SERMON: 1 Epiphany A 1 12 20
The ending of this morning's Gospel is anticlimactic. You would think that after the Three Kings' encounter with the baby Jesus, the Messiah, and after their generous gifts honoring Jesus and his family, and after all they'd seen and heard, evidencing the importance of this event...
Well, wouldn't you think there would at least be an angel chorus to guide them home, or maybe a parade of seraphim and cherubim? Shouldn't something be done to show how important their mission was, now that it has been accomplished?
There are two answers to my question. The first is yes and the second is no. Yes there should be something and there is: the life of Jesus was the acknowledgement of the grand and gracious thing the Three Kings (or wise men or magi) did. However, there is also a "no answer." There shouldn't have been any unnecessary hubbub over the Three Kings for very clear reasons. First, the somewhat diplomatic mission of the delegation was a self-contained function. Honoring the Three Kings after they'd honored Jesus would have distracted onlookers and detracted from their purpose which was to honor and align with the Messiah. Second, any unnecessary attention might attract the attention of the authorities, and they might feel compelled to inform Herod who expected them to report back to him. So they needed to be discreet. Finally, as in any dramatic enterprise, the focus needed to be kept on the baby Jesus.
The Three Kings knew that Herod wanted to harm Jesus. They had been warned in a dream that they shouldn't report back to Herod as he had directed. So the Three Kings "...left for their own country by another road."
This modest and subtle departure may well have saved Jesus' life. It certainly confounded Herod's plan to obtain from the Three Wise Men information on Jesus and his family. And in a pretty clear sense it reflected the humble beginnings of Jesus, always just under the radar of the displeased authorities.
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus continued to manifest a humble demeanor and to let his message and his works speak for themselves. He did this rather than seek to draw the attention of those who perhaps weren't interested in salvation or were just scoping out this celebrity itinerant preacher. He was also trying not to aggravate the authorities, both the military occupiers of Palestine and the religious authorities. If they could see that he represented no threat to them or their power, Jesus thought, he could do far more than if he was always deflecting criticism and dealing with hostile forces.
So it seems as though the Three Wise Men were onto something when they "...left for their own country by another road." This points to a theme that appears through Jesus' ministry and in the church in the two thousand years since.
There are always choices to make. When we set out to do something we have to decide what it is and how we think we might best achieve its goals. Sometimes it is not so obvious what we have to do. In the same sense, it is sometimes not so obvious how to do it.
The Three Kings (or wise men or magi) reveal for us their insightful way of going about their business. In the first place they sought out information, having been informed by something like astrology ("the star at its rising") of the Messiah's birth. They found themselves before the king and were directed to bring the king information about Jesus. After meeting Jesus and his family they dreamt of the peril Jesus faced and left the Holy Family "by another road."
Their care and caution point out to us that sometimes it is better to be discreet, to be quiet, to be cautious, than it is to broadcast our plans from the rooftops, or from Facebook, if you wish.
There is a famous poem by Robert Frost titled, "The Road Less Traveled," which examines a travelers choice between two paths. At the end the traveler realizes that taking one path may have deprived the traveler of worthwhile experiences, but acknowledges that one cannot know if that is true.
Many times we make choices based on information that is insufficient for insuring a good decision. Sometimes we make rash decisions we later regret. And sometimes we just end up wondering, "What if I had gone the other way?"
Like the Three Kings, like the poem's sojourner, we don't want our lack of awareness, our information deficit regarding consequences, our lack of caution, to cause difficulty for us or others. The Three Kings chose the other way to insure that their visit and information about Jesus did not reach Herod until they were long gone. They were successful, thankfully.
But their approach to a sensitive situation is now well known. That they averted disaster and saved Jesus' life could be the very highest stakes example of "taking another way," but there are lots of others. In fact working with much of this imagery from the poem and the story of the Three Wise Men, an author named Scott Peck wrote a book published in 1978 titled, "The Road Less Traveled." This book named the road less traveled as love and defined love as the willingness to extend oneself for the spiritual advancement of another. In the years this book was popular I was returning to the Episcopal Church and the spirituality of love and extending oneself to another for their spiritual benefit resonated deeply with me.
This, you might realize, is also the chosen path of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. His way of love campaign is directly tied to what he calls "the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement." And he reminds us again and again that love is what Jesus had to offer the people who came to him for a new way to live: Jesus' love for them, God's love for them, the reminder to love God and love our neighbor, how we are to love one another. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, offered love as a solution for the insoluble.
I was reminded of this during the week as we learned of the military standoff with Iran. The Episcopal Church office released a statement on the crisis which simply made reference to a previous offering by the Presiding Bishop in which he said, "Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers. We believe in peace." And peace is love on a global scale.
Their love and awe for Jesus caused the Three Wise Men to find another way to depart and go home. Jesus again and again found other ways to help people without condemning those seeking answers from him and without trying to frighten them into following his example. He loved them because he personified love.
This is not just another way. This is the other way. This was the radical and improbable solution Jesus brought to the world. It encompassed wisdom from a variety of traditions and his own divine knowledge, but in the final analysis it boiled down to being open minded enough to find a more desirable way to be and to get things done.
We humans like to consider all the options for our decision making. But when we stop to think about it, really the only decision is whether we choose love. We really only want and need the path that points to the love we recognize as God's gift to us, found personified in Jesus. If we choose something else, we are just putting a little more ego and self will into the world, not making it a better place with a considered and loving act instead. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, on the first Sunday
after the Epiphany, Jan. 12, 2020, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector