Stars Shining Brightly -- An Epiphany Lectionary Reflection
Stars Shining Brightly
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
Such is the message that Jiminy the Cricket delivers to Pinocchio. Even if we don’t wish upon stars, star light does have a certain aura about it. Ancient mariners looked to the stars, especially the North Star to find their way in the night. One of the founders of my denominational tradition, Barton Stone, spoke of unity being our “polar star.” It was, he suggested, our guiding principle. In our modern day cities, it’s much more difficult to see the stars. Only the brightest and biggest can pierce through the light that pollutes the night sky, but in the ancient world, without the presence of artificial light, you could see into the heavens and perceive the movements of the stars, and perceive in them guidance for life.
The image of the light shining into the darkness is a key biblical theme. It’s assumed that without the presence of God darkness reigns on earth, but the good news is that light does shine and that if we’re perceptive we can follow the star to God’s righteousness. Indeed, we too can become lights in the darkness by reflecting into the world the light that is God.
It’s Epiphany Sunday, and the time has come to pull down the last of the Christmas decorations, and move on into God’s vision for the world. Epiphany declares that the darkness of this world cannot extinguish the light of God. The promise of the light is found in the reading from Isaiah, it is picked up in Ephesians, where the apostle declares that to him has been given the plan of God to shed the light of God on the Gentiles. And of course, there is Matthew’s story of the Magi, who come to the side of the true king, guided by the star in the sky.
The word from Isaiah is a timely one. This third rendition of the Isaianic vision emerges after the end of the exile. Now living under Persian dominion, disillusionment has set in. The people are frustrated and despairing that a better day might come. In words that seem appropriate for our age, when we seem unable to break through the malaise of our current situation, when hope seems to be little more than a wish upon a star, Isaiah speaks words of hope and guidance. “Arise, Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you” (vs. 1 CEB). There is light shining in the darkness, guiding us forward through the night. In a word that the church needs to hear, the prophet declares that “nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance” (vs. 5 CEB). As pastor of a small church, whose influence in the world seems negligible, I hear in this a word of empowerment. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t hang your head. Instead lift up your eyes and behold the radiant light of God shining into the world in and through these humble servants of God. Yes, the opportunity is there to proclaim the Lord’s praises. The times are difficult. We jump from one fiscal cliff to the next; we grieve the loss of life at an exurban school as well as urban streets; wars continue on unabated. The darkness and the despair seek to consume us, but we needn’t be afraid. We have more than a star to wish upon. We can draw strength from the radiance of God that shines brightly into our world.
The word from Ephesians is a powerful one. Paul may not be the author of this letter – his authorship long in dispute – but the image of a letter emerging from prison is an important one. Think of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a letter that brought light into darkness, revealing in the hearts and minds of people who claimed to be followers of Jesus their own darkness. This letter speaks of a secret plan, which the apostle has received by revelation. The secret plan is simple – God had determined from of old to shine the light of grace upon the Gentile world. The word of grace was not only given to the Jews, but to the world as a whole. Earlier generations may not have realized this, but there were, of course, hints (consider Isaiah 60). The apostle has been charged with sharing this good news “about the immeasurable riches in Christ.” Consider the liturgical context of this word. Isaiah speaks of “the sea’s abundance” that will be “turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you.” This word of giftedness from the Hebrew Bible precedes Matthew’s vision of Magi coming to bring to the young Jesus (maybe more toddler than baby by this time) gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Isaiah simply speaks of gold and incense. But here is a word that connects with the vision inherent in both Isaiah’s vision and that of Matthew – “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church” (vs. 10 CEB). This is an important word – the wisdom of God that will guide the world is to be revealed in and through the church. This raises an important question – what role does the church (the body of Christ) have in the world? Does this suggest a public role, a transformative role? And if so, how should this be lived out? We talk today about being missional, about living out from the Missio Dei (mission of God). Does this not fit that message? Does it not speak to the role of the church being that of a light shining in the darkness, and doing so because the church has “bold and confident access to God through faith in [Christ]” (vs. 12).
We’ve been waiting for this moment for some time. The crèches are begging to have the “three kings” added to the mix. In our Christmas vision, we merge Matthew and Luke together and bring the magi into Luke’s scene, but such is not the biblical vision. These are separate visions of reality and need to be heard on their own terms. For Matthew, it is important to connect the Jesus reality with that of Israel’s. Jesus fulfills, often allegorically, the prophetic visions – like that of Isaiah 60. Magi come, following a star, seeking to find the newly born “king of the Jews.” Who are these magi – the three kings of our imagination? Most assume that the persons envisioned here are Zoroastrian priests who come from the land of Persia – the land that once ruled over this region of Judah. They have seen in the stars, signs of something important occurring. Indeed, they see a particular star (comet, meteor, whatever), that serves as a portent that God is at work in the world. They interpret this, according to Matthew, as a sign that a new king has been born in Judea. Discerning this truth, they decide to bring gifts – in Isaianic fashion. They bring the gold and the incense. How many Matthew doesn’t say, even if the carol suggests three (based on the number of gifts). They go to Herod, who is a rather despotic tyrant of a vassal king, a man so jealous of his power that he is willing to kill family to protect his throne. No rival will be allowed, not even a small child. Herod wasn’t the first and won’t be the last tyrant to dispose of any potential rivals. Herod might be despotic he is also cunning, so in Matthew’s account, he plays along with them, asking when and where the star appeared, and then he turns to his religious advisors, who suggest that a prophetic vision (Micah 5), places the messianic birth in Bethlehem. Now for Herod this is important news, because Bethlehem is the Davidic city. Herod might be King of the old region of Israel, but he doesn’t have legitimacy. He’s not from the Davidic line – he was in fact an Idumean who married into the Maccabean line, and they weren’t Davidic either. The true hope, then, was for the restoration of the Davidic line. In Matthew’s vision the child born in Bethlehem, is the embodiment of this promise. Armed with Herod’s revelations, the Magi head for Bethlehem, finding the Holy Family in a house (not a manger) in Bethlehem. They fall to their knees before him, in essence declaring their allegiance to his prospective reign. They come bearing tribute for the new king. In the ancient world tribute – riches were brought by vassals to the Lord as a sign of their allegiance. We needn’t, at this point, take this to mean worship in the sense that they were acknowledging Jesus to be divine, but they were acknowledging him as God’s chosen vessel for extending the reign of God in the world. They do so, not reluctantly, but with joy. This is important news, because normally submission to the rule of another doesn’t come with joy, but here it comes as good news. It is, as the Ephesian letter suggests, as is true of Isaiah’s, that God’s purpose is being revealed. God has a universal vision of peace and joy. The Magi stand in as representatives of the Gentile world who will give their allegiance to this King who emerges from Israel. Herod on the other hand stands in as a symbol of the powers and principalities that will need to hear and see the wisdom of God as it is revealed in and through the body of Christ – the church.
We needn’t wish upon a star. We simply need to follow the star that is the light of God, which shines brightly into the darkness of this world. We can, therefore, as bearers of this good news, go before our God with boldness and confidence and share in the radiance that is God’s presence.