We cannot decide what happens around us each day, but we can determine the way we move through each day. Remember the words of Robert Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.
From Matthew comes the story of the wise men, and there is much we can learn from their journey. For one thing there is great wisdom in not only seeing the signs that point the way but being willing to follow them. Those who through experience and/or training have learned the signs of the market place can deal more effectively with the changing economy. When we listen to what our bodies are telling us, many times we seek the medical help we need. It is as simple as paying attention to the signs around us to know what weather to expect. Remember the poem we learned as children: "Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning."
The wise men, through perhaps years of study and searching the heavens, found the star worth following. They knew the sign when they saw it and had the courage to follow. The confidence they had probably came from the discipline they had followed of study and work. But it is obvious from the story, they were open to new ideas. The usual barriers of inconvenience and risk did not stop them.
How many times do we hide behind borders and barriers instead of opening our lives to where God is trying to lead us just as the wise men were led to the Christ Child? We become too settled, too comfortable, where we need to be open. Perhaps you've heard of the passenger sitting relaxed on the plane. A man appeared with a parachute. He asked the passenger, "Would you like to join me?" "No, thank you," said the passenger, "I'm very happy where I am." The reply came back, "Do as you like, but I'm the pilot."
Then there are those who look beyond the walls of nation, of race, of denomination, of age, of gender, or position, or whatever, and see the star that calls them to a new life, and we call them wise. And there are others that simply crouch down in the shadows of their own little world and feel lonely and frightened.
Think of the contrast found in our Gospel lesson. The priests and scribes couldn't see the obvious. They were the very ones who should have known, but here they were hiding behind the walls of institutions and establishments. They lacked the boldness and the faith to find a new way, another way.
Herod couldn't see either. He is hiding behind the wall of power. Despite what we know of his brutal, evil action, he was not all bad. The report is that he gave up some of his court's gold plate and had it melted to feed the hungry. But at the point of decision, he hid behind the wall, scheming on how to save his power even to the point of terror, the slaughter of the innocents.
The wise men, the ones from the east, didn't stay behind the walls that divide us. They followed the star--reaching out to others when their wisdom would take them no further. But even as they reached their goal, they had to be open. They had to be ready to follow where they were led.
How tempting it is to run back to the security of our own little corner. How tempting it must have been for them to shift the responsibility and simply rationalize that the king had requested them to report back and to go on home. But they found another way.
When those in power are telling us one way and God seems to be leading us another, let us remember the words of Howard Thurman as he wrote in "Meditations of the Heart":
Sometimes in the stillness of the quiet
if we listen,
we can hear the whisper in the heart
giving strength to weakness,
courage to fear,
hope to despair.
Do we think the wise men just stumbled onto the star and it caught their eye? Do you think they just happened to have the spiritual maturity to discern that God wanted them to ignore King Herod and to avoid Jerusalem and go home another way? No, the ability to see the star and know God's guidance came from years of disciplined study and commitment.
And so we, too, need to be disciplined, if we hope to discern God's will for our lives. If we hope to be guided in his way, we need to be disciplined in our study of Scripture, in our daily prayer life, in our habits of worship, and in our service to others. We need to be open in our thinking about other people and on issues. Wisdom does not come to a closed mind. The seven deadliest words to a church are, "We have never done it that way."
We need to journey in life and not merely wait. We need to seek and in doing so challenge the vested interest of the world, and, yes, of our own hearts. Albert Schweitzer captured the feelings of many when he wrote, "We are all so much together and yet we're dying of loneliness." So many are walled off from each other in these early days of January. We feel Christmas fading, that time of friendliness and warmth, care and togetherness. We observed the season but didn't really expect any change. We hide behind our walls, afraid to journey on--not really expecting any change. We hide behind the walls.
Scott Peck in the book The Road Less Traveled comments, "It is for that very reason that Eric Fromm so aptly entitled his study of Nazism, 'Escape from Freedom,'...in an attempt to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom..." After all, the wise men could have claimed, "The king told us, and we were merely visitors in his land. It was their regulations. Our first task was to make sure that our caravan was safe."
Luke's quiet Christmas slips away. No longer a whisper, no longer limited to a few shepherds but now in the halls of power. The very foundation of power is being shaken. The king feels threatened.
If we were giving stage directions, we might say, "Exit shepherds and enter wise men; exit stable and enter palace; the lullaby is to be replaced with wailing." And our lesson tells us that it was not only Herod but all of Jerusalem was frightened.
Have you even noticed how cities become symbols for entire nations and ideologies? We hear on the news, "London said," "Washington is planning," or "Paris is worried." Here in our Gospel today, an entire faith is being challenged to an awakening, a new day.
