(Isaiah 60:1-9; Matthew 1:1-12)
This is a rich text; it is a story about 2 powers that exist in the world, it is a story about faithful people who come from foreign lands, and it is a story about people who follow signs of hope to find Christ. The evangelist, Matthew, does what he often does, he employs into the text these subtle hints of history that are in every way meant to showcase the drama of the story. Here, Herod, the harsh and powerful ruler is threatened by the birth of a tiny babe born in a foreign land.
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened.” As tyrant Kings often are when their power is threatened. King Herod ruled over Jerusalem from about 37 BC to 4 BC with a harsh tone, his power came by way of fear, intimidation, and harsh punishments. The birth of Jesus terrified him, and the visit of the Magi ignites this fear, why? Because this power is threatened when the people of God come together. And thus, he is frightened when the wise men come from the East to pay homage to this other King, not to him, so he responds the only way he knows, with power and fear, wanting to find Jesus so he can kill him and reduce Jesus’ threat to his power.
The Wise Men come from the East the text tells us, scholars presume from Persia most likely and were likely astrologers or star gazers who watched the stars looking for the signs that they would reveal. When a beaming star appears to them they follow it to Jerusalem where they must work together with the people of Jerusalem to find with their two faith backgrounds working together the exact location of the child, Jesus. And off they go, looking for the hope of the world in Jesus, with Herod’s vengeful orders to deliver the location of Jesus.
But, Herod’s attempt to overthrow the power of Jesus and to destroy the Messiah is thwarted, both by divine intervention and by the awe of the Magi, these stargazers, Magi from the East, who disregard Herod’s more terrifying of orders in favor of regarding the wonder of the child they have just come to pay homage to.
I must say though, the text leaves me wondering a little, maybe it does you as well. I mean don’t get me wrong I love the story. I love the harsh power of Herod being overthrown by these Magi from a foreign land, I love the Magi following a star, and I would presume a hope, to find the Christ child. But then I wonder, what did they see? What did they find in that manger scene that made them so sure, that made them take the risk of disobeying the terrifying rule of Herod in order to protect the Christ child?
The text says “they entered the house and found the child with his mother, Mary.” Which makes me think what they found wasn’t a baby glowing with a halo (maybe it was) and it wasn’t a flash and flood of holy angels swarming the house (maybe it was) and it wasn’t a sign above Jesus’ head that said “Messiah” (maybe it was.) But rather, when they walked into that house and saw Mary and her child they saw what they had been promised – a ruler who would come to the world to love, to teach, to rule with humility, to reconcile the world. That they saw power in a whole new way, not the power and terror of Herod that the world had become accustomed to, but the power of love – tenderly playing with it’s mother, accepting stargazers with different backgrounds and religions from the East, gathering shepherds and people from across the world together for the work of the Kingdom of God.
Chaplain Dan Fleek writes in a column in the Christian Century, “There is, then, in this text for Epiphany the depiction of an extraordinary hope: the peoples of the earth coming together united in their recognition of what’s important, all offering gifts to the ruler of universe.”
So when the wise men left Jesus and chose to “go another way home” as the text says, they went the other way to avoid Herod, to save the child from Herod’s murderous vengeance. They thwarted the powers that were in hope of the power that could be.
The star they followed led them to something mysterious and something wonderful, something that said “this power is far greater and far more worthy of praise.”
They followed a star to Jesus and I believe when they left the house that they found Jesus in, they left with a new burning hope that they had found. A hope that guided them not back to Herod and the orders he had given them to return with the whereabouts of Jesus but that guided them back to their home to share what they had found, to bear witness to Christ’s humble power, to be bearers of this Christ light.
My most favorite part of the Christmas Eve service is the moment at the end of the service when we sing “Silent Night” as we did 12 days ago, the lights begin to dim overhead and the sanctuary slowly becomes filled with the light of tiny flames lit in our hands. From here on the chancel steps where Steve, Jodi and I stood, we watched as each light was passed from neighbor to neighbor and as the light passed and the candles beamed, each face lit up, shining a light on each person in this sanctuary. Illumined by the light that shines in the darkness.
Faces shining with light from an encounter with the divine. That is the story of our text this day, the story of the Magi following a star to an encounter with the divine, and when they leave their faces shine for they have not only seen a light but they have become themselves light bearers.
The wise men teach us what it means to follow a star, what following the hope of what the star may bring. They also teach us what it means to take what they find and let it change their lives, to put their lives at risk to be witnesses to Christ. They become not simply star followers but also light bearers, or rather, by following a star, a hope, they find the joy of Christ who gives them the light to shine and share across the world.
A new era is dawning my friends, are we willing to join the seekers, to leave the security of the familiar and find the thrill of hope that lies in seeking Christ? Are we ready to become star followers and light bearers?
This week, this Epiphany Sunday, I’d like to introduce you to a spiritual practice done by churches in our denomination. Today, you will receive a “star word.” The ushers will begin passing these baskets around now. Take a star and the word, let it choose you, don’t go rummaging through to find a word that fits you best, trust a little bit of random grace that may take place. Take this word with you and let it help to guide you, guide you in your direction with God, to places that might shine light for you, to ways that might stretch you to grow in your spiritual journey. So that on this Epiphany we too might be star followers and light bearers. As the star words continue to be passed around, join your hearts with mine in this prayer written by one of the Pastors at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Michelle Thomas Bush. Let us pray:
God, we acknowledge that we are not always ready to receive your best gifts for us. You have given us an epiphany word in order that our searching will bring us to you.
It is often our habit to turn aside, stumble over, or even reject experiences and encounters that we later understand to have been precious gifts.
Help us to be open to the gift that you offer us now through our star words. We acknowledge that we do not fully understand what this word might mean for our faith, but we receive it from you with gratitude and pray that your Spirit will enable us to live into our word with intention and faithfulness.