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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Kings, Sheep, and the Stars in their Courses

Matthew 2:1-12
 Today we celebrate the epiphany, that is, the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, the light of world, revealed in our gospel lesson by a star that shines overhead. And in our gospel story, strangers – foreigners from another land – outsiders in fact, become key witnesses to both the threat and promise of the Christ child. The question for us today, is this: how will we witness to the light that shines in this world through this Jesus who abides in us and guides the way of the church?

There is a lectionary comic strip called Agnus Day that I occasionally share postings of on Grace’s Facebook page.
It features two “sheep” named Rick and Ted, who we get to listen in on as they meet up at coffee fellowship after church each week. There, they comment on the lessons, usually the Gospel heard in church that day. Rick is Ted’s mentor and tries to help unravel the mystery of the text by answering Ted’s on-point questions. The cartoon is the creation of a Lutheran pastor and can provide some chuckles and well as “ah ha” moments for church nerds like me – and you.
Three years ago, when Epiphany actually fell on Sunday, with the title “The star wasn’t the only miracle that day,” Rick and Ted’s conversation went like this:
Ted: So, the magi just walk in on Herod and ask where to find Jesus?
Rick: Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Ted: Amazing!
Rick: What, that they are seeking the Messiah in the company of a tyrant?
Ted: No! That three men would actually stop and ask for directions!
You’ve seen similar cartoons and punchlines to a similar joke, I’m sure – the absurdity of men asking for directions.
        But the cartoonist points out another strange detail from the gospel lesson for today – that these travelers, foreigners from the East, likely from Babylon or beyond, would not only stop and ask for directions – but that they ask these directions from Herod, who is well known as a tyrant king, and they are asking him where an opposing king might be found.
Surely, if these were, as tradition later defined them, “wise men,” they would have known that they were indeed stirring up some very dangerous waters with their question. Herod’s tyranny and cruelty were well-known. And no king would tolerate the presence and competition nor even the suggestion of another king within his realm.
        But that is not the only strange detail in the telling of the gospel story today. In fact, strange details are stacking up.
        There is this business about that star. The star that the text says, went ahead of the magi until it stopped over the place where they found the child – the now nearly two-year old Jesus – together with his mother.
        Who were these men who have so stirred our imaginations? They have been called “wise men,” and later were defined as “Three Kings.” Yet this term, magi, comes from the Greek text where the word to describe them is magoi.
This is a word that might better be translated “magician” and yet it is highly likely that these men were astrologers – another way this word is used in antiquity, and an apt description of men “from the east” who were known to spend much of their time searching the skies for signs and portents connecting the astrological occurrences to occurrences in the physical, earth-bound world.
We can imagine them as either the scientist astronomers who scan our skies looking for origins of stars and the secrets to the universe locked away in the skies; or as astrologers, who study the skies comparing them to star-charts and seeking to find the keys of the future unlocked through their interpretations.
Either way, they knew the skies. They sought answers to the past, present and especially the future among the stars and planets they studied. And there, in those skies they knew so well, they observed changes that point to something wonderful and strange and awe-inspiring.
If they lived in contemporary times we can imagine them reporting to Science Daily or the Institute for Creation Research: Astronomers have found a new star, hitherto before not observed in the skies and it beckoned them to follow, which they did, stopping in Jerusalem for clarification and direction. Now, they themselves enter the story.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem signals the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy, the prophecy that was reported in Luke’s gospel when Simeon first sets his eyes on the infant Jesus in the temple on the day of his circumcision and naming – “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
The magi, outsiders, foreigners, Gentiles, no less, are among the first to recognize – and witness – to the miraculous presence of God in human form among us – in the Christ child. By their very presence they themselves become part of the portent of what is to come – that truth that will be born into its own forms of opposition - that through the Messiah God is calling and blessing people of all nations and tongues to participate in the new kingdom God is creating, to share in the blessing of God’s incarnation among us, and to join in the refrain of homage to Christ, the king.
The response of the magi to the vision they behold is that of overwhelming joy. The Greek translation expresses their reaction in terms that go well beyond the contained joy of our Christmas and Epiphany songs and carols. The joy of the magi is expansive, explosive, heart-bursting, mind-blowing, uncontainable joy. It is the kind of reaction that demands movement and action and their first response is to give to this king the finest gifts within their means.
The magi have much to teach us about this business of testifying to the miracle that God has placed before us. Their astonishment at God’s presence among them sends them to their knees.
Their joy is remarkable. In it, they offer their very best gifts. They enter the story as strangers and they leave as friends – friends who teach us the way of obedience to God and wonderment at what God has done.
They pay homage to the Messiah.
This is the story of the first epiphany, for the revelation of God’s glory and incarnation to the magi is for us a preview of so many more epiphanies to come:
In our scriptures, God is revealed in Jesus at his baptism, a story we will hear again next week. Just a few weeks after that we will once again celebrate God’s revelation at the transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop, where the glory of God shone around him. God’s revelation happens again through the miracles Jesus performs, and then, through his Passion, death and resurrection.
God’s presence among us in revealed in the everyday stories of our lives, too. God’s presence is revealed in ordinary people who do ordinary and extraordinary things.
The news is full of horrible stories of violence and terror and horrible suffering at the hands of fire and storm. But if you listen, if you pay attention you will find within each story the accompanying stories of angels of mercy who reach out to help, rescue, heal, comfort, extend mercy and grace, offer forgiveness, show God’s love, care and compassion.
God’s presence is revealed for us each week as we celebrate God’s Word come among us and as we celebrate the revelation of God’s healing, abiding, forgiving word through the holy meal we share. God’s light is revealed in moments quiet and moments profound.
A couple of weeks ago, the Vatican had announced forward movement in the process that will lead to Mother Theresa being canonized a saint. Regardless of how you view the process and practice of the Catholic Church in the naming of saints, you probably agree that certainly in the way she lived her life and served the poorest of the poor, Mother Theresa shined the light and love of Christ on those with whom she came in contact.
Last week, we received a thank you card here at Grace, from one of the residents of St. Mark’s Village, an elderly recipient of Christmas gifts through Grace’s Christmas adoption activity and also a regular recipient of meals provided through feeding programs in which we engage each month, where the light of Christ shines on our small act of outreach: "Thank you so much for gifts through your Christmas gifting project,” he wrote. “It made my Christmas--made me feel so good. May God bless!!! [I] Just like what your church does for me. Happy New Year!!!"  
On Thursday a young man came through our doors, looking for assistance and thanking us for the help we’ve given before – assistance which has helped him and his wife show their young son what the love of strangers can do, in the name of Christ. At the end of our meeting, I held hands with father and son, as we prayed together for God’s light to continue to shine down on them.  
God’s presence will be revealed when we come together and profess our faith and when we open our doors for strangers and foreigners to enter into this sanctuary, so that together we can celebrate with overwhelming joy the light of God’s love. That love is made alive when together we are sent out to serve the community around us, to proclaim the good news of God’s glory, and when we reach out into the world through our collections and activities to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Thanks be to God who uses us to witness to the Light. Thanks be to God who is revealed through the ordinary and the extraordinary. Thanks be to God, who gathers together all the nations of the world and proclaims that tyrants need no longer be feared, because God’s light is revealed in Christ the King. Thanks be to God, the brightest star in the heaven, who blesses us with overwhelming joy, that we may be a blessing for the world. AMEN.

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