January 6, 2013: There, Ahead of Us...

Terry Pierce at St. James' Episcopal Church on The Feast of the Epiphany - Matthew 2: 1-12

There, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  In Epiphany we are celebrating the revelation of God's presence among us in human form, the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus.  In the weeks to come we will focus on the mission of the church to show the light of Christ in the world.  The wise men, the Magi, came following the star of Bethlehem to find the Christ child and bring him gifts.  Christ the Lord and King was made manifest to them and they revealed Jesus as Lord and King to the world. 
The long awaited Messiah was to come to save the Jews.  But from the time of Abraham, the promise had been that Israel would be a blessing to all the nations, to Gentile and Jew.  In the wise men, the light of Christ was made known to the Gentiles - as Simeon had proclaimed to God when he held Jesus at the temple -

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

One night last summer, my sister sent me a text to go outside because the space station was transiting over Austin.  I was enthralled as I watched what looked like an oversized star move slowly and purposefully from southwest to northeast.  Unconsciously I walked with the star from front yard to back, following its transit with my feet.  On some level I was called to join it in the heavens, to follow, to participate in its journey.

I imagine the Magi, the three wise men from the Orient, doing the same thing - galloping on their camels across the desert, joined with the star and the heavens in a journey whose end was unknown.  We know little of these men.  They were from the east, following a star and carrying gifts in anticipation of the child-king they expected to find.  Legend and art place these men on camels. 

Now, camels are not hasty animals but they are capable of traveling long distances.  Persia or Media are likely home of star-gazers from the east - 600 or 700 miles away.  Traveling at 20-30 miles per day, they had been traveling a month or more.  Sort of like traveling to El Paso or Deming New Mexico on horseback, but higher off the ground. 

I wonder what that trip was like.  Did they see many wonderful things or were they so focused on their object that they failed to notice what was around them?  I've taken some long car trips with friends and with my mom and sisters.  When we were little my mom and stepdad would load five of us into the car and drive from Lubbock Texas to California.  What I remember about those drives is what a relief it was to get out of the car at the end of the day.  I imagine the Magi at the end of the day, sliding down from their camels, dusty and hungry.  Undoubtedly these kings, wealthy men carrying great treasure, had servants to set up camp and cook and take care of the animals.  Yet they would still have work to do, charting their course, tracking the star by night. 

How did they know for certain which way to go?  Was the star like the space station, so visible and different that there was no doubt about what it was?  Or did they wonder whether they were on the right track?  Did they argue about what direction to take, where to stay the night?  Did they disagree about what they were seeing and what it meant? 

Really, what were these stargazing dreamers searching for?   Where is the child born the king of the Jews, they asked Herod.   They were not, I am certain, looking to find an infant in a feeding trough surrounded by farm animals and stinking shepherds.  The scripture says they found him in a house. But he was surely not in lodgings suitable for a king. 

Yet we are told that they saw the child in his mother's arms and they bowed down before him.  They paid homage and gave him gifts- gold to honor his kingship; frankincense for "God most high" and myrrh, the bitter embalming oil foreshadowing the offering he would make for us.

There, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising.

There, ahead of us, goes the star they had seen at its rising.

Sometimes I see that star ahead of me, the light of Christ as it shines through the church and the people of the church, and I am certain where I am headed and what the next step is.  Often, though, the sky is cloudy and I glimpse the star for a moment, then lose it in the clouds.  I'm left wondering which way to turn or whether I'm anywhere near the right path. 

One night my mom and I were driving home.  It was winter and in the distance to the east, there was a light hanging in the sky.  We both wondered what it was and as we got close to home, agreed to see if we couldn't find it.  We continued on the highway past our house but the further we drove, the further the light moved away from us.  Finally we turned and went back home.  I still wonder what that light was.

There have been times in my life like that too, where I've been drawn towards something but never reached it and finally gave up trying to reach it.  Did I miss something wonderful and magical that night when I turned back to go home?  Have I taken a circuitous route to my calling at times because I lost interest or was distracted before I found the light?

Sometimes we get the Star of Bethlehem to guide us, but mostly it seems that we have to rely on prayer and faith and the wisdom that can be found in walking together as a community in Christ. 

When we get there, sometimes what we find is most unexpected.  Jesus doesn't come to us as Lord and King but as helpless babe in a feed trough.  The wise men came to find a king and found a child in his mother's arms, yet they bowed before him.  I am called to bow low before the least of these for as Jesus tells us, just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.  As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany today and the season of Epiphany for the next five weeks, consider with me how to invite and welcome the unexpected, how to greet Christ wherever he shows himself to us.

There, ahead of us, goes the star they had seen at its rising.

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