Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2019, Epiphany C
The Star-Struck Part
Having passed through all of Advent, from its unsettling look at the end times through all of its anticipation of the birth of a Redeemer, the call of John in the wilderness and the prophecy of the unwed mother Mary, and finally through the manger at Bethlehem and the song of the angels to the shepherds, and through all twelve days of Christmas, there is one more part of the story to tell.
Our story so far has come from the gospel of Luke. The details found here in the gospel of Matthew are quite different. All of the business about John’s unlikely birth and angels visiting Mary and the journey to Bethlehem are absent; instead, late in Chapter 1, it is Joseph to whom an angel speaks, warning him off of divorcing Mary over her pregnancy and confirming just who this child Jesus would be. Joseph follows the instructions of the angel and marries Mary, and then Jesus is born.
As Chapter 2 opens, the story shifts to Jerusalem, where an unstable king is visited by foreign dignitaries asking about the birth of his successor – to Herod, what else would the “king of the Jews” be? He consults his advisors in a panic, gets an answer from them about where this was happening, and then tries to con the visitors into betraying this new child’s location to him so he could eliminate the threat to his throne. These visitors, most likely astrologer/astronomers from Persia, make their way to Bethlehem following this strange star, and there they find the child, probably about two years old by this time (and in a house, not a stable). They pay their homage, leave their strange gifts, and then…head home, “warned in a dream” to go a different way and avoid spilling the beans to Herod.
If Luke’s Nativity story is all sweet and romantic, Matthew’s narrative has more elements of conspiracy thriller, with intrigue and double-dealing aplenty. One can understand why Luke’s account is so much more popular. Nonetheless, the account of these magi and their visit is compelling, and presumably we do need to be able to take some sort of instruction from it. But what?
In tandem with the psalm we read earlier, we could speak of how Jesus fulfills the prayer of the psalmist for a good king and what that should be (especially when contrasted with the double-dealing Herod). Or we could talk about the meaning of those odd gifts, or how these magi were the first non-Jewish persons to behold the Christ child as far as we know – they are us, so to speak. But maybe there is something else. Maybe, in the case of this story, we need to look up.
These wise men (and there’s nothing that says there were three of them in this scripture) were prompted to take this journey by the appearance of that star. As noted above, these men were most likely a cross between astronomers and astrologers, and watching stars was certainly part of their business. But to be provoked into such a journey certainly suggests something powerful and compelling in what they saw, and how it matched up with their studies and learning. They were prepared for its appearance, and were ready to act accordingly when it appeared.
What this star did just isn’t normal. To speak of a star, or frankly any kind of heavenly body, that not only rises, but then moves ahead of the travelers and finally stops over this particular house in Bethlehem…that’s not how heavenly bodies work. Something different was happening here.
And it’s not as if these particular sky-watchers should have been the only ones who could see it, right? Any number of observers probably saw this thing going on if they watched with any sort of attention. But no one else was moved to make such a journey.
Only these particular magi, we might say, were star-struck.
Only they were prepared to see the sign, and ready to act upon what they saw.
Might we learn from these people?
We Christians (which these magi were not, we should remember) will sometimes use the term “followers of Christ” or “followers of God” or some variant thereof to describe who we are or what we are to be about. That implies that we are watching, observing, looking and listening to see where Christ leads us, one assumes.
Are we, though?
Are we truly alert and ready to act when we see, for lack of a better word, a sign from God? Are we truly motivated, charged, energized to get up and follow, to act, to move should we see and hear such a call? What would it take for us to be so prepared and so ready to act?
The trip on foot and by camel from Persia (what we now call Iran) to Palestine is neither short nor easy, and yet these astrologers took it, seemingly without flinching or hesitation, all to pay homage to a child-to-be-king of a foreign nation. What does it take to get us inspired to act? What does it take to get us to do the work of the church, to carry out Christ’s work in God’s world?
Are we truly watching and listening for the Spirit to do something in our lives, to lead us into something that might even be challenging and difficult?
Maybe what we need to learn from this final part of the story is that, after all, we could stand to be a little more star-struck.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #147, The First Nowell (verses 3-6 only); #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #151, We Three Kings of Orient Are; #145, What Child Is This