This sermon was delivered at Dunbar and Hickman Presbyterian Churches on
Sunday, January 3, 2016.
Scriptural references are:
Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12.
A recording of the sermon is available here.
I married a recovering Episcopalian, and that’s where I learned that Christmas extends into the New Year. In dating my now-husband, I learned that those weird Episcopalians really do celebrate Christmas all they way until Epiphany. They have 12th Night pageants at church on January 6th, they have parties celebrating the arrival of the magi, and they even hold worship on January 6th, no matter what day of the week it falls. They take the Christmas stuff quite seriously.
In reality, in many parts of the world, and even to some families you may know, Epiphany is a bigger celebration than Christmas. Barbara Brown Taylor shares stories “with rituals of gift-giving tied to treasure-bearing wise men instead of a jolly fat man in a red suit. In some places, children leave shoes filled with hay outside their homes. The hay is for the camels of the wise men, who leave gifts for the children in the shoes as thanks before resuming their journey to Bethlehem.”
Not to be outdone, and since I love the look and feel of my home at Christmas – so warm, inviting, peaceful – I have nearly-fully embraced the season of Christmas as much as my husband’s former denomination. Our tree stays up until at least January 6th, as do all of the Christmas decorations, and we continue to eat off of my Christmas china well into the New Year. We celebrate the 12 days of Christ’s Birthday and the 11 days of Katie’s Birthday, since Jesus and I were born less than 24 hours apart from one another. And, I’ve adopted my Mama’s philosophy that Christmas is more than just a season, so you’ll probably spy me drinking coffee out of my new travel Christmas tree mug well into June or July. I’m currently lamenting the impending removal of my front door decorations, but I’m also afraid that the neighbors might start to think us odd if we keep them up too much longer. Conversely, there’s something, about the shimmer of the lights on the tree or front door in the dark night or dark early morning hours that brings peace and joy.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
The prophet Isaiah tells us of the light that has come in the midst of darkness. Obscurity exists. It’s present and it’s pervasive. It was for Israel during the Babylonian exile and still today. Pick up a newspaper or read headlines on Twitter, or listen to the nightly news – you’ll see that darkness is real, pervasive, and thick. Look at our gospel lesson for today – right there in the story of our savior’s birth – a King so threatened to order the slaughter of all the male infants. There is no escaping the dark in our world, but while it’s dense and looming, a light has come which shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overtake it.
Last year my family did some housesitting for another family for two weeks in February. I loved that when I would walk into their front hallway at night, I would see colored Christmas lights still wrapped around the staircase banister. I found myself standing in the hallway in the darkness on more than one occasion. For even though it was February, our friends’ laxness in removing Christmas decorations allowed me to relish a bit longer in the season of light.
The magi are first Gentiles to recognize the coming of the messiah. They have traversed the lands to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews” and at laying eyes upon this child, they are transfixed. Matthew’s story, which is written for Jews, fulfills the prophecy Micah about a messiah who will open the doors of the kingdom for Jew and Gentile alike. The magi, the wise ones from the east, are the first Gentiles to enter the salvation story. They meet the messiah and “foreshadow the comprehensiveness of the coming kingdom he will one day proclaim.”
Micah’s prophecy in chapter five, verse two, as shared from Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, is this:
“But you, Bethlehem, David’s country,
the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.
His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes
until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back
home to the family of Israel.
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!”
“He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.” This, this is Christ the king, friends. He’s no upstart. He’s no pretender. He may have been born in less-than-desirable circumstances, but he’s no nonentity. Christ our king is the son of the highest god. He’s the light that shines in the darkness. He’s the infant that changes the course of destiny. Christ the king is worthy of admiration, for he’s the peacemaker of the world.
“…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.”
If we continue reading Matthew’s story, we come to verse 16 which informs us that Herod sought the death of “every little boy tow years old and under.” This becomes important to us because it lets us know that the scholars, the magi, traversed the land for nearly two years in order to find the king. They followed a star for two years. Two years. We’ve all heard the joke that if it’d been wise women, they’d have stopped and asked for directions and arrived sooner…and then cleaned the manger, washed the swaddling clothes, and provided Mary with a week’s worth of meals. True or not, these magi followed what they had been told for a while in order to catch a glimpse of the Christ child. They saw the star and they followed – the brightness shining in the dark world. They trusted that this journey would lead them to see promises fulfilled. They were spiritual seekers – they sought something transcendent through stargazing and found what they were looking for – probably more than they’d ever expected to find – in the birth of a child to an unwed teenage girl.
