Monday, January 4, 2016

Sermon: "A Star is Born"

Matthew 2:1-12 – Scripture Intro

We have two different stories of Jesus’ birth in our New Testament.
One from the gospel of Luke and one from the gospel of Matthew.
As we listen to this telling of the nativity story and the arrival of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel, we might want to take notice what is not there.

There are no shepherds, no manger scene, no crowded inn, and no angel singing glory to God in the highest – those are all from Luke’s version of the story.

Matthew tells us wise men from the east came to Jerusalem – but he doesn’t say they were Kings, he doesn’t say how many there were, and he doesn’t tell us their names or what country they were from.  All of those details were added later as the story came to be told in Christmas pageants and illustrated storybooks.
And Matthew doesn’t tell us how old Jesus was when these men from the east arrived. He simply says they found the child in a house in Bethlehem.

What Matthew does give us that Luke does not, is this story of visitors from the east – Gentiles – who come to see this Jewish king and were overwhelmed with joy at the sight of him.

And finally, while Matthew lifts up the hope and promise of Jesus’ birth in the same way that Luke does, Matthew also hints at the threat that many found in this birth.  The threat that the coming of God into our world offers to all those who are guided by power and fear rather than compassion and love.

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 3, 2016 – Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

“A Star is Born”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
In a cold, dark region of space,
a cloud of interstellar dust and gas begins to collapse in on itself….
dragging in with it tiny debris from ancient exploded stars and anything else that happens to be floating by.
This mass of inrushing gas and debris compresses to a tiny point,
until the heat built up in its core triggers a nuclear reaction.
Hydrogen and helium atoms fuse together, emitting light and heat,
and creating enough inward and outward pressure to hold the spinning mass of gas and debris together for millions or billions of years.
A star is born.

During the star’s creation, blobs of rocky and gaseous debris are thrown out and sent spinning into space, creating asteroids, comets, and planets.

And on those planets, the remnants of the infant star continue to mix and pool together, creating life.

As astronomer, Carl Sagan famously said, “We are children of the stars.”
The oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our genes, was produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star.
We are made of star-stuff.

Which may be why we are so drawn to these celestial bodies.
For hundreds of thousands of years, we human beings have looked up at the sky and searched for our creator.
There we found the sun that warms our bodies and nourishes our crops,
And we found the stars that guide our nomadic wanderings and inspire us to reach beyond our grasp.
Two thousand years ago, wise men from the east who studied and discerned the movements of the stars, noticed one that was burning much brighter than the others as it moved across the night sky.
They set out to follow this star, and along the way caught wind of an ancient story that spoke of a messiah – a King – whose birth would be marked by the appearance of just such a star.

This ancient story was confirmed when they reached the city of Jerusalem.
There they asked the sitting monarch if he knew where they might find this newly born king.
His advisors pointed them towards Bethlehem.

Bethlehem – which means “house of bread” – was one of the small farming communities lying a few miles to the south of Jerusalem.

There these wise men would find their king – the messiah – the savior of the world.

The story of the Magi and the guiding star are very much a part of the Christmas story.

This is Matthew’s story.
And while we tend to fold Matthew’s story into Luke’s story of the nativity – with the shepherds, and manger, and no room at the inn – Matthew’s story is unique… in that it is not so much concerned with what happened on the night of Jesus’ birth as it is with what happened after.

As much as two years after – if we account for the star appearing at the moment of Jesus’ birth and the time it took for the wise men from the east to journey from thousands of miles away.

Our Christian tradition accounts for this space of time by giving us the twelve days of Christmas – and having the magi arrive on January 6th – twelve days after we celebrate Jesus’ birth.

We call this day the Epiphany  - because it the day that God’s presence in Jesus was revealed or made known to the world outside of Jerusalem – outside of the Jewish people – to the Gentiles, represented by these travelers from the east who would carry the news of the coming of God’s light into the world to those who were longing to hear it.

