Sunday, January 3, 2021
When you get married, there are certain questions you might forget to settle before you say your vows. This becomes clear at Christmastime – multicolored or white lights only? Real or artificial tree? Star, or angel topper for the tree? Thankfully, while I neglected to discuss these questions with Rich prior to our nuptials, and while we completely disagree that Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas is the best Christmas music album of all time (Rich still leaves the room if I put it on), we agreed on all three key decisions: multicolored, real, and a star topper. Because we’re both pastors, of course we had to come up with some theological reasons why we prefer the star. We came from families who used angels on top of the tree, so why the shift? Both angels and stars feature prominently in the Christmas story of Christ’s birth. For me, it’s partly that our modern-day depiction of cute little girl angels with wings is likely nothing like the angels described in the Bible. There’s just something about stars that I love. Whenever I look at the stars, I’m reminded of God’s magnificently vast universe. And if I’m honest, while I have grown to appreciate others’ experiences of angels in their midst, there’s something a little too mystical or other-worldly about angels for me, where stars are objects you can see, that astronomers and physicists have studied for centuries. Stars help me believe.
Many of you probably are aware of the “Bethlehem Star” appearing on December 21, 2020 as Jupiter and Saturn crossed paths – we tried to see it, but it was a drizzly, cloudy night -- friends in the Midwest were luckier. Today, we hear the story of the wise men following a star that some suppose was actually this same crossing of Jupiter and Saturn shining brightly in the sky. We’re not sure, but regardless, just as our ancestors were mesmerized by the night sky, eclipses, and constellations so we are, still today. These events can turn even the middle of nowhere places that no one has ever heard of into coveted travel destinations, if only for a short time. If you ever have driven across my home state of Nebraska, for example, you know it’s not much to look at. The state is not famous for great beaches or mountains, as there really are none. It’s pretty flat with mostly corn, soybean fields and cows. But what you can find are amazing sunsets and sunrises, and on a clear night, great views of the stars, because there are fewer people and less light pollution! Still today, most people know their Zodiac sign and enjoy reading their horoscope, trying to make meaning out of the signs in the stars. We still refer to “the stars aligning” being a sign of good fortune or luck, we refer to famous people as “super stars,” and just think through your favorite pop songs….how many songs have lyrics about stars? Or how about movies and TV shows…Star Trek, Star Wars, Star Gate, to name a few! Today, we remember how God used a particular star, this “Bethlehem Star” to signal that God was doing a great thing through the birth of Jesus. A star points people to Christ.
Last week, I talked about God frequently using unlikely people to accomplish his purposes, and the wise men were indeed not the people you would guess God would use to tell the world about the newborn king. They almost certainly were not Jewish, but rather Zoastrian astrologers who were considered idol worshippers by faithful Jews -these were people outside of the faith. Yet even in the book of Numbers, God foretold of a star that would signal the coming Messiah from the line of Jacob. Everyone from King Herod to the chief priests and scribes know that God is doing something great through the appearing of this star. The star points all kinds of different people to Christ. And Christ himself is sometimes referred to the “morning star” in scripture, the light that dispels the darkness. Today, we remember that God often uses ordinary things that we encounter every day, things like water in baptism, bread and wine at communion, stars in the sky, and ordinary people from the poorest of the poor to wealthy international ambassadors like the wise men. God is able to do extraordinary things through ordinary people and things.
As much as we have a fascination with stars and what’s out there in this amazing, mind-blowing universe, this star, these wise men, this story all points back to Jesus, the newborn king. As we enter this new year and start to cut back on the salt, fat and sweets, resolve to finish that project or get back into that exercise routine, may this Epiphany story remind us of the opportunity to realign our lives to follow Jesus. Just as the star guides the wise men to see the Messiah, may we look to God to guide our lives in the decisions we make, big and small.
Whenever I look at the star topper on our tree, I am reminded of all of these things. It makes sense to me that God could use a special alignment of certain stars or planets to point people who paid attention to the stars to the birth of Jesus. Some of the other parts of the Christmas story don’t make as much sense if I rely only on rational thought, but that is part of the mystery of faith. In college, I had a good friend who was a committed atheist, and we would have heated arguments about my faith in God and in Jesus in particular. Finally, one day he turned to me and asked, “So you really believe all of this stuff about Jesus, huh? Why?” I couldn’t explain it all very well, but one thing I said was that I believe in love, and that God is love, and that we learn the most about how much God loves us through the story of Jesus. Year after year, we come with the wise men to gaze upon Jesus in wonder and amazement that while we don’t completely understand it all, in this baby we know how much God loves us.
We are entering a new year full of hope and possibility, and many of us have seen some dark times this past year. The assurance that Christ shines light into our moments of depression and despair is one that continues into the new year. May we be “star struck” by the awesome wonder of Christ coming to live among us, to die for us, and be raised for us. In Jesus, the Messiah, may we continue to look to the source of our love, light, hope, and peace. Amen.