January 1, 2012

When They Saw The Star Had Stopped

Passage: Matthew 2:9-10

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 November 30th just past a news story told of a 46 year old hunting enthusiast from Brigham City, Utah who had gone duck hunting—of course taking along his dog.  He stepped out of his boat into a shallow marsh to set up some decoys; he has left his 12-guage shotgun resting across the bow of the boat.  Apparently excited to join his owner in the marsh, the dog jumped up on the boat's bow and stepped on the gun. The gun was fired, hitting the man in the buttocks with 27 pellets of birdshot. Thanks to a well-positioned pair of rubber hip-waders the dog owner was able to avoid a more serious gunshot wound.

I wonder what that man might write as a 2012 New Year resolution; sign up the dog for gun lessons on the proper handling of firearms?  Are you considering making a resolution or two for 2012?

Don’t misunderstand, I do think that writing annual goals—even in the form of resolution—can be a very helpful exercise, but it sometimes feels like a bit of a never ending cycle.  Always aiming to achieve something but never quite arriving; or even more discouraging, having checked off successful completion of last year’s goals feeling sort of empty—wondering what that was all about.  Oh there is an initial euphoria of the satisfaction that I got them all done.  But then what?  I guess I had better set some more.

As I re-read the story of the magi—wise men from the East—the description of when they knew their quest was about to be successful stood out for me, as it were, in bold capitalized text. “When they saw that the star had stopped”. Maybe that is what I long for with respect to goals and mission and resolution—I want the star to stop, to stop over the place where it all means something.  ... “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.”

1.  In some respects today, January 1st, is thought of like the first page of a brand new notebook waiting for us to write the story of the year before us.  Such an image suggests a fresh start; opportunities to make it a year better that all those that proceeded; the chance to make real change.  What we find is that we are all carrying our own baggage with us onto these fresh clean pages.  Our lives have been shaped by past events large and small that casts their shadow forward over these new pages both for good or ill.  Chronic illness has a way of impacting the possibilities of what can be written on these new pages.  Some people find the very idea of the possibility of writing a new story on the pages of the coming year daunting; the responsibility simply overwhelming.  What to write; will it matter in the end.

When they saw that the star had stopped.  These wise men were most likely courtly priests serving the rulers of Persia with their wisdom on issues of governance, science, and even engineering; they were men who knew how to set goals and achieve things—their trip to Bethlehem says as much.  Yet all their achievements weren’t enough for them.  The star stopped over the place where the child was; these Magi were Gentiles—the story tells us that God invites everyone in the world to this place where the star stopped.  As if to say—world this is what you are really looking for

I am so glad that, like the Magi, God in his infinite mercy guided me to the place where the star stopped; to the One to whom this star was leading.  What I have found in him is a satisfaction of heart and mind; an experience so very real even though I cannot explain its profound peace.  Yes, goal setting, resolution making, has a role to play in my life, even an important one; but setting goals and achieving them is not what gives my life significance.  I find in him that I am loved beyond description—in fact loved long before I came into existence.

When the Apostle Paul was on his way to Damascus to rid the world of believers in Jesus, he was stopped by a bright light that brought him to the same place as the Magi—to Jesus Christ.  In his letter to the church at Ephesus Paul begins with the wonders of the spiritual blessings in Christ; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  If our God anticipated our believing before the foundation of the world then this new year before us has similarly been anticipated in its unfolding.  Centered in him we take this year on; faith frees us to serve him in it with all that we put our hand to do.  Our goal setting and resolution making finds its appropriate place as they are ordered by our primary commitment to Christ.

The star stops over the place that is the rightful ground of all our being and doing.  The world does not exist except that it is upheld by the power of the One the Magi bow their knee to worship.  Of this Child an unknown poet wrote:
More light than we can learn,
More wealth than we can treasure,
More love than we can earn,
More peace than we can measure,
Because one Child is born.

2.  It happened in Auschwitz, one of the Nazis' most notorious extermination camps, in 1945. Jewish inmates only days away from murder by gassing are praying.  Needless to say they have no Torah scroll.  What are they going to do at that part of Jewish worship when a Torah scroll is carried around the synagogue sanctuary and worshipers reach out to touch it as it is borne past them?  Elie Wiesel, himself a prisoner in Auschwitz and only fifteen years old at the time, survived to tell us what happened next.   Lacking a Torah scroll (these scrolls are about four feet long), someone picked up a little boy, about four feet long, and carried him around the prison-barracks so that devout people could reach out and touch him.  After all, wasn't Torah to be embodied in a child at any time?  Wasn't Torah to be written on human hearts in all circumstances?  And so a little boy was carried around the room while older worshipers touched him, the living embodiment of Jewish faith, in hope too that the youngster would survive and bespeak the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel.

