Love Leads On (1/10/2016)

The MagiA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, January 10. 2016

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

So what did your horoscope predict for you today? My horoscope for the year says “You’re a rising star in 2016, Aquarius, when all hard work is acknowledged and rewarded…This year you will recognize potential that others may overlook. The Moon-Saturn opposition in your 2016 chart guarantees careful thinking and planning that won’t let you down. A Mercury-Pluto conjunction will give you the nerve to be bold, but only when it’s wise…Your 2016 strong Mars in Scorpio won’t let you sit still for long.” And finally, “Saturn in Sagittarius is your friend. Embrace it!” Well, who knew I needed to embrace Saturn in Sagittarius? It would take a wise one from somewhere outside my usual circles to make sense of all this for me.

I begin with this to exaggerate what we have come to know and expect of astrology today. But astrology was once an important scientific and religious field. Wise ones from more than one religious tradition studied the stars for signs of both secular and sacred import. These visitors who show up in Jerusalem looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews” are serious scholars, high priests, respected figures held in esteem in the land from which they’ve come. Some contemporary scholars say they come from Persia and are practitioners of the Zoroastrian religion. Others say they were from the star-studying traditions of ancient Babylon.

Wherever they’ve come from, it is a curious thing that they show up in the Christmas story and play a major role in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. In our conflated version of Christmas, the magi have been hanging out in the stable, huddled around the manger, since the beginning of Advent. Of course, that’s not what Matthew tells us at all. In this gospel there is no stable or manger or animals, no shepherds or even angel choirs. The magi – note they are not kings, though they may in some way represent the king of their country – show up at a house in Bethlehem sometime after the birth, led there by the fantastic star they’ve seen in the early morning sky.

In Matthew, this is a story of political intrigue. As foreign dignitaries, perhaps ambassadors, the magi make their way to the capital city, to the palace of the current king. This seems like a logical progression. Where else would you find the new-born king except in the palace? Of the course the reigning monarch is delighted to greet them – not! In an effort to figure out what is happening, Herod summons his own wise men, the high priests and scribes. Note how all these religious figures play roles in the affairs of state.

When his advisers – I imagine somewhat reluctantly, given Herod’s despotic reputation – tell him about this special baby, this anointed one, this messiah who is to shepherd Israel, Herod begins to scheme. In his most beguiling and unctuous manner, he questions the magi and then sends them off to Bethlehem with instructions to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Right! He surely intends to bow down before some baby born in a backwater village to strangers and just turn the kingdom over to him on the spot. We know from what comes later that he fully intends to murder the baby and do away with the threat to his rule.

Fortunately, there is regular angelic intervention in Matthew’s story. The magi are warned to sneak out of town a different direction and Joseph is warned to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. It sounds like a refugee situation to me. Imagine, the king of the Jews, the messiah, the shepherd of Israel, begins his life fleeing political oppression, not unlike children of our own time, many of whom are not blessed to survive.

Love leads on. It burns in a mysterious star, leading serious seekers for wisdom and truth from Iraq or Iran to Israel. It speaks in dreamy angel whispers, leading pilgrims and refugees to safety from vicious despots and the threat of destruction. It draws peasant parents into welcoming and caring for Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh. Love leads on and nothing will ever be the same.

This is wonderful and intriguing story, in particular because it tells how love leads us out of religious convention, into strange and unexpected relationships. Here are pagan priests and princes, kneeling in adoration at the crib of a Jewish peasant child who becomes, for Christians, the Lord of all life and Savior of the world. Wonder of wonders! How can this be? Yet there it is in the very beginning of Matthew’s good news! A religious pluralism implying that in God all things come together.

Thinking on this lovely story led me to consider others related to it. I re-read O. Henry’s wonderful tale of “The Other Wise Man.” If you want a richly imagined account of who the magi were, where they came from and what their life was like, I recommend you take a few minutes and look at this classic short story. The gist of the story is that Artaban, the other wise man, is to meet his compatriots, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior for the journey to Jerusalem. His gifts are three magnificent jewels, a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl.

As he rushes to meet the others at the appointed time and place, he comes across a dying man. He knows that stopping to care for the man means he may miss the rendezvous with his fellow travelers. He is torn between pausing to help or racing on. “Should he risk the great reward of his faith for the sake of a single deed of charity? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing [man]?”

