Listen to the sermon from Sunday, January 7, 2018 titled “Following Stars” by the Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
How many of you still have your Christmas trees up in your home?
All of the rest of you, Lady Mary and I judge you…. Because traditionally, the Christmas tree stays up through the feast of the Epiphany, Jan 6, the day we celebrate the Wise Men, or Magi coming to see the Christ child. The season of Christmas,the twelve days, you know it from the song: “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…” It leads to the culmination of our nativity story, the twelve days symbolizing the long journey of these wise men from distant land.
Epiphany and this story in Matthew of the Magi coming to see the Christ child has often symbolized God’s favor for the Gentiles. That God’s message was no longer just for the Jews, but with the birth of Christ, God’s message would encompass ALL people. And on Epiphany, we celebrate the “epiphany” or revelation given to the wise men.
Now, if you have any familiarity with the Christmas story and the nativity scene, you know that all of these characters gathered around the manger are not necessarily historically accurate. It’s a mash-up of the two birth stories, not as hip as those found in Glee or Pitch Perfect, but a mash-up nonetheless. The traditional manger includes all of the characters in the Matthew and Luke stories.
We heard Luke’s version on Christmas Eve with the shepherds in the field and no room in the inn, whereas Matthew’s version is where we get the wise men bringing gifts and an angry King Herod. The Lukean version is Jesus in a manger whereas the Matthew version is a delirious King power hungry and frightened and threatening to kill all of the Jewish children. And in this Matthean version of the birth story, the wise men are a fascinating twist.
The wise men, or three kings, or as I prefer, Magi, came from a faraway regions of the Persian Empire. And they were star watchers, an ancient craft even older than Moses, handed down to them from generations before– traced back to coming from the Sumerians.
It was seen as sort of a mystical practice, something those people from far away dabble in but good Jews didn’t associate with. And many times, the practice of star watching and mapping the stars was seen as dangerous and even deceptive at times. I think of the mystics of our day: palm readers and those who claim to be mediums. People drawn to the mystical but society at large would rather turn the other way. The Magi were mystical and knew the night skies.
And stars are magical, aren’t they? I think back to the summers of my childhood. They were spent laying flat on my back staring up at the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of a falling star or even something more fascinating than that.
The magnitude of the sky is enveloping. In fact, Dante wrote, “God is the love that moves stars”. And I think something has been lost by our light pollution and inability to see the sky and know the sky.
Online you can look up “dark sites” which are areas of our world where light pollution doesn’t reach. They’ll hold star parties where you can learn about the stars. I’ve not done it yet, but I’ve been told by my wife and many others to get out to the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, one of the dark sites.
The stars speak to that connectedness within our hearts. They name a deep awareness to the larger “more” in our world.
So upon the rising of the star, the Magi saw it as a sign so they made their way to Jerusalem to see this child who had been born, as they said, king of the Jews. These star watchers go to King Herod to ask about this child who has been born, King of the Jews and Herod was terrified. Absolutely petrified. And not only Herod, but as Matthew writes, “and all of Jerusalem with him.”
And so, King Herod pulls together the best Bible scholars, the scribes, and the religious leaders who have the scrolls and one presumes they also hold the knowledge. King Herod asks about this claim from the Magi. And sure enough, written in the prophets, “And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people of Israel.”
These religious leaders and scholars miss the birth of the Messiah and it’s these star watchers– these outsiders with their strange practices and “deceptive” ways– that are the ones who come to announce the birth of the Messiah. These outsiders are in tune with what God is up to.
Maybe we in the church should pause and take note of this. God isn’t confined by the systems, rituals, and customs we set up. In fact, God can AND DOES speak and move outside of the walls of institutionalized religion.
Herod tells the Magi to go to Bethlehem and search diligently, find the Christ child, and then come back and tell him where this child is so that he too could go and pay him homage. So these Magi go and do as instructed and found the Christ child with his mother Mary. But then, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they snuck out of the country and went home by another way.
Maybe they were tipped off that Herod was a bit of a reckless character, killing people on a whim, or maybe they were just in tune with their gut. They chose to leave after visiting this peasant baby, instead of returning to the power structures, where this baby Jesus may be stamped out just as quickly as he entered the world.
The Magi were “spiritual but not religious”. I say that sort of jokingly but not at the same time. Because without naming God, they knew something was special about this child. The text doesn’t say that they went back as converted Christians or Jews. Many would want to put that on this text: These Magi went back a different way because they were converted by the Christ child. But the text doesn’t say that. We are just told that they went back to their home countries, presumably back to their star watching and dreaming that they had always known.
And here is the tragic comedy for King Herod and the religious leaders: These Magi, these mystics from a far off land, these none-Jews had eyes to see where Herod and his scribes did not. They had eyes to see where God was moving in the world.
They were moved by what connected them to the more, the stars and the dreams, and they were so in touch with that, that they traveled to a far off land to see this “King of the Jews.” The God who spoke the world into being still speaks into and through the fabric of the world.
They did not come to learn from Jesus, but they came to see this Jesus because the stars told them he was special. This Jesus: who would show his world a different way. He would breathe life into broken systems and demonstrate what real inclusion looks like. He didn’t have a list of things you had to believe in order to be “in”, but simply invited people to come and follow and see.
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us in flesh and bones, invites us to connect to the “more”, to be grounded spiritually to that pulse of God. The love of God knows no bounds as demonstrated by these Magi being the messengers of God.
What stars are you following?
Sometimes we throw walls up. Sometimes we get calloused by the ways of the world: The ladder climbing, the back stabbing, the hurt and pain. We blow past God’s signs all around us. But Matthew’s gospel invites us to learn from the Magi and to slow down, see the signs in stars and dreams, smiles, and real conversations.
So I implore you, the next time you find yourself outside under the night sky, take a moment and breathe in the life around you. And the next time you feel the winds of the Holy Spirit move through your bones, don’t shake it off, but listen. Take time to listen for God outside of the walls of the institutions, look for God in the grassroots, knowing that our God is a God operating outside of the confines of the human-crafted world.
Follow the example of Magi. Watch. Listen. And you may just find yourself encountering the Holy.