Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Following Stars

Sermon Notes for January 7, 2018

Read Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12

Today we celebrate Epiphany, even if it was technically yesterday. Twelve days of Christmas the song goes, and after the last of those days is Epiphany. The word is actually Greek and means manifestation of the divine.  God appearing among us. Over the centuries it has come to mean a sudden insight or understanding, supposedly as God reveals something new to us.

Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest, that search, that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider these wise men.
Now, there is a lot that we think we know about these magi that come from Christmas carols and not from the Bible. They weren't kings. They didn't have names; that came about in the 6th century. We don't even know how many there were, only that they brought three gifts.  We think that the term magi is referring to an order of scholars in Persia.

So, this group of scholars in Persia are studying the skies and they see a strange star. It is so strange, they decide to leave behind all they know and follow it. Matthew states that the Wise Men started in the east and moved west. They left home, the most familiar of places, the status quo, and ventured out toward a yet unknown destination. It would be a journey not unlike that of Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, who at the call of God departed their native land and traveled toward a land of promise. Like any journey, this journey for the principal thing in life involves enduring some rough spots along the way, negotiating a curve or two, climbing some hills, and passing through and out of dark valleys.

But they persisted, traveling for many long months. Now here's another thing that the tradition often gets wrong. The wise men didn't show up at the manger with the shepherds. The star appeared at Jesus' birth and that's when they started traveling from Persia. Persia to Israel takes a long time to travel when you are moving at the speed of a horse. No, it is thought that Jesus is nearly two when the wise men show up at his door. Notice that they are welcomed inside the house by Mary, not a stable. And Herod, when trying to get rid of Jesus, doesn't kill the newborns, but instead everyone under two.

So, these wise men travel for two years, leaving behind all they know because they see a star and know that it means something important. And what do they get for their troubles?  The literal translation  declares that they "rejoiced with a great joy" upon seeing Jesus. This exaggerated language is a literary device used when mere words simply will not tell the story. These wise men are so joyful that words cannot properly describe it. They achieve joy and satisfaction that few people get to know.

Further, the Wise Men fell down before the object of their worship and before their Savior they opened and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. \They gave costly gifts, just at their joy of being able to glimpse the savior. Anytime we experience that kind of deep joy that is God's gift, then we know that we are where we are meant to be.

Have you ever had such a moment? Sure you have. Stop and call it to mind. A moment when things seemed to really line up for you. A moment when you felt so at home in your own skin, so at one with yourself and everything, that you knew the place at which you had arrived is the place where you belong. A moment when you can say, "This is me. This is why I'm alive. This is who I am. This is where I am meant to be." A moment when the star you've been following stops and you find yourself overwhelmed with the joy that comes from being you.

That's the moment I wish for you. That's the moment God wishes for all of us. And what I also wish for you is that all of your moments could be characterized by that kind of joy. In the new year to come and in whatever years may follow for us, what if all of life could be the delightful experience of being flooded by and overwhelmed with joy? That joy happens, when like the Magi, we find ourselves at the place where we can freely and truly be who we really and truly are. Where is that joy place for you?

That's not as easy a question to answer as it may seem, because our lives are often not characterized by such joy. Our lives often reflect something other than the experience of being overwhelmed with joy? Why is that?

Many people in this culture are following stars that they intuitively know will never come to stop at any place they could ever call home, but they try to follow them anyway. Many in this culture are in a frantic and feverish gallop to have all the things the culture says represent success and happiness. But after getting all that, I hear people say, "I'm not happy in this job. I feel like a rat on a wheel. But I have this house and the second mortgage and all the other stuff I'm up to my eyes in debt to pay for. I've always been told that when I got all this, I'd be happy, but I'm not."

We get so caught up in the details, we forget to look for where God is calling us. These wise men left everything behind to follow a star to a God they had never known. They weren't Jews or priests. But they knew that this meant something amazing. Something that was worth following, so they did.

For Herod, the Magi, and us, the call of God is always to journey. A life of seeking the light of Christ is not one of sitting still or of expecting others to do the work but one of personal action. If we want to truly experience the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world, we've got to be willing to do the work of journeying to find him.

Now, we rarely get something so obvious as a star shining in the sky to follow, but God still manifests in the world today. God still calls us to look around and see God's presence in the world.

But, for this morning, I want to offer a chance to find your own star for this year. This is a spiritual exercise that has been growing in popularity for the last several years. I have done it for most of the last decade. It begins with these stars. Each one has a word on it and that becomes your word for the year.

My word this past year was Acceptance.   While originally I thought this was asking me to accept others, as the year went on, I realized I was given the gift of acceptance of myself for the year. My life has changed in a lot of ways in that year, but I believe every change is for the better – and has strengthened my acceptance and my sense of myself.

And I want to invite each of you to take your own star to follow this year. In the back of the sanctuary are a basket full of stars. Take one and see where God might be leading you this year. Now, when I say take one, I mean take one without looking. Take the first one you get and don't keep pulling for a word you like more.

Then put your star somewhere you will see it every day: on the fridge, or the bathroom mirror. Tape them beside the door so you see them as you go out into the world every day. Then pay attention. Listen for the ways the Spirit is calling you to live and act and see this year. Look for the signs that God is in the world around you. Follow where God is leading you. And you will find that joy that says that you are where you are meant to be.