Meditation on Matthew 2:1-12
Jan. 3, 2020
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812
Audio of Pastor Karen’s message:
On New Year’s Eve, I posted a picture of my two cats on Facebook, and quoted them as saying, “We’re ready for bed, Mommy. Isn’t 2020 over, yet?!!”
That seemed to be the sentiment of many folks on Facebook that night—how glad we are to say goodbye to 2020 and how grateful we are to have made it through such a difficult year.
But there were many good things that happened this year—undeniable blessings from the Lord. Many of us adopted new pets. Quite a few babies were born to families in our congregation! And, in December, we may have received a celestial message of hope from the Creator of the Universe.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I got a call from Colin Hayes, a member of our church with a big heart of compassion, who often listens to the news and shares prayer requests for the world’s cares during worship. But this time, he had a joy to share.
Colin heard that we would be able to see the Star of Bethlehem on Dec. 21, the winter solstice. This “star” –nicknamed the Christmas Star by astronomers—is actually a “great conjunction” of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. They would be at their closest and able to be seen by the world for the first time in 800 years! They would appear as the Star of Bethlehem may have looked to the wise men who followed the star more than 2 centuries ago.
Colin—and some other people of faith—saw this as a sign from the Lord. That no matter how bad it seems here on planet earth, God is still with us. The Messiah has come!! And someday soon, he will COME AGAIN!
While I didn’t actually see the Christmas Star on Dec. 21, astronomers, stargazers and photographers stayed up all night to capture images of this rare and historic sight. My friend, James Neihouse, a professional photographer and cinematographer in Florida, took this photo.
If the Lord were speaking to God’s creatures through the night sky this year, it wouldn’t be the first time. We have only to search the Scriptures for evidence of God’s revelations to humanity through God’s creation.
The psalmist says,
“Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” –Psalm 8:1-4
And then there’s Abram, waiting for the promised child to his barren wife, Sarai, so that he would become the father of many nations. He asks God if his heir will be his slave, Eliezer of Damascus:
“But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” — Gen. 15:4-6
We encounter some mysterious star gazers in Matthew’s gospel today. No one’s sure exactly who they are, these wise men from the east or from “the rising of the sun” as the original Greek tells us. We know for sure, though, they aren’t kings and there aren’t necessarily 3 of them, which came from the tradition of the Early and Medieval Church, interpreting the prophecy of Isaiah.
The magoi were the scientists of the day, Zoroastrian priests, and probably political advisors or officers to the Persian court. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions and was the state religion of the ancient Iranian empires from around 600 BCE to 650 CE.
Some scholars and hymn writers over the centuries have focused on the possible symbolic nature of the gifts–gold, a symbol of royalty; frankincense, an incense, therefore a symbol of deity; and myrrh, an embalming oil, to foreshadow his death on the cross. Theologians and writers today, such as James C. Howell, suggest that these men, who were Gentiles—the first Gentiles to be drawn to worship and offer their treasures to the Savior of the world— “simply brought what was precious, what they wanted Jesus to have.”
We may miss some important details as we read this familiar and beloved passage because our Nativity scenes have misled us. The wise men didn’t come at the same time as the shepherds. Nor did they immediately follow their visit; as many as two years may have passed. And Jesus wasn’t in a stable for the wise men’s visit. Verse 11 tells us they entered a house.
What is startling, even after reading this scripture many times, is that they didn’t follow the star directly to Bethlehem, at first. They went to King Herod in Jerusalem—asking him, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” It seems to me that they took a wrong turn! The news of the birth of a new king of the Jews brought terror—not just to the despot afraid of losing his power and authority—but to all Jerusalem, who feared Herod would respond to such news with violence. Their fears were well founded. After news of the birth, and not hearing back from the wise men, Herod sent troops to “slaughter the innocents”—all the children aged two and younger.
There’s so much to learn from our Scripture today—to help us in our walk with God and equip us for the Lord’s work. Notice how the Lord grants wisdom to outsiders to the community of faith. They wouldn’t have been welcome in any of the homes of God’s people or offered a meal at their tables. They would have been looked upon with suspicion. We might consider our own attitude to outsiders, people who are different from us. How quick are we to welcome new people into the fold? Do we open our hearts to hear their stories and allow God to speak through them to us?
Something else troubles me: the question of who misses the life-altering news of the birth of Christ—the one with political authority and the educated, religious elite of the day. They knew the Scripture backwards and forwards! They knew the prophecy of Micah 6:2 where the Messiah would be born! And yet not one of them went with the wise men to seek and meet the Messiah. The religious leaders are more concerned about their safety and the king’s approval than following their God, who, as Isaiah says in 43:19, is about to do a new thing. The people of Jerusalem fail to recognize and welcome the Messiah, as well. They respond with fear rather than hope and faith.
Who are the example to us, then?
God calls us to imitate the faith of the wise stargazers; the outsiders are those who receive the blessing of wisdom and obedience when they choose to follow the star, at risk to their very lives. In the presence of Jesus, they are overwhelmed with joy! They have a conversion experience. Their hearts and minds are opened, and they are led by an angel to take a different way home–and change their life! Just think of all the people who will hear their story, see their shining faces, and sense their joy after being in the presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Are you ready to seek a closer relationship with the Lord in this new year? Will you follow, though it may mean a change of routine and heart—exchanging our sadness, frustration, anger or fear for faith, hope, and obedience and the promise of overwhelming joy in Christ’s presence?
Are you ready to take a different way home?
And I close with words from a modern-day sage, my friend, Erma Ahrens, of Renville, Minnesota. She posted this quote on Facebook from an anonymous source on New Year’s Day:
“Sunshine and shadows have mingled in the year that has passed away. Sunshine and shadows will mingle in the year I meet today. But hand in hand with the Master, I fear not what it will bring. God knows, He cares, He loves me, and God is everything.”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for the Epiphany of the Lord, the Revelation of the birth of Your Son, the Messiah, God who has come to be one of us and the Savior of the world. Thank you for your love for us that led you to give such a precious gift that promises overwhelming joy to those who seek a close relationship with Your Son. Lord, help us to be courageous and more faithful and hopeful in this new year, no matter what shadows are cast upon us. Let us walk in the light of Christ, willing to risk approval of human beings and our very lives for the sake of growing your Kingdom. By your Spirit, lead us to take a different way home—all the way back to You! In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.