“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” —Luke 2:20

“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” —Matthew 2:12

This year as I read and prayed through the Christmas story again and again, one dimension that I’d never noticed before caught my attention. The second chapters of both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels reveal a theme of post-Christmas returning. After their respective epiphanies, we read that both the Magi and the shepherds returned. Returned to what? They returned to their vocations and their normal, everyday lives.

How strange would that have been? The shepherds had seen the glories of heaven, heard the songs of angels, and been led to the manger of the Christ child. The Magi had experienced their own awe-inspiring, star-guided vision leading them to the new King. And now both groups find themselves returning to the lives they once knew. But they couldn’t have returned the same. When you encounter the Christ child, there is no going back. You return, but you return “by another route.”

The Difficulty of Returning

This year I wondered something I’d never wondered before: Did the prospect of returning appeal to either the shepherds or the Magi? Did they even want to return? The events of Christmas were moments of glory that, in some ways, rivalled Jesus’ transfiguration, and we know how Peter responded to that experience—“let’s stay here forever!” I would understand if either the shepherds or the Magi had resisted returning, even if only within their own hearts.

We’re currently in the season of Epiphany, which for many Protestant church traditions extends from January 6 until Ash Wednesday. It is a time set aside to celebrate the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We are invited to take a long, loving look into the heart of the gospel by fixing our eyes on Jesus, allowing ourselves to be swept up in the thrill of hope into which the Incarnation pulls us.

Afterward, we return. And as we prepare ourselves to return to our everyday lives in light of this epiphany, we may find that there are places we’d rather not return to:

  • Dysfunctional families
  • Stage-of-life responsibilities
  • Personal heartaches
  • Relational losses
  • Unfulfilled aspirations
  • Struggling marriages
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  • An uninspired workplace

Maybe the places we’d like to avoid returning to are within us—places of anger, boredom, question, or doubt. Returning to these places is always challenging. The older I get, the more aware I become of how subtly I avoid returning to these places with the light and love of Christ. Instead, I press ahead into the new year, hoping that God will wipe the slate clean as the calendar turns over. I don’t want to return. I want to move on—from the current state of affairs, from my regular life and the junk that comes with it. I’m tired of hillsides and sheep and the nomadic lifestyle, as it were. I want progress, and moving on is always progress, right?

Yet both the shepherds’ and the Magis' response tell me otherwise. They teach me that spiritual progress tends to be characterized by a returning—to the places we call home, but doing so in light of Jesus’ love, power, and grace. And spiritual progress means returning “by another route.”

However, the temptation to resist this returning and instead “forge ahead” is immense. We want God to provide “new life” and “new beginnings.” We secretly hope that our encounter with Jesus will create the kind of newness that means we won’t need to revisit the places we’ve come from, especially the places of pain, loss, and failure. But Jesus often commissions us to return to the places that are most familiar to us, so that we can be witnesses to his transforming love in those places. For example, in Luke 8:38–39, we read about a man delivered from demons, who wanted nothing more than to “move on” with his new life and leave his history behind him by following Jesus. Scripture says he begged to go with Jesus. Of course he did! He experienced firsthand the newness of life that Jesus was offering. Surely that meant moving on and forward.

Just the opposite: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you,” Jesus said (v. 39). Jesus’ command is counterintuitive. And though the man fulfilled Jesus’ instruction, it wasn’t what he would have initially chosen.

How often do we beg Jesus to allow us to move on from the mess of our past? Probably more often than we’d like to admit. I don’t want to return. Returning takes more courage and faith. In many cases, spiritual growth would demand very little of me if discipleship were a series of onward and upward movements. Instead, spiritual growth is primarily an intentional returning to the places we’d rather move on from, so that we can re-engage those spaces in light of Christ’s epiphany.

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Before 2015 rumbles forward and we’re tempted to leave behind the awkward, messy, uncomfortable, painful places of 2014, we’d be wise to pause and ask, “Where am I being asked to return to?”

Let me suggest four places:

  1. A place of joy
  2. A place of failure
  3. A place of hope
  4. A place of loss

Whether we recognize it or not, God uses these four areas of our lives to draw us near to him and make us Christlike. I’ve encouraged my church to take time to return to these places and ask God to show us how to fully receive the moments of joy and hope, and how he can fully transform the moments of failure and loss.

Returning by Another Route

How do we return to these spaces with God’s power? To answer that, we simply need to ask, “How did the shepherds return?” They returned to the fields “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” They returned through worship.

One practice I started over the Christmas holidays was to create a playlist of two to four worship songs that are meaningful to me. I carve out time to sing and pray through them, holding my places of joy, failure, hope, and loss in mind. I do this because, in many cases, I have no idea what it looks like to return to these places transformed in Christ. So instead of trying to come up with something on my own, I try to submit myself to God and allow him to do whatever he wants to do in me so that he is glorified.

The shepherds were given a revelation of Jesus. They sat at his mangerside. Then they returned. And it was praise and worship songs (likely Psalms) that helped them return to those places differently. Worship allowed them to return by another route.

It takes courage to return in a culture that continually invites us to move on and leave the past behind. During this season, I invite you to subvert the culture’s false hope and instead take in the glory of Christ’s epiphany. And then prepare yourself to return. Return to your everyday life by another route, with an attitude of praise and even a song in your heart. As you bring glory to him, he will transform you.

Jeff Strong is associate pastor of Grindstone Valley Bible Church in Waterdown, Ontario.

Image published under a Creative Commons license.