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We Observed His Star

  • January 6, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 6 January 2019 (Epiphany Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-7,10-14; Matthew 2.1-12

Title:               We Observed His Star

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (Matthew 2.2).

My friends: how far are you willing to go in the pursuit of truth?

We are very blessed to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on this Sunday. Epiphany is a fixed date in the year – January 6 – just as Christmas is the fixed date of December 25. However, folks here in North America will come out to celebrate Christmas no matter what day of the week it happens to be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other celebrations, like Epiphany.

If we gathered to celebrate on a Wednesday morning, would YOU come? So this year, it is a particular blessing to gather for the Epiphany on this Lord’s Day.

But what is it, after all, that we are celebrating on this day? Besides the singing of some great songs like We Three Kings, why is Epiphany important after all?

Well, first of all, let’s remember that in every feast of the Church Year, we are invited to remember two different things: one particular event in the history of salvation, and also one general theological principle that we deduce from this event.

So in the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the event which is the arrival of the Magi – the Wise Men – from the East. And the general principle of the Epiphany is stated in the Collect for this Day, which we prayed earlier: it is the desire of God to spread the Light of Christ throughout all the nations of the world.

And lest we forget, it is ONLY because of this desire of God that WE are celebrating Epiphany here on this day. It is crucial that we not forgot where we come from and how far the light of Christ has come to make it all the way to these shores of Casco Bay.

We are a long, long way from Bethlehem. But God is not done, and the desire of God to connect with each human being will never die – no matter where in the universe those humans may be found.

But let’s go back now and talk more about the particular event of this Feast: that surprising and unexpected visit by wise men from the East.

In the Greek, their name is MAGI, which is plural for MAGUS. By the way, it is not MAAH – JIE, even though it is from their title that we derive our English word for MAGIcian.

But however we may wish to pronounce their title, these Wise Men were the scientists of their day. They were men of knowledge, philosophers and astrologers, students of the natural world.

If you search for the origins of science among history, you will find the roots in ancient Greece and in ancient Parthia. Well, these Magi came from the East, most likely from the Parthian Empire, in the land known today as Iran.

They were diligent and scrupulous observers of the night sky. Of course, they did not know and understand the scientific method which has now come to revolutionize the life of humanity, but these Wise Men made observations about the natural world, and they responded to the truth of what they observed.

In this case, they made careful observations of this new star in the night sky. Together, they deduced the meaning of this sign, and then they responded.

Do you know what they did in response? They traveled to Jerusalem. That was a distance of over 1000 miles through very difficult terrain. And what is more, the Romans and the Parthians had recently fought a war over that very territory which included Judea!

Officials from the Parthian Empire were likely to be met with suspicion at the least, and open hostility was not out of the question. To be sure, the journey of these Wise Men was not without risk. And yet, they were in the pursuit of truth, no matter where it took them, even into hostile territory.

Things have certainly changed since their time. Thanks be to God, in our day the scientific method has come to be widely understood and embraced. And we have learned how to use the insights found through science to change our world.

For those of you who may not have thought about this perhaps since you left high school or college, allow me to remind you of a few basic points about the scientific method.

In general, things are deemed to be true if they are repeatable and observable by all people in all places whenever they follow the same methodology.

In addition, it is understood that our ability to perceive truth is severely limited by our inherent bias. Therefore, a community of peers is fundamentally necessary to the pursuit of truth.

Now perhaps THIS is why the Wise Men traveled in a group.

By the way, we have no idea how many Magi there were. The Bible says that they brought three kinds of gifts in honor of the newborn King – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because of this, it seems that writers and preachers in the Church assumed that there must have been three Magi, but who knows? There could have been many more.

But, no matter how many, do you see that they studied and traveled as a group? Perhaps they did this to avoid their own subjective bias. After all, they ALL saw that new star, they concurred that it meant something very important about the Jewish people, and they all agreed to take a long and dangerous journey in response to this observation.

What does this mean for you and me? One way for us to think about the Church is in this same model. God has called us to pursue truth, and to enable this pursuit, to ensure that it does not decay into a purely subjective cult movement, God created a community of peers to overcome our inherent bias.

The Church IS a community of peers and a storehouse of experiential knowledge gained through centuries of observation. As individual disciples and practitioners, we might experience something or observe something within our lives which is surprising or unusual.

How do we know whether or not it is real? Is it an illusion created by our own implicit bias? Are we being deceived or perhaps even deceiving ourselves?

How are we to know? By submitting to the collective wisdom of the church.

This is so important. Each year, there is more scientific research that points to the power of implicit bias and how it shapes all that we see and hear. All of us are biased and we are inclined to see the things that we want to see, and to hear the things that confirm what we already believe!

But that is not the pursuit of truth to which God has called us. Like the Magi, like all those who observe the natural world, we are called to watch and look, to observe and to notice all that God brings to us, whether or not it fits inside of our preconceived frameworks.

Remember the other point about the universality of observations through the scientific method? Truth is the same in all places. There ARE constants which govern the behavior of all things, from electrons to human beings to entire galaxies.

We know that God has intended for the light of Christ to be revealed to all people in all places, and God has given the same tools and resources to every people group so that all can pursue and perceive the truth.

We are all in this together. But it is always up to us to commit ourselves to truth, no matter what, and we must be willing to make the effort and follow wherever it leads us.

And so I ask you again, my dear friends: how far are you willing to go in the pursuit of truth? Are you willing to go as far as the Wise Men, willing to accept whatever sign God gives to you and to go wherever God sends?

One more thing about the scientific method and these Wise Men. It takes a long time to verify something as true. It takes many repeated experiments, done over and over again. Science is a slow, patient process, and it can never be rushed.

These Magi from the East watched the night sky for generations on end before they saw that one star. That’s how they knew it was special!

There is never any hurry with truth. There is never any rush with God. For God is truth!

Patience, persistence, endurance, openness to new discoveries, participation in a community of peers – if we are serious about the pursuit of truth, about the knowledge of God, these are the things that will keep us on that narrow path.

May we at Saint Mary’s always walk together in this pursuit of truth! Amen.

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