Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Maybe it is because bad news tends to lead better, maybe it is because complaints are more likely to be voiced than things going fine, or maybe it is just a sign of the times. I have noticed that over the past few years when we get to the point where one year ends and a new year begins, a lot of people have mostly negative things to say about the year that just ended. The introduction to a year end retrospective piece by CNN summed up this attitude where it stated, “We know you want 2019 canceled, reported and blocked. You think it was awful, depressing and went on far too long.” I suppose if we wanted, we could find reason to be outraged, reason to complain, and reasons why 2019 was awful. I am sympathetic to the fact that for some people 2019 was a personally horrible, no good year that they would rather forget. Yet, it can be easy for us to focus on the negative and begin a new year with a chip on our shoulder. Even if you feel like 2019 was a lousy, depressing year, know it truly was not all bad. There was good as well. For instance in 2019, there were major medical breakthroughs in treatments of cystic fibrosis, HIV, and Alzheimer’s disease. Also in 2019 Malaria was eliminated from Algeria and Argentina. Indonesia raised the legal marriage age for brides in a critical step to putting an end to the abhorrent practice of child brides. And while not necessarily life changing, astronomers were able to take a picture of a black hole in 2019, which is just really cool.
Even if you personally thought the previous year was not a great one, there were still bright spots. We like it when things are very black and white, but the reality is every year is a mixed bag. Our worst years still have highlights and our best years still have defeats and setbacks. Even though there is not much actual difference between the end of one year and the beginning of another, mentally we make a strong distinction. We see the New Year as blank calendar pages of opportunity. It is common for us to approach a new year wanting to get off on the right foot and make positive changes. Even if we thought the previous year went well, we are often determined to make the New Year even better. To do this we make resolutions. We buy new planners and we are then overly ambitious in how we fill them, and we take other symbolic actions to show we are turning over a new leaf. We seek to course correct the mistakes and miss-steps of the previous year.
I think it is fitting that we celebrate Epiphany, which recognizes the coming of the magi at the beginning of the New Year. The example the magi give us in this morning’s scripture is full of wisdom that can get us pointed in the right direction for a new year. This scripture shows us how we can make the necessary course correction so that like the magi, we too find the savior of the world.
The story of the magi is an interesting one. It is found only in the gospel of Matthew and it is perhaps one of the stories that people are most likely to get wrong. Despite what our Nativities show they were not present at the birth of Jesus. This morning’s scripture plainly states they found Jesus in a house and if we read a little further we see that they could have arrived up to two years after the actual birth. Also despite conventional wisdom, we do not even know how many magi there were. The scripture states there were three gifts, but it does not say only three people brought those gifts. Despite, what the song says, the magi were not kings. The more common Wise men is also not the most accurate description. Wise men was adapted to attempt to hide their pagan and mystical origins. The ancient world was much different than today, and one of those big difference is that they did not draw a line between the natural and the supernatural like we do. The magi were scholars of their day. They studied the stars, they plotted their movement, and they pulled off some seriously impressive equations. However, they were also the fortune tellers of their day. They did not just study the stars for informational knowledge they also studied the stars for divine wisdom. They were simultaneously astronomers AND astrologers.
The Magi were likely from Persia, which is the region of modern day Iraq. It really is notable how smart they were. Even though they were not Jewish, they had enough understanding of the Old Testament that when they spotted a new astrological phenomenon in the Western sky they correctly interpreted it to represent the birth of a special Jewish king. With this insight, they set off to pay proper homage to the birth of the foretold ruler.
At first glance it would seem they got lost, as this morning’s scripture begins with them in Jerusalem which is clearly not Bethlehem. However, the confusion makes a lot of sense. Interpreting the stars with what they knew of Hebrew Scriptures they were looking for a new born king. From their perspective, it would make logical sense to find a newborn king in the capital city. In the same way the gifts they brought also made sense. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are odd gifts for a boy who placed in a manger, but they are appropriate gifts to bestow upon a royal family. The magi went to where they thought Jesus was going to be, but they did not find him there.
