“Star Light, Star Bright”
Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 6, 2019
Have you ever been far away from the city at night—perhaps downstate Illinois, or the upper peninsula of Michigan, or in the Rocky Mountains—and looked up to see the sky filled with stars? I just was in rural Indiana a few nights ago. The night was clear and crisp, and I saw more lovely stars than I had seen for a number of years. The heavens at night are truly amazing. We can all be astounded, just by looking up.
About the time of the birth of Christ, there were some wise men, scholars from the East, who did just that. They not only looked up and admired the night sky, but they also studied the sky, the stars, and the movement of the planets with great intensity. Two thousand years ago, some Gentile wise men—or, Magi, as some translations of the Bible use the transliteration—noticed something absolutely remarkable in the skies.
I don’t know whether lots of people notice the skies or the stars any more. At least, not here in the United States. At least, not here in this world of instant entertainment from any number of entertainment or electronic devices people can watch or hold in the palm of their hands.
What are people missing, in not paying attention to the skies and the stars? What are people missing, by not paying attention to this particular Star, the Star the wise men saw?
The account from Matthew’s Gospel tells us about these scholars from the East—Gentile scholars, probably minor nobility, who devoted their lives to observing and studying the skies. A pastor and biblical historian, Chad Ashby, says “The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the Magi were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams.”  These studious activities of the wise men—activities we might today consider selective, esoteric, even a bit crackpot—were perfectly valid. At the time of the first century, these activities were universally recognized as important parts of serious study.
What I want us to focus on is the Star, the scholars’ special point of study. These scholars had access to a number of scholarly, historical and prophetic books and writings from many different places in the known world. After observing this fantastic Star in the skies, and consulting the learned books they had available, these scholars came to the conclusion that they needed to travel where the Star was telling them to go, or where the Star was leading them.
Where do we go when we are seeking, today? Do we follow a Star, on a spiritual journey? Do we have some learned writings telling us where to go?
As we finish up the Advent and Christmas seasons, we consider two special Christmas and Epiphany carols today. Today, we think of “The First Noel” and “We Three Kings.” These beloved traditional Christmas carols tell us much of what we now associate with the Nativity story. In fact, these two carols conflate the Nativity narrative of the angels and shepherds from Luke with the later account of the Epiphany journey of the wise men visiting the toddler Jesus. Thus, we have the mash-up of the angel and shepherds at the manger with the newborn Jesus, right alongside the three Kings offering their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh.
I could discuss the fact that the Gospel of Matthew never tells us how many scholars travel to see the young Jesus, but simply that they did bring gifts. Those gifts are identified as three, and I suppose somewhere along the line someone fabricated the idea that three gifts meant three gift-givers, and these scholars or minor nobility from the East transformed into kings. But, I am not going to dwell on that point. Because—it is not significant to our narrative.
What is significant is the response of King Herod. When Herod found out that the Gentile scholars wanted to see a newborn King, he was filled with great fear. The Gospel of Matthew specifically says so; and the majority of the people of Judea were very much afraid, as well.
What about us, today? Would we even begin to follow that Star, as the wise men did? Do we fear where or to what that Star could lead us? Are there new possibilities in our lives that await us? Are we afraid of what lies ahead? Are we afraid to find Jesus?
According to the historical record, King Herod was a narcissist and a highly polarizing politician, adept at lying and twisting the truth to get his own way. He was a hedonist who even had a series of wives, and was a chronic philanderer. (Comparisons have been made between Herod and current political leaders.) However, Herod’s two-faced request to these foreign-born nobility sounds mighty suspect to me, particularly since I was born and raised in Chicago, which has a pretty politically crooked reputation.
So, it’s not at all surprising to have duplicitous King Herod cozying up to these scholars and giving them a line. Moreover, he schemes to have the wise men gather information for him, and then come back to report. Is anyone else really creeped out by Herod’s two-faced behavior? Let me say that if you are, that is just as it should be. Herod is the really bad guy in this story, especially because he has all baby boys under two years old killed in the area surrounding Bethlehem. Just in case the newborn King of the Jews happened to be among them.
When you and I try to follow Jesus, are there things—or people—that seem like good ideas on the surface? But under closer examination, are we able to identify them as false and two-faced, or even twisted and hateful? Even though Herod was blustering and being his usual twisted, hateful self, the Star continued to shine. The Star continued to lead the wise men to the house in Bethlehem that contained the young boy Jesus, with Mary His mother.
We all know what happened when the scholars from the East met with Mary and the young Jesus. They bowed down, presented their gifts, and worshiped.
As Pastor Janet Hunt says, these wise men—however many they were—became convinced of their find. “Having felt the prodding of one particular star to take this incredible journey, when they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by God. We know this could not have been at all what they expected — at least not God in the form and circumstance before them there…. Still, in that baby, they met the ‘Holy One,’ God’s Own Son. And all they were doing was what they believed they were made to do.” 
God was working in and through these scholars from the East, long before they followed the Star, long before they find Jesus. Is it possible that God could work through us, today?
God may want us to continue to follow that Star, to find Jesus in a new way today. We may realize that God was working in and through us, for years, Do we have some new adventure, new relationship or new direction where God is leading us, today?
We can take the opportunity and follow the Star, straight to Jesus, straight to the things—and people—where He wants us to get involved. Won’t you take the opportunity to be engaged and amazed, today? Why not take the opportunity to shine the light of that Star, the light of Jesus, in a dark world today?
“On Magi and Journeys,” the Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2013.