A star that never burns out

A sermon for the Sunday of the Epiphany, 2023

At the Epiphany, God revealed Godself to the nations, to us, to the world. But we are no longer the outsiders; Christendom has become the establishment, the seat of power. Things change, empires shift, history shuffles the players. God remains true, and unhidden, if we will but look for the Christ-child.

Whenever we read the story of the unveiling of the Messiah to the gaze of the world, we read, too, of the willful and deviant way in which Herod receives the news. 

Because Herod had everything that he needed to hear from God. He had the same revelation that the magi received, the natural phenomenon of the stars in the night sky, interpreted by some as omens; he could have heard the music of the spheres, but he was afraid, and the harmonies soured in his ears.

Herod had the scriptures, the prophets of the Lord, the ones who foretold God’s coming in peace, in mercy, to hasten the salvation of God’s people and their reconciliation with God and with one another; the dawning of a new light, as different from day and night as darkness of the ocean depths is from the stars of outer space.

Herod had the community of faith, to parse and discuss and pray and to apply the scriptures to their current situation: Here, they said, Bethlehem is the place. There is where we will find the Emmanuel of God, the good shepherd, the anointed one.

This is the good news of the boundless riches of Christ’s grace, writes Paul; the mystery of God’s mercy, revealed “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10) 

And instead of hearing good news, and celebrating with his scribes and recognizing the glory to which he had been called – nations shall stream to Zion, wrote the prophet, and here was Herod’s Great Temple to welcome them – instead of living into the revelation that had been opened to him, instead of accepting the role of that had been offered him, of ushering in the new messianic age as architect of his worship and protector of his person, Herod chose destruction. His is a cautionary tale amidst the strange and foreign joy of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

The star contains within its fiery heart the flaming gas of the Hindenburg; the clouds that obscure it are full of the tears of the innocents and their mothers terrorized by Herod and his historic descendants; revelation is not always received, and even wisdom may be misapplied. 

This week, a ceasefire was suggested to mark the birth of Christ in the east; the suggestion was not taken. 

Back here, as we marked the feast of the Epiphany, a six-year-old got into a fight with his teacher and shot her. Where do you think a six-year-old got that idea, or the means to make it real? What does it say about us, our received wisdom about the rights that bind us to violence; how can we receive the revelation of God’s incarnation in a child, when we allow for this new and twisted massacre of the innocents?

This week, in our world, leaders made fools of themselves and one another. It’s a good thing that we do not elect our god. We Christian churches amongst ourselves cannot agree half the time on what it means to follow Jesus, what it means for us, what it means for the world.

Yet it is “through the church [that] the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known,” writes Paul. Which means, church, that we have work to do: work of discernment, work of prayer, the work of declaring peace on earth and making it real; the joyous journey of making known to the world the munificence of a God who was born king of the stable, lord of the manger, hope for the world.

We may have begun this year a little weary from our worldly journeys. But this feast, the Epiphany, God’s revelation of Godself to the nations of the earth, to the people of east and west, to the uninformed and the interested, the powerful and the poor, the wise and the fools who do not know God; this is our feast day. It is ours to celebrate, and it is our calling.

Herod was afraid of what the birth of a messiah might mean for his way of life, his compromises with the Caesars of the world, his great legacy. But God reveals Godself in love, in humility, in vulnerability, so that we may be in awe, but not afraid.

The magi were drawn far from home, pilgrims to a strange land, where they may have received an uncertain welcome; the king met with them in secret, there was subterfuge and whispering. But when they reached Bethlehem, they knew that they had come home. They unpacked their treasures, and left their hearts open on the floor before the cradle, the manger, the messiah.

The wise ones came seeking Christ, but the foolishness of God is famously wiser than the highest wisdom of humankind (1 Corinthians 1:25). In God’s foolish wisdom, God came looking for us, in the form of a child, in self-revelation, through the stars, through the scriptures, through the discerning community of faith.

Ninety-five years ago, the parish of Epiphany came together to seek and serve Christ in this place. They had everything they might need. We still do. While things change, empires shift, history shuffles the players, God remains true, and unhidden, if we will but look for the Christ-child.

The world still sometimes seems impervious, even opposed to the messages of mercy, the humility of incarnation, the love of God, peace that surpasses understanding, but we are not, are we?

So be of good courage. Follow, not the flaming ball of gas, but the light that is Christ: the embodiment of the love of God; the innocence that is wiser than our wiles, the grace that journeys with us, washes our feet when we are weary, feeds us when we are hungry, encourages us where we are faithful; the star that never burns out.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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