Star, the Beating Heart"
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
are once again off stage until next December. And the excitement of their
Christmas discovery begins to fade in our hearts.
in the Congregational tradition are not known for our passion. “God’s frozen
chosen” is the label that has been applied to us.
is a story of passion, of deep emotion.
The fear of Herod—and all Jerusalem
The overwhelming joy of the magi.
announces a birth that will shake us from dull apathy and remind us again that
we are alive.
challenges our complacency, our passivity, our expectation that everything will
pretty much continue on the way that it has been.
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.
morning I’m left with more questions than answers—so help me.
the star that rises in the heaven of your heart and leads you?
a star that give you reason to hope? Reason to love?
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?
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
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.
cold days, the incarnation of God calls us again to explore our passions.
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.