This past week, I found myself writing letters. You know, the old-fashioned kind… Snail mail. One letter was sent off to Norway, another to a pen-friend in Corpus Christi, TX, and a third to a more local friend. Each time, I found myself writing how the season after Christmas always makes me feel optimistic. I will do better about keeping in touch with friends and family; I will finally conquer the clutter in my life; I will tackle long range projects with aplomb, and I will finally get serious about taking better care of my health. This is what I wrote, which is to say that I must, at least, in some way imagine it for the moment.
What about you? Do you make resolutions? Do you ever get optimistic about the New Year? Can you imagine leading a different life than the one that you are currently living?
It’s not really the New Year that has me feeling so optimistic though it would seem so. Actually, it is Epiphany which is responsible, this most curious of holidays when those Magi follow both a star and some other-worldly guidance to arrive at the feet of Christ. The music group, Mercy Me, had a hit song a while back entitled “I Can Only Imagine,” which was about meeting Christ. But while some people think of only meeting Christ in death, I yearn to meet Christ in life. And Epiphany always fosters the hope that this is a feasible thing, not beyond imagining, not just in our lifetime but in our daily lives.
What will that moment be like?
Mercy Me questions,
“Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for You, Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
I can only imagine…”
What do you imagine meeting Christ will be like? The Magi—whether wise people, foreign astrologers, or Eastern intellectuals—did not simply imagine with their heads in a book or social media, but they were intent to find the Christ child.
This past week, my Swedish friend sent me a small book of Sami proverbs. The Sami people are an indigenous Scandinavian people who historically live in the northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Sami have a saying that is culturally distinct from our saying of “Home Sweet Home.” Instead, the Sami say, “It is better to be on a journey than to stay put in one place.” The Magi did not stay in one place imagining; they had to move themselves, instead of waiting for the child to grow up and come to them in glory. Which meant that they had to leave their own comfort zones, status-quo, and pre-conceived notions to travel mentally, physically, spiritually, and culturally to another place entirely. The Magi are the heroes and heroines of this biblical story. The Magi weren’t stuck bemoaning their fate; they were on the move, questing and questioning.
And the Magi were not above risking their lives to do so either. How? They went to Jerusalem, the city of power and privilege, the hub of wealth and activity, and personally inquired in the kingly halls of Herod.
Now, imagine for a moment what it must have been like for Herod. He imagines that he is the center of power. The center of interest and center of intrigue. Foreign guests are in the court. These wealthy foreign visitors have brought gifts. Yet Herod is NOT the recipient. He is not the One whom they seek. The wise men are seeking a Child who is a direct rival to Herod’s power. Surely this wise folk knew that simply inquiring about the Messiah in front of Herod could throw him into a jealous rage. Despots are known to smite any who challenge their rule. Herod presumes that these visitors are there to see him. But they aren’t. They are there to inquire about someone else. What would you have done in the face of Herod? Ask the question and risk a tyrant’s rage, or return home without having asked your heart’s question? As William Penn once said, “Truth never lost ground by enquiry.”
Yet, despite their courage and willingness to move themselves to a different place, and mental space, these Eastern intellectuals were “off by nine miles,” as the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has famously written. They were almost there, but got the location wrong. They sought the Christ child in Jerusalem, the city of power, but the child would be found in Bethlehem, a small village with less pretension, less claim to fame, less, well, everything as counted worthy in the world’s eyes.
Brueggemann writes, “The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises.” He says, “We can choose a ‘return to normalcy’ in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing—the true accent of epiphany—that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.”
And what about you? Have you ever thought you were close, but were actually “off by nine miles”? Maybe you thought you thought you were all set in your relationship with a partner or spouse and then something changed—you or your expectations or life circumstances. Or maybe you thought you were secure in your job and then your company downsized and you found yourself looking at the want ads. Or maybe your kids who were once so loving and sweet to you have become more distant, more demanding, or more troubled. What is your “off by nine miles” and how are you presently dealing with that?
These wise ones slowly realized their mistake in coming to Herod but there, in the courts of a foreign power, they learned vital information to help them change course. First they learn of the scripture from Micah. This scripture declared that the Messiah would come from little Bethlehem, not the great Jerusalem, the center of power. The Magi learn because they are willing to listen to the prophets who generously share of their knowledge; the Magi are willing to learn even if this new knowledge was different then what they had previously heard and believed. Next, these Magi were not deterred by Herod and his hidden agenda. After meeting the Christ Child in Bethlehem, and heeding Divine encouragement, they wisely change course and do not return the same way that they came. By listening carefully to their dream, by being wary of Herod’s plans and his minions, and by taking a different path from the one they intended, these wise ones successfully throw Herod off the chase, and find their way home from their journey without potential harm and hardship.
Friends, have you ever had to reorient yourself to changed conditions? It is most difficult to reorient ourselves if we cannot accept a changed situation. Have you ever suffered the cost of *not* changing or *not* acknowledging your mistakes?
Our Epiphany story teaches us to reach beyond what we think, hear, and see for that Truth for which we yearn. We cannot find Truth by failing to ask our questions. We cannot seek Truth if we do not journey beyond our self-imposed parameters and cultural constraints. And we cannot heed Truth if we are enamored by our own places of power and our own importance in the conversation.
The poet, Malcolm Guite writes,
It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
Sisters and brothers, may Epiphany bring to you new revelations of God in the most surprising of places. May you bravely venture beyond what is familiar and what is “Home” to you, and may you always find the courage and the willingness to reorient yourself despite the cost, even and especially when you find yourself nine miles off-course from where you intended to be.
Happy Epiphany, friends, and have a blessed New Year.
 “I Can Only Imagine,” MercyMe, www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lrrq_opng
 William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Off by nine miles: Isaiah 60:1-7; Matthew 2:1-12,” The Christian Century, December 19, 2001. www.christiancentury.org/article/2001-12/nine-miles.
Malcolm Guite, “A Sonnet for Epiphany,” January 6, 2018, https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/epiphany/