These gazers practiced an alternative method of spirituality. It’s important for us to acknowledge that while their spirituality was different, as they were the first to see our Lord. They were welcomed although they believed and practiced their spirituality differently. God’s grace, born to us, is not for one, but for all. “Everyone has been invited to God’s natal part, even those who have been traveling radically different paths on their search for their true home.”
A common phrase in my house as I grew was “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.” Twisting this a bit, I offer,
“It’s not how you journey, it’s how you respond when you arrive.”
The star stopped over the spot where the child was to be found, and the gazers “were overwhelmed with joy.” Or, as the ESV translates, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” My favorite just might be The Message: “They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place!” These faithful who set out long before they arrived, and followed light in the darkness, delighted in what they found. They were transfixed. Life would never be the same for them, and they made decisions accordingly. Rather than returning home by way of passing news along to King Herod, they knew that they must protect this child, so they found another route home. The wise ones were “crafty as snakes…[they knew] when to be silent, when and how to speak, and when to take another road.”
Recording artist Danny Gokey lives a “light in the darkness” story. “His wife Sophia encouraged his dreams and urged him to audition for American Idol. Just a month before his audition, Sophia died unexpectedly after what should have been a routine heart surgery. The couple had been high school sweethearts and Danny was devastated. Yet in the midst of his sorrow, he honored Sophia’s wish and auditioned for American Idol a month after she passed. He advanced through the competition,” eventually placing third in Season Eight. Aside from being a national recoding artist, new dad, and on tour this year, he runs the ministry Sophia’s Heart in Nashville, which provides housing for homeless families in transition. This year he released a Christmas album and his newest chart-topping song Lift Up Your Eyes calls us to follow the star, like the magi, and respond appropriately with our offerings. What do you have to offer? How do you plan to respond when you arrive?
“Light of lights eternal hope has come
By and by to lead us back to love
Come behold a manger for a bed
Where the King of Kings has laid his head
Light of lights eternal hope has come
Hear the angel’s song break the silent night
Lift up your eyes
See the saving One born that none may die
Lift up your eyes
Glory to God let the praises rise
Lift up your eyes
Glory to God let the earth reply
Lift up your eyes
Come and lay your offering at his feet
Where the sons of earth and heaven meet
Let the joy awaken every heart
Born into the night the morning star
Come and lay your offering at his feet”
We all have our own story to tell about our pathway to the manger. Some people have no idea the importance of the child who lies there. Some have other opinions of the swaddled infant. No matter, we are all here today and heading there because of God’s nudging. A star has appeared and we can’t help but follow its brightness. Sons will come from far away; daughters will be carried by their nurses. A multitude of camels will travel, too. Nations are gathering together to come to God’s light, and even kings are attracted to (or appropriately intimidated by) the brightness of God’s dawning birth.
“They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
The Light of the World has arrived. It’s shining through our darkness. It’s peeking through the clouds, beckoning us come and follow. No matter the density of the clouds or the deepness of the dark, stars are perpetually shining that we always know the direction toward the place where Christ will be found.
The light, Christ our Lord, the King, the babe of Mary…it’s a guiding light that will show us who we are and who we can become. Will we meet the light? Will you hide? Will we step into the light that stands for what is right? Will you delight in the hope that lives in the light? Will we travel by the light of the newborn babe king? In a few moments we will sing a song about the infant child that bid us “haste, haste to bring Him laud,” and “hail, hail the Word made flesh,” and “raise the song on high – joy, joy!”
This, this is Christ the King. The king of kings, salvation brings.
Enthrone him, all you loving hearts.
And even when the darkness pervades too deeply, follow the stars.
Follow the light of Christ in the world.
God, the source of all wisdom, introduced us to spiritual leaders of other faiths so that their belief in the influence of stars will be an example to us. These wise people who practiced their spirituality differently taught us to embrace the journey of seeking the presence of Christ the King. When we arrive, will we share our treasures, too?
In the name of God, the creator of light, and Christ our bearer.
May the heavenly stars shine on us this day and everyday, that we shall twinkle forth their brilliance, also?
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 215.
 Ibid, 217.
 Stephan Bauman, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 212.
 Ibid, 214.
 Brian Wren, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship, (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
 Publishing: BMG Platinum Songs/Creative Heart Publishing (BMI)/Sony/ATV/Tree Publishing/Upside Down Under (BMI)/Sony/ATV Timber Publishing/Not Just Another Song Publishing (SESAC). P/C: 2015 Danny Gokey under exclusive license to BMG Rights Management (US) LLC. Writer(s) Danny Gokey, Mia Fieldes, Jonathan Smith.