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!

On the Lookout

“On the Lookout”

Matt 2-11 Adoration_magi_Pio_Christiano_4th cent. sarcophagus, Vatican museum

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 7, 2018

Christmas Day has been over for two weeks. To modern-day Americans, this was a long time ago! But the full holiday isn’t really over on December 25th. There are the twelve days of Christmas (remember the song about the twelve days?), during which many would have parties and feasting and especially Twelfth Night celebrations.

As we think of Nativity scenes or paintings, how often do we see them with shepherds and sheep, as well as the three wise men? All of them at the same time visiting the baby Jesus in the manger?  That is not quite the way it was, as presented in the Gospels. We are all familiar with the Nativity narrative from Luke chapter 2, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered.”

For the visit of the wise men, we need to turn to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [or, wise men] 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.”

Here we have some wise men—probably noblemen who know a great deal about stars and constellations. They have been studying the heavens for years and years, as well as studying religious books and writings. Just as it says in the gospel record, a great sign (or star) rose in the sky, so these wise astrologers knew that something momentous was going to happen.

These wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish wise men, but instead were Gentiles. Non-Jews. “Could an unusual phenomenon in the night skies have caught the attention of some of them—interest in the stars was legendary in the region—and led them to set out to Jerusalem? That people of other lands and religions are drawn to Jesus, even as a child, is also significant: in Christ, God is speaking to the hearts and minds of all people.” [1] It is important to point out that they were on the lookout and knew which way to go—towards Jerusalem. And, eventually, they turned up at the palace, on King Herod’s doorstep.

What was King Herod’s response to the question of these noble Gentile wise men? “When Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” “Why was Herod so frightened? Of a baby? What did he have to lose and how did he see this baby as a threat?” [2]

For the how and the what, we need to look at Herod’s psychological profile, which is not nice at all. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, narcissistic, and always on the lookout for trouble brewing that might affect him. Herod was installed as a puppet king of Israel by the Roman overlords. I suspect he did not feel very secure to begin with. When he heard about a newborn King of Israel, you can imagine how his anxiety level rose. Herod did not want any rival claim to the throne.

Herod is sneaky, and sly, and ruthless. Listen to his response to these wise men: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

That leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions. We know Herod was threatened by the thought of a newborn King. Are we threatened by the thought of Jesus? Does the newborn King make us anxious? We know that cruel King Herod had horrible plans ahead for the boy babies and toddlers in the area of Bethlehem. But, are our motives clear when we think of our fear and anxiety concerning strangers and visitors coming into our hometown?

A telling observation comes from Dr. David Lose: “Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.” [3]

What about any self-interest we might have? We know King Herod was a prime hypocrite. But, is there any hypocrisy in our words and actions, when we think of how we treat strangers, visitors from far away? Serious questions, requiring serious thought.

We follow the wise men as they leave Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Remember what brought them on this journey in the first place? They had seen a star in the heavens, and by consulting their books of ancient wisdom, they knew that a King had been born. They followed that star, that Light.

We don’t know, and we cannot tell for sure, but perhaps one of the books the wise men consulted was the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Chapter 60 begins: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and His glory appears over you.” Maybe this was one of the ancient writings they poured over.

On Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, we sing about the wise men from the East. “We three kings, of Orient, are.” What is the chorus of that Christmas—actually, Epiphany—carol? “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Although they were Gentiles, they still recognized that the one who was born the king of the Jews was worthy of worship. And, they came to the house where the Holy Family was staying, and offered Him gifts fit for a King.

Here in the United States in many Protestant denominations, Epiphany is not that big of a deal. Yes, the coming of the wise men is incorporated into many Christmas pageants, and is found in nativity scenes and Christmas cards. Except—I want to let everyone here know that this is a totally separate event. The coming of Light into the world—so beautifully mentioned at the beginning of the gospel of John—is the whole meaning behind our celebration of Epiphany.

One of the grand symbols of God is that of Light. Mentioned repeated throughout the Bible, when we picture Light we can think of a star, the sun, a candle, a lamp. We have the Advent wreath lit today, with the Christ candle in the middle letting us know that Jesus is with us right now. We lit those candles on the Advent wreath one by one, and on Christmas Eve lit the Christ candle to remind ourselves that God our Light is always with us. And, at the end of our service today the light from the candles behind the communion table will travel down the central aisle and out the back door to call worshipers to follow the Light of God out into the world. [4]

As the wise men followed the star—the Light—to worship the Child in Bethlehem, so we can follow Him, the True Light. The shining Star of our hearts is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know He is with us today? He opens His arms wide to all who would come. Come worship the True Light, the Child born in Bethlehem, today. Amen.

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2012-01-01

“Jesus, Herod, the Magi and Us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taize, 2012.

[2] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/gold-frankincense-myrrh-alyce-mckenzie-01-03-2013.html

“Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh,” Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509  “An ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2013.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-epiphany-monday-january-6-2014-or.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@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!)

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!