A Different Road, Matthew 2:1-12
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, January 3, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
This morning’s text tells us of the magi—the wise men who came to Bethlehem to visit Jesus at the time of his birth. They are thought by Matthew to be Babylonian astrologers—not magicians, not kings, but experts with special knowledge. They have traveled a long way—nearly 1000 miles from their own home—and they are apparently unaware of the personal and political turmoil they cause as they arrive in the capital city of Jerusalem, inquiring the whereabouts of the child born to be king. Herod, the current ruler, of course found their questions to be extremely disturbing.
Herod responds by gathering the priests and the scribes together to find out more, and he learns of the prophesy that a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel was to be born in Bethlehem. And so he calls the wise men back to him, asks them more about the star—when it first appeared—and he directs them to Bethlehem, instructing them to report back to him when they have finished their visit. The wise men continue to follow the star: they travel to Bethlehem where they find Jesus. They offer the gifts they’ve brought him, and then because they’re warned in a dream, they return to their own country by another road.
We can’t help but wonder what motivated these mysterious strangers to load up their duffle bags and to set out to a place where everything was foreign to them. They knew people would dress differently, they would speak different languages, they would follow different customs, they would practice a strange religion. These men may have been wise and respected in their own land, but here, they were vulnerable aliens. So why would they come? Why would they travel such a distance?
All we know is what scripture tells us: they studied the signs and they saw the star and they believed that something incredible was happening. They wanted to be a part of it. So, they set out on an unknown highway, looking for a miracle child who was to be born king of the Jews. And they weren’t even Jewish!
They left their own land…their own people…their own lives.
They left it all to find him.
Interesting, isn’t it? People close by didn’t notice. Nothing special happening here! Bethlehem’s down the road a bit—go check it out and let us know if there’s anything worth our time. Bethlehem is only about a 6 mile walk from Jerusalem—it might take a couple of hours to get there on foot. Less by camel. Yet folks from far away—outsiders—came searching for what so many had right within their reach, but didn’t seem to notice.
Do you ever wonder what you’re missing? What you can’t see and don’t notice because you’re familiar with it? What we don’t recognize as being “really cool” because you’ve grown accustomed to its presence?
Those of you who can sing—do you realize that others of us, on a good day, sound like frogs? Do you know how blessed you are?
I think back on the quilts that my grandma made. How, when I was young, she had a circle of friends who would gather around this huge quilting frame and make—blankets, as far as I was concerned. All of us grandkids had grandma’s quilts. It wasn’t a big deal. Now I know better.
We’d eat fresh bluegills every week, all year long, because Grandpa fished all the time. Grew up on those things and they were wonderful. It wasn’t a big deal.
You and I are accustomed to our comfortable homes: our heat and electricity. Inside plumbing. Not everybody has those things. Scott and I wanted each of our children—and are hoping we can do the same for our grandchildren—to go on a mission trip to a third world country before they got on their own so they can see that not everyone has what we have. Not everyone lives like we live.
We grow accustomed to what we have, and we forget that what we have is special.
The prophets said that Jesus came to save the people of Israel. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was being written, the Jewish community was arguing: did Jesus, who was Jewish, come only for the Jewish people? And then we read this story, about how these men from the east—who didn’t know Jewish law, who most likely didn’t know the God of Israel, who followed the eastern traditions and probably worshiped eastern gods—who relied on their reading of the stars rather than trusting God with their futures—these are the ones who God provides a star. These are the ones who come from far away to search out the infant king, while the chief priests and scribes (who are thought to be the most faithful people of the day in Israel) stay in Jerusalem and give their advice and allegiance to another king. They don’t realize that something special is happening right within their reach.
With the visit of the magi, we see that in Jesus, God expresses love for the whole world, not just for one nation or for one people. God’s grace, God’s love, God’s light are meant for all of us who are willing to seek him out.
When the subject of church growth has come up over the years, we’ve talked about people being “seekers”—a term usually used to describe folks outside the church who don’t know God, who may be uncertain of what they’re looking for, simply realizing that what they have now isn’t enough. But seekers aren’t limited to those who don’t know God. Seekers include those of us who need to find him anew—because sometimes we go off course. We get distracted. We forget what we have. We get caught up in things we never set out to get caught up in.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Wise Ones Still Seek Him,” and I like that…but thankfully, we don’t have to be all that wise to find him. Because since God made us all, there’s a touch of the divine in pretty much everything we see. When we look for God’s hand and God’s image in our neighbor, it’s there. Jesus was serious when he said that what you do to the least you do to him. Here, in the midst of doing his work, Jesus is among us. You can find God in the children you teach or tutor after school. In the patients you meet with, in the clients who come into your place of business. In fact, you’ll find the more you look for Jesus around you as you do his ministry, the easier it will be to see his image—even in the grisly guy at the gas station and the grumpy neighbor who never smiles. You can sense Him if you are open. The presence of God moves among humanity. If you seek, you will find God. You will find Jesus.
And how do we respond when we find him? We worship. That’s what we do when we find ourselves in the presence of our savior. That’s what the wise men did…they followed the star, and when they came into the presence of Jesus, they were overcome with joy and awe, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They celebrated his presence, thanked God for the star, for their journey, and for this one they had finally found. And then, they opened up their gifts offering him treasures worthy of a king.
When we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus, we worship. We open our hearts and celebrate and give thanks for his presence. And we give our gifts: our money, our time, our talents, our gifts, our service—that best that we have—worthy of a king.
A woman sent an email to a friend whose husband had died suddenly before Christmas, asking how she and her 3 teenage sons were doing. Her friend replied, sharing a custom their family has:
It’s just a small, white envelope, stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past 10 years or so. It all began because my husband hated the commercialism of Christmas: the overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry, and the dusting powder for grandma—the gifts given in desperation because you can’t think of anything else. He just said, “All I want is for my boys and us to be together, and to be Christian.”
Knowing he felt this way I decided one year not to buy him the usual shirt, sweater, tie and so forth. I reached for something special for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way. Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, took up the sport of wrestling at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, there was a match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. The boys were mostly Hispanic and from under-privileged, poor families.
These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was without headgear, designed to protect a wrestler’s ears. It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously couldn’t afford. We ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat. Mike, seated next to me, shook his head sadly. “I wish just one of them could have one,” he said. “They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.”
Mike loved kids—all kids—and he knew them. He had coached little league football. When Christmas came that year the idea of his present came. I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church for their team. On Christmas eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside, telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. In succeeding years, I followed the same tradition—one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a football game, another year a check to two elderly brothers whose home had burned down to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on, always helping the poor.
The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It always was the last thing opened on Christmas morning, and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but their envelopes never lost their allure.
As you know, we lost Mike last year due to cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped up in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree. It was my gift for Mike. It was sending in his name a group of underprivileged kids to church camp. In the morning, as we all gathered around the tree in our pajamas, I was amazed to find three more envelopes stuck in it. Each of our sons, unknown to the others, had placed an envelop on the tree for their dad, telling him what they had done for someone else. This year we know it will happen again. A tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandkids standing around the tree with wide-eyed anticipation watching as their fathers take down the envelope. Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit, will always be with us.
The wise men found Jesus and they responded by worshipping—by giving.
And then, when it came time for them to leave, they went home by a different road.
The magi changed their direction because of what they had seen…because of what they had experienced.
You and I have experienced Christmas. We’ve celebrated in a different way than we’ve celebrated before. There have been blessed moments and strange ones; moments we’ll always remember and moments we’d like to forget. Perhaps you’ve taken your tree down and packed away the ornaments: looking ahead to what 2021 will bring.
We’ve experienced Christmas and have kneeled at the foot of the manger.
We’ve experienced God-with-us, Emmanuel.
So what is different? What has changed?
What road will you take as you travel forward?