January 3: External Light


Sermon
The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Second Sunday after Christmas

In the annual children’s Christmas Pageant, if I wasn’t picked for Joseph’s part, being a king was next best – a task for the older guys. The pageant director stuck cotton balls on the backside of the younger kids – and wearing dumb fluffy caps with ears, they became the sheep. Those who weren’t sheep were zipped into brown furry pajamas with a long tail attached – the donkeys. The youngest girls wore dove wings. An older girl would be selected Angel of the Lord, and the others formed the heavenly chorus, dressed in white robes with huge wings on the back. The Lord’s angel yelled, “Do not fear!” and startled the shepherds out of their bathrobes. And then there were the kings – three older guys who had done time as sheep and donkeys. We kings wore bathrobes and paper hats that would make you think we’d just eaten at Burger King. We processed two wooden boxes and a glass bottle with some colored liquid which years before started out lime green. And down the aisle we entered, singing, “Angels we have heard on high.” Flashbulbs popped as grandparents captured the moment for future embarrassment, when the grandkids became teens.

I grew up thinking the kings, or magi, as I later learned, arrived that first Christmas just after our shepherds had looked into the wooden manger box at a forty-watt light bulb lying on top of the straw.  Mary and Joseph sat stoically watching our procession and the chaotic menagerie, as the doves and younger sheep wandered aimlessly.

Scholars say the magi wouldn’t have gotten to the manger that first Christmas night. They may have arrived months, even years later. We say three kings came, mainly because three gifts are mentioned. They came because the mysterious, huge star they observed in the night had become stuck in their hearts. And through the ages, this story sticks in our hearts as much as theirs. It doesn’t matter when, how, or even if it happened. Matthew tells us this child is important and has meaning for our lives – all of us, everyone who has ever lived and will.

We know little about these quirky guys. Scholars believe Babylonian magi studied the night sky for signs of an important event, usually an extraordinary king’s birth. They would rent camels, down at the “camel lot,” and stay gone for months on a pilgrimage. They seemed to think they were the welcome wagon for royalty. This time a star guides them to Jerusalem. But when they arrive, they learn they have a wrong address. They must go over to Bethlehem – where some king of the Jews might be born one day. The star reappears, and they follow its light to a shed, where they find a child, born to poor parents. What’s amazing is that these learned gents, or whoever they are, worship him as royalty. Once they present extravagant gifts they go home a different way – warned in a dream to avoid Jerusalem.

Why does this story capture our imaginations? For one thing, it foreshadows trouble ahead. Roman rulers and Jewish religious leaders have no room for God’s reign from the likes of Jesus. He grows up to be a nuisance to the elite clergy and a threat to Roman rule. We learn in this story that God welcomes despised outsiders into the fold of the chosen – a sign that no one for any reason is excluded from God, a scandal for many. Jesus’ followers believe God now speaks in many and varied ways to call everyone home. Already we see how this child will be accepted and worshiped by some; rejected and hunted down by others – a foreshadowing we too have a decision and commitment to make ourselves about Jesus. The star signifies God’s will is that all, one day find their way home into a love that has been there for us all along.

Chances are pretty good that a star didn’t guide you here. Stars like the magi saw don’t appear anymore. Maybe you grew up hearing about God’s love – hearing the words, but you are still not totally sure how real God is for you. Maybe you once saw your version of the star, or felt a longing that pulled tugged on your heart, even heard a voice beyond words, and now that has faded. In our day many outside the church hunger and long for a larger reality. They, too, are on a journey to find what is eternal, lasting and worthwhile, that deserves their gifts, their passion, and their very lives.

That we don’t see an actual star in the sky does not mean the light of God is gone. That star that guides magi and seekers of truth, that points – points us to our destiny. The star, whatever that might be for you, guides us home into God’s loving, forgiving reign. Only as we embrace the ache, emptiness, doubt, longing within, can we become healed. Only as we open ourselves to the mystery we call God, do we find we’ve been given a new way to live in this world, not just some beliefs to be believed. God might just recruit you and me to be such a star, metaphorically, of course, shining in the darkness of someone’s heart. Could we be epiphanies, ourselves a revelation of the Word made flesh in Jesus by acts of love, grace, generosity to the needy, solidarity with the voiceless and estranged amongst us, by how we practice forgiveness and mercy – and in how we welcome the stranger in our midst with holy hospitality?

Could it be that we are, in a way, the star, reflecting divine light that someone might notice and follow us to Bethlehem’s manger? Could we point to what is worthy and deserving of human passion and worship? I think that’s certainly possible – that’s our mission as disciples of Jesus. We’re here – many are searching – because the light of God still shines and summons us. In the magi’s story, we find God welcomes everyone home – eternal in the heavens, but for now, remarkably present on earth and in our lives. This is a different way home – God’s way.


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