Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalms 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 January 3, 2021 – Epiphany Sunday
It is natural to see the Creator’s hand in a star, or the stars. When we look up into a clear dark sky, we are looking at lights that have come from millions of lightyears away.
What we see may be no more. What we don’t see may be what is. We can only know that Creation is vast beyond our imaging.
Our sun gives us light and life and all good things. Without it we would not be here. We would never have awakened from the slumber of possibility. Still, our sun is just one of billions of stars in our sky…billions of possibilities.
When we think of the stars…and our star…and our place in creation…we begin to get an inkling of how lucky we are…how blessed we are…to be here at all, living lives of thinking creatures …learning more about who we are and where we are…in time and space…all the time.
In our Nativity narratives, the whole world looks up as the Creator looks down upon us…our eyes meet, so to speak…as the preciousness of one little moment in time and space dawns upon those who have come to bear witness … to all people in all times and places.
This birth…this arrival of the Promised One…is bigger than human history, Matthew is trying to explain to us. Our western history is divided at this moment into BC and AD…Before Christ and Anno Domini…the year of our Lord.
It is not confined to that time or that place or the people who were living there then. The wise men who have come from the east to share the good news of the birth with Herod are from a foreign land.
They tell a story Herod had never heard. They quote an ancient scripture of Israel as to the time and place. They are not Jewish, like Herod, but Gentiles…from afar.
That is one of the ironies of life, I guess. The people you would least expect it from…tell you the very thing you need to know the most…like the stranger on the plane who can share more meaningfully with you … sometimes…than a parent or a supervisor or a lifelong friend.
They have a special kind of credibility because they have no stake in our outcome. They just have some information that might be helpful to us …and they are able to see things from a fresh perspective.
Maybe we are able to hear our question more clearly, too, when we try to ask it of someone we have never seen before and will probably never see again. We can be more candid, perhaps…maybe even more candid with ourselves.
People from afar have a fresh opportunity to see us and to help us see ourselves…with their reflections on what they see in us.
There are many things that get in our own way as we try to see clearly. The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred at the winter solstice this year would have been a wondrous sight …if it hadn’t been cloudy that night. Sometimes you need to get above the clouds to see what you need to see.
Dewey Muehlemann was a member of our congregation for many years. During his career he got to play a part in the building and launching of the Hubbell telescope that helps us to see from a vantage point beyond ourselves.
That is what the wise men did for Herod. They were able to stand at a distance and look in on his world and help him to see something that he would otherwise have missed.
This may not have been all for the good. This was wonderful news to the wise men, but Herod heard of another ruler arising in his land and could only see it as a threat…not a blessing. The meaning of life…to him…was power.
He wanted to know more about the Christ child…to be able to exert physical control over him…to prevent him from challenging his, Herod’s, worldly power…with the Promised One’s truth for all people at all times and in all places.
Galileo looked at the heavens in a new way 600 years ago. Our gratitude for the great blessing of a savior had led humankind to believe that the earth was the center of the universe…and when Galileo challenged that comfortable notion with data… Galileo had to recant his beliefs to save his life.
The Church would not absolve him of heresy until 1992, but the insight he shared almost immediately became working theories for scientists in the 1600’s seeking the truth rather than conformity.
If we cannot see what the truth is, we cannot grow in either wisdom or understanding. The comforting truth throughout all of history, for me, is that wisdom and understanding are irresistible for humankind.
We guess in order to know more clearly. We sort the facts of each day hoping that we have always been right about our beliefs…but knowing that we must grow in our wisdom and understanding at the same time.
It is what Thomas Jefferson was revealing in his own understanding when he said, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as to require civilized society to remain forever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Christ came not to repeal the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. He received a royal opposition to the gift he brought to humankind…from the moment of his birth.
If we base our actions upon tradition or what we want to be believe…rather than what can be verified by observation and rational deduction… we condemn ourselves…and all who trust in us…to a life in the twilight of ancient prejudice…rather than the bright light of observation and honest striving…we will be lost in space…and out of time.
We might chuckle at the follies of those who have gone before us, but I ask you to do so cautiously. We need to see ourselves clearly, too, and humble ourselves to what we see…
I pray that civilizations ages and ages hence will chuckle at us and our primitive understanding of who we are and where we are and what is coming at us.
This, I think, is what the Bible is talking about when it says that ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ We must humble ourselves to the truth if we are to hope to survive.
Herod did not fear God…but look: he feared a little baby…because he only feared what could harm his flesh. Somewhere deep down, though, even Herod understood that he did not have power…but it was, instead, power that had him.
He thought he could decree what was true and what was false. But it was all for show…because he knew what he was doing was all an act…punishing anyone who did not agree that he was the center of the universe…rewarding all who said he was.
But his power was mortal and the power of the Christ child was immortal.
If he really was the alpha and omega… even of his day…let alone all of history… he would have been able to shrug off the news of the birth of one who would one day become king of the Jews.
But he could not…and in his insecurity we see that he was just putting on a show to make himself appear to be important…more important than he was…for just a little while.
The truth always wins out, though. The Good ultimately triumphs over the proud… again and again and again. Demanding what we wish was true is a sure way to keep us from seeing what is true.
We live in a perilous time for the truth.
So did Galileo. So did the wise men. So did Jesus. So have all people.
We are seeing the rise of authoritarian governments all over the world…just as we did before World War I and World War II…just as Israel did when they asked God to give them a king.
We live in a time that is almost totally mediated when it comes to our search for the truth…whether the star revolves around us or we are the ones who are revolving around the star.
We do not look and see the world. We look and see what the 24 hour news networks are telling us. Some watch FOX. Some watch CNN. Some watch PBS. Each of them live in a different world…a different universe…a different creation.
If we get it wrong…as a life form…as children of the living God…we don’t just commit ourselves and our children to the need to backtrack in our actions, and to pardon those who we have wrongly accused of heresy…we miss each beautiful day under the sun that could light our way to joy and peace and hope and love.
That stranger on the plane or the train or the sidewalk comes to us to help us see beyond ourselves…beyond what we want to be true…beyond our time on earth…just as the wise men came to Herod.
So let us receive those who bring us good news of a child born under a star …long ago…and today…with open hearts, open minds and open doors.
Let us make 2021 the year we always hoped 2020 would be…because we know we can no longer blink at what we see or look away from what has happened.
Our eyes are open. Our ears are open. Our hearts are open to all good things God wants to give us…even a savior who comes to us as innocence and vulnerability…and wonder…at the power of God’s word.
We give thanks for this day…and all the days that have brought us to this time and place…and all the days to come…that will make us wise and understanding enough…to see the star …over the cradle...of God’s love for us all.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me …this day? Amen.