We’re all pretty familiar with the basics of this story, right? Magi see a star, follow it to Bethlehem, bring unusual but expensive gifts, find Jesus, and worship the newborn king.
But the part of the story around king Herod is interesting. They go to Herod’s royal palace to find out where this new king can be found. Which makes sense. Where else would you go to find where a king is? The religious scholars find a prophecy in Micah revealing Bethlehem as the place and share that information with the Magi.
Herod plays along even though he’s now frightened that a new king may mean he doesn’t stay in power. So he lies to the Magi, saying that they should report back to him so he can pay homage to the new king too. His plan, as we discovered last week, was to get rid of this threat to his throne and kill this one the Magi are calling the newborn king.
At the very end of this story is this amazingly relevant little piece of information. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
The magi met Jesus by following a star. Studying the sky was familiar to them, a part of their lives. But because of new information, of recognizing the truth of how things are now different, they had to return “by another way.” This is part of their Epiphany: the new king is born, but also that as a result, things are different, and they can’t go back the same way they came. Although they went back to their own country, they returned by another way. Symbolically, this doesn’t just mean that they avoided Herod. It means they returned as different people. They were changed by this encounter and can’t go back to the way things were. There was a lot at stake in returning by another way—their own lives, and certainly the life of Jesus and his family.
That’s part of having an Epiphany: with new awareness, new eyes to see, things are different, and you can’t go back to the way things were before. You have to go a different way.
I’ve been deliberate the last few years in listening to experiences and perspectives of Black friends and reading Black authors. This has created a slowly dawning Epiphany as to the depth of racism and white privilege that are embedded into our American culture. I can no longer see things the way I used to. To go back to my life means I have to do it by another way. To pretend everything was the same, to deny this epiphany would be unfaithful, unloving, and contrary to the direction of the Holy Spirit. My life is certainly different. Because of an epiphany, I left to return to my own country by another road.
I am confident that God is providing us with an Epiphany now. God is revealing to us that we can’t return to the familiar ways of operating as the church that we’ve traveled for centuries. We are experiencing an Epiphany, an awareness of God doing something new, something different that we didn’t know before. And because of this, we need to return to our ministry by another way.
There are some who are predicting that the ELCA will cease to exist sometime before the year 2050.That this denomination that began in 1989 with five million members will decline to 67,000 by 2050, and only 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday morning by 2041—twenty-one years from now.
With this potential epiphany, we cannot return to our familiar church country the same way we got here. Although the mission of God is the same—which is the country we are returning to, the way God is doing it is most definitely different. We need to return to our church identity by a different road.
To ignore what God is doing and continue in the same way is done at the peril not only of the ELCA, but of the world—the world we are called to reveal Christ to.
Some of these studies seem to be warning us that a lot is at stake. For the magi, what was at stake was the life of Jesus. For us, believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior or being a member of the Church have been the emphases we’ve always had since the 4th century. But now, there is a dawning epiphany that we can’t go back the same way:
Rather than returning to church identity by the road of telling people what to believe about Jesus so they can go to heaven when they die, a different way would be to show them what it looks like to follow Jesus here and now—in a culture that doesn’t yet get it.
Rather than returning to church identity by the road of Sunday worship based on robes, candles, music styles, and personal preferences, a different way would be to use Sunday worship to be empowered to live more compassionately today and seek ways to do God’s justice today—in a culture that doesn’t yet get it.
Rather than returning to church identity by the road of membership as an exclusive club that bears the name of Jesus, a different way would be to understand church membership as belonging to a community absolutely committed to God’s mission of extravagant love and generosity—in a culture that doesn’t yet get it.
Be ready. The star of Bethlehem is shining in our lives. God is revealing God’s way—an epiphany. Which means we return to life as a Christian in a different way. Watch for God’s presence to be revealed differently in your life, which means we are given a new perspective on compassion, mercy, generosity; a whole new life. Then watch for God to call into new ways to live that life, because we are being warned to return by a different way. An Epiphany.
 Dwight Zscheile, Vice President for Innovation at Luther Seminary. Source: ELCA Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation