Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Epiphany Sunday.
Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you.
Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.
Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you.
Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips.
Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide.
This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles.
You’ve heard, of course, about the responsibility to distribute God’s grace, which God gave to me for you, right? God showed me his secret plan in a revelation, as I mentioned briefly before (when you read this, you’ll understand my insight into the secret plan about Christ). Earlier generations didn’t know this hidden plan that God has now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets through the Spirit. This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I became a servant of the gospel because of the grace that God showed me through the exercise of his power.
God gave his grace to me, the least of all God’s people, to preach the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. God sent me to reveal the secret plan that had been hidden since the beginning of time by God, who created everything. God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church. This was consistent with the plan he had from the beginning of time that he accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord. In Christ we have bold and confident access to God through faith in him.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
I always wonder what the conversation was like when the magi first saw the star rising in the west.
I mean, who first realized it was special? Stars rise all the time.
We don’t know exactly who the magi were, so it’s hard to imagine exactly how things went down. Stargazers, for certain. People with some amount of power and privilege and wealth, to have time to watch the stars instead of farming or fishing or throwing pots. Possibly priests or members of the royal court, though not kings themselves–and quite likely women as well as men.
But we do know that the magi watched the skies. They believed that whatever the divine was, it communicated through heavenly signs, like a star suddenly showing up where no star had been before.
In many parts of the ancient world, stars represented royalty. So it’s easy to see why a new star might mean a new king. How the magi determined that king was Jewish, I have no idea. But then, astrology has never been my forte.
I have to wonder, like I said, how that conversation went down. To say that a child has been born king of the Jews sounds really awesome and exciting until you remember that Judea was just one of dozens of little Roman provinces. The technical term is “client kingdom”–meaning it got to keep the trappings of being a kingdom, but at the end of the day, Rome was the boss. Being king of the Jews was a middle management position. He could knock around his own people, but had to answer to the boss himself.
So I imagine one of the magi pointing to the light in the sky and saying “look! A new king of the Jews!” and another yawning and saying, “so what? Why make a fuss about a puppet king?”
Quite frankly, I’m amazed they bothered to come at all. Perhaps something about the star told them that this child was different, that this kingdom would be different; or perhaps something in their prayers or their hearts urged them on. Maybe they went to every king’s birth, like a traveling hospitality committee. However it happened, they decided to journey west and see if they could find this new king.
You’d think, with all this information in their corner, they’d know where to go. But they make their way straight to Jerusalem, to the capital city. It is, after all, a likely place for a new king. And with a great deal of bravado and a stunning lack of tact, they head to the palace, to go ask the current king where the new one might be, so they can honor him.
Perhaps they had expected Herod to take them to the royal nursery, but Herod has no newborn son. Whoever this child-king is, he’s an outsider to the throne.
Herod is troubled, and so is all of Jerusalem, Matthew says. These magi have unwittingly showed up with a promise of civil war in twenty or thirty years, whenever this new claimant to the throne shows up on the scene. Jerusalem was no stranger to turmoil over authority. Herod might have been a pretty terrible king, but pretty terrible was better than civil war.
Herod calls his experts together, those who know the scriptures. I have to admit, I love this image, of the priests and the legal experts (that is, those who knew Jewish law) and the magi and probably some scribes and librarians in the mix too, with scrolls and papers and astronomical charts spread out everywhere. It reminds me of finals week in college, when students would take over tables in the library, with books and papers and coffee mugs everywhere. I love to think that just four or five miles away in Bethlehem, Mary is going about her ordinary morning routine while all these learned men scour the ancient books to find her son.
At some point, somebody says ‘aha!’ Just like the magi saw their rising star, a priest finds a helpful passage: a ruler shall come from Bethlehem. Herod sends the wise man there to seek out the child, first making sure he knows when the star first rose, when the child was born. Herod sends them to find the child, so that once they’ve found him, Herod can come worship too, and you can almost see him twisting the ends of his villain mustache. After all, Herod already had three of his own sons executed. He wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for a rival, even a child.
But the magi, who appear to be much better at reading the skies than reading people, make their way over to Bethlehem. And I love Matthew’s description of what happened then:
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.
This could not be a more opposite reaction than Herod’s. He was troubled by news of the child-king; the magi are overwhelmed with joy. They offer his mother their famous gifts, and kneel in homage, and I also hope they took the time to play with Jesus a bit, because playing with a toddler can be pretty joyful too.
And most of all I wonder, once they met Mary and Jesus, did they realize at all that this toddler in a carpenter’s house was never going to be a king like Herod? Did they have any sense that he was as much God’s son as he was Joseph’s? Did Mary tell them? Or did they simply know that there was joy to be found in his presence–that there was joy to be found in following the light, wherever it went?
It is both a very brave and very foolish thing, to follow a star. After all, stars disappear for most of the good traveling hours. You can’t even rely on nights to always be clear. Clouds come and cover up the stars. And they aren’t very precise, not like plugging an address into a GPS. To follow a star is a matter of faith as much as anything. It is little wonder that the magi took a wrong turn and ended up in Herod’s court.
We are the people called to follow the light, and like the magi, we will bumble around some in the process. Sometimes God’s will for Crescent Springs Presbyterian, and for each of us individually, will be as clear as a rising star on a cloudless night, and sometimes it will seem to disappear altogether. It is possible–probable, even, if my own experience is anything to go by–that God’s will will seem most obvious when everything else seems most dark. But when we get a lock on God’s direction for our lives, when we see which way the star is guiding us, we must commit to keeping on in that direction, even when certainty fades with the daylight. It would be nice if God communicated in strategic plans, vision statements, and budget forecasts; if God communicated in thirty-year plans and ten-step diagrams; if God communicated in clearly legible handwriting copied in triplicate. But instead God sends us stars, rainbows, toddlers; God sends us juice and bread and water; God sends us friends and neighbors and strangers. God talks in prayers and feelings and callings.
I don’t know what’s ahead for us this year, as a church or as individuals. I can make some guesses, based off the direction we’ve been going. We follow our own star, to seek out Jesus Christ and serve him here in Northern Kentucky, and we must commit, at times, to walking by faith, when the star fades or the clouds come. We must trust, even when the sun is too bright or the night too dark, that we will find our star again, and we must trust, even if we take a wrong turn, that God will find a safe way home for us.
I do wonder what would have happened if Herod had gone with the magi to seek the Christ-child. Would his fear, his anger, his paranoia have been able to withstand the joy of being in Christ’s presence? He and his experts knew so much about Christ; but what would have happened if he had gotten to know Christ?
It is my prayer that this year, you will seek not just to know about Christ, but to know Christ; to follow the star by sight and by faith; and to bring your gifts to him each and every day. May we all, when we are in Christ’s presence, be overwhelmed by joy.