Epiphany: Stars Stopping
*Sermon originally preached on January 6, 2019 in Kenai, AK.
Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the Magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, 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. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
There’s a lot going on in this text. It starts with an encounter with King Herod, a ruler who rules from a place of violence and harm. Herod wasn’t just curious about Jesus’ whereabouts because he was happy for the new parents. He wanted to know where Jesus was because he was threatened, and wanted to ultimately kill the child. Herod sent the visitors, Magi, which means astrologers, who sometimes are referred to as wise men, even though we don’t know their genders, to go scope out this whole Jesus situation. Likely there was question of whether or not the rumors were true, and probably, given the medical situation, there was question of if this baby Jesus was alive and healthy. Herod is a busy king, so he didn’t want to make the trek to Jesus without certainty of where he was.
So Herod sent these astrologers, these magicians, to Bethlehem, thinking they were on his side, following his agenda. But that’s not what happens, as we know. The magi continued to follow the stars to Bethlehem, where Jesus was said to be. I don’t necessarily believe that these Magi think the stars are anything divine. They’re astrologers, so following the stars is kind of their thing. Think of it as an ancient version of a GPS.
This is to say, that sometimes we follow God’s plan without knowing it. Sometimes, it’s not until we are stopped by the stars at our destination, that we realize that we are with Jesus. But in any case, we have to make that choice to follow the stars.
The magi arrive to Bethlehem. The stars stopped, as they say. They are excited, probably largely because it had been a long journey. And then they see Jesus. Immediately, they kneel before him, and they give him gifts. They celebrate his birth, knowing this isn’t what Herod wanted them to be doing at all. But they aren’t threatened by Jesus. In fact, they recognize this child as miraculous, worthy, and something that is fully of love.
The magi learned, through following the stars, that they could encounter something of wonder, when they take themselves to new and unknown places. And they can call that good.
Each of us have our own stars we should follow. And the reality is, that many if not all of us are afraid of following them, of doing something that is completely new, something that will in fact change us at our cores. I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions either. Those are calculated, mapped out often. They are goals which have a clear beginning and end. They change our bodies, or the way we appear on the outside, but I’m talking about the stars we should follow that change our souls and our very being in the world.
Unlike the magi, we stay where we are, to a fault. We avoid adventures that are truly new. And we do that because we like being safe. So we avoid death, or harm in theory, but we also miss out on new birth. And this new birth, that is epiphany.
Epiphany is a transition Sunday in our church. It marks the end of Christmas and the beginning of ordinary time in the liturgical calendar. Ordinary, by the way, doesn’t mean normal. Rather, it means that the way we name the weeks in this season uses ordinal numbers.
Epiphany also means we are out of control, taking a leap of faith that leaves us wondering where we will land. Epiphany, the act of taking that leap, could leave us landing on a soft pillow, and it could leave us with a couple of bruises before we land safely. Epiphany is a revelation, a light bulb moment where we can discover or realize something more clearly, whether it be a new idea, or something about ourselves.
Epiphanies aren’t immediate, and they don’t come without journeying. The magi wouldn’t have had their epiphanies if they had simply followed the stars back home, or to the grocery store, or somewhere familiar, that they encounter every day and know how to get to with their eyes closed. An epiphany comes when there is risk involved, when the destination is unknown. And an epiphany comes when we ourselves are willing to know what our star looks like, and when we then choose to follow it, without knowing where it will take us.
Generally, I think we can say our stars are the gospel, Jesus, just like the magi. We ultimately want to end up closer to God, with God, whatever that looks like. That’s different than an end goal, because that’s going to look differently for all of us. And because, like we said, an epiphany is miraculous because it means we give up pre-conceived notions altogether.
So with this, I want us to leave with three things to be challenged by, guided by the epiphany of the magi.
The first thing I want to challenge you with is to find your star. Know your star, what it is, and why you follow it. Be reminded of the ways the star has guided you so far, where it leaves you in awe, and where it grounds you. Find your star, and be willing to trust it, trust it to lead you to epiphany, a state of unknown journeying and wonder.
The next thing, is to know what gifts you bring. For the magi, it was gold, frankincense, and myrrh. For us, it’s not as simple as going to the store to buy something to take with us. Our gifts are the things God has equipped us with. It’s the spiritual gifts, the personality traits, the unique identities each of us hold and carry with us all the time. Know what gifts you bring, and if you don’t know what they are, ask somebody to tell you what they see. Each of us are taking gifts with us, gifts that will help us see God from our unique perspective in a new and beautiful way.
Finally, perhaps the hardest challenge, is to follow that star, allowing it to teach you through the unknown. Our willingness to trust that our star will be the constant for us, throughout our journey, is how we do that. Because our star doesn’t deceive us. It doesn’t change, even when we do. When we follow our star, things change, and that change could show up seemingly good, or it could be that kind of change that leaves us with a less than soft landing, but that is epiphany.
Verse 12 says that “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another road.”.The magi continued to follow the star that guided them. They planned to return home by simply heading back the way they came. But their star, their epiphany, led them a different way. And that star kept them safe and grounded, even when forces around them like Herod wanted to put them in danger.
When we find our stars, know our gifts, and follow our star, we will be changed. We will experience epiphany. We will see God more deeply and intimately and will be closer to knowing the joy that baby Jesus brings to our lives.
Richard Rohr teaches us that “an epiphany is not an experience that we can create from within, but one that we can only be open to”.
May we be open to experiencing epiphany, Friends. May we be woken up and guided by the ways our star has shone brightly for us, teaching us and reassuring us that it is worthy of being followed. May we look often at the gifts we bring, knowing they also, are of great worth and that we are deserving of all the dignity in the world. Amen.
As we move from this time into our celebration of holy communion, we are being invited to be open to experience and to receive in a beautiful, time-tested way. Each month, we celebrate this gift, and through it, we are reminded of the ways the world has changed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Epiphany celebrates Jesus, and it also celebrates how we are connected to the story so deeply.
Both Epiphany and holy communion honor how our lives are entirely connected to this holy mystery, divine love in our complicated world. Like epiphany, we can’t completely explain what happens, but we will be changed. We cannot experience the story of Jesus without being changed. And so with that, friends, as we are invited to the table today, may you know that you are also invited to be changed from the inside out, invited to epiphany.