Celebrity Sightings: “They Saw the Child”
First Baptist Richmond, January 7, 2024
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
There’s a scene in the movie Notting Hill where the owner of a small bookstore has a surprise encounter with a very famous actress. After she leaves, his slightly scatterbrained employee comes back from running an errand and the owner says, “I don’t think you’ll believe who was just in here.” The employee says, “Who? Was it someone famous?” The owner is on the verge of telling him but then seems to think better of it and says, “No.” “No?” says the employee. “But it would be exciting though, wouldn’t it, if someone famous came into the shop. Hmm?” And that reminds him of something. He says, “Do you know—and this is pretty amazing—that I once saw Ringo Starr?” “Where was that?” asks the owner. “Kensington High Street,” answers his employee. “At least I think it was Ringo. It might have been that man from Fiddler on the Roof, you know, Toppy.” “Topol,” corrects the owner. “Yes, that’s right,” his employee says: “Topol.” And then the owner stops to think about it and says, “Actually, Ringo Starr doesn’t look at all like, uh, Topol.” His employee says, “Yeah, but he was, he was quite a long way away from me.” And then the owner tosses his head and says, “So, actually it could have been neither of them.” And the employee says, “Yes, I suppose so. Yes.” There’s a pause and then the owner says, “It’s not a classic anecdote, is it?” And the employee immediately agrees, “No, not a classic. No.” And then they
move on to another topic.
With that in mind, welcome to a new year, and to a new sermon series called “Celebrity Sightings” in which we will focus on the Gospel lessons for Epiphany and zoom in on those moments where people have an actual encounter with Jesus, who is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived. Because here’s what I believe: 1) I believe that the people who had such encounters were changed forever by the experience; 2) I believe that it is still possible to have encounters with the living Lord; And 3) I believe that if we do, we will be changed forever. So, welcome to Epiphany, and to a sermon series that will attempt to take us well beyond celebrity sightings.
We begin with the story of the Magi, from Matthew 2:1-12. It’s the usual reading for January 6, which some people call “Old Christmas,” and others call, “Three Kings,” and others call, “Epiphany.” But this is not January 6. It’s the day after. And if we were being strict about it we would observe the first Sunday after the Epiphany, often called, “The Baptism of the Lord.” But we are not being strict about it. We don’t have to be. We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians. There are no liturgical policemen on the premises. So, we’re going to observe Epiphany today and Baptism of the Lord next week, when we will have an actual baptism (at the 11:00 service). It’s going to be beautiful. But today, let’s look at these magi, these “wise men” as we sometimes call them, and spend a little time with their story.
You know by now that they were not actually kings, no matter what the song says. Scholars believe they may have been Zoroastrian priests, or Persian astrologers, or both, and that they would have spent much of their time studying the night sky. Which reminds me of the trip I took with my regular backpacking buddies two months ago, where we spent some time studying the night sky. One
of us is an Episcopal priest. None of us is an astrologer. But there we were, camping in the desert of West Texas, sitting around the campfire in folding chairs with our heads tilted back, drinking in the majesty of God’s creation. Trying to describe it later I wrote: “Big Bend Ranch State Park is an International Dark Sky Park. We drove an hour-and-a-half on a dirt road to get to our campsite, which was a good two miles away from the next campsite. There was no ambient light. So, when the sun went down on that first moonless night the sky was like a piece of black velvet, and then God scattered buckets of diamonds across it and turned on a spotlight.”
We sat out under the stars for a long time that first night. Eventually we started counting shooting stars, and if you tilted your head back at just the right angle and used your peripheral vision you could see them even when you weren’t looking at them—a streak of light shooting past to the right, or to the left, or sometimes, directly within your field of vision. It is meteors, isn’t it, that burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites that make it all the way to the ground? All we saw that night was meteors, but suppose we had been sitting there when a meteorite came hurtling through the night sky and hit the ground a half mile away? Think about how bright it would be and how noisy and how the impact would shake the ground beneath us like an earthquake. Think about how it would scare us half to death, and how long it would take for one of us to say, “Let’s go have a look.”
There was, actually, not far away from our campsite, a big, roundish rock, the size of a two-story house, just sitting on the ground. We looked at it from a distance for a couple of days but then decided to go have a look. When we got there we found that it was soft stone that had probably been the desert floor at
one time until water washed around it and carried the rest of the floor away, leaving behind this monolith that looked almost intentional, as if someone had made it, or carved it, and put it there as a monument. We could see that other people had visited through the years. We could imagine it as a place that had been sacred to indigenous Americans for centuries. Someone had carved out a small shelf in the rock, and there were various trinkets and tokens on it: bottle caps and pieces of broken glass. On a low, flat rock to one side that looked like an altar there was a sun-bleached antler, as if someone had sacrificed an antelope years before and that’s all that was left.
