The life of an early Christian was not easy. Before AD 313 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan making Christianity legal, Christians faced state-sanctioned persecution for their beliefs. St. Paul writes of this persecution in many of his letters, and it’s attested in the Acts of the Apostles well. Part of the devotional and religious life of an early disciple of Jesus was the constant danger of being arrested, imprisoned, and even executed, or martyred, depending on your perspective, for owning your faith. As a result, many early Christians had to resort to gathering underground, some going so far as to gather in the catacombs, where the dead were literally surrounding them.
I don’t need to tell you that underground it was dark. And so, when we speak of light and darkness, particularly as it comes to bear on such ancient celebrations as Epiphany—which was already an established occurrence about one hundred years after Paul first wrote to the Galatians—maybe it meant something different for early Christians than does for us today. Conceiving of God’s work in Christ as light piercing through the darkness for people who found themselves in such circumstance would’ve been very different than how we think of it. Perhaps the best way we can think of it today is to consider how wonderful we feel when we turn on a flashlight or light a candle during a power outage—and even that relief pales in comparison to the experience of early Christians who met on the regular underground, often surrounded by dead bodies, with the constant worry they might lose their life for finding true hope in this light, in Jesus.
How do we identity today with that history, our history as the people of God? Does that past make a difference to us? And how do we see the light of Christ today in light of that history? Does speaking of Jesus as the light of the world have a different meaning for us when we consider what it meant for our Christian foremothers and forefathers? Consider that as we go into the sermon today.
Would you pray with me? May the words of mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.
Almost everyone knows this nursery rhyme. Kids learn it young. The idea of wishing upon a star, a particularly bright star, is something that parents and grandparents teach their kids about early on. We might think it’s somehow quaint, or even childish, to wish upon a star, but the notion isn’t something that only children have had. In fact, the idea of looking to the heavens, particularly the stars, for some sort of inspiration, guidance, or influence for the future has a long, long history. People have been looking to the skies for millennia. We can see the evidence of that in prehistoric cave paintings. The vast array of stars in the sky has fascinated us over the ages, but what really catches our attention are those nightly appearances that are out of the ordinary. Comets and meteors, or falling stars, catch our eye because we don’t see them as often. Ancient cultures from as far away as Asia in China and Persia, to Africa in Egypt, in Europe in Scandinavia, Greece and Rome, and the Americas with the Aztecs, believed that the appearance of comets, meteors, and meteor showers were fateful. People believed them to be signs that something, good or bad, had happened or was about to happen. The arrival of a comet could herald the birth of a great figure, and making a wish on a “falling star” careening across the sky could tip the balance of fate toward a favorable outcome.
And so, the notion that outer space, the heavens, with all their stars, comets, and meteors sailing through the sky—the notion that “out there” there was some power that dictated events on earth, or some power that could be harnessed to influence events here, that notion is almost as old as humanity. At the minimum, our awareness and fascination with what happens “out there” predates written language. You see, looking at the stars with wonder and awe, however romantic and childlike it might appear, is really in us, deep within us, in the innermost part of what makes us human, really.
Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.
Wishing…What’s it all about, this wishing? At the most fundamental level, a wish is simply a desire. Some wishes might be casual. Others might be serious. Someone might say, “I wish the Patriots had made it to the Super Bowl.” Depending on who you are, that might be a casual or a serious wish. I’ll let that to you to decide. I wish the fish had been biting today when my brother and I were out on the pond. A casual wish. I wish I had a job. A serious wish. I wish this pandemic would soon be over. I wish the church hadn’t caught fire. I wish my friend didn’t have cancer. I wish I could see my sister again. We could keep listing examples of things we wish for…
Of course, as we age, our serious wishes tend to number more than the casual wishes of our childhood. Our concerns also become more serious as we grow older, and wishing tends to be one of our recourses for dealing with our concerns. It’s as human as looking to the skies with wonderment. When we’re facing a complex problem or a complicated situation, we recognize that at any stage along the way something could happen that makes things either more difficult or worse, simply makes a positive outcome impossible. And so, we wish—we muster whatever goodwill is within us and aim it at whatever we’re staring down, and we wish. We summon that positive energy deep within us, and direct it at whatever issue is at hand, and we wish.
