Rev. Lisa Horst Clark
December 15, 2019
Matthew 2: 1 – 9
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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.
The Pantone color of the year for 2020 is “Classic blue.” Every year they choose a color to reflect the spirit of the time, and for 2020, if you see, it is not exactly a cheery color. It was chosen to be the color of the sky at dusk. There is a sense as we come to 2020 that there is a shift in the skies – a transition – and we are in this place where darkness and light mingle. This makes me think of youth Sunday preparation last spring where there was a really lengthy conversation on what color the t-shirts should be. In past years they had been bright, optimistic colors. But this year as they were preparing to talk about climate change, “me too”, youth suicide, and school shootings the choice was between blue and gray, and there was serious wondering if blue would be too cheerful. And so the youth of the church settled on a color not too unlike pantone: a dark grayish blue.
Most of the infancy narrative in the gospel of Matthew takes place in twilight and the dark, with faint beacons of hope of the road ahead. Learning to travel in the dark by starlight. As much as I would like to barrel forward, certain of our destination on the clear high road of how to get there, with a jaunty tune on the radio, and light boldly cutting a path before us to get where we are going, it may be that for many of us it doesn’t seem to be where we are. In the night, in the dark, in terrain that is uncertain, you need to stop and be still. The gospel of Matthew, instead of focusing on Mary and the angels’ proclamation to shepherds, it focuses on dreams appearing to Joseph. It tells of stars which signal to wise ones far away that something of profound impact is happening. They travel, drawn by this star. It says that they followed it, as in the darkness, the dimness, they saw a glimpse of the promise to come.
I have been reading this week about celestial navigation; learning to navigate based on the skies and stars. One of the books I read by Hewitt Schereth starts out by trying to justify why you might need to learn such a thing when we have computers, satellites, and GPS. He starts off by naming that this can be a failsafe: satellites can go down, you never know. But then, starting to reflect a bit more deeply, he ends with this: Why learn celestial navigation? Because it will satisfy your soul. The book then continues to include a whole lot of trigonometry and charts, which I take as evidence that math and soul satisfaction can indeed go together. But I think I know what he means, because its sounds deeply satisfying to my soul to refigure my relationships to the stars – to notice where I am.
We know much of human history had a very different relationship to the stars than we do. In the gospel today, there are alternate translations about whether the wise men saw the star at its rising, or a star in the east, and that is because the words come from the same root. For much of the world, east and the rising sun is much of the same thing. The stars in their nightly course appearing to spin above our heads was a daily part of life.
Using the stars as a guide for travel goes back and back and back. We know it in the United States from Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, who taught slaves to travel North to freedom by following the drinking gourd to the north star. From back and back, the wayfinding of the Polynesian peoples who could look to the skies and the tides and waves to navigate remarkable distances to islands in the middle of the open sea. Generations of people all over the world have looked to the heavens to know where they were and where they were going – teaching children how to read the signs. Study of the stars could become quite complex as the wise ones in this scripture would be known for their learning, being able to study the heavens and see the meaning behind a new light in the sky.
I find travelling by starlight fascinating in part because it is so different from my typical mode of travel at night time. I do not really enjoy driving in Seattle after sunset. Most often it is not due to the dark, but due to the lights. If you are driving in a car, you are trying to go somewhere fast. It means that we project light in order to see where we are going, because you need to see ahead to where your solid car will soon be. When our streets become wet and rainy it is the lights that reflect off of them, our tail lights, headlights, stoplights, and streetlights casting glaring reflections no matter what surface you look at. I find it stressful to drive as we are barreling down the freeway with the lights reflecting off floor and carlight and lamppost as we try to move just the speed we are used to in daylight – forcefully, deliberately. And it’s so darn shiny that I can’t tell if that is the lane marker or the remarkably reflective streetlight as I careen into the night.
