Listen to our service and sermon below:
Have you ever wished upon a star? I can remember as a five year-old, standing in the yard just after nightfall, and looking up into the sky, and saying those sing-songy words:
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.
And then I would close my eyes and make a wish. How many fantastic dreams did we come up with as little children, with our faces lifted towards the endless night sky? Even for adults, is there anything quite like the night sky for fueling our wonder and our wishing? Something about the sparkle of all those stars has the power to stir a kind of longing in our hearts.
What is that longing? What is it that we’re actually yearning for? Are we all wishing for the same things? Maybe our wishes when we were little were for little things, but now that we are bigger, our wants are bigger, too. A sense of meaning and purpose. Love, friendship, and acceptance. Healing of our pain. A sense of real peace. A feeling of hope for the future. A connection to something beyond us, something bigger than us, something as infinite as the night sky.
The wise men in today’s gospel story knew the power of that sky. Actually, we call them wise men or kings, but in Greek they were called “magi,” which means neither kings nor wise men but Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, the official religion of Persia before Islam. Zoroastrian priests were scholars who were known for telling fortunes, understanding astrology, and interpreting dreams. Like the Jews, they were anticipating the birth of the true Savior. They spent their lives scanning the skies in hopes of knowing when the miraculous birth had happened.
So when that one star rose in the sky, the magi knew what to do. They set out for it.
Isn’t it interesting how much we moderns love this strange, slightly unorthodox story? Here we have a group of priests from a religion we know very little about, traveling great distances on the basis of astrological readings. They visit a king to ask where the child is, and they go to Bethlehem based on a prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures. They follow the star to the unpretentious little village, and they bring odd and extravagant gifts for a little Jewish baby who had been born in a stable. They act on a dream they all had that warned them not to return to see Herod, so they go home by another path, and we never hear from them again.
It’s a strange story. And we love it. The church through the ages has always been so enchanted by this story that we have filled in all kinds of details that Matthew doesn’t give – we decided there were three magi and that they were kings and that they came on camels; we gave them each a name and declared their nationalities, too. Can’t you see them now? Three men in robes and crowns, carrying treasures, riding across the desert on camelback at night, following the glittering light of a single star, a beacon that pulls them towards a place they’ve never seen. This story captures our imaginations.
Part of what is so captivating about this story is the way it defies our modern “rational” sensibilities. Rational people don’t pick up and go on a long, difficult trip without a clear destination on the basis of astrology, do they? And they don’t then take another way home on the basis of a warning in a dream, do they?
This story confronts us with the possibility that there is a truth that is truer than what logic tells us. The God behind the limitless night sky poked a hole through the dark, and what peeked through was the light of God’s own bright love. Those men had been scanning, searching, and seeking a sign – and then one night, God reached through. And when God reached through, they reached back, and followed through the dark, towards where God beckoned them to go.
This story also confronts us with two different pictures of power.[i]There is King Herod, whose power comes from his position and is safeguarded by violence. When the magi tell him they are looking for the child who has been born King of the Jews, Herod is threatened. When a person in power fears competition, it tells us something about the nature of his power. It doesn’t come from within. It isn’t secure. It can’t tolerate criticism or challenge. It depends not on authentic authority but on authoritarianism. When a person in power has to squash the competition in order to hang on to his authority, it means he doesn’t actually trust that his own power is real. He can’t hold onto it without eliminating opposition, even if the opposition is a child. How inadequate Herod must feel. How insecure. To the people in Herod’s kingdom, his power seemed absolute. But the Bible tells us something about Herod and about anyone in our own era like him: that kind of power isn’t real power. And it doesn’t last.
The magi show us another kind of power. Their power comes from paying attention. It comes from being willing to seek the truth, even if that truth upends old understandings. It comes from believing in their own experience, even when that experience contradicted some of what they thought they knew. They had their own encounter with God – their own epiphany – and they trusted it, even when it called them forward towards a destination they couldn’t yet see. When they finally arrived, they were not afraid of this child or his power. They celebrated. They were overwhelmed with joy. They knelt down and honored him. They offered him their gifts. And when they were then warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another road. True power is not threatened by true power – it is humbled by it. It responds by giving the gifts it has to give. It listens to wild dreams. It defies authority when necessary. It resists the powers of the world. It goes another way, takes an alternate path.
It’s the beginning of a new year. So many fresh clean days ahead of us on the calendar. The possibilities ahead are dazzling. And maybe you have made all the usual rational resolutions people like to make at this time of year. Eat healthier. Exercise more. Lose weight. Save more money.
But what if the real yearning of your heart isn’t some practical self-improvement goal? What if what you are really wishing for, deep down, is the power that comes from connecting with your purpose, and connecting with the Source of your purpose? And what if what you are really seeking is also seeking you?[ii]
The story of the magi – like the story of the whole Bible – reminds us that this is the truth. God is seeking us, has always been seeking us, will go to any lengths to break into human lives. God will use any means necessary to connect with us – a star, a baby, a dream. And we who are so accustomed to thinking logically may miss that connection. We may question our own experiences, our intuition, our visions, our dreams. We may struggle to trust our God-given power. We may struggle to offer our God-given gifts.
It’s easier to make our usual New Year’s resolutions than it is to consider our deepest desires and biggest dreams. There’s nothing wrong with making resolutions to achieve small, measurable, achievable goals, but what if what you are really looking for at the beginning of this new year is something bigger and wilder than all that? What if what you are looking for is not something you can achievebut something you can receive, and then respond to?
The magi show us how to do it. Seek. Seek the truth. Seek God. Pay attention. Believe in signs of God’s presence, even when they defy logic. Be open to connection with God, however it may come. Trust that as much as you are reaching for God, God is reaching towards you even more. And when you do sense God calling you, get up and follow, even though you don’t see where the path leads. Give what gifts you have, even if they seem outrageous. Bear witness to the truth and resist the powers when they oppose the truth. Listen to your God-given dreams. Don’t let fear force you onto the easy or expected path. Go another way. And do all of this in community with other open-minded seekers and dreamers.
All of us are on a journey underneath an infinite sky. And all of us are carrying treasures in our hands. Give careful thought to what your gifts are and what they are for. They are for responding to God’s reaching through the dark. They are our answer to the stars. They are for welcoming Christ, whose presence within us isour power.