Sermon – 1.5.20 – Leaving the Path

Epiphany Sunday

Rev. Katie Callaway

Matthew 2:1-12

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.’

Matthew 2:1-12

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.

This is the written word of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God. 

I wanted to start today’s sermon recounting an experience we had over the Christmas holiday when we went to look at Christmas lights with a car full of Callaways…including the dog. But I will have to save that story for another day. Because it just didn’t feel right starting today’s sermon with laughter after the events that transpired this week. 

Like you, I came to worship this morning with a heavy heart. I came seeking hope in the face of each of you gathered here today. I came to experience God’s presence and comfort in the face of danger and violence. 

Karl Barth is remembered saying that preachers should prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This week, as I was writing this sermon, about Magi coming from the East to Jerusalem, the world waited with dread and anticipation to see what would happen in retaliation for the assassination of Qasem Solemani, the ruthless top Iranian general. I couldn’t help but grieve for a world in which moral action is so complex, a world where a man’s death is applauded, a world where this man was responsible for the death of thousands. I couldn’t help but grieve for a generation that has experienced war after war after war. I couldn’t help but grieve for military families waiting to hear if their loved one is being deployed to the Middle East. I couldn’t help but grieve. 

I replayed this text in my mind several times, hoping to find guidance. Hoping for an Epiphany on Epiphany Sunday. With the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, I felt paralyzed this week. Knowing we would be celebrating the journey of the Magi from the East…knowing that these Magi were likely Zoroastrian mystics…knowing the Zoroastrianism originated in Iran…knowing that these Magi were possibly pilgrims from Iran…traveling to Jerusalem…to worship the King of the Jews. Knowing that if they undertook that same journey today, it would likely be interpreted as an act of war. 

But in today’s text, it is anything but…

In today’s text, the magi bring hope. They bring good news. They come to worship the Christ child, but along the way teach us valuable lessons about leaving the established path. They seek revelation and teach us about the value of taking risks…the value of leaving the path.

Often called the Wise Men or the Three Kings, though we have no real evidence that they were men or kings, these magi were most likely practitioners of Zoroastrianism. They followed the teachings of the spiritual leader Zoroaster and exalted the uncreated, benevolent deity of wisdom. Many Zoroastrian theological beliefs were said to have influenced the religious traditions that grew up in the Middle East: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Bahai. The largest concentration of Zoroastrians during this time would have been in Persia, what is today Iran. 

Now, Persians had an interesting relationship with Israel at that time. Persia had great military influence and if you remember, it was Persia’s takeover of the Babylonian Empire that allowed the exiled Hebrew people to return to their homeland in the Old Testament period. It was Cyrus the Great who was integral in helping the Hebrew people rebuild the Temple after returning from the Babylonian exile. But, at the same time, the Hebrew people were suspicious of those from other parts of the world because they had been conquered so many times. Despite the Bible’s admonitions to love the stranger and offer hospitality to the foreigner, the people of Jerusalem saw these magi come into town and they were afraid. 

Seeing the events of the last few weeks unfold, it is easy to see why they might be afraid. But the problem with Dr. Barth’s admonition to prepare a sermon with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other is that we have a tendency to impose our 21st century lenses on a text that was not written as our newspapers are written today. Our Bibles were not written to be scientifically or historically accurate accounts of the events. There was a different set of politics governing world affairs. While the main actors in the Biblical narrative and in our newspapers are complex figures, their complexities then and now reflect a different world order. 

The problem with reading this text with the newspaper in the other hand is that it is the Persian mystics—the Iranians—who are the seekers. They are the heroes. They are the ones who recognize that this magnificent event has taken place. It is the magi who set out on an arduous journey, risking life and limb, to worship at the Christ child’s side. It isn’t the faithful religious leaders just 6 miles away from this child. It isn’t the ones who have known the tradition, the ones who have travelled the well-known path from Jerusalem to Bethlehem who go to seek this child. It is the foreigners who take the initiative. It is the Iranians who bring gifts and reverence. It is the outsiders who recognize what God is doing in our midst. And to me that is confounding. That is challenging. That is the Gospel. 

These men were stargazers. An unexplainable astronomical phenomenon happened that prompted them to set out on this journey. A journey of a lifetime. They didn’t know much. They didn’t really know what they were looking for. They didn’t really know who they were looking for. They didn’t really even know where they were going or how they would get there. There were so many unknowns. They knew they just had to go. They had a restlessness that made it impossible for them to sit back and be spectators. They were searching for satisfaction. They were searching for wisdom. They were searching for this child, wisdom incarnate, God-made-flesh. 

In her book, An Altar in the World, renowned theologian and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor offers insight into the journey the magi took. Living on a farm, she says, she finds herself following the same well-worn paths her cows and horses take day after day. The well-worn paths allow her to unconsciously walk. They allow her to get from point-A to point-B with very little challenge or risk. They allow her to see where she puts her feet with every step, removing the threat of surprising any number of creatures with whom she shares her north Georgia land. But, she says, “Leaving the known path turns out to be such a boon to my senses—such a remedy for my deadening habit of taking the safest, shortest route to wherever I am going.” 

