Sunday’s sermon: Good News: Then, Now, Always

Text used – Matthew 2:1-12

  • Stars are fascinating, aren’t they?
    • So many stars in the whole of the sky that we can see that we can’t even begin to number them … let alone the vastness of the universe that even our most powerful space telescopes can’t capture!
      • Illustration from Facebook[1]: On Sept. 3, 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope began pointing its camera at a small area in the night sky …
        • “The area, about a tenth the size of the full moon, appeared to be complete blackness with no stars visible to the naked eye.” → PICTURE: full moon in a black sky full of stars with a tiny, completely black box of sky highlighted
        • “Hubble kept its camera pointed there for over 4 months, taking in all the light it could. This is what Hubble saw …” → PICTURE: I’m going to walk this picture around so you can see it for yourselves. And for those of you at home, I’m just going to pop it up instead of our video feed for a few minutes.
          • Each dot in this image is an entire galaxy ENTIRE. GALAXY. full of stars!! Up to 1 trillion stars each, to be more precise. And if our galaxy is any indication, each star may have a system of planets around it. In this photo alone, there are over 10,000 galaxies.
          • There’s a particularly large galaxy. In the picture, it’s in the bottom right corner. It’s yellowish in color and sort of spiral-y looking. Scientists have figured out that this single galaxy contains 8 times as many stars as our Milky Way Galaxy. “It’s so large, it technically shouldn’t exist according to current physics theories.”
        • And just in case your mind isn’t blown enough already, “These are the most distant objects ever photographed. They’re more than 13 billion lightyears away.” → Imagine for a minute just how old the light from these stars is. Think about it. The light from our own sun takes 8 minutes to travel from the sun to earth. Light travels at 3 million kilometers per second, and the sun is 150 million kilometers away from Earth.[2] So the light from the Sun is already 8 minutes old when it reaches Earth. And while looking back in time 8 minutes may not be quite so exciting, when we apply that same principle to the rest of the stars, things get really interesting.[3]
          • Arcturus, one of the brightest stars that we can see from Earth (located just off the handle of the Big Dipper) is just under 37 lightyears away → So the light that we’re seeing when we find Arcturus in the night sky is just under 37 yrs. old. When we look at that light, we’re looking back 37 yrs. into the past.
          • Betelgeuse (makes up the upper left shoulder of the Orion constellation) = 642.5 lightyears away → So when we look at Betelgeuse, we’re looking 642½ yrs. into the past.
          • Rigel (makes up the right foot of the Orion constellation) is just over 864 lightyears away
    • It’s easy to understand why space … the night sky … the heavens … whatever you want to call it has fascinated so people for so long – millennia, really. It’s both concrete and mysterious. We can see space with our eyes. We know that it’s there. That it’s real. With the help of first rudimentary telescopes and eventually infinitely more complicated apparatuses, we can see what’s out there in greater detail. And yet, we also know that even the mind-boggling vastness that we can see is nothing compared to what’s truly out there. We know that there’s so much more that we can’t see. And thinking about space like this – as both concrete and mystical … as seeming to exist, at least to some extent, outside the normal bounds of time – sheds a whole new light on the celebration of Epiphany and Matthew’s story of the magi, doesn’t it?
  • Now, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to read a fairly large passage from one of the commentaries that I was looking at this week.
    • Commentary: Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1[4]
      • Explain what a commentary is – BASIC
      • Explain why I like this particular commentary series
    • This passage: written by Rev. Dr. Susan R. Andrews, now honorably retired in the Presbyterian Church (USA) but served multiple churches throughout her more than 4 decades of ministry as well as serving as the moderator of the 215th General Assembly in 2003 → Dr. Andrews did such a beautiful, eloquent job of highlighting the mystery and the majesty of this Epiphany passage that I wanted to share it with you.

         When I was in college I fulfilled my science requirement by taking astronomy. Our main assignment for the semester was to study the stars, to carefully draw the changing heavens over a four-month period. So every night, with a flashlight, mittens, and my dog-eared notebook, I would climb to the roof of my dorm and gaze starward. Soon the close and holy darkness began to pulse with wonder. It became clear to me how reasonable the skies are, how predictable the patterns, and how logical the language of those glowing gases inching themselves across the sky night after night after night. It also became very obvious when something did not fit the pattern – a falling star or an airplane light or a meteor streaking across the sky.

