In the time of King Herod,
after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East
came to Jerusalem.
I was the nerdy kid at the justice conference sticking out like a sore thumb.
It was a conference of activists , and at the time, I was just a kid who wanted to get a PhD and nerd out over old texts in dusty libraries. But in the front row of the breakout session, the session leader told us all that academia was irreparably broken and a waste of time. Ivory towers. Secluded from the world. Wasted energy. Useless. Get out of the libraries and onto the streets.
What you love is a waste of time.
You should do something that requires more bravery and helps more people.
Go do something useful for once. Follow justice and Jesus, not your joy.
Three Wise Men, Following Joy.
When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them,
went the star that they had seen at its rising,
until it stopped over the place
where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped,
they were overwhelmed with joy.
Epiphany is that time of the church year where we remember that God is for everyone. The magi are the first Gentiles to come to Jesus, and during Epiphany we hold open the doors as wide as possible to everyone.
We don’t know a lot about the magi. Other mentions of “magi” in Scripture call them as princes, and in Esther magi are described as ones who “knew the times” (Es 1:13). They are probably Persian, wield political as well as scholarly power, and are certainly mystics. I like to picture scholars spending their whole lives doing nerdy shit in their offices, lost in libraries having relentlessly weird arguments about primary sources.
These three nerdy stargazers traveling from Persia, following star charts and following their joy, get a whole feast day celebrating the God that is bigger than borders. The magi were patient with their joy and let it guide them, and they discovered to their delight that Jesus was the root of that joy.
This isn’t just a nice story about being happy for Jesus, though, because wherever joy is, evil is there waiting to snatch it. Anyone who scoffs at “following your joy” because it’s “too easy, too selfish” doesn’t know that everywhere joy is, the Gospel is – and anywhere the Gospel is, there’s empire fighting it.
Three Wise Men, Encountering Empire.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.
Every inch of the world is being claimed by Christ and counterclaimed by the power of empire.
That means that wherever you find yourself called, there’ll be a fight.
The magi didn’t go hunting for justice, but justice came to them, because empire is trying to infiltrate everything. There’s always a Herod trying to kill the subversive Child. There’s always a Herod asking for seemingly innocent favors. However you follow your joy into your vocation, you’ll bump into Herod, and you’ll have moments of choice.
This is really good news for all of us who want to do good for the world! The daily decisions to be faithful to what we love, and be kind to our neighbors, vote with the heart of Christ, and use our money faithfully to proclaim freedom for the captives and good news for the poor – all of that is Kingdom work, and all of it is work for justice. God is claiming all of creation, and your faithfulness to your corner of the earth matters. You don’t need to go hunting for Herod moments, because when you’re faithful to your created self, those Herod moments will come to you. Maybe they’ll even be as dramatic as being warned in a dream to go home another way so that the Messiah of the world doesn’t get killed, and maybe they’ll be as exciting and flashy as you hope!
Often, though, not so dramatic. The Herod moments usually look pretty mundane. There are no small compromises, though. Wherever you find your joy, wherever you’re placed, there’s gonna be moments where Evil asks you for a “simple” favor. And when Herod, disguised as a small compromise, asks you to give in to triumphalism, will you listen to the God you saw in a dream and be brave, or will you be so caught up in wishing that your world was “bigger” that you miss the moment of small compromise?
Don’t diminish the work you do, friend, because whatever you’re called to matters so much. Not compromising in small moments matters so much. Evil is trying to sow dissent, cruelty, injustice, and oppression in your square of earth, and your daily faithfulness pushes the darkness back just a little bit more every day.
Maybe it feels small, but all that smallness adds up. The Baby in the manger looked small, too. Our God is a god of small things, and the small things are bigger than we think.