(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 6, and Monday, January 7, 2008
Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)
On this Epiphany, I thought we’d take a look at how singer-songwriter James Taylor tells the story of the Wise Men in his song “Home By Another Way” from the album, Never Die Young, which was released back in 1988. It wasn’t a Christmas album, but “Home By Another Way” is definitely an Epiphany tune. Let’s listen to a clip from the song. The lyrics will be on the screens, and after the clip, we’ll see how Taylor’s lyrics compare with what we know from Scripture. So here is the first verse and the chorus.
Those magic men the Magi,
Some people call them wise,
Or oriental, even kings,
Well, anyway, those guys,
They visited with Jesus,
They sure enjoyed their stay,
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way.
Yes, they went home by another way,
Home by another way,
Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too,
And go home by another way.
We can make it another way,
“Safe home” as they used to say,
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high,
And go home another way.
James Taylor starts off by identifying the Magi by every name they’ve been given—Magi, which could roughly be translated as “magic men,” also known as Wise Men. When Taylor says that some people call them “oriental, even kings,” he’s referring to the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” They were Wise Men coming from the East—perhaps the Far East, the Orient, Asia—and since they came with expensive gifts, some people have traditionally called them kings.
I think what Taylor misses—and actually what we often miss when we think about Epiphany, too—is that this is the only event in the Bible where magi are thought to be positive or somehow in line with God’s purposes.
There are magi in a lot of other places in Scripture, wise men, astrologers, diviners, and spiritualists who pretend to know answers about the future or how the invisible world works. Yet, every time they show up, God shows them up. Every other time we hear about magi, they’re calling on a false god, telling a king what he wants to hear, or trying to make themselves rich. So when Matthew starts telling this part of the story of Jesus, it would’ve put everyone on edge.
It’s like Rumpelstiltskin who helps a girl spin straw into gold, but turns out to be a dastardly little fellow who demands that the girl give him her first-born son. When Rumpelstiltskin shows up, we are clued in to realize he’s not someone to trust. When Matthew says the Magi come looking for Jesus, the readers would’ve thought they weren’t someone to be trusted.
Except that’s not what happens in Bethlehem. Like Taylor says in his song, “They visited with Jesus,/They sure enjoyed their stay.” In fact, it’s even more positive than that. The Magi bowed down to baby Jesus, they worshipped him, they gave him expensive gifts. These Magi weren’t trying to prove they knew better than Jesus; these Magi weren’t trying to prove their own power. Instead, they came to worship the true God, and as far as we know, they went home to always proclaim the name of Jesus, the King sent from God above.
God sends that star, points to the prophet Micah, tells them to go to Bethlehem so that they can come and worship Jesus. God doesn’t stop them, judge them, or send fire down on them for their evil astrology. Instead, God leads them to the truth, to the True King of Kings, and then God takes it one more step: He warns them in a dream that Herod plans on killing them, so they should go home by another way.
Here’s the core of James Taylor’s song, the chorus which talks about the Magi going home by another way to avoid Herod. They don’t return to Herod like Herod had told them to do. They don’t go and tell Herod where Jesus is. God has changed the hearts of these Wise Men, has brought them to faith in His truth, and so now He guards and keeps them, sending them home safely and meanwhile also making sure that Herod didn’t use the Magi to find Jesus and kill Him.
James Taylor’s song has done alright in telling the story so far, but in the chorus, you realize he’s using this as a metaphor for our lives. He says, “Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too,/And go home by another way…./Keep a weather eye to the chart on high,/And go home another way.”
I like the metaphor, saying that we like the Magi will need to go home another way sometimes, go a different way in our lives to avoid people who may threaten us—specifically threatening our faith, our beliefs, our claim that Jesus is the Lord. In that sense, it’s a good metaphor. God will protect us in our faith, sending us away from the people who might cause us to go away from believing in Jesus.
