Monday, January 4, 2016

By A Different Road

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

Most of us have particular roads on which we like to travel.  For the most part, we always go to and from work the same way, we go to the grocery store the same way, we go to church the same way.  We do this so much that there are times when we totally disengage while driving and we end up, usually at home, and we don’t remember doing the drive at all.  We know the route so well that we don’t even really have to be involved in doing it any more.  Now this does not mean that this route is necessarily the best route to take, the easiest or the quickest, although we would probably argue that it is, but it is the route that we are most used to and so it’s what we do.  And we stay on that route unless something pushes us off of it, construction, and accident or perhaps a major snow storm.  Normally, there are multiple ways to do something, multiple routes to take, but we don’t take them because it’s not how we normally go and we don’t really want to change anything.  We like our particular road just fine, thank you very much.  Even if it’s not really working for us anymore, we’re going to stick to it, because gosh darn it we’re not quitters.  Finding a different road isn’t really all that hard, most of the time, but it’s making the decision to go home by a different road that’s the tough part.
Of course the church is not necessarily the best place to be talking about trying new things, not just because new things tend to be resisted by many people, although I haven’t yet heard any complaints about the new seating arrangements, but even more because the church itself likes to keep things the same.  It’s part of that whole tradition thing, and we could sing right along with Tevye, and the fact that we celebrate the same things every year, and so we find ourselves today, just like this time last year, celebrating Epiphany which is the arrival of the wise men who come to see and worship Jesus.  The actual celebration of Epiphany is January 6, as today is only the tenth day of Christmas, and I hope to find my ten lords a leaping wrapped in my office after worship, but we celebrate epiphany today since I don’t figure most of you would be here for worship on the 6th, plus the fact that the 6th is the anniversary of Linda and my first date and so she wouldn’t be really happy with me if I was to be here.

The story of Epiphany, the arrival of the wise men, is a story familiar to us; it’s a well-traveled road, even though what we know or think doesn’t match the reality.  The first part is that regardless of what our nativity sets show, the shepherds and the wise men were never in the same place at the same time.  The wise men do not find Jesus in a manger, but instead in a house.  Now it could be that Jesus was still an infant, because according to Matthew, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, they don’t have to go there because of a census.  That is Luke’s story, and they are simply different.  But what happens after the wise men leave their meeting with Herod, and they don’t come back to see him, is that Herod orders the killing of all male children under the age of two, known as the slaughter of the innocents, and not included in the passage we heard, but that means that Jesus could be as old as two when the wise men arrive.  To survive this death order, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus, and they become refugees, fleeing to another country, a country that has a different ethnic group and also, for the most part, practices a different religion then them.  They do this so they won’t be killed, and fortunately for Jesus, and for us, that country did not refuse these refugees entrance, perhaps something we should keep in mind based on current world events.  Now I’ll stop meddling and start preaching again.

But how men wise men are there?  We say there are three, but the passage doesn’t actually say that. We hold that there are three, at least in the western church, because there are three gifts given, and surely no one would show us without bringing their own gift right?  But other traditions hold that these are group gifts and that perhaps there are twelve wise men, we simply don’t know.  And even though we just sang We Three Kings, Matthew never says anything about them being kings, nor being from the orient, he simply says they came from the east.  Probably a better location would be they came from Babylon which was the center of astronomical studies.  And one thing we do know, and certainly would have been known in the ancient world, was that magi would travel to visit significant kings, and so by having these wise men come and visit Jesus, Matthew is making a distinct theological and political statement about who Jesus is and how he relates to the Roman empire.  Because remember that the reason why Herod sees Jesus as a threat is because these men ask where they can find the king of the Jews, which is the official title held by Herod himself.

There is one other significant piece of information to consider before we get to the point that I want to emphasize from the passage, and that is that these wise men are not Jewish, they are not local, they are not from the in-group and yet they understand who Jesus is and what he means, and they do something about it, long before those who are supposed to know such things do.  They arrive and ask where they can find Jesus because they have seen the sign, and so what does Herod do?  He calls the scribes and the priests to find out what they know, and they know the prophecy, they know what they are supposed to believed, and really even what they are supposed to do, but they don’t do anything.

