A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 6, 2013.
The Epiphany of Our Lord
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; John 1:(1-9) 10-18
This news report just in from Jerusalem: Three Middle Eastern men have been detained after they attempted to cross Israel’s eastern border. It is unknown for certain which Arab country they came from but border officials were suspicious of them noting they were traveling disguised as royal dignitaries and riding camels. Upon inspection of their bags they discovered the exotic items they had with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh, and suspected they were smuggling those items into the country illegally. The three men claimed they not kings but were a team of astronomers doing research and following a star from the east. Authorities were skeptical of their claims that they believed the star would lead them to a Jewish baby that had been born. Border guards also reported seeing a strange slow-moving light in the sky, likely that of an unknown secret military aircraft with hovering capabilities. This craft was observed by officials on the ground but strangely not detected by the Israeli military defense radar leading to a heightened concern that the craft was of foreign military origin with advanced stealth capabilities. This is Matthew reporting, more news on this story on Nightly News at 6.
Hmmm … In reality, the Bethlehem of the Bible was really just a small village a few miles south of Jerusalem. It may have been a sleepy little town back then but things have changed with the urban sprawl that now embraces it. In our time it’s grown into a bustling Jerusalem suburb. The problematic issue now is that it’s a part of the Arab West Bank and crossing back and forth from the Arab section to Jewish Jerusalem where there are jobs for those lucky enough to have them is rightly tense because of the vigilant presence of the Israeli army.
Today it’s a bustling village with a large 4th century church in the town square built over the small cave many believe was the sheepherder’s cave where Jesus was born. In order to enter, you pass through a small entrance behind and below the side of the chancel. Visitors from every nation and tribe must stoop to enter below the surface of the ground down into the cave where Jesus was born. Stooping and entering in silence is a spiritual discipline whenever we go on pilgrimage with God.
Where will our faith journey take us? “God knows” Kurt Vonnegut might shrug his shoulders and mutter.
So where does that leave us modern-day seekers? Maybe we’re to follow the example of those Magi and to take hold of the Star that’s leading us. Maybe we need to move into the future by moving out of the comfortable and the known and together to move into new ways of service and mission. Maybe our calling is something that will become plainer once we take the first step. I think the first step demands we have a sense of the will of God. Great journeys are driven by purpose and direction.
When I was in college, I read the wonderful little book on how to know the will of God by Elisabeth Eliot. You may have read her story and the story of her husband Jim, a translator for the Wycliff Bible translators who was killed by the Auca Indians in the rain forest along the Amazon River. Her book on knowing the will of God, A Slow and Certain Light, tells how each of us must follow the light that is in front of us.
Just like the daily manna from heaven and the daily bread that we are to trust God for, God’s light for the journey doesn’t shine very far before us. Our pathway is not flooded with the light of God’s leading very far beyond the present moment. Maybe it’s good that none of us has too much knowledge of what’s just around the corner or we might be overwhelmed by the knowledge.
But often, we need to discern and know what it is that God wants us to do. Most of us need to know that the direction we are headed is the direction that God is leading us. We want the assurance that Proverbs 3:5-6 can give us:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your insight.
In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
(Prov. 3:5-6, NRSV)
This church needs a fresh wind of the Spirit to breathe new life into us. And so, the question in front of us as a church is: “What is the will of God for us?” Perhaps it’s the question for you as well.
We need that kind of clarity as a church. We need to know who we are and where we are headed. Like those wandering Magi following the only light they had, they found themselves bringing gifts to a small baby in an obscure little town where Jewish Kings had been birthed.
How does Epiphany, the feast of the light, illuminate our worship with power and direction? As we read Matthew’s account of the journey of the Magi to Jerusalem in search of the child born king of the Jews, we could refuse to be distracted by the aspects of Hebrew prophecy fulfilled or the astrological phenomenon of the star; instead we should take notice of the wise men’s raw, unrestrained response—they worshiped.
Earlier biblical translations read, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The description bends over backward with expression! The NRSV tries to subdue the hyperbole, saying simply they were “overwhelmed with joy,” but that sounds like an understatement.
Something amazing happened to the wise men. They had a moment of revelation, a transcendent experience of the divine, and they could not contain their joy. Biblical scholar Ron Goetz writes, “They had lost the composure and reserve of scholars and sages, giving way to an ecstasy of naked adoration.”
That kind of unfiltered interpretation should cause us to wonder when was the last time that happened to us in worship? What would happen if it happened right here in our midst? What would happen if we followed our star and risked everything in doing so?
Frederick Buechner once told a graduating group of seminarians: “The world is full of dark shadows to be sure, both the world without and the world within, and the road we’ve all set out on is long and hard and often hard to find, but the word is trust. Trust the deepest intuitions of your own heart. Trust the source of your truest gladness. Trust the road. Above all else, trust Christ. Trust Christ.”
On this good day of Epiphany, what star are you following and what would God have you do in response to the great light shining?
On this good day of Epiphany, what star are you following? And what would God have you do in response to that great light shining?
As we move to the Table, hear how Black Baptist theologian Howard Thurman described the challenge of this day:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.” 
 Erin Martin, “Bowing Before His Brightness,” Christian Century, 12/31/07, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-12/bow-his-brightness
 Excerpt from Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas, New York: Harper and Row, 1973