What do you do when things don’t go as planned? When all of the work you have done, all of the journey you have traveled, so much time and energy invested, has to be changed? Because, as every single one of us knows, life doesn’t go according to plan. You get sick. The car breaks down. Your child breaks her arm. The project at work falls apart. You get snow when you don’t expect it and the world shuts down for a couple of days. We spend good portions of each day trying to adjust to what is handed to us.
But these kinds of adjustments are only the beginning. You have a plan mapped out – for your life, for family, for the way your career is supposed to go – and it’s a good one. We Presbyterians can make a plan! Life is coming together, the relationship is strong and the kids are well. Then…the plan changes. The job falls through. A diagnosis. Infertility. You notice mom is forgetting things. Or it changes in slightly more subtle ways…. after years, you look at your spouse and wonder when you stopped paying attention to each other. Or you realize that you’ve been going through the motions in your life, or with your faith, and are off balance and have no idea what to do.
Today’s text culminates in an itinerary adjustment that is absolutely critical to the rest of the Jesus story. Matthew takes wonderful time in chapter 1, from the beginning, to build a genealogy, to show us that this baby’s family is in the line of King David, THE great king of Israel from 1000 years before. The baby is born, Matthew writes, to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah wrote, “…and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
But we are also told as chapter 2 begins that we are in the days of King Herod. “A king is born,” one scholar writes, “but a king is already here; there is room for only one king.” Herod, we know from history, was a builder, engaging in massive construction projects to keep small Jewish province on the radar of folks in Rome. Cruel, moody, and duplicitous. But for Matthew, Herod is playing a role, and it’s the part the powers of this world always play, as Betty mentioned so helpfully last week – powers that spoil the rich and the privileged, that leave the suffering, the poor, the refugee, out in these days that are oh so cold.
In those days, Matthew writes, when unpredictable rulers fretted, the wise men, magi, sorcerers, astrologers – all ways we can think of them – come from the East with their question: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star…and we have come to pay him homage.” Herod, again playing his part, notes the danger. He was frightened, the text says, this little baby ALREADY a threat to the powers of the world, the same thing that would later get Jesus killed. Herod, like most despots, was keenly attuned to threats to his power, and it wasn’t long before he was troubled, anxious, and when Herod was troubled, the rest of the city knew they should be, too. The king pulls in his counsel – priests and scribes, renowned authors and researchers. What kind of threat am I up against?
They gather, quoting Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5, pointing to Bethlehem, the village of David, the shepherd-king. Herod listens, brings in the magi on the side. No one as smart as him reveals his sources. He gets clarity on the time the star signaled the threat’s appearance, then leans in with a smile: “Go and search for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” so I may go ‘worship’ him….
As they resume their journey, I think it’s important to note that the text doesn’t tell us the magi suspect anything. We don’t know. They leave the palace and immediately see the star, down the hill toward Bethlehem, as the star slows knowing they would soon lay eyes on this one, the King of the Jews! When the star stopped – they had no idea who they were about to see, but they were so confident in the sign given to them, they were overwhelmed with joy. Before they even went in. Then they fell down, prostrated themselves before him. The Lord. Emmanuel. Then one elbowed another and they got the gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Then, dropped at the end of this passage: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
This is a huge deal that I’d love to know more about. We don’t know where the magi came from – how far from the East, but it had surely been a journey. And now they reroute their entire itinerary, so as to avoid the most powerful man in the area – Rome’s man in the Middle East. This is a terrifying change. Matthew has shown us that dreams have power. Once Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy in chapter 1 – and her assumed infidelity – he had resolved to dismiss her quietly. But an angel appeared in a dream. It’s okay, Joseph. Do not be afraid. God is in this thing. This dream sends them out a different road, hodos, another way, another road, a different journey. This is a word that can be used both literally – as road, ground, what you travel on, as well as more metaphorically. Journey. The way, like later in Matthew – the way of righteousness (21:32) or as we get into the book of Acts as The Way, a name for the early church (9:2). And in this case the dream, God, offers the magi a chance. When the plan changes, a trust that they were not alone. That God was with them. That no matter where the journey leads, God would not leave them alone. The magi’s journey made space for the holy family themselves to escape Herod’s wrath to Egypt, to go there and to soon return, paralleling the Israelites journey from slavery long ago. The family comes back and settles into Nazareth by the end of chapter two, and new phase of the story ready to begin.
As we begin 2018 together, like many years, much is unclear. We learned that again this week from the weather. And I don’t know what the year has in store for you – what changes may lie ahead, changes you know are coming and changes that will surprise you. In your life, among those you love. Here at church we’ll welcome new friends and say goodbye to beloved saints. And all the while we’ll do our best to follow the magi’s wisdom, and glimpse something of God’s dreams. And maybe you might even be caught up in that dream – to head to Montreat with us to retreat from the craziness, to take an extraordinary adventure to Haiti. We’ll read and study and serve, we’ll recommitt ourselves to being here to worship each week, to be community to each other, to read those bibles we have the 3rd graders, to pray. We’ll work on a capital campaign for the fellowship hall. And all the while we’ll pray that our dreams are in fact God’s dreams, and that wherever they lead, whatever changes happen, whatever adjustments will surely need to be made to every single one of our itineraries, that we can trust. That God is somehow in this thing. That the God who has come to earth as a little baby, that drew the worship of magi from afar, still accompanies us. Still holds us close. And we can have live with courage and hope, courage and hope. All praise be to this One, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville, Abingdon Press,1995), page 139.
 From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s paper on this text at The Well, Baltimore, 2013.
 From the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, and her great paper on this text at The Well, 2012, Montreat.