She goes on to talk about the spiritual value of getting lost, saying, “These are benign forms of getting lost, but you have to start somewhere. If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course?” 

In our world, we’ve done a really good job of sanitizing our lives to avoid failure, to avoid lost-ness. There are some that even refer to people who do not identify as Christians as lost. Lost-ness is viewed negatively in our culture. We have GPS systems on our phones and tracking our loved ones. We have them on our valuables. Some even have them on their keys—though for me it is a necessity so I don’t drive my family crazy spending all of our free time looking for keys. We are obsessed with ensuring that we do not get lost because lostness is associated with failure. 

But there is a spiritual value to getting lost. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way—once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way. Of course, for this last to be true,” she adds, “you have to be willing to recognize God in your neighbor.” 

The magi’s journey shows us that getting lost can become a spiritual practice. Whether we choose to leave our established paths or leaving them is forced upon us, we see in the magi’s journey an opportunity that comes with getting lost, with taking the road less traveled, with leaving our paths. The magi left what was likely a comfortable life in Persia, where they were seen as religious leaders who had rare insight into the movements of the Divine in the world. Rather than remaining there, they left because they felt that if they didn’t, they would miss something grand. They took a risk. They took a path that few had traveled, risking life and limb to witness the presence of Wisdom incarnate. 

After a long journey, they showed up in Jerusalem, 6 miles from Bethlehem where the Christ child was. Asking around for insight, they just happened to ask the wrong person. Herod became threatened. This ego-centric ruler was afraid of the message the magi brought. He became afraid that there would be one more powerful than him to bring a new kind of kingdom to the world. He became threatened. So in the moments that followed, he devised a plan: tell the magi that he too wanted to pay this child homage so that they would tell him where the child was. Then he would save his own power by ridding the world of this child. The magi, not knowing Herod’s corrupt, yet fragile power, went along with it until they realized through a dream what was really going on. 

Even though the people of Jerusalem knew the prophesies, even though they were faithful people hoping for a Messiah, even though they were very religious, the people of Jerusalem—you remember, the first people to encounter the magi—did not follow when they heard the Christ child was in Bethlehem. They stayed in Jerusalem. I wonder if they wanted the magi to check it out for them. To see if this was the real deal. To let the magi be the ones to take a chance. To let the magi be the ones to do the work, thinking that they would be able to reap the benefits when the magi came back. Whatever it was that held them in Jerusalem, they stayed while the magi went on their way to see the Christ child, to worship, and to bring gifts. Gifts that symbolized this child’s kingship, this child’s divinity, and the suffering the child would encounter along the Way. When their visit was complete, the magi took a different road home, yet another road less traveled, to avoid the wrath of Herod. They took a risk to protect this vulnerable child. They took a risk because of a dream. They left the path. 

I hope we can learn from the magi as we face this new year, as we face uncertain times in our world, in our country, and in our own communities. I hope we can learn the need to take new roads. New paths. And just like the paths the magi took, just because they are new to us doesn’t mean they’ve never been traveled. This message gives me hope that we can commit to the spiritual practice of taking new roads. 

What new roads do you need to take? I would like to suggest 3 new roads that we can take as a church. And they are not entirely new to us, they just might be a little overgrown right now. 

The first road I hope we take as a church this year is devotion to God. The magi’s journey would not have taken place without their own devotion to God and desire for divine experiences. It would have been easy for the magi to stay in Persia, comfortable in their lives. It would have been easy for the magi to turn around. To give up on the journey. But they didn’t. They left the known path for the path less traveled and their lives changed because of it. They left their normal path because they just had to get to the Christ child’s side to worship and bring him gifts. I hope that we as a church can commit to that kind of faithfulness this year as we will inevitably be tempted to stay comfortable and stay on the well-worn paths. 

Second, I hope that we can take the road of devotion to each other. And this is certainly not an entirely new road for us. But anyone who has traveled with a group of friends knows it is not an easy task. The magi likely disagreed. They probably argued over directions. It would have been easy to give up on one another with every argument. But they didn’t. They took the road less traveled of devotion to one another. I think one of the most harmful attitudes in a church is the attitude that one disagreement, one decision, one argument not going my way, and I will take my toys and go home. That is the world we live in. Why don’t we commit to leave that path and be devoted to one another, just as the magi were? 

Finally, I hope that like the magi, we can be open to our imagination and creativity. It was the magi’s imagination that God could speak to them through their dreams that prompted them to go home by another way. In many ways, Jesus’ survival depended on the magi’s openness to their own imaginations. It is tempting to stay on the safe path where everything is determined by what we did last year. It is tempting to do what has always worked. But what is it that depends on us being open to our imaginations? Or maybe, who depends on us being open to our imaginations? 

Friends, I hope we can have the courage to leave the established paths for the paths less travelled. I hope we can leave whatever paths and patterns we have developed over the years and commit this year to the new paths that are before us. 

We might get lost, but “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.” (BBT)