January 4, 2015
I wasn’t old enough to date in the 1970’s, with the exception of the fall of 1979 which was my first semester in high school, and I went to the Homecoming Dance with a young man named Doug. But outside of that, dating was not a part of my world. As I wasn’t old enough to date, I certainly was not old enough to frequent social gathering spots where men and women would consume fermented beverages, hoping to meet someone who might be date worthy. Singles bars. But I did watch far too many episodes of The Love Boat, so I feel as if I know what dating might have been like in the 1970’s. Or maybe not.
But I do know that at least a stereotype of dating in that decade was the singles bar scene; men in polyester leisure suits with gold chains around their necks, and women in French designer jeans or disco dresses, all trying to meet each other and using the opening line, “What’s your sign?” Perhaps this is more urban legend than reality, but the idea behind this question is that knowing someone’s astrological sign gives one insight into the other person’s personality. If that question was actually asked back in the day, maybe the asker wanted to know if the askee would be a good match. So, what’s your sign?
Whatever your feelings and opinions may be about astrology, it does have a part in the story we have before us today. Our reading from Matthew is the story of the wise men, the magi, the three kings of orient are, who travel afar, following a star – or so the hymn goes. Legend surrounds these wise men. There are names given to them. There’s a story about a fourth magi, who somehow missed the trip. It wasn’t until I was an adult and became a Presbyterian, that I fully realized that the story of the magi and the story of the shepherds are not all one story. But that’s what we do in our nativity scenes and in our Christmas pageants. We conflate them into one great big story. On the night that Jesus was born, the shepherds arrive at the stable first, followed shortly thereafter by these exotic wise men, bearing their exotic gifts.
That word – exotic – raises another issue. Matthew’s gospel is hardly exotic. Matthew lifts up teaching and theology. But in his narration of the birth story, mysticism and the exotic are emphasized. The magi, the wise men were exotic. Scholarship tells us that they were most likely from Persia. There is no way that coming from Persia, they could have gotten to Jerusalem on the same night that Jesus was actually born. Although we don’t read about Herod’s massacre of the innocents in this part of the story, his response to their announcement of a new king of the Jews is to have baby boys two-years-old and younger killed. That gives us a time frame for how old Jesus might actually have been when they arrived.
What I have found most striking in my growing understanding of the magi is that they know that a king has been born because they have “observed his star at its rising.” That is astrological language. Yet that doesn’t mean that they were astrologers or that they practiced astrology as we understand it in our context. But that does suggest that they “read” the heavens. This star that they saw was a sign that a king had been born. It wasn’t just any king. It was a new King of the Jews. In the many ways that their story is told in our popular culture, the star is portrayed as much larger than every other star in the sky. Its light is brighter than any other. Like a beacon, it leads them literally to Jesus.
That star does lead them, it’s true. It is a heavenly, cosmic sign of the birth of this new king. Whether it was larger and brighter than any other star is anyone’s guess; perhaps it was a star whose significance only they could recognize. However after their stop in Jerusalem, they see the star shining over the place where Jesus was to be found. This star, whatever its size or fixed point in the heavens, illumined their way to Jesus. It was a sign.
What’s your sign? I’m not asking whether you are a Sagittarius or a Scorpio. I’m asking what sign led you here. What sign led you to Jesus? What sign illumined your way to God? That’s what Epiphany means. It is the ecclesial feast that we observe this morning. But to have an epiphany is to see something or understand something, an idea or meaning, clearly; more clearly than ever before. It is an illumination. That is the essence of what happened with these wise men from the East. They saw clearly that a child was born a king. They saw clearly that this child was one to whom they should pay homage. The star, his star, was so clear of a sign to them, that they traveled possibly two years to see him, to kneel before him and his mother, and to bring him gifts from their stores of treasure. It was their epiphany. It was their sign.
What is yours? Maybe you’re thinking, “What sign?” For many of us, faith and fellowship in a church community is something we were born into. Yet think about it. Has there ever been a moment in your life when you recognized God clearly and distinctly? Has there ever been a moment in your life when the presence of God was illumined more brightly and surely than ever before? What was your sign?
Whatever your sign or my sign may be, it seems to me that the arrival of the magi – these exotic foreigners – to pay homage to a little one born a king is a sign that there is no one correct sign. Traditionally, the significance of the Epiphany is that this is the beginning of Gentiles being welcomed into God’s covenant with Israel. However I wonder if it isn’t also a sign to us that people come to God, come to Christ, in many ways. The power of the Epiphany is that it reminds us that the sign that illumines God to someone can be as unique and distinctive as the person who experiences that illumination.
What is your sign?
Periodically I listen to a podcast of a radio show called The Moth. The Moth is a show of stories. The people who tell these stories are ordinary people who tell their own unique story, whatever that story may be. Recently I listened to their holiday special. One story was from a man who lived in Vermont. The story he told was about when he and his family first relocated to Vermont. He works for an agency that helps homeless teenagers. His move to Vermont from Yonkers, New York was to head that agency’s office in his new location. Shortly after he and his family moved into their new house, they were welcomed by a neighbor. She was a friendly woman, and in the course of the conversation, she asked where they went to church. He had never been asked anything like that before. That just wasn’t done in Yonkers. He told her that they were Catholic, so they would be attending the Catholic Church in town. She accepted that but extended an invitation to her church – if they were ever so inclined. As he met other neighbors, he asked them about this woman and her invitation. The descriptions he heard about her church convinced him that it was not a house of worship he wanted to visit. He called it a “Hollywood” church, with over-the-top entertainment as worship, and theology that didn’t fit his faith. His faith was inspired and driven by social justice and those who led the fight for it – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, etc. He wanted nothing to do with this Hollywood church.
But one day he received an email at work about this church. They had contacted his agency because their Sunday school kids had collected supplies they wanted to donate. They asked if someone from the agency would come and talk to the children and accept the donations. So he went, reluctantly and with an admitted bias, but he went. He arrived at the church and met with about 20 young children. Their donations were toiletries, some clothes, hats, mittens, and so on. But one little girl had a special donation for him. The little girl told him that her older brother had recently died, and they wanted to donate some of his things. She had a duffle bag with her brother’s items. Many of the things in that duffle bag were what the other kids had collected. But it also had his Bible. And in the Bible there was a picture of him, this bright, clean-cut, handsome young man. The storyteller asked the teacher about the little girl’s brother. What happened to him? He died of a heroin overdose. His family wanted his things to help another teenager who might be teetering on the edge of making a full life for himself, or becoming trapped in a terrible place like their son. The storyteller was so moved by this that he realized something about himself and about God. Maybe this church wasn’t what inspired his faith, but it was a place that gave comfort and hope to families who were in deep pain. It was where they met God, where they found faith in Jesus. It was where they saw their sign that God was with them, that Jesus was born, that hope and light and love was not overwhelmed by the darkness. Who was he to judge that church or the people within it? It was their sign.
What is your sign? What illumines God for you? What lights your way to finding the Light of the world? What is your sign? On this day may we all give thanks for our epiphanies, for the signs we see, for the many and wonderful ways God’s light is revealed. What is your sign? Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.