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 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.” (NRSV)
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.
Magi from the East came to Jerusalem. That little phrase has fertilized the imagination of the church ever since Matthew first jotted down his version of Jesus’ birth. The details we adore about this tale were mostly conjured up in the centuries to follow. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many Magi made the journey— but tradition has assigned one wise man to each of the three gifts presented to the Christ child. Directors of Christmas pageants doled out camels for them to ride, and the British poet, Longfellow, christened them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. It’s easy to forget which of these details are rooted in biblical text, and which were added by faithful storytellers who spun a more vibrant yarn about the great journey to Bethlehem. Indeed, when I went to find the particular bible translation that inspired the title of my sermon, Home by Another Way, my search led me not to the King James Version or the New International Version, but the gospel according to James Taylor, the folksinger. His song by the same name 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 herods scheme/ They went home by another way.” But I’m not so sure the difference between what is in the text and what we see in our mind’s eye when we hear this scripture is of much concern in this case. The songs and stories about the Three Kings of the Orient—fanciful though they may be— do a fine job of pointing to the path the Magi cleared. The path that leads us to Jesus.
The reason this story draws us in so very much is that it is so very rich. It is a true adventure story: a journey marked by danger, a tale of good and evil, a drama filled with magical stars, uncontainable joy, precious gifts, and profound worship. And it is a story marked by transformation, for the wise men go home by another way.
Today marks the first Sunday of a sermon series I have been working on for some time, a series based in the book of Matthew and focusing on the vital practices of the Christian faith, the way we live in response to God’s grace. The first practice is worship. The first act of the Magi upon encountering the Christ child was to worship him—to kneel and adore the gift of Light into the world.
In this and many stories, worship happens while on a journey. There’s the classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a Christian suffers the distracting influence of characters such as Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Legality on his harrowing journey from a sin-sick world to the gates of the Celestial City. Even our ordinary Sunday worship begins with a little pilgrimage. What is the simple act of driving a car or walking a few blocks any other day of the week takes a different meaning on Sunday morning. For all our other reasons for showing up, our central purpose is to gather as a community to praise God, to rejoice in the light of Christ, to bask in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— and that makes the simple act of walking out your front door the first step of a holy journey.
Of course, journeys toward worship can be much more roundabout. The first time I left home—really left home—for my freshman year of college was also the only year of my life that I did not regularly attend a worship service. I was there, but not, as a teenager, so when I had my first taste of freedom, the last thing on my mind was looking up a local congregation. But I was on a spiritual journey. That year I joined a student organization with a lofty title. We were the Spiritual Truth Seekers. Each week, we met up in the student lounge to talk about religion and philosophy. We also heard from different speakers. A faithful Unitarian. A convert to Buddhism. A Christian pastor who had lost his faith only to rediscover it in new and unexpected form. Our meetings were more about seeking than finding, though. I’m not sure we ever landed on the capital T truth we were searching for. But something shifted, something changed in me during that year I went to school in Northwest Ohio. I transferred to a university close to home, but I did not simply retrace my steps. I went home by another way, so that at my new school I didn’t join the philosophy club, but found myself at church every Sunday morning, worshipping. The journey had changed me from a person who wanted to search for truth to a person who wanted to stand in awe of it, and pray.
It has been said that the deep wisdom of the Magi is this: “The Magi represent forever and for all of us the wisdom that recognizes human life to be a journey taken in search of the One who calls us beyond ourselves and into faithful service—One before whom we are prepared to kneel, and to whom we offer the best of our gifts, flawed and unworthy though they may be.”*
Consider that. Your life is a journey. It is a mission to find God—just as the mystical Kings undertook their marathon trek across the desert to find the holy newborn. Though we seek God, it is God who is calling us to make the journey. It is God who forges the star that illuminates the path, a light so bright it cannot be ignored. And when you get to the place where God is calling you, the thing to do is worship.
I wonder if one of the Magi, tired and sore from days spent between the humps of a camel, turned back before they reached Jerusalem. Maybe an unmentioned fourth wise man wasn’t so wise after all, and decided against dirtying his tapestry cloak to honor the child of Jewish peasants. He probably went home the same way he came, as proud as ever. The true Magi were possessed of perfect vision and a willingness to act on what they saw. They saw the star, and followed. They saw the glory of the Lord hidden in the flesh of an infant, and they knelt in worship, offering their finest treasures. They saw murder in the eyes of King Herod, and resisted the call of darkness.
Even though a star doesn’t hang over this sanctuary to guide our steps here, this is the place that God has called us to look upon his Son and give thanks. Maybe our hearts do not throb and swell with joy every single Sunday, the way the prophet Isaiah proclaimed they would when we encountered God’s light. Maybe the gifts we give aren’t quite as valuable as gold. Maybe we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, even though we’ve been doing it for years.
The living Christ, the Light of the World, is just as manifest here as he was in that ramshackle crib.
And we are called here to worship, to bend our hearts, if not our knees, into that curlicue position of prayer. What we are searching for has been searching for us, and we are found just in time to give ourselves away. From this sacred place, we go home by another way—the way of Christ, who is our light, and our truest home. Amen.
*Herbert O’Driskoll, Kingly Presence.