First Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
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.
It might feel like we’re doing things a little backwards this morning, hearing from the New Testament before the Old Testament—but I promise, there’s a purpose here. Many of us have heard the story of the wise people from the East more times than we can count. But as we listen to Isaiah this morning, I want us to listen for the ways these two passages echo one another—where do we hear hints of what’s coming in these promises to God’s people, made generations before the magi found a toddler in Bethlehem?
Second Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
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.
There are three parts to Isaiah—each written at a different period in the history of Israel. The first two, made up of chapters 1-39, were mostly written as warnings: if you stay on this path of death and destruction, that’s what you will receive. The people didn’t heed these warnings, and so came the defeat of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.
But starting in chapter 40, God speaks fresh promises to the exiles: you have not been abandoned. Even when you don’t know what’s going on, even when you feel like you’re covered in that deep darkness, I am here and I have good things planned for you.
This chapter is part of those promises, and interestingly enough, they come in the form of commands:
Arise, shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!
If you were listening closely, you might have also noticed that in the midst of these promises, there are some references to kings and other nations coming to gather around the glory of the Lord, shining in and through the people of Israel.
On this Epiphany Sunday, it’s easy to see that connection. When God came to live among us, the scholars from the east came to pay him homage. The kings and governors took notice.
But those promises and the commandments that came with them began loooooong before even Isaiah was written.
Think back with me a few centuries further to God’s conversation with Abraham, when God called him to leave his home and his family and go begin something new. God says: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. …In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The people of Israel were never meant to be the sole recipients of God’s love and care. They were meant to be a shining light, a blessed people for the sake of illuminating and blessing every nation and every family on the earth.
The visit of the magi is, in some ways, the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise. For the first time, the birth of the Messiah is made known to Gentiles—people outside of Israel who would’ve had no idea what sort of historical moment they were walking into. They didn’t know any of what Isaiah had promised, or what Israel had been hoping for for centuries. They just knew that a birth with cosmic consequences had happened in this part of the world—and so, naturally, they were going to see him. But in doing so, they too became part of these promises.
God promised Abraham that through him, all nations would be blessed. God promised the Israelite exiles not only that they would return home, but that their joy in the fulfillment of that promise would make them shine—and the other nations would take notice.
The epiphany story, from almost any angle, is a joyful one. It’s another hint of what’s coming in Jesus’ life and ministry, and it’s an echo of the charge we receive as part of the church in every time and place:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded of you. And remember, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Arise, shine, for your light has come! God’s blessing flows through you to the ends of the earth.
This beauty rings in our ears when we think of it in the context of our own community: we are blessed to be a blessing. We love because Christ first loved us.
But it might sound slightly more overwhelming when you realize this promise is meant to reach every family on earth. This blessing is for the asylum seekers who gather at the border and in airports, trying to keep their families safe. It’s for the kids in foster care, who may not have the love they need from their biological families. This blessing is for those with mental illnesses who may be difficult to love, and who, even when they receive it, may not be able to express the joy that gives us warm fuzzies. It is for the people who meet in secret in house churches in China or Iran. It includes the people who do not work and those who work too hard. It includes us and our neighbors—both physical and metaphorical.
And this is the moment when we begin to question what it means to be blessed—and what it means to bless others. Because no single person, or even a single community, can be responsible for the well-being of the whole world.
But being part of a connectional church means that we don’t have to be physically present to be part of the work of blessing our neighbors all over the world. At VBS last summer, the kids brought their piggy banks and pocket change, and together with this congregation, y’all donated 27 jerry cans to families who have to haul their own water. That’s a blessing.
The special offerings we collect go to support the work of mission partners, educators, pastors and leaders who aren’t just sitting in an office in Louisville or New York—they’re teaching, they’re leading others in love, and they’re everywhere.
Even our per capita goes to support the administrative staff that keep our Presbytery office and denominational offices running so that they can support the people doing that work. Those are immense blessings.
But there’s also a harder, more contentious question at work here: what is our obligation to those who oppose us? As Christians, what is our obligation to the people on the other side of the political aisle—no matter which side we stand on? What is our obligation to people who are not Christians—whether they’re atheist, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim?
The Heidelberg Catechism is one of our Presbyterian Confessions, which means it’s designed to help us answer questions like these. It’s written in a question and answer format, and part of the catechism explains the Ten Commandments.
I’m going to read part of the explanation of the sixth commandment, which is “thou shalt not murder.”
“Q. Does this commandment refer only to murder?
A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.
Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”
In telling is to love our neighbors and our enemies, Jesus tells us that more than not killing each other, our job is to do real, actual, tangible good for one another—especially when we get nothing in return.
The Church—with a capital ‘C’—is the body of Christ in the world, blessed to be a blessing and loved so that we may love, especially when it’s hard.
Christ has no hands but ours, and no feet but ours. So rise and shine, y’all, because our light has come—and this light is for the whole world.
In just a moment, I’m going to invite you to receive both that blessing and that charge through a very particular practice called ‘Star Words.’ You may have noticed that I have on the communion table a basket of bookmarks.
Each one has a word on it. You don’t get to pick your word—the star will, like a wand, choose you. Take a star word—take it home with you, and put it somewhere you can see it. On your bathroom mirror, on top of the coffee pot, as a bookmark in your daily devotional, on your computer monitor. The word on your star may not make sense to you at this point. You may not even like it; but watch for it.
This weekend, I prayed over each one of these stars—that it would find its way to precisely the right person, to guide them in the way of Jesus.
My hope is that like the star that guided the magi and God guided the Israelites home, this word may guide you in love this year.
As we gather at Christ’s
table, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world. In his light we see
light, and in his light we are light.
 Genesis 12:2-3, NRSV.
 Matthew 28:19-20