Happy New Year! By the time we are looking at this service it will be 2021, with all the expectations and anxieties that it brings. We may already have been putting away the decorations, finished with the wrapping paper, eaten all the left overs and be ready for what comes next. We may well be feeling glad to see the back of 2020. It’s an ending, and now we are ready for the beginning of the next chapter.
It’s the feast of Epiphany, and now, at last, the wise strangers, who have been in place for weeks, featuring on cards and celebrated in carols, enter the story and take centre stage. In my house they’ve spent most of December journeying from the outposts of the spare room, down the stairs, into the wilderness of the kitchen, the light of the window sill, before arriving in the nativity scene in the sitting room. It’s all very planned and controlled, and the route is really predictable. But in the Gospel of Matthew the arrival of the wise strangers turns out to be different from anything that might have been expected. It is a bit of an interruption into the life of the new family, and it is an interruption that will prove a disaster in the life of this small town.
This story is full of interruptions and twists and turns. The magi have set a course: as experienced travellers they are following the stars and heading to a destination, even though they are not quite sure what they will find. They are following their sat nav, when it seems as if they have arrived at the right kind of place, and they break their journey in a royal palace. They make a decision to share their thoughts and purposes. Unfortunately, this detour is not what it seems, for Herod is not willing to accept the idea of an alternative king or Messiah, and the choices he then makes lead to death, the death of innocent children. Not every action that is taken leads to positive outcomes: sometimes I wonder how the wise strangers felt when they realised where their actions had led.
But that is not the only interruption: finally the wise ones get to the right place and offer their gifts to the Christ child, forerunners of all those who will acknowledge that Jesus is to be valued, to be worshipped and to be a saviour. But the consequences of their choices ripple out, and for the little family this visit means they have to move, uproot themselves, and take an unexpectedly complicated journey to return home. The wise ones are also warned not to repeat the same route as they leave. Nothing is turning out as they planned and expected.
Twists and turns –that is how life turns out. Many of us had plans this time last year, plans for celebrations, for holidays, for visits, new beginnings. And they just haven’t turned out that way. As we face the beginning of another year, we may have a new uncertainty about the unpredictability of life. There are many weeks, months, years that are like this, for life has a way of throwing up the unexpected. We find ourselves hearing of a life-changing diagnosis, or our financial circumstances change, or someone we love dies, and we are never fully prepared for all that it brings. We make choices that have consequences we didn’t – or couldn’t – foresee, and that ripple around us and our world.
Perhaps this year the story of the wise strangers helps to remind us that God is faithful in and through all things. It reminds us that the heart of the journey is still the moment when we offer our gifts to Christ, acknowledging that he is Lord. Whatever life brings this year, we start with our eyes on Jesus, and commit ourselves to worship, prayer and service as we listen to the promptings of the Spirit, who will lead and guide us, whatever happens.
Rev Dr Sandra Millar