Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 6, 2008

2008.01.06 “What is the Star on Your Horizon?” Epiphany Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

“What is the Star on Your Horizon?”

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:  1 – 12

January 6th, 2008

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, NRSV)   

Each year, before taking down the Christmas tree and packing away the ornaments, we celebrate one of our loveliest and oldest Christmas traditions: Epiphany, January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas, marking the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem following a star.

Each year as I reflect upon this story, I ask myself:  Could there be a better story to begin a new year than this story of seekers on a journey, illuminated by the light of Christ? 

You know — or at least think you know — the story.  Three kings bearing gifts visit the stable scene of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, along with shepherds and sheep, in the usual Christmas panorama.

Actually, there is perhaps no story in the Bible that we read more “into” than “out of”, than this one.  I had an Old Testament professor who insisted us to “Put your finger on the text.”  When we put our finger on this text, and read it carefully, we discover some surprising things.

First, the story of the “Three Wise Men” is the other Christmas story, recorded by Matthew rather than Luke, the one we read on Christmas Eve.  Understandably, we blend them, but since each was written in a different style to a different audience, it’s unlikely that they were ever meant to be “blended.”

In Matthew’s story, who were these mysterious visitors? Kings?  Actually, when you put your finger on the text, nowhere  does it say “kings”. It transcribes a Greek word, “magoi”, translated as “Magi” (from which we get the word “magician”). Though nobody knows for sure, the Magi were likely priests, astrologers, and scholars from the lands east of Israel: Persia (Iran), Arabia (Saudi Arabia), and Babylon (Iraq). They’re not Jews, but Gentiles, even more specifically, Arabs. Perhaps it’s best translated the way we most often do, as “Wise Men.”

In fairness, who knows, perhaps there were “wise women” among them, but the text doesn’t say. Perhaps you have heard the story circulating that the wise men botched the job exactly because they were men.  After all, if they had been three wise women, they would have –

Asked for directions and arrived on time

Cleaned the stable

Helped deliver the baby

Brought a casserole

And given practical gifts, like diapers.

        The tradition that they were kings was most likely read back into the text from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, who said, as we read in Isaiah 60,

Arise, shine, for your light has come

And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. . . .

Nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . . .

They shall bring gold and frankincense.”

I should also mention that there is the variant southern tradition that they were not kings, but firemen.  As the woman from Alabama said, putting her finger on the text,  “See,” it says right here, “The wise men came from afar.”

How many were there? Three? Again, the text doesn’t say.  Early church art portrayed either two, or four, although St. Augustine in the 4th century favored as many as twelve. The notion that there were three most likely came from the fact that three gifts are offered.

Did they have names?  Not in the text.  Legends pop up when people look at historical events with a desire to fill in the blanks. So, over the centuries, a large extra-Biblical tradition grew up around them: that there were three, that they were kings, and that they had names – Melchior, Gasper, and Balthazar.

About their journey, the text says nothing.  Once again, imagination fills the blanks.  I like the English poet T. S. Eliot’s description in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi”:

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melted snow.

There were times when we regretted

The summer palaces on the slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the nightly fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.”

Interestingly, relics said to be their bones were brought from Persia to Constantinople in 490 and then to Milan. When Emperor Frederick Barbarosa finished ravishing Italy in the 12th century, he took the bones home as a souvenir and brought them to Cologne Cathedral, where you may still pray at The Shrine of the Three Kings. With all due respect, if you believe that, then I’d like to talk with you about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

But, having acknowledged all this, what is the point of the story?

Two things:  First, here at Jesus’ birth, says Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, the ancient Scriptures are fulfilled, most significantly, in the mission to the Gentiles.  Says Marcus Borg, “For Matthew, the magic star leading the wise men to the place of Jesus’ birth is his way of saying what happened in Jesus is for the Gentile world as well.”

So right here at the beginning of the Gospel there is a powerful word about the inclusiveness and universality of Christianity. The earliest Christians were Jewish and happy to remain a kind of subset of Judaism. But Gentiles kept hearing and responding to the message and the early Christian church’s first real struggle was to break out of the restrictions of race, nationality, and ethnicity and to become — as the angels said — good news for ALL people.  It is, as you know, a struggle that has not ended to this day.

Zan Holmes is Pastor Emeritus of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Dallas, where he served as Pastor for 28 years.  I heard him preach a few years ago and he told a story about his young nephew. They were all together as family at Christmas, and somebody got a new digital camera.  They were talking pictures, first of one, then of the other, until Zan said, “Now let’s get everybody in the picture. His young nephew went to the front door, opened it, and went running down the street. “Hey, EVERYBODY, come on!”

Right here at the beginning of the Gospel, it says it’s for EVERYBODY.  “EVERYBODY, COME ON!” What a wonderful message for our congregation to take to our community in this year to come!

But the second way this story speaks to us — and I think the main reason for its appeal — is that it speaks to our own experience.  For we, too, are pilgrims on a spiritual journey, through time and space, through the days of our lives.

As you travel, “What is the star on your horizon?” What is it in your life — especially in this new year — that draws you, leads you on, illuminates your life, and gives you hope?

Is it a new baby or grandchild? Is it that this year your grown children might move out of the house?  Is it the prospect of a move or a new house or a new job?  Is it a trip you hope to take? Is it a new undertaking, a new interest, or a new relationship you’re looking forward to?

I hope for you any or all of those things, but most of all, I hope the star on your horizon is Christ.  I hope as the light of Christ illuminates your life in 2008, that your spiritual life will grow stronger and deeper.  As your spiritual life grows deeper, I hope your service — both inside and outside the church — will grow broader, more inviting, and more welcoming.  I hope that as your spiritual life and service increase, that the promise of Christmas — hope and peace and joy — will become resident in your life, not just at Christmas, but all the year round.  My guess is, we’ve all got a ways to go!

For us, Jesus is a light still shining in the darkness. Yes, the Herods of this world, the powers of darkness — in their greed, and power, and violence — do their best to extinguish it.  But the light of Christ still shines!

Now comes the time for us to leave the manger, and the wise men, and the star shining in the sky, and return to ordinary time, life as we experience it.

In the story, it says that the wise men “went home a different way”, having been warned in a dream of Herod’s murderous intent. I take that not only literally, but figuratively, meaning that, they not only returned home a different way, but as different people. 

Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church puts it this way:

“It is very difficult to tear ourselves away from Bethlehem … There is a time to lay down one’s cares and duties and run to Bethlehem and the manger, a time to follow the star and take the road not taken, a time to flee for refuge from the troubles of the world and seek the safety of the mountaintop. 

There is also a time to return, to begin where we left off … for we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible. We have seen God and survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing that our faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night.”  (Peter Gomes, Sermons, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living)

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), was one of the most important theologians of the last century.  One of his gifts was that he was also very good at writing prayers.  He wrote the famous Serenity Prayer, known to every alcoholic, the best-known version of which is:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

But he also wrote this prayer, called “A Prayer for the New Year.” As we leave Christmas, and the Wise Men on their journey, and continue on our journey, illuminated by the light of Christ, perhaps there is no better prayer we could pray:

“O God, who has made us the creatures of time,

so that every tomorrow is an unknown country,

and every decision a venture of faith,

grant us, frail children of the day,

who are blind to the future,

to move toward it with a sure confidence in your love, from which neither life nor death can separate us.” 

Amen and Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: