text :: Matthew 2: 1 – 12
theme verse :: 'For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.' (Mt 2:2b)
The traditional text for the first Sunday of January – Epiphany Sunday, marking the arrival of the magi at the manger – is from Matthew’s gospel. We hear it every year. We sing of the wise men’s journey, and in this church we draw a ‘star word’, something to keep our eyes open for in the coming year. While we each take individual words, the church has a ‘star word’ too – in 2020, our collective call is to VISION. What do we need to see in new ways? What is waiting for us, if we will but open our eyes? What do we see around us that needs new wonder, God’s mercy, and our attention? We’ll SEE YOU in the new year!
offertory :: 'Shine On Us' (M.W.Smith) : Marla Patterson, Bet Wallace, Kelly Ford, vocals; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Connie McFarland
preaching :: Rev Courtney Richards
(*NOTE: There is a brief organ interlude ('We Three Kings') toward the end of the sermon, a sample of a few minutes during which the congregation is passing trays to receive star words. If you're listening today, you might reflect on the word you've received, or simply take that moment for reflection and prayer.)
response :: 'Who You Say I Am' (Hillsong) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader; Andi Gross, vocal
anthem :: 'Panis Angelicus' (C.Franck) : Christina Maxwell, soprano; Susie Monger Daugherty, organ
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, 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. 5 They 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.
Like many people, and perhaps even many of you, my last 10 days have included a lot of time on the road. (And by a lot of time on the road, I mean A LOT OF TIME on the road.) The great part about road time is playing catch up on podcasts and stories and conversations I’ve been meaning to listen to but sometimes miss during a regular work week. One of my favorites is NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
This news quiz has been on the air for 20 years, and recently replayed a conversation from this summer, with beloved actor Henry Winkler. Host Peter Sagal spends a few minutes in conversation about Winkler’s work and current projects, and then he plays a quiz game called ‘Not My Job’. As they say, this is the game where they ask famous people who are really good at something to answer questions about a thing they probably know nothing about. Henry Winkler‘s game? Three questions about things that twinkle. Stars.
It’s Epiphany Sunday. We’re here to talk about stars.
Soooo … YES. We’re going to play the game. The Fonz got 2 out of 3 right (which is enough to win). Let’s see how you do. Ready? Here we go.
We’ve learned some interesting things about stars and since we started venturing into space, including which of these?
(a) Stars can get bored.
(b) Stars smell like burnt steak. or
(c) Stars: they’re just like us.
Actually ‘Stars: They’re Just Like Us’ is a feature in Us Magazine.
The real answer was stars smell like burnt steak. We didn’t know this is literally true until astronauts went out to space in spacesuits and came back and with a whiff of their spacesuits felt weirdly hungry. It turns out that stars give off a number of chemicals, one of which smells like burnt steak. The smell of space.
Next: Williamina Fleming classified tens of thousands of stars during her decades-long career at the Harvard Observatory. But before that she had another job; what was it?
(a) One day the head of the Observatory got frustrated with the staff and said “My Scottish maid could do better!” He hired her and she did.
(b) She was a theater critic who said “People are boring. I want to watch something else. or
(c) Nobody knows. She just showed up one day wearing a silver suit and said “I can help you.”
If you said ‘a’ you’re right! Turns out she was one of those undiscovered geniuses who became a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. She discovered among other things the Horsehead Nebula and this Scottish maid is considered a science hero.
One more. Here’s your chance to redeem yourself: Our sun is a star of course. For about 30% of people, staring into the sun will cause sneezing fits. What is the scientific name of this reflex?
(a) squinty sneezing.
(b) solar snot. or
(c) Autosomal Compelling HelioOphthalmic Outburst, or ACHOO.
Yep, it’s ACHOO. 
The word is definitely an onomatopoeia, or a word that makes the sound of what it is – ‘ah’ is the intake of breath, ‘choo’ is the sound of the sneeze itself – and it IS actually the acronym for the sneezing disorder that affects almost 1 in 3 people!
Well, now you know a little more about stars. And your pastor’s listening habits. (Both may explain a lot.)
But it IS the day for stars … one in particular. “We have seen his star at its rising,” they said, “and have come to pay him homage.”
Celebrated as early as the 3rd century, before Christmas was even part of the calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany was to acknowledge all the many ways Christ is revealed to the world: the nativity event; Jesus’ baptism; the wedding at Cana; the visit from the Magi. All occasions where the Divine was revealed to be right with us in human form.
In the 4th century, believers began to celebrate the incarnation – the nativity/Christmas event – as its own Feast Day (eventually taking over the December 25 date), and the Feast of the Epiphany evolved and became more focused just on this particular event, engaging with wise travelers and brilliant stars.
Though our modern western culture has turned the entire month of December into ‘Christmas’, the season of Christmas actually begins on Christmas day, and goes until Epiphany (which is tomorrow). THOSE are the 12 Days of Christmas. For many, Epiphany is the most important, the culmination of the Christmas season. Twelfth Night celebrations, particularly in French and Latin American cultures, take on vibrant life and festivity.
Maybe we need more imagination … more festival … more wonder. Maybe we need less certainty and resignation and packing it away and being done with it. Epiphany – epiphaneia – refers to the coming of God into the world, the manifestation of the Divine not just as a phenomenon and a sense, but as actual flesh and blood humanity. Epiphany is about appearing – the appearing of a star, and the appearing of a savior. What could happen if we took more than one Silent Night’s candlelighting and broadened our view, extended our senses, engaged our entire lived experience to be its own kind of epiphany: What if our whole life was tuned to the way God appears with us, in us, around us, and works through us? What if we had stars in our eyes, and they changed our entire vision?
Perhaps – just maybe – this brilliant star, rising over Bethlehem – is God’s longing to change us.
We say it every year, and every year it has been true – and if there’s ever a year that we don’t think it will be the case, then your pastors need to re-evaluate – every year we say: This will be God’s biggest year for us. The year ahead is bringing the best of what’s to come.
2020 will be such a year for us. As I look at 2019’s accomplishments, ministries, changes, and challenges – as I sort through the pieces that we’ll share in the 2019 annual report later this month at our congregational meeting – I am in awe of what God has done. How God has held us. How we have uplifted each other. How the community around us is different because we’ve been here. And how we are different because we have been willing to let God lead the way.
And as we thought about a theme for 2020, the word ‘vision’ is the obvious cliché. 20/20 vision. We are SO very clever! But in this case, in this place, VISION is the only word that suits the occasion. As we move closer to the call of a new Lead Pastor to serve with us into the future … as our leadership in all areas of the church continues to dig deeper and reach farther … as the world around us continues to cry out for justice, compassion, and truth … the vision that God is placing before Harvard Avenue Christian Church is bold and exciting, and I have absolutely no doubt that God is already stirring the hearts of leaders – those here and those to come – and this entire congregation to continue our forward motion … into a new year, a new vision, a new season of imagination and festival and wonder.
In ancient days, lives were guided by constellations. Stars pursue a steady course – they represent an ordered universe. If that order is interrupted by a star phenomenon, it would seem God was trying to say something, announcing something special by breaking into the divine order. Breaking into the order of things seemed to be a general sense within history itself; there are multiple accounts from a variety of historians, philosophers, teachers, and writers, about an expectation, a waiting, a sense among the people, of the coming of a king. Which made the ruling king very anxious.
The wise ones, these magi, follow a star until it stops, over Bethlehem. And once they have offered their gifts and bowed in respect, they receive a caution in a dream, and are rerouted for their trip home. God’s Messiah remains protected. As the wise men had received word in a dream and did not return to give Herod intel, so too Joseph received a warning and the Holy Family makes their own escape. Foreigners, travelers once again, they are saved by divine intervention and human will. We have to remember that God is the God of all, even those – especially those – no one else wants. Try what we will – no matter what a ruler may say, no matter how a king may try to subvert the ways of the world to his control – God will still prevail.