We discover again the truth of the saying that not everybody will love you. Even the Good News has its enemies. There are others who have other plans. There are those whose selfish interest is being challenged. There are those who don't want to change.
The challenge is if we find the way to God, we're changed by the journey. Stephen Carter in the "Culture of Disbelief" quotes historian Visount Bryce as saying, "The more the church identified with the world the further did it depart from its own best self. The church expected or professed to Christianize the world, but in effect the world secularized the Church." The wise men, if they had listened to Herod, would have found both their journey and themselves changed. But remaining faithful to the leading of the one who placed the star, they were growing in their faith.
C.S. Lewis writes, "God will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of heaven as a short cut to the nearest shop." The challenge that the Herods of this world never learn is that we're not to use God but to let God use us.
Terry Waite, the reporter held prisoner longer than any other American hostage during the '80s in Lebanon, wrote, "I have been determined in captivity and still am determined to convert this experience into something that will be useful and good for other people. I think that's the way to approach suffering. It seems to me that Christianity does not in any way lessen suffering. What it does is enable us to take it, to face it, to work through it, and eventually to convert it." The power to stay the course, to be faithful, despite all the pressures otherwise.
In Martin Luther King's speech "I Have a Dream," he spoke of a new day when--
Black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, free at last."
Any time we limit or narrow the biblical vision into a national or racial or regional or even confessional church, we have reconstructed the walls. We have detoured from the journey. We are no longer following the one who placed the star.
The way we must find the way is to come out from behind our walls, to tear down those walls in our hearts; and as did the wise men, we need to follow the leading of the one who placed the star.
Matthew's inclusion of the wise men in the heart of his Christmas story, as he also did the inclusion of the women in the heart of his genealogy of Jesus, shows a new way. Both demonstrate God's way of surmounting the barriers that the world had built and to reach out to all. This gift was far more priceless than those of gold and frankincense and myrrh that the wise men brought.
Herod's way was the old way--the use of power and influence. A world where might made right. To intimidate others to follow one's desires. To react to the new by striking back. His way was one of violence. After all, Herod is reported to have killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and the innocents of Bethlehem.
The old way was one of living by labels. How easily for the wise men to have chosen to follow the king's way. Not only intimidated by his might, but how confusing the contrast must have been between stable and palace, manger and throne. But they were wise for they had a greater vision, one that came from heaven.
Don't take the story lightly. It took a great deal of courage to disobey the king of a land where they were foreign guests. They traveled with permission, visas as they were stamped by Herod's mark. We see in the slaughter of the innocents the risk of death they were taking. But by their act of disobedience, they protected the very Son of God from Herod's evil.
Don't take lightly your decision to try a new way. Some will not understand, some will feel threatened, some will laugh. How tempted we are as Stephen Carter suggested in "Culture of Disbelief" to make our religion a hobby or at best an interest group. But we dare not let it show.
But we have to continue the journey. For the wise men, there was a need to go back home and for us the need to go on. By being wise, we can make the right choice on which way to go. The challenge, wherever we are on our religious pilgrimage, is to be open to God's guidance.
Faith is not always knowing the whole way but being willing to seek and to follow God's guidance. Just as the children of Israel followed the cloud by day and the fire by night, we need the faith to go the way God would have us to go. We too must search as the wise men. We too must shut out the voices of the old way. We too must find a better way.
The call to find a better way is a call not to stop too soon. When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, they were only about six miles from their goal, but they had a long way to go. They needed to stay focused, not fall for the flattery of the king's court or to confuse power with right. Just as they had keenly understood the star that others only wondered about, now they had to listen for the still, small voice within to find the right way to go on.
They had to see the greatness in the small. They had to know the need to move on, to go home. They had to know the importance of following through.
How ironic that these outsiders were among the first to see, to find, to worship the newborn King. Herod was so near to Bethlehem, but he couldn't take the next step. Much as in the parable of the prodigal son, the elder brother missed what the prodigal brother found.
The wise men not only had the wisdom to find the star and to follow the star, but they stayed tuned for further orders. They were not hiding behind the walls of pride and fear as Herod was.
When we reduce what we worship to ourselves and have no room for the living God, we are building the worst wall of all between us and God. We will never find the better way without his guidance and wisdom. We not only need to respond to God's leading but to stay tuned for further orders. We need to know that in education to use what we have learned effectively means to stay open to new insights and ways. To know that a marriage does not end on the wedding day at the altar, but begins in a journey together. To know that with our children, parenting is a lifelong process. In joining a church, evangelism is what happens after we have put our name on a church roll.
We have to go another way. Not the way the world would say or even our selfishness would say. We have to find God's way.
Let us pray.
O Father, there are so many voices that call for our attention and so many that would tell us what we need to do with our lives. Give us the wisdom to hear the still, small voice that guides for thee. Amen.