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!

How Not to Be Terrified

How Not to Be Terrified” 

Jesus Transfiguration Georgian relief Luke 9

Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – August 19, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Have you ever seen a true transformation? I know we are familiar with tadpoles swimming in water changing to frogs as amphibians, comfortable in water or on land. I know we all are familiar with caterpillars, living their earthbound, wormlike existence…and after a time of preparation in the cocoon, out comes a butterfly! Two transformations. We will look at another marvelous transformation today: what we know as the Transfiguration.

Let us set the scene. Our Lord Jesus has been on the road with His disciples for a long time now. I am certain they are accustomed to His teaching, preaching and healing. To His separating Himself for times of prayer, and of Him worshiping with groups of people in the synagogue. So, when Jesus taps the three disciples—Peter, James and John—on the shoulder and asks them to come apart with Him for a time of private prayer and worship, I suspect it comes as little surprise to the three men.

I remember two years ago I preached on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, and I brought out the worship aspects of this marvelous account. Yes, Jesus withdrew to the mountain for a time of private prayer and worship with His three friends. But, there was more to this time than prayer. Much more!

The account from the gospel of Matthew doesn’t waste any time, because the marvelous thing happens as soon as Jesus and His disciples are on top of the mountain. Listen: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”

What on earth is “transfigured,” anyway? What does it mean?

In Greek, the word used in this passage is metamorphomai, or transform. So, from the three disciples’ point of view, it is a total transformation not only of appearance, but also of bodily form.

Again, I am bringing up the fact that first-century Palestine did not have electricity. The people of that time were completely unaware of the fancy special effects that we have today in stage shows, much less in the movies. When their leader and Rabbi suddenly became shining bright and His clothing as dazzling white as snow, well…that must have totally frightened these disciples. So much so, that they began to cower and hide their eyes.

What is more, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be transformed, shining bright in front of them. This Scripture passage also mentions Moses and Elijah, bright as the sun, talking to Jesus.

It is true, the three disciples had been traveling with Jesus for some time. They had observed Him preaching, teaching, and healing. They knew their Rabbi was a great teacher, perhaps a mighty prophet, and even a miracle worker, But, this unbelievable metamorphosis was something completely outside of their experience.

Of course, Peter tries to make sense of this amazing situation. He stutters and stammers, and wants to put up three tents or places of worship.  “On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant–‘Lord, it is good for us to be here!’–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.” [1]

I might be scared to death, too. Imagine, seeing our almighty Lord Jesus, coming down to earth in glorified form. Seeing His majesty, this spectacular view of our Lord. I don’t blame these guys for cowering and hiding their eyes, not one bit.

One commentator has a fascinating insight into this instance of “Be Not Afraid,” happening at this momentous time in our Lord’s life. “Did this glorious ‘vision’ produce faith in [the disciples]? No, it caused extreme fear. Being in direct relationship to God, hearing the voice from the cloud did not produce faith, but fear — so much fear that the disciples literally ‘fell on their faces.’” [2]

Jesus recognizes that fact immediately. He encourages the disciples with the words “Don’t be afraid!”

We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?

The answer? Jesus transformed back into human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.

How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

How much do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us. Yet, there is more. “In addition to our need for this divine touch, I think that we are also called to offer it to the world. For our congregations and our people, rather than seeking to appear ‘glorious’ as God’s people, perhaps it is more helpful to be simply human beings who offer a healing and life-giving touch to the scared, worried, anxious people with whom we come in contact.” [3]

We can have a view of Jesus as more than just an untouchable, glorified, majestic being. He is also a relatable, human being. The incarnate Son of God. Jesus reaches out to you and to me. He reaches out to everyone we meet, too.

Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

Be not afraid. Jesus is with us always. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Commentary, Matthew 17:1-9, Audrey West, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

[3] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)