I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor, orn’ry people, like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
When I was in the first grade, I was asked to sing that song at my church on Christmas Eve. I’d not heard it before, but I had an immediate fondness for it. I suppose that I loved the sound of the minor key in which it was written. I loved the way the words came together in a simple rhyme. I remember loving the word “orn’ry” because it reminded me of my Granny.
But I think I loved it most because it was the beginning of my connection between my faith and the stars. It’s funny. That song doesn’t necessarily take place at night, but in my mind (and I dare to say, probably in many of yours), the song doesn’t paint a picture of being under a blue sky in the daytime; but instead, this song always gives me the image of walking out under the stars wondering and pondering things about Jesus.
And because it was a song sung at Christmas, the thought of being out under the night’s sky, looking for answers of God and faith and Christ, seemed not just normal, but maybe even required for a person of faith.
And so, for several years after that, I was asked to sing that same song on Christmas Eve. And each year, as we drove home from the service, I would stare out the window of the backseat of my parents’ wood-paneled station wagon, looking up at the stars…wondering.
And that’s exactly where our scripture passage finds us this morning. Just as we read this scripture each year at Epiphany, we are reminded of those wise men who found Jesus because they had spent time wondering as they looked up at the sky.
Compared to the Christmas story in Luke that we heard last weekend, Matthew’s Christmas story is much more abbreviated. He briefly mentions Joseph and Mary. He sets the scene that they are simple people who come from a long line of ancestors who followed the will of God. But in Chapter 2, Matthew turns his attention to their visitors.
There were not necessarily 3 of them. They were not actually kings. But they were wise men, who had come from far away- from a land where astrology was practiced. These men from the East studied the stars and because of that, they were prompted to travel all the way to Bethlehem to visit an ordinary Jewish child.
Their home location and their occupation means that these wise men were likely Gentiles. They represented diverse people. And yet, they desired to bow down and worship this child who came, not just for the Jews. Epiphany is the day when Christians celebrate, not just Jesus’s birth, but that through the visit of these wise men, Jesus’s identity was made clear. An epiphany was made- a revelation- that he was, in fact, the Messiah- the Savior for ALL people!
In 1986, Halley’s Comet was visible from earth with the naked eye. Perhaps you remember where you were then. I happen to remember because I was in the second grade, and we had special school photos to commemorate the event. There I stood, in the blue, crocheted sweater vest my grandmother made me, with my hands resting on the top of a telescope. A few weeks later, the photos came back, and the words “Halley’s Comet 1986” were printed along the bottom of each wallet-sized photo I would later trade with my friends.
When extraordinary things take place in the sky, we stop to notice. We wake up in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers. We go outside every few months to watch the tiny blip of light that is the International Space Station as it passes overhead. Many of us flocked to the path of totality for 2017’s solar eclipse.
But these wise men spent the majority of their time watching the sky. They knew how the stars’ patterns changed. They knew when something was unexpected or different. And that’s what they saw on this sacred night.
Scientifically, it is possible that these men could have also seen Halley’s Comet passing by that night. Historically, it did pass through the sky in the first decade of our modern calendar. But perhaps they saw exactly what Matthew described- a star- a special one- a supernatural one- that would lead them to find Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the book of Numbers contains a messianic prophecy that told of a star rising to indicate the coming of a new king. Matthew knew this story would reflect that prophecy. In verse 2 the wise men say, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed HIS star at its rising.” This is not just any star. This is Jesus’s star. This is the star of a king. Matthew knew that this Christmas star the wise men followed identified the child in Bethlehem as the Messiah.
There is something about the night sky that begs us to stare at it and wonder. We know that the cosmos holds the key to millions of mysteries that we can’t begin to understand. And yet the wise men allowed one simple star to guide them.
Have you ever seen the night sky from a remote location? Perhaps you’ve been out west where there is only an expanse of land and no cities for miles and miles. Perhaps you’ve been to a less developed country where electricity is scarce and nights are dark. In those places, you can see the swirling of the Milky Way. You can see far more stars than even thought possible. Imagine how these Magi would have seen the night’s sky 2000 years ago- with no street lights, no light pollution, nothing to stop their eyes from being overwhelmed by the beauty of the space above their heads.
The Christmas star was in plain sight for everyone, yet Matthew only tells us about the wise men being the ones to follow it. They were paying attention. They saw one light in the midst of all of the other stars that could have distracted them. And they allowed that light to be their guide.
Just like the Magi, we are seekers. We want to know God through Jesus. We want to love and adore him as the wise men did. We want to follow him. We are looking for hope and peace and joy and love. As Christians, we know that we can find those things if we allow ourselves to be led to Christ. And yet, we often find ourselves being guided on a different path. A path that can lead to insecurity and anxiety and sadness and suffering.
In this Gospel story, we see that God put a star in the sky that would lead to Jesus. A star that would light the path toward the one who could give us all that we need. The one who would give us abundant life. And God still gives us guiding lights today. But we must be intentional to spend time looking and listening for them.
Our own skepticism and need for control often get in the way of us looking for the ways God might lead us toward Jesus. Our doubts and our fears draw us to need proof before we trust. They compel us to seek out answers from what we can hold physically, materially. And yet, God continues to offer us lights- hoping that we will be changed by the promises of what lies ahead.
My favorite (non-musical) movie is the 1997 film Contact- starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. It was based on the book by astronomer Carl Sagan, and through a story about interacting with life outside of earth, it delves into the conversation of how vital faith can be to our understanding of even the most seemingly scientific, concrete matters.
The main character, Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) is a complete skeptic of religion and faith, until she herself has an experience that cannot be explained or replicated. But she tries very hard to put into words what she has seen as she says….
