Sermon Title “Otherwise” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! Happy Epiphany! The text which Joe read for us from Matthew chapter 2 is our first and only glimpse of the magi, or wise men, from the East and the star which led them to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. In the Sundays leading up to Christmas, including Christmas Eve, we have organized our worship reflections around traveling to Bethlehem, and how far it was for various characters in the nativity story — Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and Jesus. This will be our last Sunday — at least for a while — to ask ourselves, How Far is it to Bethlehem? Next Sunday we won’t see the town of Bethlehem in our Worship Center, the star and candles will be gone from our chancel, the Christmas trees and ornaments will be put away until next Advent. I was inspired by someone from Creekside who demonstrated that they were listening to my meditation from Christmas Eve morning, and I have decided to listen to my own counsel and leave Jesus out of the box for 2024. I have a number of nativity sets, but I got a beautiful new soapstone carving of the Holy Family this year as a gift, and I am going to honor that gift and what it represents by leaving it out in my office. I hope you stop by and get a chance to see it beneath my lamp.
Of course, we are never actually finished with the journeys of our lives, and the journey to find Jesus and to worship him. Matthew’s account of the wise men reminds us of that, as does the poet Ann Weems when she asserts that God is still scattering stars along our way. Actual stars seem like a pretty unreliable way to get to a destination — at least if you’re trying to find a stable just a few kilometers away. Although for millenia stars were the only form of navigation, especially over large bodies of water where there are no mountains to block the view, and especially in the northern hemisphere, where there is a single bright star which is nearly true north. Using stars for direction means you have to travel in the dark — which comes with its own set of hazards. For me, stars represent the journey of faith, and the need to see not only with our eyes, but with our hearts.
Epiphany reminds me of the first sermon I ever preached. It wasn’t here at Creekside, it was in a seminary class at AMBS, a summer intensive in 2006. The class was “Celebrating the Christian Year.” Our final project was to choose a season to preach from, a scripture text from the readings for that season, and then create an entire service around a theme. I chose Epiphany and this reading from Matthew chapter 2. I was confident that I could make a striking arrangement on the chancel table with metallic ornaments, or, if I had to, I could borrow some great Three Kings stuff from Doris Walters. I knew songs and stuff that would work for the service, but the preaching part terrified me. What could I possibly have to say that anyone would listen to? What if I came across as a total doofus? These questions still haunt me, by the way.
I grew up with two older brothers — two and four year older than I. Both of them were super-smart, and were especially interested in math and science. One would go on to get a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in computer science, and go on to teach computer science at a polytechnic university; the other got a college degree in physics, and went on to pastor in the Church of the Brethren. Go figure. Because of their interests, a couple times a year we’d go camping with another family who had boys roughly my brothers’ ages. We lived in S. California, so we’d go out to the desert, usually Joshua Tree National Park. During the day, the boys would launch model rockets while I clambered around on the jumbo rocks. At night, there was star-gazing. For my brothers this meant identifying individual stars by name and tracing various constellations, calculating distances, talking about the speed of light and relativity. I was generally off dancing or spinning around, drinking in the myriad of stars which we never saw at home because of the smog and light pollution. On a side note; I had hoped to scan some of our Eller family pictures so you could see us kids out in the desert, but Eller family photos are on Viewmaster reels which I don’t have equipment to scan. I’ll have them in the Gathering Area if you’re curious after the service.
Although I never became anything like an astronomer, those early experiences of star-gazing were formative. On year, after my family moved to Goshen, I took the kids out on a pontoon boat on Lake Waubee in the middle of the night to see the Leonid meteor shower — named for the constellation Leo, which is in the sky in August. I must have been telling that story at Elkhart City Church at some point, because I found a kindred star-gazer: Evelyn Miller told me that she went out at night during the Leonid meteor shower every year.
