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Setting Intentions -- Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany Sunday)





One night, the Magi were out studying the sky. That’s what they did, night after night, they searched the sky for meaning. And one night, they saw something new – a new star rising. They came to understand that the star signified the birth of a new king – one who would be called Messiah or Christ. And they set an intention. The Magi said to each other: “Let’s follow that star, and find out what all this means.” They set an intention, and set out on their journey.

It’s fascinating to read the story as we have it in Scripture just after we have sung it in the “We Three Kings” song. The contrast between the two is clear: Over the years, we’ve put together a popular story of Three Kings a bit different from what we know from Scripture about the Magi who visited Jesus.[1] Sometimes, we bring the Three Kings into the nativity story on Christmas Eve – but we know that this story came later. The Magi have had time to travel. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have settled into a house – where the Magi eventually find them.

We know that the Magi weren’t kings at all. When we call them “Wise Ones” we get a bit closer. But they really were astrologers – probably from Persia. They studied the sky – like I used to study the law – like I now study scripture – they studied the sky for meaning. So it would be more accurate to sing: “We three astrologers from Persia are.” (But that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)

And even then – Scripture doesn’t say that there were 3 (three) – just that they were plural – more than one – maybe more than three. AND, they weren’t necessarily men. It’s totally possible that there were wise women among them, too.

These magi – these astrologers – they are studying the sky; they see a star; they set an intention and set out on a journey.


Now, we know that their journey was not uninterrupted. They set out, and they follow the star as far as Jerusalem. We don’t know what happened, but they stop in Jerusalem and ask for directions. They seek information that will help them find their way. “We’ve seen this star – can anyone help us find the one who has been born king of the Jews?”


Enter King Herod. The Magi ask this question, and Scripture says that King Herod and all the people in Jerusalem were terrified. The story becomes dangerous. King Herod hears them ask where they might find the one born “King of the Jews” – but Herod is King of the Jews (basically a puppet king of the Roman Empire – but a King nonetheless), and Herod knows that there can only be one King. So much so – that when the Wise Ones don’t help Herod find Jesus – in the verses following this morning’s story – Herod will launch a genocide to eliminate the rival baby king. The Wise Ones find themselves following this star right into the midst of Herod’s treacherous world. So they pack up their things – pick back up with their original intention – and follow the star – all the way to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph now settled into a house.


The Magi enter the house, and the world opens up – the text says that they “rejoice with exceedingly great joy.” As they pay homage to the baby, they give him gifts befitting a king – they rejoice in the world born with him. And when the rejoicing is complete. They head home – not back to Herod. They’ve experienced Herod’s world – so Scripture says that, warned in a dream, they re-set their intention and go home by another way.


An epiphany is an experience of something being made manifest in the midst of us – something coming to life – something we can see, and hear, and come to understand – something we can feel in our bones. In the Gospel of Matthew, what is being made manifest is the new world that God is re-creating in the coming of the Christ. Herod’s world is the old world – the crumbling world – a world of power-over, and oppression, and death. In the coming of the Christ, the God who has accompanied us down through the generations makes manifest in Christ God’s new world, a new order, a new way of living and of structuring our lives, a new humanity.[2]


In this second chapter of Matthew, the Magi – the Wise Ones – have traversed the death-dealing world of Herod, and they discover the world that is opening up in the birth of the Christ. And they have done that – by setting an intention and following the star.

We are in a season of setting intentions – the start of a New Year – where many folks take a breath in their journey, reflect, and make New Year’s resolutions of things they’d like to change or begin or end in the first days of a fresh year. Folks have a range of reactions to the mention of New Year’s Resolutions – from eagerness to dread or maybe even a rolling of the eyes – maybe with memories of resolutions in years past that haven’t made it all that far past January.


I’d like to re-frame this tradition of New Year’s resolutions – and invite us to think for a bit – in terms of setting intentions – the spiritual practice of setting intentions. I mentioned last Sunday three kinds of start-of-the-day spiritual practices – mindfulness practices – that also offer a starting place for a fresh new year:


1. We’ve talked about the practice of gratitude – a daily practice of pausing, reflecting on the life just lived, and giving thanks – living in the ups and downs of life – but not letting the ups slip by unnoticed. And we’ve learned that science tells us what religious traditions have long taught – gratitude is good for us.

2. Last week, we talked about the practice of awareness or mindfulness – taking some moments to be aware of things as they are – the good, the not-so-good – living in what’s real.

3. This morning, I thought we’d talk some about the practice of setting intentions – at the beginning of the day – also fitting at the beginning of a new year.


The spiritual practice of setting intentions is really about taking a moment before we rush headlong into the hustle and bustle of the day – taking a moment and thinking of “the qualities by which we want to live our lives” – and then setting an intention to actually live by those.[3] It’s about not letting the swirl of the world guide and govern our days – and instead being intentional – remembering what matters most – and living with that as the intention by which we structure and inhabit our days.


It’s really a very simple practice.


  • In the morning, before the day cranks into motion, take a few moments and settle in. Think on the day that lies ahead – what’s on your schedule? – who do you expect to see?

  • And ask: What qualities do I most want to bring into this day? Is it compassion? Or calmness? Or courage? Or hope? Or stability? Or being a listening presence? What qualities do I most want to embody today?

