Matthew 2:1-2, 7-12
South Presbyterian Church – January 5, 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
Did any of you ever buy a star?
No … I’m serious. For a little over $50 a person can buy the naming rights to a star and it will be recorded by the International Star Registry. Isn’t that BIZARRE? I mean, it’s kinda COOL …. But a little bizarre to think about buying the naming rights to something like a star! Have any of you done that? I THINK someone did it for my daughter when she was born, but it’s all a little blurry to me.
(pointing) Is that YOUR star? No, mine’s over here. What’s YOUR star’s name? “Cheryl.” Cheryl? Mine’s Bert. Well … mine’s Dawn on the Perfect Morning.
On the other hand … naming a star CAN be like adopting an animal through the Sierra Club or World Panda Association – it increases one’s awareness of them and the familiarity breeds excitement and a sense of connection.
At first, when I was a teenager, I didn’t WANT to know about stars … about the gases that comprise them or about Black Holes or supernovas. I wanted them to remain mysterious … romantic. I thought that the more I knew, the less wonder and awe they would hold for me. But that’s not really been the case. They STILL take my breath away.
Maybe that’s why I wouldn’t want to NAME one. It would make it too familiar. But I got to thinking about all of this as I was living with this passage about the Magi again this week.
These three Kings … well, we have come to THINK of them as Kings, but they may not have been Kings in the traditional sense of ruling over a great empire. These three … GUYS … studied the stars. They were astrologers and astronomers. They were educated men of their day which means that they were men of means … to be able to afford to travel by CAMEL … and to bring the kinds of gifts they brought … they were comfortably off in a world where many people were not.
Coming from the East as they did … they were most likely Zoroastrians from Persia… religious men from what today we call Iran. In Zoroastrianism, priests would study the stars because they were waiting for the Messiah.
Zoroastrianism is a very cool (and very old) religion. My friends and I were into some of their philosophies when we were teenagers. If you’re NOT that familiar with it, let me explain that …
Zoroastrianism, although the smallest of the major religions of the world in the number of its adherents, is historically one of the most important. Its roots are in the proto-Indo-European spirituality that also produced the religions of India.
It was the first of the world’s religions to be founded by an inspired prophetic reformer. It was influential on Mahayana Buddhism and especially on the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
To the latter three, of which we are a part, Zoroastrianism bequeathed such concepts as a cosmic struggle between right and wrong, the primacy of ethical choice in human life, monotheism, a celestial hierarchy of spiritual beings (angels, archangels) that mediate between God and humanity, a judgment for each individual after death, the coming of a Messiah at the end of this creation, and an apocalypse culminating in the final triumph of Good at the end of the historical cycle.
Historically, ZOROASTER WAS THE PERSIAN PROPHET upon whose teachings the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is based. The name by which he is commonly known in the West is from the Greek form of his original name, Zarathushtra, which means “Shining Light.”[i]
And for the music lovers among us … THAT rings a bell because of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” the music by Strauss that has come to be known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey … (sing it). That was Strauss’ musical tone poem about Zoroaster.
That’s who these Magi were followers of … much as we are followers of Jesus. They studied his teachings about the struggle between right and wrong, and they believed in spiritual beings like angels and archangels. They were looking for the coming of a Messiah. They believed it was imminent. The Messiah would come at the end of this creation, and an apocalypse would come about that culminated in the final triumph of Good at the end of the historical cycle. Sound familiar?
It SHOULD. There is a lot of Christianity based on the concepts and precepts of Zoroastrianism. And these practitioners of their religion … these HOLY men … these Magi … were following their OWN beliefs … their own teachings … their OWN spiritual journey … and it led them to Jesus.
How cool is THAT?
It sort of reminds me of a book that Food for Thought read in the fall by the Tibetan Monk, Thich Nhat Kanh called Living Buddha, Living Christ. In it, HE talks about the influence … the impact … that getting to know Jesus has had on him as a non-Christian Buddhist. He is another one, like the Magi, who did not come from the faith tradition out of which Jesus grew, but who has a direct spiritual relationship with him nonetheless.
