Going Home By A Different Way

Posted: January 6, 2013 in Uncategorized
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(The following meditation was given at the Bluegrass worship in Rocheport, Missouri, January 5, 2013)

I know, I know, every Christmas pageant you’ve ever seen has a cadre of wise men parading around, joining the shepherds around the manger to adore baby Jesus. The reason such scenes fill our churches and adorn Christmas greeting cards is this: They need to condense a much longer three-act play down to a one-act play, a snapshot. The only problem is that it really didn’t happen that way.

What happened was a wondrous birth that was followed a couple of years later by Magi – astrologers from what is today Iran or Iraq – following a stellar phenomenon toward the place where the now toddler Jesus was learning to say No. When they found him they paid homage with the familiar gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The gifts are highly symbolic.

Gold is tribute worthy of a King. Frankincense is used to incense a holy altar, the divine locale. And myrrh is used, well, to embalm bodies. From the very beginning the shadow of the cross falls across the page.

Already in the Gospel story the twin dynamics of attraction and resistance walk onto the stage, and there they shall stay to the very end. On the one hand the light of God’s working in the world rises and draws people from a far and they come like moths to the flame. But at the same time, in rival measure, the forces of resistance attempt to snuff out this light. Both are presented in a cameo appearance, the Magi and King Herod, face-to-face.

The Magi naively seek the council of the local sovereign in whose territory they are traveling. That’s standard operating procedure, of course, and smart, too. You want permission from those in authority even as you provide assurance that your motive is honorable and your visit full of good will. You do not, in any way, seek to do harm.

But the sovereign before whom they appear is not nearly so principled. To the contrary, he is a paranoid ball of hostility. Playing the pretender, Herod poses as one just as interested in the new king who has just arrived on the scene. And by the way, where is he and when did the star arise? I’d like to show just how much I care, don’t you know.

What Herod really wanted was to plan a surgical op, swoop in under the cover of night, and take out the target. The magi, becoming suspicious in a dream, return by another way, cutting a wide swath around crazy king. Incensed by the cunning of the magi, Herod decides to cast a wide net over everything to snag the prey. He carpet bombs the area hoping that by killing everything – every male two years and younger – he’ll hit his target. Never mind the collateral damage. You can hear Rachel weeping still.

And that is exactly the world into which Jesus is born, no more and no less. A baby cries and angels sing. Children play and the swords slash.

Wise people make daunting journeys to catch just a glimpse of the true, beautiful and holy, while monarchs plot its demise in the back room. Just as wisdom makes its appearance, treachery mounts it campaign. It’s all there, the good, the bad and the terribly ugly.

The shocking part, for anyone who has lived more than a few years, is not that these opposites fill the world. The jarring truth is that the battlefield exists in each of our hearts, hotly contested ground sought by Herod and Magi alike. If it were only a matter of an epic battle between good and evil on the outside, we could leave the tale told by the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. But it neither begins nor ends outside of ourselves; the epic battle always begins and ends as a part of our inner landscape.

If it is true that Christ may be born into our hearts it is equally true that such a birth is constantly tested and contested. The magi live. And so does Herod.

And that is exactly why it is so important for us to separate the story of Jesus’ birth from what comes next.

We might go to Bethlehem one way, that is go to Christ one way, but the way we travel home after that is different, full of danger, risks, and unfamiliar territory. We have been warned in a dream not to travel the same way, but the new way.

Just think for a minute about how your life got you to where you are right now. You may not even be able to piece together all the paths and connections that made it possible. In fact, you may not have been making conscious choices that got you from there to here, almost navigating on auto pilot, following some master script someone else thought you should follow.

Or your path has been fairly deliberate. You chose this way and not that way. But now you come to a turning point because all our roads have them and you suddenly realize that the ways you used to travel aren’t necessarily going to be the same ones that get you to your next place. As James Taylor sings, “It’s a long, long way from anywhere …”

I can tell you that Herod did not return by a different road. He returned by the same road he always took – force, ego, domination, power, superiority. None of that changed, not even in regard to the light of the world. It seems that the presence of the light simply doubled down his resolve to stay the same, to act the same way with the same motives, more of the same.

And if there is a part of us that kills the spirit it is exactly this, the wild impulse to insist on our own way and liquidate any rival to the one we think is in control.

If there is wisdom in our Magi, our little trio of sojourners, it is that they read the lay of the land as they go, listen to their dreams, discern the difference between what is true and false, and chart a new course.

I often think about that in regard to the life story we are co-writing with God. Garrison Keillor once said, “Give up your good Christian life and follow Christ.”

Of course, that is offered tongue-in-cheek, but it also tells a truth. The road that got us here, even the one that seemed the right and proper Christian one, must sometimes be abandoned in order to follow a new path with Christ.

Once upon a time there was a young boy who was always drawn to wandering in the woods. When his father asked him about it, why he did, the boy answered, “I go there to find God.”

“Well, that’s a fine thing,” said the father, “but can’t you find God everywhere?”

“Yes,” said the boy, “but I’m not.”

Our search for the God that is everywhere changes as we find ourselves in different places in the world and different places along our life story. What seemed clear yesterday isn’t so clear today. The challenges of life have changed. The way we need to be in the world has shifted, even if the eternal God is the same. Isn’t God everywhere? Well, yes, but we’re not.

Like the Magi, we have learned a lot about where we have been. We can tell you the story of the twists and turns along the way. We even can provide cautions based on that experience. The Magi know not to return by the way they came, and we know something about the way not to return. If someone asked us we might have a lot to say about the way not to go – from experience.

What is not so clear is where we are heading now, or how, returning home by another road, because it is a way that is not charted on any map. It is the long way home, the unfamiliar way home, but the way we need to take at this point in our life. How do we navigate?

I remember hearing James King tell about an African church he pastored. One of the faithful women who attended each and every Sunday was always accompanied by her dog. She had a terribly abusive husband, and when she died he wouldn’t even allow the funeral to be in the church.

That left this man alone, except for the dog. He began to notice that the dog quietly disappeared every Sunday morning and didn’t return until noon. One day his curiosity got the best of him and he followed the dog on Sunday morning. The dog entered the open-air building, walked to the front where his beloved once sat in her pew, and laid down in the aisle. The man followed, took a seat beside the dog and listened. And what he heard was something wondrous, a story about the God of the universe who leads us where we need to go. His heart was so touched that he gave himself to Christ. And now the dog goes to church with a new master.

We never know what leads us home by a different road. A star may have led us to the cradle and something else will guide us from there on. God may be everywhere but we aren’t, and we will be led from this new place into the new chapter, the next chapter co-written with Christ.

Beneath the madness of King Herod there abides the wisdom from within, our Magi, the dog that takes us where we need to go. Follow, good pilgrim, and trust that the way will lead you where you must go, step by step, prayer by prayer, until you find your peace.

  1. Jan Coffman says:

    I like this.

  2. Gloria Beranek says:

    One of your best, Tim!

  3. Vicki Conn says:

    This is wonderful. Your meditation helps an old familiar story move into our daily experience.

  4. Tricia says:

    Thanks Tim! I RELLY needed to read this.

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