Monday, January 4, 2016

The Stargazers

Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is the reading for Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, which is actually on January 6. We don’t always observe Epiphany in this church, but I like to lift it up for several reasons.

The first reason is to remind us that Christmas is not one day, but a season, twelve days which begin on December 24 and end on January 6.

The Western tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ for only one day
with gifts and trees and overeating is a relatively modern innovation.
It seems sad to me, that so often we have this huge buildup
that begins around Halloween and then abruptly ends on December 25th.
Christmas is not over yet!

The second reason I like this celebration is that it invites us to consider the big arc of geography, history, faith, science and theology all in one observance. These “wise men” we hear about are actually Zoroastrian astronomers – scientists of the first century, from Persia, which is now Iran. If you remember, it was Cyrus of Persia who overthrew the empire of Babylon, when God’s people were in exile. Now, these magi have come from Persia to greet the newborn Jesus.

The third reason for celebrating Epiphany is the way it gives us –
right away after Jesus’ birth – a glimpse of the expansive love of God.
The Magi were not Jewish, but Zoroastrian.
They were not locals – they were from far away in the East.
And they came to worship, and to warn.

Let’s listen for God’s word in Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men
and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As I read this text through the week and thought about it,
my mind kept turning to the fact that these “wise men”
were actually astronomers.
There is no Biblical evidence that they were kings,
even though that’s what the song says.
They were stargazers!

We call them the three wise men, but we don’t really know that.
We assume they were all men,
but there may have been women in the traveling party.
We don’t know how many there were, or when they actually arrived, though we can safely assume that it was not at the very moment of Jesus’ birth.

It seems natural that the magi would have gone straight to King Herod
in their quest to find the child born king of the Jews.
And it seems natural that they would bring gifts,
since anyone at the time who visited royalty
would pay homage to that person.

What I find amazing to think about, though,
is that they had made this tremendously long journey
because they had seen something unusual in the night sky.
They were literally searching in the dark.

They did not know for certain where the star would lead them,
but they set out on the journey anyway –
following the starlight, with curiosity and determination.

Stargazers are like that.
Astronomers are a unique tribe.
I checked with a friend whose husband is an astronomer
and she confirmed that astronomers, as a rule,
are quite precise, very observant, and determined.

To be a stargazer it also helps to be curious and imaginative.
Many astronomers are very creative –
William Herschel, the man who discovered Uranus,
also built his own telescopes,
AND played the violin, oboe and organ,
AND composed music for all of them – ten concertos, to be exact!
William Herschel didn’t do this alone –
he was supported by a community of scholars,
and by the generosity of the king, who paid him to stargaze.

Because of that, he no longer had to worry about making a living in music,
but could give himself full time to his passion for astronomy.

William’s sister Caroline kept all his notes,
organized and edited his writings,
assisted in observations,
and actually once spoon fed him while
he spent hours grinding a reflector for a telescope.
She was such an important part of the work that King George
rewarded her with a stipend just as he did for her brother.

It was because of support, vision, and community that Herschel
had the time and focus to study the night sky
long enough to discover and identify Uranus,
a planet that was invisible to the naked eye.

Hubble Images to Herschel Music

Similarly, it was because of science, and imagination, and courage
that the Magi set out on their journey.
This is not just an idle addendum to the manger story,
not just a way to add three more parts to the Christmas pageant.
This visitation of the magi was a hugely significant event,
theologically and spiritually.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel wants us to see that,
and wants us, too, to gaze up into the dark heavens
and search for that light, a new light that leads us toward Jesus.

That light leads us toward generosity,
giving to God what is valuable,
offering to Jesus what is meaningful.

That star guides us toward a new way of living,
welcoming outsiders, foreigners, oddballs and failures,
welcoming the wealthy and learned, the rich and famous,
skeptic and believer, the sure and the struggling.

We set out in the darkness, traveling at night.
The journey is not simple; it is fraught with risk.
Sometimes the dark of night feels threatening.
It is a scary undertaking, as we take one cautious step after another,
with only a little distant light to guide us.

Sometimes that surrounding night feels like a velvet cloak,
surrounding us, comforting us,
as we keep our eyes fixed on that star,
whose light began making its way to us thousands of years ago.

The light of the star creates the way for us,
we who travel toward Jesus so many centuries later.

It is not always a way that we can see –
in fact, it is never a way that we can entirely see,
for we travel in the dark,
trusting the light that shines in the darkness,
trusting the star of truth that guides us,
trusting the love of the one who set the stars in the skies,
and who beckons us still
to come and offer our gifts,
to come and worship,
to come and adore him.

We are stargazers all,
led like the magi to the presence of the Lord.
Come, let us adore him.


