Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the midst of World War II’s bombing of Britain, two Anglican priests Eric Milner-White and G. W. Briggs penned one of the most beloved prayers for uncertain times. You may know the words, “Lord God, You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out in good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The words were intended to serve as a concluding prayer for a Bible study on the life of the patriarch Abraham leaving his homeland of Ur. But it could have been written just as appropriately for the wise men in St. Matthew’s gospel leaving their homes in the East to find the new born king of the Jews.
The Bible’s portrait of the wise men is rather sketchy. We read merely, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’” We know nothing more than this. We don’t know the exact day they arrived or how far they had travelled. We cannot even be certain of their number. One detail, however, is clear and that is the gifts they brought to the newborn king. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. We know as well, that at the end of their venture to which they could not see the ending, “when the wise men saw that the star stopped over the place where the child was, (that) they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Now, this tiny detail may surprise you. For even before they saw the Christ child in Bethlehem with Mary his mother, the wise men were overwhelmed with joy. Mind you, the little town of Bethlehem certainly wasn’t the capital city of the Jewish nation which they expected, nor was the simple home, a majestic palace. The shepherds and merchants wandering the streets didn’t compare to the priests and princes of Jerusalem. Oh, yes, they faced perils unknown in the Middle Eastern despot King Herod. So, why were they so overwhelmed simply seeing the place where the star stopped? I suspect they were overjoyed because they knew that this was where they belonged.
That’s what God wishes for all of us. The story of Epiphany reminds us that true joy happens, when like the wise men, we find ourselves at the place where we can freely be who we are meant to be. It is a journey of faith, of ventures of which we cannot see the ending. So how did they reach that place? That is the focus for today’s meditation
Fate and free will have always been a part of the journey of faith. There are those who accept the common saying, that, “No matter how impossible, unattainable or unimaginable something may see, if it’s meant to be, it will happen, ” while there are others who are committed to the human power of their own actions. As English poet and critic William Ernest Henley wrote, “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Personally, I carry with me a bit of both, along with the optimistic enthusiasm of the owner of the fictional “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” “Everything will be all right in the end… and, if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”
Of course, we can all become impatient with God’s timing. From childhood we know the word of scriptures. “God’s ways are not ways, and our ways are not God’s ways.” But that doesn’t mean we like it. We may be absolutely convinced that we know what God is saying to us and instructing us to do, so we choose to hasten the process, and take things into our own hands.
That’s what the wise men did. They followed the mysterious, elusive star to the land of Judah. They followed the star that God had placed in the heavens just for them, but as they entered the land promised to Abraham, they journeyed directly to the place where they expected the king of the Jews to be born- to the palace in the holy city of Jerusalem. Where else would rational thought and common sense have led them? Where else would one expect to find a new born king? They were so sure of themselves, and so confident in their own wisdom that they chose to go where they thought they were being led. But as they stood within the city gates they were perplexed. Had they arrived at the wrong place? How could three foreigners from the East be the first to know about the new born king in his own royal city? Everyone was so cold and guarded, and no one offered to guide them to the palace. Shouldn’t the people be singing and decorating the streets. The wise men felt like fools on a game of Trivial Pursuit gone awry.
Perhaps that is where you have found yourself at the beginning of this new year. You are in the wrong place. You began a journey with God’s blessing along the paths as yet untrodden, but now you aren’t so certain that God’s hand is leading you and that his love is supporting you after all. At times, life is messy and family relationships can be complicated. Watching your children grow up and struggle is not easy to observe. The work and position you once sought no longer seems to have any meaning. Your own health is failing you, and loving ones are growing frail. You would like to take matters into our own hands. That’s exactly what the wise men felt, so having come so far they went to the royal palace.
The news of a newborn king, troubled King Herod, and all the city with him. He gathered all the chief priests and scribes, and he enquired of them where the king should be born. That’s an important lesson for all of us. When you are feeling lost or abandoned, begin by turning to scripture. The wise men had set out on their journey following a 1000 year old prophecy from the book of Numbers 24:17, “A star shall come out of Jacob; a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” And they were put back on the right path by an equally obscure prophecy from the book of Micah. The scribes in Jerusalem answered Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea.” God uses his holy word in many ways- to guide, to inspire, to challenge and to change us. But, he also uses his word in the human pursuit of knowledge and truth to lead us to Christ. My friends, if you have lost sight of your destination, turn to the holy comfort and consolation of scripture.
When the wise men left the King Herod’s court, they saw the star reappear. By faith, God was once again guiding them. And when the stopped over the place where the child was they were overwhelmed with joy. It was journey’s end, the venture’s ending. And for the wise men, there was the deepest relief. They were struck by the contrast how different that joy felt from the feelings they had experienced when they went their own way to Jerusalem and in that secret meeting with Herod. The one felt so right. The other felt so wrong. The joy they felt when the star stopped was the inner confirmation that they had arrived at the place. It was their epiphany- their revelation. My friends, anytime you experience that kind of deep joy that is God’s gift for you. Then you know that you are where we are meant to be.
Men and women of faith are led by scriptures, but I believe that we can also be captured by the unexplained, the luminescent mysteries in life. Certainly, the wise men were drawn by the star. Knowledge and logic had led them to Jerusalem. But it was the reappearance of that elusive, guiding star that led them from the Holy City to the place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Do not be afraid of an unexplained mystery in your life. Trust instead that God is giving you good courage for going out. What will be the occasion of mystery for your faith? In my mind it is when you allow yourself to be exposed to the presence of God, to be surrounded by the company of fellow believers, to be captured in prayer, to be embraced in his holy sanctuary, and to ponder the wonder of his word. Most likely you will not see a guiding star rimming the horizon, nor will you be greeted by a host of angels on a hill overlooking the city. God will remain veiled to you, and by his Holy Spirt, he will tap you on the shoulder through the mystery of the Word and Sacraments. Not overwhelming your intellect- for then he would violate your integrity. But simply whispering into the ear of your soul and gently persuading you to have faith.
So where has the star stopped for you, my friends, or are you still on your journey? Beware, God keeps calling us to new ventures throughout our lives. Perhaps God has called you to a new venture- even today. Do not be anxious, but be of good courage. The story of the wise men and the star has been written to reassure you and all generations that God will lead you to those places in life where you will be in the presence of his love, and where we you will over joyed by Christ’s own presence in your life again and again. God will guide you to that place where you are meant to be, so that you can truly be yourself. It is with confidence, that I can say, “Everything will be all right in the end… and, if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”
So “when the wise men saw that the star stopped over the place where the child was,” why were they so overwhelmed with joy?” I would dare to say, because, through the course of their journey, they had grown to trust that where ever the star stopped that God would be present. They had grown to know that where ever the star stopped, there, they would experience God’s wonder. Yes, on their journey they had grown to believe that where ever the star stopped they would find the birth of hope, the dawn of love, and the presence of peace. When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. That is my hope and prayer for you, as you are called out on ventures, of which you cannot see the ending. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.