January 8, 2008


Not Much to Go On?
Matthew 2:1-12

It seems especially fitting to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany in a place like this doesn’t it? Think about it: Many of our usual number include travelers who have gone afar bearing gifts. As I was hoofing it through several airports over the last couple of weeks, I was remembering the days when going someplace on an airplane seemed a glamorous thing to do, exciting, almost luxurious. There was a time, some of you may remember, when the folks -- even those sitting in the back – got a hot cooked meal served on a little china plate. Nowadays, if you don’t bring your own peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’re probably not going to eat. And, of course, you have to be prepared to stand in long lines, take off a lot of your clothes, and unpack your bags for inspection. Travel these days is anything but glamorous.

But despite all the headaches and hassle when we set out on our holiday trips, we generally know where we will end up. Yes, it might take some delays and detours but eventually we will get where we intended to be. For the most part, for us, travel is inconvenient, a kind of necessary evil. We don’t usually consider it a life threatening or life changing adventure. We don’t do our traveling like the wise men.

It’s hard to know who they were exactly. They came from the East, perhaps from the country we know as Iraq. We picture them as kings, but it is more likely that they were scholars, those who studied the stars, the movement of planets and moons, the path of comets, the timing of meteor showers. They consulted both their ancient texts on earth and the celestial texts written in the heavens above them for whatever messages might be revealed. Would this be a year of drought or flood? Look to the heavens. Would there be times when the sun would be darkened and, if so, what would that mean? Could they predict the tides on their small stretch of coastline by looking to the moon? Was it possible to understand earthly events by the lights of the heavens?

These were scholars who had devoted their lives to such questions. And when they saw something new in their heavens and something ancient in their writings, and the two things came together in an unusual convergence that suggested the rise of a new ruler, they decided to go and see if their research was right. So they set out on a trip that would have likely been six or seven hundred miles over rough terrain, leading them into a land whose language they did not speak and whose customs they did not follow. Travel for them was not just a hassle. It was a daring and dangerous enterprise.

When you set out on a trip like that, you have to entertain the possibility that you may never return home, or that it will cost you everything you have, or that it will turn out to be a fool’s errand and instead of a pot of gold at the end, there might be nothing. They took a big risk without much to go on.

Would you do it? Would you set out on a trip like that? It is hard to imagine, at least for me. I want things planned out in advance. I want reservations made along the way. I want comfort and security and certainty. I want to know where I am going, how I will get there, and what will happen when I do. I am usually full of plans for how to get things done. Part of that is the nature of my work, and part of it is just my nature.

But the kind of journey the wise men took was not the kind that can be planned. They had no itinerary, no reservations. All they had to go on was their reading of their sacred texts, the ones written on parchment and the one written in the heavens. Interesting, isn’t it, that we call these men “wise.” What they did doesn't seem wise at all, does it? They left all they knew to go in the direction of something that might not even exist. They had no idea what they were really looking for. And there was a good possibility that they were wrong in their interpretations. In reality, at least our kind of reality, theirs was a journey of foolishness.

But that kind of foolishness is the foolishness that faith produces. To live a life of faith, a wise life, means living without much to go on. It is to watch the signs, to see what is revealed in the sacred – both on earth and in heaven – and then to act on that, to seek, to risk. It is to find yourself finding God, not in the places of power and might, but in a stable, in a crib, on a cross. To live a wise life is to go without reservations, to be willing to leave everything behind and set out for the unknown. And, oh, that is so hard for me – and maybe for you, too. I want to know, I want to be sure, I want to have a plan.

But here is the wisdom revealed in the light of the morning star – it isn’t about what we want at all. It is about what God wants. And our journey of faith means traveling in the direction in God’s direction – even when we have no idea what that is, where it leads, and what we might find along the way. This is a risky way to live. It threatens everything. The old way of life gets left behind and, in the process, all of life is changed.

And we don’t have much to go on to know the way, do we? Just an ancient set of writings, and a sign from heaven. That’s all. But that sign from heaven is the Light of the world. And that is enough to go on.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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