Epiphany, Year C
If the wise men were women rather than men, what would have been different?
1. They would have asked for directions.
2. They would have arrived on time.
3. They would have brought more useful gifts.
I have heard several versions of this joke. In almost all of these versions, the women ask for directions. However, there is a flaw in this joke. The wise men did ask for directions. They asked King Herod. Whenever I see the Christmas story portrayed in a film, the star often looks more like a spotlight than a star. Sometimes there is a light shining directly on the baby Jesus. If that were the case, the wise men would not have been 6 miles off track in Jerusalem (as opposed to Bethlehem) and forced to ask King Herod where this King of the Jews was to be born. To those of us who know the story, this seems like a foolish move. Everyone knew King Herod was insecure about his kingship and prone to irrational violence. However, these men were from out of town…way out of town. They were not even Jewish. They knew they needed directions.
The Greek word that is translated to wise men is magi. It has many translations, but one of the most accurate is an astrologist. Today, astrologers are not seen as extremely significant, but in this day, they were the wise and insightful people. They were the philosophers, scientists and poets. They were also very spiritual and many adhered to another religion called Zoroastrianism, which was an ancient religion from the area which is now Iran. The unique thing about this religion was its belief in one God. At this time, it was only the Hebrew people who ascribed to this belief. If the magi were Zoroastrian, then they knew exactly what they were looking for. They were looking for the one true God.
Yet despite all their knowledge, they still didn’t know some basic things, like who not to ask for directions. They also did not know the Hebrew Scriptures. It was logical for them to go to Jerusalem. Even if they had some vague knowledge of Judaism or the Hebrew Scriptures, they would have understood the significance of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the logical place to go. Yet…let’s face it—logic hadn’t gotten them this far. They were following a star.
But apparently the star was not the spotlight that Hollywood likes to use. If it was a spotlight, all kinds of people would have turned up. However, this king, this savior chose a subtle entrance into the world. Everyone wasn’t supposed to show up. God chose who showed up. Most of the people he chose were people we were never expect…. magi from the East being in that category.
While King Herod was indeed evil, he had a lot of smart and spiritual people at his disposal. He knew the experts to turn to when the magi showed up and asked about the King of the Jews. These men were not experts in the stars, they were the experts of the scriptures. They knew the scripture we heard read here only a few weeks ago from Micah. “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 my people Israel.” This new king would come from Bethlehem.
Thankfully Bethlehem was a small place, and it would be a lot easier for the magi to find a newborn there, than in Jerusalem—so off they went. The magi followed the directions of these experts of the Hebrew Scriptures and continued to follow the star and they found the child with his mother and knelt at his side and worshiped him. They gave him the gifts that were fit for a king, perhaps not as useful as women would have brought, but significant in their symbolism. Then instead of going back to King Herod, they followed a dream they had and returned another way.
In the Christmas pageants, the magi always show up right after the birth, but it was probably many days or weeks after. This wasn’t an easy trip. I imagine there was frustration at times. They probably argued a little about which way they were supposed to go. If I were them and I had finally made it to Jerusalem, I would have been a little annoyed to be told, no you’ve got another 6 miles to walk. Yet they never gave up.
They were also open to all kind of signs and directions. They did more than follow a star. They also sought advice and counsel from experts. They asked directions. Then when the adrenalin rush was past and they were ready to go home, they listened to a dream…a dream, and followed another way home, probably a longer route. Because they listened to that dream and took the long way home, they avoided King Herod who would have surely killed Jesus had he discovered his location. They saved Jesus.
Sometimes I think we expect our faith journey to be easy, not one that is full of twists and turns. Or we might expect one major challenge, but after that we deserve a journey unencumbered by obstacles. We think that we get baptized, confirmed and then we are good. In fact, we can stop studying, stop attending church. We basically put our faith on cruise control. But let me tell you, I just drove through West Virginia and cruise control doesn’t work when you are driving up and down mountains and through curvy roads. You have to constantly readjust.
The magi followed a star and a crazy king’s directions. That is how they found Jesus. And then once they found Jesus, things didn’t get easier. They had to follow a dream and take an entirely different road back. They were probably thinking, well at least we know how to get home from here. Nope, God said, thanks for the presents, now I am going to throw one more challenge at you.
Despite those challenges, I have no doubt they made their way back. More importantly, they made their way back with more wisdom then they started with. When they began that journey, they were astrologers. When they ended that journey, they were wise men. They had seen the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Their lives didn’t get easier. They probably got harder. But the important thing is that they had direction in their lives. They knew who and what they were living for.
I wish I could tell you that once you have found Jesus, things get easier. Some things will get easier, but there will also be a lot of challenges. What I can tell you is that once you found Jesus, there will be direction in your life. It might not always be clear. You might have to seek out that direction in a number of different ways, but it is there. We at the church are here to help you discover your path if you find yourself floundering a little. If you think you are the only person who gets a little lost at times, I assure you that you are not. I’ve been lost, sometimes more lost than I care to admit. The reason why I never stay lost for long is because I know I have a community who will help me find my way back. So do you.