Who are the wise ones in our day? Those who humble themselves. Those who accept wise counsel. Those who follow to all faithful extremes. Those to whom God is revealed. Who praise God when they find the Holy One, just as they were promised.
So let’s open our hearts. Let’s expand our imagination. Let’s get some stars in our eyes. And into our hands.
YES! It’s almost time! In just a minute, the deacons are going to pass trays with cards in them. There are 580 cards, each with the VISION image on one side, to remind us of our shared word for the year. And on the other side is a single word. And no word is like any other, all 580 handed out in this space are different. (The only duplications are the words on cards that our children will receive in their worship space today.)
No, I have no control over who gets which card. I’m accused of that every year. ‘You got this one just to me!’ (Y’all, I do NOT have that kind of power, and if I did I’d use it somewhere besides on these cards!) Every card has its own word, and we place them face down so that you really are choosing quite at random … the idea of the star word is not that you choose it, but that it might choose and guide and call to you.
It isn’t magical. It also isn’t compulsory. If you want to pass the tray and not take one at all. That’s fine. I think you’ll be missing out on something interesting and maybe even something wonderful. If you take a card today and promptly lose it, forget about it, or ignore it, then you do.
But here’s what I hope for you:
- That you’ll give it a chance. You don’t have to share it with a soul. You don’t even have to turn it over right this minute. But once you look at it, and have your first response, I hope you’ll sit with it for a while and see what your second response is too.
- That you’ll maybe put it in your wallet, or on your mirror, or in the cupholder of your car, or your center desk drawer. Maybe you’ll snap a picture of it and use it as a screensaver.
- Maybe you’ll look up the word, and learn something about it. Its history, its root, its usage.
- Maybe you’ll see a quote that includes your word and you’ll write that down and hang onto it.
- As the year goes on, and you see it each day, maybe you’ll start seeing it in other places: maybe that characteristic or idea will show up in something you read, or in a conversation with someone you know.
If the deacons would come pass the trays, and everyone select your card. Don’t go rooting around in there to find the one you like! Just pull one at random and hang onto it for a moment. We’ll pray over them together before we go.
Henry Winkler has star words. I mean, he didn’t call them that, but in the Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me conversation, he said:
“I live by two words: gratitude and tenacity. Tenacity gets me where I want to go, and gratitude doesn’t allow me to be angry along the way.”
You’ve drawn your word. I am confident there is something in it for you.
Just see. Just see what happens.
See where it leads you. Where it shows up. How it works on you. How you might work on it. Use it as a guide, as a companion, as an opportunity.
Resolutions are easy to make, and easy to slide by.
The idea of the star word is that – like the star of Bethlehem – it will guide, and we will follow it with imagination and wonder, and it will come to rest just where it needs to.
May we see our word today and think we know exactly what it means for us.
Or may we realize we need the rest of the year for it to reveal itself.
That’s not anything we direct, and it’s not anything we predict.
It’s simply something we open our eyes to see. It’s God’s vision, with stars in our eyes.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, give us a new depth of vision to understand the mysteries of your revelation. Let us grasp the full revolution brought about by your reign. Let us absorb the wisdom of your ancient story, which sets aside the domination of kings like Herod and ushers in kings who worship, who surrender, who are awed by the dimensions of divine power. Give us, also, Lord, a spirit of celebration, so we can revel in the magnitude of your joy and your renewal of the human heart. Amen.
 www.npr.org/waitwait Nov 30 2019 (orig Aug 10 2019)
 Emilie Griffin, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Pennoyer/Wolffe 2007), p163-168
 Wm Barclay, The Bible Study Series: The Gospel of Matthew, (Westminster, 1975), pp23-33