Sunday, January 3, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "By Another Road"

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: 6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel."

7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. (Common English Bible)

Epiphany Sunday 2016

How much would you pay for free first-class travel, whenever you wanted, to anywhere American Airlines flies, for life?  And how much do you think such an unlimited pass would cost an airline?

The last year American offered such a promotional pass, the AAirpass, in 2004 as a one-time revival after it was first retired a decade earlier, the price tag was $3 million, and $2 million for a plus-one.

Steve Rothstein, a fellow now in his mid-sixties, purchased an AAirpass for himself, along with a companion pass for when he wanted to travel with his wife or another family member, back in 1987 for a total of $400,000 for both passes.  In 2015 dollars, that pair of passes set him back $835,690.

And in the twenty-one years between 1987 and 2008, Steve racked up travel worth $21 million, going by the sticker price of a first-class ticket for each of the 10,000 flights he has taken.

Steve didn’t rack up that huge tab by himself, though—he has given away all of his 14 million frequent flyer miles, and he would frequently use his companion pass to help strangers in need (because we all know how difficult flying can be with emergencies, cancellations, and all manner of crises) to get them where they need to go, no strings attached.  One woman he was able to get home back to her kids after their nanny had flaked, he got a priest to Rome to see the pope, and others he would simply surprise with an upgrade if they had had a bad day.  Another chap with an AAirpass, Jacques Vroom, would likewise donate his miles and companion seats to HIV/AIDS patients trying to fly home to see their families again—in first-class luxury.

It was one such do-gooder derring-do—an attempt by him to get a police officer all the way to Bosnia, where the officer had been born and raised—that ultimately landed him in hot water with the suits at American.  They claimed he had perpetrated fraud by booking his companion pass under a variety of fake names because he wouldn’t always know when or if he would need to use it to get a total stranger home to see their loved ones, and cancelling the seat if he didn’t need to give it away.

Imagine the desperation and urgency with which you do see some people traveling by air sometimes—someone in their lives has just died, or is about to die, or is at risk of dying, as is the case for the newborn Christ when the magi (believe it or not, Matthew doesn’t say whether there were only three or not, we simply assume that there were only three because of their three gifts) show up, with a murderous Herod the Great bent on wiping out this new threat to his kingship.

King Herod, summons the magi for a specific reason: to ascertain this threat to him, and Herod asks them to do this in secret—as Matthew writes in verse 7, “Herod secretly called for the wise men…then he sent them to Bethlehem.”  The magi aren’t rubes—they know that if they’ve been called in secret, it’s not just about worship; there’s likely a darker purpose to it, and there is.  What we remember today as an act of devout worship of the Christ child by complete strangers in fact began as a cloak-and-dagger spy mission of sorts—Herod is basically charging the magi to go and see what this new king is really like and report back on whether or not he is a real threat or not.

And yet on the surface, I think this story about the magi (or wise men, or astrologers, or rocket scientists, or what have you…) tends to get swept up in the rest of the sweetness in the Christmas story, and I imagine there are a lot of massages taking place today about the generosity of the gifts and the reverence of the worship and that sort of thing, and that is all well and good, but it is also incomplete. If that is all the story were about, Matthew could have and would have dispensed with it in just a few sentences, not twelve verses.

No, the story is about what the magi actually end up doing to end the whole passage: returning home by another route.  Physically, this detour is necessitated because they have been warned by an angel not to return to Herod, as surely they would be putting their lives in jeopardy if they did.

But spiritually and religiously?  They are returning home along a completely different route as well because of what they have just experienced, because of what they have just seen, because of everything that has just been confirmed to them by their worship of the newborn Jesus.

They return along a different route because something happened in between, while they came expecting to see a king or Messiah based on a piece of knowledge—the location of a star—they left having seen the Messiah based on experience.  Which isn’t to knock knowledge at all, but to say that we can intellectually assent to belief, but once we have actually experienced the fruits of that belief, that is when belief becomes faith, that is when we too begin traveling down a new path ourselves.

The gifts, then, while highly symbolic of who Jesus is, are also symbolic of what the magi now know from experience to be true: that the Messiah is no longer a myth heralded by a star, but a living, breathing person who embodies these widely disparate roles of king, god, and mortal.

This journey, this return by another road, of the magi then becomes more emblematic of humanity as a whole.  The magi are not named by Matthew, and honestly, it is probably for the best, because I think we are meant to see some of ourselves in each of them.  For some of us, we may more easily accept Jesus as a mortal rather than as a king or a god, for others, they actually struggle with the thought of Jesus as a human with all of a human’s attendant flaws and messes.

But encountering the whole Jesus, even in the form of an infant, means setting aside those latent hang-ups and actually following Jesus for who He is and was, not who we want Him to be.  That’s the whole struggle that many of His listeners face throughout the Gospels—they want Him to be something He isn’t.  The crowds would prefer He be a militaristic general who would lead Israel to victory against Rome.  The Pharisees and Sadducees would prefer He were simply possessed and thus easily to dismiss.  Even Jesus’s neighbors in Nazareth preferred that He be a nice local boy done good rather than the Messiah, and they to drive Him off a cliff for it.

So what do we do with all of these wildly varying expectations on the shoulders of a lone Messiah?

We do as the magi did: lend an ear to the voice of God—maybe in the form of an angel, maybe in the form of a fellow person—telling us which route to take going forward, a route away from the Herods of our world, away from those who would use us for their own selfish and destructive purposes, and towards the light that shone over Bethlehem, and continues to shine to this day.

We choose to not return from the path along whence we came.  For as we see from fellow travelers, stranded at the airport, or stuck along the side of the road, those paths are arduous, difficult, and often painful to undertake.  I know it was for me and my family when my grandmother passed away in 2002 and Northwest Airlines (remember them?) canceled our flight to Detroit for her funeral—it was awful, it felt awful, I wanted any other way to be able to get there, but none was to be had, at least for us.

Until someone comes forward to offer a different way home…in the form of a good Samartian offering a first-class ticket home, in the form of a state trooper offering a jack to change out a flat tire, or even simply a source of light in our own darkness that lets us see the way forward after all.

A new path awaits all of us, lit by the star that led the magi, for it is that very same divine light which leads us too.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 3, 2016

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