You can listen to this sermon here.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and 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.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.”
9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
My son, Elliot, has recently learned the word “weird.” It seems to have become one of his favorite words actually. Needless to say there are apparently lot of weird things in our home these days. That movie we watched with the talking bears – it was weird. That lovely meal his mother slaved all day over that included onions, mushrooms, and celery? That was weird too. The way daddy’s hair looks early in the morning? Weird.
If Elliot today were the church nerd he is bound to be in just a few years, he might notice that our worship today is a little weird. You see, you’ll notice on the front of your bulletins that today is called “The First Sunday after Epiphany.” But the church nerds here today (and I use that term lovingly) will note that the first Sunday after Epiphany is always “Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.” So, what gives? Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. But the feast of Epiphany and the story of the Magi coming to baby Jesus is always on January 6th, which was just a few days ago. So we wanted to pull some Epiphany into today but we also didn’t want to lose the theme of baptism. So we gave thanks for baptism and splashed you with water. We read the Old Testament reading and sang the psalm from Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. But then for the New Testament and the Gospel, we’ve shifted to the readings from the feast of Epiphany. So there you have it – Baptiphany of Our Lord Sunday. Or more practically – The First Sunday after Epiphany.
It’s kinda of weird. But I think they can be stitched together. So hang with me.
This spring, the 90s grunge band, Pearl Jam, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is a big moment for me.
Pearl Jam, and their lead singer Eddie Vedder, has been my favorite band since I was about 16 years old. Their lyrics and melodies gave voice to my angst filled teenage years better than anything I’d ever heard before. And their heart aching ballads brought comfort and solace to my twenty-something self who’d found and lost love a couple of times over.
I love this band. To this day, I devour any albums they put out and watch for any concerts that are within a six-hour driving radius.
One of the things that I have loved about this band, and one of the things that the Rock and Roll culture has struggled with about this band, is how Pearl Jam, and particularly Eddie Vedder, has always struggled to keep himself and his personal life out of the media, avoiding the celebrity spotlight. For many of years of their success, they never did a single interview. Instead of basking in the light of stardom, Eddie Vedder and the band spent much of their energy speaking out about social justice issues, political awareness and environmental responsibility. And then during their concerts in recent years, Eddie Vedder has started to do something unusual with the light that is literally shined down upon him. And it has completely captivated me. During their concerts, there is often this moment when a spotlight is shined on him. And then he takes his guitar, which has a shiny metal plate on it, and holds it above his head. And what happens is the spotlight that is shining upon him instead hits the surface of his guitar and is refracted onto the crowd. And with the band playing behind him, Eddie takes his time, as he slowly moves his guitar to make sure that the light shines on all people of the crowded stadium.
I share this story with you because it reminds me of the gospel of Matthew and the Epiphany story we just heard. There is something similar happening in it with light.
The whole story of the Magi gets started because of a light, shining down. A bright star shining like a spotlight against the backdrop of the stadium sky. Now, I have no idea how to understand such a phenomenon historically or scientifically – was it a comet, or two planets and stars coming into perfect alignment creating a superstar. Did it really move and then stop for their detour to Herod’s place and start moving again? I don’t know.
But the really weird thing about this story is the people who noticed that light and thought to follow it. These Magi, these wise ones. All we really know about them is that they are different. They come from another land. The East. They are foreigners. They are non-religious. They are not Jewish. They don’t worship in a temple. They are astrologers and magicians who watch the sky. So you can see how that’s the particularly amazing part of this story. That this guiding light leading to the Christ child would be revealed to these people who are different than everyone else. And that they would become the ones who point it out to the rest of the world. And we all call learn and take comfort from that. Let’s not discount those who are different, or weirder, than we are, trusting that God will use them to reveal something of God to us. And if we are the ones who are different, then let’s not discount ourselves either.
So these Magi follow the star to Herod’s palace – and notice Herod didn’t see the star and neither did his scribes or chief priests, the ones who are supposedly closest and more in tune with God than anyone else. So much for that.
So, these wise ones ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” which ticks off Herod because HE is the king of the Jews. But thanks to the scribes and chief priests who know their Bibles but who missed God’s arrival, the Magi learn that they were just 9 miles off. So they head back out and that bright star leads them 9 miles south to the town of Bethlehem, and shines it’s bright light on to a house. And there in the house, in the throne of his mother’s arms sat the king of the Jews – Jesus.
So this divine celestial light appears in the sky. The Magi point to the light. And the light points them to Jesus.
And now, I invite us to ask the question, what happens to that light? Does it stop at Jesus?
If we, like the Magi, can follow the light in the gospel of Matthew, the first thing we will notice is that the light gets closer to Jesus. We trace it down to the river Jordan in the very next chapter, Jesus is baptized and it says, “Just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
So the next thing that light does is fall from the sky and it alights upon Jesus in his baptism – when God proclaim, “This is my child! This is my beloved. I love him.”
But then we will track the light up the mountain with Jesus as climbs up to give his Sermon on the Mount. And in that sermon, listen to what we will hear Jesus say. He does not say, “Blessed is me because I have the light of God shining upon me”…..but rather he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…” And then, in case that was not clear enough, he makes his point crystal clear with this incredible line. “You are the light of the world.”
You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Do you see what’s happened? The Magi point to the light, the light points to Jesus, and then Jesus reflects the light and points it…to you. So often we want this divine light that is shined upon Jesus to stop there. But Jesus does not let that happen. You are the light of the world, Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Jesus takes his light and shatters it into a thousand points of light, refracting onto you. I have a pastor friend who hangs disco balls all around the sanctuary of her church during the season of Epiphany. So that there are all these little bits of light scatter around the church all season long. Jesus is making you stars, called to shine against the darkness of this world.
And did you recognize Jesus’ words? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Those are the words we speak at baptism after lighting a candle for the one with water all over their head. You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Go, shine. Show others your good works that point them to God, so that they too can know that God is shining on them too and they are the light of the world. And then they can go and shine before others…
Now I’m mindful that perhaps not all of us or our loved ones are baptized. Is this promise of light still for you or for them? Of course it is. God’s grace and mercy are free, and forever, and for all. It’s yours. Today. But whenever you want to make that public and let us surround you with that promise, you let us know. We will bring the water and God will bring the promise.
Sometimes preachers will invite you to consider who you are in the Gospel story. Here’s what I think: Surely we know the Herod within all of us. The fearful and frightened part of us who becomes dangerous when threatened. And surely we know the Magi within all of us. That part of us that seeks something that is greater than ourselves. A longing and a searching for a promise that we can follow.
But what I want you to walk away with today is the awareness of the star, of the light that you are and that you bring into this world. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.
So, this morning, as a way of living out that promise, as a way of participating in this epiphany story, I invite you to learn from the wise men and to go home a different way. If you usually take 3rd st out of the parking lot, take Plum. If you usually take Plum, take 2nd st. If your home is north of here, drive south for a couple of blocks. Who knows what you will see. Either way, you will let your light shine on a different corner of this community, and you will let a different corner of this community shine it’s light on you. And wherever you go, God’s light will be there too.
Splashing water and burning candles. Bright lights and disco balls. Rock ‘n roll bands and their guitars. Magicians and heavenly stars. A divine baby king, an unwed mother, and a dripping promise from God that never dries off.
Let’s keep church weird.