Sunday, January 5, 2020

Sermon: "Guiding Light", Isaiah 60:1-6/Matthew 2:1-12 (January 5, 2020)


Today is Epiphany Sunday, the day that we celebrate the magi’s arrival at Jesus’ home. This is a wonderful story with much to teach us: that the story of Christmas is one of ancient scripture being fulfilled, that Jesus’ birth was for Gentiles and Jews alike, and that mortal power often protects itself at any cost. But I don’t want to talk about any of that today.

Today, I want to talk about the star. That famous star that announced the arrival of Emmanuel to the world. The star that brought both joy and fear to those who saw it and knew of its significance. The star that served to guide the foreign astrologers to Christ.

We often imagine the magi literally following this star right up to Jesus’ doorstep, like a carrot hung in front of a horse. The carol “The First Noel” even has a verse reinforcing this idea, declaring, “This star drew nigh to the northwest/O’er Bethlehem it took its rest/And there it did both stop and stay/Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.” But if we’re being honest…that’s a pretty fanciful version of events. We know that’s not how stars work. It’s far more likely that, rather than an ancient version of Google Maps, the star served as more of a beacon, a sign that pointed the magi in the right direction but trusted them to do the rest. The star of Bethlehem wasn’t a spotlight; it was a guiding light.

Now, I don’t know about you, but as soon as I hear the phrase “Guiding Light”, my mind immediately thinks “soap opera”. Even though I never watched a full episode of “Guiding Light”, many a sick day for me was spent flipping through daytime television, and I was no stranger to this particular melodrama. I’m not really a soap opera fan, but I can recognize greatness when I see it. “Guiding Light” aired for 57 years (from 1952 to 2009) as television show that grew out of a popular radio serial with a 15-year run. This makes it the longest running drama of all time.

However, in the 23 years that this show and I coexisted, I never really got a sense of what it was about. Given what I’d already decided to title my sermon this week, my curiosity was piqued. While I doubted that “Guiding Light” was actually a 72-year-long saga about the star of Bethlehem and the magi’s quest to follow it, I figured it was worth looking into…just in case. I mean, if you ask me, a scheming king, foreign astrologers, and a child-deity WOULD make for compelling soap opera material.

As it turns out, the title of this show actually refers to a lamp in the study of Reverend Dr. John Rutledge, who was a major character in its early seasons.[1] The light was intended as a sign for any who saw it that help could be found there when it was needed. Hence, “Guiding Light”. Irma Phillips, the creator of the series, based the show’s premise on her own experience of finding spiritual comfort by listening to the sermons of Rev. Preston Bradley[2]—her own “lamp in the study” in the midst of personal turmoil. So while this soap opera (disappointingly) wasn’t about the magi’s journey per se, it was grounded in a similar concept. Although its plot inevitably took many twists and turns over the years, this show began as an expression of the human need to find a guiding force in times of difficulty.

There are many things in our lives that serve as such guiding lights—and not all of them are literal lights like Rutledge’s lamp or the magi’s star. Scripture is one example. Having been written over the course of thousands of years by many different authors, the Bible was never intended to be an instruction manual. Instead, it’s a steady, reliable source of inspiration and guidance, one that we can turn to whenever we feel lost to reorient ourselves—like a light in the window or a star in the sky. Sometimes, people serve as our guiding lights. Yours may be a friend, a family member, a pastor, or a teacher. They can’t tell you exactly what to do in every single situation, but their guidance is cherished and invaluable, and you trust them to help point you in the right direction. Your own guiding light may be something or someone different, but they all have one thing in common: a guiding light isn’t a source of answers, but a valuable companion on a journey that you must take for yourself.

Still sounds great, right? The tricky thing is…not all guiding lights stick around forever. Some, like scripture or certain 72-year-long soap operas, may be with you through most of your life. But others, like a flickering candle in the window or a teacher, may only be with you for a short while. And we don’t always know which it will be. So, like the magi, when we find our guiding light, we must drop everything to find out where it’s leading us. Whether we anticipate its presence for decades or just for a brief season, we must recognize that it’s worth following so that we don’t miss the opportunity.

Now, up until this point, we’ve been talking about guiding lights as a personal beacon, something for our own benefit. But that’s only half the story. The truth is, when we find a light to guide our steps, we’re also meant to share it for the benefit of others. Because each of us, alone, is never the end of the story. We’re just the beginning. This is what the Isaiah scripture is all about. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come…Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations…God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.” In other words, you’ve seen the light; now do something about it! It’s not just for you, to illuminate your path, but for you to draw others in for God’s sake. If you saw a holy star in the sky indicating God’s presence on earth, wouldn’t you share that news? If you saw a beacon in a window indicating help for any who need it, would you keep that information to yourself? People have no problem evangelizing for their favorite TV show or soap opera, so why would we hesitate to do the same for God’s Word?

The guiding lights surrounding us today are becoming more and more urgent—the light from brush fires covering an entire continent, the light from explosions in far-away countries like those from which the magi might have come, the light from the television telling us daily about our leaders ignoring Christ’s mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t know whether these lights will be with us for a short time or if they’re our new normal. They’re not giving us clear answers of the “right” policies or who we should vote for or what we should do. But they are telling us, quite clearly, that we need to do something, not just for us, but for the sake of the world, of God’s creation. Isaiah 60:5 says, “Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide…” You will see the light, and then you will be the light. You will be guided, and then you will guide others with humility, vulnerability, and faith. Let us not shy away from this awesome responsibility.

In a few minutes, we’ll gather at this table to share in Communion. When you come forward, I invite you to take a star word before you return to your seat. Don’t look at the word before you pick it and don’t think about it too much—let the Holy Spirit guide your hand. The word that you choose is intended to serve as a “guiding light” for you in the coming year. Don’t worry if your word doesn’t make sense to you right away—remember, a guiding light isn’t meant to hold all the answers. It’s a reference point, something for you to return to again and again to help you find the right direction. It’s a reminder that God is working through you, even when you don’t understand how.

I challenge you to think of your word in two different ways: first, ask what it might be trying to tell you. Do you need to have more patience? Is there a situation in your life that requires you to think more creatively? Are you being called to be more introspective? Then, ask yourself what it might be challenging you to share with the world. Can you model attentiveness for others? Is there someone in your life who needs to be encouraged as a leader? Is there a message hidden within your word that you’re being called to preach to a friend, to your city, to the world? What is the guiding light that you’re being called to follow, and what’s the guiding light that you’re being called to be?

Whatever your word is, I encourage you to consider it from each of these perspectives. Over the course of the year, it may be one way at one point, then the other later on. It could be both at the same time. Remember that the point of a guiding light is to help you find your direction, like the wise men wandering toward Bethlehem. And then, once you do, don’t keep it to yourself. “Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you.” The path is before us; let us help one another along it as we seek the Christ-child—and the new world he brings—together. Amen.


[2] Ibid.

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