S TARS ARE AMAZING! It seems humans are always aiming for the stars, or at least trying to get a little closer.
Look at all the space tourism that is beginning to take place. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is taking people to the edge of space — for a hefty sum of money, of course — where they get closer to the stars than they will ever be for the rest of their lives.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a rocket company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin took William Shatner into space — the oldest known person to ever go to space. If you don’t know, he played Captain Kirk on Star Trek.
Virgin Atlantic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, is venturing to the edge of space as well. Branson rounds out the Billionaire Trifecta who are all aiming for the stars.
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THE STARS TELL a powerful story.
Today as we celebrate Epiphany, a star is the central character of the Scripture that was read today. Epiphany is that moment of divine manifestation of God on earth through Jesus Christ as related by Matthew’s gospel. This story completes our nativity scenes with the arrival of travelers from the East. They are called Magi, wise men, magicians, or even kings, and the traditions that have spun off them resulted in much speculation about their mysterious identities.
In an attempt to nail down the story, legend ventured that there must have been three, one for each of the named gifts, and some even went so far as to give them names and cultural identities. But whether they were practitioners of magic, priests of royal courts, or astrologer and scholars, it is their actions that give them their role in the story. They were willing to follow a star.
Many have tried to identify the nature of the star mentioned in Matthew. Some say it was Halley’s Comet, which could have been seen around that time. Others propose that it actually was a cluster of multiple stars that shone brightly. It may have been a supernova explosion or even a planet. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes God as “the love that moves the stars.”
James C. Howell states that this was some sort of supernatural phenomenon, saying: God is determined to be found and will use any and all measures to reach out to people who are open.
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JUST OVER A WEEK AGO, we celebrated Christmas. On Epiphany, we celebrate this moment when the stars quite literally aligned and identify it as a revelation of Christ’s entrance into the world. Like the angels singing on the hillside, the star is meant to point us to God’s incarnation.
Augustine wrote, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born; we should say not that the star was fate for Christ, but that Christ was fate for the star.” (Benson Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 79)
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THE STAR TELLS THE STORY of light coming into the world in a powerful way. One that fulfilled the promises of the prophets and caught the attention of the Magi. The Magi, who had the eyes to see what others, including Herod and his scribes, did not, and provided them with a direction to go.
In the same way, there is more to the story of the Magi finding the baby Jesus than just a simple delivery of gifts with the star as some sort of GPS.
This is a story of journey and discovery that teaches us a lot about what it means to search for God in the midst of our own life experiences. Follow these observations made by one commentator (William Arnold):
■ First, these wise people had been studying. They knew their history. They hadn’t merely stumbled onto this momentous event. They had searched their own past and their sacred texts, and the result of their study was a readiness, or at least a willingness, to recognize the sign when it appeared.
■ Second, these scholarly folk did not keep their noses in the books all the time. They also were keen observers of the world around them.…
■ Third, they were willing to seek confirmation of what they had learned and seen. They moved, put their feet… in motion to follow this sign. They took a chance on being proven wrong — or right!
■ Next (fourth) they were willing to ask for directions along the way, even if they were wrong in their choice of resources (Herod).
■ Fifth, having found the confirmation of their convictions … they responded with all the gratitude they could muster.
■ And a last observation (sixth) … they still remained vigilant and attentive — open to further visions and insight — and thus they were responsive to their dream-delivered warning to go home by another road.
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YEAR AFTER YEAR, we can get caught up in the words that Herod said to the wise men, “Go and search diligently.” For some reason, I guess, in some way, those words must be a part of our call. The truth is the wise men, or the Magi had been searching diligently, not because Herod told them to but because somewhere deep in their hearts, they felt called to follow that star and to find the child who had been born King of the Jews.
Now, “diligent” means a constant effort to accomplish something, or to be attentive and persistent. What if Epiphany is not so much the soft, comfy story about the light, but instead, what if it’s a call to be diligent in what we do with the light?
Take a minute to think about what you are diligent about in your life. Maybe it’s your job? Or your family? Your exercise routine or your passion for golf? What about your faith? Are you diligent about your faith? Do you give a constant effort to share the good news, to go and tell it on the mountain?
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ARE YOU ATTENTIVE and persistent in your relationship with God? Those are tough questions, aren’t they?
Well, Epiphany might be the perfect time to ask those questions and to ponder them in our hearts because it is always nice to hear the Christmas story. It makes us feel good, and because of that, we tend to reach out to our neighbors throughout the season of Advent.
We always imagine what the world would be like if the peace and goodwill of the Christmas season lasted all year. But here we are just over a week past Christmas, and many of us have already changed our focus to resolutions and goals for the new year.
The problem is that we are so quick to say, “Merry Christmas,” but then we go on with our lives as usual, as if nothing has really changed.
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THE MAGI PROVIDE a powerful illustration of what the journey of faith, and the journey of life, can look like when we focus our intentions and attention in the right places.
What do we learn from Scripture about what the Magi did “when they saw the star”?
■ They were overwhelmed with joy.
■ They knelt down before the Christ child.
■ And they offered gifts.
Maybe some resolutions this year may include taking delight in those “Aha!” moments when you know God is present. Taking time to kneel down — or perhaps sit! — in God’s presence. And offering what we have to give to the kingdom of God.
Willingness, observing, action, seeking guidance, responding with gratitude, and continued openness; these sound almost like a list of new year’s resolutions of ways to be more faithful. The Magi help give us tools that can help us find our own stars to follow toward the epiphanies God has in store for us in the coming year.
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THERE IS A TRADITION here at Swift Church, marking Epiphany with the receiving of “star words.” They are simple words meant to give a point of focus or inspiration for the coming year, through which we can experience God in an epiphany-type way; unexpected, challenging, refreshing and renewing.
This morning, you will have the opportunity to receive one of these words, star words or star gifts. You are encouraged to simply receive it as a gift, whether it means anything at all to you, and to ponder it. Look up the definition, pray about it, talk with someone else about it.
Over the years, some have said that though the word didn’t seem to mean anything to them at first, they become woven into their lives. You don’t have to figure out its meaning to you right away; simply let it rest with you. You are encouraged to put them in a place you will see them often.
May these stars be one way to help guide you, as that star did for the Magi long ago, to a place where you discover God breaking into the world in powerful and personal ways, as we hear the carol’s refrain:
O Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
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LET OUR next journey begin. Amen.
(Based on a sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, Jan. 7, 2018)