The Frequency Illusion Phenomenon

Sermon preached for Epiphany Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Isaiah 60:1-5

Arise, shine! 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. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

Matthew 2:1-12

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.


About ten years ago, I was having a conversation with my associate pastor, and I told her I was gobsmacked about something. She blinked.


“Gobsmacked,” I repeated.

It turned out she’d never heard the word, and almost didn’t believe me when I said I hadn’t made it up. We went for the dictionary and I was vindicated, but more than that, I suddenly began getting texts from her. Pictures of news headlines and excerpts from novels, facebook posts and talking head quotes. Every time she saw or heard the word gobsmacked, she let me know, and it turned out the word was everywhere.

I expect most of you have experienced something similar—something you would swear you’ve never heard of or seen before is suddenly everywhere once you know about it. Maybe you’re thinking about buying a particular kind of car, and suddenly it seems like every third car on the road is that model. Maybe you find a new favorite flavor, and suddenly its on every menu. Maybe you learn a new concept, and suddenly it’s being referenced everywhere.

It’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or, more simply, the frequency illusion phenomenon. It just means that once you notice something, you notice it everywhere. Nothing has actually changed. The world isn’t really giving you more Subarus on the road. It’s just that once we humans tend to block out the majority of the world as white noise until we are tuned in to notice something.

Today is Epiphany, when we celebrate the curiosity, courage, and keen insight of the magi. We don’t know exactly who the magi were—not likely kings or priests, possibly women as well as men,  they were people who noticed things. Scholars, astrologers, seekers. Their life was devoted to noticing signs from the heavens—divine signs to guide those on earth.

I love astronomy, but I don’t know the stars well enough to say I would notice a new one. But these magi, tuned in to the stars, they noticed. And once they noticed, they had the courage to take action, to go and seek the new king.

The story is familiar—the star only gets them so far, and they get lost, pulled away from the simple village of Bethlehem to Herod’s flashier, neon palace in Jerusalem. By telling Herod about this upstart king, they put Jesus, his parents, and themselves in danger, because Herod is more than willing to kill to keep his power, his prestige, his cushy chair.

The magi find the baby and present their gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but then they notice something else: in a dream, God warns them not to go back to Herod, but to go home by another way.

I don’t know if the magi were as attuned to the voice of God within them as to signs and symbols in the skies. But they noticed, they noticed there was something different about this dream, this thought, and they heeded it. God’s voice spurred them to action, and they changed their plans, their route, left the comfortable and familiar behind, and went home by another road.

About a decade ago now, Presbyterian pastor Rev. Marci Glass came up with the idea of something she called “star words.” She gave each member of her congregation a star with a word written on it, a word to guide them through the new year just as the star guided the magi. The words range from comforting to challenging, and the selection is random, to let the holy spirit go to work. Last year we gave star words out for the first time, and I’m curious, does anyone remember what their word was, or have any stories to share about how you noticed it at work in your life?

Some of you have heard my star words story, as I’ve shared it a couple of places, but if you’ll indulge me I’ll share it again. Two years ago, I received the word “dare” from a friend who shipped it to me from a congregation I had been a part of in seminary. So whenever I felt the stirrings inside me to do something that took a little more daring than usual, I remembered that star word and trusted God would be with me. One of those daring things was signing up for the first time in my life for an online dating site—if you’ve never had the pleasure, it takes a lot of daring! But that’s where I met Erron, and dared to get to know him better.

This year, just before our second real date, I drew the word “love,” and y’all, I cringed. It was way to basic, and way too Hallmark given what I was up to in my personal life. But sometimes the Spirit smacks you in the face with a two by four, and this has been an amazing year, not only of falling in love with Erron, but of learning to accept love better from lots of people all around me.

I’ve spent the year looking at these two star words pinned on the bulletin board above my desk, and I’ve made them my motto: dare to love. I have, and it has changed my life in so many beautiful ways!

As star word stories go, this one is pretty extreme. The important thing to remember is that words written in sharpies on cutout stars didn’t make any of this happen; star words aren’t magic spells. They didn’t create my courage, or whip love up out of thin air. But they helped me notice what was already there, already inside me, already present in my relationships, or could be. They tuned me in to what God was doing in my life, that I might have sailed blindly by without a physical sign to alert me to it.

The word Epiphany means to appear, but not as something brand-new. It is related to the word revelation, which is a revealing of something that is already there. The magi did not discover anything new; Jesus was a toddler by the time they got to him, and God—God had always been there. The incarnation did not create a new god for us, but we humans noticed God more when he walked around on two legs and talked like us. God’s eternal love was revealed, appeared to us in Jesus, in ways we stood up and took notice of.

Each of the two baskets on the little tables in front of you has a star word. No two are the same. After you receive the bread and cup at communion, you are invited to take a star word. Notice I said take, not choose—let the Holy Spirit work through the word you happen to pick up. As you ponder the word you receive, ask yourself these questions: what gift might the spirit want to bring out of you this year? What comfort might the word have to offer? What challenge? How might it inspire, confront, transform you?

I encourage you to keep the star somewhere visible, whether that’s on your bathroom mirror, your car visor, or cut out and stuck in your wallet. Somewhere where you can be reminded of God’s guiding light through all the ups and downs this year will inevitably bring.

The word may feel awkward at first. Some of our younger wise ones may have to look theirs up in the dictionary. Your word may feel like it doesn’t fit you, or you don’t fit it. But sit with it a while. See if it might just be the gift you need.

We are surrounded by neon signs flashing hate and fear, destruction and devastation, hurt and pain. I’m not saying to look away from those. But if that is all you are attuned to, that is all you will see. May your star word turn your eyes to what God is already doing, creating love and joy, painting works of beauty, healing relationships and encouraging forgiveness, celebrating exuberance and affirming faithfulness. Once that word is lodged in your brain, may you notice it again and again and again and again, everywhere you go, all year long.

Lift up your eyes, Isaiah said, and look around. The world may be harsh, but still there are stars in the sky, and goodness in the human heart. The glory of God is all around us still, if we only pay attention. Amen.

3 thoughts on “The Frequency Illusion Phenomenon

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