The Importance of Following Stars

Matthew 2:1-12

January 4, 2015

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall found gold at a place called Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. As many of you know, that moment in American history started what has become known as the California Gold Rush, which would last from the time of Marshall’s discovery for 7 years until 1855.

Over that period of time, people from all over the world descended on California in search of gold and their own personal fortune. They literally dropped everything and refocused their lives and their futures on what was happening in the west. They came primarily by covered wagons from eastern points in what was then the United States and by ships on the sea from places all over the world. So many people came that a sleepy town named San Francisco that the city swelled from 200 people to over 36,000 during the years of the Gold Rush. In fact, estimates suggest that in total over 300,000 people came to California during those years with their arrival certainly playing a pivotal part in California achieving statehood in 1850.

Today, the state seal of California still points toward the roll that the Gold Rush played in its history. In fact, the seal includes only one word which epitomizes the state’s beginnings, “Eureka”the seal says which means “I’ve found it!”

The word Epiphany gets at the very same idea. In terms of the Christian calendar, Epiphany, which we celebrate today, remembers the story of the Wise Men and their role in the biblical account of Jesus’birth. Epiphany literally means appearance or manifestation and affirms the fact that the Wise Men represent the first people in the greater, outside world who recognized Jesus as God’s son.

At the same time, the word Epiphany, as it is used in our language today also refers, like the word Eureka, to a startling revelation or conclusion that changes the direction or the focus of a person’s life. It is that moment of discovery that literally changes everything.

What is interesting is that there is a lot about the Wise Men that we simply do not know. We really don’t know where they came from though most point toward somewhere in ancient Persia. We also don’t know exactly who they were –magicians, religious leaders or amateur astronomers? And, we don’t really know exactly what they saw in the sky – whether it was an incredibly bright star, a comet or a converging of planets?

Yet, the truth is that all of this is quite academic. For what we do know far outweighs what we do not. In spite of the fact that there are so many questions about them, what we do know is that when the wise men saw the star, they gave themselves over to it. No matter what else was going on in their lives at the time, they set it aside to follow the star and to see where it would lead them. From my perspective, it is this part of their story that is so compelling and so worth our attention at the beginning of a new year.

You see, I firmly believe that for all of us in this sanctuary today, there will be at least one moment if not multiple moments in this new year that we could call shining star moments. Like the experience of the wise men, these moments will be occasions that demand our attention and are worthy of our setting other things aside that we might pursue them. The question though, is when those moments come, will we recognize them? And, will we take advantage of them?

At least as I read the story, the Wise Men encourage us to do both. On the one hand, I think their story encourages us to always be alert to and watching for the shining stars that may appear at any moment in our own lives. Again, many biblical scholars think the Wise Men were some type of early stargazers. Whether this was wrapped up in their religious beliefs or simply a result of their love for science no one really knows. But, it appears that they had a strong belief that signs in the skies were pointers toward significant things happening on earth and as a result they had built into their lives a regular attentiveness to the heavens so that if and when such moments occurred they would see them.

We talk about similar behavior in good, healthy lives of faith. Recognizing God’s activity in our lives begins with cultivating an attitude and posture of expecting God’s activity. In our study of scripture, in our involvement in worship, in our approach to every day, it is imperative that we approach each occasion with the expectation that we may meet God in a profound way. If our attitude is that nothing of any significance is going to happen here, there is a strong possibility that we may miss grand opportunities that are right in front of our noses.

When we lived in Georgia, I got to know a guy whose name with Stan. Stan, who was in his early 50s at the time, had lived through a roller coaster professional life. At times he had been very successful and had commanded a rather hefty salary. At other times, some of the investments and decisions he made had left him with very little and at life’s bottom. Yet, every time I ran into him, what always grabbed my attention was that there was always a new idea that had garnered his interests and energy. He was the ultimate optimist with an unwavering belief that the next big thing was right around the corner for him. Like lots of other people, I labeled Stan a dreamer and often found myself exhausted by all of his schemes and ideas. But at the same time, I knew that I would not be surprised if one of Stan’s many forays panned out. For after all, every day he got up full of energy in light of what might happen that very day.

There are always going to be those who make fun of or laugh at people who are seen as dreamers or who appear to have their heads in the clouds. Yet, those like Stan and like the Wise Men, who dare to believe in the power and possibility of each moment remind us of the need to live with a similar expectation of what God might be up to in our lives and experiences today. Again, those willing to look for God are often the same people who find God.

On the other hand, I think the story of the Wise Men also encourage us to dare to follow these same stars when they appear in our lives. There is something about the story of the Wise Men that I had never paid attention to until preparing for today. Have you ever noticed that the Wise Men were not the only ones in the story who recognized that something wonderful was likely taking place in Bethlehem? Remember what happens when the Wise Men reach Jerusalem. They meet with Herod, who in turn calls a conference of Jewish scholars to discuss the claims and questions of the Magi. The scholars actually confirm what the Wise Men have brought to Herod’s attention. Yes indeed, the Jewish scriptures had long prophesied that the promised Messiah would have his beginnings in Bethlehem. In other words, the religious leaders give an affirmation to the perspective of the Wise Men.

But, here is the intriguing thing. As the story continues, after the Jerusalem Conference only the Wise Men continue the journey to Bethlehem.

This is such an instructive aspect of the story. How often are we like the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and unlike the Wise Men from the East? How often do we recognize that something of significance is afoot in our lives yet at the same time lack the drive to do anything with it? How often are we fully cognizant that we are a part of a holy moment only to move on with our normal lives never to embrace the once in a lifetime possibilities that may be ours? When have we looked squarely at our own special opportunity in life only to let it slip right through our fingers for one reason or another?

I remember very vividly an experience that happened when I was in High School. Somewhere around my senior year, Alabama elected a new governor who was from our neck of the woods. A good friend of mine’s family was personal friends with the new leader as her dad and the governor- to-be had grown up with each other. When it came time for the inauguration and the governor’s ball, my friend and her family were invited to attend. When a spare ticket became available, she invited me to go with them but my window to say yes or no was only a matter of a few hours. In a world before cell phones and text messages, I wasn’t able to locate either of my parents in time to ask their permission. As much as I wanted to go and as bad as I hated to do so, I had to tell my friend that I would have to decline. What I remember most about that experience was the look on my parent’s faces when I told them what I had done. My dad, in no uncertain terms pointed out to me that this was one occasion when it would have been okay to have accepted an invitation and to have gotten permission later.

Now, while I am not recommending to any of our students that you over-interpret that story, I think everyone understands the point. Sometimes, there are simply some opportunities that are not to be missed not matter what seems to be standing in our way. Sometimes, that which stands before us is far more important than our schedules, what we had planned or the changes that may need to be made in our lives.

In 2015, will we live with the sense of expectedness that the Wise Men exhibited? In 2015, when the once in a lifetime occasions arise, will we seize them? In these next twelve months, what opportunities will present themselves to us and what will we do with them? Amen.