Creekside Church
Sermon of January 3 2016

"Shine"
Matthew 2:1-12

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! This is the day that we are observing Epiphany, Three Kings’ Day, and the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. The actual day of Epiphany is January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas. I think you’ll be pleased to hear that not only will we not be singing that really repetitive carol, we will not be having geese, swan, ladies milking, drummers drumming, or lords a leaping in our service this morning. But Epiphany is the reason for all that post-Christmas festivity. The Fellowship Team, Grace Bollinger, and Jeff Vance have something special for us following worship, and I’ll say more about that at the end of the service.

When I think of Epiphany, I think of stars. It’s one of my favorite symbols of the season, and I was glad that Angi chose “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” and that Karen Lewallen and the folks who decorated the tree in the Gathering Area used silver and gold stars which we have been able to appreciate all through the season. I have kind of a long history of stars, going all the way back to my childhood. I have two older brothers who were both interested in astronomy and had books, constellation charts, and telescopes cluttering up their shared bedroom. Unfortunately, the suburbs of Los Angeles are not great star viewing territory. Even if the smog subsided somewhat at night, there was virtually no place close by our house where we could escape light clutter from houses, street lights, and traffic. Fortunately, there was a great star viewing just a couple hours away in the desert. Any of you who have been out in the desert at night know what I’m talking about: low humidity makes for cloudless and clear skies, hardly any people means very little surface light to obscure the stars.

My family would go out with the Gephardts from church, and the boys would set off model rockets during the day -- another good activity in an area which is not densely populated -- and do star gazing at night. It became clear early on that I was not cut from the same cloth as my brothers. Not only was I unmoved by model rockets, but the astronomy thing didn’t really work for me, either. Those pictures of the constellations that were supposed to look like figures out of Greek mythology: Pegasus, are you kidding me? That group of stars looked nothing like a winged horse. I liked stars just fine -- while my brothers pored over their sky charts with their slide rules, and I was happy to go out and dance in the starlight until I was so tired that I lay down and looked for shooting stars and fell asleep.

My oldest brother teaches computer science at a polytechnic university, and my other brother went on to get a degree in physics. I didn’t study dance (to everyone’s relief), but my love of stars had a poetic, rather than a scientific bent. My point is not to impress you with how geeky my family was -- although this is certainly true -- but to think about the impartiality of stars. Starlight is very selective -- it’s kind of just there. Maybe it’s daylight and we can’t see it, or we live in Northern Indiana where it’s cloudy all the time, or it’s too cold to leave the house at night, or we do leave the house but we never think to look up. The stars haven’t changed. Starlight doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, old or young, healthy or sick, educated or uneducated, doing calculations or just dancing around. Stars just shine. It’s what they do.

Our text today is from Matthew, because Matthew is the only gospel that tells the story of Herod and the wise men. Herod is an interesting guy. History knows him as Herod the Great (he probably came up with that name himself) because he oversaw some very ambitious building projects, including the Jerusalem Temple, the fortress of Masada, and a really big palace for himself. One of his sons, Herod Antipas, was the ruler who ordered the execution of John the Baptist. Herod the Great a Jew; the Romans, who were really the ones in charge, let some native “client kings” remain in power. ‘Client king’ sounds so much nicer than ‘puppet king,’ but the truth was Herod was on a Roman leash, and it made him a pretty nasty guy. He had a reputation for murdering his own people or working them to death. Nobody volunteered for those huge building projects. His own people hated him and the Romans were using him, and Herod had to hang on pretty tight to keep a hold on his power.

So when some astronomers and magicians from another country show up with the news that a new king has been born a couple miles away from Herod’s palace, Herod is frightened. And Matthew 2:3 says, “and all Jerusalem with him.” Because when an insecure and paranoid king gets frightened, bad things happen. Bad things happen to innocent people. Herod gathers his Jewish experts around him, and sure enough, hundreds of years ago the ancient writings prophesied the birth of this king. Herod has no interest in homage or worship, all he cares about is damage control. How can he kill this baby before it messes up his life?

Herod, the insider, the Jew with a court full of priests and scribes and access to the ancient prophesies, doesn’t have any use for starlight. There’s nothing in Mathew’s account to indicate that he noticed the star before the wise men came, or that he bothered to go out and see the sign that God’s prophesy had been fulfilled. The wise men, on the other hand, have been tracking this star for years. It has changed their lives. They’re not Jewish -- they didn’t have to go on a long journey away from home. This baby wasn’t going to rule their country. They certainly didn’t have to take expensive gifts; the baby wasn’t even at the palace, he was in a regular house a couple miles away. But there’s something about the star that compels the wise men to pay attention. Not just to look and say, “Hey, was that big star there last night? That’s weird.” But to go the next step “I wonder what that means?” and the next “I think this is something really important” and the next “This means the birth of someone with cosmic significance” and the next “We should go and see” and the next “We can’t see a king empty-handed” and the next “Pack the camels!”

Herod and the wise men are looking at the same star -- well, the same star is shining, but only the wise men are looking. Herod, the Jew, has the inside track on this miraculous birth but is completely unaware until it threatens him. The wise men, who are Gentiles -- non-Jews, some kind of pagan magicians for heaven’s sake -- are the ones who make sense of the star and do something about it. This is a pretty radical literary device for Matthew to employ: he doesn’t include angels and shepherds in his birth narrative like Luke does. What we get from Matthew is this story of Herod and the wise men: that the outsiders figure out the significance of the star, but the insiders don’t. Herod doesn’t just miss the point, he’s so focused on maintaining his own power and privilege that he’s willing to kill innocent children. Joseph and his family barely make it out of Palestine alive, and become political refugees in Egypt.

I trust that I’m not the only one who sees some contemporary parallels here. I’m not suggesting that this story from Matthew is an allegory: that Herod represents a specific 21st Century ruler, or the wise men are people of a certain country. But I do think that how we understand this story has a lot to do with whether we identify with the insiders or the outsiders. My caution is that as middle-class Christians in America, we are the insiders. We are the folks who ought to understand and acknowledge the significance of Jesus’ birth, and the radical message that God’s love is for anyone who is willing to step outside the palace and look at the stars. Maybe there are outsiders in our communities and neighborhoods who are looking for God and seeing things we have missed. I’m thinking particularly of people of faith, Muslims who worship the same God that we do. There’s nothing in the biblical account to suggest that the wise men converted to Judaism, but their attention to starlight changed to course of Christianity. We need to pay attention to where God’s light is shining.

I have a long way to go in understanding other religions and other cultures, but I think it’s something we are called to as Christians and world citizens. I am confident in my faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith is not threatened by people who hold other convictions or no convictions at all. My friendship with people of other faiths cannot be based on their willingness to convert to Christianity; I believe that authentic understanding between different cultures is difficult enough without the weight of that kind of agenda. I am not ashamed to share my Christian beliefs, but I am secure in the knowledge that the light of Christ is blazing the way whether others choose to follow it or not. I know that people who are insecure and afraid of losing their power hurt innocent people, and I want no part of that paranoia. I hope I have the humility to acknowledge that I don’t know everything about God that there is to know.

Whether you are someone who makes calculations or someone who dances, I hope we will find ways to pay attention to the starlight: to see ourselves and others in the light of God’s love, to let the light of Jesus shine through us to all people and all nations. People of God, shine on! Amen.

 

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