By Another Road

Matthew 2:1-12

When I was a child, my mother used to let me play with the nativity scene. We set it up on the lid of the piano and added figures as the story unfolded—a bare stable in Advent, with Mary and Joseph traveling across the room to ‘Bethlehem’ day by day, adding the baby Jesus at Christmas. Then we’d move the Wise Men closer during the 12 days of Christmas until finally on January 6, the festival of the Epiphany, the Wise Men arrive in the stable with the other figurines.

We spent a lot of time and attention getting the wise men TO the manger, but after Epiphany, we quickly boxed up the nativity scene with the other decorations and unceremoniously put them back downstairs.

It’s kind of the way many of us have thought of the story of the Wise Men. We sing “Star of wonder, star of night…westward leading still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.” We imagine following the star through weeks of travel, finally reaching the destination, the babe in a manger. Indeed, Matthew identifies that these visitors were ‘from the East,’ which would have been Persia, which is modern day Iran. It stokes our imaginations of a journey that must have taken months, and people whose study and faith that motivated them beyond their own land and religion to bring treasures to the Christ child.

But there is this little phrase that caught my attention hearing this story this time: “[The wise men] left for their own country by another road.” I realized I have paid so much attention to how the wise men came to Bethlehem, now I wonder—why did they take another road? What happened afterward?

We need a little background to consider these questions. The Wise Men were not actually kings, but scholars of the Zoroastrian faith. They were Magi, learned people who consulted the stars in a mix of science and religion. Matthew states that when the Magi visited King Herod, asking about the newborn king, Herod was frightened by the threat to his power in another king. Herod tells the Wise Men to find the child and tell him where he is so that he may ‘pay him homage.’ The Magi were warned in a dream of Herod’s treachery and therefore left without reporting back. If you read on, you see that Joseph is warned in a dream to take the child to Egypt, and that when Herod learns of the Magi’s deception, he flies into a rage and sends his soldiers to kill all boys under the age of two. The Wise Men took another road so as not to be detected and to provide an escape for the baby Jesus. But I think there is deeper significance to this story as well as this surface meaning to further the plot. The Magi were the first people beyond the Jewish community to know Christ. The event is called the Epiphany, a sudden revelation, for this reason; on this day Jesus’ identity as Messiah was revealed to the nations. Returning home by another road signifies a new chapter in the Magi’s journey with God, and also a turning point in God’s story of salvation for the whole world.

It seems an appropriate story to close the Christmas season, for Christmas is a time of coming and going. Families gather, empty nests become full again; grandchildren and cousins play. While there is often great joy at these reunions, they are often also a hard time as the absence of those we have loved and lost is keenly felt. We sense that life is a journey: sometimes the way is familiar, and other times we sense that we will need to travel by a different road. Each Christmas marks a chapter complete and a new one to open.

It makes me think of where we are as a congregation, for we are on a journey, too. This first Sunday of 2024 marks for us the beginning of an anniversary year at Epiphany: 65 years of ministry in Centerville, focused on excellent worship, committed service, and quality programming for children and youth. I have learned about wonderful ministries of the past: divorce recovery, church sports leagues and exercise classes, global ministry partners and bell choir trips to Germany, Sunday school and kids choirs, refugee families resettled.

And in my two years as your pastor at Epiphany I have had the privilege to witness the strength and joy of our preschool and the positive impact it makes in the lives of hundreds of families; the youth who are mentored and learn to embrace their gifts in our high school ministry, drama ministry, puppet ministry, and at the soundboard. I see the ways that people at Epiphany are able to care for the broader community in ministries like Adopt a Family, Pantry, Storybook Project prison ministry, blood drives; and I see the way those connections to people beyond our typical circle enlarge our spirits. I have learned from the excellent leaders here at Epiphany as we partner together to guide our congregation staff appropriately and strengthen our ministries.

But what will Epiphany be in the future? What new road are we called to on this journey with God? That is the question we are discussing in strategic planning this year. During autumn, the congregation gave input on an updated mission statement for our congregation, the leadership identified the values we live by, and fleshed out a vision statement about where we are headed. Critical themes were raised up, identifying challenges and opportunities our congregation needs to address. I invite you to look for an article in our newsletter in the coming weeks for details and to participate in the next phase of planning this spring as we set strategic goals and building teams to carry out their implementation. 

What will Epiphany be in its next chapter? Like the story Matthew tells, circumstances change. We no longer worship in the tiny sanctuary that is now the flag room. Kids now have a panoply of options for their extracurricular time and families juggle multiple careers and activities along with church commitments. But people of all demographics still want to grow in faith. Parents want their children to learn about Jesus and grow up to be caring adults. People of all ages desire deeper relationships where they are truly known.

The deal is that what drew us to Epiphany 10 or 20 years ago is not necessarily what will draw new people today. We must learn what our neighbors need and build our ministries around those things. We must travel by a different road.

I note that the circumstances weren’t the only thing that changed in the Epiphany story; the Wise Men also changed. As Zoroastrians, the Magi believed in a prophecy that a virgin would bear a son to become a divine prophet. Finding Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, fulfilled their long-awaited prophecy. They are the spiritual twins to old Simeon who awaited the birth of the Messiah, who when he met Jesus as a baby in the temple, sang, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.

Simeon’s words, like the guiding of the star for the Magi, point to the abiding truth that God is faithful. Like the Magi, like Simeon, we can count on the road God directs us to take. We will undoubtedly change by the journey we are on as we meet Christ in the worship and ministries of this congregation. But we can trust that God is writing the next chapter of our ministry with us and will guide us each step of the way as we discover together what it means to travel by another road.

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