It makes me wonder how many of us could say the same thing.
How many of US have (or even SEEK to have) a direct relationship with the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him) … or with the Buddha … let alone Zoroaster?
There was a richness to the time of these Magi. They were not afraid to honor someone not like themselves.
But anyway … back to our story … so there was this STAR. Was it really a star or did it just appear as one? Maybe it was an alignment of planets that all seemed to come together at one time. There IS some scientific evidence of that and maybe some of you have seen the Christmas Star show at the Planetarium.
I’d like us to leave that one metaphorical for now and think about these people traveling for DAYS and nights on camelback to follow their star. What must they have BELIEVED in order for their resolve to be great enough to DO that?
For me … it begs the question: what do I believe in enough that I would do that? Is there ANYTHING that I would leave everything behind for … set out on a trip to FOLLOW and not know where I was going to end up?
What’s MY star?
And as I was really trying to answer that, I was reminded of the piece we heard a little bit ago, the Randall Thompson “Choose Something Like a Star” which is his musical setting of a poem by Robert Frost.
Take a look again at the words in your bulletin, would you?
It is an AMAZING poem. And those of you who love to read poetry, please bear with me for a minute because I want to point out some meanings that are not obvious to the non-poetry lovers among us.
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Okay. Stop there for a minute. This starts off setting the scene and saying that darkness is what brings out the Star’s light. Think about that in terms of Jesus. Isn’t that true for us today? It is the dark, hard, challenging times when we can’t really SEE where we’re going that brings out our faith, is it not?
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
Here, Frost is saying that it’s great to have some mystery about you, Star, but you’re not allowed to be totally SILENT … taciturn … you have to say SOMETHING to us that we can learn and take WITH us … something we can learn by heart and then repeat when we’re alone by ourselves.
How many of us have felt that way about GOD? Don’t be SILENT … give us SOMETHING! At least tell us if you’re talking Fahrenheit or Centigrade. Use some kind of language that we can COMPREHEND!
Ah, but that’s what Pentecost was all about. It was God coming to each person through the breath of the Holy Spirit … speaking to each one in their own language. So unlike the Star in Frost’s poem, God DOES speak to us in ways that we can understand … God is NOT distant up in the sky, far off.
And then the poem continues to its culmination by referring to Keats’ Eremite …
Okay … let me pause here for just a second. John Keats, another poet … wrote a beautiful poem titled, “Bright Star, Were I Steadfast” which was a LOVE poem. Now, an eremite is a religious hermit … one who goes off to live by him or herself in order to become more spiritual through the life of solitude. And in HIS poem, Keats was saying that he wanted to take a blissful moment with his lover and store it away like a religious hermit goes off to live in the mystical splendor of that relationship.
So FROST is taking that understanding and saying that in the same way, our Star … whatever that IS to us … no matter WHERE it is in our life is …
… steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere, but
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something … like … a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
We each need to have something like a star to be FOCUSED or stayed on … to rest our MINDS on … so when the world tries to SWAY us … we can be constant. We can be consistent. We can keep our VISION … our FOCUS … our AIM on something that is a constant REFERENCE POINT to us … just like the Magi did when they were traveling to Bethlehem.
And that, my friends, for US … is Jesus and his message of love … his message of God’s PRESENCE with us right here, right now.
The Magi followed THEIR star and it led them to Jesus.
JESUS is our star, and it leads us to God.
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like …. JESUS
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Each one of us has a journey to Bethlehem.
I can spend a lifetime preaching about Jesus and how Love Wins … or about how God’s kingdom is here … but if all you ever do is LISTEN, it’s like looking at the Star far off. It doesn’t SAY anything to us that we can comprehend.
Each one of us has to travel with the Magi … Faith is ACTIVE … we have to get out and GO and FOLLOW even if we don’t know where we’re going or what we’ll find when we get there. We have to choose something like a star … and our Star’s name??????
Jesus … Holy One … Prince of Peace … Emmanuel … There are over a thousand names for God and the Anointed One. You pick the one that works for you and make THAT the name of your star.
And may God be with us as we journey together in this new year. Amen.