A Sermon Delivered December 18, 2011, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana
READING: Matthew 1:18-25; 2:1-14
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
a name that means “God-is-with-us.” When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home and, though he had not had intercourse with her, she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. “At Bethlehem in Judea,” they told him. “For this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. “Go and find out all about the child,” he said, “and when you have found him, let me know, so that I may go and do him homage.” Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and to do away with him.” So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt.
SERMON: “Stars, Children, and Other Miracles” Part I
Whatever name you put on it: Christmas, Hanukkah, Divali, it is the season for bright lights, warm greetings, excited children–and magical stars. Whatever we do or do not believe, there is a magic in the air that kids can certainly see and feel. And if we grownups sit back and relax and pay attention–we’ll feel it, too.
It’s the season for the Advent Star–in popular culture, the Star of Bethlehem–one of the most beloved images of this time of year. Whether you’re practicing Christianity or just practicing American popular culture, that symbol makes it to the top of a lot of Christmas trees.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Advent Star–the Star of Bethlehem–guided the three Wise Men out of the east, to the side of the newborn Jesus. But that story is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s never mentioned anywhere else. What’s more, even Matthew never tells us what the star looked like. Nor does he tell us how many Wise Men there were. And he never mentions a manger–in Matthew, Joseph and Mary never leave home. But that’s tradition for you. People took the star, decided on three Wise Men, borrowed a lot of other images from the Gospel of Luke–and now here we are.
None of the Gospels is history. Each one is a separate attempt by a thoughtful person, to to explain why stories they had heard about Jesus, were so important to them. Each Gospel writer did that in a different way. Matthew gave us a majestic Nativity story with the star and the Wise Men and a King and miracles.
We use the word, “miracle,” in various different ways. But there is a kind of reverence to it. Even if it’s not a supernatural miracle–if we’re talking about a “miracle drug” or “the miracle of life,” there’s still a sense that something very special is going on. I think the word, “miracle,” is a good word if we’re thoughtful in the way we use it.
Supernatural miracles are important to many different religious traditions. They can carry some baggage, though. Trying to prove miracles, shoves us toward the position of saying, the miracles in our faith are better than the miracles in someone else’s faith. After all, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be a good reason for us to believe what we believe. As late as 1700, for example, English philosopher John Locke, one of the fathers of religious liberalism, wrote that the reality of Biblical miracles was essential to belief in the reasonableness, force, and truth of the Christian message. For example, Locke said, the Prophet, Muhammad, performed no miracles, therefore we could be sure from the outset that Christianity was true and Islam was false.
Well, Locke’s statement is sort of accurate. But Muhammad was sophisticated about miracles. He did believe in miracles, but he believed they were something only God performed, not humans. For example, Islam is quite happy to accept the story of the Virgin Birth. After all, creating Jesus with just a mother, is only half as hard as creating Adam, who had no parents at all. But to Muhammad, it was blasphemy to say that a human being like Jesus would be “fathered” by God–or that Jesus could be God, or that Jesus himself performed miracles. But Muhammad’s notion of God as a worker of miracles in the world, was the same as Locke’s. That kind of religious discussion never gets anywhere because both sides are framing it totally in their own terms.
If we follow miracles all the way back to the dawn of Middle Eastern religious culture–five thousand years or so ago–it was believed that a small army of gods controlled the day-to-day life of every person. Our happy moments–a good harvest, a male child–were all miracles performed by friendly deities. While our misfortunes, from accidents to toothaches to disease to death, were all miracles performed by unfriendly deities.
Basically, the gods didn’t care morally, one way or the other. They didn’t worry about right or wrong or love or justice or kindness. Nor did a person’s welfare depend on those things. Your welfare depended on keeping your personal gods happy–or at least, not mad at you. It had nothing to do with ethics. You had to avoid ritual taboos and keep your gods well bribed with prayers and sacrifices.
In the oldest books of the Old Testament, the God of Israel, is still not the only god in the heavens, just the most important. “He” is also pretty morally indifferent: concerned about the welfare of the Children of Israel–as long as they’re loyal and don’t violate taboos. As one example, in Exodus, “he” actually sent fire from heaven and burned up two of Moses’ priests–for the crime of–thoughtlessly burning incense during a religious service. That doesn’t seem too serious to us, but it violated a taboo.
The prophetic books of the Bible came later. By then, religious thinking was more sophisticated. God started to demand right action, not just devotion. In even later Biblical writings, the book of Job, for example, people were beginning to ask truly difficult questions. If God controlled everything, then how could God impose suffering on someone who was both devoted and just? Now think about this: as late as 620 B.C., the Hebrew King, Josiah, was still fighting to keep statues of goddesses out of Hebrew shrines and temples. So some of those hard questions in Job and elsewhere, reflect the gradual shift from polytheism–the worship of multiple gods–to monotheism, the worship of just one God.
In other words, if heaven was full of different gods with different attitudes, it was easy to explain misfortune. But if only one just and loving God controlled everything–it’s hard to explain why bad stuff happens to good people. We’re still struggling with that. And the Bible does not provide all the answers. But it does struggle magnificently with some the questions.
Other refinements in religious thought also came along. Astronomer Carl Sagan talks about the contribution of Hellenistic Greek culture: the idea of “systematic inquiry, the notion that the laws of Nature, rather than capricious gods, govern the” universe. For all their mistakes, Sagan says, Greek scholars were reaching for something vitally important. In the most ancient Greek texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, practically all big events happen because of the gods. Five hundred years later, Herodotus was saying, only a few events were caused by Divine intervention. A generation after that, Thucydides said it was practically none. “In a few hundred years,” Sagan writes, things happened because of nature’s laws, rather than meddling by the gods.
To go back to the New Testament Gospels–Matthew and Luke lived in a world that was still struggling with all this. The Roman gods–even Rome’s Emperor–had all sorts of miraculous events going on. So it seemed natural for stories about Jesus to be full of miracles. To Matthew and Luke, it logically had to follow, miracles would happen when Jesus was born. Jesus was more important than Rome’s Emperor, Augustus, right? Jesus’ birth had to be even more miraculous.
SECOND READING: Luke 2: 1-32
In those days a decree when out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them at the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God by saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth, peace among those whom he favors.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child: and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.”) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; when the parents brought the child, Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him to his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for the glory of your people Israel”
SERMON: “Stars, Children, and other Miracles,” Part II
Matthew’s miracles of the angel, the star, and the Wise Men; and Luke’s miracles of the shepherds, the angel, and the Heavenly Host–and of course, the Virgin Birth itself–went unquestioned for fifteen hundred years. The fact that they’re still part of popular culture today, shows just how powerful–and religiously meaningful–those images are. The point is not whether they really happened or not. The point is, they beautifully and poetically express a religious feeling that’s too big for words.
But when the Renaissance revived the Greek intellectual tradition in Europe, a few scholars started asking questions about those miracles. Not that they didn’t still believe them–as John Locke wrote, the miracles had to be true or the faith couldn’t be true. But in the case of the Advent Star, for example astronomers began to look for a way to confirm the story scientifically.
In 1603, Johannes Kepler calculated the triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that would have made for an outstandingly bright star. But for Kepler, the date, 7 B.C., seemed too early–too far off the date the Church had calculated. Kepler thought the event might have foretold the divine birth, but there must have been something else that fit the Biblical timing better. Then in 1604, a huge supernova, an exploding star, lit up the skies all over Europe. Kepler decided that was what must have happened when Jesus was born. A supernova would have been unpredictable, dramatic, but scientific.
There were also other guesses. They calculated that Halley’s Comet showed up in 12 B.C. and another big comet came along up in 5 B.C. Actually, 5 B.C. is a pretty good date. Herod the Great, the king Matthew accuses of trying to kill baby Jesus, died in 4 B.C. So if Matthew is accurate on who was king when Jesus was born, it fits. But other astronomers have made other suggestions.
Personally, I think this kind of speculation misses the point. Neither the Virgin Birth of Jesus nor the Star nor the Wise Men, nor the manger nor the angels, have anything useful to do with history or astronomy. It isn’t about science, it’s about myth–and the work myth does. Mark, the oldest Gospel, doesn’t say a word about Jesus’ birth. John mentions it only in passing. Matthew’s story and Luke’s are the only ones–and they don’t match up with one another at all. They wildly disagree on who was there at the birth, why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, and where they went afterward.
Jewish sociologist and theologian Martin Buber writes, “A miracle is simply what happens in so far as it meets people who are capable of receiving it. . . as a miracle.” When we try to dismantle a religious story in search of the underlying history or science–we lose sight of the real meaning it’s meant to provide.
Matthew almost certainly believed what he wrote. I have no doubt he was sincere. But what he was most trying to tell us, in his own way, was that Jesus was more important than any earthly King, and that in a universe ruled by God’s good intentions toward humanity, the coming of Jesus was inevitable. Again–it’s a poetry for sharing a religious feeling that’s too big to express with words. Luke was trying to tell us that this omnipotent Jesus cared about everyone–even nobodies like you or me.
