Coloring Outside the Lines

As the pages of our calendars turn over to 2019, we come once again to that season of enthusiasm and idealism, when people in this culture customarily make resolutions for the coming year. We resolve to improve our lives in some major or minor way: to quit smoking or lose weight, to seek out a new job or new place to live, to develop our spiritual lives by prayer and study, or to attend church more regularly. All of these are helpful ideas and positive ambitions for making the most of the life God has given us.

There inevitably comes a moment, however, usually by the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), when we discover that our resolve has failed us: that gym membership, though paid for in advance, goes unused; the prayer book and Bible continue to gather dust on the bookshelf; we discover, much to our surprise, that the treadmill makes for a wonderful sweater dryer and that we are now on a first-name basis with the drive-thru workers at Dunkin Donuts. We can hear Jesus saying to us what he said to his apostles in Matthew 26:41: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Additionally, we encounter circumstances beyond our control that interfere with our best-laid plans: an old knee injury flares up, preventing us from running that marathon; the expected promotion or transfer is not forthcoming; a child or spouse floors us with a stunning announcement: “I have cancer,” “I’m pregnant,” or “I’m gay.” In these moments, we feel more keenly the message of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”

We can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the first drivers on life’s road to encounter detours, speed bumps, and U-turns. No epic novel has ever centered on characters who always make right decisions or events that always go according to plan. Conflicts and mishaps are not distractions from the plot, but the very elements that make these stories worth reading. So it is in the story of life. It was the late, great John Lennon who sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The good news for us, when we find ourselves in circumstances that are less than ideal, is that the God we believe in is not far away, sitting up on some cloud in heaven, waiting for you to figure it out or get your act together. The God of the Christian faith gets the divine hands dirty by taking on human flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is born in a stable, meaning that God is intimately present and actively involved with your life in this world, with all its messes, smells, unexpected plot-twists, and failures.

The gospel for today’s Feast of the Epiphany gives us a tangible image of the infant Jesus “scribbling outside the lines” in the coloring book of our lives. There are many misconceptions of the famous “wise men from the East” we heard about in today’s reading. With all due respect to the Epiphany hymn, “We three kings of orient are,” the only true words in that sentence are “we,” “of,” and “are.” The biblical text does not say that there were three of them, but only that they brought three different kinds of gifts: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The term “orient” refers accurately to the direction of East, but not necessarily to the regions of China or India. The label of “kings” comes not from St. Matthew’s gospel, but from the prophecy in Isaiah 60, our first reading, which says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah tells us further that “the wealth of the nations shall come to you… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” The identifying phrase from Matthew’s gospel, “wise men from the East,” most likely refers to Zoroastrian astrologers from the region of present-day Iran or Iraq.

The presence of Zoroastrian sages in today’s gospel signifies the reality that God’s work in the world is not limited to one particular time, place, or people. “Truth,” according to St. Augustine of Hippo, “belongs to [the] Lord, wherever it is found.” For Christians, the realization that all truth is God’s truth does not invalidate or relativize our faith, but frees us to approach other religions with openness and curiosity, rather than criticism and judgment.

The astrologers’ following of the star is not a tacit endorsement of horoscopes, but yet another example of God leading people to Christ via paths that are unconventional and surprising. The path of the astrologer draws meaning from careful observation of the universe. Speaking in contemporary terms, one could suggest that this passage opens to Christians the study of science and philosophy as avenues through which the divine glory can be more fully understood by the world.

The wise men from the East represent for us all the ways that God colors outside the lines. Their presence in this story shakes us out of our narrow conceit to consider the possibility that unexpected or inconvenient events might be the very ways in which God is presently at work in our lives. Such twists and turns might not be distractions from the plot, but the main arc of the story itself.

There is a wise man within each of us. If our hearts and minds are open, we can join their caravan and follow the star to the horizon where heaven and earth meet. There is also something of King Herod within each of us. If we so choose, we can remain behind with him: barricaded inside a palace of our own making, plotting and scheming to neutralize all challenges to our ego as if they were threats to existence itself.

The way of Herod leads nowhere, as it never requires us to set foot outside our comfort zones. The way of the wise men, on the other hand, leads us to that deepest place within us, where Christ is being born today. The way of the wise men is not easily discerned or followed, for it requires of us that we embrace those parts of ourselves or our lives that feel most strange or foreign. When our internal resolve and external circumstances fail us, the wise men show us how to go “home by another way.” They lead us, by all sorts of twists and turns, to that inner house where we plop down on the floor next to the Christ child, who teaches us how to scribble outside the lines in the coloring book of our life.

The divine Word who “became flesh and lived among us” is not interested in defending our possessions, positions, or plans, but works tirelessly for the recovery of our true essence as God’s beloved children.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us this morning is not that we would have the strength or know-how to overcome life’s obstacles by force of will, but that God would bless us with enough weakness and foolishness to walk the winding way of wisdom until it leads us to that place within us where Jesus lives.

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