The Magi or wise men who set out for the Christ child are not the same men who return home by a different route. They have been shaped by their journey and will not allow themselves to be deceived so easily or readily. But first, they must find their slow way to the Christ child. First, they must kneel before a knowledge that is greater than their own. First, they must submit themselves and their reputations to a power which has been given for the world, and not just a few lucky individuals like themselves or a particular country. This is not an easy thing to do. Once they are able to admit to what they do not know, then their hearts are ready to discover truth.
The ancients told this story because it illustrates that the power of God in Jesus was evident to outsiders—to the travelers from the East, to representatives of other nations. Something was evident not only to shepherds watching their flocks by night, but also to the ruling elites and powers of the day. Epiphany means “manifestation” and the stories of this season in our church year mark the manifestation or the revealing of God to all kinds of individuals—wise people, kings, the common folk, and even to Jesus himself. The story of Epiphany belongs not to the wise men (and women) of the past, not to a dusty book sitting somewhere on a forgotten shelf, not to Joseph or even Mary, but to you and me. The story belongs to those mothers of Bethlehem who witnessed the destruction of their sons to a mad King and dared to seek hope among the ruins.
At the time that our story was written King Herod the Great ruled Judea. Herod was a terribly insecure king. His means of keeping power was to eradicate all who posed a threat, whether real or imagined. In his lifetime, he murdered one of his wives, his mother-in-law, and at least three of his children. It is no surprise, then, to discover that he orders the slaughter of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem. But before that terrible order is delivered and executed, he summons the Magi and sends them on a mission to find Jesus, the One who has been proclaimed King and poses a direct threat to his rule. He deceives the visitors from the East by telling them that he, too, wants to honor to this new king. But secretly, he has sworn to kill Jesus once he discovers where he lives.
Herod pretends virtue to get the information that he seeks. Herod’s smile proves sugary sweet and fake. The wise men are wise not because they are able to read signs or the stars, the Magi are wise because they figure out that Herod is not being above board with them. And so, they return home by a different way—taking a detour around Herod and all that he represents.
We each have a Herod in us that would kill our attempts at becoming a better spouse, a better friend, and a better person altogether. This Herod would destroy our all of our New Year’s resolutions and hopeful aspirations. She is the pessimist inside of us that won’t permit us to see a more hopeful scenario for our lives; he is the cynic that tells us that we won’t ever amount to much. The Herods of this world find the good news of the Gospel to be threatening to their power base. The Herods of our hearts live in secrecy and fear the light of day. They try to smother our attempts to follow Christ in the most challenging of circumstances.
Perhaps the most important statement in our scripture story for today is the line, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the [wise men] left for their own country by another road.” Something about Herod made the Magi uneasy. There is something about pretended virtue that also makes us uncomfortable, that prompts us to ask the extra question, that asks us to slow down, take stock, and reflect on what we have been told or led to believe about the way the world works, about the way our lives work—or don’t work.
The wise men are wise because they are not above changing their minds and changing course. Those who are most faithful are not the ones with all the answers—no, this story shows us that faith demands flexibility and the capacity to see things from a different perspective, even a perspective that challenges our own familiar views. Those wise men were willing to make a detour from what they had been told and heed a warning given to them in a dream. They chose to return home by another way.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I am headed somewhere – when I am eager to arrive at my destination—the last thing that I look forward to is a detour along the way. I don’t want to be re-routed; I don’t want to have to look at the map, listen to Siri or my phone’s GPS tell me to make a U-turn up ahead, and figure out which road intersects with the one that I am traveling on. No, I would prefer for things to be neat, easy, and direct. Detours are often time-consuming and frustrating and tend to happen at the most inconvenient of times.
But detours are part of a life of faith and the journey of faith is not about efficiency or expediency. Some detours help us to discover who we are and what we truly value. Some detours help us to grow into the people that God would have us to be. Some detours give us the time and the space to find the will to do the right thing, even when it is inconvenient or costs us dearly. Some detours help us to slow down and discover a life that is more fulfilling than what we can currently imagine for ourselves. Some detours help us to listen more closely for God in the complexity of our lives.
There is a wonderful poem about Epiphany by Robert Jensen. He writes:
They knew a lot, those servants from the East,
And much of it was wrong.
In hindsight we can see that very clearly.
And we too know a lot, and much of it
Must likewise in its turn prove wrong.
So what to do?
Our finite knowledge cuts two ways:
Can hold us frozen in suspicion
Or give one clue sufficient for the venture.
The easterners were wise because they took their chance
When we are tempted to dismiss our dreams as rubbish, when we are frozen in suspicion over what we think we know, when we look around us and see mad rulers and endless violence, let us take a chance on the one sufficient clue that God has given us—the person of Christ revealed in you, revealed in me, the One before whom all of our Herods shall be humbled and rendered powerless.
As James Taylor writes in his song, “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.
So may it be. Amen.