“‘God of truth and purity,’ he prayed, ‘direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest.’” He chooses to help the man, losing the opportunity to join the caravan of the other magi. He must sell his sapphire to outfit his own caravan for the long, perilous journey across the desert. Eventually, he arrives in Bethlehem a few days too late. There he is welcomed by the mother of a small child who tells him of the other strangers who were indeed there but left mysteriously under cover of night and of the young family who fled to Egypt. He finds he must use his ruby to ransom this mother’s child from the murderous hands of Herod’s henchmen as they move through Bethlehem, slaughtering the innocents.

After years of wasted wandering and fruitless seeking, he finds himself back in Jerusalem. The city is crowded for Passover and there is an ominous undercurrent to the day. Now old and despairing of ever finding the king, he gives his last jewel, his pearl of great price, to pay the debt of a young woman who is about to be dragged off to debtor’s prison. At the moment, an earthquake rumbles and a falling tile strikes the old man a mortal blow. As he dies in the young woman’s arms, she hears a faint, indistinct voice. The old man looks up and, with his dying breath, exclaims, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”

We all know the answer. Love leads on. What we expected, what we hoped for, may never be realized. If our prayer is truly “God of truth and purity, direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest,” love will lead us on the way of compassion and healing, peace and justice, generosity and hospitality. In the end, we may hardly be aware of the good we’ve done, of the transformation we have helped engender, of the sacred we have encountered in the everyday – and God will say welcome home.

In one other favorite story, Gian Carlo Menotti’s beautiful contemporary opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the three magi stop for a while in the humble hut of a poor woman with a crippled child. When the woman is caught trying to steal some of the gold for her poor son, the wise Melchior sings:

O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

To return a lighter note, I posted a couple of related items to our Facebook page this week. To give a little consideration to wise women, I shared the observation that floats around this time of year: “Three wise women would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and there would be peace on earth.” Surely there is humor and wisdom here – and a kind of practical love that makes enormous difference in the world. There is a place for high-minded seekers and devoted religious practitioners. There is also space for practical folk who roll up their sleeves and take care of business. There is room for both, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t overlap on occasion.

Finally, I found this parable of a wise woman. It seems she was traveling in the mountains and found a precious stone in a stream. Shortly afterward she encountered a hungry traveler who begged her for something to eat. She shared her food with him and then he saw the beautiful stone. He asked her for it and without hesitation, she gave to him. Not exactly the response we would expect from others or ourselves. Just a little too much, yes? A few days later the man found the woman and returned the stone. Again we wonder why such unexpected behavior. He should be long gone with his treasure. But here is what he said to the very wise woman, “I know how valuable the stone is but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something more precious.” Greed? No. In all humility he asks, “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.” Love leads on. It makes a way where there seems to be no way. It makes room where no space appeared available. It opens closed minds and cracks hearts of stone to let in the light, the light that illuminates all life and brightens every shadowed corner of existence. Love leads on. Will we follow? Amen.

 

Sage Singing (January 4, 2015)

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Today’s story is one of rich and significant contrasts. It has characters whose hearts are both large and small, whose gifts are generous and deceptive, whose intent is worshipful and murderous. We have already heard about Herod and his song. Remember how Joy Caroll Wallis told us “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com). This is Herod’s world and the only song he knows.

Then there are these “three kings of Orient are” who, “bearing gifts, traverse afar.” We sing about them every year and their wondrous guiding star. Just this morning we sang, “As with gladness sages bold did the guiding star behold…” Sages, wise men, from distant lands are a key element to the Christmas story. But have we ever listened for the song they sing? If we are very still, we might hear some sage singing as they come closer to the place where the baby was born.

Their hearts sing as they cover the miles between Persia and Judea, ambling along on the rhythmic ride of their steady camels. These scientists, cosmologists of their day, spend their time studying the stars in hope of discovering clues to the mysteries of the universe. They have seen a wondrous star rising in the southeast. They believe with all their hearts that it signifies something wonderful about to happen in the world. Without hesitation but with careful preparation they set out to follow the star. In part their heart song is for a great king who is to be born, one who will have a transforming affect on the world as they know it. Their song is one of devotion and worship.

They also bring appropriate gifts for such a king. “Gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (used for incense) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: Reflections on Matthew 2:1-12, “ Edgy Exegesis, January 6, 2013, patheos.com). Gold such as would be a fit for a king, incense for worship of a holy one and anointing oil in recognition of one who would lay down his life in service of the truth as he would come to know it. Gifts borne of insight, wisdom and understanding.