January 6th – the Feast of the Epiphany – or Three Kings Day - is celebrated by Christians all over the world, and typically with much more fanfare than we celebrate it here in the United States.

In Spain, parades are held and people dress up as the Kings, named as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. Before going to bed on the eve of January 6th, children in Spain polish their shoes and leave them out for the Kings to put presents in them.

In Puerto Rico, on Three Kings Day, businesses are closed and the whole country feasts on a meal that would put our Thanksgiving to shame.
Elements of this tradition harken back to the days of slavery when January 6th was the only day off in the entire year for the Afro-Caribbean people.
The African king, Melchior, is always at the center of their celebration.

In Ireland, January 6th is known as “Little Christmas” – in recognition that this day marks the end of the Christmas season.  It’s also known as “Women’s Christmas,” because the Irish celebrate this day by honoring the work that women do to prepare for the Christmas holiday. On January 6th, Irish men take over all the household chores while the women spend the day in the pub with their friends.

While January 6th typically passes with very little fanfare here in the United States there are a few American traditions worth noting.

In Louisiana, Epiphany marks the beginning of the Carnival season.
King cakes are baked, each containing a tiny doll, representing baby Jesus. Whoever finds the baby has the honor of baking the next King Cake, as they’re often eaten right up until Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent.

And in Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Participants dress as kings or fools, and fruit cakes are thrown or launched across a field.  Competitions are held for the farthest toss and the most creative projectile device.

What all these traditions and celebrations have in common is that they offer us a symbolic leave-taking of the Christmas season.

In the church, the season of Epiphany is the time where we transition from celebrating Jesus’ birth to celebrating his baptism in the river Jordan and the beginning of his adult ministry.

For the writer of our earliest gospel – Mark - this is the moment when a star was born.
Mark doesn’t include a nativity story in his gospel.
He begins his gospel with Jesus rising up out of the Jordan as a full grown man.  For Mark, this is the moment of Epiphany - when God called Jesus out his ordinary life and into one of extraordinary service and sacrifice.

While King Herod feared the baby born in Bethlehem, it is the man who was a threat to him and to all who place their own will above God’s will.
It is the man who commanded us to love our neighbor,
to welcome the foreigner, and to pray for those who persecute us –
three things we all struggle to do.
It is the man who taught us to lift up those below us and to not fawn over those above us, even though we seem compulsively drawn to do the reverse.
It is the man who was nailed up on a cross and yet urged his followers to forgive rather than retaliate,
to show us that redemptive violence is never the answer.

While we are not called to make the same supreme sacrifice that Jesus did, we are called to follow in his footsteps -  or as reasonably close as we can - as hard as that may be.

The light that God sent into the world in Jesus burns infinitively brighter than any one of us – but we too are meant to be dispensers of God’s light in the world.
Whenever we reach out to another in compassion,
Respond to a perceived threat with love rather than fear,
Seek to understand rather than judge,
We are modeling Jesus in the world.
We become the light that others take notice of and hopefully seek to emulate by shining their light as well.

We may think that the mighty sun that shines down on our world dwarfs the tiny stars that twinkle in our night sky….and if one or two or even a hundred of those stars were to cease shining we would even know the difference.

There are 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe,
and each contains about 100 billion stars.
Which means there are roughly 1 billion trillion stars in the visible universe.
And when we look up at the night sky, almost all of the stars we can see are intrinsically more massive and brighter than our sun.

And each of these stars is surrounded by planets that depend on it for light and warmth - and possibly - life.
Every pin prick of light we see in the night sky is so much bigger and so much more important than we imagine.

As are we.   
All of us.
Kings and commoners.
Wisemen and fools.
Model citizens and terminal trouble makers.
Those who always come out on top,
and those who always seem to wind up on the bottom,
no matter how hard they try.

A star is born within each one of us.
We all are made of star stuff,
and we are all created in the image of God,
to be the presence of God in this world.


                    The birth of a star as captured by the Hubble Telescope.