Travelling by starlight is by necessity slower. You do not need headlights to avoid hitting a deer, as if you are walking, I am guessing the deer will see you coming. Starlight is most helpful for navigation when you are in a place without landmarks. If you are at sea or in the desert, you can’t use a landmark to tell if you are going. You could turn every way around and each direction could look the same, or more ominous, not knowing if it was the way forward or way to be lost, crossing your own paths into peril. In such a time, the right way to look is up to the sky to see where you are. At twilight, when you can still see the horizon, you can use a sextant to tell the angle between the first planets that are bright in the sky and the horizon in front of you. If it is still light enough to see the line on the horizon when the north star appears you can use the angle of the sextan to tell you your latitude – how far north or south you have wandered. As the evening darkens and you lose even that base line you can use the angles of the stars. There are 45 navigation stars that are taught to airplane pilots so that when above the clouds if other systems fail there is a way to know where you are. To navigate by the stars you need to know what time it is. Because the earth is constantly spinning. it looks like the stars are constantly twirling with the North star in its tiny wobbly orbit. All of the navigation charts are a way of saying the world keeps spinning, this we know. And if we know where the stars are supposed to be and we can find the difference between their angles from where we stand, then we can name where we are.
I find it hard to believe that the stars are really there in daylight. I know in my head that the stars are always “there” in the sky. That trillions of miles away exploding balls of gas will continue to explode and light makes its many year journey concluding with arrival at the earth regardless of whatever I happen to be doing. And yet, when the sun is out, I have trouble believing that they can possibly be there when it is bright and light and in particular cheery. For when the sun sets, the light becomes low enough to see what has been happening all along. With trillions of miles, billions of galaxies, the story of creation and light coming to us from ages away and histories we can only imagine. These lights are faint, and so to see the stars you need it to be dark. It is only when it is dark enough that you can look up to the heavens to see your place.
In the gospel of Matthew, the birth of Jesus is heralded by a new star in the sky. There aren’t angels here bellowing fireworks or victorious songs from the heavens. Really, other than Mary and Joseph, God doesn’t go out of the way to inform anyone in particular at all that there is a miracle happening. Yet there were those in a far land who were already staring at the sky. They who knew the darkness well, whose eyes had accustomed themselves to the dim lights, and the mysteries and wonders of the sky. No one is certain what they saw, although questions of meteors and shooting stars abound. But in the night, a faint light was enough. Because they knew the heavens well, they could say this glimmer of light wasn’t here yesterday. This flickering is new. This shining is revelatory. And that was enough for them to travel across vast lands; to put themselves in the face of leaders who would reveal their brutality; to bring them to a home they would not know to offer their gifts. This one night star was enough good news for them. If they had only been out in daylight, they would have missed it. They would have been blinded by our own star.
To use the meter for measuring illuminance – how much light there is on a surface where the light hits – there is 30,000 – 100,000 lux in brightest sunlight. Or around here, about 1,000 lux on an overcast day. And to put it in comparison, starlight is .002 lux. Just one more way that Math can leave you awestruck. You need the darkness to hold starlight. To see the subtle differences in the sky, you need to move away from the other lights – daylight, and even the moon.
If you had been spending your time looking for hope in the shake of empires, in the boom of vast movements – if you had been looking to Rome, to Herod, to the news of the time
… you would have missed it. Instead you need to go in the darkness for the place that was imperceptible to the brightness of day and open your eyes. That slight light would be enough to move a life. That slight light would be enough to move a people. That slight light would be enough to move a kingdom and a nation. Because it was a sign that God had not left us to our own, that God had not forgotten us to our own brokenness, but that God had come to us in a vulnerable child to show us the way.
And so my beloved, hear this good news. It doesn’t matter if you survey the terrain of your life or your world and do not recognize where you are. If every direction you look, a path is not clear. If things feel dim or gray or maybe a classic blue where you don’t know whether it will veer towards sunrise or sunset. Wherever you are, you just need to look up to study the sky. To let it remind you where you are. To let it whisper to you with the earth as it spins, you get to have glimpses of light cast from the eons. That hope does not always come in billboards, headlines, neon lights, brightly lit roads, or even the bright light of day. But God has hope enough for the world in starlight’s .002 lux. For the God that works with mustard seeds and can make the bread rise with just a little yeast; the God who sees the value of small things has given us a little light that can show the way. That God has come to us in a vulnerable child, that is enough to transform a life, to move a community, to upend the seats of empires. Hush as the darkness falls. In it we find enough darkness to see what God has done.