Sage singing comes from big-hearted believers. These sages, magi, priests of the Zoroastrian religion, throw open their hearts to welcome a king who promises to transform life radically. It does not restrict their hope and faith that this one who is to be born comes from a different religion. They are open to whatever way God chooses to work in the world; they will follow with their sage singing – “O come, let us adore him!”

On the other hand Herod and his company remind me of the Grinch. Their hearts have shrunk two sizes too small. Those whose hearts are full of fear and greed, of hate and anger have no room for hope or sage singing of any sort. If they sing at all, their songs are vicious, hateful and dishonest. Herod sounds sweet as honey when he oozes out instructions for the wise ones to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” We know he has no such intentions. His fearful, shrunken heart only wants to do away with the competition. He has no vision of what the baby brings to the world. He just wants to be rid of it before it exposes him for the despot that he really is.

As we’ve noted, these sages come with gifts that burst forth from their singing hearts and are fit gifts for one born to be king, but a unique king who will eventually be murdered because he insists on being a different kind of king. Alyce McKenzie tells us that today “we need an ever-fresh supply of these three gifts to offer this child as he grows and becomes strong. We need gold to value his identity as a king over our lives. We need frankincense to affirm his identity as the Son of God. We need myrrh to remind ourselves of his identity as a crucified messiah, to prevent our forgetting the forces within ourselves and our world that threaten this precious life in our midst” (McKenzie, op. cit).

Herod, the master of deceit and ill will, promises no gift for the child except his malevolent presence. What he has to offer is a sword that will strike the baby dead before he ever has the chance to speak God’s truth and bring God’s way to life on earth. Of course, this is no gift at all. In fact, the taking of life is the very antithesis of gift giving.

These singing sages have traveled a long way – o’er “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” Why have they embarked on this arduous journey? They come before Herod 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” – to pay homage, to bow down and worship the holy one. They recognize that God has come near in this little child and they want to pay due respect.

Herod professes the desire to worship him, too. But there is no room in Herod’s heart for worship. He is so self-absorbed, so determined to maintain his power that he cannot begin to fathom God’s open-hearted, self-giving way for the world. Herod’s point of view is to maintain power and domination, to exercise cruelty and violence. He can tolerate no threat to his narrow way. His rageful rule is murderous.

Hearts large and small. Gifts generous and murderous. Worship of God and self – these are some of the significant contrasts in this ancient tale. It comes down to us with questions about which singing we will listen for and which road we will travel. Will our hearts grow three sizes through this Christmas season or will they shrink to something tiny and poisonous? Will we give gifts that are appropriate and generous, that come from hearts large and open or will we give little, withholding the best for ourselves, giving only when it will net a good return? Will we fall down and worship God who comes near to us, year after after year, offering hope, peace, joy and love or will we be so self-absorbed that we hear neither angels nor sages singing the wonders of God’s creation?

Sages, leave your contemplations brighter visions beam afar.
Seek the great Desire of nations, you have seen the natal star:
Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn king.

The King Sings (December 14, 2014)

Advent Candles
Advent Candles

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Texts: Matthew 2:1-12, 16

Jesus, I am overjoyed
To meet you face to face
You’ve been getting quite a name
All around the place
Healing cripples
Raising from the dead
Now I understand you’re God
At least that’s what you’ve said
So you are the Christ
You’re the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re divine-
Change my water into wine
That’s all you need do
Then I’ll know it’s all true
C’mon King of the Jews

Jesus you just won’t believe
The hit you’ve made around here
You are all we talk about
You’re the wonder of the year
Oh what a pity
If it’s all a lie
Still I’m sure
That you can rock the cynics if you try
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re no fool-
Walk across my swimming pool
If you do that for me
Then I’ll let you go free
C’mon King of the Jews

I only ask what I’d ask any superstar
What is it that you have got
That puts you where you are? (Oh, ho ho)
I am waiting
Yes I’m a captive fan
I’m dying to be shown
That you are not just any man
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Feed my household with this bread
You can do it on your head
Or has something gone wrong?
Jesus, why do you take so long?
Aw, c’mon King of the Jews

