Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
In my twenties I assisted a number of trips with EMU’s wilderness seminar in the mountains of West Virginia. One of the memories of those trips was peering up at the diamond speckled sky on the clear cold nights. I could easily get a stiff neck just from looking up so long.
I know some of the basic constellations like the big and little dipper, which isn’t much in the world of constellations. If one knows the stars well enough to point out the north star, one can get oriented in direction and place. Mostly I’m in awe of a clear night sky.
When our oldest son was 13, we took a road trip, during which one stop was to see my brother and sister in law who were living in the western part of NY at the time. We were talking about shooting stars together, in which Justin exclaimed from his 13-year-old experience, that he thought shooting stars were a “scam.” He had never seen one before and thought they were just a figment of the viewers imagination. The rest of us, having witnessed a shooting star at some time in our lives, were trying to convince him through our stories that shooting stars were real. We gave scientific explanations of what caused the light to shoot in the sky. We weren’t convincing enough.
It happened to be a clear crisp night outside when we were talking about this, so we all looked up, deciding to look in the sky for a while and enjoy the stars we could see. Soon after peering up, not one, but two shooting stars shot through the sky. Shooting stars were no longer a scam!
Sometimes it is the case that we don’t believe it until we see it.
The wise men in our Matthew passage this morning seem to have seen a great star and did believe.
The wise men, also called Magi, were not of Jewish decent. From what we know they were from the east, beyond that scholars speculate as from exactly which part of the east. They were known to be very wise, astrologers, interpreting dreams, and some may have predicted the future based off both. Point being, they would have known the sky, and the stars well.
The star that announced Jesus’ birth must have been a star like none other. It caused this curious group of people to be on the move to discover what this star was all about.
The wise men in Matthew are pointed as fulfilling verse 3 of chapter 60 in our Isaiah passage, that nations, indicating other than Israelites, will also come and acknowledge God’s light.
The context of Isaiah 60 is of a time at the end of the Israelite exile from Jerusalem. They were moving back into the war torn desolate city. When Isaiah 60 is read apart from the surrounding passages it sounds like a hopeful time. But within the context of the preceding chapters which are characterized by gloom and despair with a call to repentance, chapter 60 is an abrupt change to announce that “the light has come and the glory of the Lord is present” regardless of what the evidence was in front of them.
It’s like living in a deep depression and someone saying there is hope for a better tomorrow.
Or like an immigrant family at the border seeking refuge from deep seeded systemic violence in their homeland met with a hostility and closed doors. Then someone saying, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
Or like an addict that has relapsed, breaking trust and relationships around them, and someone saying, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
Sometimes it is the case that we don’t believe it until we see it. So the words of a hope for a better tomorrow can feel hollow.
For the Israelites, the significance of this announcement was that even in the midst of darkness and despair, that God was still present. God’s presence wasn’t in the things around them. For if that were the case, God would have appeared defeated. No, God was shining in spite of the devastation and destruction, in spite of the despair, in spite of the appearance of no way forward. God’s light was presence.
This is a different kind of hope. Not a hope of what will come, but what is now. God is in the darkness, in the hopelessness, and in the despair through God’s presence. God with us, not God with us when we get our city rebuilt or our act together.
It is curious that the wise men knew that this new birth was the “king of the Jews.” I can only imagine that they were seekers, on a quest to discover the significance of this star. Perhaps they knew enough about the Jewish faith that they were aware they were awaiting a king to emerge. Or maybe they inquired with community folk or shepherds along their journey and discovered the significance of this baby’s birth, hearing he was to be the king of the Jews.
However they discovered the significance of Jesus’ birth, they didn’t seem to clue in right away on the threat this may pose on Herod, the political leader of the area. There was no google to seek out direction. They had to go where information was held to find where they could locate this significant person.
Herod, perceiving the possible threat of a rising king of the Jews, elicited information from the Jewish scribes and priests, to tell him more. And so we see Jesus’ birth become a threat from the beginning to the powers that be.
Power is a funny thing. It can be addicting. The more one has the more one wants. When there is a perceived threat, the temptation is to coerce, deceive, and expend others at all costs in order to maintain control. An appetite for power can lead one to do immeasurable harm. Herod, as a result of hearing about this kings birth, ordered the death of all the children 2 years and younger in Bethlehem causing Mary and Joseph to find refuge in Egypt with baby Jesus.
We the church like to think of ourselves as in the world but not of it because our allegiance is to God and not to humans. But we fall to the same temptations in our use of power. We are tempted to use our power to set rules to preserve order and uphold righteous living. This semblance of order maintains who is in and who is out, who is faithful and who is not. It is predictable, neat, and tidy.
Now order and righteous living are not bad in and of themselves, but if their ideals are used to dominate instead of serve, silence instead of give voice, hold one in place instead of empower, hoard rather than give, then we are operating in the worldly kind of power and not the empowering relationship that God exemplified through Jesus’ faith and life, which was anything but neat and tidy.
In Isaiah, God came despite the plight of the Israelites. God’s coming in glory was unconditional, not conditional on making it right.
Repentance, mending of ways, and living out of justice is a response to God’s coming, not a requirement to be in God’s glory. It is a message to draw people from all people groups, backgrounds, lifestyle, mindset, religion, into God’s light, not exclude them from it.
In Matthew, the only gospel that includes the Magi, seems to want to communicate this same message. God’s coming is for all, not just a select few. God reached out and spoke their language and they noticed. God reached beyond the “insiders” in order that all nations may come to know the light of Christ.
We live by different calendars. The new liturgical calendar began in Advent. We now experience our new calendar year when the culture around us is steeped in new years resolutions. Whether you find that practice helpful or not we are always in a moment of remembrance and new beginnings.
The Magi were well versed in reading the stars. They spent time studying and learning about them. God reached out and spoke in a language they knew and they took notice.
What language are you present with? The seasons, art, music, silence, social justice, caring for others, the written or spoken word, interacting with people?
What draws your attention? What do you wonder? What stirs you up or generates a holy anger or passion? What might God’s invitation be for you in this moment and time to notice?
I don’t ask these questions with the intent that you will have an answer to them, simply to get you pondering.
Communion is a time to recommit, reconnect, remember, and re-orient us to God’s light. Appropriate for the new year, but more importantly, appropriate as we consider that God’s presence, God’s glory is right here and right now, no matter where you consider yourself on this journey of faith.
God reaches out to the nations, to you and to me, and says, “No matter what the reality of life may be, my light has come for you. Repent from being lured into the power of the world. My light will overshadow your darkness. My presence will be with you. As you dwell in my love, my light will be made brighter in you. As you bask in my grace, my light will be made brighter in you. And as you are filled with my Spirit, be empowered to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly as you interact with your friends and enemies. For I am with you always.”
Blessed are you, bountiful God,
for you made the fruit of the vine to nourish us;
you gave us this cup as a sign of your blood.
Let our sharing be a taste of the wine we shall drink
in your joyful feast. Amen.
Let us now drink the cup together.
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