A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas draws to a close today.  The 12 days of Christmas are over.  Today is Epiphany, and tomorrow we return to Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar.  Today is the day that many people put away their Christmas decorations for another year.  Tinsel and ornaments are packed away.  The crèche is packed up.  I’ll be packing away my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree today.  Keeping it authentic, it has only one ornament:  a red ball.

I know most Christmas Trees are filled with ornaments, and most have something special at the top.  Generally speaking families that do Christmas Trees can be divided into two groups:  the star people and the angel people.  Just a quick show of hand – How many star people do we have here?  How many angel people?  I come from a star family, so this sermon may be a bit biased.

I grew up in a big, old Colonial house back East.  The living room had 10-foot ceilings, so we would get a big tree each year.  Decorating it was a process with certain step.  Get it into the stand, standing straight in the bay window of the living room.  Secure it from tipping over with strings tied to the window frames (we had a pet cat).  Put on the lights – small white lights that didn’t blink (my mother insisted).  Put on the string tinsel – not “icicles” (my mother insisted).  Put on the candles (yes, we lit candles on the tree on Christmas Eve).  Put on the ornaments.

Now, we kids could put the ornaments on just about anywhere we wanted to – so long as they wouldn’t get singed by a candle – with two exceptions.  There was a brass star that my father always hung at the top of the tree, and directly below the star was a painted wooden ornament of a stable with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  Because these two ornaments were so tied together in my childhood mind, I never understood why anyone would ever put anything other than a star at the top of the tree.

It literally wasn’t until this week, when I was thinking about the differences between Matthew’s birth narrative and Luke’s birth narrative, that I realized what the angel was all about.  In Luke’s gospel, there is no star.  Yes, the “glory of the Lord” shines about an angel, but there’s no star.  Just angels.  They come to the major players to tell them about God’s plan:  Zachariah (John the Baptist’s father) gets a personal visit at the Temple; Mary gets a personal visit from Gabriel himself (itself? Is it appropriate to use gendered pronouns with angels?).  And an angel (along with the heavenly host) shows up to the Jewish riff-raff (the shepherds) to announce the birth of Jesus.  But there isn’t any star.

The star shows up in Matthew’s gospel.  The magi, watching the sky, see it as a sign and follow it to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.

If you’re like the shepherds and have sought a sign from God, if you remember the prophesies and have been seeking a savior, if you approach Christmas with deep anticipation, an angel is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

And if you’re like the magi and are searching, if you’re still unsure, still filled with questions, if you’re on a quest to find out about this mystery and message from God wrapped up in human flesh, a star is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into Christmas decorations.

As I said, today is Epiphany.  The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘manifestation.’  Today is a day of realizing that the God’s light and love were made manifest in the baby who slept in a Bethlehem.  Today is a day of realizing that God’s love isn’t just for us – it is for everyone.  Luke says that Jesus is “A light for revelation to the Gentile” (Luke 2:32) – not just for the Jews, but for non-Jews as well.  Matthew tells us this in story, of foreigners coming to pay homage.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about these magi.  Matthew tells us there was more than one of them – “wise men” is plural so we know there were at least two.  Matthew tells us that they watched the night sky and interpreted their observations as having meaning – they saw a star rising in a certain part of the sky and interpreted it to mean that a new King of the Jews had been born.  And I think we can infer that they were important – important enough to come and pay homage to a new-born king.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much – just enough to whet our interest.  No wonder all kinds of traditions sprang up over the centuries about the magi.  According to Episcopal priest Martin Smith, medieval interpretations created at least six distinct meanings for the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the magi.  The carol, “We Three Kings,” is based on one of these.