Whether I personally agree with the details or not, those are profound messages. Powerful messages. It’s a sad display of the shallow side of human nature, from the Emperor Constantine to John Locke to our own time, that so much of the message of Matthew and Luke–and Jesus–gets lost while people try to make something logical and provable out of the Jesus story. You might say, sometimes people can’t see the night sky for the stars.
Suppose you could scientifically explain the Advent Star. Suppose a supernova did occur while Jesus was being born. The same people who believe in the Gospels now, would keep believing them. And those who don’t–still wouldn’t. One would say, God made a star explode at just the right time. The other would say, it was all a coincidence. And neither would be any closer to the really profound things Jesus tried to teach about how we ought to live our lives.
Matthew and Luke and John Locke did agree on one point of faith: that the universe, exploding star or not, was built for us. We’re the center of it all, they thought. But that brings us to another tough question, something that’s pretty hard to prove or disprove. If we weren’t put here by a supreme being, then why are we here? What is life about? The gods of the ancient Near East may have been unpredictable, unsympathetic, even dangerous. But they did take the time to create us, they looked like us, and they did listen when people prayed. The God of Israel could be vengeful and petty, but “he” also paid attention to us. If we are nothing more than an evolutionary coincidence–”accidental tourists,” as anthropologist Ian Tattersal puts it–how does life have any meaning at all?
At the bottom, I suspect that’s why miracles are still important to many religious people. Miracles show that God cares about us and is paying attention. The alternative is painful–maybe even scary. If there are no miracles and no God–or even if there is a God, but a God that doesn’t take a personal hand in our lives–where is the meaning in a religious life? What good is a church without miracles?
I’ve mentioned before, I spent a year as a chaplain at a large, Chicago-area hospital. For three months of that year, I was assigned to the O.B. pediatrics unit. I watched a 12-year-old girl’s long, painful ordeal, recovering from being hit, and nearly killed, by a car. I watched children getting chemotherapy for leukemia. I talked to the parents of a young woman near death from a gang shooting. I did the funeral of a young man who slowly suffocated in a losing battle with cystic fibrosis. I watched parents come and go at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes I helped them grieve and sometimes I helped them celebrate. But always, I was awed by the love and courage and affliction and healing I witnessed.
One of the most amazing places I served, was the NICU, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There, terribly sick newborns lay, row on row in little incubators, constantly attended, each by its own nurse. Some were severely premature, some had birth defects, some had pneumonia or breathing problems. Most of them were not much bigger than my hand, too weak to cry, with mazes of tiny tubes and threadlike wires to feed them and monitor them.
I have to tell you–for me, that any of those babies ever got well and went home, was a real miracle. And many of them did. I watched the devotion of the nurses who cared for them and I watched the bottomless love of the mothers and fathers who spent hour after hour in that place of struggle and miracles. One of my happiest moments as clergy, was when I got to baptize a whole set of tiny triplets. And one of my saddest moments came soon after, when one of those triplets died. Each time a baby did die, I would fill out the death paperwork and help the grieving parents decide what would be done with the tiny body and whether organs could be donated. I’d have them sign those forms. And that was very hard. But it also helped me cherish even more, the times I got to celebrate with a family when their baby got well enough to go home.
In that place, I learned what religion is really about, at least for me. To me, religion–and religious faith–is, in itself, the conviction that all this struggle and joy and sorrow does mean something. That it isn’t just wasted effort. That each one of those babies was important. And that every one of those babies was someone special, whether it was destined to die the next day or to get well and go home with its parents. It didn’t have to be some Divine plan, or because things all happen for a reason. I learned that sometimes things happen without any reason at all, or at least no sane reason. But religion, to me, became the conviction that whatever the nature or the non-nature of God, that every moment of this life is a miracle–and whether God is paying attention to us or not, we need to pay attention to one another.
To me, this thin place–right here, right now–between life and death and love and grief, is where the real miracles are. I read Bible accounts of burning bushes and pillars of fire and cloud, stories about Advent Stars and angels and wise men–and none of that seems all that important to me. We are such complex, fragile creatures, only here for a moment. What matters, is that during this moment together, we pay attention to one another–and care about one another. When that happens, we have achieved the real meaning behind the Advent Star–we have in our own way, helped hang it in the night sky, all over again. That’s when we ourselves become the miracle. Amen. May it be so.