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

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