I’ve always been intrigued by maps. GPS is great, and I use it all the time, but there’s just something about a map that engages my imagination. Seeing all the roads spread out in front of me conjures up the many possible routes that are just waiting to be explored. But, sometimes, we don’t get to choose the routes we take in our lives. Sometimes, we find ourselves taking a road that’s different from what we intended.
That’s what happened to the Wise Men who came to see the baby Jesus. We don’t know much about the magi travelers. Matthew doesn’t actually tell us how many there were. Tradition says there were three, one for each of the gifts that Matthew names. But, there may have been two, or there may have been many more.
We’re not sure where the magi came from; the best guesses are Persia (our present-day Iran) or Babylon, although we do know they came from a Gentile land. They are often referred to as kings, as they are in our Christmas carol, but the Greek word Matthew uses tells us that they were not kings but wise men—scholars and pagan priests who were experts in the magical arts of dream interpretation and astrology.
What we do know is that, from their home in the east, they saw a new star and read in it a sign that a new king had been born. Apparently, they were well-versed in Jewish Scripture, because they determined that the new king must be a new king of the Jews. With that star as their only GPS device, they hit the road heading west for Jerusalem, because that would have been the obvious place to look for a new Jewish king. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they did something that is practically unheard of among male travelers: they asked for directions. They began asking around, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?”
King Herod gets wind of this, and he is not happy. He is unnerved when he hears that some dignitaries from the East are asking about a new king. As far as he is concerned, there is already a king in town, and there is no room for another one. Herod was a jealous and paranoid man; he had already murdered his wife and two of his sons because he suspected them of plotting against him. So, when the public hears that Herod is frightened, they become frightened, too. Because when someone like Herod is frightened, you never know what steps he will take to eliminate anyone he sees as a threat.
Herod calls in his own scholars to tell him where to find this threat to his throne. In his panic to get the information he needs, he calls on two groups who pretty much detest each other: the scribes and the priests. This way he can check their stories against each other and make sure to get the straight scoop. But, both groups tell him the same thing: Scripture says that the Messiah—the King of the Jews—will be born in Bethlehem.
Equipped with that information, he secretly calls for the Eastern visitors. He asks them what they know about the star that has appeared, and then he gives them a revised destination: he sends them on to Bethlehem. He does this under false pretenses; he wants to use them as unwitting spies. He tells them to come back and report to him where this infant king is, supposedly so that he can then pay homage to the new king himself. Right.
The wise men leave Herod with their new destination in mind. The star, which had been leading them westward, does some recalculating and now leads them south to Bethlehem. Somewhere over that little town, the star stops; they have reached their destination. They are overwhelmed with joy upon reaching the house where they find Jesus and Mary. Finding the king they have been seeking, they kneel as anyone would do before royalty—even royalty as unlikely as a little boy in a humble house in a backwater town. They offer Jesus gifts—valuable gifts, rare gifts, gifts that befit a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And then, they leave.
But they don’t leave by the same route they arrived by. Their travel plans were changed again. This time, they have been warned in a dream not to return to Herod in Jerusalem. They depart for their own country by another road.
In the Advent Bible study that we just completed, my favorite lesson was the last one. It focused on unexpected journeys, and unexpected events that disrupt our carefully laid plans for the journeys we want to or expect to take. In our last session, we looked at passages from throughout the Bible where things didn’t go smoothly for the travelers in the stories. We saw Moses taking a detour to see a burning bush and, as a result, being sent on an unexpected journey to Egypt. We saw Hagar run out of water as she traveled through the desert, and a Samaritan stopping to use his own time and resources to help a stranger in need.
We saw Philip stop to give an Ethiopian eunuch instruction and then baptizing him, before Philip was whisked away to a different location. We saw Joseph first needing to stop to ask for directions and then being detained against his will, while Jonah had to backtrack after refusing to follow the directions he had been given. We witnessed Paul travel through a terrible storm at sea, and we stood with Moses on a mountaintop, gazing at the destination he would never reach.
In all these stories, we saw echoes of our own life journeys. Our lives are full of unexpected twists and turns. We set out for a particular destination and take an unexpected detour—a job we had never considered, a community we found by accident, a person we fell in love with, or a family with children who have their own destinations in mind. All of a sudden, the map of our life is redrawn.
But there are road hazards to deal with, too—when conditions are difficult and the going is slow at best. The career we were sure would fulfill us evaporates when the economy tanks. The marriage we were certain would last our whole lives ends when our spouse leaves us—either by choice, or because illness or death robs us of the relationship we treasured. In spite of providing our bodies with the best care we can, they fail us and we have to deal with injuries and illness. Bad conditions often require that we follow another road in life.
There are times in our own life journeys when we give assistance to others. We may see that someone needs help, and we pause in our own journeys to offer it, sometimes when we can least afford the time or money. On other occasions, we need to receive help. Our supplies run low, whether they are material or spiritual or emotional or physical. We need someone to fill our tanks—someone who will take the time to replenish our shelves, or pray with us and for us, give us a hand or hold our hand.