For those of you who never had the opportunity to know Evelyn, she was Myron Miller’s stepmother, she was a retired biology teacher, scholar of the Bible and a terrific Sunday School teacher. She must have been 90 years old when she told me she went outside during the meteor showers, and by that age, she was nearly blind. There is no way she could have seen those meteors. It can be tough even for people with normal vision, because you’re not sure where to focus, and that streak of light usually lasts less than a second — by the time the person lying on the ground next to you says, “Whoa, did you see that?” it’s gone. Evelyn went outside during the meteor shower not because she could see the falling stars, but because she knew that they were there. I’m sure she knew this because she understood the science and astronomy, but I’d like to think it was also because of her faith in the Creator.
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Evelyn gave me an example of what it means to see with eyes of faith. The wise men had to travel by faith. Not faith in Jesus, the Messiah — these travelers weren’t Jewish, they weren’t believers in the prophecies of the Jewish holy writings. But they were students of the stars, and were wise enough to know that when the Ruler of Heaven is up to something — have you seen that star before? — it’s time to pack up and head out. Here’s the thing about star navigation: stars can tell you where you’re going — sort of, if you know what you’re doing — but stars don’t tell you what you’re going to find when you get there. The wise men assumed, understandably, that if they were looking for a king, they should go to the palace in Jerusalem. They found a king, all right: a murderous, paranoid puppet of the Roman Empire who was willing to kill his own wife and sons, and whole lot of innocent little boys in Bethlehem. Herod might have seemed friendly enough — he encouraged them to come back and see him at the palace when they were all done worshipping the new king, but helped by a dream, the wise men saw through that plot, and went home another way.
The wise men, of course, had the farthest distance to travel to Bethlehem. They came from heaven knows where — East of Palestine is all we know. Some sources speculate they came from Babylon, an early seat of astronomy; Babylon is about 900 miles away. One site said, “The Bible’s Gospel of Matthew says that Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar traveled for 12 days to reach Jesus.” I don’t know what Bible they are referencing — my Bible doesn’t name names or give specific travel times. Christian tradition, not the Bible, has come up with those names and the practice of the Twelve Days of Christmas: the wise men’s arrival is celebrated the eve of Jan 5; January 6 is the twelfth day of Christmas. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are in the Bible, and are a whole lot better than Lords a leaping and drummers drumming and swans and French hens, as far as I’m concerned.
But of all of those who traveled to Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary and the shepherds — the wise men may have had the least to go on, and the most to lose. Joseph had to re-assess his identity as a husband and father; Mary had to leave behind innocence and learn that this child had a destiny which would pierce her heart, the shepherds had to leave their sheep during lambing time and come back with a story that people probably wouldn’t believe, but nobody listens to shepherds much anyway. The wise men left what we assume was a life of wealth and comfort to travel to who knows where for nobody knows how long to find a king from some other religion and nation. It’s a miracle they made it to Bethlehem at all. We don’t know how they got home — there wasn’t a star to lead them back.
Our journeys are probably more like the wise men’s than anyone else’s: that’s why I’m so grateful they come back again and again to lead us into the new year. If we think we’re wise, we’ll find out otherwise. We don’t know which way the stars will take us — sometimes we can’t even see the stars — if we’re going to get to Bethlehem, we may have to take one step at a time and pray that God will open a way before us. We can’t see the future — perhaps we haven’t even learned from the past. If we have put our faith in our own plans and our own vision, God shows us otherwise. God is not part of our plans; we are part of God’s plan. Human beings don’t put new stars in the sky: only God can do that. If we’re aiming for Bethlehem, we’d better be looking for divine guidance, rather than simply taking our best shot.
How far is it to Bethlehem? We may be able to see only a little way in the darkness, but if we look with eyes of faith, God has put stars along our path. Where we see hopelessness, God knows otherwise; where we see despair, God gives comfort; where we see loss, God sees new life. We give thanks that our God is not bound by the wisdom of the world, but is otherwise. Blessings for the journey of this new year. Amen