Follow the Star
A family who lived just outside town had to pass by a church that had a beautiful manger scene set up on its front lawn. Each time they came into town in the weeks before Christmas they passed it by and each time it would draw their attention.
On the Sunday following Christmas, as the family drove by the church they noticed the manger scene had been taken down. The car was quiet for a few moments, but then the youngest son, as only child can do, broke the silence. “They have put Jesus away for another year.”
Christmas Day is over. After all the preparation, after all the anticipation, December 25th has come and gone and a new year has arrived. The parties are over. The gifts have all been given and received. Now comes the process of taking down the decorations. Putting away all of the gifts. Starting the diets to take off those pounds put on at parties and dinners. And just like that we have put Christmas away for another year. Yet, today, we are still asked to remember a Christmas story - the story of the magi, three wise men, Kings or astrologers.
The story of the wise men is a story that is shrouded in mystery. From tradition we seem to know all the facts and details. But as we study the scripture we find that there are a lot of questions we cannot answer about the wise men from the Biblical text.
For example: Where did they come from? “The east” you say. But where in the east? How far east? We know they came from the east and they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know where they came from.
How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, a church father named Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship him. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. And the manufacturers of nativity scenes caught on and so in every nativity scene, you see three kings or wise men. But the Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came.
In the sixth century, someone decided that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar. And so operas have been written ascribing these names to them. But no one really knows what their names were.
So we don’t know who they were, where they came from or even how many of them there were. Why not? Why doesn’t Matthew tell us any of this information? I’m not sure I know with certainty, but I’d suggest that all of this detail is left out of the picture in order that the full emphasis may be placed on the one thing that is central to this story, namely the fact that they follow the star, all the way to Bethlehem where they find the Christ-child and when they find Him and His mother they make their famous statement, “we have come to worship.”
Now as most of you know we have been pondering the significance of the star. This luminous body is what guided these wise men on their journey. And I was thinking, you know the Wise Men would not be the Wise Men without their wondrous star? Or would they?
It occurred to me this year, for the first time in a lifetime of reading the Christmas accounts in the Gospels, that much of their journey that 1st Christmas was made without benefit of the star. They saw the star in the East, shining with incredible brightness over their homelands, and they saw it again as they left the palace of Herod. But in between, encompassing the vast distance from where their journey began to the few miles that marked its conclusion, I believe they were without its help much of the way.
Think about it. That’s why they stopped off at Herod’s palace. They lost the star. The star had guided them in the general direction of the little nation of Israel, but then it seemed to desert them and leave them on their own. So, they went to the court of Herod, hoping they could aid them in solving the riddle of the star. Then, as they left the court, the star mysteriously appeared again, showing the way, this time guiding them to an unlikely stable in Bethlehem!
And talk about being true to life! Isn’t that the way it sometimes happens for us? We have our moments of seeing and knowing, when the star of clarity and certainty brightly goes before us, and then nothing. Everything seems to go blank, and we lose our way—often feeling confused and lost. I know at times that my life is like that, maybe it is for you too. Times when you know exactly what path to take, the right decision to make, the way has been illuminated for you, it’s clear as day. Then doubts start creeping in, decisions become murky; that once brightly lit path has shadows moving in, and suddenly, you’re stumbling around in the dark.
I remember when I was about 11 years old and went to my first midnight movie. Bck then the theatre was in the mall. They were showing old-school, classic horror movies all week long. And I’ll never forget it. I saw a film called Frankenstein Meet the Werewolf, and then I had to walk out to the parking lot where my dad was going to pick me up. Somehow in the chaos after the movie I completely on the other side of the mall in a deserted parking lot. Of course it was one of the darkest, scariest nights I have ever known. The only comfort on the way around the mall to where my dad was picking me up was the presence of streetlights. I felt safe in the light. When I got under a streetlight, I strolled as if I had all the time in the world. Then I dashed off like a champion sprinter to the next light. And that night struck me as being a good analogy of our life—we journey through life making our way from one light to the next, with periods of darkness throughout the whole way.
I think this is what the Wise Men may have experienced. They traveled from one sighting of the star to the next. They didn’t see it constantly. They had to travel long distances without it. So losing the star was part of the journey. On this Sunday after Christmas, I think we can learn three things from these Wise Men and their vagrant star.
The FIRST lesson is that life is a journey. Life isn’t rooted-ness, and it isn’t settled-ness. It’s journey. It’s movement. It’s going from one place to another. Perhaps this is why the greatest writers have always depicted life as a pilgrimage, a movement from one place to another. From Homer to Dante; from Geoffrey Chaucer to James Michener, it is the same in every age: Life is a journey, a progressing of mind and heart and body and spirit; stage by stage, step by step, where we see and learn—and are forever changed by the journey.
The challenge is living our life open to the journey that is always before us, my friends. Openness is one of the most important attributes we can have. It is realizing that life is a gift; and that people who receive the most are those who are poised to receive, who are open to receive. This is the way it was with the Wise Men; they followed the star that appeared in their sky. They were open and ready to be led. They knew that life is an adventure, a journey of faith that takes time, commitment and courage.
- My friends, are we living a life open to God’s faith journey for us?
- Are we ready and willing to be led by the Light of the World this Christmastide?
- Are we poised…open… to receive the gift of life that God desires for us?
- Life is a journey, are we on the move?
The SECOND thing we learn from the Wise Men is that Faith is what we grasp hold of, and cling to in times of darkness. Faith is for the times in the journey when we can’t see the star. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
Scripture tells us that the star got the Wise Men started on their journey, and it returned when the journey was at its climax, but in between; over miles and miles of barren and probably even hostile countryside, it appeared to leave them. It was there all the time, of course, but they could not see it. They had to journey onward in the direction it had given them, but without its immediate aid.
This is true in our life journeys, I think. We spend a lot of our time in the dark. We see the star shining over a certain college, and we go there; not knowing what lies beyond for us. We see it shining again over a career or profession, and we go in that direction, not knowing any more than that. Again and again in life, we have a moment of great luminosity, when everything becomes clear and we feel affirmed in our choices; BUT then, the light gives way to great stretches of darkness, when we must walk alone, with only the memory of the light to guide us.
Today we are reminded that the star does not shine brightly at all times and when it doesn’t, we must walk by faith…by recollections of its shining and by hope in its shining again. That’s why the Bible is full of light and truth to remind us of such hope. That’s why coming together as a church family helps us remember & find the Light of grace. We cannot, in our arrogance or our ignorance, expect it to shine for us all the time. Even the disciples of Jesus, when He was crucified, lost their bearings in the darkness. But their star came out again…on the third day, at the break of dawn that 1st Easter morn. So we walk by faith even in the dark times.
One of the first hospital visits I made as a new, young pastor. I went to see one of the matriarchs of the church I served. Kathryn was seriously ill with pneumonia, but that was not the worst thing for her. The worst thing, she said, was that in her illness she found herself unable to pray. And I’ll never forget what she said, “But Pastor…that is alright, because I have prayed before, and I shall pray again. Right now, I must learn to wait.”
She taught me an important lesson of faith; that we must all learn to wait when the star is not shining. We have seen it before—we shall see it again. But in the interim, there is nothing to do but to keep on keeping on; journeying by faith and waiting until it appears again. For Kathryn, I was able to pray with her and for her; bringing Light to her—a gift of hope and peace during a dark time of illness, weakness and spiritual loss.
*My friends, who’s journeying right now in a time of darkness?
*Who has perhaps lost the star and your bearings in your life journey? This happens many, many times in our life:
- illness takes it toll on us,
- financial strain,
- fear of what the future holds,
- death of a loved one,
- addictions that consume our lives,
- depression and anxiety that threaten to overwhelm
We must remember that our faith is what sees us through these times of darkness.
The prophet Isaiah (9:2) reminds us that as God’s faithful, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of darkness—on them Light has shined. For a Child has been born for us, a Son given to us.”
Which leads to the FINAL lesson we learn from the Wise Men and their vagrant star: at the end of the journey is Christ…who is the Light of the World! Though the journey was often traveled in darkness, the Wise Men found Christ at the end. And there was no question about the journey being worth it: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering, they saw the child, knelt down and paid him homage.” (Mt 2:10ff)
And this, my friends, is good news to all those who are in a darkened phase of their life’s journey, isn’t it? When you have lost the star, hold on; you will come out on the other end of the darkness, and there will be Light you cannot believe! When you have lost the star momentarily, do not be afraid—as the angels throughout Advent have proclaimed—because the darkness will be overcome by Love’s pure light.
Knowing that Christ is there…makes the journey different.
- Knowing He is there, we can endure our seasons of darkness and our times of
- Knowing He is there, we can make it through the
- Knowing He is there, we can survive even loss and
This is what our faith is all about—knowing, trusting that Jesus has been there all the time. Through all the darkness and all the struggles, past all the pitfalls and all the valleys, He is there. And THAT is what sustains all wise men and all wise women on their journeys.
Oh my friends—this Christmas may we, like the Wise Men before us, boldly journey through life as God’s adventure unfolds; remembering that our faith can see us through the times of darkness and trusting that Christ is there, always there, every step of the way.
Momentarily losing the Star will always be part of the journey, but…
“Do not be afraid—for behold, I bring you tiding of good news and great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” (Lk 2:10-11).