Another – I like this one – comes from St. Bernard.  This tradition says that the magi offered “gold for to relieve [Mary’s] poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin.”[1]

This is a beautiful interpretation.  “The Son of God appears as a poor child at risk in just those ways that millions of children are today.  The Magi’s gifts are not exotic luxuries, but practical relief aid.  Mary and Joseph need financial help.  A cramped peasant’s house, with animals crowded on the other side of the manger that divides the single room, stinks of their excrement.  The baby has a rash because the manger is crawling with fleas.  The wise men are wise enough to offer money, fumigation, and medication.”[2]

But this isn’t all that Matthew is doing with this story.  Matthew has these wise foreigners start by coming to Jerusalem to pay homage to the new-born king.  Of course they would come to Jerusalem.  I mean, where else would the new king be born other than in the capital city?  But that’s not where Jesus is born.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem and this does two things:  It connects Jesus to King David, giving him legitimacy in his claim to the title “king”; and it sets Jesus up separate from the centers of political and religious power, suggesting that Jesus is creating a new order.

And Matthew adds a layer (or two) of additional insult.  “These strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, and they’ve come a long way to ‘submit’ to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  In doing so, they’re poking their finger in the eye of Rome and its puppets.  At the same time, they’re coming from ‘the East,’ [historically] the same direction from which Israel’s enemies approached to conquer and plunder.

‘The East,’ then, is full of portent for the earliest hearers of Matthew’s Gospel.  The ‘wise’ men are strangely naive in approaching an evil king with news of a new king, but perhaps it takes a profoundly trusting soul to follow a star to a far-off land.  Herod’s reaction is the panic-driven response of the powerful to even the smallest threat to their security.  What is more important for us is the reaction of the wise men to their encounter with Jesus:  generosity, and awe-filled worship, just as Isaiah had pictured the wealth of the nations being brought to Jerusalem by gentiles praising the One true God.”[3]

We Americans are quite good a listing all the people we won’t kneel before.  We don’t kneel for crowned heads.  We don’t bend for terrorists.  And in both our denominational traditions, we’re quite clear that we don’t kneel to bishops.  “By and large, we are a straight-backed, lock-kneed people.

“Here is the way the … wise men were like us:  they refused to kneel to Herod’s crowned head.  [And] here is the way we ought to be like the … wise men:  they knew which things were not worth their homage, and which things should drive them straight to their knees.

“There’s not much in the world that ought to be able to make you kneel.  But this ought to:  a deity with no place to lay his head, a savior who knelt before you to wash your feet, a God who could have remained above it all, but stooped, bent, even groveled to get as close to you as possible, and then paid a price for it.”[4]

This story of the magi is rich with meaning.  And on this day of Epiphany, on this day we celebrate God’s love and light being manifest in Jesus, this story calls to us.  It is, I think, an invitation to be like the magi.  And I suggest that there are three ways we can do this.

First, we can seek the star.  Like the magi, we need to be aware and on the lookout for signs of God being at work in the world and in our lives.  I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy a telescope – unless you want to get into astronomy.  I’m suggesting that we can all engage in the spiritual practice of awareness.  We can seek the star.

Second, we need to follow the star.  When we see a sign of God working out the salvation of the world, we might be called to drop what we’re doing.  If that happens, we need to drop what we’re doing and follow that sign.  We need to pack appropriately, too; it’s nice if the gifts we bring make a difference.  And we may have to stop for directions on the way; we shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.  We need to follow the star.

Third, we can be a star ourselves.  On Epiphany, our persistent call to be “the light of the world” in response to God’s gift begins to sound.  Perhaps we should start like the magi and pay due homage.

Want to practice this?  Sometime today, get down on your knees, open your arms out to your sides, and bow your head.  Or if you’re feeling especially brave, try touching your forehead to the floor.  If your body can’t do these things, assume whatever posture speaks to you of humility and reverence.[5]  See what that feels like.

I think that when we get our egos sufficiently out of the way, God will start to use us as stars, as signs of God’s work in the world.  Seek, follow, and be the star.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Martin L. Smith, “Wiser Than We Think,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_130149_CEpiphany&week=C_Epiphany (31 December 2012), quoting Golden Legend, “a popular medieval compendium of lore about the church’s feast days.”

[2] Smith.

[3] Email from Kate Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, dated 28 December 2012.

[4] Email from Quinn G. Caldwell, “Kneel,” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional from the United Church of Christ, dated 6 January 2012.

OTHER RESOURCE USED:

Nancy Hasting Sehested, “The Flickering Light of Epiphany,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_930149_AEpiphany&week=C_Epiphany (31 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

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