(Mtt 2:1-12) – J G White
11 am, Epiphany, Sun, Jan 6, 2019 – UBC Digby
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William Chatterton Dix, 1858)
The finale of the Christmas story we saw from the beginning, with Magi in our nativity scenes starting in late November. These mysterious wise ones continue to inspire people to seek wise ways. Yet, it can take some work to be wise. Even to follow star.
A month ago John Marshall told some of us about the Star of Bethlehem from the astronomical point of view. Remember? I’ve read the same information in a booklet given to me years ago by Maureen Potter. Those Magi were celestial experts, and it may well have taken an expert to notice what was happening in the sky, not the mention understand that it might actually mean something for humans down here.
So, it often takes attention our our part, to see and know God with us. to know what way the Spirit is guiding me. It takes intention – we seek on purpose, in our lives. The guiding star that we behold can be very subtle, not obvious. Christ in our lives and our world is so gentle, so hidden, so just-under- the-surface.
Baptist scholar, Dallas Willard, called this The Divine Conspiracy. The hiddenness of Almighty God. We live in a world in which it is possible not to know there is a God, or believe there is. Yet it is also infused with God everywhere!
When a person does understand God is there – out there or nearby – life becomes a faith journey. For many, it is as if a guiding light draws us closer, year by year, to the One who came.
‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem’ is a song I heard played each year on a Christmas LP at home, sung by Emmylou Harris. I heard the song sung recently, and noticed the line that says:
Jesus is now that star divine,
Brighter and brighter He will shine.
We don’t think it funny when we sing songs to inanimate objects like a star.
O star of wonder, star of night…
guide us to thy perfect light.
Perhaps you have whispered out loud to the beautiful stars some dark evening. And maybe we know, in this carol, we are really singing to Jesus Himself: the Bright Morning Star, as one scripture says (Rev. 22:16).
Yet the brightness of Jesus in our lives can wax and wane like the brightness of the moon and stars. Emmylou Harris’ song says:
Beautiful star of Bethlehem,
Shining afar through shadows dim…
It is when the shadows are dark and dim that we need some help, perhaps some encouragement to press on and keep seeking the One we’d met before.
At times in my life, the Absence of God, so to speak, has been louder and brighter than the Presence. (Whatever I think the presence of God is supposed to be like or feel like.) I sometimes agree with Jean- Francois Six, French Catholic priest and theologian, who reflected on knowing God, saying this:
The more a human being advances in the Christian faith, the more they live the presence of God as an absence, the more they accept to die to the idea of becoming aware of God, of fathoming Him. For they have learned, while advancing, that God is unfathomable… God always precedes us, we see Him only from behind, He walks ahead, He is ahead of us.
(The Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer, 2000, p. 628)
Personally, I have great confidence in this God, who goes ahead of me, of us. So often, it is after, looking back, that I see my best glimpses of Christ.
So I preach a life of following the hidden God, who is so incredible, and at the same time amazing in being always here, unseen. Being a wise one, following a star, is not about a clear, obvious sign that no one can miss. It is about the ‘Divine conspiracy,’ the Holy Spirit hiding behind the scene, every scene.
Writer Luci Shaw tells this story: of an epiphany she had: a showing, or showing up, of God, in her life.
When a real epiphany comes for me, I recognize it as God dealing with me in a direct, irrefutable way. One such sighting came in the fall of 1988. I was teaching poetry at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, while living an hour away, in Bellingham, Washington [USA].
The Pacific Northwest is known for its rains that fall steadily for days (or weeks) and for clouds that hug the earth, shrouding the landscape in a gentle gloom. Just a few miles from the coast rise the Cascade Mountains and, spectacular among them, Mt. Baker.
I wrote in my journal:
For weeks I’ve driven my highway, sixty miles north in the morning, then south again at the end of the day. The mountains are clearly marked on the map, but they might as well not exist, lost as they are in clouds, obscured by drizzle, fog, haze. Then, some morning, unexpectedly, a strong air from the sea will lick away the fog and allow the sun to shine clearly. And Mt. Baker, towering magnificently beyond the foothills, unbelievably high above the other mountains, is seen to be what it has been all along — immense, serene, unmovable, its dazzling, snow-draped profile cut clear against a sky of jewel blue.
Today it happened. The mountain “came out”! I kept turning my eyes from the highway to look one more at its splendor, wanting to be overwhelmed again and again. It is heart-stopping. I can’t get enough of it. And I can never take it for granted– I may not see it again for weeks.
It’s God, showing me a metaphor of himself. I mean–he’s there, whether I see him or not. It’s almost as if he’s lying in wait to surprise me. and the wind is like the Spirit, sweeping away my foggy doubt, opening my eyes, revealing the reality of God. Annie Dillard’s words say it for me: “It was less like seeing than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance…”
(Eugene Peterson, ed., Stories for the Christian Year, 1992, pp.40-41)
So many of the great little stories like this are testimony to a lone individual on the journey with Jesus. Maybe it is incidental, but I like the fact that there were wise men, together seeking the new-born king, not one wise man. Seek the Master together, dear friends. Let us be so good at being pilgrims on a journey with each other. This way, your special expertise in knowing and following Jesus can help guide us all, and my different experience and talents in seeing God can help guide us all.
It is fitting, at the end of this sermon, that we commune together. We share the Table of our Lord as Jesus invites us here.
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William C. Dix, 1858)