Heavenly Sparks from Horizon to Horizon
A sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 3, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One of the great things about moving to rural Ohio has been a chance to rediscover the night sky. Bigger city lights tend to ironically blind us from the night, you can’t see stars or even the moon very well in urban locales. But here, if you take the time to look up on a clear night, the moon is lamp-like and the stars are like crisp white embers – hot sparks– strewn across the heavens. In fact if you stay out long enough to let your eyes adjust the Milky Way resembles the faint trail of a giant sparkler swooshed across the sky from horizon to horizon.
Long before city lights and the distractions of home entertainment, our ancestors spent a lot of time looking at the night sky. Wise men and wise women leaned to read its patterns. The celestial bodies moved in the dark expanse of space and could predict seasons and compass direction –some even thought, and some still even think today, that they can predict events. The Magi were just such wise ones, gentiles from other lands who specialized in celestial happenings and meanings and the spiritual mystery that comes with looking into the great expanse of the universe.
The Magi were not mere astrologers like we might call those who read stars for predictions today. Magi were very well thought of at the time and considered smart (sort of like scientists are in our culture). They were considered wise in extraordinary ways. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan wrote that Magi:
refers to a kind of religious figure : magi had wisdom by being in touch with another reality. Their wisdom was a “secret wisdom,” a kind not known by ordinary people. No doubt some were astrologers in the sense that they paid attention to “signs in the heavens,” but to think of magi as primarily astrologers is misleading. Rather magi were people with more than earthly wisdom. 1
(Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan).
In our lesson this morning these wise ones “from other nations are drawn to the light of Jesus and kneel before him, and pay him homage.” 2 See, Jesus is considered in Matthew from the start to have been acknowledged as king of not just the Jews, but all nations. The Gospel of Matthew is about the breaking-in of the Reign of Christ as people from all walks of life, and nations, experience the Light of Christ. All are wise who seek and find and pay homage – like the Magi– to Jesus.
As we talked about all Advent long and on Christmas Eve, the Nativity stories are, simply put, about God sending Light in the darknesses of life. The Bible stories are meant to have metaphoric meaning. The light of God’s heavenly reign sent on Christmas Day is meant to rescue – to save– everyone living in the darkness created by earthly reigns, like Rome’s dark rule under its patsy Herod.
Some of you may be thinking “Wait a sec Christmas is over. Why is the preacher talking about stars and Magi and Christmas? It’s January 3rd,what’s up with that?” Well . . . I know a lot of our Christmas trees are down and some of us have even packed up the holiday stuff at home, but technically we are actually still in the Christmas Season– there are twelve days of Christmas and we have three left. Plus Epiphany is this Wednesday when across the world as that the Magi’s encounter with Jesus is especially celebrated and lifted up. We recall they encountered Jesus and had an epiphany of who is really is. So, for the record, while the secular world has put Christmas away, we are not quite done yet.
A big part of our Christmas and Nativity and Epiphany stories is the star. As we heard today, the star is actually a driving force in the story of the Magi. Stars, of course, symbolize light. From an unaided perspective, stars appear to us as light when it is dark. The Magi, we are told, see what we tend to now call “the Christmas star.” They see it at its rising and they followed that star “until it stopped over the place where the [Christ] child was.” And actually before it finally hovers over Jesus, it also first stops and waits for the Magi as they talk to Herod.
That’s some star. Mount Vernon is, in my experience, a remarkable place but I gotta tell you, even on clear night Knox County doesn’t have a star like the one in our lesson today. The Christmas star is like no star I’ve ever seen in the night sky, no matter how clear it is out. It’s like no star science has or will encounter. Creation is such that planets, moons and stars cannot actually, literally, lead to specific geographic locations. While it is true we can find general directions on a compass from the heavenly bodies, they are by definition too far away to be navigational tools that bring us to pinpoint locations on earth.
To state the obvious, celestial bodies do not move and stop to lead and hover over hovels the heavenly sent babes live in with their mom. Yet every year around Christmas there are reports in the media about what comet or star or star-and-planet alignment the ancients witnessed in Matthew. Without a doubt such reports are erroneous because we are 100% certain there’s no way any heavenly bodies, let alone a star a bazillion miles away, does what Matthew’s recorded a star doing. His Christmas
star . . . does not simply shine in the sky; it moves. It not only leads the wise men westward to Jerusalem, but then turns and moves south to Bethlehem . . . It leads the way to the place of Jesus’s birth with the precision of a global positioning device. 3 (p 182)
Neither the news media concocting a feature seasonal story, nor Biblical Literalists wishing the Bible were unquestionable evidence, can provide a satisfactory scientific rationale or historic precedence for a wandering star with GPS qualities.
