Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b; Matthew 2:1-15
The Rev. Tom Herbek
January 6, 2019
We know that the Wise Man came, though the Bible doesn’t mention how many there were. We know that they followed a star, but we don’t know if the star was just with them at the end or for the whole trip. I like what Barbara Brown Taylor once said: “It’s not that the facts don’t matter. It’s just that they don’t matter as much as the story matters, and stories can be true whether they happened exactly that way or not.”
The details are not as important as what this story means to us. We call this Sunday “Epiphany” because they came and they saw something far different than what they thought they would see, and it changed them in unexpected ways. We all have moments like that, and we still need to follow the stars in our lives that lead us to an epiphany, to a new way of looking at life, and, most importantly, to who we can be.
They were strangers, far different from the Jews of that region known to Mary and Joseph. They rode camels, and said that the star guided them there. Following the stars was the way to navigate in those days, especially through the desert, and through the wilderness, where everything looked the same. I don’t have much experience with camels. I once rode one for about five minutes at the Toronto Zoo, and that 5 minutes was plenty for me. But I do know you can still navigate by stars, and sometimes you have to do it.
I remember when I was in my late 20’s, some friends and I went fishing off the coast of NC. We were out over 20 miles, and that part of the coast was pretty dark, so we could not see any lights out there. The only way to get back was to follow the stars in the sky that night. Luckily, my friend with the boat was amazingly good at that. I was really nervous because I figured we had a 75% chance of never seeing land if my friend took any of the other three directions. But, of course, those Wise Men had much tougher odds against them in finding what they were looking for. That was not the end of following stars in this story. In fact, Mary and Joseph and the baby later had to follow stars to escape.
In the dead of night, Joseph rushed his new family out of Bethlehem, just in the nick of time. Herod had finally caught up with where the baby had been born. He ordered his troops to kill every male newborn in Bethlehem. There is a real possibility that this killing of all the newborns is historical fact. After all, this was the Herod who ordered the murder of his wife Mariamme and three of his sons, Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipas because he felt they were a threat to his power. In order to ensure that a grief-stricken mood would cover the country when he died, Herod left strict orders that one member of every single family in the country would be killed when the news of his death was finally announced. Thank goodness, his soldiers ignored this order after Herod’s death.
The danger to the new little family was extraordinary. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Joseph was the one who became Jesus’ earthly father. The family desperately needed a person who was willing to act on their dreams. And the family also needed a person who could lead their family through the darkness of night.
Throughout history, people have raced into the darkness in terror, journeying to strange lands to escape danger. Our refugee family raced out of Togo in the dead of night, steps ahead of the soldiers who were to take their mother to prison because she was a minister in the wrong church. They jumped into a dugout canoe and paddled across the river in the darkness to reach the shore of the neighboring country, Benin. Thank goodness the warning came in time for them to race out of their home to take refuge in Benin.
How many of us would have the wisdom to act quickly enough to escape? Throughout history people in danger have used the night to protect their escape. In the book Cold Mountain, an injured Rebel soldier leaves the hospital, even though grievously wounded, in order to avoid having to go back to the front lines once he has recovered from his wounds. By cover of night he must travel in order to escape Union troops, who would kill him as the enemy, and Confederate troops who would kill him as a deserter, and the civilian people of the South who would turn him over to the Southern troops.
Sometimes we too need the darkness in our lives. But when we suffer from violence, even if we escape it physically, it can leave emotional scars, however. One MCC student I taught, who had escaped from Bosnia in the height of the “ethnic cleansing”, found it impossible to adapt to normal life again. Sometimes the darkness of life can leave terrible scars inside us. But, out of the darkness, we can be surprised, can be changed by epiphanies that can come to us in no other way. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “Some people see things and say ‘why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?’”
Perhaps we too can follow stars, dream dreams, and say “why not?” Those who follow stars, who navigate through life in strange ways, often see things that the rest of us never see. The reason is that they have hope and the belief that just following the stars will make a difference.
Night journeys have a way of dramatically affecting us. I would imagine that the night journey of Mary, Joseph and the baby must have dramatically affected all three of them. Their narrow escape in the dead of night must have helped them to realize that God was present with them in a special way. Sometimes it is in the darkness of life that we find out about those things that make life livable. All of us have been through night journeys in our lives, times when we must escape dangers and make snap decisions that will forever impact us. All of us will face darkness and danger again. The darkness may have nothing to do with the time of day. And the danger may be physical or emotional or spiritual.
In 2019, we may face darkness and dangers. Yet, out of the darkness, we may have to make decisions that will have lifetime impacts on us. We may find a strength that we never knew was inside us. We may find sources of guidance that we never expected: dreams or conversations or movies or books or quiet moments of reflection or prayer. In 2019, in some clear and assuring way, may we know that God is present in our lives, even in the darkest moments, even in the night times of the toughest journeys, even in the foreign destinations that cause us to leave what is comfortable and familiar.
Often, we may see others with new eyes, but the most powerful epiphanies allow us to see ourselves with new eyes. Just as the Magi discovered for themselves, when we come to the manger, there is no room for anything other than the absolute reality of who and what we really are: very human, very real, very fragile, very vulnerable human beings who desperately need the gift of love and grace which God so powerfully desires to give.
The epiphany we most need to experience is God’s love for us just as we are. God has been working hard on this epiphany since life began. A friend of mine, Dick Myers, wrote about a dream he once had:
I had a dream last week. I dreamed I overheard a conversation between a human (humankind through the ages) and God. God spoke first.
God: “I am God.”
Human: “Well, God, who are you?”
God: “I am God Almighty.”
Human: “Could you be more specific, please?”
God: “I created the world and sustained it.”
Human: “That’s extremely difficult to conceptualize and comprehend. God, would it be possible for you to be even more specific than that?”
God: “I am a God of redemption, the Maker of covenants with people, a God of Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Love.”
Human: “That’s a great deal clearer, God, but if possible, could you be even more specific?”
After a pause that seemed almost interminable, but in a time of God’s fulness…
God: Once there was a woman named Mary. She had a baby. He is my Son. He will teach you specifically about Me.”
And God still continues to surprise us in loving ways, even in the darkness of life.
In 2019, may we follow the stars through the darkness of our lives. May we each have epiphanies that teach us about God and help us to know God more fully; may we have epiphanies that help us to see people around us in new ways so we might make a difference in their lives; and may we have epiphanies that help us to know ourselves and to become all that God has created us to be- in new ways.