On Epiphany Sunday, January 4, the people of Crafton Heights wondered about the power of celebrity and the difference between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – then and now. Our texts for the day were Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12.
Each of these people has self-identified as a “Bible-believing Christian”. I know that because some other Christian writer or speaker has pointed to those folks and said, “See? These people are Christians…” as if acknowledging Christ is somehow more attractive or effective when a celebrity does it, rather than when you do.
Every now and then I’m with a group of pastors and someone will nudge me and say, “Do you know so-and so?” And I’ll say, “The famous athlete/musician/politician?” And the other person will say, “Yes, that person. Did you know that she worships at my church? Yep. A believer.” Or take a look at the “head table” at just about any prayer breakfast around the country – the wealthy and powerful elite, calling the rest of us to be encouraged and faithful.
Why do we do this? What makes us care more about what, say, Clint Hurdle has to say about faith than about the woman who works in the cafeteria line?
I heard one man compare it with the practice of putting our University stickers on the back windows of our car – we seek to bolster our own insecurities by reminding people that although we might drive like jerks, we’re probably smarter then they are. We appeal to celebrity Christians in an effort to remind ourselves that we don’t need to doubt – almost as if we’re saying, “Well, sure, I might be wrong about a few things, but would Chuck Colson or Tom Hanks or Donna Summer steer me wrong? They believe, and so I can too.”
There is an attractiveness in celebrity Christianity that bears examining.
Isaiah 60 describes a similar situation. The reading you heard is a poem that was read to the people in Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ. Isaiah 58 and 59 describe a people who are cut off from God. They are not walking in God’s ways, and they complain that God has forgotten them. They have returned to Jerusalem after decades of life in Babylon and they hate it – and who wouldn’t? Who wants to live in a burned-out, bombed-out city where there are no jobs, the economy is in the toilet, and nobody does anything? But the prophet says to them in chapter 60 that things are going to change – the city will be reborn! Prosperity is coming! Peace can be found, and the King himself will come and lead us! The inhabitants of Jerusalem are, not surprisingly, encouraged by this.
When Matthew got around to writing his account of Jesus’ life, he chose to use the passage from Isaiah 60 to remind people about the fact that God himself indicated that the power, wealth, and majesty of foreigners would come to worship the true King of Israel…although as it turns out, they do not do so in Jerusalem.
The Magi show up from distant lands looking for this wonderful new king and Herod, unsurprisingly, is a little concerned: He kind of likes the current King (himself!). He decides that he’d like to find this new king as well, and so he calls in his best advisors to see if they can’t help locate the one for whom the wise men are searching. As it turns out, they recall an obscure verse from the prophet Micah, who indicated that the light of God would indeed shine forth, not from Jerusalem, but from Bethlehem.
Now, the truth is it’s only nine miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but by any objective measure, it’s a lot further than that. If Jerusalem is the “Golden Triangle” downtown – the center of commerce, industry, wealth, and power – then Bethlehem is Wilmerding. Nowheresville.
But what surprises Herod – and us, if we’re honest – is that the wise men go ahead and make the trek to Bethlehem, a village of peasants. They thought they were en route to meet a powerful king, but somehow they were able to reorganize their lives and their trip around the information that Herod gave to them. They arrive in Bethlehem and discover a “king” who is a vulnerable baby, the son of a teen mother and a father who is virtually unknown. And in that crude place, these scholars from the East bow down and worship.
And I thought this morning about the fact that today nobody knows who these “wise men from the East” were. We’re not sure where they’re from, who they represent – heck, we’re not even certain how many of them there actually are. Matthew doesn’t give us any of the details about them. But he does give us Jesus’ name, doesn’t he? We may not know who they are, but we know who they came to worship.
Nine miles. It’s not that far. Most of you could walk that in a few hours. Some of you have run farther than that in a morning. I’m not sure what would compel you to do so, but I know that you’ve done it… Nine miles is close.
It is. But while the line that starts in Jerusalem is quite close to line that starts in Bethlehem, their trajectories are significantly different. What looks like only nine miles at the start is light-years away at this point.
As we start 2015, are you looking for power, security, and prestige? Are you looking for celebrity status and recognition? Or are you willing to trust a God who shows up in anonymous backwaters and speaks quietly to the poor? A God who not only comes to those places, but who invites us to humbly follow him there; moreover, a God who seems intent on sending us to those places to celebrate, discover, and share his love and grace.
In two weeks, I’ll be (Lord willing) in some village you’ve never heard of in South Sudan. I’ll be trying to keep up in worship with a group of people who have spent far too much of their lives as refugees and aliens, who may not be able to read well, if at all, and for whom fear and uncertainty could be constant companions. I’m not going because I’m all that; I’m going because in that place of need and vulnerability and war and hope and perseverance and joy I hope to get a glimpse of how and where the God who was behind that star 2000 years ago is on the move today. I know God is at work there – and I’m not going because I have any illusion that my showing up is going to somehow make some poor man’s life better. The purpose of this trip is to strengthen and encourage the church – by allowing some American church leaders to see where God is on fire.
I have it easy. You’ve got the hard part. While I’m off gallivanting around Northern Africa preaching to and praying with the church under fire, you’ve got to try to get a glimpse of that same God and where he is at work as you ride the 31 bus or walk through Brashear High or visit friends in nursing homes or pick your produce at the Giant Eagle. That same God is surely at work in those places, my friends.
This morning we celebrate our Epiphany Communion. Epiphany is not usually celebrated that well, at least by Protestants. One writer blames that on the fact that it happens to fall between Christmas Eve (the Christian Super Bowl) and Lent, which is capped off by Holy Week (the Christian World Series). Many of us are too worn out from a week of holidays to think about one more little religious afterthought. In fact, I would imagine a few of you are wondering why in the world we’ve still got the old Christmas carols out…
Because the story isn’t over until the Magi make it to the manger. The story of Epiphany is a deep and powerful message, centered in hope and directed toward peace. In this story, we are reminded that we, like the Magi, are to follow the light of Christ and then to reflect that same light.
Epiphany is here to remind us, and the rest of our celebrity-crazed culture, that the God of the ages comes to us by way of Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,
Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. Epiphany is a good time to take the journey, for [the conflict in our world] reminds us of the shambles that can come through our excessive pretension. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.
Let’s you and me be found in Bethlehem this Epiphany. As we continue to live in and under the light of that star, we can be assured that the celebrities from Jerusalem will find us sooner or later. The only starpower that matters is the light that calls us to live in the same manner as did our Lord. Thanks be to God for the ability to do so together. Amen.
 MaryAnn McKibben Dana, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/old-testament/epiphanycot/
 Walter Brueggemann, “Off By Nine Miles”, Christian Century 12/19/2001.