“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.”
Last Sunday, the final Christmas story was told. It is the story of the ancient magi following the bright star that would lead them to the infant child, a child they believed would be the messiah, as the prophets had foretold. The familiar story bookmarks the end of the Christmas season, ushering us into the season of Epiphany.
In many ways, we have romanticized the journey of the magi. We celebrate their ability to locate the infant and his family. Clearly it is their wisdom and knowledge that provides them with insights absent to others. We are moved by their act of humility, as they kneel before the infant in the simple manger. After all, these are powerful and wise men – they would not pay homage to just anyone. Even the Roman King Herod received them in his court. We are touched by their generosity, as they present the infant with precious and expensive gifts. The gift of myrrh was commonly used for anointing and embalming, a symbol of a death that was yet to come; the gift of frankincense was used for incense, a symbol of the deity before them, and the gift of gold as a precious metal, a symbol of kingship on earth.
Their encounter with the infant reflects that powerful moment when humanity encounters the divine. That encounter shapes and frames what happens next. It is precisely what happens next that challenges each and every one of us today. When presented with the choice to return to King Herod (as he requested) to share the infant’s whereabouts, the magi chose to return to their own country “by another road.” They chose not to return to the King with the information, information that would have probably gotten the infant Jesus killed. The magi instead chose to honor the infant in the manger, and by doing so, save his life. Who knows what would have happened if they had returned to King Herod with the information he wanted? Maybe they would have been rewarded. After all, they would have been saving King Herod’s throne. We will never know, but what we do know is those three wise men – after encountering the divine- chose another road.
So what about us? What road would we choose? What road do we choose?
We have made this journey to the manger over and over again. We have sung the songs that make us feel good about the birth of the infant child. We celebrate his birth by offering generous gifts to those we love. But when Christmas is over and we leave the presence of the manger, what road do we choose? Would we choose the road back to the earthly power and wealth – to the Herods of our time – or would we make the choice the magi made? Would we turn our back on the trappings of earthly power so the life and witness of the infant Jesus could live on?
This is the ancient challenge for us as we enter a new year – at a time in history when polarization and fear-mongering continues to frame much of the narrative of the culture around us. Acts of hate, violence and terrorism are all-too common. What road will we choose as our witness in our congregations? In our ministries? In our individual lives?
As we know the infant child grows up – and his witness on this earth is clear. He stands with and for the oppressed and the poor. He touches those who are untouchable. He heals the sick. He embraces the other – the impure, the unwanted, the foreigner, the young and the elderly. He challenges the assumptions of the culture around him – both religious and secular. He ultimately chooses to give his life so the brokenness between God and humanity could be made right, allowing for us to participate in God’s resurrection hope. That was the Jesus witness. That witness is our call.
The choice the magi made when they stood up from their knelt position allows for the greatest story ever told to continue to be told. What will be said of our choices as we embark on a new year? During this Christmas season we have once again made the pilgrimage to the manger, eager to greet the infant child. But now, as we return to the movement of our days and weeks in those places where we work, play, and live, what road will we choose?
May the world say of us 2,000 years from now, on their 300th year as a people of faith, they stood with the infant child and traveled home by another road!