The light of God’s grace always precedes us,
and leads us to unexpected places.
That is what happened
to the wise men, and what happens to us too.
This famous story from Matthew’s gospel
this morning has fascinated and captivated Christians for millennia.
Much of the fascination surrounds
the mysterious travelers to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Who were they?
There are different titles that
varying biblical translations have given them.
Sometimes they are called kings.
The NRSV, which is our translation, calls them wise men.
But these wise men were actually magi.
Magi were a Persian Priestly Caste
who paid particular attention to the stars and astrological signs.
And they were led by
the light of a star to the most unexpected place- Bethlehem.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill scripture.
However, for the magi,
being led to Bethlehem must have been strange.
Notice that they came first
to Jerusalem to inquire about Jesus.
After all, this influential and cosmopolitan center
must have been the place where the king of the Jews was born.
But Jesus was not born in Jerusalem
or at the Temple or in a grand place.
He was born in little backwaters Bethlehem.
The magi met this most unexpected king
in an unexpected place.
They found him not in what was powerful and secure,
but in what was weak and vulnerable.
And thus we too are led by the light of God
to find our unexpected Savior in unexpected places.
We follow the light of Christ,
not to where we expect to find him,
but to where we least expect to find him-
in suffering and weakness.
We Three Kings is one of my favorite Christmas songs,
even if it is more an Epiphany song.
I like the minor key, eerie kind of sound of it,
followed by the surprisingly bright chorus.
But I really like verse four,
“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing,
sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
Doesn’t that aptly describe our own lives
in those deepest moments of loneliness and sorrow?
The sighing which points to a grief
and longing that is beyond words to express?
Haven’t we often felt the darkness closing in around us,
when we live in grip of chronic pain,
when we are still haunted by
the death of loved one, even after many years?
When we feel the meaningless
of life pull us towards despair?
Deep down we all resonate with the lyrics of this verse.
But unless we get too morbid or gloomy, the chorus hits us,
“Oh star of wonder, star of night. Star with royal beauty bright; westward leading,
still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!”
I love that, “still proceeding.”
Still proceeding in spite of it all.
Still keepin’ on keepin’ on,
even after all the years of grief,
ever after all the pain and failures and setbacks.
Even after all the bumps and bruises along the way,
with weary tear soaked eyes and failing spirits-
we still plead for God to
“guide us to thy perfect light.”
God doesn’t leave us dying in that stone-cold tomb.
But God raises us, leads us,
and at times carries us,
so that we are led ever-closer
to that radiant light which only God can reveal.
For God leads us to the Christ child
by the light of a grace which always precedes us,
precedes our ability to figure it out,
precedes our desire to love or hate it,
or choose it, or grasp it, or reject it.
God leads us by the light of a mercy
which is always before us, leading us onward,
to discover an unexpected God in the most unexpected places-
God in little Bethlehem;
God in the innocence and cry of a poor child and mother.
The political powers that be didn’t get any of this.
They all saw this innocent child,
this perfect love, as a threat.
Herod saw him as a national security threat (Perez-Alvarez),
and wanted to destroy him.
The real wise men of this story,
the chief priests and the scribes didn’t understand this either.
They knew the place where
the Messiah was to be born because of scripture.
But they totally missed the meaning of it.
They and all of Jerusalem were frightened,
rather than overjoyed as the magi are.
They viewed him as a threat to their power,
rather than welcoming him in love.
But by God’s grace, we see him as he really is-
this child is the tender mercy of God
revealed for the healing of our broken world.
A child given for us and to us.
“When they saw the star had stopped,
they were overwhelmed with joy.”
I love that- “overwhelmed with joy.”
I imagine the thrill of anticipation the magi felt
as they hurried towards that house that sheltered the Christ child.
And if there is a command from God this morning,
it is to be overwhelmed with joy because of the revelation of this child.
‘Thou shalt have joy, and have it in abundance.’
We have this joy because of the outpouring of love
and grace revealed in the Christ child,
a grace which precedes us wherever we go,
even when we feel hopelessly lost and alone,
because it is a grace which presents us with
our unexpected Savior who meets us in the most unexpected places.
My former supervisor told a story
about a strange occurrence that happened while
he was leading the communion liturgy after Christmas.
He said that at their church
they hang a huge golden star around Christmas Eve above the altar.
And during the liturgy,
while he was lifting the cup above his eyes, he said
“This cup is the new covenant of my blood,
shed for you and all people.”
And then he saw the cup aligned with the star,
as if the star had just risen up out of the cup.
Then his vision blurred and he saw
the star and the cup merged into one symbol.
He said he wanted to stop right there and say,
“You people won’t believe this, you’ve gotta come up here and see it!”
But that would have been really awkward.
But he reflected on the meaning of this stating,
“I’m not much for mixing metaphors, but it was striking to me to have the star
hanging directly over the cup in my vision. A cup full of stars pouring out light. An
epiphany, a theophany, a manifestation, flowing out from a courageous cup of
sacrificial love. Pouring out your life for the world is the light that shows the way.
Drink up the light of Christ and let it shoot out of your eyes and ears and fingertips
and mouth, and brighten some dark corner of this world.”
God’s grace precedes us and leads us here to church too,
to the community of our fellow believers,
to encounter this marvelous light
in one another’s eyes.
The light of God’s grace leads us to this table,
the Lord’s Supper, so that we, like the magi,
encounter Christ’s very real presence
revealed to us in the bread and wine.
Through communion we eat and drink the true light,
and shine it into the lives of those around us,
so that they too may glimpse
the revelation of a divine love guiding them as well.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Let us be still proceeding, not as kings or as wise men,
but as humble servants overwhelmed with joy
at the revelation of the Christ child,
overwhelmed with the glory of the Lord
which has risen upon us,
as we give him the treasures of our very lives
in a song of praise which illuminates our broken world
with this light which never ends.