In today’s gospel text, we have wise men from the East come to Bethlehem in search of Jesus, “the child who has been born king of the Jews.” We all know the story. They come following a star—“For we observed his star at its rising.” These wise men who saw this star at its rising recognize that something had happened—because that’s what appearances like these meant. In this case, they knew the rising of this particular star meant that the long-foretold Messiah of the Jews had be born. Don’t forget that the Jewish people had spent time in exile in the East, under the Babylonians and Persians. The cultured, educated scribes and other scholars of the East would’ve most definitely been acquainted with the prophecies of the Jews, like the one St. Matthew tells of today from the Prophet Micah—“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.”
Therefore, they came to see to see this ruler, this king. They follow the star, they follow the light, and ultimately, they come to the place where Jesus, now a child, probably two or three years old at this point, is playing with Mary his mother. They follow the star, they follow the light, and they find Jesus. When they arrive, we’re told they’re so overcome, they kneel and worship him. And then, and only then, do they open their luggage and present their gifts. What a tremendous story when you step back and look at it!
Tremendous? Why? These wise men recognize who Jesus is. They knew before they came what he is—the king of the Jews. But when they stand before him, face to face, they recognize, they understand, they behold who he is. Before them is the one who will change everything. This child, this Jesus would turn the world upside and all around in ways that no other figure in history had ever done. The rising of this bright star, the appearance of this star light did herald the birth of a great figure—the one who would reconcile creation to God’s desire for life from the very beginning. The star they had followed brought them to the one who would make God’s wish come true, who would fulfill God’s holy will and restore all things. And these wise men knew when they saw Jesus before them that he was not only the king of the Jews, but he was the king of all creation, of all people, and all time. The star they followed really did herald the birth of a great figure—it heralded the birth of God among us and for us.
On Christmas Eve, we celebrated the birth of Jesus. And we proclaimed—“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; we who lived in a land of deep darkness, on us light has shined.” The darkness that shrouds the world right now can seem all encompassing, with everything from political turmoil here and abroad, racial and economic tensions, the pandemic, personal issues at home, in our relationships, and at work and school…But those who call ourselves Christians don’t sit in darkness—we walk as children of the light. We don’t stay put in the midst of sorrow, misery, and sadness, but instead we go forward, following the light of Christ that shines in the darkness and disperses its debilitating gloom.
Following the light doesn’t mean we don’t face difficulty, though. The wise men journeyed for years over hill and dale, across desert and grasslands, over streams and rivers to reach Jesus. They faced all manner of hardship. Journeying through life as disciples of Jesus doesn’t mean that our problems go away, but it does mean that we understand that our problems aren’t the end of the road. The journey leads on—even beyond the grave.
For this Jesus whom we follow, he loves us, claims us, and promises us that nothing will ever leave us stranded outside in the darkness, removed from the love of God. And at the same time, he challenges us as his disciples, his followers, to open our minds and be enlightened, to share the brightness of his love with a weary world that longs, groans, and desperately wishes for wholeness. Jesus by his promise of God’s undimmable love charges us to share that same good news with those who are hated, despised, and forgotten and with those who are hungry, not only for enough but for a share in all life’s abundance. Jesus bids us bind up those who are brokenhearted in any way—even if it means simply being with them, truly with them, in their trouble, dignifying them as a fellow human being with a need for love just like our own. For by our presence in the midst of their darkness, we shine the light of Jesus upon them, and they like us no longer find themselves sitting in a land of deep darkness.
In Jesus, God’s wish for us comes true. God shines the light of his love into our lives so brilliantly we can’t help but see it. We can’t sit idly by, but led by God’s light, we move forward, following the star of our life. We follow Jesus. We muster our strength not from ourselves, but from him and summon the power of his love, not from deep within ourselves, but from his love shown for us. We follow him in loving a world as he first loved us, and by that same love God uses us as beacons of hope to a world benighted with pain and despair. We follow him, and wherever we go, we carry his light with us, because God is right there with us—just like God wishes to be.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.