January 3 “The Beginning, Your Beginning”

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

MESSAGE       The Beginning and Your Beginning”

Rev. James R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder

One of the great symbols of Christmas hope is the Star over Bethlehem.  Nearly every Christmas card we receive each year shows the star in the sky.  Many of you have a star at the top of your Christmas tree.  Some people even put a star up on the roof or chimney.  The star is beautiful, it’s powerful, it’s striking, it fills the heart with hope and joy.   The star over Bethlehem is not just a point of light – it’s an explosion of hope and joy.

Astronomers have tried to correlate the Bible story of the star with known celestial phenomenon of the day, such as supernovas, comets, and planetary alignments.  Such things do happen from time to time, but the records from those times don’t really line up with the story.  Halley’s comet passed by the earth in 12 BC, and there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BC, King Herod died in 4 BC, and the date of the census that required Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem seems to have been 6 AD.  Many theologians and astronomers have tried to find a date for the birth of Jesus that fits all of the pieces, but there are significant problems with every theory that has been proposed.  But Matthew tells a story about a star and it has continued down through the ages because it is one of the great symbols of our faith, and its light continues to draw us closer to Christ.

When I was in high school, one night my friends and I saw a huge column of light off in the distance.  We had no idea what it was, but that beam of light shining up into the clouds got our attention.  So we headed off into the night to find it.  We finally found the source in Glen Burnie, one of the big suburban shopping centers outside of Baltimore.  It was a giant flood light in the parking lot of an auto dealer.  Its purpose was to draw curious people like my friends and me who might prove to be potential customers.  Over the years since I have seen those floodlights shining up into the clouds many times from many car dealers, but never again did I drive off into the dark looking for the source.  I figured each one of them was a sales gimmick.

What I find most striking about the star over Bethlehem is that as far as I can tell hardly anyone noticed it in the sky.  Wouldn’t a star the size of the one shown on our Christmas cards have gotten the attention of everyone everywhere?   Wouldn’t every teenager have borrowed the family chariot and headed out into the dark to find it?  Apparently not.  In the story it seems that the star really only got the attention of those wise men in a distant unnamed country to the east.  And no one else.  There are no other records of the star outside of Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s not mentioned in any histories or records from the time.  It’s not even mentioned in Mark, Luke or John.  Mary and Joseph didn’t seem to know about the star.  The shepherds didn’t know about the star, either.

The wise men were the ones who were always looking up to see the patterns of the stars and the planets, not because they were astronomers or scientists but because they were astrologers, believing that the movements of the stars determined the course of life on earth.  When they saw something unusual in the heavens, for them it meant something unusual was going to happen on the earth.  They earned their pay by informing their royal patrons of heavenly phenomenon, which then led to royal decisions about crops, marriage, and politics.

One other aspect of the star is also worth mentioning. We are told in Matthew’s Gospel that the star was in the sky directly over Bethlehem in such a way that the wise men were able to find their way to the manger.  With my rudimentary knowledge of astronomy I know at least this much: that the 2-3000 stars we can see from the earth on a clear night appear to move throughout the night.  Not one of them can be said to be hanging over one particular geographic spot like Bethlehem.  Of course, it’s not the stars moving, they appear to be moving because the earth is rotating.   Every one of them moves, and if an especially bright one didn’t move I think a lot of people would have noticed.

This gives me an opportunity to make an important point about the Bible.  The Bible is not meant to be a scientific textbook, its purpose is to get our attention about what’s really important, its purpose is to get us thinking of the big picture, its purpose is to get us looking up in hope rather than down in despair.  When it comes to stories like the Star over Bethlehem think not “science”, but “poetry”, “music” or “art”.  God is trying to reach us in every way possible, God is composing stirring poetry, God is singing to us, God is painting a beautiful picture.  In our world filled with so many distractions, with our heads buried in the sand of simply surviving each day, it’s important to see that big picture of what God is doing in the world to stir hearts everywhere, getting us to look up to find inspiration to live lives not filled with fear or dread, but dedicated to peace, justice, love and hope.

Our text for today, from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, is another one of these poetic texts.  Maybe if you study it in detail you can find within it a scientific explanation for the beginning of creation, but I prefer to read it as poetry that sings.  It’s sort of like a poetic preamble for the entire Gospel of John, setting forth the main themes for what will follow in the story of Jesus, all the way to Jerusalem, to the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  The theme of this Preamble is “light in the darkness”  In the same way that the universe began with a spark of light, the story of Jesus begins with the spark of a thought in the mind of God, in the same way that the light of a star can be the spark of a new beginning for you.   The Preamble takes this simple three part form: God saying “Let there be Light”,  then Jesus saying “I am the light of the world”, and finally Jesus saying “You are the light of the world”.  The light began long ago as far back as the beginning of creation, Jesus embodied that light in his birth, and now he plants it in each one of us.

Now let’s turn to the quiz, inspired by the visit Robin and I made to the National Aeronautical and Space Museum in Washington DC this past week.

Keep Your Eye on the Sky Quiz

 On a clear night how many stars are usually visible in the sky? (a)  100-200   (b)  1000-1200   (c)  2000-3000   (d)  1-2 million

One theory is that the star over Bethlehem was a planetary alignment. What is the technical name for such an alignment?

(a)  Galileus   (b)  Conjunctivitus   (c)  Ptolomeyicism   (d)  Syzygy

What modern description could we use to describe the magi?

(a)  Wizards   (b)  Sorcerers   (c)  Astrologers   (d)  Palm-readers

It is traditionally believed that the magi came from what eastern country?

(a)  China   (b)  India   (c)  Persia   (d)  Babylonia   (e)  Assyria

According to modern astronomers, the universe is expanding. How do they know this? 

(a)  Doppler Shift   (b)  Cosmic Shotgun   (c)  Black Holes   (d)  Nebulae

Who discovered Pluto?

(a)  Percival Lowell   (b)  Wilhelm Herschel   (c)  Clyde Tombaugh

What is the name of the space-based telescope?

(a)  Hubble   (b)  Palomar   (c)  Wilson   (d)  Dyson

Another explanation for the star over Bethlehem is that it was a

(a)  Super-Nova   (b)  Comet   (c)  Globular Cluster   (d)  Black Hole

How many stars are estimated to be in our own galaxy, the Milky Way?

(a)  100-300 thousand   (b)  100-300 billion   (c)  100-300 trillion

Bonus questions:

Was the Museum crowded? Yes!  Lots of people are looking up!

Orville Wright, of the Wright Brothers who are credited with the first air flight, has his musical instrument in one of the display cases. What kind of instrument was it?  Mandolin, of course!

 

Answers:  1-c (if your vision is 20-20), 2-d (a great Scrabble word), 3-c, 4-d, 5-a (most observable stars show a red shift by spectrum analysis, meaning they are moving away from us, evidence of expansion), 6-c (though he got Pluto from the initials of Percival Lowell, another astronomer; sadly, Pluto has been demoted to “planetary object), 7-a, 8-a or b, 9-b (you can verify by counting the stars on the bulletin cover!)

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