January 6, 2013 - Matthew 2.1-12

“Following the Star”

Matthew 2.1-12

January 6, 2013


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


To attend the typical Protestant Sunday morning worship service is to experience something odd, something almost like playing the game charades.  All of the first few things on the “to do” list that we call a bulletin, acknowledge that there is a sacred presence here, something much larger than ourselves.  Look at your order of worship.  We have the prelude – something so big is going to happen that we have a build up of suspense.  Next is the Call to Worship – a call to all who have ears to hear is being issued to come and worship.  The Invocation – a prayer in which we invoke the presence of God, acknowledging that God is here and we are in God’s presence.  Then there are hymns of praise, ancient sacred texts, doxologies, benediction, etc.  All of these things seem to gesture at something much larger and more important than ourselves.


That’s what it looks like on paper.  All of that discourse is often undone, or rather neutralized, by the prevailing mood in most churches.  It’s casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, social, pleasant, and even at times cute.  The mood that prevails in our worship is not a sign of the sacred reality that we are trying to get a handle on.  Rather, it is symptom of our own self-preoccupation.[1]


It is almost as if we have given up of finding God’s presence as a real, tangible presence here among us and have more or less adopted God as our theme for the show.  God is this huge mystery that none of us can truly fathom, and yet so many preachers insist on promoting the idea that they have a handle on it all.  If we approach the throne of God, and truly know to where we have come, then all self-preoccupation will end, all chattiness will cease, and all our language will become useless.  But yet we plow forward into our hymns, only half aware that we are singing about God.  If the seraphim of Isaiah 6 took on our attitudes, they would not be singing “Holy, Holy, Holy…” they would be singing “Happy, Happy, Happy…”[2]


Please understand that I am in no way scolding or judging or griping.  This is simply how it is and is a universal aspect of our own humanity.  In our better moments we are able to transcend our innate difficulty, go beyond ourselves, and touch the hem of his garment.  And then we worship.


In the story of the Magi, we have the first instance of worship within the story of Jesus.  It is the first time we see people worshiping Christ. 


The Wise Men.  Lets get some things straight here.  They were not kings – they were magi, which means wise men, or magi – astrologers.  Three? Maybe.  The scriptures do not say.  They had three types of gifts.  Longfellow gave them names in a poem of his; Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar.  But we don’t know their names.  These people, who came to the manger, were not three, and they were not kings. They were all people on a journey.

They were from Persia.  Today, we call Persia “Iraq.”  Gentiles.  Matthew is saying that even Gentiles took note of the birth of Jesus – the religious leaders didn’t get it, but some “wise Gentiles” did.  This is a miracle.  Yet, their search ultimately led them to God.  Someone once said, “All questions, in their very essence are ultimately theological questions.”


In other words, these guys were the closest things to scientists that existed in their day.  One thing that science and the worship of God have in common is the search for something greater than what we presently know.  It has been said that when science has finally climbed the highest peak of all that is and can be known, and has finally deciphered all that is hidden from us, as they at last pull themselves over that last ridge at gaze upon the pinnacle of understanding, they will find a large banner reading “welcome” and a party being hosted by the theologians, who have been waiting there for them all along. 


The “wise men” represent pagans (Gentiles) who, though they do not have the special revelation of the Torah, come to Jerusalem to follow the light they have seen.  Their goal is to worship – pay homage – to the new King.  Isn’t that why we came to worship today?


Don’t we come to worship like these magi, not really knowing where we are going or what we are doing?  It’s like we know what we are TRYING to do, but are actually incapable of getting it exactly right. But every once in a while, we sense that we are really on the edge of something BIG, really BIG, and it overwhelms us.  It is in those times that we brush up against the glory of God and are stunned.


It is the presence of Christ that is the source of our worship.  There has GOT to be more to our worship than our projection of our human wants and needs, the human projection of ourselves, for it is not worship if it is about what we want, how we like things, and what will “work.”  Worship is not worship unless it is the fitting response to the presence of God in our lives.


