Thrive: Love’s Detour – Julie Pennington-Russell

Matthew 2:1-12

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.”

— Matthew 2:12

What would a Christmas pageant be without the three Wise Men? They’ve captured the imagination of songwriters, painters, and poets. James Taylor sang about them; Monty Python parodied them; Garrison Keillor brought them to Lake Wobegon; we celebrate them in Christmas carols and on greeting cards and with gazillion-watt front yard light displays.

They’re awfully mysterious and exotic up there on their camels, with their heavy accents and bejeweled hats. And whether their names were Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, as John of Hildesheim dubbed them in the 14th century, or Larry, Curly, and Moe, what the Magi stand for is the news that when God showed up with skin on in the person of Jesus, it was for everybody. Every race. Every nation. Grace, mercy, and love for all people, not just a few.

The magi first travel to Jesus on a road leading straight through the palace of King Herod. And Herod, pretending to be as devout as they are, tells them: “You’ll find the child in Bethlehem.” Then he leans closer and twirls his greasy moustache and says, “When you find him, come back and tell me so I can go worship him, too.”

But after they arrive in Bethlehem and see with their own eyes the very face of God, they begin to know what’s what. God comes to them in a dream and says, “Don’t go back to Herod.” And Matthew reports that when it comes time for them to head home, they figure out an alternate route and return by another way.

This story is an especially good one for any of us whose “Plan A,” which looked so promising in the beginning, has gone bust and left us in desperate need of a better way home.

Recently a woman in our church named Lydia graduated from a residential treatment program for alcohol addiction. I was happy to be invited to the celebration that basically consisted of an A.A. meeting followed by cake and punch.

As the honored graduate, Lydia got to lead the meeting.

“Hi, I’m Lydia and I’m an addict.”

“Hi, Lydia!”

“So this is an A. A. meeting,” she said. “But mostly I want it to be a gratitude meeting. Would anyone like to share some things they’re grateful for?”

After several people spoke, a woman in her early thirties named Kari, who also belongs to our church, stood up and faced the group.

“Hi, I’m Kari and I’m an addict.”

“Hi, Kari!”

Kari told Lydia how much she loves her courage and kindness and amazing hugs. Then Kari told of how earlier that morning she was jogging over the freeway overpass.

“As I did,” she said, “I thought of how, not that long ago, I used to want to jump off that overpass. And now, thanks to my Higher Power and my church family, that’s the farthest thing from my mind.”

Praise to the God of second chances, Plan B, alternate routes, and the long way around.

Julie Pennington-Russell_smJulie Pennington-Russell is pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia. She has served there since August of 2007. Julie previously served as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, California. She earned a B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, and M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Currently, Julie serves as a trustee for Mercer University. Her sermons have been featured on the television broadcast 30 Good Minutes, Day-1 Radio, and the Festival of Homiletics. Julie is married to Tim Pennington-Russell, a website designer and sometimes poet and bass player. They have two teenage children, Taylor and Lucy. Julie blogs at

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