In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
How many of you have been following the travels of the New James Webb Space Telescope that was launched on Christmas morning? The $10 Billion successor to The Hubble Telescope will look deeper into the cosmic past than any telescope before. The full deployment process will require one month and more than 300 points where a single wrong step will doom its mission- a pretty risky endeavor!
If you’ve been watching any news reports about The Webb Telescope, you may have seen and heard members of NASA and the global scientific community’s enthusiasm, their awe, the wonder at its creation and what it can mean to our understanding of the Universe.
While we marvel at this recent human accomplishment, our looking at and seeking stars is a timeless pursuit of humanity. On this Epiphany Sunday, we read that “Seeing the star, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy.” Why? Biblical scholars think that these Magi- which is what Matthew calls them, “Magi,” not “Kings,” despite the hymn- these Magi were eastern astrologers, those who constantly looked at the stars. So why should these Magi rejoice with a really, really big joy?
According to Matthew, they came in the house, and they opened their treasures, and they worshiped the infant Jesus, “the one born king of the Jews.” How did these magi know just from looking at a star that this baby was to be a king? Now remember, this is the Gospel of Matthew, not Luke. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t have a manger birth, no angels singing in the heavens. The magi weren’t Jews, they were gentiles. They didn’t necessarily have access to the prophetic predictions of the Hebrew scriptures concerning the birth of Jesus. Where did they get their “exceedingly great joy”?
I suspect that they were joyful because they were on a journey, a search. They were joyful because, looking at the baby Jesus, the magi knew that they were at their long awaited destination. We don’t know how many of them there were – we always refer to three, but that’s only because we read of their three gifts. There could have been a slew of magi. However many, or whoever they were, these magi seemed to be the sort of people who were looking for something, willing to risk a journey, brave enough to venture forth on the search. And when they got to the goal of their search, they felt joy.
Do you know anyone who would rather get a root canal done by the dentist than take a trip somewhere (at least back when we were able to take trips!) ? Even before the pandemic, there have often been people who simply love their home and its comforts too much to venture out. They love being in control of their surroundings. The one thing that makes a journey difficult is that it places us at the mercy of the trip. Every trip is a risk.
Every baby is a risk, too. The birth of Jesus set a whole series of difficult, bloody events in motion. The baby that the magi discovered was not the end of the journey, but the beginning, as Christ always tends to be for those who follow him. Christ calls us to follow him – not just to “believe in him” but to follow him – to places that we wouldn’t have gone without his leading. Like the magi who saw his star rise in the east and followed it. We too are stargazers and travelers. As Jesus’ followers, we see a light on the horizon and we followed where it leads, down an unfamiliar road, guided by the light of the one Matthew introduces as “king of the Jews.”
The Gospel of Matthew also introduces us to another character in this Epiphany story — King Herod – who was back at the palace protected by his soldiers. Herod was put in power by the Romans, and when he heard about the one whose star had risen in the east, he got very nervous. The star filled him with fear. And when Herod got fearfully nervous, somebody ended up in a lot of pain. First, he tried to get the magi to give him the baby’s exact location. When the magi evaded him, Herod ordered a slaughter, killing every baby in and around Bethlehem, two years old and under.
Herod was one of history’s great villains as he murdered even his beloved wife, and three of his own sons. He was threatened by everybody, and they paid for it. Matthew also says it wasn’t only Herod who got nervous when the baby Jesus was born. We read that, “Herod was terrified, and all Jerusalem with him.” All of Jerusalem trembled because all of Jerusalem knew how bloody Herod could be when he was anxious.
This is quite a story – the magi in their huge joy and Herod and all of Jerusalem filled with murderous fear.
So my question for you this morning is: Where do you find your place in this story? As you stand before this new infant king, are you the fearful Herod and people of Jerusalem? Or are you the joyful magi?
I suspect many of us feel kinship with both. During these seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, I expect that we’re a mixture of both joy and fear. Because this baby is asking us to go on a journey and, in every trip, there is fear and joy.
We live in a powerful nation, so we surely can identify with King Herod. With all the legions of Rome behind him Herod was still afraid of a loss of power and control. Today we too are a nation of fear, especially as we have been overwhelmed by a tiny little virus. Just like “all Jerusalem” we’re afraid, especially when our medical technology and vaccination rate still can’t entirely protect us. And when we’re afraid, we’re not at our best. Herod’s fear certainly brought out the worst in him.
But that baby brought out the best in the magi. Seeing the magi give their gifts to the baby Jesus and kneel in homage to him hopefully reminds us of ourselves. Because what else are we doing here this morning if not giving to and worshipping before Jesus – whether in person or on-line? We are worshipping our God and Savior. You could even say that those magi were the very first church, the very first to bend their knees and worship Jesus. For them, the magi, this baby and the journey that he calls them to, is a source of great joy, rather than merely a cause of deep fear. Are we willing to go on that journey with joy, to give up our sense of comfort and control and go to where the star and its Lord can lead us?
Yes, we’re in a difficult and challenging time, especially in the coming month as this latest COVID surge plays out. But we don’t have to live in fear. Caution, perhaps. But we are still a people of joy, seeking the stars. Even when confined, we can still reach out to others in many, many ways. We can still celebrate the joy of recovery from illness and struggle, the joy of seeing others’ faces (even if on a screen) and hearing others voices (even if just over the phone). We can still rejoice for loved ones who are healthy and safe, and we can reach for the hands of those whom we can touch. We can rejoice in our hope for the future – anticipating new births, celebrating birthdays, moving on with plans for our lives even amidst obstacles, seeking opportunities to give and share and pray with others. We can rejoice in the ongoing ministries of our congregation, who won’t be dissuaded by crumbling ceilings, or limited by in-person-only worship. We are still a family of faith who has been, and is, and will continue to be there for one another. We can continue to declare to all: that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
Maybe that’s a major requirement for being a Christian — a willingness to go on a journey. Rather than use the current COVID surge as an excuse to settle in, settle down, as if Christmas were the end of the journey with God, let us go forth celebrating the joy of a journey that’s just beginning. Rather than despairing over the things we’re unable to do, let us rejoice in the creativity and resilience that allows us to go forward in spite of challenges. May we follow a living Lord, an expectant savior who leads us forward, in whose service we find a wonderful, adventurous journey. So let’s follow the star together. Amen.