The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
“A conjunction and more” - January 3, 2021
We recently experienced a conjunction junction. No, I am not talking about the catchy School House Rock “conjunction junction what’s your function. Hooking up phrases and clauses”.
School House rock holds a special place in my memory but I am talking about an even more impressive conjunction, a celestial conjunction.
This Christmas, astronomers said Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. That happens when the two planets orbit so closely together that they appear in the skies to be a shining star. It has been over 800 years since the conjunction has shown as brightly. The amazing thing is that it could be detected even with all the light noise present in our skies.
Apart from a few far flung, remote locations around the globe, we do not have access to the nightscape free of light pollution. So, even if you can detect something like a conjunction, no one can really know what the star of Christmas like 2,000 years ago in the pristine pitch black skies free from any man made lights to distort or distract.
We don’t have access to those kinds of skies but we can easily imagine that the Wise Men’s attention must have been captured by an exceptionally radiant star--its shimmering visible to eyes turned towards heaven. We have learned much about stars even within the last few years. Only recently able to do so with the help of new technology, astronomers, including some working locally at the American Natural History Museum, were able to calculate and confirm that there are billions of stars in the universe. But on that night, out of the billions of stars, one in particular illuminated the skies and the town of Bethlehem.
William Wordsworth described just such a divinely illuminated nightscape in the first lines of his poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
As learned scholars, the Wise Men would have been trained in the reqisite disciplines of the day, including astronomy. So, they would not have followed just any star but only a star which dressed the earth in celestial light. When they detect this impossibly brilliant star, they packed up some very precious gifts and supplies for a journey and began to follow its movement. They arrived at Jerusalem, at the center of power and prestige—quite the fitting place for things of great magnitude to occur. They make inquiries of the powers that be: “Where is the child? We have observed his star at his rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
The Wise men must have been surprised that there was not a gathering around the child in Jerusalem. Why did they not see the child anywhere in the city? Why was there no talk of the child on the streets? Christopher Smart poses a similar question in his famous poem about the whereabouts of baby Jesus:
Where is this Stupendous Stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise!
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
Alerted by these three foreign scholars, word of the birth of the child sends the chief priests and the scribes into a frenzy because they know the prophet Micah had long ago written that Bethlehem would give rise to the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.
Herod knows he cannot possibly hold a candle to this Messiah. So he seeks to extinguish the life of that baby boy, by trickery and lies and by any means necessary. Only by virtue of a dream, are the wise men led away and thus avoid leading Herod to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The light and the baby that the light pointed towards stirred up much action even commotion. The Wise Men left Jerusalem, having understood what they were looking for was elsewhere. They recalibrate and move towards Bethlehem to find the promised One.
For his part, Herod seeks the baby to eliminate a potential rival and to suppress any and all competition.
The contrasting reactions of the Wise Men and Herod demonstrate something very important about the birth of Jesus.
In a way, the birth of Jesus and Epiphany is a time of decision. Which way do we turn?
We can like as did the Wise Men scan the horizon and take notice of the signs of wonder pointing towards Jesus.
We can follow the star of Wonder, the star of night.
We can bring and offer Jesus the best of what we have in paying him homage.
All of these would be to recognize that Jesus has come to be our star, to be our light. A light which lifts us out of the abyss that surrounds us.
Or we can do the opposite like Herod and react in fear.
Or, perhaps liking neither of those options, we can do nothing.
The grammatical conjunction helps illuminate what is possible and not possible because the one thing we cannot do is to turn both towards Jesus AND turn away from Jesus—that conjunction does not work in life, at least not at the same time.
On the matter of this kind of choice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote in an essay called the “The Two Ways” that we are invited to decide if Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or not.
And Williams writes further, just as God was free to send his Son to be with us in the guise of a baby boy, we are free to choose Jesus. During the season of Epiphany and at many other junctures, we are given signs to help point the way to Jesus whose life began in the most humble, unassuming way possible in that manger. What might we decide?
The decision changes everything because it impacts the entire arc of our journey from that point on. It is important to remember that the Wise Men started with Bethlehem, but it was just a start.
Epiphany continues that celebration started at Christmas and draws us towards Jesus. Arriving, we find the light that has shone from the beginning of creation, but which was revealed to us in Jesus.
May we in the words of the refrain of our sequence hymn, We Three Kings, find ourselves moving towards Bethlehem always:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light
And this season may each of you bask in the warming, illuminating, transforming, energizing, life-affirming light of Christ!