Follow the Star (Christmas 2003) (12/21/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
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This is the greatest week of the year—it really is. Even for those who are not devout Christians, there is no other time of year that holds the types of memories that Christmas week holds. The familiar songs—from faithful Christmas Carols to carefree tunes about Old Saint Nick; the holiday sounds—from the laughter of children to the ringing of Christmas bells; the sights of the season—from the flashing lights adorning the fronts of houses to the nativity scenes on church lawns; the unmistakable smells—from the fresh scent of the Christmas tree to the unparalleled fragrance of a roasting turkey; everywhere we turn, something triggers a memory that brings forth a smile—a sad smile, sometimes, but still, a smile.
We approach this time of year with a certain reverence. There are just too many memories that come flooding to the surface for us to approach it in any other way. We hear that song that was such a favorite of a departed parent or grandparent. The wonderful laughter of children has not really changed since we ourselves were young enough to imagine that the carefree joy of Christmas morning would last forever. The holiday decorations have not gone out of style over the years, and could be the same ones that decorated the home in which we ourselves grew up. And the incomparable fragrance that drifts from the Christmas kitchen and fills our senses is the same delicious aroma that swept us away as children.
Only the faces have changed. Some are new. Some have grown older. Some are gone. But the magic of the season remains. The holiday season changes us. We spend most of the year in our common routines, happy enough to live our lives without too much thought about what life is all about. There are obligations to meet; bills to pay; work to do. But I have yet to meet the person who does not sense a bit of the magic of Christmas. There is no way to hold off all those memories, and they come at us from every angle. We’re a little nicer at this time of year. It is a little less frustrating to stand in line, to get cut off in traffic, to hear some political view that normally drives us to distraction.
And beneath all of those memories; beneath all of that laughter; beneath all of those tears lies the real meaning of the season: the birth of Jesus. For those of us who find in this event—the birth of Jesus of Nazareth two-thousand years ago—something life changing—something world-changing—this is the most magical, mystical, beautiful time of life.
When I consider the way different people approach Christmas, I figure the world is comprised largely of two types of people—wise men and shepherds. Matthew and Luke have the only biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, and they tell different stories. Matthew is the one who reports the magi—wise men, or kings—coming from the east, and following a star to discover the newly born Jesus. Luke tells of angels appearing to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, announcing the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds faithfully leaving their flocks to find Jesus lying in a manger.
I’m glad we have both of those stories, because wise men and shepherds cover the whole range of people for whom the Christian message is intended. Consider the wise men. If we divide the world into haves and have-nots, the wise men are definitely the haves. They are educated. We know this because they are able to look at the stars and derive meaning. These are the first–century equivalent of scientists. They are wealthy. We know they are wealthy for a couple of reasons. First, they bring with them valuable gifts to lavish upon the new-born king which the stars tell them has come into the world; and second, who but the very wealthy could afford to just pick up and take a camel ride halfway across the known world to follow a star? We also know the magi are people of power. We know this because they meet with King Herod as they try to find the exact location of Jesus. We can safely assume that King Herod didn’t meet with just anybody who happened through Israel. No doubt about it, the wise men were the cream of the first century crop.
On the other hand, consider the shepherds. I know we’ve tended to romanticize these figures with our nativity scenes, but the fact is, shepherds were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. If you were a person with any standing in society whatsoever, you would not invite a shepherd over to have dinner. This was boring, smelly, grunt labor. And a person who was working overnight as a shepherd—well, it’s safe to say the shepherds to whom those angels appeared had pretty much bottomed out. These guys were working the worst job in town, and they got stuck on the graveyard shift. There was not way to go but up for those guys.
So the two stories of Jesus’ birth bring together the full spectrum of humanity—from the very top to the very bottom. Now, as I consider this particular congregation—the good people of University Congregational Church—I have to figure we fall somewhere between the wise men and the shepherds. Bit I would say we’re a lot more like the magi than the shepherds. If we have a role to play in the Christmas story, we will be cast not as down-and-out shepherds, but rather as the people with wealth and power.
So let’s give some thought to the wise men—the magi. Perhaps we can find some direction for our own faith journeys as we consider the way they went about theirs. The first thing I notice about the wise men is they were wise. This isn’t something that normally just happens to a person. It usually takes a bit of effort to become wise. It is safe to assume that, unlike those lowly shepherds, they were educated.