Hey! Aren’t you scared of me Christ?
Mister Wonderful Christ!
You’re a joke, you’re not the Lord
You are nothing but a fraud
Take him away
He’s got nothing to say!
Get out you King of the
Get out you King of the,
Get out you King of the Jews!
Get out of here, you, you!
Get out of here, you!
Get out of my life

 “Herod’s Song,” Jesus Christ Superstar
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber

What’s that you say? I’ve got the wrong song? The wrong season? The wrong Herod? Well, alright you have a point. The Herod of Jesus Christ Superstar is not the Herod of today’s text. He’s a descendant, ruling some thirty years later. And yes this song is sung to the captive Jesus during the Passion when he is dragged in for judgment. But is the song really wrong? The slimy despot from the musical is just as troubled with Jesus as his father was. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. The fear of anything that threatens power and control is palpable in the murderous acts of these paranoid rulers and in the mocking words of the song.

If you recall the scene from the musical or the movie, Herod, the son, begins his song, sarcasm dripping from his every word and ends the song enraged at the refusal of Jesus to respond, let alone give him what he demands. Does Jesus see the rule of Herod as illegitimate, one which he will not acknowledge? He has cast his lot with God above all others. Alright then, “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.” Ah, if it was only that simple to rid one’s self of those convicting eyes. Like it or not, something of Christ’s silent but powerful presence would haunt Herod for the rest of his life.

Herod Antipas wasn’t so different from his despotic father except that he ruled only a quarter of the kingdom his father did. His power and control had already begun to dissipate. The Romans trusted him even less than they did Herod, the Great, who ruled over all of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Brian McLaren writes that the older Herod, even in his token Judaism, would have heard the prophecy of the one born king of the Jews. He suggests that, in this particular time of ferment, Herod may have been overly sensitive to rumors of the Messiah coming soon (Brian D. McLaren, “Keep Herod in Christmas” in We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 71-74).

Not trusting completely the counsel of his own religious advisors, he calls in some Zoroastrian astrologers from northeast of Judea to consult their magic as well. Everything seems to point to Bethlehem – both ancient texts and guiding star. For whatever reasons, these foreign operatives leave Bethlehem by a different route, heading home without disclosing to Herod the whereabouts of this baby who is supposedly born “king of the Jews.” Perhaps they sensed Herod’s murderous intent – he was no different than other despot they had encountered – and perhaps they had seen some of that same powerful, convicting presence in the infant’s barely opened eyes.

This leads to Herod’s enraged “slaughter of the innocents.” Just to be on the safe side, he orders his henchman to murder all the babies in Bethlehem two years and under. “A voice [is] heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuse[s] to be consoled, because they are no more.” It would be nice to write this story off as an ancient myth and to claim that we are beyond such horror, but we know that would be untrue. We hear today mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers crying out in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, in Cleveland and Oakland, in Syria and Burma, in Uganda and Mexico, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Children of all ages are being victimized, abused, uprooted, oppressed and executed all over this world. There is wailing and loud lamentation, protest and rioting. Consolation is not the order of the day. This is why McLaren and others insist that we “keep Herod in Christmas.”

I realize that we have not taken the regular route through Advent this year. Instead, we have considered challenging texts for difficult times. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Though today’s text is more typically a Christmas or Epiphany reading, I think McLaren offers it as an Advent text so that we understand the sort of world into which the Christ child comes. True we do not live in an occupied state or in ancient times. We’ve made so many advancements over the centuries that our difficulties are different ones. Still they are no less real and no less challenging. We have not yet fully occupied the commonwealth of God and sometimes we even have trouble seeing it.

We tend to sentimentalize this season. We paint only warm, peaceful, blessed scenes on the front of our Christmas cards. We take the chill and the smell and distress from the stable. We forget that, in addition to the crowds in town, Mary and Joseph could not find a place because Joseph’s hometown relatives and friends shunned him and the unwed teen aged mother who was his traveling companion. No room in the inn. No room in Joseph’s family. No room in Herod’s Judea. “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.”

I wonder how often such a scene is played out in the world around us. No room for justice. No room for even a fair trial. No room for color.   No room for difference. No room for refugees. No room for children living in poverty and terror. No room. Get out of here. Get out of our neatly ordered lives. As Thomas Merton has written, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it—because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it—his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable.)

As I have mentioned before, I first encountered these words, ironically, on a Christmas card. The cover of the card showed a small, dark child sitting naked on the barren earth, weeping. Not much blessing, peace or warmth here – except, perhaps, in the possibilities the Christ child brings to the least and the lost and the last. No sentimentality, to be sure.

