Of all the characters in the Christmas story, the ones we need to keep our eyes on, the ones most like us: the Magi, the wise men, the kings. I am not suggesting we are either so wise or so regal, but consider this: Mary is minding her own business when an angel of the Lord comes and addresses her: “Hail Mary!” Like that’s going to happen to us.
Consider this: the shepherds are out in their fields watching their flocks by night, when an angel of the Lord appears to them … speaks to them … and suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appears, praising God. Like that’s going to happen to us.
Then there is the Inn Keeper. Really, what are the chances of Mary and Joseph showing up at your door in JP, West Roxbury, the South End or Brookline?
No, it is the Magi we need to watch: the travelers; the ones who undertake a great and arduous journey.
When Jesus said, “Follow me” it wasn’t a metaphor. It was the real deal.
For most of us it is a life-time’s journey … an undertaking of great proportions … a journey by turns arduous, thrilling, tense and intense, important, scary, edgy, absorbing and fantastic.
Let’s say the magi have agreed together to embark upon this journey. Imagine the conversations back home. “Honey,” says one, “Me and the guys, we’re following a star. Not sure where or what it will lead to. We’ll be away… for months, maybe longer.”
I had a little insight into this sort of conversation last Friday night, New Year’s Eve, First Night. Members of Old South Church were outside selling hot chocolate to First Night revelers. They were raising money for the up-coming mission trip to New Orleans.
But it wasn’t just hot chocolate they were selling. They were selling a story. “We’re following a star,” they said. “We’re heading down to St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans. We will help in the post Katrina rebuilding effort. We really don’t know what it will lead to. But we have to go.”
Selling all that hot chocolate was an undertaking. Ruth and Jani made the signs. Peter and Janet were tireless recruiters. Caitlin was in the kitchen stirring the brew. George hauled heavy, brimming caldrons of hot chocolate. Marilyn and Bill, Eleanor, Evelyn, Richard and Anne were outside selling the brew to the revelers.
They sold 400 cups. They raised $800 towards the mission trip. What they were really doing, was beginning the journey … preparing to follow the star … preparing to follow Jesus to New Orleans … responding to God’s call.
The New Year’s Eve revelers: they loved the idea of sending us to help Katrina victims as much as they loved the chocolate. One woman had found money in a snow bank and paid $10 for one $2 cup. Others said “keep the change” or “I don’t want any but here’s $2.”
Talk about journeys. Sometime before Christmas, before the world celebrated the birth of Jesus, Pastor Frank Mukiliza turned to his wife, Lydia, to his children, Linda, Leah, Lincoln and Leon … to the congregation he pastors and the orphans and the widows he serves in Uganda to tell them, “I’ll be away for a while. I’m following a star.”
Pastor Frank’s journey from Kampala, Uganda to Boston, Massachusetts, oh my! Following the light of Christ’s star, he has journeyed to a place where he opposes polygamy, female genital mutilation … and he stands up to oppose the hanging of homosexuals and the arresting of those who fail to report homosexuals. For these things my friend and colleague, Pastor Frank Mukiliza, is in trouble. When it comes to taking journeys, the magi have nothing on Pastor Frank.
Following Jesus is always an undertaking. Usually inconvenient. Always costly. Sometimes dangerous. I am sure you have your stories. It has taken me into jail cells and prisons, into hospital rooms and nursing homes, to the bedsides of the dying and the birthing room. It has carried me to Senate chambers and Governor’s offices, to refugee centers and immigration offices, to South Africa’s Robin Island and urban tenements.
Follow me, says Jesus … and off we go, clueless as to what we will encounter or learn. But I will tell you this: it will be an adventure.
For the magi it was no mere whim, their undertaking. They didn’t embark upon this adventure without careful thought and good reason. They did their best to explain themselves and their reasons to their spouses, their children, their parents. They extracted themselves from many and various commitments. They planned the route and agreed together how to finance it. Journeys of this sort are expensive: there are the costs of travel, overnight accommodations and meals … not to mention loss of income for being away from work.
They spent a whole evening deciding what gifts to bring. I don’t know anyone who has gone on a mission trip who has not given some thought to the gift or gifts they will present, God willing, upon their arrival. After all, a mission trip is an exercise in exchange … an exchange of cultures, languages, rituals, services. While this exchange is by no means accomplished in the giving of gifts, it is symbolized in gifts.
The long awaited day arrives. The magi hug loved ones and say their good-byes. There are tears, second thoughts, pleas to stay.
Finally they are on their way. The road opens before them. They are on an adventure!
As they travel together, as the landscape changes. As the miles recede they sing songs, they tell stories, they wonder at the sights, they lapse into long silences.
Over the course of the ensuing days and nights they begin to get to know one another. They begin to learn each others’ moods, rhythms and fears. They learn the sound of each others’ laughter and the sound of each others’ sleeping. Travel of this sort is an intimate thing.
But the truth is that, for all the miles they have traveled, the trip doesn’t really start for the magi until they have to stop to ask directions.
You know about asking directions, right? It can be tricky … at least for some of us … well, half of us.
The star gets the magi all the way to Jerusalem, but then it goes on the fritz. It is in Jerusalem that they first have to ask directions. “Where,” they ask, “is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
This is the moment their adventure really starts. It starts when their accents gave them away; when they reveal themselves as strangers in a strange land; when they first disclose to others the purpose of their quest; when they admit they don’t know which way to turn; when they are forced to entrust themselves to the good will of complete strangers (some of whom turn out to be possessed of ill will); when they find out that the mere mention of Jesus causes shifts in power, threatens principalities, begs for a re-ordering of the structures that discriminate. Now, they are on their way.
The magi, the wise men, these exotic, adventurous, risk-taking, intrepid kings or astrologers or whoever they were … they are the ones to watch. They are following the light of Christ’s star. It is rare, indeed, when Christ’s star comes to you … most of us have to work to follow it.
I’m not saying you have to go on a mission trip to follow Jesus. I am saying this: the life of faith is a life of adventure. You will know you are on the right road, that you are getting close to Christ, when it gets thrilling, tense and intense, important, scary, edgy, absorbing and fantastic.
Follow the light of Christ’s star … it will change your life.