“I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone.”
This character experiences what the wise men experienced. She attempts to put into words something that is sacred- a moment that changed her forever. The wise men saw a light in the sky that they knew they must follow. They knew the light was greater than themselves. They knew that God was leading them exactly where they needed to be to learn exactly what they needed to know and to meet exactly who they needed to meet.
Certainly there were those who were skeptical of their blind faith. Certainly there were those who didn’t understand why they would travel so far to an unknown destination to see a king. And yet, the Magi knew that their faith and commitment to the journey would result in knowing the truth.
Perhaps you’ve had an encounter with God that’s similar to the one the wise men had. Perhaps you are able to live each day guided toward Christ in all that you do. But perhaps that’s a struggle for you. Maybe there are other things leading you down a different path. Or maybe you are simply looking for a new sign because you are in a different season of your life. Perhaps what has guided you toward Christ in the past feels stale or a little bit too comfortable. Or maybe you don’t even know where to look for the sign. Perhaps life feels too frantic or stressful or overwhelming to even pause and look up at the sky- literally or figuratively.
One summer during seminary I served in a church in a small village in Kenya, East Africa. Each Thursday night I would travel to the middle of the town to host a Bible study in the alleyway between several rows of connected homes. I would walk there in the early evening while the sun was still high, but inevitably our time together would run long as we talked and studied together. Electricity was scarce and expensive. So as the sun set, one by one, church members would bring out their flash lights- which they called “torches”- to help them read their Bibles. By the end of the evening, my eyes would adjust to the glowing orange and yellow color of the torch light. So, when I walked out of the alleyway, I was once again reminded of just how dark our village was. It was the kind of darkness where you could not see your hand in front of you, let alone know which way to walk. But a church member and his family would always offer to walk me back home with their one torch piercing through the darkness.
It doesn’t take much light to brighten our paths. It can be a small gesture or word or prayer that can lighten the darkest of times. And so it is that we invite the light of the Christmas star into our own lives. Just as one very special star led the wise men to the revelation of Jesus as Messiah, we can invite God to lead our hearts closer to Christ in the year to come.
We don’t celebrate the New Year as a holy holiday, but perhaps the story of the wise men allows us to do just that. The New Year is a fresh start- the opportunity to see clearly the path you are on, and to move forward toward Christ, with God’s guidance.
This year, as a tangible act of prayer and faith, I invite us all to try something new. Over the last several years, I’ve learned of an increasing number of churches whose congregations celebrate Epiphany by passing out Star Words. These words are offered as a way to set a focus or intention for your faith in the year to come.
In your bulletin there is a white star with a word written on it…these are your Star Words. You most likely have a different word from those sitting around you. There are words like “deliberate”, “encouragement”, “honesty”, “praise”, “kindness”, “redeem” and hundreds more!
Let your star be a word of encouragement or prayer or intention for the year to come. Keep this star with you. Place it somewhere that it can serve as a reminder or inspiration of Christ’s guiding light. And as you feel comfortable, share your word with others. Share your word with your family members and with your friends. Share your word with your Sunday School class or your table at dinner on Wednesday nights. Then, even more importantly, share how you see that word playing an active role in your faith throughout this year to come.
Look for ways that this Star Word might be guiding you closer to Christ. You might have big epiphanies related to your word. Or they may be small. But I believe in setting out into this New Year with intention and with faith. Like the Magi, we set out with intention to discover what God has in store for us ahead. And with faith, we can trust that Christ will reveal himself to us in glorious ways when our eyes are set on his light.
Last week after church, my family went on a hike at Lake Brandt on the Piedmont Trail. We enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather and enjoyed being outside together before all of this unrelenting rain we’ve had. As we walked on the trail, Berkley pointed out white diamonds hanging nailed to the trees every so often. He asked Stephen why those diamonds were there. Stephen explained to him that they are called “blazes”. A blaze is traditionally a white mark on a tree that is caused by cutting bits of its bark. In modern times, blazes can be made of varied materials, but they still serve the same function- to indicate your route- where you’ve been (if others are behind you), and where you are going (if you’re not certain of the trail ahead).
A blaze serves as a guiding point for what lies ahead. A good blaze can be seen from far away, and it directs you where to go next- but that’s not necessarily the end of the journey itself. The Christmas star served as a blaze for the wise men. It pointed them in the right direction and showed them the way to the Christ child. But it could not give them faith. It could not be the only thing that convinced them that this was the Messiah. They had to believe for themselves.
Your star word is not the only thing that will guide you this coming year. It is not an answer or a quick fix to anything you might face. But it is a reminder that you are headed in the right direction. It is a blaze on your trail that can point you to Christ. At any point we have the choice to step off of the trail- to ignore the blazes set before us. But that can make it harder for us to find the trail again. It can bring about obstacles that we don’t have to face.
In his book, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos, theologian and astrophysicist Paul Wallace says, “…being a Christian is about one thing and one thing only: making a conscious commitment to follow Jesus. To follow him, you must trust him the way he trusts God. It means surrendering your eyes and learning to see through his eyes…It means seeing one another and especially the destitute and displaced and despised in exactly the way he saw them.”
As we celebrate this epiphany, may God show us how to follow more clearly and faithfully. May we see and follow the stars, the torches, the blazes that light our paths guiding us ever closer to Christ.
May we take time to marvel at the sky- at the stars above that once guided the wise men to the revelation that a child in Bethlehem would be the Savior of all people.
And as we wander out under the sky, I wonder…what will be the guiding light that will lead you to a deeper relationship with Christ this year?