Seeing the Star

“Seeing the Star”

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:9) – January 3, 2021

            Have you ever been far away from the city, far enough that you could see countless stars when you went outside on a clear night? When I was far north in Wisconsin some years ago, I was amazed at how crystal clear the night sky appeared, with all the stars laid out overhead.

            That must have been how it was for the Magi so long ago. Imagine, having a job where your job description said you were required to examine the amazing night skies closely, night after night. These people were not “kings of the Orient,” but instead people skilled in any number of sacred arts of the time: philosophy, natural sciences, and especially astronomy.

            Did you see the conjunction of two planets some days ago? Just before Christmas? On December 21, a special astronomical event occurred: the closest great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 397 years! Sadly, the skies were overcast when I tried to take a look on the 21st, but according to some of my friends, it was truly a sight to see. The planets appeared to almost touch each other, high above. Some huge astronomical event very much like this was what the learned astronomers saw in the night skies two thousand years ago.

            These wise ones became important among the Medes and later among the Persians including interpretating of dreams or other divine messages, magic and divination. Our Gospel writer Matthew calls them “Magi.”

The Babylonians and Persians probably learned of the promise of the “Messiah” from Jews who had been brought to Babylon centuries before. These Magi – likely nobles or scholars from the East – determined to find the King their books of divination told them had just been born. That was why the Magi from the East appeared in Judea in the first place, and why they are in the narrative of the Nativity, in the gospel of Matthew.

            These Magi started off in a westward direction, following yonder Star, just like the Christmas (or, Epiphany) carol tells us. Except – they got lost along the way. Is that at all like us? Do we try to follow the Star, to follow Jesus, and get distracted, and detour along the way?

            One of my commentators tells about distractions, when he was visiting some good friends up in New Hampshire. “They took us on a long hike up a mountain and at the very top of it we stopped and had a picnic overlooking the valley down below. We were awestruck and silenced by the majesty and beauty of the face of God all around us. All the while that we were up there, on this beautiful mountain, there was another person down off to the side of us who spent all of his time trying to get his smart phone to work so he could check his emails while they ate.” [1]

Is it easy for us to get so distracted that we cannot even see the majesty of God? Do we get turned around? Do we get comments from an unlikely source? Because, that is exactly what King Herod was: an unlikely source of directions.

            Oh, sure. At first glance, the local king seems to be a good choice to ask where the newborn King of Israel is to be found. Except, Herod had no idea that anything of the sort was going on. Moreover, Herod was particularly bloodthirsty. Not a good choice at all.  

Significantly, the Magi were foreigners. Gentiles. Non-Jews. “These Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. More ironic, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people [of Israel] in on the news that their Messiah had been born.” [2]

Do we get lost as we try to follow Jesus? Or, have you even found Him in the first place?

The amazing thing about the Magi was that they saw a star that was so bright, so meaningful, that they had to follow. After consulting their learned books and discovering which direction they needed to go, these foreign dignitaries “felt the prodding of one particular star to take this incredible journey; [and when] they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by God.“ [3]

What an amazing journey’s end, meeting God in the Babe born in Bethlehem.

As we approach the house the Holy Family lives in, with the Magi, are we hesitant to enter in? Do we hold back from the presence of the young Jesus, with Mary His mother? Is there something especially holy and precious about Jesus that causes us to bow our heads in worship? God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Gospel of John calls Him the Light of the World, and the Bright Morning Star is one of Jesus’ names in Revelation.

We celebrate Epiphany, Twelfth Night, Three Kings Day, January 6th. We mark this celebration several days early, since the 6th falls on Wednesday this year. Today is also our celebration of Communion. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi as told to us by Matthew. As we consider the Star the Magi followed, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the Light of the World, the Bright Morning Star.

As we celebrate the One who the Magi worshipped. Jesus holds out His arms to us – O, come, let us adore Him! Christ the Lord.


[1] https://homebynow.blogspot.com/2013/01/who-were-those-guys.html

“Who Were Those Guys?” Stan Duncan, Home by Now, 2013.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12

Craig A. Satterlee Bishop, North/West Lower Michigan Synod, Lansing, Mich.

[3] http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/12/on-magi-and-journeys.html

“On Magi and Journeys,” the Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

Matt 2-11 Epiphany star, Magi, angel, 12th century carving, Autun Cathedral

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:9) – January 5, 2020

When I was little, we always kept our Christmas tree up in our living room until Epiphany, January 6th. We did not always have this particular decoration, but sometimes, there would be a small star ornament my mother would place at the top of the tree. And, I can remember sitting in a darkened living room with my mom, filled with wonder. The only lights lit in the room would be the colored lights on the Christmas tree. What wondrous lights!

I wonder, were Christmas lights a big part of your Christmas celebration? They certainly were, where I grew up, on the northwest side of the Chicago. Christmas lights in the front yards of houses, and in the windows, as well as on the Christmas tree inside. And, I can remember hearing from a very young age that these bright, shiny Christmas lights all over were shining to remind everyone about the Christmas star, the Star of Bethlehem.

