"The Shining Star, the Beating Heart"

                                                                  January 4, 2015


Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12


I recently ran across some New Year’s Resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote in his journal on January 1, 1942.There were 33 of them, written on two pages at the center of his notebook. Along with those that looked toward new productivity, such as “Work more and better,” “Work by a schedule,” and “Write a new song every day,” and those resolutions that perhaps give us too much information, such as “Take bath,” “Wear clean clothes,” and “Change socks,” there was Resolution Number 16: “Keep hoping machine running.”

We have just come through another year that most likely will be remembered for its tragedies—natural and of human origin—tragedies that still leave us shaken when we recall them. Our “hoping machines” can fall into disrepair. We can become cynical, despairing, and jaded. The start of a new year is often filled with hope or at least a cheerful optimism and it is up to each of us to keep that machine running.

So I begin to understand the wisdom of linking Christmas with the coming of the New Year. Early Christians began marking the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December because of the winter solstice. The days are beginning to get just a little longer once more. The light has triumphed over the darkness. What better time to celebrate God with us in Jesus? What better time to mark the advent of the one we call the light of the world?

Without our yearly celebration of incarnation—which concludes today—we would be reluctant to go into another year.

We know, don’t we, that in most respects, we’re pretty much the same people that we were back in November. We still have the same strengths that we bring to our work and our families, to this city and this congregation. We still have the same concerns about our world and the poverty, hunger, and violence that still haunt it. And, yes, we’re still dealing with the same foibles, flaws, and, well, sin, in spite of the goodwill and resolve that we’ve known in recent weeks.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany—such days and seasons don’t change us. This was part of the wisdom of the old Congregational neglect of these occasions. But these times do remind us that God is at work in our world and in our lives—telling us that even we might be transformed by God’s love; even we might be remade in the image of Christ. These days, this season helps keep the hoping machine running.

Each year the weight of the past gets heavier—the things done that should not have been done, the things left undone that should have been done. Each year the weight of the past gets heavier—and so we continue to seek out this Jesus who tells us his yoke is easy, his burden is light.

Today, as friends and family take their leave, as we return from various journeys, as school looms and a new year gets going, we hear one last Christmas story—of the magi and their travels, what they learn, what new things they behold.

We call this day “Epiphany,” a word that means “revelation.” In this story we are shown something that we couldn’t discover on our own. When the magi arrive in Bethlehem with their gifts the Word made flesh in Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles—to you and to me. We couldn’t have come up with this on our own. To see the central reality of all of life: Emmanuel—God with us—we need an epiphany.

Call it inspiration. It is a deep grasping of truth that is revelation.

This morning we are confronted by the unfamiliar, the uncommon: astrologers from the East, an enraged, tyrannical ruler, frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

What is being revealed to us?

Those involved in this story have questions.

The magi come first to Jerusalem, certain about the one whom they seek but uncertain about exactly where to look. The foolishness of the wise is shown in that they decide to ask Herod, of all people, just where it is that they will be able to find this newborn king. They've brought along a few gifts, you see, and they would like to, well, worship him.

Herod, upon hearing this request, is frightened. Scared, but not scared out of his wits, which he still has about him. First he finds out what the magi, for all of their knowledge of the stars were not able to determine. He gathers the religious leaders together and learns that Bethlehem would be a good spot to look for a king. David, the shepherd king, grew up there. And while it was a small and insignificant a town, it just might be the place where the new shepherd of Israel would be found.

Then Herod says to the Magi. “Do me a favor, would you? I’m too busy to go myself right now. You understand that. You’re important people. But when you find this child, send me word so that I can go and, uh, worship him too.”

If he were honest, Herod would have said “kill” instead of “worship.” And a few years later that would be the solution that the Roman government would find to the problems that this Jesus would cause.

The magi go on their way, following a star. As astrologers they are led by something they know. They understand that changes in the heavens mean changes on the earth. And this looked big.

Arriving in Bethlehem, they are overwhelmed with joy. They don't know whether they should laugh or cry, so they do a little of both. Their gifts, which they though were, just the thing in their own country now, however, appear to be a little inappropriate for a child. What were they thinking when they allowed the clerk to convince them that myrrh, which was used for embalming, would be the ideal gift?

Somehow though, it didn’t really matter. They leave the gifts and head back home, their heads still reeling, their hearts still beating faster than they had known for a long time.

The magi are once again off stage until next December. And the excitement of their Christmas discovery begins to fade in our hearts.

People in the Congregational tradition are not known for our passion. “God’s frozen chosen” is the label that has been applied to us.

But this is a story of passion, of deep emotion.

            The fear of Herod—and all Jerusalem with him.

            The overwhelming joy of the magi.

The star announces a birth that will shake us from dull apathy and remind us again that we are alive.

The star challenges our complacency, our passivity, our expectation that everything will pretty much continue on the way that it has been.

The star raises more questions than answers. It's been said that the birth of this child invites us into a search. I think the simple truth that is being held out here is that at its richest the Christian life is not so much a life lived as though all the answers were given, but a life lived as though all our answers are only gateways into deeper levels of answering—which in turn give way to bended knee and adoration and praise. The Christian life begins in wonder and ends in worship, which in a sense is an even more profound sense of wonder.

This morning I’m left with more questions than answers—so help me.

What is the star that rises in the heaven of your heart and leads you?

Is there a star that give you reason to hope? Reason to love?

What gets your heart beating—enough that you’d pack up your camel and head out? Is there some beauty, some goodness, some truth that you seek, that you want to bring into the world? What gift do you have that you want to offer? What gift do you have that the world is waiting to receive?

What gets the heart of this congregation beating? What new mission shines brightly for us to follow? What do we hope for—and what do we fear?

The One found in Bethlehem is the One who gives life and calls forth our own gifts—the best that we have, the best that we are, the best that is in our control, the best that is in us. Like the Magi we are struck with the sense that none of this is enough. We empty our treasure chests and in our emptiness discover that this is the One who comes to us as a gift.

We give because we need to give. We give because we need to offer ourselves and our substance to the God who comes to us in Jesus. And suddenly we see it: Our gifts are not given to the needy. Our gifts come from the needy—from you and me.

Giving generously we meet our needs.

Giving wisely, we meet our own needs.

We give. And we, the needy receive, this day and every day, not certainty, but revelation—a making known to us of that which we can’t think through or reason out. The eyes of faith have seen and the ears of hope have heard what eyes have not seen and ears have not heard: God is with us—not just in the wonder and beauty of Christmas but also when the lights have come down, the tree has been thrown out and the angels have returned into the heavens. In all of our days and nights, in our living and in our dying, in our returning and starting over God is with us.

So we can be with one another, seeking to love as we have been loved. We can be with the world, seeking to bring healing to our city, our nation. We can even—and sometimes this is the most difficult—we can even be with ourselves in stillness, in acceptance, in love, in hope. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we can be at peace in our own skin.

Read Matthew’s story of the magi again sometime this week and think of what is revealed to you in this story. Notice that God is never mentioned. God is with us. But God is with us “unobtrusively and ambiguously.”[i] This is how God chooses to be with us—in a way beyond our deepest fears and our wildest hopes.

We couldn’t have come up with this on our own.

It is a revelation—an epiphany.

God is with us.

In these cold days, the incarnation of God calls us again to explore our passions.

If we will face our fears, if we will follow our joys, perhaps we will yet arrive at the place where Christ is born in the world today.

[i] Eugene Boring, Matthew, NIB, vol. 8, pg. 143.