Good old Herod – “King of the Jews” – appointed King of Judea by the Emperor Augustus in 37 B.C.E. By all reports he had a very successful reign. Ethnically Arab, but Herod was a practicing Jew. He increased the land he governed from Palestine to parts of modern Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He constructed fortresses, aqueducts and amphitheaters and earned himself the title Herodes Magnus – Herod the Great.
He was ruthless. “A cruel man, but fair.” (As Monty Python once described a character) I believe it was Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of the first century, who indicated that it was “safer to be Herod’s pig then his son.” Herod was kosher after all! He adored his wife, Mariamme, whom he killed (peculiar way to adore somebody), and he murdered three sons because of his fear of a coup.
Herod is famous for “slaughtering the innocents” of Bethlehem. An event that is nowhere else reported then in Matthew’s gospel – but it certainly fits the description of his paranoia and ruthlessness.
That he was suspicious of the wise men and wanted to know where Jesus “king of the Jews” was born so he could “pay him homage” (right!) fits what we know about him.
So it is a good thing that these wise men from the East (Iraq or Iran) were discerning folk and “left for their own country by another road.” The next few verses report that Joseph, Mary and the baby got out of town too – heading south into Egypt.
So what are we to take away from all of this? Commentators have been fascinated by the magi’s escape “by another way” -a route that both by-passed Herod AND, metaphorically, was a change of perspective, “another way.” T.S. Eliot in his poem “Journey of the Magi” picks up this meaning.
We returned to our places, our kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot’s point, I suppose, is once you look into the face of Jesus – once you have the epiphany, the experience of the divine, a new truth, a new idea, the confrontation and transformation of the holy – you just aren’t the same. The old world, the old way of being, simply cannot be returned to. The old dispensation, the old ways of doing things, don’t work. And to try to return along the way – back into the old ruts, the old habits, the old routines – “returning to Herod” – well, it just isn’t healthy.
I know it to be true for folks who have the epiphany, the God-breakthrough – alcoholics who can’t go back on the old route. Those who get a new idea. I believe it was about Galileo or Da Vinci that someone said that they were caught between two worlds – one dying and one waiting to be re-born.
When you are in that space – how do you go back? You head on by another way, no?
I like that the magi were looking for Jesus. I think everybody is looking for the king, everyone is looking for Jesus, whether they would admit it or not – seeking a face-to-face with what is REALLY true. You and I all have this deep desire to bump up against the holy, and to change, to bend towards the divine and become more ourselves, to feel at home in our own skin- to follow new patterns that are not self-destructive. Going home by another way – away from a dysfunctional relationship, destructive patterns of behavior, or towards a new idea, a new way – taking those risks that take you down the “road less traveled” – this takes real courage.
Isn’t it interesting that the Gospel has a lot to say about roads, and ways of getting back home? The Magi have to find another way. This new way may save them from Herod but chances are the new way has its own dangers and may be circuitous, longer. This isn’t about choosing Rt. 2 or 90! There is a distinct possibility (Herod’s threat not withstanding) that the new way home will not be safe; there are dangers on the roadside. We know about the dangers of travel in the first century – just read the Good Samaritan – there are robbers. But sometimes you can’t go back home the way you came.
What road are you on?
Remember how we started Advent – Isaiah tells the children in exile that it is time to go home but…you’ll have to build a new road in the desert – it will necessitate construction and it won’t necessarily be easy – but in so doing, you see, “all people” will see God’s glory revealed.
I think the lesson personally is that in this new year, you have to look for new paths. Staying rutted in the old is not good, the status quo while not as dangerous as Herod’s threat still has its dangers. As Kathleen Norris wrote in her book Dakota, which was all about her inward transformative journey: “disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.” And if the wise men had not changed the way they returned home, they would have lost their future, probably by losing their heads!
What do you need to change?
See, we have do new things, and think new thoughts, and shake things up and be prepared for journeys into new lands. The point of all this travel is find our home in God.
I will never forget the feeling of coming home for the first time from college, or the feeling of coming home after being away in Scotland for two years – there is no better feeling then coming home. But you see I had to LEAVE home to come home. I had to experience some things and feel the pangs of homesickness. ALL our spiritual yearning comes down to being homesick – homesick for God. “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you,” St. Augustine wrote 1,500 years ago.
So we have to learn to travel and to develop that strong faithfulness that is expressed in these words: “Every experience holds a new promise, every encounter carries a new insight, and every event brings a new message.”
What home are you looking for?
What happens personally, happens institutionally. Last year, just about this time, the Session found out that we were going to be $75,000 short of our stewardship goal. A retirement, a death, and a move of three VERY large givers brought us to a new reality – we can’t go back that way. And you know the narrative – the Session accessed the funds that our Endowment Committee annually disperses to a variety of things including benevolences. The Session cut the funds that we give away to the denomination’s mission program, we froze salaries, cut some hours – we did what we had to do.
But it shook us up. Our magi (your elders) discerned that we needed to re-evaluate, to head in a new direction. As Dr. Johnson once wrote: “The prospect of being hanged in the morning wonderfully concentrates the mind!” Nothing clarifies the mind like a budget shortfall – or a return to Herod!
So the Session called a small group of particularly wise folk to build a new highway, to find a new way home – towards our goal of equipping you in every way possible for powerful, faithful living; towards our goal of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ – giving sight to the blind, good news to the poor and release of the captive; towards our goal of being the beloved community where all God’s beloved children find a home – black and white, gay and straight, single and coupled, young and old – Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female – all one in Christ Jesus!
These wise folk listened to you and articulated a way towards home – by another way. And I want you to read this living document which is now the Session’s template for the next five years. Unlike other reports by other committees, this isn’t one for the bookshelf to be forgotten, collecting dust – no this is a road map and an interactive expression of hope – pointing the way. It is on the website – and I encourage all of you to read it, to engage with it – not in the usual cynical critical way – not in that old way which leads to Herod – but to read it with hope for the future.
We have to give up some “old dispensations” even if they worked for many years. But at the end of the day, do you want to go backwards or move ahead? Return to Herod or find a new way home? We really can’t stay put.
So, just like the magi, let us offer our best gifts for the future. The magi didn’t bring proper baby gifts that Mary could use immediately – they brought gifts for a later time: gold, frankincense and myrrh. So let us, too, think towards the future, to the hope of God’s kingdom among us.
The map has been given. Let’s start the journey back home.