How Do You Follow a Star?
Passage: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matt. 2:1-12 John 1:1-9
Date: January 01, 2006
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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Have you ever thought about how difficult it would be to follow a star? I mean really. In any sensible practical way you can't. On a clear night you could stand basically anywhere in Portland and see the same star. So what does it mean to follow a star?
And yet we have this text from Matthew that says in verse 9, "the star which they had seen in the East (or another translation is the "star they had seen at it's rising") in any case "the star" went before them and came to rest or stopped over the place where the child was". What meaning do we take from this? What could it mean to follow a star? These Magi watched the stars and read ancient writings. These men who we are told in verse 11 carried strange things like "frankincense" and "myrrh".
Magi. The word Magi comes from the same Greek root as "magic" or "magician". These Magi were mysterious and foreign. And by the way the text never says there were three. Though it does report three gifts: gold. frankincense and myrrh so I suppose we could just assume.
Three Magi who knew of a promise, and a hope. They knew the hope that had been KEPT for centuries. They had read Isaiah 60. "Arise shine your light has come" They lived in expectation of that light breaking into the world. And those Magi rose up and came across miles to the brightness of the star's rising. But even they didn't have the location completely right. They went to Jerusalem and not Bethlehem, where Jesus was.
Walter Bruggeman has pointed out that they were 9 miles off. Which isn't far when you consider how far they had come. These Magi had traveled miles fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 60, "Nations will come to your light". And then they came into contact with a King named Herod instead. Herod had gathered his own wise men and Biblical scholars and asked them about Isaiah 60, and what was all this stuff about "frankincense and myrrh". Remember the ancient Isaiah text had mentioned these strange gifts and the Magi knowing this seem to have stopped off at the local market and known just what to buy. Anyway Herod's scholars told him that he had the WRONG text.
Look at Micah 5, they said. "But you O Bethlehem out of YOU shall come forth the one to rule Israel" Out of Bethlehem not Jerusalem. Out of the hope of peasants not great tall buildings or cities. Not the greatest city in Israel but a modest place. Bethlehem 9 miles south of Jerusalem. Jerusalem with it's pretensions Bethlehem with its modest promises.
And so Bruggeman suggests thanks to Herod's advice ironically those Magi ended up looking in the right place after all. They traveled 9 miles south. And they found the answer to ancient hopes. Just 9 miles off lay the savior child.
And so what do we learn from all this? That you can knock down the great buildings of a city but you can't destroy the modest promises of everyday peasants living lives in small towns like Bethlehem? Or, that we too, often look in the wrong place for the answers to life's persistent questions? Or that God is a God who is REVEALED. Not simply a God who gives rules to follow. But a God who changes us by our very seeking. A God who is continually revealed to the world. In places and through people who we don't expect. Or simply, that it really is difficult to follow a star?
Have you ever thought about how difficult it is to follow a star? Even a very bright one. Yonder star one star in a million. If we had looked up into that night sky 2000 years ago would that star have meant anything to us? Just a little point of light in the darkness. And yet three mysterious Magi followed.
When I started wondering what the LIGHT of Epiphany could possibly have to do with you and me and our lives I thought of the kind of days that I think we usually live. I wondered if our days could ever be described as GLEAMING ? Thomas Carlyle that Scottish writer HAS described life that way. "One life", writes Carlyle: "a little GLEAM of TIME between two eternities." Eternity behind us and in front of us and life this little gleam of time in between.
Traditionally we think of Epiphany as a celebration of LIGHT. The word "epiphany" means a manifestation of light in the darkness an in-breaking encounter with the Spirit. And we celebrate Epiphany 12 days after Christmas day with the arrival of the "Magi" who are said to have followed a STAR and been guided by IT'S LIGHT. And in this season of the year when the sunshine is at it's least in these dark months of winter it seems like a good thing to do anyway to celebrate LIGHT.
But there is MORE to it than that. And so to for John. John's Gospel does NOT begin with a description of Magi. John does not describe shepherds in a stall. John doesn't make any attempt to make Jesus' birth worldly. John doesn't explain it or try to get us to relate to it in an everyday way. Instead for the Gospel of John Jesus' birth is set in the context of the eternal.
"In the beginning was the Word", John writes. And John connects three things: Word. Life and Light. In the Word was Life and Life was the Light. And the Word or Light was Born. So we read in the Gospel of John. And maybe what this does is help us with the MEANING of Jesus' birth.
We understand the reality of how human births happen. And Matthew and Luke try to make some sense of that. But what does it mean to experience the birth of God ? And what does this darkness and light image have to do with us?
A seminary professor of mine named Tom Driver once told a story about his son that I have never forgotten. After bedtime prayers and a story Tom said goodnight. He walked toward the switch on the wall. Just as Tom reached the light switch, his son looked up from where he was tucked in and said:
"Ok daddy turn on the darkness". Turn on the darkness.
As I remember this story I wonder HOW this boy got himself ready. How do you get ready to say something like that? It's not how we usually picture children at bedtime. I remember my own experiences including a nightlight. I can describe the nightlight to you in detail. But I won't.
The story is told of another child who yelled into the night for his mother. "Mommy I'm scared!". His mother groggily responded into the darkness, "Don't be afraid I'm right across the hall" The child called back, "I'm still scared". So his mother went across the hall, and said at the doorway, "Don't be afraid, God is with you all the time, and God loves you". And the little voice responded, "But mommy I want someone with SKIN!"
Indeed it is difficult to hug a light. And yet John's Gospel makes this connection for us between Jesus' beginnings and birth and light. And for centuries there had been these expectations written in the prophet Isaiah, "Arise shine for your light has come." Isaiah talks about a light to the nations and a light to the world.
But what does a light have to do with love?
How do you hug a light?
And can anyone really understand how to follow a star? Can we bring these things together at the start of a new year as we gather together around the table of grace and forgiveness and hope? That is our challenge this morning. A challenge I will leave to your hearts. A challenge I won't try to explain and tie up neatly for you as if I had the answer. Great and conclusive preacher that I'd like to be.
Instead let us come with these reflections and wonderings to the mystery of the sacrament. Let us open our hearts to God's spirit at work in us. Let us open ourselves to God at work in these stars which will be handed out. The star is for you to follow not for me to explain. Let us open ourselves to the questions. Let us open ourselves to hope. Let us open ourselves to the darkness. Confident, however haltingly, nevertheless confident of the light. Light which will not be overcome.