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.
Next weekend I will spend a few days at camp with Holy Trinity students participating in the annual confirmation retreat. As we’ve been doing for a decade or so, we will travel to Luther Park in Danbury, Wisconsin. There will be, of course, new topics to discuss and new opportunities for getting to know each other as a group, but one tradition that is almost always a part of the retreat is walking together as a group out onto the frozen lake on Sunday night. We listen to the sounds of the ice shifting and the woods around us. And most of all, we take a break from everything else going on in our lives and simply look up at the stars. Every year, I pray for clear skies because it’s such a great experience. It’s a simple activity that requires no planning, and yet it is often described as one of the highlights of the retreat. I find that fascinating. Sometimes I wish that students would point to one of my brilliant lessons or inspiring worship services as their favorite part of the weekend, but I get it. There’s something amazing about gazing up at the stars, especially away from the lights of the city, and especially with people you care about.
Our galaxy, scientists estimate, contains as many as 400 billion stars. And that’s just one of about 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. Some people have even speculated that beyond those galaxies there could be other universes that are completely unobservable us no matter what telescopes we might construct, that is, unless some other expanding universe were to somehow bump into our own. Then we might notice it. What a worldview-altering discovery that would be! A few astronomers are scanning the heavens looking for evidence of such a collision. It hasn’t happened, yet, as far as we know.
The magi we read about on Epiphany are sometimes called kings, but they are better understood as intellectuals, and even the scientists of their day. They too studied the skies, looking for signs of change and disruption. They sought new discoveries about our universe. As such, they were open new possibilities and self-understandings. They were people who wanted to expand their own worldview.
It’s often much more comfortable to keep one’s world small. If you keep your head down and focus only on your own circumstances, then life is much more manageable and safer, or so it seems. Looking up at the stars can be overwhelming. It changes how we think of ourselves to remember just how big the universe really is. That’s why looking at the night sky is such a profound experience.
Matthew tells us that those intellectuals from the east discovered something in the sky that inspired them to set out on a journey. They were ready to turn their lives upside-down and make a trip that must have taken months or even years. They headed to Jerusalem—the most important city in the region—and arranged for a visit with King Herod—the most important person—to enlist his help. But Herod, it seems, was not nearly as willing to welcome a larger worldview. This world, where strangers from Persia come to pay homage to a Jewish king came instead as a threat to him. He very much preferred the world where he was in charge of everything, where he called the shots, where things stayed basically the same. He was afraid of losing that control over his little world. We know that about Herod not only from this passage but from other historical sources, too, in which we read that he even murdered three of his own sons, due to the threat they presented to his position of power. There was a popular saying at the time that went, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than his son.” Herod was a powerful person with a great deal of fear, and that presented a dangerous situation. He was frightened, the Gospel says. And not only him but “all of Jerusalem with him.” That is, all who benefited from the system as it was were afraid of having it upset. New kings, new foreign visitors, newness of any kind would not be good for them.
Ironically, Herod did help those magi, though he thought he was still in control of the situation. “Let me know when you find him,” Herod said. “I want to pay homage, too,” but of course, he had other intentions.
The magi went, not to a major city like Jerusalem but to the little town of Bethlehem. They found Mary and the child Jesus. They presented their gifts and paid him homage.
And then the magi were changed again. They must have been because we are told they returned home by another road. Through a warning in a dream and even more, I think, through their encounter with a peasant king in a tiny village, their worldview was altered again. It wasn’t through the rich and powerful in Jerusalem that God was at work but through vulnerability, through peace and generosity. The way that the adult Jesus would live his life would stand in stark contrast to the Herods of the world, and the magi, I believe, were already beginning to understand that. They didn’t need to report back to Herod because his power was fleeting. It would not stand forever. But the power of God which is eternal was revealed for them in a child, born in humble circumstances in the village Bethlehem. The power of God was present among what’s considered ordinary, unremarkable. So they returned home by another road. They followed another path.
The life of faith calls each of us to alternate paths during the course of our lives. Sometimes our path may be surprising to others, but it’s because we walk by the light of Christ, our Morning Star. In a world of preserving power by force, it looks foolish to turn spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. In a world of wealth building it is strange to be generous and to treat your neighbor’s needs as your own. In a world of protecting your way of life and what you have, it is strange to welcome a stranger. The light of Christ leads us on another road.
There are also times when the new roads we travel are not by our choice but are roads given to us. A health crisis, a job loss, a changed relationship, and other circumstances can set us on journeys we never expected in directions we never thought we’d go. But what we know, in faith, is that Christ is present to guide and bless along these roads as well. What we have observed by our Morning Star is that God is found especially in such unexpected places.
The theme for the retreat next weekend is “Light enough for each step.” We’ll be reminded that while we may not see the final destination, God is present to illumine the path just ahead, with just enough light. It is true for all of us.
I wish you all Epiphany blessings on whatever road you may find yourself traveling right now. May the light of Christ accompany and guide you for each step of the journey, and may you carry with you a song of praise.