What comes to mind when you hear the word, “wonder?” As we embark on new journeys throughout a New Year, we may wonder what 2019 will hold. We may wonder how things might shift in coming year. We may wonder at new ways God might be at work in our lives and where God might be leading us. Even when the story might be familiar, we are called to approach scripture with a sense of awe and wonder.
Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men a from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They 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[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Today, even though yesterday was the 12th day of Christmastide, we are still celebrating the glorious news of Christ’s birth. Who still has their trees up? Growing up I was taught that trees should be left up through Russian Christmas, or at least Epiphany. Epiphany happens every year on January 6th, but it doesn’t always fall on a Sunday. Admittedly, pastors tend to geek out a bit when it does. Today we celebrate Epiphany which marks the arrival of the magi from the East, probably around the time Jesus was a toddler. Someone once defined an Epiphany as a moment “when the jagged pieces of life come together to define us;” in case of our text the jagged pieces of ancient prophecies come together in Christ’s birth. An epiphany is often an intense revelation mixed with an invitation to wonder and the celebration of Epiphany by its nature stirs up wonder within us.
One point of wonderment in our text is the star. Since humankind started looking towards the night skies, stars have been a source of wonder. On cold nights when the wind brings a crisp sense to the night air, as we look at the billions of stars in the night sky, we are awestruck with wonder. We ask many questions: how many stars are there? How vast is our universe? Might there by other life forms? People dedicate lives to studying stars.
The magi in our text were people who studied the stars. These Gentile magi astrologers, possible Zoroastrians, came from the East, perhaps from around the area of modern day Turkey. They not only studied the stars, but they assigned a particular meaning to how the stars and planets moved across the night sky. The magi recognized the appearance of a new star was a big deal, so they made some calculations and assumptions and set out on their journey to follow the star of wonder. Much of their identity remains a point of wondering but here’s what we know about them. Though in the hymn we sing “We Three Kings,” They were instead magi from the East, not kings. In fact, the only kings referred to in passage are Herod and Jesus. Our text also never mentions how many magi there were. The idea of three magi was added over five hundred years later. The wise magi followed the star and appeared with gifts for Jesus and his family, which is what one theologian labels as the “first baby shower.” When the magi show up to pay homage to Jesus, Gentiles became part of the Jesus’ story.
Wonder can also disrupt our lives and direct us down a completely unexpected path. The magi left their homes as they traveled probably well over a thousand miles. They took a chance of something they didn’t completely understand. They set out without knowing exactly where they would end up or what they would see. They traveled purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown and vague destination.
The magi eventually reach Herod, who is caught completely off guard—he had no idea this threat to his rule was growing right under his nose. Wonder disrupted Herod’s life. Herod was already in the habit of trying to eliminate all threats within his own palace. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone who he thought might overthrow him and take his power away, include his own sons. The birth of a promised Messiah would be good news for all who wish to participate in God’s radical inclusive love and grace—but not good news for those who desire power over and against others. The birth of someone who, “shall become a ruler who will shepherd the people” poses quite a threat for the Herods of the world. Be afraid Herod, be very afraid. The world is about to turn, Christ broke into the world to make everything new.
Our text reminds us that the birth of Christ had cosmic, astronomical, and societal importance for ALL people. Epiphany celebrates the nation-encompassing of God’s invitation to be in relationship with not just those in Jerusalem, but those spread throughout distant lands, those who set out in wonderment and seek Christ like the magi. Epiphany reminds us to look UP towards God and OUT towards all creation and people who all are beloved by God. Perhaps all wonder is an invitation…and invitation into pondering who is this God who came among us and what does God means for our lives. For some, it is a fear, for others, a joy. When the magi arrived at the place where the star was and saw Jesus and his family, they were exceedingly joyful and worshiped Christ. And sometimes, pondering God brings wonder, joy, and fear; simultaneously.
So friends, we must ask ourselves, is there room in our lives for disruption and wonder? Is there room for God to invite us to follow- or to go a different way? Let’s celebrate Epiphany and remember the jagged pieces of our lives should point toward our God. Like the magi, we don’t necessarily know where we will end up when we are drawn by wonder. Wonder leads us to amazement and healing, as well as places beyond our wildest dreams.
In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to make room for wonder as we listen to God and follow Jesus in this New Year through a very particular practice known as “Star Words” or “Star Gifting.” You may have noticed extra baskets this morning as you came in. In these baskets are stars. Each star has a word written on it. The stars are face down because you don’t get to pick your word- the star will, like a wand, choose you in a sense. Think of it as the opposite of a New Year’s Resolution, in which you try to correct some defect in yourself, and receive instead this gift of a word, to carry with you throughout the year. To illuminate your journey; to help guide you as seek new ways to encounter God and share God’s love with neighbors throughout the year. Perhaps consider looking your word up in the dictionary in order to grasp new meaning. For example, we hear the word grace all the time, but what exactly does it mean?
I invite you to take a star as you come forward for communion. Take it home with you, and put it somewhere you can see it. On your bathroom mirror, near your coffee pot, as a bookmark in your daily devotional, on your computer monitor at work or home, in your workshop or car. The word on your star may not make sense to you at this point. You may not even like; but watch and wait. After all, we don’t always get a word that makes our hearts sing, but as one of my much younger friend says, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” In some ways, meditating on the words that are more challenging or dissonant can be even more revealing than words that we like, or words that make sense. Sometimes the word we most need to hear is that which we least want to hear. Our challenge is to reflect on the words’ presence in your life throughout this year. It may break in like an epiphany. It may slink in like a barn cat.
As I wrote words on each star, I prayed over each one of these stars-that each star would find its way to precisely the right person, to guide them in the way of Jesus. To challenge them in a new way as they seek to grow in their faith journeys and strive to love God and love neighbor. My hope is that like the star that guided the magi, this word may guide you this year as you share the all-encompassing love and grace of God with all you encounter. We are all challenged and invited to use our words as a chance to reflect on how God speaks to God’s people. What might we learn from one word? What treasured wisdom might resurface? How might this revelation entail as we seek to participate in God’s call for uprising of justice and the insurgence of grace? May your word surprise you in the best ways, may you wrestle with it and poke at it-and may it poke back at you. May you be filled with wonder and awe as the magi were as you encounter God in new ways. Amen.