Following the Star -- A Sermon for Epiphany
One of the first songs most of us learned as children was this old English lullaby:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
It’s not a Christmas carol or even an Epiphany hymn, but the third stanza seems to fit today’s service:
Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
Light pollution makes it difficult to see the stars in the night, but if you get away from civilization, maybe go up into the mountains, you might get a sense of how the stars looked to the ancient world. No wonder ancient travelers looked to the stars for guidance. If you knew the movement of the stars, you’d know where you were and where you were going. They were the original GPS, and they weren’t nearly as annoying!
According to Matthew, Magi – Zoroastrian priests from Persia -- followed a twinkling star to the house of Jesus, so they could honor him as king of the Jews. Yes, as we bring the Christmas season to a close this morning, we hear a story that invites us to look forward to new journeys upon which the Spirit of God will lead us in the coming months.
The message of Epiphany is this: The light of God is made manifest in Christ to the world, and as the body of Christ, the church continues to shine this light into the world. As, Jesus said: don’t put your lamp under a bushel basket; instead put it on a lamp stand so that your light will “shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16 CEB). So, as Isaiah puts it: “Arise, Shine! Your Light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you” (Isaiah 60:1 CEB). Darkness may be closing in on you, but “the Lord will shine for you; God’s glory will appear over you.” (Vs. 2). Another way to understand Epiphany, is to think about how this word is used in normal conversation. When someone says they’ve had an epiphany, what they mean is – they’ve had a moment of understanding, a moment of clarity.
We see this in the conversion stories of the great saints of God. Jonathan Edwards, one of the great American theologians of the colonial era describes how he was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, which says: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever and ever, Amen.” As he read these words, he experienced a moment of spiritual clarity:
“There came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.” 1
These moments don’t come all the time, but when they do, they move us profoundly. A couple of years back, I was at a conference up at Rochester College. I remember how the words of the closing sermon moved me so profoundly that I began to weep. As Katy spoke, her words penetrated my soul and I experienced in a very powerful way the love of God.
Epiphany invites us to open our lives to moments of life-changing enlightenment. Since the Magi represent the East, perhaps it’s appropriate to use the Buddhist term “mindfulness.” Thich Nhat Hanh defines “mindfulness” as the “kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful.”
In Matthew’s story, a star shines brightly in the darkness of the night sky, drawing the attention of the Magi, who recognize that this light in the sky is a sign that something important is occurring, and that they need to follow the sign to where it leads. You may have heard the slogan: “wise men still seek him.” It’s an invitation to join these men of wisdom in finding enlightenment at the feet of Christ.
There are, of course, other characters in this story besides Jesus and the Magi. There’s even a villain – Herod, the titular King of the Jews. That is, while he holds the title, his claim is questionable. He’s not a descendant of David, and he came to power in part by marrying into the last Jewish dynasty, but what is more important, he had the support of Caesar. So, while it’s not surprising that when the Magi come looking for the “King of the Jews,” they first stopped at Herod’s palace, this wasn’t their final destination. What they learn from Herod, however, is that the prophet Micah had spoken of a shepherd arising out of Bethlehem. And so, they head out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find their promised king. Of course, Herod, always concerned about his own power, had other designs in mind – but you’ll have to read the rest of the chapter to see what Herod had up his sleeve.
But before we move to Bethlehem, we should stop to think about what Herod represents. He represents “the powers that be” and the “rulers of this world.” Unlike the kingdom of God, which Jesus represents, Herod’s kingdom is founded on brute force. Like so many other brutish powers, Herod represents the kind of top-down, take-no-prisoners, power for the sake of power, kind of rule that we see with someone like Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. Of course, you don’t have to go to Syria to find examples of this kind of domineering power that Herod represents. There are many examples of domineering power much closer to home.
When the Magi reach Bethlehem, their search ends at a little house in Bethlehem. Upon their arrival, they fall on their knees, and honor this child with tribute – gold and incense – recognizing in him the rule and reign of God.
The Magi recognize Jesus as the true king, but as we learn from the gospels, his kingdom is very different from that of Herod. His is a kingdom of light rather than darkness; love instead of domination. Instead of enslaving us, it sets us free. In fact, it’s the kind of kingdom described in the Beatitudes, where Jesus declares: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the ones who hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It’s no wonder that Herod tried to snuff out the realm of God at the beginning, even as Pilate tried to do the same later on. It’s just not the way the world does things!
But the message of Epiphany is clear – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
So, where do you see signs of God’s kingdom present in your life? If you’re looking for lights in the sky, then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. But, remember when the older President Bush spoke of “a thousand points of light?” He was talking about voluntarism, but on this Epiphany Sunday, as we celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world, I think it’s an apt description of how we, having been enlightened by our encounter with the child born in Bethlehem, carry the light of God into the world.
You’ll find the light of God present wherever people care for the poor, teach children, feed the hungry, build homes for the homeless, give a shoulder to cry on, or stand up for those who are persecuted and oppressed.
In just a couple of weeks we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and I think you could call Dr. King one of those points of light, but he’s not alone. Consider Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She gave her life to organizing people to advocate for and engage in efforts to bring relief from poverty. She heard her calling in a moment of enlightenment, when she discovered the power of God’s love. She wrote of her own conversion:
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.2
The good news is that each of us has access to the light of God that twinkles in the night sky, guiding “us to thy perfect light.”
1. Jonathan Edwards testimony in Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, Edited by John M. Mulder, (Eerdmans, 2012), p. 83.
2. Dorothy Day in Finding God, p. 231.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 6, 2013