The Ingathering of the Dispersed
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Matthew 1:1-12 (NRSV)
Friends, today is the first Sunday of the New Year. And as we talked about last week, it is a new beginning and a fresh start, and anything is possible! After all, we’ve got three hundred and sixty-five, well, now three hundred and fifty-eight days to play and pray and worship, to love God, our neighbors, our families, and ourselves, to listen for God’s voice in our lives, and to search for the meaning and understanding that God has for each of us.
Now today, in the church, we celebrate Epiphany Sunday and the word “epiphany” means “an illuminating discovery or realization.” It’s like an “aha” moment, when we finally begin to understand and see something we didn’t before. When we turn to the scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, we learn that Epiphany is all about the light coming into the world. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Arise, shine for your light has come!!” And in the Gospels, we hear of the wise men traveling from afar, following the light of a star to find the baby that has been born King of the Jews. But Epiphany is about more than a lightbulb turning on over our heads. It about more than a simple prophet’s words thousands of years ago, and it’s even about more than the star in the sky that led the wise men to Bethlehem.
Folks, Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence breaking through to shine as a light in our human darkness. It’s the amazing gift of God reaching out, taking our hand, and assuring us that no matter how dark the night gets, no matter how much we struggle and question, or how much we feel lost and alone, God is always there shining a light on our path.
The celebration of Epiphany in the church comes on the twelfth day of Christmas and brings an official end to the Christmas season. So this is the last Sunday for Christmas carols in worship/ By next week, the manger and the greens will be taken down and put away for another year. I’m sure that many of you have attended several Christmas parties over the season, and perhaps you thought you were finished giving and receiving gifts, but Epiphany brings up the concept of giving one more time. Because if you remember, in our reading from the gospel of Matthew today, we heard about the magi from the East bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child.
So, we could talk about giving today, but to be honest, you are all pretty good at that. Here in Oldtown, though our budget could always use more money, we have a community of faithful people who are always generous with their time, their energy, their talents, and their treasures. As a community, we love and serve our neighbors, and we work hard to keep our church running smoothly. Actually, I think we tend to have more over-doers than under-doers here in Oldtown, but that is what makes us the church that we are.
So today, instead of talking about giving, we’re going to talk about receiving, because today, on this Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate the amazing gifts that God gives to all of us: of course the gift of Jesus and the light that shines in the darkness, but also the gifts of family, friends, and shelter, and the gifts like love, forgiveness, grace, peace, generosity, truth, prayer, mercy, and fellowship. We all know that those things are out there, and at different times in our lives we are more aware of them, and we recognize them as gifts of God. But we often get so busy that we take them for granted and forget that they truly are gifts.
We’re going to try something new today, and I can’t take credit for this idea because a clergy friend shared it with me. It’s something that many churches have begun to do as a part of their Epiphany celebrations, and it has to do with receiving something called a “star word.” It is based on the idea that, before they offered their own gifts, the magi first received from God the gift of the Christ-child. And if we truly think about it, that’s how God works, isn’t it? First, God gives to us, and then, we respond by giving of ourselves.
And so, I’d like to invite two of our Deacons forward to help, and I’m going to ask them to pass the offering plates. But instead of putting something into the plates, like we usually do, I’m going to ask you to receive something from it: a star with a special word written on it. Don’t search through, reading all of the stars; just reach in and grab one!
And what I want you to do with the star you receive today is to take it home with you and put it in a place where you see it regularly, perhaps on your refrigerator, or your desk, or your bathroom mirror. Or if you’re really tech-savvy, maybe you’ll take a picture of it and use it as the background image on your phone, or your iPad, or your computer. I want you to put your star somewhere you’ll see it on a regular basis because the next part of the activity takes all year to complete. Do you remember, in the Christmas story, when we are told that “Mary pondered these things in her heart?” Well, that’s what I’m going to ask you to do with your star word. Ponder it in your heart this year. Take time to think about your word. Find out exactly what it means. Search for where it shows up in the bible. See how it plays out in your daily life. Allow your word to speak to you and to meet you where you are in your life and in your faith.
Now, you might be looking at your word and thinking, “This isn’t me,” “I must have picked the wrong one,” “I can’t imagine how I’m going to see this in my life,” or maybe you are already thinking of ways that it connects for you. I heard the story of one pastor who drew the word “faith,” and her entire congregation laughed, saying that it seemed ironic that the pastor should need to draw the gift of faith! But then, that year turned out to be an incredibly trying one, where her own faith and that of her congregation really suffered after some tragic events. It was a year in which she needed to remember that faith is a gift to be held onto, especially in trying times. Friends, the truth is we never know how God’s gifts might need to be noticed. Like any gift, I am aware that some of these stars will be treasured and some of these stars will be recycled with your bulletin. They may end up crumpled at the bottom of your purse or lost under the seat in your car, just like we sometimes discard the gift of grace that God offers us, or lose sight of the peace that Christ brings. But friends, I know that, as human beings, we all yearn for tangible, clear signs of God’s presence. We are often so overwhelmed by life that we fail to see those signs even when they are right in front of us. So these “star words” are simply meant to be a way to focus your awareness of God’s gifts and God’s presence in your life.
Friends, Epiphany is a time to celebrate God’s presence breaking into the chaos of life and shining as a light in the darkness. My prayer for our entire congregation, and for each and every one of you individually, this year, is that we would be reminded, at every turn, of our generous, loving, and giving God.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, ponder these words in your heart. Look for the light, and search for the presence of God in your life. Let it feed you and fill you with grace and peace, and once you’ve received God’s gifts, go out and share them with others!
My friends, may it be so! Thanks be to God! Amen!