Happy Feast of Epiphany! It is a day of some astronomical importance. If you have not heard, tonight there is an interesting phenomenon. Saturn, the moon, and Spica, I believe they were saying on the news, will form a nearly perfect isosceles triangle in the the night sky. Of course, this is not the most famous starry phenomenon associated with this day in history. That honor belongs to The Star, the one that had the honor of marking the birth of our Lord and leading the wise men of Babylon to Jerusalem in search of the new born king. I must confess I came upon my sermon for this day a few weeks ago. On the internet, I came upon a couple simulations that used Starry Night to give us an idea of how the night sky appeared around the time of Christ’s birth. It was being used by Christians to try and date the birth of our Lord. As you all know, I am more than a bit of a nerd. In my youth, astronomy was one of those “hobbies” which I found very attractive. I was privileged in that one of my best friend’s dad had the keys the big telescope at the Huntington Galleries back home in WV. Whenever there was a significant astronomical event to be viewed, or maybe if a planet such as Mercury just happened to be in a great spot, we would head down to the Galleries and look at whatever celestial event that had caught our attention. With that background, you might not be too surprised to know that I watched those simulations. By the time I was finished, I understood Paul’s words to the Ephesians today far better than ever.
Place yourself in the lands to the east of Jerusalem, the lands that used to belong to Babylon. Imagine you are an astronomer sharing in a collective knowledge understood only by few in various empires in the world. You remember the king’s servant, Daniel, and his stories of deliverance of God’s people in history. You remember how your king saw the finger of God writing on the wall, how your king was driven mad for a time for despising the God of the Jews, and you remember how the king paid for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and declared that Israel could go home. What explains those events? What could have moved the great king to set free a subjected people? As one of those better educated, you also know the stories. Daniel was very free in his worship of Yahweh. If the holy Scriptures revered by Daniel were to be believed, the land of Judah was represented by the constellation Leo (the Lion) in the night sky. As with most people, you understand that what happens among the gods in the sky is reflected here on earth. So you have committed yourself to learning the language of the heavens so that you can explain better the events on earth. One August night, a bit more than 2000 years ago, you notice something interesting.
Jupiter, the king planet, and Venus, the mother planet, come together in what we call a conjunction. Now we understand that Venus is many millions of miles closer to the sun than earth and that Jupiter is many, many millions of miles further from the sun than earth, but at least once per orbit of Jupiter, the two can appear in the night sky to be next to each other. Because one is inside our orbit and one is outside our orbit, the planets can look as if they are coming together once or three times, depending on a host of factors. But in August of what you and I call 3 BC, something amazing has happened. Jupiter and Venus have begun a mere 15 arc minutes apart and closed to about 4 arc minutes. From the perspective of the human eye on earth, they have become one big star! From the perspective of human history, a conjunction of 30 arc minutes occurs only once every 144 years! Nobody living has ever seen one. And there is no history of one ever being this close. So you sit up and take notice. . .
As time passes you notice that Jupiter continues its wanderings and works its way westward to the star Regulus, the little king. This conjunction is about 20 arc minutes apart. Now to your eyes, the king planet and mother planet have come together, then the king planet has travelled in a few months to the little king in the night sky. And this conjunction has not occurred a single time, but three times! In fact, to your eyes in the lands of Babylon, it would appear that Jupiter has traced a circle over the course of eight months over the star Regulus. Putting two and two together, what do you think has happened? A king has clearly been born. But where?
I reminded you of Daniel and his service to the king to give you a hint. As you think on these amazing celestial events, you notice that all the conjunctions between Regulus and Jupiter have occurred within the constellation Leo. Is there a significance? Well, if Daniel was to be believed, God considered Judah to be signified by the lion. After all, Genesis 49:9 speaks that truth. And Judah is the tribe that rules the lands to the east. Could the stars indicate that a king has been born in the land of Judah? The stars are not yet done sending their message.
After the third conjunction with Regulus, Jupiter heads on a quick journey. Once again it encounters Venus, but this time within the constellation Leo. Can there be any doubt? Clearly a king has been conceived and born in the lands of Judah! Plus, from your perspective in Babylon, the combined stars have set in the west as of June 17. From your perspective, your direction has been determined by the stars and the gods who order them as clearly as if they had been written on parchment. So you set out with others who have noticed this amazing celestial event to Jerusalem, to see this king whose birth has been written in the heavens.
When you first set out on your journey, Jupiter and Venus have set. You have gone to Jerusalem only because you expect that astronomers like yourself will have noticed such a magnificent event. When you ask about the new born king, there is fear and concern and surprise. Everyone seems to have been caught unawares by your inquiry. But the Jews have the sacred texts to consult. Even though they cannot see the stars you mention because they have set, they can read the words of God. And they tell you that a king is promised to come out of Bethlehem. So, once again, you head out toward the little town named in Scripture, knowing your journey is near an end.
Now, the events in the sky have been enough to cause you to set out on a long journey, but what do you see as you look up? Guess what planet has reappeared as you hung around the court of Herod? Jupiter has risen again in the night sky after a bit of an absence. But where? In the constellation Virgo. That’s right. Jupiter can now be found in the constellation of the virgin. But look at its motion. It appears to be coming closer to the ground. It’s “westward leading” seems to have all but stopped and turned into more of a dip toward the ground. Finally, on the night of December 24, it appears to stop, hovering over a point southwest of Jerusalem. It will not appear to “back up” until January 7. What is southwest of Jerusalem? Ah, yes, the stars confirm the sacred Scriptures of Yahweh’s people. Bethlehem lies a handful of miles to the southwest of Jerusalem. You are, indeed, heading in the right direction and are about to encounter the new born king of the Jews.