There is a parable by Soren Kirkegaard.  He says that going into worship is like attending the opera.  In the opera there are performers, an audience and a guy that is in the prompter’s box.  Kirkegaard says that people think that worship is analogous to the opera because they come to be the audience, while God sits in the prompter’s box and tells the musicians and the preacher what to do.  Seems right?  WRONG.  Kirkegaard correctly points out that genuine, correct worship is like the opera, but not like we think.  We have the roles messed up.  Yes we  are in worship, but you are not the audience – you are the performers.  The musicians and preacher are not the performers – they are the ones in the prompters box telling you, the congregation/performers what to do, and GOD is the audience.  Our job here in worship is to DO the worshipping for God.  WE do not come here to be entertained.  We come to be in the presence of God and worship.[3]


These “wise men” have come to worship this new King after being led by the star.  Various attempts have been made to relate the phenomena of the star to natural phenomena, such as a comet, or meteor, or star like we see in the sky.  Some have even speculated that it was a UFO.  Ahem.  But what is described is clearly a supernatural phenomenon, not something that is explainable.  If everything were explainable in terms we can conceptualize, then it would not be called faith.  This light leads them to Jerusalem, remains stationary while they are there, and then leads them, not just to Bethlehem, but also to the very door of Mary and Joseph. 


Although Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, he is clearly also the Messiah for the Gentiles as well.  Even Matthew, the most Jewish of the four gospels is aware from the first page that it is not necessary to first have an understanding of the Torah before one can come to the Messiah and accept him as Lord.


They come to worship.  They come to give regards to the King.  They bring their offerings, which are fitting for royalty.  These strange outsiders do not stumble upon the Messiah by accident.  They search with purpose and are directed by the very hand of God.  We are not given any clues about their motives, or their background, or their life stories.  All we know about them is their response to God’s presence among them.  They responded by giving to the Messiah.  But it gives me pause to consider how, for all their wisdom that we assign to them, they overlooked the one gift that the child would have been genuinely pleased to have someday, and that was the gift of themselves and their love.[4]  Isn’t ironic that God doesn’t need gold, frankincense or myrrh?   But what God wants is your heart?



I imagine that when the Magi decided to head back to their homes, they found that none of their old maps worked anymore.  They had to go home by another way.  Nothing was the same.  That is how it is after you have truly worshiped God.  We cannot be the same.  Maybe worship is something we try to do every week, but only truly accomplish once in a blue moon.  But it is worth the effort, because without it, we would never encounter the Christmas Presence.  Worship is about responding to the Presence of God, and now is your chance to respond.


In most of the Gospel stories, Jesus comes to people. He reaches out, goes forth, and intrudes into their lives, moves into their villages and homes. But in Matthew's story of the magi, people come to Jesus. The magi take a long journey (I can't think of anyone in the Gospels who travels farther than the magi, can you?) to get to Jesus.


"I've got a lot of questions," says Jayber Crow in Wendell Berry's novel of the same name. Jayber is recalling his seminary days and a visit to his professor of New Testament Greek, old Dr. Ardmire. "Perhaps you would like to say what they are?" answers the good doctor.

Jayber runs down the list. He fears his teacher will be like the other professors and discourage his questions. Dr. Ardmire listens thoughtfully for some time and then says, "You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."

"And how long is that going to take?" asks Jayber.

"I don't know. As long as you live perhaps."

"That could take a long time," Jayber replies.

"I will tell you a further mystery," says Dr. Ardmire. "It may take longer."[5]


In that journeying, the magi may be taken as a model for many of us. They are the model for those who attempt to move toward God, who go forth on a search for something better in life, something more. Perhaps that's a chief requirement for being a Christian - a willingness to go on a journey. Alas, I fear that too many of us gather here in order to settle in, settle down, as if church were the end of the journey with God, rather than its beginning. Yet we follow a living Lord, a demanding savior who leads us forward, in whose service is high adventure. He doesn’t want your gold, or incense, or myrrh.  He wants our hearts.  Let's follow the star.

[1] Farley, Edward; The Christian Century, March 18-25, 1998, pp. 276-277.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kirkegaard, Soren; Provocations: A collection of original writings by Soren Kirkegaard.

[4] Buechner, Frederick; Biblical Characters, p.195.

[5] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, Counterpoint Books, 2000, pp. 53-54.


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