This is important, because as the story unfolds, they would not have known that a star had appeared in the East had they not been looking for it; and they would not have known that such a star was a sign of a new king if they had not been learned people. The parallels to our lives are simple enough. If we don’t keep our eyes open for signs of God at work in our lives, we will overlook those signs when they appear. God gives us all ample opportunities to serve, and God reaches out to us in countless ways; but unless we are wise—unless we keep our hearts open to the possibilities—we will never know it.
Another lesson we can learn from the wise men is to follow the star when we see it. How often does God call us off in some direction, only to have us turn a deaf ear? How often does God try to write some truth on our hearts, only to find we have hardened our hearts against any message that might make us uncomfortable? It’s important for us to look for that eastern star, and it is important for us to be wise enough to know when it appears, but if we don’t have the faith to follow it, it’s all for nothing.
Faith. In Matthew’s story, the wise men have great faith, because they drop everything to follow that star, knowing in their hearts it is important, and meaningful. I wonder how they explained that one to their wives? “Honey, my wise friends and I just saw a star in the eastern sky. I’ll see you in a few months.” (I don’t think that would work around my place.)
What would be a modern equivalent? “Sweetheart, my buddies and I just had a mystical experience. We’re leaving for Katmandu in the morning.” Or more down to earth, and more likely, how about, “Honey, I’ve decided to quit the bowling league and spend Tuesday evenings serving food at the Lord’s Diner.” Either way, it would take some faith. And people would probably laugh. They would probably say something like, “Well la-di-dah, look at old Joe, pretending to be Mother Teresa! Who’s he trying to fool. I’ve seen that guy knock back a few beers in his day. What do you think happened? Did he find Jesus all of a sudden? Is that it, Joe? Do you need any help polishing your halo?”
It would be much easier to just harden the heart so when God tries to write some message on our hearts, it won’t so much as leave a scratch. After all, who wants to be laughed at?
Another lesson we can learn from the wise men involves the political powers they have to deal with. You notice that they are not antagonistic toward the government. In fact, they go straight to King Herod and ask for assistance. But God is at work beneath the surface, because something in their hearts tells them that the King is using their faith for his own political gains. Herod claims he wants to worship this special new king, but he in fact wants to destroy him. And the wise men detect that this new king—Jesus—will wield a type of power that King Herod cannot understand. They refuse to be complicit in the corruption of religion by the political powers.
We can certainly learn something from the wise men on this count! Those who would use religion to further their personal political power are spread throughout every religion and every political system in the world. When Jesus was asked if people should pay taxes, he pointed to the picture of Caesar on a coin, and said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.” There are two types of power at work in this world. One is the power that comes from wealth, and might; and the other is the type of power that comes through compassion and righteousness. One type of power appears to rule this world, but ultimately turns to dust. The other type of power is eternal.
I wonder if the wise men knew about that second kind of power when they followed the star. I don’t think they did. I think they had faith that there was something wonderful awaiting them at the end of their journey, but I don’t think they understood exactly what it was. They had faith. Faith that they would find something meaningful; faith that they would find something that made the journey worthwhile; faith that it was something more important than the type of earthly power under the control of King Herod.
But I don’t think they understood what they would find until they saw Jesus. And then, they did what we should all do when we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus: they fell down and worshipped him. And this is probably the most important lesson we can learn from the wise men. Because you know what happened when they found themselves in the presence of Jesus? They became like shepherds! They were no longer wise. They were no longer rich. They were no longer powerful. They were no longer at the upper levels of society. They suddenly understood that all of their wisdom, all of their power, all of their wealth, was nothing but empty dust in the face of the power they found in Jesus.
There was the very power of God. There was the very presence of the love that called creation into being. There was the one whose truth would bring the powers of the world to judgment, and whose mercy and forgiveness would erase the sins of the world.
And the wise men were as shepherds. And they found a new star to follow. The star they followed was no longer in the eastern sky, but rather in the person of Jesus, anchored forever in their hearts. We don’t know what happened to the wise men when they left Bethlehem. We are told only that they departed for their home country. But we can be sure they were changed. I don’t think a person can have a real encounter with Jesus and not be changed. I don’t think a person can have a real encounter with the Christmas season and not be changed. Because our lives are journeys, much like the journeys of the wise men. And each year our journey takes us through the Christmas season, and year after year it’s the highlight of the trip.
We have our memories. We have the sights and sounds. And we have Jesus—the only star we need to give direction to our journeys. The writer T. D. Jakes says it best: “When in doubt, look up; when troubled, look within; and when in darkness, always follow the star.”
God bless you all, and have a joyous Christmas.