Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
I think I’ve mentioned before that I am not generally a person with a good sense of direction. I have other strengths, but that is not one. I would honestly have a hard time telling you, standing inside this room without windows, which way is Fort Myer Drive or the river. I never pick the right exit from a Metro station. I get really mad when my GPS tells me to “head east.”
Jon is the half of our relationship who can emerge from a building and automatically seem to know which way we should go on the street to get where we’re going. I don’t know if this comes from something innate or from the fact that he grew up sailing and learned to actually pay attention to these natural cues around him to tell him where he was. In any case, when we’re in an unfamiliar place, I often rely on him to steer us in the right direction.
Still, while I’ve certainly gone the wrong way and I’ve certainly gotten lost, I’ve never really been lost for long. I have my aforementioned GPS, which mostly doesn’t lead me astray, and can usually at least set me back on the right course if I find myself off it. I can read a map. I’m not opposed to stopping to ask for directions, sometimes a lot of times in a row. I’ve been indebted to strangers who will go out of their way to make sure I get to the right place. I have always found something, or someone, to help guide my journey. In the end, there are a lot of different ways that we might find our way.
Stars have never been one of those options for me. I don’t think I stayed in Girl Scouts long enough for that. Still, this story that we read and celebrate on Epiphany each year is a story about people finding their way – in more ways than one.
The story of the wise men and their visit to Jesus is one that traditionally gets included as part of the Christmas story, usually with the wise men and shepherds and angels all worshiping Jesus together as he sleeps peacefully in the manger. And I get kind of wanting to put everything together in one picture like that. At the same time, when we do, we also end up losing the uniqueness of the different stories we have of Jesus’ birth and infancy: the one that Luke tells, with shepherds and angels and an inn with no room, and the one Matthew tells, with wise men who observe a rising star and travel from the east, from non-Jewish territory, to find the king it represents. It’s good to let these stories stand on their own, to get to celebrate Epiphany as distinct from Christmas. In fact for us it’s the end of our 12-day Christmas season, when we move from focusing on incarnation – God becoming human and being born among us – to revelation – searching for Jesus and discovering more about who he is as we go along.
This Epiphany story, as told by Matthew, opens with the news that Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. There is no mention of a census; Jesus and his parents are simply there. The story will eventually close in Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up. At the moment, though, some undetermined amount of time has passed since Jesus has been born, and some wise men arrive in Jerusalem, presenting themselves before King Herod, the local client king of the Roman Empire. These people we know as “wise men” are probably something like “court priests who practiced astrology and magic.” They tell Herod that they are looking for a king who has recently been born, whose star they saw at its rising.
I have to ask myself what they expected, asking the current king where they can find the new one. Maybe they think the new king is Herod’s son. Maybe they are just gloriously clueless when it comes to politics in first-century Palestine. In any case, Herod is pretty understandably alarmed, but he goes along with it. He quickly gathers more information from the chief priests and scribes, who know the Scriptures, and directs the wise men on their way, saying, “Oh, go ahead and tell me where you find him, so I can go pay my respects too!” Interestingly, it is Herod who makes the connection between this star and the one the Scriptures call the Messiah – there must have been a part of him expecting this news all along.
So the wise men go, following this strange star, which leads them to Jesus. So far, they have two guiding influences on their journey: the star that leads them, and the directions of a jealous and suspicious king. They don’t yet realize that these two guiding influences are competing. They find the place where Jesus is, enter the house, pay their respects, and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Here in the beginning days of a new year, I think it’s a good time to stop and think about the guiding influences are in our own journeys – whether good or bad. I’m sure some of us have made resolutions – whether to be healthier, or read more, go to bed on time, or finally accomplish some goal we’ve been meaning to get around to. I’m sure others of us have sworn off New Year’s resolutions altogether – after all, it’s just another page on the calendar, and experience tells us they’re destined to fail. But when I talk about our guiding stars, our guiding influences, I mean something more than just resolutions. I mean what’s behind those resolutions. Who or what guides the decisions we make each day of the calendar year – big decisions, like whether to stay in the same job or the same relationship, as well as little decisions, like how to spend money and how to treat the people life puts us in daily contact with?
What’s guiding you in those things? Is it what people will think of you, how it will look on social media, the things society says you’re supposed to have by a certain age? Is it commitments you’ve made to a person or place or project? Is it safety and security, real or perceived?
Is it God, and God’s call on your life, and Jesus, and the way he embodied how to live and love our neighbors and strangers and enemies? Is it prayer and the study of Scripture and the grace we receive in worship and communion?
The thing is that I know all those things can be tricky to sort out. The wise men didn’t know at first that their guiding influences – one from astrology, one from Herod – were at odds. Likewise, we can tell ourselves that what God wants most for us is our security and success and prosperity, and that can be the guiding star we follow. Or we tell ourselves that God wants us to go in a completely new direction when really God might be calling us to stick it out where we are for a while. Or maybe vice versa. What’s really guiding our lives isn’t always as clear as a star in the sky. But it’s something to honestly ask ourselves, at least once in a while.
In the end I believe that if we are seeking to follow the way of love, as embodied in Jesus, if we let that be what guides us through our days and our years, it might not all be clear – but we won’t be lost for long.
As it turns out the wise men have a third guiding influence in this story. Because once they have found this baby king and knelt before him and offered him gifts, the story ends with what sounds like almost an aside: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another way.”
The wise men, in the end, were guided by something even more fundamental than a star: a sense of what power used wrongly can do, and the courage not to bow down to everyone or everything that asks us to bow down to them – even when they pretend to be on our side. They were guided by a dream but also the faith to listen to that dream, to not second guess themselves, to not just take the easiest path when doing so would do harm to others.
And that’s important, because the story actually goes on from there, and it’s not a pretty one. Herod realizes the wise men aren’t coming back with information on where to find this newborn threat to his kingship. And so he resorts to dire means: he orders all the male children under a certain age to be killed, while the Holy Family flees to Egypt, seeking asylum across the border until the threat at home is gone. I imagine they are guided in that journey, as well, both by their own desperation and by the God who goes with them. When they return, it is not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth.
This new year, what are your guiding stars? What’s helping leading you in the right direction, the direction God is calling you to go?
Though I encourage you to think more about that, I also want to help you. Here I have a basket full of stars, and each star has a word written on it. These are our Star Words. Each word is different (though there might be some synonyms in there) and they are all from the Bible or Scripture-inspired. In just a minute I’m going to let you take a Star Word from the basket. This word is meant to guide you and be a point of reflection for you throughout the year. The throughout the year part is important, because a word may mean more over time than it does at first glance. Maybe you draw something like “service,” and right off the bat you take that to mean that you are supposed get out and sign up to volunteer for something. Or you say, “I don’t like that word, I already serve plenty, I’m burned out on serving.” But as the year goes on you find yourself reflecting on other things that service can look like, or the balance between serving and filling your own cup, or maybe even you find yourself being served by others. It’s open-ended. These Star Words aren’t fortunes. They’re supposed to draw us back to the center along our journeys. (They’re also conveniently sticky on the back so you can put them on a mirror, or somewhere they’ll stay visible.)
Reader – need a star word? We still have some left – ask me!
May these stars guide us in love, in discipleship, and in all the paths God has before us this year.
 Harper Collins Study Bible, notes, p. 1860