Another Set of Footprints

Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)
Sunday, January 7, 2018

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where 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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
  are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
 for from you shall come a ruler
  who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12

Listen to today’s sermon here:

Who here is familiar with the poem Footprints in the Sand? For those who aren’t…essentially it describes the dream of a person walking along a sandy beach with Jesus as scenes from their life flash by. At the end, looking back the person sees two sets of footprints most of the way, but only one set of footprints at the most difficult points of life. A little miffed, the person asks Jesus why he left just when things were getting hard. Jesus’ tender response is that it was those moments that he carried the person through. Whether the poem itself speaks to you or not, the idea that Jesus walks with us is central to our faith. God makes a promise to never leave us or forsake us. God in some manner holds us even when we are breaking apart, even when we cannot see or feel it because of the depth of our pain and trouble. I believe this. And it’s one way to view our faith journey.

            In a more recent response to the poem, which I also find deeply true to my own experience of faith, Jesus is talking with the person and says, “Where you see one set of footprints is where I carried you. And that long groove over there? That’s where I dragged you kicking and screaming for a while.” I don’t think God is coercive, but God does know better than we do, and sometimes a call from God to do something hard or to dig in to deep personal work of transformation meets with our resistance and God does nudge and prod and drag us through it into new life. For these times I am, at least in retrospect, grateful. This is another way to view our faith journey.

But today I wonder about a somewhat less talked about journey that makes footprints through the sand, a story that presents a different image of faith we don’t talk about quite as much at least in the church. It’s the long, slow journey of the magi, and I think it speaks something of our own faith journeys, as well.

First it is a journey of seeking. Unlike the first two images, it is not a journey in which Jesus walks beside us. Jesus is real, Jesus is leading us in some obscure way, Jesus is transforming the world by his presence, but he is not our known companion on the road, rather he is the mysterious thing we seek without fully knowing what it is. Even for those of us who have degrees in theology, who spend our days and nights thinking about the work of the church, Jesus is sometimes an elusive companion. Like following a star across desert and mountains, just as you think you’re getting close it almost seems to stretch a little farther out of reach. I think of the times that I have been absolutely certain of who God is and how God acts and what God has in mind for me and I have turned a corner to have all that taken apart and reassembled. While I still believe the conviction that God is with us through all that, the experience we have is often of a lonely journey of seeking and wondering.

Yet, the journey of the magi is also one done in community. Many traditions have numbered them at three, some Eastern traditions number them at twelve – strong biblical numbers certainly – but Matthew’s gospel only indicates that there was more than one. Though we often refer to them as kings and wise men there is a possibility of all genders being part of the crowd. We often imagine them coming as one group. Matthew’s gospel only indicates they come from the direction of the rising sun – could they have come from modern day India or Pakistan, Iran or Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen? Is it possible that there were multiple groups who set out from different places meeting somewhere along the road, sharing a journey even if they did not share a culture or language? The journey of faith is one that happens in community with others – with others who may be very different, who may not think the way we do, whose country of origin makes them automatically suspect in our xenophobic culture, but who are together drawn by the mystery of God made flesh, whose questioning and wondering with one another along the way shapes what the journey is like and helps us discover more about ourselves and about God. For you, my fellow travelers, and for your footprints in my journey of faith I am grateful.

The journey of the magi is a journey in which even our best intentions create disastrous consequences. Embedded in this story is the beginning of Herod’s terrible response. The magi – honestly, genuinely seeking faith – get nearly to the object of their adoration and they find themselves still lost and needing direction and they ask King Herod. They mistakenly seek God in the halls of political power – another parallel with our own faith journeys – and in doing so they set off Herod’s violence against innocent children in his attempt to eliminate a perceived threat to his own power. How often, with the best of intentions, seeking to help and to honor God, we have said and done things that resulted in violence. It is a mark of our human realities that we produce unintended consequences even with the best of intentions.

The journey of the magi is one in which they bring the gifts they have to offer. They bring gifts that in their own time and place honor kingship and majesty. They are gifts that symbolically predict, intentionally or not, the way in which Jesus will exercise that kingship through death and resurrection. But we bring our gifts, too. Some of them seemingly impractical, perhaps, but in the end just what is needed. I wonder whether they ever saw reason to share a bit of those gifts along the way, but whether they did or not they carried with them a spirit of generosity that was ready to share what was precious to them. This is part of our journey – to share the wealth we have for the sake of the world and in honor of the one who is the source of our wealth.

But more than anything, the journey of the magi is a journey of wonder and mystery. Every trip near or far can be so if we open ourselves to that possibility. But the journey they take is particularly so. It began with deep attention to the world around them. To see this unique alignment of the heavens requires a lifetime of deep and careful observation. They look with open hearts and minds to their books of wisdom and the natural world. They ask questions and take risks. What they must have seen and experienced in doing so! That all of us could be so open and mindful of our present moment! Perhaps we can even now, for just a moment in this time gathered together, find some moment in the rest of this liturgy to pause in music or prayer or silence or communion to wonder like the magi

This incredible journey required much of the magi, not an easy road to travel then or now. But they are drawn by a conviction that God is doing something worth seeing. Unable to recite a creed of belief about the God of all creation, perhaps unaware of the fullness of Jesus’ story of resurrection that unfolds much later, people who likely return home to search out yet other stars in the sky, people whose journey involved getting lost and confused, people who question and wonder, people who bump and jostle along with their fellow travelers, the magi make their footprints in the sand and in doing so are folded into God’s great story of incarnation and find themselves one day at the foot of God made flesh. Fellow travelers, let us rejoice that we too, in each of our steps are drawn by font and table to the wonder of God made flesh for us and that in our winding and wondering before we even know Jesus walking beside us, we, too, are folded into God’s story of salvation for the world.

-Pastor Steven Wilco