Psalm 72, Matthew 2:1-12
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 traveler 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 the metropolitan area, maybe go up into the mountains, you might get a sense of how the stars looked to the ancient world. That’s one of the things I miss from our upstate vacations with the kids every year; being able to look up at the night sky and see the endless blanket of stars every which we looked. Ancient travelers carefully plotted out the constellations and turned confidently to the stars for guidance. Stars were the original GPS system of the ancient world, of a world actually not too long ago.
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. As we bring the Christmas season to a close this week, 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 of the new year.
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, is called to be this light throughout the world. Jesus reminded us to not put our lamp under a bushel basket; instead put it on a lamp stand so that our light will “shine before people, so they can see the good things we do and praise our Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16 CEB). Isaiah put it this way: 9:2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them” (Is. 9:2). Paul writes to us in his second letter to Corinthians 4:6 “For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” It is the reassurance that in the darkest of times Jesus was born, and not even the darkness of sin can keep out the light of God in our lives.
In Matthew’s story, a star shines brightly in the darkness of the night sky, “his star,” 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. Whatever it was, a flare up of a star or the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, this light was a rare occurrence and the Magi were skilled enough to pay attention. They were faithful enough to take action and follow its trail. You may have heard the slogan: “wise men still seek him.” It’s an invitation to us to join these people of wisdom in finding enlightenment at the feet of Christ.
There are, of course, other characters in Matthew’s story besides Jesus and the Magi. There’s even a villain – Herod – an evil man who represents the darkness of the time into which Jesus was born. 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. He wants to extinguish the light that has come into the world.
The Magi, non-Jews, foreign scholars, 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. Tragically Herod, trying to extinguish this light, had the baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem – causing Mary and Joseph to flee with the child Jesus to Egypt. The message of Epiphany is clear – as the gospel of John declares: 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? What star shines even in the darkest places, leading you forward? 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.
So today, let us invite the light of the Jesus in our lives as we embark on 2022. What darkness are you struggling with? The darkness of sin holds us bound. The darkness of estranged relationships. The darkness of illness or death. The darkness of economic hardship. The darkness of conflict enveloping our families, our churches our neighborhoods. The darkness is there, but the good news is that each of us has access to the light of God that twinkles in the night sky, that twinkles in the darkest moments of our life, guiding “us to thy perfect light.”
In a little while, we will be picking star words – a word to guide our spiritual journey throughout 2022. Keep the word you pick close to you throughout the year. Meditate on it daily. Find out what it might want you to learn about yourself, or your relationship with God or others. Let this word illumine your live, let it be a point of reference, as you travel the next 12 months of 2022.
May your Star word turn you to the Light of Jesus that God shines in our lives as we embark on a new year. Poet Amanda Gorman encourages us forward in her New Year’s Poem, “New Day’s Lyric,”
This hope is our door, our portal.
Even if we never get back to normal,
Someday we can venture beyond it,
To leave the known and take the first steps.
So let us not return to what was normal,
But reach toward what is next.
What was cursed, we will cure.
What was plagued, we will prove pure.
Where we tend to argue, we will try to agree,
Those fortunes we forswore, now the future we foresee,
Where we weren't aware, we're now awake;
Those moments we missed
Are now these moments we make,
The moments we meet,
And our hearts, once all together beaten,
Now all together beat.
Let us step forward together into the light of 2022 and may its star shine bright in all our days. Amen