Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

epiphany stained glass

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:2) – January 6, 2019

Have you ever been far away from the city at night—perhaps downstate Illinois, or the upper peninsula of Michigan, or in the Rocky Mountains—and looked up to see the sky filled with stars? I just was in rural Indiana a few nights ago. The night was clear and crisp, and I saw more lovely stars than I had seen for a number of years. The heavens at night are truly amazing. We can all be astounded, just by looking up.

About the time of the birth of Christ, there were some wise men, scholars from the East, who did just that. They not only looked up and admired the night sky, but they also studied the sky, the stars, and the movement of the planets with great intensity. Two thousand years ago, some Gentile wise men—or, Magi, as some translations of the Bible use the transliteration—noticed something absolutely remarkable in the skies.

I don’t know whether lots of people notice the skies or the stars any more. At least, not here in the United States. At least, not here in this world of instant entertainment from any number of entertainment or electronic devices people can watch or hold in the palm of their hands.

What are people missing, in not paying attention to the skies and the stars? What are people missing, by not paying attention to this particular Star, the Star the wise men saw?    

The account from Matthew’s Gospel tells us about these scholars from the East—Gentile scholars, probably minor nobility, who devoted their lives to observing and studying the skies. A pastor and biblical historian, Chad Ashby, says “The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the Magi were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams.” [1] These studious activities of the wise men—activities we might today consider selective, esoteric, even a bit crackpot—were perfectly valid. At the time of the first century, these activities were universally recognized as important parts of serious study.

What I want us to focus on is the Star, the scholars’ special point of study. These scholars had access to a number of scholarly, historical and prophetic books and writings from many different places in the known world. After observing this fantastic Star in the skies, and consulting the learned books they had available, these scholars came to the conclusion that they needed to travel where the Star was telling them to go, or where the Star was leading them.

Where do we go when we are seeking, today? Do we follow a Star, on a spiritual journey? Do we have some learned writings telling us where to go?

As we finish up the Advent and Christmas seasons, we consider two special Christmas and Epiphany carols today. Today, we think of “The First Noel” and “We Three Kings.” These beloved traditional Christmas carols tell us much of what we now associate with the Nativity story. In fact, these two carols conflate the Nativity narrative of the angels and shepherds from Luke with the later account of the Epiphany journey of the wise men visiting the toddler Jesus. Thus, we have the mash-up of the angel and shepherds at the manger with the newborn Jesus, right alongside the three Kings offering their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh.

I could discuss the fact that the Gospel of Matthew never tells us how many scholars travel to see the young Jesus, but simply that they did bring gifts. Those gifts are identified as three, and I suppose somewhere along the line someone fabricated the idea that three gifts meant three gift-givers, and these scholars or minor nobility from the East transformed into kings. But, I am not going to dwell on that point. Because—it is not significant to our narrative.

What is significant is the response of King Herod. When Herod found out that the Gentile scholars wanted to see a newborn King, he was filled with great fear. The Gospel of Matthew specifically says so; and the majority of the people of Judea were very much afraid, as well.

What about us, today? Would we even begin to follow that Star, as the wise men did? Do we fear where or to what that Star could lead us? Are there new possibilities in our lives that await us? Are we afraid of what lies ahead? Are we afraid to find Jesus?

According to the historical record, King Herod was a narcissist and a highly polarizing politician, adept at lying and twisting the truth to get his own way. He was a hedonist who even had a series of wives, and was a chronic philanderer. (Comparisons have been made between Herod and current political leaders.) However, Herod’s two-faced request to these foreign-born nobility sounds mighty suspect to me, particularly since I was born and raised in Chicago, which has a pretty politically crooked reputation.

So, it’s not at all surprising to have duplicitous King Herod cozying up to these scholars and giving them a line. Moreover, he schemes to have the wise men gather information for him, and then come back to report. Is anyone else really creeped out by Herod’s two-faced behavior? Let me say that if you are, that is just as it should be. Herod is the really bad guy in this story, especially because he has all baby boys under two years old killed in the area surrounding Bethlehem. Just in case the newborn King of the Jews happened to be among them.

When you and I try to follow Jesus, are there things—or people—that seem like good ideas on the surface? But under closer examination, are we able to identify them as false and two-faced, or even twisted and hateful? Even though Herod was blustering and being his usual twisted, hateful self, the Star continued to shine. The Star continued to lead the wise men to the house in Bethlehem that contained the young boy Jesus, with Mary His mother.

We all know what happened when the scholars from the East met with Mary and the young Jesus. They bowed down, presented their gifts, and worshiped.

As Pastor Janet Hunt says, these wise men—however many they were—became convinced of their find. “Having felt the prodding of one particular star to take this incredible journey, when they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by God.  We know this could not have been at all what they expected — at least not God in the form and circumstance before them there…. Still, in that baby, they met the ‘Holy One,’ God’s Own Son. And all they were doing was what they believed they were made to do.” [2]

God was working in and through these scholars from the East, long before they followed the Star, long before they find Jesus. Is it possible that God could work through us, today?

God may want us to continue to follow that Star, to find Jesus in a new way today. We may realize that God was working in and through us, for years, Do we have some new adventure, new relationship or new direction where God is leading us, today?

We can take the opportunity and follow the Star, straight to Jesus, straight to the things—and people—where He wants us to get involved. Won’t you take the opportunity to be engaged and amazed, today? Why not take the opportunity to shine the light of that Star, the light of Jesus, in a dark world today?

