Guided by Life-Light

Rev. Alice TownleyJohn 1:1-5 (The Message)

Matthew 2:1-12

Alice Fleming Townley
January 5, 2020

In the gospel of Matthew, the only recorded visitors to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth were Wise People from the East. And they didn’t arrive right away.  They came from another land, another language, and another religion.  I didn’t give much thought to that until I read Adam Hamilton’s Christianity and World Religions: Questions We Ask About Other Faiths with our adult church school class this fall.  Hamilton has a chapter on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, AND The Wise Men.

Scholars believe the Wise Magi traveled from the modern-day Iran, about 1200 miles.  They would have traveled by foot and with the aid of animals, and so the journey took months.  They brought three gifts, but the number of travelers is a mystery. Trips of that length were traveled in caravans which would have included both men and women.

It is believed that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests.  They studied the stars and believed they could tell from doing so when another prophet such as their own would be miraculously born of a virgin.  Like the Jews they were monotheists, they awaited the true Savior and they shared a strong sense of justice. The Magi were regarded as the preeminent scholars and enjoyed access to the Persian emperor.  Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world and was the official religion of Persia before Islam. It is still active in Iran today. Adam Hamilton pointed out that we have no evidence that these Gentiles converted to Judaism and there was no Christianity yet.[i] They were the strangers in so many ways, and yet, the Divine within them honored the Divine within Jesus.

They stopped to see Herod first in Jerusalem, and asked directions, after all Herod was the ruler of the land.  No doubt they had consulted their own before leaving. Herod called together all his chief priests and scribes and demanded to know where the Jewish Messiah would be born.  Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find and bring back directions so that he could pay the baby homage.  Somehow the Magi listened to more than just his words.  The curious ones sensed Herod’s insecurity.  The ones who traveled in wonder felt the unspoken tension in the air.

They left Herod uncertain about how they would find the baby for which they searched.  Once they started moving again, they saw again the star that they had seen at its rising and had started this whole journey.  Sometimes in the dark, in disorientation, we can see things we might not otherwise.  The starlight led them to Jesus.

What would it have meant to Mary and Joseph to hear the knock at the door?  To be still in Bethlehem, and be greeted by others who were also travelers?  What might it have meant to be searched for with kindness and greeted with joy?  The knowledge of these strangers affirmed the message of Mary’s angel visit and Joseph’s dream. Certainly, they would have been wondering if their own friends and families would see or hear, but Gentiles from another land?  And not only would it have been so costly for the Magi to make the journey, they also brought gifts to share, including gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It had been sparse for the Holy Family.  Luke wrote that all they had was a manger and bands of cloth for Jesus when he was born. Even I want to whisper across time and place to the Magi, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you!”

And a dream confirmed to the Wise Ones, they needed to leave by a different road.  And a dream confirmed to Joseph that they needed to run in the night.  Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled across the border as refugees in the night and stayed in Egypt as long as Herod lived.  I wonder how they would have sustained themselves, had it not been for those gifts of the visitors?

And I wonder back in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, how the Roman people could continue to support their leader who ruled from fear with lies, and attacked any possible threat, including brown Jewish babies.  Maybe the Romans didn’t notice the ‘others’ among them.  Maybe they hugged their own children tightly and minded their own business.  Maybe the economy was doing really well, and it was best not to ask questions.

For Matthew, if there is one story for us to remember about the events of Jesus birth, it is this one of the Magi.  This story of the strangers from Iran who followed the Light, who saw and kneeled, and who shared treasure was told again and again.  I imagine Mary and Joseph told this story to little Jesus at bedtime, and to those at their table who wondered who sustained them in those early years.  And the Magi returned to their people with stories as well about how they listened with their heart, how star light had guided them when they were unsure, and how at finding Jesus they were overcome with joy and kneeled to worship.

And years later when the young lawyer challenged Jesus, “How do I inherit eternal life?  Jesus responded, “As it is written, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself?”  “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus told the story of the traveler on the road, who suffered tragedy and was left for dead, and the good Samaritan who knelt beside him to help.[ii]  The Samaritan, the one from the other land and the other religion, the other language.  “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus. Listen and watch.  Trust the Life-Light to guide you.

And once a religious leader named Nicodemus came searching for Jesus in the hiddenness of the night.  And Jesus met his questions and fears with the way of love.  When asked the way, Jesus gave the image of childbirth.  Childbirth is a journey full of uncertainty, pain, wonder and awe.  Jesus invited Nicodemus to listen with his heart and trust the Spirit to guide.  Jesus shared that God so loved the world, that God sent his only Son, so that all may be saved/healed/redeemed.[iii]  The Love that came into the world, that meets us in the midst of it all, spoke to Nicodemus that night.  The Holy Word still speaks to the one searching in the night, ‘loved, so love’.

“What is the way?” wondered Mary and Joseph as they held their newborn.  “What is the way?” asked weary travelers from afar.  Herod had quick and certain answers.  “What is the way?,” demanded the young lawyer.  “What is the way?” whispered Nicodemus in the shadows.

Here this blessing from Jan Richardson for those who wonder and wander:

If you could see
the journey whole,
you might never
undertake it,
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping,
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go,
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions,
beyond fatigue,
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know:
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again;
each promise becomes
part of the path,
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way. [iv]

Last Sunday evening, just hours after recent attacks on Jewish and Christian holy sites, Rabbi Amy Bigman reached out to members of the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing.  She sent a picture of a Chanukah Menorah, with the candles radiating in the dark, and the words, “Shining the light of hope against the hate aimed at our synagogues, churches, and mosques . . .” and clergy across town responded joining their prayers with hers.

In recent weeks we have asked faith leaders and law makers how we can come together, in the midst of so much threat, to be a community of resistance that rises to protect refugee resettlement?  This has been our calling for years, and especially as we read this text and our current climate, we continue in this journey.

Which way do we go?  Listen with our hearts and follow the Life-Light that the darkness cannot dispel.


[i] Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions: Questions We Ask About Other Faiths, chapter 1.

[ii] Luke 10: 25-37

[iii] John 3:1-21

[iv] Jan Richardson, “For Those Who Have Far to Travel: A Blessing for Epiphany,Circle of Grace, https://paintedprayerbook.com/2016/01/02/epiphany-for-those-who-have-far-to-travel/