- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

The following are excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Anne Yarbrough at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in the District:
The wise men had been looking at the night sky for years, hoping to find a sign in the stars. Sitting in the dark and silence, they cultivated their curiosity and were attentive. And this is what made them wise.
When the right star arose over the horizon, they were ready. They stopped searching the heavens and began searching the earth for "He who has been born king of the Jews" [Matt. 2: 1-12]. They used celestial navigation to cross a sea of desert, asking everyone they met about the new king. But no one knew. So they went to King Herod in Jerusalem.
The king comes forward to meet them, all royal smiles and hospitable concerns. Like the wise men, Herod, too, inhabits the night. But Herod does not quietly watch the skies. Instead, he roams the palace and he wakes up anybody to keep him company. The night brings him sleeplessness and anxiety. Herod's power is tentative, and it could be taken away at any time by the Roman emperor who gave it to him. So Herod is afraid.
He spends days making others more afraid, so that he will be less afraid. But at night, the fear comes and wakes him up. He roams everywhere for distractions. When the wise men arrive, "He was frightened," the Bible says. The wise men are unafraid of Herod's fear, and they are even willing to meet him again and share their knowledge after they find the Christ child.
The wise men have spent countless nights watching the starry creation move around them. They know what it's like to feel small and insignificant in the vast creation, and they know that an uncharted darkness lies in the human soul. The wise men sense the darkness and shadow in Herod, but his fear does not make them afraid.
From Herod's palace, Bethlehem is only a few miles away and the star hangs over a house there. "The wise men are overcome with joy," the story says. It is a sign of their wisdom that they have the capacity to be overwhelmed by joy. They realized that being overwhelmed by something much bigger is a difficult, but necessary, experience.
When they found the child, there were none of the signs of power and wealth usually expected with kings. But they have watched for a sign for years, and are not confused by the wrong sign. They are not distracted by a rich palace or a poor house. And Mary and the baby are not afraid. As the prophet had said, "darkness shall cover the earth, [but] the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you [Isaiah 60: 1-6]." The wise men kneel down, and no words are needed. They gave their gifts, representing that they would give their lives for this king.
But then they left. This holy moment slipped through their fingers like desert sand. They did not stay to be tour guides or interpreters of the baby Jesus to the world. They had no desire to publish in journals or appear on talk shows. They did not found a church or even write their names down in Mary's guest book. A dream told them to avoid Herod, and they traveled home.
This morning, we come to the communion table seeking the face of God. It's a journey of a few steps and it's the journey of our whole lives. Our journey includes desert and darkness, and it includes times when all you have to go by is a light that seems light-years away. Yet, every step can be an opening to learn.
We seek the face of God this morning, but look: It is only a table covered with cloth. It is only us gathered here, after all. All of us, with our usual mixture of light and shadow, our mixed motives and shades of gray. There are no heavenly angels, sheep or wise men. Yet this table is both sign and glory, bread and cup. It is as simple and ordinary as the house in Bethlehem, and it is just as transformed by divine kindness.
Next week: a sermon at a congregation in Virginia


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