[This sermon was delivered on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019, at Parkminster Presbyterian Church, Rochester.]
The Magi would have been thrilled by the last several weeks. Just over a month ago, NASA had landed a space probe named InSight on the surface of Mars after a journey of about 400 million miles. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons mission, after traveling about four billion miles, sent back to earth some photos of Ultima Thule, a snowman looking piece of ice about 21 miles high. It is at the far edge of our solar system. Closer to home, China just landed a probe on the far side of the moon, just a meager 250,000 miles or so away. These space probes stagger the imagination. I used to hope that NASA would have a pastor in space program—and would choose me to be the first pastor to fly in space. Now I hope they will have a retired pastor in space program—and will choose me: I’m ready. I will quickly shed those seven pounds I gained over the holidays. I love great journeys and adventures.
The Magi would have been thrilled about this: all these starry journeys–and the world remembering today their long and perilous journey to Bethlehem. However, contrary to popular Christmas custom, they didn’t arrive right after the shepherds. My wife and I have collected well over a dozen crèches. They all have shepherds and Magi, as if they were racing to get there first. It was not quite that way. We take a closer look.
We don’t know much about these Magi. They weren’t named and no number of them is given. Magi, which I prefer over wise men, suggests astrologers, which didn’t necessarily mean fortune-tellers. Today we more likely would call them astronomers or astro-physicists. They studied the night skies for clues as to the meaning of it all. They were likely from Persia, known in the ancient world for its fascination with the heavens. Modern day Iran is what once was Persia.
One night they saw a star of unprecedented brilliance. It enthralled them. They had never seen such a star. They were compelled to follow it and find where it would lead them. That began a long journey, perhaps 400 to 500 miles, not knowing where it would lead them. It was a “coddiwomple,” which means a purposeful journey toward a vague destination. It would have taken at least a month and likely much longer to complete this journey.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were granted an audience with King Herod. While Herod served at the pleasure of the Roman Emperor, Israel was far from Rome and relatively unimportant. So Rome didn’t pay much attention to Jerusalem, and Herod fancied himself more important than he was. Richard Middleton, my colleague at Northeastern Seminary, wrote an article a few years back entitled “Keep Herod in Christmas.” In our joy-filled celebrations of Christmas, there was a dark side, embodied by this Herod. When he heard from the Magi that there was another king on the scene, he bridled with jealousy. He went so far as to issue an edit that all the boy children in Bethlehem under two years of age be slaughtered. And there was weeping in the little town of Bethlehem. That meant that Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus become political refugees and fled for another country. I wonder how their border crossing was? Were they treated kindly? Did the border guards try to separate the child from his parents? How were these refugees treated in a strange country? Such was Herod’s narcissistic rage.
When the Magi finally arrived at little Bethlehem, “… they were overjoyed.” Literally, they were mega-joyed. This toddler hardly looked the part of a king. But this is where that star led them. At the end of this long journey they were overjoyed. I think there is a shortage of great joy today. Their mega-joy was not based on their circumstances, but on following a star and finding a Savior.
They worshiped the young child. There are a handful of words for worship in the New Testament. This is the one for bowing down, all the way down. Literally, it means “to kiss forward.” It is a word describing lavish worship, not refined and restrained Presbyterian worship.
They just happened to have gifts. The gifts just didn’t happen to be very child-friendly. They might have brought a new Hess truck, some Legos, and some teething rings; those would have served this child better. And a casserole and brownies for Mary and Joseph. And a few months’ supply of Pampers. Instead they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those gifts suggest that they were thinking beyond a child-king; these were gifts fits for royalty. Myrrh even suggests that a death may be in sight.
Seven centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God gave Isaiah a glimpse of things to come: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Of the event John writes, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has been unable to put it out.” (John 1:5)
Some modern astronomers have tentatively calculated all the light that exists in the universe. Using the measure of photons (the word comes directly from the Greek word for light, from which we get photography), they estimate that the universe has about 4×10 to the 84th power of photonic light. That is a 4 followed by 84 zeros. Yet the observable universe has about 2 trillion galaxies and about a trillion trillion stars. On a clear cloudless and moonless night, away from all ambient light, perhaps perched on a mountaintop, one can get a feel for the immensity of God’s creation. And on that night, the light of all those galaxies and stars is set against a backdrop of darkness, like diamonds and pearls scattered on black velvet. Most of the universe is a dark backdrop for the dazzling display of God’s light.
Back to planet Earth, back to the ancient Middle East, back to pagan Persia, back to humble Israel, back to a little town named Bethlehem, a baby was born. A star child. A heaven-sent savior. The word become flesh. We note that two groups were recorded as visiting this young savior. Luke tells about the shepherds. They were the most ordinary of people. Hard-working, long hours, dirt under their fingernails. Probably ritually unclean to the religious leaders. Matthew, who gospel is most written for a Jewish audience, has a group of foreigners. Pagans. Strangers to the covenant God made with Israel. They were learned, and judging by their gifts and availability to make such a journey, wealthy. These strange Gentile visitors from far away, lead the way for all who would travel to Bethlehem to worship Jesus.
And then, they face a long journey home. God warns them in a dream not to go back to Herod. How will they get home? Maybe God had another star for them.
What journeys will 2019 hold for us? Who knows? God knows. We do not know, nor should we, what the new year holds. It is not ours to know exactly where we are heading. It is for us to follow the stars God hangs before us.
In my home we have been putting our Christmas decorations away the last few days. The tree is down, but there are still a few poinsettias by the fireplace. Over a dozen manger sets are still out and will stay so for a while longer. When I look at those nativity sets, with shepherds on one side of the manger and Magi on the other, I see room for all of us, insiders and outsiders. I think of the words Howard Thurman wrote for this season.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.