It was only a matter of time, but it turned out to be this year’s holiday road trip when the timeless question started to come from the back of the minivan: “How much farther?”
This time last week we were getting packed to return from a week in Florida. Thanks again to Pastoral Resident Rev. Courtney Stamey who proclaimed last week in this pulpit, while we were packing up all the Christmas toys from the grandparents and trying to get everyone in the car. You hear a lot of things on a 9 hour drive to and from. You hear cries and demands, mixed in with the pacifying sounds of Disney and Pixar on the DVD player, and the occasional notification from Google Maps, letting us know that there’s traffic up ahead and we can save 7 minutes time and a whole lot more sanity by getting off the interstate and taking a state road.
You add it all up with a few stops and somehow the 9 hour trip becomes 12.
Jenny and I have learned to look at one another at the outset of the drive and say, “Good luck. See you when we get there.”
But through all the noise and commotion, the consistent question is one we know so well: How much farther?
We’ve all asked it, and our travelers in our gospel passage today are no different. They see the star, set their course, read all the right charts and maps, and venture out for who knows how long a journey: weeks, months, main highways, and local roads, until they arrive at the end of all their traveling, and find that they still have farther to go.
Matthew writes, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.”
They’d come to Jerusalem, but Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So arriving in Jerusalem, their question becomes, “How much farther?” It’s an old question, and we learn in our text that it has an old, enduring answer.
This morning we begin sermons about such enduring promises. In our secular calendar, we call these days the start of a New Year. On one hand there’s nothing theological about that, except for the way it reminds us of the fact that we serve a God who is making all things new.
A lot is new as we greet 2017, some hopeful and filled with possibility, other parts woeful and filled with fear and dread. Amidst it, we are taking some time to remember promises that are ancient, enduring, as old as these three wise ones. So we pause for a moment, with all we’ve packed for the journey, all the gifts we’ve been given, and we try to find the direction that guided these three.
Each Christmas season, many of us unwrap their likenesses from the cardboard homes where they reside for 11 months of the year. We’ve seen them depicted by painters, and imagined their backstories with the poets, but beyond our traditions, we don’t know all that much about them.
We don’t really know, for instance, if there were three, only that three gifts are listed.
We don’t know how they came to travel together. Had they know one another for years? Were they colleagues, part of some ancient club of meteorologists? Or did they set out on the road separately, coming from different places until their paths all intersected somewhere and they met one another along the way?
We don’t know where they came from, only that they were Gentiles – or non-Jews – traveling from somewhere East of the Star.
And we know that for all their proficiency for reading the skies and mapping the course, they didn’t just read stars and maps; we can surmise that they also read the Jewish scriptures. Because they arrive in Jerusalem on the winds of hope that are found in the prophet Isaiah.
The gospel of Matthew is abundantly clear that Jesus is born right in the middle of expectation and anticipation of a long-awaited Messiah. Time and again in these early portions of the gospel, Matthew reminds that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of what had long been prophesied and awaited. And these wise ones knew that, too, because it seems they had been reading the prophet Isaiah:
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:6b).
This was the journey that Matthew’s wise man took. They see the light; it lodges in their eyes, and they come to Jerusalem, searching for this prince of peace, this Lord spoken of in Isaiah, to whom all people would stream.
But they arrive at the seat of commerce and power and discover instead the murderous and clinically insane King Herod. And it must have been so disappointing. It must have been something like what those ancient Jews had felt in Isaiah. They might as well have found the city in shambles and ash. One glance and they must have known they had come to the wrong place. Because they read the wrong directions.
Herod’s priests put their heads together and realize their mistake before anyone else. It seems Isaiah 60 is the wrong map for this particular journey. Micah 5 is where the directions are found. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days . . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:2-4).
These wise ones learned they have farther to go, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and in learning this, they come to see what we can never discover too many times: This king for whom they search, this messiah whose promise started their journey, is not to be found in palaces of stone or in places of prosperity, but in places humble, out on the edges, like Bethlehem. Not sitting in the seat of influence and power, but lying in a feeding trough in a ramshackle stable.
The wise men looked in Jerusalem for what is ultimately found in Bethlehem. What’s always found there.
We’ve made the same mistake. We’ve followed the same guide. So maybe we know these wise ones after all.
We know what it is to be people of Epiphany, longing for the seemingly distant life of God to come near to our very lives.
We know what it is to dream that things might be new.
We know what it is to search for a king.
We know what it is to gaze through our scopes, looking out into the darkness hoping to see some new evidence of hope – a light different than all the other lights.
We know what it is to be called by something beyond us.
We know what it is to pack our bags, gather our food and water, step away from the things that are manageable and proven, and set out uncertain of what is ahead.
And we probably know what it is to take all those steps, walk all those miles, and at the end of the road find that we somehow still have farther to go.
If Christmas is the season where we celebrate the nearness of God in Jesus, it is also a time when we can so acutely feel the distance from God in our own lives. We feel it in those we miss and in those we’ve lost. We feel it in the isolation that all the pageantry and festivity can make us feel if we don’t catch the spirit as those around us seem to, or if we don’t have all the grand things those around us seem to have. We can feel that distance in the tension of relationships, or in the family and friends we encounter. We feel it when we see the ways they’ve changed that cause us to worry about them or pray for them with a new urgency. Or we feel it in the ways that another year can cause us to measure our own lives – our own journeys – to find we are not where we set out to be.
It might be that Christmas is not merely the time we encounter the one born to us, but also a season in which we discover that somehow – even with the best intentions and tools – we got lost along the way to him. We’ve ended up in the wrong place.
Well, even the wisest person is susceptible to that. In fact, maybe it’s especially the wise ones – with all of our preparation, our packing lists, our knowledge and skill – who are susceptible to arriving in the wrong place and finding we still have farther to go.
It’s in such moments that we remember what the wise men come to know. Even as they stand in the middle of Jerusalem – lost and bewildered – as they look upward and a little toward the south, the light still shines overhead, still beckons for those who would follow it.
It would have been easy for them to just throw up their hands in disgust or defeat, turning eastward for home and deciding it’s all been some sort of cosmic trick.
Then again, it must have been tempting to just stay where they were – to forget the great gifts they carried and the reason they set out in the first place. They could have sold their goods in the city center, taken in the sights, enjoyed themselves, and toasted to better luck next time.
Or they could have made a deal, becoming the henchman for a tyrant, who in all his fear-mongering surely would have set them up for life if they’d just deliver what he so desperately wanted.
But instead they turn southward. They reorient their expectations and their way of seeing the world.
They start to walk a way much more vulnerable and a path less clear. They release expectations of grandeur in favor of neighborliness, triumph in favor of generosity.
They travel that distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It must have seemed a vast distance – as it might to us. But it’s only a day’s journey.
It’s a journey we can take even now. We just need to read along with the wise men, these words of the peasant prophet, Micah. The one who speaks of Bethlehem, but then goes on to speak of more, saying “He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path.” And later “Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.” And reading a little bit more “He will gather the lame and assemble the exiles and all those who grieve.”
So maybe you’ve come to the wrong place. It can happen to anyone, even the wisest among us. Do you feel like you still have farther to go? Like the wise ones, you’ll find the directions in Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”