Following the Star in this Messy World
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-18
Jan. 1, 2017 New Year’s Day, Focus on Epiphany
Sermon preached by Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney at Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
The big night has passed for Mary and Joseph. They have packed away the swaddling clothes, cleaned up the stable, and moved into a little house in Bethlehem with their new baby. They have been there for a while now.
Since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, it’s been kind of quiet. Really, there is almost nobody bringing meals or checking in on the young couple, a friendly hello here or a kind gesture there, perhaps, but they are not living near life-long neighbors, friends of their parents throwing a baby shower or aunties offering advice. They are kind of all alone – maybe seeing relatives of relatives from time to time since Joseph was from the house and family of David. But this was not the way they had imagined their family life would start – not even once they rearranged their expectations to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.
Joseph rented them a little house with room for a woodworking workshop, not too far from the stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table. They sent news back to Nazareth of the child’s birth, a few snapshots and updates now and then, –
“He just rolled over on his own!” “He took his first steps yesterday!” but no grandparents or cousins had yet met the toddler Jesus. It had been just the three of them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, in a kind of suspended rhythm of adjustment and happiness, sleep deprivation, an in-between time of sorts, settling into the miracle they shared, getting to know each other, becoming a family.
Until the day the pagans from the East showed up and called their little boy the king of the Jews.
Just when life began to feel rather ordinary, when this baby had begun to feel like he was theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.
Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story, with no generational anticipation of a Messiah, no claim whatsoever to the promises of Yahweh to the people of Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh sends next. And their arrival bursts the bubble and exposes the light to all the world.
Epiphany, we call this day of focusing on the story in Matthew 2 celebrated on Jan. 6. The word means – appearing. God says – “See that star? – That is light for all people.” That changes your perspective, and lays opens your life before you differently.
You realize that the Christmas moment was God WITH US, Epiphany is GOD with us. Suddenly we see that Christmas story is much bigger than we first imagined. Not just little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. Sweet and cuddly though he may have just been, this isn’t your own private Messiah any longer, folks. He belongs to the whole earth.
I have this crazy, cozy image of Mary and Joseph with these visitors, after their camels have been tended to and bedded down, when the strangers had washed up and unpacked a little bit, and the lamps are lit and the table is set. The meal at the table between these people who smell different and look different and wear different clothing and speak different languages and whose paths never, ever should have crossed in any conceivable way, but who were right now breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to but them.
And I almost can picture that star exploding right then. It had guided the Magi to the child, over desert and mountains, through night and day and night and day and night and day they followed its singular purpose, driven by the quest, knowing this is something big, being led right to it. And then, from the moment they laid eyes on him, and Mary and Joseph laid eyes on them, the secret was out.
Back in Jerusalem, King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy. He is plotting evil.
I picture the visitors staying for a while. After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there; they’re not just going to stay one night and leave. At least, I wouldn’t. I won’t drive 6 hours to my sister’s in Pittsburgh just for an afternoon. No way. You’ve got to make the visit worthwhile. Share a few meals, spend a night or three, settle in long enough to catch up over morning coffee and debrief over tea before bed.
So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while? Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who smeared his high chair with carrot mash and falling down exhausted to take a nap?
What was it like for Joseph and Mary and for the strangers from the East, to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a level nobody else on earth could, because your very presence represents to the other that this really is real, something really big is really happening.
I think that is part of what we experience as the church – being the ones reminding each other that God has come, that God is here, and that our very lives are part of the wonder and life-giving, love-bringing conspiracy of God.
When they decided it was time for them to leave, the wise ones remembered the dream, the dream warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi returned home by another road. I am sure Herod was steaming mad because they never swung back by the palace!
Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turning back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might get back to normal, normal is redefined again. Another road. Epiphany keeps going.
Their road is revealed when, like the one who told him two years ago not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams again, take the child and his mother and flee, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW. It’s your turn to be the strangers from a foreign land, Joseph. God-with-us, who was born in a stable and is now a homeless refugee, and you along with him; foreigners in a foreign land.
So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are part of the whole story anyway, while back home among the God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear commanded the deaths of all the male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us. My heart breaks when I am confronted with the Herods today and the realities of evil and violence that erupt when some in authority are threatened. As sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project; and while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily in small acts of kindness and care, and the every day, transformative sharing of life by ordinary folks that puncture the darkness with God’s light every moment of every day.
After Herod’s death the little family goes home for the first time, to Nazareth, to raise their first grader in Galilee among their own people, in their own village, with the grandparents, and the lifelong neighbors, and streets they grew up on, and the tiny, provincial world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.
Whatever this year has to bring, God is here.
Whatever the world goes through in the coming days, weeks and months, nothing can disrupt
the God-with-us project.
This truth does not belong to us. We belong to it.
So friends, let us be light-bearers, hope tellers, star gazers, descendants of the foreign magi who set out in trust that God will appear.
Love has invaded the whole earth and summoned all people to its unquenchable light that shines brightest in the ordinary moments between friends and strangers, in this messy, real, world. So like the adventurers of old, we will watch together, open and ready, for the appearance of God with us, each and every day.
And now we are going to start a new tradition. This practice has been part of Epiphany worship services of many friends and colleagues. I have a basket of Star Words, words written on paper stars in this basket. As we remember the wisemen and the star they followed, we are called to be open to God’s guiding presence in our lives. The word you choose is your Star Word for the new year. Place it somewhere where you will see it often – near computer, mirror, refrigerator, car, desk.
Your word hopefully will give you a different way to approach your prayer life. How is God speaking to you through the particular word you got? How can we keep reflecting on this word throughout the year and notice how God may be helping us grow, reflect, and deepen our sense of God’s presence in our lives?
My Star Word for 2017 is -COMMITMENT. I am thinking about my commitments of time, energy, devotion, love. I wonder in this next year how I will need to say “no” to some new opportunities so I can stay focused on my current commitments.
* Parts of this sermon were adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kara Root, “This Bright, Blessed Mess,” January 3, 2016