January 6, 2019: Such a Long Journey by Rev. Beth Hayward (Matthew 2: 1-12)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey[1]

These opening words to T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Journey of the Magi have a way of making this story personal.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey.

Maybe it’s different in the southern hemisphere but here in the north I’ve always found it a bit of a stretch to muster the socially expected enthusiasm to journey into the new year with conviction and lofty resolutions. It’s the worst time of year for a journey, for any type of movement really. I gave up make New Year resolutions years ago. I’m adverse to failure so why set myself up for it. Besides, there are better seasons to set our sights on journeys. Summer is good, for exploring new terrain geographically or spiritually. And the fall with all of its back to school, return to routine buzz, that’s a good season to explore new possibilities. January’s for hibernating, hunkering down, it’s the time to live off your reserves until the rains stop. I suppose we’re not always called to journey in the season that makes sense to us, if we keep waiting for the right season to set off on a journey, we may be held back by the voices in our heads in perpetuity. If following in the way of Jesus was determined by the ease of the journey few of us would ever set out.

When I speak of journey here I don’t mean a vacation, more of a self- examination, an exposure to something new that may lead us to reflect on what matters, the core values that guide our lives. This is what a journey to Bethlehem invites. These magi came from far away, they weren’t Jewish, there was no conceivable reason for them to go looking for the Christ child. Besides that they didn’t gather their information from Google maps or ancient texts, they followed the skies. They just had to keep observing and responding, adjusting the compass by the ever-changing circumstances, there was no road map. Their journey to the Christ child “was a process of trial and error, of adjusting and readjusting, of being willing to go in a different direction because of the unfolding information of the heavens…. The wise men’s two-year or so journey was probably full of wrong turns, detours and plenty of monotonous days.”[2]  Maybe it was a bit like TS Eliot describes:

Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,…

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

There is something about the way things are and the way things were that is compelling. Even if what you’re leaving behind is complicated or suffocating, there is some strange comfort in the rhythm of what we know. So what is it that compels us to the difficult journey of self-awareness, of spiritual deepening? It’s a near impossible task. What is it that takes us from star-gazing to star following? How do you make the leap from dreaming about something to making it happen? Who were these wise guys who set out at the worst time of year for a journey? And what was it that made them follow that star? More than that, what kept them on the journey even as they longed for sunny days with sherbet?

There’s a story about a few rabbis arguing over why it was that the burning bush burned but was not consumed until one rather testy rabbi pipes up: it was burning and not consumed so that one day when Moses walked by he would finally notice. Maybe the star over Bethlehem was always shining or maybe it was a comet that appeared, either way, they had to notice it to follow.

The Magi noticed on that night. They noticed the star in the skies, noticed it at its rising and followed it to the place where the child was found. Is taking notice perhaps the simple place where our journey to the Christ light begins? Here we are on the cusp of a New Year, as the light of our days begins on its slow journey to summer solstice, on the day of Epiphany and we are presented with the challenges of the magi:  what will it take to follow the stars, the calling and the nudging of God and where might that lead? Maybe we should commit to daily resolutions rather than yearly, maybe that’s more realistic and perhaps each morning it is a commitment to attune ourselves to noticing. Maybe that is the place to begin.

Noticing though is just a beginning. The true heart of this story doesn’t lie in the star so much as it does in the manger.

Long before there was fake news there was truthiness.[3] Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the phrase to describe the belief that one’s opinions are true without regard for evidence, logic or facts. I wonder if on that long journey as they arrived at the manger, in their encounter with the Christ child was their own truthiness brought into light. Did they see something they hadn’t seen before. Was something shaken so deep within that their perceptions were forever altered. In today’s language we might think of it as having their core values shaken. What they knew to be true, what they were so certain was true, suddenly came into focus and they had to re-examine the truthiness of it.

No sooner are the extravagant gifts laid round the manger than they turn around and leave town. In one simple sentence the entire truth, the gold of this story gleams brightly. It says:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12)

Remember just a few short verses before we read that when Herod heard about the child he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. Remember Herod secretly called the wise men before sending them on their way to Bethlehem. These are the actions of a scared ruler. You don’t call secret meetings unless you have something to hide. Herod is the symbol here of all the ruthless power of the empire, and he, even he, seems to intuit that this baby king is a threat to his way of seeing and being in the world. His power is threatened to the core. And so when these wise ones go home by another road, it’s because whatever the glimpsed in that barn means they cannot in good conscience ever collude with the Herod’s of the world again.

So much is made of Herod here that it seems to  point to the idea that their understanding of power was completely challenged here and they experienced something in the baby, something about the power of God being born in life not in armies or palaces. Did they glimpse the truth that the God shares with us vulnerability and trusts that when we encounter this vulnerability our response will be love?[4] God offers another dream of how reality is actually organized – When you follow a star you run the risk of having the truthiness of your core values rocked, you have no choice, really but to go home a different way.

I ask people sometimes, why do you come to church, why do you invest this time in this place, it’s a vocational hazard I suppose. I hear answers like community, the music. Even now and then people tell me it’s for the sermons. But I wonder if somehow those are the surface answers, those are the answers we can muster in a passing conversation. It’s like when asked how you’re doing and you only have time for “fine thanks,” but given the chance, given the space and a little bit of safety you might really answer and get below the surface to the nuance of how you’re doing. And you might just reveal the joys and the doubts.

I wonder if we took the time to ask one another why’d you come to church today?

Why do you show up in this community on Sunday morning and even sometimes throughout the week? Why do you give any attention to your spirit? I wonder if you might hear just below the surface, just below the community and the music that we come because we noticed, we continue to notice that there is something at work in our world calling us to take the journeys to come and see, to dare to be changed, to examine and reexamine the truthiness of what guides our lives, of what underlies our decisions.

I’m not sure any of us would show up for the work of faith if we knew just how many times it would cause us to have to return home by another way. If we had any idea just how close to the truth the words of TS Eliot would ring.  When he says:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
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 our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

Maybe sometimes we choose not to notice the stars in the sky, the whispers in our heart, the blatant calls to journey to places that dare to upend our truth because we have glimpsed that place before where the line between birth and death is blurred, where the new way we are called to live means letting go of long held truths and comforts. Maybe we know the risk of noticing and it scares us. We know that if we dare to find our way to the Christ child, not only will it be a convoluted and unnerving journey, but it just may lead to turning our world upside down.

Maybe it doesn’t much matter what season it is. Maybe the resolutions to keep on following the stars to risky places, is a daily choice not a yearly resolution.

Maybe like the magi we’d be wise to not take the journey alone, because when you’re going deeper into tender spiritual places you will be sure to love your way and go off track, maybe we need to whisper reminders to one another about the baby who shows us again and again that Love is found in vulnerability and it is the most powerful place from which we can learn to love ourselves and the world. It’s the worst time of year for a journey, but let’s do it anyway.  Amen

[1] Read the Journey of the Magi here:  https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

[2] The Christian Century. Laura Sumner Truax, Living by the Word December 26, 2013.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness

[4] https://www.georgehermanson.com/2008/01/joy-that-brings.html I am indebted to my dear friend George Hermanson for this paragraph.