Sermon for Sunday, January 4th, 2015 || Feast of the Epiphany || Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-2; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Did you notice? No decree that all the world should be taxed, no journey for Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no crowded inn or birth in a manger surrounded by animals. No shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, no host of heavenly angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” no Mary “treasuring all these words and pondering them in her heart.”
No. The nativity story we get from Matthew is decidedly different from the one we get on Christmas Eve from Luke. And if you were to stay today for our Epiphany pageant at 10:00, you’d see that like Christians all over the world we tend to conflate these two birth narratives into yet another of our own making, with additions and assumptions that don’t appear anywhere in either biblical account. We turn the wise men into kings, although “magi” were scholars not royalty; we give each of them names, although in the gospel they had none; and we number them at three, apparently because it corresponds nicely with the number of gifts Matthew has them bring. Then we put it all together so we have the shepherds and the manger, the sheep and the camels, the wise men and their gifts, and of course Joseph leading Mary on a donkey to Bethlehem—in one gloriously delightful (if not exactly historical) mélange of holy creativity, chaos, and joy.
In contrast, the story Matthew actually tells is starkly beautiful in its simplicity: A night journey by Gentiles far into the land of Judah– following one star among the many, to a destination they can’t be sure of. The holy silence that blankets them as they enter the house to behold Jesus… the gentle humility with which they kneel down to pay him homage…the reverent respect with which they offer this child-king of Judaism their gifts. And all against the background of danger, dreams, and daring.
It is a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual life…a wonderful metaphor for the journey that each of us takes following the star of our choosing, whether consciously or not. We can imagine the sky was resplendent with stars that night the magi set out, each alluring in its own right, each filled with promise, each competing for their attention.
I often wonder if this was the first such journey these sky-gazers had ever made, or whether they’d followed many a star, to far too many a disappointing destination? After all, few of us get it right the first time and it is so easy to get lost if we’re not careful.
Yet the wise men seem to know where this particular star will lead them. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask, “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Of all the stars in the inky sky that night, the star these men choose to follow is the star that will lead them to Jesus. Surely they set out knowing the journey will be a long one, that it will mean moving through difficult, often dangerous terrain. Yet they are single-minded in their focus. What do you suppose it was about that star that so captivated them, compelling them to keep going…delving deeper into discovery and further from the familiar, hanging everything on a promise and dedicating their lives to its fulfillment? How did they know?
How do we know? How do we know if the star we’re following —and we’re all following a star whether intentionally or not—how do we know if it’s the right one, the real one, the one with Christ as its light that will lead us to his feet?
The constellations of our lives are resplendent with dazzling stars to choose from! Success, security, self-esteem…fame, family, friends…good health, good looks, good times…None of these is bad! They’re just not going to lead us where our spirits so long to go. Because where our spirits so long to go is Home, to the Center, to the Christ.
We know the way. We recognize the star. We need only dare to follow it like the wise men—despite danger or distraction– with single- minded focus, gentle humility, and dogged determination. By the light of this star we will never get lost. From the light of this star all the others receive their light. And in the light of this star our spirits rejoice and sing.
So as we begin this season of Epiphany, I invite you to consider:
What star are you following?
Is it one you were intentional about choosing?
Can it make good on its promise?
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, by the leading of a star you made yourself known to the wise men of old: Lead us now, to follow the way that leads to your presence, that we may humble ourselves in your service and honor you with our lives; in your holy name we pray. Amen.