As we consider this New Year, I think that is a lesson that we can and should learn as well. Like the magi, we can be guilty of looking for Jesus where we think he is going to be instead of finding him where he is. We can make the same mistake that the magi made and we look for the king of kings in the places of power and prestige. In 2020 if we are looking for Jesus in our modern day palaces and capitols, then like the magi we will probably not find him. Jesus himself told us that. He said when we clothe, feed, and care for the least of these then we are doing it for him.
A good example of how we look for Jesus where he is, instead of where we think he is going to be is found in Pope Francis. As the leader of the Catholic Church and based in Vatican City, he is daily surrounded by a palatial environment. It is also a devout and holy place full of chapels and some truly breathtaking artwork made with reverent intent. However, several years ago Pope Francis got caught sneaking out of the Vatican. He would leave the Vatican dressed as a regular priest in order to feed, pray with, and minister to the homeless of Rome. If we want to find Jesus in our midst, if we want to know God is with us for all of this year, then we have to go where Jesus would go. In the gospels Jesus was not found with the kings or high priests, or Roman rulers. Jesus was found with the powerless, the poor, and those who needed hope the most. That is why the pope sneaks out of the Basilica at night, and if we truly want to find Jesus in our midst we need to do likewise as well.
If we truly desire 2020 to be a time of “new year, new you”, then we need to be made new to be more like Jesus. If we truly want this New Year to be a banner year, then that is going to only happen if we follow the example that Jesus set for us when he washed his disciples’ feet. So often when it comes to attempts at self-improvement at the beginning of a new year, our goals are honestly vain. We want to look better, we want to earn more, or we want to achieve something worthy of recognition. While those goals are not inherently wrong and there is nothing wrong with pursing goals of that nature, we should not enter a new year with that being our primary goal. As disciples of Jesus Christ our primary goal for the New Year should be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How we live out that mission though will take each of us in different directions.
This connects the second lesson we can learn from this story. In seeking Jesus the magi had to course correct to find him. They thought they knew where they were supposed to go and went to the wrong city before they started following the star again which led them to very house that Jesus was in. Like the magi we too can end up of course because we did what we thought made the most amount of sense instead of doing what God is calling us to do. It is probably a fair guess that when the magi sought out the Messianic king they had no idea their search would lead them to an unassuming house in a small unassuming house. In the same way, if we truly commit to following Jesus then we will likely be led to places we did not expect. We will be doing things that we did not expect. We will be serving people we did not expect to serve. However, we will also be blessed beyond measure, our hearts will be full, and we will be making a real difference in the world.
Like the magi if we are serious about seeking Jesus then we too will have to course correct. We will need to deviate from our plans. Being a disciple is not saying “I know the way, follow me”, being a disciple is saying “He is the way” and then following him. Following Jesus means we will likely need to course correct, it means we may have to do the scariest and most unpleasant word in the English language: change. Personally and corporately, to better follow Jesus we may need to change from how we have always done things to be a more effective disciple, to better make disciples, and to more radically change the world in to a more kind, compassionate, and loving place.
The beginning of a new year is an appropriate in our lives to truly reflect and consider how we are doing at following Jesus and seeking him out. This is an appropriate time to dedicating ourselves to making the needed course corrections so that we can do that. In fact, church tradition, even our own Methodist tradition, has long recognized this. It used to be the tradition on New Year ’s Eve to hold a watch night service, and part of this service included re-dedicating one’s self to serving and following God. From this watch night tradition we still have “The covenant prayer in the Wesleyan tradition.” I thought about having us all say it all together, but decided against because I did not want anyone to fill pressured to pray something they did not want to commit to. It is a powerful prayer, but it is a dangerous prayer. It goes like this: “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee, or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”
It is a prayer where we offer to follow God where ever God leads. It is a prayer to seek Jesus no matter where that guides us. It is a prayer of true discipleship. You can find it on page 607 in the hymnals, and as we begin the New Year I ask you to consider how ready you are to pray that prayer.
The Magi sought Jesus but they went looking in the wrong place, before they made the course correction and went to where God was leading them. May you also seek Jesus, and if you need to make a course correction in your own life May you be willing to do that. For all of us God is leading us into deeper discipleship, and may 2020 be a year that you walk that path with God. Onward leading, still proceeding, may you follow to God’s perfect light.