You may be asking yourself why I spent so much time trying to paint a picture in your mind as if you were one of the magi. Simply put, I wanted to point out to you the care and concern and knowledge and power required by God to mark the birth of His only begotten Son. Can you imagine the sheer volume of information required to make sure that the heavens marked this incredible birth at the right time? Can you imagine the understanding required to know the orbits of the “wanderers” (our planets) and the stars and how they appeared on earth? And who in antiquity understands things like “retrograde motion?” Most of us in modern times would still like to think that the physics of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote are really in play in our lives. Yet here is God juggling all these orbits and how they appear and are likely to be interpreted by us on earth. Heck, I think it plausible that Daniel’s slavery is being redeemed in yet another way, many centuries later, through the interpretation of those celestial signs by the magi.
We have come off a tough Advent as a parish, as a church, and as a country. On the parish level, we lost a beloved member in Mary. Our health has been a bit on the bad sign ever since Thanksgiving. How many of us have had the flu? How many of us have had to visit the doctor. More than one of us has had some procedures done. Because of the various flus and cruds, a number of us have probably felt a bit isolated. I know I had to not visit shut-in’s for nearly 3 1/2 weeks because of a flu and a crud that i did not want to share with those already in poor health. When I did get back to visiting, a number of people complained that they had missed companionship as much as anything. Looking outside the parish, it may have been far worse. Our beloved church continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons giving an appearance to the world that her garments are tattered and frayed. Our “mother” church in England, in what can best be described as clumsily, decided not to consecrate women in the episcopacy after giving every outward sign that such was their intention and goal. Closer to home, our church managed to provoke yet another fight and enrich lawyers in the process, as it worked to charge and recharge and recharge the bishop of our fastest growing diocese with violating our canons in a state whose Supreme Court seems to have made it abundantly clear in prior decisions that parishes own their buildings and do not hold them in trust. I do not know Bishop Katharine and Bishop Mark well, but I share your wonder from a distance as to how two bishops in our church could seem to be so personally offended by the other. Are we not instructed to seek forgiveness when we offend by our Lord? Is it our witness that our “trusts” hold us in relationship or our Lord? Is the fight really about power and, so, all the more lamentable because it is championed by overseers in the Lord’s Church? In the “secular” world, the tragic shootings at Newtown, CT, the shootings at the mall, the ambush of officers and first responders have caused plenty of reflection and recriminations about the violence that pervades our culture. Is there really no hope? Is the only escape death? The recently completed negotiations over the fiscal cliff will likely hang like a pall over our country as we restart the fight over the debt limit and begin the new year. Oh, and let’s not forget, we all know people who were very disappointed to find out the Mayan interpreters were wrong right before Christmas. It has been a tough season. The world has tried hard to snuff out the Light that has come into the world.
But as a reminder of His love for us we have entered and celebrated the season of the Incarnation, and as a reminder of His power and glory we have begun the season of the Epiphany with the retelling of The Star. I have retold that story of the star so as, in the words of St. Paul, to enlighten the eyes of your heart, so that you may know the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints and the immeasurable greatness of His power for those of us who believe in Him. Times may seem dark. Life may, indeed, be hard. But God has already acted to save you and me! He has sent us His Son with an amazing offer of life for all who would accept it. He announced that effort with these amazing celestial events. And He crowned the One who did His will with the glory of the Resurrection. Were the story to end there, we would rightly worship Him and thank Him for what He has done.
But salvation history is not yet complete. In fact, it is only just beginning. You and I are called to speak in terms of eternity. And it is an eternity which begins with an amazing feast to celebrate when we are called home to be with Him. Think on this for just a second: the One who arranged the heavens to announce the birth of His only begotten Son is the One who is planning that heavenly wedding feast to which He calls all of humanity. And each one of us gathered here this morning that claims Him as Lord is guaranteed an honored spot at that wedding feast! Each one of us who calls Him Lord is invited and has a place prepared. Each one of us is destined to eat of His amazing provision and drink of His amazing vineyard.
It is a wonderful invitation to know you have, but have you ever really considered the scope of the feast to which you are called? Think on it in these terms: we all agree that God did an amazing thing announcing the birth of His only begotten Son to the Gentile world through the use of the heavens. How well planned do you think the wedding feast will be when all His children, you and I and those known only to Him, return home to share in His glory and majesty? How big will that event be when you and I are called into His presence, with all our brothers and sisters and all the saints in light, with those proud loving words “Well done! Enter into the joy of your Father” and crowned with the glorious riches only He can provide? Perhaps in light these celestial events and in light of His promises, you and I can begin to get the barest hint of how the darkness of this world is doomed to fail against such power and love. Maybe, just maybe, His light might burn a bit brighter in our hearts this year as we go forth into the world proclaiming His love, proclaiming His hope, and proclaiming His power to accomplish His will to all those blinded in the darkness and groping for sight, groping for hope. Pray that our message is one of invitation, invitation to those loving arms stretched out on a cross, whose glory was revealed to the world this day in history, so many years ago!