Two roads diverged in a wood…
Life is about the choices we make. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” I remember as a child having to choose to do or not do certain things that would shape my life as I have gotten older. I chose to read with most of my free time, and it helped me to learn beyond the schoolroom. I chose to write, and it helped me to learn to communicate with other people. I chose learning as a lifestyle, and most things that I chose to learn come fairly easily. But it all started with believing something that my father told me, “A good education is the one thing that can never be taken away from you.” By believing this, I set myself up for a life of seeking and sharing knowledge.
One of the most problematic decisions I have ever had to make had to do with going to seminary. At the time I was serving as a youth minister/worship leader for a larger church and a pastor/caretaker for a small, dwindling congregation. Both churches had issues regarding strong personalities and control of the church direction by a few who had long wielded power, but in truth, both had exciting potential that far outweighed their negatives. I had served for two years at each while taking online classes at Asbury. The program for a Masters of Divinity required you to do a certain amount of classwork on campus, six hours away in Kentucky. Weekend classes were a possibility, but they would have been difficult due to the travel distance and time to get back and forth, especially with two services and youth group every week.
Heather and I prayed about it, talked about it, prayed some more and finally came to the decision that we needed to move to the main campus of Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky. It was not what I would have liked to do. There were ministries that were beginning to get off the ground, youth I was trying to see through the program to graduation, people that we had formed strong friendships with, and family that lived within an hour’s drive. Neither of us had lived more than an hour or so away from Atlanta, and we wondered about what that would be like with grandparents who would be missing grandchildren. Finally, we visited the campus in Wilmore and at that point, we knew for certain: this was what we needed to do. It was time to make the choice to go and finish the next part of the ordination process, one of many choices that would shape my future during those few years in Kentucky.
The truth is, everything we do is a choice. We all chose to get out of bed this morning. We all chose to come here and worship along with the church family today. We all chose to wear warm coats to church today (I don’t see any swimsuits out there). Even now we are choosing to engage in this sermon or daydream or think about lunch or football games later today and tomorrow, but everything going on in our heads is a series of choices.
For a group of people in the first century, a series of choices led them to see the most incredible thing to ever happen to Creation. What little is known about them comes from the Gospel of Matthew, which tells us only that they came from the East, studied the stars, and knew that a king had been born to the Jewish people. Their journey started when they began learning to be astrologers or magi. Now in those days, an astrologer was not a fortune teller that had a daily 250-word column in the local paper but was more akin to an astronomer or scientist and was revered for their knowledge. They searched the heavens for changes in the alignment of the stars, cataloged constellations, and charted the courses of planets. These men probably began at an early age looking to the heavens in awe and inspiration. As they grew up, they apprenticed themselves to more experienced astrologers and learned how to follow the movements of the skies.
These choices led the men to notice something in the heavens one night: a star like they had never seen. Some astronomers now believe it may have been a freak alignment of planets and stars; others say perhaps a supernova that was closer than any had ever been. But, it struck the Magi as being something more than an ordinary star, and they sought to find the meaning of it by following in the steady direction it pointed. There is no real record of how long they traveled. Since the Magi were believed to be Persian – which would account for their knowledge of the Scriptures, passed to them during the exile of Israel – they may have traveled from as far as modern Baghdad in Iraq. But they traveled the same path, marked by the same star, going to a singular destination. Their search led them to Jerusalem and the palace of King Herod.
In Herod’s palace, the magi pay homage to the local king and find themselves faced with another series of choices. Herod, a jealous man fearful of his position as a Roman puppet king, hears in the words of the Magi a threat. They speak of one whose star they have followed, a new king who was born according to the stars and the ancient writings of wisdom. The king charges them to go, find the newborn king, but also to return and tell him, Herod the puppet, Herod the jealous, Herod who constantly fears for his position, where this child king is residing.
We all know the story; all have read it in the gospel of Matthew, in children’s stories, in Christmas plays and pageants. The Magi go and find the child of promise whom they prostrated themselves in worship of and present royal gifts to: frankincense, an expensive perfume burned in worship ceremonies and important social occasions; myrrh, a spice used as a cosmetic fragrance as well as an ointment of death and burial; and gold, the symbol of ultimate value and power according to the word system. After they have offered their gifts and paid homage to the child-king, they prepare to return to their homeland. As they sleep, they dream. An angel comes to them and warns them that the path should not take them through the palace of Herod but should go by another route. They depart according to this warning and return to the East.
Throughout this story, the people involved are presented with a variety of choices, paths to travel as they live out their life stories. In this brief excerpt from the birth narrative of Jesus, there are a number of choices that have to be made by various people, all with varying degrees of consequence. Herod’s jealousy of a potential usurper in the story leads to the decision of slaughtering the innocent children of Bethlehem. This is the result of the decision by the Magi to travel away from Jerusalem on their return home. The murderous mind and heart of Herod lead Joseph and his young family to exile as they flee to Egypt. Interestingly enough, this entire episode presents a motif of the Exodus and the Exile as the innocents are killed like those left in Israel and Judah during the Babylonian captivity (the slaughter of innocents), followed by those going off to exile and then returning under another king (Joseph and family as a type of the Jewish people).
Just as this story has a series of choice-consequence moments, so too do our lives. Each of us has made a series of decisions that have, in many ways, led us to the moment we are experiencing now. Think back to all the decisions that you have made, or that have been made for or in spite of you, which have led to being where we are right now. The good, the bad, the ridiculous, the sublime; all are part of the path that has led us to here.
I think we need to ask ourselves a couple of simple questions: first, what can we learn from those things that have led us to now? Can we look back with some objectivity through the positive and negative and see life lessons with enough clarity to accept and learn from them? I believe most of us have experienced a combination of things in life; it is not all good, not all bad; but how do we interpret these things? I think the best way is to acknowledge life as it is. Where we have made mistakes, admit them to ourselves. Where things have gone well for us, celebrate. In both cases be willing to see without emoting as much as possible.
Second, how do these things we have learned point us to a more clearly defined path, one which specifically aligns with the Way of Jesus? How do we go forward with the information that we have gleaned in a way that reflects our desire to be disciples of Jesus? I believe the best way is first, to learn The Way. It requires a combination of studying scripture (especially the gospels, in my opinion), looking back at the traditions of the church, applying our ability to reason, and considering our own experience and the experiences of those around us. Second, practice. Nothing that we learn is ever learned well without trying, failing, and trying again. If life is a race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. There is time enough for us to walk the walk and learn as we go, using what we have learned from the Way of Jesus as our guide, our compass.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wlliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for preaching and teaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.
 (France 2007, p. 75)