PBS Film information, “Seeing in the Dark”

William Herschel article

Youtube lecture about William and Caroline

Love Songs

December 20, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 52:7-10
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, were in exile, captives in Babylon. They had been taken away from their homes after they had again strayed from God’s law. Things weren’t quite as bad as they had been when they were slaves in Egypt. At least in Babylon, they had a little bit of freedom. But still, it was not home. They were waiting for God’s deliverance – some were waiting patiently, but mostly they were anxiously anticipating God’s deliverance. So when they heard the prophetic words of Isaiah that we are about to hear, they did not say to themselves, “Oh, that will be nice some day -- five or six hundred years from now!” They did not hear these words as a prediction of a Messiah to be born five centuries from then – they were ready to be delivered from their exile!

As it eventually happened, Cyrus of Persia – the area that is now Iran, was Israel’s deliverer, when he conquered Babylon and set them free. We, of course, hear this prophecy in a very different way. We hear the news of a Messiah, coming to deliver us. Let’s listen for the good news of God’s reign in Isaiah 52:7-10.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.

Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.

The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

What a vivid prophecy that is – this image of a messenger, running breathlessly down the mountain toward the watchtower! This messenger brings word of the battle won – God’s shalom has conquered the world! God’s peace has covered the earth! Even the rubble of the damaged city sings out: “God rules! The God of Israel reigns over all creation! It is a proclamation of victory, a victory that does not belong to this or that king, to this or that country, to this or that ideology. The victory belongs to God alone.” (Dirk Lange, Working Preacher) The song echoes out from the mountain and across the valleys, through the plains and to the watchtower. Even from a great distance, the sentinels on the watchtower perceive the good news and sing along – they burst into song along with the messenger: “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God!”

This shalom that God has promised –peace on earth – is not merely an end to war.
It is wholeness, health and harmony for all of creation. It is the restoration of God’s purposes for humankind, the rebalancing of nature, the realm of reconciliation promised in the covenant. For the Israelites, it is the love song that calls them home. For us, in this century, the melody of that promise rings out again, amid the strife and grief that surround us, louder even than our glad songs of Christmas. This song of love, of being called home, sings to our hearts, to our deepest, truest longings.

This music is more powerful than any individual song, more powerful than any solo tune.
It is a chorale, a joining of voices in a song of salvation, not personal salvation for me alone, but the salvation of the world through God’s love. The song of good news is the song of the church, the song we sing together.

I mentioned last week that singing is good for us, both physically and psychologically.
You already know that singing releases chemicals in your brain – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin – chemicals that make you feel better. Singing makes you breathe more deeply, which makes you feel even better! Singing lifts your mood.

But even better than singing alone is singing with other people. Singing with other people just makes you feel good. Singing in a choir or a congregation improves your well-being.

It increases positive feelings, focuses your attention, gives you social support and brain stimulation. Choral singing improves social skills and overall mental health. It even makes you feel better about yourself – yes, even if you don’t think you sing well, choral singing increases your self-esteem!

And what I found amazing: when people sing together, they come together in harmony in body as well as spirit. Their breathing, neural functions, and muscular movements synchronize. Even their heartbeats synchronize. Not only do their voices harmonize, their hearts do too!

This wholeness and harmony, this synchronicity produced by singing is to me a reflection of God’s shalom, an expression of the cosmic harmony God desires for us. A simpler way to say it is “love.”

You know those cheesy old movie scenes, where the two people in love see each other and rush into each other’s arms, and they are saying “John!” “Marsha!” “John!” “Marsha!” and then they embrace and the violins come up in the background and the symphony swells and the angels sing? That’s almost what it is like in Isaiah’s vision of God’s shalom, the beautiful feet of the messenger, hurrying to the welcoming arms of the sentinels on the watchtower, all of them singing, all of creation singing, as God’s good news comes to pass!

This is indeed the song of the church, the song that when we sing it together in harmony, increases our well-being, gives us joy, and confidence, and actually makes our hearts beat as one! The song of the church throughout the year is the anthem of good news for all people, a melody of peace, of God’s shalom.

The people of Israel were awaiting redemption, waiting for salvation, and it would come to them, not five hundred years later, but in their lifetimes. We too await redemption, in this season. We anticipate the coming of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. And he does come to us, not as a mighty warrior, or even a prince of this world, but as a baby, small and helpless, like us.

He comes as a demonstration of God’s grace and mercy, the embodiment of the love of God.
How beautiful are the feet of the messenger, tiny pink baby toes, there in the manger;
how beautiful are those dusty calloused heels, walking through Galilee; how beautiful are those feet, bruised and pierced, nailed to a cross, the feet of the savior, the one who brings good tidings of peace.

