The Magi and the New Year

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 3, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church.

Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 2:1-12.

You can worship online with BBUMC through Facebook, the church website, or YouTube.

Have you put away your Christmas decorations yet? As you can see, we haven’t taken down our Christmas decorations here at church, but I anticipate that things will likely look different here in the coming weeks, just as they are in each of our homes. But today is still part of the Season of Christmas, and so, as we explored the birth of Jesus with the nativity scene on Christmas Eve, today we’re wrapping up our Christmas worship season with the last pieces of the nativity scene: the magi or wise men.

Here they are. They’ve been in the east for a while (on top of the organ), and now, in Matthew’s reading, they’ve finally made their journey to visit Jesus. As they tell the present, so-called King of the Jews, Herod, they want to know where the “newborn King of the Jews” is so that they can “honor” or “worship” him.

Here, today, surrounded by all these Christmas decorations, I propose this idea: we who worshipped Jesus on Christmas Eve, and every other day, are heirs of these wise men. We have heard of or seen signs of God’s spectacular good news – that God has become human in Jesus – and we’ve come to worship him. Perhaps someone told us about Jesus and his birth. Perhaps it was long ago, or maybe more recently. But obviously, we come worshipping Jesus long after his birth. Whenever we worship Jesus, and especially in the season of Christmas, we are enacting the magi’s journey. And so, by looking at their journey, we can see how to live our journeys of faith today, and this year.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much for certain about these wise men, except that they journeyed to worship Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know they set out on the journey because they were star-gazers, astrologers, from “the east.” Their method of gaining wisdom and their general location leads biblical scholars to conclude that they were likely from Babylon (modern day Iraq). From there to Bethlehem is over a 1,200-mile journey, which would have taken a caravan at least 100 days to travel. And here’s the important thing for today: making a 100-day journey requires some planning and preparation; it requires practice if it’s going to go well.

Let’s think about our own traveling practices for a moment, just to put things in perspective. Perhaps some of us are fly by the seat of our pants travelers. We take off work, or we retire. We get in the car with an overnight bag, point the car down the road and go. But for a hundred days – almost a third of the year? Maybe some of us are that spontaneous, but most of us, if we’re making a 100-day journey, need to do a little more planning. A couple years ago, Sarah and I went to Europe for two weeks. To the horror of one of my friends, I left her a document is titled, “If we die…” with all the important information on it. We’re planning a two-week road trip this summer with some friends, and he’s got nearly all the reservations and itineraries all set up, likely with meal-planning included. If this is how we plan, in the age of cell phones and the internet, I think we can be sure that the wise men who journeyed to worship Jesus were planners. They were crossing desert areas. They’d need supplies, perhaps everything they’d need for the entire journey. They’d have needed more space than my minivan.

So, if we are like the magi journeying to worship Jesus, whose journey required intentional practices, what are the ways our faith journeys to Jesus are paved through intentional practices? Back in the season of Lent, we explored five essential practices of the Christian life. They were five simple ways we prepare ourselves to encounter God in our lives. Incidentally, they’re also part of our membership vows. When we each were confirmed, or when we joined this church, we vowed to participate in the ministries of Christ by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. In the spring, we talked about these practices with slightly different language:

  • We talk to God through weekly worship and daily prayer;
  • We listen to God through daily scripture reading;
  • We incarnate God’s mercy and kindness through daily and weekly acts of kindness and care;
  • We grow in God’s self-giving character through acts of generosity and giving; and
  • We share in words with others about our faith, becoming like the star the magi saw in the east.

The thing is that each of these practices is a way to encounter Jesus and journey with Jesus. They’re steps on the journey with the magi to live lives worshipping Jesus. But as we saw in the story of the magi, after they’d worshipped Jesus, their lives were changed: they had to return home by a different way. Our practices will do this too: encountering Jesus, Jesus will change us to become more and more like him.

Thinking about practices and how God changes our hearts, minds, and lives through them, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, knew that each new year was an apt time to reflect on and evaluate our practice, our journey with Jesus. He saw the new year as a time to renew our commitments to follow Jesus with practices for the journey. To this end, he would often include in New Year’s Day worship services a prayer like the one on the card you’ve each received. I’ll read the text of the prayer.

Today, for a brief time, I want to offer us a time to prayerfully ponder our journeys with Jesus and our practices in this journey. The opposite side of the card includes some questions, and some blank space to write down some practices through which we’d like to encounter Jesus during this year. As music plays, consider this a time of preparation, like the preparations of the magi. God led the magi to experience and worship Jesus through their own practices. Today, and this year, God invites and leads us to experience and worship Jesus through our own practices. May the Holy Spirit guide us toward practices that will lead us into Jesus’ presence.

Covenant Prayer Card for download

Here’s a poem that I found especially moving this year as I considered the story of the magi.

“The Wise Man’s Journey”

There will be no camels; we are going on horseback, at least for some of the way.

And we wont’ arrive there a few hours after everyone else. It will be weeks, perhaps – or months.

We are not in a hurry. That is not the way we work; we are not Europeans [or Americans].

We will discuss the phenomenon – the star – and if it does not go away, and if we still feel curious, we will travel.

We will look in the wrong place. Yes I admit that, because wise men, potentates, intellectuals – call us what you will – are not infallible.

We expect a new power to emerge from the side of the old one. We expect the destination we seek to resemble what our common sense deduces.

We will be upset, angry even, to find that Herod is ignorant and that his living space is not the birthplace.

We will find it hard and intellectually demeaning to bow the knee to the son of refugees.

And all this…all this upset will be compounded when it comes to journeying back and we discover we have to go home by another way.

That is the trouble with God. He does not let you leave as you came. He sends you back, stripped of your presumptions, making for home by another way.

Wild Goose Worship Group – Clothe for the Cradle, 125-126.

Oooh, and while we’re on the poetry kick, check out this version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi.”

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