Looking for the historic origin of the star as if it could have been video taped as a real celestial happening misses the point of star in the story. The point is, in darkness God sends light and can lead us to God’s very incarnation on earth. For us as Christians that incarnation is known as Christ. At Christmas we celebrate Christ’s arrival in a manger in a babe we call Jesus. At Epiphany we celebrate Jesus revelation to the world. See, when the Magi experience the revelation, it symbolizes Christ is no longer a localized secret.
The Gospel of Matthew was written when the small sect of Jewish Jesus Followers had started to blossom out to include Gentiles on a regular basis. A generation earlier Paul’s letters evidence the outreach idea first being pitched and argued against – and then being played out– as Paul struggles with other leaders to get the Jesus following moving out beyond Palestine and into the rest of the Roman Empire. Paul, of course, wins the day. And Matthew is metaphorically emphasizing the success of the mission to the Gentiles. Matthew honors the Gentile Magi, even as he criticizes Rome’s oppressive Gentile governance through Herod.
So what can all this mean for us here today in Mount Vernon where stars are aplenty in the sky, but not one of them is going to direct us to a given locale, let alone bring us to Christ’s house? If the point of our lesson today is that in darkness God sends light that can lead us to God’s incarnation on earth, Christ, then where in the darkness do we find the light, the stars that point us to Divineness on earth?
To ask that a little differently, if there are wise men and women today hoping to find and bring gifts to God on earth, what light can lead them there now? Well, another one of the great things about living in Knox County – and I mean this sincerely– is the increased chance to encounter God sparks in day-to-day life. As someone who has lived in many places, I have been blown away by the amazing generosity and compassion of the people in Knox County. There is a care for others here that spans generations and politics and economics. People here of many persuasions care about others and do something about it.
There’s a sign on at the western entrance to our city that says “Welcome to Mount Vernon. America’s Hometown.” From my perspective that sign is so apt. This community has what other towns dream of having, an ethos of care and the desire for the well being of others. It’s a pretty remarkable place. It may not be heaven but it sure shows signs of heaven breaking in. It is a blessing to have been called to pastor here and live in this town.
Using the sparks of God image, Mount Vernon is aglow like a sparkler with God. And the trail of that giant sparkler swooshed across the whole county (actually) very often leads here to this, Christ’s house. Many of those sparks are generated right here at First Congregational United Church OF Christ. If we take time to notice, crisp white embers – hot sparks– of loving conduct are strewn out from this faith community in many ways. The bits of stardust from here move out and about in the community and hover out there – a bit like the Christmas star– broadcasting Christ’s presence.
We have members who use the blessing of their gifts to help create and sustain parks and open spaces and the infra-structure of the county, as well as supporting with valuable resources a great number of other compassionate and thoughtful organizations and projects. Some of us work at, or serve as volunteers for, non-profits helping the hospital, library, schools, the church, children, teens, shelters and places for those in community who are in need of protection or shelter or food or care. I see a number of you interact with others in a very warm, loving and compassionate manner. As a rule people from this church have sparks of God in their eyes as well in their many good and Godly actions.
And, of course, here in this church and going out from this church we have a number of ministries and missions that reach out as sparks igniting love that aid and help many people with many needs. The church helps local shelters, schools and non-profits that provide for those in need. We host meals for the hungry. We are strong vocal advocates and educators on social justice issues like women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, interfaith and ecumenical relationships, non-violence, peace and Black Lives Matter. This is a remarkable church in a remarkable town.
The starlight shines greatly from this Christ’s home already. But in this new year, with the help of God, I hope to help us look into considering generating even more sparks of love that trail in and out of this faith community. Transformative experiences like: a multi-church spiritual retreat; developing and enhancing our recently underway Pleasant Street Elementary School Project; providing a weekly Lenten Series on racism; working with other churches to revitalize our multi-Church Youth Group; developing a Black Lives Matter ministry; creating a local ecumenical social justice clergy network and a ministry with an inner-city church; and looking into supporting a group for Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
I also hope for many of us to volunteer at a church fair booth this summer to make God’s sparkling presence in this home of Christ’s better known. We can each serve as a star during fair week to signal to wise men and wise women looking for Christ’s presence signaling to them that it can be found right here. That way more and more Magi can see the starlight that leads to Christ right here in this place.
Of course the best way to get people to see that is to tell them directly and invite them to church or a church activity. Over 80% of visitors come to church because they are personally invited. I am hoping too that more and more of us this think of this as star work and invite folks.
We had a Christ-soaked 2015 and the plan is to have an even more Christ-soaked 2016 with our starlights ablaze for modern Magi to find Christ who is surely here in each of you and the ethos and actions of this church. The plan is to (reading new UCC banner in back of the church):
Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
1. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas, p 183
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED