Hope, Rising

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi 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.” (Matthew 2: 1-12; NRSV)

The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.

Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.

Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.

By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.

The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago.  When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.

It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.

I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.

We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.

In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.

The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.

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.

We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.

This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge:  Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.


1. The Orion Nebula, birthplace of stars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.
2. Orion on film, by Matthew Spinelli

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

Home by Another Way (Midrash for Three Magi)

“Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2: 11-12

*Midrash (midˊ-rash) n. from a root meaning “to study,” “to seek out” or “to investigate.” Stories elaborating on incidents in scripture, to derive a principle or provide a moral lesson.


It was a foolish gesture.

But the whole idea was crazy to begin with, so the way things ended made a certain sense.A foolish end, to a fool’s errand.

We began the journey full of anticipation. We were convinced that all of history had been leading up to this moment of time – our moment of time. We were expecting a great tide to wash away all that had come before. God’s second flood.

None of us counted on the waiting. We walked, and we looked; but nothing, anywhere, had changed for the better. I’m not even sure when I stopped expecting anything. Right up until that last day, I tried to silence the thought: What if nothing happens?

Just before our roads divided, my two traveling companions and I came upon a poor family sheltering in a stable. The young woman had just given birth; the baby was sleeping in a feeding trough.

That was where we left our riches, the gifts we had brought to honor the start of the new age. We didn’t really discuss it. It just seemed the obvious thing to do. Our prettily packaged gifts looked a bit ridiculous, sitting there on that bare earth. And, to tell the truth, I felt a bit ridiculous.

Here we were, looking for signs and wonders, when most of the world was just looking for a safe place to sleep.


I am a learned man. I have read the classics. I have studied the scriptures. I have observed the heavens. I have deduced the theorems. I am a philosopher, a teacher, a scientist, a sage.  I have been called “a wise man.”

And I knew.

I read the signs, I calculated the location, I predicted the time. I set out confidently, sure of my route, secure in my analysis. The journey was long, it’s true, but I would have traveled twice as far to prove my theory. To prove that this was, indeed, The Moment.

The Messiah was coming, and I knew. I would be the first to kneel before God’s chosen one. I would be the first to deliver the good news to the child’s parents.

But when I arrived I found the good news had already come, delivered instead by some passing shepherds. Shepherds! How could they have known? How could these uneducated illiterates have preceded us to the manger? They came, not through wisdom, but through foolishness: music, heard on a hillside. While I measured the stars, they listened to the angels sing.

All my wisdom had not taught me to hear the song they heard. I learned that day, there are many paths to God.


Shall I tell you what we found?

At the end of our journey, the star led us to a child. No, not even a child: a baby. We found an infant, in its mother’s arms. We were expecting a King, but we found — a baby.

I had assumed that God’s chosen one would be a born leader, a king from birth. But as I looked at this baby, I didn’t see a king. I didn’t see a mighty warrior-to-be, or a future ruler of the nation. I saw a baby. Tiny, powerless, vulnerable, trusting; just a baby.

And yet — as I looked into the baby’s face, I saw the face of God. Not the face of God’s chosen king, but the face of God. God looked at me through the eyes of that baby.

How could I confess such blasphemy to my two companions? or to Herod?And so I returned home by another way.

But shall I tell you a greater blasphemy still? Since that day, I see the face of God in the face of every baby.


by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, 1.3.2019
permission given for use in worship
all other rights reserved

photo: Three Kings procession in the streets of Northampton, Massachusetts, 2007. Puppets by the youth members of the First Churches of Northampton.

Risk Offering: for Epiphany

We don’t know much about the Magi,
and so we don’t really know how costly their offerings were.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were expensive
and would have seemed precious to the poor family receiving them;
but we don’t know how accustomed the Magi were to such extravagance,
or if these gifts represented any real sacrifice for them.
But we do know that the act of giving was in itself costly.
The Magi made a pilgrimage to a strange and unfamiliar land,
and risked both ridicule and retribution from Herod,
in order to pay their respects to the most unlikely of Messiahs.
Every time we make an offering to the church, or to the poor,
there is more at stake than the money in the envelope;
because in the eyes of the world,
every pilgrimage is a fool’s errand.

Holy One, some of us have traveled far to find you,
and some of us have long roads ahead.
But we step forward in faith, O God,
that at the end of all our journeying
we shall find you waiting for us.
You are our beginning, and our ending, God,
and all our days we dedicate to you.
May the offerings of our hands,
the prayers of our heart,
and the steps of our feet,
bring us ever closer to that kingdom
where Love reigns over all.