you think, for you have a honey-do list a mile long: take the Christmas decorations to the garage, break down boxes for recycling, take Janice’s gift by since she was sick and didn’t make it by the house… You and Tim get your coffee and breakfast and amble over to sit at your “reserved table” and you begin swapping stories, like the one about the Christmas fruit cake that, sure enough, showed up again!
It doesn’t take long, however, for the conversation to come to a lull, because it doesn’t take long to realize something is troubling Tim. Finally, not one to mince words, you ask straight out, “So, Tim, how are things, really?” He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Things are tough. Sally and I’ve been married for 10 years—some good—some not so good. Lately, it’s been more of the “not so good” years. To tell you the truth, Sally wants a divorce. Last year she wanted us to go for counseling, but I refused. No way was I going to share private matters with a stranger. But now, I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done things differently. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s too late for us. I just can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t know where to turn.”
You listen carefully. You don’t know Tim too well, but he strikes you as a good guy, and you hate to see anyone going through hard times—especially around the holidays. You take a sip of your coffee—and then another—buying time to ponder what to say, how honest to be. You remember that time in your own life when things got tough. And you remember how your church family prayed for you and encouraged you. For too long the road ahead looked bleak, but somehow a new path opened, a path that took you home by another way.
Several years ago, James Taylor and Timothy Mayer composed a song entitled “Home by Another Way.” It tells of the wise men of old who traveled from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. It begins, “Those magic men the Magi, some people call them wise, or Oriental, even kings, well anyway, those guys. They visited with Jesus; they sure enjoyed their stay. Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme, they went home by another way.”
Wise men from the East learn about the birth of baby Jesus and travel a long, long way to fix their eyes upon him. Who are these men anyway, and what do we know about them? Well, in the case of the Magi, it’s easy to preach “almost Bible.” It’s easy to get the story askew, deducing things that may or may not be true. For example, in later Christian tradition, the wise men became known as kings, probably influenced by Psalm 72:10, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.” Or perhaps influenced by Isaiah 49:7, “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One… ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord who is faithful…’” Another detail handed down by Christian tradition is that there were three wise men. And how did we deduce such a thing? Well, there were 3 gifts, so of course, there were 3 wise men. Furthermore, did you know that we also have names and descriptions? In a piece written around the year 700, Melchior is described as an old man with white hair and a long beard, Gaspar is young and beardless with a ruddy complexion, and Balthasar is a black-skinned, heavily bearded fellow. Finally, the gifts of the magi have also been interpreted: gold represents an appropriate gift due to a king, frankincense symbolizes “an oblation worthy of divinity,” and myrrh testifies to the Son of Man who is to die.
While all these deductions are fascinating, they should not overshadow what is truly important about the story. The arrival of the wise men from the East represents the Gentile world, in all its racial diversity, who now come to Christ, who now are welcome at the cradle of the Son of God. The magi foreshadow the Gentile Christians of the early Christian community. The magi foreshadow us.
The wise men come…they see…and now they must return home. But how? Will they do King Herod’s bidding? Will they return via Jerusalem and give the evil king a full report? Taylor’s song continues: “…they went home by another way… Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too, and go home by another way. We can make it another way. Safe home as they used to say. Keep a weather eye to the chart on high and go home another way.”
Barbara Brown Taylor notes that it’s time to “rescue the magi from their fixed places in the annual Christmas pageant and restore them to their biblical roles as key witnesses to both the threat and the promise of the Christ child.” No doubt, the Christ child offers promise to the world, the promise of light and hope and love. But this child also poses a real and certain threat. Make no mistake! King Herod is frightened! He investigates and learns that this baby will shepherd the people of Israel. He knows of another shepherd-king—David—loved and blessed by God. Oh no, there will be none of that! Herod knows how to handle messianic movements and revolts. There will be no late-night debates over fiscal cliffs—instead, with lighting speed he orders the slaughter of every baby in town. “That takes care of that!” or so he thinks.
James Taylor’s song continues: “Steer clear of royal welcomes; Avoid a big to-do. A king who would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you. He really, really wants those presents. He’ll comb your camel’s fur. ‘Til his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”
Of course, we know that Herod is after more than frankincense, gold and myrrh. Herod will stop at nothing less than sovereign reign and power. Herod cannot know, cannot see that this baby will change the world. By him and through him all things are changed. No more will the “Herods” of the world rule. No more will darkness overcome the light. At the birth of Jesus, simple shepherds, angels and, later, the wise men, look upon the child with amazement and wonder. Because now, there is hope. Even in the darkest of times, there is hope for a home that can be reached by another way. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus who, as a grown man, will sit with his disciples around a table of simple food and declare, “This is my body broken for you…this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood…” (Sealed in the blood of the Lamb—not in the blood of the Herod’s of the world!) It’s a new day and we can reach home by another way!
So, there you sit at the table with Tim, coffee cup still in hand. And you know that you need to tell him your story. Because in your heart, you know there are times when every man, woman, and child needs a wise friend to point them toward the star that still burns bright. Slowly you tell Tim about a time in your life when the darkness closed in on you. You admit your faith was weak and meager. You tell him about being depressed and nearing despair until some way, somehow, God’s light broke forth in the night sky. The Word became flesh in your life, so that now, you believe that for God all things are possible. You’re quick to add, “That doesn’t mean everything always works out just the way we want. But no matter what—God’s love is with us. No matter what—God’s love is for us—and now, it is possible to go home by another way!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.