But, what about the original Star? Somehow, I suspect only a few people at the time of the birth of Jesus really understood the reason for the bright shining Star. That is, until it was shining over Bethlehem for a number of weeks.

Let’s look at what Matthew tells us, again: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” What do we know about these Magi, these scholars from the east?

Biblical commentators and historians tell us that these scholars were astronomers who spent their lives studying the stars and planetary movements, among other natural events. They were probably well-to-do, if not members of royal houses themselves. They most probably came from the general area of Persia—that is, in the area of modern-day Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran.  In their studies, consulting contemporary books and writings, these Magi had discovered that the appearance of a wondrous star meant that an important king—or ruler—had just been born. That Star—that Light—beckoned to these scholars. So, what did they decide to do? Go and visit that newborn king, of course!

While on their way, they needed directions. What to do? It only made sense for some well-born VIPs from another country to ask directions at the local palace.

We do know what happened when the Magi got to Jerusalem after following this Star for some weeks; Matthew tells us so. “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.”

Do we see what a traumatic reaction these scholars had on many people in the area of Jerusalem? Lots of people were upset, especially King Herod! However, I do not know whether these scholars understood that Herod was a particularly nasty guy. At least, not at first.

Today, when you and I talk about Advent or Christmas services at our church, I wonder how people react to us when we talk about the Baby in Bethlehem? Have you recently invited people to our church for the holidays? Perhaps our acquaintances are just as cautious or bothered by our invitation as these people were, so long ago?

And, all this was happening because the Magi followed a Star. They had deciphered passages from books and manuscripts about something (or Someone) promised, whose birth was foretold in the skies. The Star was inviting them to follow, to journey into the unknown. These Magi must have been really excited at the prospect of seeing a prophecy come true.

After Herod directed the scholars to Bethlehem, down the road from Jerusalem, the Star moved again. As Matthew mentioned, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The Star—the Light from on high led them directly to the young King, where they bowed and worshiped. Can it lead us to draw near to our Lord Jesus? Is this Star, this Light a beacon of hope and joy for us, too?

All that was two thousand years ago, but Epiphany is still with us today. The word Epiphany means manifestation, or appearance. Epiphany is when Christ appears among us, offering hope and joy to all who might need it.

This brilliant Star encourages us to leave the darkness and despair behind and to come into the Light. God does, indeed put directional signals where we can see them. Sure, the sign of the Star of Bethlehem pointed the way to the Holy Child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But, doesn’t God use directional signals or signs to point to Jesus now, today? We can count on God’s love and presence with us, in Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Yes, Jesus appears when you or I need Him most. May He appear to each of us during this season of Epiphany, in spirit and in truth.

Alleluia, amen.

 

“During these weeks of Epiphany, dare to ask that Star some questions.

  • Where are we being led in this New Year?  Is the Star offering some course correction? Should we be like the magi and experiment with a “different road” that will lead us to new experiences?
  • What might we need to leave behind in order to start on this journey? What burdens or expectations can you and I set aside to lighten the load?
  • As the Light shines into our lives, what might we discover about ourselves? What do you and I value? What new parts of myself do I want to explore?
  • What does the Star—the Light reveal in our world? What needs or injustices are calling out for compassion and kindness?” [1]

(I would like to thank the Rev. Sue Foster for her Epiphany post “Into the Light!” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

epiphany stained glass

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.” [1] 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.” [2]

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?

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2016/december/magi-wise-men-or-kings-its-complicated.html

[2] http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/12/on-magi-and-journeys.html

“On Magi and Journeys,” the Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Bringing Gifts

“Bringing Gifts”

Magi bear gifts to an infant Jesus (one of the earliest-known depictions, 3rd century sarcophagus) Vatican Museums - Rome, Italy

Magi bear gifts to an infant Jesus (one of the earliest-known depictions, 3rd century sarcophagus)
Vatican Museums – Rome, Italy

Matthew 2:11 – January 3, 2016 (St. Luke’s Church, Epiphany Sunday)

I remember Christmases when I was very young. I was the youngest of six children, and we lived on the northwest side of Chicago. My father worked for the National Safety Council, which was a not-for-profit organization. He didn’t get paid a huge amount of money, so I remember Christmases when we children wouldn’t have a huge pile of presents under the Christmas tree, like the television commercials of today always seem to show. But I do remember the happiness and joy of those Christmas mornings. A number of gifts were exchanged, and we always had a big dinner later that day at one of my relatives’ houses. Those are warm memories, all of us gathered around the tree, exchanging presents.

Warm memories. I’m sure you all could bring to mind a similar warm memory or two, regarding Christmas. Many of my memories do involve gifts. The Scripture passage we just read mentions gifts, too. It’s from Matthew, Chapter 2, the traditional Epiphany story, when Wise Men from the East came to see the baby Jesus, bearing gifts.

Matthew calls them “Magi,” According to my research, they probably came from the East where the Jews had spent seventy years in the Babylonian captivity, centuries before the birth of Christ. During this period, the Babylonians and Persians probably learned of the promise of the “Messiah” from Daniel the prophet who had lived among them.

