In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “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.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, what a story. What a story. As the Christmas decorations start to come down, as we start to box up the garland and the ornaments, just when we thought Christmas was over, we’re treated to Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the magi. I don’t know if you knew this, but Stacey and I were actually married on Epiphany, so all over Cannon Chapel at the great Candler School of Theology at Emory University, we put up nativity scenes with the wise men, and we hung a beautiful gold and white double-wedding-ring quilt behind the altar in honor of the day.
But beyond the connection to my wedding, or whatever, it really does have all the markers of a great story. First, there’s the magi, sort of astronomers, sort of magicians, whatever they were, and then there’s King Herod, and palace intrigue, and jealousy, and signs in the Heavens, all of it. It’s a great story. But you know why I think the church really loves this story? It’s an epic story, but the real reason I think we love this story is that we want God to give us a sign. I won’t speak for you, but when I have a decision to make, or when I’m trying to figure out how to live faithfully as a Christian out in the real world, I’d kill to have a sign as clear as the one the magi got. So when I hear sermons about, “oh, you know, what dedication those magi had! How hard their travels must have been! How much they must have loved God to get up out of their comfortable chairs and follow!” I sort of roll my eyes a bit, because no, if I saw a star rise in the east and lead me until it stopped over the savior’s house, I’d have it made! How lucky they were to receive such a clear sign, such a clear calling from God, and here the rest of us are trying to figure out how to be faithful without the star, without the sign, without the clarity.
No, I don’t feel sorry for the magi at all. If anything, I feel jealous. I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed for that star! I know that I am not alone in this. How often we wish we could receive a clear sign from God to help us make a decision, or to make us feel God’s presence, or to make us feel God’s love! Forget the star; I would have settled for a lightning bug!
I’m not saying that I’ve never felt God’s presence or like God’s not spoken to me, given me peace when I needed it. Just yesterday, as I considered the loss of my friend and felt what the scripture calls groans too deep for words, I could feel God’s presence, God’s peace. It’s not that I’ve not felt God move in my life. I’m just saying that I wish God would speak less in a whisper and more in a shout, because sometimes that’s what it takes to get my attention.
I got to thinking about signs this past week as we traveled back and forth to Memphis to see family. There’s a lot vying for your attention these days. Maybe that’s why I want a star; there is so much that wants me to think that it is God, that it is the most important thing in the whole world, that when God really does show up, it can be hard to recognize. Maybe it was just the delirium of six hours in the car with a screaming toddler, but I got to wondering just how many signs we passed between Memphis and Atlanta. We saw hotel signs and restaurant billboards and leftover political signs and little hand scrawled yard signs advertising fresh . . . delicious . . . local . . . Georgia pecans. I probably saw five thousand signs and they all wanted my attention. It’s no wonder we so desperately want a clear sign from God. There’s a lot to drown out.
I think about this when I think about our own sign, our church sign out front. There are a lot of church signs out there! I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and I realized that while almost every church has a sign, very rarely do I actually pay enough attention when passing to even let the message register in my brain. Stacey and I were driving to Toco Hills the other day, just up the road, and since I was the passenger, I decided to try to really pay attention to the number of church signs I passed, figuring there would be two or three, and I quit counting when I got to 30! There are lots of messages out there. This is why we are careful with the message we put out. We are competing with a lot of other messages, so it is important to stand out. And besides, it’s a lot of pressure to be a sign from God!
I mean, it’s hard enough living up to the rich legacy of that sign. One of the first things I heard from a ministry colleague when I got appointed here a year and a half ago was how wonderful the church signs were. She still ribs me to this day because she says that I’ll never be able to top the time somebody quoted Darth Vader from Star Wars and put out on the sign, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Just yesterday, Fred Powell was telling me about the time that somebody came by and stole the letters off the sign, so he did his usual gracious thing and went out to the sign and wrote up that while we’d like to have the letters back, we forgive. We forgive. I want you to know that the Nissan dealership across the street was so moved by that message that they offered to buy us a whole new set of letters. There’s your sign.
It is amazing to me about what a witness once church sign can be. You will remember a few weeks ago when somebody had a little fun with us and broke into the sign and switched the letters around to advertise that we were no longer having breakfast with Santa, but rather having breakfast with Satan. I’ve heard more jokes about deviled eggs over the last month than I hope to hear for the rest of my life. But because you all were who you always are and laughed so graciously about it, I want you to know that we have literally had people come to church here because we laughed that off. There’s your sign.
