Friday, December 14, 2012

Lessons of the star

The town I grew up in was small enough that on clear nights there were stars in abundance overhead. And from my house it was half a block to the water-tower that marked the very edge of town in those days (though now, there are neighborhoods in every direction beyond that water-tower). But back then there were only rolling hills as far as the eye could see. I liked walking out there and often did, any time of year. But in the winter, covered with snow when I walked past the water-tower, it was like I was alone in the world out there with only those layers and layers of stars the lights to mark my way.

But I've never been able to identify more than the Little Dipper in the sky. And the North Star at the tip of its tail, of course. The North Star is a good star to know, if its the only one in one's arsenal, a metaphor for God if ever there was one, I'm told. But I confess, it has never been such for me. I only see stars when I look heavenly. Though my sister's astronomer boyfriend would cringe to know it, I'm as close to a dunce as they come when it comes to finding lines to form shapes of bears, goats, or whatever else is supposedly up there. And it's not for lack of trying, either. My dad tried pointing out planets, and constellations when we were out  camping, but I couldn't even see the difference between planets (apparently brighter and with less (no?) twinkle). Saturn's rings? Really, Saturn has rings? Could have fooled me. Not even in the telescope a brother-in-law once set up in our back yard did I see anything more than dimples in the moon (and at least I saw those!).

To me, it's good enough that the heavens declare the Glory of God. They don't have to align themselves as animals to make His glory more breath-taking. But whenever I ponder the star that God hung in the sky in 4 BC over a tiny town in a tiny country where the most monumental event in history was taking place, I really believe even I could have seen it. Men from half a world away (or so) did. So brightly that they left home and position and were compelled to bring extravagant gifts on a arduous journey to find the source of that star. The one under whom that star shone. And by camel (as tradition has it) that journey would have been a long one, which leads us to this startling revelation: the star over Bethlehem began to twinkle months before the babe lay in the manger. In fact, perhaps it began to glow as soon as an angel visited a young girl in Nazareth and she said, "May it be unto me. I am your handmaiden."

It's not so far-fetched an idea, is it? That God would put into place such a thing. Now it's possible the people of Bethlehem saw the star and were surprised at first by it, even frightened by it's sudden overwhelming appearance, but when it didn't go away but didn't become a menace, grew used to its presence. Perhaps. More likely, however, God revealed His glory--His star--to the magi alone. In their sky, so to speak. As the earth turns, they saw it before those directly under it glimpsed what God was about.  This is a more obvious conclusion, since we have no mention in the text that any other than the magi saw the star.

So let's trust that only the magi saw the star. Interpreted it not merely as unique but important. Even at this they made some missteps. And as missteps go, this was taking a step off a cliff. Through no fault of their own--perhaps with all the good will in the world--they went to the one person they should have most avoided when they finally reached Jerusalem: a paranoid king whose desire for power made him as malevolent as any Hitler. He was the worst of villains. He knew at once what their journey was all about, asked for confirmation from the Jewish elders, then immediately began to plot a baby's death. A baby's death. Not an assassination of a man already at the height of his reign but a baby. And when the magi, warned by God NOT to inform on said baby, didn't return, he actually killed EVERY baby boy in Bethlehem.

Imagine, every single baby a town. Every mother crying over her baby's empty manger, so to speak. Every single baby boy not to grow up to work with his daddy in the fields, or shops, or whatever. It's a picture of decimation like we've seen other places, at other times through-out history.

And it can be a stumbling block for the glory of this story. I know this. Couldn't God have saved those babies? Yes. Let's admit that. But let's also admit, that in this world, there has always such evil. It points out in sharp relief the absolute point of His coming. A man is evil. They sin. People die as a result. Even babies. Yes, because of sin. And from the first sin, God promised a way out. He didn't say that the moment He came to earth there would be no more sin, He said He would save us.

And, in order to do so, He was spared the day those babies were killed. Herod killed the babies. He couldn't kill Jesus. Jesus would not be killed until HIS time. Until the time was fulfilled.

The other piece of this episode is that we, too, are the magi. We take mis-steps. I mean, sometimes, through no fault of our own, we put into motion events that cause great harm. Is it our sin? No. But sin is the result. The magi are not culpable for what happened to those babies. In fact, God told in a dream to return to their countries by a different route. He warned them to have no more part in the grave sin that was coming. Sometimes this is our lot as well. Have you ever questioned whether you've sinned if you meant something for good but it resulted in something terrible? The magi's story is the answer. You aren't responsible for what others twist into ugliness. You are responsible to pray for the lives affected. As always.

These, I think, are the lessons of the star.
Happy Friday.

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