“Star Words” 01/05/2020 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12

Rev. Stacy Swain

The Magi’s Journey – A poem by T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

 

Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts guide us to an encounter with you this day. Amen.

 A hard time we too are having of it too, don’t you think? We just celebrated the birth of the Christ Child.  We just welcomed “God with us into our lives”, and yet our world this week looks scarier and bleaker than ever before.  Australia is burning and thousands and thousands of animals are dying.  The nascent fires of antisemitism are erupting.  And world stage is full of violence, bellicosity and the threat of war.

 And we too may be hearing those voices of folly in our ears, no? Folly asking what all of our preparation, all of our singing and lighting of candles, all of our waiting and watching was all about?  Did it, after all, make any difference?  Where is the Christ now?  Where is God in this time when we need God’s saving grace more than ever?

 ~~~

 In our tradition we tend to collapse the Christmas story and have the Magi arriving on the night Jesus was born, while actually it is believed that the Magi arrived much later, perhaps even up to two years after Jesus birth.  For two years the Magi may have been scanning the sky for a sign.  For two years they have been waiting and wondering and looking around for confirmation that the King of the Jews has actually arrived and is among us.

 I guess we are not alone!

 And then those wise ones see something that stirs them. It is a star that calls to them to journey out of what they have known and into strange land.  What word does this Star speak to them?  Did it say “come and see.”  Did it say “do not be afraid;” or “trust”;  or “have heart”; or “courage.”

 I love how Eliot imagines the Magi’s  journey in his poem. How they leave behind the life they had known. How they overcome the hardships of the journey, how they faced their own doubts and misgivings. I love how Eliot imagines the grittiness of that journey.  Those Magi may have set out resplendent as the star that guided them but surely they were far from it when what they sought was finally revealed to them at their journey’s end, when Epiphany was theirs.

~~~

 Epiphany. This Sunday we celebrate it, but what does it mean?  Epiphany is defined as revelation or manifestation, but it is an odd word.  Not one we use much really.  It feels a bit antiquated doesn’t it?  Perhaps that is because epiphanies are actually rather few and far between. Perhaps even fading a bit in this time of increasing secularization.  Epiphany is not that “a – ha” moment when you finally remember where left your car keys.  Epiphany is not that treadmill moment when one comes to terms with the fact that one is not and never will be a distance runner.

 No epiphany, speaks to something much deeper and broader.  Epiphany is on a scale all together different.  Epiphanies generally come after a time of journeying, a time of digging into something, a time of significant thought or outpouring of attention.  It is in the midst of such intensity, that something breaks open and something new breaks forth. To borrow words from poet Maya Angelou, epiphany is when “the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”

 Maybe that is what the Prophet Isaiah was getting at when he spoke to those who stood in the ruins of their own day.  Maybe that is what he was summoning them to when he said “Lift up your eyes”.  “Lift up your eyes and look around” the prophet commands a people who must have been so down cast.  “Lift up your eyes!” the prophet says to a people who have returned to Jerusalem after years in exile only to find it in ruin.  The gates of the great city have been torn down. The houses in shambles the temple in ruin.  There is devastation all around, it is overwhelming, the people have returned, but to what?  Where is the deliverance that they thought was surely coming?  Things don’t look any better now than they did when they were exiles in Babylon.  To an overwhelmed, scared, despairing, people the Prophet cries: “Lift up your eyes!”

 This phrase “lift up” is translated from the Hebrew word Nasa. And it turns out that word Nasa is all over the Hebrew scriptures.  “Nasa” is not just Isaiah’s call to this particular people in this particular place.  No, instead “Nasa” is an ancient cry that has echoes down throughout the Biblical witness.  And this calling for the lifting up of ones’ eyes is a powerful one for it is a call to encounter.  A call to an epiphany that will change everything.

 Abraham “lifts up his eyes” and sees the three strangers approaching his tent (Gen. 18:2), strangers that turn out to be from God for they see that Sarah who is advanced in years will nevertheless bear a child.  Hagar “lifts us her” eyes and sees and angel of the Lord saying that her son Hagar will not die but will become the father of a nation.  Abraham “lifts up his eyes” and sees a ram caught in the thicket, delivering his Son Isaiah from sacrifice.   Joseph “lifts up his eyes” and sees his beloved, youngest brother Benjamin once again causing his heart to break wide open in forgiveness of his other brothers for all the wrong that they had done to him.  And on and on it goes until today when we hear that the wise ones’ too must have lifted up their eyes.  For they saw the star  that would lead them to a place of epiphany, an encounter that would, as with those before them, change their lives forever.

~~~

Eliot puts it this way:

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

~~~

 Where is the Christ now?  The Christ is now. The Christ is awaiting us in the places of Epiphany into which we now are called to journey.

 So as we set out into this year let the Magi guide us.  Let us lift our eyes and ready ourselves for an encounter that is beyond our imaginations.  Let the star guide us.  Let it speak words that stir our hearts.  Let us journey to new lands whether that physically in our journeying to Nicaragua or metaphorically as we step into the new territory of sexuality and gender identity, of racial justice, of what it is to be human in a digital age, of how we are going to live on this planet if this planet is going to live. Or the journey we are to take will be more personal.  Whatever it will be, know that Epiphany awaits.  Lift up your eyes!  The Christ awaits.  Let our journeying begin.