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2016/december/magi-wise-men-or-kings-its-complicated.html

[2] http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/12/on-magi-and-journeys.html

“On Magi and Journeys,” the Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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The Light on This Corner

Matthew 5:14-16 – February 5, 2017

matt-5-14-light-city-at-night

“The Light on This Corner”

Remember the holiday we celebrated here in this church, just a few weeks ago? The birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Foretold by prophets, welcomed by angels. I mean Christmas, the coming of God’s light into a dark world.

Just think about light, for a moment. When you walk into a dark house late at night, what is first thing you do? Turn on the lights. When the electricity shuts off during a power outage one dark and stormy night, what is the first thing you do? Find a flashlight or a candle and light it. Light is not only comforting, but useful. Light helps us in any number of ways. Helps us to see, allows us to work and read and go about our activities in what would otherwise be a dark and scary situation.

Jesus talked about light here in today’s Gospel reading, too. But before we get into His words about light, where does this reading coming from? These words are from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of His public ministry. Another way of looking at this long address is a long lecture on God’s view of a lot of things. Important things, with a lot of real-life illustrations.

Our bible study on Wednesday mornings has just started a study on the first verses of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, what comes just before these verses today. I won’t talk about the Beatitudes, since each sentence, each blessing of those deserves a whole sermon all by itself. We go on to these verses about salt and light, which the Rabbi Jesus places here, after the Beatitudes.       We could say more about salt (which is important, and tells us a lot about what Jesus thinks about the part we take in our world). However, I wanted to focus on Jesus’s words about Light. He says, You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

What did we sing right before the sermon started? “This Little Light of Mine.” When we held our lights up, do you know what that reminded me of? Remember back to Christmas Eve? For the closing hymn of that service, we sang “Silent Night.” We all held candles and sang. We held those candles as a symbol or sign of God’s light within each of us, God’s light that shines among us.

Jesus had a definite point to His words. We are light. Right now.

However, there is a definite temptation for many followers of Jesus. Some are tempted to make these words of Jesus a rigid requirement, as if Jesus were a stern, mean drill sergeant. Communicating with sarcasm, shaming. Shaking His finger at us and shouting, “You’d better be light!” Or a little less severe: “If you want to be light, do this!” Or even, “Before I call you light, I’ll need to see this from you.” [1]

Does that sound like Jesus? Truly? Would He ever use shame, guilt, and sarcasm?

That is most certainly not the way Jesus communicates here. As commentator David Lose says, “Rather, He says both simply and directly, “You are the light of the world.” It is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.” [2]

Dr. Lose reminds us of the statistics about a child’s self-esteem compared to what kind of messages they hear. When elementary-aged children hear one single negative message about themselves—like, “you’re mean!” “how stupid!” “you can’t do anything right!”—psychologists suggest that the children need to hear ten positive messages to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. [3] That is, to correct the internal emotional and psychological balance of the children, and cause them to have a positive, healthy self-image.

“Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or teen or adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she — all of us! — will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.” [4]

That is exactly what Jesus is doing here! He is calling us—naming us—light. We are—all of us—light of the world. The light of a city on a hill, shedding light to the whole community. Yes, Jesus wants us to be that light. He is calling us to grow into that identity and behavior! That same light of God we held up on Christmas Eve? The light of God that came into the world as a Baby born in Bethlehem? This is the same light that Jesus is talking about here. It’s the light of a city on a hill, and the light for the nations, that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

We aren’t required to do ten impossible things before breakfast to just break even with God, and try to get in line for a chance to reach for the light. It isn’t hoping that someday, maybe, we might finally become that light. We aren’t hiding our lights under a bushel, either.

We are that light! Now! And, we are holding it high! Why? Because, Jesus says so!

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor from DeKalb, about an hour west of here in Morton Grove, has this real-life illustration about letting the light of God shine.

About two weeks ago, she met with the director of Hope Haven, the homeless shelter in DeKalb. The director told Pastor Hunt that the homeless shelter is the second largest housing facility in the county for the mentally ill (after the county jail for DeKalb County). Pastor Hunt was cut to the heart when the director told her the homeless shelter had to ration toilet paper, because of severe funding cuts. (Imagine, rationing even toilet paper.)

This is what Pastor Janet Hunt’s Lutheran congregation is going to do for the month of February. She said, “we will be collecting toilet paper and giving it to some of the most vulnerable among us. And maybe this will give us a way to begin a conversation about why it is so that the jail and the homeless shelter appear to be the only options in our neighborhood for people who are so fragile. Maybe we can start to shine light on this and them even in a time when too much of the world seems to care so little for such as these. And maybe that shining light will serve as both beacon and promise to our neighbors — both those who are so vulnerable and those who have extra toilet paper to share.” [5]

This might just be a little thing her church can do. Little to them, but huge to the people at the homeless shelter. This is surely a way to let the residents and the employees at Hope Haven know that someone cares. Someone is listening, and caring, and doing something.

Dr. Hunt’s illustration is a tremendous tie-in with Micah 6:8 from last week’s sermon! Do justice and love mercy/kindness/chesed for these homeless people in DeKalb, and shine the light of God. In the same way, we can let our lights (or, the Light of God) shine here in Morton Grove so that others will see it and rejoice. A city build on a hill shines its light for all to see. This church on this corner shines its light for all to see in this community, as well.

Where have you seen the light of God, lately? How can you let your light shine, today? How can you make a difference in someone’s life, even if it is small? I have a list of some kind, loving things you and I can do, each and every day. We can BE what Jesus calls us: light to the world. Light to our community. We can all live into God’s affirmation, trust, and love and BE God’s light to everyone we meet. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011. (Italics mine.)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011

[5] http://dancingwiththeword.com/you-are-the-light-of-the-world/  “You Are the Light of the World,” Janet H Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)