It is precisely for the uninvited, the rejected, the weak, the discredited, the dehumanized, the tortured and exterminated that we must keep Herod in Christmas. It is essential to remember the kind of world into which the Christ child is born – a world not so unlike our own in many painful ways. It is vital that we see and understand so that we might stand alongside Christ, offering hospitality to all – even against the Herods of this world.

Joy Caroll Wallis says that “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com).

It is into this real world that God comes. It is in this distressed world the Word is made flesh. It is this challenging world to which the King of Glory descends. In Advent, we celebrate hope, peace, joy and love for this very world in which we live day to day. In spite of every obstacle, we affirm and re-affirm, year-after-year that the Herods of the world will not triumph in the end. Fear will not dictate our lives. We will take the hands of sisters and brothers everywhere and walk together in peace and harmony, light and love. We will identify with those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God. While we recognize and refuse to back away from harsh reality, we will cast our lot with the king who sings salvation, who brings hope and peace, joy and love to the most impossible places and the most improbable people, even us. Amen.

Keep Herod in Christmas

Three candlesThis full Advent season continues. We will have an opportunity to celebrate the long life of Virginia Herbert on Saturday at 1:00 PM. Virginia was our oldest member, a woman of intelligence, grace and wisdom and a great teacher. Saturday evening at 7:00 PM, the iSing Silicon Valley Girlchoir will offer “Thankful,” a holiday concert at Mission Santa Clara on the Santa Clara University Campus.

On Sunday, our journey takes a strange turn as we are invited to “Keep Herod in Christmas.” This hardly seems like an appropriate focus for this time of year, especially on the Sunday when the watchword is traditionally “joy.” There is little joy associated with the murderous despot who ruled the region when and where Jesus was born. The ancient king is best (or is it worst?) remembered for slaughtering the baby boys of Bethlehem in hopes of eliminating the Messiah before he could even get started. Brian McLaren insists that it is important to remember that “We do not live in an ideal world. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus…is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.” We will continue to search out joy as we walk this road together.

Our Advent experiment in spiritual direction will conclude this Sunday with the focus “Be Born in Us Today – Enter In.” Each person is invited throughout this week to engage in the ancient discipline of “examen,” that is, asking at some point in each day, “Where did I experience God today?” “Where did I feel God absent?” Keep a record of your observations, if you’d like. Then, on Sunday, bring something – anything you find symbolic of your experience – to share with the group. It could be a story, a poem, a photograph, a found, created or treasured object or a simple reflection. Be as free and creative as you’d like. Where does God enter into your life   Where do you find a block? This is the rhythm of our spiritual life.

Sunday afternoon we will gather in the Parlor at 4:00 PM to form caroling groups, heading out to bring some seasonal joy to members and friends of the church who do not get out so easily or regularly. Then it’s back to the church for chili and cheer around the table. If you have friends and relations who love to sing songs of the season, bring them along. The more the merrier!

See you Sunday at 10:00 AM. Invite a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor or stranger to share the morning with you – and come back at 4:00 PM to bring a little “Joy to the World.”

God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.   Pastor Rick  

Have You Seen the Star? (January 5, 2014)

sermonsHAVE YOU SEEN THE STAR?

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 5, 2014

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Oh it was a strange and fearful time, alright.  A time filled with signs and wonders.  There was an uneasiness throughout the city.  People said old Herod grew crazier by the day, sure as could be that they were after his crown.  Of course, no one knew who “they” were, though none of us would have missed him or shed a tear for him.  Herod knew he didn’t come to be king honestly.  He wasn’t even a real Jew, let alone of the royal line that stretched back to David.  He was a usurper and a scoundrel.  He pretended to be observant but we all knew that, on any given day, he would appeal to whatever religious or social or political practice he thought would further his claim to power. Everyone despised him, even the Romans who put him in power and then had to put up with his oily manipulations.  It’s no wonder the crown sat uneasily on that pretender’s head.

