Matthew 2:1–12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men 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 wise men 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.
Have you looked up at the sky recently? Perhaps the relatively mild winter weather has gotten you out of the house late at night to look up and see God’s handiwork. Maybe the Christmas Eve service and talk of the Apollo missions inspired you to venture outside and ponder what it might be like to look back on the Earth from the Moon.
If you’re like me though, you only leave the comforts of home at night in the winter when it’s strictly necessary. Like when you realize that it’s Thursday night and you haven’t taken the garbage out yet. OK. You reluctantly get your coat on, slip on some shoes, and venture outside for as little time as possible.
And what do you find? Yes, there are the “greater lights” of street lamps and porch lights that make the dark less ominous. But behind all of that is the silky blackness of space lit spectacularly with pinholes of light. Suddenly, the majesty of it all takes you aback. The words of the Psalmist come to your mind, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars—what is humankind that you are mindful of them and care for them?”
In this vast universe, God shows up in our lives. Even on trash day. Who would have thought that trash day could be a means of Grace—a way to experience the undeserved love and favor of God.
If we would only consider the radience of the heavens more often, we might be better attuned to God’s grace in every moment.
I can’t tell you much of the specifics of space—the constellations, the planets and stars, the galaxies hiding multitudes of even more distant stars and planets. I wish I could. But God’s nightly light-show has fascinated me since I was a teenager. In a revelation that will surprise none of you, I went to what some might call disparagingly “Geek Camp.” All the other camps on the summer schedule are fun, but what I really wanted to do was spend a week tinkering with computers, building model rockets, and staying up late staring at the stars.
Looking up at the stars, the work of God’s fingers, for hours on end with the naked eye and with a telescope has a way of changing your perspective on life. It’s exactly the kind of thing self-assured 13 year-olds need. Laying with my back on a tarp on a cool summer night, looking up at the stars slowly moving through space I realized—it’s actually me that’s moving. My back is on a giant round ball of matter that’s floating through space. I felt as if this whole thing could drop out of space at any moment like a bird falling out of the sky.
“When I consider your heavens—what is humankind that you care for them?”
Wonder. Majesty. Grace—that God would care about us. Like how Horton the Elephant cared about the Whos living on that small speck of dust in Horton Hears a Who!
It’s the kind of experience that leads one to reorient their entire lives, to begin again—living as if each second is a gift.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s children’s book on our Scripture lesson—the visit of the Magi—asks us to consider the backstory of these wise fellows who travel following that yonder star. They each experiment with ways of ascertaining the meaning of the universe and their lives. One tries a diet of dried herbs in water. Another learns ancient languages, while the third learns to walk on hot coals.
None of these methods brings them any satisfaction until they stay up late one night to look at the stars. They see a bright light. They consult their charts. It wasn’t there before. They get out their telescopes and see Jupiter and Saturn a hairs breadth apart. Jupiter—the King of the solar system. Saturn— the representative of the Jewish people.
What could it mean?
The Jewish people hadn’t had a rightful king for what seemed like ages. This was something they had to see. If the universe ever gives people a sign, this was it. This was a convergence that would change their lives.
Take a moment to recognize the ridiculous grace of this moment. These men had no personal connection to the God of Israel. They were using what we would view as a “pagan” way of finding meaning in the world. They were Magi—magicians, astrologers, diviners. This was not how God revealed himself to the people of Israel. God’s people were told not to engage in such practices. And yet, by the grace of God, there it was… a sign in the heavens that had been set for the future at the moment of creation.
No longer could these Magi spend their days eating herbs, reading old texts, or walking on coals. A King was coming. Whatever they had planned on their calendar was now insignificant.
Oh! Star of wonder, star of light…
Whatever time it was for them in the calendar, this was the beginning of a new year! It was, for them, a new beginning, a new start.
They set out, following the younder star. But they didn’t have precise calculations. They erroneously assumed that the child would be born in Jerusalem—the city of God.
Their mistake was costly. The Magi ended up in the grasp of King Herod—the prototype of all wicked rulers. His scribes told him where the child would be born, based on the words of the prophet Micah. He sent them on their way, in the right direction. But I’m sure these men—they were wise after all—could see through Herod’s motives. You can tell when a power-hungry tyrant is telling a lie. Herod had no intention of paying the child homage, as we heard last week.
Yet, God’s grace protected them and guided them.
The Magi resumed their travels and followed the distant light until it seemed to stop over the place where the child was—Bethlehem.
The anticipation was building—they were about to see the long promised Jewish king.
At long last, entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. Filled with the love of God, they gave what they had brought (fully aware that the child had no use at the moment for gold, frankincense, and myrrh). They bowed down before the child.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s retelling of the story imagines that Mary gave these men her child to hold. And she probably did. Not only had they seen the king of kings with their eyes, but they held his soft warmth in their hands.
Because of this baby, their lives were reoriented. It is as if they had seen the image of earth floating in space for the first time. This was way bigger than a convergence of light in the sky. They knew this was the child of blessing and promise who would give God’s love and grace to the world.
The Magi are us! Non-Jews (Gentiles) from a land far removed from the Holy Land.
We are the wise men and women—looking up to the stars in search of meaning, traveling through life in hopes of finding wisdom and love. We are those who are protected by God on the journey—whether we know it or not—from the powers and principalities of this world.
We are those who gather in worship and honor of the Christ child—King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, almighty God! And by far the best thing is when we have small children in worship that we can hold—feeling the weight of life. Holding love and hope in our hands. Seeing the potential of a world of peace.
This Sunday is a new beginning for all of us. We’ve come here because we have seen the light this church radiates. We’ve witnessed the grace and love of new life.
Who knows where the wise men end up after this story. Who knows where we’ll end up this year. But in both cases, with a heaping portion of God’s grace, we know that nothing will ever be the same again—because of this child, born in a manger.
This is the promise God makes to us.
Let us now respond with our promises to God…
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things,let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all thingsto your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.