Listen to the sermon HERE.
In my first year of college I had to pick an elective in science and mathematics. I saw the listing for astronomy and thought that it sounded wonderfully romantic: to read the sky, like sailors and farmers, like the shepherds and the wise men. It would be great, I thought, to learn more about the stars, to spend hours in the university planetarium, to understand more about the cosmos and the Big Bang, and all the other questions.
I could not have been more surprised. Astronomy was much more about math and physics and endless calculations. What I found was that–in my class at least–there was very little romance and lots and lots of reality.
Life can be like that: we look for the stars, we try to follow the stars (our dreams, the direction in which it seems God is leading) but along the way we are stopped from stargazing and wrenched into reality. Stars seem to fall.
We try to hold on to the Light of the World received at Christmas, but we live in a world of refugees and unemployment, a world in which our environment is changing to the point that an eleven-year-old can die from an allergy to the fish his aunt is cooking. We have our own stories of tragedy and challenge—friends or family members to die too young or too quickly, loved ones who slowly drift into a place of dementia, and then there are those people for whom live itself is just really, really difficult. Following stars becomes difficult when you’re simply trying to survive.
In the part of Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows what we’ve read today, the Star in the East begins to fade as an angel appears to Mary and Joseph and warns them about King Herod, and so instead of returning home to Nazareth, they go to Egypt. They become refugees, looking for safety until it’s safe to return home.
Following so quickly after the joy of Christmas, just twelve days later, by Epiphany we are met with all the complications of faith—of having to make decisions, of having to leave the familiar, of being urged by God to leave comfort and calm, and to move ahead—sometimes with people we don’t even know very well, sometimes with little to go on in the way of provisions or supplies.
We all have our own version of star-gazing that turns into something else. But among the messages of today’s Gospel is the word that, no matter what, God is with us. God is still with us, giving signs to show the way, and watching over us.
In today’s Gospel, wise men from the East see a star and try to interpret its meaning. But almost immediately they run into trouble. This is not going to be an easy star to follow. King Herod also has also seen this star, and he’s frightened. He’s threatened, and he determines to get rid of the potential competition. Herod tries to get the wise men to work for him, to go and see the star and the Messiah born under it, and to help Herod confirm the threat he felt so strongly. (These wise men have become popular in legend. Tradition has even given them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but no one really knows.) And yet, the wise men are not called “wise men” for nothing.
The wise men get a sense of where they need to go, in order to be faithful to God, in order to find God, in order to see God. And in going, they take risks: they risk professionally in that if they don’t find the Messiah, they could look foolish. They risk spiritually, since finding a Messiah might mean adjustments in their values, in their priorities, in their relationships. And finally, in following the star, they risk physically, since King Herod does not hesitate to kill those who cross him. But they make their way, with persistence and with faith.
In Matthew’s Gospel the three wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. While some commentators have suggested that these are simply gifts that wealthy folks might bring, others have suggested that each of these gifts has a prophetic overlay. The gold looks forward to the kingship of Christ, to Jesus as king of the Jews, as king of our hearts. Frankincense, like incense, is the stuff that priests use to make things holy and call down visual and physical prayers upon things, and so the frankincense looks forward to the priesthood of Christ. And myrrh, myrrh which was used as an anointment at death, foreshadows the suffering and death of Christ.
T.S. Eliot, in Journey of the Magi, captures this dual journey of the wise men—this sense of excitement at having found life—the life of God, no less. But also a sense that along the way, they will encounter death. Eliot imagines the wise men making this journey, “and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp….” They have times of trial and times of regret; hard times. But being led to the place, under the star, a wise man wonders. Eliot imagines one of the wise men pondering:
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different;
this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The Epiphany is about revelation, the revelation that even though life in this world can be confusing, can be mixed with life and death and death and life; the Epiphany reminds us that Jesus Christ has come as the light of the world, not just as the awaited Messiah for the Jews, not just the charismatic leader of those who knew him when he was on earth, but also for any and all who would seek to know God more deeply; for any and all who may be looking.
A star appeared to the wise men in the East. Stars appear for us, as well. Sometimes we need one another in order to see them clearly. Sometimes we need practice in order to spot them. And sometimes we simply need to stand still, to breathe deeply and look, listen and wait. May we who know God now by faith, be led into God’s presence, where we may his glory face to face; in the name of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.