They had to have seen the sign in the sky that brought the wise men thousands of miles, but they didn’t go, even when they knew what to do.  They thought being priests and scribes, being in the in crowd was enough, have the right knowledge, believe the right things, be able to provide the right answers, that’s all that was necessary.  But what we see, not just in this story, but time and time again in the gospels is that knowledge and belief are not enough.  With whom does Jesus have his arguments and disputes?  It’s those who are super religious, who think they know the right things, who think they have God all figured out.  But Jesus tells them they don’t have it figured out.  That it’s not just about believing something, but about doing something about it.  That when we see the signs, we are not just supposed to know what they mean, not just talk about it and say how important this is, but to go and see and worship.  As James says, “faith without works is dead.”  Which takes us back to the last line of today’s passage, that “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,” the wise men “left for their own country by another road.”

At the beginning of the new year, we like to make resolutions for things that we are going to do this year, and this year it’s actually going to happen because this year we really mean it.  But rarely do those things happen for very long because the resolutions require us to take a different road, to go a way that is not normal, to do something different. It would have been really easy for the wise men to skip going to see Herod, but still go back home the same way, but not only did they not go back to see Herod, but they went home by a different route.  Perhaps they wouldn’t have been in any danger had they not changed, but changing their road certainly did change their lives.  Michael Michalko, who writes about how to be more creative, says that in order to spur creativity we should move beyond our normal roads and routines, to do new things, go new ways, to change directions in order to keep your mind active and learning new things.

And changing direction shouldn’t be hard for us as Christians because what Jesus tells us to do is to repent, which literally means to turn around.  To stop going down the road we are one and instead to go down a different road.  In an article on how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions by Austin Frakt, he says that when we are seeking to undertake a change we should ask two questions.  The first is “why don’t I do this already?”  And the second is “Why do I feel the need to do this now?”  The first question is a practical one that seeks to explain what barriers prevent us from doing something, most usually barriers we have put up.  The second question is the emotional one, of coming up with our reasons for why we want to do it, because if we have the reason why we want to do it, or need to do it, then we have the reasons in place to overcome the barriers that we naturally want to put in place, to overcome the natural stasis of the system of our lives.  We need that motivation to be able to take a different road.

The other piece of advice that Frakt suggests is to have it time limited.  That is don’t say I’m going to start exercising every day for the rest of my life, because that becomes too big and too overwhelming.  Instead say, for the next two weeks I’m going to schedule this every day and do it.  And then at the end of the two weeks, if you were successful, then make a commitment for two more weeks, and if you weren’t successful, then answer the questions again because you had to have missed something important in either the barriers or the reasons to undertake it.  He also recommends telling others you are making this commitment and then having them hold you accountable, so that you have to tell them that you haven’t done your commitment and why you haven’t, and often having to tell that to others is enough to get you do go down a different road.

I’ve been told by my lovely wife that reading the Bible every day for a year is too daunting, and so I’m asking the same thing.  In your bulletin you will find a sheet that has the readings just for January.  Can you make a commitment to try this for 31 days?  There is a check mark you can put next to each day as you complete the readings.  Then, I want you to put this into the offering plate at the end of the month as your offering to God.  I hope you will take on this opportunity for the next month, but here are the three resolutions I think we should make.  What am I going to do to deepen my relationship with God? What am I going to do to deepen my relationship with my church? What am I going to do to deepen my relationship with my community?

Robert Frost said “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  What Jesus says is “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  The wise men went home by a different road, but here is the most important piece of information: Ultimately this is not about us.  It’s about God and about what God is calling us to do and to be, after all before the wise men took that different road, they bowed down and worshipped Jesus, and so going back to the tradition of the Methodist church and the acts of John Wesley is has been traditional to say the Wesleyan covenantal prayer at the beginning of the year, and so we say it again together today:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

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