Sunday, December 15, 2013

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Star

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Star
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 15, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 2: 8-11
Luke 12: 54-56 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. [1]  

I was bummed when the ice fell last Saturday night and we had to cancel church because I had this great plan for Advent: four sermons looking at four different aspects of Advent, four different things that point us towards Bethlehem, four proofs in our world that Christ is King, Christ is God, and Christ's kingdom is here and now and begins again at Christmas, for that is what Advent is about, preparing us for Christmas, and that is what Christmas is about, the birth of God into this world, God born, set loose, and running around in our midst and in our hearts. So two weeks ago we talked about the prophets, and how their message was a simple one, that God is real and that God is very much in control of this his world, the world only he created and only he creates. Traditions and scripture gives us that truth, it's the typical way that the church looks at advent and Christmas. Look at the prophets and see how they point towards Jesus and Bethlehem, that is how church usually does advent, sings O Come O Come Emanuel, decorates, lights four candles, and calls it Christmas.
Since that is the typical way, some spend all four Sundays of Advent there, or they skip straight to Christmas and start talking about the cast of characters who make their way to Bethlehem. I've done both here, two years ago doing the Advent count down of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, and last year looking at Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the Angels singing to the shepherds, so I wanted to take a different direction this years, and after starting with the prophets, wanted to try something else with these three Sundays. I wanted to look at the rest, the other aspects of life, that point us in that Christmas direction, that teach us that Christmas truth, that head us in the way, towards that "away," in the manger. So last week I was drawn to the census, of all things, that Roman decree that makes Bethlehem the spot, Caesar Augustus, the deliverer of the Pax Romana, trying to count his subjects, that is what makes Bethlehem the spot, making the prophecy true. . . look at how the secular world and the scriptural prophecies come together, interesting, huh. . . the fact that Mary and Joseph were compelled themselves toward Bethlehem, that secular forces were at work in the birth of Christ, showing that God uses them, uses the secular too, that he has control over the secular, too, that he is working it all, important point to remember, it certainly parallels one of the important prophetic messages, God is in control, using people and systems that think, claim and believe, they have nothing to do with God. . . ha ha, as if. . . so I was going to recount some memories of  the secular parts of the Christmas holiday: Santa and reindeer, and flashing lights, Candy Canes, "the ribbons the wrappings the trimmings the trappings," the "packages, boxes, and bags" "The window the flash, the shutters the sash, the droll little mouth tied up like a bow. . . the whiskers white as snow," the Griswold's and George Bailey, McCauley Culkin nailing burglars with paint cans, Christmas songs, Run Run Rudolph, and Falalalala on the radio, and the presents, and shopping malls and gifts, the lines, the sales, the insanity, and all the things that make Charlie Brown say "good grief," yeah all that stuff, because those all give memories, and those memories fill our hearts with warmth and love, and that love points us in the direction, gives us yet another reason to look for God in this world, and to believe again in love's power to heal a broken world, at least that, and maybe for some us that much more.
I think I was delayed in giving that message just so that I could include something new in that claim. Yesterday we took Coralee to see Frozen, the new Disney Princess movie, funny place to be reminded of Christmas, but yes there it was right on a screen, never mentioning Jesus once by name, but pointing in so many ways right in the direction of him, a simple easy to understand message of love, a critique of the superficial kind of love, and giving instead a testament to the real sacrificial type of love, that screams Christ, claiming that is the only love with power, reminding us also that the real opposite and barrier to love isn't hate, but instead "fear," and that fear, can turn us inward, cold, separated, alone, all making it impossible for us to achieve our purpose and be our true selves, the true selves that love demands that we give. that the world desperately needs us to give because the magic within each one of us is needed and unique, all that in a secular kids movie. Go see it. . . it's the best Christmas sermon I've heard all year. Yes that's Christmas, the Christmas message, and it's all a part of it, all even the secular. It's there. It's here, go look.
But that brings us to today. . . and here we are today surrounded by amazing music, vibrant voices, the light of love, and the proper actualization of talent,  a glimpse of that same magic, and we are again challenged to look at another aspect of our world that draws us in, and shows us Christmas, and that is the world itself. Yes the world, the natural world, the world that God creates also directs us toward Bethlehem, to kneel before the manger. Too often has Christianity sought to ignore the truth of the natural world around us, for fear, fearing that we may find that Biblical Claims are false, hmm doesn't sound like faith, so how short sighted and fearful is that fight, especially when the Bible itself, and Jesus himself tells us to consider the things of nature so often. The history of Christianity is marred by this battle and fear, from Puritans in New England fearing going into the woods, fear of people out of the control of the community, to the Renaissance Catholic Church attempts to squash Galileo and science, to Christians today who can't acknowledge the existence of dinosaurs because of their absence from the Genesis account of creation. . . this battle between Christianity and Science has done more damage than any good it has done in protecting the truths it so desperately seeks to save. Trying to protect in our minds how God created the world has gotten in the way of the idea THAT God created the world, and what that truly means, the miracle of that truth lost in the literal. It all  causes us to exclude part of the truth that could just give us a glimpse, the glimpse, that could head us in the direction of Jesus Christ.
The biggest example is yes of course the star of Bethlehem. A star, shining in the night, with a tail as big as a kite, yes there it is:

