Monday, January 6, 2020

God Of The Stars

Last night at sunset, our parish gathered to welcome the feast of the Epiphany by saying farewell to the twelve days of Christmas with a bonfire of our trees and wreaths and garland. After a prayer, we stood in awe of the flames that licked the sky before heading inside for chili and cornbread and fellowship across generations. Later on, when I walked out of the house with some friends, we noticed a bright light, hanging in the sky, shining down upon us. It was Venus, we confirmed, and not a star, but, as we walked the dimly lit gravel driveway, several of us stumbled over the uneven terrain because we were still looking up in awe at the heavenly lights.

For as long as human beings have been on this planet, we have stared up at the stars in wonder, and we have gathered around fire in admiration. They are useful and powerful, manageable yet untamable. The God of Abraham made covenant with our spiritual ancestor by appearing as a smoking firepot that processed through a corridor of sacrifice and promised to Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven in Genesis 15. Today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we recall how the same God who made Godself known in specific ways to specific people as the one true God would not let that particularity be the end of the story. Instead, the God of all creation revealed the birth of Jesus through the astrological charts of some pagan stargazers, bringing them all the way to Bethlehem.

They couldn't have gotten there on their own. As we read in Matthew 2, the wise men from the East saw a star at its rising and interpreted it as a sign that the king of the Jews would be born. But where would they find him? Perhaps they knew to go to the capital city, or, as the story suggest, perhaps the star itself somehow led them. When they arrive in Jerusalem, where a sort-of Jewish king was already enthroned in mock-political, Roman-invested authority, they ask Herod for help: "Where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews?" Herod then consults the prophets, who report that the king is to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and sends the wise men off, asking them to return and report.

The star led them to the place where the child was. Does that mean that the sign persisted until the moment when they arrived in the village? Did the star somehow point the way physically? Were the astrological charts somehow effective in helping them find a specific address? No one in Bethlehem, except, perhaps if you mix in Luke's story, some shepherds, knew anything about a king being born. If you showed up as a tourist and asked to see the king's house, they'd probably take you to the ancestral home of David, where you could buy a t-shirt and a postcard. However it worked, we know that the magi had help finding Jesus.

And what did the wise men come to see? Were they expecting the family they visited to identify as royalty? They knelt and paid the child-king homage, opening and presenting gifts, perhaps an attempt to solidify a future alliance between their peoples. It must have been a ridiculous sight, for these foreigners to come and make such a fuss about a child whom no one knew about. Yet God brought them there. When they left, did they know what they had seen? Did they convert to Christianity (anachronism, I know)? Did they become children of the God of Abraham? Or is Epiphany just a sign for us generations later that God's good news is intended for all people.

God announced the birth of a savior in cosmic communication--a message that could be interpreted across ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. God used the movement of the planets and stars to declare Jesus' arrival. It makes me wonder whether God waited until Jupiter was in a particular part of the sky to send Jesus to the earth. It makes me wonder how the pagan, godless signs might actually be reflections of God's presence in creation.

Today, we proclaim that our God is the God of all people and wills for all people to know God's saving love. Today, we offer ourselves into the work of helping people find that truth about God--that the God we know is not confined to our understanding yet our understanding of God leads us to share knowledge of God as good news for the whole world.

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