Six miles isn’t very far. If you’re fit, you could probably walk it in a couple of hours. Not a big deal.
That’s how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The wise men were just two hours from Jesus before everything started going wrong. They were so close, but they made a wrong turn and tragedy ensued.
I suppose it’s understandable why they went to Herod. They were looking for a new born king, and I guess the palace would be the obvious place to go. But there was no baby prince at the palace, and when the Magi heard panicked whispers around the palace and in the streets outside, maybe that’s when they realised their mistake.
Today is Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate the Magi finding Jesus. It’s a time when we think of them receiving a vision of glory, pagan dignitaries bowing before the infant Messiah. It’s a powerful image, and yet one we don’t always make the most of. That’s a shame, because as we stand at the start of a new year, maybe it’s a good time to seek a fresh vision.
Because it’s easy to take Jesus for granted. We know the hymns, we can quote the Bible, but are we really seeking him? Or do we assume that because we found him once long ago, he’s safely on the shelf, treasured but undisturbed? That’s easy to do, especially if we’ve been in the church for a long time. We’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. And that’s dangerous.
Because look at what’s going on around the wise men. They ask Herod where the new king is, which gets Herod disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Don’t let that verse pass you by – when a bunch of strangers from another ask where the Messiah is prophesied to be born, the answer is right there in the scriptures, in the book of Micah. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, six miles down the road.
And yet no-one else goes, except Herod’s death squad. Everyone seems more happy with maintaining the status quo, with staying at home with their feet up, or with not venturing out because they’re scared of the consequences. There’s a chance to see what God is doing in the world, and it’s handed to them on a plate, and yet no-one wants to take it. Pagan astrologers are more interested in what God’s doing than the religious elite. Worse than that – thirty years later, the successors of Herod and the priests would be instrumental in getting Jesus crucified.
And that’s a challenge for us, because sometimes it’s so easy to be in the church, to enjoy the rockin’ worship and the friendship groups, that it gets in the way of us finding Jesus; ditto for Herod’s religious think tank a couple of thousand years ago. and that was a huge mistake, because Jesus wasn’t there in the Temple or Herod’s palace; the work of God was happening beyond those walls. The apathy of the priests and scribes is a warning to us all.
But thankfully the wise men were more open to an encounter with Jesus – the whole purpose of their journey was to offer him worship. They’re best known for bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, but maybe the most important thing they brought was themselves.
And then comes the dream: take another route home because to go back the way you came would be disastrous. If ever there was a metaphor for encountering Jesus, there it is, but there’s something in this moment that’s left hanging. We don’t know what happened to the Magi after they left, we don’t know if the experience changed them, or if they just considered it the fulfilment of their diplomatic duty. Their journey ends as mysteriously as it started.
And maybe that’s okay, because Matthew doesn’t just tell their story in the interests of reportage, he’s also using them to represent us – the outsiders, the ones who were once far from God who nevertheless find themselves kneeling before the Messiah. Their journey is our journey, following as best we can as God manifests and challenge and welcomes. He draws us to him, and despite the bumps in the road, he invites us to respond – with our gifts, with our worship, but most of all with ourselves.
So maybe this Christmastide, we need to find ourselves in Bethlehem’s stable, not Herod’s palace. At the start of 2015, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to finding Jesus anew, to seek his face and to point others in his direction. Let’s rediscover Epiphany and see where the journey takes us.