Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 1, 2017

2017.01.01″Follow That Star!” – Matthew 2: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church
Follow That Star!
Pastor David L. Haley
Epiphany Sunday/New Year’s Day
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
January 1st, 2017


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel. ”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, Common English Version)

And so here we are, on the first day of the Year of Our Lord 2017. Have you written or typed that yet? Did your hand and brain refuse to work together like mine did, unable to grasp that it could POSSIBLY be 2017? After all, some of us are still struggling with 2012? That was the last time we worshiped on New Year’s Day, five years ago. Where does the time go?

The primary mood on social media appears to be not celebratory, but defiant: “Good riddance to 2016!” Some people said they wanted to stay up until midnight last night – New Year’s Eve – just so they could watch 2016 die. Another group did a movie trailer called 2016: The Movie, in the style of a horror movie: notable people die – Prince, Eli Wiesel, Mohammad Ali, John Glenn) (just to name a few), and at the end, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Cell phones explode. England leaves Europe without explanation. And guess who the guy in the mask breaking the door down at the end is? (Clue: He’s orange!) The trailer ends with a personification of the year, with 2016 oozing braggadocio that sounds familiar: “I have the best months,” it declares, “Everyone says I’m a great year.”

Humor aside, the movie trailer stayed away from some of the worst tragedies of the year: Syria’s civil war, the fall of Aleppo, the ensuing refugee crisis; terror attacks at home and abroad; the tragic toll of gun violence here on the streets of Chicago.

Here at Central, in 2016 we suffered some notable losses: Ron Campbell, Ralph Rosales, Loretta Gut, and Ilene Konior. Others of us lost those not publicly known, but near and dear to us.

Given all this, how DO we feel on this first day of 2017? Limping along, or looking ahead? Fearful or hopeful of what the new year will bring?

This may be why, every year at the beginning of a year, we hear this ancient but endlessly fascinating story of the Magi –  the Three Kings as we know them, who – led by the light of a star – journey in search of a new King who is born.

What if – like those Magi of long ago – we approach this New Year as a journey that lies before us, chronological if not through geographical. On this first day of a new year, let’s do this by asking ourselves three questions.

What is the star on our horizon?

Whatever we may or may not know about the Magi’s journey, there was a time and a place it began. Was it after a lifetime of seeking, such that they anticipated the time and place to look? Or was it serendipitous, a surprise one night while looking for other things in the night sky? But there it was, now what?

What are the stars on our horizon, beckoning us? Whatever our situation is in life, what in the year to come surprises us, draws us, leads us, and fills us with hope? Is it something new that we know, that we have learned in a book, from a friend, in a class? Is it a life experience we have had, that has changed the way we look at things? Is it a new baby or grandbaby to be born? Is it something in our bodies, our hearts, or our minds that has revealed itself to us, that we know is going to alter the course of our life?

It was exactly such a new truth Matthew was trying to teach, which is the reason he included this story. The issue of the day was whether only Jews could be Christians, or whether Gentiles (pagans) should be included too. So right here at the beginning of Jesus’ story, Matthew provocatively suggests, “O by the way, guess who were the first ones to worship the newborn Christ? Not Jews, but strangers and aliens from foreign lands. As Scott Hoezee noted in a commentary on this text:

“Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers.” (Scott Hoezee, Lectionary Commentary, 2010)

For the time and the place, mind-blowing. Time to think a different way, to feel differently, to act differently, even though we’ve never done that before. If there is anything 2016 revealed to us, it is that too many of us are locked into perspectives into which little light enters, except to reinforce the narrative we have already believe. But isn’t the point of this story this? God is always sending up new stars on the horizon, for those who see them and follow.

The second question is this, having seen a new star on the horizon, “Are we willing to follow it where it leads?”

I have always loved poet T. S. Eliot’s imaginative description, in his poem, Journey of the Magi, of the difficulties they faced:

“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 melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on 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 night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.”

Sometimes the greatest lessons we learn in life, we learn not by staying home and being comfortable, but by leaving home, moving out of our comfort zone. All through the Bible God asks people to leave where they are: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, the exile, Jesus in the wilderness, the disciples leaving their boats behind. Sometimes to find the truth, especially the truth for us, is that we must leave the familiar behind, step out of the boat, and go on a journey, just as the Magi did of old. We can’t stay at home and huddle, we’ve got to go out to where God is calling us by the star on the horizon, wherever that might be.

Churches across the country have subscribed to the “Field of Dreams” theory, which is, “If you built it, they will come.” That might have once been true, but it is not any longer. Many of us – not only in our churches, but in our personal lives – practice what Albert Einstein once called the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So, in 2017, we all need to ask ourselves this: “Having seen the star on the horizon leading me on, what do we need to do to follow the star which God has revealed to me? As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The final question is this: Having seen the star, if we are willing to follow where it leads, are we ready to be changed?

T.S. Eliot, in his Journey of the Magi, suggests that the Magi were changed, though not in a way that we might necessarily think:

“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

What makes us into distinct human beings is not how we are alike everybody else, but how we are different. And we are made different by what we experience on our journey through life.

If you have ever been in love, or had your heart broken by someone you love, you will never be the same. If you have been or are a parent, having birthed or adopted or raised children, you will never be the same. If you have sat at the bedside of someone you love and watched them die, you will never be the same. No one gets out of life unchanged; but will it be for better or worse?

eliewieselConsider one of those elder statesmen we lost in July: Elie Wiesel. Having survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth, he became not only an eloquent witness for the six million Jews slaughtered in World War II, but as his citation for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 said: “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind.” “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.” An affirmation we all may want to remember, as we enter 2017.

None of us knows what lie ahead for us in 2017; the only thing certain is that by whatever happens, we will be changed, as surely as the Magi were changed, not only going home a different way, but as different people. Whether we will be changed for better or for worse, remains to be seen.

As people of faith, who have seen a Star, who are willing to follow where it leads, and in so doing certain to be changed, the only other certainty we have is this, the certainty that the love of God goes with us on our journey. It was best expressed by the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his “Prayer for a New Year.” Let us pray together:

“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.”



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