“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was…And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2: 1, 9, 12)
Ivan Doig, a graduate of Northwestern University, wrote the story of his growingup years in Montana in his book entitled, This House of Sky. His mother and father were modern-day shepherds. They lived in a trailer, not in tents; and they drove a four-wheel truck. When his mother died, Doig tried to take her place working alongside his father. Then his grandmother came to add her support. It was a struggle, but Doig writes with such poetic prose about his family, the people of his youth, and the landscape of mountains, valleys and plains that it draws you into a world quite apart from the one most of us know. The name of the book is significant: This House of Sky. The Montana sky had much to tell the family: in it they could read signs of changes in the weather, signs of storms that were approaching, signs that would alert them when they needed to move the sheep to protect them.
If your have ever traveled to Montana, or even a couple of hundred miles up north into rural Wisconsin, you know that the sky is bigger and bolder there than what we see here in the Chicago area. Away from city lights and pollution, the Milky Way spills brilliantly across the nighttime sky, and at this time of the year you can watch the colors of the Northern Lights dance on the horizon. You can’t help but look up and feel awe. And you understand why the psalmist wrote, “O Lord, our Sovereign…When I look at your heavens, the world of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Of the four gospels, only Matthew tells the story of Magi from the east, following a star. The story has a mystical feel about it. It was written as though it takes place entirely under the canopy of a starlit night. And the star that the Wise Men saw “at its rising” has an aura of mystery. Every once in a while, you read of someone attempting to verify this unusual astronomical occurrence at the time of Jesus’ birth. Some have suggested that it could have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, others have speculated that it was a comet streaking across the sky. But all the astronomy in the world cannot explain the meaning of that heavenly light. Matthew makes it clear that this star is unique and special, first moving westward, then southward until it stops over the place where Jesus could be found. No star moves like that. This shining star represents the Messiah himself. In the Old Testament, the prophecy reads: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” The star the wise men saw was a vision…or maybe a projection of their inward longing to come closer to God.
The Magi belonged to a class of philosophers who were members of the priestly class in service to the kings of ancient Persia. They were educated in what was at that time the hard science of astrology. In the pursuit of wisdom and truth, they studied the stars and planets of the night sky. Did they all happen to see the star at the same time? What was it about that star that made them set out on their journey? Did they debate among themselves what it could mean on their journey? Did they have any idea about where it would lead them?
Barbara Brown Taylor provides one possible answer to these questions, recreating the story this way: “Once upon a time there were three – yes, three – very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were so wise they knew it did not matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.” (Home By Another Way, p. 28, Cowley Publications)
The Wise Men set out on a journey that would lead them to a sacred place. To follow that star they had to move on beyond the known, to the unknown. They had to trust in their journey even though they didn’t know where they were going, trust in their hearts to be open to whatever would come.
Our picture of the journey of the Wise Men has been shaped by the Christmas card scenes that show that silhouette of three men on camels riding along across the soft desert sands toward a magnificent star that hangs suspended over the rooftops of Bethlehem. It is a peaceful scene near journey’s end. But the reality of this journey was probably quite different, since it was necessary to go through the wilderness to get from Persia in the east to Jerusalem in the west .
Soon after he converted to the Christian faith, T.S. Eliot wrote a poem entitled “The Journey of the Magi.” It presents quite a different perspective on the Wise Men’s journey. The narrator is one of the Magi who is remembering what their journey was like. The poem opens as he says:
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of year For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow…
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel
Sleeping in snatches,
With voices singing in our ears
That this was all folly.
This is an unsettling image of the Magi’s journey to faith. It tells of hardships, of doubts, of anything but a clear, straight, peaceful journey. For many of us, isn’t that more like the way of faith we have experienced? Haven’t there been times in your life when your faith has been a struggle? Haven’t there been cold times when you did not feel the warmth of God? Times when you had to wonder if it were not all a hopeful projection? And yet, you managed to find your way through those times, following some guiding light in your life that eventually led you here – to be in church this morning.
Of all the people in the Christmas story, you and I are most like the Magi: welleducated, well-traveled and relatively well-heeled. Yet for all the Magi knew, for all they had seen in life, and for all they must have possessed, they still hungered for more. Like them, you and I have hungered for something more as well. The deep mystery of God.
After the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, we hear no more about them in scripture. At the end of the story, Matthew leaves us hanging: “…they departed to their own country by another road.” That’s it. They just go home. It makes you wonder, whatever happened to those wise men?
Well, many a good story leaves you up in the air. Sometimes up in the air is a good place to end because it lets folks like us finish the story in our own way. T.S. Eliot gives one possible version in the final stanza of his poem that I read from earlier. This is no sweet reminiscence, I must warn you. Eliot’s words give pause. It is years later, and one of the Magi in his old age is recalling how it was for him after leaving Bethlehem:
All this was a long time ago,
And I would do it again, but
This set down
This: were we led all the way for
Birth or Death? There was
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were
different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us,
like Death, our death.
We returned to places, these
But no longer at ease here, in
the old dispensation,
With an alien people,
clutching their gods.
That’s a poet’s guess about how things turned out afterwards. The Magi knelt and worshipped the Christ child then returned to their homes to find themselves uncomfortable with the old ways of the world. The birth they had witnessed had shaken their accustomed and comfortable ways. Their experience of God in the reality of a helpless infant born to peasants in a barn altered everything. Nothing could ever be quite the same afterwards. Seeing the Christ child was not their journey’s end, rather it was the beginning of their move into a changed future.
This is what I know. Every day the sun rises and our lives continue along their predictable and unpredictable paths. Every day you and I open our eyes, slip out of bed and put our feet on the ground, and embark on another leg of the journey that is our life. Our journeys move us to new places like this New Year that awaits us. Listen to the commentators and you will hear some caution about what this New Year may bring. While that is understandable, given the news of this day and the last months, there is still much we have to look forward to. This New Year our church will officially welcome Dr. Andrew Chaney into our family of faith, and our community will take on an added dimension. This New Year, of course, will also include those small moments that give our lives texture and color. There will be situations in which we know what to do…and circumstances that will bewilder us. None of us can be expected to be fully prepared for some things that will take place in the months ahead. But…and this is the message of Christmas and of the faith we hold…we are assured that God will be with us as we move into our future.
Reflecting on the possibilities of the year ahead, I invite you to listen to this small piece of a song from The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins sings it, and it goes like this:
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and
And wither then?
I cannot say.
And “wither then” the song asks. And the answer given is, “I cannot say.”
We cannot say for sure where we may go from here. We are still on our way. Like the Wise Men, we can trust that the journey will continue. At times it may feel like it adds up to very little, yet it all adds up to very much. For in the community of this church we have joined on the larger way together. And along the way, old things die and new things are born. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.