Matthew 2: 1-12
It is hard to believe that the celebration of the new year was only a week ago. I did my favorite thing that I do every New Year’s which is to go to bed early. Tim stayed up and comforted the dogs who were overly anxious due to the fireworks. I could see on social media that many of you celebrated by gathering with friends and sharing cheer. I imagine that many of us thought about how we might want to live differently in the coming year as New Year’s celebrations invite this kind of reflection. I have certainly seen a dramatic uptick in the participation at the gym that I belong to. New year’s resolutions we call them. Did you make any?
I didn’t make resolutions, but I have certainly thought about how I want to live differently in 2018. Like many of you, I want to put more focus in my life on the things that I truly value and less focus on the myriad of things that pop up demanding my attention. Things pop up now more than ever. Tim was generous this Christmas and gifted me with an iWatch. I didn’t ask for an iWatch, but my husband giving me a gift is a big deal and I didn’t want to do anything but express gratitude. If it isn’t enough to have my phone, which isn’t always nearby alerting me to calls, texts, emails, headlines and tweets, my new iWatch has doubled the notification stress by buzzing my wrist on all accounts and emitting a distinctive “ding.” This takes the intrusion of “pop up” to a whole new level. For example, I was driving in some fairly complicated traffic in Seattle on Thursday. My phone was safely tucked away as the law requires, helping me to focus on what was beyond my windshield. My wrist was, however, “blowing up.” It took an enormous act of my brain’s executive functioning not to push my sleeve back and take a look. “Are all my people ok?” “Did anyone die or is Chipotle just letting me know that I have a new discount?” The whole buzzing of the wrist brought me to a new level of anxiety, and I reminded myself to “breathe” as my watch reminds me hourly as well.
I say all of this just to illustrate how difficult it is to keep our focus on what is important in our lives in the midst of a constant barrage of information, some of it which produces a good deal of anxiety. Just this week Mr. Trump tweeted that his nuclear button was bigger. That’s enough to make you catch your breath. We observe the circle firing squad of the current Administration whose creation of daily havoc seems near to implosion.
You can see how easily I can be derailed by the pop-ups. This is because all of this is important to me. Will the poor and homeless by cared for? Will we make a safe place for the refugee? Will we have a more just society for all of the races and cultures within our borders? Can we make positive steps toward climate change? World Peace? But there are a few things that are really important: the nurture of my own spirit and soul by engaging with the divine, the priority of quality interactions with my family – all generations, the depth of my relationships with friends. This is where I want to put my focus for 2018, because I know that these are the places in my life of real transformation and growth. I believe that we all long for transformation and growth, that is why the Epiphany story, the coming of the Magi intrigues us.
We read this story from the gospel of Matthew every Epiphany. It is an exotic story with Magi (magicians) coming from the East. The word that translated as East in English really means “the rising.” These magician – astrologers come from the rising. I was startled when I walked into my office on Tuesday and looked out the window toward Mt. Rainer at an incredible pink sky – a beautiful sunrise, the rising. The sunrise is full of hope and full of promise, the beginning of a new day, a new chapter, a new beginning.
The Magi come from the light, from the rising and they are bringing gifts. We don’t know how many magi there actually were. We are told of three gifts and so our nativity sets and our carols usually only have three wise guys. We assume that they were men of science–astronomers, highly educated, wealthy, upper class citizens, and respected in their Gentile culture. The magi were not Jewish. These men were seekers after the truth, visionaries, and spiritual. They utilized science and astrology. Hard facts and mystery. There are still many cultures today wherein people don’t make any significant plans without studying the stars. For instance, you don’t get married in India or Bhutan without the right celestial alignment.
They come from the rising, they come guided by a star in search of the baby and they come bringing gifts. Scholars have made a lot out of the gifts. Some say that the gifts were fit for a king, and that they prefigured Jesus’ death. Other scholars point out that these particular gifts were also of a medicinal nature and may have been given for healing. It is interesting to speculate.
Strangely, they come to the power center first: to Jerusalem and King Herod. I’m calling this part of the story the “POP UP.” It’s hard for me to imagine the star taking a pause over the power center first so that the Magi could check in with King Herod. Perhaps they were distracted by the powerful. King Herod was ruthless: he murdered his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and many others. He had no problem killing so many babies in Bethlehem. His reign was noted for splendor. He constructed many theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, and fortresses. His greatest work was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, begun in 20 BCE and totally completed in 64 CE. He was power hungry, self-absorbed, and cruel.
The visit of the Magi worried Herod so he gathered the chief priests and teachers of the law for advice. They were the Biblical scholars of the day. Herod called upon them for more information from the sacred texts. They prided themselves on knowing the answers. Here in Matthew, they are quoting from the Prophet Micah.
The chief priests and the scribes believed that knowledge; particularly knowledge of the scriptures was the most important thing. Everything centered on knowledge and learning. They gathered together and debated the fine points of the law. They formed groups around theological interpretations. They made and broke relationships based on their views of scripture. I’m sure that you can think of many examples in every major religion where people are doing this today. People feel safer if they have the answers. It’s hard to live with questions.
The magi continued on their journey searching drawn by the star. Matthew tells us that when they reached their destination, they were “overwhelmed with joy!” I’m guessing that is how you know that you are on track with your New Year’s hopes, dreams and new commitments…the practice of them brings you joy. They joyfully open their treasure chests and share the gifts they have brought.
Here is my question for you this New Year. Have you noticed a star? What is your star? What is it in your life that has you questioning meaning? What has seized your imagination and made you start wondering what’s going on? Has there been a situation in your life, a loss of job, a tragedy, a sickness, or a financial crisis? It could also be a new child or grandchild, a marriage in the family, a friend, a move or a book that touched you? Perhaps you just feel a general sense of restlessness and hunger for something different. What is your star?
Are you willing to do the work? Are you willing to ignore the pop-ups? The Magi had a sense of restlessness, of purpose, of hunger. They paid attention to that. Then they looked for the answer. They were astronomers. The study of stars was crucial for direction before we all had our own GPS systems. They did the hard work of study and they found the star. They got the information and they followed it. They took their eyes off of the “pop ups” of their day. When they ended up in the wrong place, they asked for help. Why do we find that so hard? And, they paid attention to their dreams. They were warned in a dream to go another way home and they went home another way!
Only you can follow the light of the star that God has given you. Is there a star? Are you following it? Are you willing to do the work? Are you willing to say no to things that try to gain your attention and perhaps disappoint people? There is an epiphany out there for each one of us. There is a deeper revelation of the presence of God. (Barbara Brown Taylor says) let us revel in the light of that star beneath which the ordinary becomes holy and the holy ordinary, beneath which it becomes exceedingly clear that there is nothing more we must do or be to be loved by God.
We are passing around offering plates with a star for you to take. Reach in and pull out a random star. Take it home and hang it up where you are sure to see it every day. It may be on your bathroom mirror, or next to your computer screen. Allow your word to speak to you. A word that seems unclear at the beginning may gain new meaning as the year goes on. Tell each other about your word, and about what you learn from it. Notice your star. Do the work. Experience the joy of Epiphany