Scripture – Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany Sunday – January 8, 2017
This past week I learned of a recent conversation which took place between two old friends. One friend shared that he had just suffered a significant loss to his personal creative space by a totally damaging fire. After listening to her friend’s tale and his interpretation of what happened, she queried: “Wow! Do you think it’s a sign?” to which he replied, “My friend, everything’s a sign!”
Everything’s a sign. The concept immediately sparked my theological imagination, especially given our passage this morning. Everything’s a sign. And I began to think about all the ways we receive external direction. There are the obvious traffic signs: as both drivers and pedestrians we have learned that red lights mean stop and green lights mean go. The signs contained in weather forecasts like advancing cold fronts and dropping temperatures determine whether or not we cancel our activities. One simple number like the Dow Jones Industrial Average is a sign of the economic times which can affect all kinds of economic and business and personal financial decisions. The behaviors of plants and animals and tides and temperatures have been offering signs of severely impactful climate change for decades.
Our health status is determined by an endless host of signs ranging from numbers like blood pressure and body temperature and cholesterol levels to the worrisome reddening of the skin around the insect bite or chest tightness and a numb left arm or the telltale ache in your right knee every time you go for a run.
We get asked for our social security number over the phone? A sure sign a scam is afoot. Free estimates by replacement window guys who show up at our front doors? A sign that skepticism is in order. There are published warning signs for heart attacks, strokes, suicide, gambling problems …even signs that your partner may be cheating on you.
Everything’s a sign. The question for us this morning is: are all those signs from God? If not, which ones are? We’ve all heard the story of the man hanging on to the life raft in the middle of the ocean refusing help from the rescue boat who passes by and then the helicopter which hovers because he’s sure God will rescue him. When he eventually drowns and arrives in heaven and asks God what happened to the divine rescue, God says, “What do you mean? First I sent a rescue boat and then I sent a helicopter!”
There are a number of ways we respond to the signs we receive. We may heed them, ignore them, deny them. Sometimes the signs have been there for so long we don’t even notice them anymore. I remember years ago the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s campaign against cigarette smoking. Smoking had become so ingrained in our culture that as a population our ears had become deaf to the news of rising deaths from cancer and heart disease and all kinds of illnesses from cigarettes. And deaf to the fact that our children were initiating the habit at earlier and earlier ages and nothing had been done to stop the advertising to that young cohort. The MA DPH rented billboards all over which simply read: “Where’s the outrage?”
Today? Same problem, different day. Where is our outrage about child hunger? Right here in Groton and Stonington. Women’s Fellowship is hosting guest speakers this week on food insecurity in our community. Where’s the outrage about the opioid epidemic and the young lives it is snatching from us on a daily basis?
If God is present everywhere and everything’s a sign, perhaps we should be paying better attention. The reason I chose Eugene Petersen’s interpretative version of our scripture reading from The Message this morning is because we hear the New Revised Standard Version of the first 12 verses of Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew not only every single year, but in the last two weeks we have read it in this sanctuary and in the places we visit at Christmas 5 separate times – today would have been the sixth. Sometimes we need to hear the same thing in a different way for it to become a source of revelation.
But every version of this gospel story includes the star. Frank Thomas, Senior Servant at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, writes that “The star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation…Without divine revelation, we would miss the Messiah…Because we are almost blinded by the culture [at Christmas time], the star is a sign, a wonder, a revelation, a guidepost, a traffic light, a tracking device, and a global positioning system [GPS] that brings us to the point and place of divine revelation about the Messiah. For the real meaning of Christmas, we must ‘follow the star’.”
Today with all the varied and competing signs coming at us and no obvious stars like the one followed by the Magi, we need a way to recognize the daily personal divine revelations which do occur in our lives if we are but aware. To become spiritually aware, we need to deepen our relationship with the divine. Think about the intimate human relationships we have. If our usually talkative spouse goes silent for several days in a row, we know that’s a sign of something going on. If our child who has always loved school starts coming down with a stomach ache every morning as the bus comes around the corner, we know something’s up. Most of us are pretty perceptive when it comes to recognizing the signs of changed behavior in the people we love. The more we know them and love them, the more aware we are of subtle changes.
In the same way, as our lives become more grounded in God, as we become more aware of God’s universal presence, as our prayer life grows, as we get to know ourselves better, as we become more confident in our faith, we are better able to recognize those frequent, I would maintain, divine signs more easily.
We often hear the advice when facing an unknown future and important decisions to listen to our guts. Go with your gut. Not only is God’s presence all around us, God dwells within us, God is in our guts. Frank Thomas explains it using the Star in the East:
“In verse 12…they returned to their country by another route. There is no suggestion that the star led them back to their country, and I want to suggest that the star faded….in the first part of the journey, the magi needed a sign…[once] they saw the child, they no longer needed the star…
“Once you see the divine revelation, [behold the Messiah], then you do not need the star, because the external power of the star goes internal.”
My friends, it seems to me that we need a little bit of both to recognize God’s direction in our lives – both the external signs which come to us through people and events which we are called to identify and discern, along with our own internal knowing and a trust in God which comes from God’s gift of faith. That’s one reason why each year on Epiphany we distribute stars. Little cardboard stars containing one word as you start a brand new year. When you receive it, you may see it as an external sign of your already existing inner knowing, an affirmation, or perhaps a gentle suggestion, or maybe it suggests a bold new direction. If everything is a sign, may your star today be a blessing for the year to come. Amen.