Rediscovering the One Who Charts Our Course
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Over the holidays, Ann Marie and I had the chance to go and see the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks. While I am not much for recommending movies or books from the pulpit, I suspect that most of you would find it to be a very moving story. If you have seen it or if you have read about it, then you know that Saving Mr. Banks is the real story behind Walt Disney’s attempts to turn the books and characters of the British writer PL Travers into the beloved classic film Mary Poppins.
In real life, Walt Disney read the Mary Poppins books to his own children and he promised them that one day he would bring those same stories to life on the silver screen. But, PL Travers was very, very protective of the stories she had written and the characters she had created. In turn, she greatly feared allowing someone else, even the great Walt Disney, the freedom to interpret and rework what she had brought to life.
In the movie, we learn the main reason this was the case. You see, Mary Poppins was not simply the story of the amazing and loveable nanny who worked with the Banks family at Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. It was also a fictionalized version of PL Travers own, real childhood. So Travers, in actuality, was protecting the story of her own family. The truth was that the Mary Poppins books actually existed on two levels. Sure, the world simply saw the lovable, fictional Mary Poppins in the books Travers had written for children. But, for Travers, there was something much deeper, cathartic and personal in her work as these were stories about her own family.
I share this because I think something similar happens in our encounters with Matthew’s story of the Wise Men and their visit to the infant Jesus. What I mean is that this story, like Mary Poppins, exists on two levels in modern Christianity. The account of the Magi really is one of the most captivating stories in the New Testament. There is something truly awe inspiring about these mysterious figures who traveled a great distance while following a star in order to come and pay homage to a new born king that they knew nothing about. In fact, the story is so wondrous, moving and extraordinary that it has developed a life and legend almost like no other story in the gospels. And thus, the legends and ideas associated with the account have created a story far different from the basic one that Matthew tells us.
Over the centuries, we have debated who they were and where they came from? Were they magicians, religious leaders, astrologers or a bit of a mixture of all three and were they from Iraq, Iran or India? We have also pondered how they got to Bethlehem as we have puzzled over the star they followed. Was it a comet such as Haley’s comet or the rare phenomenon of several stars converging and seeming to appear as one star?
We have determined that there were three wise men because they brought three gifts and we have given these three mysterious figures equally mysterious names—Melchior, Balthaszar and Gaspar. Further, we have given interesting and profound interpretation and meaning to the gifts that they brought to Jesus and his family. Again, we have created a world and a legend about these figures where the text itself is silent. And, while fun, interesting, thought provoking and perhaps occasionally accurate, we have created a version of the story filled more with fanciful questions, interesting dilemmas and perplexing riddles. We have created a story in the clouds and lost sight of the real basic story that exists at ground level as offered by Matthew in chapter two of his gospel.
Without going into grand detail, Matthew’s story on a more basic level, focuses our attention on two unique responses to the birth of Jesus—that of King Herod and that of the mysterious Magi. Simply stated, their responses could not have been more unique and different from one another. Herod’s response to Jesus was one of recoil. Even though Jesus was an infant, Herod saw him as a threat and his reaction was to further entrench himself in his own self-preservation and ideas about life and the world. His question became that of how to silence rather than listen to Jesus.
The Magi responded in exactly the opposite fashion. Their response was to open up and to see this child as one from whom they might learn and grow. Both in their decision to drop everything and travel to Bethlehem and in their decision to go home from Bethlehem by another route, they allowed Jesus to change the course of their lives rather than attempting to alter his. Their question was not how to silence Jesus but rather what it meant to open up and more fully listen to him.
When we look at the story from this vantage point, we can’t help but come away with a basic question for our lives as we begin this new year. When it comes to Jesus, will our response in this year be more like that of Herod or of the Wise Men? From my perspective, this is an important question for all of us, even for those of us who are long time committed people of faith. We should make no mistake about it, Jesus wants to changes us, reshape us and to reorder our plans for our lives. But, will we let him? Will we be open to change in our lives or will our goal be to change him? Will we be open to listening or will we be more interested in silencing the voice of God in this year before us?
As New Year’s approached I happened to hear a radio personality discussing the common yearly resolution that many people, and perhaps a few of us, have made to try to lose some weight over the next few months. As he did, he pointed out that every year there seems to be a new fad diet, supplement, pill or miracle food that is the next easy and simple way to lose weight. He went on to say what most of us know—the next best thing rarely works as advertised and even when it does, it is not always the safest or best method to follow.
What the radio voice said next really caught my attention. He said that all of us generally speaking know the two basic ways to lose weight—eating the right food and taking time to exercise. Those are the safest, best, tried and true methods for weight loss and being healthy. But, those two methods also require the biggest and most pronounced changes in our lives and often we would simply rather do anything than have to change even if it is for our best or the best path.
For me, those comments about losing weight bring us full circle in regards to the story of the Wise Men. What we have to admit is that even as a child, Jesus brought change to people’s lives. After all, the wise men had to completely change their plans in order to go and find the child and their changed their plans yet again after encountering him. Even still, they seem to have embraced the value and benefit of the changes that came their way in light of the opportunity to meet him.
Herod however wanted nothing to do with Jesus namely because he didn’t want anything to change. He wanted things to stay exactly as they were and further still, he was willing to do anything within his power to resist the change that Jesus’ coming might usher into the world.
Again, we have to admit it. Jesus is about change. To know Jesus, to love Jesus, to give ourselves over to Jesus is to be willing to change and to allow Jesus to have control of the direction of our lives.
As we begin a new year, are we open to this possibility? Or are we more inclined to be like Herod and to resist anything that would change the status quo of our lives? This is a question we all need to wrestle with as we prepare to walk through the twelve months that stand before us. Amen.