Hancock Church Sermon
Rev. Paul Shupe
January 6, 2013
Listen, as Matthew tells of the wise men from the East who follow the star seeking Jesus, the one born King of the Jews. These astrologers begin by coming directly to the court of Herod, the king. They return home, however, by another road.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “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.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.’ When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
“Home By Another Road”
One of the great joys of life is to begin each day with a cup of hot coffee and the morning newspaper. I am middle aged, which means that I am simultaneously curmudgeonly enough to still prefer the days of a physical newspaper spread out on my lap and barely adept enough to have adjusted to reading it online instead. I have a procedure for reading, honed carefully through decades of practice. I begin with the sports page, and then proceed to the comics, whereupon I am sufficiently fortified to face the actual news. I will confess, however, to one little quirk in my mostly reasonable nature: before turning to the news, I indulge in a moment of guilty nonsense: I read my horoscope for the day.
It is, I understand, an exercise in the absurd. I don’t know very much about the stars in the heavens, only what I’ve learned from the occasional PBS or Discovery Channel program. I know a few words to describe a few phenomena: galaxy, solar system, comet, super nova, black hole. I can us the phrase “big bang theory” in conversation and not be discussing a TV sit com. I have a vague sense that a light year is a very long way indeed, and that the universe is many, many, many light years from end to end. That’s about it. I don’t know very much about the stars. But I do know this: the idea the some how the positioning of all these objects, when properly correlated with my birthday, provides a useful source for guiding my day, well, let’s just say that it’s not a notion I can really accept. I know this. I am certain of it.
Yet each day I read the four or five lines in the Boston Globe that purport to tell me something useful. Usually, the lines are so vague as to be useless in every way. Here’s an example: “Partnerships will fall short if you cannot maintain equality. Inconsistency, or asking for too much will lead to hidden matters that will upset your plans or lead to double standards. Do your own thing if possible.” Now I don’t know what any of that means, and I haven’t a clue how anyone would know that just from watching the stars while thinking about those of us with November birthdays. And yet I read it faithfully, every day.
And this time of year, when I read my horoscope, I think about the wise men from the east who followed the star across the wilderness seeking Jesus, the one born king of the Jews. They were, you see, astrologers, believers that the stars reveal important information to us on the earth. It is, when you think about it, the most astounding of all the Christmas stories. I mean, sure, angels don’t appear to most of us, sweetly singing o’er the plains. And virgins conceiving are pretty rare. God using shepherds as the only witnesses to earth-shattering events seems a bit odd until you remember that the Bible is full of stories of God doing the unexpected. All these are unusual elements for a story. But really! Astrologers? From the east, not the east of Israel, but the East, the capital “E” East, figuring out that the appearance of a star means that a baby has been born to lead an obscure little people, and then packing up for a trip across the inhospitable wilderness so that they can honor a king who isn’t even theirs? Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? Perhaps even as odd as your twenty-first century minister reading his horoscope?
Still, there it is, the great story of the epiphany of Jesus Christ. The first gentiles to notice that the Son of God has entered the world are these stargazers, somehow coming to awareness that their world has just been altered in some amazing way.
Even so, even with their stellar insight, they still make some pretty glaring mistakes, suggesting that even for experts, astrology is a sketchy sort of thing. The star gets them to the right nation, but not the right city. And their astrological wisdom is so lacking in any sort of political acumen that they ask directions from the current king of the Jews, without pondering the idea that he might be a bit miffed at the birth of his replacement. Still, they get the help they need, from people trained to read the prophets, and then they bound off again, and find the child, at home with his suddenly silent parents. They offer up their odd and interesting gifts: gold, which is always good, of course, but also frankincense and myrrh, spices for anointing kings and for burying the dead.
Then it’s all over, right? They’ve done what they’ve come to do. They go home from their encounter with Jesus just the way they came, right?
No, Matthew says. For now they have a dream. They aren’t the first people in Matthew’s gospel to find in dreams that which they most needed. Joseph had been ready to put the pregnant Mary quietly aside, until he had a dream in which he was told that this was no ordinary baby. And now the wise men also are given a dream, in which they are warned not to return to Herod, but to go home by another way. And so they do; following wisdom gained not from the stars, but from the scripture, and from the living God. They entered the story as astrologers, but they leave as wise men.
And what are we to learn from their example? Perhaps it’s truly simple. That wisdom is found not in the stars, and not in the courts of power where the strong plot to hold onto their position and their place by any means necessary, but rather in the witness of scripture, these marvelous stories of people coming face to face with the God of mystery and wonder, and in experience with this God who still speaks, even today, in the shared experience of communities where God is sought and found. When we come up against situations that we do not understand, problems that we seem unable to solve, with genuine conundrums that bedevil us with uncertainty and its best friend, anxiety, we must learn to look for wisdom in the pathways of faith. For it is in our encounter with the One born king that we discover true wisdom, and given by the One who has the true power of forgiveness, and who gives vision that we might see, and who is for all who are in need, the source of deep and enduring hope.
Weekly we wander into this sanctuary, often drawn here for reasons as inexplicable as those that called those astrologers from the east to cross the wilderness in search of new life. Weekly we wander it, but what we discover, in the stories of scripture, in the bread and in the cup of this common table, in the face-to-face fellowship of sisterhood and brotherhood, that what we have sought, we have found. And then we, like the wise men of old, return home, by this new road, the one we call faith. And it is good. Amen.