I recently took a walk in my neighborhood, and I noticed that a lot of the decorations were looking a little rough at this point in the season. There was the snowman whose head was flopped sideways as if its neck were broken. Two shiny reindeer had fallen over on the grass like they had passed out. There was a tree growing beside someone’s front door, and it was decorated with red bows and shiny silver garland, but the tree itself was half dead. There were more brown patches than green. I’m not sure it’s going to make it.
The most striking example was the large nativity set on someone’s porch. It looked like it had been quite beautiful at one time, featuring large plaster figures of each character in the scene, each one brightly painted. But today it’s in pretty bad shape, with much of the paint chipped off of each figure. Even the camel had so many bare spots that he looked mangy.
And while it somehow seemed appropriate to the story of Jesus’ birth that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds would look a little shabby, it was a bit jarring to see the wise men looking so beaten up. They’re supposed to be the fancy people in the story, the ones with a certain amount of wealth and status. But in this version, they looked as beaten up as the rest.
At first I found all these sights a bit depressing. At the very least they seemed like a metaphor for how we might be feeling as a new year begins without so far seeming much different than the old year. But I stopped and took a breath and remembered that Jesus is not born because things are perfect and shiny. He’s born because we, like the lopsided snowman and the passed-out-reindeer and the half-dead tree and the beaten-up nativity set, are in need of new life. And new life is precisely what Jesus brings.
To visit Jesus the wise men travel through a world that is far from perfect. At that time travel of any kind was perilous, with thieves waiting to assault you at any point along the road. As the wise men follow the star to find this new king, they make a pit stop with a king who is both insecure and tyrannical – a dangerous combination. King Herod pretends that he, too, wants to pay homage to the child, but of course he only wants to find Jesus in order to kill him.
I was reminded by Pastor James Howell this week that it’s easy to mix up all the Herods in the Bible. It’s King Herod the Great who ruled when Jesus was born. His son, Herod Antipas, reigned when Jesus was crucified. In other places there’s a Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and a couple of Herod Agrippas. But, as Pastor Howell points out, all these Herods are really different versions of the same guy. In his words, “all were egotistical, petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.”[i]
In spite of the dangers, the wise men show up, and they bring what they have to offer. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Extravagant gifts that could easily have been stolen on the journey. They’re funny gifts for a baby, though appropriate for a king.
The wise men go home by another road, we hear. They’re trying to avoid the unhinged Herod, and they certainly don’t want to be responsible for endangering Jesus. So they go home by another road. I don’t know if they had starlight for this part of the journey, but I hope so. We all need some extra guidance when we follow a new pathway.
A little after midnight as the new year began, I stepped outside and looked up at the sky and saw a gorgeous moon, bright and round. I saw not just one star but a sky full of them. I breathed in the cold air, and I thought about all that had happened in 2020 that none of us imagined when it was just beginning.
And then I thought: What if we all try a different road this year?
There’s a lot over which we have no control. The wise men couldn’t change the distance or the danger of the journey. They couldn’t change Herod’s instability or vengeance. We can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better at once.
But in many ways we can choose a different road.
We can do more listening than yelling.
We can stay curious. We can be open to learning something we may not have understood before.
We can commit to making the road safe for everybody who travels it, especially those for whom the road has been dangerous for far too long.
We can trust that God is always with us on the road, however lonely it can feel sometimes.
We can trust that God’s promise of new life meets us in our battered brokenness and says, “You don’t have to be polished and perfect. Just be faithful.”
I don’t know if those count as resolutions, but I do know this. If we are able to follow this new road, it is only because God is leading the way, bathing us in light and love for the journey ahead, willing to die for us.
I’ve mentioned Sarah Bessey before, a Christian writer I enjoy following online. She has this to say about the new year, and I offer it to you as part prayer, part blessing[ii]:
May the God of compassion and open doors be with us this coming year.
Everything sad won’t come untrue this year and this year will hold its own tragedies and sorrows. We’ll relearn lament and fight for joy. May we show up with courage and faithfulness for our lives and our callings and our people. May we be restored and renewed even in exile. May the wilderness become our cathedral and our altar.
May we say good-bye to the things that do not serve us – the selfishness, the fear, the illusions of control, the bitterness, the doomscrolling, the self-pity, the martyr complex, the us-and-them fire stokers – and say hello to wisdom, to kindness, to justice, curiosity, wonder, goodness, generosity, possibility, peace making.
May we throw open the doors of our lives to the disruptive, wild, healing Holy Spirit. May this be a year of unclenched hands and new songs, of vaccines and reunions, of good food and some laughter, of kind endings and new beginnings. May we be given a mustard seed of faith; it will be enough to notice and name what you love in particular about your life as it stands.
May 2021 bring you goodness and courage, hope and love, resilience and a hand to hold even on the nights with no stars.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