  • What might that look like in the day ahead? If it’s compassion, what would it look like to live out compassion today?

  • What might the challenges be? Where might it be tough to be compassionate in the day ahead?

  • And then set that intention: Compassion. Today, that’s what matters most, that’s what I want to live out in this day.


Now here’s where I think there’s a subtle, but important difference between making New Year’s resolutions, and setting intentions. When we make a New Year’s resolutions, and we break it, we can think well, that’s it – didn’t make it again. The power of an intention is that we can set it – and then return to it. That’s the nature of an intention. You set the intention at the beginning of the day, and when you find yourself drifting from it – you just return to it. In that moment, the intention is actually working powerfully – it is there to bring us back to what matters most. Drifting from an intention brings another opportunity to return to it.


There’s some science to this too. New Year’s resolutions sometimes can be a wish – a wish for change. Setting intentions and living into them over time helps us ground our living and our habits in the things that matter most – in our values – in the qualities we want to inhabit in the world. With that grounding, we can link new habits to existing habits that reflect these values – we can live these intentions out in community – with others who share these values – we do this together with the some mutual accountability. (When I post the sermon, I’ll include some references to a couple accessible books that reflect the cognitive behavioral psychology behind this.)[4]

Now, of course, as those who follow Christ – it’s not just any intention. We’re not talking about waking in the morning and saying, “My intention today is to dominate the world” – or, “My intention is to win at all costs.” For the Magi, the intention is to find their way to the life of Christ – we can think of that as the Big Intention from which all our other intentions flow – and really a test as to whether our daily intentions reflect what matters most.

What qualities do I want to embody today that reflect the new world, the new life made manifest in the life of Christ? Yes, compassion. Yes, justice. Yes, mercy. You may think about today’s worship – and say I want to set an intention for gratitude, or curiosity, or persistence.

In just a moment, we’re going to give a little gift that might be a help in setting intentions as we move into the new year. In recent years, a number of communities have embraced an Epiphany tradition of something called Star Words. I first encountered this at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Napa, learned about it from one of my mentors, Deana Reed.[5] Star Words are just that – an Epiphany star with a Word written on it – a quality or hope like the intentions we’ve been discussing. The Star Word is a gift – you can carry it into the new year – make of it what feels right to you – return to it when you need to. These are just a couple Star Words I’ve received over the past 15 years or so – they still sit on my desk at home – a reminder of those gifts – those worthy intentions.

So as we sing our prayer song in a bit – you’ll be invited to come forward and take a Star Word from the basket – just pull any star – receive it as a gift (If you absolutely think you need to swap it for another one, you can do that after church – but there’s something about having a word of blessing come to you as a gift.). And, if you’re online, I will be happy to mail a star word to you this week – just send your name and address to Mary Kathryn in the chat – and that will make its way to me. Or email me.

The Magi set an intention and set out on their journey. Notice a few things about that journey. We’ve already said that their intention and their journey were not uninterrupted. Life gets in the way. The real gift of an intention is that you can always return to it. Grace abounds.

Notice that their intention to find their way to Christ takes them right into the midst of the world of Herod. They live out their intention – we live out ours – in a world where power-over still harms. Our intention to find our way to Christ may bring us face-to-face with the struggles of the world. So, if your intention is “compassion” – that may lead you to extend kindness to a friend. It also may challenge you to see the unkindness in the world writ big – the systems that harm the vulnerable. That intention may insist that you say true things plainly, that we relinquish ways of living that participate in the hurt and harm of the world, and that we work together as we build with God this new world where everyone can thrive.

Notice that as the Magi’s journey unfolds there are times when they have to re-set their intentions. Finding their way to Christ means that they have to abandon the road that leads back to Herod, and find their way home by another way. We may have to change our minds. And our lives.

And most of all notice this: The Magi are not alone. God guides them there and safely home. And, however many of them they were – we know that they were plural. There were more than one of them. They set their intention together, braved the trek through Herod’s world together, and found their way to Christ together.


Still on the threshold of this new year – that’s our invitation too. The invitation is to set our intention to find our way into the life of Christ – to follow that star – together – wherever it might lead.



© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] For general background on the text, see Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Diane G. Chen, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-12 ; Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-9 [2] See Waetjen, p.39. [3] My experience of this spiritual practice of setting intentions comes primarily from the excellent (and recommended) app and podcast Ten Percent Happier (a great resource for mindfulness practice). This quote and the example described here are drawn from a meditation by Dawn Mauricio. [4] For books on setting intentions and building good habits, see James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2018); Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York, NY: Random House, 2012). See also Liz Slonena, “How to Set Intentions, Not Resolutions, to Actually Achieve Your New Year’s Goals,” https://www.behaviortherapist.com/2020/12/29/how-to-set-intentions-not-resolutions-to-actually-achieve-your-new-years-goals/ ; “The Habit Replacement Loop,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-media-psychology-effect/201705/the-habit-replacement-loop [5] I’m also grateful to Marci Auld Glass, who has written on (and shared words for) this practice, see https://revgalblogpals.org/star-words/



Photo Credit: Markus Spiske, used with permission via Unsplash

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