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Advent 1

On Sacred Journeys: Stars

Scriptures: Matthew 2:1-9, Isaiah 9:2-7

K DerksenWhere the Map Begins
This is not
any map you know.
Forget longitude.
Forget latitude.
Do not think
of distances
or of plotting
the most direct route.
Astrolabe, sextant, compass:
these will not help you here.

This is the map
that begins with a star.
This is the chart
that starts with fire,
with blazing,
with an ancient light
that has outlasted
generations, empires,
cultures, wars.

Look starward once,
then look away.
Close your eyes
and see how the map
begins to blossom
behind your lids,
how it constellates,
its lines stretching out
from where you stand.

You cannot see it all,
cannot divine the way
it will turn and spiral,
cannot perceive how
the road you walk
will lead you finally inside,
through the labyrinth
of your own heart
and belly
and lungs.

But step out
and you will know
what the wise who traveled
this path before you
the treasure in this map
is buried
not at journey’s end
but at its beginning.

—Jan Richardson


Advent 1 An Ancient Light compressed

(image: An Ancient Light, by Jan Richardson.  Used with permission)


It’s fun to begin our Advent worship here on this stage set for the production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.  A poor hut in which a widow and her crippled son receive the most remarkable trio of unexpected guests.  I know that many of you were there last night for the first show, and others will be here this evening for the second.  And if you don’t have tickets yet, I think there will still be seats available at the door tonight, so don’t be dissuaded!

Those guests who show up, the Magi or Kings from the East, are an important part of the Christmas story.  They appear only in Matthew’s gospel, but no nativity scene would be complete without these three kneeling before the Christ-child with their gifts.

The traditional time to focus on the journey of the Magi is Epiphany Sunday – usually two weeks after Christmas.  This recognizes the fact that the Magi arrive sometime after the night of Jesus’ birth.  Exactly how long after nobody knows, but maybe even as long as a year or two.  They had quite a ways to go on foot and by camel.  So their story is in many ways after the fact of Christmas. 

But the journey these Magi take captures the invitation of Advent so well.  A journey that begins long before they finally arrive at the promised child.  They set out in hope and faith, following a sign in the heavens that they cannot otherwise explain.   Christmas morning doesn’t come out of nowhere for them, or for us.  We light our first candle this morning and we begin our own journey to the place where the child is born.  For us, it’s a journey of waiting and expectation.  A journey that hooks us into the waiting and the expectation of generations.  That draws us back to the words of the prophets and the hopes of a people long ago. 

Our Advent journey is, admittedly, a far cry from the cold and treacherous overland trek that the Magi made.  More tinsel and feasting than cold nights and ornery camels.  But I think the invitation to step out and be changed is the same.  As is the call to keep watch, to pay attention, and to follow the signs of God’s activity in our world.

For the Magi, what gets this whole story going is something new they observe in the night sky.  These Magi, or Kings, or Wise-men - whatever we might call them – they were clearly students of the stars.  They kept watch over the night sky, charting the movements of constellations and planets.  I imagine them gazing at the heavens with a mixture of scientific curiosity and outright wonder. Drawing their charts with precision, but also marvelling at the glory and immensity of space.  And ready to see in its twinkling mystery signs of what is to be on the earth.

Our fascination with the stars is age-old, and for good reason.  The night sky remains a thing of unparalleled beauty, and still a place of mystery in its vastness.  The stars have always been the torches of night, lights that cut the darkness and guide the traveller.  A common bond for those separated by distance or circumstance.  We gaze up and see the same stars and constellations as they move in their patterns through the night sky.

The stars are also deep in the bones of our faith tradition.  I think of Abram and Sarai in Genesis, an old and childless couple looking up as God’s covenant is established with them: descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, a blessed people who will be a blessing for all nations.  God’s promise in the heavens, still awaited by Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth.

But these Magi in the East, they didn’t know this story and these scriptures.  They headed to the wrong city and had to be told what the prophets said about a promised child.  They were foreigners and outsiders to the story of God’s people and the signs of God’s presence.  And yet they saw something in the stars.  Something that grabbed and compelled them as nothing else.  A star that spoke to them of a King, and sent them gathering their treasure to go and kneel at his feet.

Signs in the heavens.  I’ll admit, I don’t often go stargazing when I’m trying to figure out what God is up to in the world.  I don’t usually think of stars as signs, or wonder if they mean something special.  But I do think that the Magi were on to something that’s important for all of us.  They spent their lives keeping watch, paying attention, and looking for signs.  I wonder if that’s a discipline we’re less used to in our time.  Do we live with the expectation that the heavens are telling the glory of God?  Or that our daily encounters and experiences might be whispering signals as to what God is doing among us?

