Don't Go Back the Way You Came

Adoration of the Wise Men by Murillo


TEXT: Matthew 2:1-12

An encounter with Jesus should make us different.



It’s Christmas Day, and here we are.  The babe is in the manger, and, like the wise men, we have come to pay him homage.  You may have heard various things about the Wise Men.  They are sometimes called Kings, as in the carol, but they were most probably not kings but astrologers, those in the court of the Persian king who predicted the future, interpreted dreams, and gave the king advice about how to run his kingdom.

Back when the Hebrews were exiles in Babylon, some of the Hebrew men actually served as Wise Men to the king.  Daniel…famous for his time in the lion’s den…was the best known of the Hebrew Wise Men.  Acknowledging God as his source, he interpreted dreams for the king and told the king what the future would hold.

You might also have heard that it took awhile for the Wise Men to arrive in Bethlehem.  Of course camels are not a really snappy form of travel, and if the Wise Men did indeed come from Babylon, that’s a distance of 500 miles.  But we take our cues from their discussion with King Herod who asks them when the star appeared and then orders the slaughter of all the boys under two years of age.  So many think that meant that the star had appeared two years prior to the Wise Men’s arrival in Jerusalem. 

Hopefully Jesus is out of the stable by that time, although the family is apparently still in Bethlehem.  Matthew says the Wise Men came to a house and found Jesus inside.  They bring gifts that are symbolic of who Jesus is…the gold signifies his kingship; the frankincense his priestly role; and myrrh is a burial perfume, which is why that verse of “We Three Kings” begins “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”  I doubt Mary was happy to see the myrrh.

Then it’s time for them to leave, but they weren’t called Wise Men for nothing.  They paid attention to their dreams, and a dream warned them not to go back and tell Herod anything but to return home by a different road…one that did not go back through Jerusalem.

I think that dream is also the message for us as we leave here on Christmas morning:  Don’t go back the way you came.  If God has truly been born on earth as a human being to live and to die for our sakes, that ought to make a difference.  We should not be the same, once we have been to the manger and have seen for ourselves the Word made flesh.

Too often it makes no difference at all.  That problem was actually how the Methodist movement started back in England in the 1700’s.  John Wesley, an Anglican priest, noticed that the people he saw every single Sunday in church didn’t seem to live lives that were any different from the people that never went to church.  That didn’t seem right.  Christian faith was not supposed to be a club that you joined or an alternative to golf on Sunday mornings.  It was supposed to be a way of life.  But the people in the church seemed to always go back home just the way they had come…unchanged, despite spending an hour in the presence of God.

So Wesley decided to do something about it.  He started small bands of people who met together weekly to challenge and support each other in Christian life and practice.  They confessed their sins to each other, they joined together to help the poor, they studied the Bible together, and they made a commitment to live differently in response to what God had done for them in Jesus.  There was a “method” to their meetings, and they were first called “Methodists” in derision for the strict method that they followed. 

But, week by week, month by month, year by year, those Methodists began not only to change themselves, but to change all of England.  They lived simply so that they had more money to give to those in need.  That enabled them to build hospitals and orphanages.  The founded women’s work cooperatives and instituted prison reform.  They provided meals and assistance to any that were in need, and it has been said that the reason the English did not have the equivalent of the violent French Revolution was because of the reforms put into place by the people called Methodists.

Of course not all the churchgoers took on the challenge of a changed life.  Some continued to go back home the way they came.  And even the church organization itself had issues with people suddenly taking their faith seriously.  John Wesley was soon out of a pulpit and had to take his message out to the streets and the fields.  Where it grew.  Where it changed lives.  Where it changed England.

Don’t go back the way you came.  Some of course, will.  The message of Christmas will not mean anything except a couple days off from work each year, and life will stay pretty much the same.  But I’m here to tell you that if you’re just showing up at church because it seems like the thing to do, you’re missing the whole point.  The whole point of being here is to be transformed by the power of God.  To change.  To go out differently than you came in.

Wesley taught the Methodists of his day that they were “moving on to perfection.”  That’s quite a long journey for me, but I get his point.  Christian life is about waking up each morning wondering how to be a little bit better of a person than I was yesterday.  It’s about taking inventory of the ways that I failed to love God, myself, or others on one day and trying hard to do better the next.  It’s about recognizing that if God actually took on human flesh and lived a darn hard life to try to show us how we should be living, that should make a difference.

My brother’s first year in college, my parents dutifully drove him and all his stuff all the way down to Kentucky for the start of school in late August.  Imagine their surprise when just a week later a fellow teacher said to my father, “Didn’t you take Rob to college last week?”  “Yes,” said my father, and recounted the difficulties of the endeavor.  “Then why,” said the teacher, “did I see him on the news last night marching in the Labor Day parade here with the Rhode Island Independent Band?”

Rob had played with that band for a number of years and didn’t want to miss the big parade.  So, he had spent money he was going to need later in the semester to fly home secretly to march in the parade, figuring he would be back in Kentucky before anyone was the wiser.  He didn’t count on the TV cameras.

As you might imagine, my father was not a happy man.  He recorded that unhappiness, as only my father could do, in a multi-page, single spaced letter to my brother.  If you could die from sarcasm, my brother would have been long gone.  The gist of my father’s unhappiness was that he had put out considerably in time, effort, and money to deliver my brother to Kentucky, and all of that didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.  Rob was right back home the very next week.

The comparison is not exact, since God is infinitely more patient and understanding than my father was…and my father was a good man.  I don’t know that God uses sarcasm, although there have been times when I felt that God’s sense of humor was decidedly sick.  But I do think that, like my father, the heart of God is unhappy when all of God’s gifts and all of God’s efforts on our behalf make not the slightest bit of difference in how we live our lives.  When we see the gift of the babe in the manger, we should not go back the way we came.

If we did that.  If we allowed the Christmas message of “God with us,” to really sink into our hearts, our lives would change.  We would change the way we spent our money.  We would change the way we spent our time.  We would change our priorities and discover that things we thought were hugely important yesterday seem kind of silly and pointless today. 

And as we changed from the inside out, who knows?  Maybe we would start to get serious about addressing the widening gap between rich and poor.  Maybe we would start new agencies and be sure that already existing ones were well taken care of.  Maybe after a couple of years there would be fewer homeless people on the streets of Boston, fewer cases of domestic violence, and fewer people dying for want of basic medicine.

It’s been done before…it was the vision that created the Methodist church…the vision that we would not go back the way we came…that our faith would make a difference in how we live our lives.  It could happen again, with us…here…this Christmas.  Will you let it begin with you?  You need only do one thing.  Don’t go back the way you came.  Amen.

Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson


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