A sermon for Epiphany Sunday using Matthew 2:1-12
I began my trip home from the Gulf Coast on New Year’s Eve with my itinerary tucked into my purse. My friend would drive me to the airport in New Orleans, and we would have time there to drink coffee and indulge in eating beignets, and then I would board a plane for Cincinnati, a new airport for me. From there I would travel straight home to City By the Sea, where my husband had plans to pick me up and take me out for a New Year’s Eve dinner.
How many times do we begin a trip believing we know what to expect, only to have the plans change, to have the route diverted, to have to deal with surprises and unknowns?
About halfway through the flight, I heard the bell signifying an announcement from the cockpit. As best I could hear, the ice on a window had not responded to de-icing, and the weather conditions in City By the Sea were not suitable for this particular plane to land. Re-routed to Beantown, we landed and waited in the terminal to hear how the airline would get us to our destination. When the announcement came, we heard the words, “The Diversion of Flight 5027.”
These pronouncements, both on the plane and on the ground, came from people, not God, but it gives you a strange feeling to know that your plans have been changed, that they are beyond your control, and that someone else is going to tell you what you are doing next.
This happened to the Wise Men, too, when the angel came to warn them against Herod. And they serve as a wonderful example to us of being open to, and flexible about, a change of plans and a change of perspective.
The place of the Magi, those wise men of the East, is an important one in the gospel of Matthew, even though they appear and then disappear again in Chapter Two. They visit the infant Jesus, and they foreshadow the commission given by the risen Christ to his disciples, to go out into the world and share his message with everyone. Although Matthew makes every effort to anchor the story of Jesus in the larger Jewish story, referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, he begins as he means to go on, teaching us that the gospel can and will and must spread further than we expect or could predict or might even be willing to see.
I imagine them, these exotic gentlemen, responding to the sign of a star in the sky. We live in scientific times, and we may think of those who look for meaning in the stars as kooks, but there is no doubt that 2000 years ago, they would have been seen as learned men and worthy of respect. Having followed the star to Judea, they make the seemingly politic decision to check in with the king, Herod, both to inform him of their presence and to see if he can add to their fund of knowledge and lead them more quickly to their goal.
Herod plays along with them, asking them to come back and keep him informed. But as you may have heard in last week’s gospel lesson, which is taken out of order in the lectionary, once he knows the general area in which a new king might be born, Herod orders the murders of all the young boys, 2 and under.
The gospel tells us that Herod and “all Jerusalem” were frightened at the thought of a new king. And it is out of that fear that terrible destruction will take place, both in Bethlehem, and later in the story, when Jesus returns to Jerusalem at the end of his life. Herod and Jerusalem represent the established order, the rich and the powerful, those who have a great deal invested in maintaining the status quo. Jesus had come to overturn them, to rearrange our priorities, to make sure that we understood God’s love for the weak and powerless in all times and places. Herod and “all Jerusalem” had become so disconnected from God that they could not perceive that God might be doing something wonderful. They were not open to God’s diversionary tactics, God’s attempts to divert the course of human history by becoming one of us.
I say that as if it should have been obvious to them, but I expect I am not alone in this room as a person who has resisted just such diversions in my life, even when I suspected they came from God. It’s one thing to accept being put on a third plane in the same day for one last short flight and another to have your direction changed forever.
It happens in small ways and large. We may be diverted by hospitable gestures or bureaucratic delays or dramatic dreams or sudden moments of clarity. We may respond casually or impulsively, after careful consideration or in utter frustration. But the important thing is realizing there has been a sign and taking it seriously.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, I began to feel a compelling urge to go to the Gulf Coast and help. A friend I knew from an online group lived there, and that was part of it, but really the yearning came from such a deep place that I could describe it as nothing other than a calling. And so I waited for some sort of sign to confirm it, and about six weeks after the storm, she wrote about the need for clergy to come to the Gulf Coast and provide respite—not for her, but for her colleagues.
Now that I have been to her house after Christmas three years in a row, it feels like something I will do forever. I go to keep listening to those who suffered, to celebrate where things are better and to grieve in the places where more than two years later very little has been done. This year I rejoiced to cross the Bay St. Louis bridge, so famously destroyed by the storm, marveled at the now-paved Beach Boulevard there, but also saw how poor little Pass Christian, on the other side of the same bridge, looks as bad now as some places did on my first visit. I bought shoes at a place in Waveland once under water on the same day I puzzled at a world in which casinos bloom in Biloxi while some of the people who work in them are still withering in FEMA trailers.
I stood on the deck of my friend’s house late one night and looked up at the stars with her. It is strange to say that the climate is kinder, when the ravages of a storm took me to be with her in the first place. But because it was, so much gentler than ours at this time of year, we stood outside, without coats, and we gazed up at the clear night sky.
What did the Wise Men see when they looked at their sky? They saw something so powerful and unusual that they set out on a journey of an unpredictable length to an unknown location, to see where the sign from the heavens might lead them. The country was not theirs, the religion was not theirs, but an expression of divine truth led the way, and they followed faithfully.
God was no more in the storm that devastated the Gulf Coast than in the actions of Herod, but an overwhelming human response to God’s diversions can be seen all over Mississippi and Louisiana in the actions of people who came to help, the people who read the signs and followed the star. If we pay attention, as they did, as the Wise Men did, we will find God always ready to divert us from the course of certainty in our own wisdom and assurance of our own righteousness and fear of our own limitations. If we open our minds and hearts, as they did, who knows where the road will take us?
(Image found here.)