“This Changing Light” / Matthew 2:1-12 / 6 January 2019
A new star in the eternal heavens? A new light in that same old sky? How can it be that the vast firmament full of heavenly bodies should ever grow something new? Old lights burn dim and die, of course. Shooting stars are suns like ours that lost their luster, and failed, and disappeared, and whole galaxies collapsed in their wake. They faded, and fell, and vanished. Whenever you see a shooting star in the night sky, you’re witnessing the cataclysmic demise of whole worlds, years after the event. And who knows what wondrous planets, and moons and solar systems are ripped from the heavens when one star burns out? Yes, old stars die. But who has ever heard of a new star rising? When was the last time a new star was hung in the heavens above? Well, astronomers do say that new stars form. The Milky Way Galaxy gets about five newbies per year. Creation is ongoing. But this strange and sudden star over Bethlehem? Its fresh and radiant beams illuminating a broken old world in a new and compelling light? The lights above us and around us are forever changing. The lights of our universe, the lights of our world, and even the lights of our hearts grow dim and die. And every now and again we see ourselves and all things anew in the light of a different star. Sometimes a new light casts new clarity out over the things we thought we saw so well before. And then! Then we cannot unsee what we’ve seen. Then we’re responsible for all that we’ve seen in the glow of this ever-changing light. O Star of Bethlehem, O Light of Today! Shine bright in the darkness of our night. Then God give us the courage to up and follow!
The satirical book, Stuff White People Like, says that white people like belonging to religions that their parents do not belong to. It proves true for most of my siblings and me. My grandmother was a Methodist. But she was an old-style Methodist from the countryside: a revivalist from the days when they were called “shouting Methodists.” She loved to sing those rollicking Victorian gospel songs. She talked about going to the altar, and getting born again, and giving your life to Jesus. She even spent a week each summer at one of the last of the Methodist camp meetings—Cherry Run, near Clarion. These days, a visitor could barely tell the difference between a Presbyterian church and a Methodist church. In fact, Stephen Colbert once said that the only difference between the two is “debts” and “trespasses.” But years ago, I overheard my grandmother speaking about her cousin, and she said, “He’s Presbyterian, but I think he’s a Christian.” She didn’t much care for Presbyterians. She thought they were formal, too dry and heady, not enough open to the things of the Spirit—by which she meant hand-clapping and shouting “Amen” when the preacher said something good. She used to critique the worship she’d seen in Presbyterian churches. “All that reading out loud. And standing up and sitting down! If I wanted an aerobics class, I’d go to the senior center, not to church!”
My own journey led me to a Presbyterian church, though I care little for such distinctions. One day in her declining years, grandma asked me, “So you’ve gone Presbyterian on us?” With a bit of dread, I admitted, “Yes.” I felt the need to make a case for myself. I said, “I really like it, grandma. It’s got reverence, and beauty, and just enough ritual. The preacher always makes me think.” What I wanted to say was that it seemed like Christianity for people who liked to think. I expected grandma to come unglued, to start talking about the narrow way and the Holy Ghost. But she smiled and said, “As long as you’re happy. Sunday should be the happiest day of the week, so spend it in a place that makes you happy!”
What’s this? My revivalist grandmother? At eighty years of age, had she really begun to believe differently about faith? Once upon a time, if you disagreed with her on matters of religion, then you were just wrong, and she’d pray for your soul. But now, near the end of her life, there was a new light shining. All the things that seemed so urgently important in her younger days were less dire. Now she understood, at last, that some people experience God in ways other than hers. New light at a late date in her life!
My father, too, came under the influence of people like my grandmother, people with too many answers and too few questions. He was never one to clap his hands in church or shout “Amen.” His brand of faith all came down to rules, lots and lots of rules. Don’t smoke. Don’t dance. No card games except Uno, and certainly nothing that used a real deck of playing cards. Not only could you not swear or curse, but you couldn’t even use words like “heck” and “darn.” Of course, all alcohol was strictly off limits, but you couldn’t even go to restaurants that served alcohol. Church was three times a week. TV was okay, as long as you didn’t watch MASH. But the radio was forbidden. My siblings and I listened to the radio in secret and sneaked off to school dances. If anything, all the stifling rules taught us that forbidden fruit was sweet. Right up until last year, family holidays saw my adult siblings sipping their secret wine from travel mugs, to disguise it from my elderly parents. For some reason, though, things changed this time around. My niece—who is opening a brewery in Mississippi—made mimosas. She handed the drinks around, and most people drank…including my parents. I said, “Dad, you know there’s alcohol in that.” He said, “I know.” And raised his glass to his lips like everyone else. You could have knocked me over with a feather. This is a man who received a bottle of Jim Bean as a gift in 1966 and kept it untouched in a drawer—because gifts to him were sacrosanct—until my youngest brother discovered it in 2001 and inhaled it in a single sitting! What had changed? How could something so central become of no account? O changing light! O growing light! O new stars that shed their fresh clarity on old things that we thought were all decided. Shine on. Shine on us. Where has new light appeared in our society in this ending year? Where has it appeared in your life?
