A Scandalous Star for All People

The Epiphany of the Lord – January 3, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

(1) The Star

A few weeks ago, my newsfeed on Facebook exploded with everyone and their dog making sure that they knew that I knew that they were outside watching the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s been almost “400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night…allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this ‘great conjunction,’” (NASA) this “light shining in the darkness” (John 1:5).

The Magi, the “Three Wisemen,” the “Three Kings”—this is believed to be the exact same “star” they followed to find the child Jesus. These “Magi from the East,” from lands like Babylon—these men represent people from all nations who have been searching for the truth, for salvation from nothingness. They are men of hope, of longing. They are restless in their search. And then one day, in their constant and restless searching, looking for a sign, for anything that will point them to what they are looking for, they see it: this “star.” And they drop everything and follow it.

Now, we could talk a lot about the star. But suffice to say, most biblical scholars and astronomers agree that the “star” these Magi saw was the same “star” we all witnessed a few weeks ago: this “conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces,” forming one bright star (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 99). And what’s more, while we look up at it and see a great astronomical event, the Magi saw so much more.

In their time, Jupiter was considered the planet of the kings, of the gods. Saturn was the planet of the Jewish people. And the constellation of Pisces was the constellation of the nation of Israel. So when we hear that they “followed” the star, we’re talking about how they interpreted the signs: in the land of Israel, among the Jewish people, a king has been born—a king who would bring an answer to their restless searching. And they were so convinced of this that they set out for Palestine, to the land of the Jews.

And naturally, in search of a new ruler, they go to the palace! They show-up on Herod’s front door, ready to congratulate him on the birth of his new son. They say, “Hey! We’re here! Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (c.f., Matthew 2:2). And how does Herod react? Herod was greatly troubled. Remember: this is Herod the Great, the great king and master builder; many of his building projects you can still go and see in the Holy Land today. (He had a bit of an edifice complex.) And when Herod hears that there is a newborn king of the Jews, he loses it. He is not about to be dethroned. He absolutely loses it! He goes on to have all the boys two years old and younger killed, and historians say that he even had his own sons killed. Caesar Augustus reportedly said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son,” because as a Jew, Herod wouldn’t kill a pig, but apparently he would kill his own sons (c.f., Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah).

The Magi knock on the palace door: that’s where a new ruler should have been born. They shows up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But then they are sent to look in Bethlehem. Bethlehem! A little dumpy town six miles south of Jerusalem. Not exactly what you would call “regal.”

(2) The Scandalous Secret

Yeah, not regal, but exactly in line with what God had been doing all along. St. Paul, in our second reading (and throughout the whole letter to the Ephesians, really) is speaking about this “secret,” this “mysterious” plan of God. And it’s this secret plan that has upset people even to this day. Off and on, people get upset with God.

They say He did something scandalous. They say it’s scandalous that God made a choice, a choice to prefer certain people over others. People get scandalized by this! Why would God prefer the Israelites over other people? And what’s more, they are especially scandalized by the stories in the Old Testament where God wipes out entire towns and armies and nations in order to protect this people. It all seems scandalous! This preference seems scandalous! It’s the same with parents. Parents aren’t supposed to have a favorite child, and everyone knows that they shouldn’t prefer one child over another; it’s kind of scandalous to think they would prefer one over another. But we’re not dumb. We know they have favorites.

It seems so scandalous that God would prefer some people to others. In becoming man, God did something that seems scandalous because he chose to become man in a certain place, at a certain time, and be seen by a few people. Why would God become man and then spend his time in the Palestine region of the Roman Empire, this small, obscure, insignificant part of the world? Because, shouldn’t God be concerned about everyone?

And that’s the answer we get in the feast we celebrate today: the Epiphany of the Lord, the first revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, to people other than God’s chosen people. Today, the light that is Jesus Christ shines throughout the whole world—this “star” is seen by all. 

(3) For All People

Today, as St. Paul says, we are told the secret plan, the mystery: God hasn’t been choosing some people and forgetting about others, he hasn’t been playing favorites. God has, all along, been working to bring salvation to all people, from every nation and race and tribe. 

And when we look back at the story, we realize this wasn’t so secret. The prophets, especially Isaiah (which we read all throughout Advent)—Isaiah was making a very specific and very important point: through the servant king of Israel, God will create a covenant family of all nations, of all who are awaiting the hope of God’s justice and bringing a renewed creation, where God’s Kingdom comes here on earth as it is in heaven.

In this renewed world of all creation, in the Kingdom of God begun in this servant king, people from all nations are invited to come and join the servants of God’s new covenant family so that everyone can know their creator and redeemer, so that everyone can encounter what they have been hoping and longing and searching for, find salvation from nothingness, find rest for their restless hearts.

(4) A Suffering-Servant-King and His Kingdom

Remember: the Magi come in search of the “King of the Jews.” And they coming bearing gifts that Isaiah mentioned in our first reading: gifts of gold and frankincense—that’s what you give to this king. Isaiah didn’t mention myrrh, though.

Isaiah’s prophecy goes on to make something else very clear. It didn’t end with “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” and “he will be great” and people will come bearing gifts. In Christmas time, during all of these celebrations and festivities and joy and hope, we can easily lose sight of where the prophecy continues. Isaiah made clear that this servant king who was coming, who would restore Israel, who would be a light to all the nations—this servant, this messiah, this great king is called to suffer and die (we’ll read those prophecies during Lent). And so, in a great foreshadowing, myrrh for embalming a body is also given.

The only other time we hear about the “King of the Jews”? It’s when Pilate has this inscription placed above the head of the crucified man Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus’ kingship is linked to his cross. The scandal continues.

(5) Not by Power but through Suffering Love

And yet, if we pay attention, Isaiah’s prophecy continues! (It’s a long book.) Isaiah concludes by telling us that through this suffering love of God’s servant, a new heavens and new earth will come, and “from new moon to new moon, from sabbath to sabbath, all people shall come to worship before [him]” (Isaiah 66:22-23). Through him, God “gathers all nations,…they come and see [his] glory,…a sign is set among them” (Isaiah 66:18).

The star points us to his birth, and it also points us to his cross. And his cross remains with us, even to this day, as a sign to all nations. It is present here on this altar. Even in the darkness, even when we do not have a star, we can be sure where the star points us. And here and now, just like the wisemen, we can worship and adore the Lord. We can experience the newness he brings. And we can participate in establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

God’s Kingdom is not established through power. It is established through the suffering of God’s faithful servant, through suffering love. This sacrament we receive is a sacrament of that love.

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