The Message, January 9, 2022, "Follow That Star!"

The Message, January 9, 2022, "Follow That Star!"

Author: Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
January 11, 2022

“Follow That Star!”
A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Matthew 2:1-12

            Are you excited for Epiphany? Well … not really Epiphany, that was Thursday … but the celebration of Epiphany?

            Epiphany Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year! I do wonder if Epiphany is under-appreciated. Certainly, among the general public, if we were to ask folks what Epiphany is, they would likely not know. But I think that “church” people should love this Sunday. We love the magi. When we are casting for the Christmas pageant, everyone wants to be the magi. They have the best costumes, with the robes and crowns, and they get to carry gifts! And, because of the amazing Linda Lambert, the magi of First Parish get to be escorted by this incredible camel!

            In fact, I love the Epiphany story so much that I have suggested that we should create a separate Epiphany pageant. It is such a great story!
            There are exotic characters.
            There is pageantry.
            There is drama … and danger.
            There is a fantastic journey.
            There are characters that we love and characters that we love to hate.
            There is the supernatural. There is wonder and amazement.

            We are fascinated by the story and have been for generations. That may be because Matthew’s telling was so spare. In Matthew’s telling of the Nativity story, the Holy Family is completely passive. Joseph is not even mentioned, and Mary is seen but not heard.

            The primary actors in the story are the nameless strangers from a far-away land, a paranoid and suspicious king, and a star. The rest is left to our imagination.

            Over the years, legends and myths about the magi have been created to fill in the gaps. We have named them … Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior … and described their physical attributes. We have tried to determine their country of original and assigned them the role of kings. We have interpreted their gifts and have applied specific significance to each one.

            In the same manner, scholars have spent centuries tracking and tracing the stars. They have been searching for some event in the astrological world in an attempt to pinpoint exactly what happened, and when. They have speculated about an appearance of Halley’s Comet or one of the conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter.

            There are likely mixed motivations behind these attempts. Some of them may rise out of genuine curiosity regarding a fantastic story. We want more! We want to flesh it out. Other attempts may come from our all-too-human desire to explain things away. We seek to understand that which we cannot comprehend. Of course, there are those who seek to minimize or even eliminate God by trying to attribute everything to some easily explainable natural phenomenon.

            Of course, doing that … explaining, defining, pinpointing … misses the whole point. It tries to confine God to our boundaries. It misses the point that this was a supernatural event. It forgets the words that the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

            Speaking of Gabriel … it is interesting that the same process of defining and explaining is not applied to the angels that appeared to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel. Why do we feel the need to do it here? Why do we feel the need to explain, define and confine that which cannot be explained or defined or restricted to human understanding and boundaries?

            The process misses out on the wonder. It misses out on the fantastic.

            So then, let us approach the story with wonder and amazement. Let us enter into the pageant.

            The story opens with an unlikely character … a place … the Little Town of Bethlehem. Yes, the place has significance and meaning. It is a village perched atop a limestone mountain. It has history. It is the place where Jacob buried Rachel. It is the place where Ruth lived when she married Boaz. It is the City of David. It is a place whose name literally means “The House of Bread.”

            The story begins with a place that has held special meaning in the hearts of the people for generations.

            And then we are transported to a mysterious foreign land. Learned scholars scan the sky by night. They study the tracks and traces of the stars and planets. They mark their regularity and their patterns; they know when they will appear and disappear.

            The ancient world studied the night sky and the stars. They assigned particular meanings to the various stars and planets. They believed that the whole world was one unified piece, that everything was interconnected. They believed that when something important happened on earth, it would be reflected in the heavens, and that unusual events in the stars meant that something special had happened on earth.

            Historians across the centuries have written about ancient astrologers across the globe that anticipated the arrival of a great leader that would come onto the scene and bring peace to the world. Those astrologers traveled from great cities to the courts of kings and emperors following the signs of the heavens.

            The magi were more than just astrologers from the East that set out upon an adventure. The story is about one whose reign would reach beyond the Jewish people. It is about the search for a ruler that would bring peace and justice to the world.

            Enter the star.

