“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Do you recall that poem by Robert Frost? The Road Not Taken? It’s a popular one, often parlayed into a grand, motivational, graduation-speech sort of thing. The less-traveled, the harder path, to take it makes all the difference, for the better. If you google and read it, you’ll find that the author playing at the reasons for our choices – what makes the speaker choose the road-less-traveled over the other, whether either road was really any different. There’s an ambiguity too. The speaker took the road-less-traveled-by and that made all the difference… but what difference? For the better? Are you sure? He doesn’t say… Perhaps it was for the worse. It seems to me that Frost’s poem written for his friend – the one who always regretted missing out on what could have come down some other path on their long, nature walks together – it’s rather more about the experience – how way leads upon way – that, in the end, whatever you choose, something else could always have been – and not to worry so much about it.
I doubt the magi would agree with that sentiment. As they turned their camels east again; their packs lighter three gifts of immense value; their hearts lightened by their journey and its ending, the bright star-shine that had led them, and then welcomed them, and then changed them. Two roads diverged and they would choose to travel on by that terrible Herod and his command to beat a quick path back down the road to Jerusalem with details of this birth they’d found. Instead, they went back home by another road…
Of course, as you heard, the magi were on a different road all throughout Matthew’s story, weren’t they? They’re different characters, for sure – Persian or Babylonian – non-Jewish. They left for their kingdoms from the warm glow of Mary & Joseph’s house – a place no one else had been searching out. There they left their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, precious things – carried across deserts over deep ways in sharp weather for miles and miles – these richest things that family would ever see. There they had bowed, faces to the ground – important as they were, so unlike the shepherds – these are doctors of stars and heavenly movements, they’re surgeons and pharmacists, PhD’s, philosophers – and they bowed and worshiped. It’s the same different way Matthew marks out whenever he uses this word “worship” around Jesus. Those times when his divine and awesome nature bring his disciples low: when he calmed the stormy sea with a word, saved their lives – when he greeted the women at his tomb, proved his life – when he comforted his disciples at his ascension, that he would abide with them. This is the way: when the King spoke and walked and taught and even lay in a crib, his light drew out not only respect or obedience but adoration in hearts of faith. Just like Isaiah described it: when the light of God comes to his people, “then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy.” So it was for the magi. In v.10, Matthew literally says their hearts “rejoiced an exceedingly great joy” – I don’t think only at their guiding star’s reappearing but after also… After they’d seen the Morning Star, God’s special, guiding light in Jesus Christ.
Theirs was definitely a different road. Compared to Herod’s? He wanted to “worship” too. Read on into chapter two and you can see how – as he makes a bloody slaughter of all the children of Bethlehem that might possibly be of this King’s age, he worships himself. In v.3 by what such a king might do to his rule, his power, his world Herod is only disturbed.
“And all Jerusalem with him.” In the seat of Israel’s King, were they waiting? Had they been watching for the star of Israel? No. They heard of strange visitors – princely characters from afar asking for a king. But Herod’s trouble ruled their hearts. Herod was horrible, but in truth, his trouble meant harassment for their day to day, or maybe death if he was really off, at least an upset to their normal way. And of them, God’s people, Jesus’ homeland, from king to tax-collector, this is really all Matthew has to say. No worship, no joy, only trouble.
In the magi, the Gentiles, the non-Jews who’ve come from foreign lands on a long journey – only in them is a real connection with this King. A connection that sends them back home again by another road. Surely everything was different now for them, don’t you think?
There’s actually a poem to that effect; a different poem by T.S. Eliot about the magi. It was published shortly after Eliot converted to Christianity. It’s called “Journey of the Magi”. In it, one of the magi recounts the story of their experience – their “long journey”, the “sorefooted camels”, the pleasures they’d left behind. When they arrive, the “temperate valley” that greets them is filled with imagery from Jesus’ story: three trees on a hill, a white horse galloping away, gambling over silver, the grapevine. But finally it concludes with this contemplative question from the comforts of home again:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Now, whatever you think of that and whatever is in all the details… Whatever it is, isn’t it this? This different way of the magi? That when you encounter the King whose birth is for death, whose life will be hard and bitter agony, this daily life, “our death”… When you encounter him and go back to things, they aren’t the same anymore. As St. Paul says – we’re dead to all this and everything else is foreign and we are alive to Christ, so that we are strange: glad even of death, which had become the path to life with him?
Which is to say, as introduction to this Epiphany season do we not also go by another road? Surely, my friends, you are tempted to be troubled. Sometimes when this king shines too brightly? His Word and his way threaten the things our sinful natures selfishly love – the choices our families make, what i.e. work can win us, the things we cannot have – the worship of us. His glorious light the alien people of this dark world rage against as they clutch their gods. Sometimes they bring trouble to us for it, seeing that we don’t belong anymore. Sometimes those gods we clutch too as though we were at home here. But in this season, after Jesus has been born, God shines his star brightly on our horizons. He calls us to himself again and again. In this season know, if he called to magi from the east, he certainly calls to Americans in the west. Know, that as he calls, you do not have to travel far, but he opens his Word in your homes like some lush and temperate valley. You need no crowd of scribes and priests – to the simplest of us he gives his prophets like Isaiah and Paul so that you can receive his invitation by faith, be led through his pastures green. He calls us “to pay attention to [his prophetic word], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19) Our Morning Star is like no other King – a different way about him – as Micah foretold it – from the least of God’s people, out of them came the greatest ruler, a gentle shepherd. This King calls you away from all your troubles. He calls you away from worries about the paths of your life and sets you on this mysterious thing called grace, the way where daily he forgives all your sins and calms your troubled hearts with his dying and rising and living and ruling. He calls you out of worries over resolutions for a new year and productivity plans and purposes and into this simple recognition, this epiphany: the Savior of the Nations has come – and we will see him baptized, working miracles, preaching good news, rejected, sending messengers, bringing blessings, modeling love, and preparing our hearts for this… Of all the things we could do or say, with the magi, we confess that we go by another road – we long to see our King, Jesus, for we have come to worship him – and that changes everything. From here…
Many roads diverge and we would, you and I,
Walk the one Christ traveled by
And that, that will make all the difference.