All of this to say that staring up into the night sky, seeing something unusual, wanting to investigate further, feeling a sense of awe, and being moved to worship are phenomena as old as humankind itself. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that those wise men saw something that led them to say, “Let’s go have a look.” What was it? I don’t know. I missed the lecture that was given here at the church back in December. For today’s purposes let’s say it was a supernova—an exploding star whose light just happened to reach those wise men on that night in that place. They saw it, and unlike others who might have been impressed but otherwise ignorant, they seemed to know that the explosion of that particular star in that particular constellation could mean only one thing: that a new king had been born in Israel. And just like Jim and Chuck and Joe they decided to go and have a closer look.
We don’t know how long it took them to pack their bags and saddle their camels and tell their wives goodbye. We don’t know how long it took them to ride across the desert between Persia and Israel. But we do have a clue: In verse 7 of today’s Gospel lesson King Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned
from them the exact time when the star had appeared. And then, in verse 16 (which is not in today’s reading) we learn that he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, “according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” I’m sorry to bring that up. But if he was trying to eliminate the new king of the Jews, he was looking for someone who was less than two years old, but probably older than one. That is, he wasn’t looking for a newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, but for a little boy wearing droopy diapers, with dirty knees and grape jelly smeared around his mouth.
Keep that image in mind as you think about these wise men, bowing before King Herod and telling him that they have come to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. This is the first Herod has heard about it, and Herod doesn’t like what he hears. He is “troubled,” and all of Jerusalem with him. Because even though he has heard the prophecies about a son of David someday sitting on the throne, he didn’t believe it would ever actually happen. But now it has and he can’t let on. He has to pretend that he’s been looking forward to the birth of the Messiah, and only needs some information about when and where he was born so that he, too, can go and worship him.
He calls together his own wise men—the chief priests and the scribes of Israel—and asks them where the Messiah is meant to be born. They say, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” And so, after learning exactly when the star appeared, Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, assuring them that that’s where they will find the Messiah, and asking
them, when they find him, to come back and tell him so that he may worship him, too. And so they get on their camels again and begin to ride toward Bethlehem, seven miles to the south.
And I don’t know: I don’t know if they lost sight of the star in the bright lights of Jerusalem, or if they just stopped looking, assuming that that the new king of the Jews would be the old king’s son, and therefore born in his palace. But once they got close to Bethlehem they looked up into the night sky and there it was again—their old friend, that dazzling star—hanging so low over that little town that it appeared to be hovering over a single house. Matthew says that when the wise men saw that the star had stopped they were “overwhelmed with joy,” and I want us to pause for a moment and picture their faces as they realize that their long journey has come to an end, and that they have, at last, found what they were looking for.
It’s late, but they knock on the door anyway, and can you imagine Mary’s surprise when she opens it and finds these dusty travelers bearing gifts and asking to see the new king of the Jews? She would have known who they were looking for. It’s in this Gospel, remember, that an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, and she will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary knew that Jesus was special. Even so, she hadn’t really expected this. But she let them in, and when she did they saw the child.
As I said, it was late. Jesus was probably in bed. The wise men may have gathered around his crib and looked down on his sleeping face, and even though he may have been a perfectly beautiful little boy, he wasn’t quite what they
expected: this humble home, this peasant family, this boy with a smear of grape jelly still on his cheek. But remember that’s often how it is when you see celebrities: they don’t look like they do in the movies with their perfect hair and makeup. No, they’re in some coffee shop with their hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses. You don’t recognize them at first. In fact, it may be only after they have gone that someone says, “Hey, wasn’t that, you know, that famous actress?”
These wise men saw this little boy and realized that he was the one they had come all the way across the desert to see. It moved them, deeply. I mean, there is something holy about every sleeping child, but as they stood there, looking at this one, they must have felt that he was somehow different. Let’s pause again and think about what it would mean to see with our own eyes the one we talk about here every Sunday. Even if he didn’t look like we thought he would can’t you hear that voice in your head saying, “That’s Jesus. That’s Jesus!” and feel your knees going weak? These wise men dropped to the ground in front of his crib. They bowed down before this little boy. They brought out gifts fit for a king and presented them to his mother. They whispered, “This is the child we have come all this way to see!” They did it with tears on their cheeks. But as I said, it was late. Eventually they would have apologized for the intrusion and gotten up to leave. Mary would have apologized for not having a guest room. She may have even offered the stable knowing that, in a pinch, it would do. But they would have said, “No, we have spent most of our lives under the stars. It’s where we are most at home.” They may have ended up in that same field where the shepherds from Luke’s Gospel kept watch over their flocks by night. And it may have been there that they had a dream, warning them not to go back to King Herod. The next
morning they got up and went home a different way.
I’ve always loved that detail: that they went home a different way. I like to abbreviate it, and say they went home “different.” They did. They went home different than they were before, changed by their encounter with Jesus. As all of us could be, and probably would be, if we only spent a little time in his presence.
—Jim Somerville © 2024