I want you to think back exactly one year, to the beginning of January 2020.
What were your expectations for that year? What were your plans for that brand new year?
I remember that, in January 2020, my husband Fred and I were seriously planning a trip to Spain, which was supposed to happen in May. We were booking flights, booking the first hotels, dreaming of all the places we’d see, the food we’d eat, the experience’s we’d have.
Also in January 2020, the people of St. Matthew’s were getting ready for the 125th anniversary of the church – a festive service was planned for the second half of March, local dignitaries and previous pastors were invited. We got a hall and a caterer for a great party.
At the beginning of that last year, everything seemed so clear. The path right in front of us was leading into a pretty careless and pretty predictable future, the
road was wide open, we knew where we were going – and I for one had no doubt we’d be getting there. And I, like everyone else, had no idea that the world was already changing – and that, come March, the world would change for us – and that COVID-19 would become a major roadblock for all well-laid plans. And not only for a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, as I first naively thought (and hoped), but for the remainder of the year – and beyond.
We’ve been detoured – and this detour takes us far from the roads we usually travel, through strange and sometimes scary and dangerous stretches, and some stretches that are so monotonous and seem to last forever. And the thing is: we don’t know where and when this detour is going to end, and where we are going to end up.
But I have to say that traveling along this detour also opened my horizon for new and surprising things. I’ve been experiencing things I never would have considered before. Who knew that online worship services would reach people beyond the immediate group of worshipers at St. Matthew’s? Who knew that doing confirmation class via Zoom would be surprisingly pleasant and effective? Who knew that celebrating Holy Communion over the phone can be such a deep and touching experience?
So here we are, at the beginning of 2021, and we are much more cautious – and realistic – about what lies ahead of us. If this past year has taught us anything, it is that nothing is certain. We may have hopes for the future – and thanks to the vaccines that have been developed and are now being rolled out, bit by bit, we can cautiously think about a time post-COVID – but I know that most people are leery about making concrete plans for the next months. I am. And, just as an aside, I will never plan a major trip again without getting travel insurance that covers cancellations.
Where are we going? Where are we headed? God knows…
Have you ever noticed that the lessons we hear during the Advent and also the Christmas season are quite disruptive? During Advent, we hear prophecies about God rending open wide the heavens and coming down to establish justice and peace. We hear Mary sing her disconcerting song about a world turned upside down by the child she is carrying. The fact that Mary, a virgin, becomes pregnant by God’s Holy Spirit is very disturbing and disruptive in itself. John the Baptist admonishes us to turn around and change our ways.
And then there is the birth of Christ, God indeed coming down on earth, into our midst. And as the babe in the manger grows up, he has some disruptive, even upsetting messages for those who listen. There’s a reason why he ends up on the cross.
Today’s gospel, as we are coming to the close of the Christmas season, about the magi following a mysterious star is another of those disruptive stories. Those magi – people we like to call wise or even like to identify as kings, but who in fact are dismissively called ‘magicians’ or ‘charlatans’ in the original Greek and most likely were astronomers also dabbling in astrology – know that something is at hand as they see the star in the sky. That a king will be born who will have a major impact on the world.
Their lives are detoured, and they make this journey into the unknown – for who knows where the star will lead them?
As they journey, they first end up in Jerusalem, at the court of King Herod, where they would expect a new king to be born. But they are detoured yet again. Herod, alarmed, has some research done on this new king – and potential rival – and sends the star gazers on to Bethlehem. But not without instructing them to come back to him once they’ve found this king. Now we all know that he has some very sinister motives to do so.
The magi arrive at what seems to be their destination: they find Mary and the child in a house in Bethlehem. And they worship this young king and bring him precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, thereby fulfilling some ancient prophecies we heard about in today’s lessons from Isaiah and the psalms. And so they get ready to leave the way they came, the road they now know.
But then they are detoured once more: an angel appears to them in a dream and advises them to not return to Jerusalem and tell Herod where they found the child. ‘And they left for their own country on another road,’ we read. Although a more correct translation would be, ‘And they left for their own country by another way.’ If you think this is hairsplitting – it isn’t.
This sentence has a double meaning: yes, they leave, taking a different road as they go back. And thus save Jesus from being killed by power-hungry Herod. But Luke also indicates by using the phrase ‘by another way’ that their ways of life are changed. That they just can’t return to the same old, same old now that they have seen the child and understood that this child will change the world. In the gospel according to Luke, the motif of people changing their ways comes up again and again. Encountering Christ means to to veer from the well-trodden paths, to be sent on detour after detour after detour, not really knowing what to expect on the journey, but with the confidence that, eventually, the way leads to God and God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Not coincidentally the early Jesus movement was called ‘The Way’. It’s about the journey. It’s about not getting stuck, but moving into unknown territory, God’s territory – confident that God is with us on the way.
Right now, there are many who hope that things will be just like they were before the pandemic began – those who hope to tread the well-known, familiar and comfortable paths of life once more. But then there are also those who hope that somehow, humanity can learn from this horrendous, disturbing, disrupting and disorienting experience – and choose new ways. New ways of connecting with each other. New ways of providing for small business owners and low income earners. New ways of protecting first responders and folks working in health care. New ways of truly caring for each other – and caring for this planet, which, if we return to our old and rather careless and abusive ways, will not be able to sustain most of the life as we know it for much longer.
In all the tragedy and disruption of this pandemic, maybe God is also giving us a sign: people, think about alternatives. Think about what you encounter as your lives are being detoured with now. Think about what is truly important – like relationships.
And maybe God’s message to us as we enter a new year is for us to leave the manger, where we have seen the child, God become human – leave this Christmas season –
by another way.
Which way? God knows.