What do you see when you look at a star?
Edward, our Polish friend, who was here last week, looked at the stars in our Christmas decorations and wondered why one star had 7 points and all the rest had 5. Actually, it was because they all came from Ikea or Hobbycraft and the number of points had no meaning whatsoever. Edward said, “Not 6 points!” His background is Jewish, so he expects stars in church to have 6 points.
We look for meaning in the world around us. And sometimes there is a deep meaning in the messages of the universe, and sometimes there is none whatsoever, and it takes a wise person to discern the difference.
Do you ever stop at night to look up into the sky and look at the stars? When was the last time you did that? Can you tell a star from a planet? Did you get up in the early hours of Thursday or Friday morning to see the shooting stars, the Quadrantids, in their annual display, the secret dance of lights when we were all asleep? No, me neither. But they were there, whether or not we were paying any attention. (http://earthsky.org/tonight/quadrantid-meteor-shower-before-dawn-in-early-january)
Patrick Moore, who died last month, loved watching the stars and learning about them. He was an amateur astronomer, and he passed on his enthusiasm to millions through the television programme “The Sky at Night”. And later on this week, Brian Cox is introducing three programmes on astronomy on “Stargazing Live”. Now is the moment if you are into stars.
And in the church, this is the day when the star comes into its own. This is the day when we think about the difference a star makes.
In the first big story of Epiphany – and there are three altogether – we hear about the wise men who followed a star and found Jesus.
This was in the days when studying the stars was cutting edge science. The map of the heavens reflected what was happening on earth. It took years of study to identify each constellation and understand the alignments. Everything was connected. And activity in the heavens all meant something about what was going on now. So they put together a research project to go and test the theory that the new star in the skies meant the birth of a new king who would be a shining star on earth. This journey was not a whimsical adventure, travelling across dangerous deserts into strange lands, and dealing with corrupt and suspicious politicians and deadly potentates.
They were naïve in thinking that the new king would be a welcome player in the tense politics of the middle east. Would a new ruler be welcomed now in Egypt or Syria or Israel or Palestine? You get the idea.
They went looking for something, someone. They didn’t really know what or whom. And what they found was a young child, probably a toddler by then, despite every renaissance painting you have ever seen on the subject. And when Matthew told the story, and only Matthew does tell the story, he was trying to show the wisdom of the gentile world coming to honour the Son of Man. God’s baby was the anointed one for the whole world.
And people are still searching for Jesus, travelling into unknown territory, out of their comfort zones, looking for the One who will make sense of the niggle in the back of their souls.
So, if the wise men looked for stars today, what would they find?
Stars of stage and screen, celebrity stars, beautiful people leading beautiful lives, glamour and glitz. But empty, vacuous. No sign of Jesus among these stars!
The stars that you reach for, the stars of achievement and self-fulfilment. You can do whatever you want, accomplish all your goals. Your own effort – you just have to believe in yourself. No room for Jesus among these stars.
And related stars are the stars in your eyes when you want to be a performer, a singer, a dancer, a joker. Aye – a joker. And it’s great if you can make people happy – but is it about them, or about you? I don’t really see Jesus among these stars either.
What about the political stars? Stars and stripes represent one of the more unequal nations in the world where the poor are trampled in the rush to a respectable church. Or the red star which abolished faith only to give way to crime and corruption. I don’t see Jesus reflected in these stars.
There are the stars we award our children or each other, a sign that they have done well. Teacher awards you a yellow star, a silver star, a gold star. Affirming you, building confidence. That’s great. And Jesus might be there – with the kid who never gets stars.
So if the stars won’t do it any more, how would they find their way to Jesus?
And where? Where would a wise man find Jesus? Where would a wise woman find Jesus?
The star, after all, is a means. It is not the end.
SatNav wouldn’t work, because you have to know where you are going. And the wise men didn’t know where they would end up. And people who are searching for Jesus don’t know where they will end up.
Another friend suggested the Hadron Collider and the work to find the God-particle, the one little something that explains matter and the structure of the universe. Maybe looking for that is like finding God in a baby. Cutting edge science finding ways to make sense of God, the universe and everything.
Maybe, we have to look at the world around us and learn to read the clues, making sense of the signs, and discarding the red herrings. That takes skill and you acquire the skill when you start to use it. When you want to find your way to Jesus, you begin to see the signposts.
Meg O’Hara asked me this week: What’s the difference between prayer and talking to God? And the answer is: Not a lot.
But that’s where the journey begins. Tell God you want to find Jesus. Then open your eyes, because the signs are all around you.