Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Maybe it’s just because this Sunday when we celebrate Epiphany falls on the second day of a new year, and I was writing this sermon on New Year’s Eve, but for whatever reason, it was the very last verse of this passage that captured my attention this week: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The wise men returned home by another road. Because of their encounter with Jesus, the path they take going forward cannot be the same path they had followed previously.
This is a story we know so well, told each year as part of Christmas pageants and featured in carols we love to sing. There is something intriguing about these peculiar foreigners who come to pay homage to Jesus. Maybe it’s that their true identities remain shrouded in mystery. We’ve been told they are “wise men” or “magi,” but what does that even mean? Others have explained that they may have been astrologers or Zoroastrian priests, which doesn’t actually clear things up very much. I’ve heard of Zoroastrians but I couldn’t honestly tell you anything about what Zoroastrians believe or how they practice their religion. One tradition tells us these wise men are kings but it actually doesn’t say that anywhere in the text. Then there are those gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold we understand but frankincense and myrrh are not exactly common gifts these days. The whole thing is just so enigmatic and even a little odd.
I wonder if we have often gotten so caught up in questions about these visitors’ identities and curiosity about the gifts they bring that we haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on that last line: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” It comes across as kind of a throw-away line, a matter-of-fact way for the narrator to let us know that the wise men didn’t report back to Herod about the child’s identity, as Herod had requested. But I wonder if there’s more to unpack here. The wise men had an encounter with Jesus that changed them forever. They would never be the same. And so the path they take going forward will have to be a different path. They can’t stay with Jesus forever—they’ll have to return home—but they will return home by another road.
Herod was the Roman-appointed king of the Jews in the time of Jesus. His family converted to Judaism, probably not so much out of religious devotion as out of political convenience. He was notoriously paranoid and ruled the Jewish people through fear and terror. He was so insecure about his own grasp on power that the slightest indication of opposition or betrayal would send him into a tailspin. In fact, Herod killed one of his wives and several of his children who he believed were disloyal. Even Emperor Augustus, when he heard what Herod had done to his family, reportedly said that he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.
Herod was arguably the most powerful person in all of Israel at the time that Jesus was born. He had a huge, fortified palace and an army that protected him. And the thing that frightened him most was the birth of a baby in a barn outside of town who he was told would be king of the Jews. He was willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to maintain his grip on power that he ordered the murder of all the children ages two and younger in and around Bethlehem. (The lectionary editors wisely chose not to include that part of the story in today’s reading, and it doesn’t usually feature in our Christmas pageants, either. But the “slaughter of the innocents,” as we sometimes refer to that episode, reveals something of Herod’s brutality and insecurity.)
Actually, that’s the one thing Herod got right: He was right to be afraid upon the news of Jesus’ birth. He knew that a king like Jesus would end his reign of terror. As preacher Tom Long writes, “When Jesus Christ is at work in the world, the powers of cruelty and oppression cannot stop him. When Easter hope is alive, it is the tyrants and the power brokers and those who ignore human need for their own gain who should tremble.”
So when the wise men appear on Herod’s doorstep asking to meet the newborn king, Herod is petrified. He tells them to go to Bethlehem and determine the child’s exact location so he, too, can go there and pay homage. The star leads them on to Jesus. They unpack their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they kneel before the newborn king. The time comes for them to leave, and the narrator tells us that, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
As we turn the page on yet another hard year and set our sights on 2022, that’s the part of the story I’ve been dwelling on this week: The wise men returned by another road. They were changed by their encounter with Jesus. Life would never be the same. And as they packed their bags and readied themselves for their return trip, they had a choice to make. Would they go back down the same path they had walked before and be drawn back into Herod’s orbit? Would the peace of the Christ-child and the tender love of the holy family endure with them, or would they acquiesce to Herod’s abusive and murderous regime? Would they chart a new course, or would they carry all the brokenness of the past into the future?
Herod isn’t just one man situated at a particular moment in history. Herod is also a metaphor for all the broken and corrupt ways of the world that have sown chaos and terror and division throughout human history. Herod represents all the ways that hatred or mistrust provoke violence and bring about death and destruction; all the ways our grasping for power and wealth leads us to trample over others and accumulate more for ourselves than we could ever need; all the ways that the truth gets twisted in order to justify our own desires and ambitions. Herod lived two thousand years ago, but he continues to coax us back to him today with deception and lies, trying to persuade us that his intentions are good, all the while determined to advance his own self-serving agenda.
And like the wise men, we are invited to choose another way. The wise men had an experience with Jesus that opened their eyes. They had an epiphany. They were transformed and couldn’t possibly go back down the same road they had walked before, the road that only led back to Herod. They went home by another road. And we are invited to do the same today.
That’s an especially poignant message on this second day of January, as we contemplate the year past and anticipate what the coming year could bring. In England, it is a custom on New Year’s Eve to ring the church bells at midnight to ring out the old year and ring in the new. This was the inspiration for a famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which I’m going to read now.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
Thomas G. Long, “The Wrong Town at the Wrong Time,” on Day1.org, published January 6, 2019, accessed December 30, 2021, https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf20042bd/tom_long_the_wrong_town_at_the_wrong_time.
Casey Shobe, “Feast of the Epiphany: Home by Another Way,” published January 4, 2019, accessed December 31, 2021, http://www.transfiguration.net/home-by-another-way/.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells],” accessed December 31, 2021, https://poets.org/poem/memoriam-ring-out-wild-bells.