These wise men that we hear about each January, the so-called three kings who visited the infant Christ, they’re much like my grandmother and father. These are people who already had all the answers they needed for a lifetime, but new light set them on a quest they didn’t expect. They were probably Zoroastrians, stargazers, what grandma might have called soothsayers. They believed that human destiny was written in the stars. And yet, when a new light appeared silver and luminous above their Persian observatories, even they felt a tug at the bottom of their unswerving souls. It was a tug, perhaps, that they’d been waiting for all their stalwart lives. Even they found it in their souls to set aside their answers, their privilege, their great status, in order to follow this changing light. I would reject the notion that they were kings, for what king would go to another king—namely the wicked Herod—to ask where the new king was? Any king would know better than to do that, for an old king can only hate a new king. Tradition names them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. The Venerable Bede even went so far as to describe the length of their beards, their ages, the color of their hair and skin. But in all truth, all we know about them is that they are us. In Bible stories, you’re supposed to find yourself in one of the characters, and these outsiders are indeed you and me. The Magi are the first gentiles drawn into God’s story of redemption. They’re anyone who’s open to a new light in their old sky: the doubting fundamentalist, the exvangelical—as those leaving conservative churches and politics are now called—the spiritual seekers, the dreamers, the doubters, the ex-churched, the unchurched, the nones, anyone who sees the light.
But light’s a funny thing, as any painter or photographer will tell you. It’s always changing. If you were here on Christmas Eve, then you know that this room alone can be a very different place depending on the light. The same room with the same furniture in all the same places can be many different places according to the light. Think about your own bedroom. You’ve seen it in the soft, inviting glow of morning, when the possibility of a new day beams golden through the windows. You’ve seen that same room under the menacing shadows of midnight, when a sound wakened you, and the only light is filtering harsh and dim from the street, all airless with fear. You’ve seen it in soft candlelight, and glaring afternoon sun, blindingly bright. You’ve seen it far too many times under this flat Pittsburgh gray that settles over us for weeks at a time, and in that beautiful and now-rare light of gray skies reflecting off the snow, illuminating all things, as if welling up from everywhere. The light is always changing. Its changes affect our moods, our emotions, our state of mind. That’s the way it is with the lights that illumine our days and years, isn’t it? They change. They wax and wane. Marijuana? Gay marriage? The ordination of women? People fought about these issues as if the fate of humanity hung in the balance…until they didn’t. One day, they just…stopped fighting. An idea might seem constant for decades at a time, but then something brings about a shift, and suddenly all our living looks different from what it was before; we get a new perspective, a new vision for living the same life. How has the light in the skies above your life changed down through the years? How has it bid you up and follow after something new? A language that no longer changes is a dead language; even so, a faith that never changes is not firm and sure; it’s dead.
There are many jokes circulating at Christmastime about “What if it had been three wise women?” They would have brought diapers, casseroles, and baby formula instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And of course, they would have stopped to ask for directions, arriving on Christmas Day, not thirteen days later. But this brings us to two more things that need to be said about following after the unexpected light that God sometimes sends our way: first, a good spiritual seeker can and will borrow light from many sources. As you journey to the Bethlehem to which you’re called, your way will be lit by lights other than just that radiant star. Streetlights, lamplight, the moon, other stars. You can be a faithful spiritual seeker while drawing from the wisdom of more than one faith tradition. Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and the transcendental movement, and many others have spiritual riches to share with the world, and we would be foolish to believe that one faith tradition can contain all of God’s great truths. Secondly, while we can borrow light from different sources, it’s hard to follow more than one star at a time. In our modern approach to the spiritual smorgasbord of life, we tend to pick and choose the sweet things from each faith tradition, ignoring the healthy but less tasty things they offer. People who dabble in the Buddhist faiths usually love the incenses and the lotus flowers, but they want no part of meditating five times a day on their own mortality. In the same way, those who dabble in Christianity love Christmas, but want no part of Good Friday. But these ancient spiritual paths have an internal wisdom that no dabbler can ever fully benefit from; they give us sweet things we want, but also bitter things that we do not want, but need. And so, be open to all lights that illumine your path, but commit your life’s long journey to following a single path at a time.
Everyone here today could tell a different story about their path to the manger. But the life of faith is always changing, always calling us onward to learn new lessons, risk new missions, undertake new ways of praying and serving. What new star sheds its radiance above the night skies of our nation today? Our congregation? And you. If you’re not journeying, then you’re sitting still, and that’s no way to get anywhere. O Star of Bethlehem, Light of Today, shine on. Then God give us courage to follow. Amen.