            How much time do you spend looking at the night sky? We have lost so much in our day. The light pollution does not allow us to see the sky with the same clarity as the ancient magi. We cannot see the depth of the darkness or the brilliance of the light until we move away from all of the other lights that obscure them. We cannot appreciate the movements and the patterns unless we are committed to studying them.

            One of my favorite parts of taking youth on wilderness camping trips is watching them experience the night sky for the first time. They are amazed at how many stars there are, and how brilliant they are against the deep darkness of space.

            Something fantastic appeared in the night sky. We do not know what it was. We do not need to know what it was. The Star told learned astrologers from a far-away land that something special was happening. Those magi followed the fantastic. And it led them to Jerusalem.

            Ahhh … Jerusalem. The capital of Judah, the city of God, and the primary dwelling place of King Herod. Those magi followed the customs of the day and requested an audience with the king, which was granted. It is likely that they followed all of the protocol, the pomp and circumstance that was expected when approaching a great and powerful leader. But then they dropped the political dynamite. “We have followed a star since its rising. Where can we find the birthplace of the one who would be King of the Jews?”

            Everyone in the audience would know the danger contained in those words. They knew about the paranoia and suspicion that ruled Herod’s heart. They knew that his lust for power superceded any sense of morality or decency. Herod played it cool, “Hold on. Let me consult with my chief priests and elders.”

            Herod convened a counsel of religious scholars to see what and where this might be. They cited the words of the prophet revealing that the place would be Bethlehem, the House of Bread, the City of King David.

            Let us pause for a moment and point out that the chief priests and elders of Herod’s Temple did not see any supernatural phenomenon in the stars. They had been oblivious to the fabulously fantastic.

            And then, as we know, Herod went to the magi and told them, “Please go and find the child, and then return and tell me so that I too may go and pay homage.”

            The magi departed and made their way the few miles to Bethlehem. They followed the magnificent star to the place where Mary and Joseph and the Child were staying. They entered the dwelling, knelt before the Child and offered gifts befitting a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And then, having been warned of Herod’s treachery, they left by another way.

            The story of the magi is not some storybook legend that allows us to dress up in fancy costumes and parade down the aisle in the annual Christmas pageant. It is the type of thing that actually happened in the ancient world. There was a universal expectation and hope that a great ruler would emerge as the savior of the world. And that is precisely what happened!

            And the reality is that we get the opportunity to participate in that pageant every day. What is more, we get to choose which character we get to play.

            There are times when we may choose to play the “Herod” role. Shocking, I know. But there may be times when we are suspicious or hostile to the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. We may reject that which he asks of us. We may desire to remove the call that he places upon our lives. We may scoff at the notion, but there may be threads of “Herod” in our lives. We may not seek to kill Jesus in a murderous, paranoid rage, but we may try to reject him, or keep him from taking the primary place in our lives.

            Or we may find that there are times when we find ourselves playing the role of the chief priests and scholars. They did not reject Jesus, but they possessed an indifference to him. They were so self-absorbed that they did not see the signs until someone else pointed them out to them.

            Several years ago, I wrote a Christmas pageant titled, “The Not Today Nativity.” The premise of the story is that angel and the star are talking about how they tried to get people’s attention, they tried to get people to follow them to the manger, but everyone was just too busy. The magi consulted their calendars when the star appeared and determined that they just did not have the time to follow the star. The shepherds had a plethora of excuses of their own not to response to the announcement of the angel.

            Sadly, there are times when we can fall into the patterns of those imagined characters. How often do we consult our calendars before we decide to do something? How often do we allow ourselves to follow the fantastic?

            Of course, we can also choose to play the role of the magi. We can search the heavens for signs of wonder. We can be open to experiences that disrupt the ordinary. We can step aside from the busyness and distractions that would clutter and obscure our vision. We can choose to follow that star and kneel before the Christ Child. We can offer him the most precious gift that we possess … our whole selves.

            That is the perfect ending to this pageant. Rather than three magi offering prop gifts, we all come forward and offer our lives to the Child in the manger.

            This pageant is not a once-a-year performance. It is an everyday opportunity. Let us follow that star. Amen.


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