Follow that Star!

January 6, 2017

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

(Gospel Text provided below)
img_0008-2I am, what is often referred to in church-circles, a cradle-Episcopalian, which means I’ve spent my whole life connected to the liturgical cycle of this particular Christian denomination. Through the decades of my life, except for the “new” Prayer Book, adopted when I was young, and the shift from purple to blue as the color for Advent, things haven’t changed very much.

I remember, as a child, looking forward to The Epiphany service with great anticipation. I loved astronomy, so the emphasis on the bright star and the three wise men, sometimes called astronomers, surely contributed to my love for this day. And the atmosphere at church was very different from our usual Sunday morning worship.

On Sundays, the sanctuary was full of light and activity. By contrast, Epiphany usually fell in the middle of the week, and was always an evening service. We’d enter a dimly lit Nave, the darkness amplified by wintery skies, and muted stained-glass windows. We held individual candles – the ones with those little cardboard circles around them, intended to keep the wax from dripping on our hands. The goal – don’t catch anything on fire, especially your sister’s hair.sjd-epiphany

The procession began with the familiar hymn

We Three Kings of Orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar…

The whole congregation sang the first verse, then the next three were taken in turn by men from our choir. Each sang their solo as they processed up the darkened center aisle. The lights from the candles revealed the dramatic costumes, with flowing robes of purple, gold, and dark green. Heavy beards masked their faces, and elaborate crowns of different shapes and sizes adorned their heads.

KT1c.inddEach of these decorated wise men carried their gift toward the altar as they sang. Gold overflowing from the wooden chest held by the first king. The smell of frankincense wafted into the air as king number 2 made his way up the aisle. And last, the myrrh, a healing ointment, and also a burial balm, foretells what awaits this toddler in the years ahead:

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying. Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

We boldly added our voices to each refrain, and sang the final resurrection verse together:

Glorious now behold him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice;

heaven sings alleluia:

alleluia the earth replies.   

It’s a magical way to mark the culmination of the Christmas season!

When we tell the Christmas story each year, we combine elements from the two very different birth stories from Luke and Matthew’s gospels. Luke focuses on Mary and the shepherds, while Matthew speaks about Joseph, and these wise men from the east. With this telling, Matthew shows the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you [perhaps in the form of a star?]. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  (Is 60:1-3, 6)

Yet, while I try to differentiate what each of these two gospel writers is doing, where Luke is all about opening-up boundaries, while Matthew is showing Jesus as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, I’ve come to have an epiphany of my own – that it’s not that clear cut.

As I preached last Sunday on the Feast of the Holy Name, it was Luke’s gospel that spoke of the Hebrew tradition of circumcision, and the naming of Jesus on the eighth day. And now, today, I realize how this story told by Matthew, demonstrates how Jesus is all about opening-up boundaries.

o-three-kings-day-facebookYou see, these wise men who come to find Jesus are outsiders. They are scientists or star-gazers of some kind – perhaps fortune tellers or mystics. They would certainly understand and worship God differently than the Hebrews. So, it is Matthew’s gospel that reveals from the outset that there is something very different about this child. This Jesus, even as a toddler, is not about the business of limiting God, but instead, of making God available to all people.

The Epiphany we embrace is that when we come face to face with the presence of Jesus, this new light in the world, transformation happens. Barriers come down. Those things that keep us apart and create division shall cease. It is this boundary-breaker in a child-messiah that these wise men traversed the vast desert to find.

Even with the riches and knowledge they already possessed, they longed-for and sought-out this new thing. They didn’t know where the journey would take them, but they kept moving forward. They weren’t afraid to stop and ask for directions – though Herod may not have been the best choice, considering the fall-out. But the wise men trusted God. And they trusted their journey together. Even though they were getting further away from what was familiar, they trusted that they were moving toward the promise of something new. Something God directed them to. The perfect light.

This perfect light is found in the person that was born a child. To unsuspecting, poor parents, who trusted God to do a new thing in their life. The shepherds left their flocks to see this new thing, and they were transformed by it, leaving glorifying God.

manger-scene

I believe we are called to follow these God-trusting examples.

It is the wonder of this new and transforming light that draws us near and pushes us onward. We journey together toward that light, allowing ourselves to be guided by it. With each new dawn, we arise, and even when it seems hidden by winter-clouds, even when we are venturing to unfamiliar places, we let God’s light shine in us.

We each have gifts to bring on this journey, so let us share our gifts, being led by that holy star into the new horizons God is calling us to.

O star of wonder, star of night,

star with royal beauty bright;

westward leading, still proceeding,

guide us to thy perfect light!

 

star_of_bethlehem

 

Gospel Text:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

            Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  (Mt 2:1-12)

One Response to “Follow that Star!”

  1. Stacy Collins said

    Jody,
    This is great! Thank you for posting! Good sermon today.
    Stacy

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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