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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, January 1, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Ron Botts

A Star Dancing in the Night
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-11

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a young girl journeys through a series of surreal places filled with fascinating characters. One of the strangest is at the edge of a woods. There Alice looks up and sees a Cheshire cat sitting on the limb of a tree. She is frightened of him at first so she asks timidly, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

The Cheshire cat responds, "That depends a great deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't care where…." Alice starts to say.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the cat.

"I don't care where," Alice finishes, "as long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that," grins the cat, "if only you walk far enough."

Well, if you're willing to walk, run, or drive far enough, then you're bound to get somewhere. No matter what direction you go, if you keep moving you will arrive. It's just like the cat says. But then we have to ask ourselves, "Is this where I want to be?"

Our Gospel text for the day tells the old and familiar story of Wise Men from the East. The fact that this narrative is so well known to us is both a blessing and a problem. We tend to hear it as their story, with a beginning and an end. Yet, if we're to gain from it at a deeper level, we must leave it open to see where this story intersects with our own life stories. We have to give it fresh ears if we are to discover its meaning and relevance for us today.

So here we have three astronomers—magi—who search the skies regularly for what it may show them. Now they are not scientists in the way that we think of an astronomer today, but rather curious men who have become quite learned about the nighttime sky. They are seekers, and the canopy of the evening is the direction they have chosen to look for their answers.

One night there appears to be a new star, a bright star, that hangs low on the horizon. They agree among themselves that this is, indeed, a sign worthy of their attention. Somehow they must respond.

It's significant to note that these men are not Jews. Quite possibly they're Babylonians. Ancients commonly believed that celestial occurrences signified the birth of a great person, so these three men determine to find out what it might mean.

Each night they look up and find the star and its movement across the sky leads them. After days of travel they cross over into the land of Judah. Perhaps they inquire of the Jews along the way about prophecies of theirs which might provide an interpretation of the bright light. All the time they keep moving forward in the direction of the star.

They arrive in Jerusalem and seek an audience with the reigning king, Herod, and ask, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him?"

Instead of receiving this news with joy, Herod is threatened. He is king and doesn't want to lose his power to anyone. He has worked too hard to get his position to relinquish it. He calls together the scribes and priests and asks them what the scriptures tell about the Messiah. They quote a passage from the prophet Micah which points to the small town of Bethlehem, the city of David's birth. From there a promised leader will come.

Herod now recalls the Wise Men and steers them to Bethlehem, imploring them to find the child that he, too, may pay his respects; but, of course, that is not really his intention. Now the magi have two clues as to what might be happening: the star and the prophesy.

Of all the places in this modest town of Bethlehem, they are brought to the most unlikely of buildings—a stable. Perhaps it's just how the starlight combines with the light of the moon, filtering down through the landscape, but it appears to light up a particular courtyard. They enter and find a newborn child. Convinced their journey is over, they honor him with gifts truly appropriate for royalty. The three were where they wanted to be.

Perhaps Matthew included this story because it is yet another indication that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Maybe he puts it there because this adoration is an indicator that he is to be worshipped also by the Gentiles. After all this is a new interpretation of the Prophesied One of God: he will be a savior to all people.

For the magi the star meant an answer to their searching. It was what they had been seeking for so long. But what might this story mean for us? Do we have anything so compelling in our lives that it drives us forward until we find it, experience it, complete it, or simply follow where it leads? The Wise Men were excited when they spotted that star. It was exhilarating to know they had a direction, both of travel and purpose, and something worthwhile to put all their effort into.

An appropriate question to ask ourselves as we step out into a new year is "Where am I? Am I where I want to be?"

Time moves on and we are invited to move with it. Life, in its fullest dimension, is a journey that begins with birth and continues on. It is not intended to become stationary. Whether it's a step at a time—or a hop, skip, or jump—the direction in God's plan is forward.

When we're young the movement is usually the fastest. Think of your life between 15 and 25, from beginning high school to beginning career. How quickly the world seemed to open up to us! Those were ten exciting years filled with rapid change. They may have even included marriage and children. Our identities became solidified in those years.

If you're a young person between those ages now, you are right in the midst of all these changes. You know what we tend to forget, that gain and pain are often closely linked together. So many choices are wonderful, but the pressures of daily life can be terribly hard. The fact of movement is evident; the direction may be more uncertain.

As we age the pace of life commonly slows down. The leaps ahead are rare. The compensation however comes in the surer step, rather than in the faster one. We more clearly identify what is important to us and are less constrained by what others may think. We know ourselves better by this time and are less willing to defer to tomorrow what we see for today.

So where are you on life's journey? What dancing star do you dare to follow?

In the 1800's a man went out alone to Africa to seek his future. Once there, and against better advice, he set out by himself and soon became lost in heavy jungle. When at long last he came to a village, he asked one of the natives to help him get to the area he intended.

After more than an hour of hacking their way through the thick jungle the man said to his guide, "Are you sure this is the way? Where is the path?"

The guide answered, "Sir, in this place there is no path. I am the path."

Our fulfillment in life will be closely aligned to what and who give us direction. In Matthew's Gospel he records the first two sentences of Jesus as beginning with the words repent and follow. They are important beginnings because they say "Get out of yourself and come along with me. I'll show you what is important and help you set your direction. I'll even give you strength for the journey. Then take your life, go forward, and make of it all you can."

Whatever the specific star you aim for in life, know that it will only get you to your ultimate goal if it is worthy of all your time and efforts. To the extent that you allow Jesus to be your guide for the journey, the way will become correspondingly clearer. Our faith is the prism through which we truly see, as well as the strength to keep moving ahead.

Aim high and have a blessed new year!

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church