“Follow the Star”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 8, 2017 — Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12


When I was a child, my family had a small nativity set made of carved and painted wood.  Each year, when Christmastime would come, we would dig that shoebox out of the basement, and unwrap the tissue paper from around each figure, and set it up on a little, round table in the living room.  There was Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus in the manger.  There were shepherds and sheep.  There were angels.  And there were three figures with shiny golden crowns on their wooden heads:  the three kings, the wise men, the magi.

One had red robes, one had green, and one had blue.  They differed in stature and in skin tone.  Each year, we would try to decide which one was Caspar, and which one was Melchior, and which one was Balthazar.  My brother and I had strong opinions about this, and we would rehash the disagreement year after year.  Finally, to stop the quibbling, my mom wrote a capital C on the underside of one king, a capital M on another, and a capital B on the third.  From then on, we could argue about where to place them and in which order, but their names and identities were set.

What we didn’t know then was that those names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar—were not part of the original story, but were made up by Christians in the Middle Ages.  In fact, as you may have noticed, the story we heard this morning from Matthew’s gospel, which is the only scriptural reference we have to this particular episode in the tale of Jesus’ birth, does not stipulate the names of the visitors from the East, or even how many there were.  The fact that three gifts are enumerated led the Western church to decide that there must have been three magi (though the Eastern church holds that there were twelve!).  Those three in our tradition received the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and came to be identified as kings somewhere along the way.

But the story in its original form says nothing about Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.  It says nothing about kings—or even wise men, in spite of the way it is commonly translated.  Matthew’s gospel speaks of magi, which refers to foreigners, usually from Persia (modern-day Iran), who were gifted in astrology, augury, soothsaying, fortune-telling, dream interpretation, and even magic or sorcery.  They were probably not kings, but rather advisers who served in the courts of their rulers.

The translation we read today refers to them as “wise men,” and they may indeed have been trained and skilled in the magical arts and sciences of their time.  But I suspect that in this particular instance, people may well have seen them not as wise, but as foolish indeed.

Imagine—they set out from their homes to follow a strange apparition in the sky.  Maybe a star, maybe a planetary conjunction, maybe a comet, we don’t know—but whatever it was, these starry-eyed astrologers saw it, and they believed it to be a sign of the birth of the King of the Jews.

Why they were interested in the birth of the King of the Jews would have been anyone’s guess.  Their heritage was most likely Persian, not Israelite.  Their religion was most likely Zoroastrian, not Jewish.  Why would a mid-level government functionary travel hundreds or thousands of miles through the desert, maybe by camel or maybe by foot, not for work but of his own accord, in search of a boy king of a different ethnicity, of a different faith, in a place ruled by a different empire?  What could have compelled those foolish wise men to set out on such a journey into the unknown?

But when God comes calling… when the star shines in the sky and you know it’s for you… it doesn’t matter what people might say, or how crazy they might think you are.  It might seem like a fool’s errand to your parents, your friends, your neighbors, your teacher, your boss, your pastor, your children, your partner, or even to you—but you cannot help but rise up and follow.  You cannot help but saddle up your camel and set off into the unknown.

But you know this, don’t you.  If you’ve ever left home to chase a dream that you could no longer defer…  If you’ve ever followed your beloved across the country or across the earth…  If you’ve ever quit a perfectly good job because you just knew there was something else you were meant to do…  If you’ve ever thrown yourself into something, and worked harder than you knew you could work, and discovered new wells of energy and abilities you didn’t know you had, and loved every second of it…  If you’ve ever taken a leap of faith—great or small, at work or at school or at home or at church…  If you’ve ever said yes, through fear or trepidation or anxiety or uncertainty, because you simply could not say no…  You know that God sometimes calls us to things that seem simultaneously senseless and oh-so-right, absolutely illogical and obviously correct, utterly crazy and the sanest thing in the world.

And you know this, too:  that when we follow God’s lead, regardless of whether we ultimately succeed or fail in what we’ve set out to do, we are connected to the very Source of all our being, the very Fount of all our knowing, the very Heart of the heart of everything.

So I wonder, on this Epiphany Sunday and in the weeks to come, what call is God placing in your life now?  What summons is tugging at your heart?  What courage is welling up in your bones?  What opportunity is knocking at your door?  What good news is begging to be proclaimed?  What grace is ready to be revealed in your life?  What mercy are you about to bring into the world?  What salvation is God about to deliver through you?  What yes is just waiting to be said, in spite of all the reasons you could say no?  And what, my friends, are you waiting for?

You need not be named Caspar, or Melchior, or Balthazar—heaven knows the magi probably weren’t.  You need not be a king or a queen or a potentate.  You need not be wise in the eyes of the world.  All you have to do is keep your eyes peeled for stars at their rising, your ears attuned for the songs of angels, your heart open to the movement of the Spirit—and when God beckons, do not be afraid to rise up and follow.


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