          Those wise men from Arabia would have easily spotted the strange star so long ago, and having exhausted the reason of nature, they would quickly have turned to a second kind of reason: the reason of knowledge. What would other wise seers in other parts of the world know about the stars, and what was written down about the truth of the heavens? This is how they ended up in Jerusalem, picking the brains of Herod’s scholars. …

          In order truly to follow the star, the wise med had to move beyond reason to intuition. They had to move beyond science to faith – trusting the journey even though they did not know where they were going, trusting a wisdom beyond their own to take them where they needed to go. Yes, the wisdom of the wise men was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ended up in worship, in their offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God.

          In these postmodern times, many within the younger generations are moving away from the rationalism of their parents and grandparents. Through incense and meditation and experience and beauty, they are seeking mystery and embracing wonder. Rather than doctrine, they seek delight. Rather than ideas, they explore imagination. Rather than rationality, they yearn for relationship. Like the magi, they are willing to take risks and explore the unknown in order to find the Holy. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Find and keep on finding. Their faith is a Jesus faith – a journey faith – and like the wise men, their intellectual curiosity and spiritual hunger give them courage to leave behind all that is familiar.

          Biblical scholar Ken Bailey has opened our hearts to a fresh understanding of the Christmas story, based on his own experiences living and studying in the Middle East. Jesus was not born in the cold stink of a barn, rudely marginalized by an insulting innkeeper. Instead, consistent with the ethic of hospitality ingrained in the cultural DNA of Arab and Semitic peoples, Mary and Joseph were warmly welcomed by their relatives in the countryside of Judea. They were invited to sleep in the warmth of a big family room – a gracious, but well-used space commonly shared with the animals of the family. Yes, Jesus was born in a living room – and continues to dwell in the living room of our lives.

          What this means, of course, is that the wise men followed their intuition and their hearts to this same living room – discovering the meaning of the star not in the corrupt halls of Herod’s power, but in the swaddled heart of everyday life. So, in the fullness of time, wholeness was born. Mind and heart, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, powerful and simple: they all meet in the living room of God’s imagination – God fully alive in the fragile familiarity of flesh. Incarnation can be understood only through intuition and imagination, through the real stuff of real living. …

          Albert Einstein captures the necessity of wonder: “The most beautiful emotion was can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. The one to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” – Susan R. Andrews. “Matthew 2:1-12 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 14, 16, 18.

  • Today, friends, I encourage you to remember to hold space for the mystery of faith – for that “beautiful emotion of experiencing the mystical,” as Einstein put it. Too often, we find ourselves feeling like we have to explain everything – every belief, every action, every decision, every movement – in such exhausting detail. We forget just how powerful mystery can be. We forget how moving the unknown can be. We forget how freeing it can be to be completely without all the answers … or even any More than 2000 yrs. ago, a light shined down on a brand-new family in the little, backwater, nothing town of Bethlehem. Knowing what we know about stars, I have to wonder how old that light was. Light from the beginning of time, perhaps? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”[5]
    • The Word … past, present, and future … then, now, always → The Word that spoke to people then … that speaks to people now … that will always speak to people ready and open to listen.
    • The Light … past, present, and future … then, now, always → Light that drew people to the Savior then … that draws people to the Savior now … that will always draw people in need of and seeking a Savior.
    • The Good News of the Gospel: that God’s Love Incarnate came into the world in Bethlehem that night more than 2000 yrs. ago to make us all children of God, to bridge a gap that we as humans couldn’t bridge on our own → the Good News of the Gospel … past, present, and future … then, now, always. → Good News that changed lives then – the lives of shepherd, the lives of magi, the lives of a simple woman and her husband, the lives of disciples and those seeking healing and those yearning for a new way. Good News that changes lives now – the lives of those seeking hope and those yearning for a new way, the lives of those who have had a relationship with God from birth and those who find their way into that relationship later (sometimes much later) stumbling, crashing, aching, and rejected everywhere else. Good News that will always change the lives of those with willing hearts and eager spirits. Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/Lovebyabhisar/photos/pcb.4144558385647954/4144556648981461.

[2] https://www.scienceabc.com/pure-sciences/are-you-looking-into-the-past-when-you-look-at-the-stars.html.

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=how+far+away+is+the+star+rigel+from+earth&oq=how+far+away+is+the+star+r&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0i512j0i22i30j0i390l3.7678j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[4] Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2013.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.