So what can we do but join the choir, the choir of every time and place, every race and nation, every blade of grass, every stone, all creation –
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted us!,
God has redeemed Jerusalem, and Washington DC and Sterling and all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

It is a song of hope and joy and deliverance, a song that rings out across the centuries –
God is redeeming the earth! Not five hundred years from now, but today, in this moment, salvation comes to this people.

That’s the song of the church.
That’s the song of Advent.
That is God’s love song.
It is our song too.


"America Ranks Choruses as #1 Form of Arts Participation." Chorus America. Feb. 25, 2003.

Allot, Serena. "Why singing makes you happy." Telegraph. March 26, 2009.

"Choral singing and psychological wellbeing: Findings from English choirs in a cross-national survey using the WHOQOL-BREF." International Symposium on Performance Science, 2007

MacLean, Tamara. "Choral singing makes you happy: survey." Sydney Morning Herald. July 10, 2008.

"Singing to females makes male birds' brains happy." EurekAlert. Oct. 3, 2008.

Does Singing Make You Happy? By Julia Layton

A Fascinating thing happens to the heartbeats of choir members

TIME – Singing changes your braing

Breathless Joy

December 13, 2015, Third Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Luke 2:8-14
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Truthfully, it is really hard to imagine how I could add anything to the presentation we’ve all just enjoyed. But, it is Sunday, and somebody gave me a microphone…

The Sunday of the children’s program is one of my favorite days of this season of the year, and for me, the singing is just about the best part of Christmas. I love to sing any time, especially with other people, so when we sing in church, it just makes me happy. When we sing in church this time of year, everybody knows most of the songs, and almost everybody likes to sing them, and almost everybody sings louder, and stronger. You should hear you sometime – it’s pretty great!

I’ve known people over the years who thought they couldn’t sing. Admittedly, I’ve known a few people who really couldn’t sing, but very few, and even they could enjoy singing! One man told me how the elementary school music teacher made him lip-synch during the Christmas program – “Just move your lips,” she said. “Don’t let any sound come out.” This guy LOVED to sing, but he would only sing Christmas carols, when there were lots of other people singing, and lots of eggnog.

I’ve also heard some great stories about people who ran out of breath, literally ran out of breath while singing, and passed out cold. Curiously, according to their stories, this happened while singing either Panis Angelicus, “Bread of Angels” or “Angels We Have Heard On High” – you know, that Gloooooooooooooria part? Something about angel songs makes humans breathless, I guess!

This is our third week of our series “Hark the Glad Sound!” and once again, we have heard a song in response to God’s promise, a melody of God’s grace and justice. Zechariah’s song, Mary’s song, and the angels song have different words but the same message – in the birth of Jesus, a new world is about to be born. Those who have turned away from God will turn back. Those who have relied on their power and wealth will be knocked off their high horse and the lowly will be lifted up. Those who have glorified themselves, those who have made war, are about to hear the angels singing “Glory to God! and peace on earth!”

Everything is going to change – God’s realm is going to shift the balance and the rich, mighty and powerful are going to change their tune. All of the earth will rejoice and sing a new song. In the birth of a Jewish baby in an obscure town in an occupied country, God is breaking into the world. God is breaking into the world and the world is breaking into song.

The angels’ song of joy invites us to join in. Don’t you wonder what it might sound like?
Wouldn’t just hearing it make you breathless with joy? We sing when we are joyful, but did you know that we become more joyful when we sing together? I’ll be talking about that more next week, but for now, take my word for it…

Singing releases chemicals in your brain – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin – that make you feel better. And because singing requires breath control, you have to breathe more deeply, which oxygenates your blood, which makes you feel even better! Singing actually can lift your mood, even singing sad songs. And there is nothing like singing to express joy. The joy of Christmas, the joy that makes us breathless, and the joy that gives us breath to sing with the angels, is the joy that God loves us so much.

The joy of Christmas is that God loves us enough to break into our world, not as a mighty conqueror but as a helpless baby.

God is breaking into the world.
God is breaking into the world
and the world is breaking into song.

Immanuel, God-with-us, has come to be in our world.
That’s why we sing.
That’s how we live.
That’s breathless joy.

Allot, Serena. "Why singing makes you happy." Telegraph. March 26, 2009.

"Choral singing and psychological wellbeing: Findings from English choirs in a cross-national survey using the WHOQOL-BREF." International Symposium on Performance Science. 2007.

Layton, Julia. Does Singing Make You Happy?

MacLean, Tamara. "Choral singing makes you happy: survey." Sydney Morning Herald. July 10, 2008.