Years ago I was a Cub Scout leader and we used to take our kids out to Camp Flaming Arrow for campouts. One of the things I liked to do with them was night hikes. The kids loved it, but one of the rules I would impose was no flashlights. They could bring them in case we really needed them, but I insisted they remain off. The problem with a flashlight is you can only see what it is illuminating.
The scouts would fuss at first, a bit nervous I suppose. But eventually they would realize how well they could see without them. I’d point things out in the distance. And, of course, Flaming Arrow is here on the sand ridge so the trails would literally shine. How bright it would be depended on the moon, of course. A full moon would seem almost as bright as day.
I did that because we don’t see that natural night light very much. But it was a major part of the ancient world’s life. They didn’t have TV. They didn’t have books. They spent a lot of time at night looking at the heavenly bodies and wondering if and how they connected to their lives.
The portent of a “star” – and we don’t know if this was a comet, perhaps the alignment of certain planets or stars, or what – would align with their expectations. So when these “wise men” or Magi come, it is an affirmation that something uniquely special has happened.
There are two major issues in this little passage. The first is the beginning of the tension that Jesus brings to the ruling authorities of this world. Herod is a vassal king of the region, serving under the Romans to act as a buffer between their rule and the locals. So Herod – and this is the father of the Herod that Jesus will encounter as an adult – Herod gets anxious. Will this child supplant him? There is an echo here of Moses’ birth and the danger that surrounded it. A new Moses, a new deliverer is on the scene.
The second and subtler issue here is one that echoes across the Old Testament and throughout the new, which is the fulfillment of God’s promise to shine forth his grace through Israel. The “King of the Jews” is not just for the Jews. That theme was resident in our Christmas passages and is here again. We hear it from Isaiah, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around.”
We see this promise unfold in Jesus. He spends the vast majority of his ministry teaching and serving the Jewish people, but he repeatedly raises examples of Old Testament stories about instances where God moved in and through or blessed people who were not Jewish, like the widow at Zarapheth or Na’aman the Syrian captain healed from leprosy. And Jesus does venture out of Jewish territories and encounters the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre and Sidon, and he teaches about the Good Samaritan. Each time, he is prodding at that promise.
And we can turn to the very end of Mathew’s Gospel where we find the Great Commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations.” We are here this morning because those disciples and generations after them obeyed Jesus. And we have got to make sure we do all we can to obey him now.
“Lift up your eyes and look around.”
Let’s go back to our night hike out at Flaming Arrow. We may be all impressed with our new flashlights. We can get a super powerful, hurricane-proof LED flashlight for $19.95, plus shipping and handling. (Order today and they will send you two and you just pay the additional shipping and handling.) But as bright as our machinations can be, we know those stars have been shining for millions of years. And even on a moonless night, the stars give enough light to make your way around. You just have to be patient.
The light of Christ can be subtle that way. The world has its pace, its buzz, its technologies and busy-ness all providing constant beams that brilliantly light up a particular point of focus, but they can blind us to the rest of what is all around us.
As we learn to focus on Jesus, we get pulled into the revelation that Paul describes in the passage from Ephesians. Epiphany means a sort of “aha!” moment and knowing Jesus is the ultimate, life changing paradigm shift that can happen to any of us. When we move from knowing about him to knowing him – he changes everything, and how we see everything. I remember very well when I truly saw him, truly realized I could know him. Everything changed forever.
And, like Paul, Jesus pulls us into his mission, “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God; so that through the CHURCH,” through this community of believers - “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The Church – he’s talking about us!
All this through Jesus – “in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence.” The question looms: What sort of disciple are we to become?
And as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we must remember all the “scouts” out there who can only see what their beams are illuminating. We’re called to help them see the light of Christ.
We are doing it. We’ve been doing it for generations, and we will continue to do it as long as God gives us breath to serve him in this life. Let us shine!