“Following A Star to the Word”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
6 January, 2019
Epiphany Year C
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-2, 10-11, 14)
Matthew’s Epiphany story about the wise men from the East following the star to Bethlehem is well-known, even if some of the points of the story are occasionally confused or conflated with other stories, figures, and facts. For example, we’re not told that they followed the North Star to get to Bethlehem—but that’s how people tell the story. Or that there were threewise men (in fact, some Eastern Christian churches contend that there were twelve!): Matthew doesn’t give a number, nor does he offer any names. (Not even Caspar, Balthazar, or Melchior.)
When it’s so easy to get some of the details about the story wrong, what are the most helpful points for us to absorb today with regard to these characters—who, even though Matthew’s account makes it clear they arrived long after that holy night of the dear Savior’s birth, are usually in the crèche scene right along with the shepherds?
I’d like to suggest four things in particular—all of them attributes we can surmise that the wise men possessed—noting that each of these attributes represents things that can help us in our own spiritual life and growth if we choose to embrace it.
First: The wise men (however many there were) took time to observe the world around them. They deliberately made a practice of paying attention to things, especially new developments in their world—which is how they noticed when the Christ star had its rising. And when they noticed something had changed, they began to ask questions in order to more fully understand the world they’d been given to inhabit.
Second: They devoted themselves to learning new things in pursuit of deeper truth. Even if it meant drawing them out of their comfortable places, shaking up prior conceptions of the world. Even though it meant they had to take risks. The wise men of Matthew’s story dared to be vulnerable, risking their personal security as they traveled to a foreign place and became the “other”. They demonstrated courage as they asked challenging questions without guile or deception, in their quest to discover and honor what God was doing in the world. (Asking Herod—then the reigning king of the Jews—where the newborn King of the Jews might be was at least as risky to their own safety as it was to the baby’s! They were wise and shrewd in not returning to his palace, though the leader’s fear-filled rage led to much human suffering if you read further in Matthew’s account.)
Third: They weren’t afraid to try new things, to go to unknown places, and also to change course when it became obvious that that’s what was called for. In every instance, the wise men had to remain attentive not only to the star that guided them, but also to the wisdom of others and the counsel of their own consciences, dreams, and reading or discernment of the circumstances unfolding around them.
These are all potentially significant lessons for us to practice as our congregation is being called to do a bold new thing in order to actively build a vision we’ve discerned for this church’s future. Will we courageously move forward, guided by the light of what we believe is a God-given vision? Can we practice nimble confidence like the wise men that allows us to change course if necessary—and without conceding to the discouraging suggestion some will surely make, that we’re wrong-headed for pursuing this light or vision in the first place?
It leads me to the fourth and most important attribute I want to highlight about the wise men: Once they noticed the star and recognized that it was divine in its origin, the wise men trusted and allowed the light of that star to direct them—to guide their spirits. And it led them to the fulfillment of their heart’s desire. It guided them notto a place devoid of meaning or truth, but to the very Word of God incarnate. To the One whose life reflects the fulfillment of God’s desires for everyhuman life.
As we claim the relevance today of Matthew’s well-told story about faith seeking understanding and deeper truth, part of our adventure and challenge is to discover or decide what guiding light we will allow to direct our attention and our spiritual path, individually and as a congregation. And such understanding and truth is primarily gained through intentional spiritual practice, or discipline.
Do you have a regular spiritual discipline, or something that helps you to focus on deepening your spiritual awareness each day? Some of you, I know, use the Upper Roomdaily devotional booklets the church provides. Others of you may subscribe to the UCC’s online StillSpeakingDaily Devotionals. Some of you used the “Come, Lord Jesus” devotional booklets across the season of Advent, but maybe you’re looking for something to continue with now that those are finished.
I don’t know how many of you tear open your Chimesnewsletter as soon as it arrives (or click the electronic version, depending on your preferred medium). But if you’re an eager reader, and you happen to have read my newsletter article yesterday, then this will sound familiar to you.
How many of you have heard of “star words” before? I hadn’t, until a couple years ago, when an acquaintance referred to his “star word”—he was struck by the way it kept presenting itself in unexpected places, taking him to a deeper place spiritually. He said it was a little bit like getting a new car, and suddenly you notice that same car everywhere—except this drew his attention to his spiritual practice and helped him to feel closer to God.
Last year, I noticed that one of my Facebook “friends” offered to distribute “star words” to any interested friends; she’d select one at random and private message it to whoever requested it. And then, at a recent Hillsborough Clergy Association meeting, several of my colleagues were talking about how much their congregations enjoy the annual practice of receiving them. So I decided to introduce it here, and see whether it’s a fruitful spiritual exercise for us.
Even though it’s life-enhancing, it can feel difficult given our busy schedules to implement a set amount of time each day to do devotions, or to take time to pray, or to read Scripture. And if that’s the case for you, then this might be perfect. Start simple: use a single word. Use one word to help you better recognize the presence of the Word of God in your life and in your world. And if you already have a spiritual discipline, this isn’t a difficult one to add. It’s actually kind of fun.
The Word of God has many facets, like a star; there are many words to describe the Word of God, to describe the attributes of the Living Word of God made flesh. And we’ve printed up a bunch of them on the little pieces of card that we’ve distributed. I’ve invited each of you to select a random word—and now I’m going to ask you to allow that word to guide you in the year to come. Put the word card in a place where you’ll see it every day—on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, your desk, whatever works.
Your attentiveness to the places that your word might show up can become part of a discipline in spiritual growth. Pay attention to how the meaning of the word changes and deepens for you across the span of the year. You might notice that you’ll see the word a lot one week, and then you won’t notice it for a few weeks, and all of a sudden you’ll see it again—and it will feel different to you, somehow. Then, reflect on how the word and your experience of God itself have changed—what is it that’s changed: the word in relation to the world, or you, or both? How have you deepened in your understanding, so that the word is now different?
As time goes by, allow your reflections on this little word to inform how you might also think about God, and prayer, and your relationship with God, as well. If your understanding of a word can change and you can encounter it in a variety of ways, how much more might your awareness of Jesus’ presence in your daily life increase and deepen, change, and grow if you pay attention for where you see God/Jesus/Christ/the Spirit at work?
The idea is that these words have the ability to help re-focus our mind on particular spiritual realities in our daily life, if we make a point of watching for them or seeing how they present themselves to us across the year. My colleagues shared anecdotes about parishioners who said their “star word” became a sort of watch-word, a miniature light-guide by which they scanned for the Spirit’s movement in their workplace, home, and mundane activities.
Pray for God to help you recognize the relevance of that particular word for your life just now. And if it doesn’t seem obvious to you immediately—just wait. See whether it doesn’t start to surprise you. Because I bet it will. And then, sometime at the end of the year, we’ll compare notes on how or whether that simple practice helped to deepen your awareness of the light of Christ, as it manifests in the world in the way described by the word you receive.
Whether you decide to use the “star word” to serve as a light to guide your spiritual journey this coming year or not, my prayer for each of you and all of us is that we would continue to be guided by the living Word of God—the life and witness of Jesus Christ, whose light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. Thanks be to God! Amen.