Sermon January 4, 2015
Many years ago I came across a saying, “It is the sign of God that we will be led into those places that we did not intend to go.” Does that saying ring true for you at all? It is a great description of my life. I never dreamed I would be a parent. I went to seminary with no intention of ever serving a church. It didn’t occur to me that serving a church would indeed provide such deep fulfillment and joy. I was happy in Oregon eleven years ago. I wasn’t looking to move at all and I certainly wasn’t looking to come to New Mexico when an unexpected job opportunity changed the course of my life. I can keep going, but you get the idea. How is it that our life takes us in so many surprising directions? This is not just a contemporary phenomenon – it is has been around for generations. Think of all the people in the Bible who found themselves on a different journey after a surprise encounter with God.
Our story today is of some stargazers who found themselves on a long trip because of a star that caught their attention one evening. They could not have anticipated where this one star would take them. What appears to be a last minute road trip has lasting impact on the world. Eventually they lose their way and find themselves stopping to ask for directions. The problem is that they don’t stop at a gas station. They make the mistake of asking people who report to King Herod. Herod is deeply threatened when he realizes that someone may have more power than him. Most people would laugh at a king feeling threatened by a baby. Herod was smart enough to know that this baby was going to influence the world in a way that moved a king into the background.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to explain these wise ones. They have been given names and counted as three, but we really don’t know how many there were or what their names were. It’s kind of nice for our nativity sets, but beyond that it doesn’t much matter. What is amazing to me is that they were not followers and they were certainly not looking for a Messiah, yet they still left life as they knew it to follow this star. It was a long journey and they kept at it until they arrived. When they finally found Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him.
We hear more about their gifts than we do about that moment when they saw Jesus for the first time. There is slight mention of the humility and hope in that moment and more focus on gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I love imagining that moment and remembering moments in my own life when I was overcome at the wonder of God. Just last week, we went to Carlsbad Caverns. It was awesome! There is a walking path through the big room, but there were so many instances when we couldn’t take another step, we just stopped to take it all in – it felt like a magnificent Cathedral. It was massive and grand and even the tiniest details were also stunning.
When it seems the wise ones have fulfilled their purpose in coming, they listen to a dream that tells them they should take another path home. There was something fishy about that encounter with Herod’s officials and they trusted the dream by setting out in another direction. This story is remarkable in so many ways.
From the moment this child is born, he sets off a series of amazing reactions in people. There are shepherds who leave their flock to come and worship him. Granted, it’s not every day that angels come and sing to you while you are on the clock. But it’s a big deal to walk away from your livelihood. That seems to be the common reaction to Jesus. Later as he calls people, they walk away from their income and security to say yes. This God has become incarnate and dwells among us and today we celebrate the opportunity to be part of this big crazy scheme by welcoming God into our midst.
My mind traveled to an essay I read many years ago by Barbara Kingsolver called “High Tide in Tucson”. She tells the story of how a hermit crab came to live with her.
“He arrived as a stowaway two Octobers ago. I had spent a week in the Bahamas, and while I was there, wishing my daughter could see those sparkling blue bays and sandy coves, I did exactly what she would have done: I collected shells… When it was time to go home, I rinsed my loot in the sink and packed it carefully into a plastic carton, then nested it deep in my suitcase for the journey to Arizona.
I got home in the middle of the night, but couldn't wait till morning to show my hand. I set the carton on the coffee table for my daughter to open. In the dark living room her face glowed... With perfect delicacy she laid the shells out on the table, counting, sorting, designating scientific categories like yellow-striped pinky, Barnacle Bill's pocketbook . . . Yeek! She let loose a sudden yelp, dropped her booty, and ran to the far end of the room. The largest, knottiest whelk had begun to move around. First it extended one long red talon of a leg, tap-tap-tapping like a blind man's cane. Then came half a dozen more red legs, plus a pair of eyes on stalks, and a purple claw that snapped open and shut in a way that could not mean We Come in Friendship.
Who could blame this creature? It had fallen asleep to the sound of the Caribbean tide and awakened on a coffee table in Tucson, Arizona, where the nearest standing water source of any real account was the municipal sewage-treatment plant.
With red stiletto legs splayed in all directions, it lunged and jerked its huge shell this way and that... Then, while we watched in stunned reverence, the strange beast found its bearings and began to reveal a determined, crabby grace. It felt its way to the edge of the table and eased itself over, not falling bang to the floor but hanging suspended underneath within the long grasp of its ice-tong legs, lifting any two or three at a time while many others still held in place. In this remarkable fashion it scrambled around the underside of the table's rim, swift and sure and fearless like a rock climber's dream.
If you ask me, when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and make it the best home you can.”
These stories of birth and Epiphany are stories that call us to welcome the surprise of God in our midst. There is an invitation to take the path of the wise ones and follow the star. When you have a chance to see God, take it. It is no time for excuses – we are too busy, too tired, or whatever excuse offers itself that day. When we find ourselves face to face with the holy, we shouldn’t be afraid to come close and embrace the mystery and beauty before us.
This story is a wonderful guide in this New Year. James Taylor sings about this story in a song called “Home By Another Way”. He suggests that we follow the wisdom of these stargazers and take a different route than we came. It’s not bad advice for a new year. We set all those resolutions and struggle not just to keep them, but to remember what they are a few weeks later. Yet there’s the sense that in this new year, we can try things differently. You’ve probably heard the quote that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results”. The Church is notorious for that. Churches want to grow, but they want to do it without doing anything differently. Tonight at 5 pm, we will gather to do a New Year Worship service. We will release unrealized dreams and things we want to let go. We will dream new dreams and set our intention for the coming year.
The Magi invite us to put on our walking shoes, to pray for God’s guidance, and move forward into a new year. There is beauty and mystery before us. There are new ways of being and stars to guide our way. We will probably have to stop and ask for directions, but God wants to be found by us. Everything we need is here. Together we can follow the star and see where it leads.