Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 2:1-12:
represents the last vestiges of Christmas, if there is anything left. Kids go back to school tomorrow, and adults
who have been off for the holidays return to work. People have taken down their trees and the
ornaments and decorations have been packed up and returned to the attic or
basement, or maybe like me everything has been piled in one location waiting to
be packed up. The surprises and the
excitement of the season are gone, along with the songs and the decorations,
and yet today we celebrate epiphany, which represents the official end of the
As much as Fox News
might like to talk about a war on Christmas, I have to be in agreement with
Diana Butler Bass that it’s not a war on Christmas, it’s a war on Advent,
because Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, Christmas begins in December 25,
and it officially ends today with Epiphany.
Epiphany, means appearance or manifestation, and it commemorates the
arrival of the wisemen as the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles. In many cultures, especially in Latin
countries, Epiphany is more important of a Holiday than is Christmas and is
celebrated through gift-giving and parties.
For those with young children you may have even seen the Dora special
celebrating Three Kings Days. In the
Orthodox church, it is the third most important day of the year following only
Easter and Pentecost.
But before we get into the meaning
of today’s passage, there are some things we must clear up. First, even though all of our nativity sets
say differently, the wisemen and the shepherds are never in the manger
together. In fact, Matthew does not have
a manger scene, and it is impossible to harmonize the birth stories of Luke and
Matthew. To even try is to do violence
to the text and to miss what each writer is trying to accomplish in the telling
of his story. Matthew’s birth story is
particularly sparse, in which we are only told that Jesus was and then we move
into today’s readings. So let’s start by
wiping our minds clean off all images of a babe lying in a manger surrounded by
shepherds and angelic farm animals.
let’s also remove most of the ideas that we have been taught, seen or read
about the wisemen and who they are. As
an extra credit question on her final exam each year, my worship professor at
BU would always ask what the traditional names are for the wisemen. Without failure each year she would get Huey,
Dewey and Louie as well as Manny, Mo and Jack. While traditionally the names
are given as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, the simple fact is we have no idea
what their names are. The names do not
come to us until a document, usually attributed to the Venerable Bede, which
dates to the mid 8th century.
This document is also the one that describes one as being Asian, one as
African, and one as Arab. If you look at
your nativity set, they will probably have these characteristics. It is also where we have an interpretation of
meaning behind the gifts, with gold as
being representative of a king, frankincense as something which was burned in
the temple as part of the sacrifice, and myrrh as something used in embalming,
therefore the gifts seemed to have symbolic representation for what was to
come. But, not only where these things
probably unknown to Matthew but they were unknown to the church for the first
750 years as well.
though in a few minutes we are going to sing “We Three Kings” we don’t know how
many there are. Three has been the
tradition in the western church because of three gifts, but in the Eastern
church the tradition has been 10 or 12, because the text doesn’t say. The wisemen were also not kings. This probably comes from imagery found in the
72nd Psalm and/or Isaiah 60.
There are only two kings in this story, Herod and Jesus, and there can
only be two because that is the dichotomy that plays out, the conflict and
power struggle between the kingdom of Rome, represented by Herod and later
Herod’s son and Pontius Pilate, and the Kingdom of God, of course represented
by Christ. To add any other rulers to
this scenario, even if they are giving alliance to Jesus, diminishes what Matthew
is setting up, and it the tension between worship and hostility to Jesus which
is also being emphasized.
there is lots of debate and information about the star. If you do a Google search for Star of
Bethlehem you’ll get about 1.4 million hits.
There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE, Jupiter, Saturn
and Mars in 6 BCE and Jupiter and Venus in 3 BCE, among others which are given
as possibilities for the star. But it my
opinion this is all ridiculous speculation that totally misses what is going on
in this story. This star does not and
cannot correspond to just any normal astrological event.
Again, paying attention to what the scripture
actually says shows us something radically different. Even though this seemed to be a significant
event for the wisemen, at least enough to bring them hundreds if not thousands
of miles, it was not noticed in Israel, as Herod has to ask them when it
occurred, and then the star appears to them again after they have left,
although apparently only they can see it since Herod and his people don’t
follow it, and then it leads them to Bethlehem and then stops over the house
where Jesus lives. Now I’ve spent some
time looking at stars, but I’ve never been able to tell what house someone
might live in based on a star, it would have to be sitting right over the house
and so this is unlike any star I have ever witnessed and so speculation about
natural events misses the importance of the star and of God’s guiding purpose,
which leads me to the point of this message.