But James Taylor’s song seems to end up focusing on our actions, on our ability to realize we need to go home another way. He says we should be keeping an eye to the chart on high, which I suppose could mean paying attention to God, but the thing is: the Magi didn’t know to go home by another way because they were paying attention to the stars or their other tricks anymore. They knew to go home by another way, because God sent them a dream, God spoke to them, God intervened in their lives. God used them curiosity about the star to get them to Bethlehem, but once they had realized the truth, once they had seen Jesus, now it wasn’t the talents of the Magi that kept them safe. It was God’s Word in a dream.
In that same way, God might get us curious about Him through a lot of things in our lives. He might even use a song by James Taylor to get us thinking again about Epiphany, but once we realize the truth, once we see again that Jesus is the truth, now it isn’t our talents, our popular culture, our interest in science or figuring it all out that will keep us safe.
Now God protects our faith. God is the One who will send us home by another way. God is the One who will provide a way out of temptation when we thinking about leaving the faith. God is the One who will continue to work His Holy Spirit in our hearts as we travel through dangerous territories, meeting people and being in places that could tear away our belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
OK, so I like that James Taylor is telling the story of Epiphany in his song, but I’m not so sure about I like how he uses the metaphor. But I suppose I should give him another chance here to show us more about what he’s saying in the song. Let’s take the second verse.
Steer clear of royal welcomes,
Avoid a big to-do,
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you.
He really, really wants those presents,
He’ll comb your camels fur
Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.
You see, I started to get down on James Taylor, and then the second verse really tells the story nicely. The reason the Magi need to go home another way is because Herod is not the type of king that’s to be trusted. When he realizes that the Magi weren’t coming back to see him, he issues the order to kill all of the baby boys under the age of two, hoping to kill the new king. Jesus is safe, because God tells Joseph to go with the family to Egypt until it’s safe to come back.
I like how Taylor tells this part of the story, kind of a CSI: Bethlehem type scene. Herod’s men would’ve done what they needed to investigate and interrogate the Magi until they found out the truth about where Jesus was. God was protecting the Magi and Jesus by keeping the Magi far away from Herod and his henchmen.
Let’s try one more verse from James Taylor’s song. This last clip is the third verse.
Well, it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight,
They tell me that life is a miracle,
And I figured that they’re right.
But Herod’s always out there,
He’s got our cards on file,
It’s a lead pipe cinch if we give an inch
That Herod likes to take a mile.
Taylor’s back to using the Epiphany story as a metaphor for our lives. It seems like he likes the Epiphany story for its miraculous touch. And maybe that’s why Taylor implies we can save ourselves from the Herods in our lives, the people who threaten us. If the Epiphany story is just something about stars and dreams, an unexplained, mysterious force that led these Wise Men to go to Bethlehem and then go home by another way, well, then I suppose we could believe that there’s a mysterious force that’s able to save any of us, too.
Getting through life, getting past the evil Herod people, places, events, and problems in our lives, well, it’s just about tapping into the stars and dreaming the answers. “Keep a weather eye to the chart on high.” Study the stars, learn the signs, mull it over, figure it out. That’s how you’ll get that mysterious help from the invisible world according to the implied message in James Taylor’s song.
Except that’s not what Epiphany is about at all. God used the Wise Men’s natural interest in stars in order to get them to pay attention to the truth, but the stars, the astrology, the false religion, that’s not what saved the Wise Men. It’s not what saved them from Herod, and it’s certainly not what saved from eternal death.
Epiphany is about how God intervened in the world, sent His Son to save the whole world—the whole world, even people from faraway lands who were trusting in false gods for answers. Jesus came to save the whole world, to speak His truth so that everyone would go home by another way for eternity, go home to be with the Father instead of landing in hell.
It’s a fine metaphor to think that the things that threaten us are like Herods, but tonight you don’t have to go to sleep hoping you’ll have the right dream that will save you from those Herods. You’ve already got the answer, the Way that leads past Herod, the Way that leads to life and salvation. You’ve got Jesus, the Way the Truth, and the Life. You don’t need to figure it out yourself; God has sent His Word into your life to lead the way.
You are going home by another way, you are going to eternal life by the Way of Christ. Herod’s always there, but God already outwitted him once. Whatever Herod shows up in your life trying to trick you into giving up the faith, well, God will outwit him, too. You are going home by another way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.