Sunday, January 7, 2024

Walking Humbly

Matthew 2:1-12

On Christmas Eve, an eight year old church member and I discussed the scandalous fact that even though all our nativity scenes place those wise men right up there in the hay near the manger, they likely did not arrive until Jesus was around two years old. His mind was blown. I didn’t even get to the part about there most likely women being in their group of undoubtedly more than three, because unlike a kids’ birthday party, three gifts doesn’t mean three people showed up.  

And when the Magi did find Jesus, it was in a house, on a street in the small, unremarkable town of Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph had temporarily settled.  Maybe little Jesus was playing with blocks on the floor of his dad’s shop, or sitting in the kitchen in his diaper, gnawing on a hunk of bread while his mom made lunch.  Maybe Jesus was toddling around the yard with the kids of the shepherd’s families, who had become good friends, being the only other people besides Uncle Zechariah and Aunt Elizabeth to know who Jesus really was. In any case, however ordinarily the day in Bethlehem had begun –sometime after morning chores and greeting neighbors, tending to animals, and work in the carpenter shop—suddenly the quiet neighborhood streets were flooded with the spectacular sounds, smells and sights, of a camel-filled caravan winding toward and piling up in front of Joseph’s house, an entourage of exotically-dressed travelers, excitedly conversing in a foreign language as they approach the front door.  
And even though our nativity scenes don’t give us this glimpse, the Christmas story is not complete until we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Magi.
A friend recently gave me a book about walking. The book begins in frustration, that while so many other religions have maintained physical disciplines, like Hinduism’s yoga, Taoism’s tai chi, Buddhism’s kung fu, and so on, Christianity seems to be largely cerebral, without a physical component.  And yet, we have an incarnational faith, that is, we believe that God came embodied, into this life in a physical human form to share life with us, so to disconnect prayer from a bodily expression of it seems strange.  

Turns out that it seems perhaps we do, but it’s overlooked because it is the most basic, simple, ordinary human thing: walking.  Our faith story begins with God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden, and after they hide themselves from God in mistrust and shame, “walking with God” becomes synonymous throughout scripture with "holiness." Jesus' ministry began when he walked into the wilderness, and continued through walking, criss-crossing territory, meeting people on foot and face to face, and, when he wasn’t in a boat, Paul’s journeys walked him across the Mediterranean region. Historically, walking pilgrimages - first to Jerusalem and then to other holy sites - have been an integral part of the Christian faith. To walk in this way is to acknowledge that even more than the destination, it’s the walking towards that changes you. Finally, the early Church simply called Christianity “The Way.” Jesus says he is the way – he is the route and the journey.
So, meeting up with the Magi again this year, I had walking on my mind.  When the star appeared, these scholars of the sky, these practitioners of religion very unlike that of the Hebrew people, consulted their charts and spread the word, assembled their group, packed up their supplies and set out walking, for who knew how long, to go who knew where, and find who knew what. They walk for months on end, day after day, night after night, week after week, through all manner of weather and dangers, navigating through storms and hunger, wild animals and rugged terrain, the court of a despot and the skepticism of scholars, to seek the One promised for centuries to a people not their own. On they walk, trusting that what they are walking toward has somehow changed the trajectory of all humankind. And day after day, they are being changed by the walking itself, their lives being shaped for, and by, this impending encounter with the light of the world, the word made flesh, one slow step at a time.
When the visitors first and finally arrive at their perceived destination, it’s not like they think it will be. In the capital city at the seat of power, they are ready to publicly honor the majesty of this holy one. But they can’t find him. Of course, they assume, this great child who has come to change the world is already being honored by all the important people.  Of course, the leader of this land would even, perhaps, have him in the palace.  Instead, they found that nobody in Jerusalem had heard of him. And not only that, but the scholars and priests had to be summoned to look back at the prophesies and figure out what in the world these strangers were even talking about. 
And Herod, the insecure and unpredictable demagogue, is caught unaware, suddenly alerted that his authority may be usurped by some grand scheme that somehow caught the attention of people a world away but slipped by right under his nose. 
So, on they walk.  And when the Magi arrive in little Bethlehem, at the home of Joseph the carpenter, these impressive people from an extraordinary place kneel before the seemingly ordinary toddler on the lap of a peasant woman. And their shocking arrival and sincere worship must shake Mary and Joseph to the core, jostling them out of the daily routine and reminding them that this whole thing is so beyond them, and that they are controlling exactly none of it. 
And then, because of a dream, the Magi walk home by another road to bypass the raging Herod. And, because of a dream, Joseph will take Mary and Jesus and walk to Egypt, to live as refugees in a foreign land to protect this child from being killed, like so many others subsequently are, by Herod’s violent insecurity.
Life is hard. But we complicate it even more. We think we should know things and don’t, we think things that should be easy and aren’t. For better and worse, nobody really gets what they deserve, and so much of it is arbitrary and out of our control. Living is filled with guesswork, and we make terrible mistakes. Evil people often get power, and good people often suffer, and figuring out which way to go is frequently fraught, and our actions have unintended consequences, and we lose people, and we hurt people, and we try to do the right thing but struggle often to know what that is, and why, why can’t God be more obvious? So we think we have to crack the code, figure out how to do it right, learn the moves, like those who went before us did, right?
Turns out the central characters throughout our whole faith story were also just feeling their way along, responding to the circumstances, doing the best they could, adapting as they went, just like we are, every day.  They didn’t have anything figured out.  They were trying to live attuned to the deeper story, learning to pay attention, filled with longing and sorrow, and wonder, just like we are. And God directed them, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but mostly in the most basic, ordinary, everyday way, one regular, basic step at a time. None of them ever knew much further ahead than the next step because few of us ever do. Human beings live in time. We move one step at a time, trapped inside of time. But eternity has entered into time, so nevertheless, here on this journey, we are never alone.  And “the road is made by walking,” as they say.  
God came into this life, to walk with us, like we walk. In the confusion and the frustration, in the danger and the worry, in the unknown and the figuring it out as you go. This whole thing is beyond us; we are controlling exactly none of it. But every part of all of it is claimed for love, and filled with the presence of God-with-us. Jesus is the way, the route and the journey.   So to practice this faith and follow this Christ, we are to slow our pace to the speed of our soul, our basic humanity, to walk along, like the Magi did, one foot in front of the other, day after day, sometimes excited and feeling it – other times so not, but still, led onward and practicing trust. We learn from them to keep our feet on the ground, and our eyes on the sky. And little by little, we are changed by the walking. Made brave to face adversity, made humble to bow before majesty, made quick to reach across human barriers to see us all in the story of God, made open to dreams and wise to know when to switch routes.  

Whatever we navigate, however it comes, the work of God happens in and through us, one step at a time. This is holy work, walking humbly with God. And in inhabiting our lives, and bodies, and neighborhoods, and communities, we join our forbears in seeking the light of the world that the darkness cannot put out. And we become people ready to pay homage every time we find Christ where he is unexpectedly residing.


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