In his poem
“For the Time Being”, which talks about the time just after Christmas, W.H.
Auden says “once again, as in previous years we have seen the actual vision and
failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility, once again we
have sent him away, begging though to remain his disobedient servant.” For more
than a month we have been hearing the story again and making our way to the
manger, and so we look again to the star and seek meaning.
There is a star out there for each of us
guiding us not only to the Christ child but also to the cross. The problem, just like with Herod, is not
only in seeing the star but also in following the star. What makes this story important, and the only
reason we know about it, is because the wisemen where willing and able not only
to follow the star but more importantly to move their worship from their head
to their heart, to make it a part of who they were. In this they are like the only other people
we know who came to see Jesus, and that is the shepherds. On Christmas Eve I asked how many other
people who the message from the angels, but didn’t respond, didn’t do anything? How many other people saw the star, and didn’t
Many of you
have heard the story of my calling to the ministry and so you also know that it
took me a long time to follow that star, and the struggle between the head and
the heart is a constant struggle, but in order to worship with my whole being
that is what I have to do. Where are you
being called? “What is your star? What is it that has you questioning meaning
or your purpose? What has seized your
attention and made you start wondering what is going on?” The star still shines for each of us, and all
of us are called to respond, but to do that we have to be willing to step out
of our comfort zone and to follow God and be willing to allow God to lead and
guide us, and that’s where the difficulty begins.
Mitchell is a Methodist minister in southern Massachusetts. Before coming to seminary Katherine had
worked as an emergency mental health counselor, and so she is very good at
always being able to be in control of situations, telling you exactly what she
is thinking and what is going on because in many cases her life depended on
that ability. If you are in a group and
wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will be one of
the first to step up and take a leadership role.
she was asked to participate in a program similar to dancing with the stars to
help support one of the community groups in the town where she serves. At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she
would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then everyone
would vote on who was best. But shortly
after saying yes, she received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking
when she wanted to come in and start her dance lessons. She put if off for as long as she could, came
up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the
commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.
is about fifty, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said, fully in control of her
life. When she showed up for her first
lesson, she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he
looked like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is. They danced for their hour appointment, and
when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and the ability to be a
good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to have to let go and
let me lead.” And Katherine’s
response? She said “now look here little
man, do you have any idea who I am. I am
Pastor Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor
said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should
be easy for you.”
might imagine, this floored her and she had to look deeply at what she was
doing and how she was living her life, and what she found was that she was not
so good at following and so she made a conscious effort to let go. This decision has not only radically changed
her relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but
most importantly it has changed her relationship with God. Since that day she has had some life altering
experiences that she knows God has led her to, that she would never have had
before, because she would never have to let go of what she wanted to do long
enough to allow them to happen. For the
first time in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God,
everyday of her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and
sometimes even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God
lead the dance of her life.
How are we doing? Are we able to let God lead, or
are we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps
even what dance is being done? I would
have to say that I am not very good at this myself. I have trouble giving up and giving over to
God. Even though some of the most
profound experiences in my life have occurred when I have turned myself over to
God to be led, but that is always the struggle.
But giving ourselves over to God is not about giving up, or being
passive. Being a dancing partner
requires both parties to be involved and participating. Dancing is a give and take relationship. If one person does nothing but let the other
person do all the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a
beautiful dance. Instead, both partners
need to be in relationship with each other, working with each other, but one
person has to be in control, and if that person is us then the dance is not as
beautiful as it could be.
It has been
the tradition in Methodism since the days of John Wesley at the beginning of
the new year to recite the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, although I suspect that
most of you have said it more in the two years I’ve been here than in all the
time you might have been attending a
Methodist church, but we’re going to say it again as we prepare for the new
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy
thou art mine, and I am thine.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
acted in response to God’s initiative to guide them to the child. God’s grace always precedes our actions, so
where is God’s grace reaching out to you?
Where is God guiding you, and are you willing to respond? Let us give thanks to God sisters and
brothers for the guiding star in our lives.