And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.
What Christmas season would be complete without remembering the fabled wise men of Matthew 2:1-12? Every nativity set one can buy has at least three of them included, often accompanied by the necessary camels on which the ancient elite usually strode. Our sages sweetly travel from afar with their well-known threefold gifts for the baby Jesus, but suddenly find themselves swept up in a drama as fiercely political as it is blessedly divine. Like most God-hatched journeys, it is at once inspired and improbable.
Consider the challenges: First, there's spotting, interpreting, and following a certain gaseous mass from point A to point J, taking them across taxing terrain and through various nationalities—many of them not so friendly to passers-by. And the fact that they stumble into Jerusalem and not Jesus' actual hometown is surely a poke at these high-standing sages: Like most of us on most days, they are only mildly in control of their situation! (Someone should buy them one of the GPS doohickeys for next Christmas.)
Furthermore, they unwittingly knock on the wrong door (v. 2). Asking King Herod where to find a baby "born to be king of the Jews" is like asking Donald Trump where to find a good realtor (or barber)—you're liable to have your head chewed off. Turns out Herod is a bit more passive-aggressive than that: He finds out where this baby is to be born (King of the Jews he is and he doesn't know where the promised messiah is to be born!) and then sends the sages packing, with his henchmen in close pursuit. Bottom line: Our sagacious friends once again skirt disaster, and even do so a third time when "warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road." Between the treacherous star-lit journey and Herod's gerrymandering, it is astounding that they make it to Jesus at all.
Question: How often do you prayerfully pause long enough to consider the absolute improbability of your life, the way it has unfolded thus far? Do you ever have that ponderous feeling that certain blessings could have just as easily turned out another way? It is a hunch worth noting. When I reread the tale of the wise men with adult eyes, I find myself thinking, "Were it not for the enigmatic grace of God, these guys would have been goners!"
What's more, when I stop to look over my own life—to really dig deep in my own story, taking seriously my fits and failures as much as the blessings and bargains—I find I feel just about the same way: Were it not for the inscrutable grace of God interwoven into my story, I am not at all certain I would be where I am, who I am, today. Indeed, I am not even certain I would be (exist) at all. The improbability of my own journey is itself a sign pointing to Christ, that peculiar guiding light of God illuminating the admittedly serpentine path I have taken (see 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Psalm 124).
I find that when I listen to acquaintances who do not know or do not believe the gospel, I quietly wish and pray that they would soon see a providential star of some sort and follow its light to the risen Christ. There is a journey to be made to the living God, and there is light for that path (John 1:3-5). But I also find that when I am with cheeky Christians—those triumphalistic types for whom it appears the kingdom has already come—I want those folks to be just a little more appreciative of how downright improbable the Christ journey can be … for wise men … for us. Somewhere in between—flanked by not starting out and thinking one has arrived—there is a blessed via media, with Jesus' light shining low and bright on the horizon.
That we are still walking such a path, still seeing such a certain Light—these are gifts both as improbable as they are inspired. Every now and then, stop to consider what an absolute disaster your life could have turned out to be.
There but for the grace of God go we.