Tuesday, January 6, 2015


This sermon was preached on Epiphany at Presbury United Methodist Church

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
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.

Sermon: Stars
Last week we skipped ahead to when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped King Herod's vicious and evil plan to kill Jesus. We spoke of dreams--- and we see in our scripture today that the wise men were dreamers too--- and we spoke of the need to pay attention to dreams. The theme of paying attention is one we can link with this story too, the story of Epiphany, when the wise men come bearing gifts for Jesus. This is a story most of us have heard many times before, yet how often do we ourselves actually look up to see how God is speaking to us?

So, as we look to hear God speaking to us anew today, let us first pray:
Patient teacher, you awoke people in the East with the brightness of a star, and stirred something within them, sending them into the unknown in search of you.
Wake us up, stir something within us, and send us into the unknown today
through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.

Photo by Aaron Harrington
A few years ago I got Aaron a telescope for Christmas. We set the telescope up, found a map of the stars, and began gazing. Now, most of the time, I stood outside hoping Aaron would hurry up and get tired of the night sky because it was Christmas time and it was cold outside. But then I saw Venus, a big bright star sitting up on the horizon, and then Jupiter surrounded by moons, and then Saturn crowned with rings and everything, and then the moon, so close I could see all it's dimple-like craters. I still didn't like standing around in the cold, but it was pretty cool to see the majesty of the heavens so close it was as though I could reach out and put my fingers in those moon dimples. And when the telescope wasn't set up, I would still find myself looking up at night, lost in the twinkling, in the wonder.

Saturn (photo by Aaron Harrington)
The Moon (photo by Aaron Harrington)
Since we moved here, it is harder to use the telescope with all the lights on the street. To really get some good star-gazing in, you have to go to places called dark sky locations, basically areas far from the light pollution not just of cities but of towns too. On the East Coast, dark sky locations are basically non-existent. So here, living in a neighborhood that is never completely dark, the stars are not as potent with light. Some get lost in the flood of streetlight, making the sky seem faded almost. So, I stopped paying as much attention. When I take the dog out, I find myself pulling my coat tighter around me and keep my head down, focusing on the sidewalk rather than the tapestry of the cosmos above me that is magnificent despite the slight fading caused by light pollution. 
Map of light pollution
When I read about the wise people from the East in the Gospel of Matthew, I wonder how they kept focus, rather than so easily giving up on it all. The sky is a beautiful, immense, incredible thing, but life happens; we get busy. We forget that great expanse above us and stop paying attention to God's wonders. In ways small and large, we just find it easier to look at the cracks in the sidewalk than to turn our faces back to the wonders, revelations, and guideposts around us. Particularly if looking toward that beauty requires us to do something big and even uncomfortable.

Which got me to thinking: in the Gospel of Matthew, this story of the wise men and the star is sparse in detail because it is meant to be symbolic. There are guesses as to what the star the wise men saw was, but no definitive historical evidence. Similarly, the wise people themselves are ambiguous: “The term 'magi' [that is translated as wise men] suggests [that they are from] Persia, [but] their practice of astrology indicates Babylon, and the gifts they bring point to Arabia or the Syrian Desert.”1 The story is filled with ambiguities to get us thinking, and maybe to put ourselves more easily in the story. As I wondered how the wise people were impassioned enough to follow the star, I began to see clues for how I could lift my head and stop gazing at the sidewalk, and turn instead to wonder. I began to see how I, and perhaps how all of us, can, like these wise people, keep my eyes on the sky and my heart in the quest for Christ.

The first thing we learn about the wise people is that they are from the East, a place very different from Israel. That does not help us much at first glance. We are already living in a place much different from ancient Israel. But in that simple description, we learn that the wise people were Gentiles, people who did not worship God as we understand God. Now we are Gentiles too, but we understand God through the same lens Jesus' people did, putting us more like the inhabitants of Jerusalem than the wise people. We too may ask how could they be so moved by God to go on this incredible journey when they did not even worship God “properly”? Yet it was they, and not the religious scholars of the day in Jerusalem, who sought to pay Jesus homage.

