In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is surrounded by all the wrong people. He introduces Jesus with a genealogy spiked with five women who all have questionable sexual histories. He ends his nativity narrative with a visit by magicians (heretics) from foreign lands who don’t worship the “right” God. We Bible Belt folk don’t call them magicians, we call them “Wise Men,” but that’s a courtesy translation. Fortune-teller, you know, call 900-111-1234, might be more accurate.
Nevertheless, God got the attention of these “heretics” in a way they understood — through the stars.
Unfortunately, while The Star got their attention — it didn’t lead them to Jesus — it led them to Jerusalem and King Herod. They were nine miles off their mark. The Star’s direction was powerful, but it wasn’t until Herod’s scribes (whom you notice did not choose to make the journey) searched the Scriptures and pointed the Magi toward Bethlehem, that they were able to make a course correction.
The wise men don’t resist this counsel; they reorganize their minds — no longer focusing on a powerful king but now looking for a child with no credentials. What gave the Magi this much intentionality and flexibility? They have traveled for weeks or years to get to Jerusalem and the seat of power; yet with new information, they readily set their faces in a new direction.
Instead of just following their “passion,” these wise ones query: “What is life asking of me?” When they hear a fresh interpretation, their minds are trained to search for truth, not consistency or convenience or the shoring up of current beliefs. They have a moral lens through which they view the world; they are chasing after God; they are yearning for new revelation and a deeper insight into the meaning and purpose and value of life. They have committed themselves to a faith journey, spiritually and physically.
Journalist David Brooks asserts that there are four major commitments which shape our lives: the commitment to remain single or to choose a spouse and a family, the commitment to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith and to a community. Within these commitments, lies our capacity for making and keeping promises. When we ask, “Am I really serving my highest good?” we’re searching out our commitments and the New Year is as good a time as any to ask if we might be nine miles off the mark.
It’s happened in my life; perhaps it has in yours as well. You set off on a journey. It had all the markings of being “the right thing” — religious support, family encouragement, popular approval, but somewhere along the way you discovered you were at least nine miles off the mark. It may be relational, it may be financial (how we spend our money) or vocational (how we earn our income, invest our time) or spiritual (how we experience God and find meaning for our lives).
We all make some wrong calls in life. And it is both futile and irresponsible to try and ignore and avoid the reality of those errors. That’s the New Year’s challenge: to take the stuff of our lives and somehow make a new beginning.
We can be like Herod’s scribes and ignore the truth that lies right in front of us, or we can be like the Magi, following the revelation we have, listening to informed voices, heeding the insight of God’s word and make a course correction — no matter how certain we once were that Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, was our destination.
It may be the hardest nine miles we ever travel, to make ourselves vulnerable enough to go and kneel in front of a small child, to step away from our self-sufficiency and yield to God’s course correction in our lives. We want our lives to matter. We want to thrive professionally. We want to meet the needs of others, giving them our best. We want in all ways to choose life.
Matthew gives us this story to remind us that, as we work against the power of evil, we are choosing life. In the darkest season of the year, Christians celebrate the light of Christ coming into this world. It is a light which penetrates the darkness; it is a light which will never be extinguished; it is a light which all — heretics included — can help lift high.
The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and so, Matthew writes, they “left for their own country by another road.” By another road can also be translated “with another way” — they left for their own country with another way — the way of new life and light, the way of course correction.
Wise ones still query: “What is life asking of me now?”
info: Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison is senior pastor at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in Charlotte, N.C.