Sometimes we find that we are just moving along on auto-pilot—what my Thursday evening group called “mindless driving.” You’ve done that, right? You’ve just been driving along, not paying attention, and suddenly you find you’re miles down the road with no recollection of how you got there?
In the same way, we stop paying attention to our lives and the direction we’re headed. We don’t notice what is happening around us. We stop doing things that can further our own growth or deepen our relationships. As long as nothing traumatic happens, we just drift along. But the problem is that at some point we’re likely to wake up. Then, we become aware that we’ve ended up in a place we really didn’t intend to go to, and we wonder how we got there. Or, we get to where we wanted to go, but we missed all the beautiful scenery along the way.
How many couples do you know who are surprised to find, after many years of marriage, that they no longer have anything in common? Or, think of the parents who realize how much they missed of their children’s growing up years, simply because they hadn’t been paying attention. Or, people who drifted along in an unfulfilling job, because they didn’t notice the opportunities along the way for work that would use all their gifts? This is the life equivalent of mindless driving.
We can fall into mindless believing, too. A few weeks of being too busy to get to worship, or a reluctance to give up precious time to Bible study and prayer can result in our coasting along in our faith. And, eventually it begins to dawn on us that we haven’t heard from God in a long time, mainly because we’ve just been cruising along, not paying attention to the many ways in which God might be trying to speak to us. We find ourselves on a lonely road in a spiritual wilderness, because we haven’t been paying attention to the direction we’re going.
But, taking another road, by choice or not, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we encounter conditions that force us onto a different route, we may find in ourselves strengths and resources we didn’t know we had. Our relationships with others can deepen. When my husband was diagnosed and treated for cancer some years ago, we were set on a new and difficult road. But it was on that road that we gained a renewed appreciation of our love and care for each other and for our life together.
In our faith journeys, taking another road can lead to a deepened relationship with God. We may come to depend on God more completely, when our lives enter unfamiliar territory. A particularly joyous event may make you more acutely aware of the source of all joy.
Joining in a Bible Study group or Sunday School class may open up a new road. The three-day spiritual retreat called the Emmaus Walk (or, for teens, a Chrysalis Flight) is a side trip I would recommend to anyone. You may not think of yourself as a “retreat-type” person; I didn’t, when I went on my Emmaus Walk. But, if you take that road, I can almost guarantee that you will be glad you made the trip, no matter where you are in your spiritual journey. Just let me know if you’d like some directions on how to get started.
Finding ourselves on an unfamiliar road gives us a new perspective, even on what we thought we knew. Regardless of the territory we find ourselves in, travelling on a new road helps guard against mindless living and mindless believing. The new scenery makes us sit up and take notice of all the ways God is working in our lives and in our world.
Because, whether we recognize it or not, God is at work. God is in every place that we go, long before we embark on the journey or reach the destination. God is with us before we even begin to contemplate making the trip. This is what we Methodists mean when we describe God’s grace as “prevenient.” That’s a fancy word that means “going before.” God’s grace is prevenient, because it is always going ahead of us, so that wherever we end up, God is already there, waiting to meet us.
That was the case with the magi. They were Gentiles, and while they were schooled in the writings of other peoples, such as the Scripture of the Jews, they were not believers. We don’t know if they ever became believers. And yet, God was working in their lives. For centuries, scholars and scientists have tried to explain the nature of the star the magi saw. They look for the presence of comets or the alignment of planets. But they all come up short. The only explanation is that the appearance of the star was not a natural event, but a supernatural one—one beyond nature—one that occurred because of God’s grace and work in the world.
Matthew doesn’t give us any details about the dream that gave the magi their new route. We don’t know if it was a frightening dream showing the evil that Herod was planning against the children of Bethlehem. We don’t know if it was simply a dream that showed the magi traveling on an unfamiliar path. But the magi were skilled in interpreting dreams, so however it came, they understood the message that God’s prevenient grace had sent: that they were to return to their country by another road without inadvertently aiding Herod in his murderous plan.
God’s grace is working in every person’s life, whether they know God or not, whether we’re aware of it or not. God doesn’t send us down bad roads on purpose as punishment, but when we find ourselves on a road that is painful or frightening or lonely, God is with us. When we feel a nudge to chart a new course, it may be that God’s grace is ahead of us, drawing us on to that new destination, as surely as the star drew the magi westward. When we feel the desire stirring in us to grow closer to God through prayer and study and worship, that is God’s prevenient grace at work in us.
Usually, the story of the magi is used as a lesson to us about the willingness of these men to drop everything and seek the Messiah. And, certainly, they are good examples of that. But the real lesson is not about what the magi did. It’s about what God did, and is doing, and will do. It’s about how God is at work in our lives as believers and in the lives of those who do not yet believe. It’s about how God works in many ways to draw all people, including us, into a deeper relationship with God. Sometimes that happens on a road we know well. Sometimes it happens as we travel another road. But whatever road we take, we can be confident that God’s grace will lead us in our journeys. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young