I invite you to consider Wiesel's description of this haunting moment in the light of the Spirit inflamed utterance of the prophet Zechariah (8.23) Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’  The Jews in Auschwitz touched the prison rags of a boy. But we aren't Jews, we aren't in Auschwitz, and we don't have a boy who embodies Torah.

Zechariah knew as much when his prophecy flew from his mouth. He cried, "In those days." "In those days" is a semitism, a Hebrew expression that means, "In the end-times; when God intervenes definitively on behalf of the entire world; at the end of history when God acts so as to leave discerning people saying to each other, 'What more can he say than to us he has said...?'" Zechariah also spoke of "the nations." "The nations" was a Hebrew expression meaning "all the Gentiles." It's plain that Zechariah foresaw a day, the day, to be exact, the last day, the end-time day, when the world's Gentiles would make contact with a Jew inasmuch as God was with him -- or else the world's Gentiles would be forever without God.

Shortly after Jesus was born some wise men, Gentiles, came to him and worshipped. They were wise. For as long as it took them to get from their homes in the east to the birthplace of Jesus they are motivated to take hold of this Jewish baby saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'"

We Gentiles in Unionville have taken hold of the robe of one particular Jew because we are convinced that God is with him uniquely: this one Jew is the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God's word and way and wisdom and will. We have taken hold of him in that we know he is God's end-time intervention on behalf of the entire world. God's self-disclosure is complete in him.

Yet in taking hold of Jesus Christ we must be sure to understand that we can have him only as we have his Jewishness; we can have him only as we have his people and the prophets and priests and sages of Israel who course through his veins. Intimacy with Jesus Christ means intimacy with a heritage apart from which Jesus is incomprehensible and we are lost.  The Magi show us the way—where is the child born King of the Jews?  The star stopped over a particular Jewish boy.

3. I wonder if we take the Magi seriously; I suppose that it may be hard to banish the image of Christmas pageants with young people—or even a few Dads pressed into service—wearing bathrobes and Burger King crowns trying to appear wise and regal.  Many cringe at the idea that these Magi were steeped in practises of astrology—of such practises the law of God and his prophets warned Israel to steer clear.  It seems easier to get onside with shepherds finding Jesus but the Magi are a bit too mysterious for our liking.  So we focus on their gifts and what they symbolize rather than them as people.

I point out to you that after the Magi see Jesus the star disappears from the story. I ever marvel at how God loves us so much his pursuit of us can even make use of that which we must in the end give up.  The novelist Kathleen Norris wrote; “I will always regard it as an example of God’s great mercy and inexhaustible creativity that so unpromising a creature (as I) might begin to turn her life to the good.  And not only that: the very things that have gotten me into such irredeemable messes were the instruments of my conversion.”

Do we consider those who point us to Christ wise?  This past October the Canadian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs held a half day consultation on the establishment of a new Office of Religious Freedom.   Don Hutchinson, vice-president with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, who works a great deal in the field of religious freedom and Father Raymond De Souza, Roman Catholic priest and columnist, were among the six panelists invited to the consultation.  Here is how the CBC reported on the event: “Panelists invited to closed-door consultations on a new Office of Religious Freedom were drawn almost exclusively from western religions, primarily Christianity, according to documents obtained by CBC News.”  You get the sense that something “secretive” or “nefarious” were going on—it was widely publicized who the panelists were well before the meetings occurred.  Why is the CBC so worried about what advice Christians might offer?

Friends, many of the best thinkers across the breadth of academic disciplines are Christians and one of the reasons is because they are motivated by someone much greater than the field of inquiry they take up.  Wisdom inevitably is grounded in the One who is the true source of wisdom; the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem says as much.

4. I continue to find that New Year’s Day has a sort of melancholy feel to me.  I am not sure why.  It may be that it signals something is at an end; signals when Christmas decorations need to be put away for another year.  Perhaps it is having spent so many years engaged in academic study that September feels more like the beginning of a new year to me.  Interestingly, having come to a church where we follow the lectionary, this rhythm of following Jesus’ life as the backdrop for reading the scripture throughout the year makes the first Sunday of Advent feel more like New Year than January 1st to me.

I note that after the Magi see Jesus many things change—“they left for their own country by a different road.”  Once they have been to Bethlehem it is never the same for them.  I wonder if this is why New Year seems anticlimactic to me; having been to Bethlehem and worshiped the child the world is seen differently.  T.S. Elliot in his poem The Journey Of The Magi captures well this change.  Listen to the last stanza as the Magi reflect on the impact of their visit.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

During the so called “occupy” movement of last year much was made of the 1% who hold a significant proportion of the world’s wealth.  I wonder if it really is the inequity that bothers people or is it the desire to have a bigger percentage of the money.  The whole squabble feels to me like “an alien people clutching their gods”; the god “money” seems to command great loyalty.  No one takes a single penny of wealth with them when they die no matter the percentage of the total they hold.

... 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.

Amen and Amen.