And then there is the sign we have out now, the one that says young, old, rich, poor, gay straight: you are welcome here. I’ve caught some grief for that one, as you might imagine, because I know not everybody is of one mind about the issue of homosexuality. But of course we’re not talking about an issue—we’re talking about people, and we all agree—and I am grateful for this—we all agree that we welcome everybody. We take all comers. This is the message of epiphany: that Christ did not just come to rescue the holier-than-thou. Christ’s message is for everybody. In fact, as the writer Jonathan Merritt says, Christmas reminds us that often pagan wise men know more about God than religious people who are steeped in scripture.
I want you to know that that sign, that message, it sort of happened by accident. I had Alfred put it up one day just because I didn’t have anything else to put up there, and before you know it, I had probably ten phone calls from people calling me crying, crying, thanking me—thanking you, really—for being a church that welcomed people who felt like nobody in all of God’s creation wanted them. I know we could have said “all are welcome,” and in fact, we do sometimes say that, but to a person, the people who have been moved by the sign because they have felt there was no place for them have said that there is something about naming just who it is that is welcome that serves as a sign, literally a sign from God, that points to the birth of Christ, the coming of the one who claims all people as God’s children.
I mean, that’s how you know it’s a sign from God. Not that you happen to find a sale on an outfit you really want, or you get a deal on tickets to Disney world. A true sign from God points beyond itself to the birth of Jesus Christ, not just two thousand years ago, but now, constantly happening. And isn’t this what we’re all looking for? Aren’t we all here looking for Jesus? I mean, I hope that’s why you are here. We’re all looking for Jesus, trying to be faithful, looking for a sign that will point us to God’s truth, and God’s mercy, and God’s grace. We may not be sent a star, but the good news is that I know of a sign stronger than a star, and that’s the sign of God’s people in mission, in action, in prayer and love and hope, reaching out and welcoming new people, loving everybody, caring for one another and sharing the experience of Jesus’s birth with the whole community, so that we don’t sort of take the nativity scene and box it up and charge people to look inside. We share it with everybody. Shoot, we stand on the corner in the cold and the wet and we sing it to people.
And when you put it that way, well, it helps me understand in new ways why the story of the magi is so powerful. It’s not the star. It’s not the star that moves us. It’s the magi themselves. The star isn’t the most powerful sign. The magi are.
I mean, here you have well-to-do men with camels and entourages and the whole nine yards—and enough money to buy expensive gifts fit for a king. These are not fly by night operators. These are the real deal. And they drop everything—everything!—to search for the savior. And when they get there, even upon seeing that he is a child, they remove their hats, they remove their shoes, they bow and they offer these gifts, these extravagant gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. There’s your sign: not just the gifts themselves, but the giving of them.
There’s your sign. The star is important, but it just sets off the chain of events. The star moves the magi who inspired the Gospel writers who teach each of us about Jesus. It is us, friends, who are charged with going out into the world to welcome new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, sometimes we are the magi, looking for a sign, but I think that even more than that, we’re called to be the star! We are called to be the sign!
This is why we serve in God’s name. This is why we do things like give away the entire Christmas offering: not so that people will know how great we are, but because we are a sign! We are a sign that points to the birth of Christ within the walls of the church and within our own hearts. Like it or not, you are that sign. And if given the choice between advertising the birth of Christ and fresh Georgia pecans, I think you know where I think your loyalty ought to be.
Now, I want to end a little differently. I want you to take some time during the time of reflection, and throughout your week, and think about how it is that you can be a star for others, so that you live in such a way that people know Jesus lives in your heart. I’m not talking about wearing tshirts with Bible verses; those are fine, but without loving action they as much good as leftover signs from last year’s election. I’m talking about really living your faith, walking the walk and talking the talk, so that when people listen to you speak and watch you interact with others, they know there’s something different about you.
And I want to ask the same question about the church. How can we as a church community live such that people know Jesus lives here, such that people know they are invited here so that they may meet Jesus? How can we be a sign?
In your bulletin, you’ll find a blank slip of paper. I’m going to invite you to think about who it is that needs to hear God’s good news, that needs a sign. During the time of reflection, I’m going to invite you to write down somebody—a group of people, a profession, anything—somebody who needs a sign from God that says that they are welcome: that God loves them. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to cycle through a few of these signs every couple of days as a witness—as a sign—to the community that God really does live here. I’ll go ahead and tell you, just so you aren’t shocked, that tomorrow morning, I’m going to have Alfred put up on one side of the sign that prostitutes are welcome here, because after all Jesus was friends with them, so we should be too. And on the other side, I’m going to do something actually, you know, controversial, and have it say that politicians are welcome here, too.
This is who we are called to be, friends. We are called to be a sign. And what a privilege—what a privilege!—to be tasked with welcoming new people into the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.