In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“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.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.’ When 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.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This is one of those stories in Scripture that has become so rote in my memory that it is hard for me to feel in my body the wild story it really is. These travelers from far away have been observing the movements of the stars, and it was this engagement with astrological happenings that told them that a great ruler was being born. They decided to leave their homes, presumably their families, their roles in their communities all because they were so compelled to see what this new king was all about. And then, later in the story, we read that God had warned these travelers in a dream that Herod’s intentions to pay this new king homage were anything but pure and that they needed to travel home by a different path than the one that brought them there. Stars telling of God’s arrival. Dreams through which God shakes up their plans. None of this sounds like “business as usual”.
A handful of us who had the privilege of gathering Friday mornings at 7:30am on Zoom during Advent to talk about the “Unlikely Prophets” devotional, written and inspired by our siblings incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, talked about this very subject after reading a particular entry from the 10th day of Advent called “Dreams, Visions, and Miracles – Oh My!” In this entry, the founding pastor of this church in the prison, Rev. Layne Brubaker, writes, “I… had not been the pastor of Hagar’s Community Church for very long before I learned that dreams, visions, and miracles would be a big part of lots of conversations with people incarcerated at the WCCW. I have been amazed at the stories shared with me by a diversity of folks concerning these things. With our post-Enlightenment minds,” Layne writes, “I know it’s hard not to be skeptical of people clinging to dreams and visions.” (“Unlikely Prophets: An Advent Devotional From Behind Bars”, Hagar’s Community Church, pg 44.)
And yet, friends, our Scriptures are full of “dreams, visions, and miracles – oh my!”, divine imaginings of what God’s heaven on earth will be like and outrageous signs and wonders that tell of God’s transforming presence. We cannot actually enter into the experience of God’s word to us without a willingness to get swept up in these mysteries, the mystery of God showing Abraham the stars and saying God would somehow make Abraham’s descendants just as numerous, the wildness of Isaiah’s vision where predators and prey lay down together, where little children lead us into the future, where weapons of destruction are melted down and reworked into garden tools that cultivate life, the mystery of a future world we find in Revelation where earth becomes a city with doors that never close and there’s no need for the sun, because the very glory of God is going to light the streets. To spend really any time in Scripture is to find out that God made us to be a people swept up by Her untamed, wild dreams of a world where powers are flipped upside down and where everyone is cared for and loved. We were made to be like the magi we meet today, who drop everything to follow a star.
What wild dreams and visions from Scripture speak to you? What imaginings of how you could help God make all things new have spoken to your own spirit? Have you had moments when you’ve somehow felt the mysterious pull of God’s call to something people around you may not understand? What are the stars God has placed in your life that have compelled you so deeply that you feel the inspiration of the Magi to leave what is comfortable and find the place where the Divine is being born?
As the story continues, the star-chasing journey of the wise ones runs into resistance. When God’s wild plan to take on flesh to be with us comes true, flipping the power structure upside-down, folx like Herod who have been hoarding power to get richer and more powerful begin to shake in their boots. And so Herod forms a crafty plan, using manipulation and lies to get the Magi to reveal Jesus’ location so that Herod can kill Jesus, all under the guise that he just wants to “pay homage” to this new king. The power of greed tries to kill this dream of God at its very birthplace. And beyond this, imagine being one of these Magi, who after a long journey of following a star and maybe picturing that you’d end up at a palace or some official hall of power, you end up being guided to a run-down stable where a teenager is breastfeeding her little baby next to livestock. How disorienting and confusing to journey so far, chasing God’s dream, only to have nothing look like what you thought it would.
It is the same with so many of the wild dreams and visions God gives to us. Anyone who has started dreaming alongside God about ways to turn power structures upside down in this world is going to end up with modern day Herod’s scheming and fighting to take back control. We don’t need to look much further than so many of our elected leaders who are making decisions that protect the wealth of a few while abandoning the desperate need of the many. And beyond this resistance from the top, many of us know those moments of a dream or vision leading us to a place we never would have imagined or chosen. A season of retirement abruptly interrupted by illness. A new commitment to volunteer or work at an organization that is just as messy as the one you left behind. The counseling journey we sought out to find healing that has led us first through the pain of all the things we never expected to come to the surface.
And the good news for us is that these wise travelers teach us how to be in this world when our visions lead us to a reality we never would have chosen or imagined, and when modern-day Herods rise up to cut those dreams off before they can blossom. Our text tells us that when the wise travelers arrived to what they probably thought would be a palace fit for a king and “saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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.” These wise travelers show us how to expect the unexpected, and to turn it into a celebration. When the dreams and visions and stars God gives us take us to a stable we never would have chosen, we can be sure we are standing on holy ground. The Magi show us how to open the floodgates of our wealth and resources with joy that God has shown up in a place we never would have imagined.
And when the Herods show up, the politicians who oppose your compassionate action because of their greed, the friends and family who mean well but choose to discourage you because they just don’t get what God is doing in your life, even the negative self-talk and anxious “what ifs?” that overwhelm us on the uncertain path to follow our stars, the Magi show us how to defy the hoarders of power and walk in a path we have never walked before. Our text says that the Magi, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod… left for their own country by another road.” By another road. These wise travelers show us how to return home by going a new way entirely. It’s almost as if resisting the powers of greed and scarcity and fear will always lead us on a path that feels uncomfortable and new and uncertain. Maybe the trembling we feel on uncertain paths is really a sign of blessing that God’s presence goes with us. And maybe the Magi who together followed the collective dream of God have taught us that as you walk in this new way, you are never called to walk alone. You are always called alongside fellow travelers.
Friends, may 2022 be the year of opening ourselves up to the wild dreams God wants to dream along with us. May this be the year of opening the floodgates of our resources and wealth and energy when the star leads us to the surprising birth place of Christ in our lives and in our community. And may this be the year we cling tighter to the hand of our fellow travelers even as we tremble, setting our sights on a path we have not walked before, the path God tells us about in our dreams. Amen.