Home by Another Way
by Louise Westfall
Even though most Nativity scenes include royal-looking wisemen, it’s doubtful they were present in the stable along with the shepherds, adoring the baby lying in the manger. As astrologers from afar–modern day Iran–they had seen a new star appear and interpreted it as signaling the birth of a new ruler. It would have taken perhaps two months to travel five hundred miles to Jerusalem by caravan, meet with King Herod and his own advisors, go to nearby Bethlehem and locate the house where the family was living. In the Biblical story, King Herod is presented at first as yet another seeker, sending the visiting Magi as an advance party to prepare for his own pilgrimage to meet the future king. Peer to peer. Power to power. But something isn’t quite right. What is it that moves the starry-eyed wisemen to return home by another way? A reading from the second chapter of Matthew, verses one through twelve. Listen for God’s epiphany…a revelation of truth and light…and something more. [Matthew 2:1-12]
The search for truth rarely follows a straight line. In Eastern mystic traditions, enlightenment takes time and disciplined focus through meditation. We testify in court by swearing on a Bible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” subject to the ruling of judge and jury as to its ultimate accuracy. We’ve learned through research on family dynamics that keeping secrets can be toxic to the trust so essential for healthy relationships. People used to have confidence in the news media as primary sources of truth, though now that’s diminished through bias, misinformation, “infotainment” and blatant political agendas. All the more significant, then, that two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” In her acceptance speech, Ms. Ressa noted the dangers of doing her work, including imprisonment and even death in order to “bring you the truth and hold power accountable.” Personally, I see the artists among us–painters and sculptors, musicians, dancers, writers and film makers–as truth-tellers, and prioritizing the works of artists from communities of color and the marginalized have helped us see the truth–both hard and inspiring–more completely.
For Christians, truth is found in a person named Jesus, an Israelite child born two millennia ago to poor parents living under Roman occupation. The epiphany star shone over his birthplace and guided the magi to meet him face-to-face. Their joy was overwhelming, even if they couldn’t understand fully what his life and rule would mean. I imagine the contrast between King Herod’s opulent dwelling and the spartan house of Joseph; and the power wielded by one and the utter vulnerability of the other startled them into the realization that this baby was going to be a distinctively different kind of ruler. His rule was going to put him in direct conflict with Herod and others who ruled by force. Perhaps that’s what created a sense of foreboding and dis-ease in the Wisemen. Maybe they sensed in his humble origins a surprising empathy for the poor. Maybe Mary and Joseph told them about the angel messenger proclaiming his birth would lead to “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Maybe their own hopes for a better day caught a flicker of recognition in the baby’s eyes. Whatever it was, it was enough to wrench them from their well-traveled path and send them home a different way.
…and that’s the way it’s been ever since. A genuine encounter with Jesus changes things. Changes people. Jesus opens the eyes of the blind; awakens the complacent; exposes the vulnerability of the proud and self-reliant; ignites faith in the fearful; hope in the cynical or weary; generosity in the rich. Jesus reconciles those who are estranged; heals and mends what is broken and torn, and creates community among disparate–and desperate–people. The epiphany experienced by the Wisemen began with the appearance of a star, but didn’t make a difference to them until they followed; until they knelt at Jesus’ feet. We search for truth but it doesn’t enlighten or change us until we move from intention to action, from intellectual assent to lived practice. Until we “see” that truth is love-in-action.
Jesus transformed the love of power into the power of love. The power to love.
From the very beginning Jesus demonstrated love as the power to cast out fear; as the power to change the way we see the world and our lives; as the power to walk a different way. From the very beginning, Jesus transformed the love of power into the power of love. The power to love. In his life, that power took the form of friendship with morally corrupt characters; forgiveness for those who’d lost their way; cherishing the folks everyone else ignored or belittled; welcoming children; feeding multitudes; loving without limit or condition, including loving his enemies. If Jesus had been living among us during the pandemic, I believe he would have vaccinated, masked, and socially distanced, all because of love. And I think he would have been bold to reach out to the unvaccinated, unmasked, and angry people and disarmed them not with criticism or rage or even judgment, but with the power of love.
Friends, when we take a step–however small or tentative–to follow Jesus, we will have an epiphany. A revelation of truth immersed in love. Love that is our home and destiny. Love that takes us there by a different way, a better way. Love that will change us, inside out. Love that is the only way to change the world.
Sometimes, epiphanies are serendipities, unexpected and surprising revelations that awaken us suddenly to a different reality. But many more times, maybe most often, we must decide to seek them out, and like the Wisemen of old, put ourselves on a path that will lead us to Jesus. Today we come to Jesus also by way of a star, a light to lead us into the unknown year ahead. On each star a single word is written and that word is an invitation to think more deeply about the road we’re traveling. Of course there’s a certain randomness to the star you’ll receive, the “luck of the draw,” so to speak. But may it provide the light we need–individually and as a congregation–to walk together in love. I hope and pray each of us will wrestle with our word until we come to experience it as an epiphany, a revelation that the way of Jesus–unfamiliar though it may seem–does in fact lead us through thrilling adventures, authentic relationships, and breathtaking purpose all the way until we find ourselves at home.
Happy new year.