Ancient messianic hopes were increasingly renewed; people dreamed of one who would come to redeem us.  Many were certain a mighty warrior would arise not only to depose old Herod but also to drive out those beastly Romans.  He would lead an uprising that would restore our land to the glory days of David and Solomon and even more.  Caught between Herod and the Romans, that hope was about all we had.  Morning prayers were lifted to heaven, “O come blessed Messiah, come” and evening prayers sighed, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

To be sure, more than one messianic pretender appeared on the scene with all sorts of promises, sorcery and magic tricks, but none of them produced anything more than a good show.   If any of them got too great a following, you could bet that Herod’s men were right there or the Romans who kept track of potential trouble makers or the lackeys of the Sanhedrin who made sure no one disrupted their cozy arrangement with the Romans to keep the temple humming and the profits pouring into their pockets.  It was a strange and fearful time, no doubt, uneasy, full of signs and wonders, real and imagined.

One day people began to talk.  The whispered question spread like wildfire through the city, “Have you seen the star?”  At first, many responded, “No, what star?”  “Open your eyes, man.  Look up, sister.  Tonight.  It’s been there the past few nights and it seems to grow brighter with every passing day.  It’s a sign, a portent that something amazing is about to happen.”  And sure enough, it was true, there, hovering somewhere just to the west of the old city was the most brilliant star any of us had ever seen.  What in the world could it mean?  What in this world or the next?  It felt…hmmm.  I don’t know.  I want to say it felt as if God was coming closer than I had ever felt God before or since.  Signs and wonders indeed.  It was indeed a strange and fearful time.

Well, the next thing you know there was rumor went through the city that a magnificent caravan had arrived from somewhere to the northwest.  Persia or Babylon, I think they said.  The word that leaked from the palace was that there were some seers following a wondrous star.  They marched right in and asked Herod, “Have you seen the star?”  They were pretty incredulous when he made some excuse about not getting out much at night.  How could he miss such a wonderful sign?  Then they up and told him that they thought the star was the sign of a wondrous birth, a baby born king of the Jews. They said they meant to follow that star until it led them right to that baby.  Oh, and could Herod or his wise men give them any assistance in their enterprise?

Well, you can imagine what sort of buzz that created!  First we were terrified of how Herod would react to such news.  That paranoid old fool was just crazy enough to go around killing babies to protect his throne.  Didn’t these wizards from afar know Herod’s reputation?  Somewhere in their research they should have discovered what kind of king Herod was.  They could have stopped anywhere but Herod’s palace!

Then the word came down that Herod had called together all his own prophets and seers to find out if there was any truth to this baby king prediction.  Sure enough, it was written right there on the sacred scroll that a very special baby would be born in Bethlehem, out there in sheep country.  Can you imagine a more unlikely place, though I guess that David did come from there or so the story goes.  Anyway, that old messianic hope begin to grow in the hearts of people all over the old city.  Could it be?  Was it possible?  “Immanuel, God with us,” some said.  “Now is the day of our salvation.  The One who is to redeem Israel is on the way.  Can’t you see it?  Can’t you hear it?  Can’t you feel it?”  It was a wonderful, fearful time, full of signs and wonders.  Perhaps this One would be the One we’d all been waiting for, longing for, hoping for.

But you know that was all thirty years ago.  As far as I know nothing came of it.  They say that Herod sent his henchman to Bethlehem and killed all the male children 2 years and younger.  It was such a horrible story.  I can tell you it sealed our hatred for Herod.  Ever since, life has gone on pretty much as usual.  Old Herod did die and his kingdom got divided among his no good sons.  They turned out to be worse than their old man.  Roman rule continues as rotten as ever.

Times are still fearful.  Oh, there’s an occasional wonder or some seeming sign, but nothing quite as electric as those nights when the star reigned its fire.  You know there was even one night when the star was its most glorious that a strange sort of music filled the air.   Such hope!  Such promise!  Well, that was then.  This is now.  Life goes on.

I don’t know why, though, as Passover comes round one more time, that star should come up again.  Sure it was memorable, a once in a lifetime experience.  But it’s interesting that, after all this time, more than 30 years, several of us who were around back have been reminiscing.  “Do you remember the star?  Had you ever seen such a sight?   I wonder what it all meant?  Something stirred inside us that we could never quite explain – a new hope, a sense of…what was it, peace? Joy? Love?  Do you think you it will ever come ‘round again?  Who knows?  Such a star!”

You know I feel just a little uneasy tonight.  It seems again to be a strange and fearful time, full of signs and wonders.  It feels like something or someone very special is coming to the old city.  Do you sense it?  Oh and by the way, I meant to ask, have you seen the star?