A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
January 7, 2018
Text: Matthew 2: 1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 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.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “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.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 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.”
9 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.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 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.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Ezra Dyer couldn’t navigate across town anymore. Entirely dependent on his GPS and smart phone, he had an “atrophying sense of direction, an inability to get anywhere without a digital Sherpa. I recently got lost on my way home from the airport….It’s not that my instincts were wrong. It’s that I no longer had any instincts.” He decided to rebuild his navigational instincts and this past summer, Ezra set out on a thousand mile journey with nothing but a paper road atlas and a general sense of where East was. He followed road signs. A couple of times, he stopped to ask directions and actually found himself talking with kind strangers, folks who actually wanted to help, the most helpful of whom had lived in the area long enough to remember how to offer directions. He re-discovered the loveliness of the journey that comes between the starting point and the destination. Sometimes, he navigated by the position of the sun, and sometimes, he drove in star light, with only the exit billboards to guide him. “…Along the way, I reactivated the inner compass that once guided me… [it’s useful], like knowing how to do division on the back of an envelope even though your phone has a calculator. Because I won’t always have an omniscient supercomputer in my pocket. But I bet I can find my way home from the airport.”
Imagine the Magi, wise men from the East, scholars from the place of the sun’s rising, rolling out their charts and maps each night by the light of their campfire. Studying the stars. Awaking to the epiphanai – the revelation, the giving of light. Setting their course. Walking across vast swaths of land with nothing but their charts and the night sky to guide them.
Well, no. There was something extraordinary to guide them. There was the star that rose out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).
There was the one that Zechariah proclaimed:
By the tender mercy of our God, there was the
the dawn from on high that broke upon them
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide their feet into the way of peace.”
They were guided by a heavenly sign, so clear, so extraordinary, that they knew it was a manifestation of God’s glory. An epiphany of God’s presence. A revelation of God’s good news. An announcement of the Messiah. An unveiling of divinity.
And they were able to follow the star.
Are we able to follow the star? What distracts us? Do we have the skills to navigate the spiritual landscape? Do we even look up anymore?
These magi – maybe three, maybe seventeen – not kings, but scientists, scholars, and travelers – they were able to follow the star for a long time. For two years, historians speculate, on the way to the Anointed One. But they wound up in Jerusalem, city of King Herod, not Bethlehem, city of King David. They stopped nine miles off from their destination. In celestial terms, nine miles wasn’t very far away. But in spiritual terms, the distance from palace to manger was vast indeed.
Imagine, they rode their camels, slept in tents, ate dried meat and fruit and whatever travelers ate in those days, made small talk with each other, unrolled and rolled their star charts, pointed to the night sky again and again – for two years – all the while believing their charts and maps and the star would lead them to the one born King of the Jews. And they were close, and one night they passed by a city gate and read a sign: “King Herod’s palace, two blocks” with an arrow pointing the way. I can imagine one of them saying, “Friends, the Star isn’t telling us to stop here.” And the rest, weary, thirsty: “Yes, but the Star has kept us walking two years. Let’s just check to see if this is the place.”
They walked up to the palace and said, “Ah, this is the place a king would be born.” But perhaps that same skeptical one said, “Something feels wrong here.”
They entered the court and asked Herod, “Where is the child?” And perhaps that same one, watching the barely masked fear on Herod’s face, watching the scribes and servants scurrying around the elaborate coure, thought to himself: “We have navigated by a star, followed the light, sought salvation and hope, sought mercy and love, sought a child. And here is one who navigates by fear and greed. All the people around him gravitate to the sparkle of power and wealth but that is not the star I followed.”
God’s glory may be where we least expect it. In a little town nine miles out from the seat of power. In humble family, and a powerless toddler. In a barn. Held by a day laborer and an unwed teenage mother.
Even scientists, astronomers, magi, wise people, the privileged and powerful – and you and me – can find the glory of God, can follow the star to the messiah, can find the true King, when we recognize, “this kingdom is not like the Roman-sanctioned empire that divides those who are free and those who are slaves, those who are Jews and those who are Greek…men and women.” This kingdom is led by a holy child and founded on justice, equality, and mercy.
The trick is, not getting distracted by the palace.
I am not talking about getting distracted by wealth and power. Honestly, you’re not sitting in a UCC church on a cold Sunday in January 2018 if you have set your sights on wealth, power, money and authority. If your GPS destination is Herod’s Palace, this is not a rest stop on your journey.
Nonetheless, King Herod’s palace draws us in.
There is another way in which even sometimes wise people are distracted and detoured right now by the palace.
We get so scared, angry, frustrated and gas-lit by the headlines that are unable to move forward. Anger keeps us from navigating. The headlines keep us glued to the web rather than moving in the world. Our frustration about all the ways the world is broken keep us from building the kingdom where we can. And King Herod draws our focus continually back to him. Make no mistake, anger is as powerful a form of attention as praise.
Those ancient travelers left the palace with new directions, these from the prophet Micah, to make their way nine miles south. The one with his eyes on the star felt the consolation of being in the right place. And all of them were overwhelmed with joy when they reached their true destination. A palace built of wood and straw; a court filled with the humble; a tiny, powerless, child-king who would show the world the Way of Love.
Perhaps that one skeptical, determined magi had a final word to say to his friends: “We cannot go back to Herod. We cannot be complicit in his plan. We have reached our true destination. Let us…
‘Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for” any of us.’”
Friends, this is our decision, too:
To follow Waze or follow the Way.
To trust the world or trust the Star.
To direct our gifts to the worldly king or to the refugee child
To detour to the palace or to build the kingdom.
To navigate by GPS or or by God PS.
Let us set our GodPS to love, mercy, compassion, justice.
The Star will guide us: if we trust him.
 Another translation of “the East” is “the rising” – anatole – referring to the rising of the sun.
 The African American Lectionary Commentary, Regina Langley, January 4, 2009.
 James Taylor, Home By Another Way.