Presbury's youth group and Project Iman
Of course, I am not saying we should all convert to another religion so we can better understand Christ. Rather, this information reminds us that there are amazing gifts to be discovered in those who seek a connection with the living God but may not know the same name for God that we do.2 When we build relationships with other seekers who are from different traditions, we are turning our faces toward wonder. Last year, our church partnered with a Muslim girls youth group, meeting once in the summer and again in the fall, and it was amazing to see the beauty in just sharing the journey to understand God rather than trying to convert one another. We broke bread with them and witnessed their prayer--- and I saw the wonder on our girls faces. We brought them into our sanctuary and shared what our worship was like and learned about their worship experiences. The sky darkened with all our questions, but strong pinpricks of light shone through as we fellowshiped together. We began to lift our gaze from our isolation, focusing only on the ground ahead of us, to see the light of God in the faces of those around us.

Another way we can lift our heads to God's wonders that we find in the wise men in in their learning. We translate the term magi as wise men, which tells us something. Walter Brueggemann, a preacher and scholar, refers to these wise people as Eastern intellectuals, and argues that though they may not have been Jewish, they were familiar with Jewish scripture like the books of Isaiah and Micah.3 So they kept focus on this star through their thirst for knowledge and their love of learning. Now, before those of you who are too cool for school roll your eyes at me, I don't think this love of learning has to be book learning, though hopefully that book called the bible is involved. We turn our eyes away from the star to the sidewalk when we become complacent in what we know. We stop looking up at the metaphorical stars God sends us because we think we know all we need to know. Instead, we need to teach one another. We need to read and share articles and devotionals. We need to share testimonies and interpretations of scripture. We do this weekly in bible study and in our contemporary service. Some of our lay servants also participate in an early morning prayer phone call where they have developed relationships and deepened their prayer lives together. But it comes first from a drive to continue learning.

The story of the wise people seeking Christ by the light of the star can be our story too. We can learn from them how better to look up, away from the cracked sidewalks in our lives, from the busyness around us, to the beauty of the stars in the sky, to those moments or people or places that can point us again in the direction of God. The last lesson we learn from the wise people that I will share this morning is to follow the star. I am passing out cut-out paper stars, an idea I got from a fellow clergy woman.4 “On each star [is] printed a word. I invite [you] to take a star and consider how God might be speaking to [you] this year through the word printed on [your] star.” Integrate the word into your prayer life throughout the year. Figure out in what way you can follow it. May it be a way of reorienting you, of turning your faces to the beauty Christ offers us. I encourage you to join us for bible study this year and our small worship group on Wednesday night. I encourage you to engage in mission. I encourage you just to reach out to someone different from you and build a friendship, seeking Christ in the unexpected. But if those steps are uncomfortable for you, start small. Pray on this word, and let this little paper star be the place from which God shows you new wonders.

Let us not only open our eyes to the light, but also let the light within us shine forth in all we do. For we are not just to be the wise people, opening our eyes to the wonder of God and the journey on which God takes us. We are also to be the star.5 So let your light shine!

1Daniel J. Harrington, “Notes on the Visit of the Magi and the Flight to Egypt,” Sacra Pagina, Volume 1: The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2007), 42.
2Stephen Bauman, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12,” Epiphany of the Lord, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 216.
3Walter Brueggemann, “Missing by Nine Miles,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggeman, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 133, as quoted in Kathryn Mattews Huey, “The Season of Epiphany,” Sermon Seeds: Inclusive Reflections for Preaching from the United Church of Christ, Year C (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2012), 38.
4The paragraph that follows comes from the ideas of fellow member of the Young Clergy Women's Project, which she describes in blog under the category “STARward”: Marci Auld Glass,STARward, Glass Overflowing: The place where Marci blogs about God's abundance, http://marciglass.com/category/starward/.
5“[I]n the Gospel of Matthew discipleship is often likened to a kind of shining, which recalls the light from the star that shined on the Christ child. Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world....let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:14,16). That disciples are called to shine is important to remember in the season of Epiphany, for now that Christ has ascended and the Spirit has been given, we are the ones through whom this light shines forth.” William J. Danaher, Jr., “Theological Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12,” Epiphany of the Lord, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 216.