Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
January 5, 2020
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall be acceptable on my altar,
and I will glorify my glorious house.
Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
For the coastlands shall wait for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from far away,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the Lord your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has glorified you.
Foreigners shall build up your walls,
and their kings shall minister to you;
for in my wrath I struck you down,
but in my favour I have had mercy on you.
Your gates shall always be open;
day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession.
For the nation and kingdom
that will not serve you shall perish;
those nations shall be utterly laid waste.
The glory of Lebanon shall come to you,
the cypress, the plane, and the pine,
to beautify the place of my sanctuary;
and I will glorify where my feet rest.
The descendants of those who oppressed you
shall come bending low to you,
and all who despised you
shall bow down at your feet;
they shall call you the City of the Lord,
the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
with no one passing through,
I will make you majestic for ever,
a joy from age to age.
You shall suck the milk of nations,
you shall suck the breasts of kings;
and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Saviour
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Instead of bronze I will bring gold,
instead of iron I will bring silver;
instead of wood, bronze,
instead of stones, iron.
I will appoint Peace as your overseer
and Righteousness as your taskmaster.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation,
and your gates Praise.
The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land for ever.
They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands,
so that I might be glorified.
The least of them shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
in its time I will accomplish it quickly.
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.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
People have always watched the night sky. You can’t help it really, especially if you live in a place where there are no streetlights or lit up buildings to impede your sight of it. The vast glittering darkness is compelling – so majestic and still that watching it will slow your heart down. And yet it moves. If you wait awhile you will see a shooting star, though often they slip past in the periphery and are gone before you can really look. More than that, the whole panoply spins in the slowest of slow motion.
Imagine the conversations millennia ago, probably among beings we would scarcely recognize as humans. You can think of them lying on a nighttime hillside, or a beach, looking up and sharing their reflections about what this or that little group of stars made them think of – a bear, a crab, a man with a belt.
Imagine the moment when someone first observed that the changes overhead were not random but orderly, and that if you knew the patterns of the stars well enough and watched them long enough, you could predict them. Even more, those patterns also seemed to be connected to the weather. And the fullness of the moon seemed to be linked to the strength of the tides. And to the cycle of changes in women’s bodies every few weeks. Perhaps they didn’t really think of these thoughts as insights – perhaps everyone thought that everyone had always known this, that everyone learned to read the sky from their grandparents. But someone must have been the first to see it. And surely they will have pondered all the possible connections between the starry sky and the lives of humans.
It seems that human beings have an innate drive to fathom the unfathomable. As civilisations developed, sky watching continued, and the people who specialized became known as astrologers. Astrology, the study of the stars, was considered the domain of scholars and often priests. We may think of astrology as a slightly quirky and superstitious offshoot from astronomy, but the daily horoscopes in the newspaper don’t really capture its history. From Wikipedia, ‘Astrology, in its broadest sense, is the search for human meaning in the sky; it seeks to understand general and specific human behaviour through the influence of planets and other celestial objects.‘ There are marked bones and cave paintings from as long ago as 25 thousand years but the first record of complex astrological projections comes from Babylon about 1800 years before Christ. In ancient Persia, the priests of Zoroaster were expert in astrology. It is probably these traditions that the Gospel writer Matthew is evoking in the lovely story we read every year at Epiphany. It would have seemed straightforwardly believable that these scholars could read the will of God for humanity in the night sky.
Even if we don’t study the sky or the horoscope page for our sense of meaning, it’s still very common to see physical objects as laden with importance that goes far beyond the day-to-day. Just this week going through the many things in my parents’ apartment, helping them pack for a move, my siblings and I were often stopped in our tracks by a hairbrush or an old jacket that seemed to vibrate with significance. We found my grandfather’s wedding ring. Such things kindle memory, and feeling. They create a sense of connection to a time and place that is far from here, to a realm that can only be touched now by imagination.
The Christmas decorations that we are about to put away for another year have the same quality – they are something, something concrete, something you can hold and look at, set out or hang on the tree because they are bright and pretty. But human beings are symbol-makers and artists – we naturally endow such objects with layers of meaning. The glowing candles and bright baubles of Christmas distract and delight, but they also evoke a world that is invisible. They stand at the boundary between our everyday life and the world of mystery and power and healing that we call God’s eternal love. They don’t just look festive and Christmassy: they point us to all the feeling and wonder of a story in which the creator of the universe comes to dwell with humanity. In which light dawned in a dark world. In their little way, they function as guides to that mystery, just as the star over Bethlehem served as a guide for the wise ones who followed it.
In the story of those wise astrologers from the East, we hear that they had been expecting the star, and been watching for it. The story says you have to watch for the signs of God’s arrival and be willing to follow them, perhaps many miles, perhaps through deserts or cold dark nights. You have to search diligently. But you can’t just look at the star. When the star stops, you have to stop too, and give your attention to the reality that it is pointing to. We read that when that star stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. They knelt down, and paid homage to the child, and offered what treasures they had.
As we go through life, we are called to watch for the signs that will lead us to the presence of Christ, to the reality of God’s love. We are called to follow those signs, as they followed the star. And as they did when the star stopped, we are invited to stop too, to step into the joy that God offers. As we join our voices in song and in prayer, as we gather around the table of communion, we are stopping. Here in bread broken and cup poured we taste both the pain of sorrow and the joy of new life. Here we stop, together, resting in the light of love. Here we stop to savour the joy and peace of Christ.
May it be so. Amen.
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