Meg Peery McLaughlin
January 5, 2020
Matthew 2: 1-12
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
Jarrett went with John and our university students to Montreat for the College Conference so we took the Christmas tree down early.
Zanna was helping me,
her little socks tracking dry frazier fir needles all across the living room.
She stared up to the top, where the angel was perched and frowned.
Mommy, we need a star.
She’s not wrong.
I explained (as if explanation is what any 5 year old wants)
that the angel told Mary about the baby,
and told Joseph to not be afraid
and angels sang to the shepherds.
Okay, fine, she said, we’ll have the angel AND the star.
Both, she said, next year we’ll have both.
Tomorrow is Epiphany,
and the story is always this one,
the magi under the star. Star light, star bright first star I see tonight.
Was it a supernova, or a comet?
We don’t know.
What we know is these magi,
travelers from the East, noticed a light, a sign, some wonder—
and they were crazy enough
or curious enough to follow it.
Now it’s important to note that these wise men were gentiles.
Thus far, in Matthew’s Gospel, the focus has been on a child born of Jewish descent,
named by a righteous Jewish father,
in a town described by Hebrew Scriptures,
born a King for the people of Israel.
BUT these wise men from the East are bizarre bohemians,
starry eyed strangers, and odd outsiders—they don’t quite fit
and yet they show up in our story
expectant of something,
ready for something.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.
Early in our ministry, Jarrett and I lived in Kansas,
and it was a season in our lives when
we were running around like a chicken with our heads cut off,
our primary conversations were about
who had meetings when. Life, was, off kilter.
One Saturday, I was at home, crossing things off on my to-do list.
I called what I thought was a mail-order pharmacy to figure out a bill,
and before getting connected to accounting,
a voice popped on the phone saying I’d won a vacation.
Of course I thought it was bogus, I mean that’s pretty shady and strange,
but my longing for a get-away got the best of me . . .
and I let some fellow named “Joe” talk to me for 10 minutes
about a three day cruise that I’d won and how amazing it was going to be—
All I needed to do was give him my credit card for the $70 fee and the rest was free!
I got so sucked in that I ran downstairs with “Joe” still on the phone
to tell Jarrett the good news and grab my wallet.
I put Joe on mute while telling Jarrett of our good fortune.
I wish you could have seen his face. He looked at me with a mix of pity and disbelief.
Who was I to get suckered by this scheme?
I came to my senses and hung up on poor Joe.
But you know,
when you yearn for something bad enough,
you’ll be on a serious look out for where it might show up.
These wise men were seekers.
Yearning for something amazing.
Prepared for something new.
And they saw the star.
So they packed their gifts, fit for a king.
They readied themselves for worship,
started their journey and followed the light.
Interestingly, it only got them most of the way there.
They were 9 miles off, ending up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.
Perhaps that’s how it is with light.
It illuminates the path but not the destination.
There is light enough only for the next step, not the whole race all at once.
And perhaps that’s how it is with faith.
It’s a journey and sometimes we don’t know where to turn next.
I don’t know who said it but someone said that
“Faith is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights,
but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That said, sometimes – along the way – it helps to ask for directions.
That’s what the magi did. Because the star doesn’t take them the whole way,
these outsiders turn to insiders to help.
They arrive in Jerusalem and ask
“Where? Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?”
Herod calls the chief priests and scribes of the Jewish tradition
to ask them where their messiah is to be born.
They consult the scriptures. They know them by heart. Bethlehem, they say.
The wisemen continue their journey –
and they find the child, and we read that they are overwhelmed with joy!
But they are overwhelmed by themselves.
Unlike the magnificent masses we had here on Christmas eve,
these joyful ones are alone in their worship.
Those that knew where the Messiah was to be born don’t bother to go with them.
Think about that for a second – the people who know where to go, don’t bother going. They’re so bored in their belief,
they’re not yearning for anything anymore,
they are blind to stars and wonders
they fail to see their holy scripture is taking on flesh,
they are in their routine and not up to much newness. . . .
But these magi need them.
These wise ones can’t make it without them.
It’s intriguing to me that this story centers around holding two things together.
The magi wouldn’t have made it without
the star and the community that interprets the scripture
The story wouldn’t be complete without both
the outsiders, strange seekers and
the insiders, the religious folk who knew their bibles.
Maybe what God is trying to get into our thick skulls is
that we always need both:
we need natural wonders, inexplicable signs,
moments where we are paying close attention to the world
and to our deepest yearnings
as well as
a community in which to process all that,
talk about it,
….through the lens of God’s deepest yearning.
Now maybe this facet of the story is striking to me
at the beginning of 2020
because I’m so weary of the division and polarization:
the left or right
evangelical or progressive
the white or black
the us or them
(And I really believe that in order for us to make it through,
we’re gonna need each other.)
Or maybe it’s because of the conversations I’ve been having about stewardship.
I sent you an email this weekend about the hopes we have for this church and the resources we need to make them real
I’ve been hearing from you about how this place will thrive
when we have both
both the longtime pillars—generous beyond my ability to say thanks
the never-before givers, folks who may have to risk to contribute,
friends who’ve never taken on such a spiritual practice before.
Perhaps it was just that we had the angel on the tree
and Zanna wanted both,
mama, we need a star.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might. Have the wish I wish tonight.
You know, maybe that old poem isn’t a wish. Maybe that’s more like a prayer.
I know I have one:
for this church to be on a serious look out for signs and wonders,
curious enough to notice,
with yearnings deep enough to care—
who ask what is breaking God’s heart around us
and what are we called and equipped to do in response?
my prayer is that we who are bored with all this
might ignite something in someone who stumbles in new
my prayer is that insiders and outsiders would find that they need one another here
the sure and the skeptics
the left and the right
the long time generous and the brand new testing the waters
the grieving and the giddy
the young and the old
that way, in 2020 here on East Franklin Street,
we will never be worshiping alone,
but rather sitting together all of us around the Table
people who are overwhelmed with joy.