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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

sermon for January 6, 2013

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
1st Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
2nd Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12

It must have been about ten years ago that I first remember hearing the commercials on the radio for the International Star Registry. “Name a star in honor of your loved one.” I remember thinking that it seemed kind of silly to me. Basically you were paying for a piece of paper. What a rip off!

Looking at the website for the International Star Registry, you find many levels of gifts you can give, ranging from $54 to $489. You can choose the constellation that you’d like the star to be in—basically the zodiac sign. You can choose the kind of letter you’d like to include with your gift with a “congratulations!” theme or “memorial” theme. Basically the more expensive the gift, the fancier the frame that holds your certificate and your star chart showing the location of your star. You also have the option of getting a wallet card with the name of your star and the coordinates.

This kind of gift seems kind of silly, kind of romantic, kind of luxurious to me—and not in a good way. What use is it? Yet people have looked up at the stars for as long as we could remember. We’ve looked for direction. We’ve looked for meaning. We’ve dreamed about the future. We’ve reflected on the past. We’ve shared our dreams with each other as we looked up at the stars. We’ve thought up amazing stories while looking up at the stars. We’ve felt small and insignificant next to the size of the universe. We’ve felt large and powerful, part of something bigger than us as we’ve looked up at the stars.

Abraham looked up at the stars and imagined his offspring numbering as the stars, even before he had ever fathered a child and thought it might be too late for him. In the Old Testament, the wise were compared to stars. Throughout the Bible, people looked up at the stars and wondered how God who created the stars, also created us and knows us deeply. The shining stars indicate God’s favor and blessing.

Then today we come to the star that led the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Here are scholars who watched the stars for information. We don’t know whether it was a comet or a supernova or the alignment of planets that tipped off the magi about an unusual birth. It might seem impossible or romantic that the star would directly lead them to the place where the baby Jesus was. The magi see in the stars an indication to start traveling and what direction. Then they do stop and speak to King Herod, get futher directions and then pick up following the star again when they get to Bethlehem.

Whether or not the star appeared exactly like Matthew tells it, we can learn a few things from this story. That the heavens would produce a sign marking the birth of someone, let us know that this birth was unusual. This birth had an effect on the entire universe and was being celebrated by the entire universe. We learn that this birth is not just for the Jewish people. This is a Messiah for the universe. And in case we’re not sure what that means, it is noticed by a group of powerful magicians and astronomers, foreigners who come to recognize him and pay their respects as this child goes unnoticed among his own people.

This child will be for us, too. This savior will be for all of us. He will be the savior of the poor and the rich, local people and those from distant lands, those of all races and languages, those of all religions. Magi were of the Zoroastrian religion, but that didn’t keep them from recognizing and worshiping the Messiah. Even though our translation says “wise men,” magi could also mean male or female. The newborn messiah brings all these different kinds of people together.

Also think of the path these magi took. They left everything behind to follow a star to an unknown place. They didn’t know for sure how far they had to go. They wouldn’t have spoken the language or been familiar with the customs and food of the country they were entering. They didn’t know if they would be welcomed. They couldn’t exactly call first. They saw something that told them something unusual was happening. They decided this wasn’t to be missed. They wanted to be there in person. They packed up and departed on their journey. On the way, we know they talked to a King. Certainly Herod would know where a newborn king would have been born. But the power structures in place were so useless and clueless and oblivious. They had no idea that God had snuck in right under their noses. But they did know to be afraid.

Back to the magi—they bring gifts fit for a king. What would a baby in a manger do with gold and frankincense? I guess you don’t bring the newborn king Messiah a pair of booties and a hat! And what did they know, that no one else knew, that they brought myrrh? Myrrh was a bitter, waxy perfume used in embalming. The brought the best of the gifts they had to offer to the Christ Child. Gifts cement us together in relationship. They say here is something of myself that I am giving up to you. They also say, “I honor and respect you.” They are giving thanks to the creator for making the stars and the universe. They are giving thanks for the gift that Jesus will eventually give, both his teachings which show us how to love and also his life to give us life.

There are several things we can learn from the magi. First is to watch the stars. Watching the stars reduces tunnel vision. It gets us focusing on the bigger picture. It excites the imagination. The problem is that when you look up and around and start using your imagination, pretty soon you want to get up and do something about it. That’s another thing we can learn from the magi—do something! It doesn’t always mean going on a big trip. Sometimes our journey can happen right where we are. Sometimes it isn’t the landscape that changes, but it is within us and between us and other people. But it does mean taking risks and going outside our comfort zone. Use your gifts—the best of what you have to offer. Share them with people around you. Look for love and light in unexpected places and people. You never know when you might run right into God and have a chance to stand in the presence of the one who created the stars and gave you life.

Given the chance to name a star, I don’t know that it is necessary to name one after yourself. We are all of the same substance as the stars, our elements and molecules developed in the stars, now come together to form us for the moment. God has named a star, and that’s you. Each of us is a star that shines with God’s love and light. So that’s the final thing we can learn from the magi, let your light shine.

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