Beautiful Star

Published by Congregational Speaker on

Nelson Shantz

Introductory points:

–today: scripture readings and message as one piece

— same passages for all three years…must be important material!

my engagement as I read them…theme or arc of content connecting them

–gratitude to some monk long ago

–I’ll read the texts

–offer comments & questions that came to mind as I read them

–this models one way to use the Lectionary

–then Jodie will dive into the last passage, modeling another common way to use Lectionary…focus on the Gospel passage.

Isaiah 60: 1-6 

This is a familiar and stirring passage.  The language brings melodies from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ to mind.  I hear a declaration of fulfillment and hope: light is replacing darkness; sons come home; small daughters are carried on the hip.  There is prosperity: the riches of the sea flow; the wealth of nations comes.

But a question arises—almost a reflexive question to me, an aging Anabaptist who looks out with distress on a world of extremes in wealth and poverty.  How do we regard wealth, and the power that often attends it?  How do we differentiate between prosperity and excess wealth/power?

–With that question in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 72…

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 

This passage begins to offer an answer to the question of how to regard wealth, how to conduct societal life where power and wealth are so unevenly aggregated.  These include:

-Govern with justice for the oppressed

-Save the children of the needy; they are precious people.

Such leadership fosters righteousness and gains the respect of the nations.

This seems good and possible:

  –that a ruler may be fair and just

  –that those who govern should and can be concerned with the well-being of all.

But it’s complicated.  There are doubtless rulers with good intentions, but governance is a long game, an endless game.  And there are plenty of ways to compromise and to be compromised.  Where does one find the fortitude and resolve to rule justly?

And how do we—citizens; members of humankind–navigate the demands of fairness and compassion in our daily lives?  And in our civic life?

It can be easy to spell out ideals.  But how do we make ideals our reality?

Where do we find the strength and resources for that work?

Ephesians 3: 1-12 

Sometimes I think Paul could have used a good editor!  But I will be generous with him!

  –He is someone who made a profound change in orientation.

  –He acted on his convictions, often at great personal hardship and peril.

  –Here, he grapples with complicated, cosmic matters of faith and belief. 

I hear Paul is saying we’ve been offered a resource to make our way: Christ is that treasure, a source of light on the complicated, mysterious inner workings of God’s creation.

As Anabaptists, we claim the model, the spirit, the person, the power of Christ.  These things enable us to approach God in complete confidence, and to act as agents of justice, as agents of creation.  Principalities and ruling forces can see the many-sided wisdom of God.  We, the church, have the task of teaching them.

It still feels daunting—this task of being fairminded, of doing justice.  But the coming of Christ—manifest in Epiphany—equips us with hope and energy for that good work.

Last passage…from Matthew…story of the Magi’s visit.  This is a wonderful story.  There are echoes of the texts we’ve heard.  It would make a good opera!

Matthew 2:1-12 

Jo Hatlem

Last year on December 21st my family piled into our car with the hope of escaping the city lights and catching a glimpse of the much advertised astral phenomenon– the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  It was conveniently advertised  in the media as the “Christmas Star” and postulated to be the same star that led the Magi.

We were all kind of whistling in the dark…

Doug and I knew that there wasn’t much of a chance that we would see the planets. Meteorologists had predicted a thick cloud cover… 

If we had honestly been chasing the star we would have had to drive hours instead of minutes outside of the city.

But we were struggling with a pared down holiday due to covid, a bit of cabin fever, and I thought we all needed a diversion. 

So… we promised Starbucks to the teenagers and climbed into the car.

We didn’t see the star; we didn’t see anything.

Instead, some impossibly stupid fight broke out between our children.  It was frankly a miserable trip.  To make matters worse I weighed in with angry recriminations:  ”why can’t you guys even get along at Christmas?!” 

It was all regrettable.

The poem Journey of the Magi also describes a difficult journey:

The Wise Men are abandoned by their camel drivers, their fires go out, there is often no shelter…

The journey is so difficult that “at the end they preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches, with the voices singing in our ears, saying this is all folly.”  