The Magi became important first among the Medes and later among the Persians by taking on the priestly functions of the mystery religion Zoroastrianism. By New Testament times, the term “Magi” was broadly used for persons adept in any number of sacred arts, including interpretation of dreams or other divine messages, astrology, magic and divination.

We can tell from the term “Magi” that here are three very important people, who are not Jewish. The consensus among biblical scholars is that Matthew was a Jewish apostle of Jesus who wrote his gospel for the Jewish people. Yet, here, front and center in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we find three non-Jewish V.I.P.s, on their way to see the Child, born King of the Jews.

They know pretty much where they are headed, but not precisely. I suspect that is why the Magi went to see King Herod in Jerusalem. I mean, what better place to find a newborn King than in a palace, in the capital city?

I’ve got to give these Wise Men a lot of credit. Not only were they a little fuzzy as to their destination, and where they were going, but they were not afraid to ask questions and ask for directions. It’s too bad that they had to pick Herod to ask questions of.

“Where is the One having been born King of the Jews?”

The Wise Men saw the bright star announcing the birth of Jesus, and followed the star towards Jerusalem. Notice: they were not Jewish, yet they had heard of the Coming One, and even brought Him gifts. They even wanted to worship and adore Him. They had heard of the birth of Jesus through unconventional methods, by our standards. The Magi had foreseen the birth through signs in the stars, not necessarily through the Hebrew Scriptures, as the Jewish people had.

God understood that these Wise Men made a careful study of the stars, and He sovereignly decided to display signs and wonders in the heavenly places at the time of the birth of Jesus. God reached these Magi where they were at. And the wonderful thing is, God continues to reach out to people in ways they understand, no matter what is happening to them, no matter where they might happen to be.

But, let’s go back to these Wise Men. No one is exactly sure about the number of Magi who arrived in Jerusalem so long ago. Church tradition tells us that the number was three, and that these were not just Wise Men, but also Kings of the East. Assuming that they were at least minor royalty, these three non-Jewish V.I.P.s show up on King Herod’s doorstep, and he was not pleased to see them. He was even less pleased with their line of questioning. “What’da you mean, Child born to be King of the Jews? I’m the only king around here!”

Herod must have known something about the prophecies of a Coming One, of a Messiah, and I bet Herod was upset. The chief priests and scribes came to Herod and told him right away where the Messiah was to be born. The prophet Micah had foretold it several centuries before. In Bethlehem, in Judaea, only a little way down the road from Jerusalem.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well. I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Herod secretly found out the time the star had appeared in the sky, and typical of a bloodthirsty despot, he had all boy babies in the area of Bethlehem under the age of two killed. Just in case. This feature of the Christmas story usually isn’t mentioned, since it doesn’t fit into a nice, warm and fuzzy Christmas card. These verses are not included in our lectionary reading for today, either. Yet, this was the kind of world Jesus was born into. The world today hasn’t much changed.

Let’s pick up with these Wise Men. After they found out where the King of the Jews was born, they wasted no time in finding Him. Mary and Joseph must have decided to stay in Bethlehem for a time, since the Wise Men found the Holy Family inside a house. And, the original Greek of the Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as a boy, not as an infant, as the Gospel of Luke does. So Jesus may even have been a toddler at the time of the Wise Men’s visit.

Regardless of these minor, yet fascinating, details, the important part is that the Wise Men took the time to find the promised King of the Jews. When they found Jesus, the Wise Men were finally able to offer their gifts—gifts fit for a King, gold, frankincense and myrrh—expensive and costly gifts, to be sure. Then . . . the Wise Men worshiped Jesus, the Promised One, the coming Anointed One of God. And, they returned to their homes, rejoicing that God’s promise had been fulfilled.

What does this story from so long ago have to do with us, today, in the 21st century? God is indeed pleased when we give Him things we very much value, as the Wise Men did. But God doesn’t really want worldly things. What I see repeated in Scripture is that God really wants a relationship with us.

Christina Rossetti’s poem says it so well.

“What can I give Him, Poor as I am?/If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;/Yet what can I give Him—give my heart.”

 

That’s what God wants most of all for Christmas. God wants our hearts. God wants us to come to Him, as small children come to a dear mother or father.

I can remember when my children were small, and they would come to me at night for a last cuddle before bedtime. I think that’s what God wants us to do. Only, better! God is a parent who will never be too busy to take time for us, and never be short-tempered with us. God’s everlasting arms are ready, wide open to receive any who come.

Yes, the Wise Men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, and yes, they stand as an example for us. We can celebrate their example, and remember it as we give our hearts to God, whether as a renewal gift of our lives, or as a sincere gift for the very first time. Give God the best gift you ever could. Yourself.

You are important, so important that Jesus came and gave Himself for you and for me. All He has ever wanted is to give us the chance to know Him as a personal Friend and Companion.

Won’t you give Him what He wants most for Christmas?

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!