First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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? 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 wise men 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.
One summer evening, long, long ago, I stood with my grandmother out in her backyard. Twilight had descended and the first faint twinkle of the North Star could be seen. She pointed it out to me and then taught me this: “Star light, star bright, first star I’ve seen tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, get the wish I wish tonight.” And then she told me that I should always wish upon a star because some of those wishes would come true. And she was right.
I’ve always been drawn to the night sky. I think most of us are. We lift our heads and stare into the vast expanse, and wonder who we are and who God is, and what life is about. That makes stargazing an act of praise as old as the human race.
But it used to be a lot easier than it is now. Some years ago, I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker about light pollution and how it prevents us from seeing the night sky the way that all of our ancestors did. The article pointed out that most of us have never really seen the full glory of the heavens, even when we’re out in the country. There’s simply too much artificial light. And so, the American entrepreneurial spirit being what it is, something called astrotourism has arisen. And for a fee, these tour companies will take you far out into a deserted place where you will see what our ancestors saw for free.
Today is all about a star. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the last day of the twelve days of Christmas. It’s a day when our attention turns to the heavens, and in particular to that one star so ensconced in our collective Christmas consciousness that we cannot think of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus without it. Today we remember those mysterious Wise Men who looked for Christ led only by a brilliant star and their astrological calculations.
Scholars debate what it is they actually saw. Was it an alignment of the planets? Was it a comet? Was it a supernova? Some people doubt the veracity of the whole tale, noting that in the folklore of many ancient cultures, a star heralded the birth of a great person or a god. Perhaps, they say, St. Matthew used this common belief simply as a literary device in order to signal his readers that the birth of Jesus was something truly extraordinary.
I find all of this very interesting, but I’m not sure we’re supposed to get lost in speculations about what the Wise Ones actually saw, if anything. It seems to me that our attention attention is better spent on the human characters in this tale. I’m more interested in the Wise Ones themselves, because, like in so many of the Bible’s stories, they are actually us.
So, who were these Magi? Well, that too is up for debate, but one thing is clear: they fit the uncomfortable pattern of so many other biblical characters. They were outsiders, unlikely heroes, not the first persons you would think of to go looking for the Lord. Scholars suggest that they may have been magicians or astronomers or astrologers or pseudo-scientists or fortune-tellers or horoscope fanatics. But by any decent religious standard of their day or ours, they were heretics. In addition, they were the wrong race, and they came from the wrong part of the world, the East – a place where the enemies of Israel often came from. So, their placement as heroes of this tale is noteworthy. They had lots of things against them, but this one necessary thing for them: they were curious.
So believing that they had seen a sign in the heavens, they set out on their journey. And like other starry-eyed dreamers, they encountered plenty of opposition along the way. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they met a king named Herod, whom they thought could help them find this Child-King. But Herod was a despicable man known for his cruelty. He murdered his wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle, and assorted others. And because his ego was so fragile and he was easily threatened, once he heard that a new king had been born, he decided to murder him as well. But the Magi, feeling uneasy, never told the king where Jesus was.
Backed into a corner, Herod did what any despot would do: he punished everyone. He ordered the murder of all the baby boys under the age of 2 who lived in and around Bethlehem. We call this horror “the slaughter of the innocents.” And the only reason that Jesus survived was that his desperate parents escaped across a border into Egypt – the Holy Family, refugees running for their lives.
These unlikely characters are heroes of the Gospel, for all kinds of reasons. But mostly, they are heroes because they followed the light of God wherever it took them. They are heroes who threw caution to the wind in order to find the truth. They are heroes because, in this search for truth, they thwarted the desires of the wicked who seek to obscure the light.
The magi are long gone – but their spirit is still alive in any of us who search for the light, who believe in the promise, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We know what they world is like, yet here we are singing and praying and hoping and working for this luminous idea called the Kingdom of God. We live in a world of drones and suicide bombers and terrorists, yet we work for and look for and expect the arrival of the Empire of Shalom. We gaze at the stars and dream of a world where children are not gunned down in school, and women are believed, and greed doesn’t melt the polar icecaps. All of this seems foolishness to those who have no hope. But we have seen a star.
Eventually, the Wise Men turned around and went home. The star faded from the sky. The Epiphany had passed. But here’s the thing: the Wise Ones still had each other. They still had their shared experience. They still had a common story. And whenever doubt and fear came to call, they could sit around a fire and reminisce about that Star and that incredible journey and that dazzling Child, whose face they never forgot.
And imagining them reminiscing together, makes e think of all of you. The truth is, you aren’t just my job. I actually need you because I cannot do this Christian thing on my own. I cannot, on my own, look at this world and still believe in the coming Reign of Peace. But withyou, I can sing. And with you, I can tell stories. With you I can remember all that is beautiful and hopeful.
We have each other. And we have a Star.