Now this is all conjecture on Eliot’s part… Matthew tells us nothing about the perils of the Wise Men’s journey.  Instead the text focuses on the perilous situation the Magi find themselves in when they arrive in Jerusalem.These were esoteric men, searching for wisdom and revelation.When they arrived in Jerusalem they ran headlong into a tense local, political situation.In charge, a petty potentate, King Herod.  The Romans allowed him to rule because of his capacity to keep the unruly Judeans quiet. Herod and all Jerusalem with him take this wisemen’s prediction of a King to be incredibly threatening news.  

… and so Herod talks to the Magi secretly in order to discover the exact date when the star appeared.  In the next chapter we learn that he uses this information and decides to murder every baby under two.

This is a dark story.

As Nelson indicated in his introduction this story is dramatic and operatic.  

There is the vassal king who is afraid and who rules through terror and cunning. There are the foreign dignitaries moving through the narrative with quiet gravitas seeking only to offer homage and present their gifts.

…the child un-knowing and yet known. 

….the stars somehow attracted to his gravity.

And so the stage is set for us to hear this whole story once again.

We began this service noting that we plan to explore the lectionary over the next several Sundays.  

The lectionary very intentionally will walk us through this story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus. In this story’s unfolding between now and Easter we will, perhaps, begin to see answers to Nelson’s questions about our texts for today. 

At least partially….

How does the birth of this child change the way we respond to the world?  What gifts does the church have to bring to the waiting world?

We hope through our re-reading of this story that  we will discover new ways to be faithful and new ways to order and organize our lives… 

…and as I am saying this I also expect that some of you listening seriously doubt what I am saying….

You don’t really see Scripture providing answers to these kinds of questions. 

Perhaps, I am whistling in the dark like I was the night that I invited our kids into the car to go and see the Star of Bethlehem….

knowing good and well that these texts can be as obscure and cloud covered as that particular night sky. 

It is hard to continue week in and week out to engage Scripture with a sense of hope and expectancy…  Perhaps, you once were able to explore the Bible that way– looking for revelations, answers and mystery…

but instead of insights you mostly found stupid conflict and arguments and people trying to control each other through guilt.

 I challenge you to give it another chance.

That car trip was mostly a disaster, but it did end with an honest conversation about how frustrated everyone was and with an opportunity for us to be honest about our feelings and experiences.

At the very least the Bible, like a cramped car, can be a place of meeting.

…and sometimes it can be a unique place of meeting

Nelson and I began talking about this week’s worship a bit later than we might normally.  Tuesday night we had both been involved in a Worship Committee meeting trying to work out whether or not we would go back to holding services on Zoom.

On Wednesday, I was able to hear some of Nelson’s wonderful insights about the text and his delight in reading them.…the same delight he shared this morning.

I told him some of the ways I was seeing the text–  my sympathy for the wisemen who were seeking mystery and somehow got embroiled in local political intrigue.

Nelson mentioned a poem he knew about the Journey of the Magi and how journeys are sometimes unexpected. 

It was  a good conversation….  between two people who don’t really know each other well.  Who have very different backgrounds and likely different ways of thinking about the world and approaching it. I don’t actually know many other places in our world where people meet across generational divides and have such important conversations (and especially not as equals).

I believe that reflections on  Scripture  can be a place where we meet…. 

….and even better it can be a place of rich conversations about what is important.  

But I still believe that it can be much more than that…I still believe it is filled with mystery and epiphany, revelation and insight. 


I did finally see the great conjunction, the Star of Bethlehem last year. My best friend from childhood was in the hospital with covid.  It was touch and go whether she would have to go on a ventilator.  I woke up deeply troubled at 3 am and decided to take a walk and pray. It was bitterly cold. The kind of cold where the snow looks like it might be filled with thousands of fragmentary diamonds and the air is stark …and as I turned the corner there it was before me–  Jupiter and Saturn…clear in the frigid night air. I hadn’t been looking for them and they weren’t at their ascendence–Jupiter and Saturn had begun to move away from each other like the Holy Family and the Magi fleeing in separate directions…

and yet the sight  left me feeling overwhelmingly comforted– A star, a star shining in the night. A sign.

Honestly, sometimes going to church seems like that totally mismanaged  family car trip–a regrettable waste of time. Yet, I can’t help but think that going to church– like that family car trip–might just prepare us to be blindsided now and again by mystery…overwhelmed with comfort and joy.

So, this is my prayer for us… 

That somehow our piecemeal time together here on Zoom makes us a bit more able to see goodness and truth and Spirit of God at work in our world and our lives this week.

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