Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the first poems I learned as a small boy was the simple rhyme, “Star Light, Star Bright.” Gazing out on the horizon, I watched for the first star to appear, so that I could recite that hopeful verse.
Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.
I probably learned it while watching my favorite movie Pinocchio. Jiminy Cricket taught a generation of impressionable youth.
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.
Since the beginning of time, stars have been an important part of our human imagination. Even in Holy Scripture, stars appear frequently. From the creation story in Genesis to their appearance in Revelation, stars tell us something about what shall come to pass. Most of us today feel a bit uneasy searching the heavens for signs from God. After all, astrology is based on the theory that the movement of the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon can influence human affairs and determine the course of events. That is of course, one form of astrology.
In contrast, the astrology practiced by the wise men in the Bible refers not to the influence of the stars upon human life, but rather to the celestial objects serving as the messengers from God. So when we read in St. Matthew’s gospel that a star appeared in the East, we should pay attention. The heavens themselves were proclaiming what was soon to come to pass. And that is what I would like to share with you this day. A star still shines for all to see. And in spite of the sorrows of this dark world, this star offers wise men and women a light of hope that allows its followers to rise and shine. That is your promise as well as you begin this new year.
Surprisingly, unlike the beloved song of Jiminy Cricket, the star of the ancient world were not the granters of good wishes. Instead, the stars were often the sign of bad news. For most of human history, people would agree. The ancient historian Josephus noted that a star stood over the city of Jerusalem just before its fall in 70 AD. There were many who thought that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD had been caused by a comet. Likewise, the appearance of a star in the sky over England in 1066, just before the Battle of Hastings, between the English and the Norman conquerors, was seen as an omen of what was to come.
That is how the story of the journey of the wise men begins and the terror of King Herod unfolds. It is why King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. After all, who knew what other political star might fall, what constellation of power might collapse, what other constellation of privilege might be torn from the heaven? King Herod wasn’t going to take any chances. He would stop the stars in their courses.
Herod was the builder king who had overseen the reconstruction of the Temple. Unfortunately, he had one terrible flaw. He was obsessively paranoid, and in his old age he had become a murderous old man. If he suspected any one to be a rival to his throne, he or she was killed. He ordered the murder of his wife, her mother, and his eldest son. On his 70th birthday, he ordered the arrest of Jerusalem’s most distinguished citizens. They were to be killed at his hour of death. King Herod knew that no one would mourn his passing, but he was determined that tears should be shed when he died. The wise men’s pursuit of the new born king sent shivers down the city of Jerusalem. The people knew the extent to which Herod would pursue a child destined to be king.
The portrait of the wise men in St. Matthew’s gospel in contrast is rather sketchy. We read simply, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” We know nothing more this. We don’t know the day they arrived; whether the child was still an infant or now a toddler; we cannot even be certain of their number; were they kings or astrologers. But for generations, their pilgrimage to the Christ Child has captured the imagination of devout Christians and curious seekers alike. Their nighttime journey across the desert, led by an elusive star, across the darkened ridges of the ancient spice trade route from the East still captivates us. Their pilgrimage led them to Herod’s palace, nine miles from their destination.
The wise men, whatever their number, were regarded as the most knowledgeable men of their age. They were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. People listened to them because they too believed that the stars in the heavens carried messages from God. And in spite of his own evil intentions, King Herod listened to the wise men as well, and actually understood at least part of this news. The star the wise men had seen at its rising was proclaiming a great change, but Herod also understood that the appearance of a star was not good news for him. Secretly, he called the wise men to his palace, and offered them one more detail for their journey that would hopefully lead them to the new born king. Herod sent them to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Contemporary Herod’s still exist. They know that their time and power is limited, and that the world is changing, but that does not stop them from unleashing their worst. We watch helplessly as international terrorism explodes across our lives. We hear the macho game¬ playing of world leaders under the giant shadow of conflict and rumors of war. And we sense that the nations are out of control, reeling toward some hideous nightmare end. Yes, their modern King Herods who would destroy the young and innocent and all those who are threat to their power.
Of course, there are less visible Herods in our world as well who strive to diminish the joy and wonder of the new born king by stealth. They direct our gaze to other sights and spectacles. Like the Herod of old, they can talk a good game about praying and working for something new, but they really are much more comfortable with the old. They offer empty words. “Bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
There are many details upon which we can ponder and meditate, but perhaps the greatest wonder in this story is the decision of the wise men, having seen the child in Bethlehem, to turn back from Jerusalem and to journey home by another way. It was the greatest of faith they offered.
Such a moment will be true for all our journeys. It is at that moment when you must make a choice. Faith you see is not merely the wistful, wishing upon a star. But like the wise men of old, you must choose between the divine message of God proclaimed by a star in the heavens, or the words of men and women clinging to the world they claim as their own. It is committing your treasures of gold and frankincense and myrrh to what you cannot see. We do not know that the wise men ever saw the resurrected Jesus. They did not see the Lord in his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the Father. The home they visited was not a royal drawing room. The Virgin Mary was a young peasant girl. Joseph was a village carpenter. But led by their hungering for knowledge and truth, sustained by God’s mysterious revealing star, they took a chance: they committed themselves to a tiny child. The wise men took a chance and worshipped him. And then God provided them with another road home. It wasn’t the way they were planning on returning to their home in the East, but it was on the road where God would protect and sustain them.
That is the promise of the star. It is the good news for a troubled world. It such good news that star appeared in the East for all the world to see. And that is good news for you as well. As the new year begins, you and I are invited to acknowledge the darkness of our own fears and anxieties, and to imagine what it might mean to live in the light of that new star. It is to imagine a world where the King Herods great or small have no sway over us, and the light of Christ is dawning. It is how you can truly face the life’s anxious moments- the doctor’s diagnosis that seems less than optimistic, the sorrow of the empty chair at your table, the marriage that is still like walking on egg shells. My friends, the message of the wise men is that in the painful, dark moments in life, God’s mysterious presence inspires us to discover new directions, and along that new way his light will shine. It is a choice.
It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. The pastor of the church was looking over the crèche and the manger when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from among the figures. Immediately he turned and went outside and saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the little infant Jesus. So he walked up to the boy and said, “Well, where did you get Him, my fine friend?” The little boy replied, “I got him from the church.” “And why did you take him?” The boy said, “Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus and I told him if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give him a ride around the block in it.” My friends, what gift will you bring to honor him?
Whatever your fears and sorrows may be, the star which the wise men saw at its rising in the East is a sign for you, that you too can live your life in a new light. It is the star that offers God’s promise of joy and light. The world is changing and the Herods are losing their reign- and even now he is preparing a new road for you. It may not be what you would have wished for- on the first star you see tonight, but it is the road where God will bring you safely home. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.