The Midnight bell has rung, the new year has begun – Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem, God-with-us was born once again! The cherub choir and bell choir and adult choir sang songs of joy and adoration, we raised our voices with the angels, and now it is all over. Until next year…
Well, actually – it is not over.
As I reminded those who were here last week for worship – Christmas Eve is just the beginning and Christmas is not over until the feast of Epiphany – which is today. The celebration may have ended for many of us, but until today, there have not yet been human witnesses to the birth of the Christ child. Until now, today, no eye, other than the parents’, had seen this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger, and no other ear had heard this baby’s hungry cry. But the visitors are on the way – and today they arrive bearing gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that tells us about “what tradition calls the ‘three wise men’ or ‘three kings’ who followed a star, carrying gifts from a great distance to offer to a newly born king. These gifts offered to Jesus as well as Jesus himself, as gift from God, lie at the roots of Christian gift giving during the Christmas season.”[i]
Matthew doesn’t tell us much about these travelers other than calling them magi which could possibly be translated as astrologers and yet we often refer to them as three kings or three wise men. A 2016 article in Christianity today writes about the mystery surrounding these gift bringers that, “Christians have been trying to nail down their identity for millennia. As early as A.D. 200, Tertullian [an early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa] was laying out arguments that the Magi, while astrologers by trade, were considered kings. To the contrary, John Calvin felt strongly about anyone who would label them “three kings”: “Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.” Adding a further wrinkle, first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote several chapters about the Magi wherein they sound more like something from a Harry Potter novel. He details their skill in magic arts—including pouring boiled earthworms in the ear to cure a toothache!”[ii]
In truth, all these descriptions are true in their own way – the Greek word used for magi can be translated as astrologers or wise men or even magicians or sorcerers.[iii]
Does it matter though, if these travelers studied the stars for years until one star appeared that held enough power to make them follow it? Or if they were kings and possibly the fulfillment of Psalm 72, our Psalm for today, which envisions justice, property, and deliverance for all through a righteous king whom “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles” will render tribute and the “kings of Sheba and Seba” will bring gifts” and before whom all kings will fall down?[iv] . The identity of the Magi is uncertain; as uncertain as their names and even their number.
I believe what matters most is that, through a star in the sky, God called the magi to a journey toward a far-away land in which the truth will be revealed to them. And they were willing to risk it all – willing to go on this journey…following a Star...and finding God in the most unlikely place.
Oh, if all of us had a star! A sign that leads us toward an even deeper journey with God.
As I was preparing for today, I came across this poem by Ann Weens, published in her book “Kneeling in Bethlehem” and called Star Giving:
What I’d really like to give you for Christmas
is a star. . . .
Brilliance in a package,
something you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
something that would never snuff out or tarnish,
something you could hold in your hand,
something for wonderment,
something for pondering,
something that would remind you of
what Christmas has always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.
But stars are only God’s for giving,
and I must be content to give you words and wishes and
packages without stars.
But I can wish you life
as radiant as the Star
that announced the Christ Child’s coming,
and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood
beneath its light.
And I can pass on to you the love
that has been given to me,
ignited countless times by others
who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.
Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star.[v]
The Spirit works this way sometimes.
And so, maybe the we will be blessed today by being heard even before we asked. And maybe, just maybe the gift giving of Christmas is not yet over but ends on this Epiphany Sunday with a word from the One who put the stars in the sky. See – as I sat and pondered what is in the stars for you and me and Trinity, how to give you a star – us a star - I came across this beautiful tradition called “Star Gifts”.
In some churches, each year, on Epiphany Sunday, each worshiper randomly selects a piece of paper decorated with a star or cut in the shape of a star – and on each piece a word has been written. The word on the paper becomes the person’s “Star Gift” for the year.[vi] A gift from God and a call to be answered. Just as the star guided the magi to Bethlehem, so this star word will guide its recipient on their journey. And so - later, during communion, I ask each of you to pick one piece of paper from this basket placed up front, and I invite you to consider how your word might speak to your life in this new year. Perhaps you could use it to lead your prayers this year.
Try to resist the temptation to pick through, to put back, or to trade words, but trust that the right word will find you. That God will put it into your hands.
The word that finds you may be a perfect fit. If so, celebrate it and live it more fully.
The word that finds you may offer encouragement or a challenge you need. If so, let it shape you in the days, weeks, and months to come.
The word that finds you may make you want to resist or even reject it. If so, prayerfully consider how come and remain open to what this word will teach you.[vii]
Trust that whatever word you receive, it is meant for you and step out onto a journey.
And let me close with these words by author Jan Richardson:
f you could see the journey whole, you might never undertake it; might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not. Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages as it opens before us…and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes: to be faithful to the next step; to rely on more than the map; to heed the signposts of intuition and dream; to follow the star that only you will recognize; to keep an open eye for the wonders that attend the path; to press on beyond distractions beyond fatigue beyond what would tempt you from the way… each choice [you make]creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel to offer the gift most needed – the gift that only you can give – before turning to go home by another way. [viii]
A note to those who could not be at this worship sermon:
If you would like to know more about Star Gifts or if you would like for Pastor Suzanne to say a prayer for you and to randomly draw a Star Gift word for you from the basket, please contact the church office and let Donna or Pastor Suzanne know.
[i] New Proclamation Year C 2013 by Ramsey, Sacken, Bond, and Linman
[iii] M. Eugene Boring in “New Interpreters Bible Commentary”, Volume VII, Abingdon Press 2015
[iv] Today’s Psalm is Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
[v] Ann Weems “Kneeling in Bethlehem”, Amazon KINDLE book location 728
[vii] Adapted from http://fumcstillwater.com/star-words-epiphany-2017/
[ix] Isaiah 60:1