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

 Have you ever noticed the power of the present tense of that familiar chorus? It's as if we are still following the star, it's still proceeding, so we should follow. It guides the Wisemen in the Christmas story, but there are glimpses of that kind of truth all around us in the natural world, if we could just see it. If we could just open our eyes. Jesus himself, tells us to look though he acknowledges that we do not see. Look at Luke 12: 54-56:

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? [2]

How many of Jesus' parables and teachings surround him telling us to consider the natural world, be they lilies of the field, or mustard seeds, or sparrows, anything. It's there in the Old Testament as well. when you are lying beside those still waters, when you see a stream runneth over. . what do you see, when you see a rainbow in the sky?  Water and light producing color, or a promise of God?
It doesn't seem that the Bible is telling us to ignore nature, but instead is telling us how to see nature, and again it parallels the prophet message, it parallels the idea of God being in control of the secular world, too,  it states without question that God is in control, making the rain to fall, bringing life to the plants, giving breath to the animals, causing the sun to rise, again and again, each morning. . . yeah it, the sunrise itself, that it happens everyday is an amazing reminder of the complete power of God, and the truth that every morning is truly Easter morning. . . and that though the night has come, though the winter chills surround us, though another year comes to an end, though we look for hope and often can't see it, the problem is not that God isn't there, but in our eyes, the problem is in what we see, and how we see, not what is.
I've often said that original sin is not necessarily when Eve bites the fruit or when Adam does, but in the believing of the lie of the serpent, when the serpent calls God a liar, we believe it, and what does that mean for a world spoken into existence. . . how can God lie, when what he speaks is?. . .  but yet we believe that lie, and it clouds our vision it changes what we see, it changes what we think, it changes how we seem to be, but what we are has never changed, we are children of God, and Christmas reminds us of that. Let's look anew for those things that point us in the direction of that truth.
And as we seek we will know that God guides our steps, straight toward Bethlehem. . . William Cullen Bryant, and American poet, looked up and saw a bird, flying high in the sky, and in that bird he saw the Christmas star, for in that bird he saw the truth of Christ. . . and the truth of God's kingdom. . . upon seeing that bird he wrote this: I'd like to close with his words. . .

To a Waterfowl

Whither, 'midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

Seek'st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chafed ocean side?

There is a Power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,--
The desert and illimitable air,--
Lone wandering, but not lost.

All day thy wings have fann'd
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere:
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.

And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend
Soon o'er thy sheltered nest.

Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.

He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

God will lead our steps too, just like he did the wisemen, just like he does Bryant's bird, he'll lead us to Christ. . . it's what God does, the question is again as it's been forever, what do we do? Do we go to Bethlehem. . . and make it there with our gifts. . . or do we get side tracked by the thousand other things.  Next week we conclude the series with the last of the four things that God uses to point us towards Christmas. . . the truth of the Angel Choir, and that is the immediate all encompassing beauty of a miracle. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 2:8-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:54-56). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.