In the Background (The Epiphany of Our Lord)

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As the year begins, I’m getting ready for my annual continuing education event, which, as many of you know, combines a theological conference with skiing in the Rocky Mountains! I always look forward to this trip. I do actually always learn something there. But, it’s also great to be in the mountains, spend some time skiing with friends and generally relax after Christmas and before Lent.

But even before I discovered the theological conference in Winter Park, I had been going there for years to ski with friends. And one of the things I used to notice even more than now was that as you got up into the mountains, you could actually see the stars at night! Over the years, the light pollution on the front range has gotten dramatically worse. But even today, for the first couple of nights I spend in the mountains, I notice the stars.

But in spite of the impression the stars make on me, after I’m in the mountains for a few days, I stop noticing them. They become part of the “normal” background.  And perhaps since I don’t really pay attention to the lack of stars around here, and since I stop noticing them after I’m in the mountains for a few days, I wonder if I would have noticed a special star in the sky if I had lived in the time of these wise men from the east?

I suspect that the star went unnoticed by most people in the first century. After all, only Matthew mentions it, and even when the wise men get to Jerusalem and ask Herod and the temple officials about the star they’ve been following, nobody says, “Oh, we saw that too and wondered what it was all about!”

Probably, the star that the wise men saw wasn’t all that big or bright. And after all, the stars:

  • were part of the background of everyday life for them, too… (I love those “dark sky” pictures I find on the web, and it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t look up in wonder every night if you saw that. But if it was “normal” it probably would have become part of the “background” of life for most people…
  • were open to lots of interpretation even among people who expected them to be a sign of something… (these “wise men” were astrologers – probably Zorastians – who debated what all kinds of stars and their positions might mean; it was sort of like first century horoscope, and you were probably wise not believe any of them…!)
  • for Jews, meant nothing. There’s absolutely nothing in the Bible about a star heralding the birth of the Messiah… (in fact, it’s Herod’s court that makes the leap from “king of the Jews” to “messiah”, but it’s not because there’s something in the Old Testament about a star appearing…)

And yet, these pagan wise men from the east saw something in that star that no one else did. So what was different about them? What made them take notice in a way that no one else apparently did? Well, maybe it wasn’t the star itself (that is, it wasn’t so big or bright or unusual).  Perhaps for these guys, the difference was that they were:

  • willing to seek God (however they understood God), in a place that didn’t seem “religious” to others … (stars may have been religious to them, but not for Jews or even many other pagans …)
  • looking towards the future instead of simply instant gratification … (they knew they were seeking a baby, and that it would be decades before anything “big” happened …)
  • willing to invest themselves in a journey, not knowing fully where it would lead or how long it would take to get there … (Matthew’s Gospel suggests that they may have been on this journey for two years…)

So maybe one of the reasons that Matthew includes this story in his Gospel is that he wants to remind us that sometimes for us, experiencing how God is working in our lives – and being part of what God is doing – means acting a little bit like the wise men from the east. And that doesn’t necessarily mean looking up at the stars, but it often does mean:

  • being willing to look for the “stars” God puts in our lives – where are the places that God is at work that don’t look like “religious signs” to others or even to us? How do we experience God’s calling to get up and get moving through our real, everyday world; and how do we keep those “normal” things and events from just being part of the background noise of our lives? The word “epiphany” means “revelation” or “manifestation”, and this first story reminds us that God may be revealing himself to us in ways that aren’t big, bright or flashy, and that sometimes get lost in the “background”…
  • looking towards the future, instead of what’s going to happen tomorrow – we sometimes get so caught up in the problems of right now that we don’t see, think about, or invest ourselves emotionally in what God may be preparing us for … (and that can be especially challenging at the beginning of a new year when, in spite of  trying to focus on “resolutions” for the coming year, many of us are just desperately trying to get caught up on the stuff we got behind on during the holiday season…
  • investing ourselves in journeys that may take longer than we think, and where the end of the journey isn’t entirely mapped out… (like the Wise Men, do we need to consider different roads from the ones that got us to where we are now? And what was the next step for the Wise Men after they found Jesus? Matthew doesn’t tell us, perhaps because it’s a question for all of us – having had an experience of Jesus in our lives, what’s the next thing God is calling us to do…?)

The “stars” that God puts before us each day may not be the big, bright, flashy stars depicted on some of our Christmas cards.  Instead, the story of the wise men reminds us that God is often guiding us and pointing us forward through “stars” that may get lost in the background if we’re not open to looking for them.  The story of the wise men reminds us that the God is often guiding us and pointing us forward through the kind of “stars” that lead us to think longer term than what’s happening today or tomorrow.  And the story of the wise men reminds us that the “stars” God is using to guide us and lead us forward are never calls to focus on the stars themselves, but rather to focus on our journey into the future to which Jesus is leading us.