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A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.

January 6, 2013 

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

That great theologian James Taylor wrote a song about the wise men called, “Home By Another Way.”  The song opens like this way:

            “Those magic men the Magi

            Some people call them wise

            Or Oriental, or even kings

            Well anyway, those guys

            They visited with Jesus

            They sure enjoyed their stay

            Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme

            They went home by another way.

            Yes, they went home by another way

            Home by another way

            Maybe me and you can be wise guys too

            And go home by another way.”

According to the bible and James Taylor, going home by another way or another road can be the sign of great wisdom.   Even though traveling by another road may be far less convenient and far more dangerous, there are times in life when the other road is precisely the way to go. 

Today is January 6 on our secular calendar but the Day of Epiphany on  Christian calendar.  Traditionally all of the Christian church has celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25, and the Western side of the Christian church celebrated the adoration of the magi on January 6. 

The magi’s adoration of the Christ child has been the focus of an abundance of art, including songs and poems and paintings.  The great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens loved the story of the wise men, and painted it more frequently than any other scene in the life of Christ.  The first rendition of the Rubens painting we are viewing this morning was completed in 1609, and then later edited and expanded in 1628.    

At first glance we may think Rubens is completely off the mark in the way he depicts this scene.  For one thing, he portrays Mary and child not in a stable with a manger but in front of a sturdy classical column.  The truth is Matthew’s gospel says the wise men visited Jesus in a house, not a manger, and speculation abounds as to the actual location, as well as the timing of the visit.  Even more perplexing, Rubens’ view of the magi’s visit is quite crowded, with no fewer than 28 life-size figures, many in gorgeous attire, warriors in steel armor, horsemen, slaves, camels…all clamoring to see Jesus.  Meanwhile most of us grew up being taught there were only three wise men in this delegation. 

But if you’ll notice Matthew’s account nowhere specifies a number.  Instead, most of the church has assumed there were only three visitors because only three gifts are named.  Meanwhile two of the three magi are white, but the focal “magus” in Ruben’s painting is black, which may surprise us, especially if we are white!  But Rubens correctly grasps the meaning of Matthew’s story, that not just Jesus but Gentiles from all over the world have come to worship the newborn king. 

I could say more about Ruben’s artistic technique but time won’t allow.  Instead what I want you to see is that the journey of the wise men is not only an actual event, but a metaphor for people on the journey with Jesus. 

The magi of Jesus’ day were magicians and astrologers who gained their wisdom through the arts of sorcery and studying the stars.  But these particular magi somehow became restless with what they knew, and were willing to travel great distances and search diligently to find a deeper wisdom embodied in a newborn King.  Their journey led them to Jerusalem where they dealt with the cruel and crafty King Herod who was also searching for the King of the Jews, but for a far different reason.  Theirs was a treacherous journey that carried them far from home and safety, but their deep longing for something more drove them forward.  The magi teach us that those who journey with Jesus are driven not by a sense of obligation or guilt, but a deep desire to experience a source of wisdom and truth, of hope and love they can find nowhere else.

Notice, too, that this delegation of magi paid attention to and followed God’s guidance however it came.  Because the magi were star-gazers they were quick to notice an unusual body hovering in the heavens.  Matthew calls it a star, and modern day scholars have had a field day surmising that this body might have been a supernova, a comet, the conjunction of two planets like Jupiter and Saturn, or something else entirely.  But whatever this body was, the magi knew they needed to follow it.

Later, they would also heed a word of biblical prophecy that fixed the birthplace of the new born king in Bethlehem.  And still later, God would redirect them again through a dream.  And in each case, the magi moved by faith and not by sight, confident that they were being guided by a mysterious Wisdom they could trust but not explain. 

People on journey with Jesus may not be guided by a star in the sky.  But they are attentive to what God says through the scripture, and through faith communities, and through the witness of the Holy Spirit.  And they are willing to move into unknown territory by faith rather than sight. 

Another trait I notice about the wise guys of this story is they are willing to be overwhelmed by Jesus.   They gladly surrender control of their emotions, bodies, material goods, and even their lives in the presence of Jesus.

For starters, Matthew says, when the magi see the star they are overwhelmed with joy.  When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy about a star or anything else, including Jesus?  Even in the midst of darkness (notice the tension between light and darkness in Ruben’s painting), disciples of Jesus often find themselves overwhelmed with joy. 

Furthermore, the magi and friends are so overwhelmed with Jesus they bow down and worship him without hesitation or embarrassment.  Rubens has one of the proverbial kings kneeling before the Christ-child, and virtually every other character in the painting is leaning in Jesus’ direction, ready to do the same.  Disciples of Jesus don’t fixate on forms of worship because they are focused on adoring Jesus with every fiber of their being.

And then the magi give of their best to their future Master.  Rubens portrays the baby Jesus playing with gold coins presented by the first wise man.  Volumes of commentary have speculated on the symbolism of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when the point of it all is that these obviously affluent men understood this infant is worth everything they have and more, including themselves, and they are willing to give it all…as is every mature disciple of Jesus. 

Moreover, they are willing to change on the spot, to be transformed by Jesus.  That’s what going home by a different road really means.  The phrase isn’t just about a geographical change of direction.  It’s about a spiritual change of life that leads from the internal darkness of the heart and the external darkness of the world into the radiance of the one who is the Light of the world. 

By the way…the proof of this transformation is that the Light of the world shines through you.  When disciples of Jesus hear the prophet Isaiah say, Arise, shine; for your light has come, they do, because he has.  And they, too, become epiphanies, or revelations of God through their very own transformed lives.     

            “Yes, they went home by another way

            Home by another way

            Maybe me and you can be wise guys too

            And go home by another way.”

            And, I might add, as we go we can rise and shine for our light has come.

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