Ever since Keith and I went to see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first part in the movies Peter Jackson has made from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book,there is one scene that I cannot get out of my mind. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit of the story’s title, seems to be, like most of his kind, content to enjoy the comforts of home.But when he reluctantly hosts a group of thirteen dwarves, Bilbo is invited to share in the adventure they will undertake,a dangerous journey to reclaim their homeland from a terrible dragon. “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back,” Gandalf the wizard says, trying to persuade the hobbit, but then Bilbo asks, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Gandalf’s reply is what haunts me: “No…and if you do, you will not be the same.” At that point, Bilbo respectfully declines the invitation.
I keep thinking about this scene, as I do my inevitable New Year’s reflecting on the possibility of new beginnings. I’m one of those people who always maps out multiple New Year’s Resolutions, dreaming of a new era in which I finally make some headway on all my best intentions. This is the year, I declare, I will finally embrace change and take the adventurous road of discipleship with deeper commitment than ever before!
Yet, I must admit that, often, by about January 6th or so, I have already put that map away and settled back into the comfortable status quo. With a sigh—of resignation, or relief, I’m not sure—I say to myself, “Maybe I’ll go that way next year.” For the truth is, as inspired as I might feel by the possibilities for new learning, new growth, new achievements, I’m not so sure I’m willing to risk what I’ve got right now. The equilibrium I’ve reached may not be what I truly long for, but do I really want to upset it? There are no guarantees for any journey to the “new,” except this: if you return, you will not be the same.
This is one reason we celebrate the wise men on this feast of Epiphany. They were certainly willing to get up and go on the journey to the “new.” Matthew’s gospel doesn’t give us much of their back-story, though all sorts of church traditions attempt to fill in the blanks. They have become “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but we really don’t know if there were three or thirty, and the gospel tells us they are magi, not kings. Magi were men of learning and repute, advisers to the kings of ancient Persia—what is now Iran and Iraq.
What we know about these men is that they saw a star rising, and they set out on a journey to encounter the new king they believed it signified. We don’t know how long the journey took, but it must have been an adventure in itself. We do know they arrive first in Jerusalem, at Herod’s court, where they assumed they might find a new “king of the Jews.”
And we know something about Herod. We know that when those Eastern astrologers show up in his court, he and all of his people are frightened. Not of the foreign visitors, but of the word they bring: “new,” as in “new king.” A new king is news that Herod does not like. Any rival must be disposed of, and quickly, if Herod is to hold tight to his position and power.
So, Herod calls the magi to a secret meeting. Now, how often do good things happen at secret meetings? We are right to be suspicious when Herod tells the magi, “When you have found this child, bring me word, so that I can go and pay him homage.” Herod is lying, of course, seeking to use the magi to further his plot to destroy this rival king when he is young and weak.
Now, Matthew doesn’t tell us what the magi said to one another as they left that meeting and got back on the road with directions to Bethlehem. Probably not much—fearful secrecy breeds fearful secrecy. But it doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much. Right away they turn their focus back to that bright star, following it to the place it stopped rising.
And I love how the scripture puts what happens next: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
What a beautiful image. I want to linger there, don’t you? I want to revisit the moments I’ve felt something similar, the sheer joy that is a gift God gives when we arrive at the place where God’s intentions for us begin to come to fruition in our lives. Have you ever had such an experience? I pray that you have, I pray that you’ve had at least a few moments when everything became clear, when you said, “This is it. This is who I am, where I’m meant to be, this is why God put me on this good earth.”
We’d like to freeze-frame those moments of joy we experience in the place where heaven and earth meet, where the holy divine is revealed, right where we least expect it, here and now in the midst of all our human realities. Maybe that’s why we enjoy our Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, when we return to and recreate that moment when the wise men enter the house beneath the star, and seeing the child Jesus, kneel down, pay homage, and freely offer their treasures.
It was an epiphany: a “showing” or a “shining forth” of the divine light at the heart of all life. The magi were given the grace to see and experience the full revelation of God’s astonishing grace and mercy in a flesh and blood child. They knelt before the mystery of God’s loving purpose, presence, and power, available now and forevermore to all humankind in and through Jesus the Christ. We rightly celebrate such luminous joy. Whenever we receive the gift of deep joy, we ought to stop and pay attention: it is a grace which confirms we are in the presence of the one true Lord.
But let us remember that it is not the end of the story. There is a return journey, and a choice to be made. Remember Herod and that secret meeting? The light of epiphany illuminates everything in a new way. The wise men can now see the stark contrast between the king in the Jerusalem palace and the King in the Bethlehem manger, between an encounter of fearful secrecy and an encounter ablaze with joy that opens hearts and hands, Will they now return to Herod to inform him about the child as the ruler has commanded?
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road,” the scripture says. Maybe even more important for us than their willingness to take the journey to the new is the Magi’s decision to go another way home. Having beheld the Light of God in the Christ-child, they refuse to return home by way of Herod’s darkness. The joyous epiphany is an invitation to another, even riskier one, for they resist the murderous Herod the Great’s will, with little to go on but the direction of their dreams. There is not even a star to follow home.
This is a real-world ending to a story that may have seemed like a fantasy. No “happily ever after” here. There’s no assurance that they would make it home at all, and they will certainly not be the same if they do.
The good news of this story is that the revelation of God’s light in Christ Jesus changes everything. The bad news of this story is also that the revelation of God’s light in Christ Jesus changes everything. That same floodlight of joy reveals the shadows in our world and our lives. And no matter how many times we have an encounter with Jesus Christ, it will always disrupt and disturb what we think we know and how we presently live. Any comfortable equilibrium we think we’ve found will always be interrupted when the Son of God is born into our lives.
We are invited again on a journey we will never make the same way twice. And there will be difficult choices to be made. Will we follow the directives of Herod, always so clear and precise, or the promptings of the Spirit, which often feel as insubstantial as starlight or dream?
As I consider the changes God is calling me to make in a new year, I will honor the magi and hold their story close because when they were confronted with that difficult choice we know so well, to travel again the well-worn paths of fear or to take the mysterious journey of unexpected joy, they chose joy.
The very next scene of the “Hobbit” movie is just as memorable as the one we began with. Bilbo wakes up in his comfortable bed the morning after he’s refused the dwarves’ invitation. The house is quiet; everyone has gone. But the contract they’ve offered him has been left behind on the table. The next thing we see is Bilbo grabbing his things and running down the hill as fast as he can. Knowing all the dangers, leaving behind his comfortable Hobbit Hole, He decides to go on the journey after all.
Friends, you are invited to share in an adventure, the discipleship journey of new life in Jesus Christ. It is a journey “there and back again,” but there are no guarantees you’ll arrive at the same home you’re leaving behind. The only certainty is this: If you do return, you will not be the same. Will you take the journey? Will you turn from fearful secrecy and take the path where you are led by the bright light of joy?
It’s never too late to get out on the discipleship road, once again or for the very first time. For all its risks, there is one thing to remember: Those who have been bathed in the awesome joy of epiphany, are blessed to carry Christ’s light wherever they might go.
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus and lead us in your Kingdom.
The following websites were influential in writing this sermon:
Mark Sargent, http://day1.org/919-the_gift_of_the_magi
John Phillip Newell, http://day1.org/4403-the_light_within_all_life
Jan L. Richardson in “Blessing of the Magi,” http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/12/30/epiphany-blessing-of-the-magi/