Follow the Light (January 6, 2019)
I’m going to let you in on a secret—there were actually four magi but the fourth was turned away because he brought fruit cake.
We don’t really know how many magi there were. All Matthew tells us is that magi come from the east to worship the child who has been born king of the Jews. They arrive at the house where Jesus is, open their treasure chests, and offer three gifts as they pay him homage.
These were standard gifts for a king in the ancient world: gold is a precious metal; frankincense is an essential oil; and myrrh was used to anoint. Other documents of the time record the same items as gifts for rulers. It’s astounding to think that this peasant boy was given gifts fit for a king.
Let’s notice two things in this story.
The first is to ask “Who are the magi?” We sing about “three kings”, but they’re not royal. Magi were philosophers and astrologers from the east. They’re not from here; they come from away. They’re strangers. This story is Matthew’s way of saying that this birth is good news for all people. Outsiders become insiders.
This is Emmanuel. God is with us—all of us. All the world. Everybody. The whole world is included within God’s embrace. This is a remarkable story of God’s abiding passion to welcome everyone, regardless of age, colour, creed, sexual orientation, or any other thing.
And these magi are outsiders in every sense of the word. Not only are they from away, they’re also astrologers who dabble in the occult. People like this were explicitly condemned in the Old Testament.
But Matthew tells us that all people are now included. Something new is going on here. God is crashing into our world with a whole new way of doing things. There are no more outsiders. None. Zero.
The second thing to notice is the star. Since they’re astrologers, their work is to discern what the stars are telling us. But have you ever tried to follow a star? You can’t.
The star is a symbol. It is Matthew’s way of talking about the light which shines in the darkness. We focus so much on the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas that we miss how much light is part of the story of Christmas.
John’s Gospel mentions it explicitly: “What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In Luke’s story, the light is found in the wondrous glory of God which shone around that wonderful choir of angels.
In Matthew’s story, the light is found in the star. The magi follow the Light. Some people speculate that it might have been a comet or a supernova. Maybe—but honestly, that’s irrelevant.
The Light shines in the darkness.
I suspect that may be part of the reason we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, when the nights are longest. That’s why we use candles at Advent—the light grows week by week. That’s why we hold candles on Christmas Eve. The Light shines in the darkness.
It’s a story about following the Light.
The Light beckons us. The Light draws us in. The Light chases away the darkness. The Light warms us and melts the coldness that sometimes afflicts us. When we live in the Light, our fears are not so strong. They are less insistent. The Light bathes us in a sense of peace.
Following the Light also changes us. This kind of journey transforms us. As we rest in the Light, it enters our lives, our souls, and gently changes us.
I recently stumbled across a poem by Mary Oliver poem called Six Recognitions of the Lord. She describes lying in a meadow, watching the clouds, and letting the beauty of the scene wash over her. She ends the poem this way:
“Then I go back to town,
to my own house, my own life, which has
now become brighter and simpler, somewhere I have never been before.”
The poem describes an experience of something new in the midst of our ordinary lives. That experience changes us.
The same happened to the magi. They follow the Light, and they go home different people. They are made new, “and they go back … to their own life which has now become brighter and simpler, somewhere they have never been before.”
Matthew puts it this way: “They left for their country by another road.”
Following the Light changes us. We see new things. We engage in new ways of being. We set different priorities. We live in new ways.
On the outside, everything looks the same. Inside, it’s all new.
In another poem entitled The Summer Day, Mary Oliver reflects on the beauty of a summer day. She pays attention to the simple things, the little things, the beautiful things—a grasshopper, the grass. She ends,
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall downinto the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,which is what I have been doing all day.Tell me, what else should I have done?Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?Tell me, what is it you plan to dowith your one wild and precious life?” Finally, Walter Brueggemann offers this prayer at Epiphany:
“On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule,
with deep joy and high hope.”
Follow the Light. Where is the light present in your life? How can you follow?What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?We submit our day to you and to your rule with deep joy and high hope.Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
January 6, 2019 (Epiphany)
Matthew 2: 1–12
Isaiah 60: 1–6
Ephesians 3: 1–12