The Magi looked to the stars to read the signs of their time.  The sky was their canvas, and they kept their eyes on what they knew.  And for those called to dwell in the mysteries of space, I imagine stars are still as good a place as any to watch for signs of God’s passage through the world.  But there is no shortage of other places to look as well.  The call to keep watch, to pay attention - it reverberates through every part of creation and every part of life.  The signs of God’s activity are everywhere.  Sometimes it’s a star that points the way, but it might also be a tree or a sunset, or a friend, or a stranger, a bolt of lightning or a whisper barely heard. 

God is doing something new and exciting in our neighbourhoods and in our lives – as surely as God was doing something in Bethlehem so many years ago.  The home God made among us in Jesus, proclaimed by star and Spirit, is still God’s home now.  The ministry of Jesus continues, and the presence of the Spirit has not dried up.

In fact, God is always making a way ahead of us.  Always at work before we get there.  Always moving and healing and transforming and opening hearts and lives.  The good news of this season is that God is doing something!  We don’t have to do it all ourselves.  Which is a good thing, because which of us would know where to start.  There’s more trouble in this world than any of us can know, never mind heal. 

But if God is doing something, we are called to keep watch and pay attention.  To look for the signs, to take note of what is happening around us – whether in the stars or on our streets.  And then when we do notice something, to go and be part of it.  To be ready to step out and find the thing that God is doing.  To celebrate, bring gifts, open ourselves to the new thing and prepare to be changed.

Maybe the signs we discern point to a new way of being the church in our communities.  Maybe they point us to opportunities for connecting with our neighbours.  Maybe they invite us into relationships of healing and reconciliation.  Maybe they call us to speak truth to power and work for justice on behalf of those who have been silenced or abused.  Maybe they inspire us to proclaim the good news of Jesus and celebrate the presence of God among us. 

But wherever the signs may lead, whatever it is that they might call us towards, the journey will be as much within as it is without.  Following that star is always a matter of personal transformation.  Each step overland, each jolt of the camel, every sleepless night and cold meal on the road – all of it mirrors the growing, the shifting, the movement that must also happen inside.  Not all journeys are geographical.  Sometimes the greatest distances to cross are within our own hearts.

I wonder sometimes at how these Magi were changed by their quest.  How could they not return different people?  What they had seen on the road, what they had seen when their star finally settled over the stable in Bethlehem. 

I think we can sometimes gaze up at the heavens, looking so intently for God, that we miss the signs beginning to stir in our own spirits.  The star that lights up the sky for the magi also burns in their hearts and ours.  As Jan Richardson reminds us, this is not any map you know. 

This is a map that begins with a star.  This is a chart that starts with fire. 

Look starward once, then look away.  Close your eyes and see how the map begins to blossom behind your lids. 

You cannot see it all, cannot divine the way it will turn and spiral, cannot perceive how the road you walk will lead you finally inside, through the labyrinth of your own heart and belly  and lungs.

These journeys happen together, the inner and the outer.  And the same star lights their way.  The same signs beckon us, the same God leads us forward ever further into the world and ever deeper into ourselves.

The star shines and calls through the night of this Advent too.   The signs abound, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  For those keeping watch and paying attention.  For those listening to the stirrings of God that call us to step out in faith once more.  The journey may be arduous or it may be joyful.  It may be straightforward, or it may have us wandering we know not where.  But the signs are an invitation to begin, an invitation to gather our gifts and celebrate what God is doing within and among us.

And in that beginning is everything, the whole journey.  In that star is a promise that is already fulfilled, that is here, now, even as we still have such a long ways to go.  The child has been born, his star is there to be seen at its rising.  It has happened, already, now, for us.  The world has shifted – imperceptibly but cataclysmically.  The new thing is revealed and its glory is a light for all people.  The signs are everywhere, you cannot miss them!  They heavens proclaim it and the very rocks cry out.  Come, they say.  Come and see what God has done.  Come and see hope incarnate.  Come and offer your gifts, your life, to the one in whom all things were created.

You cannot see it all, how the journey will burrow deep within and change you from the inside out.  But still the star blazes its invitation to take the first step.

But step out, and you will know what the wise who traveled this path before you knew: the treasure in this map is buried not at journeys end but at its beginning.