Starting At the End
First Baptist Church
Sunday, November 26, 2017
I am a fascinated observer when it comes to people’s decorating strategies for the holidays. One of the things I have come to believe is that some folks love to be the first to have their house decorated for Christmas. In fact, I don’t know about you, but I have noticed a few homes around town that have had both their outside decorations and their tree up now for about two weeks. It reminds me of a family that we knew well during our days in the Atlanta suburbs. Every year, they decorated their Christmas Tree at Halloween. They absolutely loved to tell folks over the first couple of weeks of November that they already had their tree up and that all of the decorations had been hung.
A couple of weeks ago, Ann Marie and I were in a Christmas Shop in the NC Mountains. When we opened the door, the owner greeted me by saying “Merry Christmas”. He also had a sign up that said 43 days until Christmas. When I responding to his greeting by acknowledging his sign and Christmas countdown, he quickly corrected me. “Nope,” he said, “we’re down to 42 days now, I have got to get that sign changed!” Again, for some of us, getting into the Christmas swing of things can’t come soon enough – we are already well into the Christmas spirit.
At the same time, I have also observed over the years that some folks are just as quick to take down the tree, put away the decorations and get back to life as normal just as soon as the holidays are over. Just as all of us likely have a relatively who can’t wait to get into the mood of Christmas, many of us can also think of a family member who has all of their decorations put away and their tree out by the curb almost before we can turn the calendar from December 25 to December 26. Some folks can’t wait for the holidays to get here and some just can’t wait for them to be over.
I think about this when I think of similar tendencies that we exhibit with the Christmas story in the church. Once Thanksgiving is over, most of us can’t wait to sing the hymns of the season and dive into Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. We hate that Advent starts with a week focused on the prophets in the Old Testament and another on John the Baptist. We may understand how these figures fit into preparing for December 25th, but once Christmas is on the way, we are ready for Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem and the manger.
Likewise, in the church, once December 25th has passed and a new year has come, many of us are also no longer as enthusiastic about talking about the rest of the Christmas story which includes the coming of the Wise Men. In the church, we usually reserve their story until early January to separate them from Jesus’ birth and to be clear that Jesus was already living in a home in Bethlehem according to Matthew rather than still at the manger as our Christmas cards might suggest when these three mysteries strangers arrived to pay him homage. Yet, because we wait until January to talk about them, their story often feels anticlimactic. Again, Christmas is over, a new year has come, our decorations are down, the tree has been put to the curb and we are ready to move on.
I hate this part of holding the Wise Men until the end. Somehow, it leaves them as an appendage to our Christmas celebration rather than a central part. Likewise for me, it means that we can miss how powerful their lesson can be. For their story helps us not only to walk away from Christmas. It can also help us to walk toward Christmas too.
Here is what I mean. One of the central lessons of the visit of the Wise Men is found in the last verse of their story. As they leave their encounter with the Christ child, the text says, “and they went home by another way”. Now, we know that what these means historically is that they did not return to Jerusalem after leaving Bethlehem as had been planned. On the way to pay homage to and share their gifts with the Christ child, they had stopped in Jerusalem and had met Herod the Roman ruler for the area. According to the text, Herod asked the Wise Men to come back, give him a report and tell him specifically where to find the child so that he too could go and “worship him”. Of course, as we know, Herod really only wanted to find out where the child was so that he could go and harm him for Herod was fixated on doing away with anyone who might threaten his power or try to take his throne. In fact, Herod had a long history of getting rid of such threats even if the threats came in the form of family members.
So, going home by “another way” was literally a way for the Wise Men not to go back through Jerusalem, not return to Herod and thus not divulging where to find the child. But, spiritually, the point was that this encounter, this moment with the Christ Child, had changed them. They were no longer the same and thus they would take a different pathway home as a sign of the new direction of their lives.
Again, this is a good word for walking away from Christmas. After all Christmas should change us. We should leave Christmas changed or to use the phrase from Matthew we should walk away “by another route”. But, also I want to suggest to us this morning that this is equally a good word for walking toward Christmas too. If we know what awaits us in this season, if we know that this is among the holiest and most meaningful of times for encountering God through His son and for worship, should we not walk toward Christmas in a different fashion? If we as people of faith know how incredibly valuable these days are, how on earth could we walk toward them in the same old way again just like we always have done?
A few years ago, my father and I made a trip together out West. As we traveled, we were to change planes in Phoenix before arriving at our final destination in California. From the time we left home, however, we were behind schedule. Our initial flight was delayed and so by the time we reached Phoenix our connecting flight into California had already left. We were told that we would have to spend the night and wait until the next day to complete our trip. The problem was that we had a specific appointment on our first day in California that we were absolutely committed to keeping. So, rather than wait and complete the flight the next morning and risk another delay, we decided to rent a car in Phoenix and drive the reminder of the way to California. Our drive took place in the middle of the night, in the pitch dark. We were both exhausted. We drove well over the speed limit. And, we had nothing on our minds but getting there. Among the many things that I remember about that experience is this – both of us said several times that we hoped to be able to travel that same route again one day in a different way. The next time, we would go in the daylight so we could enjoy the landscape that was shrouded in the dark. The next time, we would not be in such a hurry and we would stop along the way and enjoy the sights. The next time, we would make this drive across the American Southwest rested, refreshed and eager to soak up all of the majesty of God’s creation. The next time, we both agreed, we would make the same journey in a completely different way.
I am willing to go out on a limb and guess that we have all said the same thing before as it relates to Christmas. I have no doubt that many of us have said the following on a previous journey to December 25th…”next year, I am not going to fill up every day on my calendar in December until I have no time left for myself. Next year, I am going to spend more time with my aging parents or with my children for I don’t know how many more holidays they’ll be around. Next time, I am going to be at church all four Sundays of Advent and on Christmas Eve. I am not going to miss worship in December. Next time, I am going to make space every day to do a devotional and pray each day of Advent. Next year, our family is going to have an Advent wreath on our table and light it every night and pray together while we count the days until Christmas and think about the lessons of the season. Next year, I am going to take some vacation days in December and do some things with the kids that will create special memories. Next year, we are going to spend less on ourselves and give more away. Next year, we are going to invite someone who will spend Christmas alone to our house for a meal. Next year, I am going to journey toward Christmas by a different route.”
Today, thanks be to God, we have the opportunity for a next journey to Bethlehem. It begins now. And, the question is, will we go there by the same old route or will we go home to Bethlehem by a different way knowing full well the possibilities and the wonder that these days can offer to us?
I spent the day before Thanksgiving at the beside of a Hospice patient. Their life is coming to an end and so for about an hour on Wednesday we sat together with the lights off, the room quite and reminisced about their life, family, faith and the mystery of it all. One of the themes of our conversation was how quickly life goes by and how easy it is to convince ourselves that we have all of the time and all of the years in the world in front of us.
It is so easy to assume we will have a next time with the same people, same health and same situation in our lives that we have right now.
But, the truth is that we don’t. The truth is that we will not. So, through the grace of God, we have the chance to do it different right now, this year. Today, the Wise Men ask us, will we go toward Christmas by a different route this year? What do we need to do for our journey to be all that God wants it to be this year? What changes do we need to make? What priorities do we need to set? What path is God calling us to take toward Bethlehem? Amen.